A partnership formed. A friendship grew. Both are tested. Neither may endure.
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The City of Pillars: The Epic of Andrasta and Rondel, Vol. 2
Andrasta and Rondel have spent months in the city of Zafar, obtaining knowledge they will need to steal the famous Jewel of Bashan. Something goes wrong when pilfering an artifact crucial to their goal, bringing the wrath of the local authorities against them.
A beautiful woman helps them escape Zafar in exchange for their help recovering a family heirloom.
The seemingly simple job turns complicated as they learn the heirloom is in the possession of the feared Hubul’s Host, a band of warriors devoted to the Erban father of the gods.
Andrasta and Rondel face powerful creatures and unforgiving landscapes, none worse than the City of Pillars, a place once thought lost to time.
The City of Pillars is the second standalone novel in The Epic of Andrasta and Rondel.
The City of Pillars
Like most cities in Erba, Zafar was one of shadows. Tall box-like buildings with square windows and arched doorways blocked blistering sunlight from penetrating the narrow and crowded streets. Rondel knew the architecture was born out of necessity as such designs allowed the city’s citizens to survive the scorching sun.
What separated Zafar from the other dots on Erba’s map was that its shadows practically engulfed the city. Only a handful of areas ever saw sunlight and most of those were near the city’s center. During the day, the light on the streets never brightened past a dull gray. At night, it felt like one had to be part feline to see unhindered in the stale, musky spaces.
That thought led Rondel to question the heritage of his partner as he watched her easily climb the outer wall protecting the museum. Andrasta found hand holds in the pitch black as if they were lit by sparkling diamonds. She waited at the top with an outstretched arm for him to grab.
He took a three-step running start, placed his boot on the bottom of the wall, and drove his leg up. Hoping the momentum might aid his jump, he reached for her hand. He missed and cursed his poor night vision. His feet struck the cobbled path beneath him with a scuffling tap.
Might as well be thunder.
Rondel panicked at the noise, pressing his back against the wall, trying to make himself appear as small as possible. His good hand found the hilt of his blade.
“Get your rear moving and try again before the next patrol comes. I’m not looking to fight,” Andrasta hissed above him.
“Really? You want to avoid a fight? You feeling all right?” he whispered back. A sword was about as natural in his partner’s hands as a lute had once been in his.
“Get. Up here. Now.”
Rondel cringed at the frustration in Andrasta’s voice. Though he couldn’t see her face in the dark, he didn’t have to in order know it wore a scowl. He spun away from the wall and stepped back.
Though they had been together for nearly a year, working jobs with varying levels of questionable morality, he still deferred to her when it came to the finer points of thievery.
After all, the last year encapsulates my entire experience as a thief. Andrasta on the other hand seems made for the role.
He stared at Andrasta’s outstretched hand. The woman lay on her stomach atop the wall to give him a closer target.
He inhaled, took four great steps, and leaped. Andrasta’s calloused hand latched on to his wrist. The shortened fingers on his bad hand tightened around her arm.
She grunted and swung him up until he could bring up his good hand to grab the wall’s edge. He pulled himself up the rest of the way.
As usual, with Andrasta helping him, the process took less than a couple of seconds. They had perfected the movement over many months.
It bothered Rondel they had to invent the process at all, but no matter how much stronger he got, unless he scaled something with well-defined hand holds, the missing finger tips on his left hand made it nearly impossible to manage such climbs alone.
Before Rondel could mutter his thanks, Andrasta jumped down the other side. The lack of noise had him once again noting the feline qualities of the woman. He joined her at the bottom, thankful he didn’t break an ankle when landing.
Inside the walls, a small, lush courtyard stood between them and the front of the museum. The courtyard and also the city’s famous library were two of a handful of places in Zafar that received sunlight during parts of the day.
Half a dozen date palms stood amongst a sea of jasmine. Moonlight reflected off the white flower petals, bringing to mind a phrase Rondel had come across while doing research in Zafar’s library.
“Where a flower blooms, one will find hope,” he whispered.
“I hope you stop making so much noise.”
He pressed his lips tight.
Andrasta tiptoed toward the front of the museum. Rondel followed.
They reached a thick, cedar door. Andrasta went to work on the lock.
Gods, how much did it cost to import? The closest cedar tree is hundreds of miles away.
Two faint clicks sounded, followed by three more, then a long pause, and finally one final roll of the tumbler.
Hmm, we haven’t come across many like that.
Andrasta opened the door slowly, pausing at the beginnings of a faint creak. Rondel handed her a small vial of oil from a pocket in his belt. She doused the hinges and opened it without sound. They slipped inside and shut the door noiselessly.
The museum consisted of three floors above ground and a large basement used for storage of old exhibits or pieces not yet ready for display. The first floor held mostly pottery and paintings from around the world.
They glided through the partitions, half walls, and stands separating each collection from other regions of Untan. Rondel paused for half a breath in the center of the room which showcased ancient Erba.
A painting over five hundred years old illustrated the low mountains Zafar had been built upon. Lush vegetation surrounded the base and even rode up the lower parts of the steppes before reaching the plateau most of the city rested on.
Today, the painting would show a city of rock built atop rock, surrounded by dirt with a few rare patches of plant life like those in the museum’s courtyard. One would need to travel to Erba’s coasts to come across land capable of growing large quantities of food or raising vast herds like the lands depicted in the painting.
Rondel caught up to Andrasta. She had stopped next to a partially open door at the far corner of the first floor. Three voices came from inside. A shaft of light struck her face as she peeked through the slit.
Andrasta made eye contact with him, gesturing with a finger to her dark lips for silence. She moved aside so Rondel could eavesdrop on the conversation.
Though Andrasta had picked up most of the local language, Rondel knew it better.
“Bedr!” said a gruff voice.
“Wipe that blasted smile off your face or I’ll do it for you. You better not be cheating.”
“How can I cheat? It’s your deck and Fahim’s dealing.”
“Djinns take you! That’s your sixth winning hand in a row.”
“That’s a poor curse to wish on any man,” said Bedr.
The man with the gruff voice paused. “You’re right, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you and Fahim are into something together.”
A third voice chuckled. “Everything’s fine when you’re winning. Yet when you start to lose, everyone else is cheating. Can’t you accept that Hubul might actually be smiling down on us?”
The first man laughed, his anger fading. “The father of the gods has better things to do than smile down on us. Besides, if he’s willing to throw some blessings our way, I’d rather something better than victory in a few card games.”
Rondel shook his head and eased away from the door. Andrasta and he stepped back and spoke in whispers so soft they had to press their mouths to each other’s ears.
“All three guards are playing cards. The top two floors should be clear.”
“Let’s kill them quickly,” said Andrasta drawing her sword.
Rondel stayed her hand. “Why?”
“Here’s a better question. Why leave them alive to sneak up on us or sound an alarm later?”
She’s got me there.
Rondel had killed more people than he cared to admit since forming his partnership with Andrasta. The majority of them deserved killing, but a few he wasn’t so sure about. He regretted those.
Just people in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like these guards.
Yet, he couldn’t have the guards ruining their plans either.
“We could tie them up.”
Andrasta didn’t even bother answering the suggestion. She let her eyes go blank and gave him her famous cold stare. With the long diagonal scar spanning the length of her face from forehead to jaw and crossing her nose in between, it was a stare he preferred others to be on the receiving end of.
He scanned the room. A piece of art at the far wall consisted of rusted armor, broken pieces of wood, old copper, and ratty cloth all held together by rope and twine. It was part of the modern movement which more or less consisted of picking through trash and making some sort of sculpture which no one could figure out.
Yet, everyone pretends they have the answer.
“Let’s lock them in the room then.” Andrasta followed his gaze to the sculpture and sighed. “Come on. That’s more than enough stuff to barricade the door and shift change isn’t until dawn. That’s hours away, and no one outside would be able to hear them shouting.”
She replaced her sword in her scabbard. “Fine.”
* * *
Though the pounding of fists echoed throughout the high-ceilinged space, Rondel wasn’t worried about the door. Short of having an elephant inside, the three guards would never muster the strength necessary to cast aside the barricade blocking them inside the room.
Due to the museum’s acoustics, the pounding lessened in volume as they ascended the stairs. Complete silence enveloped them on the third floor.
Andrasta looked over her shoulder then back at a floor covered in runes. Moonlight from a window in the ceiling illuminated the space. “You’re sure about this?”
As sure as I’m going to be.
Rondel took point as they maneuvered through the displays, carefully loping back and forth while gradually making their way toward their destination. He paused only twice to examine the patterns etched on the floor’s tiles.
Sorcery had been woven into the tiles during the museum’s construction. Traversing the third level at night meant stepping on the tiles in a predetermined sequence. A misstep supposedly conjured up guard demons.
Rondel had visited the museum many times over the last month during daylight hours in order to study the pattern. Then he’d moved to Zafar’s famed library for more research.
And I still don’t know if I’m completely right.
Sweat beaded across his forehead while stepping lightly on the center of each tile. Andrasta followed his lead. He let out a slow breath when they reached the safe area around a display case near the center of the room. They both stared at what lay beneath a wire mesh covering.
A silver flute etched with tiny runes, far more complicated than the ones on the floor, rested on a red cushion. Legend surrounding the flute said it belonged to Thalamanak, the greatest sorcerer who had ever lived. He once used the flute to control the monstrosities he had created and fought with during the Sorcerer Wars millennia ago. Based on Rondel’s research, the flute was necessary to get past one of the guardians protecting the Jewel of Bashan.
“Use your dagger to cut the wire,” said Rondel. “Relian steel should be sharp enough not to disturb the entire display.”
Andrasta frowned. “Something doesn’t feel right.” Worry shone on her face as she scanned the space.
“What do you mean?”
“This is too easy.”
“That means we planned well.”
“What’s wrong? We took care of the guards and made it through the wards on the floor.”
“What about Kamal and Wabu?”
“What about them?”
“This is their territory.”
“That hasn’t stopped us before.”
“I’m worried they’ve set up a trap as payback after the last job.”
“They have no way of knowing we’d be here. Besides, we beat them to that necklace fair and square.”
“Fair means little in our line of work. You should have let me kill them.”
Rondel waved a hand dismissively. “You’d kill the whole world if I let you. I’m surprised you haven’t tried to kill me yet.”
Andrasta’s dark face was a mask of stone. “I thought about it once or twice in the early days.”
“You were pretty annoying then. But don’t worry, we’re good now.”
“Thanks. Regardless, we don’t have to worry about them.”
A strange grid-like shadow appeared over Andrasta’s face. She noticed it at about the same time he did. They looked up. A large net engulfed them. Cursing and groping for their weapons, they fell, trying to get loose.
A loud guffaw rang out above. Rondel paused in his struggles as a square-jawed, copper-skinned man descended by rope from the ceiling. The shadow of another man steadied the rope at the edge of the window.
“Good thing they weren’t worried about us, huh Kamal?” the man from the roof called down.
“Yeah. Otherwise, they might have used their heads and looked over all possible entrances rather than just the most obvious. By Hubul, it’s a wonder how they ever got one over on us.”
“Why didn’t we use the roof?” Andrasta snapped.
“The wards were supposed to be stronger there than those on the floor,” said Rondel.
Kamal came to a halt just above the flute. He swung his sword, tearing up the wire mesh protecting what lay beneath. The entire display stand began to glow a pale yellow.
Kamal snatched the flute.
Rondel swore. “That’s ours.”
“Funny, I seem to be the one holding it. I’m not sure why you wanted this. Is it even real silver? Anyway, if you’re willing to steal it, it must be worth something to someone. We’ll find the buyer and make the deal ourselves.”
There is no buyer, Rondel wanted to say, but thought better of it. The last thing he wanted was to let Kamal know the flute’s importance to them.
“I’m going to kill you,” growled Andrasta.
“I love you too.” Kamal gave the rope a tug and ascended upward as Wabu pulled.
Rondel felt the heat rising off Andrasta. Kamal had made a pass at her not long after they entered Zafar. She turned him down, and the thief had called her things afterward that Rondel never would have dared say to any woman. The only reason why Kamal still lived was because Rondel had convinced Andrasta retribution wouldn’t be worth the heat from Zafar’s underworld for killing one of their tools.
Given our situation, I think I was wrong on that count.
“By the way,” continued Kamal. “We’ve already informed the watch that someone matching your descriptions broke into the museum.”
“Maybe next time they’ll know better than to encroach on our territory,” said Wabu, straining under the weight of hoisting up Kamal.
Kamal called near the top. “Oh, if the watch wasn’t enough to bother with, then you may want to look at the floor. I’m not sure what’s happening, but it looks pretty serious.”
Fifty feet away, wisps of smoke varying in color—gray, black, and green—rose in more than half a dozen locations as Andrasta cut away the last of the netting.
Two cheetahs and three hyenas materialized from the rising smoke.
With sword already in hand, Rondel remembered an old saying. “The real danger is always at your back.”
He wheeled and let out a yelp. A thirty foot cobra with five heads, hoods fanned, towered over him.
“One head wasn’t enough?” he muttered.
“Huh?” Andrasta looked over her shoulder and spoke a few choice words in her native tongue.
They pressed their backs together and slowly turned in place.
“Well?” he asked.
“Well what? You’re the thinker.”
One of the cobra’s heads darted at them, but without fully committing, as if feeling them out. The cheetahs and hyenas made not a sound, but both padded closer, again wary as if following the cobra’s lead.
“I think we should get out of here before we get caught, die, or some combination thereof. You’re the person of action. I think you should take the lead on seeing us to safety.”
Andrasta’s sigh came from her toes.
“All right,” said Rondel as they both slid slowly away from the danger. “The basement. Blueprints said it has as an old delivery tunnel we could use to escape.”
Another head of the cobra made its move, spitting venom. They ducked and the glob struck the tile floor where it began to sizzle.
“We rush the cheetahs, and then make for it. They’re natural hunters and the biggest threat. Plus, they’re blocking the stairs. Ready?”
Andrasta dove in front of him as one of the cheetahs pounced. She killed it with one swipe. The second cheetah tore past her to get at Rondel. It took to the air, mimicking the attack of the first. Rondel lacked the strength to match his partner’s approach to defending against the beast. Instead, he rolled and raised his blade, tearing into the demon’s exposed belly. It wailed as it thudded on the tiles. Despite its smoky origin, the cheetah bled like the real thing. The hyenas pounced on the promise of fresh meat rather than bothering to chase after them.
Rondel silently questioned the skills of the sorcerer behind the warded tiles to have not foreseen such a thing as he raced downstairs after Andrasta. His heart pounded in his chest.
Where the sorcerer failed with the hyenas, he had excelled with the bastardization of the snake. The five-headed cobra didn’t care about an easy meal. It chased them like no snake Rondel had ever seen. They destroyed half the second floor throwing things in the cobra’s path.
By the time they reached the first floor, the city’s watch had arrived.
“Stop!” one of the men shouted, drawn sword in hand.
Andrasta ignored him, practically diving off the steps, rolling behind an ancient stone statue of some minor god on display. Rondel followed, though not half as elegantly. Andrasta had her back against the block of stone, peeking out of one side. He did the same on the other. The guards wore looks of confusion while turning toward them.
The man who had shouted for them to stop, gestured for the others, some fourteen men, to circle around either side of the statue. They barely moved a step when a heavy crash sounded from the second floor. The guards paused and looked up as the five headed cobra appeared at the top of the stairs. It looked confused with so many warm bodies to choose from.
The guards began cursing, backing away slowly.
We’re no longer the priority.
The cobra flared each of its hoods and sped down the stairs. Within moments it was striking and spitting at anything nearby.
Guilt washed over Rondel as he watched the first few men die by the serpent’s venom. Even if the trap had been triggered by Kamal and Wabu, he couldn’t help but feel partially responsible.
A hand wrapped around his arm. He jumped.
“Stick around and we’ll be next,” said Andrasta. “C’mon.”
He nodded, shaking away his guilt and leading them to the basement and out of the library.
Several blocks away, after doubling back their trail for the third time through narrow, trash filled alleys, Rondel called, “Wait.”
Andrasta slowed. “What?”
“Where are you going?”
“We can’t. More of the watch could be waiting for us.”
“How would they know where we live?”
“Kamal and Wabu. If they figured out we were hitting the museum tonight, it’s possible they figured out where we were staying as well.”
Andrasta halted and cursed so colorfully in Juntarkan that Rondel didn’t understand half of it. He had been picking up the rarely spoken language so they could speak it around others without anyone understanding.
“We still have to go. All our things are there,” she said finally.
“A few weapons and armor. Some clothes. . . . Nothing that can’t be replaced.”
“More than that. All our money and everything you’ve compiled about the Jewel of Bashan while we’ve been in this blasted city. Trap or not, we can’t walk away from months of work.”
“I’ve got copies of all the research hidden at the library. More than half of our money too.”
Andrasta raised an eyebrow. He thought she might be upset since Rondel hadn’t mentioned his splitting of the money. “How do we know that hasn’t been compromised as well?”
“We don’t. But I always went to the library by myself and dressed like an old man. Alone, people see me as just another cripple.” He paused. “In fact, I can’t think of a safer place right now than the library. We should hole up there for the night.”
A line of white slashed across the lower third of her face. It was a rare thing for her to smile. He wished she would do it more.
“What’s that about?”
“When you talk with such confidence, it’s hard to even remember the coward from prison.”
“Yeah, it’s getting harder for me to remember him either. You run point?”
“Of course. I’d like to get there alive.” She grinned.
Wow. Twice in one night? I wonder how often it snows in the desert.
* * *
Scholars who enjoyed needlessly ranking such things as libraries, placed Zafar’s as fourth in the world. Given its collections on ancient texts from the eastern nations of Untan, Rondel thought the scholars had gotten it wrong once again.
Definitely a solid number two.
Following Andrasta’s lead, he jumped down to the library’s roof from an adjacent apartment building.
He landed a foot from the rooftop’s ledge, rolling to reduce the impact on his knees and ankles. Rising, he glanced back at the distance he had cleared. Bile crept into his throat. He had never made a jump like that before.
Calm down. You’re fine. Still, that had to be twenty feet across!
A flat surface dominated most of the library’s roof except for its center which consisted of a large dome painted in gold. It glowed brightly in the moonlight just as it blinded passersby during the day. Rondel eased in front of his partner and approached it, looking for the opening.
Hidden among several ventilation tubes, a four-foot by four-foot hatch had been crafted at the bottom of the dome. Thinking it best to find a means of escape should the need arise, he had discovered the hatch on one of his first visits to the library.
However, Rondel had not considered the need to enter the library from the roof. Andrasta examined the joins of the panel, running her fingers up, down, and across each of the seals. She pressed in various locations, but the hatch didn’t give.
“No screws. Not even a handle,” she muttered.
“There’s one on the inside. Not that it does us any good. We’ll need to find another way in.”
“Any other way inside is going to draw too much attention, even at this time of night.”
Rondel nodded. All doors resided on the first level and no windows rose above the third. The librarians believed natural sunlight would harm the older texts housed on the upper levels. Patrons perusing those volumes had to squint by the light of dim oil lamps secured on wall sconces and encased with glass strengthened by sorcery so they would not break.
“So what do we do?”
Andrasta whipped out her dagger. She jammed the long, thin blade into the narrow groove separating the hatch and the dome. She worked it down, shifted her grip, and pried. The point of any other dagger would have snapped off under the pressure, but Relian steel never dulled, and it never broke. Because of that, even a small dagger like the one Andrasta carried often cost more than many men could earn in a lifetime.
Andrasta grunted, her scarred face twisting in the shadowed night. Her wide nostrils flared as the hatch began to open. “A little help,” she muttered.
Rondel quickly drew one of his daggers and jammed it into the wider space she had made.
She repositioned her blade and took a breath. “On three.”
She nodded off the count and they pulled. The hatch popped off loudly. They quickly slipped inside onto a ledge before anyone in a nearby building could place the origin of the noise. Andrasta pulled the hatch back into place.
Rondel threw his broken blade aside, “Where did you say you got that dagger?”
“Is that a hint I shouldn’t ask?”
“More than a hint.”
He scowled. Andrasta had opened up to him only a couple of times in the last year. For the most part, she still guarded her past.
“All right. This way.”
Rondel led Andrasta down a level to where he spent his time researching. They passed bookcases and shelves filled with ancient tomes and scrolls. Dust sat on many of them.
“They do a poor job of keeping this place in order,” said Andrasta while ducking under an intricate spider web spanning the distance between two bookcases.
“Actually, they do a pretty admirable job considering they’re understaffed. The librarians just spend the bulk of their time on the areas most frequented by patrons. That’s worked out well for me as I’ve been able to work in peace.”
Rondel squatted down in the middle of an aisle. He pried loose a kick guard at the bottom and retrieved his notes. He gestured to the case behind them. “Our money is in that one.”
“This is all worthless if we don’t have the flute though, right?”
“That’s what I’m going to find out. There may be another way to get the Jewel of Bashan. I’ll need to sort through my notes once more to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Might have to also go through and consult a few of the original texts again.”
“What can I do?”
“Go downstairs and look for some water. I’m thirsty.”
“Now I’m your servant?”
“Well, you can’t read Erban or any of the other languages these texts are in. And considering we don’t have much time until the library opens, I thought you might be considerate and get me something to drink. But if you’d rather, I’ll go look myself and waste copious amounts of time we don’t have. In the meantime, you can take a nap since there’s nothing else for you to do.”
Her fists opened and closed.
Rondel swallowed. “Too much?”
She turned and left without a word.
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