“Raccoons or orphans, whatever is back there, chase them away. Or chase this away. It’s your choice.”
I didn’t want to look at the glinting silver coin that he held up, but I couldn’t help it. This was not the coin I needed today, or ten days from now, or even ten years from now. I was prudent with my coin. No, this was the coin I would need when I was an old woman, assuming I wanted to be the type of old woman who spent her days sitting by a sunlit window, sipping on fruit nectar, listening to a happy dog bark as I read a book of my choosing for as long as I so pleased.
Then again, I have seen fortunes turn upon a single coin. And more often than not, they turned toward doom. All my prudence with coin could be meaningless if the wrong man lost his fortune at the wrong time, and moved to restore it by taking from those who hadn’t the means to defend their claims. And the modest pile of coins I had managed to eke out of my work as the operator of a modest factory outside my modest town could vanish in a blink.
I may have been the operator, but the man before me, whose smile was smooth as clay, was the owner.
I was loathe to obey, either the owner or the coin. Raccoons, or street urchins, no small creatures could have been making the violent commotion in the alley behind the building. Glass crashed against brick. Metal scraped against metal. Most of the workers had already gone for the day.
There was nothing worth stealing in the alley. There was nothing back there beside the trash repository.
“I’ll come with you.” The voice came from behind me. Javi, of course.
“Shouldn’t it be you, sir?” I asked the owner. After all, if he was so concerned about his property, why trust his underlings to go and check on it? “If there is trouble, there should be someone with authority present.”
The owner’s clay smile cracked, and he pressed his lips together, then said. “Come fetch me if you need me.”
So Javi and I approached the back wall. There were no windows, only brick, and a single metal door. The building had not always been a factory. But what it had been before, Javi and I had only guessed at. The hideaway of thieves was our favorite guess. Or the secret laboratory of an alchemist working on forbidden tinctures.
Something struck the metal door and it resounded with a bang that rattled my skin and tuned my bones. I gasped and stopped walking.
“He doesn’t expect us to open that door, does he?” Javi asked. “Sounds like there’s a battle going on back there.”
I shook my head. “I thought working outside the merchant district meant we could avoid this kind of thing.”
I braced myself and gripped the door. “I’ll just open it a crack and peek through.”
Javi nodded. He pressed his shoulder to the door, ready to help me close it against whatever was out there.
I opened the door.
Howling wind. Somehow when the door was closed we hadn’t heard it. In the center of the alley, there was a funnel of wind strong enough to carry and sweep around most of the trash that we and a few other proprietors in the lot had thrown out for the week. Rags soaked in oil, bits of moldy bread, shards of glass from broken bowls and plates, damp tea leaves, half-gnawed bones, it all whipped past us and circled around and whipped past us again.
“What in the name of my ancestors…” Javi muttered.
Suddenly, the wind stopped, and everything crashed and clattered to the ground. I heard a sweeping, throbbing sound, like great wingbeats. They faded and the all was quiet.
“Is it over?” I asked.
Javi helped me pull the door open, and we stepped into the alley.
We both glanced up at the sky. And we both glanced in the same direction. Because we both heard the wings flapping away from us.
“A bird did this?” Javi asked. He scratched his head.
We foolishly fetched the owner, who smiled a smile of false apology as he told me that I must clean up the mess before I left for the day.
Already it was dusk. The entire alley was covered in refuse, and not all of it could be picked up and thrown back into the trash receptacle, which itself had been upended.
Javi volunteered to stay and help me, of course.
A few others might have too if it hadn’t been for the cold. This close to the water, and at this time of the year, fog rolled in at night, and even when it didn’t reach us, the damp cold did.
“We could always leave it and when he sees the mess in the morning, claim that we cleaned it and it must have happened again after we left,” Javi suggested.
I laughed and shook my head. “He wouldn’t believe us even if that actually did happen.”
“So then why bother?”
I frowned as I spotted something lying under a spattering of day-old soup. It was a bag, heavy canvas dyed a dark blue, almost black. There were many bindings around it, most still tightly wound, but one side had been roughly cut. A black sack with a drawstring lay just within. When I pulled at it, I felt that it contained something hard and heavy.
“Come look at this,” I said.
“No, I’m not letting you take that filthy piece of canvas home. It does look like it was high quality…before it got vomit on it.”
“It’s soup. But look inside. Look.” I tugged at the sack, but only budged it a little.
Javi walked over. “Is that velvet? Black velvet?”
He helped me pull the sack out. We were both surprised to see how small it was considering it took both of us to drag it free of the canvas bag. It was maybe the same height as my forearm. We set the sack on its end and knelt before it.
The cord tightened around the sack’s throat seemed silken. It too was black. I loosened it and pulled the sack down.
Inside was a small statue made of what appeared to be obsidian. It was carved in the shape of a bat perched on a rock, wings raised and just beginning to unfold. The rock at its base was a cylinder set with gemstones.
“One of the stones is missing,” I said. There were four settings. A red stone sat in one. A blue in another. And a green stone sat in the third. The fourth setting was empty.
“Maybe it’s here, a fine treasure among the trash,” Javi said, rising to his feet. “Perhaps this job is worth doing after all.”
I peeked inside the sack. The inside was stitched with markings in silver thread. They looked like characters, but I didn’t recognize the language. I wasn’t schooled in any languages but the one I spoke anyway. I asked Javi, but he just shrugged.
I pulled at the sack and my finger brushed against the stone.
I rose and took a step back. “Did you hear that?”
“What?” Javi glanced around and moved toward me so that we were standing back to back. “Movement?”
I pointed to the statue. “No, it came from that.” I drew in a breath. “Looks just like the kind of cursed statue that we’d find in our favorite plays and stories. It must have something to do with the strange windstorm we saw. If these stones are real, if they really are ruby, sapphire, and emerald, then this statue is valuable. That’s not even counting the statue itself. Could this be stellar obsidian? I’ve never seen the like before. Maybe you were right about there being some battle back here. But if people were fighting over this, why leave it?”
“There can’t possibly be any dead bodies under all this trash, can there?”
Just in case, we checked. There were no dead bodies. No blood. No dismembered limbs. No gore. We told ourselves that was a comfort, and that the rising chill in our bones was from the weather.
I sniffed and rubbed my arms. “I wonder…should we leave it alone? Should we take it? Should we hide it here somewhere?”
“The last one. I’ve heard rich folks put alchemical marks on their valuables. That’s how their owners can track them. Maybe it was stolen and the thieves had a…disagreement.”
I crossed my arms and peered at the statue. “I don’t suppose anyone would give us a reward for its return.”
Javi threw his arm over my shoulders. “Oh, yes, I’m sure. Our reward would be a trip.”
I gave him a gentle shove. “To prison?”
“What if we take it to the library?”
Javi returned my gentle shove. “You mean what if you take it? Are the night rules for the library different, or do they still only allow scholars inside?”
“I just mean that if we hold the statue there, and then seek the rightful owner, we would be protected, and more likely to receive something good for our troubles. Depending on the owner’s demeanor, I could be bold enough to ask if they might leave an official note of thanks. It would take them little time. But it might make a world of difference to my fortunes. And so long as you are my faithful friend, my fortunes are your fortunes.”
We agreed, and foolish or not, we also continued cleaning up. It was past midnight by the time we finished. We did not find the fourth gem. We put the black velvet sack in my satchel. We took turns carrying it as we walked the grand tunnel back to town.
Partway there, Javi warned me that someone was following us. I couldn’t tell at all. But I trusted that he was right. Especially considering what we were carrying. There was always traffic in the tunnel, even in the middle of the night, though it was much lighter.
We made haste to the library.
As a scholar-in-training, I was allowed to enter the library. Javi had thus far refused all my attempts to have him apply. I had never before used any of the beds that the library had available for any scholars who didn’t wish to interrupt a night or day of studying by returning home for rest.
I had hoped to speak for Javi, and I had hoped for a tender-hearted night librarian. Then he might be allowed to sleep on one of the benches in the foyer. I could bring him down some bedding and candles to keep him warm. I had hoped to study the statue that night.
But it was too high a risk if we were being followed. Our shadow might be harmless. They might have been hired by the statue’s owner to recover it. In that case, seeing us enter the library should provide them some comfort. But we could not assume safety.
Javi had lost sight of our shadow before we left the tunnel. Either they were no longer following, or more likely, they realized that he had seen them, and moved to evade his senses.
We had to reveal the statue. It would be officially taken into the library’s custody, and I would likely not be able to study it as I’d hoped to do that night. I was only a scholar-in-training after all. But reporting the statue meant the library would certainly give Javier shelter for the night.
As we marched toward the front desk, I pulled my library token out from the cord hung around my neck. And I was surprised to see Javi do the same.
We both declared our intent to study for the night, and requested a protected study suite with some resting couches. We were both accommodated without incident, and without the need to reveal the statue.
“How long?” I asked as we walked toward our assigned suite. Even if the person following us was a scholar, they would not be able to breach the locked suite without alerting the guards stationed on each floor.
“A few months,” Javi said.
“Months! When were you going to tell me?” I stopped. “Wait, Javi, you weren’t afraid that I would tease you or laugh at you?”
Javi smiled and shook his head. “I was afraid you would be proud of me. So proud that you would declare ‘My friend Javi is a scholar-in-training!’ to everyone in the factory. And they would tease me and laugh at me.”
I frowned. “I should hope I know better. I don’t think I would be so unmindful of my words.”
Javi wrapped his arm over my shoulder. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”
“One of my greatest wishes in life is for us to be scholars together.”
“I know, and I’ve deprived you.” He sighed. “But I knew you’d be excited, overexcited. And I wasn’t sure I would like it. I didn’t want you to suffer disappointment.”
“Wasn’t sure? Does that mean you are sure now?”
Javi hesitated for a moment. “What I am sure of is that I would like to know more about this statue. Is it cursed? Who does it belong to? Or where does it belong? Should we keep it in our possession, or hand it off to someone else and let it be their problem? And is the statue a problem? Or is it a solution?”
“In other words, how many and what types of coin equals one bejeweled statue of a gloomy bat?”
We reached our suite without incident too. We were on a floor so high, we had to take the mechanical lifts. Only when we locked ourselves in did we breathe sighs of relief.
There was a fresh jug of water in the suite. I poured us each a glass, but just before we drank, we cast doubts on whoever left the jug. It was the typical way a study suite was prepared, but if our shadow noted that we were headed to the library and perhaps moved faster than we did, and happened to learn what suite we had been assigned…
We succumbed to recklessness and thirst, and we drank.
We decided to sit at a table that gave us a clean vantage point to the windows and the door. We had submitted our requests for the books we would start with. They were ready for us in the suite.
I had hoped the statue was not so rare that our library held no information about it. My hopes were answered, quite handily.
The statue, as it turned out, was renowned among those who were familiar with art and with legend. Neither were my fields of study, nor Javi’s. It was the materials that the statue was made of that caught my attention. And it was the script stitched inside the black velvet sack that piqued Javi’s curiosity.
We read and we made note and we learned.
The statue was a depiction of a “vas vespertilio,” an idol carved specifically to be the vessel for containing fundamental powers, specifically the powers of the four elements. Each element was contained in the gemstone that represented it. The ruby contained the power of fire. The sapphire contained the power of water. The emerald contained the power of earth. And the missing diamond had contained the power of air.
“More like the power of gale winds,” Javi quipped.
Once, it was said, all the powers were possessed and wielded by one being, a creature of night, who appeared in the form of a great bat. He had four pairs of wings, and each pair contained one of the elemental powers. It was he who tamed the elements and conducted their raw powers to manifest the world. The sun, the moon, the stars, the earth, the waters, the creatures, the peoples. But the powers were too great for one being to restrain for all time. So the great bat, Vespertilius, taught magic, alchemy, and science to those beings who had the cleverness to learn. He then set to them the task of containing the raw powers until they could find some way to safely release them.
They deemed that Vespertilius himself must serve as the first container of the powers. If he ever released them, they would shatter and consume the very world that he had brought into being. He was a creature of the dark. When it was day, he slept. Daylight, sunlight, contained all four elements condensed into pure light. The great bat’s scholars created a world of eternal daylight. And they contained this world within the idol. And they further contained each power by anchoring it within each gemstone.
Vespertilius saw that the idol his scholars had forged and crafted with all their skill was a solid one. But even as he commended them, he warned them. The idol itself might be breached by the wrong person or at the wrong time. It too must be contained. And so they made the black velvet sack, whose inside was stitched with the alchemical symbols of the elements, of the great bat, and with warnings and bindings. No skill was required in the use of the sack. Simply placing the statue within triggered the bindings.
So it came to be that the elemental powers were threefold contained, by the black sack, by the obsidian idol, and by Vespertilius himself.
“Someone has released one of the powers,” I said.
“The person who’s following us. But how? None of these texts have any instruction on unlocking the idol.”
“Maybe the instructions are on the idol itself,” I said, glancing over at the black velvet sack standing on the bench before Javi and me. “It was made with the intention that it would be unlocked someday.”
“I doubt that today should be that day. We are not a people who are ready to wield the raw elemental powers that make up the universe.” Javi left the bench to pour himself another glass of water.
I pulled down the sack to reveal the idol. “When I touched it earlier, I heard a voice. Maybe…”
I brushed the tip of my finger over the bat’s head.
I gasped. “How? Release you how?”
I heard then the beating of great wings and a thud and a cry. I glanced up. Javi had a knife to this throat. The figure who held it was shorter than him. They wore a hood and a mask. Only their eyes were visible. All their garb was a dark gray, and it fluttered with the winds that began to whip about the room.
“Give me the statue, scholar,” the thief said. “And I will release your friend. Once my business with the statue is done, I will return it to you, to study for as long as you desire.”
I raised my hands and rose from the bench. “Take it. I surrender it freely. No statue is worth the life of my friend.”
Then release me!
I frowned as I stepped away from the bench. I heard the voice of the statue, but I hadn’t been touching it that time.
“A wise decision,” the thief said. “You are a true scholar then.”
The thief walked forward, still holding Javi. I continued to back away. And I kept my eye on the knife at Javi’s throat. The thief kept her eye on me. And Javi kept his on the idol.
When they were close enough, though I silently prayed he would not, Javi reached for the idol. For a heartbeat, I thought I saw the knife slice through his neck. I leaned forward, trying to run, but it was taking me a lifetime to take a single step.
And then I saw the thief push Javi away. She held up her other hand and I caught the glint of a diamond. She unleashed the power of air. A great pair of gauzy wings rose from her back. They flapped and the force of the wind they released knocked Javi and I back. Javi managed to keep hold of the idol. The thief launched herself toward it. She grasped it too and they fell to the ground, both struggling to yank the statue away from the other.
A windstorm raised and slammed the heavy tomes we’d been reading against the wall. Pages tore off whipped through the air. I crouched where I was, squinting my eyes and searching for the door. I had to summon the guards. They would not hear the storm. The room was still locked. The thief had not come in that way. A locked study room was cloaked in silence for the privacy of the scholars within.
I started to crawl toward the door.
A sudden wall of flame blocked my path. I recoiled and scrambled backwards. Above my head, a great pair of flaming wings flapped, scorching the ceiling.
Flame joined wind and a burst of fire swept around the room. I curled up, but a shard of fire slashed my arm. Every book now burned.
I searched for Javi, for the thief, for the statue. I found all three. Javi and the thief still struggled. I heard Javi calling my name. I saw his hand, clawed around the ruby. I crawled toward him and reached out. I grasped the statue.
How! I asked.
And he told me.
As the statue was yanked one way, then the other, I placed my hand on the sapphire. Javi yelled to the thief to let go, to let me unleash water, or we all would die. But the thief would not let go.
I turned the sapphire, tapped its facets, pressed down upon it, and it popped off the statue and into my hand as a huge pair of watery wings emerged from the statue.
The wings collapsed into a surge of water that washed over the entire chamber. Its force knocked me back and pushed me against the far wall. The room was not watertight. The seeping of water would surely bring the guards.
I rose to my feet, slipping the sapphire into my pocket, hoping that if I did not hold it, the elemental power of water would be contained, at least until I could find the statue. I felt the stone vibrating in my pocket. I dodged around chance bursts of wind and flame.
I saw Javi slumped against the opposite wall. He was starting to rise. And I saw the thief. She was knelt over the idol, with her hands on the emerald.
“He may have bought himself to you, scholar,” the thief said. “But these powers don’t belong to you.”
“Nor…to you,” I said, panting. I heard the sloshing of Javi’s steps. He was at my side just as the earth began to quake and a great pair of earthen wings rose from the statue.
The thief rose and stepped back.
The statue itself was growing, shifting color, and its own wings began to stretch and rise. They grew thinner and beneath them unfolded another pair, flaming, and as they unfolded, they revealed an earthen pair of wings, thick and rough, and beneath these, was a final pair of watery wings, shimmering and translucent.
Elemental energies swirled around us. Wind, dust, flames, and water. Pulsing from four pairs of wings.
What have we done? I thought.
The study room was large, but the creature before us was too tall to stand up straight under its ceiling.
He lowered his wings and folded them up until it seemed he had only one pair again.
“Who has released me from me from eternal daylight? Come forth and accept your fate.”
The thief stepped forth.
Javi and I exchanged only a glance. In that glance we understood what the other would do.
For we too had helped to unleash him. Whatever fate was to come for us, if we were to succeed in turning it, we would do so together.
As one, we stepped toward the great bat Vespertilius.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel