Any thief would tell you, never burgle in daylight. Too many eyes. Too many ears. A thief, after all, abhors sunlight. The sun eliminates shadows, wipes secrets away, and emboldens the otherwise fearful. Sunlight, too, abhors a thief; it clings to the skin and garments, it leadens shoulders, but above all else, it makes the unknown known to even the casual observer. And much more is betrayed to the careful watcher.
The hooded figure pondered this. Crouched in the shade of the forest, she was well hidden from the afternoon sun that hung just beside the blackened, shadowy pillar, the tower which bulged upward like a tick, some very tall parasite, festering against the skin of the warm earth. Yes, she thought in that moment, it was very solid reasoning, for a thief. But she was no mere thief.
She had been there some time, long enough that she’d heard the loud bell and odd groaning that preceded the daily carriage from the garden, long enough for that covered cart to roar past her on its way towards town. She’d been there long enough to be sure that that carriage was well down the road, out of sight, then waited another five minutes to be even surer. Then, she spat on the ground for luck, and strode out from the comfort of the dark into the wide open clearing where her mark was waiting. It wasn’t her first time here—she’d done her research, of course, she always had—but stepping into the warm light still gave her a chill.
The tower loomed closer. She was unable to take her eyes off it as her legs brought her straight up the dirt path, coming nearer to the walls of hedging that separated her from her quarry. She reckoned the thing taller than two inns stacked atop each other, and wide as a barn at the base, but this was all the guess of a practiced eye; the towers had all been built in mystery and secrecy, and to her knowledge, every one was unique. Her last target had featured gaudy gilt trim along its brickwork, with royal banners billowing constantly atop the spire, even with no wind to move them. Before that, there was one noticeably shorter, fatter, with its bulk boring down into the earth, rather than stretching up high. This one, though, was almost shockingly plain. Large, uniform gray stones circled to form its walls, and the roof was built of just the same, much to her annoyance; wood or thatch would have left it ever so vulnerable to combustion. The few windows there were had been arranged as high up as possible.
The clearing reeked of magic.
Even this far from the spire itself, it set her teeth on edge. It wasn’t that she had any distaste for magic. That couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The young woman loved magic. She loved the way that it could make one feel, the way that it could lift spirits, quell fears, and make souls sing.
The magic she felt then did none of that. It was thick. It was oppressive. She felt like each step she took was slower than the next, like she had to force herself to push closer to the source of the strength. Like it knew she was there. Like it wanted her to leave. But that, of course, was impossible: magic had no will of its own. It was beautiful, but formless, chaotic until given shape and order. Cast into a spell, or graven into an enchantment, or infused with alchemy. This was the work of an arcanist.
She gathered that this arcanist was a poor one—lacking skill, not money. None were ever lacking in wealth, as spellcrafters under the king’s employ. This one had an unordered life, and an uncoordinated defense. Her mark kept strange hours, being present for only one evening out of seven nights spent watching. They usually left by carriage some time in the afternoon and did not return until the late hours of night, if at all, and she’d be long gone by then. Otherwise, their tower was sparsely populated. Only a few times had she spied silhouettes moving past the windows, likely a handful of guards and servants. The last tower, the one with all the banners, had two guards posted in every corridor, patrolling at all hours of the night. This one? No marches. Not one drill. Only the twisting, messy expanse of a hedge maze, a puzzle she had easily solved from atop a tree five days before. She couldn’t keep herself from a grim laugh.
She was standing before the wrought-iron gate, eyes wandering through and around the loops of filigree. She reached a hand to touch, but before it even got close, she felt a familiar sensation tugging at the hairs on her neck, tingling dully in her fingers. For a moment, she considered just ignoring the feeling, perhaps it was only... She let her hand drop back and moved to the hedge just aside, shoving her hands through it for branches to grasp onto. The bars were an obvious trap, meant for discouraging onlookers and visitors, but not enough for keeping out spellthieves. With a few quick motions, she hoisted her small body up, grunting as she wrestled with the hedge, and eventually tumbled over and onto the pathway, landing with less grace than she’d intended.
She stood, brushing twigs from her lap and front, grumbling at the new stains and holes along her cloak, the scrapes on her hands and face. Still, better than dealing with whatever spell was on the gate, she figured. One hand tugged the cerulean cowl tighter around her head, and the other closed around the cool lump of steel resting between her breasts, dangling from a chain of silver. She took a deep breath, and exhaled, her grip relaxing as the mostly-round amulet warmed ever so slightly to her touch, sending a wave of gooseflesh up her arm. Just another job. You can do this. She nodded to herself, and started down the maze’s path.
If the air had been thick with magic outside the garden, she was practically swimming through it inside. One lacking her gifts might have taken it for some particularly strong pollen, but for her there was no mistaking the dense sorcery. She was a spellthief, not a botanist, but the only obvious source was the garden itself. Any magic in the world needed a source, a channel through which to coax the sorcerous streams. Not all of it was controlled. Unfocused like this, she mused, her pale hand encircling and caressing one of the many flowers in shades of red, there’s enough energy to confuse anyone coming past the gate unprepared.
Her fingers closed a little tighter around the stem. The magic was running deep, maybe through the root system below. All these plants growing from one magical source. She let go and backed away, viewing the wall of flowers with suspicion. Magically grown plants tended to be anything but normal, and just as unpredictable as the power inside them. Best to pick up the pace some.
She smiled confidently as she came to the first fork in the path. A spyglass and a tall tree had told her all she needed to know, and she’d memorized the steps of her plan to the letter. A left, another left, straight on a ways... Her fourth job for the cabal, and far more dull than the other three. This was no place for a spellthief of her—turn right, turn left—ability or experience. Even the mark was boring. The tower, plain, the rock it was constructed in dull grey. No appetizing point of entry, no caravan loaded with fineries. Right, straight, bear right. The lack of guards wasn’t so much a boon to her as it was another point of boredom. Turn left at the big tree. There would be no one to outwit, deceive, seduce... the arcanist themselves was frustratingly boring. No name, no face, not even a gender to go on, no known contacts or activities. Shouldn’t that have been exciting, or mysterious, or something? Maybe this was what getting old felt like.
Three lefts, right, left, left... she stopped, facing a dead end. Moving back to the fork, she looked both ways, a dead end on either side. “... okay, this definitely wasn’t here before,” she muttered to herself, retracing down the first corridor and taking the first left possible, with her hand grazing against the leaves and flowers of the hedgerow. Nothing wrong with doing it the old fashioned way.
She took a few more turns, always following the left-hand wall, and sighed. Even when the maze threw her, it was still just a boring afternoon walk. Another sigh, another turn, looking for anything out of the ordinary, when there it was, right in her line of sight: a large, yellow flower, dangling from the hedge. She blinked at it. Cone-shaped, with long stamens standing out from the petals enclosing them. She stepped around in front of it, curious, bending a little to look up into the cone. Just a normal looking plant, if a little oversized, must be because of the—
She saw something move inside the shadows of petals, eyes widening just before the stamens lashed out like whips towards her face, battering her with wind, forcing her wide eyes to water, forcing her to inhale—the flower shook, and a puff of yellow pollen shot into her eyes and nose just as she breathed, knocking her back onto her feet with a hacking cough. It felt like it was everywhere, encrusting her eyelids until they refused to open, seeping into her skin, into her body through her throat, tear ducts and any pore it could find. Strangely, though, the coughing slowed, and stopped entirely. She wasn’t choking. If anything, it felt good as it overpowered her sinuses, which made her worry. She spent a few moments catching her breath, rubbing her eyes, trying in vain to open them, before she came to a realization.
Not just pollen. Magic.
She scrambled to her feet, swaying on unsteady legs while her hands found their way into her cloak. Inside were rows on rows of pockets, each with a vial, or a dropper, or a flask of something or other. She thumbed frantically through them, judging the caps of each by feeling, counting the little indentations she’d made in each one, until she plucked out a dropper, squeezing it into to her stuck-shut lids. Cleansing draught. She grit her teeth through the pain, wiping her face off on her sleeve, until finally, she was able to open her eyes.
Everything was brighter than before, which made her blink several times, adjusting to the light. The colors seemed more vibrant. The yellow flower was... glowing, yellow like the sun. Her eyes wandered lazily around the hedge in front of her, the multitude of flowers shining in so many colors, reds, blues, a host of greens, a myriad of purples. Her hands worked idly, almost by habit, as she watched the shimmering hues before her, replacing the dropper and finding a small flask by feel as a new shade of pink drew her eyes, one she was sure she’d never actually imagined before. She drew the flask, watching the colors sway in the gentle breeze, leaving traces in her vision that her mind started to form into pictures, images, even words. While reading an impromptu poem of lilacs, she uncorked the flask in her hands and brought it to her nose. Multicolor stars swirled as she breathed in deep, almost choking on the acrid smell of it, her mind shocked to momentary clarity by the bitterness and pain, as it did its work: her nose began to drip, her eyes tearing up, her mouth salivating uncontrollably. She spat, wiped her face of sweat and mucus, then wiped herself clean again. Whatever toxins there were would be leaving her system. She was safe. And safe was good.
She sighed, and realized she was smiling. It really was gorgeous. Must have been the magic in the soil. All the flowers looked so pretty. Bright and colorful. Like they were smiling back at her, and she was smiling even wider. Even the leaves were pretty, green and... and leafy. The vines were viney, too, she supposed, with a bit of a giggle. Weaving in and out of the hedges, green traces among the green. Slithering along the grassy path like snakes hiding in the tree-shade. Collecting beneath her feet, as a doting pet might. She tilted her head a little, her vision blurring some. There was a green line around her boot, winding its way up her cloth pant leg. That hadn’t been there before. There were two more on her other boot. How peculiar. She turned her head up and to the side, the colors of the flowers once more swimming and tracing bright blurry streaks through her vision. There was a little green line around her shoulder too, moving, working its way across her cloak, a very... liney line. Her brow furrowed. Not liney lines. Viney vines. She moved her foot a little, trying to kick out of the tangle. But it only tightened its grip, until she couldn’t move her leg at all. “That’s bad,” she murmured through a bit of a fog, and as she turned to her side, the vine was twisting even faster down her arm. “That’s worse.” She wasn’t entirely sure why.
Her left hand was free, at least, so she lifted it up, stretching the muscles in her hand with a twist this way and that, then made a point with her three middle fingers, directly at the green line on her other wrist. She waited as the line shifted and tightened, another coil appearing on her arm as her fingers sat poised. Nothing happened. “Oh,” she giggled, and, taking her sweet time, her hand reached beneath the collar of her shirt and pulled out the roundish, somewhat lumpy metal amulet on its chain. She gave it a quick couple of taps. “Come on,” she muttered, swaying while a vine encircled her hips. “Open already...” With a little more concentration than she wanted to give, it started to budge, and she coaxed it with a few yawned words of encouragement. Its aperture continued unfolding like a set of silver petals, reflecting greens and reds into her eyes, making her coo with dampened delight. Inside, beneath the cold exterior, she could feel warmth drifting out from it, along with the supernatural blueness of the large, glittering gem inside. Her source, and her focus, the thing that would make her gestures magic and her magic work. As the light crept out, she could feel its presence registering in her dazed mind, and it dawned on her that she was a bit dazed, wasn’t she? Waves of magic flowed through her, very similar, she noticed, to the energy moving around her in the air, but of a good kind, a familiar kind, not this strange alien power that surrounded her.
She focused on that feeling, on the magic of her amulet, the center of calm in the back of her mind, and again pointed her fingers toward the vine, which had now started to triple back on her arm’s length. The bolt of fire that leapt forth surprised her, shocking her again into a measure of clearheadedness, but seemed to surprise the plant even more. It hit its mark perfectly, singeing the end, and the vine immediately unwound and shot back into the hedge behind her.
“Good riddance,” she growled, and carefully flung a few more flaming tongues until they all had retreated, then made sure to step far away from the hedge, walking swiftly through the maze.
She’d taken three random turns before she realized it with a groan. Her head was still thick with, whatever that had been, magic or pollen or both, and it took her a few moments to remember which way she had been going, and how. The young woman had no idea where she was now, all her tree-top mapping had been rendered useless. The hedges seemed taller than they did before, and she realized that she’d dropped to her knees. The shadows felt as dark as the colors were bright. She reached for the amulet with both hands, fiddling with it until a small latch twisted. “There we go,” she sighed, sensing the magical presence in her awareness grow just a little more, a wave of dizziness passing through her as her vision unfocused, the colors swirling around her. “C’mon out, that’s it...”
Out from the light of the gem inside, a cat leapt to the ground. Not a normal cat by any means. Translucent, for one, and shining with the same blue and ghostly hue as the light from which it had emerged. As the spellthief shook her head to clear it, the cat meowed at her.
“Nice to see you too.” She rolled her eyes as the cat assessed her for a moment, then gave her leg a friendly nuzzling. “Alright, alright...” She used both hands to rub semi-corporeal fur, grinning as her familiar began to purr. “Come on, Missy.” She patted her on the side and stood, glancing around. “We’ve got a job.”
She pointed up to the tower, and the cat’s head turned to follow it, then back to the spellthief’s face.
Her cat sat back down, and she groaned.
“Fine, would you lead me there?”
“Would you please lead me there?” She implored.
That was enough for Missy, and she strode off down the path at a leisurely pace, seeming to know exactly where she was going. The spellthief wisely followed close behind.
The day went on, cat leading girl. They proceeded this way and that through the maze, sometimes backtracking, sometimes turning in random directions, even stopping and turning around on one path, but the spellthief knew better than to object. Missy had never led her astray before, and she wasn’t going to any time soon. It was what the cat was good at, and she was invaluable for any infiltration. Plus, the girl smiled, she was a good cuddler, at least when she wasn’t being too prickly. Kept her grounded. Which was the point of her magical focus having a familiar attached.
The cat paused at a fork, then strutted its way down a shadier lane. She guessed about an hour had passed, but she was certain that they were getting closer. The tower loomed even more menacingly now. The spellthief tried to keep her mind off it, but she could feel her line of thought trying to wander. Must’ve been something in that pollen. She smiled a little more, thinking of that pleasant, sweet-smelling flower that had surprised her, the golden lines it traced through the air, the other colors that had…
Missy poked her head around a corner and meowed for her to follow, and the spellthief realized that she was just standing still in the path.
Keeping the crystalline eye of her focus open, she reckoned as she walked on, would give her something to concentrate on, but the energy would drain if she relied on it too heavily. She considered closing it, her fingers tracing around the inset grooves of the metallic, open iris. She might not be able to cast in a hurry, if there were danger, but she had more ways than just magic to get around that. And besides, how much more danger could there be? She’d passed the gate, dealt with the plant, and fought off all those liney green lines. Yes, she needed to save her energy, she decided, willing the opening to grind itself shut, and she immediately felt the weight of concentration leaving her mind, the pulsing, rhythmic presence quieting to just a noise in the background, behind the rustling of leaves in the wind. She exhaled. Missy looked back at her, and she could feel the cat’s eyes judging her for it.
“What?” The spellthief spread her hands. “I can’t just keep it open forever.”
The cat kept on going, clearly miffed.
“We both have to keep our energy up, never know when something could...” She froze. What was that sound? The spellthief looked around, eyes narrowing. It almost sounded like voices. She crouched low, looking to Missy for a clue, but only to find that the feline had sprawled out on the grass, and was kicking and batting at a small patch of plants that had cropped up, with pale, purple flowers. She could’ve smelled the minty air they were giving off from a mile away. She straightened up, chuckling as Missy rolled back and forth in the catnip, licking and nipping lethargically whenever her mouth was in the right spot.
The girl turned her eyes up towards the tower. Not too far now, Missy would catch up soon enough. She only made it as far as the next corner before she felt the hairs on the back of her neck perk up, her muscles tightening on their own, as the sound of a voice humming in the wind met her ears.
Maybe a servant, she thought. Some girl doing the laundry. Her steps were cautious now, her stance low. Whichever way she turned, the song only seemed to get louder, and it was as if the breeze was quieting just for her to hear. It was beautiful. The stray notes she caught reminded her, more than anything, of her mother, working at her loom in the corner all night long, humming the old lullabies and songs of her home. She shook her head and pushed the thought away, a fist closing around the amulet. She had left that all behind. Another corner, and she thought there were strings being plucked. Strings. Threads. Her eyelids fluttering closed on her mother’s lap, the sound of needle and thread and humming in her ears. She swayed, the world churned as she put a foot down. Just tired. That’s all. Almost there. Just this job, then rest.
Her breathing slowed with her steps, walking carefully to a small clearing, three paths branching out ahead of her. She looked towards the tower. The path led straight to a metal gate, the same as at the entrance. Her eyes widened. She took a step towards, and almost faltered. Someone was singing now. Singing and plucking strings. She turned her head around, and followed the sound. It was very close now. She was almost there. Almost... where? Ah, she blinked, I’d better investigate. Someone might see her enter the tower, and she had to be sure she wouldn’t be seen. And so she had to investigate. That made sense, didn’t it? She nodded to herself, smiled, and leaned her head around the next bend.
Someone was smiling back at her.
A girl. A pretty one. Sitting on a stone bench in a pretty clearing, next to a pretty fountain, beneath a pretty tree. She blinked, and started to blush. The girl was naked, head to toe, a short crop of pale, almost silver blonde hair on her head, and the spellthief could see her warm, dark eyes staring into hers, smiling at her. She looked oddly familiar.
The thought finally popped into her head as she gawked. This was the woman who was singing. Of course she was familiar. The spellthief took a step closer, out from around the hedge. The girl on the bench held a golden lyre in both hands, resting on her lap just below her small, pert, pretty, bare breasts. Her arms were muscular, and so were her legs, but the whole of her body was lithe and trim.
The spellthief swallowed, “Um. Hello,” she managed to say, her throat suddenly dry. The burbling of fountain water brought her a step closer. The girl with the lyre opened her mouth, but instead of speaking, she sung, with her fingers playing a sublime melody:
“O wand’ring one, I wonder how,you’ve fin’lly come so close here now,so close but yet, your worried face,won’t you join me in this safe place?"
She’d had already walked three steps into the clearing, and the girl beneath the tree kept playing. Every note resonated inside her mind. This place was safe. She wouldn’t be harmed. There could be no danger around such beauty. She took a step closer, the tree’s leaves rustling welcomingly, the fountain a picturesque blue. She turned to the girl playing her harp. “Do you... know me?” The singer smiled, and responded:
“I know all those who tread these paths,they wander lost, weight on their backs,but you aren’t lost, you are now found,I’ve brought you home, sit with me now."
Her legs were already moving, and suddenly she was sitting on the bench and turning to stare wide-eyed at the singer. She looked so pretty, so kind, but so... unusual. There was something strange, that she couldn’t put her finger on. Her gaze wandered to the fountain behind the girl’s head. “Do you thirst, my friend?”
The sound of the singer’s voice, speaking to her, shocked her. It was like the gods were singing just for her, only... only... only it—
The other girl laughed, the sound like purest sunshine washing over the spellthief’s ears, driving her troubled, cloudy thoughts away with its radiance. She smiled back.
“Here,” the singer gestured towards her, and a goblet was between her hands. “You’re so tired, you’ve come so far. I can see it in your eyes. Drink.”
The spellthief did as she was told without hesitation, taking the golden, spotless cup and bringing it to her lips. The taste was indescribable. She struggled to understand it, to name it as anything she’d ever drank before, as she ingested gulp after gulp after gulp. She exhaled, feeling the weight of stress, fear, and worry leave her shoulders and mind, replaced only with tiredness. Sleepiness. Contentment. Not weary, not heavy, but a sort of lightness that threatened to close her eyes with happiness. The girl with the lyre was humming again. The tree and the fountain were singing, the colors were dancing and glowing before her eyes. So pretty. Her eyelids drooped, opened, and drooped again. At the edge of her vision, there was the tower. Dark. Grim. Bad. She turned her face away from it, she didn’t want to think about it now. The rush of colors made her dizzy, made her sway and lean and drop, down onto her back, her head on the girl’s lap, half-closed and heavy lids watching up at her warm, dark, familiar eyes. The singer smiled at her. She felt the world spin. “Shhhh.”
A hand was in her hair, stroking, soothing, and the other was moving, over her lids, closing them down tight. Darkness overtook her. Sleep was close. And the girl was humming again, and she was almost smiling, before she sank down, down into feeling nothing at all.
She felt the air stirring around her, heard the chirp of insects and life in the breeze. Her body moved, her eyes winking open against the heaviness and warmth of the dark. Shadows had grown across the singer’s face, and the spellthief was once again awash with happiness and comfort, but was looking strangely at the girl’s expression. She barely seemed to be breathing, her eyes shut tight and facing out ahead. Towards the tower. The spellthief turned her head slowly in the singer’s lap. The shadows had crept out longer across the grass, the path of the hedge was steeped in darkness. She blinked. The sky was orange now. Sundown. It was already evening. She bolted upright, but immediately lost her balance, lurching as her hands gripped the marble bench beneath.
And then, the girl was looking straight at her again, her lips slowly curving upward. “My friend, you have not finished your rest,” she spoke, and the spellthief’s grip relaxed, her head bobbing up and down with a droop, “come now, why do you stir so?”
She breathed heavily, her thoughts an achy, cluttered fog. That voice was so nice, so serene, but she could feel herself fighting against it. There was something more important. Somewhere she had to go. “Have to go,” she muttered, her throat ached, “have to—”
“Stay,” the singer spoke, as the spellthief felt her legs, her thoughts going limp, “do as I say, now, my friend.”
The pace of her lungs slowed with the words in her ears, eyes widening as the singer offered her the goblet. She was parched, staring at it. She could smell the liquid, its aroma almost sickeningly sweet. She shook her head. “Can’t.” She shook her head again, knees quivering as she pushed against the earth. “Have to go. To the... to the tower.” That was where she was going. That was where she needed to be.
“Oh, but you will, my friend,” the singer answered, plucking a string on her lyre.
“I will?” She responded, her knees steadying.
“You will,” another string plucked, “in the morning, you will be with our Master, and He will take you there.”
A note of alarm went off in the spellthief’s mind, but the lyre quelled her fear. “Our Master?” Wait, our?
“Yes,” the singer sighed, overcome with emotion, sounding even aroused by the thought, “we must sleep as the sun sets, so that our Master will come to take you away to His tower, when He returns in His wondrous carriage...”
The spellthief was already trying to stand, inching off of the bench, even as she could feel each word sapping at her strength.
“He will take you like the others, and bring you into His care. But you must stay, my friend, stay and sleep with me now, won’t you?”
She shook her head with dizziness, legs barely holding her up, taking a step and almost falling. The singer began to hum, and the spellthief’s determined expression melted into a smile, her eyelids fluttering. She wanted to leave, didn’t she? She wanted to take another step, and then another, but her body refused. Maybe she didn’t want to leave. If her body didn’t want to go, how could she? She could go to the tower in the morning. She could stay with the girl and listen to her sing and sleep soundly in her lap.
The thought brought a moan from her lips. She could rest! She was so very tired, she felt it in her limbs, pressing heavily on her shoulders. All she had to do was turn around. Turn around, sleep, and rest. The lyre’s notes made her smile even wider, made it easy to move her tired, sleeping feet back towards the bench, back towards the sweet sound. Her head turned, the orange evening lights shimmering through her vision, dropping to her knees with a wave of dizziness. She waited for the singer to take her in her hands, to bring her to rest, for sleep to overtake her mind and body. She waited. She blinked. No humming in the air. No notes being drawn from the lyre’s strings. Even the fountain had stopped burbling, the tree’s leaves had quieted their songful dance. She blinked, and her head turned up with wide eyes. The singer was fast asleep, her body slumped over, hands clutching the lyre to her middle. Her chest rose and fell slowly, her eyes shut.
The sun had set behind the trees at the edge of the grove, no more warm rays gleamed on her skin.
The spellthief looked to her own bare hand, and gasped, falling back in surprise and horror. She was staring at herself. The same skin, the same eyes, even the same texture in her short hair, as her hand was drifting through it. It had her voice. She shuddered, and queasiness welled up in her stomach. Enough to overpower the tiredness. In fact, she noticed, she was feeling more awake than ever. She stood, swaying just a little as she did. Her inert duplicate made no response or move to follow. Because she realized, she couldn’t have: the singer’s feet weren’t... feet. They were planted, entirely into the ground. Where her ankles and toes should have been, the trunks of her legs just extended into, or, perhaps out of the fertile green soil. “Trunks.” The spellthief gave a strangled laugh, then swallowed it quickly. “I’m going mad.” She quickly turned away, trying to shake off the strangeness and what was left of the sleep in her mind, then limped for the hedges’ relative safety as fast as she could. The sun had set, and she only had so long left.
“Shit,” her legs stopped short after a few turns on the path, and her hands clasped around the cool amulet, “Missy,” she hissed, “c’mere, where are you?”
She felt a stirring, her senses perking up, and Missy was there, stepping in from somewhere else, stretching out at the spellthief’s feet.
“Thank gods,” the spellthief sighed, reaching to put a hand into her familiar’s reassuring fur, but the cat moved out of her reach, glaring accusingly. “Yes, I know it’s past sundown,” she groaned, but this did little to appease.
“There was... something weird in the clearing,” she started to explain, “it looked like me, but it wasn’t, me, and...” Another shudder felt its way up her back, and she shook her head, crouching down to the Missy’s level. “Listen. This place isn’t normal, these aren’t just little traps we can get around, they’re... it’s like they’re seeking us out on purpose. You haven’t seen any guards?”
Missy considered, and shook her head side to side.
“Exactly,” the spellthief nodded, “because this arcanist doesn’t need guards. That thing I saw, the whole maze, that plant that fucked with me and—hey, where were you, exactly, during all that? Still playing in the catnip?”
Her cat hesitated, then meowed quietly, as though out of shame.
“Thank you. Now, we’re almost there, we just need to—”
The cat gave a sudden hiss and darted at her feet. Something was there, a mouse, a large caterpillar, something that made the familiar move. Whatever it was, the spellthief lost track of it almost immediately, along with Missy as she tore off around the corner. The suddenness of the movement made her still-muddled head spin, and she stumbled and fell lightly to the ground.
“Damned cat...” she muttered, picking herself up and quickly following.
After a time, she stopped. Looked around. No sign of Missy.
She gulped down hard, trembling for a moment. Not a trace, not even a speck of blue. The spellthief clicked her tongue twice, and heard a mew from somewhere in response. Another pair of clicks, another noise. To her left. She turned, and saw... a wall of green, leaves and branches. Just like all the others. She frowned, and reached a hand in dejection to brush against the leaves. It went right through. Her eyes widened, and she scrambled through the illusory barrier, falling flat on her face.
Missy was sitting just in front of the spellthief, licking at her paws smugly. “Don’t have to rub it in...” The girl grumbled, standing and brushing herself off, and turning to find herself mere meters from the maze’s exit. She breathed relief, and stepped out of the hedges.
A flat field of grass encircled the tower’s base, which was just as plain as she’d expected. Too plain. Heavy gray stones, stacked around the perimeter in row after row, all the way up to the top. It was daunting.
But every tower has an access point. That she knew. She made her way round until she reached what was, presumably, the source of the great sound of grinding stone. A flat, solid, massive slab, set into the wall where a gate would have been in any sensible construction. She shook her head towards it, fiddling with her amulet while her cat scratched against the stones. Scratched, then nuzzled, rubbing her face and whole body against the slab. “Missy,” the spellthief sighed, “could you not—”
With a flash of light and no noise at all, the familiar strode through stone, leaving only a few fading blue sparks to be blown away by the wind. She sighed again. Should’ve recalled her when I had the chance. It was no matter. She’d either catch up to Missy on the inside, or she’d turn up on her way back to town, like she always did. She pushed the thought out of her mind, and gazed down intently at the focus between her hands.
The iris opened a few moments later, its glow and mental impression a comfort on her back. She twisted a few of the small rings on the inside of the metal ball, uttered a word, and the vibration in her hand changed, the steady pulse beneath her thoughts slowed. The light from the amulet’s center began to condense, forming into beams, casting out towards the stone slab from the sapphire eye. The beams tightened, and started to probe across the surface, shining onto, into, and through the slab, as the spellthief stepped back, breathing slowly, taking it all in. She could, in a sense, see through it now, but the eye did more than just that: it observed, analyzed, and taught. Right now, she was learning that the slab was not going to move by any means she had, unless she could somehow grow about two thousand and seventy six times stronger. Give or take. It was connected and held by some mechanism in the walls, which snaked up through the tower to... somewhere. There seemed to be a box of some kind that these mechanics led to on the ground floor, but it would be unreachable.
Besides, she half-smiled, the noise would be a dead giveaway.
She kept one hand on her focus and began to step carefully around the perimeter, the beams of light scattering and shining through every crack and crevice they could find, until after an exhausting amount of concentration had been spent, she whispered again, and the lights went dim, then winked out completely. Only the calm glow remained as she leaned back, hands on her hips and craning her neck up towards the top. The amulet had revealed nothing to her. No doors or entrances to speak of at the base. Or anywhere near the base. The only sizeable windows were high and away from the ground.
But it wasn’t as though she hadn’t prepared for this. She cracked her knuckles. She was prepared for everything. That was why she’d been given the job, and why she was going to see it through. She opened up her cloak, hands rifling through the many pockets, double checking their finds as she organized bottles, vials, and little sacks on the grass. She’d trained for worse scenarios than this one, after all. Not that one could really ever be prepared to come face to face with an arcanist’s tower, and everything inside. But spellthieves always did their best. The ones who didn’t, weren’t spellthieves.
She took inventory, emptying each container into the growing pile in her right hand as she sat cross-legged in the tower’s shadow. Clemmas vine cuttings, earthen essence, painroot balm, kindlestone shavings, filtered brennel, enchanted vanisian dust... The mound amassed slowly in her hand. It was a pain to get all of the necessary reagents together, and an even worse one to use them, but it was too volatile a mixture to bottle and keep on her person. Her own secret recipe, conceived and devised during her training. It had earned her a good deal of favor with the cabal for her ingenuity, but she enjoyed the nicknames it garnered among her peers even more. She was quite fond of hearing friends call her ‘that acrobatic little shit with the fucked-up hands.’
The spellthief smiled, eyes turning down to her scarred palms as she added the most crucial ingredient, a thread of spiders’ finest silk. She’d had to pay a fortune for it, but it was a damn sight better than substituting in pitbulb sludge like she used to do. Smells better, that’s for sure, and hurts a hell of a lot less. More importantly, it meant she probably wouldn’t fall. Besides, she could pass the cost along to the cabal, as they had agreed. She took a deep breath, pressed her hands together, feeling the damp, grainy, oozing pile between them, and with a thought—even less than a thought, for to her, drawing up the focus to burn, heat, immolate, or encinder anything was as easy and as natural as breathing—she reached out to her amulet.
Her hands began to warm. Not too hot just yet, but enough to start the alchemical processes. She clasped them together, rubbing back and forth, spreading the liquifying mixture across the whole inner surface of her hands, from wrist to the ends of her fingertips. She knew she needed all the grip she could get here—if it were a steep cliff, or a mountain, or something with any kind of reasonable hand-holds, she might’ve be able to ignore her fingers, just relying on her palms instead, but she could take no such chance here.
She stood, breathing deep and slow, sighting in on the window directly above her, just near the top of the tower. Just another job. You can do this. She edged to the tower’s foot, swallowed her fear, and pressed both palms flat against the cold gray stone. If the hairs on the back of her neck hadn’t already been standing tall for the past minute, she might have noticed the energy running through the heavy bricks, but it made no difference to her now. She inhaled, and the warmth beneath her palms grew, and grew, and grew even stronger, her eyes carefully, even fearfully watching the reddish heat shining through her flesh, illuminating the vessels inside.
It was hot, hot enough to heat the bricks she’d stuck her hands to, which, she assured herself, they were now stuck to. Another gulp, panting now, and her eyes darted to her right hand as the heat diminished ever so slightly. It came away as she pulled, and she jumped up, all her weight on her left hand, and slapped the right a couple bricks higher on the wall, heating it again before it had even made contact. The seal held, and she did the same to her left, her feet now dangling off the ground.
Right. Left. Right. Left. Right.
Beads of sweat rolling down her face, beginning to soak her shirt through.
Left. Right. Left.
Grunting each time she pulled her weight skyward, pain shooting all through her body.
Right. Left. Right. Tears in her eyes, she could smell her sizzling flesh, sickening air on the breeze.
Left. Right. Left. Right. Left. Putting all of her thought and focus into the rhythm, the heat, and the pain.
Right. Left. Right. She knew if she hesitated for even an instant, she would fall. Left. The window was getting closer. Right. She could see the lines in the wood at its sill. Left. Her arm scrabbling over top of it. Right. Heaving herself into the opening, wheezing, tumbling headfirst to the wooden floor.
She stopped the flow of magic to her open, smoking palms, but the pain still wracked her, staggered her hoarse breaths. She opened her eyes just enough to watch the blackening, ashy crust congeal to her screaming palms. She bit down on her lip hard and scraped both hands against the floor, forcing her arms to keep moving even as weary groans escaped from her lungs. Nervously, shakily, she lifted her trembling hands to her lap. The skin was red and raw, and it still stank as though she were burning. Her teeth ground together as two fingers trembled, fumbled through her coat and plucked out the cleansing draught, applying as much of it as she could manage then rubbing her palms together again.
To be more accurate, everything hurt, but her hands hurt more than the rest. But coolness came with the stinging pain, and she finally sighed with relief. The worst was over now, wasn’t it? It was a danger, but she allowed herself a moment spent channeling a spell of healing; a moment, no longer.
It took a few moments more to will her legs to move, but she righted herself, leaning against the stone wall, now inside the arcanist’s sanctum... not much of a normal sanctum, she thought, as her eyes flicked around in the dim room. It was occupied more by clockwork than anything else, though the nature of it was a mystery to her until she found the great bronze bell, hanging in the center, filling almost all of the space.
“... ah,” she allowed herself to marvel for a brief moment. “Well, that explains the noise.”
Her lips moved again, the gemstone eye of the amulet opening as a trembling hand gripped it, her thoughts opening to the room around her, and shortly she knew: it was all mechanism for the bell, and the bell controlled the stone slab of a portcullis below. She also knew, that if she were to devote a considerably larger amount of time than she had to poring over this mechanism, she might be able to understand how it worked, but this was unnecessary; she only needed to know what it did.
In the whole of the round room, in every one of the tiers of scaffolding that encircled it, not a hint of magic. This was disappointing.
She uttered the words and the iris closed, her unsteady legs finding their balance while she worked them towards the doorway. This was the highest floor, and she rightly assumed that the spiraling staircase she was descending would line the perimeter of the tower all the way to its bottom. And so the spellthief went down.
She was quiet, and careful, and naturally unnerved by the place. Even though its exterior was so plain, she had expected some kind of frivolity to be taking place inside. But there was nothing, no banners or tapestries adorning the stairway, no rugs, no throngs of servants rushing this way and that carrying overly large trays of meat. The place sounded dead. And when she crept in to the first and highest hallway, it still sounded dead. Which may have been intentional, and so she continued to be quiet, and continued to be careful.
It stretched out darkly and boringly in front of her, all the way to a flat, dark, and boring wall at the far end, on the opposite side of which was, presumably, the refreshingly cool night air. It was closer to stuffy in the hallway, and both the naturally-inclined and burglary-inclined parts of her mind were aching for more fresh air.
Her feet stopped at the first door in the hall, big and wooden on her right. She looked it up and down, an eyebrow rising. No space for a lock, so not the sanctum, vault, hoard, or depository she was looking for. The spellthief sighed, her hands pressing against the wood anyway, and she blinked.
This was a waste of time. She was going so slow, and she hadn’t found anything, and this room would be deserted, and it was already nighttime, and the guards or the arcanist themselves would surely be along soon, and maybe it would just be better if she left, that’s right, she should march directly down the stairs to the guards’ garrison two floors below and turn herself in, and that would save everyone a good deal of trouble, and she would be very happy to—
She yanked her hands away from the door with a yelp, her mind reeling, already halfway inside the room. She darted in and kicked the damned door shut with her bootheel. The spellthief shuddered. Three mental agents directed at her in one day, that was a new record. At least, she thought that it was three. Maybe it was more? Would she know, if it had been?
She shook her head, trying to clear away the lingering feelings of guilt and dread that had been forced into her mind, as her hands slipped into her cloak, finding and donning a pair of ordinary-looking leather gloves. Ordinary, save for the matching runes encircled in white across their backs. It stung her flesh to wear them, and her fingers tingled every moment they were inside, but it would be better than being caught unawares again if she grabbed something. And, she thought, as her eyes adjusted to the dark, she would indeed be grabbing something.
She was standing in the library, where long tables scattered with books and papers lined the center, where tall bookshelves traced along the walls, where an impressive lectern stood towards the corner, and where, just behind that lectern, a small wooden door was set into the wall. Perfect.
The spellthief took her time moving through the room, not because she was expecting any traps, but because she was, by now, interested in doing more than just peeking and sneaking. Everything smelled like books. The place was kept tidy, save for the works sitting out on the tables. She conjured a small orb of flame, giving her enough light to read by, but nothing was terribly promising. She couldn’t read half of it, and the rest were calculations, charts, rows on rows of numbers. She hadn’t ever learned much in the way of mathematics, and so she kept away from these.
What she was looking for would be, probably, either impressive in size and name, or utterly simple. Valuable tomes of spells and research, or, handwritten notes, some of which would be commissioned by the crown, would be an immense pleasure to find. For several reasons. Firstly, the more magical research kept out of the hands of the powerful, the better. Secondly, she was paid more for retrieving the newly discovered and unusual spells which arcanists poured their time into. And thirdly, she just loved the rush. It wouldn’t do her any good to come back empty-handed.
She recognized a few of the tomes on the bookshelves by their inscriptions, and gathered them into a small pile. Not new information, but these had yet to be widely circulated. She perused a few others at random, and found that many were journals and writings on plants, animals, the populations of both Damea and Ephaos at large. She scoffed, avoiding these when she could. Probably has to read about nature in books while staying up here all day. The spellthief increased her load by a few more, but was annoyed. This wasn’t it. She was sent for something new, something unique. Not the same works she’d liberated just last month.
She dropped the pile on one of the tables, and her eyes caught sight of the lectern. As she made her way around to it, a glint of gold by the light of her sphere sped up her pace. Sitting closed and stuffed with bookmarks, the finely-bound and richly decorated tome made her mouth water. It could feed her for a month, even if its pages were empty. Her hands reached without hesitating, and flipped a few pages inwards. She recoiled a bit. What she was seeing didn’t make any sense. Lines went this way and that, symbols and shapes overlapped and interwove with each other, and there were things that looked like words, but they... weren’t.
She frowned and turned the page, gooseflesh running up her sides. More of the same, but... different. One of the symbols was similar, but not. These lines matched, but they were moved around, reoriented. The page looked completely distinct, but she could feel its similarities with the last.
She turned another page. More nonsense, but she knew that it wasn’t just nonsense. It was encoded. If she could decipher this, it might hold everything she needed.
The anticipation made her shiver as she flipped, and flipped again, backwards and forwards, squinting as the shapes seemed to have moved since her last look. Was this a trick? No, she wasn’t looking close enough. Flip, flip, flip. She’d been so focused that she’d forgotten to close her mouth. Eyes still scanning back and forth. Her mouth was dry, and she blinked. How long had she been at this? Not long enough, her thoughts answered for her, and it still makes no sense. There must be something here. There must, but... she should at least check elsewhere and come back for it. She could bring it with her, and pore over it with all of her comrades and the cabal. They could all find its meaning together then. Or maybe she’d keep it to herself, and read it nightly, and learn all sorts of wonderful secrets from it. The spellthief paused a moment, to consider how unlike her this thought was... and then it was gone.
She shivered again, and could already feel the power that might be contained inside its words. The tome excited her. She would just take a quick peek around, then come right back to the podium. That’s what she’d do.
Smiling and satisfied, the spellthief turned away from the book, feeling a little strange to be leaving it behind. She walked toward small door, stopping abruptly before her hand grasped the knob. She remembered what the last door had done to her, and gloves or not, she should be more cautious than that. A word, and the eye’s lens was open, beginning to focus its beam towards the door. She breathed deep, in and out. The world was coming more clearly into focus, and as the rays of light stretched towards the door, a wave of chills made its way down her spine.
She knew then, immediately, this was no ordinary door, but she couldn’t stop in time.
The beams passed through the field of cold, touched the panels of wood, and the chills were suddenly everywhere. She opened her mouth to say the words, but her lips wouldn’t form them. Her eyes couldn’t stop staring at the blue lights, dancing across the door’s surface. Her legs froze up beneath her, even her breathing felt like it ceased. She could only feel, as the foreign presence rooted itself in her mind, blocking out the sensation of her amulet, and every other thought in her head. The magic froze around her awareness like a perfectly formed crystal, keeping sense, thought, and even time away from her. To an outside observer, she would have looked like a statue, staring and mouth agape, perhaps enthralled by the lights ahead of her, until they faded out, one by one, and when the light from her focus became only darkness, she finally felt herself breathe, and promptly collapsed to the floor.
The spellthief felt cold, and a lot like she’d been thrown off a horse cart. Her body drew itself together on the floor, shivering uncontrollably until she managed to calm herself, and brought her body up onto its knees. Something felt wrong. It was too dark, and... she looked down, and gasped.
The iris of her amulet was wide open, but no light was shining through.
The chunk of sapphire was all but silent, she could barely even feel it. All that was left of its space in her mind was a dim and hollow emptiness, and a keen awareness that she had made a series of bad decisions. She was trembling, but still she tucked the amulet beneath her shirt and forced herself to stand. Her eyes turned to the door.
Obviously enchanted, she now knew. She was also aware of every inch of its construction, in a physical sense. She could have taken it apart and put it back together with her eyes shut. The spellthief sighed, and took one of her many lockpicks to the tumbler, opening it in seconds with a click.
She nudged the door open, sidling through, and was surprised to find that the room was lit with a few candles. It was very small, essentially a servant’s quarters. A bed shoved to one corner took up most of the space, and a desk pushed against the opposite wall took up the rest. One bookshelf, one nightstand, one too-small-to-climb-through window. Everything was a mess. Papers and baubles were strewn on any surface that should’ve been uncovered, common clothes lay in a heap on the unmade bed sheets, a half-eaten loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese sat on a meager plate at the bedside. She picked up one of the loose papers, squinting in the dim light. It was almost illegible, written in a hasty and clumsy scrawl, but she knew what it was immediately: a list of components for spellcasting.
Her grin was bright as she hastily gathered all of the desk’s loose papers into one sheaf, then did the same for the bookshelf and the nightstand, and even some of the more interesting ones off of the floor. She unclasped her cloak and laid it down for a moment, taking one sheaf and looking down at her body. All across her torso were leather bands, each running a different way, encircling her body in a maze of webbing. Much better than carrying a fragile bag everywhere. She picked a spot beneath her left arm, and stuffed a bundle into the leather net, securing it with a strap. The rigging had been designed just for her, built and enchanted to safely carry and distribute any reasonable amount of weight over her whole person, without restricting movement. She fastened the other finds in, then grabbed the few books that were sitting next to the bed, one of which was already open. “On the Subjects of Mind and Magic,” she read aloud, laughing in spite of the cold echoing along her back. She tucked it and the others into the rig, adjusting the straps a little under the new weight, reaffixed her cloak, and ducked out of the arcanist’s room.
It made her sick to her stomach, the more she thought about it. One of the crown’s lapdogs, pretending to live like a pauper inside their own miniature castle. She rolled her eyes as she attached the library books to her back and front. She was just glad she’d never have to see this one’s face.
She’d just started to head for the exit, when a pang in the back of her mind made her turn around, striding quickly for the lectern she’d nearly forgotten. Just one more peek. The book was already lying open, just begging for her to delve into its mysteries. But she couldn’t now. She already had no idea how much time had passed under that trap, and she still had more rooms to search.
Her hand was already moving to turn the page, but she stopped it, and lifted the book instead, shutting it with both hands. She started to tuck it into her leather web as she walked, but it was quite heavy, heavier than all the rest. She frowned, managing to tie it down, but it was like it was refusing to be held, like its weight was growing with every step she took. Fastened in just below her chest, it was making her double over before she was even halfway to the door, gasping for air, leaning hard against the center tables. She quickly pulled the book free and dropped it onto one with a thud, which gave a groaning creak under the weight.
So it was enchanted, but she wouldn’t be able to take it. She’d just have to go without it, and that would be fine, even as her hand was moving toward its cover. She could just memorize it all, here and now, and draw it by hand later. Copying and recopying the beautifully enigmatic work would be the most certain way to reveal its author’s secrets and intents, wouldn’t it? She nodded to herself, gloved fingertips closing around the leather-bound corner, the runes on the backs of her hands glittering faintly. Just a peek. Just one, long, wonderful—
She pulled her whole arm away with her free hand, tearing her eyes off of the cover before she could open it again. There’s no time. There’s not enough time, she reassured herself, over and over, willing her feet to move away from the table and toward the door. Because there had been time, as her breathing and staring kept reminding her. If only I hadn’t napped in the garden... She would report it to the cabal with her debriefing, and that would be the end of it. Maybe she’d be sent back in to retrieve it. Yes, that would surely be it. If it was so important, she would be dispatched again to save it. She smiled, relieved, stepping out of the dark library and into the torchlit hall, turning her head towards the stairs, where a man stood mere feet away from her with jaw and eyes gaping open.
Shit. The spellthief didn’t need to think about it, her body reacted on its own. Her hand found the round flask inside the cloak immediately, poured as much heat from the drained amulet as it could muster into itself, and smashed the glass bottle to the ground. She knew something was wrong, though, as soon as it left her hand. The inky black liquid inside was supposed to be bubbling. It spattered harmlessly across the floor as soon as it touched the stones, barely fizzling, while glass shards scattered onto her boots and the man’s plain shoes.
He yelped something, and sped away from her towards the stairs, as she was already doing the same in the opposite direction. She threw herself into the first doorway she found and shut herself inside, breathing fast and hard.
Her hand was hot, but the flask hadn’t heated. Why?! She looked towards it, and groaned. The enchanted leather glove had trapped the heat inside, its surface was barely warm. She yanked both of them off with fingers and teeth, grumbling a string of curses and jammed the pair into an empty space in the web. She started to notice the tingling, stinging, screaming pain in her hands, but shoved that sensation forcibly aside to get her bearings.
She was in another bedroom, lit by illuminated spheres hanging from the ceiling, light flickering inside. There was a modest bed, a modest nightstand, and two modest chairs. The window was, again, too small for even her. Shit, shit, shit. Her head thudded against the door. Think, think. If he’d gone up, she’d have to fight her way through to get to the window, and she didn’t want to have to do that. There were probably more downwards, and she couldn’t remember where the other windows were. Maybe if she—
A great clanging started, even louder than it had been down in the garden, and she fell to her knees with both hands covering her ears as the sound tore her thoughts to shreds. Loud, loud, loud, the great bell ringing three, four, five more times than that, feeling the stone vibrate beneath her, until it finally stopped, leaving just the ringing in her ears, the sound of it hanging in the air, and, from far below, the grinding noise of the heavy slab. Her eyes shot open wide. They’re here.
Shit. How long had she dawdled? How much time had been stolen from her by that thing in the garden, and by that spell which froze her in the library? She had no way of knowing. But she knew she had to run.
The spellthief stood on quivering legs, back to the door, wringing out her trembling hands. She grabbed one of the emergency flasks at random, this one a pale pink in the color of its liquid, and dashed into the hall again. Another man was there to her side, face lit by the flickering lamps, a traveling coat around his broad shoulders and an inquisitive look in his eyes. “Hello there,” he spoke, and she nearly screamed when she tossed the bubbling, bright-red vial.
It hit the ground in an explosion of flame, filling the corridor between her and the man with a wall of fire, heating her face from where she stood. She ran, passed one door, and darted into the next.
It was darker, and her eyes were still adjusting as they flicked back and forth madly. There was no window, and the same lights hung from the ceiling as in the hall. A much grander bed took up half of the space, a chamber pot in the corner, a small dresser, two luxurious chairs and a small table between them.
She found another flask as she made ready to move again, checking its color as she did. Black. She’d need to hold her breath to keep from inhaling the smoke, but it’d cover her escape if need be, and she could find a window in the last rooms down the hall. She swallowed, and ran back out of the room.
It wasn’t as bright as it should’ve been. She looked to her left in confusion, and there was no wall of fire where she’d expected it, and no strange man cowering behind it. What?
She turned to run to the right, the cool glass in her palm already heating with magic, and stopped short before the man, her eyes wide with shock, his narrow with a cold precision. “Is that any way for an uninvited guest to treat a man in his own home?” As he was speaking, she raised her arm to throw, but he made a gesture in the air with one hand, and she felt her readied arm seize up. Horror-stricken, skin going icy cold in waves from head to toe, she turned her head towards the frozen arm, trying in vain to will it to move as the bubbling liquid heated up, more and more.
He raised an eyebrow. “Now, what’s this? A gift, for me?”
The spellthief tried to move it, then to speak, but her body was locking into place. The same sickening, icy sensation as the door that had held her. Her eyes widened further as his hand reached, then plucked the glass sphere from her outstretched hand, even though it should have been blazing to the touch. But he held it without showing any pain, assessing the reacting liquid inside as it began to spew black smoke beneath the cork. “Very interesting,” he said, and then the vial was gone.
She blinked, eyes looking right through his empty hand. What? Dread began to wash over her, in the same waves as the tingling chill of magic. No, no, this can’t be happening.
“I must assure you, miss,” he was saying, running a hand through his dark hair and speaking like a disappointed schoolteacher, “much to my surprise as well, this is happening.” He leaned toward her face, examining her closely, his green eyes staring into her own dark ones. “It appears that I’ve caught a little thief in my home, doesn’t it?”
Frost ran through her veins, and she felt her head nodding of its own accord, pulled up and down by magic as a smirk played at his lips. “Tell me, then, I’d like to hear it from your own lips.” They wouldn’t move. “No? Ah,” he shook his head, nearly chuckling, “of course. Now, how is this?”
“Eat shit,” she heard someone say, before she realized it was her own voice speaking, “and drop dead, you royal scum.”
He looked genuinely taken aback at this, a hand to his chest, the other making another move in the air—her whole body was moving, arms dropping to her sides, legs standing straight, her back and neck holding themselves high. She shuddered. It was as if she was about to salute him. “Again, is that any way for an intruder to treat their host? Come now,” he motioned, stepping around her frozen form as her legs and head moved unwillingly to follow him, “why don’t we have a little chat?”
“Drop dead, you little—” she was cut off by her legs moving again, carrying her body through the door he was holding open with a grin, into the windowless bedroom she’d just used to hide in. “L-let me go!” She shouted, still pacing slowly towards a chair with perfect and prim precision.
“And whyever would I do something like that?” She could see, now that her body was turning again, that he was counting on his fingers while seated in one of the chairs, the door shut tight behind him. “You’ve invaded my home, disturbed and nearly harmed my employees, attempted to physically harm me, and,” his eyes drifted down from her face, uncomfortably slow past her shoulders and chest, and down to the gap in her cloak, where a book was sitting belted above her stomach, “you’ve stolen my belongings.”
This was too much for her. “These do not belong to you!” The spellthief hissed, seething with rage despite the expressionless mask he was forcing her face to take.
“No?” He looked at her curiously, hands reaching out to her and sliding the book free from her net, gingerly holding it in both hands while inspecting it for any deformities, “Then why was it in my private collection, and why have I paid a very fine price in gold for it?”
“B-because thieving arcanist scum like you make a living off of what belongs to no one.” She couldn’t even clench her fists as she spoke. She felt impotent.
But this did pique his interest, and his eyes returned to her with an amused smile. “Oh, do go on, little thief, about how I am the thief and the burglar, and you are not.” He made a motion with his fingers as he set the book down on the table, and her arms began to move. “But I would like what belongs to me to be returned, first.”
“N-no,” she tried to resist, but it was like her arms were no longer her own, “these don’t... they’re not—” Her hands quickly and precisely unclasped her cloak, and began to fold it into a tidy bundle. She felt his eyes on her body, but whether they were inspecting the books, the rigging, her clothes, or her curves beneath it all, she wasn’t certain. It may have been all of them at once. She swallowed hard. “You can’t do this.”
“But I am,” he shrugged, “and you’re in no position to make demands, little thief.” He took the bundled cloak from her hands and set it down, stepping closer with a crease in his brow as her hands continued to move, loosing the snaps, buckles, and ties that anchored the leather webbing to her form. “Impressive craftsmanship,” he murmured as her fingers began to peel the heavy net away from her body, “I wonder who you stole it from.”
“No one, you slime,” she lashed at him with her words, but without a body to accompany them, they lacked any bite, “I purchased it with my own coin.”
“Coin that you’ve earned by stealing from others,” he added, taking the web from her hands and sitting with it, removing his papers and books as he did with his eyes still on her. To her horror, her hands didn’t stop moving.
“What are you...” she whispered, as her fingers closed around the hem of her cotton shirt, pulling it up her body at a sickeningly slow pace.
He grinned up at her. “I have to make certain you aren’t hiding any more tricks up your sleeves.”
“You bastard.” She realized that her face was flushed red as her hands and the cotton passed by it, her bare torso cold in the room’s air and sensitized by the magic all around her, gooseflesh chasing up her sides, her two small nipples standing perky from the chill. “You’re sick.”
“I’m merely cautious.” The arcanist corrected, eyes lingering on her dappled skin, tracing the few scars which stood out from her pale flesh, then settling on the uneven sphere dangling from its chain. “Give it here.”
Her hands obeyed, loosing the chain from her neck as a whimper left her lips, feeling as though the last chance of her escape, or even her survival, was fading as he took the amulet into one hand. He studied it closely, turning it this way and that, examining the dull, quiet sapphire through the steel aperture. She could only see a faint glow emanating from it, did that mean—
“I was wondering how the familiar had remained unaffected,” he answered for her, “and before you insult me again, she hasn’t been and won’t be harmed. I’m no monster,” he looked her in the eye, “and I know what the loss of a familiar can do to one’s psyche. It was very careless of you to leave it alone like that, little thief.”
She wanted to spit on him, but couldn’t work the muscles to do so. “Shut it.” She lamely retorted, as her body sat down, her hands slowly unlacing the boots on her feet.
“My, you have quite the attitude.” He set the amulet down on the table, just out of her reach even if she were in control of her limbs, and started to search through her cloak, examining it with interest.
“Don’t you dare touch any of that.”
“Or what?” He said, plucking a small vial of red powder from inside, holding it up to the light.
“You don’t know what you’re doing, you could—”
“Powdered sendrans,” he cut her off and continued, “did you know, little thief, that in their unrefined form, a single standard dose of sendran mushrooms is enough to kill three men?”
She scoffed. “Anyone that’s ever set foot in an apothecary would know that.”
“And who, do you think, supplies those apothecaries with the substance?” He snickered.
The boots were off, and her hands were loosing the trousers from her hips, but she was barely paying attention to that now. “Not everyone buys their goods from royal scum like you.”
“They do, if they want powdered sendrans.” He gestured, and the vial was gone. She blinked, as he did the same to another, her supply of vengeroots. “So dangerous, so many of these. I’ll have them kept safe, for now, for everyone’s sakes.”
She blinked again. “For now?”
“Of course,” his eyes strayed towards her as her trousers fell past her knees, and she was keenly aware of the coldness between her legs, “were you expecting that I would kill you, little thief?”
She flushed a brighter red still, a quirk of her pallid birth. “Those plants in the hedges certainly tried to.”
“Harmless,” he reassured her, though she wasn’t reassured at all, “you would have been kept safe and comfortable, even having a little fun with my flowers until the guards came to retrieve you.” Something in his tone made the spellthief shiver.
“And that... that thing was harmless too?” Another chill ran through her, as she remembered the singing and the warmth of sleep.
“Of course.” He looked as though this was completely obvious. “To be quite literal, Melody couldn’t hurt a fly. She could subdue an army, but that is besides the point. Did you enjoy her singing?” Another hint of a smirk on his lips.
Try as she might, she couldn’t say no. “That’s beside the point,” she echoed him instead, “it was an abomination.”
“Now, now, she is a dear friend of mine, and I won’t abide that sort of talk. Besides, is that anything to say about your own loveliness?” He chuckled, as his eyes ran up and down her figure again, now that she was completely disrobed, sitting up straight and breathing slowly at his direction.
“Shut it!” She protested again, but keenly felt her own weakness.
He clicked his tongue, his fingers moved, and everything of hers vanished. Her gear, her cloak, the books and papers that she’d taken, even the clothes at her feet. She tried to look defiant. “Now I must know, little thief, how was it that you made your way in here? Hm?” He leaned towards her with elbows propped on his knees, hands folded beneath his chin. “I truly am curious. You’re the first intruder that’s made it past the garden.”
She felt a note of pride at the accomplishment, but kept her lips shut tight.
“And if it weren’t for my timely arrival,” he continued on through her silence, “I suspect we might not be having this lovely conversation at all. How did you plan to make your escape?”
She stayed silent.
“And furthermore, what of your entrance? I doubt you could have lifted the gate-stone, as you’re quite... small.” He drew himself up, hands on his thighs. He was at least a head taller than her, or more.
He gestured, and her hands moved, palms turning upwards in her lap. “And these burns? They’re quite fresh, aren’t they? I expect that they hurt.”
Her lips twisted. “It’s nothing.”
“Believe me, little thief, I know that it is not.” He spread his hands wide towards her, and her eyes took in the burnt scars on each, the unpleasant side effects of dabbling in alchemy. “Now tell me. How did you come by those?”
She would have shaken her head, if she could. “I’ll tell you nothing.”
The arcanist made a gesture in the air, and the spellthief’s eyes blinked of their own accord. “How did you come by those?” He smiled at her.
There was something oddly familiar about the question. She felt lightheaded for a moment, but it quickly passed. “If you’re so experienced, you should already know.”
He made a gesture and her eyes blinked again, slower. “How did you come by those?”
She felt like she had heard that question before. Ugh, she was developing a headache just from talking to the man. “I...” She thought quickly, “m-my gloves.”
“I see no gloves, little thief.”
“Well I was wearing them. They were in my...” She trailed off as his hand moved, and the gloves were there. “... those.”
He examined them with curiosity, paying attention to the matching runes on each. “These?” His finger was tracing the circle that defined the enchantments.
“They’re for nullifying enchanted traps, like that damned door you have for your library.”
He allowed himself to chuckle again, shaking his head. “I see no way these could have burned your flesh so.”
“Th-they did,” the spellthief stammered quickly, before he could move his fingers, “I was wearing them, and that servant...”
“Tomas. You scared the poor man half to death.”
“Whatever. He scared me first, and I tried to toss a flask to—”
“Burn him alive, like you tried to do to me?” He finished for her.
“No, you idiot! This one was smoke, but it didn’t work, because I—”
“You were wearing the gloves and they contained your spell,” he murmured, stretching the handgear at the wrists and peering at the material within. Seemingly satisfied, he passed his hands over the gloves, which once more vanished, then rose to his feet and spoke. “An interesting story, at the very least. We shall see if it holds true. For now, though, I must be taking my leave—”
“Leave?!” She exclaimed, her body fidgeting in the seat, though she couldn’t feel or notice any of it. “You can’t just keep me here, I haven’t done anything wrong!”
This was enough to make him sit down again, smiling as she stared at him. “Care to elaborate on that?”
“I...” She tried to find the conviction in her voice, “what is there to elaborate on? It’s self-evident.”
“Self-evident?” He laughed this time. “You’ve come into my home illegally, you’ve endangered the lives of myself and my employees, and you’ve attempted to steal my property. These are all quite wrong, are they not?”
The first two, she couldn’t quite disagree with. It wasn’t exactly legal to break into an arcanist’s tower and steal their spells, but that was because she was working against the whole society that had made it so, and the laws were... The girl noticed that she hadn’t been speaking, and cleared her throat. “Those aren’t your property.”
“Begging your pardon?”
“I said, those spells and books, they’re not your property, or anybody else’s.”
The arcanist sat back in his chair, crossing one leg over the other. “The books belong to me, I’ve paid good coin for them.”
“You’ve just purchased stolen goods, by another name.”
“Stolen by whom? From whom?”
She hated having to explain herself. “Stolen from everyone, by you and the other tower-dwelling tyrants that call themselves sorcerers. You, you can’t own knowledge. Just because you discovered something, that doesn’t mean it’s yours to make a profit off of at everyone else’s expense.”
He seemed to consider this. “You believe that my efforts to better understand the magical world should not be fairly compensated, for the time and money which I pour into them?”
“That’s not—I don’t care about your time and money, it was your choice to spend them so. What am I saying, you’re just another lackey under royal employ, you wouldn’t understand.”
“What I am, is an honest sorcerer and businessman, not some self-justifying thief who—”
“I am not a thief!” She fired back immediately.
“Then, my dear, what are you?”
“... a spellthief.” It sounded lame, to even her own ears.
He smirked. “The difference being?”
Anger, then, in the face of embarrassment. “The difference being, a petty thief wouldn’t have made it through all your traps and tricks unscathed, wouldn’t have made it up into your precious perfect tower, and wouldn’t have come close to success. And they would’ve tried to take a hell of a lot more than simple ink on paper. Everything else, that’s your possessions, yours to keep, but trying to hoard knowledge is just a worse crime than any I might’ve committed.”
He nodded as she finished, turning the words over in his head. “You’re quite strong in your convictions, aren’t you?”
“Stronger than yours, lech.”
“Don’t go getting so rash so quickly now. I think this is going to be quite fun.”
She blinked. “Fun?”
“A simple wager,” he offered. “You’ll be staying here as my guest for the time being, unless you would rather spend far more time in a proper prison. If, after seven days, you’re still so undeniably certain that you’re in the right, and that my works do not belong to me, you’ll be free to go. No strings attached, all of your equipment will be returned to you, along with all the books and papers you can carry.”
She was immediately suspicious, but played along. “And if, for some impossible reason, I’m not?”
His mouth flashed a grin, which vanished just as quickly. “Why, you’ll still be free to go, just as you came. Though I’ll have to ask that all of my belongings be rightfully returned, when that is the case.”
“If,” she corrected, “if that is the case, you mean.”
“Ah, of course.” He straightened up, smiling. “In accordance with your stay as my guest, you’ll be well fed, and you’ll have access to anything you might need, that I could conceivably provide.”
She considered it, though she knew she didn’t have a choice in these matters. “How do I know you’ll stick to this bargain? After a whole week, you might just tire of me, and throw me out of the window.”
He shook his head. “As I said before, little thief, I am no monster. A fall from this height might well be fatal, if not at least very painful. And I am a man of my word. I will hold our agreement to the letter, should you indeed agree.” He extended a hand towards her, as if she was supposed to shake it. “That is, unless you would rather I took you to some far less accommodating hosts.”
She wriggled over her options. She pictured herself bound, riding in the back of a cart, shoved into a dark and bare cell, tortured for who knows how long. At the very least, this one pretended to be more humane than that. She didn’t trust him for a second, but she stood a far better chance escaping from here, even while so far from the ground.
“Well?” He looked at her, expectantly.
“Well, what?” She replied. “I don’t see how you expect me to take your hand like this.”
“Like what?” He answered, still smiling.
“Like—” to her great surprise, her hand shot up as she tried to gesture. “... how long has that been...?”
“Long enough.” He took her hand in his firmly, warmly. “Quite fun, indeed.” Her eyes darted past him just long enough for him to notice and respond. “The door to your room will be locked, of course, and guards will be posted for your safety.”
“So that you do not injure yourself again, little thief.” The arcanist let go of her hand, and she was acutely aware of the stinging pain from her palms, flooding back into her senses. He stood, dusting himself off, and looked down toward her. “Now, is there anything you will need to make your stay more comfortable?”
She hesitated, half a smirk drifting across her lips. “My things?”
“Besides that.” He smiled.
“Aloe? Or some ointment?”
He held out a hand, where a small bottle of thick, milky fluid was sitting in his open palm. “Of course.”
She snatched it and assessed him warily, slinking further back into the seat. “I don’t need anything from you,” she muttered, “but I would like my clothes.”
“Of course you would, little thief,” he winked at her, she shuddered, “I will be keeping them very safe until your departure. Perhaps, if nothing else, you can grow more accustomed to your natural figure. I foresee the two of us spending quite a lot of time together.”
“Drop dead.” She snarled, arms crossing over her chest, legs tightening together.
“Eventually, won’t we all? But I think that’s a topic for another evening. I look forward to your company at breakfast, and I will wish you a good night.”
“And no more messing with my mind!” She pointed a finger at him as he stared, “or else I’ll—”
She blinked, and he was gone.
There was no answer. She shivered, surrounded by the magic that had charged the air as he left. She suddenly felt very alone.
The weight of reality started to settle over her. She was trapped. She had nothing. She’d been humiliated by him. And now he was playing games with her, like she was some toy?
It made her blood boil. Her fists clenched, and her mind reached out, but there was nothing. Just the room around her, silent and empty, nothing to comfort her but her own thoughts. She stood, sniffling, arms wrapped tight around her front, watery eyes searching frantically around the room. No windows. No crawlspaces. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
She rushed to the door, but the handle had vanished. Her fists beat against it harmlessly, and a choked sob echoed through into the hallway. She sank to her knees. The stone floor was cold against her bare skin. The flesh of her hands ached. Her muscles were almost numb from tiredness. She wanted to be strong, defiant, resolute in her captivity, but there was no one to impress by faking it. Her face was wet, she looked behind her, and the bed seemed inviting.
She stood, shaking, and walked, and collapsed down into it. Warmth overwhelmed her. She crawled along the sheets, pushing her face into the mound of pillows. Sleep sounded good to her. She rolled over and nodded. When had she gotten beneath the covers? It didn’t matter. She didn’t want to be here any more, she didn’t want to be awake any more. She was tired, and she felt the dark of sleep settling over her body.
The hairs on her arms rose and fell with the rhythm of her breath, her eyes winked once, twice, shut tight, and an instant later, she was asleep.* * *