Shadow Doorway | Part 2 of 3 | A Short Story of the Shadow Syndicate
“Not ideal, but rules are rules. Dagger?”
Orion sighed, flipped out a dagger, the blade only slightly longer than his hand. “I guess we never went to a blacksmith during your training weeks, eh? It never occurred to me that you didn't have one.”
That fact never struck me, either. Almost everyone had a weapon of some kind on handy, but after I left my parent’s home, I survived mostly on wit alone. “Will I need it?” I admit, an idiotic question.
“If you’re skilled enough, no. But …”
We paused and stared at it. A stone of black onyx at its hilt shone in the moonlight. It told me I had not yet fully considered the danger I was throwing myself into.
I strapped it to my belt and pulled the end of my coat over it.
“I guess you will have to decide that for yourself, if it is necessary for thieves to be prepared to kill.”
I turned away, because the answer was in his eyes. Already I wanted the night to be over; the sooner I started it, the sooner the suspense would end. “I suppose so.”
He grabbed my shoulder. “And another thing. Do you have the countermeasure the Syndicate provided for you?”
“What did they choose for you?”
Every initiate in the Shadow Syndicate is given something known as a ‘countermeasure’ for their examination. Examinations are not written or oral tests. They are assignments, just like the ones that will be given shadowsteps once they are officially apart of the Syndicate. As a result, the Syndicate designs a single item that can be used in a pinch, and each initiate gets a different kind, supposedly based on their personality.
“But Orion, the letter told me not to tell you.”
“To the worms with that. We’re alone here. What is it? You wouldn't leave an old thief curious, would you?”
Some people receive weaponry, or mechanical equipment of some kind. And some people … “Scarcely passed thirty and you're already calling yourself old? It’s a type of spell scroll. They called it a Writ of Assistance.”
He laughed. “That’ll be a treat. It’s rare, powerful, but just like your other scrolls, it disintegrates when you use it. With any luck you can keep it for another task after you’ve passed the examination. It's certainly more valuable than the others you have.”
“If I pass the examination.”
“No. We don’t speak like that." He paused with a frown and stared at me until I nodded. "Do you know how it works, what it does?”
“They explained it in the letter.” I quirked an eyebrow as I took out a thick roll of parchment tied with black silk and a silver charm. It needed the user’s blood to be activated. I was doubtful it worked at all, considering how they described the effects.
“It looks sound,” he assured me. “Now, are you ready?”
I looked up, as I often do when asked questions I don’t have the answer to. Tonight, the sky was clear and stars burned with such fervor, it was hard to turn the eyes away from them. Sparse clouds illuminated by a crimson moon set the mood for mischief. Not that I was in the mood. I was shaking. We were on the rooftop of a chapel, the stone panels sloping downward, such that we had to hold onto the iron gating of the bell tower to keep from slipping off. He told me to come here if ever I got lost in the city. It was only fitting we caught a glimpse of the sky, here, on a night deciding my life.
I wanted to ask Orion what countermeasure he was given. I wanted to ask him how it feels to be in the guarded mansion of someone far more powerful than you, with dozens upon dozens of people willing to kill you at a moment’s notice. I wanted to ask him how he stopped the trembling. How did he stop from imagining how he would be tortured if he was captured, or murdered on the spot?
“I am,” I lied.
“Good answer,” he said as he tousled my hair. “Now get moving. I want to share a drink with you afterward, and I am an impatient man. You know how I get when I haven't had a drink in a fortnight.”
I managed a halfhearted smirk. “I look forward to it.”
But I didn’t expect to.
I tightened the straps on my leather cuirass, checked that the clasp on my half cloak was on tight, and leapt from the chapel of Nocturos—the god of luck, fortune, and what we thieves keep quiet, of intended misfortune.
I landed on an adjacent building’s roof and rolled to break the fall, started into a jog, and tossed glances at the streets below.
I had practiced the route for two days, from the same night I received the letter with the instructions for what I was to steal, or how they so politely put it: ‘retrieve’.
Unlike some manors nestled high up in mountains or far from towns, Countess Selen’s was at Westrun’s edge, in walking distance from a theater at the heart of the city.
Getting there was not a problem, so long as I navigated the rooftops well enough.
It’s outwitting the guard’s positions and slipping over the gates that is less than easy. I never went farther than the last rooftop. Too many patrols.
As I sprinted, the rules of the examination ran over my mind like a squirrel around a tree.
The Five Justifications for Disqualification:
- Kill three or more people of relation—either by blood or employment—to the individual you are stealing from, or the individual him/herself.
- Have your face seen, recognized, or memorized to the extent in which an accurate wanted poster can be published by the authorities.
- Elicit help from your headmaster, trainer, or ally in or outside the Syndicate.
- Failure to obtain the object within one evening. (The evening ends at daybreak. A proctor will be waiting at your headmaster’s location to observe that the object has been obtained within the set time.)
- Stow away any tools or countermeasures beyond what has been provided for you. This does not include items discovered during the assignment, or items of non-enchantment, such as daggers, swords, throwing knives, etc.
And if you haven’t read between the lines: ‘disqualification’ means death.
Most thieves wait until midnight to begin their examinations, as this is the hour that Nocturos becomes more active and watchful over those who pray to him. It’s also something of a tradition.
But I don't bet my chances on gods, however real they are, just like I don’t bet them on people. If you were in my position, would you?
I pulled up my leather mask and tightened it, now that I could hear the footsteps of patrols on the cobblestone.
A crouching demon on the steeple of Nocturos’ chapel shone behind me in the distance. Headmaster Orion’s silhouette was there, still as the statue next to him.
I turned back toward the manor.
Beneath me, the streets were lit by torches, with guards strolling lazily through their rounds.
Streets are as dangerous for citizens as they are for thieves in the late hours. The dyed, boiled leather of Syndicate uniforms are designed to complement illusion spells, blend with shadows and protect against blades; on the ground, they’re indiscreet. They scream mischief.
A few windows of the manor were lit, figures drifting here and there.
The call came from my left. A patrolmen was catching a view of the city with a pipe still burning embers of nitskel. He had been sitting against a chimney on a separate rooftop, and couldn’t reach me so easily, but the damage was done.
“Thief! Thief!” his voice bellowed, as he stood up and unslung a bow, reaching for his arrows.
My hand shot to the pocket with the countermeasure. I clenched my fist instead and started running. I had to find an alleyway to jump into. Something to break my fall. Something to shorten the distance between the rooftop and the ground. Then I could cast a spell, slip through the streets while they scampered about for me.
The night’s just begun, and I’ve already alerted the whole damned city. The first arrow pierced the air next to my ear. The inevitability of defeat stormed my mind, but adrenaline shoved the thought into my calves, pushing me to greater speeds.
I ran, and ran, and ran.
The sound of metal boots on cobblestone echoed like a scattered army. Shouts became louder, more frequent. More arrows. One of them caught the fabric of my cloak and tore clean through.
The sound of a crossbow bolt firing screeched at the air, followed by the crank winding the bowstring back.
Intuition wailed at me. I lunged forward to dodge it, but my foot caught on a chimney as the arrowhead crazed my right vambrace. I found myself thrust into a crevice over an alleyway.
One of my hands caught on the roof’s edge, already slipping to the last digits of my fingers, the knuckles white with strain. The world twisted, and all my thoughts seemed to know only five words: I am going to fall. I am going to fall.
There were no balconies, or ledges large enough to catch onto. It was just a straight pitfall to a nice and gruesome death with many broken bones and guards jeering down at me. I could already see their amused expressions through their visors, and hear the unsatisfied sheathing of their blades. All thieves know that guardsmen have a peculiar satisfaction in slaying thieves, one that goes beyond a sense of justice.
“He’s as good as dead!” the crossbowman said nearby as he neared the edge. And I nearly believed it, as I heard myself grunting and making panicked noises.
I pulled the countermeasure from my coat with my free hand. If it were any other type of spell, I doubt it could save me. Yet the description sped through my mind. Unparalleled mobility, stealth, and heightened senses. But that begged the question: how do I get the blood to come out?
The guard's head loomed over the edge. The time for careful consideration and thought was over. I was not only pushing my already thin chances, I was scrambling to find dice to throw.
I let go and unsheathed my dagger.
I needed the blood as fast as it could come, and gashed the soft flesh of my palm. The wind whipped my hair and clothes. Darkness seemed to howl through me. Blood spattered my face and got into my mouth as I screamed, “Narev!” and smeared my hand across the rune-covered parchment.
The scroll exploded within my hands. Gravity no longer pulled me in, as wings of shadow magick burst out of my spine and propelled me upwards like a dreamer in his first trance of flying. The ground had been just a breath away from my heels.
I erupted from between the buildings, darkness trailing behind me in streams, my hands reaching towards the clouds. I grasped at their wispy tendrils. How immaterial they were, rushing from my grasp like fog under a horse’s trampling hooves.
Spell scrolls are for amateur mages the way that crossbows are for shit-archers; days of lost practice supplemented by mechanical expertise. The stored energy pulsed through my body, found the right muscles and bones to articulate their power, and flowed flawlessly. Mages practice for decades to manipulate energy through the correct muscles corresponding to the spell's demand. But the energy manifesting wings felt like muscles I’d always had. It was just a matter of breathing. I buffeted the air harder and soared beyond the mists, distracted by the bliss of flying. I laughed and dipped, flipped and spun, twirled and swam with the open air.
Then I remembered. ery short lasting, in the scroll's description, and tucked the wings in, shooting back down like an arrow.
“What was that?” a shout greeted me.
“Where’d he go?!”
“One of the Syndicate's!”
I circled above the roof and watched as a guard ran straight passed me, meeting up with the crossbowman. I even lowered myself just in arm’s reach of them. They couldn’t see or hear me at all.
“Alert Countess Selen’s men. I’ll clear the passageways. Go!” The two of them broke off into a sprint in opposite directions.
I took back to the air, unable to suppress the smirk on my lips.
The building fell away from me as I gained more altitude, and took to gliding. Men and women in armor swarmed the streets as I passed over the gates and battlements bordering the manor.
A few even had the sense to look up, but saw nothing.
It was then that I realized the world was illuminated as if by another sun. Every detail was finer. I saw insects climbing blades of grass on the lawn of the manor, and writhing flesh between the roots. I saw imperceptible dints in the armor of the patrols, despite their efforts to keep it spotless in the company of royalty. Everything was in such detail that my head swam.
When I looked beyond the manor, my jaw slackened at the majesty of mountain ranges previously lost to my eyes. There were nocturnal creatures roaming, stalking between trees, and owl eyes that gave me chills as they stared wide-eyed in my direction.
But just a few blocks before, when I looked down, I didn’t see clean walkways and impeccable architecture. I saw depravity, the evidence of recent murders, more homeless than I could count, and guards groping harlots drunkenly. I saw thatch homes crammed on streets too small to accommodate so many, and children running barefoot in the dead of winter, catching up on daily chores that could not afford to be done the next day.
This is why the Shadow Syndicate exists. They disrupt the imbalance.
I flew faster and began circling again, slowing to descend to the manor’s roof.
Then a wink of darkness, a lack of control. The wings faded as fast as they came. My senses returned to their previous dullness. Gravity welcomed me back into her cruel arms and wrenched me from the skies. We fly, we fall.
“Deafen!” I tore open the seal of a lesser scroll and prepared myself.
Did the roof reach up and slap me, or did my body slam against it?
I flipped, rolled, turned, somersaulted, vaulted, and bounced until the sky was the ground and my head was in my toes. Something in my pockets shattered. Bright flashes, explosions and smoke. I caught onto an eave just as my legs flew out into the open air, a drop fit for a giant scrambling the insides of my stomach. An odd warmth of blood sliding down my forehead.
Surprised bats shot out from beneath me, chittering and flapping off. Again, hanging by the thread of my chances, wondering what the Syndicate saw in an idiot.
Smoke wafted from my body, as if I was a demon who fell from the heavens. One last, tiny pop of the flash powder exploded in the air beneath me. Pieces of glass glittered away.
My smoke and flash powders …
Sheer pain and frustration pulled me up. Gods know it was not strength.
My thoughts were suddenly, incredibly loud. The hammering of my head from the impact were bells that I could not suffer without walking like a drunk. But everything else was muffled. My fingernails grating against the roof’s stone tiles produced nothing. There was a heavy wind, but my cloak’s wild flapping released no sound.
Two more scrolls, and a dagger. Not half an hour since I began, and I already spent my most valuable tools. As you can tell, I am a frugal thief.
In the Syndicate, if an objective becomes too unlikely, there is typically an option to abandon the task for another time. But on an examination, an attempt at perfection is to be demonstrated. I could abandon it now, and die. Or I could try, fail, and die.
Or ... I figured, as I searched for a trapdoor somewhere, that I might as well use whatever is left of the dice I threw, considering the next best option was awaiting my execution.
Isn’t motivation fun?
I tore off a strip of cloth from my cloak and tied it around the wound on my head before pulling the hood back up.
Do you remember what Sylphen said the night you met her? Orion asked me a few days ago.
I found a trapdoor, picked the lock, and descended into a musty attic filled with belongings that shone, even in the darkness, with the value of silver, gold, and elven metal.
She told me we were not merely family or friends, something between, right?
I glided my hand over a set of goblets, felt how smooth and polished they were. I touched a gilded music box, tapped an ivory handle that seemed to charge the mechanism upon turning it. Objects I could never even imagine.
There were people wondering how they were to feed their children each morning, and yet there are folks in this world who hoard the finest creations of the world away in attics as if they are balls of dust to be ignored.
Yes, but what else did she say?
Despite knowing the Syndicate would do whatever it took to find and kill me if I failed, I still felt they were on my side. Poverty has a way of binding people.
I don’t remember. It was a long night.
The music box was small enough to fit into the palm of my hand. I placed it inside one of my pockets, ignored the other mountains of heirlooms, and ventured down another set of stairs that led to a door.
Between the cracks, there was only darkness.
She told you that we’re not heroes or thieves. She meant that regardless of the organization we belong to, we are an individual. Our own life, our own blood, our own chance at happiness in a strange world. Don’t be bashful, she said. I’m telling you not to be bashful with life. Not to bother with doubts, or fears. They’ll kill you eventually, if you let them speak louder than your true instincts ... whether you're on an assignment or not. You show the world the most respect by being the bravest version of yourself.
I imagined the doorway Orion summoned to bring us into Sylph’s home, and pretended it was no different than this one.
“Fade,” I murmured to myself, drawing the energy from my calves. Shadow tendrils escaped from my body (a telltale sign of a poor practitioner). I forced them back in and through every limb, just as we practiced on the rainy street.
I became an intangible fragment of darkness. A walking shadow with no contours. A breath of fog lacking all substance.
I entered a ballroom of chandeliers, memorabilia and oddities in glass cases and stands. Ceilings that seemed to reach into the sky loomed over me.
Dizziness beat like a soft rhythm as the spell demanded more energy.
The nearest case contained sword fragments, describing the battle it came from and the wielder. Another one encased a severed hand stuck on a thick, metal pin. The outstretched fingers were violet and black, with torture wounds carved into the flesh. The label read: Necromancer Menthus’ Right Hand, 12th Member of the Sixth Order of Siflos’ Calling. Siflos is the father deity of Nocturos, his follower's often misconstrued as evil or nefarious, though they are no different from any other worshipper. My jaw strained as I looked at it.
The more I looked around, the more body parts I saw. Some were just scraps of flesh, some were bones arranged artistically, but many of them had no labels. Even if each one belonged to a criminal of some kind, the sickness was unjustified.
“Embody,” I murmured. The details of my body materialized again. I sighed and regained even breaths. It was the only illusion spell I could cast on demand with little to no mishaps.
There are many other basic ones involving distractions, mirrored bodies, or even familiars to assist in averting attention, that we looked at before the examination. But Orion advised mastering one spell rather than relying on the faulty functioning of a few.
“That man smokes too much nitskel, there I said it!” someone laughed as they pushed through the door I was reaching for. “Thieves on roofs who disappear the same instant they are found? I don’t get payed enough to investigate legends in the middle of the morning.”
“Fade!” I hissed and tumbled out of the doorway.
I bumped into a stand. A glass case wavered, laughed at me with a glint of moonlight, teetering.
I held my breath as I watched the glass begin to tilt. The dizziness returned. Legends, huh?
The other guard came through. Both appeared fairly unamused, one of them with a shockingly large stomach, and the other sauntering with thumbs hooked on his belt.
“Shocking. Not a thing to see,” he grumbled. “Let’s go. This room gives me chills every damned time.”
Choices presented themselves. My hand was outstretched, ready to catch the case. But what then? They’d leave the same way they came, and when they turned their heads, they’d see me instantly.
To the worms with that.
“Wait. Is that …”
I rushed behind the guards and waited as the bell-shaped covering turned on its side. The sound of the glass rim rotating against the wood echoed louder, and then ...
“What’s that noise?”
I pushed the door shut, readied my blade.
The glass fell and burst into starlight. They turned their heads towards it. Perfectly vulnerable.
I pulled the dagger across the first one’s neck, tossed him aside and jumped onto the other, covering his mouth as I severed his vocal chords.
There are moments in our lives, Orion once told me, when you don’t have time to wonder if you can do something. You have to get it right the first time around, or suffer for it.
I stared into him as I heard those words again, and let out the breath I’d been holding in since they came in. Somewhere between the two of them, something hot splattered across my face.
Humans are softer than I expected, was the first thing I thought.
But there was no point in thinking about what I’d done, not in that moment, anyways.
I huddled the bodies together a few steps from the walkway and broke the seal of the second scroll. “Concealment,” I murmured. A mirage like heat from a boiling street burned through the scroll, then shimmered over the bodies before it dissipated.
I turned my head away and looked back. It appeared as if they weren’t there at all. Even their blood pools.
My body count was already up, and I still hadn’t found the room with the Syndicate’s desired object: Countess Selen’s journal.
To make matters worse, the cut I made in my palm had left a trail of blood leading right to my feet. After the thrill of flying, I had forgotten about it completely. I tore off more fabric from my cloak, bound it, and prayed that the room wouldn’t be checked again.
I breathed deeply and stepped to the doorway they just came through. Onward.
“Fade,” I murmured, as I pulled it open.