“Not ideal, but rules are rules. Dagger?”
Orion sighed, flipped out a small, sheathed dagger, the blade slightly longer than his hand. “I guess we never went to a blacksmith during our training weeks, eh?”
That fact never struck me. 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 put 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. I also just wanted this night to be over; the sooner I started it, the sooner the nightmare 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 objectives with real people, real objects to steal, and very real danger. As a result, the Syndicate designs a single item that can be used in a pinch, and each thief gets a different kind, supposedly based on their personality.
“Headmaster … the letter told me not to tell you.”
“To the worms with that. We’re alone here. What is it?”
Some people receive weaponry, or mechanical equipment of some kind. And some people …
“It’s another 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 burns up when you use it. With luck, you can keep it for another task after you’ve passed the examination.”
“If I pass the examination.”
“No. We don’t speak like that. Do you know 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.
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 hung, 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.”
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 fourth story of a chapel of Nocturos—the god of ill deeds.
I landed on an adjacent building’s roof and rolled to break the fall, jumping into a sprint, tossing glances to the empty 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:
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 savory. 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 rabid squirrel.
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 wouldn’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 slipped on a black mask and caught my breath after I cleared the last gap.
A crouching demon on the steeple of Nocturos’ chapel shone behind me in the distance. Headmaster Orion’s silhouette was still there.
I turned back toward the manor.
Beneath me, the streets were lit by torches, with guards strolling lazily through their rounds.
Streets are dangerous. Syndicate uniforms are designed to complement illusion spells, blend with shadows, but on the ground, they’re indiscreet.
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 away. 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 quietly 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 armies. People shouting. More arrows. One of them caught the fabric of my half cloak and tore clean through.
The sound of a crossbow bolt firing screeched at the air.
Intuition wailed. I lunged forward to dodge it. My foot caught on a loose stone as it crazed the leather armor under my cloak. I was thrust forward towards a gaping crevice.
One of my hands caught on the roof’s edge, already slipping to the last digits of my fingers, the knuckles white with pain and screaming. 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.
“He’s as good as dead!” the crossbowman said nearby as he neared the edge.
I found the countermeasure in my coat with my left hand. But that begged the question: how do I get the blood to come out?
The guard peeked over the edge.
I let go and took out Orion’s dagger.
I’d never cut myself before, but I needed the blood as fast as it could come, and gashed my palm. The wind tore through my hair and clothes. Darkness seemed to howl through me. Blood spattered my face and got into my mouth as I screamed, “Narev!”
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.
They felt like muscles I’d always had.
I broke through the haze, and shared a moment with the moon, before remembering my purpose, and plummeting back through the impossibly white and ethereal layer of clouds.
“What was that?”
“Where’d he go?!”
“A thief of the Syndicate!”
I circled above the roof and watched as a guard cleared the gap and ran straight passed me, meeting up with the crossbowman. I even lowered myself, nearly dropping back to my feet, 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 buffeted 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 through the night air. Men and women in armor swarmed the streets in search of me 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 slivers 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 animals dancing about in the freedom of their domain, 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 folks strolling peacefully. 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.
This is why the Shadow Syndicate exists. They disrupt the imbalance.
I flew faster and began circling again, preparing to swoop to the manor’s roof.
Just as I was descending, there was a flash.
My senses returned to their dull state. Gravity welcomed me back into her cruel arms and wrenched me from the skies.
“Deafen!” I said as I tore open the seal of a lesser scroll.
I slammed into the roof.
I flipped, rolled, turned, somersaulted, vaulted, and bounced until the sky was the ground and my head was in my toes. Something in my coat pockets shattered. Bright flashes and 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, and warm blood flowing down my forehead.
Surprised bats shot out from beneath me, chittering and flapping off.
Smoke wafted from my body, as if I was a demon falling 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.
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. Barely half an hour since I began, and I already spent my most valuable tools. As you can tell, I am very frugal.
In the Syndicate, if an objective becomes too unlikely, there is typically an option to abandon the task for another time. I did not have such luxury. I could abandon it now, and die. Or I could try, fail, and die.
I figured, as I searched for a trapdoor somewhere, that I might as well use whatever slim chances I have, 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 ourselves. 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.
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 feet. Shadow tendrils seeped out of my palms. I pushed them back into my body 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 runes carved into the flesh. The label read: Necromancer Menthus’ Right Hand, 12th Member of the Sixth Order of Siflos’ Calling.
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 a few other basic ones, involving distractions, mirrored bodies, or even familiars to assist in averting attention, that were taught before the examination… but Orion advised that mastering one spell was better than tossing the dice with a handful I could not rely on.
“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 waited for it to fall. 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 began turning 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, unsheathed my dagger.
The glass fell and burst into starlight. They turned their heads towards it. Perfectly vulnerable.
I pulled the blade across the first one’s neck, tossed him aside and tore into 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 dissipating.
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. 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. Onward.
“Fade,” I murmured, as I pulled it open.
Nocturos seemed to have a crush on me. The door had muffled the sound of the glass shattering, and the hallways I crept through were more or less empty, save for spiders nestled in their homes, and a mouse that scurried by and scared me witless.
Then, voices pricked my ears, and the sound of leather soles sifting on the ground. Just as hall was going to diverge to two others, a pair of patrolmen turned and went down the corridor on the right. I followed. Their outfits seemed more regal, the armor in sparse quantities while more fabric carried the blue and silver of Countess Selen’s family colors.
“What about the display room?” one of them asked. I kept my distance.
“Jakob and Caleb went.”
I winced. I didn’t want to hear their names.
“Haven’t seen ‘em come back,” the other responded. “Think we should find them, see if they found anything?”
I strengthened the spell for good measure, but my vision blurred as a result. The flames from one of their torches became an amorphous glow, and my feet lost their sure step.
“Nah, they can handle themselves. Smart lads, just lazy. They must’ve cleared the chamber and gone back to bed with nothing to report. Let’s tell the Countess and check the other chambers.”
A lead to the Countess? Some hope returned. I drew in a long, deep breath, and thanked Nocturos silently. Now prove yourself. You are nothing more than a shadow. A dim figure in the corner of the eye lost in a passing glance. A silent breath of wind that takes without any greeting nor farewell.
The guards walked at a brisk pace—thankfully. I could feel my strength to keep the spell up wearing off. If it became anymore dire, I’d have to find a dark corner, perhaps a storage room, to wait in until the panic died down, and do the rest of the job as Orion liked to call ‘the raw and less glamorous way’. That is, with no magick. Unless I found something to eat …
“Think there’s anything to this?” the guard on the left asked.
“Ah, it’s hard to say. The Syndicate took from the Elner family decades ago, when I was still green here and you were just a lad, I reckon. It’s not beyond the stars to think they’d do it again.”
“What did they steal?”
“I don’t know. No one ever told us.”
“Can’t have been much, then. They never stole from the vaults?”
“Quiet, now. No one needs to be hearing about those. I told you about them in confidence.”
The guards suddenly stopped.
One knocked on a door with silver vines decorating the sides. “Countess Selen, we’ve news to report.”
The door opened, and a woman in armor matching the guards’ appeared. Her keen eyes were narrowed in judgement, boasting a hue like old embers. “That would be Countess Elner to you. Only I call her that.”
“Oh, Captain—” The guards’ posture improved dramatically.
“Spit it out. I need you out there, searching.”
I realized I would not have another chance at getting inside the room, not if I didn’t want it to be painfully obvious that a ghost was opening the door. I’d have to slip in while they talked.
Each heartbeat was accompanied by a twinge of pain. The spell was leeching from the last stores of my energy; each intake of breath was a broken promise to my body that we would rest by the next one.
“The display room is clear, as well as the main hall connecting the dining chambers. All secure, nothing out of place.”
Keeping a lesser spell going is like running. You lessen its strength to recover, the way you would slow your pace to catch some breath, but regardless how many times you adjust your speed, eventually there comes a limit. Upon meeting it, you must simply stop, or risk losing consciousness. Too much strain on untrained muscles will atrophy them, too.
“But did you examine the storage rooms on either side of the halls?”
I had one last push in me. It had to happen soon.
“W-well …” the guardsman averted his gaze.
She thrust open the door to let her fury out.
“You dimwits …!” she began.
Sometimes you don’t have time to wonder if you can do something …
I funneled the last of my strength into the spell, crouching between her, them, and the door, inching through. The fabric of my cloak caught on my foot, and I fell into the room, right on my ass.
“… you think this is a game? Be thorough, for gods’ sakes! Do the rounds until you find something.”
I could feel my body wavering between material and immaterial. I all but crawled from the bedroom as I heard the Captain’s chastisement finish with a slam of the door.
The light in the room seemed to dim as I heard the first of the Captain’s tangent. The Countess was on her bed, writing into something, nodding and murmuring ‘oh gods’ or ‘yes, yes’ with the distant attention you’d expect of someone who gets her meals served on platters more expensive than most homes.
I think if Orion saw me then, he’d be laughing hysterically, and then perhaps crying, because I was certainly dead to the world, dragging myself along the floor to the opposite room, just barely out of their view.
The adjacent room held a desk with more drawers than I cared to count, nestled between gilded mirrors and walking closets. No candles were lit, but moonlight beamed from the windowsill, lending the room a glow of turquoise. If anyone had been inside, they would have seen me. Yet again, luck turned a blind eye to my blind stupidity.
I stole a look behind me at their shadows dancing on the ground, and risked that the hinges of one of the walking closets were quiet.
The moment I shut the door behind me, I let out a gasp, and the world slipped away. They say that when a spell forcefully fades, even when the caster’s will is trying to prolong it, that you’ll be too exhausted to cast another for at least an hour.
Fading, fading, fading. Embody, embody, embody. How can the shadowsteps do this every time so flawlessly?
There hasn’t been a thief of the Syndicate executed in over a century. Trainees die quite often, but I counted myself as one of the shadowsteps already. I wouldn’t let myself slander the Syndicate’s name; even if it came down to dying.
I dug my nails into the wound on my palm, infuriated. The pain boiled and kept me awake.
The image of the Countess came back to me.
She had been writing.
As if I didn’t already know, I checked the contents of my pockets. How empty they were …
Do I really deserve to be one of them? The thieves of legends?
I pulled my knees to my chin, thinking of the two men I killed.
They were guarding a corrupt and wealthy family. They were guilty too, weren’t they?
But I found my vision blurred, and soon what had built up was flowing down my cheeks. I cupped my hand over my mouth and tried not to shake. I smeared the tears away until no more came. Maybe it wasn’t so farfetched how my brother became executed. I was here, after all, hanging on the precipice of death, clutching a few protruding rocks keeping me alive, while they crumbled, ready to let me fall.
Then something burned deep within the folds of my clothes.
I searched through my pockets, past the music box, and the last scroll.
There it was, folded, nestled in one of the innermost, smallest pockets.
The address of the woman who stopped me on the street, who saw through my spell. The rain had spattered her handwriting, but it was still legible.
With the candlelight coming through the cracks, I read the address until it was locked in my mind. Then I pushed the note into the wound of my palm and until the numbers and letters were a smudge of blood and ink.
I will find her again, if only to share some tea.
I grasped my palm tighter, and let my eyelids rest.