by Ryan Walraven
“We’re not going to die up here, are we?” I stare at a mossy stone and pretend not to be too concerned.
“Of course not.” He cackles like some sort of bird.
“People say it’s dangerous up here. That there are monsters.”
“And you believe them?” He raises a bushy grey eyebrow at me. “Besides, do you think I hired you for your company? It’s not very good.”
I glare. It would be easy to stab this guy right now, take his stuff, and turn back. The forest around us is thick. Maybe no one would hear. Granted, I’ve been getting to know him over the past few days and he isn’t bad. His coffee is good, anyway.
But besides that, I hate the woods. There’s too much danger and nothing worth stealing. Why take the risk?
I finger the knife at my belt. “It’s dark and we didn’t bring a single lantern or torch.”
“Never you mind, my dear.” I can sense his ugly grin from behind his back. He just keeps doddering his way up the stairs. How his old limbs can move that fast, I don’t know. I officially decide for the fifth time that there’s no way I can trust this guy, but then he makes a move.
From deep in the pockets of his robes he pulls out an artifact I’ve never seen before. It makes a sound like ‘snick!’ and then the top of his staff is ablaze with flame. As quickly as it appeared the thing is gone again, but the staff is still blazing.
“What was that?” I cross my arms again.
He grins and waves the staff playfully in the air. “A tool, a tool.” Heheh. “Nothing more.” Every time I think I’ve got this guy figured out, he does something new and weird.
What is going on? And how can I get ahold of that thing? “Looked like magic to me.”
He laughs. Heheheh. “No such thing. Why do commoners insist on believing in such superstition?”
I point at the flames.
He pauses mid-step, turns to raise that bushy eyebrow at me, glances at the flames, then back to me. “What? You’ve never seen fire before?”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Five days ago
Should I pickpocket this guy or not? My knapsack is practically jingling with coins but I’ve got my eye on this oaf of a merchant down the road and can’t resist. The way he’s doddering along, pocket swaying with money, I know he’s gonna be a good find. Lucrative, Dans would call him. A rube. A real steal.
I tousle my hair one more time, scuff my boot just a little more in the mud, and hunch over as I slink into the market crowd. From every side come the shouts of merchants, the smells of roasting meat and fish, and the blazing colors of silks and carpets. I’m just another orphan girl milling in the cacophony. Invisible.
In my good hand, I wield my knife like it’s part of my body.
Up ahead, the oaf is wobbling back and forth in front of a wine seller, his bald crown shining in the sun. No way I can lose him now. I slink closer, pretending I’m observing a stand selling persimmons and pears, though my focus is entirely on the coins weighing down this guy’s pockets.
Then there I am, right behind him. I can smell the sweat and powder on his back. My knife reaches in close to his cloak and…
OOOF! I’m knocked to the ground. I try to scramble to my feet, but a hand grabs my neck.
Air tries to get in. Tries. Words try to escape my mouth. Help! Murder! Rape! You know the plan. Scare him into dropping me. Shock the crowd and run away. But I can’t. The air won’t come or go. Blood is rushing to my head and I can tell I must be turning red. My head feels like a pimple, ready to pop.
It must be a city guard. They’re a bunch of thugs, the whole group of ‘em. This could be trouble.
Meanwhile, clouds are covering the sun. Just my luck, no one’s going to see. It’s getting darker. Autumn flurries, maybe. An early storm. An eclipse…
OOOOF! I drop again, but this time I’m free. My vision is back along with a throbbing headache and meanwhile the fat man is gone.
I whirl, knife in hand, a snarl on my lips, ready to fight or flee, and then I see the tall form of Dans looming over me.
“Almost had a big score there, didn’t yah girl?”
“You idiot,” I rasp, my voice hoarse like a smoker’s. I’m trying to get to my feet to hit him, but my legs are wobbly.
“Tsk tsk. So angry.” He crosses his arms, looking down at me. “Well I had a big score today. Comon. Let me tell you about it.”
I get to my legs finally, head light, and hitch my skirts up. “Psh. This better be good. What did you get?”
“It’s not what I got, little one. It’s what I sold.”
I shoot him a sharp glance as we turn into an alley. He’s acting odd. Something’s up.
I begin to whirl in place, but he laughs again and brings a fist crashing down on my head. This time, I actually black out.
You can’t trust anyone in this city.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“So explain the fire.” I push past the old man and begin to climb the mossy steps in the orange twilight of the flames. Leaves crunch beneath my feet and the only other sound around us is the chirp of crickets. “If there’s always an explanation, why do you hide things from me? You said we need to trust each other.”
I may not trust him, but I do know how to push his buttons. It’s essential in my line of work.
His footsteps echo slowly behind me as the stairway opens into a clearing. Around us lie crumbled statues and enormous trees. Paths veer off to either side, but according to the librarians the direction we’ve got to keep going is up. Ahead of us, another stair leads up from a door in the cliff, but it’s blocked by a rusty gate.
“Fine, fine,” he says, his voice high and cracking. He pulls a lockpick from somewhere in his robes and starts to go to work on the gate. Somehow I know to take the staff from his hand at just the right moment. It’s weighty and feels expensive. Might be worth trying to pawn back in town.
The pick is scraping in the lock but he’s talking at the same time. “It’s a chemical reaction started by metals in the fire-device.”
“A what?” Somehow, this always happens. If I pry and push, people just spout nonsense I don’t understand.
“I told you already. Learning these things takes time.”
I scratch the scars along my arm. “Try harder, then.”
He sighs and curses, though it’s unclear whether it’s at me or the lock. “There are many very tiny things in the wood, the air, and my tools. In everything around us. When combined together in the right way, in the way the fire likes, the fire comes to life.”
“Sounds like magic to me.”
He curses again.
“Here.” I push him aside and force the staff back into his hands. His body feels as light as a scarecrow inside his robes and I can tell by the way he glowers at me that he’s annoyed.
I don’t care. Time to show him what he paid me for.
My legs may be scrawny, but this gate is older than my grandmother. I give it a hard kick, the way the boys and I do when we come to a rotten door, and sure enough something snaps and the gate creaks open.
“Very good!” He giggles and pushes the gate. It gives a screech that must be audible all the way back in town, I think. Maybe that’s a sign that it’s too soon to stab him, too.
We promised to be quiet, but I doubt anyone is coming up here to complain. No one comes up here if they can help it. They know better.
For a moment, it looks like I’ll be back in my element, inside a building, but the stair leads us up through the cliff and out into the woods again. We crunch through thickening leaves, up a cobblestone path I can’t see but can feel beneath my feet, and push up the hill. Overhead in the gloom, a raven caws and takes off from a tree. The forest seems to grow still. What a place to come looking for a book.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Four Days Ago
The first thing I feel when I wake is the ache in my bad arm. The pale white flesh where the infection set in when I was just an infant. It’s always this way when I wake up.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” says this ancient, squeaking voice. “I told him to be careful!” Heheheh.
Sure you did. I try to roll over. My vision is a little blurry and my head is throbbing, but that’s fine. It’s all part of the plan. Pretend to be weak, fool the old guy – probably some weirdo from up North who likes little girls – then hit him and get out of here.
He chuckles as he watches. “Such thieves are all alike.” Heheh. “Unpredictable!” His voice is so annoying. “They can’t be trusted to use discretion.” He clucks his tongue.
I wobble out of the chair and to my feet and the picture starts to become clear. I’m in a candlelit room full of books and an old man in a red cloak is observing me from a tall-backed chair. A librarian? Hah. This should be easy.
I can’t see his eyes, but I see his brown, toothy grin. Now’s the time. I can feel it. My arms tense; my legs are like springs.
I leap to the tabletop and my hand shoots to the dagger at my belt. I’m going to take this guy out, maybe snatch a few things while I’m at it, then sneak out of here via the nearest window.
Only something goes wrong. My feet miss the table. There’s also no knife on my belt. As I’m falling, I hear his chair slide back. Admittedly, I might have miscalculated a little. The fall seems to last forever as I’m waiting for my head to crack on the floor.
But it doesn’t. He’s got my arm and another hand at my back. My eyes go wide. “You’re fast.” My voice comes out weak. “For an old guy.” So much for the act.
That toothy grin again. I can smell his breath, old and smoky like goat jerky. No stench of alcohol, though. No wine or curdled ox milk. There might be a slight hint of coffee. “Maybe.”
He eases me back into a chair, then returns to his seat. “Please, please relax. This isn’t what you are thinking.”
He lifts a plaster mug and takes a sip. Definitely coffee. I must be slipping. I point at it. “I want some.”
“Thieves! You always act as if everything belongs to you.”
“I’m not a thief!”
He laughs again, shaking his head, and I can feel my face turning red.
“The preferred term is treasure hunter, fel.”
He nods as he gets up and pours another cup from a purple vase. “But of course, but of course.”
With shaking hands, he delivers the cup to me.
“You’re not a librarian.” I say, glancing around the room one more time.
He hobbles back to his chair, slow now, like a regular old man. Is he acting too?
“No no no. I’m a collector!”
“A collector. Hmmm.” I hold the mug between my hands and stare into the brown liquid. “A collector of what?”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The wind roars through the pines overhead and I can smell the sap dripping around us.
“Why is this book so valuable?” I can’t help but pry. It’s in my nature.
Heheh. “I told you already! Knowledge. Information.”
“Information? They’ve locked it away, or lost it or whatever, with a dozen locks protecting the vault, all because of information.”
“Yes, yes. It’s the information that’s valuable, not the book.”
This is dumb. Who would pay good coin for a moldy book? Thinking about it, I can almost taste the rot on the needles and leaves under our feet. This whole venture is probably a mistake. “How? How can it be so valuable?”
“A thief like you must understand.”
“Treasure hunter,” I growl, though my voice sounds feminine and annoyed in the quiet gloom.
“With the right information, one can get anything. Anything they want!” He turns and eyes me with his head tilted sideways. “Even fire from air. Phwish!” He spreads him fingers and pretends to create fire between his hands.
Magic. I mull on it as we trudge along in silence. Two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been caught dead in the woods. Well, maybe that’s the only way I’d be found here.
The thing is, this whole place feels like magic. And I don’t mean ‘heal you quick’ or ‘start a fight magic.’ I mean bad magic. The gnarled trees, the jagged runes carved into rocks, the cold wind, and the ever-deepening quiet feel all too unnatural. There’s something about this dark beyond the edge of town that could hide anything, things worse than the stories and fairytales. With every step, I’m getting more nervous.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Four Days Ago
The coffee hits my mouth like a bolt of lighting. Have I ever had a real cup of coffee before?
He’s nodding and smiling at me with his brown and yellow teeth. “Good, good. Drink up. You need your strength.” Heheh.
I look up, my eyes narrowed. “Hey. Don’t just ignore my question. What do you collect?”
He points a shaky hand at one book case, then another, then another, until I finally get fed up.
“OK, ok. I get it. So you are a librarian.”
His head is shaking side. “No I’m not.”
My face scrunches up. This is like talking to a 5 year old. “So what are we doing here?”
He scans the spotted back of his hand. “I’m going to be honest with you.” Under his hood, his eyes narrow. “But you have to agree to trust me.”
“Of course,” I say. It’s an easy lie.
“I came to the library here because I’m looking for a very valuable tome.”
Now he’s speaking my language. “How valuable?”
His eyes seem to sparkle in the candle light. “Priceless.”
I get it now. He needs an accomplice. But why me? I hunch over a little more in my chair and shift my withered arm closer to my body. Feigning weakness is an important skill for a young woman.
“So you chose me?”
He nods. “Do you know why?”
“Because you need a th… a treasure hunter. An accomplice. A good one.”
He cackles at me.
Ugh, I’m sick of this. I can’t help myself. I burst from my chair and push back from the table, turning to leave. I’ll just have to get that book from him later.
“And because you have no fear.”
I stop midstep. What is that supposed to mean?
“How would you know that?”
Magic. I glare, but he’s got my attention.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The lingering issue here is that I still don’t trust him or this place he’s brought me too. I know my way around a storeroom and how to find the good stuff inside someone’s house. I’ve scavenged beneath the ruins in town and snuck mutton from the kitchen at the inn, but this is different. He may have paid half in advance, but I’m still not sure it’s worth it. Or that he really just needs me to ‘lend a hand.’
“We’re getting closer,” he says as we reach a courtyard, bordered by four looming pillars with gargoyles on top. As if it wasn’t hard to see already, a mist is beginning to settle over the woods.
“Closer to what?”
“Shh.” He holds a hand up to stop me. “You’re too loud. Too young.”
“What?” I shake my head, then wait.
In the silence that follows I can hear the crackle of the flames. He shifts the staff around, illuminating the foggy darkness. Overhead, bats take off from the trees and squeak away into the night.
“Away, away little ones!” he says with a giggle. How crazy is this guy? Maybe his whole plan is to kill me.
My heart starts to thump in my chest and I take a few steps back. He’s peering around the pillars now, clucking his tongue. It’s like he’s checking for witnesses. Animal witnesses, but still.
That’s when it happens. There’s a rumbling growl from between the trees to our right and what looks like a giant toad shifting in the shadows. I don’t even get a good look at the thing before it strikes, knocking me to my back. In a flash, it’s on top of me, this slimy, green monster, its breath like swamp gas in my face. Long fingers curl around my head and I can feel its tongue wrapping around my neck. I’m probably going to die and all I can think is, ‘isn’t this how this all started?’
Then the world turns orange. The thing is writhing away from me as the collector sweeps his staff through the air and jabs the monster with the fiery end. If that staff’s not magic, I don’t know what magic is.
I push myself onto my elbow and watch as little frogs dance and hop around me like sparks. There are literally frogs sprouting from this things body.
The creature swings its long arms like swords, raking at the old man’s face, but he keeps it at bay with the staff, pushing if further and further away until it recedes into the shadows. I have no clue how he moves so fast when he needs to. Finally, the thing croaks and bounds off into the woods, thumping through the brush and scaring crows from the trees. It’s gone, but maybe not for long.
I sigh and try to catch my breath. That was a close one. I run a hand across my face and groan. Another headache is coming on.
The old man hobbles over and lowers a hand to me.
As I take it and get to my feet, my head thumps like a drum and I taste blood in my mouth. “Thanks.”
“Eh,” he croaks, sounding a little like a frog himself.
“I wasn’t sure…”
“That I’d save you?”
I nod and glance away. Maybe this guy is more than just an doddering old book collector.
“There’s worse than him in these woods. Much worse.” Heheh. “Trust me.” For the first time since I’ve met him, I do. He turns and continues up the path, but not without clucking his tongue at me. “You’ve got to be quicker.”
I almost die, and that’s what he’s got to say? I glance back down the path and continue returning to the village. But the thing is, he’s right. I’m getting outpaced by an old man. This is sad.
I instinctively reach down and feel the dagger at my belt. How did I get so careless? It’s one thing to watch for guards in the market or thieves in the back alleys, to fight off the older kid who wants your half-rotten apple. It’s another thing to keep your cool underneath a giant bug-eater. I groan, rubbing the welt on the back of my head, kick the nearest frog off the path, and follow behind. Adventures are stupid, but this one isn’t over yet.
I take a breath and remember what he said when we first met. That I was fearless. That was the first time I had felt proud in… in a long time. I’ve got to see this through.
But it’s hard not to be paranoid now. Overhead, the moon is rising and casting pale light on the forest. Around us, the ruins are thickening as the vines and underbrush thin. Stone tablets and heads of old statues litter the side of the path. I swear, one of them looks like a frog. Either I’m seeing things or the old gods must have been strange creatures.
“I never knew…”
“That monsters were real?” Heheheheh.
I shrug. My heart is still pounding in my chest and each step my feet feel a little more wobbly. “I mean, sure, I’ve seen the trophies hanging in the tavern.
“Thought they were from somewhere far away, did you?”
“They always do.” Heheheh.
My hand is staying on my dagger from now on.
Luckily, it’s not long before an old building rises out of the trees and mist. It’s stone facade has a tree growing out of it, but the door is still there, a gaping mouth in the side of the mountain. That’s not a figure of speech, either. The stone around it is shaped like a screaming face.
“So this is it.”
He nods and laughs. “It is.”
My heart is pounding even faster now. “What if?”
“Then we fight.” Heheh. Without saying anything more, he holds the staff aloft and walk through the temple door. Am I fearless enough to follow?
I draw my dagger from its sheath and follow into the dark.