Sneax owes "rent money" to Russitan Lassiter, a dangerous thug from the Docks District of the portside city of Wanderhaven. Desperate to avoid getting her ears cut off for failing to pay, she volunteers to help Lassiter with a shady deal up at the Old Church, only to discover that the deal involves a Fire Elf!
Sneax and her best friend, the apprentice mage Elaina Emboo, are put on lookout duty while Drax the Fire Elf and Lassiter finish their deal, but then they see torches approaching.
And now... Chapter 4: Torches in the Night.
Chapter 4: Torches in the Night
Elaina pulled Sneax's hand away from her face. “Holy crow! Is that torchlight?”
“Yeah,” Sneax replied. “But who in the world would be comin' up here on a night like this?”
“Half the town, it looks like,” Elaina replied. She pulled a small collapsible telescope from one of the pockets in her cloak. “But let's take a look.”
“Omigosh!” Sneax said. “I didn't know you had one of those. Is that thing magic?”
Elaina wanted to laugh, but she knew that if she did, it would hurt Sneax's feelings. Instead, she extended the telescope and put it to her eye. “No Sneax, it's not magic. See, the lenses on the ends curve the light to make it seem bigger when it hits my eye. It's a mundane effect, but still quite useful.”
Elaina shook her head. “Being a wizard is about a lot more than learning magic. It's about understanding the world and the way it works. Here, you take a look.”
Sneax put the telescope to her eye. “Wow! It's like they're right next to us. But that's—“
“Thorin Battleaxe. And it looks like he's got Melanie McGonagall from the Temple of Apollo with him—along with half the City Guard.” Elaina waited until Sneax put the telescope down, so that she had her friend's full attention. “We should get out of here, Sneax. We don't want to get involved in what's about to happen.”
“But we can't! “ Sneax said. She started to get up. “Russ'll cut off my ears if we don't warn him. I think he means it!”
“Russ is going to have a lot more to worry about than you once Thorin gets up here with those Guard troopers. Come on, let's just go.”
Sneax shook her head and grabbed Elaina's arm. “But I can't! Do you really think some stupid dwarf in battle armor is gonna be able to catch a guy like Russ Lassiter in a maze like this at night? I can't take the chance, Elaina. What if Russ gets away? He's gonna know we betrayed him.”
“But what can we do?”
“W-w-we can, uh... shoot up one of those sparkly thingies you're so good at! And then I'll go down there and try to lead ‘em away just like Russ said. That'll give Russ and that Draks some time to go... or do whatever else it is they need to do.”
“Sneax, that's crazy!”
“No,” Sneax said. “We can do this.”
Even in the dark, Elaina could see the desperation in Sneax's eyes.
“Fine,” Elaina said. “But I'm gonna regret this, I just know it.”
Elaina was mad, but there wasn’t much that Sneax could do about it. And in any event, Sneax figured that so long as they didn’t get caught, she could make it up to her friend later. Besides, what was the worst that could happen?
She slid down off the rubble of the Old Church’s roof, leaving Elaina in place to begin working the magic that would send up the flare to warn Lassiter. By now Sneax’s eyes had adjusted to the gloom—or maybe she was just used to working in it. Regardless, without having Elaina to worry about, Sneax fairly flew down the side of the rubble, descending in bounds across the jagged surface towards the light of the torches ahead. She leaped the last few feet and rolled, coming up behind a broken-topped pillar that was more than big enough to hide her from prying eyes. Her heart was hammering so loudly in her ears that it almost seemed like Thorin and his crew would hear it, but Sneax knew that there was no way that she’d been seen—not on a night this dark by men carrying torches. Even a dwarf like Thorin would struggle to see against torchlight that was that close to his eyes.
Crouched and hidden, Sneax pulled her sling from the back pocket of her dungarees. She loaded it with a small stone—barely more than a pebble since she didn’t actually want to hurt anyone—and waited. After only a moment, the roof of the Old Church began to glow with a weak, flickering kind of rainbow-colored light. Sneax knew that there was supposed to be thunder to go along with Elaina's spell, but the spell had obviously misfired.
“Come on, Elaina,” Sneax muttered to herself. “I really need that distraction about now...”
“What in the name of Hades?” Thorin’s voice said a few feet away. “’Ware men. It don't look like much, but there's s'pposed to be—“
Sneax rounded the column behind which she hid, sling spinning. She sighted the torchbearer and let fly in a single motion. The man holding the torch was standing next to Thorin, who even then was unlimbering his shield and trademark battleaxe. Sneax’s stone struck the burning torch squarely, knocking the thing from the surprised man’s hand and nearly setting Thorin’s beard on fire as it fell.
“Hey!” Thorin cried. “Watch that ye blasted—“
“Sir, it was struck! We’re under attack!”
“I knew it!” Thorin cried. “To arms, men! To arms!”
Uh oh, Sneak thought. Time to go.
Sneax dashed out into the night, running headlong towards the forest of stone that was the ruins of the Old Church. Behind her Thorin shouted orders, trying to get his men in order and after their attacker, and Sneax could hear Melanie McGonagallbehind him, calling to Apollo to light the way. As Guard troopers started moving, McGonagallraised her shield. The power of the Sun God shone forth like a beacon from MacGonaghal's now-enchanted shield. Night disappeared, washed away by the power of Apollo's light.
Just like that, Sneax knew they'd seen her. She dove headlong and scampered under a pile of rubble, searching frantically for shadows in ruins that were now lit up like midday. She shimmied under and around the stone obelisks, fighting her way back into the darkness where she could hide.
Guard troopers pursued, but behind them Sneax saw Thorin pause to confer with MacGonaghal. She couldn't hear what they were saying, but it was a good bet that they were trying to decide what to do. Thorin was apparently not ready to commit fully to the search for what at that point looked like a single minor threat, possibly accompanied by mage-light that could just as easily have been harmless natural faerie fire. No, something other than a potential search for two miscreant girls had brought Thorin and Melanie McGonagallup there that night, and whatever it was, a professional Guard commander like Thorin Battleaxe wasn't going to abandon his search for it just because of a few weird incidents. Sneax knew at that point that she could make good her escape, but that wasn't what she was trying to do. Lassiter might not have gotten away yet. Heck, since Elaina's spell had misfired, he might not have even noticed anything was going amiss from where he and the fire elf Draks were doing their obviously shady deal.
Sneax she loaded another stone in her sling and ducked forward. She slid to a halt behind another piece of broken temple stone only a few feet from the nearest guardsman. He was looking for her, but though he was close enough to touch her, it was obvious that he wasn't sure in which direction she'd gone.
Sneax waited until the guardsman looked away.
This was her chance.
She popped out from behind the ruins and let fly. Her stone shot out into the night.
Sneax's stone struck Thorin square in the head, right on the crown of his steel helmet. It didn't hurt him—Sneax could see that and was glad of it—but Thorin's face went from concerned but contemplative to thunderstruck and enraged in the span of two heartbeats. He roared in fury, and she was off again, running as hard as she could for the darkened ruins while the City Guard chased hot on her heels.
Once the decision was made, and it was too late to turn back or choose another, more considered course, Elaina Emboo started enjoying herself. From atop the ruins of the Old Church, she had a fine view of the action below. She saw Thorin and Melanie McGonagallarrive at the head of a column of City Guard soldiers, and behind her, she could—barely—make out the sounds of Lassiter's men killing time within the ruins themselves. And while she couldn't exactly see Sneax—Sneax was both tiny and a trained thief, and she could be virtually invisible when she wanted to be—Elaina knew where her friend was going and what she herself needed to do to help.
An apprentice mage doesn't get the chance to cut loose with magic very often. But this was one of those times, and Elaina wanted to make the most of it.
She started by preparing two spells at once and trying to trigger them simultaneously. The first was a simple wave of colored lights—a straightforward enough enchantment, but one that could be spectacular when cast in the dead of night when there was barely any moon. The spell itself was intended to disorient at close range, but over the centuries, wizards of all stripes had modified it for a variety of purposes, not the least of which was as an arcane enhancement to simple fireworks. To this, Elaina wanted to add only a single modification. She wanted to make it bigger.
But it was tricky. Twinned to the Color Wave, Elaina wanted to add a concussion blast— a massive one. However, in the heat of the moment, she got kind of carried away. With her focus split between the Color Wave spell and the Concussion Blast, she fumbled a little in the gestures of one of the spells, and while she could maybe have recovered if she'd been in a quiet classroom with plenty of decent light and a nice, clean place to work, atop the ruins of the Old Church in darkness, it was more than she could handle. Elaina's heart was already racing, and she rushed through, trying frantically to tie both spells together, but the harder she worked, the more they unraveled. She almost cried out in despair, but at the last minute she managed to pour everything she had into just the Color Wave spell, and it, at least, went off. Weakly, but still. The top of the Old Church erupted into colored lights, though not nearly the size or intensity that Elaina had wanted.
Still, it was enough only to briefly distract Thorin and his men.
After that Elaina was shaky and nervous and more than a little ready to go home. But down below Sneax had engaged the Guard with a few well-placed shots from her sling, and though no one was hurt, soon the chase was on in full. To make matters worse, Melanie McGonagallcast a spell of her own to light up the area around Sneax with the power of the Sun God, leaving Sneax with far fewer places to hide.
Sneax is going to be caught, Elaina thought. Oh! This is all my fault.
Elaina's heart hammered in her chest, and she couldn't think. She knew that her friend needed her, needed the distraction that she was supposed to provide, but all she could do was stare at the disaster unfolding below.
Get a grip, Elaina, she thought to herself. Calm down. Master Marconi always says that a wizard is calm in the face of adversity. Considered. Be calm and think.
Elaina took a deep breath. Slowly she began casting again.
Sneax was almost at the end of her race, and she knew it. She'd twisted and dodged and slid and hid for what seemed like an eternity. But there were now almost a dozen huge guardsmen after her, including Thorin Battleaxe, who was himself directing the chase. Sneax had managed to get away from nearly disastrous situations three separate times, but the ruins of the Old Church were only so big, and once the Guard caught up to her again, there wasn't another decent hiding spot close by.
As it was, Sneax hid beneath a bit of stairs out by where the ruins of the pillars had once given way to the main temple area itself. The pillars had once defined an avenue leading up to the sanctuary of the Old Church itself, but when the roof had fallen in on the old building, they'd been knocked every which way, leaving a virtual maze. In the darkness, this had seemed nearly impossible to navigate, and if it had still been dark, Sneax knew that she could have gotten away easily. However, Melanie MacGonaghal's spell had lit the night, and Sneax had reached the end of the maze. The only thing left was the actual ruins themselves, and Sneax couldn't afford to lead the Guard in there. First, that was where Lassiter and his men were. Second, Elaina was there.
So this was it. Sneax was hiding out for the last time, and when they finally caught up to her, she going to have to make up some kind of crazy story and hope for the best. Still, odds were she'd spend at least one night in jail on account of the fact that she'd pegged Thorin with a sling-stone. And if there was a fine, she was done for.
She looked out. The guardsmen still hadn't seen her, but it was obvious that they'd worked out where she had to be, and as she watched, they spread out in a skirmish line, looking warily towards the main section of the Old Church ruins. Thorin stood behind them with his shield out, but he'd stowed his axe and was using his free hand to direct his men. Sneax loaded another sling stone, though at that moment she wasn't exactly sure what she was going to do with it.
I guess I ought’a go down fighting, she thought. Come on, Elaina. Now's the time for that distraction we talked about.
On the roof of the Old Church, Elaina finally got her breathing under control. Her heart slowed.
This time, her spell-weave came together perfectly.
“There she is!”
One of the guardsmen saw Sneax, and she made ready to bolt. The others cried out and started running towards her, and Sneax ducked, but suddenly there were hands holding her in place.
“I've got her!”
“Hold her down!”
But then the Old Church erupted in arcane fire, and a sound like the Hammer of the Gods split the night, leaving Sneax's ears ringing. Suddenly nobody was looking at Sneax, and the hands that held her relaxed for just a fraction of a second.
That was all the time she needed.
Sneax squirmed free and dove, rolling between the feet of the confused and concussed guardsmen. Even Thorin Battleaxe was caught staring at the top of the Old Church and Elaina's magical display, and in that instant, Sneax let fly with her sling. Her stone flew true, striking Melanie McGonagallon the side of the head. Sneax winced—she like McGonagalla lot, after all—but McGonagallwent down like a cut tree. Instantly, Apollo's light went out, and Sneax was off running.
Thorin roared at his men, but by then it was too late. Sneax knew that even a dwarven guard captain wasn't going to catch her in those ruins at night.
Elaina ducked back behind the top of the Old Church roof after her spell went off. Still, she saw Sneax's sling-stone strike Melanie MacGonaghal, and when MacGonaghal's spell failed, Elaina knew that Sneax was going to get away.
She wasn't at all surprised when her friend appeared next to her atop the Old Church roof a few minutes later.
“Not a bad bit of distracting, if I do say so myself,” Elaina said.
Sneax patted her on the shoulder. “Your timing is perfect. Another moment and they'd have had me trussed up like a High Fair goose. Why, if I didn't know better, I'd say you were trying to... Wait! Do you hear that?”
Elaina heard yelling and then the distinct ring of metal on metal. “Fighting,” she said. “The Guard must have found Russ’s men.”
Sneax’s eyes went wide. “Come on!”
Sneax led Elaina down the side of the roof, moving as quickly as she could. But Elaina still couldn’t move very quickly in her mage’s robes, and if anything, it felt to Sneax like her friend’s night vision had gotten worse. Sneax was worried, but she knew that trying to get Elaina to hurry was only going to lead to a fall that, given how dark it was, could be very bad. So instead, she teetered along, seething with impatience but trying not to show it.
In the end, it was probably just as well. By the time Sneax and Elaina got there, the fighting was over. Still, Thorin and his men were wholly consumed by what had happened, so sneaking up on the action was so easy that even Elaina managed it without incident.
As they approached, Sneax saw that a couple of Thorin’s men had taken minor wounds. It looked like the wounds were mostly cuts, but to be fair, it was hard to judge in the moonlight, and in any event, Sneax couldn’t afford to get too close. Still, there was only one man who was actually down, and even he was seated and clearly breathing. One of Thorin’s men struggled with the buckles on the man’s armor while another was busy preparing bandages and a canteen of water.
Sneax could hear Thorin as they approached. “…darned fire elves!” he was saying. “When we got that tip down at the station, I was afraid it was gonna be somethin’ bad, but fire elves?! What’re fire elves doing in Wanderhaven? If word’a this gets out, it could start a panic.”
That was true. Fire elves were virtual bogeymen to the common folk of a place like Wanderhaven. In civilized circles they were known primarily for their penchant for human sacrifice. Supposedly, such sacrifices were required by Hephaestus, their evil god of fire. However, Sneax had also heard from some of less reputable but more well-traveled traders that she knew that fire elves were also supposed to be talented sailors and tradesmen. Still, there was a reason why a creature like Draks, who was terrifying but also obviously intelligent and fairly well-heeled, would deal with scum like Russ Lassiter. A guy like Lassiter was about the only person in Wanderhaven who’d have anything to do with a fire elf.
But the fire elves were Thorin’s concern. Sneax herself was more immediately worried about Lassiter—and whether or not he was going to try to cut off her ears for letting Thorin and his men get so close.
She backed away quietly, grabbing Elaina’s sleeve. “Come on,” she whispered. “And be quiet!”
The fighting had occurred perilously close to where Lassiter’s men had been stashed with the Distilled Tiger Essence. As she made her way back towards the center of the ruins, she started to worry about what she was going to find. Would Lassiter be mad at her? Would Draks be there waiting with his swords drawn? Would he try to sacrifice her to Hephaestus? Sneax wanted to run, wanted to catch a ship to parts unknown, but she felt like nothing would save her. There was no escaping Russ, and even if there was, what if he went after Elaina? Sneax couldn’t stand the thought of that. No, the only thing to do was to face up to it and to see what was what. And if Sneax lost one of her ears...
She shuddered. It didn’t even bear thinking about.
But when Sneax and Elaina got to the center of the ruins, no one was there. Lassiter’s men were gone, though even in the dark, Sneax could see where they’d been. Several burnt cigars littered the area, and there was one spot where blood stained the temple stone, though it wasn’t a lot. Of the fire elves, there was no sign whatsoever. Still, the fact that there was blood meant that there had been fighting here, and indeed, Sneax could still see the torchlight from Thorin’s men’s torches. About the only thing that was still left where it had been was Lassiter’s crate, the one that had carried the Distilled Tiger Essence.
Sneax looked closer, and her breath caught in her throat.
The crate was open.
The Distilled Tiger Essence was gone!