Our story so far:
Sneax owes "rent money" to Russitan Lassiter, a dangerous thug from the Docks District of the port 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 over a valuable alchemical substance called Distilled Tiger Essense. But then they see torches approaching. This turns out to be the Wanderhaven City Guard. But while Sneax and Elaina succeed in distracting the Guardsmen, by the time they get back to Lassiter, the Distilled Tiger Essence is gone!
And now... Chapter 5: Breaking In.
By the time Sneax and Elaina got back to the Docks, the sky had begun to lighten over the Breagan Sea. Fog had rolled in off the water, turning the Docks themselves into a damp grey soup through which the masts of trading caravels could be glimpsed, though barely—like the trunks of trees seen through a blanket of gossamer. Still, sailors were up and about. Rough voices shouted orders from around the wharf while rough hands scrambled to load cargo and make ready. Here and there teamsters struggled with loads for those looking to weigh anchor on the morning tide. Through all of this Sneax and Elaina slunk back unseen, two wraiths moving through an ocean of fog, molested only by the voices of workers coming out of the mist.
Sneax wasn’t sure what to do. She had no idea what had happened to Russitan Lassiter, and frankly, she wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing or bad. The Distilled Tiger Essence was gone, to where she didn’t know, and for all that she might hope that the fire elf Draks had finished Lassiter off, the truth was that Lassiter was a survivor. Sneax just knew that sooner or later he’d reappear, and when he did, he’d be looking for her ears because of the way the night's deal had gone wrong.
And that was only Russ. The gods of Olympus themselves couldn’t predict what Draks would do if he decided to make trouble. But Sneax was pretty sure that she didn’t want to find out. Best case scenario was that he’d sacrifice Sneax and Elaina to Hephaestus, his hideous fire god.
Sneax shuddered just thinking about it.
“The only thing to do,” she said aloud, “is to find the Distilled Tiger Essence. Then we’ll have something to bargain with.”
“What?” Elaina asked. She looked exhausted, and the idea of more adventure did not seem to appeal.
“We have to, Elaina. Otherwise, when Russ comes after us, we won’t have any way to bargain for our lives. He’ll cut off my ears for sure! And you… well, I don’t know what he’ll do to you, but I know it won’t be good.”
“What we have to do, Sneax, is go to the City Guard. Or maybe to Melanie MacGonaghal. This has all gone way too far. Somebody’s gonna get killed!”
“The Guard’s not gonna protect me, Elaina,” Sneax said. “You, sure. Your dad’s a big-time merchant, and they’ll look after you, no problem. But me they’ll throw straight into lock-up, or worse! Heck, even if they just put me right back out on the streets, I’ll still be no better off than I am now.
“And besides, you saw what happened tonight. The Guard might be able to protect us from Russ Lassiter and his boys, but what about those fire elves? Even Thorin Battleaxe’s men weren’t a match for Old Draks and company. Those fire elves cut up the Guard as easy as pie, and then they just disappeared. If they come after us…” Sneax let that thought hang in the air.
“How do you know the fire elves didn’t take the Distilled Tiger Essence?” Elaina countered. “Maybe you’re worried about nothing, Sneax.”
“Maybe,” Sneax said. “But if that’s true, where’s Lassiter? After a romp like that, don’t you think old Russ would be down here crowing about it if he’d brought it off without a hitch? But I don’t hear any celebratin’ in the taverns, do you?” Sneax shook her head. “No, something happened last night, Elaina. Something bad.”
“Like what?” Elaina said. “And what can we do about it?”
Sneax shrugged. “I don’t know. But you look done in. Why don’t you go get some sleep, and I’ll meet you back here tomorrow night. We’ll figure it out then.”
“Fine,” Elaina said. Sneax could see she was suppressing a yawn. “But I think you mean tonight. ‘Cause it’s already tomorrow. And anyway, this’ll all look better by then. You’ll see.”
But Sneax didn’t see. After Elaina had gone, she climbed up to the roof of the Gilded Ox and settled into her favorite cubbyhole. But even as tired as she was, it was all she could do just to close her eyes. Because every time she did, she saw Lassiter standing there with his eyes set hard and his dagger ready.
You were s’pposed to keep watch, little girl. You were s’pposed to warn us if there was any trouble. But you didn’t do that, did you? And now you’re gonna pay.
With thoughts like that, it was a long time before Sneax got any sleep.
It was all well and good for Sneax to tell Elaina that she needed to get some sleep, but the fact was that Elaina couldn’t just sleep through the day the way Sneax could. Elaina had lessons she had to attend to, responsibilities that her father and Master Marconi expected her to carry out. As it was, it took all of the sneakiness that Elaina possessed—and an Invisibility spell, to boot—just for Elaina to sneak back into her house unobserved. After all, she couldn’t very well tell her parents that she’d been out all night with a homeless street urchin fighting the City Guard and a pack of fire elves!
Still, she managed to get back to her room and sleep a little, and that helped. To be fair, though, it helped more when she found the recipe for a Potion of Wakefulness in Master Marconi’s notes from the previous semester. Even tired, it didn’t take her long to mix up the potion, and after she’d taken it, she felt better. Maybe not as good as she’d have felt with a real night’s sleep, but at least the prospect of Master Marconi’s lessons was a little less daunting.
As she hurried off, though, Elaina couldn’t help remembering what Master Marconi had said about Sneax the previous day—that if Elaina really wanted to help her friend, what she needed to do was to get Sneax to move back into the Temple of Apollo under the care of Melanie MacGonaghal. Elaina knew that Sneax wouldn’t like hearing that, but then again, if things continued as they were, who knew where Sneax would wind up? Sneax was bright, and she was fun, but for as much as those were the things that Elaina loved about her, Elaina also knew that Sneax was out of control.
She had to act, and she knew it, but the fact was that she didn’t want to.
Well, she thought, I don’t have to act right now. Right now I just have to be there for Sneax. And then, if tonight is another disaster like last night was, then I’ll go to Melanie McGonagalland ask for her help.
Satisfied, Elaina knocked on Master Marconi’s door. Now all I have to do is survive today’s lessons.
By the time they met later that evening, Elaina could see that Sneax was in something of a panic. Elaina herself had barely survived her lessons with Master Marconi, and besides that, she felt muddle-headed with fatigue, but just looking at Sneax, she could see that her own problems paled in comparison to her friend’s state of mind. There was still no sign of Lassiter, but the City Guard was out in force, and the word had gotten out on the streets about the fight with the fire elves up at the Old Church the night before. Sneax was convinced that either Lassiter or Draks was going to jump out of every shadow and cut off her ears, and truth be told, there was enough nervousness on the streets that it did seem possible. Everywhere that Elaina looked, the sailors out on the docks looked edgy and subdued. They traveled in groups and seemed a lot less rowdy than was the norm for working men carousing in a port town. Definitely, the rumors of fire elves and the overwhelming presence of the Guard out on the streets were having an impact on the normally freewheeling atmosphere of the Docks.
The only good thing in any of that was that there were brothers from the Blackwinter Monastery out with the City Guard, augmenting their patrols. As she told Elaina when they met latter that night, the Blackwinter presence led Sneax to think that she knew what was going on.
“Thorin Battleaxe’s men must’ve confiscated the Distilled Tiger Essence last night. That’s the only thing that makes any sense. Why else would the monks from Blackwinter get involved?”
Elaina could think of several reasons just off the top of her head—the monks were all trained martial combatants for one thing, so maybe the Guard had hired them as limited-time augmentees—but she decided not to argue. Instead she said, “I don’t understand how that helps us, Sneax.”
“It’s simple,” Sneax said. “All we have to do is wait until midnight and then break into the Guard headquarters and steal the Distilled Tiger Essence back from Thorin and his men. Then Russ won’t have an excuse to cut off my ears!”
“That’s insane,” Elaina said. All at once, she knew that she should have gone to Melanie McGonagallfor help earlier that afternoon. But it was too late for that now. “Sneax, are you listening to yourself? We can’t break into the Guard’s headquarters. There’s no way we’ll get away with it! Besides, even if we could, it’s not like Russ needs an excuse to hurt you. The man is a thug. We’ve got to get you away from him—that’s the only thing that’ll keep you safe in the long run.”
Sneax sighed. “I'm not worried about the long run, Elaina. Right now, I just want to survive tonight.”
“I’m doing this, Elaina.”
“Come on, Sneax—“
“Don’t,” Sneax said. “I get what you’re trying to say, Elaina. I really do. But it's not the same for me. And tomorrow? I’ll worry about that then, alright?”
Reluctantly, Elaina nodded. “I still don’t like this, Sneax.”
“You don’t have to like it, Elaina. In fact, you don’t even have to come if you don’t want to.”
Sneax didn't understand why Elaina was suddenly being all prissy, but the truth was that it didn't matter. Her friend was with her, and despite her bravado from a few moments before, Elaina’s presence meant a lot to Sneax. She might've acted tough, but truth was, she wasn't at all sure that she could've pulled off something like a heist from the Guard Headquarters without at least the moral support of her best friend.
But Elaina was quite a bit more help than moral support. Guards were thick on the streets of Wanderhaven that night, but while Sneax still had little trouble avoiding them as they approached the Headquarters, it was Elaina's magic that kept their steps silent during that approach. And it was Elaina's magic that was the key to breaking in.
The Headquarters building itself was a large, squat three-story building made from huge yellow stone bricks. There were portholes for windows cut every ten feet along outer walls, but these were small, and Sneax knew from experience that the inside of the building could be stifling in the summertime. The portholes were lined with thick panes of real glass, and though Sneax didn't know this for sure, she suspected that they locked from the inside. Still, she reckoned that the portholes were the easiest way into the building. The alternative was to try either the front door or the rear, and both were guarded routinely. With the Guard on High Alert, there were even more guards out than usual. Moreover, the front door itself was behind a massive stone fence that enclosed a public courtyard, currently occupied by what looked like at least a full squad of Guardsmen. And even if Sneax managed to get past all of them, the front door itself was a massive affair made from cut oak and banded black iron, and it was closed. It was probably locked, too.
In short, the front door was not much of an option.
The back door was better, being basically just a simple—if heavy—oak door cut into the back of the building that was the Headquarters, and ordinarily Sneax might've considered some kind of diversion that would get her past the one bored and lonely-looking guard who was generally stationed there. However, with the Guard on High Alert, there were three Guardsmen stationed at that back door on that particular night, meaning that if Sneax was going to go in the back, she'd need one heck of a diversion to get them all off of that door. Elaina could maybe do that, but then the guards would know that something was up, and Sneax knew she’d be far better off if she could get in undetected.
“I think I need to climb the side of the building and go in through one of the upper-level portholes,” Sneax told Elaina. She looked at her friend and smiled her best smile. “Thorin's office is up on the top floor. Any chance you can help magic me up there somehow?”
“Sneax, I still don't know about this,” Elaina said. But even so, Sneax could see that Elaina was thinking about it.
After a moment, her friend seemed to come to some kind of decision. “Fine,” Elaina said at last. “Here.” And then she spoke some kind of magical word that Sneax couldn't quite grasp.
Immediately, Sneax felt lighter. Quicker. More airy somehow.
Elaina said, “I've cast a Lightness spell on you. Master Marconi sells them to the teamsters down by the docks—it helps them move heavy equipment. But in your case, since you barely weigh anything to begin with, the Lightness spell ought to help you climb up that wall as quick as a cat. But how you're gonna get past all those guards between us and the Headquarters… that part I don't know.”
“Don’t worry about those guards,” Sneax said. She smiled. “Thanks Elaina. You're a real friend.”
“Don't I know it,” Elaina replied. But she still looked worried. “Just hurry back, Sneax. I still don't like this.”
“Don't worry,” Sneax said. “I can handle it. You'll see.”
Sneax turned and looked back at the Headquarters building. From where she and Elaina were hidden, in an alley about a half mile from Sneax's cubbyhole at the Gilded Ox, she could see the Headquarters just fine. But she could also see what Elaina was worried about. The Headquarters itself was in the middle of a large public square with wide, cobblestone streets surrounding it on all sides. In fact, High Street, one of Wanderhaven's main city thoroughfares, ran right in front of the Headquarters building's front courtyard. Even at midnight, there was more than occasional foot and even horse traffic passing by. The side streets were a little better, but the Headquarters still had oil lamps at intervals all along the square in which it sat, and there were periodic Guard patrols wandering around looking for trouble in the area—more than usual, given the state that the city itself was in.
Still, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. For one thing, the back streets of Wanderhaven were a maze of alleyways and worse—what amounted to little more than paved footpaths through the urban sprawl of some of the city’s closest-set neighborhoods. This kind of close development ran right up to the edge of the square where the Guard Headquarters sat, which is why Sneax and Elaina hadn't had any trouble finding an alley from which to observe the building itself. Moreover, though there were plenty of Guardsmen out patrolling, the fact was, Sneax could see that most of them were bored and basically just trying to look busy. That made sense, of course. Who expected anything bad to happen this close to the actual headquarters of the City Guard?
It was almost funny.
Sneax waited until a Guard patrol passed, and then she darted out into the street. A pair of oil lamps were set about twenty meters apart along that side of the Headquarters building, but the night was dark, and even with the oil lamps burning brightly, there were still plenty of shadows in which Sneax could hide. After all, she was only three feet tall; it wasn't like she needed a lot of shadow. Soon she was set at the base of the Headquarters building. No one had seen her, she was sure. She turned and looked up, considering the building above her seriously for the first time. The third level portholes were maybe thirty feet up, a short climb all things considered, but the building itself was made from cut stone, and there were barely any handholds. Sneax tried a couple of times to find purchase with her fingers, but even with the Lightness spell, she just couldn't get a decent enough grip. Then she heard voices coming from around the corner and knew that she was almost out of time.
Sneax tried to think, but the Guardsmen were getting closer. Any minute now, and they’d see her.
She was about to dash back to where Elaina was hiding, but then she realized that it was too late for that, too. The Guardsmen had wandered too close. If she moved back into the light now, they’d see her for sure. In desperation, Sneax turned and looked up at the building. Her legs bunched under her, and she jumped, hoping against hope to reach a hand hold that she couldn’t see or… something.
But the Lightness spell was even better than that. Sneax’s little body sailed high into the air. The stone wall of the Headquarters building passed by as she ascended, and she passed first one porthole and then another. She actually had to reach out and grab the third floor porthole to keep from going over the building’s roof!
At that point, Sneax got lucky. Whoever worked on the third floor where she’d landed, they’d left their porthole open. Granted, it was only a crack, but Sneak had no trouble prying the window open further and shimmying through. A minute later she was inside—safe, sound, and undetected.
Outside, Elaina watched Sneax with a mix of pride and trepidation. Pride because here she was, little more than an apprentice mage, and she’d been able to use her magic to help her friend, not once but many times over the past day-and-a-half. But even as her pride swelled, she deflated again when she thought of the things she’d used her magic to help her friend do. Foil the City Guard as it tried to apprehend Russitan Lassiter and a bunch of fire elves. Aid Sneax in breaking into the Guard’s headquarters. Generally contribute to the mischief in the city of Wanderhaven itself.
Elaina sighed. This was not the career that she’d wanted for herself.
Perhaps she ought to contact Melanie McGonagallwhile Sneax was gone? Before she could do that, though, she heard an unpleasantly familiar voice come up behind her.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t the little mageling,” Lassiter said. He boiled up out of the shadows like a ghost—as sneaky in his own way as Sneax was but twice as dangerous. “Are you out here all alone, or is Sneakatara somewhere around here, too, little mageling?”