|This is my daughter Hannah's cover.|
Sneakatara Boatman was abandoned as a child by parents she never knew. She grew up at the orphanage within Apollo's temple down in Wanderhaven's Docks District. It was a tough life for a tiny girl with few ways to defend herself, and she lit out as soon as she was able. But life on the streets is no safer than it was back in the orphanage, and now the loathsome street criminal Russitan Lassiter has Sneax at his mercy.
Elaina Emboo is a rich girl from a nice family, but her controlling father has her entire life mapped out already. Elaina envies Sneax's freedom without truly understanding its cost. Still, she agree to help when Sneax asks her to head up to the old church to meet with Lassiter.
The Adventures of Sneax & Elaina Emboo
Part 1: Sneax & Elaina Emboo and the Fire Elf
Wanderhaven has been a port city for a very long time. In the days when single-masted longships plied the ocean's trade routes without ever leaving sight of land, the rocky headlands and natural cove on the eastern edge of the Western Isles were a natural landmark for sailors looking to gauge their progress or find shelter from approaching storms. The city’s harbor became a meeting point for seaborne merchants looking to trade goods, and a small community grew to support those for whom this once rocky and inhospitable island had become a frequent port of call. On the bluff overlooking the new port town, sailors paid homage to the gods they held in highest esteem—Poseidon, the patron of the sea, and Hades, the patron of fear and death. A great and mighty temple grew, and in time, Poseidon was adopted as the patron of not just the sea but of Wanderhaven itself.
But all things change. This is as true for sea travel as it is for the fickle faiths of men. The march of centuries saw the invention of new tools and new kinds of navigation. Men built first larger ships with heavier hulls and then smaller, nimbler ships with more masts and ever faster designs. Soon two- and three-masted caravels sliced through the water, carving new paths and opening new ports far from Wanderhaven, a place that once seemed remote but was now itself home to a great multitude—with more coming every day. Men tamed the seas and were seduced by their own brilliance, and the old faiths began to wither away. Poseidon was eclipsed by Apollo, the sun god, while Hades gave way to Athena, whose portfolio inspired the change that was the only constant in this now great city by the sea. The Old Church on the bluff fell into disrepair, all but forgotten by the teaming masses living at the water’s edge far below.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Elaina said. “Coming up here was a bad idea.”
The path leading up to the Old Church was steep and treacherous in the extreme, even in daylight. At night it was nearly impassable. Elaina slipped and then stumbled for what felt like the hundredth time. She nearly went down, but Sneax was watching closely, and even in the dark, she was able to catch Elaina before she tumbled headlong onto the rocks below.
“Don't be an old maid,” Sneax said. “You wanted adventure. This is an adventure.” She knew better than to let her own fear show.
“This is not an adventure,” Elaina replied. “This is insanity. It's as black as pitch, and we're rock climbing. Sneax, there's a reason why this place is called the 'old' church. It's so far out of town that no one comes up here anymore.”
That made Sneax smile. “No one but smugglers and thieves. The darkness hides their evil deeds.”
“Don’t be cute,” Elaina snapped.
“I can’t help it,” Sneax replied. “That’s just the way the gods made me.” She reached the top of the cliff and turned to help her friend the rest of the way up.
“I'm serious!” Elaina said, her voice echoing in the darkness. “Russitan Lassiter could slit our throats out here, and it’d be a week before anyone found the bodies. If that's not enough, the caves around here are supposed to lead down into goblin holes and worse!” Elaina finally reached the top. Sneax could see the fear in her eyes. “This is a bad idea, Sneax. We shouldn't be here.”
“And we wouldn't be. Not if there was any choice at all.”
Sneax felt bad for bringing Elaina with her, but she was also grateful for her friend's presence. Sneax wasn't sure if she could have faced Lassiter alone in a place like the Old Church. A girl like Sneax didn't have many friends, but Elaina had been there for her before—and would be again if Sneax had anything to say about it.
“Come on,” Sneax said. “The Old Church is just a little ways from here.”
Compared to the climb up the cliff, the rest of the trip was easy. An apprentice mage like Elaina could’ve summoned magic to light the way, but it went without saying that Lassiter had picked the Old Church as a meeting place because he didn't want his business attracting attention. Sneax had far better night vision than Elaina, so she led the way from the cliff, holding Elaina's hand to keep her from stumbling or making too much noise. Before they’d gone all of a hundred yards, the rocks along the path began to give way to larger stones—stones too large to have come simply from nature. In the dark, the ruins of the Old Church seemed to spring up suddenly all around them.
The place felt like a graveyard for giants. Massive time-weathered boulders grew out of the ground like broken tombstones, the detritus of centuries of worship and neglect. Sneax knew from prior visits that the roof that had once sat atop the main sanctuary had long since caved in, but where in daylight it looked like little more than a collapsed stone pile, under the light of the just risen half-moon, the place became a mausoleum for things that were better left forgotten. They were on level ground, but the footing was still tricky, and Sneax jumped when, behind her, Elaina went down in a rush of rustling skirts and outstretched hands. Sneax's knife was in her hand before she realized that her friend had merely stumbled. She helped Elaina up and started to put the knife away, but then a shadow loomed over the both of them.
“You better put that thing away before you hurt yourself, little girl,” Lassiter said. Behind him a half-dozen man-shaped shadows appeared from deeper in the gloom. Sneax didn't know whether to be relieved or frightened. “Whats'a matter?” Lassiter jibed, “You two look terrified. You too scared to come up here all by yourself, Sneakatara? Relax. This job'll be easy.”
From his pocket, Lassiter pulled out a small dimly glowing green stone. He turned and motioned to a couple of his men, and they stumbled forward, carrying what looked to be a heavy crate. They dropped the crate with a thump, and Lassiter leaned over, holding the stone close by the crate. Its magic didn't produce much light, but in the darkness, not much was needed.
DISTILLED TIGER ESSENSE—HANDLE WITH CARE
“You know what this is?” Lassiter asked.
“I do,” Elaina replied. She sounded braver than Sneax felt, and her voice held a hint of challenge in it. “Where'd you get it?”
Lassiter leered, and in the darkness it was terrifying. “I could tell you, girl, but then I'd have to kill you.”
“Why?” Sneax asked, suddenly afraid. “What's it do?”
“It has medicinal properties,” Elaina replied. “And a few, uh, more unsavory applications. It’s addictive, and if you use enough of it, you can use it as a poison. But the monks at Blackwater use it to treat wounds. That's how I know about it.”
“What it does ain't my concern,” Lassiter said, “and it ain't yours, neither. All you need to know is that I got a buyer for this here merchandise, and we don't need to be disturbed while the deal goes down. So you two get up there in them rocks and act all sneaky like,” he poked Sneax in the chest, “and if anybody shows up, you sling up some kind'a warning or somethin'. If you can, you lead 'em off, so’s they don’t disturb us.”
“That sounds easy enough,” Sneax said. “What's the catch?”
Lassiter snarled and grabbed Sneax by the ear again. “Catch is, you better not screw this up, girl, or I cut off your ear just like we talked about. Now none of your sass. Come on, I want you to meet the buyer. Then you two can get up in them rocks and do like I told you.” Lassiter turned to his bully boys. “You lot stay here and protect the crate. Don’t bring it over ‘til I whistle for it.”
Sneax swallowed, but she followed, and Elaina followed her. Lassiter led them back towards the gloomy shapes that marked the main part of the ruins and into a virtual maze of fallen stone plinths and assorted bits of rubble. Sneax was usually good with directions, but in the darkness she lost her way. Soon she wasn’t even sure which way was back towards town.
“You lost yet?” Lassiter asked.
“No,” Sneax lied. “’Course not.”
It didn’t sound convincing even to Sneax, and Lassiter chuckled. “Good. Now when we get up here, you two be real polite-like. Old Draks, he ain’t the friendliest sort. Don’t tolerate no lip the way I do. You two just keep your traps shut and let me do all the talkin’, you hear?”
Sneax nodded, but the gesture was lost in the darkness. Behind her, Elaina spoke up. “If all we are is look-outs, Russ, why do we even need to meet this Draks? I notice you didn’t bring your bullyboys.”
Lassiter whirled, and in the darkness his blade flashed. “Curiosity killed the cat, little mageling. Now I know I told you to shut your trap. You goin’ do it, or do I need to cut you some to get your attention?”
Elaina’s eyes got big, and she took a step back. Her mouth closed with a pop.
“That’s better,” Lassiter said. He smiled again, and his dagger disappeared.
Sneax let herself breath.
“Now, as to that, when you meet old Draks, maybe you’ll understand. I just want the man to know it’s all on the up-and-up, right? I figure, I better get all the players out where he can see ‘em, that way we ain’t got no misunderstandin’ later. You hear what I’m sayin’?” Lassiter turned and started walking again. “You will when you meet the man. You’ll see.”
He led them out of the ruins and up to the edge of the cliffs, to the edge furthest from town. The night was still dark, but by the time they reached their destination, the moon had risen higher in the sky, and Sneax could see a little more. She began to get her bearings. Directly below her, the cliffs fell away into an inky black infinity, but beyond that, she could see moonlight reflecting off the water of Great Island Bay. Wanderhaven’s lighthouse was lit in the distance, warning of the rocks that marked the southern edge of the city’s harbor. A breeze blew in off the water, and with it came a fresh, salt-filled breeze. For the first time in more than an hour, Sneax began to think they might survive.
Lassiter looked around. “Yo Draks! You out there?”
A cool, melodic voice sounded in the darkness. “I am here, Russitan Lassiter.”
Sneax whipped around, but there was nothing to see. Then a figure emerged, and she could only stare in horror. “Holy Apollo, God of Morning...” she muttered. “Russ, that’s a fire elf!”
It was. He was lithe and pale and smoothly graceful, and now that he’d allowed himself to be seen, his long red hair and finely woven clothes sparkled a little in the darkness. A wide-brimmed slouch hat with gold piping obscured the elf's face, but it hardly mattered. Sneax eyes were drawn to the elf’s hands—long fingered hands that rested coolly on the hilts of a pair of twinned longswords. These hung dangerously from a low-slung belt around the elf's waist. Even in the darkness, Sneax could tell that the belt’s buckle was made of pure, solid gold.
“I take it that these are your bodyguards?” Draks said, nodding at Sneax and Elaina. “Shall I call mine?” Draks didn’t wait for an answer. “You know, you surprise me, Russitan. I would have figured you for the kind of man who liked to keep a few hulking street brutes around. But these are exquisite. It's just... they look so young.”
“Th-they’re only the lookouts, Draks,” Lassiter replied. He sounded rattled, and somehow Sneax found herself even more unnerved than she had been before. “Just so’s you can see that we’re all on the up-and-up.”
“Even so,” Draks replied. He trailed a finger across the hilt of one of his longswords. “Surely we are not in any danger here?”
“Nah,” Lassiter said, “There ain't nothin' to worry about.” He tried to look nonchalant when he said it, but he couldn’t quite pull it off. He turned and looked down at Sneax. “Well, go on you two. Get to scoutin’.”
Sneax was only too happy to comply.
She led Elaina back into the ruins, but in light of their confrontation with Lassiter—and then with the fire elf, Draks—the Old Church didn't seem nearly as spooky as it had only a few minutes before. Where before the darkness had held mysteries that Sneax had been afraid to explore, now it was comforting. It hid her and Elaina from the very real dangers that she now knew were out there—dangers like that fire elf and his two longswords. Compared to the climb up from town, climbing up the side of the fallen roof of the Old Church was easy. The girls soon found a good lookout spot and settled in to wait.
A few minutes passed without comment. Sneax was pretty sure that Elaina was happy just to be alive. It didn’t last. Soon Sneax could feel Elaina staring at her.
“What?” she asked.
“You gonna tell me the deal here, or do I have to wait until old Draks over there decides to cut our hearts out, so he can serve us up the Fire God? If I’m gonna die out here, Sneax, I’d at least like to know why.”
Sneax sighed. She did not want to get into this.
Sneax couldn't meet Elaina’s eyes. “I owe Russ money—again. I owe him, like, a lot of money. This job is part of the payment.”
“I figured it was something like that,” Elaina said. “Sneax, you know you shouldn't be involved with a guy like Russitan Lassiter. I mean, look at the kinds of things he gets you into.”
“I know,” Sneax said miserably.
“Well, I guess it's too late now. How much do you owe him?”
“A lot,” Sneax said. “Believe me; I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't have to. It's... it's five silvers.”
“Five silvers!” Elaina exclaimed. “Five?!”
“Shhh!” Sneax whispered. “Are you crazy? We gotta be quiet.”
“Goddess Athena, Sneax!” Elaina cried. “We're doing all this because you owe five silvers? I have eight in my bag back at Master Marconi's laboratory, and that’s just because Father hasn’t paid me my allowance this week. I mean, five? Why didn't you just ask me for it?”
“Keep your voice down, alright?” Sneax said. “Gods! I don’t wanna take your money, Elaina. That’s the last thing I want. You don't know what it's like living out on the streets. I’ve gotta learn to make it on my own.”
“But you aren’t alone, Sneax. I’m right here with you.”
“I know. And if I’d’a known it was gonna be like this—”
“Save it,” Elaina replied. “Besides, if I hadn’t come tonight, I’d have missed the chance to meet that fire elf. Do you know how rare they are? As far as I'm concerned, it was worth it just for that. But Sneax, you can’t keep living like this. Someday you’re gonna get yourself—”
Sneax didn’t hear the rest because she clapped her hand over Elaina’s mouth. “Do you see that?!”