Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Adventures of Sneax & Elaina Emboo (Part 5)

Our Story So Far:
Sneakatara Boatman was abandoned as a child by parents she never knew.  Life in the orphanage was tough for a tiny girl with few ways to defend herself, so she lit out as soon as she was able.  But the streets of Docks District are no safer than life was at the orphanage, and now the loathsome street criminal Russitan Lassiter has Sneax at his mercy.

Elaina Emboo is a rich girl from a merchant family, but her controlling father already has her entire life mapped out.  Elaina envies Sneax's freedom without truly understanding its costs.  Still, she agree to help when Sneax asks her to head up to the Old Church to meet with Lassiter.  

Sneax and Elaina get the scare of their lives when they realize that Lassiter has an appointment with Draks, the fire elf.  

Then things start getting crazy...

The Adventures of Sneax & Elaina Emboo
Part 1: Sneax & Elaina Emboo and the Fire Elf
Chapter 5

By the time Sneax and Elaina got back to the Docks, the sky had begun to lighten over Great Island Bay.  Fog rolled in off the water, turning the area around the wharf into a damp grey soup through which the masts of the trading caravels could barely be glimpsed.  They looked like tree trunks seen through a blanket of gossamer.  Though it was early, there were still sailors up and about.  Rough voices shouted orders from within the fog; rough hands scrambled to load cargo and make ready to sail.  Here and there teamsters with mule teams struggled with loads of goods 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 floating out of the mist.
Sneax wasn’t sure what to do.  She had no idea what had happened to Russitan Lassiter, and she wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing or a bad one.  The Distilled Tiger Essence was gone, to where she didn’t know.  A part of her hoped that old Draks had killed Lassiter during the confusion, but unfortunately, Lassiter was a survivor.  Sneax knew that he’d reappear sooner or later, and when he did, he’d be looking for her ears because of the way the night's deal had gone down.  And that was just Russ.  The gods of Olympus 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.  What if he decided to sacrifice Sneax and Elaina to Hephaestus, his hideous fire god?
Sneax was pretty sure he could do it.
“The only thing to do,” she said, “is to find the Distilled Tiger Essence.  Then we’ll have something to bargain with.”
“What?” Elaina asked.  She looked exhausted.  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 McGonagall.  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 on the streets, I’ll be no better off than I am right now.  
“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?  Thorin Battleaxe’s men weren’t a match for old Draks and company.  Those fire elves cut up the Guard as easy as could be, and then they just disappeared.  Poof!  Like smoke on the wind.  If they decide to come after us, we won’t even see them coming.”
“How do you know the fire elves didn’t take the Distilled Tiger Essence for themselves?” Elaina countered.  “Maybe you’re worried about nothing, Sneax.”
“Maybe,” Sneax said.  “But if that’s true, then where’s Russ?  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?  I don’t hear any celebratin’ in the taverns, do you?”  Sneax shook her head.  “No, something happened, 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 that 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.”
Sneax didn’t see.  She climbed up to the roof of the Golden Ox and settled into her cubbyhole, but she couldn’t rest.  The mist in the air turned to a slow drizzle that slowly soaked her to the bone.  She huddled deeper into her cubbyhole and shivered, but even tired as she was, it was all she could do just to close her eyes.  Every time she tried, she saw Lassiter standing there, eyes hard, dagger ready.
You were s’pposed to keep watch, girl.  You were s’pposed to warn us if there was trouble.  But you didn’t do that, did you?  And now you goin’ pay.
A long time passed before Sneax got any sleep at all.
Sneax had told Elaina to get some sleep, but Elaina’s life was never as easy as Sneax seemed to want to believe.  Elaina had responsibilities.  Master Marconi would expect Elaina to be ready for her lessons, and Elaina’s father would demand that she do at least some of her chores later in the day.  Being homeless might not always be pleasant, but it was a lifestyle that afforded Sneax a degree of freedom that Elaina could only envy.
It took all of the sneakiness that Elaina possessed—along with a carefully crafted Invisibility spell—for Elaina to sneak back into her parents’ house unobserved.  She couldn’t very well tell her parents that she’d been out all night with Sneakatara, nor could she mention that the City Guard had gotten involved, and that wasn’t even half of what had happened.  If Elaina’s father ever found out that his only daughter been working for Russitan Lassiter and that fire elves had gotten involved, he’d have Elaina in a convent before sunset the following day.  Elaina would be cloistered away with the nuns of Hestia, never to be seen again.
That didn’t happen.  Elaina managed to get back to her room and sleep for an hour, and afterwards she felt better.  It helped when she found the recipe for a Potion of Wakefulness in Master Marconi’s notes from the previous semester, and though she was tired, she managed to mix the potion in under an hour.  This was maybe not as good as if she’d had a real night’s sleep, but the prospect of Master Marconi’s lessons was less daunting than it might have been.  
As she hurried off to her lessons, Elaina couldn’t help thinking about what her tutor had said to her the previous day—that if she really wanted to help Sneax, she needed to convince her to move back into the Temple of Apollo.  Elaina knew that Sneax wouldn’t like hearing that, but if things continued as they were, who knew where Sneax would wind up?  Sneax was bright—in her own way—and she was fun, but she was out of control.  Elaina’s best friend was only fourteen years old, and already she was living on the streets, fighting with gangsters, and getting into trouble with the law on a regular basis.  If nothing changed, Sneax would be lucky to live to adulthood.
Elaina sighed.  
I have to do something.  Right now I need to be there for Sneax, but after this is over, I’m going to see Melanie McGonagall.
Elaina felt better after she’d made her decision.  She headed into her lessons determined to be the best student she could be.
When they met later that evening, Sneax was in a panic.  Elaina herself had barely made it through her lessons with Master Marconi—he’d chided her endlessly and then decided that she must be coming down with something, whereupon he’d immediately dismissed her with orders to get some rest—and though she’d managed to get a few more hours of sleep, she still felt tired and muddle-headed.  When she looked at Sneax, however, she saw that her own problems paled in comparison.  There was still no sign of Lassiter, but the City Guard was out in force, and word had gotten out on the streets about the fight with the fire elves up at the Old Church the previous night.  Sneax was convinced that either Lassiter or Draks was going to jump out of every shadow, and there was enough nervousness on the streets to make it seem like a distinct possibility.  Everywhere Elaina looked, the sailors seemed edgy and subdued.  They traveled in groups and were far less rowdy than usual.  Between rumors of fire elves and the overwhelming presence of the Guard out in the streets, the normally freewheeling atmosphere of Docks Ward was gone.  It made Sneax’s nervousness contagious.
There were brothers from the Blackwater Monastery out with the City Guard, augmenting their patrols.  Elaina didn’t see her brother, but the monks’ presence gave Sneax an idea about what was happening.  “Thorin Battleaxe’s men must’ve confiscated the Distilled Tiger Essence.  In fact, I’ll bet the Tiger Essence came from Blackwater in the first place.  Why else would the monks get involved?”
Elaina could think of several reasons—the monks were all trained combatants for one thing, so maybe the Guard had simply hired them as augmentees—but she decided not to argue the point.  She said simply, “I don’t understand how that helps us, Sneax.”
“It’s simple,” Sneax replied.  “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 is insane,” Elaina said.  She should’ve gone to Melanie McGonagall for help earlier that afternoon, she realized, but it was too late 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.  I just wanna survive tonight.”
“I’m doing this, Elaina.  With or without your help.”
“Come on, Sneax—”
“Don’t,” Sneax said.  “I get what you’re trying to say, I do.  But it's not the same for me.  My life is complicated.  I’ll worry about tomorrow when it gets here, okay?”
Reluctantly, Elaina nodded.  “Fine.  But I still don’t like this, Sneax.  Not at all.”
“You don’t have to like it, Elaina.  In fact, you don’t even have to come if you don’t want to.”
“No,” Elaina replied.  “I’ve come this far.  I’m not going to abandon you now.”
Sneax understood Elaina’s point of view, but it didn’t change anything.  Maybe Sneax had made a mess of things, but she was where she was, and the only thing to do now was to keep going forward.  Breaking into the Guard headquarters was insane, but Sneax didn’t see another way, not if she wanted to keep her ears.  She had to find that Distilled Tiger Essence, or she’d have no way to bargain with Lassiter when he eventually came for her.  It was as simple as that.
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 or so along the 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 leaded glass, and though Sneax didn't know for sure, she suspected that they locked from the inside.  That presented a challenge, but she didn’t see a better way into the building.  The alternative was to try either the front door or the rear, and both were guarded.  With the Guard on High Alert because of the fire elves, sneaking in would be even harder than usual.  The front door was set behind a massive stone fence that enclosed a public courtyard, currently occupied by what looked like at least a full squad of Guardsmen.  Even if Sneax got past them all, the door itself was a massive oak affair, banded with black iron, and it was closed.  
The front door was not much of an option.
The back door was better, being just a simple—if heavy—oak door cut into the back of the headquarters building, and Sneax might've considered some kind of diversion that would get her past the one bored and lonely-looking guard who was normally stationed there.  With the Guard on High Alert, though, there were now three Guardsmen standing at the back door, and they all looked alert and ready.  If Sneax wanted to go in that way, she'd need one heck of a diversion.  Elaina could maybe provide that kind of diversion, but then the guards would know something was up, and Sneax knew she’d be far better off if she got in undetected.  Once she found the Distilled Tiger Essence, she was going to need a head start if she wanted to get away with all of it.
“I think I need to climb the side of the building and go in through one of the upper-level portholes,” Sneax said.  She gave Elaina her best smile.  “Thorin's office is on the top floor.  Any chance you can magic me up there somehow?”
“Sneax, I still don't know about this,” Elaina said.  “I mean, this isn’t like stealing a pie from some baker’s wife.”
“You said you were going to help.”
“Elaina, please!”
“Fine,” Elaina replied.  “Let’s try this…”  
She grabbed Sneax by the shoulders and spoke some kind of magical spell-word.  Sneax immediately felt lighter.  Quicker.  More airy somehow.
“I've cast a Lightness spell on you.  Master Marconi sells them to the teamsters down by the docks.  It helps them move heavy loads.  But in your case, since you barely weigh anything to begin with, the Lightness spell ought to help you climb that wall as quick as a cat.  How you're gonna get past all those guards…  That part I don't know.”
“Don’t worry about the guards,” Sneax said.  She smiled again.  “Thanks Elaina.  You're a real friend.”
“Don't I know it,” Elaina replied.  “Just hurry back, Sneax.  I don't like this, not one bit.”
“Don't worry,” Sneax said.  “I can handle myself.  You'll see.”
She turned and looked back at the headquarters.  She and Elaina were hidden in an alley about a half mile from Sneax's cubbyhole at the Golden Ox.  From there, she could see the building clearly.  She could also see what Elaina was worried about.  The headquarters was in the middle of a public square with wide, cobblestone streets surrounding it on all sides.  High Street, one of Wanderhaven's main thoroughfares, ran right in front of the headquarters’ front courtyard, and even at midnight there was occasional foot and horse traffic.  The side streets were a little better, but there were still oil lamps lit at intervals along the square, and there were periodic Guard patrols wandering around looking for trouble—more than usual, given the state that the city itself was in.
And yet… it wasn't as bad as it could have been.  The back streets of Docks Ward were a maze of alleyways, often little more than paved footpaths through the urban sprawl of the city’s oldest, densest neighborhood.  Development ran right up to the edge of the square where the headquarters sat, which was why Sneax and Elaina hadn't had trouble finding an alley from which to observe the building itself.  There were plenty of Guardsmen out patrolling, but Sneax could see that most of them were bored and trying to look busy more than actively patrolling.  That made sense.  Who expected anything bad to happen this close to the Guard’s headquarters?
Sneax wanted to laugh.
She set herself and watched for a few minutes, waiting until just after a Guard patrol passed.  Then she darted out into the street.  A pair of oil lamps were set some twenty yards apart along the nearest side of the headquarters.  But the night was dark, and even with the lamps, there were plenty of shadows where Sneax could hide.  She was only three feet tall; it wasn't like she needed a lot of space to disappear.  Soon she sat at the base of the headquarters building.  No one had seen her, she was sure of it.  She turned and looked up, considered the building above her for the first time.  The third level portholes were maybe thirty feet up—a short climb by Sneax’s usual standards.  She moved to start climbing and realized that the building’s bricks were so closely set that there were barely an handholds.  She tried a couple of times to find purchase with her fingers, but even with the Lightness spell, she couldn't get a decent grip.  Then she heard voices coming from around the corner, and she knew she was out of time.  
Sneax tried to think, but the Guardsmen were getting closer.  Any second now, and they’d see her.  She was about to dash back to where Elaina was hiding, but she realized it was too late for that.  The Guardsmen had wandered too close.  If she moved back into the light, they’d see her for sure.  In desperation, she turned and looked up at the building.  Her legs bunched under her, and she jumped, hoping against hope that she’d reach a hand hold that she couldn’t see.
The Lightness spell worked even better than she’d been expecting.  Propelled by her jump, Sneax’s tiny body sailed high into the air.  The stone wall shot past, and she slid by first one porthole and then another.  She had to actually reach out and grab the third floor porthole just to keep from going over the building’s roof!
Sneax got lucky.  She didn’t know who worked in the third floor office where she’d landed, but they’d left their porthole open.  It was only a crack, but Sneak had no trouble prying the thing open further and shimmying through.
She was inside—safe, sound, and undetected.
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, it deflated again when she thought of the things she’d helped her friend do.  Foil the City Guard as it tried to apprehend Russitan Lassiter and a bunch of fire elves.  Break into the Guard’s own headquarters building.  Contribute in general terms to the mayhem of the city itself.
Elaina couldn’t help being a little upset with herself.  This was not the career she wanted.  Perhaps she ought to contact Melanie McGonagall while 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 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, little mageling, or is Sneakatara somewhere around here, too?”
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