A Most Unusual Guardian
By Aaron Canton
There was little light in the vault hallway, except for the glowing sigils carved into the walls at various intervals. The patterns on the floor tiles were almost invisible in the murkiness of the hall, and Jadie could barely make them out even when she crouched. A faint breeze blew in from a few ventilation shafts, but there was no hope of entrance or exit via those; all had fine meshes of threads across their openings that were charmed to blast alarms if even a single one was cut. There were concealed traps in the walls and the floors, more alarms set to go off every few feet if there was too much light or sound or any of a dozen other signs of intrusion, and even if Jadie made it all the way to the far end, she’d have to defeat the toughest door she’d ever gone up against: a massive metal slab with both a magical and a physical lock that had to be flipped simultaneously or the alarms would fire. And then, of course, once she dealt with Gerard, she’d have to beat every trap all over again in order to get out.
She let out a soft sigh and looked behind her at the door out of the vault. Getting onto the Renatta grounds had been as easy as scaling the fence and dodging the guard patrols, but breaking through the upper door which led down to the vault hallway had taken about thirty minutes of intermittent lock-picking mixed with ducking behind hedges so that passing guards didn’t see her. That alone would have specified this vault as one of her hardest missions yet. But this hallway was something else entirely, especially since she barely had any tools to work with, and the thought of turning around and leaving was feeling awfully attractive.
“But I have to try,” she muttered to herself, opening her backpack and setting one of her few tools—a large, heavy rock she’d stolen from a local garden—onto the ground behind her. “Violet needs me.” She took a deep breath. “Let’s go.” She took one step forward—she heard something thrum around her, some magical system gearing up as it registered her presence and began counting down the seconds until it concluded she was taking so long she must be a thief—and she nodded to herself as her ordeal began.
Her vines extended out of her sleeves and dropped to just above the ground, then swept back and forth over the tiles in front of her. The plants moved lightly, with as little pressure as Jadie could manage, but also quickly enough that they made soft swishing noises as they passed over the stones. One tile wiggled a little and Jadie yanked back that vine, hoping she hadn’t set off what was probably a pressure plate; the one next to it held firm, so Jadie pushed down harder with the vine. It remained still, which was promising, and normally Jadie would have then run another test with a heavier plant or rock—but she was on the clock and had already bled enough time on this one tile that she couldn’t waste more. So she tensed, took another deep breath, forced herself to step onto the stable tile…
And nothing happened.
But there were still many more tiles to go, and that was just in this one section.
Jadie turned, pulled the heavy stone onto the tile she’d just vacated, and swept the stones in front of her again until she found another safe one. Unfortunately, she couldn’t just test all the tiles by dropping the heavy stone on them, as that would set off alarms and summon guards; nor could she test any tile at all with the thoroughness she wanted for fear of running out of time. All she could do was control her plants as tightly as she could, sweeping over the ground in front of her without wasting a single second and rushing forward as soon as she thought she had a safe square. She made her way through the second tile, then the third, fourth, and fifth, and Jadie let herself think she might beat this first section without trouble.
Then Jadie stepped onto a plate that she’d swept, but instead of supporting her weight like she expected, it moved downwards.
There was no clearance to jump away, and if Jadie tried to just yank her leg back she’d overbalance and fall across several tiles, setting off the alarms for sure. So instead, she snapped her wrist and sent the vines back at the heavy stone one tile behind her. They wrapped around it immediately and yanked her backwards against it, securing her on the tile she knew was safe and getting her off the trapped one before the alarm went off. For a moment, she could do nothing but tense up, sure the slight pressure she’d applied to the trapped tile had set off an alarm, but nothing happened, and she realized she’d gotten off of it in time. Still, sweat was pouring off her forehead, and she wanted nothing more than to collapse somewhere and nap.
But there was no time, so she made herself keep going.
It took just a few minutes for her to reach what her architectural plans said was the end of the section, though it felt like much longer, and Jadie sighed with relief when she was done. But of course then there was the next set of tiles, and many of these had magical wards that would go off at the faintest touch of anything at all that wasn’t protected by the proper counterspells. Had Jadie been able to get the supplies she’d needed, she might have been able to carve counterfeit wands to mimic the counterspells and satisfy the wards. But of course that was impossible, and so Jadie would have to fake it. She knelt as she opened her pack, then took out a large chunk of rotting wood and focused on her magic.
And the phosphorescent moss on the wood began to glow.
Jadie had first encountered this moss back when climbing through the caves in Viscosa’s cliff wall in order to deal with Nemeroth, and she’d never wanted to return to them, but she hadn’t had any other options and so had reluctantly climbed halfway down the cliff wall to the cave entrance and then scrounged around until she’d found the moss she needed. She couldn’t use a torch, after all; the wards in this hallway would have been charmed to sense that. But she didn’t think the wards yet existed that could see if someone was holding a chunk of faintly glowing moss. And with this moss, she had a chance of seeing the warded tiles… and knowing which ones were safe and which ones weren’t.
The light of the moss wasn’t much, and some of the fine details of the tiles were still obscure, but Jadie could make out most of the sigils now and matched them to the ones described in the notes she’d stolen from the mage’s hall and hastily memorized. The first two wards she saw would, if she was recalling the notes correctly, set off a fireball, and the third would summon a ball of acid on her head, but the fourth had been listed as a ‘safe’ symbol, so Jadie stepped on it. Once more, she tensed up, but after a few seconds, no alarm had sounded, so she wiped the sweat from her forehead and continued.
Jadie worked her way through the rest of the second set of tiles in a similar fashion. The third set included physical traps again, the fourth had more magic wards, and the fifth was a combination of both types. The last set was excruciating to get through; she found scrambling to haul the rock, hold the moss, and maintain her balance difficult. On those increasingly tiny tiles, making sure she didn’t touch even the corners of the traps and wards was even more trying. Her hands grew slippery from sweat, she frantically blinked her eyes to try to clear them so she could see what she was doing, and every step she took felt like it might be her last before the alarms sounded.
But they didn’t. Jadie made it through. And at long last, she stood directly in front of the heavy metal door—now her final obstacle to getting into the vault and setting her trap.
Smiling slightly at last, Jadie pushed her heavy rock to one side, stepped under a ventilation shaft in the hopes it would dry some of her sweat, opened her pack again, and took out a set of conventional lock picks along with a little dagger. “Almost,” she muttered. “Just one door. And it’s not like I haven’t cracked doors before.” She chuckled as she approached it and held up the moss, examining the wards carved into the surface. “This’ll all be worth it when I see the look on Gerard’s face—”
The vault door swung open, and Gerard the Fang smiled at her from inside the vault. “You mean, this look?”
Jadie’s mouth dropped. “No,” she murmured. “No, you—”
“I must say, I’m impressed,” Gerard said, stepping out of the vault door and beaming at her. “I genuinely didn’t think you’d make it through the hallway, Jadie. Especially without using a torch. You really are a talented thief. But…” He withdrew a hand from his pocket and flashed two brilliant green stones dangling from golden chains—the Renatta heirloom amulets, Jadie guessed. “You’re too late.”
Jadie glowered at him and racked her mind for what she could do next as she tried to stall. “If you already had the amulet, why were you waiting around?” she asked. “You could have just left.”
“Yes, I could have, but I wanted to watch you. Like I said, you’re supposed to be a prodigy, so I was truly curious just how far you’d get.” Gerard gestured at the vault door, which Jadie saw had a small glass dot near its top. “The vault was installed with a peephole so the family can hide inside it in an emergency and then look out to make sure any ‘rescuers’ are actually on their side and not, say, bandits. So I figured, why not stay for the show?” He smiled wide, and his teeth gleamed even in the dull light. “It turned out to be a pretty good one, I’d say.”
“Right.” Jadie let out a soft breath, still thinking furiously. “And what happens now?”
“Now? Well, let’s see.” Gerard put a hand to his chin as if thinking. “I plan on leaving, Jadie. And since killing or fighting you might trigger an alarm, you’re perfectly free to leave as well… and you’ll do so right by my side, I imagine.”
“Right by—” Jadie cut herself off. Why, she wondered, would she want to be right by his side? She didn’t trust him one bit, not since he’d proven he wasn’t the awesome, noble thief of legend she’d thought he was but was just a greedy jerk who’d steal from anyone to enrich himself. She was at the edge of the trapped tiles, which was a few feet in front of his position by the vault door, and she had every intention of maintaining that distance as she worked her way out. The only reason she’d want to be near him would be—
Would be if she were going to pickpocket Gerard on the way out.
Then it hit her. Gerard thought he was in a competition with her, where the winner would be the one who walked out of the vault with the amulets. He assumed Jadie, at heart, was just like him: he only cared about possessing the amulets and so assumed that was all Jadie wanted too. But Jadie didn’t want the amulets for herself. She just wanted to get Violet’s back and return it to its proper owner, preferably without getting arrested in the process. That was it.
Jadie couldn’t beat him; he was too good of a thief. But that was all right. She didn’t actually need to win. She just had to make sure Gerard lost.
And that, Jadie realized, would be one of the easiest jobs she’d ever had.
The young thief stepped up to the veteran and dropped her hands to her sides, holding them loosely and flexibly as if getting ready to grab at his pockets. Gerard grinned and tossed a mocking salute at her before stepping onto the first safe tile. She followed, watching him draw his hidden dagger and tilt it so he could see her reflection in it. He was looking at her hands and sleeves, she saw, presumably so no matter how she grabbed at him, he’d know and be able to react.
So she didn’t grab at him.
She instead thrust out with her vines, had them grab the heavy stone behind her, and then hurled it onto one of the alarmed tiles.
A magical caterwaul blasted through the tunnel, and the light wards turned an ugly red. Gerard’s mouth dropped, and for one precious moment, he was frozen in shock. “You—they’ll catch us both! They—”
Jadie leapt up onto his shoulders, then jumped up again and grasped the lip of a ventilation shaft. She swung herself up and into it, ignoring that she was ripping through the alarm threads as all the alarms were already going off anyways. The shaft was tight enough that she could jam her feet against one wall and her back against another, and as soon as she’d caught herself and made sure she wouldn’t fall, she spider-walked up the passage—but only for a few feet. Then she urged one vine out of her sleeve, split several strands off with her dagger, and let them drop to form a lattice over the shaft opening that looked pretty much like the threads which had been there before.
And then she waited, because she had to hear what happened next.
Heavy, clanking footsteps sounded from the vault entrance a moment later, and she heard men shouting as they entered the room. A reedy voice yelled several words in a language Jadie didn’t know, presumably the spell to turn off all the wards so the guards could get through without killing themselves, and then a man in a much rougher voice screamed something Jadie understood perfectly well. “You! Get down on the ground! You are under arrest!”
Jadie wondered idly if Gerard had guessed that she might run for the vents. If he had, she knew, he’d have thought she’d try to get the amulets before fleeing—but of course if Gerard didn’t have the amulets on him when he was caught, the grounds would be sealed like a drum and searched top-to-bottom until the precious necklaces turned up. Jadie would surely be caught under those circumstances, so she wouldn’t have tried to escape that way, so Gerard had probably dismissed any concerns he’d had about her trying for the vents. But of course if she went for them without the amulets…
That was a whole different story.
Down below she heard the sound of fabric ripping, and then a shout from a guard. “Found the amulets! Both of them!”
“So my daughter didn’t lose hers,” came Baron Renatta’s furious growl. “It was stolen.” He let out a dark chuckle. “Those were gifts of the king, thief. Do you have any idea what the punishment for stealing them will be?”
“I didn’t act alone,” said Gerard in a calm voice. “My partner crawled into that vent. Check it and you’ll find her.”
“The vents are all sealed with their alarm threads,” rejoined a guard. “Nice try—we won’t let you distract us. Now come on; we’ve got a trip to the jail ahead of us.”
There was silence, and then Jadie heard Gerard give a resigned sigh. “Very well,” he said at last. “Congratulations. You’ve caught Gerard the Fang.”
“The Gerard the Fang?” repeated the guard. “Stopped by… a simple wardstone?” He snorted. “I guess you’re not as good as the legends say.”
A thin chuckle drifted through the air, and Jadie shuddered when she heard it. “Believe that if you want,” Gerard said. “I’ll be out soon enough to show you all otherwise.” His voice rose. “But know this. I have been a thief for approximately forty years. I have been caught one dozen times and put in jail for a combined sentence of about nine hundred and eighty years. On average, I have only served ten days before breaking out. My shortest consecutive stay in jail was a day and a half; my longest, six months. I will escape soon. And when I do… I will find the person who put me there.”
Jadie sighed to herself as the guards hauled Gerard away below. So she had a rival now, she thought, and hers was determined to bring her down as soon as he got out of jail. That was just great. But at least for the moment she was safe, and Violet would get her amulet back, and she’d also punished Gerard for what he’d done—his formerly unblemished reputation now had a major stain upon it. She could almost imagine his face when he heard stories of how he’d stupidly blundered onto a wardstone and gotten arrested. That, she thought, was a humiliation he well deserved.
Jadie smiled to herself, savoring the thought for a moment longer, and then resumed climbing out of the shaft.
* * * * *
The vent opened onto the grounds, and Jadie glanced around and verified nobody was around before hauling herself up. Now all she had to do, she thought, was—
“Thank you, Miss Candy Person!”
Jadie swiveled to see Violet standing up from behind a nearby bush. The little girl smiled bashfully at her but said nothing, so Jadie asked, “How did you know where I’d be?”
“Sometimes I see things.” Violet blushed and began to rend her nightdress in her hands. “I can’t explain it. But I saw you’d be here and that you’d help get my amulet back.” She paused. “And I saw—I saw that you had powers too. Do you? Can you show me?”
So Violet had a little bit of magic, Jadie thought, and furthermore the girl probably had no one to share her talents with. Jadie glanced around to make sure there were no guards, then nodded and coaxed a vine—the uninjured one—to slip out of her sleeve and rise in front of Violet. The little girl’s mouth dropped as the vine waved in front of her. “Wow!” said Violet. “That’s so cool!”
“I try.” Jadie smiled at her. “Your amulet’s back—now the king’ll know you didn’t lose his gift. Do you need anything else?”
Violet shook her head. “Thank you so much,” she said. “You’re a really nice candy salesgirl. And, um…” She hesitated. “I saw that you’re leaving town, but if you’re ever back and I see something that might help you, I’ll try to let you know. Is that okay?”
Given she now had a personal enemy who would shortly go after her, Jadie figured she’d need all the help she could get. “I’d like that,” she said. “Thank you, Violet.”
The little girl beamed.
“Now…” Jadie looked around. The grounds were big, and she wasn’t quite sure of the way out. “Ah…”
“There’s almost no guards on the east side,” said Violet, eyes twinkling. “I know ‘cause that’s how I sneak out when dad chastises me and I wanna go out anyways.”
Jadie giggled, and Violet laughed as well. Then the thief said goodbye to the little girl one last time, waved, and rushed away, heading for the walls of the Renatta property and the city beyond.