Tag Archives: Aaron Canton

Ghost Hunter, Part Three

Ghost Hunter
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Three-

The monastery in the middle of Daimyo Tatsunori’s domain was an imposing structure. A gigantic square pyramid that rose fifty meters into the air, the building was visible from a great distance and had been ever since its construction one thousand years before. Unlike the cave temple, the monastery was long-abandoned, but unlike the mountaintop tomb, no robbers had managed to cart away any of the ancient sculptures that adorned its eleven levels. Officially, that was because the Tatsunori clan and its predecessors had always protected this most famous monument. Privately, locals whispered that the monastery ghost had killed all those that had tried.

But as Yasuoka used her bo staff to help pick her way up the worn steps, a sense of peace filled her. Yes, the upcoming battle would be dangerous, possibly the most dangerous she’d ever fought. In an ordinary fight, the monastery ghost might well be unbeatable; certainly the scores of other shamans who had tried to slay it over the centuries hadn’t been able to do so. But now she had another plan that wouldn’t require her to channel the chi of twenty different monsters just to have a chance at victory. She was poised, she was calm, she was…enlightened. If she used the strategy the monk had helped her to understand, she knew she just might be able to win even without his spirit.

“All that, and he told a pretty good story too,” Yasuoka mused as she continued. She’d heard the children’s tale of the monk and the lotus blossom before, of course; her mother had taught it to her as a child, and so had the mothers of almost all her childhood friends. But the monk had told it with an energy and passion all the more remarkable for his deeply advanced age, and he’d seemed truly concerned that all the children were listening and learning and having fun. It would almost be a shame when his spirit too passed on, though she could tell he knew it was getting to be his time. Once the new school was set up—and the local lord had seemed interested in the idea, as had Daimyo Tatsunori when she’d stopped to visit him before going to the monastery ruin—she knew it would happen. Then the children would be taken care of, and Anand Chah’s quest would be fulfilled at last.

But that was for later. For now, she had a job to do, and as she climbed the final step to the top of the pyramid, she knew her target was near. She could feel a dark, malevolent, deeply powerful spirit moving all around her, and as she looked around the flat surface ringed with statues of long-forgotten gods, she sensed it gathering its power. “Spirit,” she called in a calm, clear voice. “I would speak with you.”

After a long moment, the space in front of her seemed to ripple. Then a mass appeared—a cloud of silver and black that somehow seemed to have more weight than the solid stone statues around them. The sun was starting to set, but the cloud was lit with its own inner glow. Despite everything, Yasuoka had to fight not to look away. “Shaman,” the spirit intoned. “Know you who I am?”

“You are Goh O-Kai,” said Yasuoka after a moment. “The abbot who once led this monastery.”

“The abbot who once—and still—rules all you see,” corrected the ghost of O-Kai. Its voice held no anger, or rage, or spite—just conviction, the strongest Yasuoka had ever felt, and a staunch refusal to brook even a hint of dissent. “This land, all of it, was once consecrated to my sect. I serve as its caretaker and ensure no other hand takes what the gods decreed would be ours.”

Yasuoka gently inclined her staff to sweep over the edge of the monastery. Beyond the base of the pyramid was rocky, arid soil, stretching on as far as she could see in every direction. This ghost was the reason, everyone knew, why the soil refused to yield to even the most tenuous of farmers. The weather, water, and everything else was just right for growing rice, but thanks to the spirit’s power, nothing—not even a blade of grass—would grow around the monastery. “You have destroyed the crops of farmers for a thousand years. And every year, your influence grows. Now it reaches to the very edges of the capital city.” Tatsunori’s family had been monitoring the “dead zone” around the monastery for at least six generations and trying to deal with the problem for at least that long, but to no avail. There was no fertilizer or irrigation technique that could reinvigorate the soil once O-Kai had corrupted it. “I have been sent to ensure the capital survives and to recover the use of our land.”

“It is not your land. It is mine.” O-Kai’s voice was as implacable as steel. “And my influence will continue to grow, shaman, until it is returned to my sect in its entirety.”

There was no malice in his voice, but that didn’t matter. O-Kai’s influence would extend until the entire province was a barren wasteland, a collection of skeletal ruins crumbling in on themselves and one single stone monastery standing over all. Yasuoka took in a steadying breath and looked at the spirit. “I cannot permit you to continue.”

“You cannot stop me,” said O-Kai. “Return to your lord and tell him he cannot change my mind or withstand my power. Or fight me and fall, and let your lord know the futility of challenging me by your loss.”

“I am not here to fight you.” Yasuoka took a piece of chalk and drew a large lotus petal in front of her, then sat cross-legged behind it and focused. “I know I cannot. Humans can only harm ghosts who become agitated, and I sense that you are…implacable.”

“Indeed.” O-Kai’s spirit bobbed slightly. “In my lifetime I achieved enlightenment. I cannot be angered or frightened against my will. If I manifest and become vulnerable to humans, it is by choice.”

In other words, O-Kai’s ghost could control its emotions enough that Yasuoka wouldn’t be able to hit it—it would make itself calm, even zen, when she struck—but it could stimulate its own anger for just long enough to hit back at her. Her blows would pass harmlessly through it, while it could attack her at will. No wonder all the other shamans had lost. “Then I will not attack,” said Yasuoka. “I will talk instead.”

“I cannot be placated,” said O-Kai. “I cannot—”

Yasuoka smiled slightly. “I did not mean, revered abbot,” she said, “that I would to talk with you.” She clapped her hands together as she forced chi into her voice. “Zhu Ni, I ask for your strength! Song-Nyun Park, I ask for your skills! Kiyoko Bakasami, I ask for your abilities! Truc Nguyen, I ask for your memories!”

The abbot’s ghost tilted slightly. “Who are these beings you summon?”

“Them?” Yasuoka looked squarely at the ghost. “They are the shamans you have killed, revered abbot.” She spread her arms wide. “Fallen shamans of the monastery, I call upon you! I am here to fulfill your final desire: that of defeating Goh O-Kai at last. Come to me, and help me achieve the goal for which you all died to achieve—and for which you have remained all these centuries. Come to me.”

And they came.

Yasuoka smiled, and O-Kai floated backwards, as ghost after ghost floated up through the layers of the monastery. Some wore familiar styles of clothing, while others were so ancient she couldn’t even name their garments. But all carried the tools shamans had used ever since there were shamans; they had staves, and knives, and chalk at their sides. And all looked upon O-Kai with burning desire in their eyes.

O-Kai said nothing, but suddenly the statues around the roof began to move as bright silvery light filled their eyes. They raised their hands and turned to Yasuoka—but the spirits were there, forming a protective wall. They had lain dormant for centuries, but no ghost could resist coming when summoned by a shaman who knew what she was doing. Before meeting Anand, Yasuoka wouldn’t even have believed these spirits had persisted all these years, but that would have been her own foolishness. After all, she knew shamans were more likely than any other people to come back as ghosts. She knew the shamans had all wanted to defeat O-Kai and had failed in the process. And she should have known, even if she had ultimately needed Anand to teach her, that the spirits of those who died with good desires unfulfilled could last just as long as those who died upset they hadn’t stolen every gold coin in the world. She didn’t need to call upon monsters and beasts for help in this battle. She had scores of allies to call on instead.

The ghosts took positions around Yasuoka as the statues moved in, fending the ancient sculptures off with a dozen different combat styles. She watched as a statue of a dog-headed man was flipped by a ghost and shattered against the ground, then turned just in time to see another flung off the side. Then she looked back at O-Kai’s chi and saw it falling back under a flurry of attacks. “How can you strike me?” he asked. “Humans cannot—”

“No human has touched you,” said Yasuoka. “Only spirits.” She rolled to one side as a statue made it through the ghosts surrounding her and smashed a fist into the temple roof, but even before she could strike back, she saw another two shaman spirits grab it and begin wrestling it away. “And they will overwhelm you.”

“For my sect, I have defeated them all before,” said O-Kai. But now there was strain in the voice of the spirit, and the cloud that masked its presence flickered slightly. “I will defeat them again.”

“You defeated them individually. You cannot face them all at once.” Yasuoka slipped a hand forward and erased a tiny fragment of the lotus petal outline in front of her so the shape was incomplete. “You will lose. And the last traces of your sect will be erased.”

O-Kai’s spirit shuddered. “You cannot—”

“You cannot stop me,” said Yasuoka. “There is nothing you can do to stop my lord from destroying this old ruin and erecting temples to his own gods. Or building a palace where he himself is worshipped. Your sect ends tonight.”

And the cloud vanished, revealing a very fit monk holding a long naginata blade. “You cannot!” the ghost yelled, its enlightenment broken by the first sign in a thousand years that it might actually be defeated. “I will not allow a heretic to—”

The spirit stepped into the image, and Yasuoka immediately closed it again with a stroke of her chalk. Then she drew her dagger as O-Kai’s ghost jumped at her and the statues surged forwards. But the lotus blossom glowed, and O-Kai’s chi bounced off its edge, trapped inside. At the same time, the spirits around Yasuoka fought mightily and pushed the statues away for one more crucial moment. She drew her dagger and cut her palm, then began to chant.

O-Kai’s spirit wailed. “Do you want my powers that badly?” it cried. “I will give them to you—just release me!”

Yasuoka turned to the ghost, and though she continued her chant, her question was evident on her face: what powers?

“You will be able to use this place as a sanctum!” continued O-Kai’s spirit. “As a base where none can hurt you! All I ask is you reestablish my sect—if you do, I will teach you how to use my powers to turn any patch of land in the province to dust! People will have to bow to you, revere you—”

But Yasuoka shook her head. She did not want to rule the province; she only wanted to please her lord, who in turn wanted to protect his city and to provide more land for his farmers. And so as her chant finished and O-Kai’s spirit vanished, she did not bind it to herself. Instead, she aimed her dagger and stabbed into it. She heard a faint cry, then felt it dissipate as she banished it from the world—and every statue around her suddenly crumbled to rubble.

“Well done,” she heard someone say, and when she turned, she saw the shaman spirits looking at her. They were beginning to fade, but she could see the relief and glee evident on their faces. “You have saved the province,” said the ghost which had spoken. “The land will recover. Its people will thrive.”

“You have saved us,” said another. “Thank you.”

She bowed her head to the shamans as they bowed back to her, and they all exchanged smiles. After a few more seconds, the ghosts faded, and Yasuoka knew they had finally passed on, released from their decades or centuries of moldering in the old monastery and wondering when somebody would finish their quest. More than a hundred souls were able to move on at last. It wasn’t a bad night’s work.

In fact, Yasuoka thought, she should do it more often. Yes, of course she would continue to hunt down evil spirits and banish them or bind them so they wouldn’t hurt innocent people anymore. But she would also put more time into finding good spirits, those trapped in this realm past their time by their unfulfilled desires to do good. If she could help them move on, surely that was just as important a use of her time as ensuring the spirit of some vile thief got what was coming to it.

But that was all for later. Duty urged her to report to Daimyo Tatsunori and tell him the monastery ghost was finally gone, his domain was secured, and his trust in her for all those years was not misplaced. And so she moved to the edge of the pyramid, bowed one more time to the memories of the shamans who had given their all, and slowly walked down into the deepening night.

Ghost Hunter, Part Two

Ghost Hunter
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part Two-

“Business for Daimyo Tatsunori,” said Yasuoka as she glanced from the face of the sentry in front of her to the mouth of the cave stretching away behind him. One week had passed since her victory over Sovann, and she had finally reached the location of the last spirit she would need to deal with the haunted monastery; despite her attempts to stay controlled and wary, she couldn’t stop herself from speaking a little faster and more urgently than usual. “Let me pass.”

“But shaman…” The sentry hesitated for a long moment. “Surely you wish to come back during the daytime? The temple opens at sunrise, and I assure you the view is—”

“I am not here for the view,” This temple was as dissimilar from the tomb ruins as two sites could be; the ruins were on top of a mountain while the temple was deep within a series of caves; the tomb was a shrine to the dead while the temple’s monks worshipped life and the gods which made it possible; and most of all, while the tomb had been abandoned for many years, this cave temple was still operational. She had in fact attended services earlier that day to scout out the site and make some preliminary efforts in finding her quarry.

The sentry still seemed hesitant, so Yasuoka took a step closer to him. “My seal from Daimyo Tatsunori,” she said, holding the carved block up to his torchlight. It bore the Tatsunori crest, an image every retainer of the powerful noble could be expected to know on sight. While this particular cave wasn’t in Tatsunori’s domain proper, the ruler of the local fiefdom had become one of Tatsunori’s vassals in exchange for financing and military support, and that obligated every samurai and guard in the realm to treat Tatsunori’s orders as if they came from their own ruler. “Let me in, guard.”

At long last, the man nodded and stood aside. “Do you want a guide?” he called as she lit her torch and walked into the cave mouth. “Some of the monks meditate late into the night. They might be awake and willing to—”

“No!” snapped Yasuoka. The last thing she needed was someone else the ghost could attack or even possess. “Remain at your post, guard. If I do not return by dawn, send word to Daimyo Tatsunori.” And with that she strode around a corner in the tunnel, and the guard was lost to sight behind her.

A few steps into the tunnel, Yasuoka slowed and put a hand to her head. She had been rude to the sentry, she acknowledged—ruder than he deserved. She ought to apologize. But she was so close to obtaining the final spirit and finishing the mission. She had been working towards this moment for the past six months, traveling across the Numasa archipelago and seeking the most dangerous, strongest, and obscure ghosts to add to her collection so she could call on them when she needed to. It was perhaps understandable she would get snappish—

No. That was the attitude of the ghosts she fought, the monsters whose hate and spite for every other being was so strong that it prevented them from falling into death. She did not claim to be perfect, but she knew if she let little spites build in her, the same could happen to her when she died—shamans came back as ghosts more than any other profession. And so, after taking a few moments to steady herself, she returned to the cave mouth and apologized to the guard for her rudeness. Only when he assured her he had forgiven her did she return to the cave and resume her progress.

The tunnel opened into a large cave temple of the type common on the island. Shrines were set up at various points around the cave, and paintings of local deities and scenes from the local mythology had been layered over the rock walls. She stopped under a rocky overhang covered with an excellent painting of a bird-headed man pulling a sheep from a well, then turned and examined a series of bulges in the wall she’d observed earlier that day. They were small, but a nimble child or a sufficiently skilled adult might still be able to use them to climb on top of the overhang and maybe from there into one of the higher passages set along the upper wall. She’d checked the other routes out of the room, and they all dead-ended in shrines or just blank rock. The way before her was the only one she hadn’t been able to examine during her previous visit.

Yasuoka knew she would need both hands to climb the outcropping, so she reluctantly put out her torch and focused on the chi she carried within her. She chanted, and the masses appeared in front of her, struggling to escape as always. After a moment, she nodded at the newest one. “Mik Sovann,” she ordered. “Damned thief. Lend me your eyes.”

The chi slammed into her with enough force that Yasuoka almost took a step back. She managed to jam her staff down and catch herself, however, and when she looked around again, she could see the cave as if it was out in the midday sun. The paintings and shrines were so clear, she could even pick out the little grey patches where paint had flaked away over the years. On the ground, she could see the six different tunnels she’d gone through earlier that day that all led to auxiliary shrines, and in front of her was the overhang, now with clearly visible handholds for her to grab.

Yasuoka began to climb, hauling herself about ten meters into the air in a span of a few minutes. When she reached the top of the overhang and looked around, though, she saw only a featureless rock wall. There was no trail to the higher passages there she could find—but now that she was higher, she could see the top of another overhang a few meters farther down the cave from her. And at the back of that overhang, there was a faint, steep trail up the wall and into the upper tunnels. Of course, that didn’t help if someone couldn’t get between that overhang and the one she was standing on, but after a few moments of searching, she found a loose rock at the back of her overhang and shifted it to reveal a tiny tunnel running parallel to the cave. A child could fit through it and make his or her way to the other overhang, then rush to the upper tunnels. She, however, wouldn’t fit, and she couldn’t see any other way for a normal adult to reach the opposite overhang.

That didn’t mean Yasuoka was stuck, but the option she did have would be dangerous even if she didn’t have good reason to believe the temple complex was haunted. Still, there was no other choice, so she reluctantly dismissed Sovann’s chi. Darkness slammed down around her as she began to channel again, this time choosing the rhinotaur with its powerful legs. Then she lit her useless little torch, looked out in front of her, prayed she remembered where the next overhang began, and jumped for it.

The wind whistled around Yasuoka, and she tensed, but the ground slammed into her boots, and she stumbled forward before catching herself against the far wall. She took a few relieved breaths and wiped sweat from her brow before switching back to Sovann’s chi so she could see once more. “Well,” she murmured. “At least once I get this ghost, that won’t be a problem anymore.”

As she scrabbled up the trail, she thought back to the tales she’d heard about the temple. There were the usual problems caused by an angry and vengeful spirit: broken or vandalized objects in the shrines, children caught wandering around the grounds having claimed someone was calling to them, and the occasional child who vanished from the surrounding houses. The monks who worshipped in the temple had also told their lord they felt an odd presence sometimes, though none seemed to have been able to deal with the spirit directly. There had even been strange laughs heard by locals late at night, the sounds any evil spirit might make if it thought it was close to achieving its goals.

It had taken longer to work out who the spirit might be, but after Yasuoka went through the temple archives, she’d eventually come up with a suspect. Centuries ago, the temple had been home to the famed monk Anand Chah, whose enlightenment was said to be so great he could channel the minds of those around him, know what they thought, and provide advice to the dilemmas in their hearts they dared not speak aloud. It was said he had once sat in front of a crowd of hundreds for a few moments and wrote messages that were taken by his pages to the people in the crowd; each person who got a slip of advice later said it had led them true, though Anand could have had no more than a few moments to consider each one. He had vanished one day, disappearing into the temple and never coming out, and his despondent disciples had assumed he had left them on some spiritual quest. Yasuoka, though, was of a more practical mind; she guessed the monk had wandered into a far tunnel in the temple, died, and came back to haunt it in revenge for his death.

His motives didn’t really matter to Yasuoka, but she was interested in his ability to channel the thoughts of those around him, particularly in his ability to do so for many people at once. If she had that ability, she might be able to channel the chi of multiple entities at the same time. That would let her use all her powers together, which would mean she wouldn’t need to choose between Sovann’s sight and Kuang’s hearing. Or Kuang’s hearing and Cho’s combat skills. Or any of the others. She would be at her peak, and she would be able to battle the monastery ghost where every shaman before her had failed.

But first she had to beat Anand and stop whatever evil he practiced there, so she walked through the entrance of the upper passage and moved through a corridor she could tell wasn’t much used. Most of the wall paintings were dustier and faded, not having been touched up in many years. A few looked newer, but these were crude, like children would draw. One in particular was still wet, and Yasuoka frowned as she touched it, but then she saw a faint light ahead and hurried forward. She quickly dismissed Sovann’s chi and summoned the warrior Cho’s again, then burst into a room—

And saw about thirty living children aged seven to nine sitting cross-legged in a semicircle around a smiling ghost. The ghost was bald, with tanned, wrinkled skin, voluminous robes, and a stocky frame. Around his collar he wore a necklace with a holy symbol on it; Yasuoka recognized it from her research as a symbol granted to Anand Chah by the highest monk of his order. It was her target.

“And since you’ve been such good students, I’m going to teach you the story of the monk and the lotus blossom!” Anand said. The students clapped and cheered as Yasuoka watched, baffled. “This was one of my favorites when I was a child, but if I tell it to you, you have to promise me one thing.”

“What is it?” called one of the children in front.

“That you share the story with others who might want to hear it. Knowledge and stories should not be hoarded, but should be made available to all.”  Anand turned slightly to look at Yasuoka. “Ah, and for this story, we have a very special guest! Children, please say hello to the shaman Yasuoka Takako!”

“Hello, Miss Yasuoka!” the thirty children chorused. They didn’t seem possessed to Yasuoka, which she would at least have been able to understand. They just seemed like regular kids—who were up at midnight taking lessons from a ghost.

“Do you know what shamans do?” Anand asked. “They go all around Numasa and protect people from evil ghosts! Like—”

“Like you,” Yasuoka interrupted. If the monk was putting a spell on the children through some demented sermon, she couldn’t let it continue. “Kids, go home. I’m going to deal with him.”

“But he didn’t get to the story yet!” complained one of the kids, a girl of about eight with a large bow in her hair. “And we were really good! We meditated, an’ we tried to do good things like helping sick puppies an’—”

Yasuoka shook her head. “That’s not the point. He’s an ancient spirit. They’re evil.”

“Why?” asked Anand, with a genuinely puzzled expression on his face.

“What?”

“Why am I evil?” Anand looked down at himself, a hint of a smile playing over his face. “I mean, I don’t think I am…”

The children giggled, and Yasuoka flushed. Normally she’d have started fighting by now, but the kids had to leave first so Anand couldn’t use them as shields. There were too many of them to simply haul away. She’d have to talk them out. “A ghost is created when a creature—usually, but not always, a human—dies with a deep desire unfulfilled,” she said. “Someone might want to win a contest, or protect a loved one, or be proven right. Because they want their desire so badly, their spirit remains even after their body fails.”

“True,” said Anand. “But that does not make them evil, does it?”

Yasuoka glared at him. “Ghosts fade when they achieve their desires or realize their desires cannot be achieved. A ghost who wants to protect a loved one will fade from this realm when the loved one is protected or the loved one dies and is beyond protection. A ghost who wants to be proven right will fade once he is in fact shown to be right, or wrong and knows he can never be proven right, or nobody remembers the argument and nothing will ever be proven. In this way, most ghosts fade within a few years or decades as their desires either come true or become impossible. But…there are some ghosts with desires so vast and grasping they will never be fulfilled: a thief who wants all the treasure in the world or a conqueror who wants to rule it all. These are the kinds of ghosts that last for centuries—as you have, Anand Chah.” She swept her bo staff at him, earning a chorus of squeaks from the children. “I do not know your desire. But I know that if it is so vast that after all these centuries it is still unfulfilled, it can be nothing good.”

“Can’t it?” Anand asked. “Perhaps my unfulfilled desire is something beneficial.”

“I’ve encountered thousands of ghosts. I’ve captured dozens. None—”

“Yes,” interrupted Anand. “I can see them.” He shuddered slightly. “Poor souls… perhaps they are deserving of their fate, but it is still most regrettable. You would bind me as you bound them?”

Yasuoka nodded. “I have need of your abilities. And these children need to be protected.”

“No!” yelled the girl with the large bow. “He’s not bad! He’s a good teacher! He’s funny, and he has good stories, and when I scraped my knee, he held me and made it feel better!”

The other children chorused their agreement, and Yasuoka slammed her bo staff on the ground to quiet them. “I have fought many ghosts,” she said. “No ghost who survived for more than a century was anything other than a monster.”

“Perhaps I am the first,” insisted Anand. “Although… I am curious. How do you know the others were monsters? Did you investigate them?”

“Yes,” snapped Yasuoka. “Very thoroughly. I could recite all their crimes—”

Anand shook his hand. “Strange, then, that you don’t seem to know why I am a monster. Only that I must be one because I am ancient.” He was silent for a moment. “Are you in a hurry for some reason?”

Yasuoka hesitated. It was true she had studied her other targets more thoroughly, but that this one was better at hiding meant nothing. She hadn’t yet found an exception, and she doubted Anand would be the first. “I have an urgent mission from my lord. I must drive out a monstrous ghost which has defeated and killed more than a hundred other shamans. To win, I require your ability to channel multiple ghosts at once.”

“And for this ability,” said Anand in a quiet, serious voice, “you would reduce me to…that?” He gestured in Yasuoka’s direction, and she figured he was referencing the spirits. “Do you think that is just, and that your lord would approve?”

“I wouldn’t do it if you didn’t deserve it!” insisted Yasuoka. “You’ve—”

Anand stood incredibly quickly as the children huddled around each other. “Can you name,” Anand asked, “one misdeed I have committed?”

“Children in the area have been found wandering at night, no doubt lured—”

“Hey!” said the girl with the bow. “That’s not fair! It’s not his fault we gotta come here at night when all the adults are asleep to hear his stories!”

“Yeah, and so what if I got lost on the way home that one time?” asked another kid. “It was dark!”

Yasuoka scowled. “Some children vanished,” she said. “Just last year one child, the son of the local fishmonger—”

“I knew him,” said a third kid. “He didn’t disappear! I saw him stow away on his uncle’s boat one day, the one that got caught in a storm and sank! That’s what happened to him.”

That was technically possible; Yasuoka had read all the information she could find on the missing child, but none of it precluded the child having drowned at sea. The other missing children, a few every decade, could be similar stories. “Well—the temple has been defiled, things broken and taken! What excuse would a good monk have for that?”

Anand tilted his head, then turned to the children. “Have any of you anything to say?” he asked in a gentle voice. “Don’t worry, you’re not in trouble. But if you’ve done something, you should admit what you’ve done.”

A few kids raised their hands. “We mighta broke one of the shrines a few weeks ago,” said a little kid. “Sorry. It was dark, and we tripped over it.”

“I took one of the offerings,” said another kid. “It was my favorite type of orange. But I’ll replace it! I promise!”

Anand looked back at Yasuoka. “That doesn’t…” she growled. “Okay, then, what’s your desire, if it isn’t to do wrong? What do you want that has kept you going for hundreds of years?”

“To teach.” Anand paused for a moment. “I admit, despite my best efforts towards enlightenment, I maintained one desire. I wanted a school, a place where children could be educated in matters of the spirit as well as the world. I approached the local liege lord time and again, but was denied every time, and since then…well, I couldn’t stop. Not when the children needed me.” He smiled, and the children all began to talk about how great of a teacher he was. “Is it so surprising that someone might have a good desire that sustained them for centuries?”

“It has never happened,” growled Yasuoka.

“Never that you were aware of. But if—before you began hunting quiet, obscure, ancient ghosts for this quest of yours—you only went to places troubled by dangerous ghosts, would you have had the chance to meet any good ones?” Anand shrugged. “In any event, that is the case. But tell me—why are you reluctant to believe this? Surely you would want to think the situation is less dire than you had feared?”

“Because—because I can’t let you confuse me!” Yasuoka insisted. “I need your powers to defeat the monastery ghost! My lord has demanded it. He’s made me everything I am; I need to do this for him!” She pointed her bo staff squarely at his head. “I can’t—”

“Would you really,” asked Anand quietly, “bind me if you weren’t really sure whether I deserved it?” He spread his hands wide. “Perhaps your suspicions are correct. Perhaps I am hiding something and deserve punishment. But if not…well. Hold you your own spirit so cheaply that you would take mine just to make your task easier?”

Yasuoka hesitated, trembling. She could strike now, she thought; if Anand wanted to keep up this pretense, he couldn’t use the children for shields, and if he abandoned it, she could at least get the children out. And she couldn’t be wrong. She’d never been wrong before. She had to strike, to beat this ghost like all the others so she could use his powers to cleanse the monastery. The worst that could happen was—

The worst that could happen was she became the kind of person who hurt innocents to fulfill her own desires, she realized. And if that was the case, then no matter how many evil ghosts she defeated, when she died she knew there would be one more. Maybe it would battle the other ghosts of the world forever, or maybe it would haunt Tatsunori in a mad quest to protect him and his clan for all eternity. It would lead to nothing but pain and despair…until another, better shaman found a way to defeat her and bind her for use against others.

She realized she was sweating, and she slowly sagged against her pole. Anand made a vague gesture, and then the children were by her, helping her to a cushion and fetching a cold drink from a deep, cool crevice of the chamber. “I…” said Yasuoka at last. “I—no. I can’t bind you if I can’t prove you’re hurting anyone.”

Anand smiled slightly. “You see?” he told the children. “Even adults sometimes need to be reminded of the right thing to do. That is why we all must look out for each other. Do you promise to do that?” The kids nodded. “And you, Yasuoka?”

“What? Um, of course…” Yasuoka shook her head slightly as she began to grasp the magnitude of what the realization would cost her. “If I don’t take your powers, how can I possibly vanquish the monastery ghost? It has killed a hundred others—”

“Each one, no doubt, channeling some special ghost he or she was confident would bring about victory.” Anand tapped his fingertips together. “But perhaps with what you have learned tonight, you can perceive another approach.”

That confused Yasuoka, but after a few moments, she understood. “Of course,” she said. “I…I’ll try that. Thank you. I’ll talk to your liege lord—and mine too. See if we can get a school set up.”

Anand looked startled for the first time, and a faint red blush tinged his ghostly cheeks. “I would very much appreciate that, shaman Yasuoka,” he said. “Children, what do we say?”

“Thank you, shaman!” they all chorused.

“Excellent. And now, since I think we still have a little time, would you like to hear the story of the monk and the lotus blossom?”

The kids clapped and cheered. “Yes!” called the girl with the bow. “Yes, please!”

Anand turned to Yasuoka. “You may stay as well. Perhaps you will find it…enlightening.”

Yasuoka smiled, and for the first time in a while, the cold chi bound to her own didn’t seem as heavy. “Yes,” she said. “I would like that.”

Ghost Hunter, Part One

Ghost Hunter
A Story by Aaron Canton
-Part One-

 

The crumbling walls of the ancient tomb complex shone in the moonlight, their white stone standing tall on the mountaintop despite the damage wrought by six hundred years of tomb robbers. A stiff breeze blew through the stony plain leading to the walls, and a few pebbles made eerie plinking noises as they bounced off the rubble before rolling to the other side of the complex and tumbling down the cliffside to the forest far below. But besides those rocks, there were no other sounds; not a single animal scampered about looking for a late-night snack. Nor did a single bird fly overhead, and even the buzzing of mosquitos and other pests had died away within a hundred meters of the summit. It was as if the site was dead, motionless as the tomb before it and silent except for the occasional pebble…and the faint vibration, too low to be a sound proper, emitting from the magical wards scattered all over the landscape.

Yasuoka Takako, though, knew how to listen for the wards, and she murmured a faint sigh as she finally stirred from the trance she’d been sitting in for the better part of an hour. Yasuoka was a tall, slender woman with a fit build, dark eyes, and darker hair tied into intricate braids. She wore the traditional shawl of a shaman, but beneath it, she was dressed for the road, with tough leather clothes and belt pouches full of everything she had reason to think she’d need. She also carried a long bo staff on her back, and it was the staff she reached for after shaking off her stiffness with a quick stretch. “These wards weren’t set up with the tomb,” she murmured as she swung the staff in front of her. “Too recent. The army, I’m sure…”

In the six hundred years since the civilization that had built the tomb complex had fallen, the mountain had been seized by neighboring kingdoms at least three times Yasuoka knew of, and now it seemed another of the local warlords had tried to stake a claim on the ruins by rigging the entire plain with magical wards that would surely afflict horrible consequences on anybody who stepped on one. No doubt if she went back down the mountain and did some research, she could find a local with a map of the safe paths; there was bound to be a veteran who helped lay the wards or a treasure hunter foolhardy enough to plot a way through and lucky enough to survive the attempt. There always were, after all. But she was running out of time on this job already and had no desire to spend another three days slogging back to the town on the mountain’s base just to get someone to tell her how to cross a hundred meters of rock.

So instead, she pointed her staff in front of her, aimed at the ground, and began to chant. After several moments, the air in front of her glistened, and dozens of faint, luminescent masses appeared, each swirling rapidly as if to flee from the shaman. Her eyes flicked between the masses before settling on one. “Wen Kuang,” she ordered in a voice of absolute authority. “Damned musician. Lend me your ears.”

The other masses vanished in a blink as Kuang’s spirit, or soul, or chi as Yasuoka thought of it, writhed all the faster. Then the chi was drawn into Yasuoka’s body, and she stiffened at the blast of pure, utter cold that swept through her—no matter how many jobs she performed, she knew she would never grow used to that sensation. Moments later, though, the cold receded, and she was again alone on the mountaintop. But when she listened, it wasn’t just her.

She could hear a ward exactly three steps to her left, vibrating a fraction of a note higher than the ones around it. And she could hear another ward half a meter to her right and just in front of her, this one warbling a little slower than the others. Right in front of her, though, there was nothing at all; the ground was empty of magic. She pressed down on the spot with her bo staff, then took a step forward and listened again. Now the only safe place to advance was one pace in front of her and half that distance to her right, so she stepped there and continued.

Yasuoka sighed again as she reached the halfway point of the magical minefield. She hated channeling Kuang, a wandering zither player once notorious for having used his remarkable skill to charm his way into rich, isolated estates before slaughtering the inhabitants at night and fleeing with all their treasure. He had been executed on the grounds of the conservatory where he had trained, but even that hadn’t stopped his depredations. His ghost had appeared days later and had driven no fewer than seven of the most promising students to suicide with his haunting, beguiling music. Yasuoka had dealt with him as she dealt with all the ghosts she encountered, and she had to admit he had his uses, but she always felt unclean when she drew upon his skills. At least some of the monsters she dealt with were just brutes acting according to instinct. Kuang was evil.

Still, the musician was much more tolerable than being blasted by the wards, so she suppressed a grimace and continued to channel his spirit as she walked. It was several minutes later when she reached the end of the minefield and stepped on the ancient slabs of the complex’s upper level, and only then did she dismiss Kuang’s chi with a wave of her staff. The warbling of the wards behind her faded, and she took a few breaths to center herself.

The visible tomb ruins had truly been stripped bare, she found, and there was nothing left of even the faintest value to anyone. Those walls that remained had been carefully scoured and every bit of statuary or molding chipped off, no doubt long since sold to private collectors. She saw a couple fallen columns, toppled so some valuable item could be removed from the top, and empty holes in the rock where other columns must have once been—perhaps taken in their entirety to decorate some daimyo’s living room. Hallways that were said to have once led to beautiful chambers now led only to piles of rock. The fabled gemstone murals and lifelike carvings were long gone as well. But she knew there was something here, and so she kept looking as she paced through the complex. There would be something that didn’t fit—some clue or hint to further treasure. After all, if there wasn’t any more treasure, then the stories wouldn’t have—

She froze and took a closer look at a slab lying on the ground. It was old, but not as old as the ones surrounding it. Most of the ruins were six hundred years old, and the walls and floor, though still shining, were pitted and covered with cracks. This slab, though, was entirely intact. Plus, the other stones didn’t fully fit together anymore since the wear and tear of the centuries, a legion of robbers, and at least three separate armies had driven them apart. But this stone made a perfect fit amongst the others around it. It was as if it was put in later, after the other stones had already been worn down.

Yasuoka chanted again, this time drawing on the chi of a different defeated enemy. “Rhinotaur, wild beast, lend me your strength,” she ordered. Cold slammed into her, followed by a feeling of pure exhilarating power, and she smiled as she walked to the slab. She raised a foot and kicked down with her channeled might, shattering the slab of thick stone as easily as breaking a twig.

The broken pieces of the stone collapsed into a downward-sloping tunnel as Yasuoka dismissed the rhinotaur’s chi, and after the rubble settled, she climbed down as well. She had nothing to help her see in the dark—yet—so she took flint and tinder from a pouch and lit a torch before descending. The tunnel itself was bare, no doubt having been looted before the upper slab was installed, but Yasuoka continued anyway. There was something more to the tomb; there had to be. And when she found it, she’d find what she was really looking for too.

After several minutes of traversing the coiling tunnel, it opened, and Yasuoka found herself in a large square chamber with one door in each of its four walls. This room too was empty of gemstones or art that could help indicate which door led to which room, but Yasuoka didn’t need directions anymore. She could see a faint glow through the door to her left and could even hear someone whispering. “Almost got it!” someone gibbered. “Almost there, just a bit more!”

Yasuoka took a breath to prepare. Then she turned and strode through the door.

The new room she found herself in had at least a dozen doors leading off into all kinds of little passages, most likely smaller rooms where servants, family members, and pets could be buried. As for the room itself, it had a high ceiling and many three-sided columns surrounding a central platform. No doubt the platform had once held a coffin, but it was long gone, and truthfully, Yasuoka didn’t care about it. What she cared about was the skeleton lying next to the platform and the ghost crouching over it and blathering on about how he ‘almost had’ something or other.

“Mik Sovann,” called Yasuoka, instilling her voice with a bit of chi so the ghost would be sure to hear her. “I come for you.”

Sovann’s ghost turned, startle evident on its long, lean face. “You know me?”

“Even two hundred years later, children still grow up hearing tales of Numasa’s most famous tomb raider,” said Yasuoka, taking a few steps closer. “They hear how you looted the treasures of the dead snake-kings of Ashanti from inside a pit of one thousand deadly vipers. How you brought seven companions to burgle the tomb of a great archmage and guided each one into a deadly rune, killing them but depleting the runes and enabling you to seize the archmage’s dread staff. They even say you dared rob the tomb of the emperor’s daughter, and though the four hundred guards in the complex were all executed for their failure to stop you, you escaped to tell the tale.”

“Yes, yes, that’s me,” said Sovann. “But why are you here? Nobody’s been here in so long and—wait!” His expression clouded. “You’re not here to steal my treasure, are you? I found it. It’s mine!”

Yasuoka shook her head and looked at Sovann’s skeleton. One of his arms was extended into a small hole that had been blasted into the base of the platform. “I read the people of this kingdom buried their king’s greatest treasures in the base of the platform that bore his coffin, so as their king’s spirit sank into the afterlife, he would be able to take his wealth with him. This was a sacrifice on their part, but they were blessed with virtuous kings and did not mind the sealing of their treasures. It looks like you tried to dig them up regardless. But…”

“I did dig them up!” protested Sovann. “I dug the hole, I could see the gold! But the stone shifted when I stuck my arm in, and—and—oh, it doesn’t matter! I can reach it now!” He stuck his ghostly hands into the platform to demonstrate. “And even if I can’t touch it yet, I’m sure I’ll figure out how soon! And then I’ll have it at last! And—how did you know I was here anyways?”

“My research at the local monasteries showed that, two hundred years ago, this tomb was rumored to be haunted,” said Yasuoka. No doubt the tunnel had been sealed shortly after Sovann’s spirit had manifested; some local ruler had probably blocked the entrance to prevent any helpless people from falling into its grip. But then two centuries passed without anyone going into the tunnel or seeing the ghost, and gradually both the lower tomb and Sovann himself had been forgotten except in a few ancient scrolls. “The same time when your own tales vanished from legend. It was a reasonable guess that there was more to this tomb than commonly known and that you were lurking somewhere in its depths searching for one last piece of treasure.” She stepped into the center of the room. “Speaking of those legends. The tales say you can see even in complete darkness. Is that fact or fiction?”

“See in the dark?” Sovann smiled. “Yes, I found a magical scroll in one of the first tombs I robbed. Why, do you want to know what that scroll said so you can cast the same ritual? Well, I could teach you…if you carry that treasure to my hideout. But if you steal it away from me, I swear I will—”

Yasuoka grimaced. If the spirit got what it wanted, it would fade and be at peace…but a man who killed seven companions and consigned an army to death just to sate his own greed did not deserve to be at peace. “No,” she said. “I am not here for the treasure. I am here for you, Mik Sovann.” She pointed her bo staff at him. “I am here for your soul.”

Sovann’s face flashed. “No, you’re here for my treasure! And you won’t get it! Because it is mine! And—wait. If you’re here to attack me, why didn’t you do so?”

For a ghost, Yasuoka thought, Sovann was unusually perceptive. “Ghosts can only hurt humans when they get angry or upset enough to manifest in the physical world,” Yasuoka explained. “But that’s also the only time when humans can hurt ghosts. If I’d snuck up on you without disturbing you, I wouldn’t be able to actually bind you; all my spells would just go through you.” She walked to Sovann’s body and kicked the bones aside. “Which is why, if you don’t stop me, I’m going to steal your treasure myself.”

“Wait. You can’t—” Sovann’s body trembled for a moment, but Yasuoka knew the ghost would give in to its anger. A human might be able to resist, but ghosts were really a creature’s strongest emotions, memories, and desires made manifest. Sovann was little more than greed incarnate now. The ghost was literally incapable of resisting her provocation.

And it didn’t. With an angry scream, a wicked knife appeared in its hand—it even looked like the one in the legends, Yasuoka noticed—and it dropped down into the ground.

Yasuoka chanted, and the spirits she had defeated and bound appeared before her again. She picked one of her most frequent summons, the ghost of the infamous military officer Yong-Il Cho who had slaughtered his own daimyo and a hundred retainers after being passed over for promotion. As the damned soldier’s strength flowed into her body, she dropped into her usual combat stance and focused. Sovann’s ghost could come at her from any direction, but this was probably the first real fight it had undergone in this form, so it wouldn’t know any tricks. The ghost would do something obvious, which probably meant coming from behind her or from beneath the floor. Her boots had runes in the soles to stop ghosts from simply stabbing her through the bottom of the floor, so if the spirit did come from below it would likely sneak up behind her and—

A prickle on the back of her neck told her the ghost was near. She took a small piece of glass from a belt pouch and held it so she could see behind her, and moments later, she saw Sovann’s ghost leap from under the ground. It moved to slit her throat—but she was already turning with a veteran soldier’s reflexes, and his blade skidded harmlessly off her bo staff. She slammed the butt of the staff into Sovann’s nose hard enough to send the spirit back through the wall.

Sovann’s ghost came at her again, first on one side and then the other, but both times Yasuoka managed to parry the blows. “Why are you doing this?!” roared the ghost as it fell back again. “Just let me have my treasure!”

“I’ve been commissioned to defeat a very powerful ghost in an ancient monastery,” Yasuoka told him as she blocked another blow. “The monastery is shrouded in magical darkness. To defeat that spirit, I will need to be able to see in the dark.”

“I’ll never let you bind me!” screamed the ghost. “I—”

Yasuoka smashed her staff into its head, and it fell back, stunned and floating a short distance above the ground. Before the spirit could get up, Yasuoka drew a lotus petal symbol around it with chalk she’d taken from her belt. “No!” it yelled. “No!”

“Damned spirit,” Yasuoka began to chant, holstering her bo staff and cutting her palm with a little dagger from yet another pouch. “Your strength, I take it for my own. Your skills, I take them for my own. Your memories, I take them for my own. Your—”

Sovann screeched loud enough to cut off Yasuoka and then charged at her. Her bo staff was in its holster, and her dagger wouldn’t be able to stop the ghost—but Yasuoka had been doing this for many years, and she had some tricks of her own. Sovann was greedy, and she knew it, so she took a gold coin from one of her pouches and tossed it into the center of the lotus petal. Sovann immediately wheeled around to grab it.

And Yasuoka finished her chant. The lotus petal drawing glowed, and Sovann flickered and vanished. Moments later, Yasuoka felt the settling of new chi within her, another sharp, cold sensation at the back of her mind along with the other monsters and criminals she had defeated and pressed into service. Though most of her enemies had no useful powers for her and were simply banished so they could no longer haunt and persecute humans, dozens still remained bound to Yasuoka. Their presences were like cold icicles piercing into her bright, warm chi, but she knew how to bear them. And with them, she could beat even worse monsters. Protect more people. Defeat more evil.

And please Daimyo Tatsunori, the lord who had found her as a begging orphan, who had listened to his mystics when they told him what she could be, and who had trained her into a shaman that kept all Numasa safe from wandering spirits. She owed him everything, and she would not fail him. If he wanted the ancient monastery in the center of his fiefdom cleared of its ghost, though that ghost had stayed there for a thousand years and a dozen shamans before her had tried and failed to fell it, she would purge it. She already had almost all the spirits she thought she would need. Now she just had one more ghost to capture before she could perform the most important job he’d ever asked her to do

As she moved to leave, she looked down at the hole Sovann had drilled. With his body out of the way, she could see several ancient treasures, precious gemstones set in jewelry and the most expensive of metals worked into beautiful shapes. She paused for a moment, then summoned another ghost: Liu Huang, a famous sapper who had betrayed his people and undermined their fortifications so an enemy could conquer them, only to be executed by that same enemy and haunt the abandoned fort for decades until Yasuoka had dealt with him. She used one of Liu’s spells and shifted the stone platform just slightly, sealing the hole. The king’s treasures would be out of sight, kept safe for him and his spirit just as they were intended.

She sighed, feeling a wave of weariness pass through her, but forced herself to stand and retrace her steps. She’d have to channel Kuang one more time to make her way back through the wards, and she wanted to get that over with as soon as possible.

A Most Unusual Guardian, Part Four

A Most Unusual Guardian
By Aaron Canton
—Part Four—

 

 

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.

A Most Unusual Guardian, Part Three

A Most Unusual Guardian
By Aaron Canton
—Part Three—

 

 

Architecture firms; vendors of building supplies—wood, metal, hired men to dig and build; government offices where zoning and building permissions were handled, filed in triplicate, and then buried in a maze of paperwork; mage halls containing magic-trained mercenaries prepared to serve in whatever capacity their mystical arts could assist with; restaurants, cafés, and the seediest of pubs where said mages congregated after work; more firms, more vendors, more offices…

It was nearly midnight by the time Jadie dragged herself to the little inn she’d decided would be her new base of operations. Her room at the Stately Lady was too obvious and ostentatious; Gerard might know of it already. So she instead removed the flower from her hair, wrapped herself in a cloak and hood, and checked herself into a quiet room in the Flaming Pitch just outside Viscosa’s walls. There, she thought, she could go over what she knew and suspected about Renatta’s vault so she could work on her plan.

The broad strokes were simple: Gerard had the amulet, and Jadie wanted it. She didn’t know where he was, where he was staying, or what safe houses he might have—but she knew he’d break into the vault soon so as to steal the second amulet. She just had to get into it first, wait for him, then get around him and lock him inside the vault before fleeing and tipping off Renatta that a thief was around. Then Renatta could have Gerard arrested and interrogated until he gave up the location of the first amulet—or until he simply dropped it, if he had it on him. And then Violet would be happy again, and Jadie could go to Warus with a clear conscience.

Actually getting into the vault was another matter entirely. Jadie had found the mages, architects, and builders who had set up Renatta’s new treasury. Although she’d convinced them to tell her much of what they’d done—and burgled their offices to look at the detailed schematics—so far all that was accomplished seemed to intimidate her. The vault was a new basement structure next to the Renatta mansion consisting of one room set at the far end of a long, narrow hallway. That corridor was an absolute nightmare to get through without knowledge of the “safe” path. There were sections with physical traps that would launch arrows dipped in paralyzing powders or simply drop the intruder into a pit while sounding an array of magical alarms, followed by sections full of wards that would wreck any intruder. Some of the trapped sections were even timed, with spells set to go off if a visitor stepped on the entrance ward but didn’t reach the exit one in time (presumably on the basis that an intruder would be more hesitant and take longer than someone who actually knew the route). One could make their way through easily by knowing the right path, the flagstones to step on and those to avoid… but of course that was the one thing she hadn’t been able to finagle out of those who had built the vault.

Yes, she had her plant magic, and she was a pretty good thief besides, but this was the hardest mission she’d ever tried to crack by far. She didn’t even know if her instructors could manage it, much less her.

But if she was having trouble, she decided, Gerard might be having more—after all, however talented he was, he didn’t have her plant magic. And besides, he was arrogant enough that he might wait a few days for the baron to bolster security before making his run for the amulet. So Jadie probably had time. She could get local supplies, write to Westwick and have them send her some resources, do more scouting, maybe find some former employees of the baron’s who could be persuaded to talk—

She entered her room while deep in thought, saw the pile of gold sitting on the table, and swiveled just in time to see Gerard the Fang walk into the room behind her. “Jadie Rivers,” Gerard said, eyes twinkling. “Your ten percent.”

“What?” Jadie asked after a few moments of reeling from shock. “What ten percent?”

Gerard shut the door behind him and bowed slightly. “From the little job we did earlier. You were gone when I got back to your vantage point on the street, and you didn’t seem to be coming back to your room at the Stately Lady, so I took the liberty of giving it to you here. The amulet was already valuated by my client, so I figured I could take care of the payment here and now.” His mouth curved upwards into a smile. “After all, good help deserves to be paid promptly—and you were superlative, Jadie. Well done.”

Jadie took a deep breath to clear her mind enough to work out what to say next. “How did you find me?” she demanded at last.

Gerard clicked his tongue. “Surely you were taught the easiest way to follow someone is to simply figure out where they’re going and beat them there? I know how the thieves guild trains its students to look for hide-outs—places outside the center of town and away from guards, places frequented by day laborers and short-term guests where they won’t be noticed, places with solid walls so the rooms are defensible if an enemy does manage to track you down… really, when you think about it, this was the most suitable place by a mile according to all the rules you know. So I chatted with the clerk, paid to assign you this room when you arrived, and waited for you to show up.”

Jadie flushed in embarrassment. “Then why wait around?” she asked. “You could have just left the gold. I’d have figured out where it came from.”

“Well, when someone does a job for me and takes off before I can pay them, it makes me curious.” Gerard raised an eyebrow. “Something wrong?”

She knew she could try to bluff or lie, but Jadie had a feeling that wouldn’t work on Gerard the Fang. And besides, Jadie thought, he needed to know she hated what he’d done to Violet. She was representing the Westwick Thieves Guild, after all. He had to know they wouldn’t tolerate this.

“You robbed a child,” she said at last. “I thought you were going after the father. I mean, he totally deserves it. But you stole from the girl.” She clenched a fist. “You hurt her, and she didn’t deserve it. She’s just a kid.”

Gerard looked at Jadie for a long moment before a smile slipped across his face. “Really?” he said. “A thief with scruples? What are they teaching at your guild?”

“That we have a responsibility to others,” growled Jadie. “That because we take, we also have to give back; protect; look out for innocents.” Her eyes narrowed. “What client was so important that you robbed the girl instead of anyone else in this city?”

“A Warus warlord,” said Gerard easily. “The trinket I took was a gift from the king signifying his favor. A lot of warlords would like such a jewel that indicates they’ve earned the favor of the king of Raleigh. It tends to… help one’s negotiating position.”

“The king obviously didn’t give the amulet to a warlord!” insisted Jadie. “Somebody will tell the king—”

Gerard chuckled. “Really? Would you? Knowing there was a chance, however faint, the king really had given the amulet to that warlord and he might interpret your comment that he could never have done such a thing as calling him stupid for making that decision?” He shook his head. “Nobody will challenge it. My client will enjoy a very nice advantage in the trade negotiations. And I, of course, had the satisfaction of putting one over on Baron Renatta, who was so crude as to boast at a dinner party last month that thanks to his new vault, nobody could rob him—which I took as a personal challenge. Of course, catching him napping outside the vault is no big deal… so I’ll have to crack the vault itself later. Just to show I can.”

Jadie didn’t respond for a long moment. She had to get rid of him, she thought, so she could work out her plan to break into the vault. If she got all her supplies quickly enough, she could probably do it within a few days; maybe she could scare him into laying low until then. “I’ll report you to the Westwick Thieves Guild,” she said at last. “They’ll stop you.”

“I would be honored if they tried,” said Gerard lightly. “It’s been too long since I’ve had a proper nemesis. The last one was… almost three years ago, I think. I almost wish I hadn’t dropped him into that cursed tomb; he made things fun.” He shrugged. “But that’s for the future. Will you tell your guild about me before or after you try to break into the vault yourself and steal my prize?”

Jadie’s mouth dropped. “What—”

“My dear Jadie, I’m just as capable of finding out who Renatta hired to build his vault as you are. I talked to a few key apprentice mages and assistant architects when I arrived in town, told them to let me know if anybody odd questioned their masters. And you would not believe the reports they sent me today.” His eyes gleamed. “You want to hit the vault before me so you can get the second amulet for yourself. Come on, Jadie. We’re both thieves. You can protest about robbing kids all you want; we both know we both want the same things.”

That wasn’t true, Jadie thought—she didn’t want the amulet; she just wanted to stop Gerard. But if he’d finally made a mistake about her, she wasn’t going to tell him. “Yeah,” she insisted. “I do. And I’ll get it too.”

Gerard chuckled. “Jadie. I do respect your abilities, and in ten years or so you may be one of the best thieves in Raleigh. But right now, Renatta’s vault is… quite simply, it’s out of your league. I myself may have some difficulty. A novice like you? No chance.” He held up a hand. “As a professional courtesy, from one thief to another—you aren’t ready for this.”

There was no hint of deception in his voice that Jadie could make out—he meant it. And he was probably right too, Jadie knew. But she couldn’t stop; Violet needed her. “Guess we’ll see soon enough.”

“We certainly will,” said Gerard. “Tonight, in fact.”  Jadie couldn’t stop her mouth from dropping, and Gerard’s eyes twinkled. “Yes, Jadie. Tonight. In and out by sunrise. Exactly at sunrise, in fact, because that’s when a silver caravan passes by the Renatta mansion, and I figure I might as well nab that too while I’m here. What, were you thinking I’d need a few days to get ready?” He turned towards the door, but then looked back at her and shot a grin over his shoulder. “Sorry, Jadie, but that’s the difference between a talented amateur and a pro like me. So if you’re really dead-set on trying this, then… well, good luck. You’ll need it.”

When he reached for the door, Jadie grasped at her vines and sent them at him in pure desperation—but his eyes flicked down to the reflective brass of the doorknob, where the vines were dimly reflected, and he easily spun to the side and dodged. “Really?” he asked as Jadie’s vines retracted. “That’s it?” And then he slipped out the door before Jadie could attack him again.

Jadie waited until his footsteps had faded away before slamming the door shut and locking it. Then she sank to the ground, putting her head in her hands. “Now what?” she muttered. “I have to get into the vault tonight? I don’t have supplies, tools, help from Westwick—what am I supposed to do?” She thought of her mission, the crucial job she had to do in Warus. Maybe, she thought, she really should give up and lie low until it was time for her to leave.

But then she thought of Violet, with her red cheeks and tear-streaked face. And she thought of Gerard’s smug face, his glib dismissal that anything mattered besides seizing goods from whoever had them. She couldn’t let that stand. She had to do something.

After all, if she did otherwise—if she took from others but did nothing to help those who needed it—was she really all that much better than Gerard?

After a long moment, she pushed herself to her feet, then went to a counter and spread out the plans stashed in her pack. If she had to get into the vault tonight, then she would. That was all there was to it.

A Most Unusual Guardian, Part Two

A Most Unusual Guardian
By Aaron Canton
—Part Two—

 

 

“Sweets!” Jadie yelled, waving green and purple frosted candies at the crowds in the busy street. “Frosted, freshly baked sweets! Perfect for boys and girls of all ages!”

A few passersby turned to glance at Jadie, who blushed. Her barker’s costume had been thrown together in about five minutes when she’d sprinted into the nearest clothier and grabbed the brightest, gaudiest, most barker-esque dress they had that fit her. Even then, she’d had to steal a cap from a stranger in the crowd and a pair of gloves from a windowsill in order to finish the outfit. The candy was even worse, as she’d lifted the first tray she could grab from a nearby bakery only to realize once she’d rushed away from the store that the candies were too small to actually catch anyone’s eye. But none of that mattered; the costume and candies were all she had, so she’d just have to find some way to make them work and attract the attention of the girl who Gerard had robbed.

And she needed to attract her attention, because she had to know if there was some kind of reason for what Gerard had done. Maybe the child’s father used his daughter to hide his most valuable possessions in her pockets on the basis that most thieves wouldn’t think to search a young child for a priceless treasure; Jadie had learned of that tactic in her training. Or maybe the father had stolen some present for his daughter and Gerard was trying to return it to its rightful owner, even if that upset the girl. Or maybe the kid was fine, and Gerard had simply gotten her to wail and carry on in exchange for a toy or a sweet, and he planned to rob the father blind during that distraction.

Jadie knew none of this was likely. But as long as there was any doubt whatsoever, she couldn’t make herself believe the great Gerard the Fang pickpocketed innocent children. And so she had to find out for sure.

The entourage fixed the carriage and guided it down the street to Jadie’s position, with Gerard no longer in sight. As the carriage began to move past her, Jadie shouted, “Fresh candies! Delicious, wonderful candies! Perfect to cheer you up if you’re sad or make you feel even better if you’re happy!” She tossed a few candies around, ‘accidentally’ sending one through the window of the carriage. “Guaranteed to bring a smile to your face!”

She beamed at the carriage as it rolled past, and moments later, there was a call from within, and the driver pulled back on the horses’ reins to stop the vehicle. Then the door opened to reveal the daughter, with her cheeks red from crying, and the scowling father behind her. “Um, ma’am?” asked the girl. “Can I have a candy?”

“You certainly may!” chirped Jadie as she tossed the candies from one hand to another and flipped one up so the girl could catch it. “You look like you could use one!”

“Uh-huh.” The girl pocketed the candy and gave Jadie a coin in exchange. Her pigtails were askew, and she wouldn’t meet Jadie’s eyes. “Thank you, ma’am.”

She turned to go, but Jadie quickly said, “What’s the matter? Why’s a little girl like you so sad? Did you lose something?”

The father glared and opened his mouth, but before he could say anything, the girl sniffed and nodded. “My heirloom amulet got lost.”

“Oh my. That sounds serious. Here—you can have another.” Jadie passed her a second candy, which brought a brief smile to the girl’s face. “What’s your name?”

“Violet,” sniffed the girl as she sucked on the candy. “Violet Renatta.”

Jadie’s eyes widened slightly. There was a noble family with some land out in Western Raleigh called Renatta, and if Jadie remembered from her lessons correctly, the current heiress to that title was a little girl named Violet. So this was Baron Renatta’s daughter, as well as presumably the baron himself behind her. “And how long have you had your amulet, Violet?”

“All her life,” said the father, with an air of trying to hurry the conversation along. “That’s why it’s an heirloom. They’ve been passed down parent-to-child for centuries, ever since the House of Renatta was founded. Now if you’re done, Violet—”

“I wore it every day. And I took real good care of it ‘cause Daddy said it’s one of two amulets the king gave my great-great-great-great-granddad way back when!” Violet clutched her hands to her chest like she was hoping she could somehow feel the missing amulet where it had used to dangle. “And he said I should always take care of it ‘cause it shows the king really liked our family and so everyone should be nice to us. But the carriage broke and I lost it and Daddy says that’s like losing the king’s favor and—”

Jadie managed not to scowl at Baron Renatta, who was doing enough scowling for the both of them. “It was priceless,” the baron muttered in a voice he clearly intended only Violet to hear. “We will talk about this—at home. Now come along. And miss?” He caught Jadie’s eye. “It would be wise for you not to mention an amulet was missing.”

The thief quickly nodded. “Of course, sir. I wouldn’t dream of it.” And then, as both Renattas turned to go, she realized she had to know one more thing. “But you still have one amulet, right? So surely the people will still know the king supports your family?”

“But I can’t show it to anyone!” Violet wailed. “Daddy put it in this super-secure vault last month, and I can’t get it! And Countess Essett’s daughter is visiting next week, and I just know she’ll say all kinds of mean things if I don’t have it. She’ll say the king took it back and doesn’t like us anymore or—”

“Violet!” snapped Renatta. “Enough!” He took a long breath. “You know it is vital to our family fortunes that we retain at least one amulet, if only so we can show it to the king when he visits and prove we still value his ancestor’s gift. That is why it will remain in the vault, guarded by the best protection spells money can buy, where nobody can steal it… or lose it… or see it at all except when I come down to get it for him. Yes, the other noble families will talk when they observe you no longer have your amulet. Yes, the family will suffer for your carelessness.” Violet’s eyes welled up at that, but the baron didn’t seem to notice. “But so long as the king knows we value his favor, we will still endure. Now. Let us get home before you lose anything else.”

Jadie watched them go, struggling not to say anything. Baron Renatta was a louse, and ordinarily she’d love to take him down a peg, but right now she had bigger problems. If the Renatta family was seen as less legitimate on account of the theft, that could blow back onto other members of the family who weren’t completely obnoxious. That wasn’t fair to them. And even setting that aside…

Gerard had robbed a child. He hadn’t paid Violet to throw a fake fit; he wasn’t trying to get anything back to its rightful owners; he had no decent motivation Jadie could see. He’d just wanted a rare and valuable amulet and so had taken it. And if that made an innocent little girl cry… Apparently that was a matter of no concern to Gerard the Fang.

Jadie flushed red with anger. She stole from rich adults who had so much money they’d never notice the loss or from bad people who deserved to be taken down a few pegs. Sure, it might be wrong in some strict ethical sense, but she wasn’t really hurting anyone. This, though, was different. This was nothing but naked greed and a complete disregard for innocents that might be hurt.

And it wouldn’t end here. Baron Renatta had mentioned a high-security vault with the other amulet. If she knew anything about Gerard the Fang, she knew he’d be going after that next, both to complete his set as well as to say he’d beaten the best security systems on offer yet again. In fact, Jadie guessed that Gerard might even have done this deliberately to raise the challenge for himself—rob Violet and get the baron into such a tizzy that he’d boost his own security measures. Then it’d be even harder to break in… and even more glory would go to anyone who could manage it. That seemed like the kind of thing Gerard would want.

Jadie knew she had a responsibility to stay out of trouble for the next few days so she could go on her trip to Warus and resume her actual duties for the thieves guild. If she was arrested trying to stop Gerard, she would be fired from the ambassador delegation and would have no chance at stopping the anti-Raleigh conspiracy she was trying to root out. But despite all that, she couldn’t let this go. She didn’t know how, but she would get that amulet back for Violet. If that was the only thing that would dry her tears, then that was what Jadie would do.

And the only person standing in her way was the best thief she’d ever heard of.

Jadie’s heart sank. This, she thought, would be tough.

A Most Unusual Guardian, Part One

A Most Unusual Guardian
By Aaron Canton
—Part One—

 

 

It was the bronze cane with the cobra-shaped head and the silver tip that made Jadie Rivers realize she had just bumped into a legend. The man had already slipped past her, an older gentleman with graying hair, tanned skin, and a softly wrinkled face, and Jadie was half a dozen steps away down the crowded Viscosa street when she realized she recognized his cane from her thieves guild briefings. And then she saw the rest—the tiny spot below the man’s left ear, the subtle motion of his hand as it drifted past the pockets and purses of those around him, the minute bulge in the back of his cloak which Jadie knew concealed a knife coated in a paralytic agent so powerful that even an elephant would be felled with one scratch. There could be no doubt about it: she had just encountered one of the greatest thieves in the world, the man who had robbed palaces and temples, burgled warlords and pirates, plundered ancient ruins and pilfered priceless treasures from the strongest vaults ever built. She had just bumped into Gerard Falcoron, or as he was known in the criminal underworld, Gerard the Fang.

And then she touched her pocket and realized, to be more precise, she had just been robbed by Gerard the Fang.

But though such a realization would normally have upset the young thief, she could only smile to herself as she moved after him. There was no shame in losing to the best—and besides, as much as she loved gold, that was nothing next to the knowledge she had been so near a legend. She had grown up hearing stories and legends about Gerard the Fang. That he would deem her worthy of robbery was almost an honor.

Almost, she thought, but not quite. She needed to get her gold back. Her own reputation, not to mention her ability to afford that fancy dinner at The Stately Lady she was looking forward to, was at stake. She was due to leave town in just a few days as part of an ambassador delegation to Warus, where she would smoke out elements of an anti-Raleigh conspiracy as part of her service to the Westwick Thieves Guild. Once the delegation left, she’d be spending a long time traveling on dusty roads and camping out in the largely unsettled nation of Warus. Until then, she fully intended to avail herself of all the luxuries Viscosa made available to a bright young thief in her prime—but those luxuries required there to be money in her pocket. And so, even as she marveled that his stature, his form, and his muscled arms were just as perfect as they’d been described to her, she forced herself to hurry after him.

She wasn’t sure what gave her away, but once she had narrowed to within a couple body-lengths of him in the crowded street, he drifted away from her. His motions didn’t look deliberate or even hasty, but she noticed that suddenly he was always standing such that there were more and more people between the two of them. If this kept up, she’d never catch him; he’d screen himself until he reached a shop or an alley where he could completely disappear. Jadie would have to do something drastic to get him to acknowledge her.

So she pulled back a sleeve just slightly, thought about how wonderfully fun it would be to reach out and grab the silver-haired gentleman a few steps ahead of her, and flicked her arm—allowing the vines wrapped around it to uncoil, reach out, and yank back on Gerard’s wrist before he could do anything.

Gerard was too skillful to stumble, and he instead let the motion turn him around so he could see his adversary. Even though Jadie was already tucking her vines away, she saw his eyes flick to the few bits of green still visible as she pulled down her sleeves and knew he’d seen them. But that was all right; in fact, she realized she preferred he knew of her talents. “Um, hi!” she called in a voice somewhat more rapid than usual as she approached the legend, remaining just out of his arm’s reach in case he tried to take something else from her. “Mr. Purse, I think you have my Fang.”

The older thief blinked in confusion, and Jadie’s cheeks reddened. “I mean—I’m Purse, you have my Mister—no, um, you Fang my purse, er—” She cut herself off, blushed furiously as she took a deep breath, and blurted out, “Mr. Fang, I’m really excited to meet you, I’ve heard all about you, and could I have my purse back please?”

She cringed, hoping against hope Fang didn’t just roll his eyes and turn away from the stuttering mess she’d become, but instead, Fang’s mouth quirked upwards in a smile. It wasn’t a sincere smile—it didn’t reach his eyes—but it was, at least, a mark of respect. “Sure,” he said in a sonorous voice. “Here you go.” He drew a bag from the folds of his cloak and tossed it to her—

But Jadie had been trained by the best instructors the thieves guild had to offer, and she knew better than to catch a random object being thrown at her. After all, it could be poisoned, or enchanted, or even something the authorities were hunting for. It was moving too fast for her to dodge, so she instead grasped for the vines around her arms and focused on her magic again, rapidly urging them to lunge forward and shield her. And lunge they did, springing out from beneath her sleeves and intercepting the bag just before it would have fallen into her hands. They caught it, held it in front of her—and she saw it wasn’t her moneybag at all, but instead a red sack with a sigil etched on one side.

“A charm spell,” she murmured as her vines dropped the bag and retracted again. The spell markings were in faded gold thread that blended into the red fabric, but though it was faint, she still recognized the design from her training. Had she touched it, she would have been made to feel more trusting of the thief in front of her—not much, by any means, but enough to convince a typical victim that Gerard had surely returned the right bag. The victim would then let Gerard go, would carry on with her day as before, and wouldn’t notice the theft until much later, when she next went for her moneybag and found an empty red pouch instead.

But Jadie was no ordinary victim of theft. Having blocked the spell, she looked up at Gerard with a faint smile on her face—only to see his own smile had grown and now reached his eyes. Then he bowed down before her like he was introducing himself at a ball. “You’re as good as they say, Miss Rivers,” he murmured as he took Jadie’s moneybag out of his pocket and tossed it to the ground before her. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Jadie’s mouth dropped, and when she picked up her bag, her hands were so unsteady she missed and bounced her fingers off the ground twice before grasping it. “You—you know me?” she managed.

“The thieves guild prodigy? Of course I know you.” Gerard straightened up, eyes twinkling, and swept an arm at a nearby café. “I’m on a job, but I have a minute or two. I would love to make your acquaintance.”

Jadie’s heart, already beating fast, began to race like it was trying to burst out of her chest. She might get to see Gerard the Fang demonstrating his mastery of his profession—and even better, she could make a dependable companion of him! She glanced down at herself, wishing she’d worn something other than her usual green-and-brown traveling clothes or even styled her loose, brown hair nicely—maybe added more flowers—but now there was no time and she’d just have to make do. “Of course!” she said quickly. “I, uh, whatever you want, Mr. Fang, sir! I—”

“Please. We’re practically colleagues. You can call me Gerard.” The thief moved towards the café, and Jadie hurried to keep up with him. “And what should I call you? Do you have an alias?”

He wants to use my nickname, Jadie thought before reminding herself she didn’t actually have one yet. “Just Jadie is fine,” she said as they entered the café. Gerard led her to a booth in a dark corner, and she sat across from him, still gazing at his roguish face “And, um… What do you know about me?”

“You?” Gerard grinned. “I know you’re the youngest recruit ever to graduate the thieves guild. I know you have an unusual facility with plants, always wear a flower in your hair, and have vines wrapped around your arms that cause those almost-but-not-quite invisible bulges in your sleeves.” Jadie blushed, and Gerard chuckled. “So yes, I did recognize you as soon as I saw you, not just after you’d used your vines. I hope you don’t mind me giving you a little test, but I just had to see if you were as good as I’ve heard.”

Somehow, Jadie’s smile grew a little more. He hadn’t just heard of her, he knew everything about her. “I don’t mind at all, you can test me any time you want,” she said, realizing she was babbling again. “I mean, I’m just, I mean—”

Gerard held up a hand, and Jadie fell into grateful silence. “Relax,” he said. “You don’t need to worry about impressing me. You already have—I know you were behind that whole thing with Nemeroth last week. Well done. He was a pox on the kingdom.”

Jadie’s mouth dropped again. Nemeroth had been a high-ranking bureaucrat who had abused his office to steal diplomatic gifts and similar shipments, plundering the kingdom just to line his own pockets. Jadie might be a thief, but she was first and foremost a patriot and wasn’t about to let that stand. And though her plan had been incredibly dangerous—she’d gotten herself caught by Nemeroth and his thugs so she could get close enough to plant incriminating evidence on him—she was still happy she’d taken him down. But she hadn’t told anyone; even her superiors in Westwick hadn’t gotten her report yet. “How did you know that?” she managed.

“I talked to a few contacts in the guards. They told me Nemeroth had been with an innocent civilian when he was caught, and wouldn’t you know it, that civilian’s description exactly matched that of Westwick’s most promising young thief.” Gerard grinned. “Just as a tip, using the guards to take down opponents for you is great when you can swing it, but try to disguise yourself first at least a little. That way people like me can’t find you out. And hey, if you do have to go to the guards for something legitimate, you won’t need to worry about them recognizing you and wondering why you keep getting into trouble.”

“Right.” Jadie wished she had some way to record Gerard’s advice, but she had neither parchment nor anything to write with on her. “Sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. You beat an opponent who had a lot more resources than you did… and you did it with style. Like I said, you already impressed me. And today? You showed me you really are as good as your teachers think you are.” He raised a hand as if tipping a hat. “In ten years, maybe five, they’ll probably be telling legends about you instead of me.”

It took Jadie a few moments to recover from that and formulate her next question. “Thanks, really, I really appreciate it—I mean—” She blushed again as Gerard chuckled. “Can you tell me any stories?” she asked at last. “Famous places you’ve been? People you’ve met? Stuff you’ve… done?”

Gerard’s eyes gleamed, and he opened his mouth, but then a faint drumbeat sounded from outside, and he hesitated. The drums repeated, growing slightly louder, and he sighed. “Sorry. Like I said, I’m on a job. But if you wait for me here, I’ll be back in a flash, and then I’d be happy to share any stories you want.”

He rose, but Jadie jumped up even before he finished. “Can I watch?” she blurted out, acutely aware she was embarrassing herself and yet unable to stop. “Or—I mean—if you possibly needed someone to watch your back or help in any way at all—what I mean is, I’d love to—”

She fell silent as Gerard’s smile flattened out and he examined her. “I don’t usually work with partners,” he said. “It’s not my style. And for this job—I mean, really, all I’d need is someone to stand on a rooftop and distract the local soldiers if a patrol shows up. It’s not exactly glamorous—”

“I’ll do it!” said Jadie, a desperate smile on her face. If she got to work a job with Gerard the Fang… Well, she couldn’t think of many opportunities that would come close. She would get to watch a true master of their craft, someone who was rumored to have never failed to loot whatever he was after. You couldn’t get that kind of demonstration anywhere else. “Don’t worry,” she insisted. “I won’t let the soldiers come anywhere near you.”

Gerard was silent for a long moment before nodding. “All right. I’ll cut you in for ten percent. Your best bet is—”

“Building on the other side of the street, two doors back, since it’s tall and has crenellations to hide behind,” said Jadie immediately. For a moment she felt like she was back in the guild training halls, desperately trying to ace every test and convince her teachers they hadn’t made a mistake by accepting her at such a young age. “There’s an alley, and the walls of the building are rough enough to scale. I can be up there in less than a minute.”

Gerard said nothing for a moment, but then his smile returned, and he inclined his head. “Exactly what I was going to say. See you soon, Jadie.”

Jadie’s heart leapt at his words, and it kept thundering away as she slipped out of the café as quickly as she could. Without seeming to rush, she worked her way through the crowds to the building she’d mentioned and raced up the rough wall towards the top. Nobody looked at her, and even if someone had glanced into the alley and seen her halfway up, she would have already made it to the roof by the time they’d done a double-take and looked again. Jadie then ducked behind a crenellation and quickly peeked around it to look around, noting both Gerard’s probable target—an entourage of what looked like dozens of bodyguards and servants surrounding an ornate carriage shining with gold filigree and pulled by white-coated horses, all approaching her position from farther down the road—as well as a squad of palace soldiers marching towards the entourage from the opposite direction. She quickly thought through her possible options, settled on the simplest, and pried up a loose chunk of stone from a crenellation. Then she gripped it with both her hand and vines and threw it as hard as she could.

The stone flew straight and true, helped by Jadie’s vines as well as her strength, and slammed into an alleyway just behind the squad with a loud smash. The palace soldiers spun around and searched the alley, no longer looking towards the carriage and its guards. And Gerard—whom Jadie saw had slipped out of the café without her noticing before—was glancing up at her with a gleam in his eyes. “Thanks,” he mouthed. “Now watch this.”

He stepped forward, heading towards the approaching group. Jadie’s breath caught as he reached them. A guard motioned for him to move aside, he nodded and began to do so…

And then Gerard the Fang made his move.

Despite her close focus, Jadie couldn’t see exactly what Gerard did, but suddenly a guard in front stumbled into a pedestrian. The guards rushed forward to help their comrade, some of the pedestrians didn’t move out of the way fast enough, and as the two groups pushed against each other, Gerard was shoved forward. He bumped into another guard, and this time Jadie did see Gerard’s technique, a little hook with his foot in a smooth, subtle maneuver, and that guard fell sideways, grabbed Gerard for balance, and almost thrust him towards the carriage to catch and stabilize himself. Now the pedestrians were mixing into the formation, the guards were trying to regain control—and Gerard let himself be buffeted and pushed forward, shoved by the crowd or pulled by falling guards, until he was at the carriage. He made a flicking motion with his hand, and for a moment, nothing happened.

Then one of the carriage wheels broke off.

He’d flung something, Jadie realized. Maybe a dart in just the right spot, maybe acid, maybe some spell to unmake the joint. Whatever it was, he’d broken the carriage—and nobody suspected a thing.

Now the guards were rushing all over the place, some trying to calm the whinnying horses, others trying to push back the pedestrians who crowded around the accident. Gerard wound up pushed against the carriage in the crush, ignored by all as they fought for control. Then the carriage door opened, and a fat man, dressed in ornate robes with a ridiculous number of expensive gemstones glittering amidst their fabric, jumped out, followed moments later by a little girl who was probably his daughter. Both brushed past Gerard as they hurried into the midst of their guards. “Get off the road!” the man screamed. “There’s an alley—get off the road, calm the horses, and fix the carriage! Do it now!”

“Just buy another!” called a wag from the crowd, “And next time, make sure the wheel doesn’t fall off!”

The rich man blushed red as everyone in the crowd laughed, and even Jadie was so caught up in the moment she didn’t realize for a few seconds that Gerard had slipped away. When she looked back, she saw nobody by the carriage except for the rich man’s entourage. The theft was already done.

Jadie played it back in her head and focused on when the rich man had brushed up against Gerard. That must have been it, she thought. He’d snuck his hand into the man’s pocket or robes and taken some incredibly valuable object. A signet ring, perhaps, which could be used as proof of identity to let Gerard impersonate the noble at, say, his bank in order to clean out his accounts. Or some magic wand with incredible powers. Or maybe Gerard was doing the same thing Jadie had done with Nemeroth; maybe this man had done something bad, and Gerard had slipped the proof into his pocket and was even now going to call the guards—

But then the girl patted her dress, gasped, patted it again, and began to cry. “Daddy!” she wailed. “My heirloom amulet is gone!”

And Jadie’s mouth dropped as she understood. Gerard the Fang hadn’t robbed the rich man, the merchant or noble whose ostentatious wealth practically screamed that he’d done something to deserve being taken down a peg.

Gerard the Fang had robbed a child.

The Golem-Maker of the City, Part Four

The Golem-Maker of the City
By Aaron Canton
—Part Four—

The next day was bright and sunny—Laika’s favorite weather—and she smiled out the stairwell window as she descended to the guild’s lobby, a set of six one-foot-high golems in tow behind her. “I’m going out, Mr. Renzeya!” she called once she’d reached the bottom floor. “I’ll be back for lunch!”

“That sounds fine,” responded Renzeya, who had poked his head into the lobby with a knowing grin. “Just don’t get into trouble.”

“Who? Me?” Laika chirped, affecting an expression of injured innocence. “I would never!”

Renzeya’s grin grew as he gestured to the door. “Go then,” he urged. “I’m sure you don’t want to keep your friends… or anyone else… waiting.”

Laika giggled before hurrying outside—stopping for only a moment to let her iron golems by the doorway bang their staves a few more times than usual, just for a little added ceremony—and then rushed towards the square. Her new golems chased after her, with only a couple bits getting caught in the rough cobblestones of the road and breaking off. They were fairly simple golems which she’d whipped up just since last afternoon, but she knew they were good enough to serve her purpose. “Come on!” she urged them as they advanced. “We gotta go take back the square!”

The golems saluted as they ran—she’d got them trained to do that, at least—and as she sped up, they matched pace until they all were tearing through the streets at a rush.

They reached the square in just a few minutes, where the situation looked much the same as it had the previous day. Most of the kids, Laika’s friends included, were clustered on the square’s sides and staring longingly at its center while the half-dozen mage apprentices watched Brandon waving his wand in a tightly-controlled pattern. Normally, Laika might have been curious enough to wait and see what kind of spell Brandon was casting, but she had a mission to complete, and they were losing precious minutes of playtime.  Instead, she skidded to a stop by her friends and murmured to her golems. “Now! Go now!”

“What are you doing?” Matthias asked as the golems hurried away into the crowd, cutting between people’s legs and even knocking a few people aside as they ran. They were short enough that they vanished almost immediately, and within thirty seconds, Laika knew none of her friends could see where they’d gone. “They’ll break your golems again—”

“Nope!” Laika grinned at him. “I’ve got a plan to get rid of them!”

“A plan?” Thomas grinned. “Awesome. Need any help?”

“Nope! But if Lyra wants to write a song about it later, that’d be really neat!” Laika turned to Lyra, who blushed—she was comfortable performing other people’s pieces, but composing and playing her own made her lose her confidence, so Laika always tried to remind her how good she was at it—and then gave a quick nod. Laika beamed at her, then spun on her heel to face the square. “Here I go. Wish me luck!”

“Good luck!” said all three of her friends at once, and Laika’s smile grew. It was nice to have friends, she thought. She’d never had them before—she’d been stuck in a shed making golems from dawn to dusk—but now that she did, she wouldn’t let anyone hurt them. Not even big kids with magic like Brandon and his gang. After all, she was strong too—more than strong enough to stop the bullies in their tracks.

And she had just the plan to do it.

She squared her shoulders and then advanced towards the square’s center as she had the previous day. “Hey, Brandon!” she called. “I wanna talk to you!”

Brandon sighed then turned toward her as a lazy, cruel grin spread across his face. “Again?” he said. “Where’s the golems? Learn your lesson?”

Laika shrugged. “I wanted to make a deal with you!” she chirped, counting seconds in her head. “So that you can use the square sometimes and we can use it sometimes. How’s that sound?”

“A deal?” Brandon looked at the other mages, most of whom were chuckling by this point, before turning back to her with a sneer. “And why, exactly, should members of the Vestigo Guild listen to a little kid like you?”

“Well,” said Laika, trying to match the conciliatory tone Reynoll used in his diplomatic negotiations. “There must be something you want…”

As she spoke, she saw her little golems advance out into the open from the side of the square behind the mages, all of whom were looking at her. They crept closer, their leafy feet completely silent on the ground, and their vine fingers twitching a little as they neared the mages.

“Oh really?” taunted Brandon. “’Cause right now I’m thinking all we want’s to be able to practice our magic in peace. What else you got that we would want?”

Reynoll had described many times how it could be useful to keep someone talking, and Laika knew all his tricks. “I got a lot!” she said, spreading her arms wide and inviting them to waste time laughing at her instead of paying attention to their surroundings. And sure enough, the big kids laughed and teased her—and the golems crossed more of the square as they snuck up on the mages.

“Like personal golems to do all our cleaning and chores and stuff?” asked another mage. “’Cause that could be nice.”

Brandon thought for a moment, then grinned. “You know what? I could go for a cleaning golem—in fact, I bet we all could. And hey, I guess if we ever needed more golems to do other stuff, we could just come back here, and you’d make them for us, right?” He chuckled. “So that we’d leave you alone—”

Then one of Laika’s little golems rushed up behind him, reached out with its vine fingers, and ripped his wand from his hand.

Brandon’s mouth dropped as the other mages drew their own wands, but it all happened so quickly that Brandon’s friends had no time to look behind them, where Laika’s remaining golems were standing. In moments, her other golems pounced and snatched up the remaining wands. They then ran behind Laika, who took the wands and beamed—her magic had worked perfectly. If Mr. Cenard had seen her, she knew he would have been proud. “How about this?” she asked. “I’ll give you your wands back if you agree to let everyone else use the square!”

The mages gaped—except for Brandon, who flushed. “Give those back!”

“Not unless you promise to let us use the—”

Brandon bunched up his fists and took a big step forwards. “Give,” he hissed. “Them. Back. Now.”

Laika thought for a moment—then stuck out her tongue at him. “Come get them!”

The kids around the square gasped, and then Brandon rushed her with a roar.

He was a big kid, and Laika knew that if she let him land any blows he could really hurt her. But she also knew, from Miss Naphkator, lots of tricks for avoiding that. As he ran at her she waited until the last minute, then dropped into a crouch, and as his fists swung over her head, she swept her arms out at just the right time. He ran right into her grasp, and she twisted to redirect his momentum outwards and send him stumbling away, until he tripped and smashed into the ground. “Ow!” he screamed, rolling over and revealing bruises and cuts on his face. “You jerk! I’m telling!”

“Telling what?” Laika asked. “You attacked me! And yesterday you broke my golems first too! Everyone saw it!”

Brandon’s eyes flashed as he hauled himself back up to his feet. “That’s not what my friends will say!” he snapped. “They’ll back me up, say you started it—”

“And say I somehow got all your wands without you noticing?” Laika grinned and waggled the wands at him, though she kept an eye on the other mages—all staring at the scene in shock—just in case they tried to intervene. “Okay, go ahead! Of course, they’ll want to know what happened and I guess you’ll have to explain how my golems beat all of you.” Her eyes twinkled. “Sound good?”

Brandon’s eyes darted back and forth for a moment before his face took on a darker shade of red. “Then maybe I won’t tell. I’ll just wipe the smile off your face—”

“And we can do this again?” Laika dropped into a combat form Naphkator had taught her, and even though Brandon was bigger than her, when he saw her steady, focused stance, he faltered. One hand went up to his bleeding cheek, and Laika smiled. “’Cause you might have had a lot of magic school, but I’ve gotten lessons from a real knight!”

The mage stiffened, but then his shoulders slumped. “Fine,” he hissed. “Whatever. Just give us back the stupid wands, and we’ll leave.”

All around the square other kids burst into applause, and Laika almost cheered at her own triumph. If she’d just beaten him in a fight like Miss Naphkator had suggested, he could have tattled, but now he couldn’t do that without embarrassing himself by admitting he and his friends had all lost their wands to Laika’s magic. And if she’d just used her magic to take their wands like Mr. Cenard had proposed, Brandon might have attacked her friends in revenge, but now he was too scared to do that. So he was giving up… and she hadn’t even had to bribe him with any golems to do it. “See?” Laika teased as she sorted through the wands. “I knew I had something you wanted!”

The mages all swore, in front of all the other kids, they would never try to stop anyone from playing in the square again. A couple seemed hesitant, but then Laika threatened to break their wands over her knee and they quickly gave in. She returned the wands after that, but not before carefully carving a strip from each of them with a pocketknife so she could still prove she’d had the wands at one point by showing how the strips fit the damage to each wand. This way, if Brandon went back on his word and tried to tattle, she’d be ready. Brandon scowled when she carved a piece off his wand, but he could do nothing about it except jam his wand into his pocket when he got it back and then turn around. “Let’s go,” he growled. “This square sucks anyways.”

“Bye!” called Laika as the mages scurried away, the other kids jeering too. “Don’t come back unless you wanna mess with me again!” She grinned, then turned back to the other kids. “Okay, what do you want to do—”

“Three cheers for Laika and her golems!” yelled Thomas from one side of the square. “Hip hip hooray!”

“ Hip hip hooray!” echoed the other kids.

Laika grinned, and at that moment, she knew the day was going to be absolutely perfect.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

When Laika returned to the guild a few hours later, she was still chewing the last of the warm honey rolls the others had bought for her, and at the same time, she was humming the new song Lyra had composed. She was just up to the verse about how Laika had thrown Brandon onto the ground with the force of a mighty avalanche when she walked into the guild’s lobby—and saw several adventurers looking at her.

“So?” Miss Naphkator asked, leaning against one wall and cocking a grin at her. “How’d the quest go?”

Laika quickly swallowed and then grinned at her. “It went great! The mages left, and I don’t think they’ll come back ever again! And then everyone bought me honey rolls and candy, and Lyra made up a new song for me, and now a bunch of kids want me to teach them fighting moves!” That had probably been the most fun part of the victory celebrations—everyone had been watching her as she explained and demonstrated how to do the move she’d used on Brandon, and then she’d had her golems help practice with the others until all the kids more or less had it down. “It was awesome!”

“I hope our advice was of some use to you,” said Mr. Cenard. He was leaning on his wizard’s staff near Reynoll, while Renzeya himself was waiting by the entrance to the bar and dining area. “Did you find it helpful?”

“Uh-huh!” Laika quickly nodded, and her golems behind her followed suit. “It was!”

“Well.” Renzeya stepped to one side so Laika could get through the door into the dining area. “In that case, I’d say it’s your turn, Laika.”

“My turn?”

“To tell us your story!” Miss Naphkator grinned. “We’ve told you plenty of ours—now you should tell us the great saga of how little Laika from the mountains beat a big, tough, Vestigo mage in front of everyone!”

Laika blinked, for a moment scarcely able to believe it. “You… want to hear my story?”

“Of course,” said Mr. Cenard. “After all, it does seem like you’ve had an impressive adventure.”

“Perhaps even worthy of being recorded in the guild’s journals,” Reynoll noted.

The golem-maker slowly grinned at the adventurers around her. And as she headed into the dining area, sitting down in the most comfortable chair and gathering her golems around her so she could point to them as needed during her story, she felt happier than she ever had before.

The Golem-Maker of the City, Part Three

The Golem-Maker of the City
By Aaron Canton
—Part Three—

Hours later, Laika had flopped down on her bed and was staring up at the ceiling when someone knocked on the door. “Laika?” called Mr. Renzeya’s voice. “Can I come in?”

“Uh-huh,” Laika managed. She groaned and looked up just in time to see Renzeya enter her room with a small tray of strawberries and cream. Even though that was one of her favorite dishes, she wasn’t feeling particularly hungry and didn’t smile or grab at the dish. “What’s going on?” she asked.

“I thought I would come see how you’re doing.” Renzeya set the tray on Laika’s nightstand and smiled down at her. “Have you figured out what you’ll do about the Vestigo Guild apprentices yet?”

She slowly shook her head. “Sorry.”

“Sorry?” Renzeya frowned, then shut the door behind him and knelt by her bed. He was a broad man with a muscular build that hadn’t changed since he’d been a mighty warrior with the Viscosan guard, but his hands were gentle as he helped slip a fresh pillow under Laika’s head so she could rest more comfortably. “You don’t need to be sorry.”

“Mmf.” Laika shook her head again and tried to push herself up, but she was exhausted—not least because she’d spent the past few hours pacing around her room as she tried to work out which of the three ideas the guild patrons had given her might actually get rid of Brandon and the other mages. “I know. I just… I should be better at this.”

“Why?” asked Renzeya, but his tone was gentle and not reproving. “Have you done anything like this before?”

“No, but…” Laika was silent for a long moment. Why did she feel like she should be better at this? If none of the other kids could solve the problem, why should she—who was still relatively new to town and who had rarely interacted with friends her own age before—be any better than her friends or any of the other kids?

“But I am really good at magic,” she continued at last. “I can do all kinds of things. And back where I grew up, the mayor always said, because I had power, it was my job to use it to help people. But now I can’t use my powers to do anything useful.”

Renzeya’s frown deepened. “The mayor took advantage of you. Just because you have a gift doesn’t mean you’re obligated to work without end like he had you do. And your golems are very useful. Don’t sell yourself short—”

“I know,” she quickly interjected. “But I still feel like I should be able to do something! I mean, I have all kinds of people helping me—Miss Naphkator and Mr. Cenard and Mr. Reynoll, and Mr. Grannick when he brought me here, and you—and I still can’t figure out which of their ideas is the best one!” She pushed herself up at that. “I don’t want to waste…”

She trailed off, but Renzeya tilted his head and said, “What would you be wasting? Not their time, surely?”

Laika turned away.

“Laika.” Renzeya moved around the girl’s bed so she was looking at him again. “Nobody here is teaching you anything expecting you to beat up a bully every month.” Laika did smile a little at that, and Renzeya went on. “They’re teaching you because they like it. Because you’re a good student who listens and practices and wants to someday use what they teach you to do amazing things. You’ve already repaid them, every time you come in for another lesson and remember everything from the last one. And Grannick’s happy just to know you’re living your life here, away from the village that did you wrong. He’s always eager to hear of what you’ve been up to, even if it’s just running around with your friends. You’re not wasting anything.”

A slow smile formed on Laika’s face, and she thought back to when Naphkator had grinned after Laika had learned a complicated blocking move, or when Reynoll had bought her a candy once she could recite a couple of his stories verbatim, or when Cenard’s eyes had actually twinkled after she’d mastered a meditation technique. And of course there was Grannick, whom Laika recalled was always happy to see her even if she really hadn’t been up to much since he’d last left. But then she thought of the other people she was worried about letting down and her smile slipped. “What about my friends, though? Don’t I need to help them?”

“And I know you will,” said Renzeya. “Because you are a very talented girl. But I’m sure they’d understand if you didn’t come up with a perfect plan the first day, wouldn’t they?”

“I guess…”

“There you go.” Renzeya patted her shoulder. “Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Laika thought for a long moment before slowly nodding. Renzeya had been a great warrior himself, and he’d probably fought loads of bullies. She knew he had to know what he was talking about. And even in her village, she sometimes had to take a day or two to work out a golem problem—surely it was all right she hadn’t quite figured this one out yet. “All right,” she said. “And I’ll think about it some more. Try to figure out which of the plans they told me downstairs is best.”

Renzeya paused and a slow smile crossed his face. “Do you have to use one of those plans?”

“Well, no, but… Naphkator and the others are real smart!” Laika insisted. “They could all make their own plans work.”

“Yes, but they aren’t you,” said Renzeya. “Naphkator likes fighting, so she’s tough enough to fight people and make them back down. Cenard likes magic, so he has experience using spells to win fights. Reynoll likes being diplomatic and making deals, so he’s great at negotiating with people standing in his way. What do you like?”

Laika blinked. “I like all those things. I really like using magic to make golems—but I also like Miss Naphkator’s fighting training, and sometimes I like just talking to people.” She paused as something occurred to her. “Hey… could I maybe use a little of all their plans?”

“I don’t see why not,” said Renzeya. “In fact, if it’s your own idea, it’s probably better suited to you than any of theirs. What did you have in mind?”

Laika described the ideas she was pulling together in her mind, combining little bits of Naphkator’s, Cenard’s, and Reynoll’s ideas. Renzeya occasionally chimed in with a suggestion of his own, but he didn’t seem to feel she needed many of those, and Laika felt her smile growing as the plan came together. “I think this will work!” she said as she finished, eyes gleaming again. “And Brandon won’t know what hit him!”

“It sounds good to me. Let me know if you need any help—although, personally, I think you’ll do fine on your own.” Renzeya stood and flashed a brilliant grin at Laika. “As for materials, we’ve got some stone and lumber out back for the new wing of the guild, but I don’t think it’ll be a problem if you take a few pieces. Want me to send some up?”

“Yes, please!” said Laika at once. “Thank you! And—if it’s not much trouble—maybe a few other materials?” She named them. “Please?”

Renzeya chuckled and agreed before wishing Laika good luck on her quest and leaving her to her work. A few minutes later, porters came up with the supplies, and Laika busily started creating everything she’d need to put her plan into action.

The Golem-Maker of the City, Part Two

The Golem-Maker of the City
By Aaron Canton
—Part Two—

Laika stumbled back to the Adventurers Guild, head drooping and feet dragging, and went right to the stairs to go up to her room. Normally she would have stopped in the bar and dining area first so she could listen to the adventurers talking about the awesome quests they had completed and the great battles they had triumphed in, or—if the bar had been quiet—would have curled up in a corner with one of the diaries or journals retired adventurers had donated to Renzeya’s library. But this time, her only goal was collapsing into bed and hoping the stupid day would just end already.

“Laika?” She turned to see Renzeya passing through the lobby with a great jeweled sword in his hands. “Are you all right?”

She was silent for a moment before shaking her head. “Some mage kids broke my golems,” she said quietly. “And they threw me an’ my friends out of the square so we can’t play there anymore.”

“What?” Renzeya looked baffled for a moment before frowning. “That doesn’t sound right. Why don’t you come in here and tell me all about it?”

For a moment, Laika wanted to keep going. That was what she’d done back in her hometown, after all. When she’d been sad or upset, it had been her duty to hide that from all the villagers, get back to work making golems, and let whatever was bothering her fade on its own. But she wasn’t in her hometown anymore, she thought; Grannick had brought her here. She could be sad in public now. “Okay,” she managed, turning to the bar. “That sounds good.”

The dining area was nearly full, a sign there was a big quest or job somewhere that adventurers were getting ready for, but Renzeya got her a seat in a big chair with a comfortable cushion. A few moments later a rich bowl of stew, a thick piece of cinnamon-spiced nut bread, and a big glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice were set in front of her. “So,” said Renzeya, sitting across from her as if she was his only concern. “What exactly happened?”

Laika quickly recounted the story as she dug into the food, and between the rich, savory taste of the chicken in the stew and the sweet spiciness of the bread, she began to feel a little better. But when she got to the part where Brandon had broken her golems, she felt her spirits drooping over again. “He said his magic was important and mine was stupid,” she murmured. “And then he broke them, and I couldn’t pick up the pieces because he made me leave the square.”

Renzeya nodded. “And so you’re upset because they broke your golems?”

The girl began to nod before stopping herself. “That’s part of it, but…” She thought for a moment as she carefully split off part of the crust of the nut bread so she could savor it by itself. “My friends still couldn’t use the square, and I felt really bad about it. Like I should have been able to help them.”

“Hmm.” Renzeya leaned back. “Well. That’s a very mature response, Laika. It sounds like you’re already thinking like a leader.”

Laika smiled a little, but it quickly fell when she looked back into her rapidly cooling stew. “What should I do, Mr. Renzeya?” she asked. “Back home the mayor wanted me to be happy making golems for him, so he stopped anyone who was being mean to me—I never had to do it myself. And they said adults can’t help now because the mages are super important.”

“Well, the Vestigo Guild is vital to the city,” mused Renzeya. “So they do have influence. And they may well be willing to hush up misconduct from their apprentices rather than let them draw the guild’s name into disrepute.” The guild leader grimaced, fierce anger visible on his face, and for a moment Laika could see why nobody even thought about starting trouble in Renzeya’s guildhall. “You may have to deal with this yourself—assuming you don’t simply rebuild your golems and find another square.”

“I don’t wanna find another square!” Laika insisted. “It’s not fair. We were there first, and we weren’t even stopping them from playing. We just wanted to play too!” She crossed her arms. “I wanna make them let us back into the square and to promise never to break my golems—or anyone’s toys—ever again. But I don’t know what to do.”

“Why not just punch him in the nose?”

Laika brightened a little and turned as Renzeya looked up at Lily Naphkator, who had moved next to their table with a tankard of beer and a plate piled high with chicken drumsticks and roasted potatoes. Lily was a tall, wiry woman with brown skin, a jagged scar across her right cheek, and a rapier at her side with a big diamond set in the hilt. As far as Laika was concerned, Lily was one of the coolest adults ever. “Punch him?” Laika repeated. “Would that be okay?”

“Why not? Sounds like that mage twerp hit you first by breaking your golems. ‘Scuze me, kid.” Lily dropped into the seat next to Laika and bit a large chunk off a drumstick. “Just give him one right in the face. He’s a mage, right? Most of them are pretty bad in a brawl—and unlike you, he hasn’t been trained by one of the best duelists in the land.” She smirked. “He’ll go down like a sack of potatoes, and he won’t bother you anymore.”

“But…” Laika glanced at Renzeya, who was frowning, before turning back to Lily. “What if he tells someone and gets me in trouble? Or Mr. Renzeya?”

“Just tell him that if he does that, you’ll come back and beat him up again.” Lily took a long draught from her tankard. “Did that myself once. A minor noble wanted my family’s ancestral lands, so he bribed a barrister—that’s someone who says what’s legal and what isn’t—to fake up a title deed saying he was the real owner of my manor. Then he had his goons try to evict me for trespassing.” Her eyes gleamed, and Laika—as she always did during Lily’s stories—leaned forwards so she could hear better. “I thrashed his goons, of course, but when I went to thrash him, he got all smug and said he’d have me thrown in jail. So—did I leave?”

“Uh-uh!” said Laika, who knew Lily never backed down from any confrontation when she was convinced she was in the right.

“’Course not!” Lily continued. “He had this big marble statue in his yard, so I grabbed my enchanted mace from my pack, went up to it, and bam!” She mimed swinging a mace. “Knocked it down in one strike, made him go all white and gape like a fish.” She bulged her cheeks in a fish-like way, drawing laughter from Laika. “Before I left, I told him that if he tried to have me arrested, I’d bring his mansion down on top of his head. Next day, I heard he’d taken an early visit to his summer home in Cranebridge. That was three years ago; I’m pretty sure he’s still there.”

Laika clapped at the end of the story, but as Lily took another swig from her tankard, the girl’s brow knitted. It was one thing for Lily to threaten someone, she thought, but Lily was really strong. Even if Laika could hit Brandon hard enough to make him not want to tangle with her again, she didn’t think she could make him so scared that he wouldn’t even tell his teachers what she’d done. He’d go to them and cause a lot of trouble for her and her friends.

“Aw, come on, Lily. You’re always about the smashing.” Laika turned again to see the wizard Averic Cenard approaching. He was a short, red-faced man who had a big black mustache and walked with a cane that doubled as his wizard’s staff. He was wearing his formal robes, which Laika knew meant he was meeting with other wizards that day. “Ever hear of the subtle arts?”

“Sure.” Lily grinned. “Those’re the arts where you chant for half a day to cast a spell on the bad guys, except by then all the real warriors already showed up, beat up the bad guys, and made off with all the loot.”

Cenard chuckled and sat next to Renzeya. “Ah, but when one spell can best an army of villains, perhaps spending the day casting it is preferable to spending a fortune hiring ‘real warriors’ by the dozen to fight them.” He steepled his fingers as Lily laughed and Laika smiled, familiar with their longstanding argument. “In any event, Laika, you have a prodigious talent for one so young. Why not beat this Brandon fellow at his own game? Show your magic is superior to his. Embarrass him off the field.”

Laika tilted her head. Cenard had taught her a few techniques, mostly for gathering up her magic to build stronger golems, but when she thought back to them, she couldn’t recall any that would guarantee her a victory. “But he’s got more training than me, and he’s older. What if he’s better?”

“You have a rare talent for one so young—I think it highly unlikely he can beat you, particularly as he’s quite likely to underestimate you.” Cenard’s eyes twinkled. “He won’t know what hit him, and he’ll be forced to back down… without any claim against you he can bring to the adults in his guild.”

Laika nodded, but her smile had faded. If Laika beat him in a magic show instead of a fistfight, then he might not be able to go to the adults like he would if she hurt him—he’d just look whiny—but he also wouldn’t be scared of her coming back. He’d just be embarrassed, and he might even seek revenge on her or her friends. Laika couldn’t have that.

Meanwhile, a third figure had stepped over from a nearby table. Renzeya nodded at the figure of Reynoll, an official whom Laika knew often served as the point of contact between the government and the mercenaries it occasionally hired. Reynoll had no weapons training or magic to teach Laika, but he knew more about the history of the city than anyone else Laika had met, and he was often willing to fill in the gaps—or correct the lies—in the adventurer journals Laika read for fun. “I couldn’t help overhearing,” said Reynoll, his northern accent perfectly crisp as usual. “And might I suggest a third option? That of diplomacy?”

“Diplomacy?” repeated Laika.

“Yes. He holds the square. You want the square. Surely there is a trade you could work out.” Reynoll munched on a piece of oat bread covered in melted goat cheese. “Perhaps if you gave him a golem, he would leave you alone. And then you would need not fear retaliation from him or his superiors.”

But that also felt wrong to Laika. Brandon was in the wrong, and he’d broken her favorite golems, so why should she give him anything? And besides, she didn’t want to be forced to make golems for people that would mistreat her anymore. She hadn’t done that since leaving her hometown, and she wouldn’t start again!

Renzeya glanced at her and seemed to notice her frowning. “I think we’ve all given her enough advice, lads,” he said. “Maybe we could let her be.” He then looked back down at Laika. “But if you do want to talk things over, I’ll be up later, okay?”

Laika nodded, and as the others got up to go, she returned to her food.  Although she tucked in with gusto and was as nice as she could be to Renzeya and everyone else who greeted her, Laika’s mind was still uneasy. She had to deal with Brandon, she knew, but despite all the advice she’d been given…

She had absolutely no idea how.