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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.

The Littlest Kobold, Read Along – Part Five

Ladies and gentlemen, the finale of The Littlest Kobold is just below. I wanted to say thank you once again to Cristina for lending us her voice on this piece.  We’re excited to get her take on a couple of other Tellest stories soon—lend us your ears again when our next tale is adapted for audio!

Note: we’re aware that Miss Cristina said Part Four in the intro.  Just didn’t get enough time to clean that up!

 

 

The Littlest Kobold
A Story by Michael DeAngelo
-Part Five-
Narrated by Cristina Cruz

 

“And you’ve been with them this whole time?”

Leah nodded, averting her gaze from Gwendolyn’s sympathetic eyes.  “Every time I try to get away, one of Faroon’s people brings me back.”  She turned to Camille then.  “We shouldn’t be here.  It was bad enough involving you and your family, but if they come here and think Aspica was involved…”

“Nonsense,” Gwendolyn said, standing up straighter.  She circled around to the front of the counter and gestured for the children and the kobold to follow her.  “This is a noble cause, and I’m sure the rest of the folks who live here would be happy to lend their hand.  I can’t do much for you, but maybe we could fashion you a better disguise.  No offense to your sling – or to you, Leah – but that won’t hide the fact she makes for one unusually hairy baby.”

Leah opened her mouth to speak, raising her hand, but hesitated.  “Actually, I was a pretty hairy baby.”

Gwendolyn laughed as she led her guests to the front of the shop.  “So obviously you’ve seen my hobby.  I love to make dolls.  My husband and I have been trying for a baby, and when we started, I began working on these dolls.  Still no baby, but my collection’s pretty impressive, no?”

“You made these?” Camille asked with wide-eyed wonder.

“Well, not all of them,” Gwendolyn clarified.  “I purchased the porcelain ones from Sungarden a few years back.  But the clothes they wear and all the other knitted dolls… Those are all mine.”

“It’s incredible,” Abraham remarked.

“Thank you very much.  And now, if we’re ready, I’d like to prepare an outfit for Miss Leah.”

“An outfit?” the tiny kobold repeated.

“We can’t have you out and about while Faroon’s lackeys are looking for you.  Not without a proper disguise, that is.”  Gwendolyn reached high up on one of the shelves and pulled down a doll she had purchased, removing its clothes and placing the naked doll on the bottom shelf.  Finally, she turned about, proudly displaying a dress that would have been fit for a girl of high regard.  Though it was simple with an auburn-tan color, it was bolstered by a lace bodice and sleeves sewn into the top.  It splayed out at the bottom in ruffles as well.  Gwendolyn held it out next to Leah.  “Just your size, too.  What do you think?”

The kobold looked up at the shopkeeper with moisture building on the rims of her eyes.  She spun on her heel and looked at her young rescuers.

“That’s beautiful, Gwenna,” Camille said.  As she finished, she bowed her head, letting her eyes fall upon the pouch that rested on Abraham’s belt.  “My father gave us some gold, but I don’t think it’s enough to pay for that.”

“Nonsense,” Gwendolyn said.  “I’m not charging you for this.  This is a gift to commemorate our friend’s emancipation.”  She held out the dress again, delivering it into Leah’s unsteady hands.  “Why don’t you try it on?  We’ll all look away so you can change out of those nasty rags.”

Nodding, the kobold took the outfit and turned around the corner of the shelves.  They could see the light casting the shadow of her body as she removed her cracked, old linens.

“So your parents know you’re here?” Gwendolyn asked.

“Yes,” Abraham answered.  “Papa would really love this shop.  He really appreciates craftsmanship.”

“Back at home, he carves pieces for games of lords,” Camille said.

“He’s much better at making the pieces than he is at actually playing the game,” Abraham snickered.

“Does this look all right?” the three of them heard.  Turning about, they saw Leah in her new dress, its color complementing her dark fur.  “I look silly, don’t I?”

Both Camille and Gwendolyn brought their hands to their mouths, but Abraham took a step forward.  “You look beautiful,” he said.

“That you do,” the shopkeeper confirmed.  “Now we just need the finishing touch.”  She kneeled down in front of the kobold and placed something on her head.  Abraham stepped around and noticed as Gwendolyn tied the bonnet around Leah’s chin.  “There we are.  Your look is complete.”  She stepped out of the way, letting Camille see her more clearly.

Her mouth opened wide, but it quickly transformed into a smile.  “You look like a princess, Leah.”

“This is incredible, Gwenna,” the kobold said.  “You’re sure this is all right?”

“I insist,” she replied, dropping to one knee.  Leah graciously accepted a hug but averted her gaze when the gesture had ceased.

“Cami, have a look at this,” Abraham said.  “I can’t tell… Is that our carriage?”

The young lady cut across the shop and glanced out the window.  Sure enough, her father sat in the driver’s seat, and Rion leaned out of the side.  “That it is,” she said.

“What opportune timing,” the shopkeeper declared.

Abraham ran to the door and swung it open.  “Papa!” he called out.

“Now, you take care of each other,” Gwendolyn said.  “You’ve been given a chance to make something wonderful of yourselves.”

“I hope we meet each other again,” Camille said.

“I’m sure we will,” she replied.

 

Leah exited the doll shop with her hand in Camille’s.  Virgil swung the carriage about, and Rion was just finishing leaning out of the other window, much to the dismay of his mother.

“Up and about, kids,” the Destrite patriarch said.

“We wanted to introduce you to Gwenna,” Abraham pressed.

“I’m afraid we don’t have time,” Virgil protested.  “Faroon’s voice can still be heard in the northern woods.  I don’t want to miss our chance to escape with the little lady.  If it’s meant to be, I’ll meet this Gwenna another time.”

“Yes, Papa,” Abraham said as he opened the carriage door.

Jerrick hopped out of the cabin and gave a nod to his siblings and the kobold.  As Camille lifted the well-dressed stowaway into the wagon, the eldest boy hopped up next to his father.  Abraham squeezed inside, and he and his sister sat on either side of Leah.  She looked at Nika, who shared a warm smile with the kobold.

“Nice to be meeting you, ma’am,” she said.

“You’re a precious little thing, aren’t you?” Nika replied.  “Even more so up close.”

Leah flashed an awkward grin.  “Thank you so much for taking me in.”

Virgil flicked the reins and urged the horse forward.  The brother and sister who had ventured to Aspica saw Gwendolyn in her shop, waving them and the kobold farewell.  Camille beamed and nodded to her new friend as the wagon pulled out of sight.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Rion had fallen asleep against the wall of the carriage, and seeing him in that relaxed state enticed a yawn from Leah.  She sat between Camille and Abraham and across from Nika.  The children’s mother caught the last moment of the kobold’s yawn, and Leah shied away in embarrassment.

“Whoa,” they heard Virgil say.  At once, the carriage drew to a stop.  Everyone in the cabin heard some incoherent mumbling outside.  “Can I help you?”

“I hope so,” another voice in the woods assured.  Leah’s ears perked up, and her eyes widened at the familiar-sounding man.  “Earlier today, one of my friends went missing.  I was hoping you might be able to give me an idea of where she might be.  Have you seen a kobold running around these parts?”

“A kobold?” Virgil repeated.  “This far from Warus?”

“Part uh our circus troop,” another voice snarled.

“Fergus,” Leah whispered.

“Shh,” Camille hushed.

“Sir, I hope you won’t mind, but I’d like to check your carriage for our friend,” George went on.  “She has a habit of disappearing into strange places.”

“It’s just my family back there,” Virgil assured.  “And we have a newborn that’s just fallen asleep.”

“Don’t make this harder on –” Fergus began to say.

A brief pause interrupted him, followed by the agitated bark and growl of a dog.  Leah shivered against Camille’s body.  The young lady scooped her up and held her close.  Nika leaned forward and grabbed her daughter’s hand.

“The seat lifts up,” she whispered.

Outside, George stepped closer toward the carriage.  “I assure you, sir, we’ll be quick and quiet.”

“My little brother is scared of dogs,” Jerrick piped up.  “One of them bit him on the hand once.”

“We’ll leave this fella outside then,” George conceded.  Not a moment later, the door to the carriage swung open, and he was there upon the ground.  “Good evening, folks.  Sorry for the interruption, but my… employer would have my head if I didn’t take adequate measures to make sure our friend wasn’t stowing away without your knowledge.”

Nika smiled, cradling Kira against her chest.  “Of course.  Just us five, though,” she softly spoke.

Taking a look about the compartment, George didn’t see anything amiss.  It was just the woman and her four children, as she had said.  He began to take his leave when his eyes settled on the seat Camille and Abraham were upon.

“Ma’am, I don’t mean to intrude, but does that seat open into another compartment?”

The briefest of pauses was all Nika would allow.  “Why yes, it does,” she said.  “Children, would you give the man some room?”

“Thank you,” George said.  “You wouldn’t believe how wily this kobold can be.”  As he moved into the carriage, Camille lifted the seat.  “Thank you,” he said again.  He was affronted with the sight of the ruffled dress with the lace bodice.

“That’s just a doll I bought for my sister,” Camille said.  “I know she’s too young to appreciate it yet, but I don’t know when we’ll be back this way.”

The circus guard passed a wary glance at the girl, his brow furrowed.  He reached into the compartment, moving some clothes aside, and pulled the dress down over Leah’s protruding tail.  After a light squeeze on the kobold’s back, he patted her and stood back up.

“I don’t see anything out of the ordinary here,” he said.  George looked at the Destrite family members, meeting their wide-eyed stares.  With an appreciative nod, he displayed a halfhearted grin.  “Thank you,” he offered, his voice cracking just a bit.

As he disembarked the carriage, Abraham shot a surprised and curious glance toward his mother.  She shook her head but remained quiet.

“Wait a minute,” Fergus snarled.  “Hold Rufus for me.  Something doesn’t smell right.”  Without warning, the skinny, short fellow hoisted himself into the carriage.  He took a quick look around, but his gaze lingered on the baby held to Nika’s chest.  He squinted and stepped toward mother and babe.

“You touch my mother or my sister, and you’re a dead man,” Abraham insisted.

That promise stayed Fergus’ hand, but he turned on his heel and peered into the open seat compartment.  He saw the dress and bonnet atop the supposed doll.  Camille swallowed hard and passed a pleading glance to George.  He stood outside, his hand grasped around Rufus’ leash.

Fergus pivoted, bracing his hands on the carriage’s doorframe.  “You stupid idiot,” he seethed.  “You brought us the wrong way!”  He hopped out of the vehicle and approached the circus guard.  “I’m sorry, Georgie.  The pup must have lost the Hare’s scent a ways back.”

Over the sound of the waking newborn, his companion sighed.  “No matter.  We always find her,” George replied.  “I’m sorry to have interrupted you nice folk.  Please be careful as you head up north.  It’s getting dark.”  He turned to the tracker and his dog.  “Let’s go, Fergus.  Maybe she went into the town.”

“Good luck,” Jerrick called out.  Beside him, Virgil snapped the reins, urging the horse on.

Camille reached over and swung the door shut while Abraham lifted Leah from her hiding spot.  When they had travelled a ways, she ventured a glance outside.  Turning back, the Destrites noticed the tears that matted the fur beneath her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” Camille asked.

With a sniffle, a weak grin, and a shrug, Leah looked up.  “I’m free.”

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The darkness had lulled them all to sleep.  Only Nika was still awake, gently stroking her baby’s soft hair.  Crickets outside hummed their tune over and over, so often that it melded together with the silence.  When the carriage stopped, the two children opposite Nika shook forward, and Leah nearly fell to the floor from between them both.  She stirred and instantly shivered at the thought of the stopped carriage.

A whistle cut into the night, and Virgil cleared his throat.  The kobold gave a slight nod and hopped down from her seat.  She took off her bonnet and placed it on the seat beside the young lady who had rescued her.  A flashed smile was the only communication she shared with Nika before she gave the door a gentle, silent push forward.

Virgil looked down as the kobold came up beside the horse.  Together, they looked at the road in front of them.  It forked north and east, trees on both sides.  Each road seemed weathered and beaten.

“I thought you should know:  This path here leads through southern Raleigh,” Virgil said.  “If you’re looking to get back to Warus, that’s the road you’d want to take.  We’ll be taking that one north to Viscosa.”

“Thank you, Mister Destrite,” the kobold said.  She moved along toward where the two roads diverged, each into their own lane of darkness.  She gazed down both paths, her eyes unable to see far beyond where she stood.

“Leah?  What are you doing?” she heard.  When the kobold turned about, she saw Camille standing there beside the carriage.  “Where are you going?”

A shrug lifted her shoulders.  “I’m safe now… away from Faroon and his intentions.”

“But that doesn’t mean you have to leave.”

All those who were awake heard the door to the carriage shut.  When they looked, Nika stood there, Kira still held against her bosom.  She nodded and shot a grin to her daughter.

Camille spun back around and faced her new friend.  “No one is forcing you to go back to Warus.  I know you want to see Brighton Beach again someday, but there will be plenty of time for that.  We’d be more than happy if you came home with us.”

The kobold’s eyes brightened at the offer.  When the young lady dropped to one knee, she ran to her side.  They shared a warm embrace that let her know that even though Warus wasn’t her destination, she was still headed home.

Scooping her up, Camille walked back to the cabin.  Nika swung open the door and let her cheerful smile show.  As the rest of his family settled in, Virgil gave his sleeping son a gentle squeeze before he snapped the reins.

The Destrites continued along on their journey.  And with them was the littlest kobold.

The Littlest Kobold, Read Along – Part Four

We’ve reached the penultimate part of The Littlest Kobold.  Keep those comments coming.  Enjoy!

 

The Littlest Kobold
A Story by Michael DeAngelo
-Part Four-
Narrated by Cristina Cruz

 

“Now, you remember what to do, right?” Virgil asked.

“I think we can handle running through the woods, Dad,” Jerrick was quick to reply.  Rion just nodded with an eager grin upon his face.

Standing once more, Virgil tousled his youngest son’s hair.  “Don’t forget:  Those can’t leave your feet,” he said, pointing at Leah’s torn up outfits tied around his son’s ankles.  “We’re counting on them to distract the dog from her scent.”

Jerrick sighed but finally nodded.  “Come on, Squirt.  This’ll be just like hide and seek, but let’s try and win this time.”

As his sons took their leave, Virgil turned back to the kobold’s room, where Camille and Abraham carefully shorn through Leah’s blanket.  The Hare paced on the far side of the room, chewing on her pointed nails.

“Let’s get this reverse kidnapping started,” Virgil said.  “What’s the plan?”

Abraham’s eyes lit up, and he rose to his feet.  “You mean you don’t have a plan?”

“I have the plan,” Camille insisted.  “Like always.  Papa, we can’t let Leah walk on the ground or else the dog can track her.  So we’re going to make her a sling like Kira has.”

The kobold snarled in protest, cocking her head to the side.  “You can’t seriously expect me to lie in that thing like a baby.”

“It’s the only way to get you out of here in secrecy,” the young lady insisted.  “We can’t very well go around with you upon my father’s shoulder.”

Clearing his throat, Virgil took a step forward.  “As tempted as I am to let this conversation continue, I really do think we should move along with this escape.  Let’s make the sling and get out of here.”

Camille nodded and enlisted her brother to help fashion the looping blanket.  In only a short while, they had crafted the thing and were ready to try it out.

“All right, Papa.  Here.”  Together, the siblings placed the sling over Virgil’s head, strapping it across his chest.  They tugged on it, assuring it was secure.  At that, Camille turned to Leah.  “Are you ready?”

With a sigh that shook her whiskers, the kobold nodded.  “Let’s get this over with,” she said, raising her arms.

Camille picked her up and placed her in the sling, allowing the kobold to wriggle until she found an agreeable position.  Both children looked at her when she furled her brow, staring off at some indiscriminate part of the room.  “What’s wrong?” the young lady asked.

Leah hesitated; she brought her gaze to Camille’s again only when she was sure of herself.  “This is actually very comfortable.”

With a snicker, the young lady helped her brother drape their father’s cloak over his shoulder, covering the tiny kobold.  When she was well hidden, Virgil blew out a sigh and nodded to his son and daughter.

They stepped from Leah’s room, the kobold huddled close to her rescuer’s chest.  As they took to the dirt-floored halls, Camille often found herself looking back.  She saw there the same look she always saw upon her father’s face: fearlessness.  If Virgil carried any sort of anxiety, it certainly didn’t show.

As they made their way out into the light of day, a new sense of purpose washed over them.  They turned abruptly from the path, heading away from their camp.  Their aim was Aspica, the city of the bay.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Together, the trio scrambled up the hill.  Though Leah did not weigh much, Virgil worked at steadying her, and without his hands providing balance, the ascent was treacherous.  Camille led the way while Abraham brought up the rear, offering a hand on his father’s back.  When they finally rose over the final slope, they were captured by the sight of the city below on the other side.

Aspica was one of the better hidden jewels among Daltain’s cities.  It hadn’t succumbed much to industry, only a small harbor on its south side, far from where shops and homes pointed toward the water.  Likewise, only one road entered the city along the northeast.  A farm there was perhaps the most urban looking plot, for all along the western side of the road, a simple fence stretched on for what seemed like a mile.  The sun shed its midday light upon the city.

A voice resonated about the area, carrying so loudly across the wind that Camille was sure sailors could hear it out at sea.

“Find her!” the voice boomed.  “I don’t care how far you have to travel or how long it takes.  Bring me the Hare.”

They knew it was Faroon who spoke, but it was as if he was right beside them.  A glance back down the hill was all they needed to witness the folks pouring out of the circus tent.  That canvas seemed darker, as though the clouds had taken root in the sky above it.

Virgil lifted the sling over his shoulder, much to the dismay of the kobold inside.

“Hey, hey!  What are you doing?” Leah snarled, almost falling out of the carrier.

The Destrite patriarch situated the sling over his daughter’s shoulder instead.  “I thought we’d have more time before they noticed you were missing,” he said.  “I’d like to think Jerrick and Rion found a way to escape to safety, but I can’t take that risk.”

“So what do we do, Papa?” Camille asked.

Once the carrier was safely secured across Camille’s chest, Virgil tugged a pouch away from his belt.  The contents clinked together, and he handed it to Abraham.  “I’m going to go back to camp and find your brothers.  Once they’re safe, we’ll take the carriage into town and pick you up.  Use some gold to stay hidden.  Rent a room at an inn, charter a ship for a few hours.  Whatever it takes.”

“Won’t Mama be mad if we spend all the money?” Abraham asked.

Virgil blew out an exasperated sigh.  “Try not to spend all of it, please.  I’ll explain the situation to your mother.  She’ll understand.”  Both of his children nodded, remaining silent.  “Well?  Go on,” he bade.

Turning on her heel, Camille began the descent, hugging Leah against her chest.  There was no cloak disguising the kobold then.  Their only hope in keeping her hidden was a quick escape.  Abraham held his sister’s arm and led her down the hill.

Camille shivered away the autumn air, the planks beneath her creaking and bobbing.  The bay was still, save for the gentle ebb and flow of the water against the wooden pier.  Leah was still, too, only her shallow breaths reminding the young lady she was still within the sling.

Beneath her boots, she felt the subtle thrum.  As Abraham drew nearer with hasty steps, the entire pier shook.

“Still nothing?” he asked.

Camille shook her head.  “I haven’t seen a single boat out there.  Where would they all be?”  She let her words trail off into nothingness, shaking it from her head.  “Any luck on your end?” she asked, turning to face her brother.

He gave a slight bow.  “Afraid not.  Nobody is home.  Or nobody is answering.”

“It’s like we’ve come to a ghost town.  Where is everyone?”

“You should just leave me here,” a quiet voice spoke out.  Leah rolled in the sling until she could peer out to the water.  “I’m a good swimmer… I think.  I’ll paddle over to the other shore.  They might not be able to pick up my scent.”

Camille was already shaking her head.  “No.  We told you we’d get you to safety, and we will.  I’m not going to throw you into the bay just because it’s our most convenient option.  Come on, Abraham.  We’ll figure something out.”

The siblings made their way from the pier, landing upon the uneven stone street.  One by one, they knocked on doors and windows, but just as Abraham had said, nobody answered.  A quiet sigh shook the young lady as she rejoined her brother.

“It’s like you said.  Nobody is here.”

“So what do we do?” Abraham asked.

“If we can’t find anything…” Camille started to say.  “Nobody is here.  Nobody to take issue with us borrowing their house for a few hours.  Don’t bother knocking anymore.  Try all the doors.”

Abraham swallowed hard but nodded his consent.  As they rounded the bend, though, he stopped.  Camille followed her brother’s gaze and noticed the lantern light that swung about one of the northern buildings.

“That wasn’t on earlier, I’m sure of it,” he said.

“Let’s go.  Maybe we can hide out in there,” she replied.

When they arrived at that building, they could see the picture window had been illuminated as well.  A trio of children’s dolls had taken up residence there, varying in their presentation.  The outer ones were stuffed, knit things, but the center was a porcelain doll that could easily have been mistaken for a small child if it wasn’t so still.  Camille knocked, and when she didn’t hear an answer, she pushed her way inside.

As the door swung open, a line of brass bells cascaded up and over, reporting a joyous little melody.  Both children and the kobold could hear the footsteps leading their way.

“Alexander?” they heard.  A woman came into view and cast a glance at her visitors.  She adjusted her glasses then and swept her dark hair out of her face.  “You’re not Alexander.”

“Apologies, ma’am,” Abraham said, drawing forth a furled brow from the woman.  “Miss,” he corrected.

“We saw the light on, and we thought you might be open,” his sister added.  “Everyone else is gone, though.  What’s going on in this town?”

The woman chortled and looked away.  “Come in and take a seat.  No sense telling you about it in the doorway.”  She led them inside.  Her shop would have been spacious, but rows of shelves made it quite cramped, except for the counter she had among the rear wall.  It was almost situated like the bar of a tavern, with a trio of stools at its front.  The owner made her way around while she offered seats to her guests.

“I should tell you, stories don’t come for free,” she said, drawing incredulous gazes from the children.  With a smile stretching her lips, she continued, “I’ll settle for your names.”

“I’m Camille,” the young lady said as she took her spot upon the stool.  She extended her arm, but as she sat upon the cushion, Leah rolled forward.  Camille drew her hand back and grasped the sling.

“A-and I’m Abraham,” her brother interjected.

The woman arched an eyebrow but shook the boy’s hand.  As she fell back upon her heels, she placed her hands on the counter.  “My name’s Gwendolyn, but you can call me Gwenna if it suits you.”  She sighed and leaned back.  “So no doubt you two just came from the circus.”

Camille froze for a moment but blinked away the tension.  “What makes you say that?”

With a shrug, Gwendolyn gazed past the children, peering down the aisles of the shop to the picture window.  The sun was beginning to set, leaving a shadow stretching from the glass.  “For starters, there’s nothing to do here besides see the town if the circus isn’t here.  And you wouldn’t be in town alone if it wasn’t the circus you’d come here for.

“Anyway, with that particular circus, you’ll rarely get both of us.  The town doesn’t think too highly of the Cirque de Malorum.”

“Why is that?” Camille asked.

“Well, Aspica is a friend of many people, from the dwarves in the mountains to the werewolves of the Grey Isle.  But the Cirque de Malorum, they’re not kind to anyone who doesn’t have coin to spare – or to earn for them.  And don’t even get me started on the way they treat their animals.

“From what I hear,” she continued, “things haven’t improved much.  So rather than show our support, when they show up in the forest up there, we disappear until they leave.  Once, we thought maybe they’d stop coming, but it seems it’s too queer a sight to pass up.”

“Well, I doubt anyone there today will ever return,” Abraham said.

“And why’s that?” the owner wondered.

Camille pressed out a nervous sigh and reached down.  “Gwenna, please tell me you can keep a secret.”  She didn’t wait to hear an answer before she presented the tiny kobold upon her lap.

The Littlest Kobold, Read Along – Part Three

Hey there folks.  You know the drill by now.  Cristina is looking for advice on her audio for the purposes of narrating.  Give this a listen while you read along, and if you find anything worth noting, shoot us a comment!  Thank you much!

 

The Littlest Kobold
A Story by Michael DeAngelo
-Part Three-
Narrated by Cristina Cruz

The trumpets played a deeper song then, a slower melody carrying across the tent.  While the next act prepared, Camille reflected on all the Cirque de Malorum bad offered thus far.  True to Faroon’s words, many of the attractions were eerie or unsettling.  Just after his speech, he introduced a man they called the flying serpent.  With an uncanny burst of speed, he arrived many feet in front of where he first stood.  Every time he moved in that way, though, he left a remnant of himself behind.  A fine layer of skin remained, perfectly formed, still standing, and before his act ended, a dozen other hollow statues joined it.

The huntress from Danai was next, and what seemed like just a demonstration that a woman could be both beautiful and trained in combat quickly evolved.  Esme was competent enough to hold her own against a pair of warriors with ease, but when two more were introduced to the arena floor, she seemed outmatched.  That was when she discarded her cloak and swung her second pair of arms forward.  The audience watched as she wound four swords into an impressive dance, never allowing her opponents a reprieve until each of them lay disarmed upon the ground.

After that, droning dulcet tones introduced a man with forgettable features.  Meek and unattractive, many in the audience didn’t even realize he was a performer.  But when he placed his hand upon one of the central masts and climbed it without any equipment, he had the crowd’s attention.  Jerrick once again pronounced his cynicism, claiming small hooks were placed on flesh-toned gloves.  He was promptly silenced when the performer removed his shoes, letting them fall to the ground below.  Situating his feet on the mast, he drew back his hands and stood sideways.

With his mouth agape, Jerrick watched as the man walked up the rest of the way, holding his arms out wide as if balancing upon a tightrope.  The boy’s eyes grew wide when the performer seamlessly transitioned from the mast to the canvas ceiling.

“I can see the wires,” his brother Abraham mocked with a nasally voice.  Jerrick said nothing as the man proceeded across the top of the tent and down the opposite mast.  The performer was just as quiet as he took his leave, though despite that humility, he received the fanfare he deserved.

The arena grew quiet, until Faroon reappeared with a wide smile upon his face.  No music accompanied his arrival, but the applause of the crowd was warm and welcoming.

“Each of our previous acts had to fight against the many hardships of life.  To us here in the Cirque de Malorum, they are family.  But out there in the world, they are freaks and monsters.  I hope you see them not as different, but unique.

“These next few segments are for the children.  While we pride ourselves on offering an experience the whole family can enjoy, this might be the perfect time for one of the parents to slip away for an ale,” he said with a wink.

Deep bass tones resonated from an unseen drum and were quickly joined by short spans of brass.  The light dimmed from Faroon and instead focused on the entrances on either side.  From there, two lines of elephants emerged, arranged by size.  Each of them pushed large, perfectly round stones, oblivious to the lines they were leaving in the sand.  As they reached the center of the arena, they began forming a circle, when a small, last minute arrival appeared.

Leah charged forward, pushing a far smaller rock toward the procession, but it still seemed to be too big for her.  Her floppy ears bounced with every step, but she finally reached the elephants, her stone falling into the groove the boulders had left.  Hearing the giggles of the children, she smiled and waved, making the queer sight even more unbelievable.  Her perfectly round stone moved just as easily as it had before, with no struggle.

As the Hare saw the brightness in the eyes of the audience, her heart warmed.  She stood taller and lifted her chin.

All of the animals made their way around the circle, and when the music subtly changed, they came back around.  More than once, the elephants lifted one of their massive feet in an erratic manner near the western mast.  Camille narrowed her eyes but was unable to spot anything out of the ordinary.  With a smile parting her lips, she focused on the Hare once more.

A foreign pride had washed over Leah, and she marched forward with her eyes closed and her chin held high.  The rock she rolled forth hadn’t strayed from the rut made by the elephants’ paths, and the tiniest performer was content to keep to that groove.

But with eyes closed and gaze averted, there was no hope for her to see the metal spike that had once held a lion’s cage together.  As her perfectly round stone rolled over it, a loud pop reported a fraction of a second before the fake stone imploded on itself.  At once, it was gone, and Leah fell backward onto her rump.

Though several children in the audience giggled at the queer sight, that mirth was only a precursor to terror, they soon realized.  The elephants darted from their established routes, charging wherever their intuition bade them.  Bumping and stumbling into each other, there was no hope for a clean break.  A cacophonous crack was the only warning in the chaos that something had gone terribly wrong.

The audience watched in horror as one of the masts teetered from its upright position.  It had been rammed by the broad shoulder of one of the fleeing giants and was ready to fall to pieces.  Beyond the entrances, more screams and shouts could be heard as the elephants fled to safety.

In short time, many of the other performers scattered on the arena floor, trying to bring order to the unraveling event.  Minerva held her hand out to charm one elephant but was caught unaware by another that charged out at her.  Barbas was there in an instant, scooping her up into safety.

Other acts which had not yet had a chance to appear rushed to help as well.  A woman with black, mottled skin and green spots took to the floor and cast out her arm, and a gob of sticky yellow slime formed in the air before her.  She flung it out at the dilapidated mast, stabilizing it in place.

Among all the carnage, no one saw the frightened little kobold.  As one scattering elephant charged in her direction, Leah could think of nothing else to do but hold out her hands and pray it would all end swiftly.  Grasped by the collar and tugged to safety, she looked up, once released, and saw her savior.  George was there, panting and working to steady himself.

Even as everything unfurled, Faroon stomped out into the arena.  “You stupid imbecile,” he boomed.  His voice reached such a register that George and Leah both brought their hands to their ears.  “I should have let you drown in that lake in Raleigh, you dumb mutt kobold.”

George stepped forward and bared his teeth for her.  “You know this isn’t her fault,” he growled.

“Step aside, you… beast,” Faroon snarled.

Standing taller, his son squared his shoulders.  “The damage is done, Father.  Do you want to make it worse?”

With gnashed teeth and a furled brow, Faroon spun on his heel.  “Take her to her room,” he ordered.  As he proceeded back toward the east entrance, he sensed a gaze from the crowd.  He looked up, seeing Camille in the crowd, scrutinizing him with narrowed eyes.  “Pah,” he said, continuing on his way.

While the young lady watched him leave, Nika collected her small clan.  A gentle grasp snagged Camille by the wrist.  “Come on, my little loves.”

As she was drawn away, Camille ventured one last glance down below.  Leah still shivered from Faroon’s threats, and her eyes were wide.  She looked up then and locked eyes with the girl from Raleigh.  The littlest kobold blinked away her shame and turned to venture to her room.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

Citizens of Daltain and distant travelers alike poured out of the canvas tent.  Boisterous voices were raised nearby the ticket booths, decrying that half a show did not earn a full price.  Elsewhere, people scrambled out beneath the tightly staked tent, unwilling to wait in line while the chaos continued to unfurl within.

The Destrites walked cautiously around the fairgrounds, careful to stick together.  Nika had a firm grasp on Kira, holding the crying infant to her chest.  The onrush finally seemed to slow, and the quiet pall over the area was eerie in place of the constant brass that had led the folk to the Cirque de Malorum.

“That’s it, Papa,” the family heard.  “I’ve had enough of this place.  Surely your debt to him is paid by now.”  They cast their gaze to the northwest, to one of the performer entrances.  There, they saw Minerva stomping from the area, Barbas close behind her.

Rion turned about and glanced at his elder sister.  With only a second of hesitation, he sprang forth, heading in the direction of the girl and her father.

Stepping forward, Camille reached out in a futile effort to stay her youngest brother.  “Rion!” she called out in unison with her mother.  He was already ahead of them, reaching the canvas tent once more, hiding just out of sight of the squabbling performers.  Barbas grasped his daughter and pleaded with her until she woefully followed him back into their massive, travelling home.

“Virgil, it’s too much,” Nika said.  “There’s too much commotion.  I’m going to take Kira back to the campsite.  Please make sure our other children get home safely.”

With a telling grin, the Destrite patriarch leaned forward and kissed his bride on the cheek.  At once, he and his three eldest children raced after Rion.

The boy looked over his shoulder, bearing witness to his family’s fast approach.  He sucked in a deep, powerful breath and slipped inside the circus tent.  Jerrick was the fastest of his siblings and turned into that entrance without any hesitation.

“Rion!” he cried.  The inside of the tent was dark, and there was no sign of his brother.  With a quiet growl, he made his way inside.

In the shadows of the place, the performers walking this way and that looked strange indeed.  Jerrick had to hop back when one of the haudrons stomped across the dark dirt path, his shoulder bouncing against one of the lanterns hanging from the canvas above.  The boy blew out a shallow sigh, thankful to be upright instead of a blemish beneath the half-giant’s boot.  He jumped, though, when he felt a firm grasp on his shoulder.  When he spun about, he saw the look of desperation on his father’s face.

“Where’s your brother?” Virgil asked.

“I can’t find him,” Jerrick said.  “He’s gone.”

The Destrite patriarch locked his jaw and furled his brow.  “Well, that’s just fine,” he mockingly conceded.  “I always thought there were too many of you anyway.  Maybe we can sell him to the circus and at least make some money out of the deal.”

“Abraham found him,” Camille whispered.  Her father and her brother followed her gaze down one of the darkened stretches of the place.  There, far down one of the dirt paths, they could see Abraham, barely illuminated by the hanging lanterns.  Hunched over, he pointed down an adjoining lane.

The rest of his family arrived there soon after, where they were able to see little Rion, sprawled out on the ground upon his belly.  His nose nearly poked beneath a canvas flap.

Virgil stomped forward and reached out for his youngest son.

“What do you think you are doing?” a loud voice boomed.

The man stayed his hand and looked up, spotting silhouettes on the other side of the fabric wall.  Rion hadn’t budged, witnessing as the events unfolded in the small room.

“How can you blame Leah for what happened out there?” George asked.

“Oh, the Hare has a name now, does she?” Faroon spat.  He stomped forward and would have reached the tiny kobold were it not for George extending his arm to block his father.  “Out of my way.”

“This was an unfortunate accident, nothing more.  For you to be angry with her alone… It’s ludicrous.”

“She has been nothing but bad luck since we brought her into the family,” Faroon contested.  “It’s been one accident or another every step of the way for three years.”

“Then let her go,” George bade.  His voice was quiet as a whisper, and his often youthful face was lined with wrinkles.

For a moment, the ringmaster’s features seemed to soften, and he stepped forward.  “We’ll bring you home, Hare,” he said.  Her eyes widened, but a mischievous smile crept to Faroon’s face.  “Brighton Beach, was it?  I’ll look forward to watching you sink to the bottom.”

The tension in the room was palpable.  Everything and everyone seemed frozen in time, except for the flickering lantern light that danced upon the ceiling.  Tears welled up in the tiny kobold’s eyes, matting down the fur just beneath them.

Without warning, George lunged forward, delivering a stunning hook.  Faroon spilled to the floor like a thrown rag doll.  The sounds of the punch and the fall resonated in the tent, an uncomfortable echo that lingered far too long for comfort.  The ringmaster shook the stars from his vision and brought the back of his hand to his face.  He pressed his lip out with his jaw and felt the sting of the air on the wound.  When he drew back his hand, a smeared line of blood was upon it.

“That was a mistake you’ll learn to regret, boy,” Faroon promised as he climbed to his feet.  “Enjoy your brief respite.  The next few weeks will be your undoing.”

As the leader of the Cirque de Malorum stomped away, George’s body deflated.  His shoulders slumped, and his stomach puffed out farther than his chest.  His rosy cheeks went pale in moments, and he found he could only stare at the exit.  “I have to go after him,” the young man said.

“What?” Leah asked.

“I have to appeal to him.  I have to beg his forgiveness.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“I am,” he said, casting his gaze to the kobold.  “He will ruin both of our lives if I don’t.”

“You can’t leave me alone,” she cried.  “What if he comes back while you’re out looking for him?”

“I’m sorry, Leah,” he said.  Wasting no more time, he raced from her room and followed the path Faroon’s angry steps had left.

The littlest kobold stood there for a time, considering her terrible luck and worse treatment.  Dejected, she turned, a sniffle already attempting to draw back the emotions running rampant.  As she swept her gaze about, she caught the curious sight off to the side of her meager room.

Rion was sure he had been caught.  Leah seemed to pay him no heed, glaring just beside him.  He ventured a glance to his side, where his father mimicked his position.

“What are you doing?” the kobold groaned.

With his lips tightly closed, Virgil allowed his jaw to drop.  He said nothing, though, scanning her abode as if there was some answer among the mess.

“This position is very good for the back,” Rion offered.

Leah stared at the boy for a moment and, in spite of herself, let a smile stretch the corners of her mouth.  She stepped forward and tugged on the canvas wall, pulling it down.  She hopped back when she saw the trio of other children there.  They froze while their father and youngest brother rose to their feet.

“We’re so sorry to eavesdrop,” Camille said.  “It wasn’t our intention.”

“That old man isn’t anything but a bully,” Rion added.

Leah was already shaking her head.  “It’s getting worse every day.  He really believes I am the cause for his misfortune.  If it wasn’t for George, I’d be…”

“He’s never hurt you, has he?” Abraham asked.

The kobold looked down at her feet and swallowed nervously.  “Not physically,” she admitted.  “But we’re quickly arriving there.  He’s roared at me like that in front of the other performers before but never in front of the audience.  He sees me as useless clutter – as a nuisance and nothing else.”

“Then why not leave?” Virgil asked.  “There’s got to be plenty of places out there that are better suited to you than this horrid place.”

A narrow smile stretched her furry lips.  “Brighton Beach sounded like such a wonderful place.  But if he knows that’s where I’d go, I can never see that place again.  Besides, even though he’d love to see me gone, he’d never let me go.”

After a brief silence, Camille stepped forward.  “Whose choice is that to make?”  She fell to one knee before the kobold.  “He doesn’t own you.  No matter what he’s done to bring you here, that doesn’t mean anyone should condone his torture.”

Leah looked up at the girl and offered a weary grin, but she shook her head only a moment later.  “I’ve tried to leave before,” she said.  “Why would this time be any different?”

Glancing at her father with a plea in her eyes, Camille held out her hand.  Virgil sighed but nodded.  “Because before today,” the young lady spoke, “you didn’t have us.”

Standing as tall as her miniscule body would allow, the littlest kobold let her vision bounce from one member of the Destrite family to the next.  Finally her eyes settled on Camille, smiling all the brighter with her arm outstretched, her palm still awaiting a return of the gesture.  Blinking away the last of her tears and taking a deep breath, Leah gave the young lady her hand.

The Littlest Kobold, Read Along – Part Two

Hey folks.  We’re following up with last week’s read along feature. Just as with Part One of The Littlest Kobold, if you have any advice you’d like to offer to Cristina, please sound off in the comments. Enjoy her narration as you read along to this magical story!

 

 

The Littlest Kobold
A Story by Michael DeAngelo
-Part Two-
Narrated by Cristina Cruz

Boisterous instruments played from some indistinct place around the tent.  A song of brass and percussion was deafening outside, but from the small room layered in heavy canvas, the endless medley rang hollow and distant.

The furry-faced little kobold looked into the mirror and sighed.  Leah wore long costume ears that didn’t match the color of her fur.  Old and ragged, the seams were splitting on one ear, leaving her persona as threadbare as her tiny, round bed.  She caught a glance of it in the mirror and bowed her head in defeat.

“Are you all right, Leah?” she heard.

When the kobold turned, she saw George holding open the exit flap to her secluded portion of the tent.  He looked nothing like when he had apprehended her.  Instead, he was dressed head to toe in magnificent silver armor.  It was ostentations, serving little use, and made to look the part of a real breastplate, but Leah had seen on several occasions where it had been torn apart like paper.

“I’m as all right as can be expected,” she harrumphed before turning back to the mirror.

“You know, if I could help you get away, I would,” George said.

Her nose crinkled up into a momentary snarl.  “It seemed to me like you had a perfect opportunity this morning.  You could have led Fergus and his beast away from me.”

George shrugged.  “Fergus may be an idiot, but he knows what failure means.”

“You mean you know what failure means,” she spat.  A deep, pronounced sigh had the kobold nearly shivering.  She bowed her head in defeat once more.  “Nobody here is held against their will except for me.”

He crossed his arms over his chest.  “You can’t honestly believe that.  We’re all misfits and outcasts.  Some of us are genuine monsters, even if Faroon made us this way.  You should be happy he didn’t find you ten years ago, or he’d have sewn those ears to your head the way he sewed on Nazelle’s wings.

Leah sighed again but lifted her gaze to the mirror.  In the reflection, she could see how weary George was.  She witnessed his eyebrows rising and his lips straightening for that forced smile.  “Why have you not tried to escape?” she asked.

“Where would I go?” he responded.  “There’s nowhere I could be safe without endangering other people.”

A distant stare was upon the kobold’s face.  “If I could be anywhere, it would be Brighton Beach.  I don’t remember much from when I was a pup, but nowhere else would I feel more at home.”

Behind George, the trumpet melody changed on the end of several quick taps.  Silence washed over the place, and a sigh visibly shook the man’s narrow frame.

“Ladies and gentlemen…” they heard.

Leah swallowed away her apprehension and stepped off the stool.  She gave one last glance at the mirror and snorted at the comically large ears she was forced to wear.  When she turned back, George was at the exit flap once more, peering outside.

“The elephants are lining up out there, Leah,” he said.  “It’s time.”

With her hands at her sides, the kobold straightened her posture.  As George swept back the canvas flap, she proceeded into the darkness.

 

*          *          *          *          *

 

The circus tent was deceptive, for even the large entryway could not have prepared Camille and her family for the wide open space inside.  Were it not for the lanterns hanging from the canvas roof, she would have thought they had walked into the dark of night.  Those lanterns were filled with a dim white light, just illuminating the area they hung from.  Tall wooden masts held the lanterns in place, eight of them standing in the central area.

Virgil had disappeared to find some refreshments, leaving Nika to corral the rest of the family.  With Kira tucked against her shoulder and Rion’s hand grasped in hers, she gestured with her chin.  “The next row up, Jerrick.  No, the next one.”  With a quiet sigh, she looked to her eldest.  “Camille, take him up one higher, please.”

The Destrite clan settled into place in their seats as the lights in the lanterns grew dim.  Instead, a concentrated light seemed to shine down from beyond the canvas roof, as if the heavens were lending a subtle glow.  A white circle landed upon the ground, perfectly centered in the tent.  With a loud pop, flames roared into place upon the perimeter of the circle, eliciting gasps from the audience.

Once the smoke dissipated, it was apparent that someone stood between the flames.  A tall, slender fellow, his skin was ashen white.  His eyes had been covered in dark makeup, barely discernible beneath a wide-brimmed top hat.  As the flames died down, the light remained, and he took a deep bow.  Against the odds, his hat stayed atop his head.  A light applause arose in the tent, and he let a wide smile show.

“Ladies and gentlemen, tiniest of children, you have come to a place of majesty and wonder.  The Cirque de Malorum has travelled all over Tellest for hundreds of years, finding the weird and the eerie, those individuals who are out of place in society.  This travelling band of ragtag misfits has landed on the shores of ten continents, entertaining the downtrodden folks of countless countries, but today we are here for you.”  As he finished speaking, Camille felt those words tickle her ear as if he was whispering just beside her.  She looked about and saw other members of the audience looking to their sides.

“Avert your eyes from the fires I stand between,” the ringmaster bade.  “Turn your gaze instead to the sky.”  Those lanterns near the roof of the canvas tent brightened once more, illuminating the flight of a winged beauty, alabaster plumage fluttering with every movement of her arms.

“I found Nazelle far up north in the Coldwind Reach within Cracius.  Abandoned by her harpy flock for looking different, she was bound to freeze until we brought her in.”

The entertainer flipped and twisted and rolled in the air, swinging about from one side of the tent to the other.

Beside her, Camille’s eldest brother let a little hiss slide off his tongue.  “That’s not a real harpy,” he insisted.  “I can see the wires holding her up.”

Shaking her head, Camille couldn’t be rid of her smile.  The lights above dimmed, and the twin entrances to the dirt floor were illuminated instead.  On the family’s left side, they saw huge cages being led forth by hulking fellows.  Inside, ornery lions paced, hungry for escape.  More than once, one of the pride reached out between the bars, venturing a swat that just missed the giant men.

“These mighty beings here are the last known living haudrons on Tellest, a race of mixed giant and human blood you’ll not see again in your lifetime, save another visit to the Cirque de Malorum.”

As the ringmaster finished speaking, the sounds of a soft string quartet poured into the tent.  The light surrounding the haudrons and their large cages dimmed.  It reappeared among the eastern entryway, where a broad, dark-haired fellow approached.  The man wore a thick mustache and a v-shaped goatee, and his opened tunic revealed a barrel chest covered in coarse hair.  Beside him, a young lady, a meek creature in comparison, clutched a coiled whip and a bulky gauntlet.  Her full head of wavy brown locks bounced with every taken step.

“Ladies and gentlemen, you are in for a treat today,” Faroon announced.  “We discovered Barbas on the coast of Saveon, the only survivor of a terrible shipwreck.  So far from home and without any tools, shelter, or hope, it would seem his survival was a lost cause.  Little did we know that he had charmed the lions of the savannah to do his hunting for him.  And with him today is his lovely assistant and daughter, Minerva.”

As the audience applauded, Barbas stomped forward with a determined gaze.  His daughter let her smile beam, and she waved to the crowd on both sides of the arena.  The spotlight moved to the cages again, where the lions paced behind the bars.  Just beside the center enclosure, one of the haudrons – the only one still on the arena floor – stood at the ready, protected by what appeared to be impenetrable armor.  He looked to the approaching duo, and when Barbas gave him a nod, he lifted a handle on the small prison, leaving the lion inside free to venture forward.

That feline made a slow, cautious escape, tilting her head to gaze upon the massive being.  The haudrons watched the lion pass, leaving the gate lifted in the air.  He only dropped it when the maned lion in the center cage roared in protest.  That barred gate fell down with a resounding tung, inspiring the lioness to burst into a charge toward Barbas and Minerva.

“Papa,” a nearly indiscernible plea came from Minerva as he extended the whip and the gauntlet.

Even in the face of that rapid approach, Barbas took the time to fasten his belt.  As soon as his fingers wrapped around the bullwhip’s grip and it dangled to his side, the lioness skidded to a stop.

A chorus rang out from the audience, as charmed as the hulking cat was.  The lion tamer turned and raised his hand, extending his finger to beckon the creature closer.  It strode forward like a lazy housecat, and as he spun a slow pirouette, the lioness followed.  For a moment, it outpaced him, but a quick snap of his neck had the cat leaping away, the gesture serving as well as any whip ever would.  The roles reversed then, and Barbas slowly stalked her as she circled.

Only a faint scrape of steel reminded the audience that another quartet of lions remained.  Released from its confinement, another of them joined the dance, circling Barbas and Minerva.  One by one, each lioness joined the line, until only the ornery male remained in his cage, snarling in protest.

A subtle crack of Barbas’ bullwhip and a deliberate backstep had the quartet of cats eagerly lining up.  The tamer strode forward and let fly a single formless word, “Hup.”  As he proceeded across, each lioness rose upon their hind legs and placed both paws upon his raised, armored fist.  That gauntlet only seemed small when covered by those clawed, furry paws.

Camille’s eyes flickered for a moment, and when she focused again on the spectacle below, the arena seemed somewhat dimmer.  Even in that dusky glow, the final unopened cage had become visible.  The lion charged at all four sides, slamming his broad shoulders into the bars.  He roared in protest with every failed escape.  His small prison rattled and shook, and the haudron moved forward to steady it.

It was too late.  All the pressure, the powerful blows delivered into those metal rods, had finally yielded their intended results.  At once, two of the bars bent from their place and ripped from the cage.  The hulking guard raced to the metal box and placed his hefty hand upon it.

The lion had already wriggled to freedom.  He glared at Barbas, free of the enchantment he had placed on the lionesses.

“Papa!” Minerva shouted.  The young lady raced past the procession of cats and shoved her father out of the path of the rapidly approaching alpha.  With an even more helpless meal before it, the lion’s pace never wavered.  Gasps rang out from the crowd.

Minerva lifted her hand then, and at once, the massive feline skittered to a stop, clumps of sand flung in every direction.  It remained there for some time, mesmerized by that simple gesture.  The audience could see a hint of emerald that seemed to encircle the girl and the lion, but it soon faded as Barbas stepped forward and swept his daughter behind him.  With a snap of his fingers and a downward point, the hulking feline was brought to the ground, as if sent immediately to slumber.

Barbas whistled and waved as he rubbed his armored hand upon the cat’s belly.  At once, the remaining haudron approached with apprehension clearly visible upon him.  The lion tamer exchanged some quiet words, and the crowd was in awe to see the half giant pick up the feline like a lazy housecat.  As the haudron left, Barbas clicked his tongue and pointed, urging the quartet of lionesses to their cages once more.  As a dim light followed the departing half-giant, his brethren returned to the arena and were illuminated.  They each lifted the doors of their respective cages and allowed the cats to step inside.

As the haudrons took their leave, dragging all five cages behind them, Barbas and Minerva turned to the crowd, offering up a wave.  Camille could feel the eldest of her brothers sit up straighter in his seat.  She passed a sidelong glance at Jerrick, whose eyes were bright and wide.

“She’s beautiful,” he said, nudging his brother.

Abraham simply shrugged.  “I couldn’t really tell.  I was too busy looking at the lions.”

“Pfft,” Jerrick scolded.  “What do you know?”  When the young lady on the arena floor turned, the enchantment faded.  The boy in the audience couldn’t keep his shoulders from slumping.

The exotic entertainers took their leave and were replaced once again by the ringmaster.  A wide grin splayed across his face, and he held his arm out wide.

“I heard your gasps and your cries to attention.  No doubt many of you were trying to send warnings to our performers.  But there are some of you,” he said, his eyes playfully narrowing, “that worried about whether our animals could be controlled.  You contemplated whether you were safe where you sat.”  He shook his head.  “We can’t have any doubts like that.  Allow me to introduce my… guard captain.”

Trumpets blared to announce the approach of another of the Cirque de Malorum’s troupe.  Before the light even shifted to him, his sparkling armor seemed to attract the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you George Girard.  Master of security and protector of the fine folks at this circus, he is as much a part of my family as anyone I know.”

“Thank you, Father,” he said, eliciting a wave of laughter from the audience.

With a wide smile on his face, the ringmaster clapped his guard captain’s shoulder.  Beside Camille, Jerrick narrowed his eyes, squinting as he saw that marvelous armor shift just an inch too far from such a light touch.

“Of course, even a man of George’s skills and dedication has his limitations.  How lucky we are that George is no ordinary man.”  He turned to his son then.  “Show them.”

Despite the man’s confident gait to the center of the arena, he stood as if frightened to his core.  Camille studied the scene intently from afar, and she thought she saw the prominence in George’s throat plunge beneath his armor.

“Show them,” Faroon’s powerful voice bade.

The guard captain turned with regret widening his eyes and looked upon the crowd.  His lips parted, and he passed a rapid series of breaths through his gnashed teeth.  As he walked away from his father, a low rumble came from deeper within the tent.  That low brass note underlined the anxiety of every taken step that separated George from Faroon.

All went black as the enchanted lights extinguished.  A startled cry rang out just beside Camille.  Illumination more fierce than anything she had ever seen had audience members shielding their eyes, but her vision remained below on the man wracked with pain.

The light disappeared once more and returned just as quickly, producing an eerie effect that highlighted the monstrous transformation.  George fell to his knees as his body bulged and tore.  The armor he wore cracked apart like glass and clumps of fur appeared on his skin.  A frightening scream gave way to an unintelligible roar.

Though it remained dim, the lights steadied, allowing the crowd to see what had become of Faroon’s guard captain, his son.  His silhouette had grown in size, and he tilted his head back to cry a bestial roar.  The light caught on his yellowed eyes, and he looked upon the crowd with hunger.

Camille felt a firm grasp on her arm as the creature fell to its hands and bounded forward.  Each beat of its hands or feet echoed out within the tent, even as the audience closest to it rose and gasped and cried out in fear.

“Stop!” Faroon’s fierce voice compelled.  The werebear fell to its knees and placed its padded hands over its ears.  Even some in the crowd mimicked the creature, for the ringmaster’s words pierced through the air with ease.

The lights faded in again, and an eerie calm returned to the tent.  Camille took in a deep breath, and as her vision adjusted to the steady rise of the lights, she could see George had returned to his human form.  Still, he firmly shut his eyes, holding his hands to his ears while he gnashed his teeth together.  One eye opened then, as if he expected sight to lend to his father’s crippling voice.

Rid of his armor and his undergarments, George stood again, averting his gaze from the crowd.  Faroon was there in an instant, removing his cape and wrapping it around his child.

“You see, my friends, I would never let any harm befall you here,” the ringmaster said.  “That is the promise we make here at the Cirque de Malorum.  That is the understanding we have when you walk through those canvas flaps and sit in your seats.”  Faroon guided George to the nearer exit and turned back to the crowd once the guard captain took a leave on his own accord.  “My son has an affliction, and while tragic, it grants some extra… prestige – to both his duties and to our establishment.  For while George certainly has his own oddity, so many of us here are just as strange, if not stranger.

“We open up with some beautiful acts.  But there are some you will see here today that tread the line toward something darker.  My son protects those the outside would shun, threaten, or even harm.  As I said, though, none will befall anyone while they stay here.”

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.