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It all started with a roll of the dice.
Both dice landed as ones. An audible groan filled the tavern hall. Earl Hart smiled, taking it in stride. He stroked his beard. "I take it that means I lose?"
"Heh, not only do you lose, but you rolled snake eyes. You know what that means, no?" one of the men, an unshaven drunk, slurred out from across the table. His grin showed several missing teeth. "They're coming for you."
"Meh," Earl Hart said, straightening out his shirt in the low light. No need to look uncouth, even among these sores on society. Let them remember who they dealt with. "Legends. Myths. How could they know what I rolled? Besides, many people roll double ones."
"But they don't bet so much as you, rich boy."
"So who's going to take my money? I did lose, after all."
"None of us are crazy enough to anger them," the same man said. Earl Hart looked around the table, and they all nodded in agreement. "That money is theirs, not ours."
"Well then," Earl Hart said, smiling. "This superstitious nonsense proved to be good luck for me."
One of the men reached out for his pile of money, but another swatted his arm away. "You'll rue those words, noble."
"I highly doubt that," Earl Hart scoffed. He grabbed the dice again and shook them in his hand. "Ready for the next round?"
His opponents' faces looked uncomfortable, and they refused to meet his eyes. Even patrons at other tables had started to get interested in the conversation.
Earl Hart threw the dice anyway. But before they stopped bouncing, the windows and the doors to the tavern opened simultaneously, sending in a wind that blew out all the candles and left the hearth a pile of smoldering embers.
Sitting still, he heard the rest of the patrons move out of their chairs and clear the room. Once gone, the only sound that filled the dining hall belonged to a lone coin rolling in a circle on the floor. Then a foot stomped on the coin, silencing it. Earl Hart turned toward the sound, seeing only the shadowy form of a large bearded man, almost too big to appear human. A few other figures filed in behind him.
"Are you the ones come to take my money?"
"Consider it a down payment for the job you're hiring us for," the big man said. At that moment, someone from the other side of the table grabbed the coins Earl Hart had bet, making them disappear almost like a magic trick.
"You know about that?" Earl Hart asked. "You are good."
"Just name us a price, give us the address, and you'll have your statue stolen just for you."
Earl Hart smiled. "My, my, efficient, aren't we? May I ask whom I am doing business with?"
"I know that, from your dramatic entrance. I meant your name."
"We don't give names."
Another figure came up to the big man's side. "If he thinks us so amateur, then why are we wasting time with him?"
The big bearded man started to push him back, but Earl Hart interrupted. "Wait, let me at least guess. You, the smaller man, your name must be...Simon."
If the building had felt quiet before, it now seemed as silent as a tomb.
Earl Hart broke the silence. "You mean I was right?"
"Simon is a common name," said the young man who had advocated leaving. Earl Hart noted he wore a blue bandana over the top of his head, tied in the back.
"Indeed. But I've seen some wanted posters around Capital Mith, and they speculate your name. Looks like information has been leaking out." Earl Hart gave a malevolent smile. "Amateurs."
"We're done here," Simon said, turning to leave.
The big man grabbed his arm but looked straight at Earl Hart. "Mission. Reward."
"So hasty. Allow a rich noble his eccentricities." Hart pulled out a pendant, with a violet crystal in the middle. "Even I believe in some superstitions. Simon, wear this at the time of the event to confirm you're the people I hired. I expect my companions will find you at the north castle wall in two days, dusk. You will be paid twenty thousand crowns to retrieve a statue of an angel from the royal treasury." He handed the pendant to a reluctant Simon.
"Companions? We work alone," the big man stated.
"Not on this job. I doubt even you could get into the king's treasure vault by yourselves."
"Then how are your companions going to get us in?"
"Because they work in the castle. This is an inside job."
The large thief smiled. "Daring. Just the way we like it."
"You think you can do it? No one's ever stolen from the vault before."
"No client has been stupid enough to ask us to. You realize, anyone sees you with this statue, and they'll report you?"
"Oh, I don't think I'll have to worry. But thanks for the concern. Now get out of my sight." Earl Hart picked up a nearby mug and drowned it. When he slammed it on the table, the thieves had left the room empty. He smiled. "I should be concerned for you." He wiped his lips. "But I'm not."
Simon saw the hooded figure first. "Grab him!"
Tenci, with his dark skin and dark blue cloak blending into the shadows of the twilight hued grove, jumped out of the tree onto the man's back, bringing him to the ground and muffling his mouth with his hand. The figure struggled, identity hid behind a dark green hood and cape.
Simon walked out, swinging the pendant Earl Hart had given them in his hand. "Does this look familiar to you?"
Holding himself up with one hand, the figure pointed with the other to Tenci's hand, covering his mouth.
"Nod or shake your head," Simon commanded.
The figure nodded vigorously. Tenci let him go, and gasping, the figure rose to his feet, taking off his hood.
"You're an elf?" Tenci asked in a whisper. The figure had pointed ears with hair the color of maples in fall. Not only did he look young, like all elves, he had an air of youthfulness, most prominent in his lopsided smile, that set him apart from other elves, with their serious scowls.
"Name's Mero," the elf said, holding out his hand. "An honor to be working with you."
"Where's the rest of your companions?" Tenci asked, ignoring the hand.
"I could ask you the same thing," a feminine voice spoke out from around one of the trees. A woman came out of the shadows, wearing black tights covered by a dark brown tunic that barely reached her legs. With her hair braided back, she had a black handkerchief tied around her face, leaving only her eyes visible.
Simon looked into those deep blue eyes without thinking, and to his surprise saw her looking back at him. When they both realized this, they broke contact and looked away. The girl recovered first. "I'm Rose. You. With the bandana. Are you Simon?" He nodded reluctantly, cursing Earl Hart.
Mero asked, "Are there any more of you?"
Almost before he finished the question, Ceno appeared out of the shadows and grabbed his shoulders from behind with his giant hands. "You will have five of us tonight. No more, no less."
Drake and Raven joined them, jumping down from their trees. Only together could one appreciate their difference in size. Drake, with his ratty face, hunched down a lot. Raven, however, was as hefty as her brother and nearly as tall. Thus she towered over Drake.
"So," Ceno continued, folding his muscular arms, "remind us why we need you."
The woman, Rose, looked up at him like she was gathering her confidence. Raven looked down at her with a smirk. Rose took out a key. "The king's vault is sealed off, not only by locks and some guards but by ancient magics that even the judges don't understand. Only the one possessing the key can invite others down there without setting off the traps."
An astonishing feat, stealing the key from the king himself. Was this woman his personal servant? And where did the elf fit in? "So, why don't you give us the key and let us take care of business?" Simon asked. Ceno glared at him for stealing his line, but hey, that's what thieves do.
Rose evidently hadn't considered the idea, for she stood at a loss for words. Mero covered for her. "We know how to get down there. And we want our share of the money. Try to steal the key, and we'll turn you in. There are plenty of guards patrolling the walls within shouting distance." He pointed to the outer stone walls, surrounded by the moat, that kept the castle safe.
Simon took a moment to experience the castle, almost never having gotten so close. Each of the thirteen towers, one for each Judge Lord, glistened from the last rays of the sun, with each crystal cone at the top reflecting a different color: the six of the rainbow, and a white one on the east side. The blue crystal roof also lit up, with the combined effect giving the castle a magical glow at this time of day and letting it serve as a temporary lighthouse to any ships in the sea stretching out to the east.
"Oh, so you want your money?" Ceno said, towering over Mero, who shrank down. Ceno clapped him on the back. "Greed! Good, you're thinking like a thief. We'll let you keep the key. But be warned, call the guards on us, and we'll silence you long before they can get here to save you."
Mero and Rose seemed to share a combined shiver as Ceno turned away and looked at the castle, getting caught up in the sight like Simon had. "All right, lead the way. Where do we begin?"
This Rose must have connections, Tenci thought, as the guards opened up the outer gates for them. She had merely gone up to them, taking off her mask, spoke some words, and the armored men with pikes motioned for all of them to enter. He felt a stab of fear as he passed under their watchful gaze, but didn't let himself react, as that could blow the plan.
Going to the north, crossing one of the stone partitions, they came to a stone building, dull in comparison to the splendor of the rest of the castle. "Here we are," Rose stated. They stood in the shadow of the castle itself, backs against the wall.
"Isn't this the dungeon?" Raven asked, hand on her hip.
"It also leads to the king's vault."
Tenci laughed. "Really? They have the dungeon right by the castle and the King's Vault? So, if the criminals escape, they can get access to powerful ancient artifacts and invade the castle? Not the smartest idea."
Even in the darkness, from under her handkerchief, Tenci could feel Rose blush. "That's never happened before."
"Hey, I wasn't saying it was your dumb idea. Just that whoever planned this didn't think it through very well."
"I don't know," Simon said. "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer."
"Stop talking," Ceno said. "Let's get in."
"I got you past the outer guards, and this courtyard is pretty open and free, but I don't belong in the dungeons," Rose said. "Some of you are going to have to fight the guards in there, without alerting anyone else."
"Raven and I will do it," Tenci volunteered. Raven looked at him with an amused smile, while Simon shook his head, probably mad he didn't get in fast enough.
Rose nodded and said, "The door at the entrance is so heavy, the first guard inside will have plenty of time to identify whether you're friend or foe, and has a bell that can alert the other guards. You'll have to stall him or something to keep him from ringing that, or else all the guards in the dungeon and even some from outside will come running. The hallways echo, and most guards get suspicious of unknown voices and unplanned footsteps. You'll also have to have some way to signal to us that you're clear. The vault entrance is near the front and has its own set of guards, but once we pass them, there shouldn't be any guards or anything on the inside to stop you."
"Unless it's haunted inside, like they say," Mero said. Simon groaned at Tenci's side.
"Sounds like fun," Tenci said. "Let's do this."
Tenci and Raven snuck out, keeping a low profile as they walked over the field that led to the dungeon. Tenci felt so exposed, wishing he could hide in an alley or something, but no such luck here. Fortunately, no one patrolling the walls seemed to notice or care.
Once they arrived at the doorstep, Tenci took Raven aside. "Do you think you're brother's going to promote me to second-in-command?"
"Stop worrying about that, wiz. Do well, and it'll come naturally. I don't have any say in it, anyway."
"I just don't know how that weasel Drake got the title. All he does is suck up to Ceno."
Raven eyed him knowingly. "There you have it, your road to success. Now, are we going to break in?"
"Yeah, sure," Tenci said.
Tenci examined the door. Indeed, it looked heavy and unwieldy, better to delay convicts in their escape. In his time, Tenci had to break out from a prison or two, but never had to break in. At eye level, there was a slot that looked like it opened up so the main guard could speak to people outside without opening the door. Good.
Using his sword, he gave the door a few good taps. That should wake the guard up. A moment later, the slot opened. "Who is it?" The guard had on a helmet, but it didn't cover his face.
Raven answered, getting into his line of vision. "I bring a message from my lord."
The man got closer, waiting to hear it. He never did, though, as Tenci squirted him with a puff of gas in the face, prepared by Reaper. Poor guy, he wouldn't see the fruits of his labor. The guard gasped, grunted, and tried to open the door, but soon slumped over, falling unconscious.
Tenci looked at the vial, a normal container for perfume, and smiled. "Thanks, Reaper old buddy. You may be crazy, but you know your stuff."
"Shut up and help me open this door," Raven said. "Reaper can't hear you, but I can, and that's too loud."
It turned out that Tenci really didn't need to help Raven that much, as she had more strength than most men, especially those who didn't do manual labor like work on a farm. Tenci smirked at the memory of working on the farm in his youth. Definitely more fun to work as a thief. And less smelly. Usually.
Once they got the door open, trying not to make much noise, they found the guard on the floor, but luckily, no one had come to investigate. Tenci didn't envy their jobs. Sitting around, waiting for something to happen, but most of the time, nothing ever did. So they got complacent, or bored, and when something actually did happen, they often weren't prepared, failed to stop the crime, and got in trouble with their bosses. And since no one expected anyone to break into either the prison or into the vault that even the king only visited once in a lifetime, the guards here shouldn't cause many problems. At least on the way in.
"I can't believe we're going to rob the vault," Tenci whispered. "Half the people I know don't believe it exists."
"And the other half wouldn't want to step near the cursed thing." Raven looked him over. "You know, it's kinda fitting that you would be the one to rob this thing. Magic runs in your blood, doesn't it?"
Tenci slapped his palm to his forehead. "How many times do I have to tell you, just because I'm black doesn't mean I'm a mage? I don't know anyone in my family that has even been to Mageda, let alone cast a spell."
"I'm just saying, there's surely some ancestor smiling on you now, knowing you're going to embrace your heritage by stealing magical artifacts."
"Just shut up. I doubt this statue is magical, anyway."
"Then why would it be in the vault? Who keeps a boring statue among the world's most dangerous magical devices?"
"I'm not talking to you anymore," Tenci said. Raven snorted out a laugh. Very unladylike. "Whatever happened to being silent?"
"Whatever happened to you not talking to me?"
Tenci grumbled and propped the limp body on the chair, trying to rearrange it so it looked like the guard was just sleeping on duty. They'd probably woken him up tapping on the door, anyway. Just restoring him now to his proper position.
Once they secured the front area, they signaled for the rest to come in. It took a few moments, as they came in pairs, but soon enough all seven of them crammed into the front room. "So, princess, where's the vault from here?" Tenci asked Rose.
She looked him in the eye, startled. "Princess?"
"You know. Baby, honey, hotcakes, princess," Tenci said, winking.
Rose didn't even answer, looking choked up. The elf Mero answered for her. "Hey, some respect, please."
"Sorry, sorry, don't take it wrong. It was a compliment," Tenci said, holding his hands up in defense. "But please, uh, Madame Rose, indicate where we should head from here."
"I believe the entrance is in the first hallway." She took a torch from the wall, casting its flickering light, and opened up the next door, eying the sleeping guard. Tenci didn't worry about him, though. Reaper's chemical concoctions were nothing if not potent.
Walking in, Tenci keeping close to Rose despite Mero's glares, they looked for the entrance to the vault. But the narrow stone hallway just went down twenty yards before ending in another door. And a sleeping guard in front of that door. "Why didn't you check if there was another guard inside?" Tenci hissed at Rose.
"I didn't know. I've never been here before."
Tenci grabbed her shoulders. "We're putting our lives in your hands. Don't make sloppy mistakes."
Mero placed his hand on Tenci's shoulder, but Tenci ignored it and pushed Rose into the wall. "Take us seriously," he said. Or tried to, because as soon as she hit the wall, part of it revolved out, sending them tumbling another dark hallway, the torch bouncing on the ground and going out. Rose let out a shriek, then covered her mouth.
Too late, though. Tenci, from the floor, heard metal hitting metal echoing through the hallway. Drake let out a curse and a moment later, Tenci heard metal clanging to the floor.
"What happened?" he asked.
Simon answered, "After your romantic hug got spoiled by hidden doorways, the guard woke up. Drake had to pull out the old blowgun and knock him back out."
"Where'd he hit the guy?" Tenci asked, jealous of the accuracy needed.
"On the neck. But it took two tries. Now let's just hope his fall or snores didn't wake any of his comrades up. Get up and let's go." He helped Rose up to her feet.
They walked down the new hall, lighting the torch again and closing the secret door behind them. This time, Tenci stayed away from Rose. Simon didn't, though. Tenci frowned. He thought Simon already had a girlfriend, some noble girl who saw him in secret. Must not be that serious.
Soon the hall turned into stairs going down. Tenci had lost all sense of orientation. Where were they now? Under the castle? Under the city, or the woods to the north? Dirt walls replaced the stone ones from the dungeon. The air grew thicker, and everyone grew quieter. Now only footsteps and breathing reached Tenci's ears.
Finally, they reached the bottom. Again, a single door stood at the end. And again, they saw a figure in front of the door.
"What's an elf doing here?" Tenci asked.
The elf kneeled down on one knee in front of the door. With short purple hair, almost as dark as Simon's own, a white robe that the healers used, rose vines wrapped around his arms, and bare feet, he didn't look very threatening. But he represented a danger. Someone knew about this mission.
"Did you invite him?" Ceno asked Rose, his voice showing a tinge of anger that Simon knew all too well.
Rose shook her head vigorously. "I have no idea who he is." She looked at Mero, who shrugged his shoulders.
The elf stood up. "I learned about this quest from Earl Hart himself. Suffice it to say I am here to warn you against giving him the statue."
"You want it for yourself? Are you going to rat us out if we don't let you come with us?" Ceno barely held back his anger now. "You're not going to stop us."
"I see that I would not be able to stop you, one of me against seven of you. Nor do I care for money, especially the human kind, dug up from the earth. I do insist on entering in with you, though, for personal reasons. I promise I shall not detain you, nor get in your way, although if my fears prove true, I will do my best to persuade you against your current course. For now, though, I just want to verify information about the vault."
"Then why didn't you ask the king?" Ceno asked, not trusting him.
"You'll see soon enough if my suspicions are correct."
"And if we still don't agree?"
"If you do not bring me with you, I will let the guards know, and your quest will be short lived. And if you think to stop me the same way you stopped the guards, let me enlighten you." The elf stretched his hand out, and a ball of light grew from it, illuminating the area better than the torch. Magic. Simon noticed the elf looking at Mero's reaction, that of bewilderment and shying back. Did Mero have magic? Didn't all elves? And why did Mero use boots? Didn't most elves walk around barefoot, like this one? "Do I make my meaning clear?"
Ceno grunted. "Rose, do you agree to his conditions?"
"Will he tell the authorities after?"
"They'll know it's us, anyway. No one else could get in the vault but Snake Eyes. But if he interferes with our escape, he'll know just how mortal elves really are." Looking the elf in the eye, he said, "We'll let you come with us, even if I don't like it. What's your name, elf?"
"Dorovar. And yours?"
"You don't need to know that. Rose, take out your key."
Rose fished out the key from her tunic. A simple, bronze key showing its age. Didn't seem like a key meant for a hidden stash of artifacts, many of which presented a danger to any who tried using them. Simon knew he wouldn't be touching any of those things. Just the angel. He'd had enough bad experiences with magic, especially with Lady Folling.
"Is this going to work?" Drake asked, putting a nervous hand through his blonde hair. "Don't they say that only the king or his heir can use the key to enter? And that it's haunted inside?"
Silence reigned for a moment before Mero laughed and broke it. "How's a lock going to know the current king or his heir? That's just a myth."
"Does it matter?" Simon said, feeling the tension. "Just stick the key in and turn it."
Startled out the reverie, Rose went up to the door and put the key in. They heard an audible click, and then the door began to open by itself.
The darkness inside seemed to suck away at their light, even Dorovar's, which now barely illuminated him and nothing beyond. Simon looked, but couldn't see anything more than the first few steps of the path inside. Rose pulled out the key and gestured to them. "After you."
No one moved for a second, but Ceno then said, "Bah!" and started pushing everyone out of his way to go inside, grabbing the torch on his way. "Yer all a bunch of cowards."
One by one, they filed in after him. Simon ended up between Raven in the front and Rose in the back. Lucky him. Walking into the darkness, he realized something. "There aren't any walls."
"We're in a...cavern?" Rose asked, looking around in awe. But they couldn't see the ceiling, or walls, or the ground beneath the bridge the walked on. They might be walking through a tunnel, or they might be walking through a spacious cave. To test it, Simon kicked a loose rock off their bridge. It fell five seconds before bouncing off something.
"Be quiet!" Raven hissed.
"Why?" Simon asked, keeping his voice normal. "There's no guards here."
"You might...I don't know, wake something."
"Ha. The worst I can do is snap you out of your superstitions."
They crossed the bridge and arrived at a platform made of polished stone. On either side of the end of the bridge, an unlit torch rose above their heads. Ceno lit the two with the one in his hand, and they got a glimpse of some stalactites hanging down thirty feet above them.
A path continued on from the bridge through the platform. Walking down it, they saw several pedestals on each side, showing off different items. Simon saw an ornamental goblet filled with some kind of liquid, a spying glass, some crystals of varying colors, a strange metal object that looked bent in half, one of the swords used by the Knights of the Dragon with the dragon sigil on the handle, and a katana sword that looked nearly as long as he was tall. He passed other objects on the way, not paying attention to them. Surely the king's vault would contain at least some money. He couldn't trust any of these things enough to steal them.
"So the Knights of the Dragon use enchanted blades?" Drake said from behind. Turning around, Simon saw him examining that blade in his hands.
"Put that back!" Dorovar the elf yelled.
"Why? Hart never said we can't take anything else. How much would one of these things sell for?"
Dorovar walked up to him, grabbed the sword, and placed it back on the altar. Then he looked at his hand with consternation. "We have to hurry and see if the angel is here."
"If the angel is here?" Ceno repeated. "Why wouldn't it be?"
Dorovar shook his head, sighing. Then he took off at a sprint down the path, disappearing into the darkness. "After him!" Ceno yelled.
Without even thinking it through, they started running after the elf. As Simon ran, from the bottom of his eye he seemed to see a violet glow. Looking down, he thought he saw the crystal in his pendant glow, but it disappeared so fast he couldn't feel sure his eyes hadn't tricked him.
They reached the end of the path, coming to the wall of the cavern. Dorovar stood in front of an empty pedestal, this one larger and closer to the ground. "She's not here. Earl Hart had old information." Dorovar's voice sounded relieved.
"Wait, the statue's not here?" Ceno asked. "Where is it, then?" He did not sound pleased at all. His anger had come back, like when he got drunk.
"I am at peace now, almost. I came here to confirm she hadn't been returned to this location. Her current location should remain a secret, at all costs. If someone like Hart got her, it could mean disaster."
"So what now, we escape empty handed?" Raven asked. "I don't think so."
"If you can escape at all," Dorovar replied in a melancholy voice.
Simon noticed something he had missed in their hurry to arrive. "Where's Tenci?" They looked around for him, but couldn't see him.
"Was this all a trick?" Ceno said, looking at Rose.
"No, no, I thought the statue was here! Who else would have taken it?"
Simon could hear the lies in her tone. "She looks familiar. Who is she, anyway?"
Ceno moved faster than expected of a man his size, grabbing her and pulling off her handkerchief, pushing Mero away even as Rose shrieked. Indeed, the face looked familiar, but Simon couldn't place it, until Raven exclaimed, "That's Princess Tiffany Blade!"
The princess of Mith had led them down here? "It's a trap!" Simon yelled. Earl Hart had set them up. A legion of guards would probably be down here within moments.
"I'm not going down without a fight," Ceno said, pulling Tiffany closer. "If you want to live, you make sure they let me out."
"What about the rest of us?" Drake asked.
"Try getting out while I distract them," Ceno said.
Simon felt a deep sense of betrayal rebound through his body. How could Ceno just let them fend for themselves? The darkness surrounding them seemed to get thicker, and even seemed to move. Either that or Simon felt dizzy. Everything seemed to be going wrong.
"Let me go!" Rose/Princess Tiffany yelled from within Ceno's arms, sounding scared. Mero got back up to help her, but Ceno put his dagger to her throat. Suddenly looking vulnerable, Tiffany trembled and gasped, her braided hair swaying.
Suddenly, it seemed like Ceno stiffened, then dropped down like a rag doll, letting the confused princess free.
"What's going on?" Raven nearly screamed, seeing her brother on the ground. Simon could have sworn he saw a cloud of darkness descend into him. Drake stiffened as well, getting a strange look in his eyes, and that same darkness seemed to come out of him as he fell.
"We're too late," Dorovar said, closing his eyes. "Send Shiara my love. May someone more worthy heal her soul."
Feeling short of breath, a chill down his spine, and icy skin, Simon saw the crystal in his amulet flare up again, this time unmistakably shining out in a brilliant violet light.
But that didn't stop him from falling and cracking his head on the ground.