In Unknown Woods
Her foot slipped off the beam and her chest dropped with a dull thud onto the warm wood. Below, the sound of a shifting body nearly pushed the liquid out of her body into the borrowed black leather pants she was wearing. If the sound hadn’t woken the snoring old man, the dribbled proof of her poor planning would do the job. Her parents had never been particularly proud of her, this would likely be too much. Maybe the old man would be kind enough to leave out that she’d pissed on his head when he found her, she thought.
The shuffling stopped and Era decided she ought to hazard a look down. A bald head poked out of the plush covers, facing the opposite way it had before, but eyes still closed tight. The snoring that had been an annoyance before resumed and she finally let herself breath. The courage to push herself back up to a crouch was slow in coming and pangs of regret began to fire all at once.
The cloaked men had been a curiosity to her from the moment they walked into her parent’s tavern and she’d even pushed her sister aside to be the one to serve them. She put on a massive smile for all the good it ended up doing. They’d been slow to drink and slower to speak when she was around but she busied herself tending to things that needed no tending and eventually she’d managed to overhear that the thief they were waiting on was late. Oh what a fun game that would be, she’d thought then. A chance to be a thief. She huffed dismissively at her past self. It’d only been a few hours since she’d walked up to the table to fill the neglected mugs with ale no one would drink.
“You have need of a thief, do you?” She knew she sounded confident. She’d practiced the line a dozen times before walking over.
The larger of the men scoffed and eyed over her dusky red skin. “Wha’s a halflin’ know ‘bout stealin’.”
“More fool you for having to ask.” The confidence came quickly as she decided the role she’d play. “We’re built for it. Slim and dark. Quick and deadly.” She’d never said anything so ridiculous in her life but Gods was it fun.
The smaller man raised his head to look her over revealing grey stubble on a pointed chin and not much else. “An imp, are you?”
“Half,” she said, almost spitting the words.
He seemed unperturbed at her callous nature. “And you know of theft?”
“Well enough to know to avoid it.”
The words hadn’t meant anything as she had taken a pair of black leathers from the tavern’s forgotten items room. They were two big by a size or more and she’d cinched them with a piece of frayed rope that held closed a bag of rice. They hadn’t meant anything when she met the men in an unlit alley nearly halfway across the city where the houses began to grow tall enough to put envy into her heart. The houses had likely only added to the bluster of her pretending. She was a thief, she’d insisted, and one of the best in the city. Whether they cared or not had never really entered into the question and here she was. Clung to a banister like a daft child trying not to pee on a man she had been told to rob.
Her brain finally managed to puzzle out that her only real hope of escaping without being noticed or killed was to actually do the thing she’d been sent in for. It was at least enough motivation that Era pushed herself to a crouch on the board. The room was a lavish to look at but everything had a feeling of age to it that she couldn’t quite put her finger on. There was no uniformity to the decoration with piles of books in one corner and oddly shaped figurines in another. Everywhere she looked the items seemed to have come from a different time or a different world. The bed was normal enough. Boring almost. A utility in a room full of ornaments. She wanted to linger on each item and puzzle out its use or its origin or its meaning but that would end her up missing a hand in the best of cases.
Refocused, she scanned the dark as best she could for the door they’d told her was in the old man’s bedroom. The larger man had insisted that imps could see in the pitch black and she’d gone along with it. Another in a list of regrets she was trying as best she could to not count. She couldn’t be sure, but there was at least a clear corner in the room and that seemed as good a guess as any. Now to get down. The banisters had run throughout the entire house and a small moonlight window on the roof had been open. Some cruel trick of one of her mother’s Gods, no doubt. The impish Gods loved nothing more than to open the door to misery if one was apt to knock. Well, here she was. And of course, the saw fit to give the old man a poster bed.
She wanted to laugh. It was just far enough away that she could grab it with some confidence but there would be no way back up without jumping from the post. It was slick wood and hard to see in the closed up room. Not so much as a window.
Era reached out and found the post with her fingers. It was dangerously smooth, thin as well. Especially precarious as her lower half would have to fall to the post. Well, there was nothing for it. She closed her eyes, gripped the post and let herself fall in, flexing every muscle across the span of her body in the hopes that it would stop her snapping the post off or falling. She did neither but her flexing did little to deaden the jolt her slender body sent through the bed frame. A snort and a shuffle. She froze dead still and tried her best not to breathe. The snoring returned. Almost too quickly, she thought, but what could she do now but go on?
She moved herself down the post and onto the edge of the footboard. It was a thick, sturdy thing, slick from wear, odd as that was for a footboard. She put a foot on the floor, letting the pad hold her weight. There was no sound from the floor as her heel fell and the other foot came to join the other. Keen to be out of sight, Era ducked as soon as her feet were firmly planted and began the slow work of crossing the room to the corner with the door. She could nearly make it out now. Each step brought a new feature into view and hope began to rise up in her heart until her eyes found the shape of a large latch. As she neared she could see, it was as old as the rest of this awful house and made of heavy iron. There was no plane of existence where that lock would open without a sound.
Era squatted in front of the door for more minutes than she cared to count just starting at the latch. Finally, she put a hand out to feel the mechanism, unsatisfied by the imprecise picture her eyes allowed her. Her hands rubbed over the lock and found no keyhole. A handle led to a latch that did not afford enough room to force a finger in in hopes of avoiding the loudest of the mechanisms at least. She let her hand drop. The door would not be locked, at least, though she was unsure what to feel at that news.
Her mind nagged her into action again. Shutting her eyes, she gripped the handle and pulled herself up to the door. She rose to her tiptoes and leaned down onto the handle as gently as her dexterity allowed. The scrape must not have been loud as slow as the latch moved, but it screamed in her ears all the same. Every creak of metal was a tiny siren, but the only course left to her was gritted teeth and selfish prayers. The latch finally met the edge of its lock and the door let go a solid thunk as the weight fell free of its restraint. It was heavy wood and Era moved it open slowly until there was just enough room to push herself through to the next room.
She fell to her knees and let go her breath, only just realizing she’d not taken in air for as long as her grip had been on the handle. It was a moment before Era came to realize that she was able to see the floor beneath her. There was a pale green light filling the room. Not enough that a person could read anything, but more than enough to find something if they knew the shape of it. She stood. The smaller man had told her she was to bring him a small trinket that had belonged to his grandfather long ago and had been stolen by this old man. It was a simple leather strap tied around a finger bone to make a crude necklace. The bone was black, he’d said.
A nearby table seemed as likely a place as any and so she moved to it. Papers and rings laid in the center of the desk, a few books tucked to either side. Nothing that matched what she’d been told to find. She pulled open the top drawer and began to rummage, forgetting herself with the old man safely on the other side of the door. The drawer contained only vials and terrible smells so she closed it quickly. The next drawer was more promising. Fabric bags and loose chains of metal. She pulled a few of the bags and dumped them on the table. Gold and silver chains with gems in simple settings. She reached back in and grabbed for another bag. Her hand found another fabric bag and she pulled it from the drawer. It was heavier than she’d expected but did not sag under any sort of weight.
She gave the bag a curious look before untying the cinch and spilling the contents onto the table. Only a single piece fell out of the bag. A leather strap with a black bone. It hit the table with a heavy clank, almost metallic sounding. The clutter on the desk seemed to shift away from it as it landed. Era put her hand out tentatively.
The clack of hardwood on stone sounded behind her. Before she could even manage to spin, the room flushed with light and she pulled her hand up over her eyes.
The booming voice felt as though it were circled her head a pair of times before it died down. Her senses returned all at once and she spun to see the old man standing in a simple linen robe, a burning staff in his hand. The light at the tip crackled against the magic that held it to the delicately shaped wood. Era let go an unflattering “yawp” sort of sound and fell back against the desk, catching herself.
“N-no! Please! They didn’t say!”
There was a look of confusion and stunned silence where Era had expected rage and arcane words of power. He looked her over. Whatever he had expected to have snuck into his sanctum, it was not this. His eyes moved from her to the desk she had propped herself against and found prize she’d been sent to recover. The wizard flushed white.
“Girl, you mustn’t…”
The words never made it to her ears as panic took over Era’s mind. She slapped her hand down onto the bone and she ran straight toward the door and, consequently, the wizard. Her eyes were closed tight and she counted three steps before her feet failed her, sending her toward the ground. Instead of the hard knock of stone, she felt the reluctant pull of fabric. She opened her eyes to a sea of white. The wizard groaned as he fell forward over her. There was a chance, she knew. Era clawed her way past the robe and the dark room beyond showed itself. She scrambled to her feet and bolted.
Before she had even crossed the room, she heard the meaty pat of naked feet from behind. The wizard called to her.
“Do not go! You do not understand what you hold!”
She heard the words but they made no sense in her terrified mind. All she knew was their feel and they felt like a slow death by a magical flame. She turned the corner, trying her best to remember where the door had been. She chanced to go left and for once the Gods seemed to favor her. Only a few dozen yards away, a door she was convinced led to the street beyond. The wizard was well behind. Well enough, anyway. She was a stride away from the handle, arm out and ready when a pillar of green flame erupted in front of her. The light turned her back more than the strange cold burn. She whipped around, knowing he was there.
He walked toward her slowly, calm as the night air.
“I advise you listen to me, imp child. I am not your enemy but I cannot allow you to leave with that bauble.”
His voice was odd. Or, not so much his voice as the air around it. He sounded as if his words had traveled up from the bottom of a well. She looked down at the black bone in her hand, not sure of what to do. She summoned the false courage that had dragged her into this place.
“If I leave without it, I would hardly be able to call myself a thief.”
The distant well birthed a roar that again poured into her ears and shook her mind. She winced, flinching away from the man in expectation of another pain that did not come.
A fragile hand fell onto her shoulder and a soft voice followed.
“You are no thief. A child who has played a game for too long in an unfamiliar wood and gotten herself lost.”
She wanted to balk but there was nothing where the bravado had been just a moment before. Era frowned and turned her eyes to the floor.
“There is no shame in it, child. Wanting to see where a path leads may find you lost, but to have never been lost is a pitiable thing.”
She felt as though she only half understood his meaning and that annoyed her. She turned the words over in her mind but couldn’t see anything beyond the simple allegory.
“They will kill me if I do not bring them the trinket.”
She said it plainly, though they were the strongest complaint she could think to register with the wizard. It was his fault if she died. His responsibility for waking up and for not killing her himself.
“Yes, I suppose they would.” He rubbed at a wispy, unkempt beard. “I suppose I might bear some responsibility for that, should it come to pass.” The wizard smiled, revealing a mouth of yellowed teeth. At least, the ones that remained were yellow. He laughed.
The night air was uncomfortable and the leather had begun to chafe as Era made her way back to the alley surrounded by the tall houses. The envy was gone, replaced by a hollow terror. Her mind had spent the walk wandering around the idea of dying and how she might feel about it. There was little consensus among the conflicted voices trying to make themselves her actual opinion on the matter of being murdered by untoward men in an alleyway.
They were there, waiting. The voice that kept suggesting they might’ve gone was quieted at least. The men turned to face her, hoods still pulled. It took a great deal of effort to make her walk toward them seem casual. She was sure she’d failed in that at least.
“The old man didn’t kill you?”
She swallowed hard. “His snoring nearly did at one point, but sleeping men are rarely dangerous.”
She held her hand out, a leather strap dangling down. The smaller man sniffed at the air.
“That…” His voice turned to a deep, throaty growl. “That is not my trinket, girl.” He began to grow, the cloak pushing away as its wearer widened. She could just make out pitch black skin in the dim moonlight. The man that had been the large of the two silently fell to his knees and then onto his face. A thick, dark liquid ran out of him and pooled at the feet of his partner. There was a hot wind blowing from under the cloak. A deafening roar piercing the night. A clawed hand swung back, readying to be the end of her. Era closed her eyes.
There was a hiss and a screech. She looked to see that a dim green tether had shot up from the ground beneath the creature and forced itself through his hand. The wizard walked out, eyes glowing the same dim green as the tether. Another shot up. Piercing the other arm and sending the cloak flying. Where there would have been eyes were now molten yellow orbs, leaking smoke and a fetid smell into the night air.
“Sura’il!” The sounds croaked from the creature.
“I fear I cannot abide a creature of your pathetic station to use that name so casually.” The wooden staff clacked against the stone and the creature was dragged to its knees. “You meant to use this innocent imp girl against me, Oros’un? Did you think I was so weak that leaving my home would be enough for you to have it back?”
The tether pulled the creature’s arm forward and Era could see that half of its forefinger was missing but the wound seemed fresh.
“I will have to remind you of the lesson you were meant to learn the first time.”
The wizard reached out and plucked a finger from the creature. The skin and meat fell away instantly, leaving only a black bone. Fitful, rasping wails filled the alleyway. The wizard frowned and tapped his staff again on the rocks. Tethers shot from the ground, impaling the screaming monster. They pulled the hulking monster down toward the street and cracks began to form. Green light spilled out as the world opened to consume the writhing body. With a wisp of sulfur, the hole closed shut, leaving only the corpse of the larger man behind.
“A thief,” he murmured. He looked down at what was left of the finger. “Hold out your hand.”
She looked up at the wizard and did as she was told. He placed the bone in her hand and stared at the place where the creature had been. He was silent a moment. Finally, the old man turned to Era, leaned on his staff, and smiled his disgusting smile again.
“I know of some wonderful paths in a wonderful wood.” He paused a moment, looking her over. “I should very much like to show them to you.”