Rice crept up on the target. She had gotten the job by posting her signature appeal: a simple piece of paper on the wooden post in the middle of town, where people could post such messages for employment, which read: Services. It was written with a distinct flair, which identified her to people of a certain ilk. She was famous. Or infamous. Depended on who you asked.
She’d started out in her native Southlands as a cat burglar. Back then, her notice read: Services—If someone has what you want, and you are willing to pay to get it, leave your house name on this message and you will be contacted. This type of thing, if noticed by the local constabulary, if the town in question even had one, was unlikely to cause her trouble. Victims of thievery customarily rectified their issues directly with the thief. A land of many laws Precarious wasn’t. And it became a land of fewer laws the farther north you went into the Hinterlands. Towns were less governed by documents than whatever was the goodness, or lack thereof, a town’s people.
As Rice had made her way north, she left behind the gold coins she’d earned in shallow burial spots. She documented her wealth’s locations on a treasure map she kept close. Her reputation preceded her to where the posting of the single word “Services” was understood to be the calling card of the nameless cat burglar—yes, she had a name, but she never revealed it—who never failed to deliver. It was said she could get a gold coin out of a house, surrounded by wild dogs, that was locked away in a chest within a chest within a strong box within a chest, etc. If you wanted someone burglarized right, you wanted Rice.
And when she had seen a scrawl on her calling card: “Manor Xendorian, just outside of town to the west on top of the hill,” she had gone and accepted the job from Xendor in the Hinterlands, outside of a town named Frostbite. The only thing to like about the man was his promise of gold. He had tasked her to steal a painting from a little man who lived in House Snuggly. That man went by the name of Hammerbang. Neither the house’s nor the occupant’s name had seemed credulous to Rice, but a job was a job.
Xendor was paying a lot for this one painting. She was more used to people coveting ostentatious jewelry or small pieces of art made of precious metals, encrusted with even more precious stones. While being paid perhaps less than these things were worth, she wasn’t going to take up fencing stolen goods. She wanted the coins. Rice had made a lot of them by now.
Xendor’s offered sum was landmark. She usually had to bargain up in her negotiations. With Xendor, she didn’t even try.
Xendor hadn’t told her anything about this little man in House Snuggly. What might be his defensive capabilities. Whether he was a sword carrying brute or a pin carrying tailor. But her calling card to the people she stole from was that an item had gone missing and no one saw or heard a thing. Confrontation was never part of the plan. Although Rice was as deadly as they came in combat, she never took people’s treasured treasure by force. You just had a thing one day, then you didn’t. Who knew how? Wasn’t it locked up and hidden under the bed? Where could it have gone? That’s how you could guess Rice had visited. So, regardless of the occupant’s combat capabilities, she didn’t plan on squaring off against the little fellow. She’d just hoist a painting off his wall in a shroud of stealth then vanish.
Rice was, however, loaded for bear. Her sleek leathers served as modest armor but was made to look like what it was not. It looked like a regal bolero jacket and pants combo. The clasps of her apparent jacket were hilts of eight throwing knives, the blades ensconced in the armor’s interior sheaths, four to a side across her bosom and down to her belly. The metal adornments on her belt near either hip were the hilts of similarly sheathed daggers. She had another two daggers hidden in the tops of her leather boots.
On her left arm was a custom-made device: a spring activated shiv that could be deployed with a certain palm, forearm flex combination. Sheathed on her back was a saber. The sword was made from the metal ridiculum that could rarely be found in substantial quantities enough to mine. In the hands of a master forger, ridiculum would result in a blade both ridiculously sharp and durable. Which likely accounted for the metal’s name.
Her saber had been forged by the blacksmith Indubitable. He’d presented her with the blade which he dubbed Lifegiver.
“I present you Lifegiver,” he had said.
“I don’t think you quite get—” she had tried.
“Lifegiver.” He’d held it out a little further. She’d accepted it by the hilt.
“You really should think this through because—”
“Lifegiver.” He’d seemed to turn a bit ornery.
So, Lifegiver it was. When sheathed on her back, and she faced you directly, you wouldn’t see it. And if she unsheathed it, you probably weren’t going to see much of anything for long. The saber could literally cut stone though, in application, there wasn’t much call to do so.
A few weeks back before the Hammerbang job, a couple of bandits had thought to relieve her of a few coins while she gave her horse, Clopsalot, a rest and a few carrots in the forest. Those thugs saw Lifegiver for a single swing lasting under a second.
Lifegiver in her hand was as ironic as it was dangerous.
With Clopsalot in the town livery, she’d used stealth to approach House Snuggly. Her vision had adjusted to the night fine. Her jade eyes peeled wide for anything that might hinder her caper. Hammerbang didn’t have any immediate neighbors. It was quiet. It was dark. Just the way she liked it.
The house itself was a one-story, long rectangle. Rice realized as she got closer that the height of Snuggly was only a bit greater than her own. It made her think the house was made for, or built by, children. Her intel had been that only a chap named Hammerbang lived there.
Hinterlanders were smaller folk, but that didn’t generally show up in their architecture. Unfortunate that Hammerbang’s windows also would be small. Big enough to fit through, though, she had decided, advancing her position. The interior would be cramped—Rice was six feet tall—but the larceny was still doable.
From one end of the house came a soft light. Hammerbang must be a night owl. It didn’t matter. She’d crept through houses while being in the same room where occupants were awake and gone unseen. This was her thing.
She opted to ingress on the end of Snuggly away from the candlelight. The painting might be anywhere. But even if it were right behind the guy, she could still filch it.
Though simply because she could didn’t mean she should. Maybe it was better not to take that kind of chance. She could always come back later. Try again tomorrow.
No. Since she was here, she may as well enter and assess the risk versus reward factor.
Beneath Lifegiver on her back there was a small button up pocket that contained three things. First, a bunch of small steel tools she could use to circumvent any lock; second, a small vial of venom, which she could use either directly, say in someone’s beverage, or indirectly but more cruelly as a coating to one of the fourteen blades she carried; third, her treasure map. She needed only the lockpicks for now.
Rice was at the window, peering through it as she took a long, thin piece of metal from among many—distinguishing this particular one was its hook at the end. Perfect for windows. It looked as though Hammerbang was hunched over a desk at the far end of the house reading— No, she saw his movement now. He was furiously writing something down. What, Rice didn’t care.
A soft breeze carried the deciduous smells from the forest. Leaves faintly rustled. She sighed. Ready to go to work.
Rice reminded herself she hadn’t checked to see if the window was even locked. She put her hands gently on the round glass and gave it a nudge. It seemed loose, but it didn’t swing inward. She looked. The hinge suggested the window swung outward, not in.
She took the tool she thought she would need to unlock the window and jammed it in the crack, using the side without the hook. Using it as a lever, pop, the window swung out. So, the little fellow felt he had no security concerns. Rice could work with that. Maybe once Hammerbang was one painting fewer on his walls he would think to lock his windows. Not that anyone could stop her with such a precaution. Still, she marveled how easy this could be sometimes.
Careful not to hit her head on the low ceiling, she hoisted herself through the window. Her boots hit the ground with barely a whisper. She moved forward in a slow crouch. On her right were fixed windows. Between the fenestrations were adornments made of leather and yarn whose purpose she couldn’t guess.
On her left was a wall that was nothing but paintings. Some large, some small, crowded together in a sneer at any sense of décor. While the moons and stars presented some light on the scene, and she knew only that the painting she was after predominately featured a setting sun (this is the only detail Xendor could provide, but how did he know the sun was setting and not rising?), this was not going to be easy in the near darkness. The crowded wall of art ran the entire length of Snuggly.
She stayed close to the wall while examining the paintings as best she could. There was a portrait of…a cow? Pastoral scenes. A gaming wheel. Portrayals of fruit lying about, a war scene, a bowl of—what?—porridge? Rice found herself becoming uncharacteristically annoyed. Told herself to focus on the gold reward.
Rice kept moving. Field mice, a broken wagon wheel. She passed the front door on her right, wishing she had just come in that way. Whatever Hammerbang was writing, he was doing it with passion. He’d not looked up once. As she got closer to him, she wondered if he ever would. But she wasn’t close enough to be seen, not yet. Sometimes, she couldn’t believe how well she could melt into the scenery. Quiet to the bottom of her soul.
A dragon, a wheel of cheese, a regrettably hairy foot then, wait, yes, there it was. Hanging within breathing distance from the intense little man—she judged him to be a bit over four feet tall—was what she was after. A blazing sunset among uncertain surroundings she swore she could almost feel. It was a sunset. She didn’t know how she knew. More pressing was fitting it through the window. It was the largest painting he’d hung.
Why not take it through the front door? With his full concentration on quill and parchment, she could likely pickpocket him as a bonus without his notice. Not that she would bother.
Rice inched up on the painting Xendor valued so much, placed her hands under and over—
Hammerbang swung off his chair. What the fellow lacked in stature he made up for with whatever was burning suddenly in his right hand. It was aflame. It looked like he was about cast a fire spell—a ball of fire, a gout of fire, heck, maybe he was going to burn the whole place to the ground.
Xendor, Rice decided, definitely should have mentioned this. Though she would have taken the job anyway and wasn’t sure what she would have done differently, having advanced warning about a wizard in the house might have triggered additional precautions. Maybe she would have waited until he left the premises. Didn’t matter now. Looked as though she’d tried to burgle one person too many.
All the gold she had buried, all the way back down to the Southlands—it was considerable. She could’ve started her way back home yesterday with a mule and saddlebags, filling up with coin while riding back, exactly as she had planned. But no. She was going to get roasted by a squatty wizard. And just like that, everything was for nothing. Nothing, she supposed, is our eventual reward anyway.
But he wasn’t roasting her alive. Hammerbang stood there, peering in her general direction. He seemed to look at the painting more than at her. She lowered her hands gradually to chest height, near the hilts of her throwing knives. Maybe Rice could have blades flying across the room before the wizard could get his spell off. This was not how she wanted things. It had never come to this before.
Hammerbang’s hand lost the fire. Before it went out completely, he gently snapped his fingers. Previously unseen candles around his desk, and beyond that, his bed, came alight, considerably brightening the room.
He tentatively stepped in her direction, still peering. It was as if he couldn’t see her. Was he blind?
“How are ye doing that?” He shuffled another foot forward. The little man wore a multicolored robe, hood back, with drab clothing underneath. Sandals. His head was more or less all hair. Full beard, mustache, a great tuft of wild, dark hair. Hammerbang’s eyes were similarly dark, yet they twinkled.
Rice didn’t know what to make of it all, but she was relieved her life didn’t seem to be in danger any longer. She stepped forward.
“Doing what?” she said. Hammerbang jumped back a foot.
“That! What you just did. Roast my hamsters! They said it couldn’t be done, but you cracked it somehow. How? No, don’t tell me how but, please, write it down for me. I’ll pay anything you want.”
Rice liked the sound of that last part. But she didn’t understand what the guy was talking about. If she managed to play along with whatever delusion had taken hold of him, maybe this could turn out to be a double payday.
“Sure,” she said. “We can come to a financial arrangement that could suit me. What is it you wanted me to write down exactly?”
“Don’t play coy with me, lass. Ye figured out or somehow found the spell of Invisibility.” Rice winced.
“Don’t call me lass. And, huh?”
“I caught ye trying to lift that painting because there was a spell of Warning cast upon it. Otherwise, I would have never caught ya. Come on now. I’ll pay anything.”
“I wasn’t invisible, you… What’s your game?” Rice clasped her hands in front of her, closer to her throwing knives.
“Could it be,” Hammerbang said, stroking his tangled beard, taking a step closer to her, “that ya don’t even know? Ye know, wait a second here…let me just…”
He fumbled in his pocket. Rice tensed. Hammerbang brought out a fistful of over-sized, translucently hued marbles. He sorted through them, eventually picking one of light blue. Looking through it with one eye, he regarded Rice.
“Ye know, don’t ya,” he said, “that you’ve got the magics in ya?”
“I do not,” she said.
And so forth. Eventually, Hammerbang handed the marble over to Rice, telling her to look through it at him. After complying, she handed the marble back to his eager hands.
“You were glowing blue,” she said. “So?”
“That tells ya I have the magics in me. I bet it was such a monumental glow, ye could barely stand to look. Like trying to take a peek at the sun.”
“I wouldn't use those terms,” she said.
“But pretty bright, not quite scalding exactly but formidable.” He slapped a fist into his palm, emphasizing the point.
“It was bright-ish,” Rice said. Hammerbang narrowed his eyes. His beard scowled.
“Well, yours is rather dull,” he said, “but it’s there. If I had, let's say on a scale of zero to ten, eleven magics, ya have around four. That's not bad, nothing to be ashamed of at all.”
“Thanks for the reassurance,” she said.
He nodded gravely, the sarcasm apparently whizzing silently over his head and into the night. Hammerbang explained that having the magics, in any amount, was both a blessing and a curse. The inflection of his words suggested he thought of it more the former than the latter. In his estimation, and who knew where he came up with this, about five percent of the population of the island continent of Precarious were witches or wizards. Another ten percent had the magics and didn’t know it.
Of those additional ten percent he said, “There are a few rare birds like ya, who use the magics but are not noticing it. And pickle my barrels, coming up with invisibility on your own, well, that takes the cake.”
“What,” Rice said, “is pickle my barrels supposed to mean? Or roast my hamsters, for that matter?”
“Which did ya like better?” He leaned toward her, eyes wide.
“I don’t know that I have a method by which to judge.”
“I’m trying to come up with a catchphrase that will really, ya know, catch. Like soon, everyone in Precarious will be saying, ‘Well roast my hamsters,’ and like that.”
“You prefer ‘Pickle my barrels?’”
“Sure,” she said. “But you might want to keep looking for something that makes a little more sense.”
He cast his eyes up and away. Rice considered. Scarce moments ago, she was considering a violent confrontation. Now, she was on much preferable footing, yet in a conversation she would like to escape. It was strange that the little wizard seemed to have forgotten she was there to rob him.
“So, about this burglary I foiled for ya,” he said. There it was. “I am supposing ye didn’t know what ya were trying to steal.”
“A painting of a sunset?”
“Aye,” he said, “yer ignorant of that as well. Is there anything ya aren’t ignorant of, lass?”
Hammerbang seemed more concerned than accusatory, which somehow made what he had said worse. Was she ignorant of having the magics? Could turning invisible explain her artistry of stealth? She cast back to some close calls, maybe even to some that weren’t so close, when she thought, I can see them, but they can’t see me, repeating it, making it so? She broke out in goosebumps.
“Stop calling me lass. What ignorance do I show in regard to the painting?”
“Plenty. Whoever hired ya— I’m guessing ya were hired?”
She nodded almost imperceptibly.
“Whoever he or she is,” he continued, “is a dangerous person. I don’t know what he or she told ya, but that person doesn’t want the painting, but the spell on the back of it. I don’t even know how that person—”
“Xendor,” she said. Rice had never given up one of her clients. She wanted to expedite the conversation. She could figure out as they went how she could turn the situation to her advantage.
“Ye means the rat-faced fella who lives in the big house outside Frostbite?”
“One and the same.”
“Aye. I figured that chump would’ve fallen into necromancy and been eaten by one of his own ghouls by now,” Hammerbang said. He chewed on his lower lip while letting his gaze drift. “Well, I have a proposition for ya, lass. And hear me out on the whole thing. First, I will team up with ya when ya go about yer burglarizing so as to add some world class spellcasting as backup—”
Rice opened her mouth to issue a flat refusal. She worked alone. No doubt this guy, spells or no spells, would get her caught on every job. She could just feel it. But Hammerbang didn’t let her get a fully formed word out.
“No, no, let me finish. If I’m with ya, I can study how you become invisible—I’m guessing ya only do it when thieving—and perhaps get a clue to the writing of it. In return, I will teach ya how to read spells so ya can cast a few of yer own. Ye dunna have my extraordinary magics, so some spells you’ll never be able to cast, but I’m sure some of what I can teach ya will come in quite handy on yer raids. Like being able to see and dispel a spell of Warning. Ye really could have used that tonight.”
“Teach me something,” she said, “so I believe you. If not, then I don’t.”
Rice couldn’t decide whether or not she was simply stalling for time.
“Aye, I suppose that’s fair. Mind, if ya can’t be a good student, ya won’t learn. And if ya dunna learn, we are back to where we started. Ye are a burglar in my house.”
“And then we have a problem.”
“Aye, possibly. But I think once I tell ya about the spell on the back of that painting, ye might have a different view. No one should know that spell. I’m sorry I do.”
Hammerbang relaxed every muscle in his face. His eyes seemed blank.
“Doesn’t strike me as the sort of thing a wizard would say.”
“Odd maybe,” he said. “I am a veritable spell repository. I have sought high and low for every spell imaginable, and even ones that were unimaginable, but that hubris drove me to learn something I shouldn’t, and there’s no going back. Which is why Xendor cannot be allowed to have that painting. I’m afraid, since he knows of the painting and who has it, he cannot be allowed to continue…continuing.”
Rice paused, betraying nothing in her demeanor. She had given up a client’s name. Now, she was being asked to help eliminate him. That would be bad for business were word to get out.
He looked at her as though she were a puzzle.
“You are going to have to do better than that,” Rice said. “I turn to violence in self-defense, and I’m even sorry when I’ve had to do that. If you can’t adequately explain why it’s necessary to have Xendor removed, then we’re back to having a problem.”
“I getcha. I’m seeing ya don’t even like to use the word kill or any of its frank variants. Ye is a good lass, no question. Do ya remember about a year ago, when those new plants started springing up that no one had seen or heard of before?”
“Violetgolds. Of course, I remember. I remember being glad when they didn’t come back the next spring. I had some explode near me half a dozen times.”
“Aye, aye.” Hammerbang put his head down, his hands fidgeting. “I like to tell myself no one was ever seriously injured by those beautiful, awful flowers. I suppose that’s true, but if they had bigger, more powerful explosions…well, it could have been a lot worse. It’s only luck that it wasn’t.”
“Whose luck? What are you trying to say?”
“When the spell on the other side of that painting is cast, a portal from another dimension is opened,” he said. He raised his chin. “Aye, I know this makes little sense to anyone not schooled in the magics. Ye probably never heard dimension or portal used in such a way. There are invisible worlds, lass, and when they’ve been tampered with, something gets deposited here from one of those hidden worlds.”
Rice thought Hammerbang looked sad. Between the spell, painting, and Xendor, something was painfully amiss. She tried to do the math on it.
“So, you are saying you—”
“Cast the spell.”
“And then the violetgolds—”
“It was all my fault.”
“Well. As far as things go…I mean, they were really nothing more than a nuisance. The explosions—”
“Could have been much worse,” Hammerbang’s voice rose. He stopped, seemed to take deliberate breaths. “Lass, anything could have happened. Lava could have poured from the sky. Giants could have appeared in the world and trampled us all. It was only a matter of luck those mostly harmless—”
“Aye, semi-harmless flowers turned out to be not that big of a deal. If Xendor got this…it could be the end of the world. Literally. Ye have to believe me. I am as adverse about taking a life as you, maybe even more? But he knows where to find me, and it, so he has to go.”
Hammerbang had his shoulders bunched up, his fists in balls. Far-fetched as his story seemed, Rice leaned toward believing it. If it turned out it wasn’t true, that he was a smooth operator looking for payback over nearly losing what might turn out to be a harmless painting, well…she would cross that bridge when she came to it. For now—
“Ye probably wouldn’t mind a wee bit of extra proof,” Hammerbang said. Rice worried he was reading her mind. But no. Even though she didn’t know much about wizards and magics, she knew enough to understand such powers were beyond anyone’s reach. If people had the power to read minds, she supposed, society would be reduced to rubble in a day.
“Go ahead,” he said, “take a hack at it.” He inclined his head toward the hanging sunset.
“You mean with my sword?”
Rice spun on her heel. She approached the painting. Loosed Lifegiver from its sheath. Swinging the blade in an overhand, downward arc—the edge of the saber so fine it made an audible cutting swoosh through the air—she aimed inside the frame, hitting the top of the canvas. Lifegiver’s blade rebounded like she had tried to slice through diamond, mournfully reverberating.
Hammerbang raised his eyebrows and nodded as if to say, “I told ya so.” Rice thrust with Lifegiver at the middle of the sunset. Same result. In a practiced motion, she sheathed her saber.
“Well,” she said, “okay then.”
“I’d show ya the spell on the other side but, even though yer not yet familiar with the hieroglyphs of magics, ya might still accidentally learn the spell. It’s too dangerous to risk.”
Rice cast back to her meeting with Xendor. First, he offered an outrageous sum for the painting. Second, he had seemed agitated to the point of bumping up against mania when he’d offered her the job. He had appeared to marginally keep drool at bay when describing the sunset. The pieces fit well enough.
“All right,” she said, “if you can teach me a spell, then you have
Hours passed while Hammerbang gave Rice a lesson enunciating the hieroglyphs of a minor spell called Blow. The spell didn’t use up much magics when cast, and while she didn’t have to know its pronunciation, he told her it helped if one did.
Hammerbang explained casting a spell was visualizing the written version and reading it all at once. This, he said, could not be done by those without magics. For her, it should be like flexing the same muscle, figuratively, she employed when becoming invisible. So, she was already ahead of the game. He went on to further explain that magics was something one used, and replenishing it required sleep. Using up all of one’s magics would lead to unconsciousness.
Eventually, Rice seemed certain she had Blow in her head. He taught this to her, he said, because he figured Invisibility was an Air Spell—there were five types: Air, Water, Lightning, Cold, and Fire—and so she might have a proclivity for the Air type. Casters usually had an inherent leaning toward a particular strain of spell.
“Mine is fire,” he said, breaking eye contact with her.
Blow was a conjure that created a brief, crisp whirlwind. It wasn’t useful for much but, for her, it was sufficient to prove his point. After several failed attempts, Rice guided a breeze through the room, which snuffed out all the candles. It was just as well. The sun was coming up.
“Pickle my barrels,” Rice said, offering her hand for Hammerbang to shake. He did so. “It looks like we have a deal.”