A KISS FROM A KNAVE
Even for an experienced thief, breaking into a wicked queen’s hidden chamber of magic and witchcraft would be a challenge. Fortunately, Jack Harte was not merely an experienced thief, he was an expert one. The best of the best, his exploits talked about all over Elatyria. The fact that he’d all but given up his wickedest ways didn’t make a bit of difference to the people who still thanked him for sharing whatever bounty he’d managed to take from those who needed it a little less than the majority of the people.
The memories of those wicked ways had never been more important than they were right now. As with any job, there was the danger of getting caught. With this one? If he were discovered to be in the pay of a group of rebels trying to thwart a wicked queen’s evil plans? Well, if he were captured by Queen Verona, she’d be screaming, “Off with his head!” before he could even mention the world trial.
Evil indeed, he thought as he made his way into the queen’s hidden vault. Considering how well the room was hidden in the castle, he sent a mental thanks to the rebels who’d hired him to retrieve a stolen magical chalice. Their information had been dead-on, and despite having to do a little fast thinking when he’d nearly crossed paths with two guards, so far, everything was going smoothly.
The chalice he was after must be very special. He imagined that was because the antique had come from the lost kingdom of Seaside and had a deep history.
The leader of the freedom fighters—a huge, dangerous-looking warrior from the kingdom of Freya, code-named Hulk—had told him to focus on the goblet, but to also take any other objects he could. Fortunately, they’d also done enough reconnaissance to tell him exactly how to find the chamber despite its invisibility spell, and most importantly, how to get inside.
And now he was.
Jack moved slowly, his soft leather boots making not a sound on the marble floor. Although he had unveiled the bespelled room, its dark magic was inescapable. The air was thick and misty, carrying a green tinge and the faint stink of sulfur. He struggled to inhale what felt like soup while also trying not to smell its reek.
“Third cabinet, lower left,” he reminded himself. If the archeologist who worked with the rebels was correct, that was where he would find the goblet from the lost kingdom of Seaside, which had disappeared after the entire royal family had been awoken from another witch’s spell. Nobody had been able to tell him how Queen Verona had obtained it, only that it was extremely important to get it back. Whispers abounded that the queen was attempting to rip holes between realities. And heaven help all the worlds if she succeeded. Somehow, some way, the chalice was involved.
Walking toward the cabinet, he found himself stumbling. His feet tangled and he had to lean against the wall to remain upright as dizziness and a heavy lethargy slowed his pace.
The queen had obviously put more security measures in place to guard her treasures.
“Bottom left. Three more steps.”
He trudged, and then shuffled, struggling to lift his feet from the floor. When the cabinets doubled and tripled in his vision, he blinked hard and focused again. It took every ounce of his concentration to make it to the third bank of cabinets. Dropping to his knees before the one on the bottom left, he looked at the palm of his hand for the row of symbols the archeologist had provided. Heaven knew how the old man got the combination. Thank God Jack had written it down, not trusting his memory for such a critical task. Because if he had to recall it, he doubted he'd be able to while so dizzy and confused.
His five fingers became ten when he extended his hand to the magicked locking mechanism. Holding his breath against what he now suspected was poisoned air, he blinked again. This time, he could actually see and recognize the symbols. Quickly twisting the dials, he didn’t allow himself to sigh in relief when the panel door slid open. Not inhaling had brought a bit of clarity to his thoughts.
Jack reached inside, grasped a felt-covered object, and pulled it out. Quickly yanking down a corner of the wrapping, he saw the gleam of gold and the brilliance of jewels encrusted in the handle of an incredibly beautiful chalice.
Jack shoved the precious relic into his leather sack and then quickly shut the cabinet. As he rose, his lungs began to complain. But the exit wasn’t too far and he knew he could make it before he had to gasp a breath. No problem.
That was, however, before he saw a grouping of items sitting on a table in the southwest corner of the room.
The table beckoned him.
So did the exit.
His lungs preferred the latter, but his mind…his mind wouldn’t let him leave. An overwhelming compulsion ordered him to find out what objects the queen used enough to keep them out on what he could now see was a stone slab.
Surely another few seconds without breath wouldn’t matter.
Hurrying to the slab, he saw a ring of dirt encircling a five-pointed star. Three of the star’s points held shiny obsidian stones. Runes. The other two contained an unusual silver coin with an eagle stamped on it, and another metal carving, strangely shaped, with a sharp, pointy end. In the very center of the star lay a rusted old hand tool.
None of it made any sense, especially when he noticed that the circle of dirt appeared to be slowly moving, shifting like sand in an hourglass. The grit shambled in channels that had been carved in the ancient stone. The channels were rust-colored. They led from the top, down the legs, into drains in the floor.
Understanding flashed through him. Dark, dark magic.
Fearing the table had been used for blood sacrifice, Jack nearly turned away, but stopped himself just in time. This was important. Critical, even.
He kept his lips glued shut, even as his heart pounded harder. The thud sent his own blood coursing through his veins, burning up much of the remaining air he’d inhaled earlier. If he didn’t breathe soon, he might never get out of here.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t sure what he should do to interrupt a spell in progress. He could very well make things worse.
Take the ax, you fool! Don’t you leave here without it!
The words came from nowhere, appearing out of the air. A long shudder rolled through him as he doubted his senses. That hadn’t been the voice of a delicate creature, not pretty and feminine like some he’d heard from still-magical animals in the realm. No, this was a low growl, a barked order from a gruff-voiced, grumpy-sounding man.
A sneeze followed. And then a giggle.
Take it now, Jack. You’re going to need it and you won’t have another chance.
He swung around in a circle, looking in all four corners of the shadowy room, but saw no-one. He was completely alone. Before he could even begin to wonder who was directly into his brain without taking a moment to detour through his ears, a chorus of male voices erupted.
It’s coming! Take the--!
The words were cut off mid-sentence as the temperature plummeted. A shiver rolled through him from top to toe. The owners of the voices were gone, but he knew he was no longer alone in the chamber.
Before, the place had been ugly. Now it was monstrous.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a roiling swirl of darkness twisting toward him, coming close but not grabbing him, as if it were constrained by something.
It narrowed, gathering mass. A cyclonic gust pushed him toward the door. It might not be able to touch him, but the mass wanted him gone.
He wished he could oblige, not because he was afraid, but because he felt on the verge of passing out. He needed to breathe.
His hand made another decision. He was reaching for the smaller-than-normal hand tool at the center of the table before his mind made the decision to do it. Sure of what the voices had been telling him to take, he wrapped his fingers around a splintery wooden handle.
The table fought back. Before he had even pulled the ax, the stone slab started to grind and shake. It tugged with magnetic force, until the metal end of the relic slammed back into position, smashing his fingers between the slab and the handle.
Dying for breath now, on the verge of passing out, Jack pulled harder. Around him, the angry black cloud twisted and twined, a whisper’s breath away from his skin, not touching but close enough to make him want to vomit in disgust.
But that would mean opening his mouth. And now actually seeing a mass of green droplets hanging in the air, he knew what would happen to him if he inhaled. This wouldn’t be dizziness and confusion. It would be his death.
The table thudded. The runes rattled. His lungs screamed.
He didn’t question the chorus of deep voices. Whatever the black cloud was, these were the opposite.
Grasping the splintered handle with both hands, he pulled with all his might. A crackle of light danced across the shuddering lines of dirt, sending it spilling out of the channels. The runes tipped out of position. The two strange metal things leapt into the air, the silver coin flipping in circles, flashing the eagle on one side and a man’s face on the other.
As if it the things had been thrown with precision, they both struck a draped, framed item hanging on the wall. Jack heard the tinkling of breaking glass. Defying all reason, the coin plunked down directly on one of his feet. The carving plunged point-down onto the other. The damn thing hurt for a second, and he wondered if it operated like a poisoned dart. But it didn’t cause any lasting reaction other than annoyance.
With the disruption of the objects needed for the spell, the slab’s dark grip loosened the tiniest bit. Knowing it was now or never, Jack wrenched the tool away, staggering back with his prize, falling right into the black cloud.
Cold. So cold. His fingertips began to harden and freeze, as if he’d plunged through the ice into a bitterly cold lake. But this lake was so dark it felt like a void, a place where no light had ever shone.
It was all the bad things that had ever existed in the world condensed into one place. Sharp needles of pain stabbed into his skull and his skin. Hateful groans swirled around him, the cries of very old evil struggling to be let loose.
Whatever he did in the rest of his life, he had to make sure it never was.
He thrust his way through the mist, spying the door.
But he also remembered those two silver objects. He knew they’d meant something, that they were important to Verona’s spell. Whether they were important, or would simply further inconvenience the queen, he couldn’t say. But something told him he should hold onto them, so he scooped them up and dropped both into his satchel.
Another couple of steps brought him to the door. He thrust it open. Brust out into the corridor. Gasped, coughed, and choked on clean, pure air, giving thanks to any being watching over him that he’d escaped from that horrible, evil place.
He gave himself only a minute or two to recover. And then Jack Harte ran like all the worlds were in danger.
Because he now knew they were.
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