On the first evening of my last job, I stared at my cracked ceiling and wondered how it had come to this.
It was chilly thinking, wrapped in my last blanket on the thin mat that was my final furnishing, and with the cool night air finding its way through the many openings in the walls. The room was growing dark with dusk, and all the lamps, candles, and pyrkin — the glowing fungus-like plant that people often smeared on the walls for light — had gone with the rest of my worldly possessions.
All I owned was on my person: a wine-red fez, a sky-blue vest, a fine, white silk tunic, and a worn pair of trousers. Secreted within my trousers' pocket was my obsidian shard, one of the secrets to my success, and the one thing I'd never sell.
Apparently, all the rest was dispensable.
I sighed and stretched, but there was little point in trying to find a more comfortable position. Soon I'd be away, off to meet the only fools in Erimis, capital of the Avvadin Imperium, who would risk hiring me. My luck that they were rich fools.
But with foolish men came foolish ideas, and I feared to hear why Bazaad wanted my particular skills. Vault-breaking was hardly an innocuous profession. And the vault-breaking I performed often crossed people of the highest stations.
But my more immediate concern was the people I'd already crossed. My debts to them were so deep I didn't know why I bothered trying to climb out. Here in my quarters, it'd be easy to find me — the Underguild had more than enough resources to sniff me out wherever I hid. My only chance was to try to pay my debts and hope they didn't want to collect before I finished the job.
How had it come to this — as if I didn't already know. The gambling and the drinking had done their part, but it’d been the peacock that had finally done me in.
I'd broken into a wealthy pasha's manor and slipped away with his wife's box of jewels. I'd infiltrated a silk merchant's shop even when the Tefra, elite priests who could channel the power of Valem, had set jinn to guard the place. I'd traversed all over Obsidian Heights, the richest district of Erimis, infiltrating the best-guarded manors.
Yet all it had taken was one corpulent bird for my career to come crashing down.
My pitying thoughts were interrupted by a subtle shift in the air. It wasn't a sound or sight, but an intuition, and one I knew to trust. Rising quickly, I peered between the plats of my shuttered window at the courtyard outside. Nothing. Still, I backed away and kept out of sight. Whether I saw them or not, I knew there was someone out there, and I had no doubt who it was.
The Guilders had come for their silver.
My quarters, leased from a landlord with little tolerance for mischief, had no ready escape routes, but I'd been in enough tight spots to know my way around. Staying out of sight, I slunk over to the far end of the room where a high window awaited me. Once, a table had assisted me in getting up to it. Now, I had to do it the way I did all of my impossible feats for vault-breaking: using a gift — or curse — that I wasn't supposed to have, and for which I would pay the red price if it were discovered.
Closing my eyes and centering myself, I coaxed my connection to the Underneath, the world ruled by the Molten God Valem, back into flame. Anxiety fueled and propelled the process, and in moments, lines of heat were spreading from my gut, the central point of my connection, throughout my body until they pressed at my fingertips and toes.
I had seven shifts, which meant I had the potential to be relatively powerful among the Branded, those who could channel Valem's power. I'd never been able to learn much about my Branding other than what was commonly known: that Valem, or one of his great spirits, had formed in me a connection with that other world that allowed me to draw on its power. Why Valem had chosen me, I hadn’t the slightest clue. But I'd always figured that, since I had it, I might as well put it to good use.
Channeling energy to my feet, I expelled it as force and leaped the ten feet up to the window. Grabbing hold of the windowsill, I hung on with one hand while the other worked the shutters off. It was no mean feat, especially while trying to be quiet, but I managed. Prying it off, I dropped back to the floor and placed it gently down so it wouldn't clatter. Then it was back up to the window, this time to slip through and haul myself onto the flat rooftop.
Once I was hidden behind the small lip running around the roof's edge, I risked glancing down. No one on the far side of the tenement. I slipped to the part of the roof facing the courtyard and looked again. A man edged along a wall three stories down, scanning around him. Had I been in my quarters, it would have been impossible to see him coming. These Guilders were no amateurs.
I silently crept along the roof toward the entrance to my quarters. My door went out to an alcove at the top of the stairs, so I'd be able to hear if they approached that way. I only had to wait a few minutes before my patience was rewarded with the first visitor.
For being an agent of the night, his steps clomped up the stairs like the giant white-skinned elephants rumored to live to the south. I heard him rap on my door.
"Talan!" the Guilder shouted in. "Talan Wraithsbane!"
I cringed at the name. Though I was sure no one knew just how accurate 'Wraithsbane' was, all traders of debauchery in Erimis knew the man who didn't fear to walk the streets at night in defiance of the Silks that patrolled them. Still, it was a bit dramatic, even for my tastes.
"We both know why I'm here. Have you the silver or not?" the Guilder demanded.
Silence. I wondered how they'd enter. Break down the door and try to detain me in a show of force? Come in through the windows and take me by stealth? And my punishment — would it be the usual severing of fingers or hands, or were my substantial debts enough to warrant a more stringent penalty? Let it be the latter, I thought; better death than losing my fingers. A Branded vault-breaker without fingers was no more than a beggar.
At the entrance, I heard whispered commands. By stealth then — I should have assumed as much. I listened to their boots shuffling along the landing below, then scraping against the side of the building. But did I detect some of the scrambling coming closer—?
His head appeared over the lip, and with his Guilder training, he spotted me in moments, his lips pulling back in a snarl.
I kicked the man in the nose, sending him tumbling backward. A moment later, his yell cut off as he hit the landing below. Barely a story down, he had probably survived the fall.
I ignored my souring stomach and the shouts of alarm below as I planned my next move. There was no use in fighting all the Guilders. To overcome them, I would be forced to use my Valem's power in blatant ways, and likely someone in the building would bear witness to it. That would bring people down on me even more dangerous than the Underguild. There was only one option: I had to flee.
Still moving at a crouch, I looked at the next building over. A small street ran between, and the distance had to be twenty cubits across. If I channeled a burst of force, I could make it. Probably. Feeling inward, I kindled my inner fire back to life and braced my legs for the jump.
I heard a scrape behind me and dove to one side. Just in time — a knife clinked against the roof, sending chips of clay flying about me.
Gaining my feet and looking back, I saw the Guilder who had thrown the knife charging. Now or never. I hopped onto the lip of the roof, and before I could doubt myself, I channeled and leaped.
For a moment, I hung in the air, weightless and untethered, almost like I was flying. Then I reached the top of my arc and began to fall, and wished I'd flown a little longer. The opposite roof was close, but not close enough.
I wasn't going to make it.
I flailed for a handhold, but missed the lip of the roof, then the window beneath it. Channeling force, I desperately scrabbled at the side of the building, trying to find a purchase to slow my descent. I was halfway down the building before my fingers crashed into a small lip between the first and second stories. Strengthened with Valem's power, I broke through it, but my momentum had slowed enough that when I landed on my feet moments later, the impact didn't leave me crippled.
I didn't look around to see if my pursuers followed, but limped away as fast as I could, heading for my clandestine meeting, and hoping it came soon enough.