Trek muttered a curse as he paced from one end of the Eastern gates to the other. Presently his spear was strapped across his back and in addition to the spear there was now a sword and scabbard at his left side. Over his shoulders he carried a bundle of items that he had taken the time to grab from his house. The bundle was a single sheet of maroon colored material that he held onto like a backpack, inside of which there looked to be several bulky objects.
For the hundredth time that evening, he glanced up to the clock that stood off to the left of the gates. Lina was now ten minutes late and he wondered if perhaps he had made a mistake by giving her all of the three hundred gold coins up front. Though he had heard the rumors about Lina’s habits when it came to money, not once had he heard that she was downright untrustworthy.
Suddenly from behind him he picked up on the sound of footsteps moving at a casual pace. He whirled about to face the incomer, and frowned when he saw that it was the redheaded sorceress he had been waiting for.
Lina came to a stop when she rounded the corner onto yet another intersection. She looked to the left, seeing nothing but more roads and faded street signs, and then to the right, there spotting Trek in front of a set of massive wooden gates. She offered the man a nonchalant smile and started towards him.
“You’re late,” Trek called out in a low voice, trying to be mindful of the people sleeping in the houses nearby.
Lina only shrugged as she approached him. “Don’t bitch to me about a measly few minutes unless you’re concerned that the statue is gonna get up and walk off somewhere. What’re we doing here anyway?”
Trek sighed and ran a hand back through his hair, deciding at once to let the matter drop. A difference of ten minutes didn’t really matter in this particular situation, but he only hoped that Lina’s sense of punctuality wasn’t always so lenient.
“There,” he replied to her question and pointed further Eastward up the mountain slope.
Lina followed the direction of the finger and looked at the area in question.
The snow clouds covering moon caused a particular lack of light that had turned the mountainside almost completely black. Only the top outline of the surrounding forest could be discerned along with several bits of flickering lights that shone out amid the shadows in the distance.
“What’re those?” she asked, squinting her eyes at the lights.
“Your destination,” came the brusque response, “Now come on. The wind’s picking up.”
Without a further word, Trek turned and jogged out through the gates, holding tight to the pack over his shoulders.
Lina scowled, but nonetheless took off after the old man. Usually she would not have accepted such a vague response, but she had taken her payment up front and now needed only to abide with her part of the deal.
About fifty yards out, the trail from the Eastern gates forked with one path side-winding up the mountain precipice and the other leading down into a steep ravine. Trek followed the trail to the left that headed upwards.
The trail led the two further and further away from the city, first snaking around rocky terrain until it reached the edge of the forest where it then smoothed out. The packed dirt and lack of vegetation on the path suggested that it was often used, but by nothing other than people. There were no cart or hoof tracks, and at times the trail grew much too thin for anything more than one person to pass by at a time.
About two hundred yards into the forest, Trek suddenly veered from the path and made his way to a notch in the snow that had been created between the bases of two giant trees. Looking back to Lina, he motioned for her to follow.
Lina paused and looked ahead, seeing that they were hardly at the halfway point to reaching the flickering lights. As she followed Trek from the path, she pointed her thumb over her shoulder and frowned.
“Hey, I thought you said we were heading for those lights,” she said as she crouched down beside him.
Kneeling in the snow, Trek set down the bundle from his shoulders and unwrapped it. Reaching into the material, he pulled out a piece of rolled up paper.
“I said it was your destination. I’m going to wait here,” he said.
Lina blinked and then bared her teeth in an angry glower. “Wait a second,” she shot back, slamming the tops of her fists into the powered ground in front of her, “If you’re so bent on helping Naga then why are you sending me out to do all the dirty work?”
“It’s not dirty work. It’s work that I can’t do,” Trek replied matter-of-factly, handing her the paper from his pack, “Those lights are those of Silos’ mansion and there’s no way that I can get to it now. Even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to stand up to his magic if I got caught.”
Lina ‘humphed’ and snatched up the paper that was offered to her. “What’s this?”
Trek sat back and retied the top of his pack. “Over the years I’ve been in the mansion several times by invitation. Social gatherings and stuff like that. That’s a map I’ve compiled, and I think that it’s pretty accurate. I tried to mark all of the rooms as well as the patrols of the guards.”
“I’m not worried about guards,” Lina said. She unrolled the paper and raised up her left hand, casting a spell of illumination to get a better look at it.
Trek’s frown grew suddenly dark. He stretched out his arm and slammed his hand flat to the center of the map to keep the sorceress’s attention.
“I don’t doubt your ability to take out every single person inside that mansion,” he said, “but I do doubt your ability to do it quietly. This’ll be a lot easier if we can avoid drawing any attention to ourselves, so try not to use any magic! Silos was the one who cast Naga to stone and if he gets wind of what you’re trying to do, I don’t know enough to say that he can’t cast another spell that’ll turn Naga’s statue to dust! No risks, you hear me?”
Lina rolled her eyes and tugged the map out from under his hand. “Yeah, yeah. So what do you want me to do?”
From a pocket in his vest, Trek slipped out a small, folded piece of paper.
“These are the items you’re looking for,” he said. The paper was flimsy and wrinkled, and its edges were feathered with the extent of its use. He unfolded the sheet and handed it to her.
Lina took the paper and studied it. On the page, an image of two rings had been carefully inked. The person who had drawn the picture had obviously no artistic talent, but the basic idea of the rings was still conveyed. The ring on the right side of the page was nothing more than a smaller circle inlaid to a larger one with a curving design traced out in the space between them. The ring on the left was also a circle with a smaller one inlaid, but the design was jagged and jarred.
“They’re the rings that Silos wears around his wrists,” Trek continued. “With any luck, he takes them off at night. If not, you’ll have to figure something out. You really only need to get the left one, but if you can get them it’ll be all the better.”
She tucked the paper into her pocket. “All right. And how are these going to help us get Naga?”
“It took me years to research it, but I’m pretty sure if we can just touch the left ring to the statue, the spell will reverse.”
Lina stood back up, one hand propped to her hip and one eyebrow arched. “And your research bases this on what?”
“Ugh…” Trek’s gaze averted for a moment. He reached over his shoulder for his spear and swung the weapon from its strap, shoving the blade into the snow. Using it as a prop, he hoisted himself up.
“What was that?” she asked louder, canting her head towards him with an impish grin.
“Speculation, all right?” Trek snapped, meeting her gaze. “I don’t know a lot about magic, but I think that Silos constructs incantations in pairs, or maybe opposites or something. I don’t know. If it doesn’t work then I don’t know what else to do but right now it’s the only thing we have to go on!”
“Sound unlikely, but whatever,” Lina sighed. It was not her problem whether Trek’s hypothesis was right or not. In her opinion, Naga was better off as a stone statue that couldn’t tromp around acting stupid and embarrassing any traveling companions she might have had.
Trek decided not to argue over the credibility of his theory. Lina knew a lot more about magic than he did. If she said something was unlikely then it probably was, but it didn’t matter to him. He had to try something, and if this current plan didn’t work then he would just have to figure out something else, no matter what.
“I’ll be right here,” he said, stepping further into the shadows to lean back against one of the tree trunks. He readjusted his spear to hold in both hands with the blade pointing up in a defensive position.
Lina removed her cloak and cape and set them on top of the bundle that Trek had been carrying. If she was going to be sneaking around then she didn’t want any excess material causing unnecessary motions that could give her away. Stealth mode really wasn’t her thing, and if the three hundred gold coins had meant that she could complete her objective by any means necessary then she certainly would have. However, if the gold rings were any indication, she couldn’t say that she was very familiar with Silos’ method of constructing magic. If something did end up going wrong and Silos did somehow end up shattering Naga’s statue, she admitted in a very small way that she would have felt rather disappointed, and perhaps even a tad bit guilty.
With her extra clothing articles temporarily discarded, she folded Trek’s map three ways and slipped it into her pocket before turning and heading back to the main path. The night air easily bit through the material of her remaining layers, but she didn’t plan on spending very much time outside.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” she said. If she were able to do things her way then she would have stormed into the mansion, demanded the rings, and been done with the entire thing in less than half an hour. Trying to obtain the rings while remaining undetected would be considerably more difficult and time-consuming, but not impossible by any means.
Trek didn’t reply, and it was only when Lina was out of sight that he expelled the breath he had been holding. The iciness faded from his expression and he closed his eyes, touching his forehead to the flat side of his spear blade. The very thought that this current plan would prove futile was enough to grip him with strong anxiety. Releasing Naga would invoke the wrath of an entire city, but worse than facing death at the city’s hands was dying a natural death many years from now with Naga’s statue still standing cold and silent as ever, a life-size reminder of the terrible wrongs he had done to her.
All of his hope against this kind of future was now placed with Lina Inverse. He could only anticipate that she had enough integrity to complete the job without blowing up everything within a three mile radius.
The very first thing that Lina noticed as she neared the mansion was that the closer she came to it, the less she was able to see of it. The flickering lights that shone out of the mansion windows disappeared one after the other from lowest to highest. At first a bit confused by this odd phenomenon, she discovered the answer when she cleared the edge of the forest and saw a great stone wall blocking the path to the mansion. The wall extended up and down the mountainside and rose no less than fifty feet. Along its top edges she could make out two small silhouettes of people she could only assume to be guards.
For some reason, a mansion completely surrounded like a stone fortress was not what she had imaged Lord Silos to be living in. Protective measures like guards and walls were indicators that the person who had them felt a specific need for them. As the savior of Potegia it was odd that Lord Silos too felt this need, but then again it was not her place to mull over the possibility of defensive measures versus a mere preference of style.
Keeping low in the cover of the underbrush, she watched the movements of the guards at the top of the wall. She waited for the first guard to complete his circle and swivel back the other way. His back now towards her position, she waited until he was out of sight to emerge from the forest. In a half crouch, she rushed across the open gap between the forest and the wall.
By that time the snow had begun to fall harder and patches of it had accumulated on the ground. The temperature had dropped, and even though Lina was near freezing without her more protective articles of clothing, she was grateful for the added cover that the clouds kept over the moon.
As soon as she reached the wall, she used Raywing to lift herself up the fifty feet and land on the other side on a small ledge that ran along the entire inner circumference. On that ledge in intervals of twenty feet there were small pedestals on which were placed softly glowing torches. She had fortunately not landed too close to any of these pedestals and was able to crouch down in what thin shadows were offered.
Peering over the ledge, she looked down into the courtyard and saw a most strange sight. Where she had expected to find a terrain similar to the one she had just crossed, instead she saw a turf of thick green grass that extended all the way around. No snow had accumulated on the grass, and the only break in it was the stone path that led from the mansion’s front doors to the gate of the wall.
The mansion itself had been built directly into the mountainside. It had to have been about three stories high with peaked roofs and what looked to be two distinctly separate wings branching from the main building. Though not exactly symmetrical, there were two towers at the East and West ends and three small balconies that Lina could see from her vantage point. Every window was barred horizontally, and each door was reinforced with metal brackets.
Lina frowned, quickly scanning the area for a possible point of entry. In the courtyard below she saw one guard just beginning to come from around the mansion’s south side. To her left was another scout, fortunately walking away from her, and looking to her right confirmed a similar scene. Whatever she was going to do, she estimated that she had about ten seconds to decide before one of the scouts on the wall turned around. If she tried to cross into the courtyard from where she currently crouched, the guard on the ground would no doubt see her.
Taking an extreme risk, she shot up and ran as fast and quietly as she could towards the guard to her left, the one more towards the North end. At the last moment, when she came within a stone’s throw of the man, she looked over her shoulder to see if she had gained enough distance around the wall to place a corner of the West tower between herself and the vantage point of the guard below. She couldn’t see him, and it was a good bet that he couldn’t see her.
In an instant she jumped off the inner ledge of the wall and used Raywing to get herself down into the courtyard. Once on the ground, she aimed for the door that was closest to her, a small entrance tucked between the West tower and the stone outcropping of a balcony. Flattening her back to the wall beside the door, she reached over and tentatively tried its handle. A simple twist and push, and the door creaked open slowly, much to her surprise.
For a moment she waited, listening for any footsteps from inside. Hearing none, she then leaned around the door frame and peered inside.
The room that the door led to had wooden floors and long, wooden counters that ran along two side walls. There were two separate island counters, above which were racks of dishes, mixing bowls, and other cooking utensils. Off to the right was a great stone oven with several coals still glowing in the bottom portion. At the far end of the room on the left side were two large folding doors, one of which was partially open to reveal shelves full of dry food items. To the left of the pantry was another entrance without a door, and beyond that entrance there was a short hallway.
Slipping into the room, Lina closed the door behind her and made her way to the opposite entrance. There she took out Trek’s map from her pocket, using the light from a nearby torch to see.
At this hour she could only assume that Silos would have been in bed. Every bedroom on the map was marked as being on the second floor. She located the kitchen on the map and traced out the quickest path from her position to the first bedroom. The path would take her through the main hall, up the stairs, through the library and into a separate corridor on the East side.
Quietly she tucked the map back into her pocket and took one step out into the corridor. She remained still for a moment to listen for any sounds of activity, but the only one to be heard was a clock ticking somewhere at the other end. On the hallway’s left side was a large set of doors that she crept towards, making sure to keep to the carpeted areas of the floor.
The double doors lead to the main area of the house, a great circular room with second and third floor balconies running the entire length about it. A wide staircase sloped down from the second level and ended in the middle of the first floor, and the only light in the area came from two torches perched on tall stands at the base of the staircase banisters. Hanging from the ceiling were several tapestries depicting different kinds of flowers, and around the room Lina could see several large paintings as well. In each of the paintings there were no less than three people depicted in the foreground, and the landscapes they were shown in ranged from forest, to desert, to snow plain, to odd terrain the likes of which she had never seen. The most curious aspect of the room’s design was the rectangular emblem on the floor just at the base of the stairs. The piece was a great marble slab inlaid to the ground with an image of two interconnecting rings carved into it. It was uneven with the rest of the floor, rising higher by only a few centimeters, and the visible edges of it were scratched as though fitting it into its space had been no easy task.
With plenty of shadows to use for cover, Lina snuck into the room and made straight for the stairs. She took them up two at a time, then pressed herself back against the closest wall on the second floor.
There were four doors on the second floor, each one placed directly in North, South, East, and West positions. Knowing that she had entered the house from a Northwest angle and that she now stood facing South, she chose the door to her left that would bring her into the Eastern wing.
Coming to the door, she tentatively tried the handle and was again surprised when the door slid open without resistance. All of the inner doors were reinforced with thick metal beams just like their outside counterparts, but a closer look revealed that they didn’t even have locks. Where the locking mechanism should have been was nothing but a smooth, metal plate. Not about to stand around and contemplate this fundamental flaw that actually made her task easier, she slipped through the door and shut it quietly behind her.
Once inside the hallway, she paused again to check her map. From the corridor she needed only to take the second door on the right that would bring her into the library. She then needed to exit the library on the opposite side and she would then be in another short hallway, each room of which was marked as a bedroom. Again she slipped the map into her pocket and continued on.
On the walls of this new hallway there were six portraits, three on each side right across from each other. In between the portraits, the walls sunk back into semi-circle indentions. Set within each of these indentions was a strange robe on display, numbering four in all. All of the robes were hooded and secured around the middle with a golden rope, but two of the robes were smaller, deep blue in color while the larger two were brown.
Passing by the displays, Lina noticed that all six of the paintings portrayed the same three people. There was a little girl and boy about seven years of age, both with brown hair and green eyes, and a beautiful young woman with blonde hair and grey eyes. The first picture on the left side showed the boy and girl sitting on a bench beneath a large apple tree with a vast expanse of grassy hills in the background. The second showed the woman in a lovely white dress standing in the midst of a barren wasteland, holding a delicate golden circle in her cupped hands. The last picture on the left side showed the woman sitting together with the two children in a row boat. The water in which the boat sat was black and ended at a bank of brittle earth. On the bank was a forest of white, leafless trees that extended forever into a grey horizon.
Lina stopped to consider the last painting, but suddenly her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a door being opened further down the hallway. Withholding a gasp, she looked to see the library doors swinging outwards and two guards just beginning to emerge from beyond them.
“So then I said to the guy, ‘If you’re not gonna eat it, give it to the Mazoku!’” the first guard was saying.
The second guard laughed loudly and shut the door behind them. “What’d he say then?”
“He said something like ‘No one talks to me that way!’ I mean this guy was huge so when he got up from his seat he damn near flipped the table over! He threw some punches, but he’d had so much to drink he just landed flat on his ass!”
“Your wife musta had a fit when she found out.”
“Who said she found out?”
The two men erupted into a round of laughter as the first one made for a door just across from the library.
The second guard continued towards the main hall, waving over his shoulder.
“Tell me the rest later,” he said.
“It gets better, trust me,” the first guard replied, exiting through the door.
The second guard chuckled as he passed by the paintings and displayed robes. He reached the doors to the main hall and swung one of them open.
Lina didn’t dare make a move until she had heard both sets of doors close. When the hallway grew silent, she slipped from her hiding place in the shadowy nook behind one of the robes.
“Too close,” she thought, peering out to look both ways.
She darted from the crevice and made straight for the library doors, being careful not to make too much noise when she opened them. Quickly she stepped into the library and turned to slide the doors shut, emitting not so much as a scrape or click.
Once the doors were shut, she sighed and leaned her forehead against them to catch her breath. If she had been spotted, her best option would have been to take the guards down in some way, and then she would have had two unconscious bodies to deal with.
As she looked down, the concern on her face was slowly overcome by one of confusion. On the floor where she might have expected to find carpet or perhaps stone or wood, she instead saw a scattered patch of clovers.
Forgetting her narrow escape, she turned to follow the growth pattern of the clovers and saw that they spread further into the room. Gazing up into the area, her eyes went wide and at once she knew that she had stumbled into something beyond the scope of her understanding.
The library was a vast, rectangular space with a second-level running along the far and side walls, all of which were shelved and filled with books. Facing Lina on the first floor were the ends of ten separate book shelves, five on each side of a wide pathway. The clover patch on which Lina stood extended into the room until it blended with a turf of soft grass just like the kind she had seen in the courtyard. The grass grew in full expanse across the floor and between the bookshelves like wall-to-wall carpet. At the center of the room it rolled upwards in a hill dotted with more clover patches and tiny, multicolored flowers. Over every bookshelf there was a myriad of blooming vines, and a glance upward revealed a gentle snowfall that disappeared at the base of the second level. The library would have been completely dark if not for one very strange source of light.
At the very top of the centered hill there grew a stout tree with gnarled roots that clawed into the ground. A bluish-purple light emanated amid the green of its leaves, and all around it there floated separate dots of light that seemed to have minds all their own.
“By the gods,” Lina whispered, somehow unable to maintain control of her curiosity. Cautiously she approached the tree to get a better look.
Hanging from the lowest tree branches were several red fruits, or rather objects that almost looked like fruits. They were round, but a closer examination revealed that they weren’t exactly solid. Each of the fruits had a texture that swirled like liquid in a glass.
Standing at the base of the tree, Lina tentatively reached up and touched her index finger to one of the churning globes. The tip of her finger dipped into the sphere, and when she pulled it back some of the red liquid came right along.
She brought her hand down and circled her finger and thumb together, confirming that the substance had a smooth texture. A quick sniff also confirmed a faintly sweet scent.
“Stop,” a voice suddenly spoke up from right above her.
Lina started and wiped the substance on her pant leg.
“It wasn’t me!” she exclaimed as she stumbled away from the tree. She came back to the bottom of the small hill and stopped to look for the voice’s owner. Several moments passed and there came no response. After several more moments she wondered if perhaps she had been imaging things.
She looked down to spot on her pants where she had wiped her finger. The crescent-shaped streak continued to swirl and shift just like its spherical parent.
“Hello?” she called out softly, looking back towards the tree.
“You’re making a mistake,” came the reply.
Her eyes narrowed. She wasn’t about to let some coward tell her that she was doing something wrong, and whoever it was had now become an endangerment to her mission. She approached the tree again, this time with a small bit of orange light dancing just at her finger tips.
“Is that so?” she called back, “Maybe you’d like to come down and say that to my face?” She looked up into the tree branches, but found no one sitting among them.
“Leave the witch where she is,” the voice said.
She circled around the base of the tree and was surprised again when she found no one there. The voice was not coming from any other point in the room, though she scanned between the bookshelves just the same.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“What are you?”
Trying to follow the sound of the voice to its origin, she ended up back in the spot where she had originally stood. “Could you try making a little more sense?”
“I am sense.”
“What’s your name? Are you human? Demon? Elf?”
Her gaze finally landed on the red sphere she had previously touched. The sphere was still swirling and red as though she had never interfered at all.
“Right,” she said, reaching up to let her fingers hover an inch from the globe. “Are you talking?”
“Are you listening?”
“Why would I ask if I wasn’t listening?”
“If you’re listening, then I have to be talking.”
Lina scowled and dropped her hand to her hip. “Whatever. So what is the ‘what’ in you?”
“Uh huh,” she replied, rather unimpressed. Speaking with a ball of energy was hardly enough to make the top-ten list of strange things that she had encountered in her life.
“You’ve made it here, and my job is to give you one chance to turn back,’ the sphere said.
“My purpose becomes quite different.”
Lina scoffed and dismissed the notion with a flick of her wrist. “Purpose shmurpose. Why am I making a mistake?”
“I don’t know.”
“When you said ‘witch’, were you referring to Naga?”
“I don’t know.”
“Right then. What do you know?”
Suddenly the sphere warped into calm shade of blue.
“A path has closed,” it said. “In the hollow of this tree there is a glass bottle. Take the bottle and place me inside of it.”
Lina stood and waited for the sphere to answer her previous question, but when it said nothing more she sighed and placed her hand to the tree trunk. She felt around until her fingers contacted a hole that seemed to have been deliberately carved out, then reaching into the hole, she located the glass bottle and brought it back.
The bottle was small, no bigger than the palm of her hand, and flat like a flask. The top of it was plugged with a specially designed cork that was secured with a hinge.
Lina popped the bottle open and lifted it towards the sphere. “And why am I doing this?’
“A path has just been shut. By design, I have been formed into a potion of life for another to open.”
“Potion of life? You mean that if someone dies, I can use you to bring them back?”
“No. I simply bring them back from the verge of it. There is enough of me for one use.”
Lina touched the rim of the flask to the sphere and in an instant the liquid funneled into the container. She secured the cork, then secured the flask to her belt. A life potion could come in handy, though she hoped that she would never have to use it.
“Anything else?” she said, eyeing the other swirling masses to see if they had anything to say or turn into. When there came no reply, she turned from the tree and made her way down the path that led to the far end of the room. She had already meddled enough and didn’t want to leave anymore proof of her presence within the mansion.
At the end of the path was a step ladder that she climbed to the second level. There she took the only available door.
Beyond the door was another hallway with large double doors at both ends and three single doors on the opposite side. The single doors must have led to the bedrooms that had been marked on the map, and one of them had to belong to Silos.
With no way of knowing which room was which, Lina started with the door on the left. She came to it and gently turned its knob, pushing it open just a crack to peer inside. Her eyes took a moment to adjust to the darkness.
Design-wise, the room seemed to have been divided in half. There was one bed against each side wall along with a little table and chair and a clothes dresser. The far wall was taken up by large windows with the curtains drawn, and in the center of the room was a large, circular rug with an image of a rather sweet-looking dragon. The room was musty and didn’t look as though it had been occupied in a very long time. The beds were made and there were no candles anywhere.
Lina closed the door and tried the next one down, once again straining herself to be as quiet as possible.
The second room seemed more promising with a single large bed at the far wall, the side table which held a lit candle that had almost burned down to nothing. The rest of the room was taken up by larger tables, all of them piled with papers, books, glass bottles, vials of liquid, and other pieces of equipment the likes of which Lina had never seen. From the bed there came the soft sound of snoring.
Lina crept into the room and shut the door behind her, beginning her search for the rings with the tables closest to where she stood.
All of the books she flipped through were filled with equations, definitions, formulas, and different lists of items. The loose papers were notes of all kinds, ranging from daily journal entries, to descriptions of people, to others that seemed to be outlines for experiments. One vial of green liquid she picked up had a torn sheet of paper tied around its neck. On the paper, several lines had been scribbled.
Subject Entry: Oblique transference incomplete.
Result: Dramatic decrease in overall size.
Another vial she picked up read:
Subject Entry: Transparency Substantiation.
Result: Unstable. Terminated.
Several more vials confirmed similar notes, but she did not have time to read them all. She set the second vial back down and scanned the other tables. There was no sign of any rings, or of anything else that might have been used as a container for rings.
Wondering if she had gotten the wrong room, she decided to approach the bed and see just who was sleeping there.
The person she found was a man laying on his back with his arms folded on top of the sheets. His long hair was thin and tied in a pony tail, and by his face he looked to be about Trek’s age.
If the images from the shine in the city were any indication, Lina could confidently estimate that the man was Silos. He looked older than he did in the images, but he had the same large nose and high cheek bones. In sleep, his brow was creased and he seemed to be frowning.
Remembering the pictures of him, Lina looked down at his hands. Just as she could have expected, there around his wrists were two glowing rings of gold. It was only fortunate that his hands had been folded left over right.
Biting her tongue between her teeth, Lina lifted her hands and hovered them just over the left ring. Centimeter after centimeter, she brought her thumbs and index fingers to pinch to the sides of the ring before stilling herself and glancing up at her victim’s face. Silos continued to snore peacefully, sometimes parting and closing his lips.
With infinite care Lina began to pull the ring forward until it reached the base of Silos’ hand. There, the outward curve of his thumb caught the side of the ring and prevented any further free motion. Lina hesitated, then moved the ring one side at a time trying to wedge it over the base.
Suddenly Silos groaned and turned onto his left side. In her shock, Lina forgot to let go of the ring and was nearly pulled across the bed. Maintaining her hold, she was left balanced on her toes with her stomach muscles clenching with the effort of keeping her upright. One more inch and she would have fallen forward, but to let go of the ring would have meant to drop Silos’ hand and possibly wake him up.
In this awkward position she remained for several moments, her mind racing to sort out her possible options. Her cheeks grew flushed and sweat formed along the ridge of her brow. She couldn’t drop the man’s hand any more than she could give one forceful tug backwards. Confrontation was inevitable if he woke up, and she knew hardly anything about how powerful his magic was.
Just as her muscles began to weaken, Silos turned onto his stomach and pulled his left arm with him. The ring popped free of his hand and Lina was quick to stumble back from the bed with it.
After regaining her equilibrium, she examined the ring and then took out the drawing that Trek had given her to make sure that she had gotten the right one. The jagged design on the left ring in the picture matched the one of the ring she now held.
“All right,” she thought. She tucked the picture and the ring into her pocket and crept back to the door. If Trek’s plan did end up working, Naga would owe her a lot.
Back in the library she descended the ladder from the second level, thinking that the entire mission had almost been too easy. She had thought that the high walls and guards had been simply preludes of more difficult obstacles to overcome, but instead she had found only strangeness and questions.
She had nearly made it to the tree when suddenly there came a dull thud from somewhere in front of her, as though a blunt object had been dropped into the grass. She stopped and scanned the area, but the tree’s light had waned significantly and caused the shadows to grow thick.
“Hello?” she ventured just above a whisper. Looking up at the tree she noticed that the small lights that had previously been dancing about it had all stilled. They hovered in place as though watching her intently, and suddenly she got the feeling that she was very much not alone.
The first thud was followed a few moments later by a second one, and then a third and a fourth. The sounds came from all around the area and Lina stopped counting them after twelve.
By the time the sounds stopped, the tree’s light had diminished to nothing. In the darkness there came a cacophony of scrapes and scuttles that slithered over grass and scurried over bookshelves.
Lina inched backwards until she felt her back press against the tree trunk. There she felt the first of several things brush by her legs.
She remembered that she had been given direct instructions not to use any magic within the mansion, but there was no way that she could abide by that now. She unfurled her hand palm up.
Trek packed together a snowball and set it on top of the previous two he had made. Adding a few pebbles and the only twig he could find, he then sat back and looked at his little creation of a snowman. The snowman didn’t look so much like one as it did a fat, lop-sided golem with no mouth and one arm.
Sighing, he slammed the heel of his boot down onto the figure and rubbed his hands to his face to keep himself awake. The snow was falling hard and the wind had been gradually picking up over the hour. To fall asleep in such conditions would have been dangerous for more than one reason.
“Come on, Lina,” he groaned. As of yet he had not heard any sort of explosion from the mansion, but he wasn’t sure whether that was a good or bad thing. No explosions meant that Lina was either in the process of completing her mission without conflict, or that she had been somehow subdued.
The sound of approaching footsteps on the main trial brought him from his thoughts. Instantly he jumped to his feet and grabbed his spear, holding the weapon in both hands and setting himself into a position ready to fight.
The footsteps ran closer and then passed by. It was several moments before they came back and stopped on the trail several yards before him.
Trek tightened his grip on his spear and kept absolutely still like an animal ready to pounce. He may have been old, but he was by no means defenseless. What made him dangerous was more his strong willingness to resort to physical fights rather than his combat skills alone.
Lina’s voice broke him from his predatory trance and his shoulders slumped. He exhaled and quickly fastened his spear across his back, then bent down to gather the items at his feet.
“Finally!” he said, trudging from his hiding place. “Did you get-“
“Here!” Lina shoved the ring into his hands at the same time that she snatched back her cloak and cape. In a frenzy she donned the warmer clothes and then grabbed the man by the collar of his vest. “Come on! They’ll be after us!”
Trek’s overwhelming joy at the feel of the ring in his hands was cut short as he was dragged into a run.
“Were you spotted?” he asked, tucking the ring safely into his vest pocket.
“No, but they’re gonna know I was there!”
“What’d you do?”
“I’ll explain later! Let’s just get to Naga while we still can!”
To that suggestion, Trek had no arguments. He adjusted his makeshift pack over his shoulders and picked up his pace.