Naerich ran. For the moment, the world consisted of nothing but the alleyway ahead of him, the shadows pursuing him, and the small box tucked under his arm. Running seemed the only solution to his problems.
He was amazed that he could keep his pace. Under normal circumstances, he would have been far more winded. But the healers always said that when one’s life was in danger, your body and mind would somehow realize this and aid you – keep wounds from bleeding, giving you an extra inch of stamina, that sort of thing. And Naerich needed it.
Suddenly he realized that his own rapid footfalls were not the only noise in the long alley. Another set of feet had joined him, echoing his own. He glanced upward in the direction of the half-moon in the sky, hearing yet another set of feet on the shingles of the roof above him. Two of them had caught up to him.
The old man rolled out a small map on the table before Naerich, and with a shriveled finger, gestured at the center of the map, where a tower was drawn.
“The Archwizards will mostly be away this night. When the nobles who run this wretched city have themselves a party, those witches will always attend,” the old man remarked, his voice thick with contempt. “Hope they can bleed extra funding or favors from the more impressionable lords. Maybe partake of the wine and any women particularly loose with their skirts.”
Naerich looked back up from the table to the old man. He looked like a villain out of a fairy tale with his beady eyes peeking out from between the wrinkles in his aquiline face. Fixing him with a look of skepticism, he said “Do you really expect me to believe that they’re just going to all up and leave for the night, leaving one of their most potent artifacts unprotected?”
The old man grinned. “Naerich, my boy, you seem to think I’m sending you into a trap.”
Naerich slammed a hand onto the table and glared. “Since I agreed to your contract, Sirith, I’ve been beaten up by four men, lost one of my fingers, and been challenged to a duel by a Highcourt prince! You’ll forgive me if I’m not acting like your obedient dog!”
Sirith sighed and sat back down, keeping his eyes on the younger man. “This is the last step,” he said quietly. “You are so very close to saving her.” Those last words hit him like a coldsnap, piercing into a secret, tucked-away corner of his heart.
Sirith straightened in his chair and made a cage with his fingers. “When one is brought into the Archwizards, they get a potent injection of arrogance. The item will be unprotected. After all, they know magic. Who could possibly touch them?”
Naerich took a calming breath and smiled. “Did you get a taste of that arrogance when you joined them?”
The old man grunted and held up the back of his hand to the light. There was a tattoo of an artful letter “A” with a jagged scar through it. “Reality is a harsh antidote.”
The street loomed ahead at the end of the alley. Naerich could glimpse commonfolk out for a stroll, even at this hour. If he could just make it -
A shape fell from the roof ahead of him. One pursuer had managed to overtake him and had leapt down into the alley, landing in a crouch several paces ahead of him. There was just enough illumination for Naerich to see the man pull out a blade the length of his forearm and hold it before him. The man was using a stiletto; a sleek dagger-like weapon meant not for dueling and fancy swordplay, but for killing and killing efficiently.
Naerich skidded to a halt, realizing that he was boxed in. His other pursuer slowed down behind him, coming to the same conclusion. From behind, he heard the sound of steel against wood and saw the other man pulling a sword from his scabbard. Their plan became clear in Naerich’s mind - the man with the sword intended to herd him into reach of the stiletto.
The box dug into his side as he reached down to the sheath hanging at his hip and rested a hand on the hilt of his own sword. Naerich had been a soldier once, during the Clash, however his enlistment had been brief and he was now dealing with men who made their living making corpses. He could probably take down one of them, but the other would surely make short work of him and return the box to its owners.
It was then that Naerich looked up and noticed a candle burning in a window two stories up, providing the only illumination. He grinned, remembering that he had another weapon.
Sirith outstretched his hand, offering what looked to be a hollow glass tube with a large bulb at one end.
“And what is this supposed to be?” Naerich asked.
“Contrary to what you hear in the fairy tales, lad, magic cannot conjure matter,” Sirith muttered. On closer inspection, the bulb at the end of the tube contained a murky liquid with what appeared to be a gemstone suspended in the middle. “No, we magicians are only capable of altering what is already there - we can only work with the materials given to us. Nobody can simply create from nothing, save perhaps the Allseer himself.” He added that last remark with a mocking glance skyward.
Naerich pulled out the glass tube. A flameskewer, Sirith had called it. As the two assailants drew near, he pointed the device towards the candle in the window. The window shattered as the candle’s flame expanded and shot towards Naerich. The flameskewer caught it, the fire balled up inside the tube.
With a grin, he aimed it towards the man with the stiletto and a jet of flame shot forward out of the tube. The burning streak zig-zagged the length of the alley and enveloped the man. There was a muffled scream, and the flame finally dispersed, leaving a pile of smoking ash. Naerich grimaced, but caught himself. This was not the first man he had killed.
He barely stepped out of the way as the remaining pursuer lunged with his sword. Dropping the empty flameskewer to the ground, Naerich clumsily kicked at the man, fumbling for his own sword. Recovering, the assailant brought his sword around in a wide swing, intending to separate Naerich from his head. At the last moment, Naerich brought his own sword to bear and blocked the attack.
His opponent danced backward and made another lunge, this time for Naerich’s shoulder. Naerich made to deflect the attack, but the man feinted, diverting his strike at the last second, swiping the blade across Naerich’s midsection instead. Attempting to dodge, Naerich was quick, but not quick enough. The enemy’s sword cut a slight gash at his side and he felt a warm trickle of blood seep down his side. No, he would not fall here, not when he was so close.
The old, wooden slab of a door opened a crack, restrained by a small chain set in the frame. A dark, beady eye looked out into the street.
Naerich stood there with the body of a young woman in his arms, her auburn hair hanging like a curtain over one of his arms. Her eyes were closed and she showed no sign of having made it past her twentieth year. Naerich looked into the gap in the doorframe and said simply, “They say you can help her.”
Sirith sighed and shambled out, one arm behind his back. He mockingly bent to inspect the woman, than looked up at Naerich. “Seems your girlfriend has caught a bad case of death. What do you want me to do about it?”
The young man looked down at the woman’s face. Whatever strength he had fell away from him like wine from a spilt goblet. “Taylin was everything. They say you know the old ways, things the Archwizards never dreamed of. I’ll do anything.” Tears were streaming down his face and his voice was shaky now. “Please. Bring her back.”
Sirith watched the young man, deliberating. After what seemed an eternity, he stepped to the side and muttered, “Take it inside.”
Naerich dropped to one knee, his hand pressing the fresh wound in his side. He watched the swordsman recover and pull his blade back, aiming a single thrust for his heart. On weak legs, he attempted to move backward, out of the blade’s range, but his knee hit something long and sharp on the ground. The other man’s stiletto blade.
With a quickness he didn’t know he possessed, Naerich snatched up the weapon, righted it, and plunged it into the thigh of his opponent. With a howl of pain, the man dropped his sword, the weapon clattering to the ground. Naerich quickly sheathed his own sword and stowed the stiletto into his belt as the other man slumped to the floor, groaning in pain. Naerich spun around and bolted, holding the box tightly in one hand, holding his side with the other, blood now coating his hand. Naerich ran.
Moonlight flowed in through an open window, the curtains swaying lightly in the night air. If there was indeed an afterlife full of reward and happiness, Naerich thought the past few months with Taylin might be a lot like it.
He lay in bed, his clothes strewn about the floor. Taylin’s head rested on his gently rising chest, their bare skin pressed apart beneath the bed sheets, limbs intertwined.
“You’re amazing. Like a goddess out of one of the legends,” Naerich breathed, running a hand through Taylin’s hair. He couldn’t see her face from this angle, but he could tell that she was smiling.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” she said adjusting her head to look up at her lover with a grin. They had been talking about leaving the city, leaving their families and making a new life with naught but each other. The two had been together only a short time, certainly, but Naerich felt like he could have nothing but her and be happy for all his life. And he knew Taylin thought the same.
With one hand pressing the freshly-applied bandages on his side, Naerich thrust the box into Sirith’s arms, glaring.
“I’m finished with your dirty work. It’s time for you to hold up your end of this contract.”
Sirith grinned as he opened the box. “Of course, my boy, of course.” He extracted from the box a perfectly polished wooden cube with a smaller cube gemstone on each face. Sirith motioned for Naerich to follow and, with a mock flourish, dropped the cube over the body of Taylin, her body spread across a table. Naerich watched as some invisible force caught the cube in midair and, with a flash of light, the cube began to transform.
The cube rotated rapidly, leaking a misty green light from each gemstone. Another flash of light and the cube zipped back into Sirith’s waiting hand. Naerich looked from Taylin to the old man, who suddenly appeared several years older. Sirith wiped sweat from his brow. Whatever he had done had taken much more concentration and stamina than it had appeared.
Naerich gripped the edge of the table as he heard a cough from the woman’s body. Then another gasping cough. Taylin’s eyes fluttered open, but something was wrong. Her eyes were smoky and unseeing – they looked like the dust-covered windows of an abandoned home.
“Taylin…” he whispered.
She responded with, “Who… what…” and then another series of hacking coughs.
Naerich grimaced, his eyes wide. He whirled around to Sirith, who was packing away several items, among them the artifacts he had stolen for him. “What is this?” he demanded.
“I brought a girl back to life,” Sirith muttered matter-of-factly. Naerich looked back to Taylin, who was moving her arms around as if discovering them for the first time.
“This is NOT HER!” he shouted, advancing on the old man.
Sirith scowled and turned to face Naerich. “And what exactly did you think was going to happen? Did you think she would be just like you left her? Did you think it was as simple as turning back to a page you bookmarked in some novel? That everything would be exactly as you left it?” Sirith stowed the cube into a sack and then slung it over one shoulder. “I told you, we magicians only use what we are given! And all you brought me WAS A CORPSE.”
Naerich put a hand across his face in disbelief and rapidly shuffled his glance form Sirith to the-girl-who-was-not-Taylin.
Sirith continued in a sneering voice. “Honestly, I’m surprised she’s managing to breathe. Farewell, my boy. May your next lover fare better.” Sirith held up a hand, a ring on his index finger glowing. Suddenly a flash of light enveloped the room.
Sirith was gone and so were a good amount of his possessions. Naerich shouted for him, but the old man did not rematerialize. Looking around frantically, he caught sight of Taylin inspecting her garments. She pulled and tugged at her sleeves and moved her legs back and forth, watching the hem of her long skirt swish about.
She was like a child.
Naerich shook his head feebly, eyes wide, and hurriedly stepped out into the street. The sun had started to rise and he blinked rapidly, straining to see. His mind was in chaos.
What could he do? What could Taylin do? No, this was not Taylin, he thought.
He could just leave her here, abandon her. That idea tugged at his conscience, though. In that state she could probably barely feed herself. And he’d be leaving her in one of the more crime-ridden parts of the city. What would a criminal do to the poor girl? She’d be left begging on the street and she was a female, after all. Her condition would not stop men from taking advantage of her.
He could take her to the city guard, let them deal with her, find her help. Naerich struck down that idea too. Eventually someone would realize that an Archwizard’s magic had been at work on her. How long would it be before they were able to tie Naerich back to all the thefts he had committed for Sirith? The Archwizards had no reputation for mercy.
He could return her to her family. No, another poor idea. As far as they were concerned, she was dead, buried and mourned. Not only that, but he had made off with the body of their daughter and allowed a mad magic-user to defile it. Her father would murder him on the spot.
He could take her with him and care for her. Maybe, with time, she could return to being the Taylin he loved. But that could take years, ages, lifetimes – Naerich was young, barely past his twentieth year and still had his own life to live, after all. And what if she became someone else entirely? Was a relationship that had lasted mere months sufficient to remake a person? Further, she may never be normal again, living a wretched shadow of a life – should it fall to him to be her caretaker forever?
As he wrestled with his conscience, his heart and his brain, the-girl-who-was-not-Taylin stumbled out behind him. She awkwardly put a pale hand up to shield her glossy eyes from the dawn, another series of coughs escaping her cracked lips.
“Where…” she groaned, as if the word caused her pain.
Naerich turned back to her and tried to meet her blank gaze. As if awakening from an uncomfortable dream, he realized he had yet another option. His hand fell to the stiletto stashed in his belt.
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