By Max Kalender
Danny tripped on a broken cobblestone and almost crashed right into a businessman sipping coffee. She barely recovered, using her forward momentum and one well-placed foot to hurl herself over and upwards, crashing through the air like a violent bird. She hit the ground again and kept running, pounding down the street as fast as she could. She could hear the caster boy shouting behind her, telling her to stop, to come back, to hand over what she’d stolen. If she hadn’t been so out of breath, she would have laughed.
The faded half-mask had twisted slightly askew over her eyes, blocking her peripheral vision; she snatched at it with one hand as she careened across an intersection and almost ran into a street sign. She clutched the parcel with numb fingers as she lost herself in the maze of alleys just off Sarsein Street, taking random turns and doubling back repeatedly, desperate to lose her pursuer. Left, left, through a courtyard, right, back door, left. She couldn’t remember his name, but she’d seen his face on the local duty roster. Not a specialized thief-taker, thank all the gods, but that nasty, hissing search-spell he had was almost as bad.
He was only fourteen, just a few years older than she. Better fed, too, since he’d kept up with her this far. Danny tucked the stolen spell firmly under one arm and slid through a grating, scrambled over a low fence, and found herself staring at a dead-end alley. “Oh, perfect,” she muttered, spinning to see how long she had to escape. If she got caught, she was dead.
The sun simmered through the smog overhead, coaxing drops of sweat from her back and forehead. The mask was stifling as she tried to catch her breath. Just when Danny was starting to panic, she stopped and cocked her head, quizzically glancing back at the dumpster. This alley was so cut off from the main roads, the dumpster hadn’t been emptied in at least two weeks, judging from the drifts of garbage piled around it. And the smell. Especially the smell.
Danny dove into the heap of refuse, burrowing into a noxious pile of fetid leftovers. She’d stuffed the parcel under her shirt, using two hands to claw her way deeper and deeper into the garbage until she was entirely submerged. Even if the caster had gotten a good sniff of her when he’d surprised her behind the spellbrary, her odor was masked so completely he’d never be able to find her now.
She waited under the filth for at least three hours, determined to lose him for good. It was agony, stewing in the slippery, decaying dumpster, enduring the wet burps and slithers of the settling refuse and the warm liquid that slowly filtered through the debris. The mask filtered none of it out, even after she stretched it down to cover her mouth and nose. It felt like years, or longer, but every time her throat closed with the stench and she felt she had to breathe clean air or explode, she reminded herself that she was out of options.
Her head spun from bouts of holding her breath. Almost done. The next time the city clock chimed the hour, she’d allow herself to move on to the next phase of her plan. She still had plenty of time to get across the river to Tower House. After she bleached her hair and burned her clothes, she thought grimly. There was no way she’d ever dumpster-dive again. At least, not this week.
Danny froze. Tap-tap. Tap. She’d concentrated so hard on the thought of escaping the dumpster that she hadn’t noticed the sound at first, but there it was again. Someone else was in the alleyway.
She heard the scrape of leather on stone, precise and deliberate. The footsteps traveled past the dumpster and to the dead end, then stopped. A searing, acrid smell cut briefly through the reek of the garbage smothering her — a sharp, angry, chemical sort of smell that made her blood run cold. The smell came in waves, growing stronger as the distinct footfalls drew closer. A harsh whisper sounded in a language she had never heard, grating sharply in her ears even through the metal sides of the trash bin. The final syllable was almost a shout, matching the last, burning spike of the smoky scent, and Danny’s eyes widened. Someone was using magic right next to her, and it did not sound friendly.
If she moved, whoever it was would surely hear her. Was it the same caster from before? The voice sounded different, but she wasn’t sure. She slowed her breathing and tried not to move at all, eyes closed so the blackness surrounding her was complete and she wouldn’t need to blink. Angry, strong-sounding magic in the random alley where she was hiding with a stolen spell? Not a coincidence. She wondered who else was after the parcel she held and gripped it even tighter as she willed her stalker to disappear.
A small, tattered wisp of spell came off in her hand as she hugged it to her chest, so light that at first she ignored it. But then another came loose, and another, coating the palm of her hand with feathery vellum scales. Was it … shedding? Danny wondered how long it had been doing that, and if it was hurt at all. It was such an old spell, and she had been a little rough with it this morning.
Her throat closed suddenly. Lancin would surely notice if there was something visibly wrong with the spell; he always knew. She swallowed hard at the thought of his reaction, screwing her eyes shut.
She couldn’t afford to worry about it now, not when she was hiding. The other magic-user was only steps away from the dumpster. Besides, Danny thought, if it really was damaged, visibly or not, very shortly she wouldn’t need to worry ever again. About anything.
She blocked the thought before it could get any further, and quietly took a breath. Probably nothing was wrong. Probably. She relaxed her grip fractionally, still tense as a wire, and started counting silently. Tap-tap-tap.
The man in the alley was still there, pacing restlessly back and forth, as if he were lost. Danny prayed that whatever magic he was using was broken. Or needed to be updated. Anything that would make him leave so that she could hurry and get out of there.
A dribble of something cold and fizzy slid underneath her mask and down her forehead, dripping from an abandoned can above her head. It inched at a snail’s pace, stinging her skin like a scraping fingernail, reaching closer and closer to her eyes. She willed herself not to move, desperately ignoring the instinct to wipe the caustic substance away before it got in her eyes and did permanent damage, but the magic-worker was still too close. He might hear. There was nothing she could do but keep still.
The thin line had just reached her eyelid when Danny heard a quiet, terse mutter. The smell of the other spell winked out instantly. The footsteps, now much louder and less cautious, strode briskly away and turned a corner. Without a wasted movement, Danny swiped the mask and the vicious trickle from her face and subsided, listening, until the footsteps were well and truly away. She waited a bit more. He really was gone.
She surfaced like a breaching whale, sucking in huge gulps of clear air, almost sobbing as her lungs cleared. Her breathing slowed as she glanced around the alley, making sure she was alone, safe for now. The walls of the buildings were windowless and stretched far overhead, shrouding the alleyway in relative darkness. She sniffed warily, eyes darting. The scent was fading, but the person who had cast the spell might not be far away.
As she ran, she cradled the spell in her hands, wrapping it in her grimy mask so that it wouldn’t shed any more flimsy bits. She didn’t know if it was falling apart or what, but whatever the case, she was running out of time.
Twelve streets, half an hour, and three emptied rain barrels later, Danny snuck quietly past a clothesline and pilfered a sunny cloud-print dress, wadding it under her free arm and sauntering away without looking back, changing in an alley a few blocks down. Her old clothes she stuffed into the nearest oil-drum fire, not even fit to offer in trade, they were so gross. Her mask she regretfully tossed as well, even though it meant she’d need a new one before her next job. It had been completely eaten away where the garbage-juice had soaked through, and she shuddered to think what it would have done to her skin if it had stayed longer.
She looked critically at her feet, sluiced clean for the first time in a while. Luckily it was summer; she wouldn’t stand out all that much. She twirled once, watching the soft fabric of the dress bell outwards, and started to skip along the narrow alley to the main roads. Washing off the grime made her feel light as a breath. It was wonderful to be clean.
A weathered statue guarded the exit to the alley, some old city official hunched sinisterly forward over a staff or sword. The details of his expression were long worn away, but the stark silhouette was still disturbing. The gnarled shadows of one stone hand chilled Danny’s skin, though the sun was now high above her head. She frowned. Moment over.
She pasted a carefree expression on her face and headed for the Tower House, now dressed like any other kid her age. If she swung through the market on her way to the meeting, she could even snatch a napkin to wrap the spell in before it lost any more of the leafy fragments. For the first time, Danny really thought she might make it.
She had just pocketed the napkin, after inhaling the warm roll it was wrapped around, when she heard it again. Tap-tap. Tap-tap. She looked up, unthinking, right into the bright eyes of a sharply-dressed young man in the red uniform of the city Caster Patrol. She froze for half a second before calling and waving at a point beyond his shoulder, though she felt as if she might fall over. He looked unfortunately familiar.
He didn’t know what she looked like, though, she thought, breathing a little too fast. There was no way; she’d been wearing a mask and about half a pound more of street dust. Danny forced her face to remain blank, and wandered slowly until she was out of his direct line of sight. A cracked marble fountain provided decent cover, the taps long dead and festooned with sun-faded signs. She peered nonchalantly back, watching carefully as the caster patrolled the crowed square.
Danny slowed her breathing, wiping sweaty palms on the thin skirt of her dress. She was clear. With the baths, she’d changed scent completely after the garbage, so there was no way he could have known she was the same girl he had chased just a few hours ago.
But still. The spell weighed heavy in her pocket, and she stroked it carefully, wincing as another shard flaked away, caught inside the wrappings. That must be why, and how, he had followed her. She wondered if he even knew what it was, or just that it was stolen.
Danny glanced at a passing wristwatch and walked casually away, quickening into a run after she turned the corner. If her spell wasn’t leaving a trail of breadcrumbs anymore, and his own magic had clearly failed, he wouldn’t be able to follow her this time. Danny ran faster, just in case. One way or another, it was almost done.
She wound her way deeper into the shady side of the city, departing sunlit cobblestoned streets for broken brick alleyways and forgotten dirt roads. Tower House was an ancient property in the oldest part of the city, and all the ways that led there were crooked.
The crumbling stacks and turrets loomed overhead, clawing with flanged fingers at the now cloudy sky. Danny slipped through the long-rusted front doors and crept back into the dim interior, wishing the whole day were already over. She hated the meetings normally, but this one would be even worse.
The veiling spiderwebs in front of the dilapidated staircase were newly brushed aside; clearly Lancin had arrived before her, as usual. Her small mouth tightened as she began the long, creaky climb to the top floor. Almost there.
The top floor of Tower House had once been a library, decades ago when people had lived here legally. Now the dark-wood shelves were empty and rotted to pieces, and the dust on the walls was so thick only the outlines of the frames delineated between painting and wall. A fireplace at the end of the long, high room suddenly flickered to life, and Danny flinched minutely, eyes darting around. She still couldn’t see Lancin at all. Her hands knotted and unknotted in her stolen dress as she walked slowly to the other side.
“Danny, my dear,” said a low, velvety voice. “Has it been a whole week already?” Danny only remained still through sheer force of will, hands clenched into fists in the folds of her skirt. “Yes, Lancin,” she replied woodenly. “I’m here.” A single drop of sweat rolled down the back of her neck.
“Excellent,” the voice continued, and was this time accompanied by the speaker: Lancin faded up out of the shadows by the fireplace like a ghost, pale skin briefly made translucent by the flames. “I’m so glad you’ve come punctually, this time,” he said. He smiled down at her. Her lips trembled only slightly, but she did not smile back.
“May I have your report?” He sank slowly into an ancient armchair, folding his hands in his lap to hear her week’s work. Danny stood up a little straighter, feeling like she was about to recite for a test she had not studied for, and opened her mouth. At first, nothing came out but a squeak, but she squared her shoulders, remembering the spell in her pocket, and spoke.
“This week, I nicked seven watches and thirteen wallets, two pairs of earrings, and one ring on a chain only yesterday,” she said, recounting the details of the pieces as Lancin’s watery eyes fairly glowed with greed. “Like you said last month, sir, the cash and the smaller pieces are hidden in the new gargoyle spy hole, to be delivered in three days.”
He nodded once, spindly fingers scribbling the details down for his records. The delayed delivery system took more time, but was harder for the authorities to trace, if any of his players got picked up. If they were stupid enough to talk.
He glanced curiously up when she finished reporting. “And that, ah, special item I asked you to acquire for me?” he inquired, voice deceptively mild. “Do tell me you didn’t forget, dear child,” he said, as he tucked the notebook away and stood up, once again silhouetted in front of the eerie fire.
Danny gasped despite herself and shook her head frantically, fingers fishing in her pocket. “No, no, sir, I didn’t forget,” she said, stumbling over her words in her haste. She grasped the spell and pulled it out slowly, still wrapped in its yellow linen napkin. “Here,” she whispered. “Just like you said.”
Lancin eyed it appreciatively for a moment, before extending one impossibly long arm to take it from her. Her skin crawled where his fingers brushed hers, but only for a second. As he withdrew, the spell began to glow softly blue where he held it, filtering coolly outwards through the pale fabric. “Yes,” he said, the fingers of his other hand fluttering around the wrapping. “This is it, the real thing.”
Danny held her breath as he began to unwrap it, peeling the thin layers aside delicately like the petals of a flower. The napkin had been bigger than she thought, so it took Lancin a few moments more until it gleamed unhindered in his white hand.
The spell had been larger when she snatched it from its niche in the wall of the archives this morning, but it looked fresher now, somehow, not degraded. Like the bits that had flaked away were just the wrappings on a present, and this was the real magic inside. She held her breath, eyes glued to her master’s face. He didn’t look suspicious at all.
The spell, miraculously renewed, was beautiful in the firelight. The magic’s blue light lit Lancin’s delighted face as he leaned in to look at it, shining so bright she could see the exact moment his expression began to change.
“No,” he said. “What is this?” He looked sharply up to glare at Danny, eyes suddenly and violently dark with anger. “What did you steal?” he cried, reaching out to grab Danny. But he missed her neck as she spun away, only catching the collar of her dress. Danny saw the light grow a little stronger, and she craned her head up to look him in the eye. For the first time all day, she smiled, shaking.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “Is that not the spell you wanted, sir?” Knuckles white at the expression on his face, she watched as the light grew and engulfed his hand, trapping it firmly inside the expanding reach of the spell. The blue glow oozed under the skin, tracing its way upwards through his veins like dyed cloth. Lancin swore and tried to move, but for all his struggles was frozen in the stance. His skin began to grey at the edges, stiffening and gleaming like marble. He screamed, voice raw with anger and fear. “What have you done to me?”
Danny wrenched herself out of his grasp, tearing the collar a little. She backed away, almost breaking and running, but stopped. Turned back. Met his eyes. She crossed her arms and planted her feet, though her lips still trembled slightly.
“Something permanent,” she said, and watched his eyes widen. She took a deep breath, let it out again, slowly. The glowing blue tracery had moved under his dusty suit sleeves, still working its way inward. Soon it would reach his heart.
Long after Lancin had ceased to scream and struggle against the magic’s grip, Danny stood and watched him. Her green eyes drilled into lifeless grey ones, searching for any hint of movement. The spell had winked out with the last of the deadly light, but its cheery yellow napkin was still clutched, permanently, in the smooth gray stone of Lancin’s left hand.
The sun dripped slowly down the sky, warming the shadows of Tower House as the city clock tolled the evening meal. She started at the sudden sound, blinking and then stretching out the kinks in her neck. The fire had died.
She turned to go, the feathery feeling of earlier in the afternoon suddenly sweeping over her again. Danny smiled, ignoring the creaks and groans of the ancient staircase as she scrambled recklessly down and out into the light.
Max Kalender is a freelance fiction writer and artist, straight from the wilds of urban Texas. She grew up with three younger brothers, and as such was steeped in sword-fights and action sequences from a young age. Years of absorbing stories in every form, from Pixar movies to picture books to classic lit and everything in between, further inspired her to create her own multidimensional story-worlds. In high school, she attended the Pixar/VanArts Story/Animation Masterclass, which only stoked her imaginative flames. Currently, she is pursuing a double Painting and Creative Writing Bachelor of Arts at Union University.