Further Adventures of Lone Wolfby Flik
Entire Fiction (2007)
There's nowhere quite like the desert. The sand glitters like glass in the searing sunlight, and feels like it, too, when it works its way under your clothing to scour your skin as mercilessly as any other bit of life stupid enough to try to exist among the dunes. There are no cool breezes here; the wind is like a blast from a furnace, hot enough to leech the spit from your tongue. Rocks as large as one of the emperor's Magitech knights are bleached white as bone and worn smooth, and they provide scant shade from a sun that seems to be always directly overhead. Even the sky is pale and dead looking, not nearly blue enough to prevent the whole hellish landscape from blurring together into one vague shimmer.
Figaro Castle was the only refuge in the perpetually-shifting sands, and I wondered for the hundredth time how the idiot that decided to build his castle in a wasteland had managed to sire a line of kings. Even inside the castle walls, the air was always dry, and this sheep-rutting' sand seemed to crawl up your trousers like ants. Water was never wasted; even the meager ration allotted to prisoners to wash our filthy bodies flowed out through a drain in the floor and collected in a cistern for use in watering the kitchen garden, as if parsnips weren't disgusting enough in the first place.
If my brain had caught up with my hands long enough to realize that picking pockets in South Figaro could get me shipped out to the desert, I might have tried my luck elsewhere in the first place. Then again, I'm good—the best, even. The chances of my getting caught are never very high, and in a busy city's market day, they're next to nothing. Only a stroke of rotten luck could account for my present circumstances, and, given the opportunity, I'd probably try it again. But it's a near thing, because there's nowhere quite like the desert, and the desert is more miserable than a one-eyed orphan who needs glasses.
That's probably why I wound up in Narshe in the first place. That snowy, thickly-forested mining village is about as different from the sandy waste of Figaro Desert as you can imagine, and I was at the point where I'd've rather jumped naked into a glacial river than spent one more day picking sand out of the dense brown bread the Figaro warden had sent me off with. I hardly remembered what cold was except in the general concept of not being hot, and that was foremost in my mind.
That feeling lasted until I'd crossed the plains and headed into the wooded slopes south of Narshe. Truth be told, I've never been one for snow; I don't like being cold or wet. Slick ice makes for precarious footing, and deep drifts hide paths and good camping spots. I could have turned back, followed the plains west along the mountain range and wound up in Kohlingen, and I damn near did, just to be some place with decent weather. But I was getting tired of the small fry. Stealing purses in a crowded market is great entertainment, but it just doesn't bring in the gil. There are so many witnesses that even a professional like myself can't help but get spotted once in a while, and by the time I've wasted half the morning on a merry chase with a couple jumped-up farmers with tin hats and pig-pokers, I'm left with whatever paltry sum some housewife carefully counted out from the lockbox by the hearth—barely enough to eat on. I'll always be the greatest pickpocket who ever lived, but, this time, I was aiming for something bigger: burglary. And Narshe, with its rich mining trade and abundance of freshly-smelted precious metals, was a far superior target to a backwater like Kohlingen.
I must have repeated that to myself a thousand times before I finally trudged up to Narshe's weathered city gates. By then, I was thoroughly chilled and my ragged hair was dusted white with the recent snowfall; my memory of the searing desert heat was almost a fond memory. I was looking forward to the hot meal and warm bed I'd be able to buy with the purse lifted from my former jailer's belt.
My heart sunk as I saw that not only were the gates guarded—a common precaution in these troubled times—but that they were closely scrutinizing everyone seeking to pass through them, even though they were mostly local hunters or trappers who had probably known the skinny, grey-suited soldiers since they were knee-high to a hog's eye. I hadn't actually escaped from Figaro's dungeon, so they couldn't possibly be looking for me specifically, but if Narshe was getting picky about who they were letting in, a dirty straggler like myself didn't stand a good chance of being admitted.
My head knew that trying to get in would probably be futile, but my stomach had other ideas. Unable to wholly abandon that hot bowl of stew warming over the fire at the inn, my gut spurred me onward. I fell in behind a fur-draped man who smelled like a three-day-old deer carcass and watched the guard carefully check his pack before waving him through.
Now it was my turn. I didn't have much to search, but I presented myself for inspection as if I were a pleasant, law-abiding citizen like any other. To my surprise, after a cursory glance at the underside of my ragged cloak, the guard, a gangly boy at least five years my junior, smiled and waved me in.
"No offense, stranger. But we can't be too careful these days… First a witch, then the Empire itself invades…"
I tried to return the friendly smile and mumble something appropriate, but, truth be told, my insides were as frozen as the jagged icicles on the gate's arch. Ordinarily, I'd have to say that being thrown in jail was the last thing I wanted, but I don't usually take war into account. Being caught in the middle of a war zone is a new kind of hell. I'd narrowly avoided being conscripted in the aftermath of Maranda's occupation, but I hadn't left in time to avoid seeing the battle and its aftermath. Folks like to look down on thieves, calling us vermin, rat-piss, and worse, but better a rogue than a warrior for any mother's son. I'd kill if I had to—in a fair fight, if it was him or me—and I'd be a murderer if I did, but that still wouldn't come close to what I saw in Maranda. If the war was headed here, I'd have to fill my pockets and be on my way sooner than I'd necessarily been planning.
First thing was first; I needed to find an inn, get some grub, and figure out where would be best to hit hard and fast before disappearing again. If the city had a sizable treasury, that would be a nice pick; I'm smart enough to know that gold nuggets are heavier than they're worth, and, besides, it was becoming apparent that I was more likely to find a sack of coal than precious metals and gems around here.
By the following evening, I was warm and rested with enough money for at least one more day of the good life, or two if I ate a little less. More importantly, watching the guards and listening to chatter had helped me identify a fruit ripe for the plucking: a small shack near the edge of town where some of the more valuable armaments were kept. It was guarded only at night; apparently, the citizens of Narshe considered the treasures stored within to be instrumental in their defense against the Empire, and would never think of plundering them. I may have felt a twinge of guilt at robbing them of their secret weapon, but I'd seen enough in Maranda to know that if its loss discouraged them and they surrendered, it would be better all around. Besides, nothing that fit in a shed could possibly make the difference in a fight against Magitek.
If I timed it right, say, mid-morning, I'd be able to grab the goods, roll down the hill, and be out of town before anyone knew what was missing. That was the most attractive part of the plan; you never want to be a stranger in a town where something important has gone missing, and anyone who tried to follow would likely assume that I was headed down to Figaro with the goods, not several days farther to Kohlingen. Depending on what I found, Kohlingen might be a good destination, anyway; if the haul was too good, I could stop over there and continue on to Jidoor.
My mind was still full of visions of sacks full of glittering jewels—well, jewel-encrusted shields, maybe, if this was an armory—as I slipped into the shack the next morning. One day's work might mean more than an entire week of cutting purses, and I saw a clear path to the easy life laid out ahead of me. I wouldn't just be Lone Wolf the Pickpocket after this. I would be Lone Wolf, Master Thief!
I closed the door behind me with a soft thud and pulled out my tools to get to work. The sunlight filtering in through the cracks between the boards showed me a small room crowded with boxes and a few locked chests. Those chests would be where I started, I reasoned, as they would probably hold the most valuable loot. I went to work on the nearest one, the silvery clinking of my picks on its solid lock music to my dirty ears.
I was halfway into a fantasy of owning my own airship—not keeping your mind on the job will get you every time—when the lock popped open. Inside the chest were several bundles wrapped in thick brown homespun. Carefully, I removed the top item and peeled back the protective cloth. It was looked like a smaller, gilded pair of smith's tongs, a strip of metal folded in half but still pliant enough to bend. It was about as long as my finger, and the worksmanship was fine; I know good work when I see it, and I was seeing it right then. A delicate design was etched into the metal, and tiny jewels glimmered along one side. Belatedly, I realized that it was a hair ornament.
A heartbeat later, the door behind me opened. I'd been too busy crowning myself King of Figaro to remember to block the door with one of the crates, and now the morning sunlight silhouetted four people against the breathtaking mountain view.
Balls. Big, hairy, balls.
Instinctively, I jammed my prize down the front of my shirt and whirled around with a ferocious snarl. "This treasure is mine!" I shouted. The ruse worked; they were momentarily stunned, giving me time to scramble up a pile of crates and tumble through the dirty glass of a window I'd noticed earlier.
The fall was hard, especially with slivers of glass poking in uncomfortable places, but I had tumbled down the side of a gentle slope and wound up back on the path leading into town. They would have to run around the side of the building to catch me, and pick their way carefully down the slick path if they didn't want to slip and fall. I had no such luxury; I leapt to my feet and tore off down the path, heedless of the icy patches.
I had bought myself a few moments, but only that; they shouted their surprise, and I could already hear their footsteps pounding after me. I might be able to lose them in the town, but if they'd got a good look at me, I'd want to be on the move before they could rouse the overeager guards. If they were smart enough to head me off at the gate…
Inspiration struck, and I turned past the path back into town and peeled away toward the mines further up the mountain. I didn't know my way around them, but these four might not, either, and it would only take one wrong turn on their part for me to be able to slip away. I might even be able to return for the rest of the haul once the ruckus died down.
Ignoring the burning in my lungs and legs, I spurred myself onward with that promise. If this trinket was one of the things in their "armory", it probably wouldn't be the only rich merchant's treasure to be tucked in for safe keeping. One more shot at that cache, and I'd be made.
I dove recklessly into the first dark mine shaft I found, praying that it would widen into a tunnel. When it did, I leapt nimbly over mine carts and discarded tools, continuing further in. Finally, I saw daylight up ahead.
Unfortunately, my luck had given out, and I found myself standing on a narrow ledge high above the place where I'd entered the mines. Staring at me from across a narrow gap—too wide to jump safely, at least—were my four pursuers, and I was pleased to see that they were at least as out-of-breath as I was. They were encumbered with weapons and armor—a good thing for me, unless they caught up—and glaring at me with varying degrees of fury. One of them, a woman with pale hair trickling out from beneath her fur-lined hood, seemed familiar.
I grinned, still gulping down air. "Damned persistent, aren't you? Give it up!" The words had barely left my mouth when I realized where I'd seen the woman before. She was the one from Figaro's prison, who I had first taken for just another of the womanizing king's doxies, but who had later set the prison guards afire with a different kind of gossip. I'd heard the story too many times, and the magical flame she conjured to destroy the imperial general's men had grown taller and hotter with each retelling, but there had been no doubt in anyone's mind. This woman was a witch!
I ducked back into the shaft, counting my lucky stars that she had been too surprised to roast me where I stood. This little bauble was getting to be quite expensive.
I ran through the mine, taking the higher paths, which I hoped would lead me outside once more. I could heard the voices of my pursuers, but weird with echoes, and I couldn't tell how close they were, or even if we were on the same path.
At last, the air grew colder, and the dusty tunnel was hazy with light from the outside. Ahead of me, I could see a snowy white field stretching out before me and ending at the base of rocky hills. A steep footpath climbed between them and disappeared. Freedom!
I charged into the sunlight, kicking up snow in powdery white clouds as I went. I risked a glance over my shoulder; my pursuers were not yet in sight, but I could hear their shouts over the whistling of the frosty wind. I needed more cover.
Faced with the alternative of burrowing into the snow and hoping I wasn't tripped over, I decided to chance the narrow, winding path ahead. As I dashed forward, I found myself wondering what the conditions in Narshe's jail were like, but abruptly forced the thought to the back of my mind. These ruttin' tin soldiers aren't going to catch Lone Wolf the Magnificent!
"There he is!" Those three words are the most dreaded to my ears, and to hear them shouted now by the witch-woman did nothing to endear them to me. Putting my last ounce of stamina into a burst of speed, I barrelled around a curve in the path and promptly slammed into something…squishy.
Snow flew everywhere as my momentum carried us both forward; I was mostly on top of whatever had been in my path, and I struggled to maintain that advantage as I spat snow from my mouth and shook it out of my hair and eyes. It was squirming futilely, its legs trapped beneath mine, as I hauled myself into sitting position and straddled it.
My vision finally cleared, but I had to blink a few times to be sure of what I was seeing. A round, red nose and limply fluttering, bat-like wings stood out against a field of uniform white. It wasn't until the creature blinked that I was sure I was looking at fur as pristine and pure as fresh snowfall. My jaw dropped; I had heard of these creatures before, but they were notoriously reclusive, and I'd never met one who had actually seen one. This child-sized, toy-shaped little furball was a moogle!
Movement caught the corner of my eye; my pursuers were just rounding the same corner I had, and the witch was in the lead. I was still sprawled in the snow, clutching the now-motionless moogle. They started toward me, and inspiration seized me. I leapt to my feet, hauling the moogle up from the snow as well, and held it possessively to my chest.
"Back!" I growled. "Keep back, or the moogle gets it."
I was banking on mountain superstition about these fuzzy little animals to protect me. Moogles were supposed to be lucky, and if I'd heard that all the way back home, surely the belief must be even stronger for these mountain hicks.
To my intense relief, it worked, and they halted immediately. The witch was staring at me with wide eyes colored by dismay more than rage, and also something else that I couldn't identify. I looked away.
It seemed we were at an impasse. Glancing around, I took a few steps backward. They were blocking the only path back down the mountain, and I was edging nearer a yawning chasm at the cliff's edge. I've never been fond of heights, but my threat would be a little more realistic if I could easily toss the moogle down to his death.
It was one of those rare moments when I was truly at a loss. The wheels in my head were churning as furiously as the steam-powered machinery in the city below, but they weren't producing anything useful. I might be able to get around them in exchange for releasing the moogle, but then it would just be another chase through the mines, and I didn't think I had that in me.
Just then, the little bastard in my arms kicked me in the gut. A few inches lower, and I'd be making my career as the opera house's only male soprano; as it was, it sent me sprawling, and I threw the hairy monster away from me as hard as I could.
Belatedly, I realized that I was sliding across the ice within nothing to grab onto, and I'd been only a few feet away from the cliff's edge as it was. Desperately, my fingers scrabbled through the snow, digging into the frozen earth underneath. My legs dangled in the air for one terrifying moment before instinct took over and I clung to the rock face with muscles I didn't know I had. Even so, I was slipping, slowly but surely. I could barely see over the edge of the cliff, and it looked like that little sonuvabitch moogle was in a similar predicament.
Good, I thought spitefully. And I hope you land in a pile of—
The people were tentatively starting forward again; obviously, they wanted to avoid going over the side themselves, and with good reason. I relaxed just enough to emit a sigh. Narshe's lock-up had to be better than being broken and bloody at the bottom of a cliff. This hasn't been my month. I dug my fingers a little deeper into the dirt and resigned myself to being rescued.
The witch started forward, but, I was shocked to see, she was headed for the moogle, who was consumed with fluttering his little wings in a pointless effort to lift himself up onto solid ground. These idiots weren't even looking at me! Rage boiled up inside me, and I almost let go of my tenuous handhold.
"Hey!" I was slipping; I couldn't keep the panic out of my voice. "Pull me up!" Instead, two of them were lifting the moogle to safety; two of the others were finally starting in my direction, but without much haste. "Save me or you'll never get the gold hairpin back!"
Unfortunately, I can't tell you whether the mention of my pitiful take spurred them onward. Just then, the ice beneath my hands melted enough to soften the dirt around my fingers, and I found myself scrabbling wildly for another hold on the cliffside.
I knew I was falling, and it took all my willpower not to give them the satisfaction of a scream. The way down was shorter than it had looked, and if my life flashed before my eyes in those brief seconds, I didn't see anything in it to regret.