The Thief’s Wager: The Escape  

Chapter Eleven

Eclipse’s body nudged her hip as he passed, skirting the edge of the staff’s light to reclaim his spot a meter ahead. His eyes, groomed from birth, thrived in the darkness. Considering Lunar Forest blended the line between predator and prey; his eyesight was a blessing. Each winding path branched into a deadly maze; regardless of direction, they never ended. They would die a slow death before the forest allowed them their freedom. If the plant life didn’t kill them first.

She never saw anything like it; cannibalistic vegetation. Her professors failed to prepare her, then again, few ever escaped the forest to tell the tale. Determined to beat the odds, she relied on Eclipse to circumvent the flora’s scheme. During their last meal, he claimed to have caught a whiff of the ocean. If his theory was right, following the stream would lead them out. But the forest of eternal darkness loomed ahead; holding its breath as it waited for the next meal.

“My feet hurt.” Sara flopped on the mossy bank, crossing her legs at the edge of the stream.

“Wait, now? This isn’t a good place.” She offered the child her hand but she refused, shifting her attention to the water’s glowing surface. One mystery of the forest was why the water reacted to Moira’s magic. Wherever the light shined, the water’s surface illuminated with an azure light. The shadows drifted across Sara’s chubby face, as her finger tempted the skittish fish.

“This is ridiculous,” Eclipse huffed, “stand up and keep moving.”

“You said if we follow the stream, it will lead us out. But we’ve been walking forever and we’re still in this stupid forest.”

“It has not been ‘forever.’ If you followed my directions you will realize, that I am correct.”

“I’m not listening to you anymore!”

As the two bickered, the spongy moss under her foot shifted. It was subtle, but enough for her to focus on the silence hanging over the forest. The flies which zoomed past her ears vanished leaving a sinking sensation in her stomach. The stillness made her heart race; squeezing the wooden handle, she exhaled slowly. Trying to steel herself as the forest held its breath.

A blast erupted from her right followed by the rain of wooden splinters. The forest groaned, a low creaky growl, as it stretched through the darkness.  It surrounded them; it soared through humid air, blocking any escape. Her heart slammed in her throat as she searched the edge of the light for their enemy. Flashes of leafy branches skimmed across her eyeline. The magic kept them at bay, but Eclipse directed her attention to the water.

Ahead the branches met; crisscrossing over the bubbling stream. The raspy groan resounded as each branch interlocked with its partner. The layers piled high until the wall reached the trees’ canopy. The forest dealt them a death sentence, an eternity within the wooden prison. Taking the first tentative step, she shined the light over the obstruction. It stretched for miles in both directions; refusing them any form of emancipation.

“Remarkable,” Eclipse muttered as he approached the wall. His glistening claws scrapped the bark revealing the fresh green underneath. “Moira, attempt a fire spell.”

Beside her the brushes quivered, anticipating their next meal. The face of the dead soldier still lingered in the back of her mind. His wide bloodshot eyes, pale sweaty skin, and his trembling hand all foretold the agony he suffered. The cry before the plant unhinged its jaw and swallowed him bite by bite. She still heard the bones snap and the gurgled scream.

She cupped the Opal, blowing hot breath over its shimmering surface. An amber glow flickered between her fingers, cascading in the space between her hand and the gem. It faded, relinquishing its power to the shadows. She waved her hand, allowing the magic to prickle across her skin. It crackled over her fingers before sizzling into a spark. A single flame swirled like a match in the darkness. Aiming the flame, she did as commanded. Pops echoed as small bursts of fire shot from the gem; striking the branches point blank.

The fire didn’t stick, it slipped from the bark before fizzling to the damp moss. She tried again, increasing the flame’s density but the blasts smacked the surface then rippled away. She aimed again, but a rumbling thunder rippled through the dirt; knocking her to the ground. Roots, snake like and deadly, swam through the air. She ducked, dodged, and rolled, anything to avoid their reach. But they were faster; slicing thin cuts across her forearms.

“Charcoal come here boy!” Sara shouted over the chaos.  

A flash illuminated the area before swirling into a racing fireball. Please no, she shuddered. But the dragon landed on the soft earth. His adolescent roar was barely audible over the shifting trees. He unleased a sequence of fire bursts which splashed over the impenetrable wall. It would be another year before his dragon fire was hot enough to do serious damage. Eclipse reached her side as the trees made her their target, and he pounced as they went in for the kill. The cacophony of splintering wood filled her ears. Crumbling debris rained over them but more always replaced the fallen. 

“The only way over is up!” he shouted over the chaos.

“Maybe for you!” For her it was too high, there was no way to get Sara over, let alone herself. A branch flung to her left, she dodged as the thorny bark grazed her pants. Her balance wobbled, and her foot slipped into something cold. The babbling stream glowed from under her; licking her ankles. Lifting the staff, she noticed a gap between the branches and the water’s surface. “Not up, but under! Sara, tell Charcoal to fly over and follow the water.”

Pushing against the current, she waded into the stream, reaching the deepest section. Sara splashed behind her, gripping the straps of her backpack to her chest. She fumbled over the rocky bottom, almost falling in twice before she reached Moira’s side. The fish bounced against her legs; smacking against the staff’s base.  

“Can the Twerp swim?” He splashed beside her. One way to find out, she thought pulling Sara closer.    

Hello old friend, she smiled aiming the staff into the swirling stream. The azure glow reflected over the opal churning the surface; reminding her of playful days at a far away beach. A summer sun kissed her cold skin and the distant laughter echoed in her ears. A time before worry; before danger clasped her heart. Sara squirmed in her arms but she pulled the staff higher, tugging the surging water upward. Her breath was steady, her heart calm, for she had nothing to fear in the water’s grip.

“When I say when, take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can.” Warm liquid crawled through her veins, contrasting from the icy cold engulfing them. Sara whimpered as the water rose past her knees. But the branches continued their onslaught. This was their last chance. Timing was crucial, and when the waterline reached Sara’s neck, she made her move. “When!”

She inhaled for the last time, filling her lungs to the brim and yanked Sara under. Her muscles recoiled from the icy chill, sending tremors coursing through her limbs. She fought to steady her heart rate; calmness was key to a stable manipulation. But her grip on the flailing child faltered and she slipped from her grasp. Kicking off from the rocky bottom she swam through the murky water; reaching her backpack.

Eclipse’s streamlined form swam with ease through the racing debris. His wide paws acted as paddles allowing him to navigate the current. Sara bobbed along the surface, screaming out in the darkness, as the branch wall loomed ahead. Urging her tired legs to kick harder she yanked her downward and pushed her under the gap. As the child cleared the obstruction, a tug jerked her backwards. Sara shot forward, propelled by the current beyond the edge of her light.

The force whipped her from side to side as her cloak snagged on a submerged branch. Sticks and wayward fish collided with her, forcing her to twist her body and grip the cloth. Her lungs burned as the fastener around her neck tightened. Bracing her legs against the obstruction she wrenched the cloak free; tearing a hole in the material, before ripping free.

She kicked with everything she had, fighting against the current, as she forced herself upwards. She gulped the cold air; her chest ached as the air filled her lungs. Her limps burned, already she felt the bruises forming. Behind her the forest creaked; its displeasure echoing over the churning water. The current propelled her through the winding river. She panned the light ahead for any glimpse of her friends. Beyond the jagged boulder was Eclipse, his jaw clamping the back of Sara’s collar; forcing her head above water. She followed them, sometimes swimming other times trusting the magic to guide her. But the darkness swallowed the water and all she heard was Sara’s hoarse screams.

The stream curved around a narrow bend, revealing a splotch of sunshine between the trees. Before relief washed over her, the current jerked, pushing her faster than before. Daylight broke through the mossy trunks, revealing a paradise behind the forest. Clear sky replaced the oppressive leafy canopy. Eclipse called out to her; ordering her to reduce the current’s speed. But it wasn’t her doing it. The distant roar of thundering water drifted to her ears. He bobbed through the waves; popping up a few meters ahead before falling off the face of Umara.

Shit…

She swallowed the fresh air before the stream tossed her over the waterfall. The wind whipped around her as the thunder of the rapids vibrated against her body. Weightless. Careening through the bedlam of noise, time stretched until it was a thin wisp. Until she smashed into the churning below. The force pushed against her chest and dragged her body over the rounded river rocks. Her hand crawled over their smooth shapes; inching her closer to the shore.

Collapsing over the mountainous shoreline; the adrenaline and magic coursing through her veins faded leaving her exhausted. Held down by the weight of her soaking cloak she laid there as her muscles burned. Her chest heaved as she watched Eclipse, dripping wet and exhausted, drag Sara to safety. The gushing waterfall thundered behind them, drowning out the chittering birds. The water meandered past, cutting into the rocks, before leading to the ocean. She inhaled the fresh salt air, remembering happier days. For too long she ignored the past; pushing it further into the back of her mind. But the sea always summoned a memory, usually one with her mother, when they spent summers at the beach.

A gentle slapping drew her attention to Charcoal. His descent from the sky wasn’t graceful, but he managed to land on a rounded boulder beside Sara. With a victorious roar he bounded towards his master. She climbed to her knees, greeting him with a pat on his black scaly snout. Charcoal was her charge, as a Dragon Tamer (in training) he bonded with her. Her pet became Moira’s nuisance. She hoisted herself upright with the aid of her staff.

From the base, she eyed the sheer rocky cliffs planking them. In contrast to the overgrown forest, brick a bract bush grew along the narrow ledges. Sparse twisting trees shot from sharp angles, their wire roots clutching the rocky soil. For the first time in days the warm sun washed over her skin. The trees weren’t hunting her, the sky was blue and Lunar Forest felt like a nightmare she awoken from.

“Are you deliberately trying to kill us?” Eclipse growled. “Of all the reckless, pig headed—”

“Moira, let’s do that again!” 

“Are you hurt?” But Charcoal growled, baring his white needle teeth as she reached out to her.

“Naughty dragon,” Sara chided, “I’m fine. Sorry, I guess he still doesn’t like you.”

“Mages and dragons rarely get along,” Eclipse added. “I do not wish to brag, but once again, we escaped certain danger because of one of my crafted plans.”

“It was my magic that got us out of there.”

“It was your magic that almost drown both of us. Either way, we need to reach higher ground.” He motioned to the dragon who pranced to his side. They conversed together, growls and chirps mix as they formulated a plan. “Report what you see,” he added before Charcoal once again took flight. Climbing above them, past the boulders, cliffs, and waterfall; he vanished in the ocean of sky.

“What did you tell him?” But before Eclipse answered the flying beast returned. Zooming in a zig zag maneuver before landing beside Sara. Excitedly he reported to Eclipse, roaring and swinging his spiked tail.

“The mouth of the ocean is to the left.” He translated. “He says he smells poison northwest from here.”

“Poison?”

“Smog, the pollution from Lollardum’s factories. We will carry on along the riverbank until we find a path to higher ground.”

The white capped ocean sprawled before them. From the top of the cliffs, she watched it stretch for miles. Behind lush trees guarded the edge of Lunar Forest. Happy to put that adventure behind her, she added twigs to the glowing embers of their fire. From the corner of her eye, she watched Eclipse stretch under a tree. The ocean breeze rejuvenated their souls. Sara had blossomed as they walked along the cliffs; twirling and singing in the morning sunshine. But the tiny beach creatures, which occupied her attention, were gone; leaving only Eclipse.

Sara poked at his thick body while he stretched in the shade. She pretended to stalk him like a cub; despite how quiet she imagined she was, Moira knew better. She knew he heard her heavy exhales and every blade of grass bend to her clumsy form. He felt the pounding of the earth as she clumped like a horse towards him. She pounced, landing beside him, and snuggled into his fur.

“What’s it like being a big cat?”

“I am not a cat. We have been through this; I am a Guardian.”

“Did you ever wish you were something else? Born a different thing?”

“I was created in this form to fulfil my destiny. I do not expect you to understand.”

“What is it you have to do?”

“I must protect my Mage,”

“You were born for Moira?”

“My purpose is to keep her safe. I only exist as long as she needs me.”

“And what happens when she doesn’t?”

“Eclipse, Sara, lunch time!” she called, somethings could wait for another day. She pulled the fish skewers from the fireside, handing them their share. Eclipse had caught enough to feed the three of them. And she indulged in the feast; she recalled the task at hand. She discovered valuable intel for King Avalon of Alexanderia. However, Eclipse reasoned he was in Lollardum for the trade talks. If he wasn’t there then she had risked their lives for nothing. Eclipse licked his paws; reiterating the plan. 

“When we arrive it is of the upmost importance that you remain with either me or Moira.” But Sara was more focused on a red insect crawling over her boot than his directions. “This is serious Sara,” he repeated, “this kingdom is too dangerous for a little girl.” 

“I’m not a little girl, I’m eight years old!”

“Either way,” Moira interrupted, “I need you to be with either me or Eclipse at all times.”

“Why are you two acting weird, I was fine in Bellavere. Why’s this place different?”

“Lollardum is the most populated kingdom of Umara. You can get lost and I’ll never find you.”

“Second,” he added, “certain gangs steal children and force them to work in factories. Frankly if you are stupid enough to get kidnapped then, you can stay that way.”

“Eclipse, be good.”

“Make it simple. She leaves our side, they take her.”

“You’re lying again!” Sara whined.

“Some factory owners prefer children to work the small intricate machinery. What he’s saying is true. Thief and press gangs steal children and sell them to factories for a profit.”

“Moira, you need to pay close attention to her while we are there.”

“This isn’t my first time, I’m aware of its dangers.” She turned to Sara, “which reminds me. There will be many kinds of people there. Some may look different than you. It’s best not to stare. Keep your head low, people are anxious to start a fight with anyone.”

“We do not need you to draw attention to us.”

“Why?”

“It’s because of what I am. People like me aren’t welcomed there.”

“Why?”

“You ask too many questions…” He muttered.

“The people there believe Mages are bad. They’re afraid I’ll hurt them. And because of that fear, they become violent towards people like me. They’ll shout things. Horrible—vulgar— things and do anything to make me mad.” Moira raised a finger to quell Sara’s question, “they feel if they make me mad—they have won. You’ll understand when you’re older. The point, that Eclipse is trying to make (and failing to do so) is that I could get hurt there. So, we need you to be a good girl, stay close, stay quiet, and keep up. I can’t protect you if I’m dead. Do you understand?”

“Why… do they think you’ll hurt them?” Sara had lived in a secluded village; she was the first Mage she ever met. She was also a child and the complex history between Mages and Innocents may be too much for her to understand. 

“Because I can hurt them. I have the power to kill if I had too.”

“But will you?”

“It depends,” she frowned. The Academy taught her, that she existed to maintain peace. But the longer she spent among the continent, the more she questioned her role. She saw the power her kind coveted. The greed fueling their policies and choices. She walked an uncomfortable line between faith and reality.

“We will reunite you with your aunt. Moira made a promise to your late mother to protect you and that is what we will do.” Eclipse nudged his face against her tiny shoulders. “You are safe with us. It will make our job easier if you follow the rules.”

“Keep up, don’t stare, and stay close.” She repeated pressing her face against his.

“And how about we leave Charcoal inside the Eye from now on? Dragons and densely populated areas don’t mix.”

“He’ll stay close too,” she patted the pocket on her coat where she kept the marble, “it’s my job to keep him safe.”

Smog drifted over the northern wind. The poison as Charcoal called it, irritated her nose. However, an unusual sense of relief bubbled in her chest. They were almost there. One more stop before life returned to normal. Speak to the king, she repeated. Get Sara to her aunt’s place, then it’s all over. With the time sensitive tasks completed she and Eclipse could return to their old lives. Exploring uncharted countryside and studying in temples scattered over the landscape. She could put politics aside. Ignore the soldiers threatening her life. And enjoy life again.  All she had to do was speak to Allan.

As Lollardum rose over the landscape the billowing factory chimneys pumped grey smoke into the air. Miles of rooftops stretched as far as she could see. She spied the harbor, the wide basin attached to the bay which separated Lollardum and Alexanderia. But gnawing dread replaced the elation in her chest. On those cobble stone narrow streets was a war she was an unwilling participant in. There were strangers who hated her without even knowing her name. Somewhere blending in among the mix matched buildings, was her kind. Living a silent existence all to ensure they welcomed another day. But there was something else.

“Moira,” he whispered.

“I know, I sense it too.” Every Mage emitted an aura. A magical signature that other Mages sensed. It helped identify their kin. However, in Lollardum their auras mixed, like a fishing net over the buildings and streets. Safety in numbers, she assumed. But beyond their aura was something else. Colder than she felt before, it tickled on the edge of the net. Ancient and obscure. But lethal.

Continue to Chapter Twelve

Revisit Chapter Ten!

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