Keenin lay in his bed after a long day, feeling the bruise across his cheek where his new trainer had whacked him. Days of outdoor practice did that, but he was feeling more confident in his ability. Keenin had noticed his friends at practice too and he had begun to imagine them fighting together, pushing back men, not letting a friend go undefended. He wondered when Iscara would return or when they would be deemed ready to fight the real battle.
“We have to go tonight,” Aron finally said into the silence.
“Go where?” Keenin questioned.
He was going to help the nurses in the morning prepare medical creams and pain killers before returning to sword practice. He didn’t want to run into any undead guards.
“To the commander’s office. He must have battle plans or a map with a hidden way out of this valley.”
Keenin doubted very much that there was a hidden way out. Besides…
“If he has a map of it, then it’s not a secret.” Couldn’t he just go to sleep?
“But then maybe it’s another test. Why else would Rumin leave us a note telling us that Iscara is away,” Aron said.
“Death trap, maybe,” Harris said.
Death trap, Keenin echoed in his thoughts. It felt like a good time to start writing apologetic letters to his friends for if ever he saw them again. Especially to Clide. Clide he might be seeing soon. Maybe the dragon would take initiative and end the war.
“They did not bring us here to kill us,” Aron argued. “We are clearly of more use to them alive or they would never encourage us to train.”
“Still. There is no way the building is unguarded,” Harris spoke up.
“And there is no way I am not getting inside,” the redheaded boy concluded. “Did you finish the grappling hook yet?”
“What a joke,” Keenin said. “It’s no wonder why Rumin won’t train you two.”
They couldn’t even take things seriously, didn’t think of all the things that would get them killed. He was better to sneak in by himself and figure out where Iscara had hid himself. Or at least figure out why all the ghosts couldn’t move on.
“Is this your real personality showing,” Harris said. “You’re going to take things easy because they show a bit of favoritism. Things have been different since you came.”
“I know what I’m good at. Getting into places is a specialty of mine. Fighting at sword point is not. Was not,” Keenin admitted. “And I wouldn’t know about anything else changing. Maybe there were never three magic users before.”
But now that he thought about it, maybe he was becoming too relaxed in solving his fated problem, assuming fate would drop opportunity in his hands or ultimately kill him off for the benefit of everyone else.
“You’re enjoying this,” Aron accused. “You think this is a game.”
“Of course, it’s a game to them.”
He was now enjoying what he could of being a captive. Such as the benefit of being welcomed to go where he wanted and talk as an equal, unlike back home where adults pretended he didn’t exist.
“Your parents would be ashamed,” Harris told him.
“My parents,” Keenin repeated. “Were dead where I was three.”
Aron’s eyes went to the ground. Keenin amused himself by imagining how they saw him as the boy who was going dark, siding with the enemy. Really. Why didn’t the heroes from his books give in sooner? Why not take pride?
Keenin had run from home on a non-stop blind trek to prevent other people from defining his life, and it honestly had not worked. When he looked in the direction of home there was no longer a desire to go back, but an acceptance that this was his final resting place. The sun on the horizon above the tents was all the world encompassed, and none but a story would carry back the many miles.
Keenin had to admit, since his close call with death by zombie, he felt more strongly that he didn’t want to die yet. He wanted to find a happy ending in his slow and stupid way. Was that really wrong?
“Then I’m sorry you don’t trust us,” Harris told him.
It was all the better they not grow close.
“Do you still want to break into the office?” Keenin asked reluctantly.
He was sure that Rumin would show them the battle plans himself once they were behaving nicely. And Iscara had to show his face eventually.
“Of course, I do,” Aron insisted. “Did you have a genius plan for that too?”
“Yes. I have a better dumb idea. No grappling hooks involved.”
The three of them gathered below a second-floor window of the grand house where Iscara and the generals were supposed to live. Harris had known where the room was after asking Faber and lucky for them, it had a window and Harris had a grappling hook. This did not make Keenin feel any better. The heavy grappling hook was likely to shatter the window if it caught to the ledge at all.
His eyes moved along the wooden planks to search for gaps and handholds. The building had been constructed too recently to have chips and knots in the wood, but the planks didn’t fit tight. Vertical boards had been fastened as a final decorative and structural layer, but the ledge of those wasn’t thick enough to grip for a length of time. Keenin put his hand behind his back and felt a thin kitchen knife that he had tucked into the belt that had come with his training gear. It was just a shame that this knife wasn’t as good a quality as the last one he had stolen. Now he pulled it free as his friends debated how to throw the hook.
Keenin moved to the side of the building and wedged the knife between one of the vertical cracks at shoulder height, it sank an inch and held. Keln, the leader of the group of thieves in his hometown of Stonefield, had taught him this little trick.
As ready as Keenin had been to leave his hometown and its restrictions, Keenin could not deny that he had admired the older boy. Keenin had recognized that Keln had been mean in his own bitterness and isolation. Perhaps if Keenin had spent a few more years watching friends die of starvation, he would have been just the same.
“What are you doing?” Harris asked curiously.
Despite the fact that Harris and Aron had already planned to break into the office in their own way, Harris seemed to recognize that Keenin had come up with something better.
“Great,” Aron complained. “You killed the building. Now you’re in the way.”
“You’ll smash the window,” Keenin said simply, gazing up at the goal. “And someone will hear. Maybe even the ice witch and I don’t think she would appreciate missing her sleep over us.”
Keenin was prepared. There was another solid dagger in his left boot that he had swiped from one of the soldiers since it had not felt right to seperate the matching set of daggers from the training room.
“Is your specialty really breaking into places?” Aron said then.
“I wasn’t lying if that’s what you mean,” Keenin responded.
It was quite some ways up to the second-floor window since the first floor was tall in height, but he only needed to reach the bottom of the window frame.
“I mean I owe you an apology. I was thinking you were a town troublemaker. We used to have one of those kids that would mess with locks for fun,” Aron admitted. “And I thought street kids picked pockets.”
“Well, it was a small town,” Keenin admitted.
Mind over body, Keenin told himself.
“What do you want us to do to help?” Harris asked.
Be quiet, Keenin thought, before he lost his nerve. A fall would not be deadly, but heights still made him nervous.
“I can climb the wall if you boost me up,” Keenin said instead. “Then I can tie the rope.”
A little help getting started up would be nice. Harris set down the metal hook and his fingers worked the knot undone. He handed the loose rope to Keenin.
“You can tie it to your belt,” Harris suggested.
As Keenin worked the knot, Aron sigh to himself.
“Fine,” the redheaded Aron declared. “As the leader I order you to get us up there.”
Keenin smirked as he looked down and his fingers finished the tie of the knot, then cleared the expression to look Aron in the eyes.
“Smart move leader. Would you do the honors?”
Aron positioned himself near the wall, bending his knees for stability and linking his fingers together to form a platform, the way someone might lift a friend onto the back of a horse.
“Just don’t fall down on top of us.”
Keenin smiled knowingly.
“As long as you don’t pull on the rope. Now lift me slowly.”
Keenin didn’t run as Aron had expected. He simply stepped up to the wall, set his left boot into the raised cup of Aron’s hands, and using that as a step Keenin lifted himself high enough to get his right boot onto the thin knife handle stuck into the wall at arm height. He tightly grip the vertical strip of wood for support- else he would fall sideway from his position. Unlike what stories said, a wild jump full of forward energy was not a good way to get onto the side of a flat surface.
The handle of the thin kitchen knife bowed dangerously under Keenin’s weight. Leaning as close to the wall as possible and shifting his weight to his right hand, he shakily lifted his left hand free of the support as he bent his dangling left knee and grasped the handle of the other knife tucked into the heel of his boot.
If he had been a circus performer, he might have held his heel in some outstretched pose. As it was, Keenin solidly pulled the second knife free, shaking his balance and quickly swung his hand out and up to horizontally stab a crack in the wall as high as he could. The knife stuck more solidly and held him in place against the wall.
Gathering his resolve and the remainder of his strength, Keenin let his footing slip and pulled himself up with one hand, his free hand reaching to the window ledge higher still until his fingers curled around the edge. There he dangled, one hand on a knife hilt and fingers gripping the flat bottom of the windowsill, the window above still shut.
Keenin would have to move all his weight to his fingers gripping the ledge and wiggle the stuck knife free of the wood if he was going to release the latch. This is where he was going to fall. This is where panic tried to set in, despite knowing that this was for a dumb cause and that a two stories fall wasn’t death. Hanging before him was a greater impossibility, the one where he and Dia met again. Here was one impossible task for another.
It felt very slow, the time it took him to let go of his grip on the knife handle, holding on with every straining, slipping muscle in his right arm and shoulder as he practically pushed himself off the wall with the force of pulling the knife, and reaching it up again to slide the blade between the window panels to flip the latch. The thin glass window tilted inwards at its release.
He dropped the knife to the windowsill and wrapped his left hand securely around the inside of the frame. Keenin lifted his right elbow onto the ledge and, suppressing his fears of falling, he lifted his right leg higher than anyone should to get his boot onto the window ledge.
He slid over the edge and straddled the ledge sitting upright, one foot touching the carpeted floor inside the dark room. Breathing heavily and feeling dizzy from the experience, Keenin was only glad that there was not a table where he landed. The fact that it was empty of people was a small relief.
The rope had remained tied to his belt. As quietly as possible, Keenin moved a tall metal lamp hook to the window and tied his end of rope around the pole which would wedge against the open window as an anchor point. He leaned against the wonderfully solid wall as his friends climbed the rope with only minimal knocking of the lamp pole against the open window. His eyes wandered over the moon-brightened room and fixated on a bookshelf.
Keenin went closer to pull a book free and let it fall open in his hands. He couldn’t read it. This was just as much a reason why he had not wanted to come. But Keenin felt a strange obligation to help these two friends, as someone who knew how it felt to be trapped and also as someone who could actually end the war.
His friend’s boots thumped softly on the carpet. Keenin turned around to find Harris pushing aside a wall painting of a field of flowers to feel for hidden spaces while Aron shifted through papers piled on the commander’s desk.
“For the record, we would have caught you if you fell,” Aron let him know.
Keenin responded with silent contemplation.
“What are those about?” he asked instead.
“It’s all correspondence letters here. Do you think we should take these when we leave? Maybe the good guys can stop the war.”
“Leave it,” Harris told him. “We don’t want to be a part of this fight.”
“But maybe one of the guilds would reward us?” Aron explained. “Then we don’t have to be orphans.”
“I already explained that I’ll get a job for the both of us. You can just focus on managing money and clients.”
Keenin wasn’t particularly interested in such friendly banter. He noticed a scrapbook sitting on a chair in the corner of the room. He approached and picked up the leather-bound folio of pages that was softened with age and held together by a leather lace bowtie in each corner.
When he let the cover fall back he saw a lifelike pencil drawing of a palace garden; the slim sharp towers of the palace rose in the background, and patterns were carved into bricks in the walls resembling bands of vine, dragons, and dogs. The statue of a beautiful goddess stood in the foreground. The goddesses’ hair fell in long tangled curls, her dress clung to her carved body, a deer lay by her feet, and a flower unfolded in one of her upturned hands. Keenin knew that she was Septose and he knew who’s drawing this was. It felt like every step had already been decided.
His question was as much to distract himself.
“Why didn’t anyone leave here before if they hate it?” Keenin asked them. “Wouldn’t there be a rumor about that, at least to scare us?”
“I thought you figured that out,” Aron told him. He had taken Keenin’s place pulling books from the shelf, only he was flipping all the way through.
“Because they killed them. Immediately,” Harris said. “Why do you think Faber is so traumatized? He saw what they did to his previous companion.”
Keenin again remembered the barn with locked up corpses, as though a paranoid man was trying to keep his beloved children close to him; and Faber’s own dark words.
“Did you see what they did to them?”
A rattle and a grunt had Keenin looking up to where Aron pulled at a desk drawer.
“Of course not,” Harris said. “We weren’t here then. We just heard about it from Nadia. You remember the girl who met you the first day. She was always trying to be nice and give us advice as though it would win us over.”
“Maybe,” Keenin said slowly. “This isn’t a good idea.”
This camp was much less innocent than it appeared. He knew it from the start so why did he recently want to stay? Iscara, who he was to kill, wasn’t even here? Aron stopped pulling at the drawer.
“That,” Aron emphasized. “Is because this is a great idea. Can one of you please get this open?”
“Then can we leave?” Keenin asked.
This scenario seemed much too convenient. They had already been messing around in enemy territory far too long to go without any consequences.
“Yes,” Aron told him.
Keenin pulled the pin from his belt buckle and went to work on the lock, jamming the bit of metal into the keyhole and putting his hand beside the bit to leverage it against the bolt inside. He tested to find where the lock would give way and pushed the bolt to its unlocked position with a click. He smoothly slid the drawer open so that they could all see inside. A glass orb bumped gently against the inside of the drawer with the movement. It rested over three scraps of paper like an impractical paperweight.
Neither of them reached into the drawer. There was an odd out-of-place feel about the glass orb that Keenin didn’t want to ignore. Sensing magic was not an easy skill. It was like a hunch, a tingle, or a premonition; As elusive a sense as belief in the gods themselves, for who could believe so strongly in what they had never seen.
Aron reached forward first, but Keenin caught his wrist.
“Some things are not meant to be found,” Keenin let his friend know.
Even Keln, Keenin’s old thieving leader had known not to take a magic item else they be hunted down and killed by the owner.
“Do you think it’s magic?” Harris asked softly.
“Yes,” Keenin said.
Maybe this is what was used to attract souls. Was there another way to solve the problem he was in?
“I thought magic came from spirits,” Aron argued.
“Don’t try to act like the know-it-all,” Harris told him.
“I just want to read the papers,” Aron stressed.
Keenin looked at the handwritten pages, but his mind would not decode the symbols.
“I’ll take it,” Keenin said.
“Why you?” Aron said annoyed, since he had already moved to grab it.
“If it kills me, you can still get the information you want,” Keenin said. “And you don’t like me as much as Harris.”
Harris made no argument.
“That’s true,” Aron said, relaxing his hand in Keenin’s grip. “But I do hope to keep you for the battles ahead.”
Keenin released Aron and reached to grip the orb. A quiet bit of nothing seemed to happen, but like a trickle of water a prickly feeling went up his spine and Keenin felt the contained scorching presence of Calendor behind him. Not yet saying this, Keenin lifted the orb from the drawer and held it in front of him so that Aron could rummage through the papers. The feeling of being watched by the fire spirit persisted. Calendor was much calmer than Keenin had expected for a guy that had been locked away. Keenin sensed that the battle he was headed to had made the spirit content and sure that his splendid reputation would be upheld. All the while Aron shifted papers.
“I can feel magic,” Keenin said, getting his voice back.
Immediately his companions were looking at him. Keenin became very aware that he stood in the middle of the enemy camp with the power to burn it down. Distracted by this idea, Keenin didn’t become aware of his friends until Aron put a strong grip on the top of the orb. Keenin might have let go at the acknowledgment that his turn had ended, but he noticed another source of magic kindle in the building, and reflexively gripped the orb tighter.
“Keenin,” Aron complained. “Let me try.”
Keenin looked at the closed office door as it was opened and Nadia stood there. They silently regarded one another.
“Leave quietly,” she spoke.
Aron kept his hand on the orb.
“Keenin use your magic power,” Aron goaded.
The boy may not know what Keenin could do, but perhaps because they held the orb together he had a good guess in the destructive power. Keenin himself was sensing Aron’s idea to stay hidden in their escape. Aron had said his magic power was mist, but Keenin waited for Nadia to finish.
“You don’t understand,” Nadia started to say. “The spell’s already in effect.”
Then Nadia gasped, eyes flashing fearfuly before she collapsed to the floor. And there was the ice queen Jenna herself, the person that Keenin had saved himself for. He didn’t have time to admire her frilly blue nightgown, but neither did he know how to defensively use his magic. The room plummeted in temperature. Keenin’s companions collapsed in a cold-induced coma, leaving Keenin the only one standing because of the enduring warmth of the fire spirit.
Jenna gave him a neutral stare. Keenin still held the orb in his hand and it was likely that Jenna knew what it did. Keeping his eyes on her, he reached with his one hand to put the orb back in the drawer and slid it securely shut.
“We didn’t mean to take anything,” Keenin told her.
He didn’t want Jenna to hurt the others.
“Humph,” she grumbled. “Iscara said that you would get bored.”
“Should I…knock myself out,” Keenin offered.
Perhaps this is where they were supposed to be blindfolded and carted off for solo training. Maybe it would make Jenna feel not so undermined in authority if he passed out. Jenna made a sour face. Then she signed.
“Fine,” she said as much to herself. “I’ll teach you idiots magic. But I’m not like that peasant girl Nadia who tries to fix all the broken kids. When I start my lessons I expect you to pay attention.”
“We’ll…you’ve got me,” Keenin told her. “Spell or no spell.”
He wasn’t going to argue with not being killed. Jenna’s mouth quirked in a smile.
“Get going,” she told him. “The guards will bring your friends.”