A Moth to the Flame

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Ian Shadoe, a young orphan savvy to the sea port of Hadaad, takes his chances with a thieving job that could make or break him, while reflecting on what his future holds for him.

A Moth to the Flame

 

 

The cloying scent of fish skins that had been rotting in the sun all day stung Ian’s nostrils as he hid behind the cluster of barrels on the dock. His legs were starting to fall asleep from his awkward crouch but he didn’t dare move, else he give away his position. With his breath held, he waited and watched as the portly guard sauntered past, then quietly slipped out from barrels.

The night was warm, a layer of humidity hanging in the summer air mixed with salt from the sea. Ian could taste it on his lips. He crept down the rickety planks, careful to avoid the various ropes strewn across the dock, keeping his eyes locked on the small ship looming closer. If he played things right, he could be eating well for the next week.

Ian had about twelve minutes to climb aboard, grab the loot, and sneak back off the dock before the guard returned for another round, all without being sighted. It was risky, considering the ship he was about to infiltrate was owned by the Godor brothers, a company known for their  particularly ruthless business tactics, even for the merchant’s guild. Just last week Little Criley had shown up at the Knot with a black eye and a mangled ankle, claiming that he had gotten caught trying to pilfer off of a Godor cart and had barely escaped with his life. Granted, Little Criley was never any good at sneaking around, not like Ian, but he knew that the danger was real. And so was the reward. Now was his chance to put his skills to the test and show everyone why he was still the best Scamp in Hadaad.

A thin rope ladder could be seen dangling over the starboard quarter, just big enough for a single sailor to come and go off the ship. Ian made his way over to the ladder, his eyes scanning around the dock for any late night fishermen or drunken vagrants who may have hunkered down amongst the fish crates to sleep. When he was satisfied that he was utterly alone, Ian started his climb up the ladder. The ropes creaked and groaned under his weight as he pulled himself up, but it held strong. His movements were slow and deliberate, careful not to let the wooden slats bang noisily against the side of the ship as he dangled in the air. With one last push of strength, Ian reached for the ledge and leapt over the side, landing on his toes without a sound.

The deck was cast in shadow, with only a few dim lamps burning to light the ship. Just as Ian had predicted, almost everyone on board had slipped away into the city, eager to stretch their legs and shake off their cabin fever. After sailing for weeks at a time, most merchant ships emptied out the moment they docked with sailors desperate for some entertainment. The Vexed Vixen was sure to have its ale flowing all night for thirsty merchants tossing their coin about. He could already see Veeta, the owner, smiling with her gappy teeth as she counted up her riches from the night. Good, Ian thought to himself as he began tiptoeing across the ship, let them get nice and drunk. More time for me.

There was one sailor left aboard the ship, as there often was, so as to keep an eye on the goods while the rest of the crew had a merry time. Ian spotted him sitting on a crate near the portside, his back turned as he snored with his hands propped up on his knees, cradling his head. His crewmates were going to be less than pleased when they heard he slept through his watch. Nonetheless, Ian couldn’t be too careful, so he crept as quiet as a stalking cat towards the storage hatch. The man paid no notice to the thief, his snores echoing into the still night.

Ian pulled the handle of the hatch and it let out an awful creaaaaak! He froze, holding the hatch door ajar as he shot his gaze towards the sleeping sailor. The sailor snorted in his sleep, rolling his head over to his right hand, but he did not wake. With a relieved sigh, Ian opened the hatch more slowly, just enough to allow his slim body to fit through the gap. He pushed his way through the gap and onto the wooden steps beneath, allowing the hatch to gently close above him. He was in.

The stairs were just as loud as the door as he made his way down further into the hull of the ship, keeping his hands latched on to the splintered railing for support. There was scarcely any light below deck, aside from a single candle left burning in the back corner, atop a ragged desk covered in maps. He allowed his eyes to adjust to the dim light, taking in the various barrels and crates stacked around him. Most of them had been sealed for the voyage, keeping any pests and rodents from spoiling the goods inside. There wouldn’t be much point in trying to pry them open. It would only waste precious time.

As he felt around the space, eyes peering through the shadows for anything worth stealing, Ian started to feel frustrated. This was supposed to be his big take, bragging rights for all the other Scamps to envy. There was no way he was going to be able to show his face at the Knot empty handed. There must be something worth filching on a ship this size, he just had to find it.

He wandered amongst the packed cargo, ignoring the temptation of peeking inside. There were sure to be rich spices and herbs that could be sold for good coin, but impractical for sneaking off with. The idea of finding exotic fruits made Ian’s mouth water. For weeks he had eaten little more than scraps pilfered from taverns around the port. With a steeled determination, he pushed past the crates stamped with the Godor company brand and made his way towards the desk in the back.

The maps and receipts littered across the nicked surface of the desk held no interest to Ian. Unlike most of the Scamps, he could in fact read, but knew nothing of sea travel. He rifled through the weathered papers, creased and torn from years of use, looking for anything remotely useful. As his deft fingers flipped through notes and scrawlings of contracts and mementos, one of the maps rolled off of the desk. He went to pick it up and his eye caught something far more intriguing. Just beneath the desk, tucked close to the back right leg, was a small metal box with a strong padlock. Ian quickly abandoned the map and reached under the desk, grabbing hold of the box and pulling it out into the light.

The box was barely larger than his hand but heavy enough to smash over someone’s head. It was crafted from silver with intricate iron scrollwork around the sides, made to keep pesky fae from breaking in and stealing what’s inside. The wee people were averse to iron and many merchants had learned the hard way that if you truly wanted to keep your valuables safe, you make it fae-proof. This sparked excitement in Ian. If someone put in the time and money to fortify the box, then it must hold riches of some sort. Gold, precious gems, rare tonics, the box could hold anything inside. The taste of succulent meats and fresh vegetables played across his mind as he envisioned what wonders the treasure inside the box could buy him. He had found his loot at last.

The sound of someone walking above deck shook Ian from his dreamy gaze at the box in his hands and he snapped back to reality. His heart skipped in his chest as he realized he was cutting it incredibly close, that perhaps some of the crewmates had returned early. Or worse, the guard may have caught wind of someone sneaking around the dock and had climbed aboard to investigate. He had to act fast if he was going to get off this ship alive, and with his newly found loot in one piece. Ian opened up the satchel he kept strapped to his back and tucked the box safely inside, making sure to secure the leather strings tightly. Keeping his ears pricked for any sounds above, he ascended the staircase and ever so slowly pushed the latch open just enough to see out.

“I’m tellin’ ya, she was tha most beau-hic-beau...prettiest woman I ever saw.” A sailor with a crooked moleskin hat and a ruddy face had awoken the sleeping watchman, swaying in his boots as he tried to formulate sentences. His clothes were covered in something that grossly resembled vomit. “If it wasn’t fer that ass ova man at tha door, s-she coulda been mine!” He hiccuped loudly, followed by a gruesome belch that clearly offended the watchman.

“You should go sleep it off, Urik. It’s not easy to get tossed out of a tavern that quickly. You must have over done it again.” The once snoring watchman was now wide awake, holding out his hands to keep the drunk from toppling over, but far enough away to avoid getting sick on.

You sleep it off! I’m doin’ just...just…” The man clutched his stomach like he was about to lose the last of his dinner, but he swallowed hard and cracked a smile. “Just grand.”

Ian was stuck as he watched the two men get into an argument about the severity of the drunk’s lack of sobriety. If he tried to sneak out of the hull, the watchman who was facing starboard would most definitely catch sight of him. But if he waited too long, the rest of the crew were sure to find their way back to the ship and then he would receive much worse of a punishment. He may not come out as lucky as Little Criley with just a busted up face and some mangled limbs. The thought of climbing back down the stairs to see if there was another way off the ship crossed his mind, but he just as quickly tossed it aside. There was only one way in and out of the cargo hold and he knew it.

While Ian considered his options, the drunk suddenly lurched forward and stumbled for the side of the ship. The sounds of him finally emptying the contents of his stomach made Ian feel queasy but he kept quiet. He watched on as the watchmen walked over and awkwardly patted the drunk on the back, reassuring him with a comforting “there, there” and “alright, just let it all out”. With the two crewmates turning their backs on Ian, now was his chance. He swiftly pushed open the hatch door and jumped out, not caring if it made a noise or not. He doubted either of them could hear anything over the racket the drunk was making overboard anyways. Ian let his long legs take him across the deck and over the side, latching onto the rope ladder once more and scaling it as quickly as he could.

His worn boots thumped onto the dock. Ian looked towards the direction of the city and saw the glow of a torch coming towards him. The guard was coming back this way. He could attempt to hide behind the barrels like before, but the sounds of the crewmen making their way to the other end of the ship could be heard from above. They must have heard him after all, and if they spotted him down below they would surely call out to the guard and give away his hiding spot. Without much time to think about it, Ian made a quick decision and lept feet first into the inky black waters lapping around the dock.

 

 

****

 

 

“Let me see, let me see!”

“Shut it, Milo! You already saw it!”

“Nuh uh! That’s not true. Tell him, Ian!”

“You’re so annoy-ow!”

The skinny boy with flaming red hair, Tope, let out a screech as Milo, a boy no older than eight, latched on with his crooked teeth and sunk them into Tope’s arm. Tope tried shaking Milo off to no avail before finally smacking him across the back of his curly blonde head. Milo let go and backed away, crossing his arms in a pout. Tope looked down at his arm to inspect the damage, then glared over at Milo before turning back to the small group of boys crowded around Ian.

“Bloody ‘ell, Shadoe. Whaddya fink’s inside, eh?” The dark skinned boy who was only a few months older than Ian but at least a head taller peered over the rest of the boys. His eyes glinted with envy as he stared at the little box in his hands.

“Gotta be some riches, right?” A scrawny boy with a black eye and a bandaged ankle reached for the box, only to have his hand smacked away by Ian.

“I guess we will have to break the thing open and find out, won’t we?” Ian taunted, waving the box around for everyone to see. Little eyes, hungry to know what was inside, followed the box’s every move.

“I’ll get the hammer!” Milo volunteered, eager to be of help to the older boys. He quickly scrambled to the other end of the room in search of the tools they kept stowed away for jobs such as this.

The group of boys, aging from eight to thirteen, moved out of the way for Ian to sit down at the crate they used as a table. There were quite a few odd pieces of furniture spread around the room, most of them broken or repurposed for something else. An old wagon wheel used for drying clothes, a couple sacks of flour positioned into a makeshift chair, chipped flagons swiped from a tavern so the boys had something to drink out of, and ruined sails dragged from the docks and fashioned into hammocks that hung from the ceiling. The boys were nothing if not practical when it came to scavenging around Hadaad.

The room itself was nothing more than a damp cellar long forgotten by the inhabitants of the apothecary shop above. No one but the gang of orphan boys, known around Hadaad as the Scamps, were aware of the secret sanctuary tucked out of sight. Not even the boys knew how the cellar was first discovered, only that one had to know the exact spot in the wooden siding of the back of the apothecary to look for if they wanted entry. An inconspicuous notch in the wood would be pressed and a panel would slide open, revealing the passageway that led down into their home. Thus, the hideout had been dubbed ‘the Knot’.

There, a dozen or so boys hid out from the adults above, some abandoned, some lost, all without families. At some point, all boys without a home found themselves amongst the Scamps, often searching for protection or food in a harbor city that could be dangerous if they weren’t careful. Merchant guilds, sailors docking to refill their supplies, and even pirates searching for places to spend their ill-gotten coin wandered the cobbled streets of Hadaad, and none of them looked kindly upon urchins who would sooner pick their pockets than smile at them. It was no secret that many a Scamp had found themselves on the wrong end of a dagger or thrown into the barracks if they were caught red handed, some never to be seen again. It was safer for the boys to stick to a group and contribute what they could so that everyone was able to eat. It was a hard life for all of them, but it was all they knew

The oldest boys were Leroy, who was the tallest and most intimidating amongst them, Pockey, a mute boy that was good at picking pockets, and Ian, the dark haired boy with a charming smile and quick wits. The other Scamps looked up to them, following in their footsteps to harness their thievery and keep themselves alive. Though Leroy was often the leader in their schemes and low-scale heists, Ian was the one that could usually pull them off without a hitch. He reveled in pushing the boundaries of the law, basking in the admiration of the other boys when he was able to bring home a few trinkets to hawk or an armful of food that would fill their hungry bellies. His silver tongue often aided in conning a sweet maid working a produce stall in the market square while one of the smaller boys swiped some fruit. His brown eyes would give her a wink that would make the maid blush, oblivious to the theft until long after he had disappeared into the crowd of shoppers.

Milo pushed through the boys surrounding Ian, an old blacksmith’s hammer held up in his hands with pride. He elbowed the others aside and handed the hammer over to Ian, planting himself at his side so he could watch. Ian took the hammer and propped the box up at an angle so he could smack away at the solid padlock sealing it closed.

“I bet there’s rubies in there!” Torp exclaimed, leaning over the shoulders of a fat boy with a dark birthmark on his right cheek.

“No way! It’s gonna be something rare. Maybe mermaid tears!” The fat boy suggested, shrugging Tope off of his shoulders so he could lean in closer.

“Mermaid tears? Don’t be daft, Custard. Er’yone knows that mermaid tears are one of the hardest fings to get. Those’ll bite yer ‘ead off, they will.” Leroy rolled his eyes at the fat boy.

“Exactly! Think of how rich we will be!” Custard clapped his hands in excitement.

“No merchant is goin’ ‘round takin’ tears offa mermaids, you knob. That’s pirate work, right there.” Leroy argued, pulling a face at Custard.

“You don’t know-”

“Alright, everybody shut up! I think I’ve got it open…” Ian’s voice boomed over the crowd, silencing the boy’s bickering. They all moved in closer to him to getter a better view

Ian took the now dented padlock and pulled until it made a satisfying snap! He then slipped the lock out of the latch and tossed it aside. The Scamps held their breath as Ian slowly lifted the box’s lid, his heart racing in anticipation. Once the box was open, he leaned over to get a look at what was inside.

“It’s…”

Empty. The box that Ian had risked his life to steal from a Godor company ship was...empty. He tipped the box over, shaking it for good measure just in case there was something inside that he couldn’t see. The surface of the crate remained empty, just like the box.

“How can this be? Why have a box like this all locked up if there is nothing inside?” Ian asked aloud to no one in particular. He dropped the box with a loud crash onto the crate, sitting back on the stool he was perched on.

“Could it be something invisible? Maybe the box belonged to a wizard and he cast a spell on the box to…” Custard trailed off as the rest of the boys looked at him incredulously. He was a boy with too big of an imagination for his own good. Fun for late night storytelling, but not the most practical in times where logic was essential.

Leroy clapped Ian on the back, almost knocking him off of his stool. “No worries, mate. Shit ‘appens.” He tried to sound reassuring, but it was obvious that he was disappointed in the empty box as well. “Anyways, ye can probably get somefink for the box. Good metal, that is.”

The rest of the Scamps chimed in with agreement, trying not to look sad at the idea that they were going to bed hungry again tonight. Even if the loot was a bust, they still looked to Ian as a hero. Many of them could proudly boast that he had helped bring them into the fold, slipping them out of the clutches of the law when things had looked the most dire for them. One little mishap wasn’t going to tarnish their view of him.

“Yeah, I suppose so. I’ll go to market tomorrow and see if I can’t get rid of this stupid thing.” Ian mumbled, disheartened. There were often caravans that would travel from city to city to trade their goods, usually run by seedy folks who didn’t turn up their noses at hot items. If he was in luck, he might find one owned by a raka. Those dark elves took anything they could get.

“Chin up, Ian. There is always tomorrow. Who knows what sorry sap will leave his wares unguarded? Could be our lucky day.” Torp commented as the rest of the group trailed away to their hammocks and piles of cloth used as beds.

Pockey the mute, who had remained in the back of the crowd to watch in his pensive silence, gave Ian a curt nod of his head before heading over to the small nook he had made for himself by the laundry wheel. He nestled down against an old goose down pillow, its feathers broken and crushed long ago, and pulled out one of his books that he kept tucked away. When he wasn’t out thieving for the Scamps, he could be found reading in his nook, oblivious to the world. Now and again, if he was in the right mood, he would lend the book to one of the boys so that they could try to learn how to read. More often than not, they would get frustrated and give up. Literacy wasn’t a skill needed to survive on the streets.

With the crowd of onlookers dissipated, Ian let out a frustrated sigh. He had been so sure that this take was going to be the one that would set the Scamps up for longer than just a couple of nights. He could have bought so much food, maybe some proper bedding or clothes. The young ones did what they could to help out, but realistically it was up to the three older boys to help keep everyone alive. It was a lot of pressure for a thirteen year old boy, even if it was the only life he had ever known.

Ian was too restless to sleep, despite the ache in his body from climbing up and down the ship earlier in the night. Instead of pulling himself up into his hammock, he turned the other way and headed up the stairs that led out of the Knot. He opened the secret panel, then did a quick scan of the street outside. It was empty, all city goers tucked away in their beds or out drinking in the taverns. He ducked through the doorway and closed the panel behind him, then he began strolling through Hadaad with no direction in mind.

The city - bustling with merchants and shoppers alike during the day - was eerily silent as Ian followed the winding cobbled pathways. Shops that were loud with bakers and craftsmen shouting their wares had been shuttered for the night, locked tight against people like him who might think to sneak in for something free. The smell of roasted meats and freshly cut flowers still lingered in the air, almost lost in the stench of horse manure that had yet to be cleaned from the streets. Torchlights flickered against the stone buildings, guiding Ian past barber and seamstress shops alike. He could find his way through Hadaad with his eyes blindfolded, day or night. He didn’t let fear of getting lost worry him as he wandered aimlessly.

There has to be more than this. It wasn’t the first time these words had popped into Ian’s head, on quiet nights such as this. I can’t keep living off of stolen apples and scraps of chicken. And neither can the Scamps. Soon, there will be too many of us to feed. He was almost a man. Before long, he was going to have to leave the Knot and find something to do with his life. Being a child, sneaking around people’s coin purses and food stalls, that was fairly easy to do. But the bigger one gets, the harder it is to go unnoticed and before long they’re caught by the guards. Ian had no desire to live out the rest of days in a dungeon, nor lose a hand for stealing. But a life of thievery was all he knew. It was what kept him alive.

The night sky was marred by storm clouds that would surely bring rain come dawn. Ian blinked up at the quarter moon that dipped behind wisps of gray as they rolled above him. The air was beginning to shift, the temperature dropping to a cool the breeze. It was a good night for walking, for reflecting on one’s life. He tucked his black hair behind his ear, wondering if he should chop off the length again. It was almost to his shoulders now, though the girls around the city seemed to enjoy it. Thinking back to the pretty blonde that had blown him a kiss the other day while she was hanging laundry out in her garden, he considered maybe keeping the length after all.

Lost in the musings of his growing infatuation with the female species, something fluttered by Ian’s face. His eyes focused and he saw a lunar moth dancing across the breeze towards the torch still burning outside Fjor’s butcher shop. He could see strings of sausages still hanging in the window. The moth’s iridescent green wings seemed to glow in the moonlight, transfixing Ian with each flap and sway through the air. He edged closer, enjoying a creature in the city other than vermin and seagulls. As the moth grew closer to the dwindling flame, it turned in a crossbreeze and toppled over to Ian. He held out a hand, and to his surprise it perched on his index finger.

“Well, hello. Fancy meeting you here.” Ian whispered to the moth, keeping his hand still so as not to startle it. The insect flitted around on its fuzzy legs, rotating back and forth as it adjusted to the breeze whipping between the buildings.  The antenna twitched, scanning the world that must seem so incredibly vast to such a small creature.

Ian rather liked animals, when they weren’t chewing through his food supply or accompanied by guardsmen on patrol. Spiders never bothered him, as their beautiful webs built with such intricacy fascinated him. Insects in general held a peculiar sense of mystery about them, and the lunar moth was no different. He felt that he could lose himself in the wonder of something so delicate, so fragile.

When the breeze died down, the moth lifted off Ian’s hand and continued its path towards the torch, the warm glow of fire too rich for it to resist. He smiled at the way it circled the torch, imagining it warming its little legs like people did around their own fires. With the thoughts of returning home seeming like a good idea, he turned to head back in the direction he came. Before he had taken a step, something orange streaked out from the shadows and launched itself at the moth. Ian was helpless to watch as a stray tabby cat swiped out its claws and nabbed the moth right out of the air, killing it on impact. One of the wings tore off and gently floated to the ground as the cat playfully smacked the body with its paws. In an instant, the moth’s life had been ripped away, leaving only a tattered, tiny pile on the street.

“Shoo, you flea-ridden beast!” Ian snapped at the cat, who turned to hiss at him before taking off around the corner, tail bushy and held high. He walked over to the broken thing lying before him and knelt down to examine it.

He didn’t know why, but the sight of the once living thing left him with a strange feeling of melancholy in the pit of his stomach. He carefully scooped the moth into his hands, cradling it as he stared down at the crumpled wing still attached to its body. It had been so lovely, so serene, as it had danced in the moonlight. Now it was almost unrecognizable from the cat’s ravenging. He had almost forgotten that the one animal he did not care for were cats, the awful monsters. Beside the fact that they seemed to be mutual in disliking him, they so often were the cause of alerting his targets to his presence when he snuck into houses. Their unholy yowling had almost gotten him pinched more than once. The moth’s lifeless body only confirmed that dislike.

“Sorry, little friend.” Ian apologized to the moth, unsure as to what it could accomplish. It was just an insect, after all. Why waste his emotions on something so insignificant? Perhaps it was due to the fact that he himself felt insignificant in a city that didn’t know he existed. That nothing he ever did accounted for anything, aside from causing trouble with those he stole from. It was silly to compare himself to that of a dead bug, but its imagery still resonated within him nonetheless.

Staring at the moth, Ian suddenly felt a curious pull from deepin within his center. It was unlike anything he had ever experienced before, like a rush of energy that was created from his very being. It scared him a little, but it also excited him. Afraid to lose the feeling, Ian tapped into it, focusing his thoughts on making it grow stronger. His eyes widened in surprise as the energy pulsed like a shockwave throughout his body and he sucked in his breath with a sharp intake. The energy built more and more within him, sending tingles throughout his limbs. As the feeling grew, it started to feel overwhelming and Ian feared that he might explode from the sensation.

He squeezed his eyes shut, holding the energy back with all of his might, but it only grew stronger. Finally, he couldn’t hold it anymore. He let out his breath that he hadn’t realized he had been holding, making the moth in his hand shudder against the wind. As his breath escaped him, so did the energy that surged throughout his body. It rushed from him so quickly it left his head spinning. He quickly opened his eyes as he tried to steady himself, grasping the wall in front of him with one hand so that he wouldn’t fall over. After a moment of the bewildering rush, the sensation eventually died down inside and he steadied his breathing once more.

What the hell just happened to me? Ian looked around him, searching for the source of the bizarre energy, but there was no one else on the street with him. He looked up at the wall, thinking that perhaps some ill-tempered sorcerer had left a sigil etched into the stone to toy with an unsuspecting victim, but there was nothing there but grout and grime. He was utterly alone, aside from the dead moth that still lay lifeless in his ha-

Did it just move? His thoughts were broken by the sight of movement in his palm. Ian went rigid as he stared at the moth, waiting to see if his eyes were playing tricks on him. At first, he thought he might actually be going insane. The creature was still dead. It must have been the breeze that brushed up against the wing, nothing more. He considered putting it back on the ground when he saw it again: the antennae twitched. And not just the antennae, but the legs, too.

Ian watched in utter shock as the dead insect slowly began moving its body, like it was stretching after a long nap. It flexed its one wing, moving it up and down as if testing that it still worked. The moth crawled across his palm with its previously broken legs, no longer crushed from its encounter with the cat. It circled the entirety of his hand but could go no further without his other wing. Seemingly in defeat, the moth stopped its crawling and settled down in the center of his hand.

Without understanding why, Ian looked at the ground and spotted the other wing that had been ripped off. He gingerly picked it up by the edge so as not to ruin it with the oils of his fingers and he placed it next to the moth in his hand. As if sensing it, the moth moved closer to the wing, pushing itself against it where the wing should have been. With another small burst of the same energy from before, Ian felt an electric pulse rip through him and out the palm of his hand. The wing fused itself to the moth’s body.

“What...how…?” Words escaped him as he watched the moth lift itself off of his hand, taking flight once more into the night air. It circled around his hand a few times, then took off towards the sky, flying higher and higher until Ian couldn’t see it anymore. He was left crouching in the street, empty handed and confused as to what he had just experienced.

That couldn’t have been me. I’m not a magic user. People have to train for years to be able to do spells, there is no way that I brought that thing back to life. Ian had seen it with his own eyes, but he didn’t dare believe it. It just wasn’t possible...was it? He searched the skies for any sign of the moth, but wherever it gone it was far beyond his sight now. There was no chance of finding it in a city this big, nor at night. He was going to have to chalk the entire thing up to weariness. Yes, I’m just tired. It’s been a long night. Some sleep will do me good and I can forget all about...this.

He shook his head, clearing away any notions of magic from his mind. He was just a street orphan, after all. There was no magic in his veins, and lying to himself about fantasies of resurrecting moths was a good way to lose his grip on reality. Ian took a deep breath, then started back towards the Knot, trying to keep his mind on the hammock waiting for him at home and nothing more. He would get some sleep and then tomorrow that blasted box was going to fetch him some gold so he could eat. He just had to stay focused. Stay...focused

 

 

****

 

 

The swell of the market was in full force when Ian slipped out of the Knot the next morning, despite a light drizzle falling around the city. Carts pulled by sleepy mules rolled past loaded with freshly shorn fleece, sacks of grain, and pails of milk. Mothers and wives were already haggling loudly over the prices of eggs, cursing for all to hear about the outrageous mark up from yesterday. Ian made sure to step out of the way of busy vendors pushing their way towards the city square, pulling his black hood down to shield his face. With the ease of a practiced thief, he blended in with the throng of shoppers and sellers alike, keeping himself inconspicuous to curious guards on the lookout.

The weight of the stolen box felt heavy against his back, tucked safely in his satchel. He would have to be particularly cautious with fencing this time, since the Godor company ship was sure to still be docked. The last thing he needed was a handful of angry merchants searching for the very thing he needed to get rid of, and fast. His eyes darted around the various stalls open for trade, taking in his surroundings with all his senses.

There was no need to wander over to the livestock row, with the frenzied clucking of hens and hissing of enraged geese loud enough to echo across the city. As tempting as the fresh produce stalls seemed, he would only cause mischief with his restless hands. The craftsman area, bursting with handmade jewelry, hair pins and combs, woven dresses, and small works of art, held promise for someone needing to trade a small metal box, but the risk would be higher. Everyone knew the vendors had loose lips and even looser ideas of customer confidentiality.

Ian sidestepped a small girl selling a basket of lavender in the middle of the street, taking in her unruly curls and smudged face. There was no doubt in his mind that her sweet features were perfect for selling flowers with one hand and nicking a coin purse with the other. She would fit right in with the Scamps. Making his way further towards the outskirts of the market, he caught sight of the caravan tents that kept themselves away from the other vendors. Not too many honest artisans and shopkeepers looked fondly on the nomadic tradesmen, calling them gypsy thugs and cutpurses. It was a nasty stereotype that often caused the caravaners their coin, but it wasn’t always entirely untrue.

Strolling through the smaller crowd of customers perusing the various trinkets and foods laid out on blankets before the tents, Ian took note of the faces smiling out at him. Halflings peddled beautiful bouquets straight from Meadowcrest that had been enchanted to last for weeks, or so they claimed. A few dwarves argued over the prices of their weapons, boasting that  Rothenhyme itself paled in comparison to their craft. Ian doubted that the great city in the mountains, known for their blades and armor, could be compared to a few sketchy daggers and wobbly axes. An elf couple consisting of a nomad and a woodling had a wide display of metalwork set out in front of them, and Ian faltered as he eyed the jewelry boxes and baubles. They could be worth talking to, seeing as they specialized in metal pieces. But the moment he took a step towards their tent, someone far more promising caught his attention.

A raka vendor, with his dark grey skin standing out in the bright sunlight, was half tucked in the shadow of his tent on the far end of the street. There were only a few flasks and vials laid out on his blanket, which told Ian that he was hiding the real goods elsewhere in his caravan. His pale eyes glared out from behind his tattered cloak, carefully watching the shoppers as they passed his wares. Years of his people living underground had made him sensitive to light, and his hatred for surface dwellers put him on edge. He was suspicious, untrusting, bristling with agitation. He was perfect.

Ian quickly ducked throught the crowd and made his way over to the tent, rotating his satchel towards his chest so he could easily access it. The raka watched him with the intensity of a hawk as Ian knelt down in front of him, careful not to knock over his meager wares. He smiled at the dark elf, putting on an air of an interested buyer.

“Good morning, my grey friend. I would like to discuss a little bit of business, if you will.” Ian spoke clear and precise, making sure any eavesdropping ears could hear him. It was better to be upfront when dealing with stolen goods. It was less suspecting.

“You see what I have, pale skin. I do not haggle prices.” The raka’s voice was deep and low, like he was unaccustomed to using it. It sent shivers down Ian’s spine, but he kept a jovial face.

“I take it that you might be a purveyor of special goods, by the looks of your, er, selection. Might I interest you in something to carry them in?” Ian patted the small lump in his satchel.

The raka grumbled, “I’m not buying your trinkets. Either pick something or move off.”

Ian knew that the sale would be difficult, but he wasn’t called charming for nothing. “I’m sure that a good, law abiding vendor such as yourself would never deal in anything short of honest trade. I can just tell that by the looks of you.” The raka spit on the dusty cobblestones next to Ian’s feet. “But tell me, how often does a small business owner such as yourself have to deal with those pesky merchant’s guild thugs?”

The raka raised an eyebrow, but remained silent. Ian took that as a good sign. “More precisely, how often do the Godor brothers get in your way, with their aggressive ways of cornering the market on goods?”

With a sigh, the raka shifted beneath his cloak. “Get to the point.”

Ian cast his gaze around him, making sure no one was watching their exchange. He untied the strings of his satchel, pulling it open just enough to reveal the small box inside. He lowered his voice so only the raka could hear him. “I have a genuine Godor company coffer right here, with authentic iron protection. Tell me a price and it's yours.”

The raka’s eyes flashed, his attention caught on the gleam of metal within the satchel. He raised a dark hand and rubbed his beardless chin. “How old are you, kid? And how is it that such an item has escaped the hands of our...friends?”

Now it was Ian’s turn to raise and eyebrow. “Old enough. And you and I both know that there is no answer to that kind of question.”

The vendor shrugged his shoulder, then after a moment of pondering, he replied, “Fair enough. Ten gold and a promise that you will never return to my tent.”

“Gladly.” Abandoning the playful banter, Ian waited for the raka to produce a small coin purse, then quickly tossed the box to him and shoved the coins in the satchel. He gave the man a polite nod, acknowledging that their business was over. The raka had already turned away.

Ian stood from his kneeling position, giving his legs a good stretch before turning back towards the market square. He could already see the excited faces of the Scamps when he brought home an armful of food for them. This amount of gold could feed them for weeks. As he started walking past the other tents, he noticed the elf couple with the metal goods staring at him. He tried to ignore them, but their whispers behind their hands set off alarm bells in his head. Quickening his step, he pushed his way through the stream of customers, heading closer to the larger crowd that flocked around the stalls and shops. He neared closer to the square when he saw a trio of guards moving towards him, knocking customers aside like a ship through the waves.

Ian turned on his heel and headed towards the eastern side of the square, dancing and pivoting around angry city goers who cursed after him. He tossed a glance over his shoulder and saw the nomad elf talking to one of the guards. She looked out over the crowd and when she spotted Ian’s face, she pointed him out to the guards. That rat! Ian snarled to himself. It was always a gamble going to the caravans. The merchants generally kept to themselves so as to avoid eyes on their own products, but there were always a few that would do anything for a quick coin. He had been betrayed.

“STOP, THIEF!” The boom of a guard’s voice called out amongst the crowd, causing many shoppers to halt in their tracks and stare out wildly, searching for the culprit.

There was no time for stealth. Ian took off in a sprint, running as fast as his long legs could carry him, diving past couples with linked arms and mothers with their children in hand. He nearly toppled over a stall peddling exotic spices, the smell of saffron and cinnamon burned in Ian’s nose. The tiny man with a long beard who owned the stall yelled angrily at Ian but he ignored the shouts and skidded around the corner, disappearing down the next street.

Ian ran down the cobblestones, then quickly turned down an alley, then the next street, then another alley, until he was blocks away from the square. He checked behind him once more to see if he was still being followed and to his relief he saw no one. Hadaad, though not the biggest city in Varlath, was spread out enough that it was easy to shake someone if the person knew where to go. All he would have to do now is stick to the shadows and make his way back to the Knot to hide out for a few days. He could send Leroy out to spend the gold instead. This wasn’t his first close call. He turned around another corner, muttering to himself about caravaners and snitches, when he stopped dead in his tracks.

“YOU THERE, STOP!” Two guardsmen had entered the opposite end of the street, quickly catching sight of Ian. One of the men drew their sword as they began advancing towards Ian.

A thick knot tightening in his gut, Ian twirled around and headed back in the other direction, but he almost tripped over himself as he came to a halt. Three more guards were coming towards him from the street he just turned from, the leader of the pack a woman guard who’s orange colors on her armor said that she was a captain. Damn, I’m in trouble now! Ian swore to himself, head spinning back and forth as the two teams came closer down both ends.

There was no way he could get past the guards, no matter how fast he was. The chances of getting run through by a sword were too high to risk on his deft skills. Ian stood in the small alley, sweat beading up on his forehead beneath his hood. There were no backdoors or windows here, only stone walls and a thin street just big enough for two people side by side. He looked back to the captain and saw her scowl angrily at him, signaling her men to draw their swords as well. A strange idea occurred to Ian and he looked straight up. There, only a few feet above his head, was a small ledge that led to the roof of the building in front of him. He could never reach it by jumping, but maybe…

Ian quickly lept at the wall, then pushed off with all his might towards the opposite wall behind him. Using the inertia he had built, he pushed back towards the first wall and reached out for the ledge, barely grabbing it by his fingertips. His boots scrabbled against the wall as he pulled himself up on the ledge, kicking down a shower of loose rubble and dust on the guards below. Once he was safely on the roof, he looked over the ledge to see the guards glaring up at him.

“Someone get up there and grab that little weasel!” The captain barked at her men. The guards looked at each other, grumbling about how there was no way they could climb up a wall. The captain sighed angrily, then grabbed one of the guards and pointed him towards the street. “Well, then get your asses around that corner and look for him. He can’t stay up there forever!” She gave the guard a shove and the rest of the guards split into two groups, each them headed around either side of the street. With one last withering glance at Ian, she followed the second team and disappeared around the building.

Ian let out a long sigh, not believing his luck. He had seen one of the smaller Scamps pull off that wall maneuver before, but he had never tried it himself. It was fortunate that the alley was so cramped, easier to jump from wall to wall. Gazing out at the rooftops around him, Ian considered where to go from here. He could try leaping across each building until he got far enough away to come back down. There was little chance the guards in their cumbersome armor and weapons would be able to scale the walls to get to him. Seeing no other option, Ian took a step forward.

His foot seemed to fall right through the roof and he tumbled down, too quick to grab anything. There was a loud crash and Ian found himself in a jumble of broken wood and glass. Confused as to what happened, he looked up from where he had fallen and saw an open skylight in the ceiling above him. He hadn’t been paying attention and fell right through it.

“Ow.” Ian groaned, feeling the throb in his back from crashing into something. He carefully picked himself up off the floor, making sure to avoid the shards of glass and splintered wood around him. Once he was on his feet, he dusted himself off and took a look around him.

He seemed to have fallen into some sort of abandoned shop, though Ian was unsure as to what it was supposed to be selling. The windows had been shuttered close and the door padlocked, and if the layers of dust everywhere said anything it had been a long time since it had been open to the public. He tried to recall seeing a closed up shop during his adventures around the city, but nothing came to mind. The light was dim, with only a few rays of sunlight creeping in through the cracks in the shudders. Squinting to make out the odd shapes of the room, he walked around to get a better look.

Strange jars of dark liquids lined the shelves on the walls, with unknown objects floating in them that gave Ian the creeps. Stacks of books, piles of used candles of all colors and sizes, bizarre metal instruments, and dried herbs were scattered around the shop on mismatched tables and stands. There were quite a few bones hanging from the ceiling, though what manner of creatures they originated from he couldn’t tell. Glass canisters containing pinned butterflies and small stuffed creatures like squirrels and cats were used as a form of macabre decoration. The air smelled of burnt oil and ash, leaving a strange taste in the back of his throat. It became clear to Ian that this used to be a shop for magic users but had long since been abandoned. It wasn’t hard to see why.

Ian turned back to where he had painfully landed in the shop and examined the ruined furniture that broke his fall a little more closely. It looked as though it used to be a display case and as he scanned the floor further, he found a small dagger lying nearby. He found it astonishing that he hadn’t managed to impale himself with the thing when he landed on it. He picked it up and turned it over in his hands, admiring the dark metal of the blade. It felt so light, despite the heavy gem embedded in the pommel. There was some writing inscribed across the center of the blade and he leaned in closer to read it.

“If you’re looking to rob me, I would suggest being a little more stealthy with your entrance next time.”

Ian practically leapt out of his skin as a scratchy voice called out from behind him. The dagger fell from his hand with a loud clatter and he spun around to see who spoke. A small, gnarled man was standing near a curtained doorway that Ian hadn’t noticed before, watching him with an amused look on his wrinkled face. He was shorter than Ian, bent over with age, with a moderately sized silver beard and a shining bald head. He had his hands tucked into the sleeves of his navy blue robe and one of his bushy eyebrows was cocked inquisitively at Ian.

“Sorry, sir. It was an accident.” Ian felt himself apologizing quickly to the man, pointing to the skylight above them. “I was on the roof and I fell through your…” He blinked up at the skylight and saw that it was no longer open, the latch firmly sealed shut like the rest of the windows in the shop. Sputtering, he was at a loss for words. “But...it...I swear…”

“I see.” The man replied calmly, not seeming surprised by Ian’s story. He slowly glided over to Ian, his feet hidden beneath his long robe. He reached out a slender hand with knobby fingers riddled with arthritis. “May I have my dagger back?” Ian quickly picked it back up off the floor and offered the handle of the dagger to the man, stepping back after he took it from him.

“Tell me, boy. What is your name?”

“Ian Shadoe, sir.”

“Curious.” The man simply replied, not offering his own. He slipped the dagger into the depths of his robes and brought out his now empty hand to stroke his beard in thought. His eyes, clouded and nearly blind, roved over Ian like he was sizing him up. After a few moments of silence, with Ian considering running out of the shop and taking his chance with the guards, the man spoke again. “What is it that brought you here, Ian Shadoe?”

Ian stared at him for a moment, wondering if the old man was perhaps senile. “The window, sir. Remember? I swear I fell through it.”

The man shook his head, “No. That was merely a way to arrive. What is it that brought you here?”

“I…” The idea of lying occurred to Ian for only a moment, but something about the way the man was watching him made him decide against it. “I was running from the guards. They are searching for me as we speak.” Even now he could hear the guardsmen calling out to one another outside, searching the shops around them and becoming angrier each time they came up empty. It wouldn’t be long before they discovered the abandoned shop he was standing in.

“Yes. Thieves tend to get themselves noticed, sooner or later.” The man commented, turning his head at the sound of the guard’s shouts outside.

“How did you…?”

“And this life of crime that you have chosen for yourself...is it everything you wish to aspire to while you remain on this mortal coil?” His words were not accusatory, merely stated like a fact.

Ian thought back to the Knot, where the Scamps were surely waiting for him to see if he made it back safely. Their hungry faces, the longing in their voices as they spoke of the unattainable riches of Hadaad. They could take care of themselves, but Ian had always felt responsible for them. It was a lot to bear for someone his age. “No, sir. But it’s all I know.”

The man curled the bottom of his beard around his withered fingers. “Is it, now? Is there nothing more to your skills than legerdemain antics? Nothing that sets you apart from the rest of your little brethren?” His eyes peered at him with intensity.

Before he could answer, the image of the lunar moth from last night flashed into Ian’s mind. He had told himself to forget about the strange phenomenon, pushing it away from his thoughts as nothing more than a trick of fatigue. But the sensation of the powerful energy coursing through his body was still clear as day in his memory, the way it had shot through him to bring the dead creature back to life. No matter what he tried to tell himself, he could not deny the rush he had felt. Or how much he wanted to do it again. With an unexplainable swirl of emotions in his gut, he looked up at the old man.

The man cracked a smile at Ian, and he knew that robed figure before him needed no reply. “Excellent. I believe it will be in your best interest should you step into the backroom for a moment.” He indicated the curtained doorway and Ian obliged him, his thoughts a blur of confusion and intrigue. Not a second after he disappeared behind the curtain, a loud banging began on the locked door at the front of the shop.

“OPEN UP!”

The guards had found the shop after all, and by the fervor of their banging, they weren’t going away until either it opened or they busted it down. Ian listened behind the curtain as the sound of a padlock being undone came from the front, then a creak as the old man opened the door. A pair of armored footsteps clanged across the stone floor as the guards pushed their way into the shop.

“Wizard, has there been a boy in your shop? Speak quickly, this is an urgent matter.”

“Boy? Why, yes. I suppose there has.” Ian’s heart leapt into his throat as he considered that the man might betray him after all. “I have had boys, and girls, come into my shop over the years. Men and women, elf and dwarf, all of them customers from time to time. Why do you ask?”

One of the guards groaned, “Listen here, you old bat. I’m not in the mood for wise antics. Now answer my question!”

“But I believe I did. Did you have another, perhaps?” There was no humor in the old man’s voice and he spoke plainly. Ian could practically see the steam coming off the guard.

“Why you-!”

“David, calm down. Look around this place. Does it look like anyone has been in here in years? You saw the door. It was locked shut.” A voice belonging to another guard reasoned with his partner, his voice more calm than David.

“Well, he could have -”

“What? Jumped through the windows? Look at the layers of dust. Let’s leave this old man be.” There was shuffling like someone was being pushed by another. “Sorry for the intrusion, wizard. We will be on our way.” Their footsteps led further out of the shop, then the door creaked shut behind them. They were gone.

Once Ian was sure that the old man had locked the door tight, he re emerged into the shop. “Thank you, kind sir. You saved my life.”

The man turned to him and gave him a small shrug of his hunched shoulder. “Think nothing of it.”

Ian reached for the satchel strapped to his back and began to open it. “I have a little bit of coin…”

“Nonsense. You are of far greater value than the silly trinkets of man.”

He slowly let go of his satchel, pushing it back behind him. “Thanks, I suppose. But how can I repay you?”

The man glided back over to Ian, brushing past him to reach under a wooden counter near a basket of rolled papers. He grunted against the strain of something heavy and with both hands pulled out a large tome. With a loud bang that kicked up a cloud of dust, he dropped it on the counter. “Can you read, Ian Shadoe?”

Ian nodded his head, eyeing the yellowed pages and thick, leather binding. What was this all about?

“Delightful. How would you feel about making something more of yourself? Expanding your mind? Honing your natural skills? I could teach you, if you are willing to learn.” The man drummed his long fingernails on the surface of the book, watching Ian expectantly.

“Teach me...what, exactly?” Ian had never received proper schooling. That was for children who had families. He had been lucky to have learned to read from all the books Pockey had tucked away in the Knot. It hadn’t taken him as long as he thought it would. The words had seemed to come easily to him after some time.

“I think you know what power lies in wait inside your bones. It called to you, did it not? I myself am a master of the arts, though my poor eyesight and weakening body has left me with little more than an empty shop to show for it. But you…” He smiled again at Ian, his teeth yellowed with age. “You can be my apprentice. Pick up where I left off. I have so much to show you. What do you think?”

Ian looked the old man over, taking in the spots in his robe where moths had chewed on it. He was old and frail, no doubt, but there was an old kind of energy swirling around him, much like the kind Ian had felt with the moth. If the man wanted him dead, he would have let the guards find him. What’s more, he could have easily stabbed him with the dagger hidden in his robes when Ian had his back turned. He seemed harmless enough, if not a little strange.

Again, the image of the Knot came to mind, and how thirteen years of hiding in a musty damp cellar had given him little more than some ragged clothes on his back and an empty belly. Leroy and Pockey would protect the boys, as they always have. They would teach older Scamps like Tope and Custard everything they know, then in a couple of years they would have to move on. Ian would do the same. His life was just about over in the Knot. He had no other plans after that. It was a life of thieving for his future, if he even had one. And he would be stuck in a constant loop of hunger and poverty.

Ian turned his focus back to the old man, then looked down at the book in front of him. “What do I have to do?”

The man bowed his head, a glint of excitement in his eyes. He pushed the book towards Ian, then tucked his hands back into the robe. “Start with this.”

Ian grabbed the book and hoisted it off the counter, feeling the full weight of the countless pages tucked away in a jacket of old red leather. He glanced down at the cover, then took a deep breath and blew the layer of dust off of it. The title glittered in black letters, etched like fresh tar. He read them aloud.

On The Impermanence of Death?”

“The Art of Necromancy.” the old man said simply.

Ian’s heart fluttered, and that pulse of energy swirled within him once more. In that instant, his uncertainties, his frustrations, his struggle to see a future for himself...he knew that he had found what he had been searching for all along.


Submitted: June 01, 2020

© Copyright 2021 K. Glidden. All rights reserved.

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