Long ago, in another age (like… last year?) I wrote a collection of stories about two realm leapers who help me in my writing. Some of you have seen these already, but for the first time I am going to share these events publicly. So today, meet Kirin, Stealthmaster and resident researcher of all dangerous topics.
Everything had been going so well. The realm leap into Almathea, capital of Elentisa, had been accomplished with the slickness of a dragon’s tail. Slipping though the shadows of the waning moon had made none of the Elentisaren guards the wiser. Scaling the cliff of the castle was difficult, but nothing which couldn’t be handled. The tunnels were more than easy. The rooftops were deserted. And the throne room; as I slipped through one of the skylights, the silver and diamond streams embedded into the tiles below me wove together in a silent web while the moonlight glinted on the blades and standards covering the far wall. Lowering myself on a gray silk rope I paused, scanning the trophies of war for the silver and black wolf’s head; a standard not belonging in this land, much less in this realm.
And…that’s when she appeared, stepping from the nethermist into the center of the room. Can you blame me if I was so startled I almost let go of the rope and slipped halfway into the chamber before catching myself with a very unstealthmaster-like squeak? Not my high point, I assure you, but at least partially understandable. To start with, this girl didn’t even belong to the realm and, despite my varied occupations, I’d never actually seen a leaper like myself. Few have the ability to cross realms, fewer still have the desire to, and only a select number (neither the best nor the brightest, but still the selected) actually develop the skill to become a realm leaper.
So, yes, I was startled. In my defense, so was she. Though instead of the commiseration of even a gasp, all I got was a swiftly drawn bow and an arrow pointed in my direction. My reaction was the most natural of all the realms. Silently sliding the rest of the way down the rope, I flicked my dark hood from my head to my shoulders and strode several steps towards the intruder.
“What are you doing here?” Though I kept my voice low, it still seemed to echo though the gloomy chamber.
“Seems I should be the one asking the questions since I’m the one with the bow.”
“Were,” I corrected, dropping into a rolling crouch and pulling on the nethermist. Except, instead of leaping to another realm, I transferred a score of paces, rising a stride behind the maiden even as she twisted around. But I was swifter, my hand closing about the silver engraved wood of her bow and pulling both it and her towards me as my other hand slid a dagger beneath her chin.
She glared at me. “You’re one too.”
“Your first?” I inquired, glancing over her simple green dress and flowing skirt. The gown could pass in a number of realms, but the mountain and four rivers emblazoning the buckle of her leather belt and fastening the long pouch slung over her shoulder was of definite Auloran make. She herself…I squinted slightly, my gaze sweeping over her lithe form which erred on the shorter side. Though I’d never seen one out of realm, I knew she was Aslarian.
“And yours, to judge by your reactions, Leaper.”
There was no good retort for that, so I ignored the comment. “Name’s Kirin. And I’d like to know who decided to burst in upon my almost completed mission, and why such a one thought they’d the authority to do so. And quickly; patrol will be though in three minutes.”
“Two and a half,” the girl corrected. “Name is Elena. Also, as you probably know, there’s a standard here which does not belong to this time or place, and…” She tilted her head slightly, “and you’ve less time to hide yourself than you thought.” She twisted away, wrenching the bow from my hand even as her arrow clattered to the floor.
“By the Seda Desert…” I scowled as she darted towards the shadows behind the throne and took a step to follow, searching the wall behind it for the pennant I’d come in search for. Silver glinted against black, but I hadn’t time to be sure of the make and already hasty steps were echoing outside the great doors to the throne room. I sent a despairing glance towards the arrow on the floor and then my rope dangling from the transom. So much my escape route. Turning, I fled for a tapestry concealing one of the many servant passages and swept the hanging aside. Solid stone met my gaze.
“Psst, this way.” A shadowy figure beckoned a dozen paces down the wall, then vanished back into the darkness.
I blinked, but there was no time to think and I slipped behind the hanging just as a pair of guards strode into the room. Their step faltered, then a shout echoed though the hall, followed by the swift drawing of a blade and the distant tramp of hasty steps. Elena’s hand fastened about my wrist and she pulled me around a sharp corner and through tight entrance. We broke out into a slightly larger compartment, the only light coming from dim gleams seeping in through two small holes.
“You’re a century or two off,” Elena informed me under the commotion, her figure blocking out the light from one of the openings. I could almost hear the smile in her voice as I set my eye to the other. “That passage you were looking for won’t be built until a great fire that almost demolishes this whole place well into the fourth age.”
“Well, I’ve not been here for a while…or won’t be here for a while,” I defended myself as more guards swarmed into view though a small and one shed his armor and began clambering up the rope…my rope. “And how did you get here so quickly?”
“You think you’re the only one who knows that trick of netherjumping?”
“And why are you even here tonight of all nights?” I demanded, ignoring her answer.
“They’ve had the standard for nigh four months. And you just happen to appear when I do?”
“Four months and this is the first night it’s been removed to private display.” This time I knew Elena was smiling. “At least I did my research before coming.”
“Well, I was here first, so the standard is mine.” I scowled. “At least, I get first chance at it.”
“I wouldn’t dream of intruding.” Elena shifted and I suspected she was staring at me; about as uncomfortable in the dark where I couldn’t see her eyes as it had been earlier.
“I’d be out of here by now if it weren’t for your inference,” I retorted under my breath. A pity I couldn’t just realm leap back hour, but even Leapers had rules about being in the same place as past selves; it wasn’t good for one’s health.
Of course, the dozens of guards swarming the throne room, some so close I could have touched them, while others shouted from the courtyard and roof, were less than healthy too.
Closing my eyes, I mentally pictured the layout of the throne room entrances, this time making sure I allowed for nuances of the right age. Spreading out, I mapped the current castle yard, then traced the paths and roads leading down to the nation’s capital.
“Five minutes more,” I muttered. “Five minutes, and we’ll have the whole guard upon us.”
“Your own fault for coming in in such a conspicuous manner.”
I glared at Elena. “These things require precision. Since when have you tried jumping into a new realm, and landing in specific chamber at the precise moment between patrols?”
“Only a few moments ago.” There was no mockery in Elena’s voice, just unabashed amusement. “And the standard you’re after, it’s right behind the throne to the left. Also, you’re down to four minutes.”
I drew a sharp breath though my teeth then exhaled softly. “Here goes everything.” I focused, then netherjumped into the shadows cloaking a great tapestry on the other side of the wall. Trusting in the blackness, the darkness of my clothing, and my own stillness to keep me hidden, I let my eyes scan the confused huddle of soldiers still surrounding the rope I’d left. Another was examining the arrow while a golden flicker blazed up near the door. Torches. How could I have forgotten about them? And since when did Elentisa have such an elaborate fire system in their throne room?
I netherjumped just as the shadows I’d concealed myself in fled in the rush of firelight. The light trickled and raced from lamp to lamp. I blinked, shaking weariness from my mind. I’d not jumped this often in so short a space for months. Gritting my teeth, I focused on the throne then let myself fade. The world refocused in the gloom near the great marble seat, and silver glinted from the black standard beyond it.
And…my foot slipped. I jerked back into the shadows, freezing, but a soldier spun around, his gaze searching as he raised a torch of his own above his head. One step. Two. I braced myself, debating if I should stay or meld back into the shadows where I’d left Elena. I’d not have the strength or time to return for the standard, but once the guard spotted me, netherjumping would grow exponentially harder; vanishing acts are notoriously hard to explain away if later caught and the recounting of them make any travel to that realm very difficult for the next few centuries.
“Over here!” The voice echoed though the hall and I barely held in a jump even as the soldier, and every other guard in the room, spun towards the open doors. I caught the briefest flicker of a figure vanishing into thick shadows. So, Elena had decided to help undo part of the damage she’d done, then? It was about time.
I didn’t hesitate, carefully but swiftly pulling the Shangarian standard from the wall and then fading back into shadows before netherjumping to the one place I suspected Elena would be waiting for me.
When I emerged in the dark spy compartment, she chuckled. “Well, I do have to say you do things with a certain amount of flourish.”
“Indeed, but I get it done.” I held up the silver and black fabric before stuffing it into a pouch on my back.
“Did you forget my moment of help there?” Elena questioned.
“Did you forget how you delayed me in the first place?” I paused as the commotion about us grew. Even this compartment couldn’t hide us forever. “I’ve got to get back.”
“Back to the battlefield to replace the standard before it’s missed, or to the Shangarian fortress in the weeks after to collect the reward.”
“I…I…” I spluttered.
“And here I was, thinking I was helping a self-sacrificing realm leaper who sets to right those little inconsistency we so often find in our line of work.”
“Even realm leapers have to eat.” I protested. “Besides, it’s obvious you didn’t just happen in here to get the standard yourself. What have you been doing? Watching me?”
“It’s that obvious?” A sliver of disappointment worked its way into Elena’s voice.
“It is now.”
“Well then, I work for someone who’s interested in stories and reports from all the realms. I’m a scrollmaster, but we wanted someone with more action; a stealthmaster, for instance.”
“And I’m supposed to be flattered?”
“Up to you; but I do expect you to listen and at least consider the position.”
“Realm leaping, collecting information, spying, secret reports…need I go on?”
I couldn’t help the sliver of a smile crossing my face. I’d heard of such offers; and one rarely got asked twice. But still, it didn’t do to seem too eager and besides, anyone could talk. I’d need much more information before I agreed to bind myself to a master. “And if I don’t want to listen?”
“After traveling all this way in the dead of night and saving your skin, you’ve no choice but to listen.” Elena laid one hand on my arm as footsteps entered the passages just off our chamber. “And you at least ought to see my employer. Ready?”
The footsteps were closer; someone had finally remembered this cranny. I only hesitated for a moment.
“Shangar first,” I decided. “Then I’ll go.”
“Better than I expected.”
Elena’s hand slide down my arm and tightened over mine. Taking a deep breath, I clenched my fingers over hers. And then, together, we jumped.