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The Shadow Opal

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The Shadow Opal

by Whitney Soares

Voices echoed in the hallway. Rory ducked behind an old cherry wardrobe and crouched in the darkness, slipping his hand into his robber’s pouch to quiet the bright clink of silver. The glow of candlelight grew, and through the chink in the door, he could see two maids, their heads together. The light and their low-pitched voices faded as they passed the door and disappeared around a corner. Rory straightened and allowed himself to breathe deeper. The family hadn’t returned yet.

He crept to the door, his padded shoes making soft chuff sounds on the wood floor. They had been Bridgette’s idea--shoes that wouldn’t echo but had enough sole to protect his feet. Stealth was a thief’s greatest asset, and Rory had cause to silently praise her cleverness several times a night.

Rory pulled the door open and edged into the hall. Faintly, he could hear the maids in the master suite. They had closed the door, but he knew what they were up to. Same as he was, in a way--lowly folk messing in the gentry’s things. In the maids’ case, they played in the mistress’s wardrobe as soon as the housekeeper was asleep. The difference was that they would put the things away good as new in an hour. Rory would not.

The maids would get a fright in a few minutes when they rummaged in the lady’s jewelry cabinet and discovered that not everything was there. Rory wondered what they would do: start an uproar now, or hightail it back to bed and hope no one looked at them when the lady started shrieking in the morning? Probably the latter. Not even the trauma of a robbery would distract the housekeeper from punishing them in the first case.

Rory started down the hall toward the attic stairs he’d gotten in from. Tonight’s round was nearly finished--in fact, he decided this would be his last house. He liked to clear off a couple hours before the rich folk started filtering home, while the city guards were still in stupor from the midnight lull.

The attic door creaked as he pulled it open. He slipped through it and made for the window without bothering to pull it closed behind him. The night breeze greeted him as he pushed the window open and clambered out onto the roof. The rain had stopped, but the tiles shone slick in the lamplight filtering up from the street below.

The Guard was on patrol. Rory picked them out as if it were pure daylight. One stood on the corner, hovering just out of the light. Rory could see him by the nervous shuffling movement and maroon tinge in the darkness there. Another crouched in a doorway across the street, obviously not realizing the nearby street lantern reflected off the brass ornaments on his cap.

Maroon and gold. Rory supposed they’d picked the uniform colors to create an imposing presence, but the knock-on effect was that any member of the city’s underbelly could spot the buggers easily. Rory was quite proud of the nickname he’d thought up for them: Roonies. It had caught on among his friends, and now everyone on the south side of town used the name.

The top of the city spread before Rory, blanketed in mist, a network of chimneys and roof ridges, gargoyles and puffs of smoke. Most of the rooftops in this part of the city were connected, or only a step away from each other--a convenient road for thieves. All Rory had to do was keep out of sight on a roof until he reached an alley that the patrols didn’t pay much attention to.

Up here, the houses all looked the same. No matter how ornate their fronts, to Rory they were all tiled slopes and chimneys in the darkness. Not even the loot was different: a collection of gold and silver, jewels and ivory.

Rory crouched at the edge of a roof and peered into the alley below. A pair of reflective eyes glinted from a gutter, and a rat scampered behind the woodpile that leaned against the wall beneath Rory. A cat yowled from the street side of the alley, but otherwise the darkness was still.

Rory swung over the eaves and onto the woodpile. It shifted underneath his feet as he clambered down, the logs clinking woodenly. One rolled off the top as he jumped to the ground. He caught it and set it down at the base of the pile before setting off down the alley.

Now that he was on the ground, he became aware of the gnawing feeling in his stomach. Bridgette would be cooking up a meal of whatever she’d managed to buy cheaply in the market. He hoped it wasn’t cabbage again.

Turning down Tayrun alley, he quickened his pace to a trot. The alley served as a major conduit between the high class, middle class, and low class districts. It was a wonder the Roonies hadn’t pegged it for watching yet, but then they were never quite attuned to the true workings of the city’s ne’er-do-wells.

The way ahead grew darker as it progressed into the dodgier side of town. There were no streetlamps nearby to bleed into the alley, and the smoke from hearth fires was fouler, and hung thick in the mist. Rory didn’t slow his pace--he knew the alley as well as he knew his own home.

His foot encountered something large and soft, and he tripped. He threw his hands out to break his fall, and then gasped as pain lanced into his right palm. Warm, sticky blood flowed freely down his hand. He got to his knees and felt around on the ground for the object. Holding it up, he squinted at it. It glinted in the darkness--a knife.

He turned and bent over the thing he’d tripped on, and a choked gurgle rose in his throat. A girl lay sprawled across the alley, her dress ripped and splotched with blood that looked inky in the low light. The knife fell out of Rory’s nerveless grasp. He sprang to his feet and ran, clutching his throbbing hand to his chest.

His stomach churned, and bile rose into the back of his mouth as he hurtled down the narrow alley. He’d just seen somebody dead. He was only a thief; he’d never seen murder before.

The alley opened into a wide street in the low-class ale district. Rory burst out of it, straight into a patrol of three Roonies. They took one look at the state of him, blood from his hand blooming scarlet on his shirt, and grabbed him.

“I found . . . back there . . . dead,” Rory said. The fear clamping his chest made it impossible to catch his breath.

“What in the name of--“ one of the guards breathed. He beckoned to one of his companions. “Connor, go have a look.”

The guard named Connor ran into the alley. He returned a few minutes later, his face a pasty green, holding the knife gingerly between thumb and forefinger. “Take him in,” he said.

Rory threw up.

#

Huddled in the back corner of his cold stone cell, Rory contemplated his fate. The guards had paid him no attention since hauling him to the gaol and throwing him inside. They’d performed a cursory search on him and taken his loot, except for the few pieces he’d managed to hide in the hems and seams of his clothing. There was a night’s work gone to waste, and he still wasn’t sure what they were going to do with him. He couldn’t shake the chills that racked him. They thought he’d killed her.

Rory looked up as his cell door swung open. The three guards he’d run into swaggered into the cell.

“You weren’t content to be a filthy thief.”

“I didn’t kill--”

“Shut up, you,” the guard said. “Connor, Michael--hold him.”

The two guards grabbed Rory and pinned his arms behind his back. The first guard sank his fist in Rory’s stomach. Rory doubled over, retching and gasping for breath, a fiery ache replacing his dull nausea.

“I . . . didn’t,” he wheezed. A blow hit him on the back, and the guards let him fall forward. He lay curled on the floor. The newly crusted scab on his hand tore free, and blood seeped over Rory’s palm and onto the flagstones.

One of the guards wiggled his boot in front of Rory’s eyes and then pulled his foot back. Rory closed his eyes and turned his face into the stone floor, waiting for the pain to blossom in his head.

“Stop,” said a voice from the cell door.

Rory turned his head enough to catch a glimpse of the guard putting his foot down.

“Out.”

One of the guards stopped to spit on Rory before disappearing through the door. Rory rolled over gingerly and found a new guard standing over him. The guard hauled him to his feet and dumped him on the wooden bench in the corner.

“I swear, I didn’t--” Rory started.

“I know you didn’t kill that girl,” the guard said. “There’s been another one since you’ve been in here. Same type of knife, same wounds, same symbols carved into the corpse’s skin--”

Symbols? Rory’s stomach churned again. “Where did it happen?”

“At the palace gala.”

A thrill of fear rippled through Rory. What sort of person would strike such a prominent event? Even thieves knew to stay away from anything high profile.

“What happens to me now?” Rory asked.

“I’m letting you go,” the guard said. “On one condition.”

Rory narrowed his eyes. Charity was not something he expected from a Roonie. “What’s that?”

“You become my informant on anything that might be connected to these murders. I’ve been tracking this killer from city to city, and I think I’ve almost got him.”

Rory closed his eyes and looked away. Informants were considered lower than dirt. The life of a thief was nothing easy, but at least he and Bridgette could walk freely among the South Siders. Becoming an informant could ruin that.

“We’ll forget the thievery charges,” the Roonie added. “You can walk away and never come back, as long as you tell me anything you find out.”

Rory considered the proposal. Agreeing could mean the difference between going home and spending years in this gaol. He supposed he wouldn’t have to rat out his friends. He wasn’t above thievery as a way of life, but murder was one thing he’d be willing to see end in a hanging.

“Right then,” Rory said. “I accept.”

“Good.” The Roonie held out his hand for Rory to shake. “My name is Darren. You can find me here any time, or at least talk to someone who’ll know where I am.”

Darren helped Rory up and led him out of the cell. Rory followed him down the long hall, past dozens of narrow cells, some with a lone figure huddled in a corner, some with as many as four men crowded inside. Rory caught a glimpse of an old woman in one before Darren ushered him to the front door.

“Now get going,” Darren growled.

Rory didn’t need to be told twice. He ducked out the door and headed for home.

#

Pinks colored the eastern sky by the time Rory finally opened the door of the rickety building he lived in. The stairs creaked and groaned their protest as he climbed to the landing, jumping over the missing step at the top. His and Bridgette’s room was at the end of the hall.

The door flew open before he reached for the latch. Bridgette stood in the doorway, her arms on her hips. Her brown hair, usually neat, was flyaway and falling out of its bun.

“You’re hurt!” She snatched for his right wrist and turned his palm upward. “Get inside,” she said, pulling him into the room. She steered him into a chair at their small, worn table, and clattered around until she found the kettle.

“What happened?” she asked. She set water heating on the tiny potbelly stove.

Rory recounted the night’s events as she tended his wound. She frowned when he reached the part where he agreed to help Darren.

“An informant? That’s dangerous.”

“I hardly had a choice,” Rory said. He winced as Bridgette wiped the grime and crusted blood from his wound.

“I know that. But haven’t you heard how people are talking about this already? Everyone from Mad Engle to the buyers is edgy.”

“No, I hadn’t heard anything. What are they saying?” Rory said. It was odd for the city’s criminals to be so unsettled by criminal activity, even something as severe as a serial murderer. Especially not this soon.

“The hedge witches and wizards said they think magic is involved. Some people are starting to notice a few faces that aren’t around our streets anymore--of course it’s too early to know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. The Roonies hardly care if one of us gets offed.”

Bridgette shook out a clean white handkerchief--no doubt part of her night’s haul--and used it to wrap Rory’s wound. When she’d finished, he drew his hand away and rubbed at it absently.

“If it’s that bad, then we should both stay in tomorrow,” he said.

Bridgette looked up sharply. “No, we can’t do that. Not after they took what you got tonight. I’ll do some pick pocketing in the market tomorrow. It should make up the difference.”

Rory pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. Pick pocketing was the most dangerous type of work for a thief--even in a crowded market, it was easy to be spotted by a Roonie or make a mistake and cause a ruckus. Nevertheless, he knew arguing with Bridgette would be useless.

He retrieved the few items the Roonies hadn’t taken and went to the cupboard where they kept most of the valuable loot. He deposited a few coins, a couple of rings he now had a feeling were fake, and a stark gold chain with a diamond pendant he thought might be quite valuable.

He cast a look over his shoulder at Bridgette and crowded closer to the cupboard to block her view. She was busy at the stove cooking what smelled like porridge.

Rory rooted in the pile of valuables and withdrew a ring. It was set with a black opal--not very large, but one that shone with a fire Rory had never seen the like of. It was going to be his present to Bridgette. Even if she couldn’t wear it in public, she would be able to have something fine and beautiful for herself.

He held the ring up and twisted it in the weak light filtering past his shoulders. The stone seemed brighter than he remembered, and he got the strange feeling that something lurked in the depths of its blue and purple veins of fire. He rubbed his thumb over the stone to polish it. It was warm.

“Food,” Bridgette said.

Rory dropped the ring into his pocket, shut the cupboard, and joined Bridgette at the table.

#

In a house on the other side of the low-class district, a Power stirred. It pulsed with anger and impatience as it watched its earthly servant pace the floor of the small, dingy room.

“They’re onto us,” the servant said. He dropped his voice to a mutter. “We should lay off and move somewhere else again.”

The Power vibrated, disapproving. I am almost free, it hissed in the servant’s mind. One more victim and I will no longer hide in this box. I will conquer this city in one blow, and you will no longer worry of imprisonment.

The servant sat on the lone stool in the room and cradled his head in his hands. “The mage followed us from Berinum,” the servant said. “He’s looking for us--one mistake and we’ll be good as charred roast.”

There will be no mistakes.

“Almost was, last night,” the servant said. He scuffed the floor with his foot, and a cloud of dust rose to join the motes swirling in a shaft of sunlight. “We were almost discovered. If those guards had come down the alley a few minutes sooner . . . The thief nearly ran over us, anyway.”

Something in the servant’s voice made the Power suspicious. There was no mistake! I concealed you, didn’t I? Suspicions were cast away from us--they caught the thief.

“The palace was dangerous. Two in one night was risky.”

The sooner we are finished, the better. Besides, it taught them our power.

“It was still--”

Enough! I tire of your whingeing. Just one more. The ritual--tonight. I will be free . . .

#

Rory woke near evening from an unsettled, feverish sleep. He could tell through the hole in the eaves that the sun was fading. They would light the lanterns in an hour or so, and Bridgette should be home soon after that. She never stayed out late when she pick pocketed.

Rory shuffled about the room. He wasn’t used to staying inside during the night. He wanted to be out prowling the rooftops. But injured like it was, his hand would be useless for climbing. The risk was too much, and Bridgette had commanded him to stay home until it healed.

He worried about how long it would take him to recover. They still had the cupboard stash, and the linens and kerchiefs Bridgette had taken. She would garner some money from today, no doubt. But after the stash and linens were fenced and the money spent on food, what would happen? Bridgette couldn’t support both of them.

A couple of hours passed. Rory knew the night mist would be descending on the city, and the rats beginning to scurry through gutters. His anxiety grew as each minute slid by.

He sat down on his cot, stood up, paced the room, sat back down. He repeated the pattern. Another hour passed, and a low panic simmered in his stomach as his mind ran through all the things that could have happened to Bridgette. She could have been stopped by the Roonies, could have fallen into the river, been in a cart accident . . . He shivered and shoved his hands into his pockets. His fingers brushed over the warm stone of the ring.

Rory’s whole body seized, and he felt rooted to the floor. He couldn’t move--his fingers were glued to the ring. The room around him grew dim, hazy and indistinct, as if his sight were failing. Then another image overlaid what he knew he was actually seeing. The two images conflicted, made him feel sick and disoriented, and then his small home was gone, and he was standing in an empty, unfamiliar room. Dust lay thick over the floor, except where it had been scuffed by someone else. The ceiling was pitched, and half of the room was inaccessible where the roof had caved in.

The door opened, and a man appeared with a large bundle of cloth. He dragged the bundle into the middle of the room and unwrapped it.

Bridgette. Rory’s heart clenched, and he fought to get out of the vision and run to her. She was still alive. He saw her chest rising and falling under the shroudlike fabric.

The vision ended. Rory stood in his own room once again, shaking. The opal blazed white-hot against his fingers, and he yanked his hand out of his pocket and sucked at them. He was surprised to find they weren’t burned.

Rory didn’t try to think about what he’d seen, didn’t try to understand how he’d seen it. He dashed out the door and flew down the stairs, nearly tripping over rubble at the bottom. He ran through the streets, paying no mind to the curious stares of the vagrants and street-dwellers.

He crashed into the gate of the gaol and shook it. The chains holding it shut clanged and jingled. A Roonie poked his head out of the gaol door.

“What?” the Roonie called.

“I need to talk to Darren,” Rory shouted. “It’s important!”

“He’s out on his beat,” the Roonie said.

“Where?”

“Nah, nobody knows where he patrols.”

“Gods damn it,” Rory muttered. He shoved the gate once more and turned away.

“What’s this about?” the Roonie yelled.

Rory paid him no heed. He shoved his hand into its pocket and grasped the ring. He felt a strange sensation--pressure between his shoulder blades, as if someone were gently but insistently pushing him forward. He took a step in the direction, and then another. Then he ran.

He dashed down streets, skidding to a stop and then careening down others whenever the pull dictated. Whatever it was, it led him deeper into the heart of the criminals’ district. The streets were even darker here, the crumbling faces of buildings black with mold and the tar that held them together. Rory could see figures in the shadows, watching him, calculating.

The pressure grew stronger as Rory ran onward. It yanked him onto a side street, and Rory saw it: an old house with a caved-in roof, its whitewash long turned brown with age and seepage. The pull followed him through its front door and up the stairs, swung him around a corner and up another flight of stairs. He burst through the door at the top and into the room from his vision.

Bridgette lay spread-eagle on the floor, her hair pooled about her face. A chalk circle had been drawn around her, and a thin, scrawny man knelt, drawing runes around the outside of it. He looked up.

Rory tackled him and drove a punch into his face, and then one into his stomach. The man croaked and doubled over, clutching his nose. Rory aimed a kick at him that sent him sprawling into a corner, and the man curled into a ball and whimpered.

Something moved on the other side of the room. Rory spun to face it.

A small, darkly ornate box sat, its lid tipped back on its hinges, on the only table in the room. Shadow and darkness boiled out if it and formed an indistinct, black shape, too large to have fit in the box. The dark mass trailed ribbons of mist along the floor as it advanced. Underneath it, the wood rotted and shriveled.

You shall not interfere! the thing roared. Its voice seemed to bypass Rory’s ears and go straight to his mind. He clutched at his head as it screeched with the sound of metal on slate and boomed with the deep intensity of distant thunder.

The scrawny man grabbed Rory from behind and pinned his arms behind his back. The man’s grip was tight, belied by his thin arms. Rory struggled for a moment, and then the shadow figure pointed a finger at him.

The servant drew away. Pain and fire raced through Rory’s veins. His muscles seemed to all clench at once, and he ground his teeth, unable to scream, unable to get away from the pain. He slid to his knees, his back arched, his hands balled into fists, fingernails cutting into his palms.

The shadow raised its hand. The pain disappeared as quickly as it had come. Rory drew back, and the shadow came after. He scrambled now, and tripped over one of Bridgette’s outstretched legs. He fell backward, and the shadow bent over him, exuding a sense of satisfaction. It reached for him--it was going to kill him. Rory threw up his hands to fend it away.

The shadow recoiled. Rory hadn’t realized he’d slipped the ring onto his finger, but there it was on his left hand, blazing blue and purple in the darkness. The shadow fixed its attention on it. Its fear was palpable.

Rory got to his feet. The shadow drew away from him. He held out the fist with the ring on it. The shadow swayed from side to side like an uncertain snake.

What is it? it wailed. I fear it, yet know not what it is!

Rory lunged. The shadow threw its hands up, and he slammed into an invisible wall. He leaned into it, both hands holding the ring out in front of himself. He could feel the force of the shadow’s will feeding the barrier. Inch by inch, he the wall gave way before him. With a yell, he shoved against it once more and broke free. The shadow huddled in a corner--it had nowhere to run. Rory touched it with the ring.

A high, eldritch wail filled the room as the shadow shrank to a point in front of Rory. There was an instant of silence, and then a rush of air as it exploded in a blast of white flame. Rory and the shadow’s servant were thrown to opposite ends of the room. Rory sat up, rubbing his head. The other man lay slumped against the wall.

There was a clatter on the stairs, and Darren burst through the door. His gaze darted from Rory and the ring to the burn mark on the wood floor, to Bridgette, and to the man in the corner of the room, who moaned and stirred.

Darren crossed the room and touched the man, who went limp again. Then he knelt next to Bridgette and touched her forehead. Her eyes fluttered open.

“What--?” she began.

“You’re okay. Your husband caught the killer,” Darren said. He helped Bridgette sit up. Coming to himself, Rory scrambled across the floor and knelt beside her. Taking her warm hand in his, he thanked the Gods she was okay.

“How did you do it?” Darren asked. A slight frown creased his forehead. “I’ve been chasing that thing for years, but I’ve never even managed to find its hiding place.”

“It was this.” Rory pulled the ring off his finger and gave it to him. Darren’s forehead smoothed as he turned it over in his fingers and watched the play of light on the stone.

“No wonder. That’s a Shadow Opal,” Darren said, handing it back. “Very rare, and very powerful. They were crafted as protection.” He cast a glance at the charred spot of floor.

“What was that thing?” Rory asked.

Darren ran his fingers through his hair. “Some form of ancient spirit gone sour. One can never tell where they came from originally.”

Rory shook his head, not even pretending to understand. “How did you find us?”

Darren barked out a laugh. “I could have seen the magic you both were spewing from across the city, let alone from where I was across the district.”

Rory helped Bridgette to her feet while Darren went over to scuff the burn mark with the toe of his boot.

“What happened to it? Can it come back?” Bridgette asked. Her voice shook a little, but she seemed otherwise fine.

Darren shook his head. “It’s blasted it for good. And we’ve also got its mortal servant to throw in the gaol, all thanks to your husband. Oh, that reminds me.” Darren reached into his cloak and pulled out a large pouch. It clinked with the unmistakable sound of money. He handed it to Rory. “There was a bounty posted,” Darren said. “That’s yours.”

Rory looked inside, and his mouth fell open in shock. It was gold--all of it. More money than he’d ever seen in his life, or imagined was even possible for him to see. He passed the sack to Bridgette, who gasped as she investigated the contents. She clutched the pouch to her chest, her eyes brimming.

“Thank you,” she said.

Rory looked down at the ring lying in the palm of his hand and turned to Bridgette. “I meant to give this to you before. Here it is now.”

Bridgette slipped it onto her finger. The opal blazed with light, and then grew quiet, looking normal against Bridgette’s tanned skin.

©2011

 

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