He looked fuzzy. Not fuzzy as in “dog fur fuzzy,” but as in resembling wispy fog curling and drifting wherever he pleased. He was just standing there by the exit to the alleyway, effectively blocking her exit and his smirk illustrated that it was intentional.
Yet, right as she was about to reach him, he disappeared, a small poof! echoing in her ears. Uncaring of the stranger’s fate, she kept going toward her escape, her feet feeling heavier with every step she tried to run. Before she could ponder on that fact, the ground turned to mush and her face went to meet it unceremoniously.
With reflexes like a cat, Corali’s arm darted out to cling to the tree whose branches had served as her bed. Blinking rapidly to clear the sleep away from her eyes, she strained to see through the dusk that had begun to settle upon the land. Faint footsteps reached her ears and she stayed frozen as a herd of Leau soldiers marched beneath her. Their torches cast bouncing shadows around the area, including her branches; she prayed to the Goddess that her dark, dirt-covered clothing rendered her invisible behind the leaves.
As soon as the soldiers’ footsteps receded from her hearing, she landed lightly on the ground and went the opposite way. Her slippered feet virtually made no sound as she glided through the woods like a fox outwitting a hunter. Within a few minutes, Corali reached the nearest town, spying multiple merchants just beginning to close up for the night to return to their own homes. It took her but a couple of heartbeats to decide which merchant wouldn’t miss some gold.
She guessed wrong.
“Thief!” The jingling of the gold coins rattled as the bag hit her hips with each step she took, shattering the silence; seeing as the loud-mouthed merchant had shoved her into the spotlight, a little more noise wouldn’t hinder her escape. “Ge’ back here wi’ my gold!”
“Ya don’t need it all!” Corali shouted over her shoulder. She would have made a comment about the plump merchant’s weight had she the extra breath. He certainly wasn’t hurting for money or food, not like she. Due to the other merchants continuing to pack up instead of aid their fellow worker, she wasn’t the only one who thought so.
Making it back to the woods, she only glanced back after scaling her tree once more and saw no sign of the merchant. He most likely didn’t feel like spending the effort in chasing her. It was rather easy to get lost in the woods unless one frequented them often. Corali relaxed against the tree trunk and counted her prize money while her mind ran with calculations on how long it would take her to get to the next town where she could spend the money. She didn’t dare spend the money in the same village that she stole it from; despite the care she took to hide her face with her cloak’s hood, it was too possible for the merchants to recognize her. Figuring it would take at least three days on foot to get to the next village, Corali dug around in her numerous pockets to check on any food she may have left.
“That’s not gonna last me long,” she muttered, noting the couple of apples and the end of a stale loaf of bread she had. She would have to see what else she could take from the small village—
Rattles and creaks announced the arrival caravans passing through the woods. Peering from around her tree, Corali spied the languid movements of the convoy heading in just the direction that she needed to go for the next village. Hitching a ride would certainly cut her traveling time down, and food would be fairly easy to take…
The last wagon of the caravan did not have a guard behind it; rather, the lead mule was just tied to the wagon before it instead of demoting one of the multitudes of guards surrounding the first wagon to rear duty. She couldn’t tell what nation the guards were from; in fact, it seemed as if they were all volunteer soldiers or maybe even mercenaries. Their uniforms weren’t new, and it was obvious that not all of the guards’ clothes were made to fit their persons. The signs were all pointing to the idea that this caravan was not property to any of the stuffy monarchs on the continent. Therefore, why would the kings and queens care if something happened to the convoy; there would be no imperial soldiers to come and back up the guards if something ill should befall the convoy.
It was as if the Goddess was smiling down on Corali.
Taking the chance, the young woman scrambled down her tree as silent as possible, sneaking around the convoy until she could get behind the last wagon. With a sprint, Corali caught up to and climbed into the last wagon, being sure to double-check the lack of guards around the train. Finding herself to be the sole occupant of the wagon, Corali got to work on making herself comfortable at the edge of the caravan should the need of a quick escape arise.
The canvas covering the wagon seemed to be a bit old, matching the uniforms of the guards. Tiny holes dotted the canvas, allowing the rising moon to send its beams into the wagon to grant Corali a touch of light to see by. She glanced lazily around the wagon, noting that it was not being used to hold the food supplies. Mentally shrugging, she supposed she couldn’t use up all her good luck on this one night. Instead, the wagon seemed to hold weapons. Not the kind that Corali would waste the time to steal; just like everything else about the convoy, it seemed, the weapons were old. The wood on that bow was rotting, and the blade on that long sword was chipped and dull. Honestly, Corali didn’t understand as to why these weapons were being kept.
Something shiny caught Corali’s eyes, and she turned to see a moonbeam illuminating an intricately designed box. Curiosity seizing the woman, she tiptoed around the other items littered about the wagon toward the box. Getting a closer look, Corali noticed the box being cushioned amid dusty pillows and blankets.
Sure, she probably should have been satisfied with getting a free ride toward the next village. She probably should not have been pushing her luck when she was suddenly filled with the desire to see what valuable must be hiding in that shiny box. But Corali’s luck tended to ride out like the sea’s waves washing against the shore. One minute her streak is up and it’s as if the Goddess has a hand on her shoulder; the next, her luck comes crashing down in a mess of salt and foam.
Taking the chance, Corali wiggled the box carefully free from its seat belt and plopped herself down on one of the pillows. She could only live her life from day to day, after all. She didn’t fancy going mad with unsaturated curiosity about what was in the shiny box, now did she? If the box exploded like one of Ascua’s famed Fire Elementalists’ spells, then so be it. It wasn’t as if anyone would miss Corali. She was just an invisible thief, after all.
It took her a few heartbeats to dig through her cloak’s pockets to find a picklock the same size as the box’s lock. Once she found one, she enthusiastically got to work. A wiggle here and tug there, and it wasn’t too long before Corali heard the satisfying, quiet click! that indicated her labor was done.
She was sure her scream echoed throughout the woods. She hadn’t been expecting the blinding flash to erupt from the box, tearing open the canvas covering of the wagon. Pained and panicked whickers and squeals indicated that the mules and horses that were with the convoy were also surprised at one of the wagons blowing up. Shouts that vaguely sounded human brought Corali out of her stupefied state and once her eyes were able to see again, the guards from the first wagon surrounded her. An older, ticked off looking man had stepped out of the first wagon and was glaring as intensely as he could with wrinkled, dull eyes at her.
“Hey, everyone,” she said, trying to grin while staring at the lances that the guards all held. Even if their uniforms were second-rate their weapons certainly were not, and the guards’ postures told her that they knew exactly what they were doing as if they were trained by the great generals of the nation themselves. “Fancy givin’ a girl a ride t’ the next village?”
“The gallows are better suited for you,” the old man croaked. At his words, the guards rushed forward, and Corali had no more time to think. With a swift movement, her hand grabbed the hilt of one of the weapons in the wagon and deflected the first guard’s lance. Using her small frame to her advantage, Corali made sure to make herself a moving target for the guards, twisting and turning away from their attempts to stab her gut.
The old man shouted useless orders to the guards as if he could be any help in getting rid of her. She had to laugh at the guards that tried to take his so-called advice, despite the blatantly obvious fact that the old man had never been in close combat before. She jumped upon a guard that had wound up in an awkward position when he tried to obey the old man, using the guard’s shoulders as a leverage to get out of the circle of enemies.
Water suddenly gushed around her, rushing into her mouth and lungs. Panic coursed through her veins as the water bubble lifted her up into the air. It turned her toward the old man, and she would have cursed aloud at him for being a Water Elementalist had she the air to do so. She choked, her body instinctively trying to gulp in air, and all that damn old man could do was show his crooked teeth in an ugly grin. Even the guards just watched, waiting for her to succumb to death.
“No one is to use the Goddess’ Dagger except for His Majesty,” the man said as Corali began to black out. She felt as if she was going to sleep and grasped at the shadows as if they were comforting blankets. Her eyes closed just as a shriek pierced through her ears.