Chapter 5: A Thief.
A pale red light in the spiral stairwell slowly grew, flickering as it approached. Aphella remained as still as a corpse. The clack of hard-soled boots on stone grew closer. She felt a bead of sweat burst on her forehead, then trickle down to the tip of her nose, where it itched angrily. She did not dare to wipe it off; the stairwell opened directly in front of her, and though she thought she trusted Shaenyll, the illusory weaving her teacher had supposedly put up could not be seen, and so trust failed and the shakes of panic set into her limbs.
Part of her mind reflected on that moment, scared of what was surely just a man walking up the stairs, when she had felt calm and determined in the face of Dreadtusks just days earlier. That piece which remained calm and analytical, though seemingly unable to tell the body to still itself, noted that there was something about the anticipation of danger that made things worse. Real terror was in waiting for something bad to happen, thinking about every possible painful way to die when the noose was finally tightened around your neck. A charging beast running out of the darkness with no warning relieved such mental stress. When things happen suddenly, all there is to do is act.
Her hands shook on her bone spear as the intruder emerged into the room. At first she thought it was Rolf, since the man had short grey hair and dim eyes, but as soon as he stepped all the way up she knew it could not be him. This man, hunched though he was sneaking into the tower, would have barely come up to Aphella’s chin, much less reached Rolf’s high head. Light from the chronolathe illuminated his face as he walked around the machine. He was surely one of Frey’s guards, but she could only discern that much. The man himself seemed dim, almost faded like an old garment. His eyes, set among a piling wrinkled brow, seemed glazed, yet intent, glowing faintly as he examined the parts of the chronolathe.
He withdrew something from the inside of jacket: a robust white object of an odd shape, best described as an over-large curved spoon, but blunted on the tip and obviously used for something other than serving soup. The dim man ran his free hand over the largest, central sphere of the machine. The invisible layer above rippled and pulsed with many-hued light. Holding the membrane with his left hand, the stranger pushed his tool through the barrier and touched it to the sphere.
How is he doing that? Aphella thought. She squinted behind Shaenyll’s illusion, then realized what the man was doing. The strange tool was some sort of magical focus, and it allowed the man to penetrate the energy barrier of the chronolathe. He had begun using it to pry out the central animating sphere. Wishing to act, and yet hesitant to do so without Shaenyll, Aphella leaned forward, readying her spear. She glanced quickly to her right, but her teacher still evaded her eyes.
She took a deep breath and readied herself to assist the elder when the illusion dropped. Aphella gave a start and, she realized abashedly, an audible shriek, as something else appeared, as if out of nothing. Fog grew up like a pillar, then burst apart into the shape of a man. Mist curled and drew down to the floor, revealing Frey. In his hands was a long staff of a white material, like bone but smooth like polished glass. The thief turned quickly, toward Aphella and her frightened shriek and away from Frey, who somehow remained unnoticed. His hand was a blur as a long steel sword left its scabbard with a quiet scrape of leather.
“What’s that? Who’s there?!” The man’s dim eyes flew back and forth, never resting, Aphella realized, on where she stood, but rather on the window and wall on either side of her.
Frey snapped at that moment, pulling one of the feet of the thief backward with the tip of his staff, then bringing the same end up for a quick thrust into the man’s ribs. The dim man toppled forward, his sword clattering on the ground. He reached for it desperately while rolling away from Frey. Light streamed out from Frey’s staff and swirled around the thief. With a howl, the man froze, half-seated on the ground. His sword fell out of his hand again.
“Azom. So this is how I am repaid for my generosity,” Frey said, his voice cool and without anger. He sighed, though as he did so, Aphella almost thought she caught a sideways glance toward her, and a flicker of a smile, but the moment was gone quickly. Frey’s eyes remained locked on the thief, as if they had never strayed. “Already the people of this village are mistrustful, and now I shall have to hang one of my guards for them.”
“Frey you bastard,” the man, Azom, said, Twisting his hand impotently toward the sword on the ground. “You have no idea who you are dealing with. No idea!”
“I have some.” Frey weaved a stream of light again, this one seeming to bind up Azom’s tongue so he could not speak. “You’ve put me in a very bad position. Very bad. How shall explain this to the council?”
“No need to explain,” Shaenyll said, stepping out of the shadows. Frey seemed to give a start and an audible gasp, but Aphella thought in the front of her mind that his surprise seemed feigned; something about the man’s glance made her believe that he had seen both of them through the illusion without difficulty.