Pain stabbed into my hand as half a dozen tiny fangs cut deeply into the meat between my thumb and finger. I yelped in an entirely ungraceful manner and hopped backwards, away from my desk. Cursing through gritted teeth, I examined the injury. Pale gray blood welled up around the edges of the torn skin. It really hurt. I pinched it down with my other hand and tried my best to ignore the stinging sensation.
All right, maybe it wasn't such a serious injury in the grand scheme of things, but when considering the events of the next three days, I probably should have taken it as a bad omen. Then again, I've never been any good at Divinations.
"Hate," I cursed again, and looked down at the creature that had bitten me. The little hellkite on the table bared its fangs in tiny defiance and hissed at me. Only a few weeks old, the hatchling spanned less than a hand long from nose to tail, but its small body seemed to have been packed full of angry energy. Patterns of vivid purple and black scales decorated its back and frail-looking wings folded along its sides. I could see the beginnings of subtle ridges that would become more pronounced with age.
"Bad critter." I said sharply and hissed back at him, then turned away to take care of the bite. My office is not large, so it didn't take more than a step to cross the room to get the well-used first aid kit off a shelf. With my hand safely bandaged, I turned back to my main desk. "All right, lizard, let's get back to work." He pranced without apology and continued his glare.
My notebook sat open on the desk nearby, displaying a series of illustrations I'd been constructing that detailed the creature's wing structure and scales. The rest of the desk was clear, mostly to keep potential toys away from the kite. I had been writing out specific measurements with a short quill, identifying the angles of interaction for its joints and its range of mobility. Minor details, most often, but sometimes minor details are important.
For example, today's discovery was that the hellkite's joints actually measure a much higher temperature than the rest of its body, which I think helps it to maintain flexibility and improves circulation. A hellkite's blood runs very warm for a reptile. So much so that the joints are actually hot to the touch, and can burn you if you touch them in the wrong places. I could go on, but most people's eyes glaze over when I start getting too specific. Back on topic.
The hellkite watched me, proud in his show of strength, but hadn't moved at all from his spot. There's a good reason for that. Inlaid to the wooden surface of the desk was a wide and complicated spiraling pattern, wrought in silver and glowing faintly in the room's dim light. The kite hissed at me again and charged forward, as if to attack.
After a couple steps its charge veered to the side. It continued moving until it had completed a small circle, settling back into exactly the same spot it had been before, in the center of the silver pattern.
"That's what I thought," I told it, maybe just a little smugly. I pointed at it with the finger of my newly bandaged hand. "You stay right there." He snapped at me again in response, but I was well out of reach this time.
The pattern in the desk contained a Compulsion rune, designed to subtly redirect its movement. The spell wasn't very strong and couldn't hold anything particularly powerful, but it had more than enough strength to contain the hatchling. My hand throbbed. At least, it worked as long as I kept my fingers out of his way.
I was logging the experience, making note of its prancing behaviors and the damage caused by its bite when a knock sounded on my study door. I stood up, a little irritated, and reached across the room to open the door.
A young girl stood outside. She couldn't have been more than fifteen years old, but wore a sharp-looking uniform and a matching cap, both made from rich fabric in a deep purple color. We stood about the same height, her bright blue eyes staring at me from under curly hair the color of coffee beans.
There was something striking and maybe a bit intense about the way that she looked at me. She held out a rolled piece of parchment in a black glove, and spoke.
I stood in the doorway, mildly stunned. Off hand, I couldn't think of any other time in my life when someone had knocked on my door and spouted rhymes at me. It took me just a moment to figure out how to respond.
She made a little flourish with the note. "A letter, for Rhaelin the sylph?" she clarified, clearly pleased with herself.
"Actually," I smiled politely as I corrected her, "my name is Rhaelin Summers, not Rhaelin the sylph. It is not polite to refer to people by their race."
"Yes ma'am, I'll get it right next time," the girl nodded apologetically. There was something impressive about her. Rhyming aside, she bore herself with maturity and professionalism, which seemed odd in someone so young. She continued staring at me intently.
"Not a problem. Do you often do the rhyming thing?"
She made a flourish with her hand, still smiling. "It's a gift." The stare was curious, and made me a little uncomfortable. It was, however, an unfortunately familiar feeling.
I get that a lot. My skin is very pale, and in most light actually takes on shades of blue, rather than human pinks and browns. I have light gray hair, but not from age. I often clip it back behind my ears, which are just a little pointed and slanted backwards. These features are often distracting to humans, but hiding them is rarely worth the effort, so I either try to ignore the stares or just indulge the curiosity.
"You're never met a sylph before, have you?" I asked. I did my best to be patient, I really did, but it was starting to get to me.
"No, ma'am, I have not."
"Then we're even. I've never met a rhyming messenger." I took the note from her. "Thank you for the delivery. Pun intended."
"You are very welcome!" She gave a slight bow and walked away quickly, headed to her next task. Her dark hair bounced on her shoulders as she left, a small skip in her walk.
Shaking off the minor awkwardness of the encounter, I turned my attention to the letter, breaking the wax seal and immediately recognizing the name of the sender. The penmanship was very careful and controlled, as fit the author's personality, but the message was disheartening. That also fit.
I have a project I'd like you to work on, if you have the time.
I want you to write a short series of lectures on the role of
Compulsions in the philosophy of modern magic study.
It's outside of your normal field, so I'd like you to
coordinate with Professor Aldurs to put together a curriculum.
I cringed. Richard Ferran held the title of Dean of Arcane Study, and he bore it with all the confidence that such a title implied. I suspected that "when you have the time," really meant "immediately." Putting together a curriculum was a minor side-job, a matter of organizing information into a format that made for a half-bearable lecture. Unfortunately, this would also mean that I would be have to teach again, which was not a pleasant thought.
"Well, at least I get to work with Evan," I murmured aloud. Judging by the traffic in the hall, it was getting on in the afternoon, so Evan was probably getting close to being done lecturing. If he had a few minutes we might be able to start talking about splitting things up, or at least set an appointment to work on it later.
Stepping back into the office, I packed my notebook and quill into a satchel, along with my ivory wand. Last, I retrieved a dark wooden ring from the drawer in my desk.
Most people craft rings out of silver or steel, but the fae have bad reactions to some metals. Silver and gold can be a minor irritation, like ice held against my skin, but others, like iron and steel, outright burn. In a world populated by metal-crafting humans this can be a problem, but for the most part I work around it. Doorknobs are hell.
The hellkite was now laying on one side, more relaxed but still watching me. I put on the ring, held out my fist, and concentrated. With a brief flash of light, the rune-pattern for a Summoning spell shone in the air between us and then the lizard was gone, trapped in very minor temporal stasis anchored to the ring.
Basically, he was safely put away. I locked the door as I left.
The afternoon sun streamed brightly enough to make me blink. I had been working in my windowless office since early in the morning, and sometimes I lose track of time. Evan's building wasn't far and it was a pleasant enough walk across the grounds.
I approached a large triangular building. Most of it was built from simple brick, but one corner had been half-melted into glass, making it translucent and striated in places with golden colors. It was a serious feat of elemental engineering both in Terramancy and Pyromancy. More than that, it was beautiful. Housed in the glass corner of the building was a large triangular recession, creating an auditorium that was mostly lit by the sunlight and could contain several thousand people. That room housed particularly large lectures and events, and when it was built they named it "The Hall of Light and Knowledge," with particular academic pomp.
The students, appropriately disregarding the pretense of its formal name, call it the glass pit. Pretty or not, in the summer months it would be packed with people and quickly turn into a greenhouse. Some Cryomancers joked that they learned ice magics just to survive classes there. Joking aside, many people avoided it. Sometimes even brilliant mages can be a little short-sighted.
I expected to find Evan there, based on his usual teaching schedule, but today the hall was mostly empty. Looking around a bit, I found a notice had been posted on the door that said his lecture had been canceled. That was unusual. I headed to his office.
The other two corners of the building, made from brick instead of glass, housed three stories of offices. One of them belonged to Evan. I arrived to find the door firmly shut, which was also unusual. Professor Evan Aldurs kept an open-door policy, zealous enough in his eccentricity that he "didn't believe in private conversations." Messy, outspoken, and as opinionated as he was good humored, his personality made him a favorite among many of the students. It was not uncommon for him to have several guests at a time, with lively conversations about arcane theory or philosophy that could turn into heated debates. He had no magical talent, but on a good day he was capable of drawing a small crowd. On a great day he could fill the glass pit to capacity.
I have a hard time stringing words together when I'm standing in front of groups of strangers. For me, teaching is awkward at best. Only the novelty of a non-human teacher entices people to take my classes. Once that wears off many students transfer out of my classes. I try not to let it bother me.
That difference between us is partially why Evan and I get along. He has always been good at reaching out to people, including me. He's a pretty good friend when he's not busy.
Today the hallway around his office was empty and the light runes on the walls had been set to dim, creating an atmosphere that almost screamed "go away." I knocked on his door. Low voices could be heard on the other side, and hushed when I knocked. I waited in silence until it became clear that they were waiting for me to leave.
The thought occurred to me that they probably didn't think I could hear them. Fae hearing is better than most, and Evan sometimes forgets that I'm not human. That's another reason why I like him.
"Professor Aldurs?" I called. "Evan?"
Another short conversation murmured on the other side, and then someone walked to the door. It opened, but only a few inches. Evan had short-cropped hair, brown but peppered with gray, and a tall forehead. His eyes held intelligence and intensity, and he had aged prematurely. He had thin lines around his cheeks from a half a lifetime of good humor and matching lines on his forehead from furrowed concentration.
"Rhaelin," Evan smiled weakly, "you have incredibly bad timing. Is there any chance I could come and talk to you later? I'm a bit busy." The kindness in his expression didn't hide the nervous sweat that beaded at his temples.
"What's going on?" I asked. "Something is wrong."
"Nothing," Evan said. His brown eyes glanced quickly up and down the hall, and his sharp nose twitched once. He ran a hand across his head, his hair cropped short so it didn't hide the deeply receding hairline. "Nothing I can't handle, I-"
I put my foot in the door. I'm small and I knew I couldn't push past him, but I know how to compensate. I wear solid shoes. "I got a message from Ferran," I said, grinning falsely and derailing him again. "He wanted us to put together a curriculum for a new course. I imagine he'll want us to team-teach."
"Really?" he asked. He relaxed his hold on the door. "I saw him this morning and he didn't mention anything."
"He did to me. Sent me a note a few minutes ago," I said, "through a courier, of all things." Evan was pale. For someone who always seemed so confident, nervousness didn't suit him. "You look terrible."
He shook his head. For a moment I thought he might try to rush me out again, but then he shook his head. "This is not a good idea, but you probably can help. Come in."
I did. Not surprisingly, Evan's office was much bigger than mine. Inside there were a couple of couches, a large desk and walls dominated by stocked bookshelves. Most notable, however, was the large boxy shape in the middle of the room, a little more than waist high and covered in a canvas sheet. One other person stood inside the room, a young man, probably a student.
Evan closed the door, and I heard the lock turn. "This is Travis, my research assistant. Travis, this is Professor Rhaelin Summers. She may be exactly what we need."
Travis was solid looking, but young. His dark hair was messy, and hung in front of his face. He straightened the sheet over the box in an effort to hide it, but was actually drawing more attention to the thing.
"Delighted," I said curtly, and waited for him to continue. I am capable of being courteous, really, but something about the situation told me that further pleasantries would be wasting time.
Apparently Evan agreed. "Well, I did something that might have been stupid," he said, sitting back on the couch. "I was approached by a very wealthy individual. He told me that he was interested in making a contribution to the university."
"Sounds normal enough," I nodded. "Most of our funding is through donations. I'm assuming there was some kind of a catch?"
"Yes, but first I want you to understand. He was offering a very significant donation, and he had already made a series of minor contributions, so I had reason to believe that he was genuine."
"How much money are we talking about?" I asked. "Enough to fund a project?"
"Easily," he said, nodding. "Possibly enough to put in a new building."
I raised both eyebrows. Buildings in an arcane university don't come cheap. You might think that having access to magic would make materials inconsequential, that we could just say a catchy-sounding phrase from a dead language and poof, a new building would appear, but the reality is that magic takes hard work, rare talent, and materials that are often expensive. Ludicrously expensive. He was probably talking thousands of gold marks. Securing that size of donation would be good for the school and even better for Evan's already bright career. "Somebody has deep pockets. Who was the donor?"
"I'd really rather not say," he answered, his voice tightening. "I don't want anyone to get any more involved than they have to." That sent off another warning bell. Someone with a lot of money who prefers anonymity strikes me as someone I wouldn't want to be involved with.
"Its too late to shut people out," Travis spoke up. "We're already here and this isn't nearly as bad as you're making it out to be. If we can find the thing then you'll be in the clear. The more people we have searching, the better."
"You are not going looking for it," Evan said sharply. "The creature is dangerous."
"I can at least-"
"The answer is no. And keep your voice down," Evan said, cutting him off. His words hung in the air for a moment while the student glared at him.
"All right," I said, "this is getting old. Sooner or later you're going to have to stop stalling and tell me what is actually happening."
Evan sighed. "The donor contacted me a few months ago with an offer. I accepted, but he wanted to stay anonymous, and I didn't want to report it until the money was ready to change hands. The problem didn't come until later. They needed something that the University was in a position to acquire, and they suddenly made it a condition for transferring the money."
He paused, hesitating, so I helped. "Strong-arm tactics in this city? Shocking. What was the favor."
"He wanted a creature called a tsedecore. He needed it alive, and he didn't tell me what he needed it for. I really didn't want to ask."
"Tsedecore." I racked my brain. "Tsedecore." They were probably relatives of the manticore, judging by the root of the name, but obscure enough that I hadn't done much reading about them. I had to think to remember even the surface details. "Rare," I said. "Demonic origin? If I remember right, the few that have been documented have been found in the Mirkan Jungles of the southern end of the continent, but those are imports. The original species was thought to come from either the Karkik or the Thulyet Blazes. Either one is half a world away."
He seemed impressed. "I didn't even recognize the name. They're dangerous, I suppose, but only relatively. You've worked with worse."
"A lot of scary things come from the same regions," I agreed, "it's nothing you couldn't have handled with the right precautions."
He nodded. "Which is one of the reasons I agreed to do it. I did a little bit of background reading with Catherine's help, wrote a few letters, and I found one in a small menagerie down in Ricter. I bought it and had it shipped months ago, and it only just arrived yesterday. We had scheduled to deliver it this evening, at dusk.
"When we got here, we found this." Travis stepped over to the covered box and pulled off the cover. Without the sheet I could see that it wasn't a box at all, but a cage. It had been crafted with a combination of iron and wood. Small silver runes had been inlaid along the flat bars, presumably an enchantment built to strengthen the container. Unfortunately, the runes were currently devoid of arcane force. This was also evidenced by a hole that had been torn out of the lower bars. It was more than wide enough for whatever had been inside of it to wiggle its way out.
"Yesterday," the student said, "the creature was inside. I saw it myself. It spent more than two months in this cage without any problems. Now it's just flat out gone."
"So it escaped, and now you're worried that the donor will pull his funding unless you find it?" I asked.
"That would be hard," Evan said, "and I'd be out a lot of money, but I think I could handle that. What I'm worried about is that the donor will get offended." He took a deep breath. "We are not talking about a person who I want to be angry with me personally, or even angry with the university." There was the threat, hanging in the air and leaving an awkward silence. That's when I started to get a better idea of what Evan had really gotten into.
The Kardan Republic can be a very rough place. Our economy is largely controlled by a short list of wealthy merchants, most of whom only maintain their power and money through private guards, usually hired from mercenary groups. Open skirmishes in the streets aren't entirely abnormal, and people generally take it in stride as long as it doesn't affect them directly.
And that's the legitimate part of the equation. The city's underbelly gets much, much worse. Whoever had contacted Evan was intensely rich, and money, power and ruthlessness tend to run in the same circles. This donor had some reason why they couldn't get this creature themself. Maybe they just wanted to use the university as some kind of a cover, but with the kind of money that Evan was talking about I wondered at just how dangerous–or maybe how desperate–they were.
Evan wouldn't say it, but I could guess that his donor had already made some kind of a deposit in exchange for using the university's connections, otherwise Evan couldn't have ordered the creature from all the way across the continent. If Evan failed to deliver, he couldn't just return the money. The donor might take the deposit out of his skin, or maybe his knees, or maybe his skull. Hard to know exactly which.
Sane people try to avoid those kinds of situations. Apparently, there is nothing sane about a professor of philosophy.
"Won't the tsedecore hurt someone?" Travis asked, interrupting the quiet. "You said it was dangerous."
"No," I answered. "At least not yet. The creature's first priority is probably to hide, not to hunt. Manticores have a very slow metabolism, like snakes. If it has been fed properly it will take days or maybe even weeks to work its way out to hunting. Based on the size of the cage and the hole, even if it gets hungry it would be more likely to go after rats or small dogs than people, and will only be really dangerous if provoked or starving." I thought for a moment. "I suppose if it was really hungry it might try to eat a child."
"Or a sylph," Evan noted, looking at me pointedly. With my small size and light frame, people sometimes mistake me for a child. That can be irritating, especially when its done by people who are actually younger than I am. By human standards I am fifty-three years old, but by Fae measuring I'm closer to my late teens, or maybe early twenties. It's hard to gauge a thing like that when growth and maturity are so different.
I shot him an irritated look, then refocused. "Any idea how it got out? Those bars looked enchanted, probably set up to prevent it from eating through them. Manticores are tough critters, and chewing through stone is part of their normal diet. Iron bars wouldn't even slow them down, but protective runes like that should have held it in."
"They could have been deactivated to allow an escape," Travis said.
"That's possible, but very unlikely." Evan disagreed. "The list of people who knew it was here is very short."
"It's also unlikely that the enchantment just suddenly wore off, after working fine for months." Travis responded.
"Who else knows?" I asked.
"There's the three of us," Evan answered. "Four if you count Catherine, although she didn't know that I was actually having one imported, and the shipping company that sent it to us. They had to have fed it a few times, but I doubt they really knew what it was. Besides, the school has had much more valuable artifacts sent through their care without any problems.
"There's the donor," Travis said. "Could they have come to collect it early?"
"I doubt it," Evan said. "They would have just taken the cage. Besides, we were about to deliver it. Why go to all of this effort, just undercut me at the last minute?"
"Maybe to get out of paying you all of that money?" he suggested.
"I really don't think-"
"There's no way to know," I interrupted him, "And regardless, I have good news for you."
"Yeah?" Evan asked. "I could use some good news."
"Give me a few days and I'm pretty sure I can find your pet. I've had things like this get away from me before, and I think I can track it down."
"That would quite literally save my life," Evan said.
"Don't be dramatic," I chided him. "Honestly, you should have come and asked for help as soon as it escaped. Supernatural creatures are my specialty. Do you have anything it might have left behind? Some bristles?"
"Yes," Travis answered. "It was shedding like mad, and they're sharp. I can gather some of them together for you."
"I just need one." He found it for me, and I closed it in the pages of my notebook, pulling shut the leather strap that holds it closed tightly.
"Rhae," Evan said, quietly. "You don't have to do this. I didn't come to you for help for a reason. This could go very badly. I can hire someone else to find it if I need to."
"I can find it faster," I said, "and I don't think it will be all that dangerous. You sure you can't tell me who you were dealing with?"
"It wouldn't help you find the creature, and I already feel guilty enough for asking this much. Better you not know."
I shook my head. "Well, the sooner I get started, the better chances I'll have. I'll get back to you when I have something that will help. In the meanwhile, get that cage fixed. It won't hold it as it is." I smiled at him, trying to seem confident, and then nodded politely to Travis. "Nice to meet you. Evan, when I find your tsedecore, you're going to owe me a big favor and a nice lunch somewhere, all right? And don't forget that we need to put that curriculum together." Evan didn't really respond, just nodded slowly, and looked at me with a worried expression.
I left, then, not really seeing any reason to linger around. False bravado is a stretch for me, but even with high stakes, it was a very solvable problem. I felt pretty confident that I could get his creature back in a day or two, especially if I got started looking for it right away. On the other hand, my little hellkite hadn't seemed all that dangerous either, right up until it turned around and bit me. Best to be careful.
Either way, I don't have all that many friends. I wouldn't pass up the opportunity to help one who was in real need. That may not have been the kind of thing that I could go out and say very easily, but it was true. Evan had been very kind to me, treating me like a real colleague when a lot of other people saw me as more of a passing curiosity. I would be glad to do what I could to help.
"Well," I told myself, "I might as well get started."
Shadow Games is an urban detective story told in an original sword-and-sorcery world. It features relatable conflict, quick-witted dialogue and a healthy dose of spell-slinging fantasy violence. Inspiration for style or tone might include Jim Butcher's Dresden Files or Ilona Andrews' Kate Daniels novels.
The author, Robert Hicks, works as a therapist in Salt Lake City, Utah. During the day he plots the horrible deaths of his characters, but also works with his wife Aubrey to run Midnight Campaign Games. They publish the Mayhem tabletop RPG, which shares a setting with Rhaelin's story, as well as other card and storytelling game projects.
The novel is complete at approximatley 90,000 words, and more sample text is available upon request. For more information about this project, the Mayhem tabletop RPG or other Midnight Campaign projects, please follow the links above, or contact us by email.
Thank you for your interest,