Common sense told him to forget this one, to go home and get some sleep. Instead, he reached into the satchel at his side and pulled out a woven cord of honey-brown hair. He never regretted pilfering the strands from Chastin’s lovely head. The barmaid might have given the gift freely to a human, but a balding, moon-faced pixie long abused by drink and other excesses?
Fen and humans just didn’t partake in the affairs of the heart.
What he needed was to change, and the key to that change was the book within the wizard’s tower.
Movement far below caught his attention and he stuffed the braided lock back into his satchel. His wings curled at the sight of Dram Tugger. A human cutpurse with the morals of a sucking quagmire, Dram lumbered to the tower’s front door like a man with a pegged-leg. Never one for grace or imagination, Dram reached for the handle, twisted and pulled. The door eased open without a squeak and the goon sauntered inside.
Boniface slapped the branch with an open palm as the door closed behind Dram. “Think, you idiot. You didn’t even need to pick the lock. It’s too--”
Blue light filled the ground floor windows. Agonized screams rose in pitch by the second. Then the blue light disappeared, leaving ominous silence.
Boniface scratched a slanting line across the four he’d already etched into the maple’s trunk. Dram had been the fifth to attempt the tower. All who entered never came out.
His branch dipped slightly and Boniface turned to face a copper-feathered falcon. “Gunther,” he said. “Well met.”
“Another fool?” Gunther leaned his elegant head forward and ripped a piece of meat from the small fish grasped within his talons.
“Dram didn’t even look in a window.” Boniface grimaced at the fish. “Do you have to eat that now?”
Gunther’s hooked beak opened slightly in what passed for a grin before he reached down for another morsel.
Boniface turned away, rubbing his belly. “When you’re done, make yourself useful and fly through that window.” He pointed at the tower’s highest level. “I could use a bird’s eye view.”
“Ha, ha, you pixies are so droll. No, I think not. A ward has surrounded the wizard’s tower since a lark soiled the old buzzard’s precious robe a fortnight ago--may buzzards forgive me for the slight on their kind. We creatures of higher intelligence avoid that tower.”
“And get others to do your dirty work.” Boniface smirked. More than a mere falcon, Gunther was a familiar to a wizard’s undertaker whose name he’d forgotten. Boniface had learned of Carmichael’s death from the predatory bird. He looked up at the darkening sky. “That explains the quiet, not a cheep, squawk, or enlightened debate whether worms taste better or grubs. Still, something is going on in that tower and I need to know what.”
Gunther tossed his head back, forcing fish down his gullet. “You have bigger problems,” he said. “Loo is close.”
“You’re kidding?” Boniface scanned the darkening sky.
The falcon dipped his head in an avian shrug. “Morning last she was half a day’s flight from here. Looking for a tree to roost, I suppose. She risks much hunting outside her territory. Hate soars in her breast.”
“It’s been nearly a year since…” The pixie trailed off. Since I killed her owlet. Boniface ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Damn, I don’t need this now.”
The coming dusk felt suddenly cloying. Darkness was his ally, but the owl’s presence robbed him of that advantage. Boniface waggled his wings. “Nothing I can do about it now,” he said then nodded toward the edge of the woodland. “Look, there. Hollis has come to test her skill.”
As was her method, Hollis Fleetfoot came equipped with rope, grapnel, and a customized crossbow. Loading the grapnel like a crossbow bolt, she launched the triple-pronged anchor high into the air. Metal tines bit into a stone crevice at the top of the wizard’s tower. The thief climbed the rope hand over hand, her dark leather vest and leggings defining a lithe figure in the growing twilight. She paused some forty feet above the ground and silently heaved herself through an open window.
“She’s good,” said Gunther.
Minutes later a flash of vivid blue shone from the lower windows then went dark. “She was,” Boniface said with genuine regret. He’d always had a professional respect for Hollis.
“Do you think they’re all dead?” Gunther asked.
The pixie nodded. “A trap of some kind is my guess.”
“Perhaps you should pass on this chance.” Gunther preened his wing.
“That tower holds my future. There is a book of magic in there. I know of someone, a client, who is willing to exchange the book for a potion to…” Boniface paused, readying himself for the abuse to come. “To make me taller, tall enough for my Chastin.”
Gunther squawked. “Are you still smitten with that urine-haired wench?”
Boniface cast a baleful eye at his winged-friend. “Thanks for warning me about Loo.”
The falcon squawked again. “Have I been dismissed? You are quite big for your oh-so-tiny breeches. This is a free forest, if you haven’t noticed.”
“A big one, too. You might find better company in another tree.”
“Undoubtedly,” said Gunther, “but none so entertaining. No, I think I will stay for the fireworks once you enter the tower.”
“I mean to disappoint you on that count.” Boniface squinted at the building. “I’m going to discover this trap.”
“What about Loo?”
Good question. Almost a year had passed since Boniface killed Ren, the Great Horned owl’s offspring. “I’ll deal with Loo if the time comes. I don’t need your help.” He patted the small dagger tucked into his belt and hoped his smile took the sting from his words.
The falcon made no move to leave, struggling with the impulse to tuck his head beneath his wing. By staying, Gunther had trapped himself on the maple branch until morning.
“You look tired.” Boniface moved closer to his friend.
“What?” Gunther’s eyelids shuttered rapidly. “I’m fine, really--”
Boniface gently tucked the falcon’s aquiline head under his wing and held Gunther like that until the bird’s breathing became slow and rhythmic. “It’s better that you don’t see,” he whispered to the sleeping bird. “In case everything goes wrong.”
Removing his satchel, Boniface hooked the strap over a branch and stared at the tower. To learn its secrets, he’d have to get closer, and that meant going out into the open. His wings made a soft zipping sound as they lifted him into the air. The cool wind felt good on his face and eased his headache. He allowed a crooked smile as he approached the window Hollis had entered. Level with the circular gabled roof, he dipped left, then right to get the best angle to see inside, never hovering in one place for long, the key to pixie survival.
Inside, human skulls and the bones of other more curious creatures decorated a wooden table. Multicolored smocks hung from wall pegs. The floor, however, was free of bodies. The trap must be further below. Boniface drifted closer, hoping for a clearer view. A pounding roar filled his ears and he clutched his head. His brain felt it may well burst from his skull and bile burned his throat.
Carmicheal’s ward! This was the reason birds avoided the tower. Boniface needed to escape the spell’s range before he lost consciousness, and fast. He wrapped his wings around him like a blanket and dropped. As he did, a rush of unexpected crosswind tussled the few strands of hair on his head. Looking up, he glimpsed outstretched talons and dirty-gray feathers. His maneuver, desperate as it was, likely saved his life.
Loo had found him.
An explosive screel echoed into the night as the owl banked hard for another pass. Two tufts of feathers poking from her skull giving the bird a demonic visage. Golden eyes glared with molten hate as Loo thrust her talons toward Boniface.
The effects of Carmichael’s ward eased and Boniface spread his wings to slow his descent. Waiting a heartbeat, he dodged right, grasping a fistful of feathers as the owl passed him. The force nearly tore his arm off but he managed to hold on, allowing momentum to fling him onto Loo’s broad back.
The great-horned owl twisted and turned, flying in wide arcs and tight circles, anything to dislodge her unwanted passenger, but Boniface straddled Loo like a horse and wouldn’t budge.
“Gerr-off, Praig,” Loo screeched.
“You’ll kill me if I do,” Boniface shouted back.
“Course,” Loo agreed. “You’re a murderin’ turd.”
Boniface clenched his teeth and gripped tighter as Loo went through a series of barrel rolls. “It was self-defense. Ren thought I was food.”
“Then you should’a let yerself get ‘et.” Loo twisted suddenly. Boniface’s grip slipped and he rolled off the owl’s back. His wings fought for purchase in the cool night air. Above him Loo circled for a killing strike.
Tucking into a dive, Boniface angled for the forest. Once past the tree line he darted this way and that, using trunks and branches as obstacles. But Loo was a skilled huntress and Boniface knew to survive he’d have to regain lost height. He doubled back, catching Loo off guard and slowly climbed, jinking right and left, never allowing an easy target. So involved in his maneuvers, he only realized Loo had stopped chasing him after he’d cleared the forest canopy. A quick search of the tree tops revealed no sign of the beast.
“Gotcha’ now,” Loo hooted from high above. Somehow the owl had gained better altitude and now dropped from the black sky like a rock.
Panicked, Boniface headed straight for the tower’s open window—and the wizard’s protective ward. Saliva dried in his mouth as he slowed like diving into a pool, assailed by unaccustomed vertigo. The edges of his vision darkened.
At least Loo won’t have me, he thought just as a hammer struck his back propelling him into a black void.
A ticklish nose brought Boniface back from the dead. His headache returned ten-fold making him wish he still was dead. I wasn’t even drunk this time, he thought then opened his eyes.
He was inside. He was alive and inside Carmichael’s tower!
Groaning, he pushed himself to a sitting position. White down and mottled-gray feathers covered the floor. To his right, near a far wall, Loo lay on her back, talons curled as if perched upon an invisible branch. Golden eyes stared at the ceiling but saw nothing.
Boniface shook his head. “Should have left it alone.” He pushed himself to his feet.
Moonlight shone through the open window. The room looked much like he’d seen from outside. He was in a workroom of some sort. Glass vials filled racks along low shelves, an unlit oil lamp and old bones cluttered a wooden table. Underneath the table were Hollis’ grapnel and hastily coiled rope.
Boniface looked back at the open window. He was in, but how was he to get out? The same ward that had saved him now trapped him within the tower. If he tried to leave by the window, he’d likely lose consciousness and drop to his death. He shrugged. It went against his thieving instincts, but he’d just have to leave by the front door.
He searched the workroom. His client had been very specific, look for an ancient looking book with a gray leathery binding and POTIONS stenciled on the spine.
Seeing nothing but old bones and more feathers, Boniface headed for the doorway and stopped.
What about the trap?
What of it? There was no sign of Hollis’ body and he’d no other choice but to leave if he ever wanted out. Fluttering his wings, he flew up to the door’s latch and pulled. Hinges squeaked softly. Beyond the door was a short stone landing and a curving stairway leading down.
Boniface remained alit, wary of traps or tripwires on the steps. The stairway was circular with two more landings, one for each level and he stopped at each only to find empty rooms. Mounting disappointment overshadowed his curiosity.
As he neared the ground floor he smelled cooked meat and his stomach growled. He slowed to a hover. Was the tower abandoned or not? He descended to the stone floor, and pressing his back against the wall, peered into the main room.
Six bodies lay on the stone floor, burned and contorted into stiffened char. He bit his lip to keep from vomiting. This was what made his stomach growl.
Like flower petals, the dead surrounded a wrought iron pedestal upon which sat a diamond as big as a human’s fist. Boniface pressed his lips tight. The gem was the only thing of any worth he’d seen so far, and it was most likely the trap.
Just then the front door opened and a new thief entered. “Hello?” the newcomer said.
Hello? Dressed in a bright green leather jerkin, breeches, and well-worn boots, whoever the intruder was, he was no thief Boniface knew. Most likely the fool was some woodsman who had heard the news of the wizard’s demise.
The man’s weathered face paled at the dead bodies, but when his gaze settled on the diamond, his recovery was nothing short of dramatic. Leaving the door ajar, he headed straight for the gemstone, mouth widening into a near toothless grin.
Blue tendrils leaped from the diamond, wrapping around the woodsman’s arms and torso, eventually engulfing his entire body. The poor creature squealed as his skin blackened, blistered, and popped like a spitted chicken too close to a cooking fire.
Within seconds another smoking petal lay on the stone floor.
Boniface ducked back behind the wall, chest heaving for air, nearly gagging on the stench of roasted human flesh. This was too much. What good was his love for Chastin if he was dead? Best he escape and find another way to win her heart. But how? Other than in the upper workroom, he’d seen no windows to fly through. Surviving the fall from the top floor was unlikely. The front door remained his only option, and even then he’d have to build up enough momentum to pass through the ward. He stared at the latest smoldering victim. As long as he avoided the damned rock, he should be fine.
Moving from his hiding place, he kept a cautious eye on the diamond and surrounding carnage. Fire scorched floor where the bodies lay and singed some of the surrounding furniture--except for a silk-covered sitting chair at the far side of the room. Beyond that was a shelf of scrolls and tomes, among them a gray bound book with POTIONS scrawled on the spine. Boniface’s heart skipped a beat, but before he took another step the air above the sitting chair shimmered like a heat eddy revealing the transparent image of a seated man with a neatly trimmed beard.
Boniface’s blood chilled at the sight of Carmichael the Ferret. “Well, my diminutive friend. Going someplace?”
“You--” Boniface tried to swallow, but couldn’t find the spit. “You’re supposed to be dead.”
“I am.” Carmichael’s face contorted as if tasting something foul. “And am not.”
Fear made Boniface tetchy. “Well, are you or aren’t you?”
The wizard smiled. “I suppose your mind is too small to grasp such a large concept. Allow me to explain. In spite of my power, I am still mortal. I knew this day would come, some experiment gone wrong, a whelp magical duelist challenging me while I was having an off day.” Carmichael leaned forward as if admiring his diamond. “I found this little trinket in a red dragon’s lair some years ago. Fortunately, I understood its power before I touched it. It acquires souls--for trade.”
For trade? “You’re killing people to bring you back from the Great Abyss.” Boniface couldn’t help but smile at his deduction.
Carmichael settled back into his chair. “You cannot kill trash. They came to rob me and got what they deserved. In turn, I get what I deserve. Another chance.”
Boniface looked closely at the wizard. Although Carmichael’s features were distinct, he wasn’t quite solid either. Boniface could easily make out the flower print of the chair’s upholstery through the ethereal body. “So, with each death you get stronger, is that how it works?”
Carmichael nodded. “Not bad, for a pixie.”
Boniface ignored the back-handed compliment and eyed the open door. “Well, you’ve your future well in hand, so I’ll take my leave, if you don’t mind.”
“But I do mind. I still need more lives.” Carmichael grinned. “And every little bit helps. Besides, I can’t have you flitting around the countryside telling everyone of my little secret. No one would come to call.”
“What if I promised to keep my mouth shut?” Boniface inched closer to the door. “The more thieves die for you, the less competition for me.”
“Sorry, little man. I just can’t risk it.” The door slammed closed like a death sentence.
Boniface licked suddenly dry lips and backstepped toward the stairway. Keep moving, he silently repeated his survival mantra. “What do you want?”
“Me? I just want what you to take what you came for.” Carmichael reached out and a sudden steady pull forced Boniface toward the pedestal.
Instinctively, Boniface took to the air and the wizard’s eyes widened as if surprised. The magical tugging ceased.
Taking full advantage, Boniface shot toward the stairway and zipped upward to the top floor. He intended to fly out the window and trust in providence to keep the broken bones to a minimum. However, once he reached the workroom, he slowed to a stop and listened.
All was quiet. The wizard had not followed. Why?
I still need more lives.
Carmichael’s spirit was tied to that chair, as much a prisoner as Boniface. But not entirely helpless, he could still use magic. Before long another thief would try his luck, then another and Carmichael would be whole again.
“Come down, pixie thief,” Carmichael called. “I promise to make your death quick.”
Boniface scowled. He wasn’t the bravest man in the world, but he had his pride--and he was a thief. Leaving empty handed stuck in his craw.
Scanning the workroom, his gaze bounced between Hollis’ rope and grapnel and the oil lamp before finally settling on Loo.
Unlikely, but it might work.
He went to work, cutting the rope with his dagger, working quickly in case he was wrong and the wizard could leave his chair. A final check to see all knots were tight and Boniface launched into the air. His shoulder blades throbbed and his wings whined like a cicada in heat but he managed to lift his burden, Loo’s oil-drenched body splayed on Hollis’ grapnel.
Boniface started toward the door, unsure how long he could hold on, knowing he’d committed himself. Down the stairway he flew, Loo’s body dangling below and slightly behind. He had only one chance. If he failed, he died.
“I hear you coming,” said Carmichael in a singsong voice.
“Right down your throat,” returned Boniface through clenched teeth. His hands ached and the rope slipped through his grip. Compensating, he flew fly higher until his wingtips brushed the ceiling as he accelerated around the last curve.
Boniface was too busy adjusting his approach to enjoy Carmichael’s surprised gape.
The wizard thrust out his arm and instantly Boniface’s body grew sluggish as if caught in a web. It didn’t matter. Carmichael had attacked the wrong target.
Boniface released the rope.
Momentum carried Loo’s body into the diamond resting upon the pedestal. Fingers of lightning engulfed the dead owl, igniting the oil-slick feathers. Loo barreled onward, her last flight a ball of flame falling through Carmicheal’s lap and landing with a thud upon the chair’s seat. The fabric embraced the fire and the chair soon became a small inferno.
Carmichael screamed curses, patting transparent hands at the flames but to no avail. With each second he faded from view, his wails becoming distant echoes until nothing remained but smoke and ash—and the diamond.
“Are you alive?” Gunther called down from his tree branch.
“No,” Boniface answered, shivering slightly in the cool early morning.
The falcon bobbled his head left and right pigeon-like, as if checking to see the thief spoke the truth. “Good,” he said. “I never liked you alive.” He pecked Boniface’s satchel from its branch.
“Bird jokes,” whispered Boniface, shifting the weight of the burlap sack slung over his shoulder.
Gunther glided to the ground, dropping Boniface’s satchel at the pixie’s feet. “What do you have there?”
Boniface almost laughed. “My destiny.”
“You’ve found the book, then?”
“What’s left of it,” said Boniface. Fire was a voracious animal, and by the time it sated its appetite half the room had been destroyed, including the shelf containing the potion book. He opened the sack to show Gunther what remained.
The bird warbled, then said. “You’ll never get payment for that. You might as well give up on that urine-haired wench.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Boniface Praig took the satchel and removed the braid of golden hair. Then he looked back at the tower and the deadly gem within. What was his client willing to give for that information? “There’s always something around the next bend.”
© September, 2014 Mike Rimar
Mike Rimar lives in Canada. His work has appeared in Writers of the Future, InterGalactic Medicine Show, and Tesseracts 15.