Only the bravest of the brave, the strongest of the strong, and the wisest of the wise could join the Knights of Alinor. Legend held that only heroes could pass through the Stronghold’s iron gates.
Kyrin brushed his hair out of his eyes and regarded the enchanted lock that sealed the famous gate, ignoring the rat that clung to his shoulder.
When I rob this place, I’ll go down in history.
The ward protecting the lock was a thing of beauty, a tapestry of language woven by a master enchanter from lifeless iron and his own inner magic. However, like a tapestry, while the guardian spell had taken great effort, great skill, and great talent to weave, a man only needed to pull the right thread to unravel everything. Kyrin almost had it—he could almost see the common theme. Everything fit together and was related within the spell, and if he could find the flaw, he could take the whole ward apart.
Kyrin drew his prized lock picks from the pocket near his heart. He had hoarded his money for three years to pay for them, skipping meals and going without sleep until he could afford to hire a specialist smith willing to work from his design. Now he never let them out of his sight. The picks were the perfect tools for undoing mundane locks and wards alike, and not a similar set existed anywhere in all of Alinor. At least, that is what the man’s face had suggested when he had seen Kyrin’s diagrams.
Kyrin had wanted his picks to be perfect, as few things in his life were. All nine of the picks had been imbued with one of the nine elements of magic, and through elegant glyphs carved on a puzzle-like band at the handles, the base powers could be refined and directed. In the right hands, the bands, the glyphs, the magic itself could be twisted and reformed to dismantle even the most devilish of wards without so much as a touch of outside magic. One only needed knowledge, cunning, and a steady hand.
The smith had been excellent. Kyrin probably should have refrained from stealing so much from him afterward, but the temptation of winning back his hard-earned fortune with his new picks had been too much to resist. But no regrets—that day had been Kyrin’s first big step towards glory. Remorse was pointless.
Soon, even the Faceless will revere me.
“What’s the plan, Shadow?” Rat chuckled, scratching at his torn ear with a dirty paw as he dug his tiny claws into Kyrin’s shirt. “Stumbling already? Gonna trip over the first hurdle? Drop the dream and go home, kid. Even the Faceless hasn’t cracked this egg, and if the Guild leader can’t get in, how could a cripple like you?”
“Shut your stupid mouth, Rat, before I make you eat those words. I’m not like the rest of you streetscum.”
“Obviously. The rest of us are human. You… You’re just a shadow under our feet. Pathetic.” Rat’s voice rang with spiteful joy as he savored the flavor of each insult.
Kyrin had to sigh. “Yeah? Well how about you switch back to your human form, will ya? It’s demeaning, having to talk to vermin like it’s a person.”
“Funny thing,” Rat’s voice grew deeper and more manlike as he leapt from Kyrin’s shoulder and obligingly shifted his shape, his filthy matted fur lengthening to oily dark hair, his pointed snout and wormlike tail shrinking away as his body bulged and stretched its way back into the likeness of a crouching human, “that’s what I said when the Faceless paired me off with you, partner. Same word I used too, demeaning.”
Kyrin’s eyes narrowed and his scowl deepened. “Like you have the guts to talk in front of the Faceless. Last I heard, the one and only time you entered the Inmost Court, you weren’t able to do anything but snivel face-down on the floor.”
Rat’s pale eyes narrowed. “Yeah? An’ what do you know about that, Shadow? Last I heard, you weren’t allowed to show your pathetic face anywhere near the Inmost Court, cripple.”
Again, that word… Kyrin closed his eyes and willed himself to relax, to keep his voice cold and professional and free from anger. “Rat, I promise you,” he said, unconsciously slipping back into the more cultured accent of his childhood, “when this is over and the Faceless finally ends our partnership, I’ll—”
“You’ll what?” Rat interrupted, cutting Kyrin off mid-threat. “Beat me? Kick me? Make me regret? I’d like to see you try, dreck. I’m a shifter, and you’re… You’re a nothing. A worthless, hopeless, spineless little cripple without even a drop of magic in your blood. You’re gonna die in there, even if the Knights are out!”
“Shut up!” Kyrin cried. Across the street, a set of shutters flew open and a figure leaned out to peer around the deserted street. Kyrin’s heart leapt to his throat and he threw himself to the ground. After an annoyingly long moment, the figure pulled the shutters closed again, and Kyrin allowed himself to breathe.
“Rat, please,” he hissed through clenched teeth, “cut this incessant babble before the Dogs show up. You might be able to shift and scram, but all I’ve got are my own two feet. Lose me, and the Guild’ll fine you an arm and a leg—and you know how the Faceless is about figures of speech.”
The partnerships were the Faceless’ little joke. Some teams were strategic dreams, legends in the Guild, with powers and personalities carefully selected to complement each other and manage perfect crimes. Others, like Shadow and Rat, were more akin to a waking nightmare—perfectly incompatible and perfectly stupid, holding together only through fear of the Faceless and through a mutual reluctance to face the fines the Guild charged for losing a partner.
Soon, though, Kyrin knew his fortunes would change. No one would dare laugh or call him “cripple” after he robbed the Knights. A hero among thieves was still a hero. Glory was glory no matter where you stood.
Kyrin leaned in for a better look at the ward, repressing a manic grin.
It was a tall gate, made of dark iron—cold, forbidding, and practically unclimbable on account of both the sharpened steel spikes mounted on top, and the powerful ward spells woven into the hard metal. The ringing hum of the hidden magic was nearly audible on this silent moonlit night, and if it weren’t impossible, Kyrin would have been willing to swear he felt the deep resonance echo within his bones.
Unless that was just his suppressed anxiety. This gate was the first big hurdle to the ultimate prize.
Wealth. Power. Respect… After this job, it’ll all be mine. I just have to get inside…
“You gonna admire the thing all night, Shadow? Or are you actually gonna try and crack it?” Rat’s slouching silhouette crossed its arms, and the man’s booted foot tapped invisibly in the darkness.
Kyrin made a strangled noise somewhere between a sigh and a growl. “Shut. Up. I’m working on it. I know what I’m doing—don’t pretend you do.”
Rat responded, throwing back some venomous reply, but Kyrin barely registered his words. The heavy iron lock that barred the Stronghold’s massive gate had his full attention. Kyrin dared not give it less.
Years ago, in the garden of a wealthy merchant, Kyrin had encountered a ward woven on the ground by shadows cast from magelight. When night fell and the streetlights lit themselves, the garden itself became a trap invisible to all but the experienced eye. Kyrin had missed the signs until it was nearly too late, and he had been forced to burn several pages from his notebook to break the darkness and escape with his life. The scars on his legs still ached some nights, and that twisted darkness often writhed back through his dreams to trap him in chains of bladed black.
Compared to that trap, this lock looked tame. But looks, Kyrin knew, were deceiving.
Rumor held that this particular lock had been forged back in the age when the pictorial script was still common among Alinor’s literate population, so it utilized nearly every form of magical defense. Many of Kyrin’s childhood textbooks had described the Stronghold’s gate as a tangled rat’s nest of violate enchantment and misleading wordplay—they had called it the unpickable lock.
“Yet every lock has its pick, and every ward has its flaw…” Kyrin muttered to himself as he bent his neck for a better angle. Though his teachers had repeated that mantra with a different intent, Kyrin lived his life by the simplistic dogma. Nothing was fail-safe, and a way would always open to the creative and determined individual. Kyrin just had to be clever enough to find it.
“I guard the heroes who guard our land…” Kyrin translated, tracing a gloved finger over the ancient words as he mumbled, “Alinor’s Knights are safe in my hand…”
“You’re making that up.” Rat peered over Kyrin’s shoulder at the lock. “There’s nothing there but squiggles.”
“Shut up, Rat. You can’t even read plain Common. Don’t talk.”
“Nope!” Rat chuckled, smirking. “Ordinary folk like me don’t need your fancy letters. I got my magic and no cause to compensate.”
“Shut up. Now where was..? Oh—right. Hand. Let’s see… Blah blah blah, something about pure brave heart, land where only heroes tread, poetic nonsense about worthiness…”
Kyrin twisted around to read the side of the lock, giving in to his urge to flaunt his skill at Rat.
He finished his reading with a broad flourish. “Basically, the ward is telling us it’s a ward, and declaring its intent to never, ever let anyone through who doesn’t have the Knight’s Key—on pain of a horrific and possibly embarrassing death.”
“I coulda told you that, genius. So much for your fancy learning. How’s that supposed to get us in?”
“Ah, but you see, Rat,” Kyrin explained, letting the genius comment slide, “the important thing isn’t what the ward says, it’s how the ward says it.”
“What? Get to the point, Shadow.”
“The point is, partner, that the message the ward spells is less important than the glyphs used to spell it. Everything in the old script is highly contextual, so a symbol that means one thing in one place can mean something else entirely somewhere different. Like—for example, this swirl here means “hero” But I’ve also seen it to mean ‘shield’ before.”
“…Eh?” Rat’s eyes began to glaze. Kyrin smothered a grin.
“Likewise,” Kyrin continued, kneeling down beside the lock and fishing in his pockets for his tools, “a lot of glyphs can name the same word, but all have different connotations. I can think of at least five different ways to write “hero” off the top of my head, and each has a completely different feeling behind it. The trick is to not only know what a word means, but to also know what it might mean elsewhere, and what it means beneath its first meaning. If you have the sense to read the words that were written the way they weren’t meant to be read, the ward’ll tell you what it is, what it does, what’ll happen if you trip it, and it’ll practically give you step-by-step instructions on how to take it apart. So like here—”
“Shut up! Shut up! I get it!” Rat cried, throwing his hands in the air, “You’ve read a book! Now will you just shut up and take the blasted thing apart? I don’t have all night, Shadow! Got better things to do than listen to you talk my last good ear off, you know. Get moving!”
“Yeah yeah yeah,” Kyrin had expected Rat to snap after the second sentence, never anticipating the crook would allow him to lecture as long as he had. “Forgive my tryin’a shove some wisdom into that thick skull of yours. Now stand back, will ya? I don’t need you breathing down my neck for this. You don’t even wanna know what happens if you make me screw up.”
For once, Rat obliged without comment. Everyone knew what happened when a ward went off on a thief, and Kyrin knew that, if he failed, Rat would want to be far enough away to watch the show in safety.
But no matter. Now was the time for Kyrin to lose himself in the realm of carven glyphs and mirrored meanings.
Though the gate’s spell started off looking like a standard flare-ward—the kind that adorned most middle-class merchant shops in the city—the enchantment soon began picking up undertones of ice and earth, touches added specifically to make unraveling the ward more difficult.
The mix was odd—classically, one would counter fire with water, but here, water was an integral part, negating the negation and tying the whole mess in a paradoxical loop. Kyrin did not know what to think—nothing made sense, and many elements seemed to spring from nowhere for no reason. Whenever Kyrin began to suspect he had found a flaw in one aspect, another sneaked up and kicked him in the pants.
One wrong move, and he would wind up tangled in a web of ancient words to be eaten alive by the old magic at the center. Doubt crept into Kyrin’s heart and started gnawing at his core. It would be so easy to step wrong, so easy to fumble and lose life, limb, and pride in one fell blow.
The longer Kyrin examined the thing, the more complex the spell seemed to become. New dimensions threw themselves into the mix at every turn—elements of light and darkness floated into view, with barely noticeable references to ancient history and classic poetry drifting up to join them from the unknowably layered depths of context and meaning.
Marks Kyrin had taken as meaningless decoration turned into obscure glyphs—words and words within words. He had never seen the like.
Kyrin closed his eyes to think.
If he had come alone, he could back out without incident, but Kyrin would never live it down if he ran away now, with Rat watching. Kyrin wanted to hand his partner another cause to mock him exactly as much as he desired a fireball in his face—much for the same reasons. He gnawed his lip and resigned himself to trusting his gut. Kyrin’s instinct, his ingenuity, and his willpower would have to be enough to carry him through.
Wait half a minute… willpower… strength of will… Courage! That’s it! That’s the key! Through courage and will, humanity had gained mastery over the elements, over darkness, over light, over magic itself. The old poetry, the history, it all pointed back to human will. Even that old saying: “only a Hero may enter…” What was a hero but a courageous man? Gods—it was all so easy!
Kyrin selected the lock pick imbued with the essence of human agency, the ninth element, and twisted the bands around until the glyphs formed a crude reflection of courage and determination. The easy part—the brain work—was over. Now came the tricky bit. If he had guessed wrong, if he had missed something, if his hand slipped, Kyrin would find out—and it would be…unpleasant. Possibly even excruciating. Wards were never gentle, but Kyrin hardly cared.
The thrill was intoxicating. If he had to die, this was how Kyrin wanted to go; pulled to pieces by a spell as he himself pulled it apart.
Here, now, on the edge between success and failure, Kyrin was alive.
Using the tip of his lock pick, he tapped one of the tiny glyphs carved into the surface of the lock, waking it up. The ward started to ring quietly as it came alive under his hand, yawning and stretching like an animal roused from hibernation. Kyrin tapped one word, then another, then another, each stroke confusing the meaning of the magic and confounding the spell long enough give Kyrin a chance to pick the mundane portion of the lock. Since keys automatically took care of everything all at once, Kyrin had to move quickly to keep the ward from noticing his intrusion. Hesitation was his greatest enemy—if the ward caught him now, he would die.
As soon as the non-magical part of the lock was picked, Rat sauntered back to Kyrin’s side. “That all, Shadow? I coulda done that. So much for your one talent.”
Kyrin ignored him. Though he had picked the mundane lock, he still had to appease the ward and send the spell back to sleep. One careless slip would still kill him. He pulled his pick from glyph to glyph, gently countering and rearranging the imaginary lines of meaning that lay between the symbols.
Finally, after what seemed an age, Kyrin straightened up and stretched. “Shut up, Rat. Now, you can keep your mouth closed and follow me, or you can go on ahead—I don’t care. The other wards won’t get me if they’re busy with you.”
“Not on your life, Shadow,” Rat said as he once again shrunk down into his second form, “I ain’t going first, and I’m not about to get left behind.” Before Kyrin could do more than flail, Rat climbed his trouser leg, scrambled up his shirt, and found a perch on Kyrin’s shoulder. “I’m with you, partner, and that means we stick together.”
Kyrin wrinkled his nose in distaste, but he knew better than to try brushing the vermin off. Though Rat’s rodent form was small, his human form was tall, strong, and mean, and Kyrin had no desire to become better acquainted with the man’s fist.
Privately resolving to hire a dozen cats when he was wealthy and had a house of his own, Kyrin grimaced and shut his mouth.
Ambition drove his steps. Hatred filled his mind. Kyrin passed the Stronghold’s gate and entered the land only heroes tread.