“How the fuck?!”
I blurted that out immediately, before turning on my heel and dashing back the way I came. I didn’t get far. I felt a gust of wind blow past me as the woman jumped off the ground, ran along the wall, and landed in front of me, blocking my path. My instincts kicked in before my surprise could – acting quickly, I created another blast of light right in front of her eyes, before darting under her arms to get past her.
My attempt at escape was rudely interrupted by the feeling of being jerked back – the woman had caught hold of my collar just as I passed her. How? She should have been blinded! Her voice, completely calm, sounded next to me.
“I’m all for sticking to what you’re good at, but at least try to use it in more interesting ways.”
Trembling, I chanced a look at the woman – her eyes were closed. She’d managed to accurately grab my collar, just as I ran past, without even looking. Not to mention that ridiculous speed and the fact that she’d managed to run on a wall. I was completely outmatched. What was this woman?
Still, I wasn’t ready to give up. If I couldn’t get out of this situation with my physical abilities, I simply had to resort to my mental abilities – trickery. I slumped down, feigning defeat, and turned to face her, watching her closed lids carefully. This way, she would think I had given in. The moment she opened her eyes, I’d hit her with my brightest light. No matter how fast she was, there was no way she would be able to react in time. When she noticed that I had gone slack, her facial muscles relaxed, easing into a smile. Good. Any moment now, she would open her eyes. I began to prepare my magic – brighter lights required a bit more preparation.
The next moment, a sharp impact erupted in my chest, sending waves of pain through my entire body. My focus shattered, the magic I was about to cast undid itself. I shouted in pain and convulsed in the air, still held in the woman’s grip by my collar. She let go of my collar, causing me to drop to the ground, doubled over, gasping for breath, hand clutching the part of my chest that had been struck without me seeing the attack.The woman watched me, not saying anything, presumably waiting for me to recover enough to talk. Well, I wasn’t going to give her that opportunity. I desperately cast another burst of blinding light and scrambled to my feet, intending to run for it.
“You are one stubborn thief, aren’t you?”
The calm voice sent chills up my spine. Just as I got to my feet, I felt a sharp strike against my right shin. Almost immediately, I lost all sensation in that leg and crumbled to the ground in a messy, sweating heap. The light faded, and I turned up to look at the woman. Her gray eyes – eyes which I could not help but call beautiful – gazed at me, bemusement etched on her features. I met her gaze with my own, defiant glare. I couldn’t move my right leg at all – I couldn’t feel it.
“What the fuck did you do to me?!”
“Calm down. I only made your leg go numb for a while. Kind of your fault since you kept trying to run away. I normally refrain from hitting children, but I’m afraid you forced my hand.”
I felt myself becoming irritated, for a different reason.
“I’m not a child. I’m fourteen. And looking at you, you can’t be that much older than me, either.”
I spat out a rebuttal, realising as I uttered it exactly how childish I was being by making that statement. Still, the woman couldn’t have been older than nineteen, maybe twenty. Hardly old enough to call me a kid. To my indignation, the woman just laughed.
“Why, I’m glad you think so.”
Then she crossed her arms in front of her, shifting her weight such that she stood on one foot. She cocked her head and posed me a question with a grin.
“Now, do you want to try again, or are you finally ready to listen to me?”
I scowled and gestured to my useless leg.
“You say that like I have a choice.”
I couldn’t get away with both my legs working – there was no way I was going to be able to escape with only one. I crawled to a wall and slumped agaist it, setting my numb leg in front of me and beginning to massage it. I directed another glare at the woman. Something had just occurred to me, and it irritated me. A lot.
“Since you say you want to talk, answer me this. You could have caught me back at the market street. Why didn’t you?”
It was clear to me now that this whole chase had been a farce. With her capabilities, I never had a chance of getting away. She could have caught me just as I entered the alley, or possibly even before I managed to slip into it. In other words, she had let me go, just to corner me here. All my running and chasing had been pointless. The woman flashed me a wry smile as she answered.
“Well, I already knew you were no ordinary thief. Any other thief would probably have lost their patience sooner and approached us as we returned to the inn. The fact that you didn’t meant that you had a cool head on your shoulders – and the fact that you picked the most opportune moment to make your attempt meant that you were a clever thief, as well.”
“Clearly, not smart enough, since you noticed.”
I sighed. So she had noticed right from the start. The woman giggled.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself. I have some… unusual circumstances. I’m sure that if it had been any normal human, your attempt would have gone perfectly. Simply a matter of choosing the wrong target.”
“So does that mean you aren’t human?”
“…I’ve often asked myself that question.”
The smile slipped a little from her face as she replied in a quiet voice. I saw something in her eyes – for a brief moment, they looked like the eyes of one of those retired soldiers, those old men who had fought in the crusade more than two decades ago and now lived humble lives. The eyes of one who had killed not one, not two, but tens, hundreds of men and women. Eyes that sought atonement and solace. Those eyes inspired a twinge of sympathy in me for my captor – but soon they were gone, replaced with her mask of bemusement, and I felt my sympathy disappear as well. The woman recovered and continued speaking.
“Anyway, it was clear you had a good head, and that intrigued me. In my experience, it’s rare to find a thief of such acumen. Well, that all became secondary. But more on that later. Do you have any other questions? I’ll speak my piece after you have my answers.”
“How did you know to wait for me here? There were any number of other exits from the alley network I could have used, many of them objectively better as escape routes. There should have been no way to know I was coming this way, especially since you’re just a tourist.”
“Ah, that’s a simple one. Earlier, as I was walking through the streets, I made a mental map of the city. Based on your footsteps, I knew which alleyway you had entered. From there, it was simple to deduce where you would exit. The other, objectively better exits were too obvious – perfect for ambushes. I simply imagined which path I would take, were I in your position. Well, it was still a gamble. I trusted in your cleverness. If you had taken any of the other exits, that simply meant that you weren’t as smart as I had thought. I’m glad to see that my faith was not misplaced.”
I stared at her, jaw agape. She had said some incredible things. First of all, she had managed to make a mental map of the city just by walking the streets once?! An outrageous statement. And further, she claimed that she, a tourist and stranger to the city, had been able to emulate my thought patterns – me, a thief who had been born here, who had grown up amidst the alleyways! It was absurd. The woman took note of my disbelief and laughed again.
“Like I said, I have unusual circumstances. Anything else?”
I closed my jaw and slumped back down, deciding that attempting to pry any further would be dangerous for both my pride and my sanity. Whatever the means, she had managed to outwit me on my home territory. I was completely, utterly defeated. When I spoke again, it was with a weak, resigned voice.
“What’s going to happen to me now? Are you going to turn me in?”
I found it hard to believe that she would go through so much trouble just to turn me in to the guards. More likely, she had some ulterior motive. That, or she wanted to kill me as punishment for daring to steal from her. Either way, I couldn’t see a bright future ahead for myself. The woman grinned and clasped her hands together, looking just like those fat, self-absorbed merchants did when they launched into a spiel about how much they sympathised with the plight of some poor impoverished soul, right before charging them extra for the sympathy. The look of a merchant who had caught someone in their trap.
“Well, as it happens, the answer to that question is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about! Ah, but first, common courtesy. Introductions. What’s your name?”
“Aren’t you normally supposed to introduce yourself first when asking for a name?”
“Ah, ordinarily, yes. But we’re currently in an alley, you’re a thief whose fate rests in my hands, and I’m a woman who managed to outwit you on your own turf and subdue you. Suffice to say, I don’t think the ordinary applies.”
I scowled as she reminded me of our current position. I reluctantly gave my answer in as defiant a voice as I could muster, given the circumstances.
The woman grinned again, the expression of a predator that had caught its prey.
“Well then, Glint. I am Elysium. Elysium Ling. A pleasure to meet you.”
She then adjusted her posture, redistributing her weight and uncrossing her arms, bending over and extending a hand to me. Her face softened, her smile losing its mocking aspect, becoming one that radiated genuine warmth.
“Glint, I would like to hire you.”