The fire was consuming the house. Tongues of orange, yellow and scarlet licked the already
charred ceiling and walls. Smoke filled the room. The young girl crouched in the middle
of the floor, coughing and crying, shaking the still body that was once her sole parent
"Mother! Mother! Wake up!" she choked, trying to rouse the motionless form. She could hear
laughter coming from outside. Harsh, guttural laughter, from the unseen enemies that had
torn down and destroyed everything she knew. The girl screamed.
Fourteen-year-old Sriana Krystané sat bolt upright on her bed, sweat pouring
from her body, eyes wide with fright, darting everywhere through her dark, earthen
carved room, and smelt the pungent tunnel aroma that consisted of mud and unsanitary
living conditions. Slowly, she lay back down on her makeshift mattress of rags and
threadbare cushions, and tried to calm herself. "Just a dream. Just a bad dream
that snuck up on me," she muttered reassuringly to herself. But was it? She had been
having the same dream on and off for the past fortnight, always with a mother and child
being attacked, and always with fire.
Strangely, there had been some reports of bandits doing something involving fire up
in the far north recently, but from what she had heard there hadn't been much of a
problem. Sri sighed. At least her tunnel was safe.
Sri lived in one of the many tunnels that were underneath the city of Vitiateton, the
capital of Xohopati, a small nation, both physically and politically, on the coast of
the Great Continent, the largest landmass known. Sri's tunnel home was very convenient
for her occupation, as a professional. A professional thief, that is. Down in the (literal)
criminal underground, Sri was known only as Embyr Byrneo, an individual not to cross.
This was because she lived in a world where magic was as common as brown eyes, and
she didn't intend to have any curses with her real name written on it searching for her,
sent by either jealous associates or furious nobles. 'True-name curses', as they were
called, were infamous for the way that they never failed to catch up with the chosen
Sri however, didn't in the slightest look like she would be a very easy target
from any attack, magical or not. She had deeply tanned skin, glossy dark hair cut short
at jagged angles, a particularly athletic build, a number of scars snaking around her body,
and a tattoo of a black Hrangtyan dragon circling her left upper arm.
Although she was young, and fairly short for her age, Sri in a fighters' crouch with twin
blades in her hands was a fearsome sight that would make most would-be attackers back
down. But the two most frightening things about Sri were her eyes.
Her actual eyes were almond shaped, which was common to those of Hrangtyan
descent, but her irises were fiery orange flames that continually moved around inky-
black pupils, like fire caressing blackened coals. They were both beautiful and
intimidating, like the dragons that roamed around the hills of Sri's birth country, and
could resemble candle flames when she was calm, but when Sri got angry or just
particularly annoyed, ruby sparks would shoot out of them.
"Embyr!" The voice sliced through Sri's reverie. Slowly, she edged to the doorway,
both daggers drawn. "Oi! Embyr! I've got a message for you from the top!" Sri
relaxed as she recognised the voice of Jori. In a town where betrayal, murder and
theft were as common as sleep to the inhabitants, the tall, dirty-blond haired
muscular youth, Jorimah Hands, was one of Sri's friends. As well as being about the only
person she trusted at all, Jori was a renowned pickpocket, and had a price on his head
Even though this wasn't a lot in Vitiateton, (as Sri herself had had more than triple that
price offered for her dead body by furious nobility,) Jori's choice of profession caused
him to be more likely to get caught than Sri, because in Vitiateton, the Watch caught
pickpockets by the dozen, but housebreakers, like Sri, were left to the individuals robbed.
In other words, if a housebreaker had a price on his or her head, then it would be from
the robbed nobles, which would cause them to lose even more money. As you may
guess, this definitely did not encourage many to put out a price, therefore allowing
housebreaking to run rampant throughout the already highly disreputable town.
"Hey Embyr, let me in!" Jori called, tearing through Sri's musing for the second time in
as many minutes.
"Oh all right," came Sri's reply, "give us the message." Jori handed it over. Sri
quickly scanned its contents… and flinched violently as she realised what her boss,
Gooney, required for her to do.
"WHAT!" her shriek of angst shook the crooked rafters and Jori raised an arm to
shield him from the sudden rain of dust.
"HE MUST BE MAD! OLD GOONEY'S FLIPPED HIS LID AT LAST!
HOW DOES HE SUPPOSE I WOULD BE ABLE TO GET PHOENIX
FEATHERS OF ALL THINGS FROM THE MOST HIGHLY GUARDED
MANSION IN VITIATETON!?" she yelled in dismay.
"He said you might react that way," Jori commented with a grin.
"Well how else am I supposed to react? Nobody's ever been able to get anything from
the Vireo Mansion! Is he trying to get me killed?" Sri spluttered, and continued her
tirade about how the Vireos were the one family that had never been successfully stolen
from in Vitiateton, and the most infamous of all of the noble families for seedy dealings
and harsh punishments. Sri cursed colourfully and graphically with words that would've
stripped paint, but Jori didn't turn a hair.
"Well you are the best in the business," he coolly reminded her as he leant against the
splintery doorframe, grinning as more foul language spouted out.
"Only 'cos everyone better than me has been either caught or has retired," Sri
retorted in exasperated anger between oaths.
"Yeah I'm sure. Look, you'll be fine, you always are," Jori soothed her, still grinning
"Fine," groaned Sri in reluctance, "tell Gooney that I'll do it tomorrow night."
"Why not tonight?"
"'Cos it's a festival tomorrow and the Vireo family will all be at that colossal
party thing that the Racheli family are holding on the other side of town."
"Now how did you know something like that?"
"Let's just say that I keep my ear to the ground."
After Jori had gone, Sri sat on her narrow bed and thought. Getting into the Vireo
Mansion, finding and taking phoenix feathers from the Vireo family's collection and
doing all of this without detection would be no easy task. All of Gooney's people who
had been given this assignment in the past had been detected by various curses, and
she had seen many of them sentenced to the mines.
The mines spelt a very, very, very, slow, painful death from starvation and
exhaustion, from the bread-and-water diet and long, hard working hours, everyday
until you breathed your last. Not a healthy prospect if you wished to live to a ripe
old age, as Sri planned. But Sri had a slight advantage over these poor souls. Her
fiery eyes, along with having other benefits, could see magic, although she didn't
actually realise that she was the only one in the tunnelled underworld who could.
Even so, magic wasn't the only thing that would be defending the Vireo Mansion.
Every five minutes, well armed, (not to mention well-paid,) thuggish trolls patrolled
the boundaries of the Vireo Mansion in pairs. As well, the Vireos had a rather
intelligent habit, (considering that the location of their home in what was recognised
as the one city that had the highest amount of thieves in the world, not to mention
organised crime,) of breeding large, mutated-by-magic, guard dogs, to keep thieves
Sri however, made a fairly shrewd practice to keep safe from these particular five
headed, six-legged and double-scorpion-tailed beasties known as "Scorpidogs", by
regularly feeding them through the small gaps in the gate every night, with the best
dog-treats that money could buy. Except that, being a thief, she didn't exactly buy
Sri lounged on the rough square roof of a block of apartments, next to Vireo mansion,
and looked up at the stars. She could hear the sounds of people walking around and
chatting and singing in the streets as the festival progressed. With the first bangs of just-
out-of-sight fireworks from the town square, along with the resulting smells of
gunpowder, she decided that it was time.
Sri tensed up her muscles, readying herself for the spring to the Vireo mansion. She
had timed it just between troll patrols. Checking one last time for any spells laid in or
under the roof tiles, Sri leapt.
Moments later, Sri landed softly on the jagged tiles of the Vireo's roof. One of the
Scorpidogs turned a single head, smelt her scent on the air, and relaxed as Sri quickly
lobbed a few dog treats at its five mouths. It caught the treats, guzzled them, and went
on its way. Sri breathed a silent sigh of relief, and scanned again for spells. None were in
sight, apart from a line of small ones shining softly from about a metre from where she
had landed. Looking at them more closely, she realised that it was a string of well placed
alarm spells, all too small for her to have spotted without being within about two metres
or so. "Whew! That was close, they must be linked to a bigger one that will set off
the noise," Sri thought. Unfortunately, she was right.
Stealthily, she crept towards the window, eyes wide and nostrils flared, the better to
spot any protective spells, or sniff any oils or poisons that would magically scar her for
life. All clear. Sri was starting to feel suspicious. It was all too easy. Where were all of the
hidden spells that had tripped up her predecessors? Surely they hadn't all been tripped up
by that small row of alarm spells?
Sri was about to enter the window when she heard a voice. She froze,
gently lowering herself to the tiles underneath her and listened.
"…Yes, I realise that but I don't…"
"You know what I am talking about." Sri shivered as she heard the second voice. It
reminded her of a snake slithering along wet sand, readying itself for the strike. It
reeked of magic. Evil magic! Again she shuddered in distaste as the voice continued,
"The girl must be found if our plan is to work. That man, Gooney, yes, he knows
something that may help us."
The first voice however, was merely irritated, and whined, "But how are we
supposed to get him to tell us any thing?"
"Why, the usual method, of course."
"Why is it so important to use her? Surely there must be someone else easier to get.
She is too elusive Wraith."
"How many flame-eyed girls do you think are in this country, or even the world you
fool? That's why we need to find this girl who Worm spoke about," Wraith snapped.
Sri let out a silent gasp of shock. It was her that they were talking about. No one else
had burning eyes. Gods damn Worm! He was never a very benevolent person in her
eyes, but his insidiousness surpassed even her low opinion of him. And what was that
about using her? She had to get out of there, and fast. "Forget the feathers, if
Gooney wants phoenix feathers then he can get some for himself," she thought.
Swiftly and silently, she began to edge away from the window, by wriggling on her belly
to stay as low as possible, but not before she heard Wraith speak again.
"The prophecy says that to reach our ultimate goal, we must find the girl with the eyes of flame and
stop her from finding her twin. If the two are united, then all hell will break loose for us. It also says that
the twin is a brother, who looks so similar to the girl that if they switched clothes, then we would never be
able to tell them apart. By using her, then we can kill two mice with one trap."
"This had better be worthwhile Wraith! I didn't join with you and pledge my men's
support for you to just sit around and get no results."
Sri continued her quick escape, edging backwards along the rooftop, and caught a
quick glimpse of the one who had spoken last. It was Jules Vireo, a nobleman with a
reputation that was, if possible, worse than most of the thieves that Sri knew. She had to
get out of there, or those two would surely find her, and she had absolutely no doubts
about what they would do to her if they found her. That was when she accidentally trod
on the line of alarm spells.
1 § Sensequas- the currency in Sri's city, Vitiateton.