The Lost Tower
By Eric Martinez
Persephone wasn’t dead yet, but the day was far from over.
Her cart swerved through the withered forest at a jarring pace. The dusty, uneven ground jolted the wagon hard enough to make her bones rattle, but she didn’t dare slow down.
The stormbirds were after her, and they were pissed.
Dark, angry clouds gathered overhead, heralding their approach. Thunder rumbled in the distance, or was it the beating of their monstrous wings?
Before she could hazard a backward glance to find out, a gnarled gray tree trunk seemed to materialize out of nowhere in front of her. Persephone yanked the reins, and the massive lizard pulling the cart skidded to the left, narrowly avoiding a nasty collision.
She heard a meaty thump behind her, followed by a yelp of pain.
“Watch the damn road, Sephi,” Echo Green said, trying to straighten her crooked goggles.
Persephone flashed a quick grin toward her friend. “What road?”
Echo scowled at her, annoyed by how much Sephi seemed to be enjoying herself. “You know what I mean. Slow down, dammit!”
Sephi laughed and focused on the obstacles ahead of them. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
A jagged fork of blue lightning sizzled through the air beside the cart, followed by a booming thunderclap. A spray of rocks and dirt pelted Sephi, and she blinked quickly to clear the grit from her eyes.
More lightning rained down around her, and thunder shattered the sky. It was a good thing the birds had shitty aim.
“Go faster, dammit!” Echo shouted over her ringing ears.
“Make up your mind already.” Sephi lifted her right hand and sketched a delicate, glowing symbol in the air. It flashed gold and then soared past the lizard’s head, racing toward the base of the mountain range looming in the distance.
The buru lizard, who Sephi had named Princess, lifted its head and sniffed at the air. The spell had worked.
“Hold on, my little sidekick!” Sephi called.
“Screw you,” Echo said. “I’m not your damn side—”
The buru kicked up its speed, knocking over Echo and cutting off her complaint. The illusion had taken effect, causing the scent of raw bloody meat—Princess’s favorite snack—to appear in the direction they needed to go. She was eager to find the source of the smell.
Poor Princess would be devastated when she realized there was no stinking carcass at the end of the trail. Her sullen reptilian expression at being tricked always made Sephi feel like a jerk. She made a mental note to give Princess a double ration of meat, extra bloody, when they got back home to the Undershadow.
If they got back to the Undershadow.
Echo cursed profusely as she banged against the wooden slats of the cart, trying to regain her balance.
“How are the eggs back there?” Sephi asked, glancing back.
Echo looked down at the crate beside her which held over a dozen melon-sized eggs wrapped in straw and blankets. The wooden planks had arcane sigils etched into them. She ran her fingers lovingly over the designs that she had created.
“They’re safer back here than I am,” she said. “And I’m fine, by the way.”
“Don’t pout,” Sephi said. “If those eggs break, this was all for nothing.”
Echo pulled herself out of the back of the cart to sit beside Sephi. “The eggs are replaceable. My head isn’t.”
Sephi grinned at her. “Easy for you to say. You weren’t the one wading knee-deep in stormbird shit to get them.”
“To steal them, you mean,” Echo said, giving her a condemning look.
Sephi shrugged. “If it’s any consolation, I doubt the stormbirds have any concept of ownership.”
Echo looked back over her shoulder. “So, I suppose they just want to have a cup of tea and chat about the weather? They’re not chasing us to get their babies back.”
“I did not steal their babies,” Sephi said. “I only took the unfertilized ones.”
“Sure, this time,” Echo said. “But who knows how far you’ll go if Bobby asks?”
Sephi spared a glance at her friend. “Well, you’re a ray of fucking sunshine today.”
Echo glared back, her blue eyes magnified behind the thick lenses of her goggles, secured to her head with a leather strap. Her black hair rippled in the wind like swirling smoke.
“I’ll be more pleasant when we’re out of Tartarus and murderbirds aren’t lobbing thunderbolts at my head.”
“Don’t worry about the lightning,” Sephi said, smiling to shake off Echo’s bad mood. “Worry about their giant talons. They could rip through bone and flesh with hardly any effort, and honestly, they rarely miss with those things.”
Echo’s eyes widened. Then she crossed her arms over her chest and slumped down in the seat. “I hate you. I really do.”
Sephi laughed. “Fair enough, but maybe you could, you know, reach into that satchel of yours and use one of your fancy bombs to get the stormbirds off our ass.”
“Unlike you, my magic is weak in Tartarus,” Echo said. “When it even works. Which is why it’s forbidden for us to come here!”
“Right,” Sephi said, nodding. “Remind me, Echo. Why do I bother bringing you along at all?”
Echo snorted a laugh and rolled her eyes. “By all means, leave me out of your half-baked schemes next time. I could be at home with a cup of tea, reading about Agrippa’s divine letters.”
“Holy shit, do you hear yourself?” Sephi asked, shaking her head. “Are you eighteen or eighty? Well, fear not, old woman. I’ll save us. Just take the reins for me and try hard not to lose your teeth.”
Persephone passed the reins to Echo and hopped deftly into the back of the cart. For the first time, she got a good look at their pursuers. Five enormous ash-colored birds swooped down in her direction, almost invisible against the gray sky.
They were closer than she expected. She hoped she wasn’t too late.
Taking a deep breath, she exhaled slowly and let all the distractions drain from her mind like the air flowed from her lungs. This spell required total concentration, which was difficult when trying to keep her balance on the back of a bouncing wagon.
She pictured the wagon in her mind, focusing on every little detail. The way the back left wheel wobbled on the axle. The pink stargazer lilies Echo had painted on the wooden seat. The shifting patterns of Princess’s iridescent scales.
When Sephi had the image solidified in her mind, she spoke the incantation softly but firmly, and she wove complicated glyphs in the air with both hands. The spidery lines pulsed with coalescing power.
Sephi always loved this part of spellcasting, that moment before, when she felt the living energy of the world flowing from the reservoir inside her, charged with possibilities.
When she uttered the final word of her spell, the symbols tangled together, flared brightly like a falling star, and burst forth in a glowing shower of color. The world folded over on itself, everything appearing like she was looking at it through a triple-faced mirror.
Three identical versions of her cart appeared in front of her, each heading in a different direction. Left, right, and straight behind. She saw the wobbly wheels, the painted lilies, and the shifting scales.
In the back of each cart was a mirror image of herself. Their flame red hair tumbled around their shoulders as they all waved back at her. It was a totally unnecessary addition to the illusion, but it made her smile, so she included it. What was the point of being an illusionist if she couldn’t add a little flair to her creations?
A chorus of shrieks split the sky as the stormbirds reacted to this unexpected development. As she’d hoped, they didn’t seem to know which cart was the real one. They were mean, but dumb.
Four of the birds split off to chase the phantom wagons, leaving just one bird of prey still in pursuit.
Unfortunately, one stormbird was more than enough to ruin Sephi’s day.
She stumbled backward and banged against the wooden seat. Her limbs felt weak and watery, and her eyelids drooped with the need to sleep. The spell she’d cast was near the upper limits of her abilities. Even though illusion spells were her specialty, it had drained her deeply. Sephi didn’t have much magic left.
The bird swooped toward the cart with its wings back, plummeting fast. Sephi glanced over her shoulder at the mountains. They were almost to the secret tunnel leading back into the Cradle, but almost wouldn’t cut it.
Sephi reached out and grabbed the side of the cart to steady herself. The stormbird was coming in at an angle that would intercept them before they could slip away into the hidden passage back home. Sephi needed to do something quickly.
There was no time for finesse. No time for something flashy like the mirrored copies of the wagon. She barked the words and formed the necessary symbols, but halfway through the spell, she was out of power.
Her well had run dry, and it would take at least a day for it to refill. Sephi couldn’t afford to wait that long. Her only other option was something dangerous. Something reckless. Something totally irresponsible that all mages were explicitly told never to do.
She drew directly from the living energy around her.
Her skin ignited with white-hot fire, starting at the tattoo between her shoulder blades and spreading through the angular lines that branched out from it. Somehow, she managed not to scream as the flames seared her skin. She finished the spell, and a black cloud erupted from her hands and wrapped itself around the bird’s head, blinding it.
Unable to see, the stormbird veered off course in a panic, and it tumbled to the ground, crashing through dead trees and kicking up a cloud of bone-colored dust. She’d done it. She and Echo were safe. Sephi smiled with grim satisfaction.
Then she screamed.
Sephi awoke to a cool, soothing sensation spreading across her back. Echo continued daubing the salve over Sephi’s injured skin. “Welcome back from the almost dead,” her friend said.
Sephi lay face down in the back of the cart. Her cheek was pressed against the smoothly sanded wood. The air had a musty, mildewy smell to it, and when Sephi pried her eyes open, the world was lit with spectral blue light, provided by Echo’s enchanted lantern.
She tried to push herself up, but Echo’s gentle hand held her in place. Sephi was so weak, it was enough to subdue her.
“Hold still,” Echo said. “I’m not done.”
“What happened?” Sephi didn’t like how feeble her voice sounded in her own ears.
“You acted like a moron,” Echo said. “That’s what happened.”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific,” Sephi said.
Echo’s chuckle reverberated through the surrounding gloom. “Fair point. That last spell almost killed you. Do you really not remember?”
Sephi shook her head, and pain lanced through her body, making her groan. “Things are a little hazy. I cast a simple darkness spell, didn’t I?”
“Yeah,” Echo said. “Simple, except you were out of magic. You pulled directly from the source instead of letting your reserves refill naturally and drawing from that. You nearly burned out your connection.”
Panic seized Sephi then. “Nearly? Are you sure?”
“Relax. Your tattoo still has some color. You didn’t cut yourself off from the magic. It’ll just take some time to recharge.”
As her fear dissipated, Sephi could tell Echo was right. She could feel a thin trickle of magic seeping into her, painfully slowly, one drop at a time. Her magical reserve was like a puddle at the bottom of a dried-out lake, but the power would replenish itself.
If she had burned herself out, the connection would have been severed, and she’d be cut off from the magic altogether. It was a fate worse than death for a mage, to know the rapturous feeling of the magical energy flowing through you but to never be able to experience it again. It would be like never seeing the sun again.
The mere thought of it shook her to the core. Sephi vowed to herself right then that she would never again risk burning herself out. Never again would she be that reckless with her gift.
“I’m worried about these wounds, though,” Echo said, her lips pulling down at the corners a little.
“Yeah, what’s the deal with that? Did the fucking stormbird get me?” Sephi lifted up and tried to turn her head, but the pain stopped her.
“Not quite,” Echo mumbled. “It was the magic. I’ve only read about this before, but it looks like the raw living energy was too much for your body to handle. It scorched your focal lines.”
She meant the angular, geometrical patterns that spread out from the tattoo on Sephi’s back. Made by grinding sapphires into dust and magically infusing it into the skin, it gave her access to magic. The focal lines were a physical manifestation of her magical power. The stronger and more experienced a mage was, the more the focal lines spread and the more intricate the arcane geometry became.
Most mages wore clothing that hid their focal lines. The lines showed how powerful a magic user was, but they also revealed how much magical energy a mage had stored up. Brightly glowing focal lines meant their reservoir was full. Faded, dusky lines meant they were dry.
Sephi was sure the focal lines on her back were muted and dull at the moment. “How bad is the damage?”
“This salve should help, but we should have a White Brother look at you when we get back.”
Sephi groaned. “I hate those guys. So self-righteous and superior. They’re like, ‘We’ll heal you, but we’ll look down our noses at you while we do it.’”
“Come on,” Echo said, laughing. “They’re not that bad. They’ve devoted themselves to helping people, to atone for the Sin of the First Magic.”
Sephi snorted. “You sound like one of them now. Thinking of going White, Ms. Green?”
“Of course not, Ms. Blue. Not that we can switch between Families.”
Persephone sat up, ignoring the stinging in her back. She looked at her friend, whose face was pale in the cool blue glow of the lantern. “The Five Families are bullshit anyway. I’ve got all the family I need right here.”
A warm smile spread over Echo’s face. “Aww, that’s sweet.”
“I’m talking about Princess, of course,” Sephi said, getting to her feet and shrugging her shirt back on.
Echo’s grinned widened. “Of course.”
Sephi gave Echo’s shoulder an affectionate squeeze as she walked past and eased her way out of the cart.
“Now, let’s get the hell out of these tunnels and go home.”
When they emerged from the tunnel, the floating city came into view. The Citadel hovered a thousand feet above the ground, stalwart and unmoving. The sun dipped toward the western horizon behind the city’s three spiral arms, which branched out from a central hub.
The Bronze Spiral with its gleaming towers and minarets. The Crystal Spiral with its polished gemstone buildings of impossible size. And the Vitan Spiral, filled with enormous trees taken from the ancient land of the Elves and fashioned into a well manicured garden of natural beauty.
The sunlight cast the Risewater in a golden glow. The river wound its way along the valley floor, but when the water neared the Citadel, some powerful enchantment forced the river up from the ground like a reverse waterfall. It thundered up into the sky until it reached the floating city above. There, it split off into canals that snaked through the Citadel before plunging down off the other side and continuing its path on the ground like a normal river.
In the center of the city, the Council’s Spire stood taller than anything else, piercing the very sky and reminding everyone who was in charge. It was crafted from pale marble, and Sephi knew that up close, the stone was streaked with veins of silver, gold, and platinum.
The Citadel was paradise, the crown jewel of the Cradle, a shining beacon of perfection, the pinnacle of magical civilization.
Persephone hated it.
She was much more interested in what was on the ground beneath the Citadel. Over the centuries, the Undershadow had sprung up under the Citadel like moss growing beneath a stone. Where the Citadel was symmetrical and beautiful, the Undershadow was chaotic and practical.
Sprawling clusters of ramshackle dwellings lined muddy, unpaved streets. A few larger buildings poked their heads above the rest, but they never rose more than three stories. Most of the bigger places were dedicated to drinking, gambling, or less savory pastimes, offering the kind of fun that couldn’t be found in the Citadel.
The rest of the Undershadow was mostly people who weren’t lucky enough to be born into one of the five magical families or one of the prosperous merchant guilds. Space in the Citadel was limited to those who could afford its luxuries. The poor had to live somewhere, and this was it.
Then, there were people who chose to live in the Undershadow. These were a much rarer breed, and mages especially avoided living beneath the city, separated from their own kind. Sephi and Echo were exceptions to the rule, and living in the shadow of their former lives was where they had met and become instant friends.
Despite their friendship, Echo staunchly disapproved of Sephi’s reckless nature, and she brought up the old argument as their wagon rumbled into the outskirts of town.
“You can’t keep this up, you know?”
Sephi frowned at her friend. Echo was three years younger, but to Sephi, she always seemed like an older sister.
“I’ve heard your thoughts on this already.”
“And yet, you never listen,” Echo said. “These jobs keep getting more dangerous. Today, it was stormbird eggs in Tartarus. A few weeks ago, it was stealing war relics from banshees in the Mire. Before that, it was taking bloodstones from a haunted warlock stronghold.”
“Allegedly haunted,” Sephi cut in. “We didn’t see any ghosts. Or warlocks, for that matter. So disappointing.”
Echo sighed in frustration and offered an eyeroll. “Whatever. My point is, Bobby keeps sending you on riskier assignments.”
Sephi shrugged. “A girl’s got to make a living.”
“You can’t make a living by dying.”
“I haven’t died so far.”
“Not for lack of trying,” Echo said. “Sometimes, I wonder…”
“What?” Sephi prompted. “What do you wonder?”
Echo was going to say she wondered if Sephi wanted to die. But she couldn’t give voice to that thought. If Echo was wrong, it would just sound cruel. And if she was right, talking about it wouldn’t change anything.
“I just wonder when it’s going to end for you,” Echo said instead. “When are you going to stop all this shit?”
“When I finish my business with Bobby,” Sephi said. “I have an obligation.”
“I get it, but that obligation is shackling you to the past, and it’s keeping you from living. Don’t you want a normal life?”
Sephi laughed. “A normal life? Like there’s any such thing.” She shook her head. “Until my debts are paid, there’s no sense in daydreaming about the future.” She tugged on the reins and pulled the cart to a stop. “Speaking of paying debts, we’re here. It’s time to see him.”
The first floor of the Cantina Vela was always packed.
Persephone weaved between the people clustered around the gambling tables. Nobody gave her a second glance. They were too focused on the small fortunes being won and lost all around them.
Sephi bypassed the casino floor. She wasn’t here to play games, and the real business went on upstairs.
A pair of stone-faced guards she didn’t recognize blocked the staircase tucked away behind the bar. They were almost certainly human, but from the sheer size of them, Sephi wondered if their mothers had enjoyed an all-night romp with the one-eyed giants who lived northeast of the Cradle.
She resisted the temptation to voice her suspicion out loud. These brutes didn’t look like they had a sense of humor. No need to stir up trouble for no reason. “I’m here to see Bobby.”
The taller guard eyed her up and down dismissively. “Fuck off, lady.”
Now she had a reason to poke the hornets’ nest. “Trust me, I’d love to ignore you like every other woman you’ve ever met, but you’re in my way.”
She probably would have been fine if the other guard didn’t laugh at her comment, but he did. It started with a snort and grew into a full-blown chuckle. That was when the taller guard went from annoyed to enraged.
The guard drew himself up to his full height, which Sephi had to admit was daunting. She was suddenly reminded that her magic had yet to refill, and with the still-healing burns on her back, she wasn’t in any shape for a straight-up street brawl.
“You want to ignore me?” the taller guard asked, yanking a huge cudgel made from knobby, bumpy wood from his belt and raising it threateningly.
Sephi raised her hands, ready to soothe his bruised ego. Then, her mouth had other ideas. “Nice dildo. Did your mother let you borrow it?”
Maybe someday she would learn to keep her big mouth shut. It wouldn’t be the first time it got her into trouble, and she doubted it would be the last. It was too late to back down now. Sephi put her hand on her hip, right by the hilt of her dagger. The guard took a menacing step toward her.
An annoyed voice called from upstairs. “Let her up, you goon!”
The guard froze. Sephi flashed a triumphant smile at him, and he glared at her with his fists clenched. With a grumbled curse, he stepped aside to let her pass.
The wooden stairs creaked as she ascended. The movements tugged at the tender skin on her back. Echo’s salve had dulled the pain somewhat, but she was walking a little gingerly when she emerged into Bobby’s office.
The office took up most of the second floor. Thick rugs cushioned her footsteps as she walked past the massive desk in the center of the space. A throne-like chair sat behind it, but the seat was empty. Bobby himself was staring out the window overlooking the street outside.
Even with his back turned, Bobby Candles cut an imposing figure. His long, dark hair was tied back neatly, and his broad shoulders nearly eclipsed the fading light coming in through the window. Dressed all in black, he could have been a shadow come to life, but shadows weren’t nearly as dangerous.
Sephi came up behind him and followed his gaze. He looked down at her cart. Echo sat on the wooden box with her legs crossed. Her eyes darted around nervously, and her hands fidgeted in her lap. She looked so small down there by herself.
“Do you have my carton of eggs?” Bobby asked, his voice low and gravelly.
Sephi’s eyes narrowed, and she stepped up beside him at the window. “That’s a weird way to phrase it, but yeah. They’re in that crate down there with Echo.”
Bobby looked down at the Green mage and frowned. “She never comes in here with you. I’m starting to think she doesn’t like me.”
Sephi never allowed Echo to join these meetings, but Bobby didn’t know that. He didn’t need to know. Just like Echo didn’t need to know the true nature of Sephi’s business arrangement with Bobby. It was her secret to keep, even from her closest friend.
“Nobody likes you,” Sephi said. “Don’t take it personally, but you’re a bit like the boogie man.”
His eyes widened, and he shot her a sideways glance. “Wow, that feels personal. Like, that’s the definition of personal.”
Sephi met his gaze and shrugged. “I’m just saying, a man in your position, everyone you know either works for you or they work against you. There’s not a lot of room in between.”
He looked thoughtful. “I guess I can’t argue with that. You’d think people would be more grateful. I just get them things they want. Things they can’t get anywhere else.”
She didn’t respond. He wasn’t really talking to her. He was just thinking out loud. Bobby shook his head, like he was shaking off dark thoughts.
“Goon!” he shouted.
The taller guard popped his head up from the stairs. “Yeah, boss?”
“Go outside and fetch the crate from the young lady in the cart out there,” Bobby said. “And be gentle. With the young lady and with the crate. The contents of that box are worth more than your miserable life.”
The insult didn’t seem to faze the big man. He nodded and ducked away to do his master’s bidding.
“His name is Goon?” Sephi asked.
Bobby grinned. “Oh, who the hell knows? I’ve had to hire extra security. I can’t be bothered to learn their names.”
“Extra security?” she asked, frowning. “What’s up?”
Bobby moved away from the window and sat in the chair behind his desk. “I’ve been hearing troubling rumors. It might be nothing, but in my line of work, it’s best to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.”
Instead of sitting in the chair across from him, Sephi leaned her elbows on the seat back. “What kind of rumors?”
He spread his hands. “Strange folks lurking around, a rise in dark magic, and of course, the mages going missing.”
Sephi frowned. “What do you mean, missing?”
Bobby narrowed his eyes at her. “How have you not heard about this? Those are your people, not mine. I was actually hoping you could shed some light on the situation.”
She shook her head. “It’s news to me. And those aren’t my people. Not really. Not anymore.”
“Keep telling yourself that, kid,” he said. “Magic is in your blood. Or however you Merlin-types cast spells.”
Sephi tilted her head in confusion. “Merlin? Is that a friend of yours?”
Bobby laughed. “Never mind. My point is, once a mage, always a mage. You might be done with the Citadel, but it’s not done with you.”
“We’ll see about that,” she said.
“Anyway, whatever is happening to mages, you might want to watch your back. I hear it’s not safe for you wand wigglers to go out alone.”
She leaned forward. “How many mages have gone missing?”
“Six in the last month. A handful of others before that.” He held up a hand to stop her from interrupting. “I know it’s not many, but I’ve been asking around, and no one remembers anything like this happening before. I figure it’s worth keeping an eye out.”
Sephi grinned. “I never pegged you as the skittish type.”
“I’m not skittish,” he said. “I just have a nose for trouble. I know when things are getting too hot and it’s time to move. It’s how I ended up here in the first place.”
“On Esper, you mean?” Sephi asked. “Like when you left Earth?”
Bobby leaned back in his chair and spread his hands innocently. “Whoa, I never said Earth. I just meant here, in this place.”
She lifted an eyebrow at him. “Sure. I notice you’re not actually denying being from a different Realm.”
He shrugged. “I’ve been around.”
She was going to ask a follow-up question, but Goon came clomping up the stairs. The crate looked small and light in his hands.
“Where should I put this?” he asked.
Bobby gestured at a stack of boxes in a corner. “Over there.” He turned back to Sephi. “And you, sit.”
“I’m fine standing,” she said.
“You’re making me nervous. Sit.” He gave her a stern look. “This isn’t me asking.”
She sighed and sank down into the hard chair. The raw skin on her back roared in protest, and Sephi winced at the pain.
Bobby nodded as if that was the reaction he’d been expecting. “You look banged up. What happened?”
“We had a few close calls. Nothing I couldn’t handle.”
He frowned. “Are you sure? I don’t want you getting hurt out there. You remind me of someone special. Someone I had to leave behind to keep safe.” He gestured around at nothing in particular. “Most of the assholes who work for me are disposable, but you aren’t.”
She smirked. “So I’m an asshole, too? I’m just not disposable?”
Goon cleared his throat by the stack of boxes. “You know, I can hear you, boss?”
Bobby rolled his eyes. “I know, and I don’t care. That’s how disposable you are.”
Goon looked like he was about to say something else, but then he just shrugged, seeming to accept his place near the bottom of the food chain. He finished adjusting the crate and then went downstairs without another word.
Sephi watched him go. “And you wonder why nobody likes you?”
Bobby waved her comment away. “Don’t change the subject. Tell me the truth. Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. The job was tough, but whatever. All your jobs are dangerous.”
He frowned. “No, you demand that I give you the dangerous jobs. I’ve got plenty of low-risk work.”
“Low risk, low reward,” Sephi said. “I don’t want to work for you the rest of my life. No offense.”
“Yeah,” he said dryly. “You’re breaking my fucking heart here, kid. Don’t forget, you came to me, asking for my help. If you don’t want it anymore, I’ll give you the gold you’ve earned over the years, and you can walk away at any time. No hard feelings.”
“No,” she said, sounding almost panicked. “I still want it. I’ve worked too damn hard for this.”
Bobby held up his hand. “Relax. I’m still going to help you. I just don’t want you dying on me. That’ll leave a huge red mark in my ledger, and I don’t like leaving debts unpaid.”
She smiled. “Well, then let me earn the rest of it, and you can cross me off your books.”
He tapped his fingers on the desk indecisively. “There might be a way.” He paused. “You know what? Never mind.”
She sat up straighter in her seat. “Fuck that. You can’t tease me like that and then drop it.”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m not teasing you. I just can’t go from saying I want you to be safe, to offering you this job. It’s too much.”
Sephi leaned forward and slapped her palm on his desk. “Let me decide what’s too much for me to handle.”
Bobby shook his head. “I haven’t even officially taken the job yet. It’s insane.”
“Insane enough to pay off the rest of what I need?”
He nodded. “And then some.”
“You’ve certainly got my attention. What do I have to do?”
Bobby exhaled heavily. “You ever hear of the Zekarian Whispers?”
Sephi paused for a second and then burst out laughing. “Dammit, Bobby. You had me going for a second. I thought you were serious.”
He scowled. “I am serious. This is a huge job. It would be the last one you’d ever have to do for me.”
She wiped a tear from her eye and tried to stop laughing. “I know you believe that, but whoever hired you is fucking with you. It’s a snipe hunt. The Whispers don’t exist.”
He leaned forward, his face a mask of intensity. “Pretend for a second they do.”
She stifled her laughter because she could tell how serious Bobby was getting. “Okay, fine. For the sake of argument, I’ll pretend this isn’t a fae tale. The Zekarian Whispers are a relic from the First Mage himself. Zekariah amassed all his knowledge of dark magic and wrote it down in the Whispers.”
Bobby nodded. “Right.”
Sephi shook her head. “No. Not right. Because the Whispers don’t exist. And even if they did, they were lost three thousand years ago. No one knows where they are or where to start looking. And even if I did have a clue where to start, nothing good can come from unearthing the evil shit that’s supposed to be in those books.”
“It can’t be that bad,” Bobby said.
“Nobody really knows what’s in the Whispers. That’s the thing about made-up nonsense. People can say whatever they want about it, and no one can refute it. For all we know, it’s the First Mage’s cookbook. Or it could hold the secrets to destroying the universe. Or anything in between.”
“So you don’t want the job?” Bobby asked.
Sephi threw her hands up in frustration. “There is no job! Because there is no relic.”
“Well, someone is offering me an insane amount of money to retrieve this thing. They seem to believe it exists.”
“Sure they do,” she said, smiling. “They can offer as much as they want for something that can’t be found. Here. I’ll offer you infinity gold to go fetch me the sun. See how that works?”
“They’re willing to pay up front,” he said and leaned back in his chair.
The smile disappeared from Sephi’s face. “No way.”
Bobby nodded. “They seem serious. Money don’t lie, Sephi.”
Sephi shuddered. “I don’t even want to know who ‘they’ are. Anyone who wants the Whispers that badly is up to no good.”
“Well, I have no idea who they are. The meeting was in a pitch-black cave. For all I know, it was you trying to hire me.”
She laughed. “I’m not dumb enough to offer gold up front. What’s to stop you from taking their money and not searching at all? The end result will be the same.”
He shrugged. “They said they would know if I was making progress. Whatever the hell that means.”
“Who knows?” she asked. “Well, this all sounds like a joke to me. I can’t believe—”
A bell dinged twice in the office, cutting her off. Bobby frowned and got up from the desk. He went to a smoky window overlooking the casino floor. Sephi followed right behind.
A tall, gaunt man in blood-red armor plowed through the crowded paths below them. Those not fast enough to move out of his way were knocked aside without a second glance.
“Friend of yours?” Bobby asked.
Sephi’s lip curled in disgust. “That’s Magnus. He works for the Council.”
“He can’t find you here,” Bobby said. “I don’t need that kind of attention. Come on.”
He led her through the office to a back wall. His fingers touched the wall in three places, and a hidden door appeared in the solid wood.
Sephi raised an eyebrow at him. “An enchanted door? That must have cost you a fortune.”
“A fortune is worthless if you’re not alive to spend it,” he said. “Now get the hell out of here. And think about the job.”
Sephi slipped through the hidden door, went down a narrow staircase, and emerged anonymously in a dim alleyway, safely away from the man in red. For the moment anyway.
If Magnus was after her, he wouldn’t give up until he found her.