❯ Stealing Away – Chapter 1 ( Chapter 1 )
Disclaimer: I don’t own Arc the Lad III or its characters. It all belongs to Working Designs.
It all started out when the manager of the local item shop told his angry customers that the supply shipments were late because the merchants were attacked by a band of thieves shortly after unloading their cargo at the port. A few days after, people reported criminal activity on the inland paths as well, but nothing worse than travelers having to hand over any jewelry or Goz they happened to be carrying. Then corpses started turning up, usually hidden in the brush along the road, slashed or stabbed, stripped of anything they once had on them.
In this post-Great Disaster world, bandits weren’t a rarity. Thousands turned to crime just to survive. Even now, years later, when people were finally getting back on their feet, many decided that thievery was just easier than honestly working to earn a living. Most countries were used to this by now. Some places, like Testa, even formed their lifestyle around preventing it. But Jiharta was different.
While the other countries often struggled with violence on a regular basis, Jiharta enjoyed constant peace. Students came from all over the globe to study in the schools here, and Paysus was generally considered to be the knowledge center of the world. They owed the calm partly to the Hunters, but if you asked people on the street, most of them would reply, in tones of deep respect,
« The Amaidar monks, of course! »
For the people of Jiharta, Amaidar Temple was a fixture in their lives just as much as rain or sunlight. The religious sect had been housed there for thousands upon thousands of years. The monks of Amaidar Temple trained in the art of Kenpo in order to protect the sacred scriptures of the Earth Guardian, but they also used their skills to protect the civilians in their times of need. After the Great Disaster, Paysus recovered much more quickly than most other cities because the monks helped rebuild it. So when this new problem appeared, it was only natural for the people to appeal to the monks before putting in any requests at the Hunter’s Guild. The Archmonk listened to their plea and promised to look into the matter.
Then he disappeared. A week passed, and nobody had any idea where he’d gone. A few people suggested that he must have gone out to investigate himself, and fallen prey to the rogues, but no one seriously believed that. Lore had it that Iga once almost singlehandedly defended the temple from monsters. Bandits would be like gnats to him. Either way, rumors flew back and forth, and soon the most outrageous stories were being passed around.
« Randy says the Archmonk tripped over a fallen tree limb, hit his head on a rock, and is wandering around Roma Lake with amnesia, » an angelic-looking girl with pigtails said seriously, standing in front of her teacher’s desk. « Is that true? »
The youngest professor at the Rusaht Spell Institute, who taught the youngest classes, looked up from the report she was correcting and sighed. « I’d say it’s highly unlikely. »
« Then what do you think, Miss Marsia? » the students demanded.
« Wherever the Archmonk is, I’m sure he’s fine, » Marsia said. « Put your faith in him, because he can more than take care of himself. Now go back to your reading. »
For the past week, none of her pupils felt remotely like doing any of their work, not even the well-behaved ones. She understood the feeling. Now they opened their books and pretended to skim a few pages before questioning her again.
« That’s right! » a boy suddenly exclaimed. « You know him, Miss Marsia! Right? »
« Not exactly, » Marsia replied, looking through the window as if she wanted to ask the snowflakes for patience. « I’ve met him a few times, but that is all. Now please… »
The rest of the school day passed in this fashion, and Marsia ended class a few minutes early.
« Be careful going home today, » she told them, putting on her own coat. All of her students lived in Rusaht, and had no more than a five-minute walk to arrive at their houses, but Marsia lived in Paysus. It was a twenty-minute walk in good weather, but with a foot of snow already on the ground, it took her more than half an hour. « Watch where you step, and don’t slip on the ice. »
« How about you, Miss Marsia? » a girl asked. « Aren’t you worried about the bandits? »
This was another thing the children often brought up. What if their professor was attacked on her way to or from the Institute? Sure, they’d miss school for a few days (or more likely, end up being taught by that horrible, strict old lady with the thick glasses), but they were all fond of Marsia, and hated to think that anything bad could happen to her. The young woman quickly calmed them, reminding them that she was a skilled Gaia Magician who was able to defeat the Academy’s special operatives. Bandits wouldn’t be much of an obstacle to her. This relieved the children, and she’d watch them skip home, throwing snowballs at one another, but she never admitted that she was a little worried herself. Perhaps she should have hired a Hunter to escort her back and forth.
She thought about this as she set off for Paysus this afternoon, carefully making her way down the path, watching her step. Usually, the roads would be packed down and well-traveled, and she wouldn’t have much trouble, but nobody left their homes unless they absolutely had to now. If there wasn’t fresh snow falling, she would have been able to pick out the individual tracks of the people who passed before her.
It was already almost dark when Marsia set out, carrying a magic lantern in one hand and holding her rod in the other. The wind tugged at her cape and blew the snowflakes in her face. She trudged down the path, telling herself how great it would feel when she finally reached her room, made herself a cup of hot chocolate and put her feet in front of the fireplace. But after a while, she began to shiver from something other than the temperature.
Besides being unbearably damp, raw and cold, the night was eerie. She couldn’t see more than six feet in front of her, and the wind muffled every sound, even her own footsteps. Understandably, the road was deserted. About halfway home, she passed a monk traveling in the opposite direction. He nodded to her, but didn’t both with a greeting. Marsia didn’t pay much attention to him. It wasn’t unusual to see the occasional monk out on an errand for the Archmonk or one of the masters, and he was heading in the direction of the temple. She figured that he spent more time in Paysus than he realized, and hoped he made his way back safely. He probably should have just stayed in the city for the night, just like she should have stayed in Rusaht. Well, it was too late to turn around now. She couldn’t wait until she was skilled enough to teleport. Only the very best Gai Magicians achieved that level, but she realized it was worth it.
As she walked, she began feeling even more uneasy. She thought of the warnings her students shouted at her, and fancied that she saw shadows moving at the side of the road.
« Get a hold of yourself, Marsia. » she said out loud. « It’s just some animal. Even robbers wouldn’t be out in this. »
« Think again, missy. » someone sneered. Five men stepped out of the darkness, each carrying a rusty scimitar. In a second, she was surrounded. They marched her to a nearby cave, dimly lit with almost-melted candles. Stolen goods rested in unorganized heaps on the floor. She saw the light glint off a gold wristwatch resting on top of a stack of books and shuddered, thinking what must have happened to its owner. A dull fire blazed in one corner.
« Well, what’re you waiting for? » the leader demanded. « Turn out your pockets and let’s see what you’ve got. If you have enough, maybe – maybe – we’ll let you go. »
« You’ll be disappointed, » Marsia warned. She cursed to herself, something she only did in the most dire of situations. This qualified. There wasn’t enough room in the cramped cave for spellcasting, except for perhaps Heat Shell, but then she would risk igniting the contraband as well. If she ran outside, she’d definitely have enough room, but then one of the thieves would strike her down before she could finish reciting the spell. It was better to play along and see if a better opportunity might come up later. She knew it was unlikely.
« We’ll be the judge of that, lady. » the leader said, oblivious to the plans she’d been making in her head. Marsia sighed and took her purse out of her coat pocket. The thief snatched it, pried it open and shook the contents out on a flat rock serving as a table. A small clump of coins fell out – 528 Goz, to be exact. The leader glared at her, a sour look on his face, as if she somehow tricked him.
« Cough it up! » he snapped. « You must have something valuable. »
The magician reached up and reluctantly took a barrette out of her hair. It was silver, in the shape of a beetle, with several gems embedded in the wings. It was a present from a friend. She still remembered the day when Alec and the group were exploring the Testa bazaar, and she commented wistfully on how beautiful the jewelry was. The next thing she knew, Velhart was handing over money to the merchant. He laughingly presented it to her, saying that he was in such a good mood from his latest victory that he just had to share it. Lutz butted in then, and Marsia fastened the ornament in her hair. She wore it every day since. It pained her to give it up. If only Velhart was here now! She knew he’d make short work of these thugs.
« That all? » the thief lord asked impatiently. « A pretty lady like you with a thing like this? Don’t even try telling us there’s not more where that came from. We’ve heard it all before. »
She removed a ring from one finger, and two studs from her ears, and put them on the flat stone with the Goz and barrette. The leader looked it over, and seemed pleased. Marsia was relieved. If they let her go like the promised, now she knew where their hideout was.
The thief lord watched her expression and smirked. « Naive, aren’t you? You really think we’d take a risk like that? » He nodded to one of his goons. « Take her out and dump her. »
The man stepped forward and roughly grabbed her shoulder. Before she could react, he dragged her to the entrance. Then he halted, because someone held out an arm to block his path.
« Show yourself! » the thief lord snarled, whipping out his rusty blade. A man stepped out of the shadows outside and into the light of the fire. Marsia realized with a shock that it was the monk she met earlier, but a cowl hid his face. There was something vaguely familiar about the way he stood, completely still and calm, as if the bloodthirsty looks the rogues gave him didn’t upset him in the slightest.
« And who’re you? » the thief lord demanded irritably. Then he answered his own question. « Ar, I don’t care! Some pathetic do-good here to save the girl, huh? No matter. We’ll take you both out just as easy as one. »
« I’d like to see you try, » the monk replied quietly, not in conceit, Marsia guessed, but simply to anger the thieves further. If she was right, then the man was wildly successful.
« Confident, huh? » the leader said, advancing. « I don’t care if you are one of those sissy monks, I’ll cut you to ribbons! »
The monk didn’t bother with an answer. He rushed forward and knocked the thief lord to the rocky floor with one blow. In an instant, the others were similarly sprawled out, motionless except for the occasional twitch. Marsia looked up from them to her unexpected rescuer and stared. The monk’s cowl had slipped from his head during the rather one-sided battle, and now she could see his face.
« The Archmonk! » Marsia cried. Of course – no other monk would have been able to use the skills of Amaidar so easily. He was dressed simply, like a low-ranking member of the order, but there was no mistaking him now.
Iga ignored her for the moment, and knelt to examine one of the thieves. « Paralyzed, » he told her. « Sania and I still have a use for them. »
« Sania? » Marsia asked. She knew the fortune teller moderately well. « I see – she’s been looking in her crystal ball to locate their lair. But where have you been? Everyone thinks you’ve disappeared! »
« Sania told me some of the more… interesting things she’s heard lately, » the Archmonk said, with a slight smile. « But we’ve hardly been doing this alone. Some of the monks and the Hunters know. But you appreciate why the townspeople can’t be informed. »
Marsia nodded. « Don’t worry, » she said. « I won’t tell a soul. »
« Thank you. You’d better go on to Paysus now – the storm let up somewhat. »
Marsia thanked him, collected her belongings, and hurried outside, since the thieves were starting to come out of their lapses. It was still snowing, but the walk was much more pleasant without the wind. She made it home in good time, surprised to look at her wall clock and realize that her ordeal took only an hour. At any rate, it was over. She gratefully climbed into her warm bed and slept like a rock.
Less than a week later, all traces of the thieves vanished, and people began venturing outside again. Soon, everything was back to normal. Marsia decided to stop by Amaidar Temple and visit a friend, who was training to be a monk as a punishment, but seemed to truly enjoy it.
« Did you hear? » Tikva demanded happily, when he met her at the gate. « The Archmonk has returned! You know, I bet he had something to do with the thieves’ defeat. »
Marsia allowed herself a private smile before replying. « You’re probably right. »