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Rated: 13+ · Chapter · Action/Adventure · #2278092
The first draft of a story from my WIP anthology, The Crown Chronicles.
The moonlight shined upon Talia as she ran across the shingled rooftops of the city, swift as the wind, and silent as the shadows. Slung across her shoulder was a sack full of various objects from her most recent job. Her natural feline affinity for stealth and cunning had already earned her the moniker of “The Black Storm” by the city criers, but in her mind she scoffed at such a title.

First of all, she wasn’t black. Her fur was more of a dark grayish color with stripes running across her back down to her tail. Second, the word “storm” implied that she made a lot of noise and left a trail of destruction in her wake, which couldn’t have been farther from the truth.

When she was on a job, not even the keenest of ears could detect her as she silently made her way to her mark, be it a Duke’s private chambers, or the coffers of some corrupt noble. Regardless, it mattered little what they called her. A good thief doesn’t seek fame and glory, they seek one thing, and one thing only: wealth.

Making her way across the rooftops, Talia came to the edge of the roof of a cathedral. She looked all around at the street below, her pointy ears listening for any potential noise that would indicate an approaching threat, like a city guard or even some drunkard stumbling out from a nearby tavern.

Nothing.

With the street as still and silent as the grave, Talia knew it was safe to make her next move. She gracefully and quietly jumped from the roof of the cathedral, landing on her feet upon the cobbled streets below before slipping into a nearby sewer entrance. The foul stench stung her nostrils as she silently prayed that the odor wouldn’t stick to her too much as she made her way through the underground labyrinth that was the city’s sewer system.

If anyone who wasn’t in touch with the local underground were to wander into this place, they would no doubt almost instantly find themselves lost and most likely die of starvation, unless they were willing to eat the rats that wandered down here, but even then they’d probably die from whatever wretched disease said rats might be carrying.

The tunnels beneath the city were pitch black, but Talia’s emerald green eyes allowed her kind to see in even the darkest of places. Navigating the route that by this point she knew by heart, she eventually came to a spot that to the untrained eye, looked like an ordinary wall. She whispered the secret password. “Adderfork.”

Suddenly, a section in the center of the wall split away, revealing a hidden passage behind it. The secret door immediately closed after Talia stepped through, and she found herself standing in a sort of underground village, mostly composed of shacks and tents. This place had no official name, but to it’s residents and those who came here regularly to make use of their services, it was known as Crimesberg.

Talia made her way past the homes of the Crimesberg residents, as well as a few shops selling items such as lockpicks, smoke bombs and various other things a thief might find useful. Some of the locals even greeted her as she passed by. They were a mix of people she’d worked with before, and those who she considered friends. There was no more tightly knitted community in this, or any kingdom than that of the thieves of Crimesberg. In this line of work, there were only three rules: Don’t steal from each other, don’t snitch, and don’t get caught.

Talia came to one tent in particular, near the center of town. At it’s entrance, a human man clothed in dark leather and a hood that obscured most of his face sat on a wooden stool, puffing away at an ornately carved tobacco pipe. “Ah, my dear Talia!’ he said as he saw her approaching. “Another successful haul, I trust?” Talia lowered her own hood and took a seat beside the man.

“Of course. This time I robbed some snotty Viscount that left his estate in such a hurry, he forgot to lock up his valuables! Something about an urgent gathering with some of the other nobility. If it wasn’t for the number of guards around the estate, it would have been almost too easy.”

She handed the man her bag full of pilfered goods. “So, what can you give me for the lot, Ferret?” The one called Ferret had known Talia for several years now, and had been her primary fence for whatever she stole since she’d helped him escape from the palace dungeon after a run in with the city guard for a little counterfeit gelt scheme of his that went south.

Opening the sack and setting down his pipe, Ferret removed and examined each item. It mostly consisted of various gold and silver bits and bobs such as candlesticks, dinnerware, and pieces of jewelry. “For all this, I’d say…two thousand.”

Talia nearly fell backwards off her seat when he said that. “Really? Two thousand gelt for all this?” Ferret smirked beneath his hood. “Well, it’s not that all this is necessarily worth that much, it’s mostly me giving you an extra rate since I owe you for the incident with that vampire matriarch. That, and because I have a special offer for you from a potential client.”

Talia’s interest couldn’t help but be piqued at that mention. “Oh? And just who is this special client?” Ferret picked up his pipe again and took a long drag and exhaled before replying. “Can’t really say. Some strange fellow in a dark cloak came here not two hours before you got here, and wanted me to give you a message. Said to pay you double whatever I would normally pay you for your next haul, on them. They handed me this sack of gelt to give you, and said to tell you to meet them behind the city cemetery tomorrow past midnight if you wanted more. Something about “The Ultimate Score”, whatever that means.”

Taking her now doubled payment in hand, Talia thanked Ferret and made her way back to the surface and back home. Like most of the beastfolk in the city, she had no choice but to live in one of the poorer districts. Her home was little more than a run down hovel like basically every other house in the neighborhood, but at least it was a shelter.

As she stepped inside, she undid her cloak and hung it on a hook next to the door. No sooner than she had done this, her dozen younger siblings came rushing up to greet her. “Talia’s home!” They cried with glee, despite their drowsy bodies and empty bellies.

It didn’t take long for them to notice the large bag of money Talia was holding, and for a long moment they could only stare in awe at it’s sheer bulk and weight. The youngest of the group asked “Where did all that come from, sis?” Talia smiled “Never you mind, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is tomorrow, we’ll eat like royalty!” She deeply wished she could get them all fed at that very moment, but it was far too late at night to go food shopping, and she couldn’t carry enough food for them all by herself, so stealing it was out of the question.

A few of them protested having to wait until morning, but Talia calmed them with a nurturing, motherly tone. “I know you’re all hungry now, but I promise, tomorrow morning we’ll have a nice big breakfast, and then we’ll go to the market and you can each pick out a treat for yourselves.”

With that, most of her siblings returned to bed, except for Peter, the second oldest after Talia. He was the only one of them that knew of her true profession, and what she had been doing every night since their parents had died from plague five years prior. Whenever Talia went out to “make her nightly rounds”, she entrusted him to stay and watch over their siblings.

“I take it Ferret really gave you a hefty sum for your work tonight?” He whispered, lest the younger ones might overhear. “It wasn’t just him.” Talia replied “Some mystery client wants me to meet him tomorrow night, and gave a bonus to my pay this time as an incentive. "

“Are you going to take their offer?”

“In this line of work, you can’t afford to turn down a paying job. Especially when you have twelve other mouths to feed. Who knows? If this client pays enough, we may finally be able to get out of this place, and I’ll never have to steal again.” Peter gave her a worried look. “Just please be careful. Every night, I worry that you won’t come home, and I’ll have to explain to the others why their big sister disappeared and isn’t coming back.”

She gave him a reassuring hug. “Don’t worry, I’m always careful. The guards don’t even know my face, and they can’t arrest what they don’t know is there.” Peter returned the hug and went back to bed, with Talia doing the same shortly after.

The next morning, Talia dressed in her plain street clothes and made good on her promise from the night before. She hired a cart to bring the bread, eggs, milk and beef she had bought to her home, where she and her siblings had a feast like they’d never had before. Afterwards, they went to the market and she let them each pick out something to entertain themselves. Most of the girls got a doll or some other small toy, and the boys mostly chose wooden swords to have play fights with.


Later that night, as her siblings lay sleeping, Talia once again donned her cloak and tunic before stepping out into the city streets. She would stay on the ground for now as she made her way to the cemetery, her hood pulled over her head to obscure her face. Along the way, she’d pass by the occasional city guard on night patrol, or the odd vagrant laying half drunk in the gutter. She couldn’t help but pity them. Even as one of the beastfolk, who some saw as little better than regular animals, she at least had a home to come back to and a family.

Then again, she also didn’t squander whatever she made on cheap liquor, which she knew if she were to give them some spare gelt, was most likely what they would use it for. She put the thought out of her mind for now. She had to focus on meeting her mysterious client. From what Ferret had told her, it sounded like whatever it was they wanted, they were willing to pay enough to set her entire family up for life.

Still, in the thieving business, one had to always be cautious. Which was why she carried a pair of daggers at her hip. Whenever Talia wasn’t looking after her brothers and sisters or plying her trade, she used what spare time she had to practice with them. She was by no means a master, but she knew how to handle them well enough to get out of a tight situation if the need arose.

If all else failed, she still had her claws, which aside from doubling as handy lockpicks, were always kept sharp as backup weapons. Talia made her way through the winding streets, taking the occasional side alley or shortcut, just in case she was being followed. She doubted she was. As far as she knew, nobody else knew of her appointment, but even so, it pays to be thorough.

By the time she reached the graveyard, a thick fog had begun to roll in, blanketing the whole district with an almost impenetrable veil. How convenient, Talia thought half sarcastically. The fog was no doubt going to make it more difficult to navigate the cemetery to the other side where she was to meet her client. But at least it would also shroud their meeting from any potential prying eyes.

She stepped through the stone archway of the cemetery entrance. If it weren’t for her fur, she would have shivered from the cold air that always seemed to linger around such places , especially this late at night. Doing her best to stay on a straight and narrow pathway, she began her trek past the tombstones and ancient crypts, her hand at the ready by her hip, ready to grab one of her daggers in a flash should anything suddenly approach her from within the fog.

Rumors abounded of ghouls and other foul, flesh eating creatures roaming cemeteries at night to dig up and devour freshly buried corpses, as well as any living thing that was unfortunate enough to cross their path. Talia had never seen such monsters personally, and had no idea if such tales were true, or if they were merely fabricated by graveyard caretakers to scare away grave robbers and bored youths to keep them from desecrating the tombs. But whatever the case, she kept her guard up the whole way, daggers at the ready and her ears on high alert for even the slightest of suspicious noises.

For what felt like hours, step by step, she slowly made her way through the fog until at last, she reached the other side. There, in the very corner of the cemetery wall, stood another figure in a dark cloak, leaning against an alcove with their arms crossed over their chest and their face shrouded in darkness by their hood. Talia couldn’t even tell the figure’s gender or race, as absolutely no identifying features of either were visible.

“You’re a hard thief to get a hold of.” The figure said in a low, gravely voice. “My employer spent a great deal of time and money trying to find you.” Talia couldn’t help but chuckle. “Well, that’s just the mark of a master thief. Discretion is my stock and trade. Just who is your employer, may I ask?”

“I can’t tell you that.” The contact replied “Surely, given your line of work, you can understand why they wish to remain anonymous.” Talia nodded. “May I at least ask how they knew of me? We thieves don’t exactly advertise our services for anyone to use.”

“Rest assured, you are safe from any potential unwanted publicity. Now, shall we get down to business?” The figure reached into the inside of their cloak and pulled out a scarlet envelope sealed with a golden wax stamp. Taking the envelope, Talia asked “What is this?”

“Your invitation. You’ll need it to get into the banquet for my master’s task.” Talia’s ears twitched in confusion. ““What are you talking about? What banquet?” “The Banquet of Baron Lucian Blackwood, of course. A trusted source confirms that the Baron has acquired an item my employer desires most fiercely. Your job is this: Infiltrate the banquet, disguised as a guest, then find your way to Blackwood’s vault. No doubt, that’s where he’ll be keeping it.”

“Just what is it exactly that I’m supposed to steal?”

“A crown forged of black iron. You’ll know it when you see it. After you’ve retrieved the crown, make your way to the city harbor. On the far end of the dock there will be a wooden crate. Leave the crown in the box, and wait until the following night. You may retrieve your reward then in the same place, and our business will be concluded.”

“Your boss went through all the trouble of finding me, and expects me to risk my neck all over a piece of metal? It doesn’t sound like this crown is even that valuable. Just what will my reward be, anyway?”

“One hundred thousand gelt, to be paid on completion of the job.”

Talia had to restrain herself from exclaiming in surprise, or feinting in shock on the spot. With that much money, she and her siblings could indeed not only live comfortably, but in luxury for the rest of their days! ““So, do you accept the offer?”

As much as Talia wanted to agree right then and there, she still had some lingering doubts on her mind. “How am I supposed to get into this banquet? Even with an invitation, they don’t really let beastfolk just waltz on into events like this.”

“The invitation is addressed to the Countess Meredith of Perigor, who happens to bear a striking resemblance to you. My employer has seen to it that she will be unavoidably detained en route to the Blackwood estate. That should give you plenty of time to get into the vault, retrieve the item and escape.”

“You do realize these kinds of events have a dress code? I have no fancy dresses or gowns to disguise myself.” “Don’t worry about that. My master has already arranged for you to arrive at the estate in such a way no one will be the wiser. On the evening of the banquet, go to the alleyway behind the Inn of the Drunken Dragon. There you will find a carriage drawn by four white horses and a driver that also works for my employer. Inside the carriage will be all the supplies you’ll need. Any other questions?”

For a long while, they stood in silence as Talia considered the proposal. She was by no means a master of disguise. Her usual means of burglary typically consisted of sneaking in through some window or other out of sight passage and sticking to the shadows, not walking in through the main entrance in plain view. What’s more, this banquet was certain to be packed with heavy security. Guards, dogs, and potentially hidden traps once she was inside the Baron’s vault.

But still, whoever this strange figure’s employer was, they were obviously very wealthy, and desperate to gain this item if they were willing to pay such an obscene amount. If she pulled this off, her family could live like kings, and she’d never have to steal anything to provide for them again. It was just too great an offer to pass on. After all, she thought, without risk, there can be no reward.

“Very well.” Talia said “You may tell your master that I accept their offer, and that the crown they seek is as good as theirs.” “Excellent.” The figure said “They will be most pleased to hear that. Thank you for agreeing, and best of luck to you on the job.”

“I don’t need luck.” Said Talia “I’ve got skill, much more reliable than luck. Not to mention, more valuable.” The figure chuckled “Indeed, that is true. The banquet takes place one week from tonight. The carriage will be waiting for you around sunset. Use this time to make any preparations you think will be necessary. With that, I bid you farewell.” Talia nodded, and began to make her way back through the fog and tombstones.

Upon arriving back at her family’s home, she found that all her siblings were still dead asleep. She hung up her cloak in it’s usual place, and went to bed herself, her mind swimming with all the possibilities this one last heist could bring. If she could pull this off, she and her brothers and sisters would be able to finally get out of this slum, maybe even buy themselves their own estate with servants to tend and wait on them hand and foot. More importantly, they would never have to go another day without eating in their lives!

As Talia slept, she dreamed of the life she craved for her family. She dreamed she and her siblings lived in a sprawling manor that even the richest of nobles would envy. Everyday, her brothers and sisters ran about and played in the vast grounds and garden, and every meal was practically a feast on its own. Her thieving days were behind her, now she had nothing but free time to pursue whatever she so desired, be it going for an afternoon ride on her purebred stallion, or heading into the nearby city to browse the various merchant stalls at the market for whatever fine and exotic goods they had brought from far off lands.

When she awoke, Talia was overcome by a strange mix of disappointment and excitement. Disappointment that it had all just been a dream, and such a good one at that, but excited that soon enough, it would become reality. The client’s contact said that the Baron’s banquet would be in about a week, which gave her plenty of time to prepare. She could confidently say without ego that with her skills as a thief, honed by years of practice and her natural sneakiness as a cat, it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to retrieve a simple crown from under yet another uptight, pompous noble’s nose.

She spent whatever free time she had for the next seven nights scouting the Blackwood estate from a nearby treeline along the top of a hill, in order to get an idea of the potential security. What she saw made her glad she had never tried to rob this place before. The estate was a veritable fortress! There were at least several dozen guards posted at every potential entrance and patrolling the grounds. Talia suspected that some of them weren’t actually guards, but hired mercenary muscle. They likely had seen more action in regards to fighting than the regular patrols, and would pose more of a problem if they happened to spot her.

In addition to that, archers lined the top of the walls surrounding the estate, as well as the roof of the main house. It also seemed the Baron kept a whole pack of specially trained Bryerwolves, vicious canines with a keen sense of smell and sharp spines protruding from their backs like a porcupine, ready to loose on any trespassers on sight. Not to mention whatever else might have been in the estate that she couldn’t see from the outside.

Clearly, this was going to be a more difficult job than she thought. Possibly the biggest challenge of her entire thieving career. Still, her client had already arranged a way for her to get past all the outer security. She was confident that once she was inside, with her skill, along with some improvising and a little luck, she’d have that crown delivered before the night was out.

The night of the banquet finally arrived. Talia donned her cloak and made her way through the mostly empty streets to the alley behind the Drunken Dragon as instructed, and sure enough, there was a gilded carriage waiting for her, drawn by four white horses and manned by a human male in the attire of a coachman.

The man said nothing. He simply climbed down from his seat and opened the carriage door, motioning for her to get inside. As she did so, she found a beautiful gown of golden silk and lace on the passenger seat, with a diamond studded tiara atop it. She couldn’t help but take a moment to admire and marvel at the dress, having never seen such a masterpiece of embroidery before. She ran her hand along it, enjoying it’s smooth, fluid feel and texture. The tiara was exquisite as well, it’s jewels practically sparkling in the light.

Coming back to her senses, she closed the windows of the carriage before changing out of her normal attire and into the gown. To her surprise and relief, it fit her form perfectly. She briefly wondered how the client knew to find a dress that was her exact size, but quickly decided that it wasn’t important, and to focus on the job at hand.

The carriage made it’s way from the alley into the streets, just as Talia placed the tiara on her head. She sat and opened one of the side windows, looking out at the passing buildings, which soon gave way to open countryside. She glanced at the invitation the contact had given her. They said that she was to be posing as the Countess of Perigor, which seemed rather odd. As far as Talia was aware, there were no beastfolk nobles she had ever heard of in this kingdom.

Whoever this Meredith of Perigor was, the contact had assured her that they would not be arriving at the banquet. She really hoped that didn’t mean the real Countess would turn up dead on the side of the road somewhere. Talia had never killed anyone on the job. She’d already had to knock a few guards unconscious in order to reach her intended prize before, but not once had she resorted to murder.

She was a thief, after all, not a killer. Even with all the valuables she’d stolen, she had done it all out of necessity for survival. She didn’t think she’d be able to live with herself if she completed this last job, only to find out that because she agreed to it in the first place, an innocent woman was now dead, even if it was only indirectly.

Her line of thought was broken as the carriage came to a halt. She looked up to see she was already inside the Blackwood estate grounds, at the entrance to the splendid manor house at the center of the compound. Talia took a deep breath, exhaled, and opened the carriage door. Stepping out into the beautiful garden in front of the manor, she made her way to the front door, where she handed the doorman her invitation. He briefly looked her over and at the invitation, before stepping aside and allowing her in.

She found herself standing in a grand foyer. The floor was pure marble with velvet carpets, with crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, as well as a golden water fountain in the center of the room. All around her were people from all across the kingdom, mostly humans, with a handful of nobles from other races. She figured they must be diplomats or some such thing from other kingdoms.

As the other guests made idle chatter among themselves, Talia got herself a glass of wine and slowly sipped it, as she made her way about the room, keeping her ears alert for any potential mention of a hidden vault in the manor, or any other information that might prove useful. She mostly picked up useless gossip about the other nobles, until she overheard two elvish guests whispering to each other on the edge of the crowd.

“Has our friend found it yet?” One of them said in a hushed tone, to which his companion replied “Not yet. But rest assured, they’ll have it before the Baron can serve dessert. That crown is as good as ours. Just imagine the reward the Emperor will bestow on us when we bring it to him.”

Talia cursed under her breath. It seemed she wasn’t the only one after the crown. These two elves, whom she deduced must be spies from the Elven Empire across the sea, must have hired another thief to find the vault as well. For a moment she considered exposing them to the Baron, but decided against it. To do so would risk blowing her cover. She would just have to reach the vault before her competition did.

Just then, Baron Lucian Blackwood himself entered the foyer from atop the grand stairway at the end of the room. The nobles of the banquet had all worn their very best attire for the occasion, but the Baron’s outfit put them all to shame. He wore the black and gold uniform of a general, with a deep crimson cape draped over one shoulder. It was a well known fact he had once been a soldier in the Grand Army, rising to the rank of general before retiring, the King having bestowed the title of Baron on him as a reward for his service.

“Welcome, one and all, to my home.” He said, as everyone turned to face him after he’d made his entrance. “I trust you all found your way here without issue. If you all will proceed to the dining room, my cooks have prepared a most splendid feast for us.” At these words, everyone began to file through the double doors to the left of the foyer. Talia took this opportunity to quietly slip into the shadows while the crowd was distracted. In a matter of moments, the entry hall was completely empty.

Talia quickly analyzed the room. She figured wherever this vault was, it must be underground, so there was no point in searching upstairs. She dashed across the foyer to the doors opposite from the dinning hall entrance, and found herself in a long hallway lined with various works of art, from statues to portraits of the Baron and what she assumed to be his family members.

Even in the dress her client had provided, and without her usual cloak and tunic, Talia was able to stealthily make her way down the hall, pressing her ear to every door to check for occupants before searching the room within. She looked behind every painting, pulled on every bracket, and checked everywhere else she had known for nobles to keep some mechanism that concealed a hidden passage or room.

Not one of them revealed any such thing. With each failed attempt, she grew more frustrated. She knew that every moment she wasted on a dead end, was another moment that this mysterious second thief, whoever they were, was getting closer to reaching the crown first. As she exited a room after yet another failed search and rounded a nearby corner, she was suddenly knocked onto her backside as her body made impact with someone else, who was likewise sent sprawling onto their behind.

After regaining their senses, they both looked to see who they had run into. Talia was surprised to see it had been another beastfolk like her, except this one was a male cat with coal black fur. He wore a uniform that indicated he was a servant of the Baron’s household. “My sincere apologies, madame.” He said as he stood and offered his hand to help her up. “Apology accepted.” Said Talia in the most dainty and gracious tone she could muster.

“Shouldn’t you be in the dining hall with the other guests?” said the servant “I was trying to find the privy and got lost.” Talia replied, saying the first excuse that came to her head. “This manor is practically a maze!” The servant chuckled. “Indeed, it is. Took me almost five years before I could walk these halls without getting lost myself.” This gave Talia an idea. If this servant knew the layout of the manor so well, maybe he knew where the vault was!

“Really?” She asked, feigning interest. “Just how long have you been here?” The servant shrugged “It’s been close to ten years now, I reckon. Of course, by now I know the quickest route to any room in the manor.” That’s just what Talia was hoping for. Now she needed to convince him to show her the vault entrance. “Do you enjoy serving nobility?”

Again, the black cat shrugged. “Well, it gives me food and shelter, and the Baron is actually a decent enough fellow. I guess I should count myself lucky. I hear other nobles aren’t so kind to their servants.” Though his words were calm, Talia detected a flicker of doubt in his voice, as though he wasn’t telling the whole truth.

“You didn’t exactly choose to be a servant of the Baron, did you?” The servant sighed. “No. My mother owed a debt to the Baron’s family that she couldn’t pay. So, they took me on as an indentured servant. I fear I may never be free of my obligations.”

That’s when Talia saw a golden opportunity. “What’s your name?” “Caleb.” “Well, Caleb, I have a little secret for you. I am not really a noble. I have been sent to infiltrate the Baron’s home to recover something very important for a special client, who is offering me a most generous reward. I believe we can help each other. Help me get into the Baron’s vault, and I’ll see to it that you are released from your servitude.”

“How?”

“I’m being offered a hundred thousand gelt to bring back this item. I don’t know exactly who I’m getting for, and frankly, I don’t care. With that kind of money, me and my family will live like royalty. Help me, and you can join us.”

Caleb’s eyes lit up with glee. “Do you really mean it?” Talia nodded “I may be a thief, but I keep my word. Get me into that vault, and I promise, you’ll be welcome like family.” To Talia’s surprise, Caleb actually pulled her in close for a hug. “I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am! I know exactly where the vault is. Follow me!” Caleb led Talia through the twisting corridors of the manor until they came to a pair of large, double doors of polished wood with golden hinges and knobs. Caleb pushed the doors open to reveal an immense library, with case upon case and shelf upon shelf of books.

Caleb began to scan the shelves one by one, muttering to himself about how it was one of these somewhere. “So, what now? Does one of these books open a secret passage when you move it?” Talia asked “Not quite.” Said Caleb “One of these books is the secret passage.” Before Talia could ask what he meant by that, Caleb found what he was looking for. He pulled what looked to be a plain, dusty old book bound it black leather with faded gold etching, tucked in between a book of maps and the complete works of some obscure author she’d never heard of.

Upon Caleb opening the book, Talia saw that it’s pages were completely blank. Before she could question what he was doing , however, Caleb held the book out in front of him, and spoke in a strange language Talia had never heard. It certainly wasn’t the Common Tongue, nor did it sound Elvish or even Dwarven. For all she could tell, it was complete gibberish.

Suddenly, Caleb dropped the book onto the floor, and it opened on it’s own, glowing golden letters appearing on it’s pages in what Talia assumed was the same language Caleb had spoken. The book’s pages rapidly began turning by themselves, coming to a stop about halfway through, and a portal appeared, hovering above where the book lay. Through it, they could see literal piles of gelt, as well as various jewels and other valuable looking trinkets and baubles.

“What is this?” Talia asked “I’m not sure exactly.” Caleb confessed " One day I was dusting the library, and overheard Master Blackwood reciting that incantation I just did. I peeked around the corner, and saw him step inside a portal like this, carrying some sort of valuable looking object. When he came back out, he didn’t have it, so I figured this must be where he keeps his valuables. I think it’s some kind of artifact from some ancient civilization that he acquired at some auction. If whatever you’re seeking is anywhere, I figure it must be in there.”

“Alright. You stay here, in case anyone comes by and keep watch. I’ll be back soon.” Talia stepped through the portal, and emerged on the other side to be greeted by more treasure than she’d ever seen in her life, or would likely ever see again. For a moment, the thought crossed her mind of simply taking the portal book with her instead, and forgetting about the crown all together.

But if she did that, she would be putting her family at too great a risk. Magic and enchanted items were highly taboo in most societies, particularly human ones. They were considered too dangerous to use or own, and to some, outright blasphemous. If she ever got caught stealing, only she would be punished. But if she was found with such an item in her possession, the consequences would be ruinous for her, as well as her siblings.

Pushing the thought from her head, she began to search for the crown. As she wandered through the golden mountains of coins and gems, she suddenly felt a chill run up the length of her spine. It was as though somewhere in the depths of the vast sea of wealth, she could sense something was watching her. Before she could ponder the thought any further, she spotted it. The black iron crown, sitting atop a marble pedestal amid three particularly large mounds of gelt and jewels, almost like a shrine of some sort.

As she approached the pedestal, she could feel something in the air that made her fur stand on end. It was as though each glittering gem surrounding her was an eye, watching her every move, just waiting, daring her to reach out and take it. Some subconscious, primal instinct told her not to touch the crown, but she had come so far already. She knew if she turned back now, she wouldn’t get paid, and would have consigned herself to living a life of crime for the rest of her days, just to feed her family. She had to push on. She had to finish the job, no matter the danger or cost.

She came even closer to her prize, step by step. As she drew near, she got a good look at the crown itself. As the contact had said, it was forged from iron as black as night. There was no gold or jewels adorning it, or anything to suggest it was more than just a hunk of metal. It didn’t even look to be very well made either. Talia was no blacksmith, but even to her, it seemed rather crudely crafted. Why anyone would hide such a seemingly mundane item among all this treasure, or go through all the trouble of finding and hiring someone like her to steal it, she could not fathom. This was her client’s so called “Ultimate Score”?

In the end, however, it didn’t matter. What did she care why her client wanted this crown? All that mattered was that she deliver it, and get paid. She saw no glass or any container of any sort around the crown, so she reached out and grabbed it. It felt heavier than the average piece of jewelry, given it was made from a dense metal, but it was still light enough for her to carry one-handed.

No sooner than she had lifted to crown from it’s cradle, than the entire room of golden mountains began to quake, threatening to crush her beneath an avalanche of wealth. As she regained her balance, Talia saw that the gelt and gems at her feet and all around her seemed to be shifting about, as though invisible hands were guiding them along the floor to the center mound that the pedestal stood directly in front of.

Suddenly, the huge pile of treasure erupted, sending coins and jewels alike into the air, which formed what could almost have been described as a cloud of glinting gold and sparkling gemstones that stood suspended above Talia. It would have made a beautiful sight, if not for what happened next. The cloud of treasure began to take shape, the coins and jewels seemingly linking together to form what appeared as a long, serpentine neck, attached to a head in the shape of that of a dragon’s with two large rubies for eyes, and various gems for teeth.

Talia didn’t stay to admire the shining, glittering formation, as she immediately turned and ran faster than she’d ever run before, as quickly as her feline feet would carry her back to the portal. The golden gelt dragon slithered like a snake through the air, it’s jaws opened wide, it’s ruby eyes seeming to shine in fury that anyone would dare try to steal from the hoard it protected.

All around Talia, the hills of gelt shifted and collapsed as she and the gargantuan guardian of the vault raced by, forcing her to dodge and jump over them several times. As she ran, she held the crown in one hand, and the hem of her dress in the other, lest it trip her and seal her doom. She silently thanked whatever higher power that may have been watching that when she put on the dress, it had not come with heels.

The portal was in sight now. She was nearly there! By now, her legs felt as though they would shatter at any moment from exertion. She took quick, ragged breaths, her lungs aching from the strain. She felt the dragon nearly bring it’s gilded jaws crashing down on the tip of her tail. It was gaining on her! Just a few more yards now…

With a final, mighty burst of will, Talia pushed herself to run even faster, practically launching herself like a balista bolt across the last few feet between herself and the portal. She came bursting through the other side, sliding across the floor of the library as the portal closed behind her. She’d done it! But as she got onto her feet, she heard an unfamiliar voice comment " Well, you certainly know how to make an entrance, I’ll give you that.”

She looked up to see Caleb with another figure standing behind him, a blade pressed to Caleb’s throat. Talia immediately knew that Caleb’s mysterious assailant must have been the second thief the elves had hired. He was a human dressed in a nobleman’s outfit as well. Looks like the elves had the same idea, Talia thought. “Thank you for saving me all that trouble.” Said the second thief with a wicked smile. “I never would have found the vault if I hadn’t seen you bump into your little friend here. Now, hand over the crown, and I won’t slit his throat.”

Talia looked to Caleb, who could only stare back at her with pleading eyes. She couldn’t just hand this cutthroat the crown after everything she went through to get it. But on the other hand, she wasn’t willing to just let Caleb die for it, either. She decided to stall for time while she tried to think of a plan.

“I know you were hired by the elves. I thought you humans hated them?” The second thief chuckled and shrugged. “You of all people should know, if they pay is good, the client’s race doesn’t really matter. Besides, why should I care what the Emperor of Elves wants with that crown? He’s agreed to make me royalty once they’ve conquered this land. Surely, you can sympathize with that, eh? Never having to eat scraps from the garbage or beg on the streets ever again.”

“So, that’s it? You’re doing this all for yourself, then?”

“Of course I’m doing this for myself! I’m a thief, just like you! We’re basically the same, you and I. We steal because we need to, to survive.”

“No, you’re only half right. I do steal to survive, but I’m not like you. I actually have more than my own life on the line, and I don’t hide behind others with a dagger at their throats like a coward!”

“Sticks and stones, kitten. I do whatever gets me to my goal. If that means blood must be spilled in the process, so be it. Now, you have until the count of five to give me the crown, or the servant boy dies! One…two…three…”

Talia suddenly had an idea. It was risky, maybe even stupid, but it was all she could think of under such pressure. “Okay! You win, I’ll give you the crown.” The thief grinned “Smart choice. Place it on the floor and slide it over to me.” Talia did so, but made sure to only kick the crown hard enough that it stopped about halfway between her and where the thief stood.

The thief cursed and removed his blade from Caleb’s gullet, pushing him aside as he went to retrieve the crown. As he did so, Talia rushed towards him, taking the thief by surprise as she tackled him to the floor. The impact caused him to drop his dagger, which Caleb quickly retrieved as Talia wrestled with the thief. They rolled over onto each other repeatedly, each trying to get on top, until the thief managed to overpower Talia and wrapped his hands around her neck, strangling her.

He proceeded to violently shake her up and down as he did so, until there was a sudden agonizing pain in his eyes as everything went black. Talia had used two of her claws to stab him in the eyes, spilling blood onto her face and dress as the thief removed his hands from her throat and clasped them over his face, screaming in pain.

Talia shoved the thief off of her and got to her feet, grabbing the crown off the floor as Caleb rushed to her side. “Are you alright?” He asked with concern “I’ll be fine, just show me the quickest way out of here.” Talia replied, wiping the blood from her face with the sleeve of her dress. Caleb went over to the large fireplace at the far end of the library and hit a hidden switch built into the mantle. The back wall of the fireplace slid away, revealing a hidden tunnel.

“Emergency escape passage.” Caleb said “This once leads right outside the estate.” They both entered the tunnel and sealed it behind them, leaving the other thief cursing and groping blindly around the room in a desperate, almost comical attempt to locate them.

“Are you sure this is the way out?” Talia asked, as they made their way through the darkness. They had already made so many twists and turns that Talia had stopped trying keep track, and really hoped that Caleb hadn’t gotten them hopelessly lost.

“These passages were built so Blackwood and his staff could escape if ever the manor was raided by bandits or an invading army. He made sure every servant memorized the correct route. Trust me, I know where we’re going.”

“Never heard of a noble caring that much about his servants.” Talia commented as they rounded yet another corner. “I wasn’t lying when I said Master Blackwood treated us decently. We may be beneath him on the social scale, but he’s not cruel.” “Yet you were so willing to steal from him and be free of your servitude.” Talia pointed out “If you were forced into a debt that you didn’t ask for and made to be someone’s lackey, wouldn’t you take any chance that came along to be free of it?” Caleb responded matter-of-factly.

“Good point. How much further, now?”

“We’re there.” Caleb said as they came to what looked to be a dead end, standing before a solid stone wall. Before Talia could object that they must have taken a wrong turn, she noticed a lever protruding from the wall. Caleb pulled the lever down, and just like the fireplace, the wall in front of them slid to the side, revealing an opening out into the cool night air. As they stepped out of the passage, Talia saw that they were standing in the forest that bordered the estate, having just exited through what looked to be a hidden alcove behind a boulder in front of a hill.

Talia held the crown up to the moonlight to get a closer look at it. She had done it. She held in her hands, her ticket to a better life for her and her family. But there had to be something more to this crown than it’s appearance suggested. Why else would the Elven Empire and whoever her client was want it so badly? She and Caleb stared at the crown in silence for what felt like ages, before Caleb finally spoke up.

“So, you got what you came for. Aren’t you going to take it to your employer?” Asked Caleb, and Talia hesitated “I’m not sure that I should. Whatever this crown may be, the elves want it too, and that can’t possibly be a good thing. That other thief said they were planning to conquer this kingdom. Something tells me that this crown is a part of whatever they’re scheming. On the other hand, I have my siblings to think of, and a promise to keep to you. So, I find myself in a conundrum. Help my family, and risk this crown and whatever power it may posses falling into the wrong hands. Or, break my promise, and condemn my siblings to a life of poverty, with the silver lining of potentially saving the kingdom. What should I do?” The two of them stood there, weighing each option in their minds. Then it came to them. The perfect solution to their dilemma…

The following evening, a bald human male with a barely visible goatee, dressed in the black and crimson garments of the Royal Advisor entered an alleyway somewhere in the center of the city, long about midnight. He had received an unsigned letter that morning that had said to meet someone in this very spot at this appointed time, regarding a possible matter of security for the entire kingdom. At first, he suspected it to be nothing more than a trick, being played by some youngsters with nothing better to do. Or possibly a trap by enemies of his lord, the King, which was why he had come flanked by two of the Kings most trusted Royal Bodyguards.

Trick or not, he had to be sure. After all, there was always a chance that the letter had been truthful, and there really was an important matter he should know about. In which case, as the Advisor to the King, it was his duty to be certain the letter was genuine. Once he entered the alley, a figure with a cloak and hood covering their face stepped out of the shadows into view. “I assume you are the one who sent me that letter this morning?” The Advisor asked, and the hooded figure nodded.

“Well then, what’s this matter of utmost security you mentioned? I warn you, if this is a trap or just a ploy to waste my time, I will personally see that you regret ever crossing me!” The figure said nothing, but instead tossed an object from inside the folds of its cloak at the Advisor’s feet.

The Advisor looked down at the item, and gasped in shock when he realized what it was. A plain crown, forged from black iron. “Judging by your response, my suspicions were correct.” Said the figure as it lowered it’s hood, revealing itself as one of the feline beastfolk. “This is no ordinary crown. There’s something more to it.”

“More than you could possibly know.” The Advisor said “Who are you, and where did you get this crown?” “I am Talia Moratir, otherwise known as The Black Storm. I am a master thief, and acquired this crown on my latest job.” “Ah yes, I’ve hear of your exploits, Black Storm. Is there any particular reason why you would reveal yourself to me, and risk me sending you to the gallows by sunrise?”

“I don’t know what power this crown has, but it must be considerable for all the trouble I went through to get it. I know whatever it is capable of, it must be a threat to the kingdom if the elves ever got their hands on it. I am a thief, but I still have a conscience. So, I want to make a deal.”

“What would the terms of this deal be?”

“Firstly, I want amnesty from all my past crimes. Second, an estate for me and my family, preferably in the country. Third, The Baron Lucian Blackwood has a friend of mine by the name of Caleb Syramar in servitude to his house. His debt is to be declared paid, and himself free to leave. Lastly, my family is to receive an allowance of fifty thousand gelt per month to live on. That includes any of our future descendants, as well as any that may marry into our family. Do you agree to these terms?”

The Advisor looked from Talia to the crown sitting on the ground between them, his gaze darting repeatedly from one to the other as he considered her demands. Ordinarily, he would just have her arrested, since she just basically confessed to many major thefts across the capital. But, even if she didn’t realize it, she had done a great service for all the kingdom by bringing this crown to him for safekeeping, rather than handing it over to their elvish enemies, or whoever else had contracted her to procure it.

The Advisor sighed, looked up to Talia once more and replied “Very well. I accept your terms, on one condition. You are to speak of our meeting here tonight, and the details of our agreement to nobody. Not even your family. This remains a secret between us, that we both will take to our graves. Agreed?”

Talia nodded. With that, the Advisor picked up the black crown and signaled for his escorts to accompany him back to the palace. As they turned and exited the alley, Talia pulled her hood back up and began her walk back home, a broad smile on her face. At this very moment, their were only two things on her mind: how she was sure to sleep like a babe once she got home after the night she’d had, and the future she’d secured for her family.

Several weeks later, Talia sat in the lavish dining hall of her family’s new estate, dressed in a regal ladies robe, eating an exquisite breakfast as she listened to the sounds of her younger sibling’s laughter as they played together in the garden just beyond the dining room windows. Caleb sat across from her, barely even touching his plate. “Something on your mind?” Talia asked as she sipped from a silver goblet. Caleb hesitated. “It just that…for the first time in my life, I’m free to do whatever I wish. But the problem is…I don’t know what it is I wish to do.” Talia giggled. “Well, take as long as you need to decide. Whether you want to go or stay here, you’re always welcome.” Caleb smiled “Thank you.”

Meanwhile, across the sea to the east, the two emissaries of the Elven Empire brought a human whose eye sockets were now covered by a blindfold before their Emperor. The Lord of all elvish kind sat on his throne, a disgusted sneer plastered across his face. “Please, my lord, I beg you! I was so close to retrieving the crown! That mangy alley cat tricked me!” The blind thief begged “I suppose this isn’t entirely your fault.” The Emperor said coolly. “R-r-really?” the thief stuttered “Yes. I should have known something like this would happen by hiring two thieves for one job. You were meant as a back up plan, in case the first one failed. I hadn’t counted on the two of you meeting each other while on the job.”

“What!?” the thief exclaimed , but before he could speak any more, the Emperor signaled for his guards to take him away. “Fear not. Though you failed me, I am a merciful ruler, and shall grant you the mercy of a quick and painless death. Bring him to the executioner, and tell him to ready the guillotine.”

The guards dragged the blinded man from the throne room, kicking and screaming. The Emperor sighed in frustration as he leaned back against his throne. In hindsight, he thought, he really should have foreseen this possibility. Now the crown was no doubt lost to him, whether that cat had sold it or kept it for herself. In the end, it mattered little. There was no way she knew how to unlock it’s true potential. Besides, the legends told of several other crowns besides the the one he’d lost. He’d just have to find another…
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