It would have brought Prince Thorne great delight to have apprehended Shannah Darkmoon, but the risk was too great. The Pegasus Guard had successfully rescued Lady Belinda from her flight, but her predicament wasn’t nearly as perilous. Shannah was enormous, her body so filled with the energy of the Voluptaas sand that she was glowing. Both the Prince and Baron Hughes were convinced that she would burst; they didn’t want the Guardsmen anywhere near her when she did.
But there was no explosion heard that night. In days following, tales of a floating orb illuminating the night skies made their way back to the castle. Each night the light grew dimmer and the sightings were farther and farther east.
Prince Thorne was worried that the magic might be fading and that Darkmoon might return to earth. His alchemists reassured him that this wasn’t the case. If recovering from the sand were simply a matter of waiting, then Belinda would have shrinking as well. Shannah’s light was fading because she was steadily rising higher into the heavens. If she continued to do so, she would eventually asphyxiate or possibly even explode. Regardless, The Darkest of Moons would darken his doorstep never again.
Hughes was impressed by Madam Darkmoon’s pace. After two nights, she’d left the kingdom’s borders. A few nights later, the sightings stopped.
Lady Belinda took up residence in the Prince’s private garden. A large tent was constructed around her to give her privacy while the royal alchemists worked on a cure.
Fortunately for Lady Belinda, they had plenty of Voluptaas sand to work with. Unfortunately for the serfs conscripted as test subjects, there were many failures, some quite spectacular. But after several months of work, a cure was formulated and Lady Belinda was once again ambulatory.
Shortly thereafter, and over Baron Hughes’ discreetly expressed objections, Prince Thorne announced his betrothal to Lady Belinda and began preparations for a royal wedding. None gave any more thought to the fate of Shannah Darkmoon.
The glow provided by the magic of the Voluptaas sand offered much light but only a little heat. It was enough to keep Shannah from freezing to death in the bone-chilling winds that carried her, but just barely.
As the days passed, she could see the ground gradually falling away, the features of the landscape growing less distinct. And to make matters worse, she could feel her body swelling against the increasingly rarefied air at altitude, the pressure inside her rising. She constantly felt as though her enormous, taut globe of a body was right on the verge of rupturing.
When she passed through a cloud, water droplets collected on her skin. At night, the glow from within her body made them sparkle like the jewels that had adorned the gown from which she’d so spectacularly burst. Sometimes she could catch a drink, depending on her orientation. When her body was upright, water pooled in the dimple where her body bulged up around her head. At that point she didn’t really have a choice; she could either drink or drown. Thirst would become a problem if the clouds cleared, but it was only one problem on an impressive list.
“I could explode. I could expire from thirst. I could starve. I could freeze. If it rains, I could even drown.”
It was after her sixth sunset in the sky that Shannah made landfall. She was awoken by the chill of her drift grinding to a halt against the snow. She blinked her drowsiness away, a spark of hope lighting in her heart.
Have I really come down?
That spark quickly flickered and died. Judging by the vast arc of her bosom that filled much of her vision, she was just as distended now as she’d been when she’d dozed off. The sight of the snow-covered peaks around her confirmed her fear. Shannah had not descended to the ground; the ground had risen to meet her.
Throughout her ordeal, Shannah had struggled to maintain her resolve and cling to hope. Many times she’d fought back tears, and had succeeded for the most part. But now her flight had come to an end near the summit of a towering mountain. There would be no trails this far up. There would be no passing caravan to come upon her. Even if by some miracle she were to suddenly deflate, she was starving, freezing, and naked; her only supplies were a locket of that infernal sand. She would never survive the trek back to civilization.
Shannah Darkmoon, the greatest thief who had ever lived, was going to meet her end distended, naked, defeated, humiliated, and alone. At long last, she surrendered the battle to hold her sobs in.
A wise man once said, “Hell is other people.” By that measure, Tanadreal truly lived in a heaven on Earth. He was surrounded by ice, stone, and scrub. It was the perfect place for him to pursue his studies. There were no people around to provide distractions or complications.
That was the case most days. But tonight he caught a scent.
People smell. They stink. Most people spend their days among other people. Their noses became numb to the stench of humanity. Only the truly solitary fully understood the depths and breadths of human odor. On any given day it was a safe bet that there wasn’t another man within a hundred leagues of Tanadreal’s home. This meant that anyone who came near his part of the mountain was almost certainly there to see him, and that he would smell any such arrivals from a long way out.
So it was with great surprise that Tanadreal noticed the smell of someone unfamiliar. It arrived suddenly and with great strength.
He briefly pondered who this unexpected visitor was. All of Tanadreal’s visitors were unexpected. His home was so remote that it wasn’t terribly practical to send invitations down or announcements up. So anyone who wished an audience with him would simply have to make the trip and hope that he would spare them some time.
Anyone who knew of Tanadreal knew of his contempt for humanity in general. No man who enjoyed company would ever take up residence here. But as notoriously disagreeable as Tanadreal was, he firmly believed that anybody who risked life and limb to reach him deserved at the very least a hearing and a cup of tea.
“Xartac?” he called out.
“Yes, I smelled her, too”, the imp replied. “Shall I put on a kettle?”
“Yes.” Xartac was his only companion. Tanadreal had planned to dismiss him after he’d fulfilled the terms of his summoning, but Xartac had begged to stay, promising that he could continue to be of service. And that bat-winged, lizard-faced little hellspawn proved surprisingly persuasive.
Tanadreal agreed to let the imp stay but only so long as he was useful. That was almost fifty years ago. The enchantments that bound him had long since faded, but Xartac stayed. If Tanadreal had friends, Xartac would be one of them.
“Her?” Tanadreal breathed deeply, taking in the new scent. He scowled. “I’ll be damned. How did I miss that?”
Xartac shrank back a bit. Tanadreal did not like being wrong. “In all fairness, I’m quite certain I’ve smelled a human woman far more recently than you have.”
Tanadreal grunted in assent. He returned to his reading and awaited a knock upon his door.
No knock came.
Tanadreal scowled. A visitor who didn’t present himself was more likely than not an intruder. He was more annoyed than angry. Only a great fool would brave the hazards of the Spire to stir up trouble with one tenacious enough to make a home here.
Intruders were rare. Their skulls adorned his mantel.
“Something’s wrong,” he growled.
“Sire, there’s a light.” Xartac pointed out the window.
“There is.” He couldn’t see the source, but something was casting a light far brighter than the half moon in the sky. He grabbed his staff. “Stay here and tend to the tea. It appears we have something interesting on our hands.”
Tanadreal slowly trod around the curve of the cliff face. The source of light slowly came into view, the scent of person growing stronger. He was not expecting the spectacle that greeted him; it was a massive orb, at least five times his height. He could barely believe what he was looking at, but the impossibly plump hand embedded in a dimple halfway up the globe confirmed it.
The object before him wasn’t an it; it was a she. He’d found his interloper.
When Shannah first heard the approaching footfalls in the snow, she thought she was dreaming.
Delirium is good, she thought. It’s the fun part right before the end.
Her visitor couldn’t be real. The air was still, the mountain silent. She could hear him clearly. He was barefoot; the faint swish of his clothing could only be a light cloak at most. If he was real, then he’d be just as dead as she was, and about as quickly.
Yet still he neared, his pace a steady one-two-three cadence of feet and walking stick. It wasn’t until she heard his voice that she dared believe he might be something other than a figment of her imagination.
“My, my, aren’t you a big girl?”
“Hello? Who’s there? Help, please!” Shannah called out.
“I’ll be asking the questions,” Tanadreal barked. He walked around the enormous blimp until he found the swollen, tear-streaked face that was the source of the voice. “Are you visitor or thief? You’re contemplating deceiving me. I would caution you against it.”
Shannah’s breath caught in her throat when the gaunt, white-haired old man came into view. Despite the cold, he was clad only in tattered sage’s robes. If any doubts regarding his nature had remained, then they would have been dispelled by the ornate sigils that adorned his face and neck. And these particular symbols were quite familiar to her.
The spark of hope sputtered back to life.
“Both on occasion, but neither today,” Shannah replied. She hoped that the puffiness of her face made her expression difficult to read. In her weak and exhausted state, guile did not come with ease.
“Why are you here?”
“The wind carried me here. It was not a journey of my choosing.”
“So I am to believe that mere misfortune brought you to my mountain?” he demanded.
“I would hardly call my predicament mere misfortune. And is this really your mountain?” Shannah asked.
“No questions!” he snapped. “And yes, this is my mountain. I have claimed it, and there is no man to contest my claim. Unless you wish to do so yourself?”
“No sire, I do not,” was her reply. “But as a matter of principle, King Radys may take issue with you annexing the Davermore Spire.”
“If the winds of fate brought you here through no machinations of your own, then how do you even know where you are?”
“You told me,” Shannah said. “Your clothes, your tattoos, this godsforsaken mountain. You can only be the mage Tanadreal. Which means I must be at Davermore.”
Tanadreal frowned. “Most folk think I’m merely a myth. And yet you know my name, my face, and my home, while I know nothing of you. You can see why I find this troubling. Who are you?”
Shannah smiled. “Are you asking me, or yourself?”
“Myself, mostly,” he replied, smiling in return. Even in her surpassingly swollen state, this woman mustered poise and wit that few could manage. “Shall I guess?”
“Please do. But I suspect you’ve surmised my identity.”
“You’ve already confessed to being a thief, but clearly you’re no common cutpurse. You know much about me, knowledge which few people possess and for whom even fewer have a use. Such knowledge is not easy to come by; I suspect you sought it out when you were plotting to rob me.”
“That was some years ago,” Shannah confessed. “Your defenses are quite intimidating.”
“No doubt you quickly dismissed the idea as suicidal. But that you considered it at all tells me all I need to know. You’re not just any thief, you’re the greatest of thieves. You’re Shannah Darkmoon.”
She nodded as best she could. “At your service, and your mercy. Please, I need help.”
“By the looks of things, you’ve no service to offer me. And I have no mercy to offer you.” He turned his back to her and began walking.
“Wait! Please, hear me out!” Shannah cried. “I’m not asking for charity. I will gladly repay you for your assistance. And given how much I value my own life, I assure you the compensation will be great indeed.”
“I’ve little use for money,” Tanadreal replied, waving a hand dismissively as he continued walking. “I’ve devoted my life to the perfection of the arcane arts. Anything that would be of value to me simply cannot be bought.”
“Then we have something in common,” Shannah said. “I possess wealth far beyond mere coins. And if I don’t possess what you desire, ‘tis no matter. As you said, I am the greatest of thieves; I will steal it or die trying.”
“There is only one thing in the world that I desire which I cannot get for myself. And if it is beyond my reach, then it is certainly beyond yours,” he called out over his shoulder. “Good night, Madam Darkmoon. And if you could, please be so kind as to wait until morning to burst. I become very disagreeable when my sleep is interrupted.”
“Check your polymorph tincture when you get home!” she called after him. It was the most reckless of gambles, but she literally had nothing left to lose.
At this, he stopped and turned back to her. “What? Why?”
“You were correct. I researched you when I sought to rob you,” Shannah said. “But I didn’t dismiss the idea. I paid you a visit then. I stole only things that would truly aid my work and would likely go unnoticed. Polymorph tincture is priceless to a thief, but of little use to a recluse. Nothing is beyond my reach.”
Scowling with with a mix of rage and disbelief he disappeared in a flash of light. The wait seemed like an eternity to Shannah, but was certainly no more than a few minutes. Another flash and Tanadreal returned, still scowling and holding small brown pod between his thumb and forefinger.
“It seems you are a far better thief than I gave you credit for,” he snapped. “Take this under your tongue.” This was his second error of the day. And as much as it irked him to admit it, having her around might be of some benefit to him. If she had a tendency to expose his weaknesses, then it would be best for him if she did so as an ally rather than an adversary.
Shannah opened her mouth as far as her bloated lips would allow. The mage pressed the pod between them. It tasted of leaves and mud. A powerful tingling sensation enveloped her.
“That will keep you warm and comfortable whilst I formulate a cure for this ridiculous condition of yours.”
“Thank you,” she replied. Tears welled up in her eyes once more.
“You won’t be thanking me when you hear my price. Steal it or die trying, those were your words?”
Tanadreal spoke to her the name of his greatest desire. Shannah’s eyes twinkled with joy.
“No,” he gasped. “Not even you could possess such a treasure.”
“No, I do not. But I know where I can acquire it. It will take some time, but I swear upon my life that I will repay you for your help.”
She would be breaking one of her most sacred rules, but all other rules were subordinate the the first: survive.
Truly great thieves, the masters who went on to retire and die quietly in their lavish beds, treated their art as a business. There was no room for grudges or vendettas. Pride would kill a thief as easily as the deadliest of poisons. Win or lose, you did a job and then you moved on. You never robbed the same man twice.
But Shannah had made a promise, a promise that would secure her survival. And that promise would require her to return to Prince Thorne’s castle.