The room Mina Black stood in was dark. She assumed the people commissioning her next job didn’t want her to recognize them. That, or they thought it gave them an air of mystery. Either way, they would be disappointed to know she had better-than-average sight. Though if she kept standing around she might die of boredom before she ever discovered what they wanted her to steal.
Before she decided to abandon the creaky, old building, she heard a voice from behind.
“We’re so glad you could meet us, Miss Black.” The voice was gruff and most definitely male.
She spun around and in the gloom could make out the outline of an older man. He appeared thin, a long dark cloak that camouflaged his actual size. Behind him stood four more people. They had the hoods of their cloaks drawn up, hiding their faces completely. They weren’t relying solely on the lack of light to shield them from Mina’s view.
“You sure took your time,” Mina grumbled. She studied her blunt nails, attempting to be nonchalant.
The leader nodded slowly. “I apologize. We were…delayed.”
Mina held out her hands and shrugging. She didn’t tell the man how close he’d been to being minus one talented thief.
“Let’s not waste time,” she said instead, flipping her black hair over her shoulder. “Tell me what it is you want me to do.”
The man walked around Mina, the rest of the people following close behind. They had the herd-mentality of a worshiping cult. Memories were brought to the surface, memories that were best left forgotten. A shiver ran down her spine.
“There is an object of immense power,” the man said. “A stone, or a jewel really. We want you to get it from the man keeping it now and bring it to us.”
“You want me to go after someone’s fancy trinket?” Mina snorted. “Alright. Tell me who has it and you’ll get it by tomorrow morning at the latest.”
The shadowy shape of the man turned to Mina in surprise.
“Just like that?” he demanded. “You don’t even ask what it’s for?”
“As long as you pay me what I asked, you get your item.” Mina gave a wicked smile. “No questions asked.”
“Very well,” the man replied, sounding very pleased. He held out a small dagger. “Take this. It will allow one of our men to find you when you have the jewel.”
Mina reached out and took the dagger by the blade, careful not to nick her fingers in the process. The blade was thin and tapered to a sharp point. On the blade, under the leather-wrapped hilt, was a gold image of a multi-pointed star. After admiring it for a moment, she nodded, then turned to leave the building and the shadowy figures.
Mina stalked through the streets of the city. Magic hummed through her body, causing her fingers to tingle in anticipation.
As she’d left the building, one of the cloaked figures had stopped her, giving her a tiny vial, almost empty. Anyone else might have thought it was meaningless and thrown it away. However, Mina knew better.
Inside the vial was a single strand of hair. The hair of the man who she was going to steal from.
She’d been able to use the hair for a tracking spell, not an easy feat, and now that spell was leading her through the city. A slight tug, like a small child grabbing her shirt, pulled her. It grew more insistent the closer she got to the target.
The tugging led her to a nearly deserted street. The sun was setting and most people were heading home, ready for a cozy family dinner. The fleeting thought of Imogen, a young girl Mina took care of, passed through Mina’s mind. By now, Imogen would be heating up food and eating alone. A pang of guilt went through her that she hastily pushed aside.
In front of Mina, back to her, was a middle-aged man. His thick, brown hair was starting to streak with gray. He looked fit, though his shirt hung loose on him. His hands were shoved in his pockets and he turned his head to the side as if he heard Mina behind him.
There was a shadow of a beard along his jaw. Around his eyes and on his forehead were deep wrinkles. Mina could imagine years of frowning were carved on his face. Even in the fading light, his gray eyes were striking, one moment a cool silver and the next dark slate.
Mina, her footsteps made silent earlier with her magic, crept closer to the man. When she was within arms-length, she reached out for the man’s pockets.
She was used to doing this, had been stealing for years before ever becoming a professional thief. With the help of her magic, she was nearly invisible to ordinary people.
The man turned, looking at her, his face blank. “May I help you?”
Mina stared at him, aghast, yanking her hand back to her side. The man raised an eyebrow at her, seeming more curious than angry.
It was then that Mina realized there was no pulsing of magic around the man. Anytime there was magic, she could sense it. If the jewel was as powerful as the cloaked man said, it should have announced its presence by now. Which meant that the man didn’t have the jewel after all.
Or the man was talented enough to conceal magic.
“You look distressed,” the man said. Mina wasn’t sure if he was actually concerned or making fun of her. “What’s wrong?”
The man reached out for Mina, but she darted away before he could touch her. With one last wide-eyed stare, she spun around and ran. The man grabbed at her hand, touching her wrist before she was able to get sprint away, heart in her throat.
Mina walked toward home, her mind spinning. After an hour of aimless meandering she came to the decision to abandon the assignment to get the jewel.
She’d never failed a job before, but there was something about the man that unsettled her. It could’ve been the fact that she hadn’t sensed any magic on him or the way his eyes seemed to change colors. Mina thought of the way he’d looked at her, concerned, but somehow it was like he understood her with a glance. As though he could read her soul.
Mina shuddered at the thought. Unconsciously, she came to Moon River. The water was clear, flowing swiftly past and she crouched down to let the water trail around her fingers.
She heard heavy footsteps behind her before the person spoke.
“I’m here to pick up the jewel,” the stranger said in a deep voice.
Mina turned around. The man wore the dark cloak as the others had, but it was too big for him, the bottom pooling on the ground around his feet.
“I don’t have it,” Mina admitted. “I’ve decided I’m not going to get it. Our contract is severed.”
“That wasn’t part of the deal,” the man said. His voice was tight.
“I’m changing the deal.” Mina took the dagger from where she’d secured it at the small of her back.
When she held it out to the man, the hood of his cloak moved from side to side.
“If you want the stupid jewel,” Mina declared, “get it yourselves.”
Mina threw the dagger down, making sure the tip of the blade hit the ground, sinking in an inch. The hood tilted down and Mina assumed he was staring at the dagger.
“You will regret going back on your word,” the man responded.
“I’m sure I will,” Mina stated, not particularly worried. She turned away from the man, hurrying to her home.
The small house Mina lived in was old and run down. The door was pieced together after having been blown down a few months ago. Mina had yet to get it replaced and just used magic for the time being to keep it together.
Imogen was sitting on the sofa, a plate of microwaved chicken nuggets in front of her. When she saw Mina, she set the food on the couch next to her and jumped up. Her thin arms wrapped around Mina’s waist as the girl hugged Mina close.
“I didn’t think you’d be back so soon,” Imogen said, looking up.
Mina pushed the girl’s light hair away from her face and smiled. “I didn’t either, but since I’m here, what do you want to do?”
Imogen pondered the question for a moment, then asked, “Can you tell me about Paris again?”
Mina chuckled, pushing Imogen toward the sofa before grabbing a book and sitting next to her. Two years ago, Mina had come across an old picture book about Paris, France and had shown it to Imogen on a whim. The young girl had become enamored with the city and decided one day she would live there.
Every chance she got, Mina would squirrel away as much money as possible. Eventually, she would have enough to take them both to France and away from her life as a thief.
They’d just settled down to look at the book when there was a soft knock on the broken door. Mina’s head jerked up at the sound. Beside her, Imogen tensed.
“Stay here,” Mina ordered as she stood and made her way to the door cautiously.
Opening it revealed the man she’d tried to rob earlier and a younger man behind him.
The younger man was cute, in a nerdy way. His light brown hair stood up all over his head, like he’d run his fingers through it repeatedly. He had blue eyes that were all but hidden behind thick-rimmed glasses. He was scowling and Mina instantly disliked him.
Mina hurried to slam the door shut, but the older man had already shoved his foot between the door and the frame, giving him enough room to shoulder his way inside.
“May we come in?” he asked, though he was already making his way into the living room. The younger man quickly followed giving Mina a dismissive glance as he passed her.
Imogen had jumped to her feet when the men had entered and she looked from them to Mina with wide eyes.
“Get out,” Mina growled, gathering her magic to her.
The older man looked around, assessing the house, then faced her. “I apologize for the intrusion. Believe me, I wouldn’t press the matter unless it was important.”
Without waiting for further explanation, Mina darted forward, hand outstretched. Her magic’s biggest weakness was that she had to be touching the thing she wanted to manipulate. If she wanted to cast a spell on herself it was not a problem, but trying it on someone else required stealth.
Or in this case, surprise.
Before she could reach the older man, a blurred shape appeared in front of her. Between one second and the next, she was tumbling through the air, her chest feeling like she’d been hit by a wrecking ball. She crashed into the wall next to the door, sinking down with a groan.
“Isaac!” the older man yelled, hurrying to Mina’s side. “Are you alright?”
It felt like Mina’s brain was rattling around in her skull and when she tried to nod, the world started to spin.
The man ran a hand along Mina’s head, trailing his fingers from the crown of her skull to her forehead. Instantly, her mind was clear and the world righted itself. She looked up at the man, who was smiling at her.
“Better?” he asked.
Mina tried to reevaluate the man before her. His eyes still disarmed her and she felt he knew too much, but he had helped her. Maybe he wasn’t as much of a threat as she’d previously thought. Not that that mattered right now. She wanted both men gone.
The older man had stood up and was yelling at the other, the one he’d called Isaac. Isaac was shaking his right hand, like he’d punched Mina. There was a faint humming around him, like an aura, announcing magic. He hung his head under the verbal attack.
“You could have seriously hurt the poor girl,” the man was saying. “Or her house. Not to mention you’re nowhere near ready to use so much magic. Do you want to pass out like you did when you first came to me?”
“No,” Isaac mumbled, looking away.
With a heavy sigh, as if Isaac were a lost cause, the man turned back to Mina. She’d stood and during the commotion, Imogen had hurried to her side.
“I’m really sorry about that,” he said, actually sounding apologetic. “Isaac can sometimes be impulsive and over protective of me.”
“Who are you?” Mina demanded, keeping Imogen behind her.
“My name is Grayson,” the man said. “I came because I think you might be in danger.”
Mina cocked her head to the side. “What kind of danger?”
Grayson crossed his arms. “I’m assuming you were trying to steal a certain jewel earlier. Is that correct?”
Mina shrugged, unwilling to admit to anything.
“There’s very few people who even know about this jewel, and even less willing to hire someone to do their dirty work. And now that you failed, these people will hunt you down. The less loose ends the better, and they’re willing to kill to keep people from knowing their goals.
“If you’d managed to get the jewel and gave it to them, they would’ve killed you on the spot, but now you’re a threat to them.”
“So you think these guys will come here?” Mina asked.
Grayson nodded solemnly.
Mina snorted. “Let them try. They’ll be in for a big surprise.” When Grayson opened his mouth she continued. “It’s nice that you’re so worried, but I’m stronger than I look. I can handle a few thugs.”
It was Isaac who responded. “You think you’re strong?” He barked out a laugh. “That’s a joke. You’re magic is barely above average and I doubt you can actually hold your own against a decent opponent.”
Mina took a step forward, which Isaac matched. There was something about Isaac, the sound of his voice, which tugged at Mina’s memories. That feeling was buried under the anger building with every word he said. They were seconds away from clawing at each other’s throats when Grayson pulled Isaac back.
“I’m not saying you’re weak, but I don’t think you understand what you’re up against,” he admitted. “If nothing else, you should be concerned for the girl.”
Imogen perked up when she was mentioned. Mina reached back and put a hand on her protectively.
“I can keep ‘the girl’ safe,” she said. “You don’t need to worry about her.”
Grayson started to say something, but before he could there was a loud popping. All of them turned to the doorway, where Mina’s spell work had given out. The pieces of splintered wood fell to the ground. On the other side of the doorway stood a group of six cloaked figures.
“Damn,” Grayson cursed under his breath. “I was hoping it would take them longer to find us.”
As one, the group entered Mina’s home. Grayson met the leader of the group, standing in front of Isaac and Mina. Though he didn’t like her, Isaac stepped in front of Mina, providing another barrier for the cloaked group.
“How good to see you, warlock,” the leader of the group said. It was the same man that Mina had gotten the assignment from. “The thief wasn’t a complete waste after all.”
“Banin,” Grayson said, disgusted. “We both know I don’t have the Jewel. Was this just some sort of game for you?”
The leader, Banin, laughed. “You’re behind on the times. The Jewel has emerged again and the fight to claim it is already underway. No, our goal was to find you, but we didn’t have the ability.” He raised a finger and pointed to Mina. “She does, though.”
Mina started. “So I was just a tool?”
She tried to go forward, but Isaac grabbed her arm.
“Are you insane?” he demanded. “This is between them.”
She glared at him. “Not when they use me. Let me go.”
“Just wait,” Isaac told her. “Let Grayson take care of it.”
“You’ve found me, so now what?” Grayson asked, raising his hands in front of him.
“Now you’ll come with us and help us find all three artifacts,” Banin declared. “And then we’ll be unstoppable.”
Mina had no idea what the two men were talking about. All she wanted was to punch the man in the nose. Isaac’s grip on her arm tightened. Magic itched under her skin, wanting to be released. The thought of unleashing the magic on Isaac crossed her mind, but she dismissed it.
“I can’t let you do that,” Grayson said.
He threw out an arm. Mina had moments to see the yellow light of powerful magic around his arm before it was shot out at Banin like an arrow. The magic hit Banin sending him backward. If Isaac’s magic strike had sent Mina crashing into the wall, this attack was ten times stronger. Banin tumbled head over heels. When he finally hit the wall cracks emerged, spider webbing to the ceiling.
Mina held her breath. It would take a lot of magic to fix the wall, not to mention the door that had been broken again.
For a long moment, Mina wondered if the man was dead. He lay on the floor, face pressed into the carpet, motionless. The entire room was silent, waiting.
When Mina had given up on Banin, he slowly pushed himself up. There was a small pool of blood where his head had been. In the blast, his hood had been pushed back, revealing his face. Mina gasped and Imogen pressed against her back, small hands clutching her shirt.
Banin’s skin was covered in tattoos and scars. There were cuts of various sizes and depths in different stages of healing. One of the cuts on his forehead had started to bleed, red trailing down his cheek. His left eye was a dark brown, but the right was foggy.
“What have you done?” Grayson whispered, in shock at the gruesome appearance.
“We’ve found the way to get magic,” Banin declared, proud. “You said it was impossible, but we’ve proved you wrong.”
The other people pushed back their own hoods to reveal they all were disfigured in the same way. Mina looked from one to the other. She was familiar, too familiar, with how far normal people might go to get magic, but this was too much. Her stomach twisted and rolled and she clamped her mouth tight.
“You’ve messed with black magic,” Grayson said. “All that will do is just hurt you in the end.”
“I don’t care,” Banin admitted. “I’ve got power for the first time, and I’m not going to let you get in the way of that.”
Banin zipped forward. He was surrounded by a black haze. It lifted of him in tendrils, writhing in the air. Mina felt dirty and uncomfortable just seeing it. She released her own magic in an attempt to counter the feeling of Banin’s dark magic.
Banin swung a hand at Grayson’s head, using the magic to lend his punch more momentum. Grayson lifted his arms in an X, blocking the strike. Without missing a beat, Banin spun his leg in a kick, his foot colliding with Grayson’s side.
Grayson let out a pained cry. He recovered quicker than Mina would’ve expected, placing a hand on Banin’s chest. His magic went through Banin’s body, causing the other man to collapse to his feet, shaking.
When Banin had launched toward Grayson, his followers took a moment, but they eventually followed suit, hurling themselves at Isaac and Mina. Isaac lifted his hands, erecting a hasty barrier. Two of the people, a man and a woman, skirted the barrier. The woman, her magic the same serpentine black as Banin’s, turned to Mina.
Without thinking, Mina bent down, placing her hands on the floor. Straining her magic, she forced the ground beneath her to separate, a crack spreading forward. The woman realized what was happening a moment too late. The crack opened under her feet and she fell into the hole. Mina closed the crack just enough to trap the woman, but not kill her, leaving a space for air to enter.
Isaac had dispatched his opponent while Mina had been distracted. He glanced at her with an expression of surprised respect.
“Not bad,” he admitted.
The other people had made their way around the barrier. Mina pointed to them.
“Don’t waste time on compliments,” she ordered. “Help me get rid of these guys.”
Imogen had darted into a corner when the woman had attacked Mina. She held a small pocketknife in front of her that she’d grabbed when Mina wasn’t paying attention. Mina moved to go to her, but one of the intruders appeared in front of her.
Mina growled. “You’ll get out of my way if you know what’s good for you.”
The woman shook her head. Her black magic coalesced at her hands, morphing into two sharp knives. Mina eyed them warily. The woman struck out with one and Mina was barely able to swerve away from the sharp metal.
Mina tried to touch the ground, but the woman had already seen that trick. She stabbed the knives down and Mina pulled her hands back, just avoiding getting a knife through the back of her hand. Instead, she kicked out at the woman’s stomach. The blow knocked the woman back a few feet, but she righted herself.
The woman swung the knives, aiming for Mina’s arms, neck, chest, anything that might incapacitate her. Years of training were the only thing keeping Mina from being sliced to ribbons. It was impossible to touch the woman and cast a spell.
She was so absorbed in staying out of the woman’s reach that she wasn’t able to pay attention to the others. It wasn’t until she heard a high-pitched scream that she glanced away from the knives.
Isaac was preoccupied by his own opponent. The third intruder, another man, had gone to Imogen. He was enormous, six foot tall and built like a linebacker. Imogen’s pocketknife was laying on the ground several yards away from the girl and the man had his hand around her throat. He’d raised her several feet from the ground, her tiny bare feet dangled helplessly.
“Imogen!” Mina cried. She turned to run to the girl, but a sharp pain in her arm brought her attention back to the woman and her knives.
Her sleeve was cut, red staining the cloth. Her arm felt like it was on fire, but she pushed the pain aside. When the woman brought the knife down, aiming at Mina’s head, she reached up, grabbing the blade.
The sharp edge cut into her palm. She bit down on her lip until she tasted blood, but she refused to let go of the knife. The woman’s eyes went big and she hesitated, unsure how to respond to Mina’s action. That moment was all Mina needed.
She raised her other hand, slamming it on the woman’s forehead. Her magic shot through her, edged on by her anger and pain. The woman stared at Mina. Her eyes were a rich green and at one time she might’ve been beautiful. Now her brown hair was ragged and dirty and there were shadows under her eyes.
Mina felt no sympathy toward the woman, instead causing spasms of pain to run through the intruder’s body. The woman’s tattoos contorted as her face twisted in agony. When the woman dropped to the ground, unconscious, Mina stopped the pain. The woman wouldn’t hurt when she woke, but she would remember, the memory a warning.
She turned quickly, running for Imogen. The girl was clawing at the man’s hand around her throat, her face starting to change color. Mina jumped on the man’s back, wrapping her arms around his neck. She squeezed tight, her hand spread across his face. It took a breathless moment before her sleeping spell went to work. The man’s grip on Imogen loosened. He fell back and Mina sprang off him, grabbing Imogen and holding her close.
Isaac, finished with the last of their attackers, came to stand next to them.
“Impressive,” he admitted. There was a hint of admiration in his voice.
“Thanks, four-eyes,” Mina taunted, poking his forehead above his glasses.
His expression changed from respect to the anger that Mina had already learned to associate with him.
On the other side of the barrier, Grayson was standing over Banin. They were both cut up and bruised, breathing heavily. While Mina had been dealing with her own fights, they’d destroyed most of the living room.
“Just stop,” Grayson said, tired. “This is pointless.”
Banin looked to Mina and Isaac, who had moved to stand next to Grayson, seeing that he was the only one still awake. He glared at everyone around him. With great effort, Banin pushed up.
“You think you’ve won,” he said, mostly to himself than to Grayson. “But you’re wrong. I’m not stopping because of a little setback. I’m just going to keep getting more power and when we meet again, you’ll be the one begging for mercy.”
Before any of them could move, Banin raised his hood and put his hand on the ground like Mina had when she created the crack. Instead of the ground separating, Banin sank into it. He disappeared without a sound, the remnants of his twisting black magic evaporating into the air.
Grayson moved his head, tension tightening his shoulders. “That could’ve gone better.”
“We should go back home,” Isaac said. “We need to track him down.”
“Later,” Grayson replied. “I have a feeling a tracking spell won’t help us right now.”
Mina stomped in front of the two men, hands on her hips. “You’re not leaving yet. You’re going to tell me what the hell just happened.”
“It’s a long story.” Grayson ran a hand through his hair.
“Give me the Spark Notes version.” Mina stood her ground, determined to get answers.
Grayson thought for a moment, his hand on his chin. “There’s three very powerful artifacts. They were all thought lost, but I guess one of them was found recently.”
“And why did that guy want to find you?” Mina asked.
“I’m a very strong warlock.” Grayson shrugged. “Banin’s always wanted magic and power, but I refused to teach him. Some people just can’t handle magic. As you can see, he didn’t take no very well and decided to learn magic using dark means.”
Mina gaped at Grayson. “So you’re telling me I was used to find you and Imogen and I were attacked just because the guy was miffed by your rejection?”
Imogen had bounced back from the attack, but there were angry marks around her throat.
“It appears that way.” Grayson nodded.
“He’s a good teacher,” Isaac put in like that was a decent explanation. Mina glared at him before turning back to Grayson.
“That’s crap,” she declared. “What happens if Banin decides to come back here?”
“I’m sure he will,” Grayson admitted. “He has a single-minded determination to finish what he starts.” Grayson smiled. “That’s why I was going to suggest you and the girl come with us.”
Mina opened her mouth, then her mind caught up with what the man had said. “You want us to go with you? Why?”
“You’re a strong magic-user.” Grayson was matter-of-fact, serious. “But you have a lot of room for improvement. I’d like to help you. And it would be good for Imogen to get out of here.”
“What’s wrong with being here?” Mina demanded crossly. She knew they weren’t living in ideal conditions, but it had worked for years.
“She’s a young girl,” Grayson pointed out. “Do you really want to be gone and have something happen to her, magical or otherwise?”
Mina found she couldn’t argue, however much she might want to. She looked at Imogen. The girl seemed impassive, but Mina could see the light in her eyes. To the girl, this was just another adventure. And, Mina admitted to herself, she wasn’t as good a guardian as she wanted to be. The marks around her neck confirmed what Mina suspected.
“Fine,” she said. “We’ll go with you for now. When I get what I need to protect Imogen, we’re leaving.” She pointed a finger at Grayson. “Got it? It’s not permanent.”
Grayson tried unsuccessfully to hide his grin. “Understandable. It’s agreed.”
He made his way through the empty doorway. Isaac hurried to the man’s side. He talked low, looking back to Mina every now and then. Grayson just laughed, putting a hand on Isaac’s shoulder and saying something in response.
Mina took Imogen’s hand. When Isaac looked back at her again, she gave him a little wave with her fingers and a smirk. He scowled and looked away. Mina smiled to herself. She followed the two men, Imogen at her side.
This change might be more interesting than she expected.
Brittany Ellis is currently a graduate student of Professional Writing at the University of Oklahoma. She was the first undergrad to graduate with a Professional Writing minor and has been creating fantasy worlds since she was a child.