Stealing from Wizards

The Whispering Seashell

Kuro waited nearly four full days with no sign of Phineas. Even though he hadn’t been given a direct order, Kuro knew Phineas would be furious upon his master’s return if Kuro wasn’t there, waiting. However, with a dwindling supply of food and a complete lack of drink, Kuro was forced to leave.

Kuro was used to being hungry. There had been many times that he had gone without a meal for a day or two. However, he had standing orders to keep food enough in the house for Phineas, and there was the lingering matter of the drink he had failed to deliver.

Kuro locked the door, slipped silently down the stairs, skipping over the ones he knew to be creaky or particularly surly, and slid down into the shadows of the alley. He picked his way carefully over to one of his favourite sewers avoiding notice of the other citizens of Detritus. The sewer led to a tear in the veil which let out on a street outside a rather nice, and poorly guarded cafe in Montreal. As he hauled the sewer lid open, something caught his eye. There was a familiar snarling face staring at him from beneath a heap of clutter and refuse that had accumulated against a grimy old fishing hut not two yards from Kuro. Phineas looked furious.

Kuro fell to his knees and bowed his head in shame as he started to apologize for leaving the house. “I’m sorry master,” he yelped. Kuro slapped a hand over his mouth and looked around fearful that he’d draw unwanted attention to Phineas. He continued quickly in a groveling whisper, “I didn’t mean to leave the room, but we were out of food and I don’t have your drink. I should have waited longer. I should have eaten less. I’ll go back right away.”

Phineas, did not respond.

“Master, please.” His whole body suddered with the knowledge of his failures. “I promise I’ll get you your drink.”

Still no response.

Kuro looked again to the silent Phineas to see if the promise would be enough to appease his master, only to find that it wasn’t his master at all.

It was indeed his master’s face staring out at him from the garbage heap, but it was only his face. It was the front page of the Seelie Times and a photo of Phineas occupied most of it. He was shackled, and chained. Phineas looked angrier than Kuro had ever seen him. Even in a picture, that rage turned Kuro’s legs to lead and sent tremors of terror through his body.

Kuro hid in a crevice between two buildings which leaned against each other for support like two drunks after a hard night out. Slowly, he began to read the article below the picture. “Phineas Hearn Captured at Last!” read the headline.

“Phineas Hearn, longtime fugitive alleged conspirator in the Coup d’ Été, implicated in the kidnapping of the Heir to the Summer throne, and wanted in connection to the murder of Helena Morris and disappearance of Vincent Black, has been apprehended. The Royal Guard raided Hearn’s residence late Tuesday evening and captured the wizard without incident.

“Phineas Hearn, formerly Professor Phineas Hearn, once lauded for his work with invasive magical species, was stripped of rank and title for conspiring against the Tirnanog throne and her peoples, and charged with treason against the Summer Court. Testimony from others close to Hearn indicated that he may have also been engaging in forbidden neuromancy and conducting illegal experiments.

“Hearn had escaped capture twice previously. He narrowly eluded the Guard when the Heir was first found to have been replaced by a changeling. He was also found six years later staying in a secret manor on an island off the west coast, where he again escaped from a coordinated raid by the Hounds, leaving two of the Nation’s best dead.

“The Guard found the missing Helena Morris at that time, who testified that she had been kidnapped to care for a child that Hearn had been keeping. Morris was found murdered two months later. Hearn is the only suspect in the incident.

“There has been no sign of the child or indication of his identity. He is believed to have been lost in the fire that consumed Phineas’ home during the raid.

“Hearn was finally found in a hidden chamber of one of the crumbling tenements of Detritus Lane. Neighbors denied having ever seen Hearn enter or exit the building, and claimed to be unaware of the chamber. Hearn had few possessions in the room, and appeared to have been living in poverty for some time. Members of the Senate and University that had once known Hearn, had difficulty confirming his identity due to the diminished state of the wizard.

“Sources inside the Royal Guard informed the Times that the capture went smoothly due to Hearn being too inebriated on Blandland wine to effectively cast spells.

“Sir Talen Dubois, recently appointed Knight Commander of the Canine Unit of the Queen’s Guard, released a statement today celebrating the capture of Hearn as a ‘great victory for whole of the Confederation, and an important step in discovering the location of the missing heir.

“Hearn is currently being held in Niflheim Prison awaiting trial.” The article ended with a small photo of Kuro’s Tutor.

“Helena, that was her name,” thought Kuro.

He read the article again. The Times used too many large words for Kuro’s liking. After a couple more readings he thought he understood most of it. The Hounds had come again. This time Phineas had been captured and sent to prison. They had not come back for Kuro, though. That meant Phineas hadn’t told them about him, or at least not yet.

Phineas was protecting Kuro, for now. But Kuro knew that the Hounds were monstrous and relentless. It might not be long before Phineas would be unable to keep him a secret. Kuro couldn’t do anything to save Phineas, but he could do a little to protect him. The Hounds may have raided their room, but they probably did not find the secret cupboard.

Kuro dashed back to their apartment. Fearful that the Hounds might return at any moment, or that they might already be there, he crept inside silently. He checked every corner and shadow for signs of wizardly presence before moving to the cabinet.

Kuro was, of course, forbidden from opening it without specific instructions. The thought of breaking one of his master’s decrees made him weak with terror. However Kuro had also been ordered to protect Phineas from discovery. If he did not rescue the master’s possessions, the trouble could be far worse.

Kuro pulled up the loose floorboard under the table and looked inside. He breathed a great sigh of relief when he found the contents of the hidden compartment untouched. He took stock of the few items: Phineas’ battered journal, his satchel full of scientific implements and alchemical ingredients, a polished seashell in wooden box, and his enchanted cane.

Kuro quickly gathered the first three and reached for the cane. It was a simple thing, stained black and finely polished. No taller than Kuro, it looked like nothing more than a walking stick for a fine gentleman. He couldn’t bring himself to pick it up.

That cane had done terrible things. In all of Kuro’s worst nightmares, that cane was at the centre. It was a neuromantic cane, enchanted to amplify magics of the mind and allowed Phineas to control the thoughts and actions of people. Kuro’s hand hovered over it, fearful of what would happen to him if he touched it.

‘The cane isn’t really secret,’ he reasoned. ‘It’s just hidden for safety. Lots of people probably had them.’ He could leave it and it wouldn’t matter if the Hounds found it. It might even look better. An empty secret cupboard is much more suspicious than a full one. He breathed a deep sigh of relief and pulled his hand away from the terrifying stick. He closed up the compartment again, being careful to leave no signs of disturbance, no indication that the floorboard had ever been removed.

He took a final look at his home of six years. It had been a terrible place. It was filled with pain and hunger and nightmares, but it was the only home he knew. He was alone now, possibly forever. His only remaining purpose was to protect Phineas’ secrets in case he ever escaped.

He found a new hiding place for Phineas’ things. Kuro knew of a narrow sewer drain that stretched many yards under the street. It branched and forked several times and had hidden paths that could only be seen if you looked at them from the right direction. Far down one of these secret paths was a slimy cistern. There, on a rusted piece of iron, he hung the satchel full of implements and placed the book and box inside.

Kuro spent nearly a week calling that cistern his home, but the smell of the sewer soaked into his clothing making it all but impossible to beg, and creating a constant miasma that announced his approach and departure for any attempted theft. Washing himself and his clothes in the freezing runoff from rain gutters once was enough to convince him he needed to find a better place to hide himself.

He left the precious objects behind. They were probably better protected here. Then, even if Kuro was found, they would remain safe.

There was a lot of Detritus Lane to hide in, but Kuro didn’t feel safe in another room like the one that had just been raided. The Hounds had found it, so they could find another like it. He would need to go somewhere that nobody would choose to live.

There was an unoccupied church near the Halifax end of the Alley. It was a burned out stone shell, dangerously unstable, and haunted. Nobody with any good sense would go inside. There was a secret room under the altar which Kuro had found the year before and he thought it would make a fine place to live. It had once been a wine cellar, but the few bottles that remained had long turned to vinegar, much to the disappointment of Phineas.

Kuro slipped in past the charred pews towards the hidden entrance to the room. He tried to ignore the skeletons in the seats.

Something terrible had happened to this church, and it had happened so quickly and surprisingly that many of the people in attendance didn’t have time to realize that they had died. Several wispy spirits sat quietly, still waiting for the sermon to start, their charred bones lay crumpled in the seat beneath them. One of them hushed Kuro for his rudeness when a board creaked beneath his feet, but then they returned to their eternal wait for a sermon that would never come.

He found the cellar just as he remembered it. It had a dirt floor and a low ceiling. An adult would have to crouch to enter it. There were several empty racks for bottles and a large wooden barrel laying on its side that might have once been used to age wine. It was cold, but dry and quiet and hidden.

His intrusion had not gone unnoticed by the church’s warden, though. A flaming phantom skull emerged through the ceiling, screaming in a voice that could stop a man’s heart. “Who trespasses in my sacred chambers?”

Kuro nearly jumped out of his skin at the blood-curdling shriek. But he calmed himself quickly when he recognized the fiery spirit as the terrifying but friendly guardian of the church. “I’m sorry Reverend,” he apologized. “I didn’t know where else to go.”

“What has happened my son?” the spirit wailed as the rest of his ghostly form drifted into the small chamber. He still wore the dark robes and square, white collar that it did in life, but he was forever engulfed in a blaze of blue flame and his head was a flaming skull. “Tell me your troubles!”

“My master has been captured,” Kuro said glumly. “My home isn’t safe and I am all alone.”

“So you wish to stay here?” the fiery spirit wailed with furious anguish. “Of course my son! The church is a haven for all lost souls! You are most welcome!”

The tortured howls sent chills through Kuro’s body. He managed to unclench his teeth to thank the former priest. “It’s very kind of you. I won’t be a bother, I promise.”

“Not at all!” The ghostly priest reached out a spectral hand and patted Kuro on the head, a sensation not unlike having icy spider webs strung through his brain. “It has been so long since we had a warm member of the parish within these walls! I only wish there were more we could do for you!”

Kuro shook his head clear of the cobwebs and waited for the ringing in his ears to clear. “Thank you… Father John. Can you speak a little more quietly?”

Kuro cupped his hands to his ears as the ghost howled in response, “I am speaking quietly! You should hear me shout, my dear boy! I can near wake the dead!” A flicker of flame in the priest’s left eye-socket implied that he was trying to wink.

The ghastly spirit chuckled as it drifted back up to his congregation, Kuro felt himself smile. While heart-stoppingly uncomfortable, that had been the most he had said to anyone besides Phineas in as long as he could remember.

Over the following weeks, Kuro settled into his new life with relative ease. Phineas had trained him well to stay alive. He rarely went hungry, and had to steal less often since he was only feeding himself. The priest checked in on him often. While their conversations were few due to the ghost’s ear-shattering cry, Father John kept watch over Kuro, and listened whenever Kuro wished to speak.

That was a new experience. Nobody had ever wanted to listen to Kuro, and Kuro wasn’t allowed to talk to people. However Father John wasn’t really a person, so the rule didn’t apply to him.

Kuro made another friend, of sorts. There was a cat that lived in the church. Normally Kuro was wary of lone animals. Any could be a spy for the Guard, a witch’s or wizard’s familiar, watching, listening, and reporting back to their master. He was especially wary of stray dogs, everyone in Detritus was. They might be the eyes, ears, and nose of a Hound. Kuro did not suspect the church cat, however. She was a mangy little grey tabby, probably less than a year old, and it had been a hard year. She was stone-deaf, blind in one eye, and had lost the tips of her ears to the frost. She was not some conjured spirit creature, she was far too pathetic to be anything but alive. Kuro named her Graeae, though she would never know it. He knew the name from a half-remembered story about a one eyed witch and thought it suited her.

The two kept each other warm at night in the bed Kuro had made inside the large wine barrel, from hay he had found and a warm cloak he had stolen. He shared food with the cat when she had trouble catching enough for herself, and she offered him mice on occasion, which Kuro politely declined.

Kuro had a final unexpected companion in his life. In the quiet dark of the sewer where he had hidden Phineas’ things, he heard a whispering. He searched the pitch-black chamber for the source and found it coming from the small wooden box he had rescued from the cupboard.

Inside was a seashell, smooth, coiled, and delicate in his hand. He was still fearful of his master’s retribution, but he had never been specifically told not to touch it, and he was desperately curious. He put the shell to his ear. At first it sounded like a breeze pushing hundreds leaves slowly down the street. But if he listened really closely, he could make out faint words just at the edge of hearing. The rustling leaves were a hundred whispering voices, all speaking at once.

He pressed the spiral shell tighter to his ear and tried to pick out what was being said. He could almost follow the words, but didn’t understand what they were saying. It was mostly numbers and magical potion ingredients, eye of newt, toe of frog, quicksilver… But hidden among the nonsense were other half-thoughts: memories of the flavors of foods, descriptions of dresses, feelings about friends, worries about the future. They were never complete, never coherent. But they felt like secrets, like a friend telling him their private thoughts.

As the months passed, whenever he had trouble sleeping or was awoken by nightmares, Kuro would slide down into the sewer to listen to the shell to help quiet his mind.

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