It was just after dawn in the city of Kalros, and the heat was already enough to bake the rotting trash that filled the streets. The putrid smell on top of the sweltering humidity was normally enough to keep people inside til sunset, when the city cooled to a manageable warmth.
But today was not a normal day. Today, from every corner of the city there were bells and shouts as parades shuffled their way up and down the many stairs of the city of a million steps. Ribbons, bright bits of paper, and brilliant explosions of dyed powder filled the air, creating a storm of color that rained down upon the crowd. Thousands of voices mixed with every sort of instrument, combining their sounds into a cacophonous and constant song that echoed across the hilly cityscape.
High above, from the rooftop of a public bath, Cal watched the sea of bodies. The thought of being pressed in the throng made her feel claustrophobic. But, a part of her, the hungry street-rat, saw all the unguarded pockets to pick.
The only reason she wasn’t down there was because Renna had told her to come here. She said she had something big. Something better than anything she’d ever seen. Cal had never seen Renna so excited.
She heard someone land softly on the roof. She looked over her shoulder and saw a girl a few years older than her. She had sharp eyes and a wicked grin, with brown hair so dark, it was almost black. She was wearing loose linen robes lashed at the wrists and ankles with leather cording to keep it out of her way.
“Watching the party, Kid?” Renna said, squatting down next to her. “It’s quite a racket.”
“What are they celebrating?”
“It’s the Day of Martyrs. Biggest day of the year for the Ankari Church. They’ll be singing and drinking till well after sundown, even the priests.” She pointed to a pair of men in pressed white robes, already red-faced and drunk. “And since they’re all here, guess where they aren’t?”
“The temple!” Cal smiled. “That’s the job? We’re robbing the church, cause they’re all out?”
“Got it in one, Kid.” Renna winked. Cal beamed. “Come on, lemme introduce you to the crew.”
“Why can’t it just be you and me? We do fine on our own.”
“Not on something this big. We need the help to do it right.”
Cal frowned. “Can we trust them?”
“Of course not. But you trust me, right?”
“Well, if you say so.”
“I do. Now let’s go.” She stood and took a running jump to the next rooftop.
Cal leapt up and followed the older girl. Her feet clattered across the clay tiles as she sprinted to keep Renna’s pace. She knew from experience that the older thief wouldn’t wait for her if she fell behind. Cal smiled as she ran, knowing that the revelers on the street below were completely unaware of the chase occurring above them.
Finally, breathless and sweaty, Cal caught up to her. Renna stood with her hands on her hips on the roof of a cafe.
“Thought I might’ve lost you there,” she said. “You’re getting faster.”
“Or you’re getting slower.”
“Not a chance.” She gestured at a group of three men. “These are the guys.” There was one old, one skinny, and one fat. “Cuolè, Shab, and Jau.”
“There ain’t much to her, is there?” Said the fat man, eying her.
“Well, there’s more than enough of you, isn’t there?” Cal shot back.
“She’s got bark!” The man chortled. “But we’ll see if she’s got bite.”
“Shut it, Jau.” Renna said, dropping her usual smile. “I said I’d vouch for her. And she might not have much muscle, but she’s slippery. Besides, I don’t imagine you’ll fit through the bars.”
“Hey, take a joke, will ya?”
“Can we get to business, please?” The old man said.
“Lets.” Renna said. She turned and her smile was back. She swept her arms out to the crew theatrically. “Gentlemen—and Cal—Today, we are robbing the Ankari Grand Temple. On our own, an impossible task, but together, only quite difficult. Now according to our info, we know that the best stuff is kept in a central chamber at the heart of the temple. To get there, we need to distract the guards, cross the rooftop, pick some locks, and get out the way we came without being seen. Sound good?”
“How can we trust this information?” Jau asked. “What’s your source?”
“One of the church’s own priests.”
“Horseshit!” The skinny man said. His pockmarked skin was covered in messy tattoos. “No way one of them would spill their guts. Where’s your proof?”
“You’re up, Cuolè.”
“Right,” the old man said, stepping forward. “I am the priest.” He rolled up his long sleeves to reveal the sacred brands signifying him as a third-rank priest of the Ankari Church.
“And you have no problem with us robbing your temple?”
Cuolè’s face scrunched up in disgust. “It’s not my temple. It belongs to heretics!”
“Our friend here is from another part of the church,” Renna said. “What was it again? A little disagreement over a mistranslation?”
“The Great Schism was hardly a ‘little disagreement,’ you impudent child!” Cuolè spat. “These disagreements go back generations—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Still don’t care. Anyway, Cuolè here was able to slip into the temple and scout the place out, even the parts the public can’t access. His intel is legit.”
“But, we’re stealing relics, right?” Jau asked. “Isn’t that a problem for you?”
Cuolè sniffed. “Yes. But, I was promised that my pick of the spoils, which I will return to a temple of the true faith. I’d rather the rest end up in the hands of you gutter-trash than remain with the heretics.”
“Good enough for you, Shab?” Renna asked. The skinny man spat on the ground, and nodded. “Great. Cuolè’s already done his part, so the rest is up to us. Jau will go down to street level and cause a commotion at the front of the temple. With so many drunks out, a brawl wouldn’t be unusual. That should draw the attention of the guards long enough for Cal, Shab, and me to get across to the temple. Shab is our lockpicker, so he’ll handle any doors we can’t get through. If there’s anyone inside, I’ll deal with them.”
“And what about her” Shab pointed a bony finger at Cal. “If she gets a cut, she better earn it.”
“The relics are kept in a room deep in the temple, where the public can’t get to them. The room is permanently sealed by iron bars, and the only way in is between them. We don’t have time to cut the bars and Cal here, as you can see, is about as thick as a blade of grass. So she’ll be the one to get the relics out of the room.”
Cal’s heart skipped a beat. This was big. Bigger than anything she’d done before. Did Renna really trust her that much? She was only fourteen, and she could fleece pockets, clip coins, and outrun any guard in the city, but this seemed different.
“Right. Any questions?”
“What about magic?” Shab said. “We don’t got no way past that.”
“The heretics view magic as an abomination,” Cuolè said, “so they rely solely upon conventional defenses.”
“Give me some credit here, Shab,” Renna said, smiling. “I’ve got this thing figured out.” She turned to the others. “No other questions? Alright, let’s go!”
As the crew split up to get ready, Cal went over to the older girl. Renna noticed her concerned look.
“Nervous? Don’t be.”
“But what if we come across someone inside the temple?”
“I’ll take care of them.”
“You’re gonna kill them?”
“No. Remember, a good thief doesn’t have to kill.”
“Okay. If you’re sure.”
“I’m always sure, Kid. Trust me, by day’s end, we’ll finally be out of this stinking city, sipping fine wine on a boat on the way to a beach somewhere exotic.” She winked. “I was thinking Hrovati. Sound good to you?” Cal smiled and gave her a nod. “Good, then let’s get to that temple. We’ll meet Shab there.”
They made their way across the city, scaling walls and jumping over the narrow chasms between buildings, the crowd flowing like a slow river beneath them. Soon, they were staring at a building so big and ostentatious, it could only be a church.
The Grand Temple was a pentagonal building, with tall minarets that seemed to scrape the clouds themselves. The walls at street-level were brown and dirty from the hands of thousands of pilgrims, but as they rose, the bricks glittered gold in the sunlight. Shab stepped out of the shadows.
“Jau’s down there,” he said.
Down on the street, Cal could barely make out the large man pushing his way through the crowd. When he made it to the edge closest to the gates of the temple, he looked up and smiled at Renna. She gave him a nod and the big man decked the closest reveler, then the next. He turned and punched someone else. Soon, the whole street was engulfed in a massive shoving match. The temple guards on the walls above left their posts, running down to break up the fighting.
“That was quick,” Renna said. “We’re up.” She ran across the roof until she reached a string of flags that ran from the building to one of the minarets. She grabbed hold, swinging her feet up and onto the line. Then, hand over hand, pulled herself over. Cal followed her movements, albeit somewhat clumsier. Shab was third, crawling like a spider until he reached them. They landed on top of the high wall, next to one of the minarets.
“We’ve got a lock here,” Renna gestured to the tower door.
“On it,” he said. He knelt down and pulled out small metal tools. Within a few seconds, there was a click and the door swung open. They slipped through and into the temple.
Inside, it was blissfully cool. The floor, walls, and ceiling were covered in beautiful colored tiles, repeating in swirling geometric patterns. Small fountains were recessed in the walls, burbling water and sending droplets splattering across the ground.
“We go straight here,” Renna said, guiding them. She took the lead and jogged down the hall. Cal and Shab followed as she then went left, then right, then down a flight of stairs. Along the way, Shab had to get through two more doors. Soon, Cal was all twisted around. But Renna was as confident as ever. Eventually, they came to a stop in front of a barred archway. Beyond, Cal saw a room full of glittering objects.
“This is it,” Renna said, turning to her. “You’re up, Kid.”
Cal stepped forward and put her hand on one of the cold metal bars. She turned herself sideways and pushed herself through, breathing out to make herself as thin as she could. With a final squeeze, she popped out the other side.
She looked around the room. It was small, and pentagonal like the temple itself. Shelves lined the walls, Displaying a trove of useless looking baubles covered in a thick layer of dust. Gold boxes holding bits of burnt wood, a row of gem-encrusted crowns, and so much more.
“Pass through anything that shines,” Renna said, pulling out a burlap sack. “Hurry!”
Cal grabbed everything she could, passing through jewels and gold holy symbols, fine silk robes and strings of pearls. Anything of any value was handed over and stuffed in the bag.
“Alright, that’s all we can get! Let’s move!” Cal squeezed back through and Renna led them back up through the maze of corridors until they were back on the roof. On the street below, the temple guards were beating back the crowd with leather cudgels.
“Is Jau gonna be okay?” Cal asked.
“If he’s smart, yeah. Let’s go!”
They scurried back across the rope and landed on the other side. From there, it was simple enough to get back to where they’d started, the sack of treasures as it clattered and jangled against Renna’s back as she ran.
When they made it back, they were greeted by Cuolè and Jau, who was sporting a black eye and a grin missing two front teeth.
“Are we happy?” Jau asked.
“Oh, we’re happy,” Renna said. She tilted the bag out onto the roof. Jewels and gold shone fiercely in the sunlight.
Cal whistled as she reached down and picked up an amulet. “This is pretty!”
“Hey, just remember, I promised Cuolè first dibs.” She turned to the priest. “Well, what’ll it be?”
Cuolè hummed to himself as he picked through the pile, nodding approvingly.
“I just can’t decide,” he finally said. Then he looked up with a vicious grin. “I think I’ll take them all.”
“That wasn’t the deal,” Renna said, hand on the hilt of her knife.
“The deal’s changed!” Cuolè snapped his fingers and something hit Cal in the side. The force pushed her off her feet and carried her to the edge of the roof. Cal slid over the edge, and just barely grabbed the lip of the roof. She struggled to pull herself up as a dark figure emerged from behind a tall chimney, arms outstretched.
“Cal!” Renna shouted. Jau roared and charged, but the figure twitched a hand and the man was pulled up into the air. With his other hand, the figure made a gesture, and Jau’s battlecry turned into a scream of pain. He clawed at his chest, which was beginning to smoke and sizzle. The smell of burning flesh filled the air as Shab pulled out a dagger and threw it at Cuolè. It too stopped in midair with a gesture from the figure.
“Get up, Kid!” Renna said. Cal tried to pull herself up, but she couldn’t. Her arms shook and refused to work. She watched in terror as Shab’s knife reversed course, spun, and lodged itself between the lockpicker’s eyes. Cuolè cackled madly as he scooped up the bag.
“Stop dallying and finish them off!” He looked over at Cal, his eyes hard and flat. “The little one too.”
In that moment, Cal’s arms finally gave out. Her hands let go of the ledge and she fell. Her fall was broken by an awning, which she rolled off of and then onto people on the street below. She pushed herself off the ground and then shoved through the crowd, tears streaming from her eyes. She bounced off the bodies of the parading priests and stumbled from street to street, trying to put as much distance between her and the rooftop as possible.
She didn’t stop until she’d reached the outskirts of the city. Her legs gave out as she fell into a pile of trash piled in an alleyway, her arms bruised and scratched from shielding herself as she was bumped and jostled by the crowd.
“I’m sorry,” she mumbled to herself. “I’m sorry, Renna. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” She looked down at her hand and saw the little amulet she’d taken from the bag. It was all that was left of the haul. She’d need to fence it and use the money to get as far from here as possible.
The guilt of leaving Renna flooded Cal. But she knew there was no point in going back. That man was a mage. There was nothing she could do. Even if she did go back, there was no way Renna was still alive. Her friend was dead.
Cal wiped her tears. What would Renna tell her to do? Keep moving, of course. She stood up, forcing her legs to work as she took a shaky step, then another. That was how she’d make it. She’d keep moving forward.