No one was totally sure where it came from. It was just there one day, like it had always been there. A huge, beautiful painting of a woman- easily taller then most people, vibrant colors and the background -a beautiful, peaceful field.
It appeared in the middle of town, as if someone had just-erected it, overnight.
No one really thought much of it- such strange things happened in Azule Falls that it was just one more odd thing to ponder.
She was a beautiful woman; her smile was gentle, on soft, full lips, and her green eyes were warm and kind. She wore a dress as green as her eyes, and her soft blonde hair curled down past her hips, loose and full.
I liked her, personally. There was no name on the painting, so no one to give credit to, but people would sometimes leave money on the ground near her. It was, in theory, to thank the painter, and in most places you might say oh,well, that's stupid, anyone could just take it.
And normally, you'd be right. And yet.
And yet, people were having dreams of a beautiful woman with flowing blonde hair and kind blue eyes, followed by amazing luck.
I stood in front of the huge painting, head tilted back to see all the way to the top. Our team was fairly small; myself, my older brother Amarock, my best friend, Synclair, our other friend, Piper, and my brother's boyfriend, Harli. We were a small, specialized team; we had to be. Being undercover was our specialty. A small group of young men and women; no one suspected a thing. We were simply small group of teens who liked to travel; who had been drawn to this town because of the rumors surrounding the painting. It wasn't too far off from the truth.
“The power it gives off is incredible.” Harli drawled, with a whistle. His hair- bright red this week- flopped over one green eye, as he leaned closer and pushed his glasses up on his nose, further.
“I say we stay for a week, watch to see what, if any fallout, follows.” My brother, in his calm, cold voice. My brother is something of a legend both in the Order and the Shadow; there are rumors that he's trained himself not to feel, that he's not human himself, but secretly one of the Visitors.
I could sometimes see where the rumors came from. They were, of course, just rumors; my brother felt as much as anyone else, he just- was good at locking it down and doing what needed to be done however he, personally, felt about it.
“Well, people have already been paying tribute to it.” Piper replied, folding her arms and looking around us at the people moving around, blissfully oblivious. “It's not like we can do anything about that part now; Amarock's got a point. We could move it out now, without waiting, or we can see what happens. If nothing negative happens-”
“Yeah, I'm not willing to bet any currency on that-”
“Hush, Harli- if nothing negative happens, then we take it.”
Amarock arched a brow. “Assuming stealing it isn't exactly what sets off repercussions.”
“If that idea scares you,” Piper challenged. “Then you're in the wrong line of work.”
“Maybe you should go work for the Order instead.” I added, and Harli barked a laugh while Piper smacked me upside the head.
“Don't even joke like that! They'd kill us, if they could.”
“I don't think so.” Synclair murmured. “Lock us up, maybe, turn us into the police, but-”
“Don't be naive.” I muttered, arching a brow. “We're talking about a company that doesn't even want people to have magic. At all. What do you think they'd do to a group of thieves that sell magical artifacts?”
“Say it louder, Bast.” Amarock grunted. And that told you everything it needed to about our parents, didn't it? One child named Amarock, one named Bast- who needs normal names that won't get your kid made fun of endlessly in high school?
Okay, that didn't actually happen. People thought my name was cool, and people were too afraid to fuck with Amarock, if they did think he had a goofy name. Besides- we'd only been in public school for a few years before It had happened. Hell, I hadn't been at all.
“So we watch.” Piper interrupted our bickering. “And you guys do know that the Order will show up, sooner or later. We don't have a lot of time.”
“We have long enough.” Amarock rumbled. “We'll get a hotel, give it a week.”
See, the thing is, unlike most thieves, we actually had to be careful. Didn't help that we weren't freelance; we were part of a group called the Shadow. Stealing magical artifacts wasbwhat we did, professionally. So when we lifted something, we had to make sure it wasn't cursed or evil-or, if it was, that at least we were all on the same page about it. Including the buyer.
Yeah, some people will buy items knowing they're cursed. Sometimes they're just that desperate.
“Fair enough. I'll get us a couple rooms.”
Synclair snorted. “I'll go with you. Make sure we're not sleeping with rat
“Bast, you are many things, but discerning about where you sleep isn't one.”
“You fell asleep on the ground in an alley.”
“I was tired-” I pouted, folding my arms in a huff.
“My point has been proven.”
“I'd just gotten my ass kicked!”
Synclair laughed a little, patted me on the shoulder, guiding me back towards the city and away from the square. I knew he was mostly just teasing, but the simple fact was Synclair was a snob; he'd always been and he probably always will be.
Behind us, Amarock was already leading Piper and Harley away from the portrait; Piper had split off from the group, and was talking to a small, gathered bunch of onlookers- gathering as much information as she could as the other two wandered from vender to vendor, as if simply admiring wares.
Maybe they really were, in some ways- I knew Harli was, at least. Amarock was probably just following him for appearances sake, as well as keeping an eye open for anything that may be more subtly magical. He was good at sensing that shit.
“Tiny inns,” I determined, after a few minutes of walking- “Nothing too nice. Sorry, Syn.”
“It's a small town.” Synclair shrugged. “Kind of in the middle of no where, too. I can't say I'm too surprised.”
“I'm surprised you're not complaining louder-”
He whapped me up the back up the head- twice in less then ten minutes, damn. “I can live without room service for a week.”
“Are you sure? It's asking an awful lot-”
A hand to his forehead and a swoon. “I will be strong, young lad. For you, I will be strong!”
I dissolved into sniggers. See, Synclair was from Old Earth, and just a little bit of a snob, like I said.
I should- probably explain that, hu?
See, a few years back- I was just a tiny kid, maybe two or three, and I'm twenty now- science pushed it just a little too far. We got the attention of the Visitors; and one day, when I was being walked home from school by my big brother, hand in hand, the sky split open and the world uprooted.
They must have planned it- rifts opened in the sky all over the world at almost the exact moment. It was so perfectly synchronized that it had to have been planned. They came through in massive swarms with no warning; people that looked like humans but wielded magic, walking, talking storybook
characters. Except these weren't coming on some grand adventure to save us. No, these wanted to conquer us.
And they did just that.
They threw our world into pure chaos. Large chunks of earth suddenly becoming air borne and strange creatures right out of fantasy charging into the streets will do that.
Why didn't the military beat them back?
Because maybe you missed the part where they had magic. Also, where they hit various places over the
earth all at once. And like I said- parts of earth suddenly just decided, well you know, fuck gravity, who needs it?
And it took people with it.
It only took them a scant few years to totally overthrow humanity's hold on the planet and replace it with their own. Only around seven years, and they had us totally subjugated. I was one of the people
who got lifted into the air- I don't even remember Old Earth. My mom, my dad, Amarock and I- all hoisted up into the sky when our city was.
You can imagine the aftermath was...pretty ugly. A lot of people died. People died in the initial invasion, in the war following, and then just- afterward. People who were trapped in the sky leaped to their death in panic and despair.
Our parents were among them.
They just- couldn't take it. It was too much; they couldn't cope.
Some people took the more old-fashioned way out.
Then, of course, people died simply trying to adjust, in the years following. I mean, the Visitors-surprisingly- helped us to adjust and learn to survive in our new world to the best of the ability, but especially those relocated to the sky. Our bodies weren't used to the altitude, the change in temperature,
and besides that, a lot of us just...didn't want to try.
But time heals all wounds, like they say. And in time...well. Here we were, right? A subjugated people now under the rule of monarchy instead of government; people oppressed and trapped by a race that
came out of imagination, beasts that shouldn't exist but did.
Something like eighteen years later, here we were, standing on a floating city named /name/, and living. Thriving, even. And sometimes, that's...well. Take what you can get, right?
But the reason why Synclair is a snob is because Old Earth- the part of our world still gravity bound-is...far higher class then those places trapped up in the sky. For the most part. People lucky enough to
be able to make homes on Old Earth have the money for it, or the influence, or both.
“Why don't we just go back to the ship?” I pointed out.
“You know the answer to that.” Synclair rolled his eyes. “It would 'blow our cover' if someone saw us. The Gyrfalcon isn't exactly unknown.”
I shrugged. In my humble opinion, we were good enough to make sure that didn't happen, but hey. I didn't have a problem sleeping in an inn; I'd spent most of my childhood sleeping in gutters, for God's sake.
Eh, maybe Synclair was right about the whole 'would sleep anywhere' thing.
We made our way to the first halfway decent looking inn we could find, slipping through vendors and edging our way past a line of mechanized horses- yeah, mechanized- before we made it to the place, and I tugged the door open for him.
And inside, something I never thought I would get used to. I did, obviously; it's kinda funny, what we can actually learn to accept when we don't have a choice. And talking humanoid cats? It could be worse.
It was worse, just go out to the wilds of some of these floating cities. Human-cats were downright tame compared to some of the shit out there.
They were actually called Felae, but damn if I cared; they were cat-people. The one behind the desk at this end was young and tall, a pretty girl in a light blue mid-drift revealing top and long, gauzy skirt.
Her huge ears were tuffed at the points with white fur, otherwise, she was all over sleek grey fur. Her slit-pupil eyes were green, and even though her smile was pleasant, it was on an animalistic face that wasn't really meant to move like that, and slightly surreal.
“Hello, gentlemen. Can I help you?” She greeted, in that thickly-purring accented voice the Felae had, all soft 'hs' and tiny voices.
“Uh, hi.” I grinned, gave her a little wave. “We need- three rooms? Two, if it's all you have, will work-”
“We have three rooms,sir.” She replied, with a little bobbing bow; they were almost compulsively polite. She told me the price, and while I paid, Synclair twisted around to rest his elbows on the counter. His expression was scornful, nose wrinkled, and I rolled my eyes as I turned back to him.
I sometimes wondered why he was here; he was so obviously not fond of air travel, of being up here-would obviously would rather be down there on Old Earth.
Wonder what it was he did, what it was he was running from, that had him with us.
“Alright, got the keys. Let's go check out the goods, hu?”
“One moment.” Synclair turned back to the girl. “What is it you know about that painting in the square, sweetheart?”
Oh, and I knew that voice. Synclair already had a drawling southern accent; and when he decided to turn up the charm, he knew how to do it, and how to use that accent to his advantage.
Fucking weapon of mass destruction, that accent, and we could all only pray he used his powers for good.
“The- painting?” She twitched an ear, head tilting slightly. “Not much, sir. I don't go in much for gossip.”
That figured. Like I said- polite to a fault.
“You haven't gone to try it?” And a winning, charming grin, as he leaned a little closer to her. “Why am I not surprised? A pretty little thing like you doesn't need good luck.”
She blushed- you could barely see it through her fur- and put her ears back shyly. “I-” She peeked up. “I mean, my friends and I did, but-”
“Ah, you did?”
“Yes, sir, but I can't say I was brave enough to actually leave anything. I watched them, but-”
Interesting. I wondered if the magic in the painting would be upset with this girl, for not participating.
If it was at all sentient.
“Not cowardice, my dear, wisdom. To be cautious is to be smart.” He smiled, charmingly, and she
ducked her head again, shyly.
“Alright, Casanova.” I muttered. “Enough.”
He glanced over at me, arching a brow.
“Crude, Bast.” He replied, then pushed off the counter lightly. He flashed her another charming smile, a playful little bow that made her giggle, and then took my elbow.
“Watch her.” He murmured, in my ear, “Found out where she's staying and have Rook put someone on her.”
“Already thought it.” I murmured, tugging up my sleeve to the communicator there. Cell phones were a thing of the past; the magic that had come through with the Visitors had fucked up airwaves and most current electronics. Computers, cell phones- luckily, the Visitors all had their own methods of long distance communication and research. Technology that meshed well with their world, and now, with ours.
Like the communicator on my wrist. Think of a cell phone, but instead of entering a person's phone number, you entered their first and last name and keyed in a code specific to them. Then, where ever they were, their own communicator would alert them to you trying to get a hold of them.
The problem with this is that you have got to know, and clearly speak, the person's full name.
So I waited until we got into the rooms.
They were nice, as far as they went- Synclair made a low noise of distaste, but I liked them. It was small, painted in warm colors; the bed was large and soft, and there was a tv in the corner. Or what passed for a TV- remember I said they'd brought their own forms of technology? Yeah. The floors were rich, dark wood, and plants wound their way up the in and outside of the windows, filling the room
with the smell of flowers I knew and ones less familiar; plants from the Visitor's world mingling with the scent of ones I'd smelled as a child.
In a way, it felt appropro. The two scents- the two worlds- mingling together as one, clashing and merging.
I was feeling poetic, it seemed.
I closed the door behind us as Synclair took a seat on the bed, gently locking it, and spoke, at last, into the little device on my wrist.
“Azariah Tremaine. Code 5774.”
There was a pause, a series of beeps, and then the familiar, crisp accent-
“Hey, there you two are. How loud is Syn whining?”
“Fuck you, Rook.”
I grinned as he laughed warmly. “Why are you calling me?”
I sat back on the bed. “There's a girl here- lil Falidae- who says she went to the portrait with her friends but didn't wish or leave anything. Syn and I think maybe someone should keep an eye on her.”
“In case that backfires? Alright, not a bad idea. Put Piper on it, and I'll have one of mine take up a watch, too.”
It may have seem a bit like overkill, to have two people on the same girl, but considering the magnitude of what we possibly were handling, here- it wasn't.
“I'll go get Piper.” Synclair offered, still wrinkling his nose at the bed. “Better then reminding myself where I'll have to sleep for the next week.”
“Oh, c'mon, Syn, it's not that bad-” I protested, intterupted by his snort as he pushed back out the wooden door. “Maybe not for a guttersnipe,” He snipped, and I was reminded what a dick I had made friends with, for some asinine reason.
“Go step on a marble.” I grunted, flopping down on the soft pillows. Okay, so 'soft' was pushing it-maybe they were a bit scratchy. But hell, they were pillows, don't bloody complain. I mean, he wasn't wrong- not really. Amarock and I had been gutter trash, for years, before Rook had found us and picked us up. Or, rather, before my dumb eight year old self had tried to pick-pocket him. Rather then kill me, he'd laughed, told me I had talent, and turned me into a protoge of sorts.
So really, like I said- Synclair wasn't wrong. That didn't mean it stung any less.
I think I feel asleep. I know that sounds crazy, to fall asleep when in the middle of a massive potential theft, but it had been a long flight and a long day and the bed was comfie. I closed my eyes-
-and when I woke again, someone was screaming.