The Stranger made himself tea, brewed extra strong and with a different mixture of ingredients from his usual medicinal fare to help keep him alert for the night. It would have been better if he could have caught a quick nap before his next move but after all he had seen during his visit to the School of War that was impossible. Besides, his blood had quickened from battle too recently and the tablet had the side effect of effectively pinned his eyelids open.
He would have to make do, as he usually did. It was well past dark when the Stranger slipped out of the shop. He heard Ailia singing her children to sleep with a gentleness that was completely at odds with her usual prickliness as he passed the second floor. Selco had stayed up late to do some looking over his books, the light still flickered around the door to the back room. He’d be locking up soon enough.
Carefully manipulating the bell so that it stayed silent as the door opened and closed the Stranger stepped into the dimly moonlit street. The night had turned chilly as autumn let its imminent rule be known, the almost summery day of earlier seeming a distant and foreign time.
Finding the School of Illusion with its deep blue glow the Stranger made his way toward it, sticking to the shadows whenever possible.
The part of town leading up to the School of illusion wasn’t as desolate as the one to the School of War. It had not attracted enough of the violent breed of men the sorceresses had called upon to make as deep an impression and it didn’t have as many taverns or brothels to attract them as the part leading up to the School of Restoration. The result of the former lack of wealth of the inhabitants of these neighborhoods might now be considered a blessing in disguise, albeit a small one. A few less shops were boarded up than what he had seen elsewhere but it was only a minor improvement in the end. The clash between the great schools had brought suffering to the entirety of Sorcererstown. Empty windows stared at him like gaping maws. Now and then he spotted movement of some late night scavenger hoping to find some scraps in the buildings. It pleased him that none of them were aware of his presence but it was troubling how they always moved with the habitual tense caution of un-alerted prey animals.
Once he heard a crash and a scavenger was driven away from a boarded up building that might have once been a smithy. A man’s voice called out for the intruder to stay away and a chorus of softer ones, far too many to merely be the man’s immediate family or all regular residents of the building beckoned the yelling figure to return to shelter and safety.
The School of Illusion loomed over him, the night sky making it seem taller than its daylight brethren. He made sure to approach the entrance to the stone structure from an angle, taking care not to be seen or heard by any mercenaries set to guard the entrance.
The gates to the School of Illusion were intricately designed in geometric patterns that seemed to rotate endlessly unless one focused directly on them, then they became plain, still iron. The guards had abandoned the chill night air for the cramped gatehouse where they argued loudly over a dice game.
Approaching from the gatehouse’s blind side the Stranger took out a rope from beneath his cloak and fashioned a loop on one end. With a whirl he threw it over one of the extruding crenulations atop the wall and pulled it tight. Slowly, glad the ancient stone would not creak or groan beneath his weight he scaled the wall step by step almost walking up it. His arms burned far more than they should have from the exertion. Was it another sign his condition was worsening perhaps? Or perhaps it was simply the events of the last few days catching up with him.
He hauled himself over the edge onto the small dirty rooftop and stayed on all fours as he passed over the top of the wall before scaling down into the courtyard just as carefully. The guards kept arguing, oblivious to his presence. His heart started to join in the chorus of burning aches along with his muscles, fluttering worryingly in his chest like a sickened hummingbird for a brief moment. He told himself it just was dinner settling badly.
The courtyard was decorated with an intricately arranged series of hedges. In the dim moonlight he could not tell if it was a maze or merely some abstract design. Perhaps it was some sigil or rune that could be viewed fully from a high window of the tower.
He made his way around the hedges, taking care not to cast a shadow or make an outline against the time worn stones of the walls.
He was almost sure luck had come back to his side and that the feeling before was mostly his imagination taking his worries and twisting them like a nightmare when one leg numbly buckled and he hit the soft earth with a painful thud. Agony lanced through him. There was no doubting it now, his condition had worsened. His stomach reeled and he faintly tasted acidic phantoms of tea and copper. Sweat started to bead on his forehead, despite the night's cold he felt like he was about to burst into flames.
Through the haze of pain he dragged himself across the ground, clothes seeming the grind against the dewy grass with the sound of an unleashed rock slide, to a pool of shadow at the foot of a hedge and curled up beneath his cloak. The trick had gotten him out of tight spots before, hopefully the darkness and his low indistinct shape blurred against the larger would make anyone who glanced this way overlook him as merely part of the landscape until he recovered. He tried to reach for his pouch of tablets and nearly lost consciousness as the pain forced his arm back.
A falsetto voice came from just outside a squat building connected to the tower.
“Did you hear something?”
Was he in their line of sight? He couldn’t tell where their voices coming from clearly enough to be sure.
“I think so, probably a rat or something.” Answered a soprano.
“No, it sounded bigger than a rat. A lot bigger, like a man.” The falsetto squeaked.
“Let go of me! There’s nothing to be afraid of, all the mercenaries are outside tonight, save for those two in the gatehouse. Another one of Hippolyta’s nights spent culling the herd, I suppose.”
“What if someone found out about that? What if one of the other headmistresses sent someone to attack us knowing we don't have enough guards?”
“Who’s going to find out? The only people who know are us Illusionists and Hippolyta. Headmistress Niccola has those phantom suits of armor ready to move around like they’re alive whenever it looks like anyone might need to see them remember? As far as every magic-less dullard and the enemy sorceresses are concerned we have sword-swingers and spear-throwers to spare.”
“Still....” The falsetto trailed off. In his mind’s eye the Stranger could almost see the voice’s owner peering at the hedges with suspicion and worry. Her eyes narrowing and a shaking finger pointed at a pool of shadow.
“I see you!” the soprano cried out.
The Stranger’s heart hammered against his chest, he had to move, had to force his numb limbs to obey him and hope he could find his way out somehow. If someone found him as he was now-
“See? Asked the same voice lazily “There’s nobody there. If there was they would have reacted to that.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“Let’s leave guard duty to the mercenaries, we have more important business to attend to anyway.”
“I still don’t like them, I mean I used to enjoy going into town for a nice meal or a little entertainment. Now people act like I’m the one who brought all these thugs here and I can’t go to any of my old drinking spots with those rough sorts running the places and their trollops giving me dirty looks.”
“Would you rather have Annabelle or one of the other schools overrun us and deprive us our rightful dignity?”
“Of course not, I just wish the townies would be a little more grateful we’re here at all. It’s only thanks to us this place is what it is. But they just can’t appreciate the fact that sometimes sacrifices must be made for the greater good.”
“Don’t let them get you down, it is the way of inferiors to resent their superiors.”
Their exchange faded as faded they continued on their way out of the courtyard. Fingers numb and clumsy the Stranger slipped another tablet from his pouch and downed it, barely bothering to chew. Relief washed over him as the medicine took its effect and for a moment he just laid there looking up at the sky, the cool night air wicking away his sweat as he stared at the deep night sky above glad to be alive and undetected still.
He counted slowly to a thousand before rising and skulking towards the squat wing of the tower the two unseen sorceresses had come from. Fortune smiled again as he realized they had not locked the door behind them. On the other side he found a surprisingly spartan kitchen, with little to set it apart from the type he had seen in many fortresses throughout his travels. He had thought there would be something more lavish. Past the kitchens were barrels of laundry to be done by servants who had left a long time ago.
In the dark he had to grope through all manner of discarded cloth and linen until he finally found what he was looking for. A long strip of blue cloth decorated with a stylized eye that appeared to be closed despite the pupil and iris staring at the viewer. In times long ago these were given by sorceresses to a favored warrior as a sign of their bond. The intervening centuries had reduced the cloth to little more than a ceremonial kerchief. He sniffed it, decided it didn’t smell too bad for his purposes, and pocketed it before moving on.
He stuck to the main passages reasoning that they were the least likely to be secured against intruders as they saw the most use. Fortunately his hope that the residents above the ground floor would be asleep proved fruitful. With a skill born of long practice and experience he stalked from floor to floor, straining his eyes in the dark and slipping to an out of the way spot to listen for any sound of another soul in the empty halls.
Once passing what must have been rooms for the lower ranked sorceresses he heard the heavy snoring of a woman suffering from a cold, further on the still lively voices of the two sorceresses he’d nearly run into outside chatting away about how Niccola let Hippolyta walk all over her for no reason between bites of pilfered food. Further up he almost mistook the pattering footsteps of a large rat for some stealthy night walker but soon enough he found himself on the top floor.
He eased the door open carefully, letting his eyes readjust to the moonlight hallway after the near pitch black of the stairwell.
Nearly hidden above his head the first of a sequence of decorative archways pulsed faintly with eldritch light that illuminated nothing. Clever placement, had he not been so cautious he would have missed it entirely.
There was a single window on this side of the archway. He slowly eased it open, wincing at the pained sound its neglected hinges made. Outside was a narrow ledge perhaps as wide as a man’s foot. The only signs anyone knew of it were a few dried bird droppings and the view of a thirty three story drop the ground .
The Stranger slowed his breathing and gingerly eased himself onto the ledge, taking careful small steps across, back flat against the aged, weather beaten stone of the ancient building. He focused on the cloudy night sky, rolling like some dark alien sea with the half-moon occasionally peeking down through the clouds as if it were some great unseeing half lidded eye.
His hand felt the smooth glass of the next window and he drew his knife. With the utmost care, not turning to look at the window for fear of losing his precarious balance, he used the blade to undo the latch and swing the window open.
Settling down onto the solid stone floor the Stranger felt an uncanny sense of déjà vu yet again. He was in the same hallway where he had stood outside on the upper floors of the Schools of Restoration and War. This one was as undecorated as the one in the School of War, but it seemed softer somehow, some subtle difference in construction and décor making it seem less harsh.
For a moment his gaze was drawn to the seemingly unlocked far door where, doubtless, rested treasures of immense value and power, but he passed it over quickly. Even presuming he could get past whatever protection they had it wouldn’t be worth the resulting commotion at this point in time.
There were no locks on the door to Niccola’s chambers and she likely kept almost everything of value through the other doorway or her own room beyond. The large double doors glided smoothly on their hinges. Unlike Annabelle’s luxurious suite or Hippolyta’s bloody playroom this place looked like an actual headmistress’s office.
The walls were nearly hidden by shelves stuffed full of books and scrolls. There was an intricately carved desk with piles of papers, a quill colored deep shades of blue and green made from the feather of some tropical bird’s plumage and a set of inkwells.
A tapestry of a sorcerer garbed in blue with one eye winking and both pupils fixed on him decorated the wall behind the desk.
The door on the far side had a heavy lock and lightly pulsing sigils running up and down its length.
In the room beyond he could hear light snoring from the school’s headmistress. He risked a peak through the keyhole and saw a dark haired woman sprawled like a great spider in the middle of a grand bed. Her cheeks were hollow and her face stern and sharp as if she had merely closed her eyes. Her deep, even breathing and natural snores assured him she was truly asleep.
Backing away from the door the Stranger slipped behind the desk, carefully checking for traps. There were none, not surprising this far into the tower. Perhaps some of the drawers were locked and warded but they weren’t his concern.
Slipping a plain piece of parchment from a pouch the Stranger looked over the message one last time and gave a satisfied nod. It read:
-Hippolyta has grown weary of you and works to weave your doom
She has promised the warrior Tyrac, one of Annabelle’s mercenaries, that you shall belong to him when this is all over. He has become fixated on you in a way no man should ever be fixated on a woman. He has been given a cloth bearing your school’s colors and insignia as a sign of this promise.
Flee from Hippolyta and her allies, if you value your life and freedom.-
He laid it carefully in the middle of the desk. She would see it in the morning and presume one of the other sorceresses had somehow brought it there by a spell. Those inclined to the arcane arts were all but guaranteed to seek an answer to unknown event from their arts before considering a mundane explanation. With the list of potential enemies among fellow sorceresses being what it was, it was unthinkable anyone would conclude that the answer was as simple as someone sneaking in.
The Stranger passed through the school the same way he had come in. It was a tricky business to re-latch the window from the outside on the ledge, especially when the wind started to grow strong but it was eventually managed. He forced himself to stay patient and not take any chances, hiding in the gloom for long minutes, listening intently before moving to his next hiding place.
Finally he came out into the courtyard. The guards had put away their dice one was snoring while the other smoked something foul smelling in a long eastern style pipe. Again scaling to the gatehouse the Stranger ghosted into the streets and away, leaving no sign he had ever been near the indigo tower.
The morning sun found the Stranger seated on the ground outside Inavno’s, back resting against the door. His bleary gaze darted up and down the empty streets irregularly as exhaustion fought with instinct. He nearly toppled over when the door suddenly opened inwards.
“What are you doing out there?” Selco asked, removing his wool cap as the Stranger rose and entered.
“The door was locked. Seemed rude to try and break in.”
“Of course it was locked, that doesn’t explain what you were doing outside of it. I thought you’d gone to bed by the time I'd closed up.”
“I had somewhere to be last night.”
Ailia scoffed at him “Did you spend some of that gold of yours drinking a tavern dry? Buy a few rounds of mead for all your bloodthirsty friends? Take a dozen plague ridden harlots upstairs to your room?”
“I was at the School of Illusion.”
Selco cocked his head in confusion. “Why were you invited there?” “I wasn’t.”
“And they just let you in?”
“They may as well have. The guards were more interested in dice games than their jobs.”
Ailia almost screamed. “You broke into one of the Great Schools of Magic!”
“Yes, that’s usually a sign I don’t want my visit announced.”
The blind woman jammed an accusatory finger at a spot to the Strangers side. “What if you’d gotten caught? Selco might think you being here makes us safer but if you had gotten caught we’d be as dead as you!”
“I had a backup plan for that.” The Stranger said, tossing a folded piece of parchment onto the counter. “I’d have just said that was for one of the women Hippolyta had called to her school when I was there. Vanity would keep them from questioning me any further once they'd read it.”
Selco looked it over then did a double-take. “Your gaze is worth more than jewels, your disdain sharper than any sword?” he failed to suppress a snicker “And that’s the best line in this thing.”
The Stranger felt his face heating. ““I’m not a poet and it’s not real. It was painful to write that claptrap.”
Selco was still snickering as the Stranger snatched the letter back. “So what were you doing if not mooning after some sorceress floozy?”
“Stirring the pot. Now I need a good night’s rest.”
Ailia gestured blindly to the lightening gray of the streets. “It’s morning.”
“So it is. Wake me if I sleep through lunch time. If anyone comes looking for me you don’t know where I am but you’re sure I’ll be back for my things soon enough.”
The Stranger left before they had any chance to answer, went directly to his room and, collapsed onto the bed letting his heavy eyelids fall shut.