Serpent of Smoke (A Chuck Wendig Challenge)

Posted: May 18, 2017 in chuck wendig challenge, Fantasy, Fiction
Tags: , , , , , ,

Nothing like trying to write romance to remind me how bad I am at writing romance. Anyway, this was supposed to be a sword & sorcery/bodice ripper mashup (original challenge here courtesy of Mr. Chuck Wendig). It leans way more heavily on the former than the latter, and for that I apologize. As it is, it’s around 100 words longer than the 1500 mark, but I’m okay with that. This story does take place in the same ‘verse as the Liam the Black stories, but features all new characters. I’m interested to know what you think, so comment away!

Asif’s fingers dug into the crumbling mortar of the wall, his feet finding purchase against the rough stone. He pressed his body tight to the surface as a strong wind whipped about his body, but a youth spent scaling cliffs led to strong fingers and arms. Below, the city of Dariza spread out beneath him, flickering lights in windows and streamers of smoke from cook fires ascending skyward. He tried hard to not think about far the drop was below him, but the more he tried not to think about it, the more it intruded. He felt his arms shaking, his legs quivering. The cold air of the desert night raised goosebumps along his skin, but sweat from his strain started on his brow, kept from

He paused, slowed his breathing, clinging to the side like an insect, and thought instead of what waited for him inside. Rumor held that the manse contained sorcerous artifacts, and even if Asif doubted their magical nature, they should be worth a good amount of coin to the right interested party. The wall surrounded one of the older manses, the family who owned it long in history, but fallen in repute. Rumor held that they held discourse with demons and that they didn’t simply dabble in black magic but dived headfirst into it. Sacred charms hung from Asif’s neck, but he put more faith in his own skill and the cold steel of the curved blade strapped to his back. He gained the top of the wall and flattened himself along the narrow top, peering into the grounds below.

Rich vegetation spread out beneath him, fed from an aquifer beneath the ground, most likely. Asif couldn’t think of where he’d ever seen so much green in one place, along with a riot of colors dimly seen from the firepots placed at intervals along the path that wound through the gardens. Asif waited until a pair of guards passed by before descending to the ground, his black eyes glinting hard and sharp. He sprinted toward the manor and leapt fingers catching on the edge of an open window and hoisting himself up. He paused, diaphanous silk curtains concealing the interior, his ears straining to hear anything, a booted foot, a silk slipper, the swish of pants as someone moved. Not hearing anything, Asif slipped inside, his bare feet soundless on the marble floor.

The kiss of steel against his throat brought him up short.

“What are you doing here?” a voice, soft and female whispered into his ear.

Asif tried not to swallow, worried if he did he’d slice open his own throat. “Wrong house?” he offered.

He heard a soft chuckle, and the blade moved away from his neck. “I know you. Asif, isn’t it?”

Asif nodded, turning to see who the speaker was. Not a guard then. “You know me?”

The speaker, a woman, clad in clothes that clung tight to her body in a most distracting way, nodded. “By reputation. A skilled thief I would say, but also less than circumspect.”

Asif sniffed. “What good are accomplishments if no one knows about them?”

“What good is a neck if the guards hang a rope around it?” the woman countered.

Asif considered her. She looked to be about his age, and only a little shorter. Her limbs were long and toned, and her lips quirked in amusement. “You are a thief as well?”

The woman tilted her head. “Now what would give you that impression? You can call me Zhaleh. What are you here to steal?”

Asif gave a small shrug. He turned his back to her, looked around the room and into the hallway beyond. “Nothing specific,” he admitted. “You?”

“A statue, about this high,” Zhaleh replied. Asif turned to see her holding her hands about a foot apart. “Carved from basalt and depicting a woman with the head of a snake.”

Asif resisted the urge to spit. “Sybaris. Snake-demon.”

“Or goddess, depending on who you ask.”

“A commission then?”

Zhaleh’s smile widened. “Now that would be telling, wouldn’t it? But, since you are here anyway, and we aren’t after the same thing necessarily, what say we work together?”

Asif mulled it over. He disliked working with others, finding the liabilities generally outweighed the benefits. But Zhaleh had gotten herself inside even before he had… “Agreed.”

Zhaleh didn’t say anything, but prowled toward the hallway, pressing her body against the wall. Asif followed, keeping up on the balls of his feet. She waved him back, and Asif paused, staying crouched low in the shadows, as a servant swept past in the hall. She slipped into the hallway, ghost silent and cat quick, and Asif struggled to follow after, one hand securing the blade on his back so it wouldn’t bump into anything.  From the way she ghosted through the manse, Asif realized she knew the layout better than he did. She led him through opulent rooms, past statues and hangings worth more than he could hope to steal in a lifetime. He kept one on her, one eye out for any servants, guards, or other inhabitants. He came up short when Zhaleh paused in a room, a stout wood door bound with iron impeding their progress.

“In there?” Asif’s whispered in a voice barely above a zephyr.

Zhaleh nodded, then grabbed Asif’s shirt and pulled him close. He felt her hot lips against his and he could only blink in surprise. “For luck,” she said, pulling back, a wicked smile flickering across her face. “You might want to ready your blade.”

Asif fumbled his blade out of its scabbard, still not sure if what had happened had actually happened. Zhaleh pressed her hand to the door, spat words on power into the air. Asif felt the hairs on his arms stand up, and the air smelled like a thunderstorm about to happen. A too loud crack thundered in the room, and the door broke open.

“We have to move quickly,” Zhaleh said.

“You think?” Asif snapped back, slipping in after her.

Inside the room, on a marble pedestal, sat the statue Zhaleh as she described it. Asif ignored it, instead focusing on the thick ropes of smoke pouring out of the jars sitting at the four corners of the room. Torchlight flickered off the curved steel in his hand, and his charms felt cold against his skin. The smoke gathered together, four eyes of flame gazing baleful down at the two thieves from a snake-like head.

“Well, aren’t you going to do something?” Zhaleh hissed, backing away from the smoke snake.

The snake head pivoted from Asif to Zhaleh and back again. It struck, sift as smoke, wrapping around Zhaleh in its coils, its dark fangs dripping flame from its maw. Asif struck, mindful of Zhaleh. His sword bit and found resistance. He struck again, and the serpent twisted, taking Zhaleh with it, but where he had struck there was no evidence of any wound, the smoke reforming as quickly as the blade left its wound.

“The pots,” Zhaleh gasped.

Asif saw the smoke still pouring forth. He ran to one, but the snake shot across the room, intercepting him. He feinted toward another one, and the serpent switched again, realizing too late that Asif had tricked it as his blade crashed down on the pot. Immediately the smoke stopped billowing from it and the serpent grew less substantial. Zhaleh slipped from its coils, a harsh red mark across her throat where she’d been constricted. To be sure, Asif smashed the remaining pots. Zhaleh grabbed the statue and stuffed it into a bag she wore cross-wise.

“We need to leave,” she hissed. Asif nodded, left the room first. There was no sign of any guards or servants, and he wondered how many others had fallen victim to the smoke guardian. He picked out their path through the manse, remembering the twists and turns Zhaleh had taken to get them to the statue.

“Over the wall?” he asked, pausing at the window he’d originally entered.

“Would you rather the front gate?”

“Good point.”

They descended to the garden and then back up the wall surrounding the manse, Asif marveling at how quickly Zhaleh was able to scale the stonework and then drop down to the other side. When he got to the street, they ran from the manse until the paused, both out of breath but with wide grins. ‘

“I owe you my life,” Zhaleh said, sweat listening off her copper skin. Asif noticed how close she was to him in the alley they had stopped in, how hot her breath was on his skin. “We make a good team.”

Asif forced a laugh. “At least you got what you were after,” he said. “I came away empty handed.”

Zhaleh tilted her head to one side, the bright pink of her tongue poking between her lips. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d have died back there. What do you say we split the commission on the statue?”

Asif raised an eyebrow. “Are you serious?”

He felt Zhaleh’s lips on his neck, felt his heart quicken as she placed her hands on his chest, then dropped them lower.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” she breathed into his ear. “We make a good partnership.” She pulled away from him, and Asif let out a small groan of disappointment.

“My patron isn’t expecting me until noon. I figure that gives us a few hours. Why don’t we go back to your place and you show me just how nimble your fingers are?”

Tongue-tied, Asif could only nod, before leading her through the maze of streets to his home.

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Comments
  1. I’m ready for this story to continue. lol! I also did this “Chuck Challenge”. It was a lot of fun.

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