When you steal, what is stolen from
It was a necessary lesson, but not everyone learns a
lesson in time—or at all.
I had been warned not to break into the old man’s house.
The other pickpockets on the streets of Poseidon City were terrified of the
place. “That old man is a necromancer,” one of them told me when I
mentioned my plans. “He’s an evil alchemist. And dangerous.”
I laughed bravely, making the other boy feel like a fool.
It is easy to laugh bravely when you are safe and far away . . . and before you
do a stupid thing.
“The Watchmaker in Albion is an alchemist, and he has
more gold than any person can imagine. So I hope the old man is an alchemist.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You will all remember the name of Guerrero. Oh, you’ll
never forget me!”
My friends were not laughing. “We’ll remember your name
when we tell stories about what happened to you.”
I brushed them off and made my own plans to break into
the necromancer’s house and rob him blind. I had been wanting to do that for a
When I was just a boy, my father taught me how to steal,
and he tried to teach me how to kill. He said I had great potential.
We were abandoned on the streets of Poseidon. My mother
had died of a fever when I was but five years old—at least that’s what my
father said. He thought I didn’t remember her, but I could recall my mother’s
face very clearly. I remembered a screaming fight, her shouting at my father,
calling him worthless, and then she had stormed off. She left me there with
him, and I never saw her again.
I don’t remember her dying of any fever, but my father
clung to that story with all the desperation of a broken man clutching his last
few copper coins at the gambling table.
We lived on the streets, and I was always hungry. When I
begged him for food, my father scowled at me. “If you want food, you have to
hunt for it. Out in the wild there are predators and prey.” He gestured to the
crowded marketplace, the inns, the small houses of working people, larger
houses of merchants in the hills that rose from the harbor. “Everything around
you is for the taking.”
He took me along the bustling streets, told me to keep my
hands to myself but my eyes alert. “In the wild, a lion has to hunt his prey in
order to eat. Do you want to be a lion, Guerrero?”
I didn’t feel like much of a lion with my empty stomach
and my dirty clothes, but I nodded.
So he taught me how to hunt marks in the city. I had
heard him complain that I was an impossible burden on him, but he learned how
to make use of me too. He explained that some animals hunted alone, some hunted
in packs. And we were a pack—him and me.
We would walk quietly together, studying the marketplace
and the individual stalls. At first, because it was relatively safe, he would
have me dart in and steal portyguls, pomegranates, or apples from Albion. I
learned how to be fast and reckless. I could grab fruit and race away while the
merchants bellowed after me (if they noticed me at all).
About half the time I got caught, and as I struggled and
thrashed, sometimes dropping the fruit I had stolen, my father would come
charging up, looking indignant and upset. “My boy, what have you done?” He
would groan at all the onlookers. “Didn’t I teach you better than that?” He
would strike me on the side of the head, graciously return the stolen fruit,
and drag me away from the fuming merchant. “I’ll make him learn his lesson,
believe me!” my father would growl, and we would get away with it.
And I did learn my lesson—I learned how to be more nimble
and more adept at dodging pursuit.
If I escaped unscathed with my booty, we would meet in a
prearranged alley. I’d hand him the fruit, and he would cut it into pieces,
giving me my share, which was about a quarter of the take.
When my father needed to steal something more valuable,
such as a stall vendor’s daily money chest or a metalworker’s jewelry, we used
a different ploy. I would wander into the marketplace where jewelers sold gold
chains or tourmaline pendants, pearls from the northern coast, fire opals from
the alchemy mines. I’d wander in innocently, skipping along, then let myself
grow confused. When I reached the proper spot, I would suddenly start wailing
for my father. The “lost and panicked little boy” was an extremely effective
When the jewelers and the city patrol rushed to help the
poor, terrified child, my father would snag a few gold chains or amethyst
brooches. He showed restraint, taking only one or two amulets so the merchants
didn’t even notice they’d been robbed, at least not right away.
We learned the underside of Poseidon City, hidden places
that no one saw and no one knew about, except for people like us. There were
abandoned buildings, empty basements, snug and sheltered alleys. Every night a
“It’s because we are free, Guerrero,” my father said. “A
new roof whenever we like, a warm home, and then we move on and find another.”
I learned later that we had to keep moving to avoid being caught. The justice
of the city patrol was swift and meted out with clubs.
We would look at the lighted rooms above the shops, where
families lived in their permanent homes. My father would laugh at how they were
caged, and how we were free. But I thought the houses looked nice. Part of me
longed to have a place like that of our own, but my father cuffed me when I
mentioned it. “I didn’t raise my son to be a fool. Worthless dreamers are prey,
But he started to gaze at the private dwellings as well,
the mansions in the hills, and his eyes held a new gleam. We paid attention to
the houses of the merchants, the landlords, the city’s elite, and we resented
the rich people who built extravagant dwellings and sprinkled gold on their
food to flaunt how superior they were to people like us.
He grew excited when he learned that some of those
mansions were unoccupied, filled with food and possessions that were left to
gather dust while the landowners went to vacation in the countryside to lead
decadent lives. Breaking into those houses was easier than stealing from marks
on the street, with a far smaller risk of being caught. We would locate one of
those empty homes, break a low window. I was still small enough and young
enough to worm my way through the hole, then unlock the door and let my father
I remember that first house—I had never had such a feast!
We ate salted ham, pickled eggs, cheeses, preserved fruit, honey, and smoked
fish. My father found grime-encrusted bottles of wine so old he insisted they
were valuable, so he opened one for himself and one for me, making me drink it.
I don’t remember much beyond feeling awfully sick and him laughing at me as I
vomited on the rich merchant’s sofa.
One looming house was set apart from the others on a
steep slope—it looked ostentatious yet sinister, and as we watched night after
night, we never saw more than one hooded light moving from room to room;
occasionally, colored and stinking smokes wafted from rooftop vents. The house
wasn’t empty, but it seemed to exude mystery.
I looked at it with curiosity and fear, hoping my father
wouldn’t suggest we try to spend the night there. To me, the house looked
haunted, or cursed. My father, however, looked at the mansion with avarice in
We knew other street people like us—not friends, not
colleagues, not even competition. They were a source of knowledge, however, and
my father began asking them about the house. Most of them shuddered.
“Dangerous, too dangerous! That man is a monster,” said one. “A wizard,” said
another, while a third called the owner “an evil necromancer with magic prism
My father was not frightened, though. He stared at that
mansion with an increasing hunger, and I knew he would not let go.
He obtained a large sharp knife—stole it, no doubt,
although he said he purchased it—and he got a smaller knife for me. After he
gave me the blade, he took me to where we could look up at the supposed
necromancer’s mansion. He said, “You’re not ready yet, Guerrero. I need to
teach you the next thing.”
“You know how to steal, but it’s long past time you learn
how to fight,” he said. “Because sometimes the prey fights back.”
I was scrappy, but fighting was never the preferable
tactic because sometimes the prey might win. Sometimes a lion was killed.
For my deeper training, we preyed upon weaker people in
the streets. We would linger behind taverns and strike men who were so drunk
they could barely walk. We rolled them and stole from them, but most had
already spent the bulk of their money in the tavern. My father robbed several
of them to show me how it was done, and then he made me do it by myself. In the
garbage of an alley they were easy pickings, and I didn’t see how this was
preparing me to fight an evil necromancer (who was probably just an eccentric
old man anyway).
Sometimes our targets yelled for help, and I learned to
dodge and dash away, running with all my might before the city patrol came.
Once, when I ran away with a disappointingly thin sack of coins, I bolted
between buildings and emerged in a narrow side street with my father puffing to
catch up. Unexpectedly, I ran into another gang of street kids who surrounded
me—five of them—as if I had sprung a trap. They were predators too, hunting the
weak, but these were a different kind of predator. Not lions. More like hyenas.
They reacted swiftly, viciously, when I burst in among
them. Working together they grabbed me; one snatched the stolen coins out of my
hand, and another shoved me against a brick wall, knocking the wind out of me.
“We’ve seen you,” said one of them. “Don’t like you.” He
punched me in the stomach with the force of a battering ram. I doubled over,
coughed and retched. They took turns hitting, slapping, slamming me against the
bricks. I flailed, but could not land a blow. One punched me in the face, and
blood poured into my eyes so I could barely see.
When I looked up, I saw my father come running up between
the buildings. I knew I was saved. But as the boys kept beating on me, my
father just watched.
After they had taken the few coins from me, I had nothing
left for them to steal, and I provided little sport against five of them, so
they eventually grew bored and went away, leaving me bleeding and groaning in
My father stood over me, frowning in disappointment. I tried
to speak through swollen lips, but there was too much blood in my mouth. I
finally managed, “Why didn’t you help me?”
He grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to my feet,
despite my outcry of pain. I was sure several of my ribs were cracked. “You
have to learn how to fight. Be a lion.” My father wasn’t sure I had learned my
lesson, so he got even harder. “You have too many boundaries, Guerrero. We have
to make them go away.”
I think he was looking for the right opportunity.
Several days later, we attacked a staggering sailor who
wandered the wrong direction away from a tavern. He looked like a poor mark,
not quite inebriated enough to make him defenseless, and he was larger than the
two of us together, but my father pushed me forward, made me try to pick his
pocket. The sailor fought back; he bellowed as I grabbed his money purse.
My father rushed in to join the fight. “Stop him from
I saw a flash of steel—his large blade—which he plunged
into the sailor’s side. The drunken man gasped and choked, initially in
disbelief, and then the pain hammered into him. My father ripped the knife free
and plunged it in again, higher, then withdrew and stabbed a third time. The
sailor’s screams were hoarse now, mere gurgles. He slithered to the ground as I
backed away in horror, but my father wasn’t finished; he was just building
momentum. He pushed the sailor to the garbage on the ground and stabbed him
more times than I could count. When the victim lay bloody and twitching, my
father grabbed the money pouch and tossed it to me. When I caught it, blood got
all over my hands.
“You . . . killed him,” I said, stupidly.
Sneering, he yanked my arm, and we ran away from the
corpse. “And what do you think a lion does to his prey? He kills! That’s
what you have to learn—be a hunter not a victim.”
When we were in an open street under a full moon sky, he
grabbed me by the shoulder, turned me, and pointed up at the looming house of
the necromancer. It still looked so tantalizing on the hill, a shadowy hulk
with a glimmering light in one window. “There! Remember that. You have
to learn to do anything for that.”
Our lives were focused toward that goal, but as he built
the eccentric old man into a greater and greater nemesis, my father made my
training harsher. Desperation leads to justifications.
Each day and with every scavenged or stolen meal, he
reminded me that we were free, that we made up our own rules—but it was my
father who made up the rules, and he forced me to do things that I did not wish
After the third man he murdered in front of me, I
realized that he liked using his large knife, and he egged me on, forcing me to
draw my knife whenever we attacked, just in case I might need to use it.
On the last time, late at night, I was with him while he
brooded, planned and grumbled, searching for a new victim. A thin man with a
small valise left a shop and locked it, turning down an empty street. He was a
tailor, I believe, not our usual victim, but my father grabbed him, dragged him
into an alley. The man yelped. “I have nothing.” He flapped his hands, dropped
his valise. “Take my papers, that’s all I own.”
My father didn’t want to believe him. “Hold your knife,
Guerrero. Be ready.”
I drew the knife as instructed, not sure what my father
wanted. “But he’s no threat to us.”
“Help me,” the tailor wailed.
My father let go of the victim and shoved me toward him.
“Kill him—you have to kill him, Guerrero!”
The thin man cringed. I had the knife, but I froze. My
arms were shaking. “No,” I said.
My father slapped me in the back of the head. “You have
to kill him! He knows your name. He’ll call the city watch.”
But I’d had enough. I knew how to survive in Poseidon
City, but I wasn’t sure how much longer I would survive living with my father.
“Kill him! Be a lion.”
I whirled with the knife and jabbed it at my father’s
face instead. “You want to feel my claws?” I darted the blade back and forth,
as I yelled to the tailor out of the side of my mouth. “Run!”
He scrambled out of the street, arms and legs bouncing
like a scarecrow blown away in the wind.
My father reddened, and he grabbed for his own large
knife, but I slashed with my dagger. This time the blade bit more than just the
air. I sliced across his cheek, leaving a bright red line. He had taught me to
steal and tried to teach me to kill, but I chose to be a coward rather than a
I jabbed my knife at him again, and he backed away,
shocked. As he pressed his palm against his bleeding face, I fled. My father
had said it many times before, but now I felt the difference. Now I was
free. Now I was truly a lion.
I survived on the streets, as I knew how to do so well. I
used what I had learned from my father, and also the opposite of what he
had taught me. I never spent time with him again. Didn’t want to. Didn’t need
I made friends, shallow ones, because I didn’t know how
to do anything else. Some friendships lasted months, some only a few days, but
they were like bright burning stars. I left them when it became necessary.
Fundamentally, though, I was alone—and meant to be that way.
I learned how to get what I wanted. I fought
occasionally, but mostly I escaped. I was swift. I was clever. I was a survivor
instead of a victor, and that was enough for me. Whenever I found a safe, empty
house, I would slip inside, take from those who had too much, and use things
that would never be missed.
But as the years passed, I kept looking at the old man’s
house. My friends on the streets also avoided the place. They told stories that
reinforced the fears my father had . . . but the wild and specific details were
so similar that I realized they were simply repeating rumors my father himself
had started. I laughed them off, because I knew the stories weren’t true, and I
knew what sort of man my father was.
In time, though, I realized I would have to prove it—as
another way to be free of my father. The mansion crouched on the hillside like
a hoarder hunched over some ill-gotten treasure. It was a sinister intimidating
place, and every night I saw that eerie glow wandering from window to window.
Then the necromancer’s house went mysteriously dark,
empty, silent—for weeks. I watched for several more nights. A chill went down
my spine as I made concrete plans, for it is a frightening thing when a fantasy
becomes an actual possibility. The necromancer had vanished, or died, or maybe
been trapped in some terrible misfire of a spell.
I had to make my move.
I chose my night carefully, waited for the dark of the
moon, when the necromancer’s mansion was one looming architectural shadow. Holding
my sharp knife and ready to fight, I broke in as I had done countless times at
other homes, but this felt different. Infinitely different.
Dangerous . . . and tantalizing.
The gloom inside the mansion was oppressive, like a
strangler’s silence, but as I crept forward I could see that this strange and
mysterious man, whoever he was and whatever his powers, was as inconceivably
wealthy as my father had claimed. That part of the legend at least was true.
Urns were filled with gems, as if for mere decoration.
Gold glimmered from all furnishings; mirrors hung on the walls with gilded
frames and blank pearlescent faces that looked like moonstone, rather than
silvered glass. There were statues and candlesticks, many made of gold, but
others of even rarer silver or platinum. Chandeliers hung from the arched
ceilings, sparkling with memories of light that came from nowhere within the
mansion itself. A polished marble fountain was filled not with trickling water,
but with long quartz crystal prisms that showed rainbows in a spectrum of
With so much fabulous treasure, how could I be afraid? I
could just grab an armload of gems and gold and run grinning into the night.
But I didn’t. I should have known better.
Breathing fast, I climbed a wide river of stairs that
flowed from the upper level. I should have grabbed an armful of treasure and
fled, but that wasn’t why I had come. Though I resented him, my father had
prepared me for this. If the evil wizard lunged out at me, I would stab him
with the knife and dash away.
I moved cautiously, eyes alert, ready to run if I
encountered some slavering monster or crimson-eyed litch intent on stealing my
soul. I doubted I could fight a necromancer (if he was a necromancer,
instead of just an eccentric old man).
When I reached the upper level I found an immense gallery
with fountains and basins, empty frames on the walls that seemed to be waiting
for portraits. And more mirrors, including one large looking glass on a stand.
I heard a muffled voice, a desperate cry that seemed to come from far away.
The voice came from inside the looking glass.
As I stared, a figure appeared on the other side of the
mirror, a kindly-looking old man with long gray hair and a voluminous gray
beard. He was inside the reflecting pane, an image without an
afterimage. “Help!” he said, but his cry was muffled through a thin pane of
glass and however many dimensions there were between us.
I was startled. I wanted to grab coins, jewels, and
golden candlesticks and run away, but curiosity got the best of me.
The old man pounded from behind the looking glass, and I
heard only small vibrations. “Help! Please!” His eyes lit up when he saw me.
“I’ve been trapped for so long.”
A lion would not run, no . . . but would a lion help?
“Are you the necromancer?” I asked, holding up the knife
as if to impress him.
A look of alarm crossed the old man’s face. “Is that what
they call me? A magician, a sorcerer? I always thought of myself as a
researcher in the arcane sciences. I constructed this mirror with alchemy,
coated it with a sheen of quintessence, a recipe described in the most secret
research from lost almanacs. The spell was designed for purity and hope, but
something went wrong, and I became trapped in here. You must let me out. Only
you can let me out.”
I was afraid to take a step closer, remembering all the
wild stories I had been so quick to discount. On the streets, I knew when to
run from a fight. “Why should I do that?”
Desperation leads to justifications. The old man said,
“If you free me, you could have all my wealth.”
“You are in no position to bargain.” I faced the mirror,
straight-backed and cocky. “If you’re trapped, I can take all your wealth
His expression became somber. “But could you live with
When you steal, what is stolen from
you? I hadn’t learned
that lesson yet.
I shrugged. “Probably. What does this mirror do?”
His voice remained distant. “It’s a reflecting glass
designed to trap evil, to drain it from the person who gazes into it. It’s a cleansing
spell, but I became trapped inside.” He reached out to the edge of the mirror.
“Just take my hand, pull me out.”
The old man looked so desperate. His voice trembled. My
father had painted him as a fearsome monster, and I felt I had to prove that he
was wrong, as he had been wrong in so many other things. I was torn. Was I a
lion? Was I prey? I steeled myself. I was human. And I wasn’t afraid.
Hesitant and skittish, ready to jump away if necessary, I
reached out to touch the mirror at the point where the old man’s hand met the
reflecting glass. “I can pull you out,” I said.
As my fingertips brushed the surface, though, it was as
if I had popped the membrane of a soap bubble. His fingers folded around
mine—and then the mirror glass folded around my hand as well. The necromancer’s
grip became like a claw. “Or I can pull you in!”
He seized me, refused to let go. With a rushing astral
wind, I felt something being drained out of me, as if an artery of my soul had
been severed and the mirror was siphoning off the evil parts inside me.
“Let go!” I struggled, dug in my heels, but some part of
me was gushing into the mirror, pulled through to the other side of the
reflection. The mirror was designed to steal a person’s evil . . . and
it had stolen the entire presence of the necromancer. Now it was draining me.
Would there be anything left on this side of the mirror?
I thrashed and yelled, not caring if anyone out in the
streets heard the struggle. The necromancer held tight, dragging me farther
into the mirror. My hand already felt dead, my bones and skin turned to ice.
His grip was like a manacle far more secure than any wrist-shackles the
Poseidon City guard used on a criminal.
I yelled and kicked. The tall mirror wobbled, but
remained rooted to the floor. I could not break free, and I used all my
strength to pull backward, to drag this evil man out into the real world
again—or would that only be worse?
Dark rainbows flashed from the old necromancer’s eyes,
and a wicked grin stretched his wrinkled face as he tugged harder, trying to
draw me the rest of the way into the mirror. I felt weaker every second,
diminished. My entire existence was being drained away, flooding to the wrong
side of the reflection.
As I fought and yelled, I heard another muffled voice and
twisted my head to see a second mirror hanging from the wall, a golden frame
around a silvered moonstone glass. My father’s face was behind it—I
could even see the scar on his cheek from where I had cut him. He pounded and
cried out from far away, but he was lost inside the mirror—as I would be any
minute now. My knees were already watery, trembling; my strength was waning.
“I am a lion!” I said in a ragged shout.
Somehow, I found the strength to lift my sharp knife. My
hand had plunged inside the mirror, and the necromancer refused to release his
grip. Crying out, not daring to think, I swung the knife down and hacked at my
own wrist. It was the only way I could survive, before any more of my arm was
pulled into the hellish looking glass. The sharp, bright lightning of pain gave
me the strength to jerk harder, and the necromancer recoiled. But it wasn’t
enough. Another blow, and the pain was impossible, an explosion of brilliant
agony through skin, tendon, bone. I don’t know how many more times I chopped
before I fell backward into the room, collapsing onto the floor with my wrist
I crawled backward, reeling, unable to think. The old
man, still trapped in the reflecting glass, howled—and my instinct was to flee
screaming into the night. But I had to stop the bleeding, and I struggled out
of my shirt, wrapped the sleeve around my wrist and pulled it tight, trying to
cut off the flow.
When I got back to my feet, wanting only to lurch away, I
knew I had one last thing to do. Tucking my bloody arm against my chest, I
used my good hand to grasp the frame of the looking glass, throwing my weight
against it until I wrenched it off balance. The evil mirror fell face forward
and shattered on the floor, breaking the trapped necromancer into a thousand
sharp shards on the floor. I don’t know if it killed him or just imprisoned him
I was gray and sweaty, ready to collapse, but I had to
get out of there. Dripping blood and cradling the severed wrist, I staggered
From behind the mirror on the wall, I saw my father’s
face, furious then wheedling. He pounded on the glass. “Free me!”
But I didn’t know how to do that, nor did I care to find
out. If I shattered the mirror, it might kill him. Or maybe not.
Before I fainted, I drew a breath, swayed in front of
him, and held up my bloody stump before the reflection. “You taught me,
Father,” I said in a voice made hoarse from screaming. “I am a lion.”
When you steal, what is stolen from
I staggered down the steps and out of the necromancer’s
mansion, unable to think straight, foolishly neglecting to take so much as a
golden candlestick or any jewels from the fountains. I fled the evil place,
barely able to stand upright because the pain was so great, leaving the echo of
my father with all eternity to reflect on what it really meant to be trapped.
In a way I was more free than ever before.