High above the Baron Hamel's great hall hung an incredibly beautiful and flawless sapphire, a perfect sphere without a single facet along the brilliant blue surface. Rumor said it was polished on the thighs of a hundred virgins. Derik suspected closer to thirty, and probably only technical virgins. And maybe not even their thighs.
He didn't care if they sat on it like an egg. The gem was flawless.
In a world where perfect objects had the ability to enhance magic, the sapphire was the most desired crystal in all the country. The two million marks offered for the job was a fraction of its true value.
He sighed softly as he stared at its beauty, almost the same color as his eyes, but somehow more ethereal than he could ever imagine. Four massive statues, each one easily ten meters in height, stood around the sapphire. Carved in the shape of a dragon-like ferret, it somehow gave the impression of strength and absurdity that marked Hamel's belief that you should never take him for granted. Each statue held out a paw toward a single point where the gemstone was balanced on all four points.
Above the crystal burned an intense magical flame, a pinpoint opening into the realm of fire. The brilliant white light was hot enough to ignite flesh for anyone who lingered more than a second underneath it.
Below the sapphire, the statues held a large sheet of stained glass parallel to the floor. The baron had the entire barony mapped out in lead so the magical light that shone down would cast a blue-tinted image of the map on the floor of his great hall. Stealing the sapphire would turn the map a different color and the six, heavily-armed guards who patrolled the great hall at all hours would instantly notice something messing with the priceless treasure.
The sapphire was perfectly displayed in plain sight, but only the stupidest thief in the world would risk stealing it. If the guards with crossbows weren't enough, the statue arms, a seemingly perfect stepping place, spewed both magical flame and acid with the slightest of pressure. The flame above the gem was just as dangerous, able to burn away flesh and bone in seconds but inflict no damage on the priceless gem.
Derik let out another chuckle of amusement as he crouched in the shadows of the great room, balanced on a thin ledge five meters above the ground. His slender body was wrapped in dark gray fabric, clinging to his body so tightly he couldn't even wear underwear. The only other color were his blue eyes and the intricate stitchery along the hands and feet of his outfit.
He swallowed, mentally preparing for the worst. But, he couldn't make a mistake. There was too much at stake, including his own life if he screwed up.
There was also the fear of Rick.
Or even worse, Wendi. If it wasn't for Gluk paying for the healer while adding the cost to his debt, he'd still be in traction and she would be gloating. She and her brothers had worked him over pretty hard, and his bones still ached from their beating.
He shuddered at the thought and inspected the ceiling. Despite the guards patrolling, he had managed to cross the mosaic ceiling a number of times to place nearly invisible brackets made of glass into the cracks in the stone. Another few trips gave him the opportunity to thread a transparent rope through each of the brackets. They rope hung down into air, their length almost invisible.
The rope was the most expensive available. He had stolen it from an artificer's shop two nights ago.
He gazed across the space. From his perch, he knew more than saw the short lengths before him. Grab the rope there, swing there, catch the next one. A series of short swings would bring him under the flames, above the glass, and right in the perfect spot to swap the crystal out. He couldn't see all the ropes from his position, but he knew where they were. Just a few simple swings, and he would be millions richer.
Beyond the stone, a small ledge on the far wall marked ten openings into the ventilation system. He had opened them all to make it harder for anyone to follow him, but he had his plans set on the fifth from the right.
He worked a large blue glass sphere from a small bag at his waist. It was not as perfect as the sapphire above, but it would be close enough to avoid the guards' attention for a few minutes. By then, the magical flame would have melted the glass or they would notice the changed color. He planned on being long gone before either happened.
His eyes probed the floor below, watching the guards moving in their almost graceful patrol, shifting and turning almost unexpectedly. A dance that left no moment with the floor unprotected. Except one.
Derik had watched the patrol for hours to find the pattern to their movement. He would have the longest moment of uninterrupted movement, less than a minute, when both of them would have their backs away from the map. Then, he would replace it.
Imagining the swing in his head. he hefted the glass and held it firmly in his left hand. With his right, he stroked the translucent rope and prepared to swing out into empty space. If he missed once, he would fall five meters to either death or imprisonment.
Heart pounding, he took a deep breath and stepped out into space.
Gravity yanked him down, but he held the rope tightly. It jerked against his shoulder but then swung him forward. He took a deep breath and waited until it hit the length of the pendulum swing before releasing it. He snapped his hand out where the next rope should be and easily caught it.
Halfway across the room in less than a second, the sapphire rushed up, and his heart seemed to slow as he reached out to grab the priceless stone.
His hand passed through the beam of light shining down on the gem, and pain exploded along his wrist. The light was so bright that he saw his bones. Stifling a scream of pain, he grabbed the hot sapphire and swung out of the light. When he reached the apex of his swing, he swapped the glass and gemstone in his hand. His wrist already burned red from an instance in the light.
Shuddering, he swung back. This time, he braced himself and pulled his hand back. He tossed the glass into the light, careful not to expose himself to the burning agony once again.
He swung to the end and then back again. By the time he reached the next rope, he had carefully placed the sapphire in a pocket, and he could maneuver to safety with both hands.
Derik swung a few more times before landing lightly on the narrow ledge on the opposite side of the room. Heart still pounding, he wasted no time racing along the ledge and diving into the opening. One edge caught his uniform and it tore from the momentum.
He came to a halt inside the ventilation of the baron's castle by bracing himself against both walls. He grinned to himself, shaking with the adrenaline pumping through his veins. It would take hours before they found out–
A faint popping noise interrupted his congratulations. He glanced back down the shaft in time to see a large hunk of the ceiling break off and plummet, shattering the map glass before slamming into the floor with enough force to shake the entire building.
“Fuck,” he breathed. “I got to—”
A burning sensation on his thigh interrupted him again. He looked down to see his clothes smoking violently. The super-heated sapphire was burning his stealth outfit. Swearing silently, he jerked and the gemstone dropped to the bottom of the vent, smoldering as he tried to quietly pat out the flame.
It took a few precious seconds for him to put out the flame. By the time he finished, the heat filled the vent and sweat prickled his body. The noises in the great hall increased as more guards came running.
Derik imagined an hourglass counting down the seconds until he was discovered. He grabbed for the sapphire, only to touch the side of the vent. Surprised, he looked around and saw the priceless sapphire rolling down the vent, picking up speed as it disappeared into darkness.
“Fuck!” he whispered as softly as he could and crawled after it.
Dust burned away from the gem as it casually rolled just out of his reach.
He crawled after it, winching with every crunch of dust against his knees.
Five minutes of frantic crawling in the narrow vent left him sweating and gasping. The sapphire would roll to a stop only to start moving again just as his fingers touched it. He swore softly and chased after it.
Finally, it came to a halt, and he let out a sigh of relief. Sweat dripped from his brow and soaked into his clothes. As he stared at it, the sapphire rolled back and forth as if taunting him.
The precious stone had caught on the edge of a vent. A vent with an opened grate.
“Aw, fuck…” he whispered as the sapphire balanced on the stone edge, dancing on the edge of the dark pit below.
The flawless sapphire casually rolled over the edge and Derik lunged forward, fingers clutching. His slender body slid along the stone and he braced his feet on both edges of the opening as he caught the sapphire.
He didn't have a second to spare, dangling above the darkness of an unknown room, before the heat of the sapphire began to burn at his clothes. He stared at the dim flames as they rose up along his shirt. Flames roared up his arm, igniting it as if the magically treated cloth had been doused in oil.
Biting back a whimper of pain, he clenched his stomach and tried to roll up.
That is when, in a spat of terrible luck, the injuries Wendi gave him flared up, a spasm that sparkled along his back and made his muscles lurch. Derik's feet started to slip into the opening of the vent. Hissing, he managed to pull himself up long enough to shove the sapphire down the vent, in a safe direction he hoped, before his feet slipped off the edge. Blindly, he grabbed at the edge of the vent to pull himself up, but his clothes flared into full flame and he slipped, plummeting into the darkness, lit only by his flaming clothes.