Eli, master thief of twenty years, pulls off the heist of the century by stealing from a dragon’s hoard. Little does he know just how much this feat will change his life forever.
Eli’s fingers itched with excitement; it had been so long since last he felt this way he’d almost forgotten. If he was successful—it was an open question—today’s heist would be the crowning glory of a long and illustrious career.
Among his many notorious deeds as a master thief were several daring thefts that none had thought possible until Eli came along. He’d defeated many an uncrackable code or unbreakable ward and slipped in and out of more than his fair share of impenetrable, inescapable facilities.
This particular endeavor was unlike anything Eli had ever tried before. It was, suffice to say, as close to a holy grail as a heist could get for a master thief.
Today, Eli intended to rob the hoard of a dragon. It was a feat none had ever succeeded. Many brave and foolish souls had made the attempt before him. Few returned alive, and none lived long enough to tell their tale.
As if it weren’t difficult enough to steal from just any dragon, Eli intended to take a trophy off of the near-mythical Aellir, the oldest of his kind.
Dragons were part and parcel of life in Eiras. Many considered them quasi-divine entities, each one a force of nature in and of itself—worthy of fear and reverence in equal measure.
Many were the roles fulfilled by the dragons and their kin, ranging from the mundane to the irreplaceable. Some dragons played guardian and steward to the many different races that they took under their wings while others fancied themselves tyrants and overlords of their own little slices of the world.
There were other dragons, universally reviled, who were considered walking calamities. In the wake of their wingbeats followed death, misery, and unparalleled destruction. The powerless fled from their approach, while the brave, reckless, and stupid flocked to fight for the glory of slaying them.
Dragons were diverse and vibrant. The gulf between one and the next could be like the difference between night and day. Some were weak and better suited to be servants. Others were strong enough to demand the respect due to an emperor.
For all the dragons’ variety, Eli knew that they shared a common sin: greed. Some dragons craved power and fame beyond compare, willing to do anything to gain more of either. Some thirsted for knowledge, while others collected great works of art or the counsel and company of notable people.
There were some few, however, who lusted for treasure of the more conventional sense. Their hunger for gold and precious stones made them menaces. They sowed terror wherever they appeared, more wont than not to plunder the countryside in search of ever more to add to their hoards.
Conflict between these dragons and people was all but inevitable. Many were killed young, hunted down before they ever had the chance to amass hoards of any great worth. They were slaughtered indiscriminately whenever found for one reason: the greater their hoard grew, the more powerful they become, and the more ravenous their appetite.
No hunt was perfect, however. Some small few of these dragons escaped. Of those, an even smaller number managed to reach adulthood. The intelligent ones grew their hoards with a slow trickle of treasure through the centuries, keeping their heads low to survive until they became powerful enough to be beyond reproach.
The oldest of these dragons were said to gain scales that gleamed like burnished gold and shone like jewels in the sunlight. They became known as the Dragon Sovereigns because they possessed power and wealth on par with any nation and their dazzling bodies far surpassed any mortal king’s crown jewels.
The oldest of the Sovereigns, the Dragon Emperors, spent their days in slumber, half-buried in their treasure. When their hunger stirred, as it would every so often, they declined to raze the countryside as their younger brethren would—at first, at least.
When the Dragon Emperors were roused from their slumber, they would emerge from their caves and let loose a roar that could shake the very foundations of the earth. They would head to the nearest city and demand tribute lest they unleash their wroth. Without lifting a finger, they would exact gold and gemstones by the wagonload from the people and lay down to slumber again once satisfied.
Eli’s mark, Aellir, was an being beyond even the Dragon Emperors. If most dragons were considered quasi-divine, Aellir could be said to stand at the cusp of true divinity. He was an unparalleled existence, whose wrath could level continents. His capabilities were far beyond the ken of mortal men, beyond the reach of even the Dragon Emperors themselves.
One would think that such a gulf should have discouraged Eli. After all, if the stories were to be believed, then there was every chance Aellir could crush him like a bug with a single half-thought.
Eli did not see it that way. If anything, he saw the gap between himself and Aellir as a tool to his advantage. True enough that Aellir could crush him as easily as he could crush a bug underfoot, but neither did he go out looking for bugs to crush.
If Eli was, to Aellir, as an ant was to him, then he hoped that he could simply slip into the dragon’s cave without being noticed. If he was careful, he could probably even manage to touch some small part of the dragon’s hoard.
The trouble was with what would come after. As the Sovereigns regarded their treasure as their most precious possession, Eli had no doubt that Aellir would awaken the moment he tried to make off with some of it. The question was how he would get out of the cave with his life, and his prize, intact.
Eli had a plan but there was no guarantee things would play out exactly as he’d intended. He’d spent the last two years obtaining every last scrap of information about Aellir and his lair that he could, hoping to cover as many of his blind spots as possible.
Even if Eli had plans, back-up plans, contingencies, and contingencies for his contingencies, Aellir was an existence that defied logic. There was every chance that he’d missed the smallest thing and that it would mean his downfall.
Any failure, however infinitesimal, could mean certain death—regardless of Eli’s abilities as a master thief.
That was what made it exciting.
Eli grunted as he reached the top of the cliff face. It was the only way to reach the entrance to Aellir’s lair—and one of the biggest complications for his exit plan.
Just under the lip of the cliff, hooked onto a piton driven into the solid rock, was a small pack of tools and supplies. Eli had placed it there a few weeks ago after he decided he was going through with the plan to steal from the dragon.
Eli hadn’t brought much of anything with him. The last thing he’d needed while scaling the cliff was more stuff to weigh him down. The rest of his supplies were tucked away in the woods at the base of the mountain.
After grabbing the pack off the hook, Eli tossed it over the lip of the rocky outcropping just outside Aellir’s cave. It landed with a muffled thump and a quiet jangling. He followed shortly thereafter, heaving himself on top of the cliff with a groan.
Eli unclipped himself from the rope he’d been using to climb as he picked the pack up off the ground and made his way to the cave entrance. Even through the high winds, he could still hear the rumble of Aellir’s breathing, which was all the more impressive when he considered just how deep into the mountain the dragon’s lair was.
After doing one final round of checks to make sure he had everything he needed, Eli quickly offered up a prayer to Aðri, Lord and God of Thieves. He wasn’t a religious man. He didn’t know many thieves who were. Simply put, he just didn’t believe that he was beholden to some greater existence, or that fate was as unchangeable as most people did.
On this occasion, though, Eli thought that a little bit of piety couldn’t hurt. Aðri was going to look upon his little stunt with favor. He was sure of it.
Silent as a whisper of wind, Eli slipped into the cave. He’d spent the last two years mapping out every corner of the cave system that led to Aellir’s lair. He needed to make sure there weren’t any alternative routes that the dragon could take to cut him off on his way out. He’d considered also looking for potential places to hide, but he doubted he’d ever be able to evade the dragon’s notice long enough to make hiding out a viable strategy.
By now, Eli could probably navigate through the caves backward and with his eyes closed. Over the last two years, he’d managed to construct a perfect mental map of the caverns.
The only place that Eli had never truly gone was the dragon’s lair itself. He’d peeked in, once, but hadn’t dared shine a light inside to get a better look at the layout. He hadn’t wanted to risk detection.
There had been enough gold in the chamber that Eli could see it glint even from far away.
For the better part of the next two hours, Eli worked his way through the cave into the depths of the mountain. Some parts were easier to get through than others, but it wasn’t too bad as far as caves went. He figured it had something to do with Aellir needing to be able to get in and out with ease, even with large amounts of treasure in tow.
As he stood just outside Aellir’s lair, Eli took a deep breath to calm the nervous energy buzzing at his fingertips. In his mind, he imagined a candleflame. He fed it the turbulent emotions running wild inside of him the anxiety, apprehension, doubt, and excitement.
Eli took another deep breath as the candleflame in his mind grew bigger. He breathed evenly, in through his nose, out through his mouth, and waited until the flame flickered and died. In place of the flame was a bottomless void and in it, Eli took comfort.
[Warrior Doctrine: Tranquility]. A smile tugged at the corner of Eli’s mouth. It was a technique he’d learned in his youth, back when he’d had dreams of becoming a hero. He remembered his old master fondly, though he doubted the sentiment was mutual, now.
Now that he was properly centered, Eli could begin. First, he needed to erase his presence. He used the skill [Mercurial Mysterium: Ghastly Shroud]. After a heartbeat, a pallor like death fell over him. His skin turned icy cold and clammy. The beating of his heart slowed to a crawl. His breaths were long and shallow, almost as if he were not breathing at all.
[Mercurial Mysterium: Ghastly Shroud] was a profoundly uncomfortable skill to use. It pushed Eli, essentially, to the very precipice of death and he had to continuously circulate the mana inside his body to ensure that he survived it.
If not for years of training to master the skill, Eli would have instantly passed out upon using it. He might have even died, for real, but he had more to do before he could even think of stepping foot inside the dragon’s lair.
This is gonna suck even more, Eli thought to himself. Not because the technique itself was uncomfortable, but because it also placed a rather significant strain on his mana. The sensation was weird, though. He could never quite get used to it.
After a moment’s concentration, Eli activated his next skill: [Mercurial Mysterium: Wraith’s Raiment]. In an instant, all the clothes he wore, and all the tools he carried, seemed to lose their weight. When he looked at them, they even appeared to have lost their substance. To an outsider, it would have looked as though he wore the equipment of a ghost.
In some respects, Eli was. He’d managed to partially phase his gear into the ethereal realm to ensure that they made as little sound as possible.
The final skill was what many people would consider a basic rogue skill. Most thieves Eli knew scarcely even used it, anymore. It was the first and most fundamental stealth skill that any would-be rogue learned: [Cat’s Grace].
Among good thieves, [Cat’s Grace] was considered a useless skill. While it could fool normal people and dumb beasts, it wasn’t enough to escape the attention of more learned foes.
What Eli understood, however, which many others didn’t, was that [Cat’s Grace] was an incomplete skill. Too many gave up on it before comprehending its true potential. In the hands of a true master thief such as himself, it was one of the most powerful, most flexible tools in his toolkit.
Eli closed his eyes as he used the skill: [Mercurial Mysterium: Shadowstalker’s Poise]. When he opened his eyes again, his pupils were like slits and, despite the darkness, he could see quite well. His movements were smooth, his footsteps light. The wind barely stirred as he crept past the mouth of the cave and into the dragon’s den and, so long as he kept to the deepest shadows, he was practically invisible.
The only drawback to the skill, if it could even be called that, was the development of certain feline features for the duration of its effects. In other words, it turned Eli into something of a cat boy.
Not that Eli was complaining. Cat boys were cute. He just didn’t particularly see himself as one—even when he had the swishy tail and twitchy ears.
Once he was inside the lair, Eli took stock of his surroundings. In the middle of the expansive cavern was a veritable mountain of gold and jewels. There were other precious metals, too, and bolts of beautiful silk.
Eli had to take a moment to gawk. He’d expected a lot of treasure, but not quite this much. He almost feared that if he took the wrong piece, the whole thing would come crashing down on him.
In truth, Eli had not considered the possibility that he might die to the treasure itself. To think that there was another threat he’d overlooked all along. Then again, he supposed there were worse ways to die than smothered by treasure.
Regardless, of the dangers, however, Eli had come to do something no one else, in the history of the world, had been able to do. He would be damned if he didn’t succeed or at least die in the attempt.
Atop the pile of gold slept the dragon. His breaths caused tremors to shake through the loose coins. The tinkling of shifting metal filled the cavern with each of the dragon’s mighty, rumbling breaths. Eli was lucky the breaths came so infrequently; the racket might have been unbearable, otherwise.
There was no time to waste. The dragon was sound asleep, but Eli didn’t want to take his chances.
Looking around, Eli searched for something that he could take. He needed something that wasn’t too big or buried too deep as to potentially destabilize the piles of gold around it when he took it, but also prestigious enough that it was likely to be recognized as something that had been taken by the dragon.
It wasn’t long before Eli saw something that met every criterion. He couldn’t help but grin.
Perched on an open chest resting on top of a pile of coins was a beautiful necklace wrought of polished platinum. The metal was hardly the most valuable part of the piece. The true marker of its worth was the array of dazzling snow diamonds, so-called because of their unique, soft white coloration and inner glow, set into the masterful metalwork.
Eli crept over. There was enough loose treasure near the necklace that he felt comfortable taking more than just the single piece.
With steady fingers, Eli picked the necklace up and slipped it quietly into the pouch at his waist. He glanced at the dragon, just to make sure that it hadn’t noticed. Fortunately, it remained asleep.
The one thing Eli hadn’t known was whether there was some sort of magical protection over the hoard that would alert the dragon if anything was taken, but it seemed that wasn’t the case. Though Eli was still cautious, he felt emboldened by his luck, so far.
Eli was brave enough to grab another few handfuls of coins and jewelry before he decided he’d pushed his luck far enough. Just as he was about to walk away, the dragon shifted in its sleep and the thunderous crash of treasure shifting through the hoard made his blood run cold.
Casting his gaze furtively up at the dragon, Eli prayed that it was still asleep. His heart stopped when he saw that a single bright golden eye was staring right at him.
Eli had planned for just such a thing. He had prepared and mastered a handful of quick-exit skills in case he woke the dragon but no matter how much he willed his body to move, it refused to do so. Under the dragon’s oppressive gaze, he was rooted to the spot and his feet refused to work.
The evisceration Eli expected would follow never came. Instead, Aellir simply huffed and curled up on top of his hoard. As he did so, he closed his eye and released Eli from its suppression.
Eli felt short of breath as he watched the dragon return to slumber. It was an odd sensation, considering he was still under the effects of [Mercurial Mysterium: Ghastly Shroud].
Unwilling to stick around for much longer, Eli made for the exit. Just as he was about to step out of the dragon’s lair, he noticed a peculiar little bauble nearby that seemed to call out to him.
The object wasn’t anything particularly noteworthy, but it was rather strange. Eli didn’t think he’d ever seen its like, before.
The bauble resembled a metal flower bulb, only one that was smooth all the way around. The bulb was rather round at the bottom and tapered to a rounded point at the top. Furthermore, a short stalk connected the bottom of the rounded bulb to a circular base.
Against his better judgment, Eli approached and picked the bauble up. It was odd. At first glance, it didn’t seem to be worth much. He was far from a master appraiser, though, so there was a chance he could be wrong.
The bauble was heavy enough that it was probably solid gold, which Eli guessed was a good thing. It wasn’t until he turned it over in his fingers that he realized just what a find it had actually been.
Eli didn’t need to be a master appraiser to know that the rose diamond set into the bottom of the object was worth a hundred, if not more, times than the gold the rest of it was made of. He also belatedly noticed a few arcane runes on the rim of the flared circular base the diamond was set into, but as he couldn’t read them, he ignored them and placed the bauble in his pouch.
Seeing as he was still alive and the dragon hadn’t yet given him chase, Eli stepped out of the cave and let go of the three skills he’d been maintaining. He let out a sigh of relief as the flow of mana through and around him returned to normal.
The next order of business was to get out of the cave before Aellir woke up for real and discovered that something was missing from his hoard. Sovereigns were perceptive enough, Eli had heard, that they could detect a single missing coin.
Wasting no more time on idle speculation, Eli activated his [Ascendant Mercurial Mysterium: Winged Celerity] skill and bounded out of the cave with a speed to rival the gods. The journey that had taken him the better part of two hours went by in less than ten minutes as he burned through most of his remaining mana.
Eli skidded to a stop just outside the cave. He had just made it through the most perilous part, but the heist wasn’t over yet. It wasn’t going to be over until he’d managed to put an ocean or two between him and the dragon.
Hastily, Eli made his way over to the side of the cliff and started climbing down. It was certainly faster to climb down the cliff than climb up it but the speed still made Eli anxious.
It was all over if Aellir woke up before Eli got down to the ground. Hell, even if he did manage to get down to the ground, there was no guarantee he could survive.
Life and death depended on how long it would take Aellir to wake up and how long it would be before he discovered that he’d been stolen from. Eli could only hope it would take decades, but he didn’t trust his luck quite that much.
Eli’s frayed nerves didn’t settle until he’d gotten both feet on solid ground. By the time he did, the sun was already setting.
Exhausted as he was, Eli did not stop to rest. His mana reserves had pretty much run dry and his stamina was also flagging pretty badly but now was not the time to be complacent.
Night approached rapidly as Eli rushed to where he’d left his supplies. He shouldered the heavy pack and started off. In the state he was in, he felt more comfortable traveling under the cover of night.
Eli had little doubt that a dragon as old and as powerful as Aellir would have eyes capable of piercing the darkness but he was more accustomed to sticking to the shadows, himself. At the very least, while the stars were out, he didn’t have to worry about attacks from random beasts. He was stealthy enough to dodge most of those.
As the hours dragged on and exhaustion set in, Eli felt a strange sense of euphoria. Somehow, he’d managed to do it. He’d stolen from a dragon. From Aellir, no less.
It had been easier than Eli anticipated. Then again, it was one of those ‘succeed or die’ heists and he’d come dangerously close to doing the latter. He couldn’t believe the dragon had looked right at him and that somehow he’d come out of it alive.
As the grey light of the dawn streaked through the sky, Eli breathed a sigh of relief. The danger hadn’t yet passed, but at least he’d survived the night. He could rest. For a moment. He still had a long and difficult road ahead.
Six months had passed since Eli managed to successfully pull off the most daring heist of the century. In that time, he’d put as much distance as he could between himself and Aellir. Even now, half the world away from where he’d started the journey, he didn’t quite feel safe, but having at least an ocean between him and the dragon was better than nothing.
Word of Eli’s deeds had spread slowly. He hadn’t told anyone, himself, but he supposed that bastard Aðri was boasting about it to all his followers.
Not that Eli could fault the god. By praying to Aðri before setting off on the heist, he’d essentially dedicated the act to him. It was quite the accomplishment, after all.
Today was an important day, though. Eli had come this far not just to get away from Aellir, but also to reap his reward. On his journey, he’d come to learn that the beautiful necklace in his possession was known as the ‘Stars of Bælladaria.’
The artifact belonged to the kingdom Eli had visited. It was an heirloom passed down in the royal family from queen to queen for as long as any could remember. It was said that they possessed mystical powers that underpinned the prosperity of the kingdom.
The kingdom lost the Stars to a brash young Dragon Sovereign, centuries ago, and had been beset by famine and misfortune since. To say that the reward for its safe return was enormous was to underestimate the kingdom’s desperation to get the priceless artifact back.
Eli had been a guest at the royal palace for a few weeks now. He hadn’t officially returned the Stars, yet. The queen and king consort had been busy making preparations and sending invitations to the neighboring kingdoms.
As far as Eli could tell, the queen planned to throw a grand festival to celebrate the return of the Stars to the kingdom. It was to last a week, if he wasn’t mistaken, and would be kicked off by an official ceremony during which Eli was to present the Stars to her majesty and receive his reward and commendations. A grand feast was supposed to follow the ceremony, and Eli would be lying if he said he wasn’t looking forward to it.
Eli clasped the beautiful gold-embroidered black cloak, which the queen had given him, around his shoulders. It was just his style, but far more luxurious than anything he’d ever had the privilege of owning.
After strapping his dagger belt to his waist, Eli retrieved the weapon from his bed. He pulled it out of its sheath, just to examine the ink-black blade for any scuffs or imperfections. It was in pristine condition—just as he liked to keep it.
The dagger had belonged to a friend of Eli’s, once. It seemed so long ago, now. He’d been so young and so naïve, back in those days.
"Never use your real name when you’re on the job," was one of the first rules of thievery. Eli had followed the rule when he was younger. He learned the hard way why it was so important. The dagger was all he had to remember his old friend by. The idiot had died after letting his real name slip while drunk and boasting about his takings and getting stabbed in his sleep.
To the queen and king consort of the kingdom, Eli was Kaspar the Blackblade, master thief and savior of their people. He didn’t mind that his real name was unknown; it was his most precious possession. He had no intention of letting anyone else glimpse it.
There was a quiet knock on the door. "Sir Blackblade? The ceremony will be starting soon."
Eli chuckled. He slipped the dagger back into its sheathe. "I’m coming," he called out. He glanced in the mirror and straightened his clothes. He put on the gold-trimmed black half-mask he’d insisted on wearing to protect his identity.
"Very good, sir. If you would follow me," said the young footman who was waiting outside Eli’s door when he emerged from his chambers. The boy, probably in his mid-twenties, was quite the looker. Eli was disappointed he hadn’t seen him around until now.
The footman had curly black hair, a pair of bright green eyes, and dimples that made his small, courteous smile seem like the sweetest thing in the world. Eli couldn’t help but be a little attracted.
If Eli wasn’t misinterpreting the way that the footman was looking at him, and it was a big if, then it seemed that his interest was reciprocated. He didn’t intend to stay for too much longer but he wasn’t about to object to a quick fling before moving on.
"And what is your name?" said Eli, pulling on his gloves as he followed the footman down the hall.
The footman was quiet, for a moment. "Alric, sir," he said.
Eli gently placed a hand on Alric’s shoulder. He leaned in. "Come see me later, when this is all done," he murmured in a low, suggestive voice.
Alric turned to Eli, eyes wide and cheeks tinged with a faint pinkish hue. He licked his lips. "O-of course, sir," he muttered.