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The fire was consuming the house. Tongues of orange, yellow and scarlet licked the already

charred ceiling and walls. Smoke filled the room. The young girl crouched in the middle

of the floor, coughing and crying, shaking the still body that was once her sole parent

"Mother! Mother! Wake up!" she choked, trying to rouse the motionless form. She could hear

laughter coming from outside. Harsh, guttural laughter, from the unseen enemies that had

torn down and destroyed everything she knew. The girl screamed.

Fourteen-year-old Sriana Krystané sat bolt upright on her bed, sweat pouring

from her body, eyes wide with fright, darting everywhere through her dark, earthen

carved room, and smelt the pungent tunnel aroma that consisted of mud and unsanitary

living conditions. Slowly, she lay back down on her makeshift mattress of rags and

threadbare cushions, and tried to calm herself. "Just a dream. Just a bad dream

that snuck up on me," she muttered reassuringly to herself. But was it? She had been

having the same dream on and off for the past fortnight, always with a mother and child

being attacked, and always with fire.

Strangely, there had been some reports of bandits doing something involving fire up

in the far north recently, but from what she had heard there hadn't been much of a

problem. Sri sighed. At least her tunnel was safe.

Sri lived in one of the many tunnels that were underneath the city of Vitiateton, the

capital of Xohopati, a small nation, both physically and politically, on the coast of

the Great Continent, the largest landmass known. Sri's tunnel home was very convenient

for her occupation, as a professional. A professional thief, that is. Down in the (literal)

criminal underground, Sri was known only as Embyr Byrneo, an individual not to cross.

This was because she lived in a world where magic was as common as brown eyes, and

she didn't intend to have any curses with her real name written on it searching for her,

sent by either jealous associates or furious nobles. 'True-name curses', as they were

called, were infamous for the way that they never failed to catch up with the chosen

victim.

Sri however, didn't in the slightest look like she would be a very easy target

from any attack, magical or not. She had deeply tanned skin, glossy dark hair cut short

at jagged angles, a particularly athletic build, a number of scars snaking around her body,

and a tattoo of a black Hrangtyan dragon circling her left upper arm.

Although she was young, and fairly short for her age, Sri in a fighters' crouch with twin

blades in her hands was a fearsome sight that would make most would-be attackers back

down. But the two most frightening things about Sri were her eyes.

Her actual eyes were almond shaped, which was common to those of Hrangtyan

descent, but her irises were fiery orange flames that continually moved around inky-

black pupils, like fire caressing blackened coals. They were both beautiful and

intimidating, like the dragons that roamed around the hills of Sri's birth country, and

could resemble candle flames when she was calm, but when Sri got angry or just

particularly annoyed, ruby sparks would shoot out of them.

"Embyr!" The voice sliced through Sri's reverie. Slowly, she edged to the doorway,

both daggers drawn. "Oi! Embyr! I've got a message for you from the top!" Sri

relaxed as she recognised the voice of Jori. In a town where betrayal, murder and

theft were as common as sleep to the inhabitants, the tall, dirty-blond haired

muscular youth, Jorimah Hands, was one of Sri's friends. As well as being about the only

person she trusted at all, Jori was a renowned pickpocket, and had a price on his head

of §45001.

Even though this wasn't a lot in Vitiateton, (as Sri herself had had more than triple that

price offered for her dead body by furious nobility,) Jori's choice of profession caused

him to be more likely to get caught than Sri, because in Vitiateton, the Watch caught

pickpockets by the dozen, but housebreakers, like Sri, were left to the individuals robbed.

In other words, if a housebreaker had a price on his or her head, then it would be from

the robbed nobles, which would cause them to lose even more money. As you may

guess, this definitely did not encourage many to put out a price, therefore allowing

housebreaking to run rampant throughout the already highly disreputable town.

"Hey Embyr, let me in!" Jori called, tearing through Sri's musing for the second time in

as many minutes.

"Oh all right," came Sri's reply, "give us the message." Jori handed it over. Sri

quickly scanned its contents… and flinched violently as she realised what her boss,

Gooney, required for her to do.

"WHAT!" her shriek of angst shook the crooked rafters and Jori raised an arm to

shield him from the sudden rain of dust.

"HE MUST BE MAD! OLD GOONEY'S FLIPPED HIS LID AT LAST!!

HOW DOES HE SUPPOSE I WOULD BE ABLE TO GET PHOENIX

FEATHERS OF ALL THINGS FROM THE MOST HIGHLY GUARDED

MANSION IN VITIATETON!?" she yelled in dismay.

"He said you might react that way," Jori commented with a grin.

"Well how else am I supposed to react? Nobody's ever been able to get anything from

the Vireo Mansion! Is he trying to get me killed?" Sri spluttered, and continued her

tirade about how the Vireos were the one family that had never been successfully stolen

from in Vitiateton, and the most infamous of all of the noble families for seedy dealings

and harsh punishments. Sri cursed colourfully and graphically with words that would've

stripped paint, but Jori didn't turn a hair.

"Well you are the best in the business," he coolly reminded her as he leant against the

splintery doorframe, grinning as more foul language spouted out.

"Only 'cos everyone better than me has been either caught or has retired," Sri

retorted in exasperated anger between oaths.

"Yeah I'm sure. Look, you'll be fine, you always are," Jori soothed her, still grinning

with amusement.

"Fine," groaned Sri in reluctance, "tell Gooney that I'll do it tomorrow night."

"Why not tonight?"

"'Cos it's a festival tomorrow and the Vireo family will all be at that colossal

party thing that the Racheli family are holding on the other side of town."

"Now how did you know something like that?"

"Let's just say that I keep my ear to the ground."

After Jori had gone, Sri sat on her narrow bed and thought. Getting into the Vireo

Mansion, finding and taking phoenix feathers from the Vireo family's collection and

doing all of this without detection would be no easy task. All of Gooney's people who

had been given this assignment in the past had been detected by various curses, and

she had seen many of them sentenced to the mines.

The mines spelt a very, very, very, slow, painful death from starvation and

exhaustion, from the bread-and-water diet and long, hard working hours, everyday

until you breathed your last. Not a healthy prospect if you wished to live to a ripe

old age, as Sri planned. But Sri had a slight advantage over these poor souls. Her

fiery eyes, along with having other benefits, could see magic, although she didn't

actually realise that she was the only one in the tunnelled underworld who could.

Even so, magic wasn't the only thing that would be defending the Vireo Mansion.

Every five minutes, well armed, (not to mention well-paid,) thuggish trolls patrolled

the boundaries of the Vireo Mansion in pairs. As well, the Vireos had a rather

intelligent habit, (considering that the location of their home in what was recognised

as the one city that had the highest amount of thieves in the world, not to mention

organised crime,) of breeding large, mutated-by-magic, guard dogs, to keep thieves

out.

Sri however, made a fairly shrewd practice to keep safe from these particular five

headed, six-legged and double-scorpion-tailed beasties known as "Scorpidogs", by

regularly feeding them through the small gaps in the gate every night, with the best

dog-treats that money could buy. Except that, being a thief, she didn't exactly buy

them.

Sri lounged on the rough square roof of a block of apartments, next to Vireo mansion,

and looked up at the stars. She could hear the sounds of people walking around and

chatting and singing in the streets as the festival progressed. With the first bangs of just-

out-of-sight fireworks from the town square, along with the resulting smells of

gunpowder, she decided that it was time.

Sri tensed up her muscles, readying herself for the spring to the Vireo mansion. She

had timed it just between troll patrols. Checking one last time for any spells laid in or

under the roof tiles, Sri leapt.

Moments later, Sri landed softly on the jagged tiles of the Vireo's roof. One of the

Scorpidogs turned a single head, smelt her scent on the air, and relaxed as Sri quickly

lobbed a few dog treats at its five mouths. It caught the treats, guzzled them, and went

on its way. Sri breathed a silent sigh of relief, and scanned again for spells. None were in

sight, apart from a line of small ones shining softly from about a metre from where she

had landed. Looking at them more closely, she realised that it was a string of well placed

alarm spells, all too small for her to have spotted without being within about two metres

or so. "Whew! That was close, they must be linked to a bigger one that will set off

the noise," Sri thought. Unfortunately, she was right.

Stealthily, she crept towards the window, eyes wide and nostrils flared, the better to

spot any protective spells, or sniff any oils or poisons that would magically scar her for

life. All clear. Sri was starting to feel suspicious. It was all too easy. Where were all of the

hidden spells that had tripped up her predecessors? Surely they hadn't all been tripped up

by that small row of alarm spells?

Sri was about to enter the window when she heard a voice. She froze,

gently lowering herself to the tiles underneath her and listened.

"…Yes, I realise that but I don't…"

"You know what I am talking about." Sri shivered as she heard the second voice. It

reminded her of a snake slithering along wet sand, readying itself for the strike. It

reeked of magic. Evil magic! Again she shuddered in distaste as the voice continued,

"The girl must be found if our plan is to work. That man, Gooney, yes, he knows

something that may help us."

The first voice however, was merely irritated, and whined, "But how are we

supposed to get him to tell us any thing?"

"Why, the usual method, of course."

"Why is it so important to use her? Surely there must be someone else easier to get.

She is too elusive Wraith."

"How many flame-eyed girls do you think are in this country, or even the world you

fool? That's why we need to find this girl who Worm spoke about," Wraith snapped.

Sri let out a silent gasp of shock. It was her that they were talking about. No one else

had burning eyes. Gods damn Worm! He was never a very benevolent person in her

eyes, but his insidiousness surpassed even her low opinion of him. And what was that

about using her? She had to get out of there, and fast. "Forget the feathers, if

Gooney wants phoenix feathers then he can get some for himself," she thought.

Swiftly and silently, she began to edge away from the window, by wriggling on her belly

to stay as low as possible, but not before she heard Wraith speak again.

"The prophecy says that to reach our ultimate goal, we must find the girl with the eyes of flame and

stop her from finding her twin. If the two are united, then all hell will break loose for us. It also says that

the twin is a brother, who looks so similar to the girl that if they switched clothes, then we would never be

able to tell them apart. By using her, then we can kill two mice with one trap."

"This had better be worthwhile Wraith! I didn't join with you and pledge my men's

support for you to just sit around and get no results."

Sri continued her quick escape, edging backwards along the rooftop, and caught a

quick glimpse of the one who had spoken last. It was Jules Vireo, a nobleman with a

reputation that was, if possible, worse than most of the thieves that Sri knew. She had to

get out of there, or those two would surely find her, and she had absolutely no doubts

about what they would do to her if they found her. That was when she accidentally trod

on the line of alarm spells.

SCRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

1 § Sensequas- the currency in Sri's city, Vitiateton.