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Emma L Adams

Thief of Souls: Order of the Elements Book 1 (Paperback)

Thief of Souls: Order of the Elements Book 1 (Paperback)

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Book 1 of 5: Order of the Elements

I'm Liv Cartwright, mage, thief, and unapologetic nerd.

Magically talented people like me have two choices: use our powers at the beck and call of the Order of the Elements or be exiled to the realm of monsters. Sounds like an easy choice, right? Not so much. Since my mentor dabbled in forbidden spirit magic and left me to take the fall, I have to pay off his debts without using my magic.

I'd rather spend my free time gaming than retrieving valuable objects for the Order, but my latest retrieval job goes from mundane to deadly when I end up on the wrong side of the terrifying King of the Dead. Turns out he doesn’t like thieves, and he likes the Order even less. To make things worse, I run into my ex-boyfriend, a fire mage who's carrying as many secrets as I am, and find my simple thieving job has landed me in the middle of a conspiracy. A second elemental war is brewing, and the key to stopping it lies in my long-buried memories of my mentor's lessons.

The catch? If the Order finds out, they'll show me no mercy this time -- and everyone knows there's a good reason spirit magic was banned.

People who use it tend to end up dead.

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If there was one guarantee in my life, it was that I’d always end up visiting the swamplands of the dead the day after I’d bought new shoes. I wouldn’t say there was ever a good time to set foot in a place where magic had scorched away all life and left only the dead behind, but the swampy water surged up to my ankles within two steps and drenched my new boots in the smell of death. Silently mourning my last payment bonus, I sidestepped the skeletal remains of some poor creature which had breathed its last here and continued north into the Death King’s domain.

Over one shoulder, I carried the backpack I always took with me on missions to the Parallel, which contained a few snack bars, a bottle of water, a change of clothes, a first-aid kit, a couple of spare cantrips, and my bag of dice. Not only were they useful as a diversion, they made good weapons, too, mostly because of the element of surprise. Nobody expects to get knocked out cold by a D20.

I also carried several cantrips inside the pouch at my waist, coin-shaped magical constructs designed for paralysing foes or otherwise incapacitating them, and one for water-breathing in case I ended up having to go for a swim in the swamp. There’s positive thinking and there’s practical thinking, and I prefer to bet on the latter.

The swamplands had never looked appealing even at the height of the Elements’ power. Small wonder, really, considering they surrounded the Death King’s home, and nobody in their right mind would build their house on the doorstep of the most infamous lich around. Skeletal trees rose from the murky ground, their branches twisting up to the pale grey sky, while the only other signs of life were poisonous flowers and twisting vines that choked the life from any living creature foolish enough to stray too close. 

Each step heightened the risk of meeting the same fate myself, but if I didn’t find this thief, I’d fall one rung down the ladder of the Order of the Elements’ retrieval unit and find it twice as hard to claw my way back up again. Truth be told, I wasn’t so much on the career ladder as in the career basement, but I was decent at my job, and with any luck, a better thief than the dude I’d been sent to steal from. I kept both eyes open as I trekked across the marshy ground, searching for any signs of a hidden sanctuary amid the gloomy surroundings.

“Don’t go that way,” said Dex. “If you take one more step, you’ll end up elbows-deep in swamp water.”

“And you’d know?”

Dex was a fire sprite—a spirit with no substantial form—which made him lucky enough to be able to fly over the swamp rather than trekking through it. These days, elemental sprites were even rarer than their human counterparts, but I’d rescued him from the cage of an unscrupulous trader a few years back, and he’d repaid me by annoying the shit out of me and saving my life in equal measures. 

My feet sank into deeper water, which surged right up to my knees and into my boots. My durable coat might be waterproof, but the clothes underneath weren’t water-resistant. Great.

“Told you so.” Dex hummed around my head, a cloud of fiery magic forming the vague shape of a person. 

I rolled my eyes at him, withdrawing my soaked leg from the swamp. “Why don’t you make yourself useful and scout ahead to find our thief’s hideout?”

“There’s no hideouts in here,” he said. “This place is murkier than an Element’s morals.”

“Ha.” I prodded the ground with my toe to find a steadier route to cross the swamp, and then trod forward. “I’m assuming even thieves with a death wish would need a roof over their heads while they count their treasures.”

Why anyone would choose to hide out in a place like this was beyond me, but the Order’s report claimed the guy had been seen fleeing the Death King’s guards and disappearing somewhere in the lands surrounding his territory. By all accounts, he hadn’t been seen to reach the city, which meant he must still be hiding out here in the swampland with his hoard.

“Swamp, swamp and more swamp.” Dex used his fingers to mimic a pair of binoculars, peering around us. “If you ask me, the poor soul got himself torn to shreds by a pack of wights.”

“If he had, the Order wouldn’t have bothered sending me to chase him.” 

Cold air blew across the swampland, bringing the scent of decay and the reminder of the array of deathless monsters living out here. How the Death King could stand it, I hadn’t a clue, but then again, he was rumoured to be worse than all the other monsters put together. And here I am, walking up to his doorstep.

Not to the castle itself, of course. In the distance, the dark shape of the Death King’s home stood etched against the grey-white sky, a veritable fortress even without the undead army guarding its walls. Immortal death lords enjoyed a different existence to the rest of us, to say the least.

I halted on a rise slightly above the rest of the swamp. “He’s got to be somewhere on the outskirts. No way is he within sniffing distance of the liches.”

Like their king, liches were created by removing a soul from a person’s body and storing it inside an object—which as far as I was concerned was glaring example of a fate worse than death. The rumours said that a fair proportion of his army had been turned into liches as a punishment from the Death King for straying too close to his territory, which was a fair reason to call it quits and return to searching the city.

My skin prickled as I passed close to a node at the crest of a hill, one of the natural wellsprings of magical energy that linked the Parallel to the ordinary world from whence it had sprung. Almost invisible to the non-magical, the node glimmered like a beacon of shimmering light, surging up to the sky. The temptation seized me to jump through the node back to the world on the other side—the world of central heating and D&D campaigns, not swampland and soul-eating phantoms—but the Order would tear me a new one if they found out I’d shirked my duty. Besides, I couldn’t afford to skip out on the substantial bonus I’d get for returning the thief’s haul to the Order’s office.

I sidestepped the node, and a different glimmer entirely caught my eye. If I tilted my head to the side, the outline of a hut appeared on an island in the middle of the swamp, as faint as a mirage. “I think I found our thief.”

He’d used an illusion cantrip to hide it—a good one, too—turning the hut entirely invisible to the naked eye. Either a chameleon charm or a straight-up reflective spell, I’d reckon. Devon would know. 

Most practitioners could have seen through the illusion, even the likes of me, so it must have been placed there to drive off the dead. Smart play, considering the only living people for miles were the Death King’s four personal Elemental Soldiers, and they rarely left his castle except on serious business. A petty thief hiding in the swamp wasn’t worth their consideration.

I scanned the hut, looking out for traps. If any spell lay over the hut which couldn’t be countered by any of the cantrips I had on me, I’d end up in a bind, but at least I knew where the thief was hiding.

“What’re you waiting for?” asked Dex.

“Checking our thief hasn’t booby trapped the place.” I stepped forward. “We can’t all be bodiless spirits, you know.”

Dex frequently boasted that he was indestructible, but I wasn’t clear on whether he’d ever been alive to begin with. Even the Order didn’t know much about sprites. Unlike phantoms, he had a personality. More so than the liches, from what I’d seen, though it didn’t help that they all looked the same. My heart jumped into my throat when a large shadow passed over the swampland behind the hut, but it was just a cloud of insects, not a lich.

“You worry too much.”

“I have good reason to.” I was well aware of my limitations, but the Order had insisted I come here alone, and refusing the Order was more foolish than stealing from the dead. I already had one permanent black mark on my record. “Okay. I’m going in.”

I trod closer, fingering my bag of lucky dice, and pulled out a D20. Then I flicked it at the door. A pinging noise sounded, and the hut appeared from nowhere, a dilapidated shed with a sloping roof. Stooping low, I retrieved the die and returned it to my pouch. 

“Roll for initiative…”

I peered through the single murky window to see who lurked within. Nobody, by the looks of things. I sidestepped and found the wooden door closed, but not locked. I pushed it inwards, halting on the threshold.

“Perception check,” I muttered. “What’s lurking in there?”

“Your eyesight is shit,” Dex said.

He was dead right on that one. At the moment, my contacts were enhanced by a cantrip that gave me better eyesight than I had back in the regular world, but the hut was pitch-dark.

I stepped forward into the gloom, my shoulders tensed. The general musty scent of the swampland masked all magical signatures, which was probably why the thief had escaped notice, yet it struck me suspicious that I hadn’t triggered any traps yet.

My gaze pinpointed a mud-coloured disc inside a square-shaped frame on the carpet, a thin chain looped through a hole drilled into its edge. That was more like it. I eased a thin bone-coloured wire from my belt and gently poked it into the square. One of Devon’s creations, the wire could bypass most magical fields, but it took several attempts to hook the end of the wire around the hole in the tip of the amulet and lift it into the air. If the thief interrupted me now, I wouldn’t be amused, but where’d he disappeared to, foraging for mushrooms? This wasn’t exactly a practical hideout unless one already had supplies. Nothing much lived in the waters. The swamplands of death weren’t designed to support the living.

On the other hand, the amulet looked valuable. If he’d stayed in the city, he’d have likely had the thing snatched off him the instant he set foot there. This place deterred trespassers by reputation alone.

I lifted the wire out of the circle and my hand closed around the disc, my fingers skimming its cold metal exterior. Lightweight as a cantrip, it sure didn’t look worth risking the wrath of the Death King.

A faint breeze whispered against my neck as the hut door opened with a distinct wooden creak. Then a skeletal hand reached over my head, latching onto the end of the amulet. I tugged, hard, and a bony fist hit me in the face, sending me stumbling back a step.

And our intrepid adventurer rolls a critical failure and gets clubbed in the face. Wincing, I tugged back at the amulet, locking my free hand around the creature’s wasted wrist. A wight. I was losing a tug-of-war with a skull-faced beast with the strength of a gnat. If Devon found out, I would never live this down.

Dex laughed in my ear. “Want me to help?”

“Spare my dignity.” I gave one firm tug and managed to wrench the amulet from the skeletal beast’s grip. “Let’s get outta here.”

You can’t kill what’s already dead, so running was my only option. Luckily, I’m a better runner than a fighter. I looped the amulet’s chain around my neck and ran, swamp water splashing into my boots. My feet pounded on the ground, while I tucked the amulet into the neckline of my coat and skidded to a halt at the sight of a tall, heavyset male figure ahead of me. 

So much for getting out of here without a major confrontation.

The thief wore a long durable coat and boots. His pockmarked face bore the scars of someone who’d lived in the Parallel long enough for the magical charge in the air to leave its permanent marks on him. Most people here had fallen on hard times since the war.

I folded my arms across my chest, one hand easing open the pouch at my belt. “Move or regret it. Your choice.”

The swamp water stirred beneath my feet, swirling in circles. Oh damn. He wasn’t a practitioner, but a full-blown mage. Muddy water surged to the surface around his boots, swirling in dark circles. If I wasn’t careful, I’d need that water-breathing cantrip after all.

With swift fingers, I eased one of the coin-shaped discs from my pouch and flicked it at him. Then I ran like hell as the paralysing cantrip’s blast went off, sending swamp water spraying in all directions. The thief shouted in fury, but I didn’t look back to see if I’d hit my target accurately. My feet splashed in the water, then my right heel caught on something solid and hard. I caught my balance against a frail tree trunk and launched into a run again. I had to get out of—oh, shit.

The sharp points of a tall pair of obsidian gates loomed overhead. Somehow—no doubt via a confusion cantrip hidden beneath my feet—the swamp had turned me around, sending me running towards the Death King’s castle instead of away from it. I should have guessed the thief would have hidden a few more traps around his hideout, and now, the dark shape of the Death King’s castle stood closer than I’d ever seen before. It was pure luck that I hadn’t run into any guards. There wasn’t exactly a sign on the gates saying ‘Trespassers will be stripped of their souls’, but it was implied. To escape, I needed to get around my pursuer… who I’d just blown up with a cantrip. Great one, Liv. 

The gates creaked inward, and I flung myself into the bushes, crouching low. Not a moment too soon. Two figures rode out into the swamp, their horses black and skeletal. Dead steeds for dead riders. Now I was screwed. Not only did the Death King have a castle, he also held an army to defend it. Two more figures followed the first pair, equally imposing and wearing armour straight out of a fantasy movie. As they drew closer to my hiding place, I glimpsed the insignia on each soldier’s coat: a coat of arms signalling all four types of magic: fire, water, earth and air. The skull in the centre of the symbol represented the Death King himself. A little on the nose, but subtlety was not in the guy’s forte. One of the soldiers gave a restless glance around, their eyes visible through a slit in their helmet. Human eyes.

Oh, damn. The four Elemental Soldiers themselves were out on patrol.

I remained still, my heart thudding, unable to believe my monumentally shitty luck. If the Elemental Soldiers were after the thief, then I was in real trouble if they figured out that I’d swiped his hoard. They can’t be. Surely. I’d genuinely thought the Death King would have zero interest in petty thieves hiding in his swamp. Why send all four of his best soldiers to fight against a single thief, anyway?

The little magic I had was useless in this situation, and I had nothing more than the few cantrips in the pouch at my waist. There was no escaping this without a miracle. I sent a silent curse to Dirk Alban, wherever he’d ended up after his death. If he hadn’t sought me out as a naïve student and taught me forbidden magic, I wouldn’t have a black mark on my record, and I certainly wouldn’t be staring down my own death beneath the skeletal hooves of the Death King’s soldiers. Let’s just say my old mentor’s decision had backfired on him in a very literal sense, but I’d lived to reap the consequences of his actions. He hadn’t.

The gates shuddered to a halt. The four figures rode past the bushes without looking at my hiding place, but before I could release the breath trapped in my chest, a fifth figure joined the others. Like them, the soldier rode a skeletal horse, and wore a long hooded dark cloak in the same style as the others. My gaze panned from the newcomer to the other four Elemental Soldiers, wondering who the fifth rider was. Their hooded cloaks were well-made, the insides dyed with their designated colour. Red for fire, green for air, blue for water, brown for earth. And black for—fuck my life. Was that the Death King himself on patrol with his soldiers?

Most people said he never left his castle, but the moment he rode past the bush, I knew my guess was right. Nobody else wore that armour, dark and moulded to his form as though made of living shadow, along with a black mask that obscured his features. Rumour told that nobody had ever seen his real face, but most of us suspected nothing lay beneath the mask at all. As the king of the liches, he hadn’t been alive in a very long time.

The King of the Dead himself was inches away from me, riding a skeletal horse that hardly seemed to touch the swampy ground. A chill wind followed in his wake, sweeping through the gates and rendering my body frozen. I couldn’t have moved if I wanted to—and I most definitely did not want to. I’m dead. I’m so dead.

Yet the soldiers were passing without slowing, without stopping, without looking back. I hardly dared breathe, my knees screaming with the pain of my hunched position. When the five of them were far enough away for me to risk breathing, I whispered, “Dex.”

The fire sprite stirred at my side. “Yes?”

“I need your help.” My heart hammered a wild beat against my ribcage, and if the rumours were true that the Death King could sense life and snuff it out, I was doomed. But there was one more target in the area. “Can you throw some sparks around over by our thieving friend? If you keep their attention over there until I can slip around them and get to the node, I might get out of this alive.”

The other node lay within sight, but in an area of unbroken swampland. If I went that way, the five riders would spot me in an instant. I’d need to create a massive diversion to stand a chance of getting out of here as it was. The good news was, being a nuisance and a distraction was Dex’s speciality.

Dex flitted out of sight, and a few tense seconds later, lights sparked above the thief’s hut. The Death King’s soldiers veered that way, and I eased a cantrip into my hand, counting down the seconds.

At the unmistakeable sound of the water mage’s frantic scream, I ran out across the swamp. Vulnerability scraped me to the bone as I ran; no landmarks tall enough to hide me stood between me and the horsemen. They said the Death King could remove a man’s soul from his body with a touch. Not a fate I’d wish on anyone, but rather the thief than me. 

I ran, flat-out, my feet tearing at the swampy earth. The thief’s screams rang out behind me, but I didn’t look back. A tugging sensation propelled me towards the node. I was damned close. I have to make it.

A familiar tree drew my sight, and I halted with a gasp. Here it is. I’d made it to the crossing-over point, the node through which I’d entered the Parallel to begin with. I ran up to the tree and removed my weapons. Knives, cantrips— I thrust them into the hole in the side of the hollow tree so nobody would steal them when I was gone. Carrying any kind of weapons, magical or otherwise, wasn’t allowed on the other side of the node. Cantrips weren’t banned, per se, but I lived in perpetual fear of the Order showing up on Devon’s doorstep and shutting down her business. Best to leave all evidence of her experimental magic behind. As for the amulet, my permit ought to be enough to cover anything I’d taken from the thief. 

I reached the spot where the node rose to the sky like a fountain from the core of the earth. My heart surged against my ribs like a tidal wave, my blood thundering in my veins. Showing up at the Order covered in mud would not be wise, so I’d need to head home first, which was miles from the spot where this node overlapped with the real world. In theory, though, any node in the Parallel could connect with any on the other side. If you knew where they were.

“Come on.” I tensed, feeling the buzz in my fingertips from the node, and pictured the image of my home as clearly as I could. “I’d like to go home at some point this century, please.”

Magic roared through my veins. Then the node caught me, and I was gone.

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