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Elemental thief, p.1
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       Elemental Thief, p.1

           Rachel Morgan
 
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Elemental Thief


  Copyright © 2018 Rachel Morgan

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  Summary:

  In a near-future world ravaged by magic, seventeen-year-old Ridley steals from the wealthy and secretly gives to those in need—until the night someone follows her home after a heist and ends up murdered outside her apartment.

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  This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or, if real, used fictitiously.

  * * *

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For more information please contact the author.

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  v2018.08.16

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  Mobi Ebook ISBN: 978-0-6399436-1-9

  Epub Ebook ISBN: 978-0-6399436-2-6

  1

  The dark afternoon sky crackled with magic as Ridley Kayne crept across the penthouse apartment she was about to rob. She kept her hood up and her head angled away from the cameras, hiding both her face and her distinctive white-blond hair. Years had passed since she was last at the top of Aura Tower, but not much had changed. The open-plan space with its high ceilings and gleaming surfaces was still decorated with uncomfortable-looking furniture, exotic art, and the Davenports’ private collection of ancient artifacts. That last bit was where Ridley’s interest lay, so she was relieved to see the Davenports hadn’t grown tired of showing off their most priceless possessions.

  She tiptoed past glass cases containing centuries-old urns, hand-painted beads, and items fashioned from rusted metal and carved bone. It was a wonder no one had robbed this collection before, especially since the items were now infinitely more valuable than they’d been before the Cataclysm destroyed most of the world’s history. Then again, Ridley thought as she paused before a porcelain vase to breathe in the unusual scent of fresh flowers, it was probably impossible for anyone who didn’t possess her exact skill set to get in and out of this apartment undetected. No doubt the richest family in Lumina City thought they were untouchable way up here on the two-hundredth floor.

  She exhaled and continued moving, marveling at how quiet it was up here. The sounds that usually accompanied her jobs—the revving of car engines, the ads on billboard screens, the buzz of scanner drones—were almost nonexistent at the top of the city’s tallest building. All Ridley could hear through the floor-to-ceiling windows was the wind and the faint hiss and crack of magic in the storm clouds. She turned near the grand piano, her eyes moving from one artifact to the next—some familiar; others new to her—as she searched for one in particular. Her gaze skimmed across a coffee table, a rug, and up to the paintings on the opposite wall.

  And finally, she spotted it. On a pedestal positioned between two paintings stood a solid gold figurine with a ring of tiny green stones around its neck. It was enclosed within a glass box, but that was no problem for Ridley. She headed straight for it, wondering how much time would pass before the Davenports noticed it was—

  At the sound of a lock clicking, Ridley froze. Her gaze snapped toward the pair of entrance doors. Then, without hesitating a moment longer, she darted forward and slipped around the corner into the passageway that led to the bedrooms. Her heart thumped uncomfortably as she pictured the doors swinging open. A moment later, they closed. Someone muttered something in a voice too quiet for Ridley to tell whether the owner was male or female. She knew what the muttering was about though. A shrill beep should have pierced the air the moment the door opened, but Ridley had disabled the apartment’s entire security system as soon as she’d arrived, and so the newcomer was greeted by silence.

  The staccato click of heels against the polished floor met Ridley’s ears. So it wasn’t Mr. Davenport who was home, and it wasn’t the Davenports’ son—not that Ridley would ever have expected Archer Davenport to walk in; he’d left Lumina City more than a year ago and hadn’t been back since. That left—

  “Mom, you forgot the alarm again,” a voice groaned.

  Delilah Davenport. She wasn’t supposed to be home yet. Ridley was almost certain she had a dance class on Thursday afternoons. “Well I just got home, and it wasn’t on,” Lilah continued, presumably speaking into her commscreen. “And neither is the smart home system, it would seem. Probably needs an update.” Ridley heard a tap and a beep and then—

  “Good evening, Delilah,” a feminine voice purred.

  “There we go,” Lilah muttered as Ridley smirked. She’d disabled the home automation system along with the security. The last thing she needed when attempting a heist was a robotic voice greeting her and offering her a drink or asking what music she wanted to listen to.

  “What can I get for you this—”

  “Nothing, thanks,” Lilah snapped in a loud voice. “Yes, I know it isn’t six yet,” she continued in a quieter tone, the clean click of her heels moving toward the other side of the living area. “Irina wasn’t feeling well, so she ended the lesson early.”

  Ridley tilted her head to the side until she could see Lilah. The girl had one arm wrapped around her waist and her commscreen pressed to her ear as she faced the window. Ridley followed her gaze to the view outside. Heavy clouds blotted out so much of the sky that street lamps across the city were already on. From way up here, at the top of Lumina City’s tallest building, she could see beyond the many twinkling lights and the ten-story-high wall to the wastelands that surrounded the city in every direction. Flashes of magic illuminated the overgrown remains of buildings and roads, but other than that, the train was the only other source of light out there. It wound through the darkness like a bright silver snake with its arxium metal casing lit up. Ridley followed it with her eyes, imagining the walled city hundreds of miles away at the other end.

  “That’s fine,” Lilah said to her mother, snapping Ridley’s attention back to the inside of the apartment. “I’m sure he won’t mind. He saw you and Dad last night.” She paused, and Ridley bit her lip as she considered her next move. “Yes, the two of us can just order something. We’ll be fine, Mom.”

  Lilah ended the call, and Ridley pulled her head back before the other girl could turn and see her. Footsteps moved across the room toward the passageway. Ridley pushed away from the wall and ran for the nearest door. She slipped past it and pressed herself against the wall inside the next room—and realized her mistake immediately. She’d assumed this was still a guest bedroom, but the pink and purple items furnishing the space and the clothes draped across almost every surface clearly marked it as Lilah’s. With no time to duck back out, Ridley ran for the walk-in closet.

  She could have used other means to conceal herself, but this was her second job for the day and she was growing tired. Making her way unseen into two apartments and disarming two security systems had taken a lot out of her. And she still had to escape Aura Tower, which would take almost as much effort as breaking in. Exhausting herself before she managed to get out wasn’t a good idea.

  She reached the closet and pulled the doors shut just as Lilah entered the bedroom, raising her voice to tell the lights to switch on. Ridley forced herself to breathe slowly as she leaned forward and peered between the slats. Lilah tossed her purse onto the bed and told the large, sleek screen sitting on her desk to wake up and find her favorite streaming celebrity news channel. Several moments later, the cheerful voices of two women and a man filled the room as they discussed the fashion that had graced the red carpet at a recent charity event. Ridley shut her eyes for a moment and pushed aside the familiar pang in her chest at the mention of several well-known designers. Stupid celebrity news. Did Lilah really have to choos
e now to watch this trash?

  Ridley opened her eyes to discover that Lilah wasn’t, in fact, watching her favorite celebrity news channel. She sat on her bed with two laptops open in front of her. As her fingers sped across one keyboard and then the other, Ridley smiled. Seeing the over-the-top wealth of the people she stole from always helped assuage her guilt. Not that she felt all that bad to begin with. People like the Davenports had far more than they could ever need. Ridley was only doing her bit to right the scales by taking from them.

  Lilah scooped her glossy brown hair behind one ear, then shut both laptops and stood. She placed one in the bottom drawer of her dresser beneath several layers of clothing, and the other behind a pile of books at the top of a bookshelf. Interesting, Ridley thought, but Lilah was now crossing the room, which meant Ridley had far more urgent matters to pay attention to. If Lilah opened the closet, Ridley would have no choice but to—

  But Lilah headed straight past Ridley’s hiding spot and into her en-suite bathroom. Ridley exhaled and raised her hand to the closet door, listening carefully. The shower turned on. Steam drifted lazily into the bedroom. Ridley counted to ten, and when Lilah still hadn’t reappeared, she pushed the closet open, shut the doors silently behind her, and hurried from the room. Less than a minute later, with the gold figurine in her hand and the glass box sitting undisturbed on its pedestal, she left the apartment the same untraceable way she’d entered.

  No one called out to her as she made her way across the marble floor of Aura Tower’s foyer two hundred stories below, but she waited until she was out of the building and across the street before allowing herself to relax. She zipped up her jacket, tucked the figurine inside, and breathed more easily. She’d done it.

  She turned a corner, believing no one was watching as a gust of wind blew her hood back and tangled the strands of her pale hair. Ten minutes later, in an empty side street behind several overflowing garbage bins, she assumed no one witnessed the quick exchange in which the figurine moved from her hand to someone else’s and a thick envelope found its way into a pocket inside her jacket.

  But after making two planned stops at two different run-down apartment buildings and noticing the same shadowy figure outside each one, Ridley began to grow suspicious. So she headed away from home instead of toward it. She took another three turns into three random streets before finally confirming her fear: Someone was following her.

  2

  The man following Ridley wore a vintage fedora hat, and his hands were pushed deep into the pockets of his dark maroon coat. He must have seen the envelope Ezra handed to her, must have seen the cash she took a few seconds to count before slipping the envelope inside her jacket. He would also have seen her stopping at the two apartment blocks, but what he wouldn’t have seen were the two new envelopes she’d left on two different kitchen tables, each filled with half the money Ezra had given her. Ridley had nothing left on her now, but the man in the maroon coat didn’t know that.

  She mentally kicked herself as she tried not to change her pace. She and Ezra, the dealer she sold her stolen items to, were always so careful about the meeting spots they chose. How had someone seen them? But perhaps, Ridley wondered as she turned yet another corner and increased her pace ever so slightly, this wasn’t a coincidence. She wasn’t the type to get paranoid, but this job hadn’t exactly been of the regular variety. Ezra rarely received specific requests from clients. Ridley stole things—jewelry, art, pre-Cataclysm collectibles—Ezra presented them to whoever might be interested, and hopefully the items would sell. It wasn’t every day that one of those clients came back to him and said, Get me this item from Alastair Davenport’s private collection of ancient relics. Which meant someone knew before she even broke into the Davenports’ apartment that it would happen. And if that someone hadn’t been careful with his information …

  “Dammit,” she muttered as specks of rain landed on her head and shoulders. A glance at the store window to her right told her the man was gaining on her. Perhaps he knew she’d noticed him and decided there was little point in keeping his distance now. Or maybe he didn’t know, but either way, it was time she stopped pretending she was oblivious.

  She sped up, heading straight for the subway entrance up ahead. If she wasn’t so tired already, she would have disappeared another way, but she knew if she tried that particular method right now, she’d end up with the kind of migraine that felt like a screwdriver piercing her eyeballs. Besides, at this time of day it would be easy to lose the man among the crowds down in the subway.

  She reached the subway entrance and the scanner that arched over it. Her pulse quickened, as it did every time she approached a scanner, but it beeped happily as she passed beneath it, the round bulb above her head flashing green for a second as it detected her AI2. She hurried down the steps, dodging between people and raising her fingers out of habit to brush the two small scars on her neck just behind her left ear.

  The first scar came from her first amulet, embedded beneath her skin at birth. The old-fashioned term ‘amulet’ always conjured up images of crudely molded arxium charms hanging from necklaces and bracelets, the way people wore their protection centuries ago before someone decided to place a charm beneath the skin instead. These days, the amulet was a flat piece of silvery arxium metal the size of Ridley’s pinkie nail. Its anti-magic properties—the same properties that made arxium a necessary component of the wasteland trains and the wall surrounding Lumina City—prevented anyone from using magic against her.

  She got her second scar at roughly the same time everyone else did: after the Cataclysm when the use of magic was banned worldwide. Just in case anyone planned to ignore that law—anyone stupid enough to risk pulling on the wild elemental magic that now covered most of the earth—an additional law was put in place dictating that everyone receive a second amulet, the Arxium Implant 2. With this second amulet beneath the skin, it was impossible to pull magic from the environment and use it.

  Ridley reached the bottom of the steps and pushed forward through the throng of people. Muffled music thumped from a nearby pair of headphones while somewhere overhead, an intercom beeped and a voice announced a delay in one of the subway lines. Instead of moving with the crowd toward the turnstile, Ridley weaved her way to the restroom. Seconds later, she was inside, holding the door slightly ajar and watching through the sliver of space for the man in the maroon coat. She spotted him as he reached the final step and began struggling to push his way through the crowd toward the turnstile.

  “Ohmygosh, and they caught her, like, right in front of my apartment building!”

  Ridley glanced over her shoulder as she became aware that she wasn’t alone in the restroom. Two girls leaned against the wall beside the hand dryer, peering at something on a commscreen. A video, she realized as a tinny female voice reached her ears: “… finally tracked her down and arrested her earlier this afternoon.” Ridley returned her gaze to the man who was heading straight for the turnstile and about to give her a chance to sneak back up to the street.

  “What an idiot,” one girl said. “She had to know she’d end up dead.”

  “I know, right? One-way ticket to the death penalty.”

  “Well, yeah, either that or from magic blowing up in her face. Like that chick on top of the Haddison Building earlier this year.”

  At the word ‘magic,’ Ridley’s attention snapped back to the two girls.

  “Serena Adams?” the second girl replied.

  “Yeah, her. Why don’t people learn when they see things like that? No, they have to go and experiment and put everyone else’s lives in danger.”

  “Shh,” the other girl said, and pointed at the commscreen.

  “All we can confirm at this point,” the voice from the video continued, “is that her AI2 was removed sometime within the last few days, allowing her to pull magic from the environment, a crime that has been punishable by death for close to a decade now. The woman, whose name we have yet to confirm, is an emplo
yee of Capita Farms on the edge of the city. It was the farm’s proximity to the arxium wall that alerted several of the woman’s colleagues to the fact that elemental magic was being used: The magic rebounded upon making contact with the wall’s arxium plating, first causing minor damage to a solar panel, then followed minutes later by a small explosion that destroyed a section of a wheat field.”

  As the newscaster continued speaking, Ridley touched the scars behind her ear yet again, hesitating as her eyes followed the man in the maroon coat. But as much as she wanted to know more about this woman who’d just got herself arrested, Ridley had more important things to worry about right now. She pulled the door open enough to stick her head out and watched the man finally push through the turnstile and rush forward without looking back. She ducked out of the restroom and walked the other way, back to the stairs and up to the street.

  Raindrops—a little larger than before—pattered down around her. Ridley tugged her jacket off, turned it inside out to reveal the light blue lining, and pulled it back on. After covering her head with the hood once more, she shoved her hands into her pockets and walked as quickly as she could without running. In the back of her mind, she mapped out the quickest way home—a two-block walk, a bus ride, and another quick walk—but she kept most of her attention directed behind her. With every corner she turned, her eyes darted back over her shoulder. Still no maroon coat or fedora hat in sight.

  The bus she caught carried her fifteen minutes away from the city center. She survived the annoying kid kicking the back of her seat while singing rude variations on the old ‘roses are red, magic is blue’ poem and got hastily to her feet as soon as the bus neared the first Demmer District stop. She climbed off, jumped over a puddle, and skirted the soggy trash blocking the drain. Demmer wasn’t exactly the slum of the city—the bus would have had to continue for another five minutes or so to reach that part of town—but it certainly wasn’t an area anyone from the glitzy skyscraper district would frequent.

 
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