The little rascal bared it's pointed teeth at me. "For what reason do you seek me, assassin?"
"To ask you some questions. And maybe kill you, too." And then I dived into myself, down the well of power I possessed. There were two reasons I did not carry any weapons with me. One was that it would've made it harder to get into the castle. Secondly, I didn't need them; I was my own weapon. Yet when I reached in, I found... nothing. No essence to twist into a blade to dissect and tear minds apart. It was as if I'd just used it all up... or they'd been blocked and hidden from me. Sylvia let out a deranged laugh, and flexed her hands, making little claws pop up from her knuckles. "Now you know, little assassin. Now you know why they warned you."
"Why did you not reject my entrance into the castle?"
"Dear, I wanted to have some fun! Besides, you may prove useful. There are some people I'd like to see drooling in the back of an alley. Oh, what I'd give to have claws like your's."
"So you can rip your bindings to pieces? How pathetic." At that retort, Sylvia bristled, and I knew I'd hit a sensitive topic. Centuries ago Sylvia was conceived through alchemical means. She was created from a land-dweller's attempt to resurrect a rainbow dragon, but since she was born from a human woman's blood and womb, Sylvia turned out to be a halfling. Yet her humanity did not taint her; it only made Sylvia more powerful. With the capability to perform extraordinary feats of magic, Sylvia was wanted as an object, not as a human. Though immortal, Sylvia forever retained the form of a child; this was because the magic she used took away life force, thus preventing her from growing physically. And because of her abnormal appearance, Sylvia was ostracised by all who lived in the sea. These qualities made her a cynical creature, one who used life-giving powers to seed misery and pain wherever she went. She became the subject of multiple myths and legends, and the most famous of all the stories was the one where she, an ancient creature who lived a life of bitterness, fell in love with a beautiful prince, the light of all Oceanides. It played out like Beauty and the Beast in reverse; the union between the monster girl and a beautiful boy, complete with a tragic ending and extended epilogue. Thanks to a curse cast by the Prime Mage at that time, Sylvia is now bound to serve the royal family for all eternity; as long as a drop of royal blood exists in this world, Sylvia will stay leashed to whoever possess it. Asides from being the royal family's watchdog, rumour has it Sylvia spends her days trying to get out of the castle. This must've been one of her famous attempts. She scowled, her features scrunching in the most adorable way. "I know what you're thinking, assassin. Let me go, and maybe I'll spare one of your limbs."
"Do you really think I'm that stupid? Besides, you must've heard them coming for you. They'll be here soon." Sylvia actually paled, her metallic eyes darting from side to side. "No. Anything but those guards. Not them. Never them." Her eyes flashed as they regarded me, and reflected in them was an irrational fear battling with cold logic. After a moment, she swallowed hard, and with a defeated look in her eyes, muttered: "Take me with you, assassin. Hide me, and in return I'll guide you to where you're supposed to be. AND I promise not to harm you in anyway after you release me. 'Tis deal good enough for you?" I nodded, and released her from my chokehold and helped her up. Her finely scaled skin felt leathery in my hands, liked the chaffed hands of a serpentine farmer. Eyeing my cloak, Sylvia smirked. "Fancy cloak you got there, assassin. Must've cost you a fortune."
"What, this bothersome thing?"
"You don't know, do you? Well, they say ignorance is bliss..."
"Spit it out, lizard." Raising a brow, Sylvia shrugged. "Fine, then. My girl, that 'bothersome' cloak of your's is made of felted human heartstrings. As we all know, the heart-strings of a creature are the vessels of their essence; once taken, that essence is your's to use. However, humans have no magic in their blood, therefore their heartstrings can be the vessels for any type of magic, really. On that cloak is a rather powerful spell which marries invisibility, camouflage and silence in one. Possibly an antique, too, since no-one ever uses such materials anymore. Though I do remember the times when people did. Such exciting times, they were. Bloody, but full of thrills." She licked her teeth, and the wicked gleam in her eyes sent a shudder through my body. "You wouldn't know, assassin. What people like me did back then... well, let's say your nightmares would run away in terror if they were to hear such tales. "
"Cut the jibber-jabber, will you? Now where to?" Faster the my eyes could follow, Sylvia darted under the cloak and inched closer to me. She pointed to a glistening turret just to our right. "Go past there, and you'll find the 'celebrations'. The King thought it was too stuffy inside, so he ordered the servants to move all the preparations to the Phoenix Garden. And a week before the Gathering, too!" We set off at a good pace, the sounds of soldiers all around us. We had no problems fitting inside the cloak, which was massive, but the knowledge of the lives it took to fabricate such an heirloom unnerved me. Despite my invisibility, I felt nervous, but Sylvia continued forward with steely eyes. "So I thought it would be easy to slip out when all the staff were working overtime, and the castle guards thrown to hell for the sheer amount of work they had to do. My, was I wrong." We rounded a corner and almost bumped into what looked like a cetus, sea monsters of the Mediterranean, which, surprisingly, were good with numbers. This one was holding an extremely complex abacus and muttering numerous statistics as it lumbered by. It was probably still a juvenile; only about the size of a man, the cetus had round, jade-colored scales, clawed appendages, spiralling horns, protruding black eyes and a toothy horse-like snout. Sylvia snorted, which made me clamp a hand over her mouth, yet we passed by unnoticed. The two of us continued on. Down more hallways, past more doors, through more little gardens. Yet it didn't feel right; no matter how far we went, the turret still looked just as far away as it had when we started. Suddenly Sylvia lashed out with a clawed hand and tore at the air. I felt a tingling sensation, and immediately my bare feet felt left the stone floor and landed on soft sea grass. Up close the turret was massive; its walls were a rosy mother-of-pearl, and countless stained-class windows glittered under the golden sunlight. "What did you do?" I asked the little halfling, which let out a breath and regarded me the same way one might look at a whiny child. "Could you not feel it, assassin? Someone was using magic to search for me, but thanks to your cloak, we couldn't be detected. That person also re-wrote the rules of space-time in the castle, so however pure our intentions, we'd still be trapped. He wasn't letting anyone with the intention to go to the turret get their way, but his magic was weak, so I just made a portal to here so spare us the agony of having to walk in circles." Who was 'weak', but could use the magic of space-time at such a grand scale? I ignored the thought, and looked at the festivities before me. Small tables laden with all kinds of delicacies were arranged in a crescent around the raised dais, from which the royal family watched the crowd of nobles, guests and servants mile about. Tacky were the garments of the nobles: tails draped in nets of gemstones and gold, artistically smeared makeup, gravity-defying hair, stilt-like heels, flouncy satin trains and corsets on the men. Though they laughed and cajoled in their chittering voices and booming altos, the attendees were clearly on the edge. They were waiting for the main spectacle. At that moment a pair of heavily painted automaton servants stepped forward and blew 4 long notes on their conches, signalling the start of the hostage procession. The crowd parted as two columns of paired women descended on small chariots driven by the native animal of their region. Regardless of their shape and size, they all shared two similarities; their outfits and human aspect. All of those women wore the flimsy garments identical to my own. Also, the hostage exchange only deemed women who had a humanoid face could be tributes, so if one was born they were automatically signed up for the exchange, regardless of caste or race. A bolt of panic flashed through me, and I looked around for Sylvia. She was leaning against the shiny turret, though in her little hands was a glass of seaberry juice. I could smell the alcohol it was spiked with. Her eyes narrowed, as if she knew what I was about to ask. "You can teleport, right? Take me to the surface. Please."
"Why should I? Our bargain is over, little assassin. And besides, I don't want to miss the festivities."
"Then let us have a new one. There's gotta be something you want. Anything, Sylvia, and I'll do my best to pay it." The halfling smirked, her small lips curling to reveal a set of tiny fangs.
"Anything, you say?" I cringed at my own carelessness.
"Just... nothing that will bring harm to me or anyone I know and love. And when I say harm, I mean both physically, mentally, socially and magically. Those are my only terms, Sylvie."
"They're reasonable enough. No sense in asking for a first-born child from someone who can't even reproduce." Sylvia put a taloned finger on her chin, putting on a caricature of the face inquisitors make when they are in deep thought. "Alright, I'll take you to the surface, but on one condition." She pointed to the chariots. "Let me ride with you. And don't try to barter with me, little assassin. I've made up my mind." My jaw dropped to the floor, and I gave the smug little halfling, who grinned at me in the most self-satisfied way. But a small, rebellious corner of my head thought: But why not? She can use your cloak. Besides, it would be much easier to have someone familiar besides you, right?
Listening to that voice was one of the worst decisions I've ever made.