The Black Heart Chapter 6: The Gentleman Thief

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All criminals had their own set of ethics. It varied from person to person, but anybody who ever had their name on a 'Wanted' poster always had a bottom line. The ones that didn't have their name on a poster, were on death row. With that simple dichotomy, the necessity of ethics was easily proven to the vast majority of criminals. Flagon insisted that he was the most ethical person around. Surely, if you excluded murder and theft- which could perhaps be blamed upon his acute kleptomania- he was the most decent person around. By all accounts he was a rather genial personality, taking nothing seriously; the perennial optimist. Hell his jailer had to admit that he couldn't imagine a reason why Flagon could possibly have committed theft.

The image of the beautiful Star Pearl was still on his mind. It was an ingenious theft, that one. The Pearl was a beautiful crystal, its mana density being incredibly high. Its value to mages couldn't be expressed in numbers. With it mechanists stood a chance of further advancing Mekanical technology. With the Star Pearl, they could synthesize alloys that produced their own heat- it would ensure that the fire ages would be left far, far, behind. With that one crystal, anything from the Steamwerks would be as good as gone.

But to Flagon, it was a thing of beauty. To have it's value expressed in mere numbers at an action was simply painful to look at. How could its magnificence every be put forth in Pounds? Nonsensical. One had to have taste to appreciate its artistic value. It was then that he decided the scientists shouldn't have it. The Pearl was never meant to be sold at an auction. It was then he decided that he ought to steal it.

He barely made it out of Kingstown. The mage who found the crystal almost burnt half the city to the ground. Flagon himself wasn't a half-bad mage. He could hold his own against high-rank mages, and he most certainly couldn't be caught unless the Tower decided to send half of their elders over. But it was certainly a tricky situation. He had used every single thing in his arsenal to get the stone. He evaded countless traps, dodged arrows from master bowmen. Dealt with a platoon of mages, before he got out. And then he threw himself into a jail for a day and a half while the hunt for the thief was afoot. A funny thing it was- jails were often the safest places in the entire city. While all hell broke loose above ground, Flagon was sage within the confines of the four stone walls that surrounded him. Two days later, he was released while being fined for lesser pick-pocketing.

The search had gone out of the city by this time. But there was the problem that he had lost his mask in the process. His face had been visible to at least half the mages at the auction. A nasty affair that was. His iconic seal would now be assosciated with a face. The gentleman thief was anonymous no more. And so it was best he decided to lay low for a while. For some reason all the nobles suspected that he was one of them. Why would somebody who could already afford the Star Pearl still it? Nonsensical in his opinion.

At any rate he figured the easiest place to lay low would be the desert. Especially somewhere remote. The outskirts then. The hunt was afoot near the center of the desert too- there were suspicions that some renegade nobles who controlled some of the larger Oases had hired him. And so he was, hidden at the little Oasis, relaxing. His caravan was to go through several more Oases, delivering people between them. As a mage his value to the caravan was immense. He had been an instant hire- hell they had requested him to go with them. He chuckled as he still thought of that comedic sequence where the caravan leader tried to convince him to go with them.

And then he saw the two of them. The moment Flagon saw the man, he knew he wasn't normal. Flagon had stolen his fair share of things. Most of those things weren't with him right now, since he didn't want to attract any unnecessary attention. Except the Star Pearl. The Pearl he was very reluctant to let go of. Flagon had a faint feeling he had seen the man with the trawler before. A long time ago, perhaps, but he had seen him for sure. And what's more the man gave off the aura of a high-rank mage. As a mage specialized in speed and stealth, Flagon could easily detect the waves a mage gave off. The man must've been weaker than Flagon, but what really surprised Flagon was the Trawler he pulled. That Trawler was something he had seen before.

It was the symbol of The Aacademy. It was beyond famous. As the original Passfeld invention, that trailer must've been worth millions. That Trawler was historic. Yet it wasn't the same thing as the original Passfeld- after all the original trawler was still in the academy museum. A generous donation from Passfeld. This machine was more of an improvement upon the original, the alloys that made its frame were clearly worth a pretty penny to the trained eye.

And then there was that signature. The signature was not that of Passfeld. And what mattered most, was that it was made of the original Luminous steel- the very same alloy that made the original Desert Trawler. Luminous steel was never used to make these machines- except once. And that once was in the original Desert Trawler. Technology rapidly progressed after the first Trawler prototype, and Passfeld had the academy's complete support to build the Trawlers. They made the next design with Bright Steel- far stronger, far more flexible, far easier to produce and far, far more durable.

Was it a replica? Flagon wasn't sure. He only pursued the originals. It wasn't worth bothering to find out the Trawler's origins, but he was curious about the man with the machine. A high-rank mage, and a scruffy looking kid followed him. Now why would a high-rank mage come to the desert? Flagon didn't know, but he was curious. And if he was curious, he was going to find out no matter what.

He followed them around- watched them buy supplies- a few Nagelmackers, rope, a spade or two, and... Flame charges? The old types that too, the branded Dyna-mite gunpowder mixes. That was a curious purchase. And then they waited. They gambled with some of the other men till the sun set. Flagon took the opportunity to join them, and tried to test the waters. They clearly didn't appreciate him trying to sound them out. Interesting, very interesting. The kid looked nervous, as if he was about to commit a crime or something. Flagon suggested as much, to quite some laughter. He watched his telltale wincing. Either the two of them were bluffing at cards, or they were actually going to commit a crime.

They were bluffing, but that didn't do very much to dampen Flagon's enthusiasm. Instinct told him he was correct. They then sat and pitched a tent. And then they waited. Two hours passed. Nothing happened. Flagon could sense the mage's mana still within the tent. Three hours. Two sole mana signatures within the tent. No suspicious activity. Had he been wrong? Four hours. Had they simply been bluffing? Just two people in a tent, nothing more. Five hours. Was that all? It felt disappointing. He was rarely off the mark when it came to his instinct. Six hours. He managed to get a quick glimpse inside their tent. They were still there. Two people lying down on pillows, surrounded by their packs. They were even moving around occasionally. He was wrong. Half the night was over, and they hadn't made their move. Nothing was afoot.

Flagon grumbled and went back to his tent. He lay awake, looking up at the dull dilapidated ceiling, a far cry from the comfortable chambers he usually rented at expensive hotels. And the heat in the desert- the heat was mind-numbing. A simple ice-spell did the trick for him, but he could imagine the struggle the other had to go through.

The heat. Wait. The heat. The man was a mage goddamnit, and which mage would lie down in the heat without even casting a single spell? He had only sensed two mana signatures for half the night. And heck even normal humans bothered to unpack a mekanical fan or something. Hell, something was wrong here. He sprinted back to the tent, and took a closer look.

He glanced around, before hiding his mana and casting a high-level reveal spell. He saw it. Illusion magic. Portable at that too. Some sort of Mekanical contraption. Flagon grinned. His instinct was never wrong. He should have thought better of a high-level mage. Always careful. If they weren't at their tent, then they should be half-done with whatever they were trying to do. Think. Think. Think. Where could they be?

There was nothing here that was valuable- if there was he would've found out before these idiots. All the caravans about here were low level. Nothing at all was valuable. Except the Oasis of course. Bah, what could they do, steal the Oasis? Conquering it may as well be a futile endeavour. After all, the Tzar owned this particular Oasis. He clamped down on insurgence like a bear on steak.

But he'd already been wrong once. What was the harm in checking the Oasis? Flagon floated over, his mana holding him up in the air. Still concealed, he looked down upon the Oasis. Nothing here. Wait. He could feel a strangeness in the mana around him. It was disturbed... Nothing that a normal mage could notice, but Flagon sure as hell wasn't a normal mage. It was as if the Oasis was being disturbed by something. He frowned. He hated getting wet.

It was a deep dive. The water towards the depths of the Oasis was foul- the mana was far too intense, a strange blackish thing, it wasn't normal mana. It was too concentrated to be normal, yet it wasn't pure mana either. It was corrupted. The water at this depth tasted of Iron. Perhaps there was a hidden vein here? Maybe. He glanced around and continued down. He slowly had to excercise his mana to form a shield about him. The water too had turned black now. A sip could kill almost anything. Further down. He had dived into an Oasis once before- out of sheer curiosity. He saw nothing different from his first dive. The water went deeper and deeper, until it finally ended in a little stream. He knew where the stream went. It connected to another Oasis. The current was powerful- powerful enough to move even him, despite his shields.

Everything was as the Tower said- nothing particularly out of place over here. Except for the giant fucking hole at the bottom of the Oasis. That was new. Conventional Wisdom told him that the water here was connected to the Black Heart, thus the strange mana, and it's absurd concentration. The speed of the flow was also a result of this. The illusion that an Oasis never dried up was also because of this- the mana turned into water if the level of water began to decrease. But the strange thing was that beneath the hole- the water didn't flow. It just levitated above.

The mana around the hole was going wild as well. Strange eddies that collided with his shield, rapidly consuming Flagon's mana as well- even stranger currents surrounded him, pushing him towards the hole. He weaved his mana into a powerful concealment spell, and then jumped into the hole. It was deep. Incredibly deep. He probably fell several thousand feet before there was solid ground beneath him. And in front of him were two figures. In front of them was a floating gleaming rock. Made of something that looked like a mix of black crystal and iron, it any wasn't any normal black crystal. Black crystal was usually the most unrefined form of mana crystal.

But what lay in front of him? This was the holy grail. Flagon felt his pocket heat up. He slowly pulled out the Star Pearl. It seemed to gleam incredibly bright- it was if it was intelligent. The moment it detected mana, it began to hungrily devour it. This was bad. If the two in front of him detected the haywire mana, he would be serious shit. So far they seemed to have attributed it to the strange phenomenon that occurred near high-mana-density areas. Flagon wanted this crystal. Perhaps the Star Pearl would become more beautiful if it devoured the strange crystal. A smile slowly crept across his face.
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