It was early morning when Quaralyn passed through the city gates of Stormpoint. Her cloak of dark gray offered some protection from the cold dampness that hung heavily in the winter air, and she pulled the hood close about her face. Though she traveled alone, she had waited far outside the view of the gates for other travelers before entering the city. Shortly before dawn, her wait ended when a caravan with several attendants passed by on the road to Stormpoint. It was an odd hour for a caravan to be traveling, but she didn't question her luck. Stepping from the shadows as the group passed, Quaralyn joined their number and slipped through the gates unnoticed, just another face in the crowd.
Safely beyond the sight of the gates, she secured rooms at three different inns and spent a few hours wandering the back streets and alleys of the city. Satisfied with her survey, she next set about to find a tavern and a bit of information. She found the former by the docks, and took a seat at an empty table while she waited for the latter. She ordered a tankard of ale to pass the time. It was a heavy, bitter liquid, and she wrinkled her nose in mild disgust before adding a few baneberries to the mixture. The effect rendered the ale slightly more tolerable, and Quaralyn took a long draw while settling back in her chair. She finished her tankard, and ordered another, and another, and another.
She was well into her sixth of the day when she finally heard something of interest from the table behind her. "It's an easy job," said a voice in a husky whisper.
"If it's so easy, why do you need my help?" asked another voice somewhat skeptically.
"We need someone to create a distraction." Answered a third voice, "Don't worry, it has the guild's approval. And the best part is the mark can't even report the theft. The stones were smuggled out of Toryn Dale."
"Allright," said the second voice, "when do we move."
"Tomorrow night," said the first, "Here's the plan."
Quaralyn listened to the account that followed with interest, then paid her bill and headed back to one of her rooms. She had a busy day tomorrow and needed to get some rest.
It was a cold night, but from her place of concealment within the towering oak tree, Quaralyn hardly felt the chill of the wind. She had watched the guards pass three times around the house, and was now certain of their schedule and number. Shouldering her small pack, Quaralyn slipped back down to the ground and moved in closer to the house. Hiding behind a fountain within the side yard, she waited as the guards passed again. The patrol was too tight, and she needed a distraction to give her time to pass their ranks. The fountain trickled steadily before her, and she dipped a hand beneath the surface while she thought. The water was chillingly cold, however, and she quickly withdrew her numbed hand.
From her surveillance of the house, she had determined that a small window on the opposite side was the best point of entry. She therefore wanted to draw as many of the sentry as she could to this side of the house before entering. It was a good distance away though, and she now understood why the thieves who planned the job wanted a party of three. But Quaralyn liked working alone. She liked the challenge and the danger it presented, and she liked the rewards which could be reaped. She was still contemplating her course of action when a small rustling off to the right caught her attention. Ducking deeper into the shadows, Quaralyn's eyes darted in the direction of the sound. Noting movement in the tall hedge which surrounded the property, Quaralyn held her breath and tried to be invisible. She released it a moment later when the hedge parted to reveal an average sized cat, sniffing the air as it carefully entered the grounds.
Smiling roguishly, Quaralyn crouched lower to the ground and quietly clucked to the cat. It didn't take much convincing, and the cat, anything but shy, quickly trotted over to her. The cat was well cared for, and wore a leather collar around its neck. Dangling from the collar was a tag which bore an intricate carving of the letter "T." Quaralyn scooped the cat into her arms in one fluid movement, deciding that it must belong to the master of the house. She also decided that it was her distraction. Petting it for a few moments, she waited for the guards to pass once more. When they were far enough away, she dropped the unsuspecting cat into the fountain and tore through the darkness to the other side of the house, her quiet progress covered by the pitiful wailing of the cat, which sounded for all the world like a drowning child.
Hearing the mournful cries, the guards raced to the fountain. They were startled, but relieved to find the cat flailing about within, and one, braver perhaps than the rest, tried to remove it from the icy water. Though he succeeded, his efforts were rewarded by a flurry of scratches to his arms and hands as the terrified animal ran yowling into the night. The others chuckled at his failed gallantry, and teased him as they slowly made their way back to the patrol route. They were still laughing when the passed the small window on the opposite side of the house, and didn't notice a pair of deep green eyes laughing back at them.
Walking quietly past the guard, Quaralyn slipped into a large chamber off the main hall. Her immediate inspection of the room revealed it to be a conservatory. The cold stone floor of the room was covered with an exquisitely woven carpet of green and gold. It was one of the finest works Quaralyn had seen, and she had a discerning eye. Spanning almost the entire length of the room, the carpet abutted an immense fireplace which stood at least a full foot taller than Quaralyn. The fire within it burned high and provided the sole source of light in the room.
Two large display cases lined the opposite wall, housing busts of famous composers, now deceased. A closer inspection revealed them to be copies of dubious quality, and Quaralyn quickly disregarded them. A large piano, immaculately kept, dominated one corner of the room; and a tall golden harp stood silent beside a nearby chair. Closer inspection revealed that neither instrument showed signs of wear, and no music appeared within the room, leading Quaralyn to suspect the instruments were just for show. How very like the wealthy, she considered as she continued her survey of the room, to collect objects solely for their appearance and to ignore their true value. It was a pity, but the instruments would hardly fit within her pack and Quaralyn didn't know how to play.
Finishing her inspection, Quaralyn frowned. Something was missing. According to the three thieves at the tavern, this room was supposed to lead to the library, but Quaralyn saw no obvious exits other than the door through which she had just come. Had the three realized she was listening to them as they recounted their plan and purposefully led her astray?
Doubtful. More likely she was missing something at the moment, a passage secreted somewhere within the room. A quick examination of the cabinets ruled them out, and fiddling with the piano or harp was likely to attract too much attention. The carpet? No, it was too large to easily move, and a secret passageway that didn't allow for quick access was hardly practical.
Walking the length of the carpet, she stood on its edge before the fire and stared at the flame while she thought. She was too close, however, and the fire was terribly hot, forcing her to take a step back. Looking down at her boots, she half expected to find the toes singed, but they were simply warm and unharmed. Unharmed? Singed? It finally hit her. The carpet was too close to the fire, and the fireplace had no screen. It should have been singed, or at least soot covered, but its condition was flawless.
Taking a poker from beside the mantle, Quaralyn drove it into the heart of the flames, withdrawing only after it glowed red with heat. Then, hesitantly, she brought her hand to the glowing tip. It was hot, but it didn't begin to approach the searing level it should. Replacing the poker beside the mantle, Quaralyn held her breath and stepped into the fireplace.
The flames danced around her, rising above her head and obscuring her vision, but causing no damage. In a few seconds she was through and looking back at the fireplace from an entirely different room.
Turning away from the fire to survey her new surroundings, Quaralyn was met with several pairs of glowing eyes staring down upon her from inhuman heights. She drew a second blade in readiness, then sighed in relief when her own eyes readjusted to the darkness and she realized she was in a "trophy" room. Heads of various animals hung lifeless on the walls around her--a grisly tribute not to the owner's prowess, but to his wealth.
Resheathing her extra blade with a quick hand and a frown of disgust, she noted that several of the species were protected under the laws of Stormpoint and the surrounding principalities. Small wonder the room was accessible only through a concealed portal. Her opinion of her host falling by the second, she crossed the room placed her ear against the only door.
Nothing. Opening the door just a sliver, Quaralyn peered out into a short hall. It was empty, and she stepped quietly into it, slowly sealing the air of death in the room behind her. She reached the end of the hall in a few strides, and cautiously turned a corner to face a long hallway which appeared to run about half the length of the house. She was about step into it when something made her stop short. The floor was warded.
Though generally not employing magic of their own, years of experience gave most thieves an ability to sense its presence. Indeed, there were few better ways to attract a thief than to heavily ward an object with magical trappings. Fishing about in her pack, Quaralyn pulled out a small pouch and emptied the contents, a fine dusty powder, into her hand. Throwing her hand forward, she released the dust with a quick underhand snap of her wrist, and let it fly down the hallway.
It floated in the air, clouding the hall for a few seconds before falling like a gentle shroud to the cold stone floor below. As it settled, portions of it vanished immediately, leaving no trace. Other portions rested visibly on the floor, turning the hallway into a patchwork of dull and light segments. Seeing her path on the floor before her, Quaralyn silently skipped from one patch of dust to the next with the exuberant professionalism of one who truly enjoys her work.
She grinned almost impishly as she reached the end of the hall and cautiously opened the door of the library. The room she entered was dark-panelled and thankfully lacking the grim decor of the other. Instead, tall shelves crammed with leather-bound volumes lined the walls, and velvet reading chairs lounged invitingly by another fireplace. A large painting of speculative quality dominated a good portion of the south wall.
Why do they always hide the safe behind a painting, Quaralyn pondered, shaking her head with disappointment. Sheathing her blade, she crossed the room on cat feet and raised both hands to painting. It was heavy, but she managed to remove it without too much noise. Placing it on the floor, she looked back up and prepared to set to work. She was met with a surprise, however, in the form of a blank wall. There was nothing behind the painting.
Well, she had wanted a challenge; and so momentarily perplexed, but not entirely disappointed, Quaralyn slumped into one of the reading chairs and began to cast her eyes about the room, looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Quaralyn slumped into one of the reading chairs and began to cast her eyes about the room, looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. To her credit, it didn't take her long to realize the flaw in her analogy. The best place to hide a needle is not in a haystack, but rather among a group of other needles.
She stood quickly and began to search the shelves. It had to be in a book, but there were so many. Fortunately for Quaralyn, her host was a poor housekeeper, and a thin layer of dust coated the stretch of the shelves not covered by books—save in all but one place. A three-inch strip of wood before a book entitled, "There and Back Again," by a little known author of questionable repute, stood mostly free of the dust gracing the remainder of the shelf. Sliding the book out with a careful hand, Quaralyn opened it with expectant caution.
Upon first inspection the book appeared to be just that, a book; but if one cared to read beyond the first dozen pages he or she would be sorely disappointed, for the story ended abruptly and was replaced by a solid sheet of metal running nearly the length and width of the book. It was firmly mounted in place, and had both hinges and a small locking device affixed to it.
The lock proved to be no match for Quaralyn's skill, another disappointment, and the lid soon sprung open to reveal three of the purest gems Quaralyn had even seen—deep green in color, yet possessing a fire which defied the subtleties of their shade. Wrapping the stones in bits of cloth before pocketing them, she placed a small card in the empty box and resealed its lid before closing the book and sliding it back into its snug-fitting spot on the shelf.
Leaving the card was a risk, but a calculated one. The three who would soon be standing in her place could not go back to the guild empty-handed, and the card would offer them as good an excuse as they were likely to receive. Stopping only long enough to restore the room to its original state, she left as quietly as she had come.
Striker turned the card over again. It had taken a considerable amount of restraint to keep from killing the three who brought it to him. It had been a simple job, straightforward, thoroughly planned, they even had someone on the inside to arrange for their entrance. And yet they had managed to foul it up, their tongues made loose by too much ale. Striker made sure that it was a mistake they wouldn't have an opportunity to repeat.
Still, there was the matter of the card. It was written in a simple code, designed to baffle only one not of the darker profession, and Striker translated it with ease.
The stones are lovely, you should see them. Doxlar's Tavern. Two nights, at the seventh hour. Dragons' blood.
It was a bold move, and Striker favored boldness. Crushing the card in a single hand before throwing it into the fire, he rose from his table in the back of the tavern and headed to the bar. It was nearing seven.
The tavern was full, and most of the guests were gathered around tables, lost in thought, drink, and occasionally song. Several also hovered about a dart board hung on a scarred wall, their aim impaired, but on the whole less injurious than the drunken caterwauling of their companions.
One of the players, reeling from a missed throw and several pints of ale, ran into Striker as he crossed the floor, and received a quickly dislocated shoulder for his carelessness. In another establishment, the man's sudden screams might have drawn more attention. As it was, his cronies simply drug him outside, staying clear of grim-faced stranger, and the rest of the guests resumed their business.
Taking a seat at the bar, Striker caught the keep's attention with a hard stare.
"What'll it be?" The keep asked, leaning heavily on the bar and returning Striker's stare with his one good eye.
"Dragons' blood," Striker responded.
The keep looked visibly surprised, but held his stance and his gaze. "Don't get much call for that 'ere."
Annoyance creeping into his voice, Striker answered coldly, "No, I don't imagine you do."
"Got it though," the keep said at last, raising slowly up from the counter and heading to the far end of the bar. He returned with a tankard full of a liquid so dark it was nearly black. "Ten an' five," he said, placing the tankard in front of Striker.
Striker dropped the coins on the counter in a gesture of dismissal and the keep quickly scooped them up and left this ill-tempered guest alone.
Minutes passed, and no one approached, Striker's mood growing darker with the wait. Irritated by the delay, he began to look furtively about the room. Still, no one approached, and he continued to wait. When the eighth hour passed, Striker's temper was nearly as black as the liquid which remained untouched in the tankard before him, and he pushed his stool back from the bar and started to stand.
"You really shouldn't let that go to waste," a voice said suddenly, stopping him cold.
Turning towards the voice, he noted a woman with deep red hair sitting at the bar a few feet away. She was attractive...tall, slim, and vaguely familiar. Striker was puzzled why he hadn't noticed her before.
The confusion must have shown in his expression, for she spoke again, "The drink," she said, inclining her head towards the tankard, "you shouldn't let it go to waste."
"It's not to my taste," Striker responded, sitting back down at the bar.
The woman turned to fully face him, one brow arched high over a deep green eye, "Then why'd you order it?"
"It was ... recommended." Striker answered guardedly.
"Sometimes it pays to follow recommendations," she quipped back.
"Sometimes," he replied, trying to remember where he had seen her before. "Would you care for it?"
A small smile crept across the woman's features as she moved to take the seat next to Striker. "Much appreciated," she answered, reaching for the tankard. Raising it to her lips, she stared at Striker over the rim of the cup as she took a taste of the spirit. "You don't know what you're missing" she said as she set the tankard down.
"Oh, but I do," Striker said, leaning sideways onto the bar, "I'm missing three green stones."
Her eyes opened wide in feigned surprise, "Really? What kind of stones?"
"Stolen ones," he answered flatly.
"Stolen?" The look of surprise turned into one of feigned affront, "That's such a harsh word. So . . . accusatory, wouldn't you say? Personally, I much prefer the word, appropriated."
"Allright, appropriated then," Striker agreed for the sake of argument.
Taking another sip from the tankard and lowering it to the counter once more, the woman asked, "Are they valuable?"
"Very," Striker answered. There was no point in making so blatant a lie. "I'd be very interested in getting them back. I might even be willing to offer a reward for their return."
"What kind of reward," she asked, curiosity rising in her voice.
"Oh, say somewhere in the four figure area."
"Hmm," she replied somewhat dismissively, having finished the last of the drink and preparing to leave, "hope you find them."
Striker grabbed her arm and pulled her back down onto the barstool. Anger burned in her eyes, but his grip remained steady. The keep reappeared with this sudden display, and pointedly asked the woman if she cared for something else.
She didn't look at him, but instead stared at Striker until he released her arm, then answered, "Thank you, but no."
The keep nodded uncertainly, "All right, but if ye' change yer mind, just holler." His offer made, the keep left, but kept a watchful eye on the pair.
Aware of the keep's gaze, Striker spoke in a lower voice, "The amount's negotiable."
"I'm not interested in money." She whispered back, dropping the charade at last.
"What then?" Silence hovered between them for a few moments before she finally answered.
Striker sat back slightly at the revelation, looking her over once again. "Most people don't go about it this way."
"I'm not most people. And I don't want to come in on the ground level."
He pondered the matter briefly and came to a quick decision. "I don't think that will be a problem....if you surrender the stones."
She smiled almost demurely in response. "They're in your pocket."
Reaching a hand into his pocket, Striker withdrew two stones. "There were three stones," he said, looking back up at her.
"That's right,” she replied with a self-satisifed expression. “There were three stones."
Accepting her response for the moment, Striker, unusually calm, stated, "If I'm going to vouch for you, I need to know your name."
"Quaralyn," he repeated, as if considering the veracity of her statement, and fell silent again. "All right, let's go."
"Now?" she asked, taken aback.
Feeling the balance of power shift suddenly back in his favor, Striker grinned darkly. "Now."
Quaralyn quickly grabbed her cloak and followed him from the tavern and into the night. Striker led her through the city, down dimly lit alleys and shadowy backstreets. Finally, turning into a street darker than the rest, Striker motioned Quaralyn ahead. Her expression clearly conveyed her displeasure, but in the end she had little choice, and so complied with his directive.
Cautiously treading ahead into the fog-filled alley, Quaralyn soon came to a dead end. She was about to turn back when her escort attacked from behind, knocking her unconscious with a swift blow to her head.
Continued in All the Shades of Night.
© 1999 Stormpoint Writers Guild
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