"Letter for you, sir," the message boy reported as he rapped nervously on the door to the guest's room. "Come in," replied a voice from the other side. Swallowing hard, the boy, all of fifteen years of age, placed a shaking hand on the doorknob and slowly opened the solid wooden door.
When his eyes adjusted to the dim light within the room, the boy saw the guest who had arrived at the inn two days ago in the dead of night. He was leaning back in a chair against the far wall with his legs propped up on the edge of a wobbling but serviceable writing table. His dark blonde hair looked slightly darker in the light of the sole candle burning atop the sill of an open window, and the shadows falling across his face gave the man a strange hawklike appearance, a look sharpened perhaps by a slightly hooked nose resting beneath two steel-grey eyes.
Closing the distance between them in uneven steps, the boy repeated his message, "Letter for you, sir."
The man nodded towards the table beneath his feet without otherwise moving. "You can leave it there."
"Beggin' your pardon, sir," the boy replied, "but I think it's important. The carrier came into town on a spent horse and ran straight here. Said it was urgent."
The man raised his eyes to look fully at the boy for the first time. "Really?" he asked, "Why didn't he bring it up himself?"
The boy stammered before responding, "We don't allow carriers to deliver to the rooms. Security and all."
"Ah," the man replied, slowly lowering his feet to sit firmly in the chair. "Well, if it's that important, I suppose I should read it."
He reached out a leather-gloved hand towards the boy, who relinquished the letter with a slight quaver. The man seemed to recognize the seal on the letter as he took it, staring at it for a few seconds before breaking it and unfolding the heavy parchment paper. As he read, he noticed that the boy remained stone still before him, save for his eyes, which flitted back and forth slightly as he tried to read the letter he had just delivered.
The man stopped and folded the letter towards himself, looking up a the boy with a silent stare.
"Beggin' your pardon, sir," the boy tried again, "I was just waitin' for me tip."
The man made sure that he received one, then continued to read the letter. As he finished, he folded it and raised a corner to the wick of the candle, allowing it to burn to his fingertips before releasing it to the consuming flame.
Well, the boy had been right. The letter was important. Retrieving his dagger from the boy's throat, the man collected his gear and slipped out the window to the ground below. Striker Kel was going to Stormpoint.
Striker Kel hadn't been in Stormpoint for some time, and the idea of returning held little thrill for him. The summons he received, however, was one that couldn't be ignored. Trouble had arisen within the guild, and He wanted Striker to straighten it out. The letter had been encrypted, but was nonetheless vague as to exactly what sort of trouble Striker would find once he arrived. Knowing Him as he did, Striker assumed the letter's silence meant the worst.
He considered the possibilities as he made his way to Stormpoint, and always, one nagging scenario crept again and again into his thoughts. Though he tried not to think about it, the scenario was still playing in Striker's head as he passed through the city gates. He was dressed like a simple traveler, and had worked his way into a caravan several nights ago, offering them an extra set of eyes to watch for bandits along the road allegedly in exchange for their traveling company. In truth, however, experience had taught Striker that one among many is far less likely to be noticed, and he therefore wanted to enter the city as part of a group, rather than alone.
The group was kindhearted, yet simple-minded, and Striker bent them easily to his will, persuading them to travel the final distance to the city in the early hours of morning while it was still dark. Striker had an appointment to keep, and he didn't want to be late. As the caravan rolled unchallenged through the gates, Striker started to plan his next move.
As the caravan rolled unchallenged through the gates, Striker started to plan his next move.
"Heys youse," the large orc guardsmen called out at the newcomer in the city. Seeming to break his concentration, the stranger looked disdainfully at the orc raising the orc's anger. "Yeahz I be talking at youse humie. Wherz youse be fromen? Youse not on the rozter for demz merchants. The Captain she be wanten us to be keepen an eye for truble makers." His piggish nose twisted as he sniffed the air, also allowing his hand to drop on the handle of the battle axe tucked into his belt. "Andz youse be stinkin' something awful of it. Be emptin your bags now andz there willin be nose blood needen to bein spillt."
~Damn!~ thought Striker, this wasn't shaping up to be his day. As the orc started towards him, he noticed a fleeting figure in a deep gray cloak disengage from the caravan and disappear into the city. The figure looked back only once, and Striker caught a glimpse of pale skin and flame red hair beneath the hood of the cloak. ~Not bad~ he thought, as he started towards the orc. ~Not bad at all~ The orc, seeing Striker approach, huffed up his chest as the stranger seemed to be giving in to his demands, totally unaware that his death was being drawn in the form of a poisoned dagger.
"Now, now my good man is this truly necessary?" interrupted an authoritative voice. The orc looked up from his charge and sees his liege, Ogrek standing just a few feet away. One of the three regents of Stormpoint, Ogrek was decked out in his normal admirals coat, slightly mused hair, and his two small lower tusks sticking out from his cocked smile. Withers, his ever-present butler, stood behind him holding the fruit of the morning's shopping trip.
"I mean really," Ogrek continued, "I know Leila would not approve of such strong-arm tactics anymore then I do. Now run along with your business and I will try to repair the damage you have caused to your good city's reputation as a free port of call to traders." Bowing low, the orc scurried away from the young lord. "Az youse command myzleidge Lord."
Ogrek nonchalantly waved the guard off before turning his attention to the stranger. "My apologies for that unfortunate encounter, but my men do get carried away with their duties sometimes. Please allow me to make up for it with a meal aboard my ship...I will not take no for an answer," he added, holding out his hand to the newcomer.
Striker stood on the dock, listening to the waves lap gently against the side of his host's ship before crossing the plank to the deck. The Stardancer, for that was her name, was a grand galley standing nearly four stories above the docks themselves. Minor armaments (ballista and a few hidden cannon) dotted the deck. The Forecastle, rising high above the deck, resembled the phoenix of legend.....the window, both its ribcage and wings, sweeping down to the waterline. A crow's nest rose high overhead, and the figurehead was a bountiful mermaid holding a basket full of stars.
Crossing the gangplank in even strides, Striker was met abroad the ship by Withers. "Impressive," Striker said simply, continuing to look around. "Thank you Milord. She is the flagship of the fleet. If you will follow me the lord is awaiting your pleasure." Striker gave a half smirk before responding, "Lead on." Withers led the guest across the deck. Striker, following silently, noted that the ship was fitted with all the usual instruments of the sailor, but given their condition, he judged that they were more for show than use.
Withers stopped before the forecastle and gestured to a single table with two chairs. "If you will have a seat, milord, His lordship will be out in a moment. Would you care for something to drink while you wait?" Striker declined the seat, and stood staring at Withers, before answering, "No." Striker Kel had many vices, but alcohol was not among them. Withers nodded, "As you wish milord." Turning to the table, Withers rang a small bell, "If you will have a seat, sir, dinner will be served."
"Yes, sit my new friend." Ogrek said, making his entrance atop the forecastle. "Sit and be welcomed into Stormpoint."
Striker responded in a tone which might have been sarcastic had he been prone to sarcasm, "Friendly town you have. Is this how you welcome all visitors?"
Walking down from the forecastle, Ogrek replied jovially, "No. No, my friend. I simply wish to apologize for the earlier 'welcome' you received at the hands of our watch. I hope that you'll forgive them, and allow me to explain their actions. It seems that some disreputable pack of thieves attacked and killed several members of the watch recently ...... even the bond pet of the Captain." Ogrek paused for a moment of silent respect.
"Unfortunate," Striker responded without expression when it appeared that Ogrek would not continue.
"Yes," Ogrek agreed quickly, "the remainder of the watch, therefore is a little edgy at the moment. You can, I'm sure, understand how the uncontrolled criminal element could cause that."
"Of course," Striker replied with the same toneless voice, "But resorting to a state of martial law is hardly the answer. It can so burdens a city of free trade such as yours."
Ogrek nodded, the look on his face growing grim. "Yes, the strangle hold martial law would impose is a dark prospect. But I'm afraid that that's not our city's only problem. It's rumored we have a demon unleashed and running amok in Stormpoint."
"A demon?" Striker asked, and this time his voice carried an uncharacteristic hint of expression before returning to its normal tone. "Sounds like you've got a problem."
Ogrek sighed and sat heavily in one of the chairs. "Yes. Such is the price of being a regent I suppose."
Striker took the other chair with a cautious ease, "A regent? You must be Lord Ogrek then."
"Guilty as charged," Ogrek responded, a trace of his dramatic flair reemerging........... "Why, I am remiss in my manners. I have neglected to get your name."
"Creed." Striker answered, looking squarely back at Ogrek.
"Creed" Ogrek repeated, scrutinizing his guest, "a good name. One a man could follow."
Striker held his gaze....steel grey eyes meeting an unspoken challenge....but didn't reply.
The growing silence between the two men was broken when Withers appeared with plates of salad. As he placed the plates before the two men with practiced ease, Striker watched him carefully, then waited for Ogrek to start. Picking up a fork, Ogrek dejectedly speared a few leafs of lettuce, then looked at Striker once again, "So what brings you into our city business or pleasure?"
"Bit of both actually," Striker replied with a tone of relaxed confidence. "I'm here to see an old friend. I think he might have work for me."
Ogrek nodded, "Always good to have friends in the right places. Me, I always need more help. Why, look around...not an able seaman in sight."
Striker smiled slowly, but didn't look. "Yes, you do seem to be lacking for able assistants."
Ogrek merely smiled shallowly in return and finished his salad in silence. When they were done, Withers gathered the salad plates and brought the next course.....a heavy soup rich with broccoli and cream.....pouring soup first into Ogrek's bowl, and then into Striker's. Striker waited for Ogrek to start, then took his own spoon. "If your friend's position does not work out, perhaps I could offer you a job in the watch. They are a good compliment, but could always use new talent."
Looking over his steaming spoon, Striker chuckled. It was a dry gesture, and contained no mirth. "I'm not sure I'd fit in. I have a rather poor opinion of most city watches."
"Ahhh," Ogrek responded, sitting back in his chair a bit. "I see. Well, I hope you don't color your view of our city simply by them, but they really are better than their first impression might suggest. They serve the basic enforcement and operate under the control very able warrior woman---Leila DeCartesion. She was hand-picked by myself and carries no allegiances to any of the regents."
"Really," Striker asked, the tiniest hint of interest creeping into his voice. "So she shares your concerns for the city."
Ogrek smiled, sitting up again as he noted Withers' return, "Yes, she wishes the city to be a quiet and lawful town where people can come and go in safety." Taking away the empty soup bowls, Withers replaced them with the main course .....dragon stake in a sherry sauce, corn, and potatoes.
"I see," Striker replied, referring to the captain of the guard. "Experienced, is she?"
Ogrek nodded, picking up his knife and fork. "Quite a competent warrior, very good with a blade."
"Well, I'm sure the people of Stormpoint sleep well at night. I know I will."
"I do," added Ogrek quickly, "especially with the High Justice's magistrates and agents who call themselves Rangers. They tend to watch over the city from the higher and darker places."
Striker paused, "A sound plan. They must miss very little. Very odd though, that they are in the service of a judicial officer."
"True." Ogrek responded, swallowing hard, "True, and the majority serve as simply judges, landclerks, and tax-collectors. But a select group takes a more active role in the places that normally cannot be watched as closely. Not a group to cross if I were into something shady."
Striker turned his attention back to his meal, plunging his fork into a bit of the dragon flesh. "I should think not." Raising his fork and taking the bite of meat into his mouth, Striker chewed thoughtfully for a few moments. "You know," he continued while slicing off another piece, "it really is amazing. Dragon is such a fierce creature. Its scales are so hard, its teeth are so sharp, its breath is so hot. But, put it to the flame for a few hours and it's more tender than you would ever imagine." He paused to smile--a small, but pointed gesture--before taking another bite. "Well worth the danger, wouldn't you say?"
Ogrek nodded thoughtfully before replying. "Quite. Why, in my homeland it is the rite of passage for young ogres to hunt dragons, but one should always be on guard not to become the prey instead of the hunted."
Striker raised his glass to his lips, washing down the last bit of dragon before responding. "Only a fool lowers his guard before an enemy." Lowering his glass, Striker moved his other hand to the handle of the dagger resting beneath his napkin.
Ogrek clapped somewhat overdramatically in response, "Truer words have not been spoken." Just over Ogrek's shoulder a glint of moonlight flashed for an instant from the bolt loaded in the crossbow Withers had aimed at Striker's heart.
Striker's eyes flickering for less than an instant. Bringing both hands to the heavy metal plate on the table before him, Striker paused, then pushed it forward a few inches. The plate scraped slightly against the table as it moved.....only it and the gentle lapping of the waves breaking the silence between the two men. Looking at Ogrek's similarly empty plate, and then at Ogrek, Striker spoke in quiet levelness, "I think your man has missed his mark."
Ogrek smiled in return, wiping the sides of his mouth with a napkin. "True, and after all, I have brought in something special for dessert." As he lowered his napkin, Withers arrived to clear the table. Having done so, he removed the cover of a final platter to reveal a chocolate dish of undeniable French origin. As Withers slipped back into the darkness, Ogrek cut himself a slice and slid the plate to Striker.
Without glancing down, Striker intoned, "Thank you, but no. I have enjoyed your . . . hospitality and our conversation, but I'm afraid I must take my leave. I am due to meet my friend shortly, and he's not the type to be kept waiting. Again, thank you, for a most . . . pleasant and informative evening." Without waiting for a response, Striker turned on one heel and crossed the deck of the ship.
Ogrek smiled and leaned back in his chair, enjoying a few tastes of his dessert and calling out after the dark figure, "As you wish, Mr. Creed. Enjoy your business in my city. I will be watching for you to make quite an impression."
The shadows hid Striker's smile as he faded out of sight, ~Don't worry, you won't be disappointed.~
Striker Kel hated dealing with demons. He had, therefore, strongly protested when Giacomo's true nature was discovered, urging his employer to enlist other assistance in his plans. But in the end the choice was not his to make, and so he was forced to deal with the decision of another.
The disagreement was part of the reason that Striker had temporarily left his position, and now that the demon was proving to be as unmanageable as he had predicted, Striker felt some small measure of satisfaction. Unfortunately, however, that feeling was short-lived, as the task now fell to him to deal with the situation.
Grim-faced and ill-tempered, Striker began looking for his charge. He found him a few hours later, poised atop the roof of a large building in the merchant district, glaring down at the shops which laid across the narrow street. Striker didn't bother to conceal his approach, but instead walked straight to edge of the roof and crouched down next to the sullen figure who was drumming out a steady beat on the tattered shingles. Giacomo, for his part, looked up at Striker only briefly before returning his gaze to the shops below.
They sat in silence for a moment--two birds of prey perched atop an unsuspecting city, ready to swoop down and snatch away any victim unfortunate enough to cross their path. "You're not paid to window shop," Striker said coldly, breaking the silence. "You're paid to eliminate opposition. So I suggest you stop sulking, stop juggling, stop creating dragonets, stop playing hide and seek, stop visiting the church, and get to work!"
Without waiting for a response, Striker rose to his full height and dropped a sealed envelope at Giacomo's feet. "There's a matter He wants you to check in to." Having delivered the message, Striker turned on one heel, and walked away. The silence hovering like a heavy cloud as he left told him that the envelope remained unopened.
He stopped, and without turning back said slowly and quietly, "You don't want me to counsel you again." Given the other's power, it might have been a hollow threat, but it was made with deadly seriousness nonetheless. Allowing a moment for the warning to sink in, Striker began to leave once more. Damn, but he hated dealing with demons.
((continuing from All in a Night's Work))
Quaralyn awoke with a splitting headache from a nasty crack to her head. She opened her eyes and quickly closed them again, groaning and raising a hand to her head. Finally, she forced herself to open her eyes once again, and she realized that she was lying on a cot of some sort in a small, cell-like room made entirely of stone. She was also entirely unarmed. Bracing her head with one hand, she used the other to raise herself to a sitting position. The room spun slightly, but finally settled down again, allowing her to regain her breath and slowly lower her feet to the ground.
"I see you're awake," a familiar voice said. Turning too quickly towards the voice, Quaralyn saw Striker Kel leaning casually in the doorframe of the cell. "How do you feel?" he asked, swinging a single iron key about two fingers.
"I've felt better," she responded with more strength than she currently felt, "but I think I'll live." Uncertain of her situation, she simply stared at him, waiting for any statement or movement which might clarify her predicament.
He seemed to enjoy her apprehension, and allowed her to wonder in silence for a few moments, a smirk rising across his otherwise cruel features. He waited until she drew a breath to speak, then cut her off sharply, "Let's go. You need to learn your way around the guild."
Breathing an invisible sigh of relief, and standing with more steadiness than Striker expected, Quaralyn walked the few steps to the door and followed him out of the cell. "I don't suppose I could get my weapons back?" she asked bluntly.
"Why?" he asked as he led her down a long hallway and through a fortified door, "planning on using them any time soon?"
She stopped, forcing him to do the same lest he leave her to wander the guild on her own, "Do I look like a fool to attempt so witless an act?"
He didn't answer, but pulled one of her daggers from a sheath at his side and returned it to her. "You can get the rest later. Come on, there's a lot to see."
He wasn't exaggerating, the area he led her through was huge—too large to be within an external building, and Quaralyn guessed that they were underground though their present surroundings suggested otherwise. She tried to take it all in as she followed Striker, but he kept a fast pace and didn't look back.
Striker had watched her sleeping form for sometime, wondering. He didn't wonder about his decision. Decisions were things to made and held to, not examined upon retrospect and hindsight. A correct one was beneficial, and a wrong one could be corrected. Watching her lying motionless within the cell, he deemed his present decision to be correct. Revenues in burglary were down, and new leadership in that section was required.
She was capable, there was no doubt of that. The guild had calculated that the job would require a team of four, one being on the inside, and yet she had accomplished it alone, keeping one of the stones for herself. It was this last matter which held his attention, as neither a search of her nor the three rooms she had taken within the city yielded the stone or any clue as to its whereabouts. He put the matter aside when he saw her begin to stir, thinking that, for her sake, she'd better turn out to be worth the price.
He spoke before she had a chance to fully take in her surroundings, taking advantage of, and some degree of pleasure in her confusion and disorientation. She recovered faster than he expected though, and was soon able to follow him from the holding cell.
She wasted little time in asking for her weapons, a point for which he could hardly fault her, and he resigned to return a single dagger. To an outsider, it may have appeared either a calculated risk or an aberrant act of trust. To Striker, it was neither. If she used it, she'd be dead before she could leave the guild. She took it swiftly and they continued.
Behind him, he could sense that she was taking careful note of their surroundings, memorizing the sights and sounds of the guild. He grinned inwardly at her intuition. She knew that this was her tour, and that she would receive neither narration nor repetition. Observation was as much a thief's tool as a pick or a knife, and those without it quickly found themselves swinging at the end of a rope, or lying dead in a darksome corridor.
They passed through the training hall first ... a tortuous maze of obstacles and trials that served to winnow out those who would be both a danger to themselves and to the guild. The challenges were both subtle and arduous, and the price for failure high. Given the hour, few were there to notice as they hurried through.
Entering the guild proper, however, several members roamed the network of chambers and passageways that formed the heart of the guild. Here, they drew the attention of all they passed, and nervous whispers trailed in their wake. Striker paused occasionally, to introduce Quaralyn to those she would have need to know. The exchanges were brief, however, and the pair pressed on.
They took a spiral staircase to a lower landing. As they reached the bottom, Quaralyn caught a glimpse of a bedraggled man dressed as a beggar hurriedly scuttling down a long hall. His left hand was horribly broken, and set at odd angles so as never to work properly again. She was about to about to remark on his appearance when Striker gripped her arm and pulled her roughly back into the shadows of the stairs.
As the figure faded out of view down the hallway Striker kept his grip on Quaralyn's arm and whispered harshly, "That's the old taskmaster of the burglary section." His tone changed as he spoke the word "taskmaster," an expression which implied that the word was not of his choosing. "He proved to be a disappointment. You're the new one. Don't disappoint me."
Taking her silence as an acknowledgment, Striker led her forward again, winding through still more of the guild. Passing through endless corridors and compartments, they finally took a sharp right onto a long hall lined with doors. Striker stopped before one, opened it, and gestured for Quaralyn to enter first. She looked at him warily and held her ground, not willing to make the same mistake twice. He grinned rakishly and stepped into the room leaving her with no choice but to follow.
The room was neat, well-lit, and more spacious than the exterior corridor would have suggested. It was furnished with a writing desk and chair, an armoire, a chest of drawers, and a bed. "I hope you find everything to your liking." Striker said with a tone suggesting that he cared little one way or the other. "I've taken the liberty of having your outside rooms emptied. You should find that everything is here."
She walked slowly about the room, acquainting herself with her new quarters. Striker, amused by her curiosity, perched atop the writing desk and watched her silently before adding, "There was one item we were unable to locate."
Turning back from her inspection of the armoire, Quaralyn stared at him with doe eyes. "Really? And what might that be?"
"One large green stone."
"Oh that!" she responded in mock epiphany. "Well, your concern is touching, but you needn't worry . . . it's in a safe place."
~I'm sure it is~ he thought, but didn't respond. Her sarcasm was blistering, and she was enjoying it far too much. Shoving off of the desk and landing noiselessly on the ground, Striker ended both her inspection and her amusement. "Don't get too comfortable. You need to meet your team."
She turned to question this last statement, but found that he had already left the room, forcing her to swiftly do the same.
Again, they walked in silence, she observing the guild and he observing her. Pausing at last before another door, Striker opened it, and led Quaralyn inside. The chamber they entered had all the trappings of a council room. Maps of the city, extraordinary in their detail, hung about the walls, and twin cabinets standing tall in the back corners suggested that equally precise atlases might reside within. A large rectangular table dominated the center of the room. About the table sat eight chairs. Seven were occupied by the remainder of the burglary team, each glowering at the flame-haired stranger, but keeping a respectful silence in Striker's presence. One remained empty for the team's new leader.
Striker introduced Quaralyn quickly and left in the same manner. The looks written across the faces of the team clearly indicated that they had something planned for their new leader, and the meeting he had with them earlier suggested that it wouldn't be pleasant.
The silence about the table, tense at first, threatened to become deafening as all eyes locked on Quaralyn, waiting in dark assessment for her to speak. Finally she did, "Striker says you have a plan for a job." It was a lie, of course, but Quaralyn was partial to falsehoods, especially those which were not immediately verifiable. If she happened to be right, so much the better. If not, it would force them to wonder if they had failed in some regard.
The lie spoken, the eyes left Quaralyn and darted nervously, conspiratorially, across the table. After a few seconds, one nodded, almost imperceptibly, and then another, and another until all reached a silent agreement. Smiling too broadly, one of the seven, the one known as Dagen, slid a large scroll across the table to Quaralyn.
Unrolling it and spreading it flat before her, Quaralyn studied the parchment for a few moments. If they expected a reaction, they were disappointed, for her expression remained unchanged as she examined each detail of the plan. What she read was not so much a plan as it was a detailed recipe for an elaborate suicide. It was also a test. If she rejected the plan out of hand, they would disregard her as weak. If she accepted it as written, at least one person at the table, most likely her, would find themselves hanging for treason, as stealing from a monarch was a dangerous affair.
"Interesting," she said finally, looking back up at the waiting figures.
When she didn't clarify her comment, Dagen, clearly the spokesperson for the group, finally questioned, "Interesting how, exactly? As an academic exercise or as a job you're willing to run."
"Neither," she said finally, and the mood around the table shifted into a self-congratulatory one, "and both," she completed, dousing the previous simmerings of jocularity.
A stunned silence followed for a moment before Dagen asked again, "What are you saying?"
"I think your choice of marks is excellent," she responded with a smooth tone and a face entirely devoid of expression, "your plan, however . . . well, I've pried better plans than this from the hands of corpses, and I don't plan on hanging for your ineptitude." Her tone harshened and her pace quickened as she continued without giving them an opportunity to interject. "If you really want to target a regent, you're going to have to prove to me that you're capable of it, and we're going to have to have a hell of lot better plan than this." She nearly spit out the last words as she slid the paper back across the table to its drafters. Pushing back from the table abruptly, she stood and glared coldly down at them. "Meet me in the training section in one hour, and come prepared for scouting afterwards." Her order given, she turned and left without looking back.
The training hall was designed to be challenging, intimidating, and occasionally lethal. Stepping onto its floor, Quaralyn felt a slight wash of power flow through her, and she guessed that a spell, or perhaps several, were at work in this section of the guild. She would later learn that the magic served to keep the hall in a constant state of change. It was never the same twice, and it could never be predicted.
As the hour crept in, so did her team, all save Dagen. She appeared not to notice his absence, and sent the rest through a course on the hall. The course was unforgiving, and so was Quaralyn, making them repeat it a second time and then a third until she was satisfied that each could at least scrape through consistently.
As they were nearing the end of the third run, a hushed voice from broke through the shadows behind her. "How are they?" Striker asked as if they were the ones he'd come to observe.
"Better than I expected," she answered without turning back. "Good, actually, but don't tell them that."
"I see you're missing one."
"Don't worry," she purred smugly, "he'll be here soon."
As a knowing smile rose on Quaralyn's face, Dagen came storming into the hall. His face was flushed with rage and he strode directly to Quaralyn, unaware of the dark figure that had slipped back into the shadows behind her. "Where is it?!" he demanded without delay or explanation.
Standing quiet, but firm in the face of his outburst, Quaralyn assumed an innocent look and her most disingenuously ignorant tone. "Where's, what?"
He fumed in response and spat back between clenched teeth, "Be warned. I am not someone to toy with. Now, think carefully before you answer this time. Where is it?"
Matching his look with an equally dark scowl, Quaralyn answered in a chilled tone. "It's on the course."
He nearly exploded at her response, "You wretched little shrew! Do you think you can simply stride in here and order us about like children. Some of us have been here since the guild was formed. I was the last taskmaster's right-hand, until Striker broke his left after your little prank!"
Anger robbing him of rationality, Dagen rushed at Quaralyn, trying to pin her to the wall behind her. His fury blinded him, however, and she used his own force against him, slipping out of his way and adding to his momentum with a sweeping kick to his knees. There was an audible crack as he hit the wall, and though he was able to turn and stand heavily against it without too much delay, a stream of blood ran from his forehead and down the left side of his face.
"I don't know you're background, Dagen," Quaralyn started, her voice low and deliberate, "but I've yet to see a guild that operates by seniority. But if that's what you're looking for, perhaps I can arrange an interview with the city watch. I hear they're looking for more sheep. And as for the rest of you," she continued, snapping her head to the side to address the startled onlookers, "break time is over. We're moving on to specialties."
As the rest of the team left, she stayed behind with Dagen, a final point to be made. "You have two choices. You can either run the course until you find it, or you can ask for a replacement. Personally, I think you should give up now and choose the latter."
He was still glaring at her when she left, knowing that the latter option could prove far less forgiving than the former.
When she passed his view, she heard Striker's voice behind her again. "What did you take?"
"His token," she answered, and quickened her pace to meet the rest of her team.
The specialty area told Quaralyn what the training course couldn't. Though all were capable in the required skills, each brought a different gift to the team; and as always, no gift comes without a history.
Wendell was a locksman, and, as she would later learn, possessed the tendency to tinker as most locksmen do—loving the thrill of new challenge, reveling in the mechanical. He was the son of a clockmaker and was expected to follow in the family business. Though extraordinarily adroit, the complexities of commerce eluded him, and thus, when his father passed on, so did the business, forcing him to turn to darker avenues in order to survive.
Kit was youngest member of the team, bringing the sum experience of her ten years to the guild. She had been recruited a year ago, one of several street urchins who, unseen by the city that bore them, served as an extra pair of eyes and ears for the guild. She served now in much the same capacity, a scout, a lookout, and a messenger. To her the guild was home, both father and mother.
In contrast to Kit's slight form stood Rhyskall. A warrior, blinded in one eye and unable to continue his path, he found a home within the guild. Tall and muscular, he served as the backbone of the team, providing strength and speed where skill alone would not suffice.
A pair of siblings, Brextyl and Jaryssa, gifted in both music and art also served on the team. Rogues in the truest sense of the word, they possessed a natural charm which lulled the wary and unwary alike into an easy sense of trust. A history from the stage gave them the ability to work their way into several homes, serving as private tutors for children of wealthy families, but dubious talent.
A minor mage also found his way onto the team, serving to obviate the magical traps and obstacles which yielded to neither skill nor strength. Far from the aloof figure of the archetypal mage, Galyn's taste for wine, women, and gambling quickly landed him in debt to the guild, forcing him to work off his debt directly. He seemed to bear little, if any, resentment for his current servitude, however, adding to his debt as fast as he worked it off.
Then there was Dagen, a jack-of-all-trades who served as the prior taskmaster's right-hand. By all accounts he was talented, but there had to be some black mark against him which kept him from the position he so coveted. Quaralyn would later learn that a prior indiscretion with a guildmaster's paramour had been his fall from grace. Though he traveled from guild to guild, the mark traveled with him, and he was passed over again and again in favor of those with less talent, but less history. He had joined this guild when it was formed, hoping that his early presence might make a difference. Recent events caused him to believe otherwise—a belief which he would hold until Quaralyn proved herself to be his better.
The team crept back into the guild shortly before dawn, tired from their night's work. Like every other night for over a week, they had been out scouting at Quaralyn's direction; and like every other night, they came back and headed for one of the common rooms to wind down before catching a few hours of sleep. Stumbling into the room, they took their usual places and prepared to discuss their usual subjects. This night, however, was different. Dagen wasn't there; and perhaps because of his absence, Jaryssa offered a new subject of debate, "What do you think of our new taskmaster?" Surprised by the suddenness of her question, the others remained silent for a moment, each looking questioningly to the others.
Kit was the first to speak, "I like her."
The others didn't respond. Given the treatment Kit had received at the hand of Quaralyn's predecessor, it was little surprise that she would find Quaralyn to be an improvement. Sensing that they were discounting her opinion, but not thoroughly understanding why, Kit further volunteered, "She seems fair so far."
"Aye, I'll give ye that," Galyn agreed smiling devilishly and plopping into the nearest chair. "She's very fair."
"That's not what she meant, Galyn," Jaryssa shot back, rolling her eyes. "You're going to be here forever if you keep up that attitude."
"Aye," he responded again, accepting a drink from Brextyl, "but I'll die a happy man."
Jaryssa sighed and shook her head before turning on her brother, "And you, you shouldn't encourage him."
"Trust me," Brextyl answered, "he doesn't need any encouragement from me. Why, I remember once we were in Driscol's tavern, and he took an eye to the innkeeper's daughter. Next thing I knew . . . Hey!" he shouted as a bolt of magic plowed into his chest with a mild electric shock. "Galyn!"
Galyn, assuming a false look of protective concern, glanced towards Kit as he replied, "Ya shoulna be tellin' such stories when there be children in the room."
Kit responded as she always did, by pouting and proclaiming that she was not a child.
Rhyskall, sensitive to her discomfort, tried shift the attention away from her. "I agree with Kit. I think Quaralyn will be impartial, and that's a good change, but we really don't know that much about her, or her qualifications."
"What's there to know?" Brextyl quipped back, stradding a chair next to the warrior, "Striker picked her, and we're stuck with her, like it or not. I'll tell you one thing though, we're not going to get away with as much as we could when Nebdezeer was in charge."
"Maybe that's not such a bad thing," Jaryssa stated as she stopped pacing for a moment. "Claudia and Adar could get him to agree to anything, and look what happened to them." A hush fell across the room with the mention of the names. Feeling responsible for the tension, Jaryssa sought to break the silence by resuming the debate. "What do you think of her, Wendell?"
Toying with a small contraption composed of gears and switches, Wendell didn't respond.
"Wendell," she called again, a hint of impatience rising in her voice.
Still no response as Wendell continued to twist and turn the small object in his hands, fascination playing across his features.
"Locks!" she said finally.
"Hmm? What?" Wendell asked looking up, his attention drawn at last from his object of study.
"What do you think of our new captain, Locks?" He pondered her question for a moment, leaning back in his chair with a slightly furrowed brow. The others knew the look, and waited patiently for a response. "Too soon to say," he said finally, and turned his attention back to the object resting in his hands. The others sighed in frustration and continued tossing opinions and suggestions around the table.
"You haven't answered you own question, Jaryssa," Rhyskall said at last, "What do you think of her."
Twisting her mouth to one side, Jaryssa began thoughtfully, "Well, she's shown that she's willing to take some risks ..... and she's thorough," Jaryssa groaned as they all nodded in agreement, tired from the lengthy scouting missions they had undertaken at Quaralyn's direction. "But," she resumed, shaking her head slightly, "I've gotta agree with you, Rhyskall, we haven't really seen her do anything. We don't know anything about her skills or specialties."
"That's right," a voice added, and they all turned to see Dagen as he quietly entered the room, "we don't know. We don't know anything about her. We don't even know that she pulled off the job with the stones. She could be a pickpocket, or a cutthroat for all we know, taking the stones from the one who really lifted them."
The others reflected quietly, having not considered that possibility.
"Well, she knew enough to reject your plan," Kit said, scraping together enough courage to stand up to Dagen.
"Yes," he hissed back at her, "but have we seen her come up with something better? No, because all we've been doing is running the course all day, and scouting the city all night. And I for one, am getting tired of it."
"What are you gonna do?" Jaryssa asked, smiling sarcastically as she leaned forward against the table, "Complain to Striker?"
Dagen was saved from answering by a young page who burst unannounced into the room, out of breath from his journey. "Quaralyn wants to see you all in the map room. She wants your reports." His message given, the page darted off, another task to be run.
Groaning and rubbing sore and tired muscles, the group slowly rose to their feet, exhaustion weighing heavily on their frames.
"Oh," the page said, popping his head back into the room, "she said something about a plan."
Carrying several rolls of heavy parchment beneath her arm, Quaralyn searched the guild, looking for Striker. She drew a fair amount of attention as she passed. Though her appearance and presence were now known to most in the guild, she was still the source of much debate. None save Dagen had challenged her openly—a point more attributable to Striker's reputation than her own, for few dared to question his authority—but watchful eyes and furtive whispers bespoke quiet speculation among many of the members, a speculation which would continue until she proved herself deserving of her position. Meeting the gaze of those questioning eyes, Quaralyn hoped that the plan she carried would provide such proof.
It took longer than she expected to find Striker, learning at several of her stops that she had just missed him, and receiving sketchy directions to his possible location. She had begun to suspect that she was being led on a wild goose chase when she finally found him in one of the several consul rooms which seemed to be scattered throughout the guild.
He was speaking with a man Quaralyn didn't recognize, a sturdy fellow with grizzled features and a roughened voice. They stood on either side of a table atop which rested a complete model of the city. Not wanting to intrude, Quaralyn stood outside the room. Being curious, however, she slipped quietly into a darkened patch of the hall and watched their dialogue.
"What about here then?" Striker asked, pointing to a spot in the merchant district.
"Can't go there." The man answered.
Obviously not pleased with the response, Striker slowly raised his gaze from the model to the man who stood before him. In the silence which followed, Quaralyn could see apprehension forming on the man's face.
"I'm sorry," he said at last, "but it can't go there neither. It would run right into the cellar of this here shop."
Striker's voice was a coarse whisper, slow and certain, when he responded. "And why can't it go under the cellar?"
"They'd hear the diggin' up in the shop."
Striker appeared not to hear him, straightening to his full height and walking away from the table as if the decision had been made. "How long will it take you to go under the cellar."
The man shifted uncomfortably, thinking that perhaps Striker had misunderstood, but uncertain how to correct him. "Sir," he began tentatively, "they'd hear th . . ."
"How long will it take you to go under the cellar?" Striker repeated, a hint of anger rising in his voice."
"A week, tops."
"You start tomorrow. I hear that shop will be closing for a week."
"Yes, sir." The man answered, hurriedly scraping up several rough maps and heading out the door without waiting for further dismissal.
He nearly ran into Quaralyn as he left, and hastily whispered to her, "I'd be careful, miss. He's in a bad mood."
Quaralyn, having seen enough of Striker over the last week or so to form her own opinion, was about to ask how he could tell, but thought the better of it and simply nodded before entering the room.
Striker was looking over the model one again as she entered, his back to the door. She was about to announce herself when he said, in that same course whisper he had used with the engineer, "I hear you have a plan for my approval."
"Good to see your sources are accurate," she responded, trying not to sound taken aback as she crossed the room and unrolled the parchment sheets on a clear section of the table. They crackled in slight protest as she smoothed them with her palms and eventually succeeded in getting them to lay flat against the surface.
When she finished, he moved to study them, examining each in turn before speaking. "Ambitious."
She waited patiently for a further response and when it appeared that none would be forthcoming, she opened her mouth to speak. Whatever question she would ask, however, was cut short by the arrival of a visitor.
Standing on the street above where Striker was, Giacomo smiled, knowing how his sudden appearance was going to get under his new "boss'" skin. After a few quick glances about to be certain he was unwatched, the demon literally melted into the pavement. Reforming dew-like on the roof of the subterranean chamber, Giacomo listened to the exchange between the guild second and some female underling. When it looked like the worst time to interrupt, Giacomo completely reformed himself and popped his head upside down in between the two.
Raising a hand to his chin in thought, Giacomo made a big show of studying the parchments beneath him. "Not bad. Not bad at all, and gutsy too, going after a regent. One of yours, Striker? I didn't think you had the imagination for something this cunning."
As he contemplated Quaralyn's plan, Striker noticed a long shadow falling across the model of the city. One hand instinctively reached for the dagger at his side as his eyes cast upwards. The groan which escaped his lips as he saw the demon was barely audible, but the look with which he greeted the creature was unmistakable."Not bad." Giacomo says, ignoring Striker's obvious displeasure, "Not bad at all, and gutsy too, going after a regent. One of yours, Striker? I did not think you had the imagination for something this cunning."
"Get off the ceiling." Striker muttered gruffly between clenched teeth as his cold grey stare remained fixed on the demon. When Giacomo made no move to comply, but stayed riveted to the roof with a smile so broad it bordered on the insane, Striker grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and yanked him from his perch to the floor below.
Following Striker's gaze upwards, Quaralyn reached slowly for her dagger, then stopped as if realizing that steel alone would do little against the one suspended from the ceiling. She was therefore surprised when Striker grabbed their visitor by his neck and pulled him roughly to the ground. The visitor, somewhat elven in appearance, landed ignominiously on the floor face first, all trace of elven grace having abandoned him.
Had she not sensed the tension in the room, she might have laughed as the newcomer struggled to right himself on floor and regain some of his dignity. As it was, a cold chill ran down her spine, telling her that she stood in the midst of danger and that she should leave. Curiosity, however, a thief's best friend and worst enemy, forced her to stay.
Openly glaring at Striker, Giacomo raised a hand, rich energy playing between his fingers. The anger clear in his features, he growled, "Why you............." and sent the energy blasting from his outstretched arm towards the unmoving Striker. The power glowed brighter as it flew towards its target, only to blink out of existence before hitting home. Looking down at his hand Giacomo sighed heavily. "Darn it, forgot to unload the blanks." Rising up from the ground, he tried another tactic, "And is this anyway to treat the bearer of good news? Really, Striker you do have work on your manners. After all you have not even introduced me to this lovely creature." He grinned as he finished his reprimand, turning his attention to a new quarry.
Striker held his ground as the bolt of magic sped towards him, lamenting once again the Guildmaster's decision to retain Giacomo's services following the discovery of his true nature. Though powerful and often useful, demons were simply too unpredictable for Striker's taste. This one was no exception, and the additional distinction of insanity sat poorly with Striker.
The contract, however, had been skillfully written and imbued with sufficient power to bind both human and demon alike. Giacomo could not harm a member of the guild absent express direction, and thus the pulsating bolt of energy sent from Giacomo's hand vanished just before plowing into Striker's chest.
Giacomo looked down at his hand, disappointment and remembrance resounding in a heavy sigh. "Darn it, forgot to unload the blanks."
Striker, much to Giacomo's disappointment, didn't respond, forcing Giacomo to try another tactic as he rose from the ground. Striker was unwilling to play the demon's game, however, and responded impassively, "She's not your concern." Glancing sidelong towards Quaralyn, he added in a tone implying a command, "She was just leaving."
Giacomo looked absolutely devastated by the news. "What?! Leaving? Leaving so soon?" Sweeping a surprised Quaralyn into his arms, he protested. "It cannot be, my love. Nothing can separate those as star-crossed as we ........." Seeing the objection rising in her eyes, he pressed a finger to her lips, "You think so? A love too perfect to be?" Not waiting for an answer, he began to dance her towards the door. "Perhaps you are right. It is better that we part now before things sour." Releasing her finally, he spun her out of the door with a grand flourish. "Alas, parting is such sweet sorrow, but then again we will always have Paris. Au revior." His parting spoken, he closed the door behind Quaralyn with one smooth motion.
Turning back to Striker, he assumed a more "normal" tone, "Wow, I thought she'd never leave. Now, down to business. I bet you're dying to know what happened with Siladun and the Ravensclaws."
Glancing sidelong towards Quaralyn, Striker added in a tone implying a command, "She was just leaving."
The anger which rose in Quaralyn's eyes with Striker's dismissal quickly changed to shock, and then revulsion as the stranger's arms locked around her in a viselike embrace. Her skin crawled with the touch, but she was unable to extricate herself and quickly stopped struggling. He was stronger than he appeared, but Quaralyn suspected that he was not as mad as he acted. It was a dangerous combination, and though she tried to fathom his reasons and his actions, her mind screamed only for release.
It finally came, thankfully, when he whisked her out the door and closed it behind her. Free now from the visitor's grip, she slumped back against the door, her pale hands covering her face. She was clearly shaken by the encounter, and felt an overwhelming urge to wash the touch of the creature, for surely it was neither human nor elf, from her skin. Every fiber of her being cried for her to leave. Still, she stayed by the door, finding a small patch of shadow in which to hide, and listened to that which the two within would not have her know.
Striker, having little patience for the demon's games, placed both hands flat against the table and leaned forward, staring silently at the demon before finally responding, "Giacomo, if you've got something to report, then report it. But if you've only come to play," he resumed, inclining his head towards the door through which the demon had spun Quaralyn, "there are other establishments in town for that sort of thing."
Giacomo smiled back at Striker. "True, and I'm staying at one such place." The smile broadened and became positively lascivious as the demon tapped the building representing the Raven on the city model. "You can reach me here through the owner, Triana Valmont, as per our contract."
Striker ignored the demon's growing pleasure, "Good, I don't particularly enjoy searching every damn rooftop in the city to find you."
Giacomo stuck out a forked tongue in response, trying once more to annoy the stone-faced Striker. When Striker didn't respond, he continued undaunted, "As for the Ravensclaws .... they accepted the offer without a single argument, or complaint. Personally, I expect treachery."
Striker nodded darkly, for once in agreement with the demon.
"Interestingly, though," Giacomo added, "Siladun is not the one in charge, or at least he isn't any more. Some mage is now calling the shots."
Striker pondered the revelation in silence before asking, "Are you sure?"
Giacomo nodded, his demeanor becoming more lucid, "All throughout my offer Siladun kept shooting glances at the mage as if seeking advice on what to do."
"And the others?" Striker asked.
"They looked to Siladun, then the mage, but more from training and habit I would say than actual authority."
"I saw no more the twenty, maybe thirty underlings at the guild. They were not quite willing to take a census, however."
When Striker failed to react to his quip, but instead only stared down at the model of the city, contemplating the demon's report, Giacomo added, "Now of course, you have to set up the meetings and how the monies are to be passed. But you can find their hideout ........... " he paused, looking over the maps of the city and surrounding areas, ".... here."
Following the demon's finger to the location, Striker grinned darkly.
"A preemptive betrayal?" Giacomo asked, taking note of the new expression and grinning maniacally while rubbing his hands together in a melodramatic gesture of duplicity.
Striker watched the display impassively, thinking that the gesture made the demon look like nothing so much as a giant fly. Dismissing him as he would any such insect, Striker replied brusquely, "You weren't hired as tactician. What else?"
Giacomo scowled at the rebuke, and though his eyes glowed darkly, he answered in apparent deference, "I'm planing on keeping a low profile for a few weeks to a month. I would appreciate not having to work during that time."
A dry chuckle nearly escaped Striker's lips at the idea of the demon keeping a low profile. As it was, however, he simply smirked and added, "That might not be possible. I think He has something planned for you."
Frowning in displeasure, Giacomo acquiesced, "Very well, but nothing on the thirteenth, as per the contractual provision that you cannot order me into a potentially destructive situation."
Cold grey eyes focused sharply on the demon, "Potentially destructive?"
Giacomo waived the inquiry off, "A petty annoyance that comes around every hundred or so years. I will not be able to escape my current host even in the event of death. And personally, I have no desire to be trapped in a corpse until I can get free."
"I can see how that would be a problem," Striker responded without concern.
Giacomo smiled faintly, not missing Striker's tone, "I find your concern touching, but don't worry, I have plans to be well hidden by then."
"And should the need to contact you arise?"
Giacomo paused before tapping the top of Stormpoint's lighthouse with an inhumanly long finger.
"All right, but in the meantime, keep yourself available. You'll be serving as an intermediary."
The demon puffed out his chest, in mock pride, "You can count on me, mon capitaine!"
Striker groaned quietly in disgust. "Whatever. Now get out of here before your stench starts to set in."
((continuing from The Darksome Road))
The room was sparsely decorated and dominated by a large mahogany desk, behind which sat a tall leather chair, the only one in sight. Although guests were received here, they weren't made to feel welcome, and never encouraged to stay for very long, not that they would want to. Maps of the city, excruciatingly detailed, hung on the walls. Most portrayed the city's current state, but a handful, obtained quietly from government offices, projected future designs both above ground and below. Well-thumbed copies of the city's laws and treaties sat tucked away on a shelf, awaiting further perusal should the need arise. Locked cases flanked the walls, holding copies of the guild's ledgers that required frequent reference, the rest being sealed away from prying eyes in a private and more secure chamber.
A dark scowl lit the face of the room's soul occupant as he sat on the corner of the desk, holding a faceted crystal sphere in a gloved hand. Giacomo had left the crystal as a way of summoning him. In his annoying style, the demon had also left a limerick. Like so much magic, Striker was sure that the rhyme was totally unnecessary. The crystal flashed steadily his grip, confirming his suspicions. As the flashes grew brighter and more erratic, the floor before the guildmaster's feet began to turn and distort, finally forming itself into a door. Striker tried not to groan. The room was marked by three visible exits and still the demon had to create another.
The door solidified and opened with a notable creek, mist spilling from its gaping maw and rolling over onto the floor as Giacomo rose from the space below. Grim-faced and pallid, the demon locked eyes with Striker and intoned in a deep, booming voice. "You rang?"
It was needless display, the kind designed to send children and the weak of heart scurrying away to safety. Within the heart of the guild, it had no effect, and if Giacomo expected a reaction he was sorely disappointed when Striker barely looked up at him and answered without expression. "You're late."
The demon took note of Striker's injuries, a wicked grin spreading across his false elfin features. "And you've been visiting the Raven again. So what's your point?"
He longed to spring from the desk, grab the dagger at his side, and drive his point into the demon's throat, but he was bound by the contract and the demon hadn't yet exhausted his usefulness. "My point is, you're late, you've been out of communication, and you're getting careless."
Giacomo shrugged and began to rifle absently through the papers on Striker's desk as he addressed the statement without concern or curiosity. "I got here as quickly as I could. I warned you I'd be underground for a while, and as for being careless, I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Think," Striker began, staring coldly at the demon and resisting the urge to remove the papers from his sight, "I know it's difficult for you, but think hard. Have you lost anything?"
Giacomo looked sharply back up at the grim-faced figure. "Why, yes," he began in mock seriousness, "I have, and of all the things I've lost I'd have to say it's my mind I miss the most. Was that what you were going for? Ha, ha. Do me favor, will you? Don't try to be funny. It doesn't suit you." He straightened and puffed out his chest in pride, "Leave humor to us professionals."
Striker had dealt with demons before, an unfortunate hazard of his profession. They were sordid, vile, loathsome, and evil on an unimaginable scale, but they were generally sane and few had any desire to masquerade as demented comics of questionable talent. "Professional what?" he asked dryly, against his better judgment.
"Jester, entertainer, accountant ..... take your pick," the demon answered, juggling two paperweights and an hourglass that had previously rested on Striker's desk as he smiled broadly in self-amusement.
"I'd rather not," the other answered, swiping the hourglass from the air and taking some degree of satisfaction in watching the demon's smile fade into a scowl. "You weren't hired in that capacity."
"Fine," the demon pouted, resting the paperweights back on the desktop. "Not that I don't love coming here, but did you interrupt my beauty sleep for something other than idle chit chat?"
Striker leaned back against the desk and folded his arms across his chest, "You're going to have to put in a few decades if you want to see any improvement on that front."
"Ha ha," the demon answered through a dark frown, upset at having allowed his opponent that opportunity, and surprised that he had taken it. "That's two in a row. You must have a dreadful headache with your mind working overtime like that."
"Yes, it does get tiring having to think for both of us. Not that I don't love your company, but if you'd managed to exercise even a scintilla of intelligence, we wouldn't be having this conversation. So, try again. Have you lost anything?"
Giacomo's face darkened with a sneer. If it weren't for the careful drawing of an artful contract, their mutual employer would be looking for a new guildmaster. But like it or not, he was bound by the instrument and stuck with this humorless intermediary who shrugged off his jokes and whose personality was a grey as his eyes. "Awwww, what's the matter," he tried again with a mocking frown, "wake up alone again? And to answer your question, no, I haven't lost anything of importance."
"Well then, can you explain how a dec, your dec, wound up in the hands of a ranger?"
He shrugged dismissively and went back to rifling through the papers which he had strewn across the desk. "Lost it playing fetch with Gerere?"
This was taking too long, and Striker's patience with the creature was starting to wear thin. Slamming a hand down over the papers, he looked squarely at the demon, contempt ringing clear in his eyes and voice. "And a ranger just happened to pick it up? That's a bit too convenient. Try again."
The demon looked annoyed at being questioned, but was pleased to have provoked at least a small response from his adversary, and he decided to continue in the same vein. "Used it to make change at some shop? Oh darn there is a hole in my pocket? Wait, now I remember! Eowyn and I eloped and I gave it to her as a wedding gift. Please let me know if any of these comes close to what you're looking for."
"What?" he asked, with the last explanation, then shook his head in regret, nearly having stepped into the demon's trap. "I find it hard to believe that even you could be so careless and half-witted. So if you're done joking, could you attempt to be serious for one moment?"
"Sure!" Giacomo answered, grinning wickedly, "I'm always will to try that kinky stuff. So, what do I have to do? Does being 'serious' call for tight fitting leather and flame red hair?" The smile grew impossibly broader as he momentarily shifted into Quaralyn's form and took a step closer to the guildmaster before fading back to his "normal" appearance when the man failed to respond.
Striker resisted the urge to grab the demon by the throat and crush the life from his new host. It would be satisfying, but the pleasure would be short-lived. He'd seen first hand that the destruction of a host had little effect on the demon, merely inconveniencing him until he found another, and Striker didn't care for the idea of the demon picking a new host from within the guild. His jaw tightened as he held both his breath and his hand, and he turned his head and pushed off the desk, refusing to give the demon the further satisfaction of seeing the anger in his face. He walked slowly around and took a seat behind the desk, leaning back in the chair and propping his feet on the desktop before looking at the demon over templed fingers and asking for the last time. "How do you think you lost it?"
Giacomo smiled inwardly. The last quip had worked and he was pleased at having found a small chink within the wall of ice. He filed it away for later use as he considered the question seriously for the first time. "Eowyn must have taken it. She's the only one who was close enough."
It sounded like a serious response, but with the demon, it was hard to tell. The name was familiar. Actually, there were few people within the city that the guild didn't know something about, and close friends of High Justice merited extra attention. Still, this one remained largely an unknown factor, there being more rumor and myth than actual substance in the information they'd been able to gather thus far. It was probably another of the demon's jokes, and though he hated to play into the creature's hands, he couldn't take the chance that Giacomo wasn't, for once, being serious. "Eowyn stole it," he repeated slowly with undisguised skepticism. "And just why would she do that?" An answer spun in the back of his mind, a horrible answer he didn't want to face, and so he instead asked the question of the demon, hoping he would provide a different response. "She planning on showing up and collecting a favor?"
"Oh, nothing like that," Giacomo answered, waiving off the guildmaster's concern with one hand while the other hand toyed with the hourglass, "She's just trying to kill me before our wedding."
He stared blankly at the demon, "That's very amusing. I think we need to come to an understanding on the meaning of the word 'serious.' Would you like to try again?"
Giacomo flipped the hourglass over, and smiled ominously, taking a deep breath before he spoke. "Ok, now let me know if any of these words are too big for you. Eowyn is one of my blood and kind."
"You've been using that personae too long," Striker interrupted without concern. "It's starting to affect you. You're not really an elf, remember?"
Giacomo's face twisted into an expression of annoyance, but he continued in his explanation. "Neither is she. And as I was saying, I've asked for her hand. Now she has to try to kill me. See? Nothing for you to worry about."
"I see," Striker nodded, less convinced than before. "And is she allowed to enlist assistance in this endeavor?"
"Oh, of course. Why? Want to help?" He smiled eagerly, seeing a chance to void both the contract and the guildmaster in one strike.
A wisp of a smile rose on the other's lips and reflected darkly in his eyes. "Nice try."
The demon looked honestly disappointed with the response, and he shuffled like small child caught in a lie, "Oh well, can't blame me for trying can you? Is that all you wanted? I have playmates elsewhere I have to attend to."
"Go," he said waiving the creature away like the pest he was, certain that he was more eager for the demon to leave than his "playmates" were for him to return.
Not one for long good-byes, the demon stepped back over the door he had created as it began to swirl in a growing mist. His features faded and swirled as well, but before he disappeared completely he gave Striker a wave and a wink. "Till next you seek my company, ye knight of darkness."
Quaralyn made it back to the guild without event, and managed to wind her way through the complex and to the door of Striker's office without being noticed. The guild was generally well lit, but she kept to whatever dark corners she could find, having little desire to be seen by anyone and less desire to be seen by the one she was actually going to meet. There were neither guards nor pages posted outside the guildmaster's main door, and she raised a brow even as she sighed. It wasn't a good sign. He was either in a black mood or he was expecting someone, or possibly both, and she steeled herself as she reached for the door. Her fingers brushed against the metal of the handle, then froze in place. Someone else was inside the office.
Leaning closer to the door and straining an ear, she could make out most of the conversation. It was the demon, and they were talking about the dec. "Eowyn must have taken it," Giacomo finally offered in a tone more serious than his usual banter. Quaralyn struggled to keep silent, knowing that the demon's revelation could have far reaching repercussions. Striker would be less than thrilled to learn that a personal friend of the High Justice was taking an interest in guild activity, and given her recent luck, she feared she'd be sent to investigate.
She was pondering the dangers of such an investigation when she heard the demon speak again. "Till next you seek my company, ye knight of darkness," he stated in farewell, pompous, overstated, and entirely unnecessary, like everything about the demon. This wasn't going to improve Striker's mood, as if anything ever did. Taking a deep breath and expelling it slowly, she turned the handle of the door and stepped into the guildmaster's office.
A tangible cloud of madness hung heavily in the room, confirming a meeting with the demon. Striker was seated, leaning back in his chair with his feet propped atop his desk. His normally grim expression was even more dour in the wake of the demon's departure and it made her wonder if she should leave and return at another time. Given her message, however, it scarcely made a difference, and she resolved to tell him now. He didn't look up as she closed the door behind her, lost in a thought his face didn't show, and she made her way to stand before his desk with a slow gait and a hint of trepidation never before seen in her step. Had his mind not been preoccupied, Striker might have recognized it as pain, but her hair hung loosely about her shoulders and fell across her face, concealing her eyes and the look they held.
She expected him to look up at her, to say something, but he sat silent in the chair, his fingers templed and his chin tucked low to his chest. Maybe leaving wasn't such a bad idea after all. She was about to turn and implement that new plan when he whispered a single word, "Well?"
She'd thought long and hard on the way back to the guild about what she would say. She'd considered several options, but standing alone before the sullen figure of the guildmaster, none of them were particularly appealing. Weighing her options one last time, she straightened her shoulders, wincing slightly even as she did so, and answered without explanation or excuse. "I lost him."
Striker turned to look at her fully for the first time, realizing that behind the loose tendrils of hair, her face was smeared with blood which still ran fresh from a deep cut just under her cheek, highlighting a frailty of the flesh he hadn't seen before. "You lost him?" he asked, dropping his feet quietly to the floor, then rising to walk around to the front of the desk.
She struggled to maintain her confidence as he approached, finding it more difficult now that his eyes were focused on her, and she found herself wishing that he would go back to staring at the wall and allow her to leave. She had made her decision, however, and now had no choice but to accept the consequences of her actions. But that didn't mean she had to tell the truth. She was fluent in the tongue of deception, a longtime student and now artisan of misdirection, and lies fell softly from her lips with the crystal ring of truth. It was useful skill—one that had saved her life many times in the past—and one that she hoped would save her now. "Someone caught me from behind."
It was a matter-of-fact statement, an explanation rather than an excuse. The distinction was small, but to Striker's mind, important, and he watched her closely for any sign of change as he rounded the corner of the desk. He didn't see any ...... not then, and not when he stopped to stand before her. He stood at least a half a foot taller, and she winced again as she turned gingerly to face him, tilting her chin upward to meet his gaze. It was a look she'd seen him use before, but not with her ..... a predatory look that conveyed a feeling of utter insignificance to the one held within its grasp, as if they might vanish in a breathless, sanguine flicker, and exist henceforth only as a terror-filled speculation in the cowering minds of the obedient.
She'd looked into the face of death many times, staring down a soulless foe that had taken countless before her; but it had never held her like this, like prey beneath the talons of the hawk. She stood frozen, unaware of the seconds that fell unslowed through the hourglass atop the desk. For her, time had stopped and there was only a crushing, endless now that held her in an ever-tightening grip. Somewhere, some part of her knew she simply had to wait it out, that the gaze would pass; but that part of her wasn't in control. Almost against her will she heard herself speaking again. "It must have been his friend from the roof."
Her last word had barely faded when Striker pulled back a hand and let it fly towards her face in a rare moment of uncontrolled rage. She didn't shrink, and her eyes remained locked with his, unable to break free from the withering gaze and returning a stare that held a power of its own. Through the blood and grime encrusting her face, she looked at once both piteous and resolute, and the pain that cut through her eyes sparked a feeling of guilt in a long dead conscience. Guided by the unfamiliar sense, the hand turned before it struck, and swept instead across the desk. Papers, touched by the hand of the demon, flew like wind-strewn leaves, and the hourglass went reeling towards the back wall.
The timepiece shattered as it smashed into the stone, showering them both with bits of sand and glass. She gasped slightly with the impact and turned her face as the shards flashed across her skin. She wasn't the only one to react. A door on the east wall flew open, the solid thump of wood slamming against stone following quickly in wake of the shattering glass, and a guard rushed in with sword in hand. He stood riveted in place, scouring the room for any sign of threat, and woefully unprepared to face the true danger pulsing therein. His eyes widened in surprise as they settled on Quaralyn's injuries and Striker's rage, and he left in hushed relief when the latter waived him away. The door closed quietly behind him, sealing the office like a tomb.
Alone again, Striker ran a gloved hand through his hair as he turned back to face Quaralyn, surveying her injuries and trying to regain control of an anger generally held in check. She had been badly hurt. In addition to the wound on her face, her clothing was cut and torn, and partially-crusting blood covered most of the exposed skin, blending with the dark hue of the leather even as other wounds spread slowly beneath it. Judging by her stance, he'd wager that she sported a few broken bones as well.
He shook his head quietly. With their collective cuts and contusions they looked like a matched pair. It was almost humorous, but humor rarely crept into the heart of the guild, or its master; and there was no room for it now as the sudden fury he didn't understand faded into a low-burning anger that smoldered in his narrowing eyes. "Get out," he whispered in a low and harsh tone, turning away from her and crossing to the other side of the desk.
She didn't wait to be told twice, and turned guardedly to leave, her step still slow and careful. Though his head was downcast over the desk, he watched her as she left, grey eyes peering silently over the now-tattered edges of a handful of papers. Without looking back, she stretched her hand, her left hand, toward the far door, her sword arm hanging limply by her side. The use wasn't lost on Striker, and he added quietly as she turned the handle, "Find one of the healers, and keep quiet."
((continuing from The Darksome Road))
It was still early when Quaralyn returned to the guild, there being many long hours of darkness remaining before morning would come again. She walked quickly through the halls and corridors that led to her room, silent save for the rustling of the dress she still wore. Her hair and eyes were their normal once shade again, and the bruises incurred during her earlier exploits at the clinic had vanished under the attention of a different form of healing. It wasn't that the woman at the clinic, Cymbyliene, wasn't thoroughly skilled in her practice, but scrapes, scars, and even bruises lent themselves too easily to identification, and the guild employed a set of highly, and "alternatively trained" healers to see that such identifications never occurred.
Fortunately for Quaralyn, she was blessed with being a rather "quick-healer," and thus she was no longer suffering the pain of her earlier tumble as she wound her way through the complex, thinking of the ranger and her visit. Not all of her thoughts were kind. She'd come as an innocent, seeking aid and care, and he'd played upon her proffered fears, threatening both stern reprisal and physical harm if she failed to provide the information he demanded. It wasn't what she'd expected from a ranger, but she'd quickly determined that that part of his life was lost to him. The loss was fortuitous for the guild, for he'd seen too much in that short exchange within the abandoned tavern, but having looked into the ranger's eyes and finding confusion and anger where once shone courage and compassion, a part of her was deeply saddened. It was the same part that had seen the look of self-hatred the ranger wore as he ended the interrogation, the same part that had known that her interrogation had inflicted far more pain and fear than his, and the same part that she would again have to hide within the roiling shadows of her soul as she made her way into the great heart of darkness that lay spread before her.
She took small comfort in the fact that the ranger had remembered his name, as evidenced by the note he had left the healer, the note that Quaralyn had read before her timely departure. He might remember more, in time, and with luck become again the man that he once was, save, she hoped, for that one night in the tavern when a noble yet errant sense of duty had sent him on a quest he was ill-prepared to make. Giving a final hope, she carefully put the matter aside. She would consider it later, but couldn't afford to have it cloud her thoughts—not here, not now.
Practiced as she was in deception, she was able to push those thoughts from her face and mind. They would come back later, and she would deal with them then. Almost convinced, she hastened her step, rounded a dark corner, and descended the spiral staircase leading to her level with a speed not generally employed by one wearing a full dress. She had an appointment to keep. During a brief visit to the gypsy camp earlier in the week, she'd learned that there was there was supposed to be an eclipse that evening, and she'd promised Kit that she'd take her out to see it. She judged that she had just enough time to stop by her room and change before meeting the girl by the far west stairs.
Kit had become quite attached to Quaralyn since her unfortunate encounter with Samantha and Triana a few months back. It was hardly a surprise really. The girl had been terrified, and in her eyes, Quaralyn had saved her from certain death. It was only natural that she now felt an attachment to the woman, but the whole thing was still more than a bit strange to Quaralyn. She wasn't used to anyone seeking her company, wanting to be near her. In fact, she tended to drive off most people through a combination of both conscious and unconscious effort. Occasionally, she regretted it, but usually, she thought it was for the best. Whether for good or bad, however, her efforts hadn't worked on Kit.
Truthfully, she'd found the child to be a nuisance at first. She constantly tried to trail behind, making it increasingly difficult for Quaralyn to slip away unnoticed and conduct more . . . personal affairs she needed to keep quiet. Her actions had nearly resulted in considerable . . . inconvenience . . . on more than one occasion, and it had grown to a point where Quaralyn was forced to reprimand the girl in a manner normally reserved for those of greater age and experience. Kit had stoically withstood the reproach till the end, only then allowing the tears to roll silently down her face—tears more painful than any blade, and they had pierced Quaralyn to the core.
It had taken time to recover the girl's trust after that event, but Quaralyn had no doubts that it was time well spent. Since then, the girl had grown on her in ways she hadn't expected, and didn't entirely understand. She hadn't realized, and might never realize, that girl saw something within her that she herself could not. But whatever it was, Quaralyn no longer resented Kit's presence, and now spent a fair amount of what little spare time she had with her.
The girl was quick and bright, and even possessed a fair ability to read. This last fact had surprised Quaralyn the most. There weren't many opportunities for a child in Kit's position to pursue the more academic studies, but Kit was eager to learn, and Quaralyn did what she could to help. She was no teacher though, and lacked the time to instruct the girl as much as she would like. Still, Kit was improving. Quaralyn just hoped that she would continue to do so after her mentor left.
Turning the final corner leading to her quarters, Quaralyn allowed herself a small smile. Kit was leaning against the wall by her door. Her hands were stuffed into her pockets, and she was staring down at the ground, as if examining either the floor or her shoes. She looked up as she heard Quaralyn approach, and the woman's smile started to broaden, pleased with the girl's progress. The smile faded, however, when she saw Kit's face. Her eyes were wide and her face drawn and pale. All in all, the expression was more akin to fear than excitement, as was the tone in her voice when she finally spoke. "He's been looking for you."
Quaralyn knew who she meant by the word "He," and she tried not to allow the sudden flash of worry to show on her face as she opened the door to her room and ushered Kit in ahead of her. "Well, he hasn't found me, and if we leave quickly, he won't." She sounded more confident that she felt, and she crossed the room to the far wall where a low-burning lamp sat atop a bedside table. She probably shouldn't try to avoid him, but she really didn't feel like dealing with Striker at the moment, or ever for that matter. When Kit gave no answer, she looked back to the girl and found her standing quietly by her desk with a deepened look of worry.
"He sent three scouts out after you."
Quaralyn's face paled with the words and she stood frozen for a moment in the soft glow of the lamp before breathing again and adjusting the wick to allow for a brighter flame. "Has he?" She cocked a brow and tried to sound unconcerned as she turned back to towards the rest of the room, wearing expression of strained calm. Scouts? It wasn't a good sign. It wasn't a good sign at all. In the time following the incident with the ranger, things had largely returned to normal with Striker, to the extent that things had ever been normal between the two of them, and she wondered what had happened to change the situation. She didn't have much time to consider it, however, before her thoughts were interrupted by a solid knock at the door. Kit jumped at the sound, expected though it was, but the knock elicited only a dark frown from Quaralyn. She really didn't like this.
The door opened after a few seconds grace, revealing a surly figure standing silhouetted in the open frame. He carried a short sword, and wasted no time with formalities. "Striker wants to see you."
She nodded as agreeably as she could, and tried to buy a few minutes of time, heading towards the door with an outstretched arm as if she would close it. "Just give me a minute to change and . . ."
An iron hand gripped onto the door, holding it stoutly in place. It appeared that her escort wasn't amenable to waiting. "He wants to see you, now." The last word was emphasized with a heavy step into the room. As he drew nearer, it was clear that he stood several inches taller than her, and carried considerably greater mass ...... an advantage which he sought to press.
If he was trying to intimidate her, it wasn't working. Instead it only raised an unhealthy level of ire within her eyes—unhealthy for the scout, that was, and she glared back at him with icy contempt. She wasn't accustomed to brusque mannerisms from one of lower rank, and her expression made clear that she wouldn't tolerate it.
The scout had good reason to fear Striker if he failed to bring her as ordered, but he had equally good reason to fear her if he forgot his place again. It was something he now understood, and he gave her a wide berth as she strode out the door, quiet as she passed.
Kit started to follow, concern momentarily outweighing fear, but Quaralyn stopped her, sending her back to her own room with the best assurances she could muster. The girl nodded quietly. She didn't look entirely convinced, but she listened and began to head down the long corridor, looking back occasionally as she went. Quaralyn waited until she disappeared from sight, then strode off in the opposite direction, not waiting for the scout to lead the way, and not caring if he followed.
For his part, the scout wisely kept silent and allowed her to walk ahead as they wound their way towards the guildmaster's office. He wouldn't admit it, but he was relieved that she'd chosen to lead. He didn't want her behind him, and he kept close eye on her as he followed ..... a very close eye. Her shapeful form appeared even more so clothed in the uncharacteristic attire she wore, but he wasn't able to dwell on such thoughts for long. There was something about her that gave rise to a well-founded fear. He hadn't realized it before, but there was a quality to her gaze that was strongly reminiscent of the guildmaster's .... a look that carried both a clear threat and the unmistakable ability to carry it out. Remembering her stare, and watching the cool indifference in her stride, he began to think that the two were more alike than he had ever given thought to. The realization brought to mind a handful of whispers and rumors he had hitherto ignored. He considered them with an ill expression, but mindful silence, as he followed.
Quaralyn didn't look back at the scout as she pressed on. She'd seen the expression on his face as she passed, and knew wouldn't do anything foolish. It was the last thought she gave him as she continued on a path she'd come to know so well that her feet moved silently on their own accord, leaving her free to dwell on other concerns.
When they reached the main door of the guildmaster's current office, Quaralyn was surprised to find it flanked by two guards, and fervently hoped that they weren't there on her account. As one of the guards knocked solidly on the door in probable announcement of her arrival, her stomach and mind churned. The door was opened from the other side by yet another guard who tried to take Quaralyn by the arm and escort her forcibly into the room. He was never able to adequately explain how he wound up in a small heap on the floor, and though they would tease him mercilessly about it later, the other guards reacted instantly to the attack.
Striker watched the scene unfolding before him with detached amusement, one corner of his mouth curling upward in a cruel half-smile as the first guard went crashing to the ground. Had the situation been less pressing, he might have let the guards restrain her, or try to, but there wasn't time. Reluctantly brushing the image of such a scene away, he stopped the guards before they could reach her. "Leave her, and go." His voice was low and quiet, but the guards heard it clearly and those who had drawn their weapons were quick to resheath them. If they were angered by the order, they didn't show it. They didn't dare. Later, in the quiet of their quarters, they might discuss their frustration at being stayed, but in the presence of the guildmaster there was only silent and wise compliance. "And take him with you," Striker added with disgust, looking down at the figure who still lay on the floor, clutching an injured knee with both hands.
The guards complied, plucking their fallen comrade from the floor and easing him out the door. Only the scout stayed behind, firmly rooted next to his find. His expression suggested a belief that he was exempt from the order and that he might receive some sort of favor for finding the missing woman. He was sorely mistaken. Cold grey eyes fell squarely upon him as he stood, and he struggled to hold his ground and nerve beneath the withering gaze.
"Where was she?" The question was utterly devoid of curiosity.
The scout answered quickly and without thought, his apparent success in his mission giving rise to an unfounded self-confidence. "In her quarters."
The guildmaster's eyes closed slowly following the response, bringing a blissful darkness into which the scout and his ineptitude temporarily disappeared. The darkness held for several seconds of near peace before the eyes opened again, a hint of impatience now stirring both within them and the question that followed. "And before that?"
The scout shifted and looked away before meeting the gaze again. "I don't know." He felt his heart speed and his throat tighten when Striker didn't respond. The other's expression was now inscrutable, and the change terrified the scout. In the daunting greyness of the guildmaster's stare, the scout saw unspoken threats and quiet promises. Uncertain which was worse, he struggled to find his voice. "I'll find out," he stammered finally, hoping he'd hit on what the guildmaster wanted.
The guildmaster didn't answer right away, allowing the pulsing silence to convey his message. When he finally spoke, his voice was thick with disapproval and skepticism. "I rather doubt it." The tone was mirrored in his eyes, and he waved the other off in a clear gesture of dismissal. Eager to leave, the scout nodded and turned to the door with a whitened face and swift step.
Quaralyn watched him go, feeling the weight of the door as it closed soundly behind him, leaving her as the soul object of Striker's characteristically unpleasant attention. Taking a deep breath, she turned her head back to face him, donned her most impassive expression, and waited.
The wait didn't last long. "I think you dislocated his knee," he began in a calm and conversational tone as if they might be discussing the weather, rather than an unexplained summons and a largely unprovoked assault.
She shrugged in apparent apathy, and when he failed to say anything further, added by way of explanation, "I don't like being handled."
He stared hard in response, trying to stifle the half dozen replies that vied for prominence in the forefront of his mind. Finally succeeding, he kept his tone but changed the subject, nodding towards a tear near the bottom of her skirt. "You'd better be careful throwing yourself under carriages. You're liable to hurt more than your dress." Her face paled and surprise flickered across her usually controlled features. He paused to enjoy the look, an unreadable grin darkening his features. "Was he at the clinic?"
((Written with StrikerKel))
Her face paled and surprise flickered across her usually controlled features. He paused to enjoy the look, an unreadable grin darkening his features. "Was he at the clinic?"
He appeared only slightly disappointed when her expression returned to normal, but his face still held some small measure of amusement. If she'd stopped to think, she'd have realized that it was her continued anger, as evidenced by her white-knuckled fists hanging tensely by her sides, that fueled his response. But she was taken aback by his knowledge of her visit to the clinic, and therefore hadn't noticed when his eyes had dipped momentarily to her hands. Instead, her mind was considering the possible implications of his question. If he knew about her visit to the clinic, what else did he know? Did he know that the ranger was there? Did he know that she was the one who took him there? Did he know . . . ?
Her blood ran cold as she hit on other possibilities, and she was gripped by a sudden and irrational fear that the demon might be present, hidden and waiting to deal with another inconvenience to the guild and its leader. She didn't sense anything though, and she strongly suspected that she would have had the creature been there. With that partial assurance, she let her anger take sway, and her voice was laced with shards of ice as she made a push to change the subject. "If you knew where I was, why did you bother sending scouts out after me?"
She was favored by fortune, or so it seemed, for the guildmaster didn't press his earlier question, but answered hers instead. "I wanted to know if they could find you." He took no small amount of pleasure in the indignation which flashed in her eyes and he continued with a tinge of mockery, standing and walking about the desk to lean against its front. "You've been disappearing a lot lately, and I'd hate for you to lose your way." Each word was heavy with meaning. "People sometimes vanish in this city, you know." He was looking down at her now, uncertain whether he wanted to intimidate her or bait a response. As usual, the statement failed to do either.
"I'm touched, really." Her tone and posture clearly conveyed that she wasn't. "But don't you have better things to do than keep up with my whereabouts?"
"Yes," he nodded once, serious for the first time, "that's why I'm testing the scouts."
She took a deep breath and tried not to explode—a feat which took greater effort than she cared to admit. It might have been easier had she looked away, but she absolutely refused give him the satisfaction. And so she looked back at him, staring into the steel grey eyes that waited patiently for her response. Like their owner, they were cold, arrogant, and generally vexing. They were also unblinking, watching her carefully and ready to record her every action and word for later rumination. The overall effect was unsettling, and though she didn't pull away from his eyes, she stopped seeing them, focusing instead on his statement. It was annoying enough that he was checking into her activities, but the fact that he now employed others to do so only served to feed the annoyance, turning it to near rage.
It didn't occur to her that he might not be serious, or that he was only half so. If he'd really sent the scouts just to keep tabs on her comings and goings he'd hardly have them bring her to his door, much less tell her about it. Oh, there was probably some veracity to his statement, but it didn't speak the whole truth—as if there was such a thing where either of them was concerned. But again, she was too agitated to reason clearly, and this bothered her as well, for she was generally able to deliberate even in the midst of ire or concern. Doubly angered now, she drew another breath and snipped back, "If you don't trust me, perhaps I should just leave."
He smirked and made a sound that might have been a dry laugh, pleased at having evidentially found and pushed a button he didn't know existed. "I don't trust anyone." It was the greatest truth she had heard him utter, and it was soon followed by another, "And no one just leaves." He paused to let the full import of the statement sink in, though he could tell from the rancor in her eyes that she needed no additional time to decipher his meaning. Nodding towards a chair that stood before the desk, he added with a level tone, "Sit down."
"I don't trust anyone." It was the greatest truth she had heard him utter, and it was soon followed by another, "And no one just leaves." He paused to let the full import of the statement sink in, though he could tell from the rancor in her eyes that she needed no additional time to decipher his meaning. Nodding towards a chair that stood before the desk, he added with a level tone, "Sit down."
She'd been so wound with anger and apprehension that she hadn't noticed the chair. Its presence concerned her, but it also piqued a certain amount of curiosity. She'd never known him to keep a chair before his desk. People were expected to come, report, and leave—not visit, and certainly not rest in any sort of comfort. She didn't know what it meant that one was here now, but she had a feeling she was about to find out. Glaring indignantly at Striker's command, and Striker in general, she lowered herself into chair.
He smirked, both satisfied and surprised. He hadn't expected it to be that easy, and took a moment to savor the unexpected success. It didn't last long, slowly draining away as he noticed that her expression had grown from anger to rage. It'd been a long time since he'd seen that look, since anyone had dared to chance that look ..... a very long time .... and it had changed quickly to frozen and sanguine terror as the unfortunate wearer drew his final breath with a gurgled rasp. Striker had never liked that look, and he still didn't, but his reaction was different now. Scowling, he considered how to remove the expression in a less claret manner, though he wasn't sure why he bothered. She was stubborn, willful, and largely unmanageable ..... traits he'd never been able to abide in another. But she was also the most skilled artisan he'd seen in a long time, and he told himself again that this was why.
Her expression hadn't faded when he finally reached a decision. "I trust you as much as I do anyone ..... more than most." It was only a partial lie. He wanted to trust her, for reasons that were less than clear, but suspicion and distrust weren't easy to discard. She might have sensed the relative veracity of the statement, but regardless, her expression at least began to dissipate and he engaged in the fleeting thought that there might be hope of getting through the rest of their discussion without further incident. "I need you to visit the Kuriosity Shoppe. See what you can find out about its owner .... Especially as it relates to the demon."
The answer came quickly, and without elaboration. "No."
He closed his eyes for a handful of seconds, thinking that he should have taken the more active route to remove the expression she'd worn. When he opened them again her face still reflected her refusal, lending more weight to the thought. "I wasn't asking."
"I don't care." Her eyes widened and she shook her head in emphasis, "I'm not going." She punctuated her position by folding her arms across her chest and leaning solidly back in her chair, giving the impression of the quintessential immovable object.
"You've been there before." He tried to be rational, deluded though it was to believe that she might actually respond to reason at this point. "And as I recall, that was 'after hours' visit too."
She smiled caustically. "Nice to know you take such an interest in my personal affairs. Yes, you're right. I've been there before, but I'm not going back. There's something strange about that place—it's like you're being watched when no one's there. And the owner . . ." she began, unfolding her arms to make a vague gesture.
"No one knows much about her," Striker interrupted, trying to cut short her argument. He'd done some research into the shopkeeper's past, but hadn't turned up very much .... little more than what was known by most, plus a few extra whispers.
"Exactly," she answered, seizing upon the point. "It's like there's some great, dark hole behind her that's consumed every speck of her past and threatens to swallow anyone who does too much poking around."
A pointed look underscored a tone of unabashed sarcasm. At another time the expression would have been a warning, but now it carried more taunt than threat. "Sounds like someone else I know." He'd exhausted more than a few resources looking into Quaralyn's background and had met with little success. He had only a handful of reports and rumors from other guilds and cities which might have been about her, judging by appearance or expertise. He even thought he'd found a last name, but nothing had been verified. Not a thing. It wasn't overly suspicious. Many thieves changed names with the same frequency others changed garments, but her past was vaguer than most and he wanted to know more. "Just where were you before you got to Stormpoint?"
Her response was quick, precise, and utterly flippant. "One step outside its gates, and that's exactly where I'm going to be again if you think I'm going to go to the Kuriousity Shoppe."
His patience was starting to wear thin, and he drew a long and silent breath before trying again. "We have to know her involvement with the demon."
"No," she started, her tone tuned suddenly accusatory despite the danger of such action. "You have to know her involvement with the demon. I don't care. I didn't summon him. I didn't hire him." It didn't take long to realize she'd made a mistake.
He fell deathly quiet beneath the charge, and his eyes cut into her with a tangle of expressions she couldn't place. With neither warning nor explanation, he pushed off the desk and rose to his full height, looming for an instant like a baneful shadow before moving towards her chair. It took only two steps to reach her, and they were traversed too unexpectedly for her to move. Placing a hand on each chair arm, he leaned close to her, boring his eyes into her own with a bodeful silence. His expression defied prediction, and hovering scant inches above her he looked as if he might say or do anything. Without faltering in his gaze, he finally rasped in a pernicious and desolate whisper. "Neither did I."
((written with StrikerKel))
And there it was—confirmation of what she'd suspected all along. She shifted quietly in her chair and just managed to lower the brow that had risen involuntarily upon hearing his statement. She should have let the revelation lie, but it dangled before her like a pear in midsummer—ripe and full of promise—and in the end it proved too tempting to resist. Her eyes narrowed, scant inches from his, and she asked with more curiosity than wisdom, "What do you mean?"
"I didn't hire him." The response was straightforward and the tone deathly quiet.
He said nothing else, and in the strained silence that followed Quaralyn began to think that she'd made a very costly mistake in pressing the issue. Neither of them moved for the longest time, as if each was afraid of breaking the shroud of silence that had enveloped the office and its occupants. They both knew he shouldn't have said it. They both knew he shouldn't say anything more. They both wondered if he would.
Minutes passed without sound or movement, and Quaralyn was sure that she could hear her own heart beating. She tried without success to think of a way to dispel the disquietude that had fallen between them for the second time in as many weeks. More to the point, she tried to think of a way to get him to back away. It wasn't that she was afraid of him, at least, not as most were, but she'd always found his stare somewhat disconcerting, and the long-held proximity was making it more so. She felt somehow short of breath, as if the growing silence was consuming the air between them, and she took a took a constricted breath, unaware that as she did so one eyebrow had again climbed higher than the other. "Then why does he do your bidding?" She knew better than to ask who had hired the creature, though in truth that was the question that burned brightest in her mind.
He didn't move, and he didn't answer right away. It was an old habit, but this time the reason was different. Things had come to a near breaking point with the demon. The creature had always been loathsome, but now he was becoming dangerous. His actions in losing the dec could have been ruinous to the guild, and still could be. For years they'd been successfully operating under the shadow cast by the Ravenclaws, quietly profiting and growing while the Claws diverted attention. For all the city knew, they didn't exist. It was good position, one Striker had liked, and one the demon had ended with his witless escapades. Striker didn't know if the story the demon had offered was true, but one way or the other the demon had lost the dec and it had been found by someone who knew what it was ..... the ranger ..... rangers, he corrected himself. There had been two of them, and what two knew, the entire group knew. His jaw clenched in anger as he considered what that meant.
Nothing had happened yet, but he wasn't taking any chances and had already made extensive preparations for the time when it would. He didn't want to do it again ....... ever, but as long as the demon remained so did the possibility. He drew a deep breath and held it, his jaw tightening again in anger and making his expression less pleasant than his usual mien. But this time he did move, straightening and pulling away from Quaralyn. He noticed that she relaxed as he backed away, and his scowl deepened. The expression held steady for a few moments before frustration began to emerge as well. It took only seconds after that for the new and mingled expression to spread through his entire bearing and he ran a distracted hand through his hair and cast about the office as if the room and its furnishings had become suddenly foreign to him. He found what he was looking for against the wall behind him and he pulled a second visitor's chair beside Quaralyn's before sitting backwards across it and resting his arms atop its back.
Quaralyn was relieved to see him move, especially in the opposite direction. The long silence and the growing tension on his features made it clear that the anger she'd seen before was again rising to a boil, and having no knowledge of his thoughts, she'd naturally assumed it was directed at her. It usually was. The assumption was only strengthened when he straightened from over her chair, lifting a hand as he rose. She flinched, certain that she knew the course the hand would take, but relaxed when it fell not across her face, but instead ran distractedly through his hair. It was an involuntary gesture, she knew, one that she'd seen him use with increasing frequency in the face of recent frustration. It gave her some small amount of pleasure to know that she was often the source of that frustration, but this time she could tell it was something else.
For the first time, Striker was certain he had her full attention. It wasn't what he had expected. It certainly wasn't the way he had planned, and now that he had it, he wasn't sure how to begin. He debated the matter in silence for a moment, maybe two, staring at the floor as if it might offer some opinion on the matter. It was neat, as always, orderly and well-kept like the rest of the office, like his life once was......before the demon......before her. He shook his head, clearing it before looking up again, having apparently reached a decision. When he finally spoke, it was with a voice Quaralyn hadn't heard before and couldn't decipher. "We didn't know he was a demon," he said, without offering any explanation as to whom the word "we" described.
He looked tired and somehow more human than Quaralyn had ever seen, and she felt suddenly sorry for him. Without thinking, she reached out to touch his hand in an expression of . . . compassion perhaps . . . she wasn't sure. But she caught herself before the contact was made and lowered her hand to her lap, fiercely hoping that he hadn't noticed. If he did, he didn't respond, and she breathed an inner sigh of relief as he began to tell a story she never expected to hear.
"It started before the treaty making Stormpoint a protectorate of the three surrounding kingdoms was announced. The city was politically unstable, and it drew every thief, smuggler, and cutthroat that caught wind of its name. When news of the treaty came, it only increased the numbers entering. The Claws claimed most of them, but there were too many, and the Claws were too weak to control them."
He paused for a moment and pressed a gloved hand against a sudden memory throbbing at his right temple. "The assassins were the worst. The politics leading up to the treaty were largely civil, and there weren't sufficient machinations to allow them to ply their trade. The smarter ones left, but some were determined to have a bit of sport." The word carried an oddly derisive tone for one whose past was undoubtedly dotted with similar practices. "They were quiet at first, but when it became clear that the Claws couldn't control them, not a night passed where some unsuspecting soul didn't anger the wrong person, or walk down the wrong alley. And there was no one to stop them. The watch hadn't yet been formed, and the rangers were still in their infancy."
"The city grew frightened; and then the rumors started......rumors that the treaty was faltering. People began to pull up stakes and leave.....especially the merchants. We had a vested interest in seeing that that didn't happen so we decided to call in an expert......someone with no connections to the city and who would leave without a care or trace when it was over. That someone was Giacomo."
He stopped for a moment and looked to his audience. She still wore an expression of keen interest, and he continued. "We didn't know he was a demon. We only knew that he had a talent for making problems . . . disappear, and then vanishing himself. It seemed perfect. It wasn't until after he arrived that we learned what he was. We should have sent him away then, but my . . . " he paused, searching for an appropriately vague term, "associate believed that a deal with the demon would be both advantageous and profitable. The deal was struck, the demon went to work, and I left."
"It didn't take long for it to happen," he continued, either not noticing or not reacting to a sudden shift in his listener's expression. "The demon proved too difficult to control, and I came back to enjoy my phyrric victory." He punctuated the statement with a wry smile and a burdened gaze.
She shook her head as he finished, trying to clear the confusion. "But surely he's finished with the assassins by now, hasn't he?"
"Yes," he answered matter-of-factly, "he finished with them some time ago."
Her eyes narrowed and she just managed not to shake her head again. This wasn't making sense. There was something else going on—something that he wasn't telling her. She decided to press further. "Then why is he still here?"
He answered with the same impassive tone and expression. "All his friends are here."
She rolled her eyes and turned her head away, certain now that the entire story had been just that, a story and nothing more. She was about to leave without waiting for either permission or further tales of manufactured intrigue when he spoke again in a tone which struck her as surprisingly earnest.
"No, I'm serious." His pace was quicker and his eyes reflected the veracity of his statement. "Nearly everyone he has a score to settle with is here in Stormpoint or one of the neighboring kingdoms."
She shook her head again, uncertain now what to believe. This was insane. Not that anything about the demon made the least bit of sense, but Striker was usually serious, even if he was somewhat grim. "Fine then. Let him go and destroy them as he pleases. Why continue to deal with him?"
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly as if he found the explanation he was about to give exhausting. It wasn't far off the mark. Everything about the demon was exhausting. It was time for it all to end and for his world to return to some form of normality. It didn't seem likely that either would happen, and only one thing still held it all in any semblance of order. "As long as the contract remains in effect, he can't move against us. He can't do anything to harm the guild."
"What makes you think he would? He seems to have enough other 'friends' to keep him busy."
He lowered his head, looking back to the floor once again. He'd said too much already, but with that much revealed the rest made little difference. Still, a part of him counseled against telling more. It was the part that harbored deep mistrust and suspicion, and it should be strictly heeded in present company. Having resolved to say nothing more, he looked back up and was surprised to find that she'd moved closer. No, not closer, she'd just moved to the edge of the chair and was leaning forward, waiting for him to continue. Her face was alit with curiosity and her eyes were bright, but softer, and momentarily free of the antagonistic gleam that usually returned his gaze. It was the most pleasant expression he'd seen her wear, and it prompted him to continue despite his better judgment. He started with a bit of history.
"The guild's been here for a long time. It was here before the treaty, it was here before Daman usurped control of the city, it was here before the original founders. It may have had different objectives, it certainly had different leadership, but it was here; and it kept meticulous records.....on everything, and everyone." He stopped to allow the full weight of the statement to sink in. When he saw her eyes widen and her face pale, he resumed. "Those records are still here. All of them. And Giacomo knows it. If you think he's dangerous now," he paused, picking up a dark and sardonic grin, "keep in mind that knowledge is power." He waited for her to give some response, but she sat motionless, her expression transfixed, and only the gentle rise and fall of her chest indicated that she was breathing. In her silence, he added, "As long as the contract stands, he can't use the information. It's against guild interests. If we were to breach the contract, or otherwise terminate it . . ."
"He'd be free to do as he pleased," she finished for him, snapping out of her prior state with a sudden clarity. "Do you really think he'd bother?"
For the first time, all traces of subterfuge drained from his expression. "Do you want to take that chance?"
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