A storm was coming, and with it, an early night. It was in this silvery, anticipatory transition from day to night, from fair to foul, that a lone figure traced its way between the storefronts, taverns, and occaisional discrete, higher-end houses of ill repute that comprised the first floors of the several storied buildings this distance from the docks. Not on the water by any means, this neighborhood was part of that fuzzy line between the streets of the sailor and his doxy and those of the middle-class worker and his family. In this grey half-light before dusk and yet without sun, there were many people already locked tight in their houses. Too many, for the area and the time of day. This fact had surprised the scholar earlier, though the bits and snatches of gossip she'd picked up over the past several days made it rather seem strange that there were still any people outside, when they had a place to go to. She had spoken very little during the course of her foray into the field, as it were, just a few well-placed questions.
Mostly she listened, and heard about far more than simply the church or the sexton or the last priest. Phrases stuck in her mind, running between and within each other in a tattered confusion of conversation.
"Why, yes, Miss Wentworth, I do mean that. He led services for months, at least, after Daman, but of course by then..."
"...wouldn't be wise. And the Catholic Church was a powerful force, it was, and still is. That man was crazy, right as rain, but stupid?"
"...I'll be tellin' you, mum, but 'tain't as though I rec'mend it, lady like yourself out in the night with all them things...'tain't right at all..."
"...where people meet and talk after work? You'll find no such things in this town, miss, not anymore. Oh, aye, they still drink- enough to keep my business going- but no-one would be about after dark."
"Thieves, thieves and brigands and demons and things that drink blood in the night, that's what. And a demon, they say, who's been tormenting a poor sweet girl. Why, my mother's sister saw her with her own eyes, poor dear, spreading ruin down Strath Street with nothing human in those eyes..."
And a last comment, most-often repeated, which surpassed all the others for the scholar.
"The Queen, ma'am? She's left. No, she won't be back, she's left for Dominia. I'll lead you to the records room now, ma'am?"
Samantha was gone, back to her castle far from Stormpoint. Had in fact been gone for almost a week and a half, with Saro none the wiser. The scholar had nodded to the guard and thanked him without thinking, and followed him automatically as he easily navigated Stormpoint Castle's labrynthine interior. She had been so dedicated to her City and it's people, human or otherwise, and she'd just left? From what she's heard recently, Saro knew that Pointe de Tempeste, to use another name for it, was not in the best of straights. Thieves of at least two guilds ran rampant, one group distinguished by its wanton violence, the other by its rigid organization and strategy. A demon of no small order was rumoured to be terrorizing the people as well, even to posessing a young girl who was- Saro thought- a close and personal friend of Sam herself. What could be so important in Dominia that it drew the Queen so strongly, even in the face of all that was happening?
But you know, she thought wonderingly, as the realization dawned. It's her baby. This is no world for an impossible child.
That thought had pursued her while she poked through the rather disorganized collection of census reports, audience records, copies of official documents, and all the other paper detritus of the ruling of a City. An impossible child… For that was what this baby would be, born to a vampire who had seen the Civil War and a demigod who had been old during the Crucifixion. She had no idea how Samantha was pregnant, indeed, knew very little about vampire physiology in general, but she knew Samantha, at least a little. And she knew that Sam would do whatever was best for this child, and if that meant leaving the City she was sworn to protect, then so be it.
Hours later, many hours, she let fall the heavy, leather-bound cover of a book that, when opened flat, nearly covered the surface of the two-person table she worked at. The book sighed as it closed, as if regretfully aware of long it might be before it was opened again, and exhaled breath redolent with knowledge and age. She had what she wanted, she thought; or at least as much of it as she had hoped to find. Her makeshift notebook (simply several sheets of paper folded over and sew together, untidily, at the crease) she tucked under her arm, and closed the door quietly behind her as she left the silent room. The corridors stretched before her in several directions; she picked one and followed around several corners until a different, but equally polite and reticent and somehow vaguely familiar, guardsman noticed her and showed her to the gate. He had invited her to stay the night-urged it, in fact, in light of the latening hour and darkening sky.
"But, ma'am, it isn't safe for a woman to be out alone after dark, nowadays. Certainly, there's the City guard, but, things being as they are, ma'am…" he shrugged slightly, and rather self-consciously, as if she might see him somehow personally responsible for this danger. "You are the Queen's friend besides, ma'am." That was it- he was the guard who'd stood watch while she slept her first night in the City, an unconscious (Quite literally, she reflected dryly) guest of Samatha's. What was his name…? Aha! "Ah…thank you, Byron, but I'd really rather go. I'm heading straight back, and I'll be quick, I promise."
He accepted this grudgingly, and the scholar hurried off into the City before he could change his mind and send an escort with her, as he had seemed on the verge of doing. There were too few Guards, and too much that required their attention, and she would have felt terribly uncomfortable had any been pulled from their tasks simply to escort her one wayward person back to the Cathedral.
Later, wandering through the town in what she hoped was the general direction of the main square with it's fountain, library, and church, she almost regretted that. The streets were practically deserted and they looked more and more alike, as the grey half-light of incipient dark gradually leached away all but the bravest colors. She supposed she really should have simply stayed, but with Samantha gone the Castle was a place full of strangers, and after only one day spent there she longed for the steady peace of the Cathedral-- the company of Father Selnecker, the silent presence of the Sexton, and the comfort of the religion which the building embodied. Samantha gone, though…much as she thought she understood the Queen's reason for leaving, Saro couldn't help but feel a bitter regret and just a touch of loneliness. Loneliness because she hadn't many friends in this land, fascinating as it was, and had even fewer now. Regret, because she'd been so caught up in her research that she hadn't made time to visit the Lady du Cheval in her castle until research brought her there now, and now was too late.
But, late as she was, the scholar could do nothing but wish her friend luck and pray for her and her child. And this she did, silently adding Amen as she turned another corner in this city of night. In her mind, the shadows seemed darker, and the last thin strands of daylight, being pulled behind the horizon, a metaphor she did not want to understand.
It was evening. The sun was falling and the shadows were lengthening, pushing back the pale strips of light that still clung to the sky. Hidden in one of those shadows on a high rooftop, Quaralyn watched in pensive silence as the night slowly consumed the final colors of day and the quiet of the evening began. It used to be her favorite time, but now . . . now she was no longer sure. She should be working, but she didn't feel like it. She felt like . . . oh, she didn't know what she felt like aside from tired and empty, and while work might snap her out of it she simply lacked the will to do anything other than stand were she was and stare grim-faced at the darkening horizon.
Leaning back against the tall chimney of the building, she sighed and kicked at one of the pebbles lying by the toe of her boot, watching as it skittered across the roof and stopped a few inches short of the side along with the others. She probably would have stayed there all night, watching the sky and doing nothing if smoke hadn't started to wind up out of the chimney in thin trailing wisps. She twisted her mouth to one side as she considered the difference one's vantage point made on one's opinion. Fires were so pleasant to those sitting next to the hearth where only their warmth and light were enjoyed, but atop the roof there was no light and but little warmth. The was only the thick grey miasma that seeped from the chimney and reached with hungry fingers towards any foolish enough stand within its grasp.
Tired and newly frustrated, she pushed off the chimney stack with another sigh and padded to the edge of the roof. There, she crouched in one of the small but growing patches of shadow and ran a dark-gloved hand through a few loose strands of hair as she looked out over the city below. It was tired too. Most people were already home or some other place that they deemed to be safe. She smiled in the darkness and held back the dry chuckle that teased her lips. Safe? There was no safety. Even in the best of cities safety was an illusion finely crafted by its rulers to daze and marvel those under their "protection," drawing their attention away from the peril which stood at arms' length—waiting. And now, one of the city's rulers had left, fled, disappearing into the darkness and shattering the illusion for many.
Ogrek would have to repair it, if he could. Ogrek. For a long time he had been only a silent force in the background, but now he was the only regent in a city originally governed by three. She knew more of him than most though, and knew that he had achieved and maintained peace in an impossible situation in his homeland. She closed her eyes briefly as the cool night wind brushed gently across her face, sweeping back her loose tendrils and soothing her tired soul. Peace. An elusive quarry. She hoped that Ogrek could maintain it following news of the alliance's dissolution, and she hoped that Samantha could find it within the borders of her land, and herself.
She was still crouching on the rooftop when she saw the lone woman pass below. She was straightening a bobbling pair of spectacles with one hand and clutching a bundle of papers in the other, mindful of the fact that the wind was brushing against their corners, pushing their loose edges this way and that with a gentle crinkling sound. Quaralyn drew a hand to her chin and tapped a finger against her lips as she watched the woman through narrowing eyes. There was something about her. Something familiar . . . she was sure she had seen her somewhere before. The church. 'Damn,' she thought, gritting her teeth and dropping her hand to her knee. She had seen her near the church. What the hell was she doing out alone after dark?
Although she knew that none of her guild would attack the woman, there were still a few Ravenclaws running lose—cutthroats who, lacking a deft hand, weren't above subduing their victim with a forceful one before clumsily lifting their purse. And though they had been quiet recently, the vampires were still there, and a lone woman walking absent-mindedly through the darkened streets would make a fine target for the less-sporting of their number.
Rising to her feet, she took one final look down at the woman and shook her head before crossing the roof and leaving the way she had come. Seconds later she was on the street. She pulled the band from her hair as she walked down the alley, shaking her head and allowing the thick red strands to fall freely over her shoulders and about her face even as she reached behind her neck to unfasten the sheath that was strapped to her back. It concerned her only briefly that she looked too much like what she was, but there were many in the city who wore dark hues and carried a blade and not all of them were to be feared. She reached the end of the alley in twelve even strides and peered out from around the corner just as the woman passed beneath her prior perch. 'All right,' she thought to herself as she prepared to round the corner, 'don't scare her.'
She followed the woman in silence for half a block, quietly closing the distance between them until they stood less than four yards apart on a deserted street. It was a good distance, a comfortable distance, even if the location was less than ideal, and she called out in a tired yet hopeful voice to the woman ahead, "Excuse me, miss." The woman turned abruptly, losing a few of her papers in the process, and she quickly set to picking them up. Fortunately for Quaralyn, the wind sent a few of them scurrying in her direction and she bent to retrieve them and handed them back to the woman with an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, miss, I didn't mean to startle you. I just got in to town and I'm a bit lost. Actually," she smiled hopefully and gave a single self-deprecatory laugh as she gestured to the dark buildings around them, "I think I'm very lost. I'm looking for the church. Could you direct me?"
"Excuse me, miss."
Saro spun where she stood, startled by such a confident voice in the solitude of this twilight. She caught a glimpse of a stranger, red hair and a sword, before a knavish breeze riffled through her notebook, pulling out what loose pieces it could get hold of and sending them fluttering down the road. Her attention forced from the curiousity of the figure to a more immediate task, she bent and reached to snatch up her notes before the breeze could lead her on a merry chase through the City. These fieldnotes, from the past week or so, were the culmination of her weeks- No, months- of research. She still didn't have an entirely complete history, and rather doubted that such was even possible, with the state the records were in, but she had recently garnered some information that she did not want to lose. And so, she rushed off after her errant notes, ignoring for the moment the one who was her only company in the rapidly-darkening street.
She had managed to gather all save a few of the papers which fluttered lightly forward on the road, flapping whitely like injured gulls. All save a few-- and as she was casting about for them, still bent from retrieving the last, those few appeared before her bespectacled eyes. Not by the magic for which the City was famed, but through more mundane channels-- and as she straightened and accepted the sheets from the stranger, the unknown woman continued with her friendly banter.
"I'm sorry, miss, I didn't mean to startle you. I just got in to town and I'm a bit lost. Actually, I think I'm very lost. I'm looking for the church. Could you direct me?"
Saro blinked thoughtfully, thrown off guard by both request and requestor. She saw an unlikely candidate for a churchgoer, someone who wore a dark, nondescript outfit and a sword and, above all, an attitude and carriage of self-assurance. She saw all these things, noting them for future reference with the training of her profession, but she was still stunned by the news she'd had at the Castle.
With only a passing thought, fleeting as a mayfly, about the oddness of it, she replied.
"Ah...no problem, don't worry. The church? Yes, yes; I can show you the way. Actually, I'm headed there right now, if you'd like to join me."
She smiled amiably but absently, curious of the anomaly this woman presented, but still reeling from the new Sam's departure. In the end, her fear of being alone in the darkness won out over her fear of what this woman might represent, and she pushed it to the back of her mind for later. Besides, the scholar rationalized, she asked after the Cathedral, specifically. Were she going to, wouldn't she just drink my blood or rob me- for what precious little good that would do her- or whatever now, rather than follow me to the church? She must want simply to talk with Father Selnecker...and the sword...is to...to ward off 'things that go bump in the night'.
And with this flawed logic, she continued on her way, pausing momentarily to match the other's stride.
Oh, this one shouldn't be on the streets. Hell, she shouldn't even be in Stormpoint. The slim, dark-haired woman looked for all the world like she had been plucked from the cloistered security of homogeneity and deposited with little thought or care for her safety in the middle of a cultural quagmire. Chasing after her wind-strewn notes, the woman bore all the markings of a scholar: the falling spectacles, the ink-stained fingers, and the complete obliviousness to anything else around her. In the time it took her to collect her papers Quaralyn could have had her purse and been gone, fading back into the shadows from which she had come and the woman would have been none the wiser. Thank whatever deity resided there, that the woman was staying at the church. Most vampires avoided it and Striker had made clear, painfully so in some instances, that the church was not to be touched. This last matter had raised a few questions for her at the time, but she was thankful for it now. If there was any place within the city that could be called "safe," it was the church.
Picking up the stray pages that flew her way, she wondered why the watch hadn't passed. They should have been by a few minutes ago, and a half hour before that. But no sign of their scarlet and black uniforms had been seen on the streets that night, and it troubled her. Something might be holding their attention elsewhere, or they could be spread so thin that they no longer patrolled certain portions of the city, or . . . . Irony tugged at the corners of her lips and she tried not to smile with the thought—a thief, chastising the watch for their lack of diligence. At another time she might laugh. Actually, it was the first time she'd felt like laughing in a long time, but the amusement was short-lived. She might not be the only one who noticed the quiet on the streets, and there were those who would seek to capitalize on the watch's absence.
Truthfully, she hoped that simply her presence might keep those others at bay. Not that she was an imposing figure by any means, but others, even the Ravenclaws, might recognize her for what she was and extend her the courtesy of leaving her alone with her "mark." If they didn't, well, it wasn't her first choice, but the sword across her back wasn't carried for purely decorative purposes. She could wield it as well as any and better than most, and any who doubted would be given a swift opportunity to reconsider.
She therefore kept a wary eye as she straightened the notes in her hand, for the hour was approaching when the shadows of the city came to life and claimed the streets as their own, but she couldn't help but glance quickly down to scan the handwritten pages of her current charge—professional curiosity. Interesting. Research on the city, particularly on the church—further confirmation of the woman's profession and place. Detailed, comprehensive, and like the author, completely out of touch with the world in which she found herself. Oh, Stormpoint's history was fascinating to be sure, and the lessons taught by its past were invaluable, but in a city like Stormpoint, losing sight of the present was a dangerous act.
As the scholar reclaimed the last of the pages from the cooling streets, Quaralyn was forced to cut short her reading or risk raising the woman's suspicions. She might not be fully aware of the perils that called the city home, but in Quaralyn's experience, instinct was never to be discounted; and suddenly facing an armed stranger on an empty, night-wrapped street might very well awaken previously dormant instincts and give rise to nervous suspicions. As she held the papers in outstretched hand towards the scholar, she could see, no, she could feel the hesitancy in the other's eyes. The woman didn't trust her, not completely. Good, perhaps there was hope for her after all. In the end, however, professional need won out over personal concern and she reached for the papers with some uncertainty. When she at last held them all within a calmer, but more careful grip, she spoke.
"Ah...no problem, don't worry. The church? Yes, yes; I can show you the way. Actually, I'm headed there right now, if you'd like to join me."
Quaralyn smiled disarmingly in return, an expression that wasn't entirely without its own degree of truth. "Thank you, yes. I was beginning to fear I'd be wandering this cobblestone maze till morning. I'm sorry about your papers," she added quickly, thinking that she could perhaps keep the woman's mind free from suspicions if she distracted her with conversation, "Are you a scribe?"
"Are you a scribe?"
"I beg your pardon?", the scholar replied automatically. Her reaction had been instinctual, but the meaning had been clear enough, and so without allowing the other woman time to repeat herself, she went on. "Oh, no, hardly that. Or- well, I suppose sort of, but other things as well. A...teacher, mostly, or at least I was." She smiled slightly, in apology for her vagueness, but didn't elaborate further. Conversations before this one had taught her that explaining the duel concepts of 'cultural anthropologist' and 'university professor' was invariably more trouble than it was worth. In the end most people she'd spoken with had simply nodded in confusion and said, "Right. So you're a teacher, are you, miss?", and that was the term she soon adopted.
As she was answering, she led the way down a dark and empty street, pausing at its corner to orient herself. Recently, she'd spent most of her time in the City proper, and her directional skills had correspondingly increased- but hardly enough to breeze through its mazes with only a last caul of light clinging to inky blackness. She squinted at a storefront despite her glasses; decided it looked correct, and went on with very little pause. Which, she commented to herself with a mixture of humour and grimness, I'm sure my companion noticed. She's too comfortable out here to be new in the City, and everyone else would be in. And her question...a scribe? I'm sure she looked at those papers before she handed them to me- curiosity, anyone would. But no-one who'd seen that handwriting would ever suggest you to be a scribe, Saro... Even if she's illiterate, some of those ink blotches are hard to miss.
Another corner. Lost in thought, Saro barely glanced at her landmarks, instead plunging ahead- figuratively speaking; really, she was going rather slowly- down another narrow, cobble-paved street. Her companion followed close by her, and in the other woman's waiting presence Saro realised that a silence had grown up between them. Right. I did end rather abruptly, I suppose she's being polite and waiting for me to finish. Oh, dear...What shall I say? Scraps of potential conversation entangled with her thoughts as she sought a next line; and so she snatched the first that seemed coherent enough, modelled on the woman's original question.
The scholar turned her head to look more at the stranger than the road in front of her, noting the sword and sure that the stranger noted her doing so. "Are you a fighter?", she finally offered. For herself, the scholar didn't think so; but it threw the conversation back to the other's court, and gave her a few more moments for thinking. She had plenty to choose from- Sam gone, her months of reseach all but over, even this odd woman with her outgoing banter and her reticent eyes.
She turned another corner with a confidence she did not feel (surely there should be a small drygoods store on that corner?), and continued through the dark, awaiting her companion's response.
"Oh, no, hardly that. Or- well, I suppose sort of, but other things as well. A...teacher, mostly, or at least I was."
A quick answer, but an incomplete one, and the latter fact brought with it a hint of concern. Was the woman growing more suspicious? Possibly. Or perhaps she thought her new companion too simple to understand a more thorough explanation, and had therefore kept her answer brief. Still, it was curious, and it made Quaralyn wonder in momentary silence as she followed the woman around the first corner of their journey. Why had the woman stopped being a "teacher?" And was she doing now that she no longer considered herself one, yet named it immediately as her profession? She considered asking, but thought the better of it as she noticed that the lanterns on their new street had already burned low, and several of them had died. Curiosity would have to wait.
The scholar led the way down the darkened street and into another, taking a singular path down through shadow-filled alleys that Quaralyn would have advised her to avoid, if she could. But she was leading them in generally the right direction even if she was squinting at the storefronts in hopeful recognition; and so Quaralyn followed quietly, too quietly perhaps as she noticed that she heard only the scholar's footsteps clicking unsteadily against the cobblestones. She tried to make her own footsteps louder, but the soles of her boots were soft and quiet against the stones. She settled with making them barely audible, as any greater degree of noise would have required an awkward amount of effort.
As the woman scanned the streets for landmarks, Quaralyn scanned the shadows for threats, her fingers twitching within her gloves, ready to grip the hilt of her sword and pull it free of its sheath. Part of her, a darker part that she had long kept concealed, half hoped that something would step forth from the shadows, ready to taste the steel of her blade. But fortunately, for all concerned, the shadows were largely uninhabited, and those that weren't kept quiet as they passed, out of either recognition or a courtesy that many would deny existed, scoffing at the mere suggestion of such a practice. For whatever reason, however, they continued without event—two lone figures wandering down a seemingly empty street with only their own shadows trailing behind them in the yawning darkness.
Reaching the end of a particularly inhospitable street Quaralyn breathed a mental sigh of relief. It was, unfortunately, short-lived, and quickly replaced by a renewed tension when the woman, against all reason and judgment, inexplicably turned left. 'What the hell is she doing?' Quaralyn asked with mute incredulity. Quaralyn knew the city well, very well. Truth be told, she could have found her way to the church blindfolded and in a heavy rain, and she knew without any doubt, that the scholar was going the wrong way. She kept an unsuspecting face while she inwardly closed her eyes and shook her head in amazement. Quaralyn had little doubt that the woman could recite endless facts regarding her chosen field, from the most recent and overstated theories to the most obscure minutia; but how she had managed to survive this long in the city, Quaralyn had no idea, and found the matter to be nothing short of miraculous.
Another wrong turn followed the first, feeling like a boot in Quaralyn's stomach as she again held her tongue. 'This isn't going to work.' If she continued to let the scholar lead, there was no telling where they'd end up and how long it would take them to get there; but, having told the woman she was newly arrived within the city, Quaralyn could hardly start offering directions. 'Maybe we'll spot a patrol and we can . . . ' this time she barely kept from rolling her eyes. 'Oh, yes, that's a splendid idea,' she continued with self-deprecating sarcasm. What was she thinking? She couldn't afford to be seen by the watch, at least, not as she presently appeared. She'd left the guild with the intent of scouting, or perhaps simply skulking, and was dressed accordingly. She hadn't planned on leaving the shadows, and she certainly hadn't planned on accompanying a lost scholar through the streets of Stormpoint.
She was trying to think of how to get them back on course when the woman spoke with the awkwardness that usually accompanies such "forced" conversations. "Are you a fighter?"
Quaralyn suppressed a smile. It was a polite, yet ridiculous question. She didn't have the build of a "fighter," and though the supple and dark-hued leather she wore would offer some protection from smaller blades, its more practical use was to allow fluid movement and protect the wearer from those unfortunate scrapes associated with scaling walls and slipping through windows. It was the sword, she knew, and the woman's fear of articulating her true suspicions that had led to the question.
A handful of possible answers flickered through her mind: silence, mock affront, agreement, before she settled on one choice and answered without pause, "Not unless I have to be." She immediately regretted the statement. 'Damn, too cryptic.' Old habits die hard. "I'm a courier," she added, continuing with a congenial tone and an elfish grin. "I could tell you more, but I'd have to kill you." The smile faded, however, as Quaralyn began to hear sounds of what she knew lay ahead of them, and she looked at her companion with a furrowed brow and an elegantly feigned expression of concern and confusion, "Ahh, are you certain we're going the right way? I think I hear the sea up ahead, and I've never yet seen a church built by a city's docks."
"I could tell you more, but I'd have to kill you.", the woman said, with a mischievious grin. Saro laughed softly; it was a phrase she'd heard often enough, but never yet in this place where one was just as likely to be greeted with archaic thees and thous as a straighforward hello. There was a pause, slight, then the woman queried her, seeming simply inquisitive. "Ahh, are you certain we're going the right way? I think I hear the sea up ahead, and I've never yet seen a church built by a city's docks." Well, Saro thought. There is that.
The scholar had rather come to that conclusion herself, as each street and alley she turned down looked less and less familiar, and nowhere could be seen the comforting light which shone through the coloured, leaded windows of the City's house of God. She was growing worried now, finally anxious enough about strolling the City after dark with questionable company for that concern to cut through her thoughts. The woman, her companion, was growing anxious too, she thought. That soft-stepping, sword-wielding lady scanned the shadows far more than the scholar was accustomed to, and, Saro was fairly sure, saw far more when she did. She hadn't yet decided whether that fact was matter for relief or concern. But so far the woman had done nothing alarming, other than demonstrate a bit of prudence, and Saro was much happier to be accompanied than otherwise.
"Not really, no.", she replied in an apologetic tone. "In fact, I'm really quite positive that I lost the right path a while ago, now that you mention it. The dark confuses me...", she trailed off, lamely. She spent a few agonizing seconds trying to come up with some explanation, something more viable than that she had been daydreaming... Wait? Saro put her mental search on hold to squint down the street. A figure came into view on the cross-street in front of them, boots clicking oh-so-softly on the paving stones as it purposefully strode down the alley in a swirl of red and black cape. Those colours, they were familiar. Scarlet and black, black and scarlet, the colours of...
"The Watch!", she finished verbally. The Watch had been stretched thin recently, she knew, but she had still seen them out and about, keeping what order they could in such a place. It was sheerly providential that one of their number should be at hand now, and she broke into a run towards the figure, murmuring a breathless prayer. She didn't look back for the woman, but beckoned with her free hand, letting the other follow or not as she would.
The figure stopped when he heard her footsteps, fast and uneven on the cobbles. It stayed where it was until she approached, which was not long, and as she slowed it spoke. "Ma'am, what's wrong?" The voice was low and just slightly rough, as if from many years of long, dark nights spent pacing dangerous streets. It was a man's voice, and did indeed belong to a man. Saro found herself facing a trim, tall gentleman of perhaps twice her own age, judging by the grey in his hair and moustache and the knowing lines about his eyes and mouth. She paused before answering, just enough to permit herself to catch her breath entirely after her rather mad little flight.
"Ah...well, sir, I'm rather afraid that I'm lost... Could you give me directions to the Cathedral? Please?" The scholar shifted her notebook and attendant papers, never very organized but now thoroughly disheveled, and straightened her glasses as he replied. "Certainly could, ma'am, but why don't I just take you there m'self? It'll keep you from the trouble that hides in shadows, and it'll keep me from the trouble that'll have me if anything happens to you. City just isn't safe, beggin' your pardon, for a lady alone after dark, though we try our best." Saro was on the verge of accepting this offer, when something he said caught her. Alone...but I'm not alone, that woman is with me... She glanced about herself quickly, no doubt seeming to the guard to be simply nervous of shadows. The darkness yielded nothing to her eyes, though, save for a lone guard, a cobbled street, and houses locked up tight.
Or is she...?
She heard the click of the boots before her companion. Slow, even steps that marked an ordered gate and an undaunted presence. The swirl of the cape and gentle swing of the sword that accompanied the footsteps were largely superfluous. Quaralyn knew who and what was coming, and she was already blending back into the shadows when the scholar shouted in relief and ran towards the watchman. At home once more within the welcoming shades of night, she could hear the exchange between the two.
"Could you give me directions to the Cathedral? Please?"
"Certainly could, ma'am, but why don't I just take you there m'self? It'll keep you from the trouble that hides in shadows, and it'll keep me from the trouble that'll have me if anything happens to you. City just isn't safe, beggin' your pardon, for a lady alone after dark, though we try our best."
Quaralyn allowed herself a small smile of relief. The watchman would see her companion safely home and she could return to work and the guild. 'The guild,' she sighed shook her head imperceptibly. Striker had kept closer watch on her comings and goings recently, a decision no doubt affected by the incident with the ranger, and it was becoming increasingly difficult slip away unnoticed. 'Fortunately,' other events within the city had necessitated taking her team out of action for a time and had kept his attention focused largely elsewhere, giving her a brief respite from the deep grey suspicion that burned in his eyes. The misgivings had, much to her relief, started to dwindle back to their normal level of distrust, but tonight's activities weren't going to help. If she didn't report back on time, she'd need an explanation as to where she'd been, and she could hardly say that she'd been traipsing about the city with a lost scholar in search of the cathedral. For one thing, she doubted he'd believe her, and even if he did, telling him that she'd set foot on church grounds could create a whole new set of problems.
With the arrival of the watchman, however, her worries began to fade back into the darkness surrounding her, and she smiled in slight amusement. For the second time the watch had unwittingly aided her in her tasks, arriving almost providentially and never realizing the full extent of their actions. Perhaps there was something to be said for them after all, but first, the scholar had to leave. 'Go!' she thought, mentally urging the woman on. 'Go back to the safety of the church and never again wander the night streets alone.' She held her breath as she waited for her companion to leave . . . and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. The woman didn't budge. 'Why isn't she going?' She rolled her eyes in disbelief as the woman began to nervously scan the shadows that clung to the buildings and seeped into the alleys. 'No! Go on, go on!' The woman, deaf to her silent pleas, stayed firmly rooted in place and continued to search the darkness for her unlikely escort. 'This used to be easier,' Quaralyn sighed to herself as she saw the guard begin to follow the scholar's eyes.
There was something to the scholar she wasn't seeing. The woman clearly didn't trust her, but she hadn't told the watch of her presence—well, not in so many words, but if she kept it up they'd both have a new escort and Quaralyn was quite certain that the man would be more than happy to drop her off at the watch station on his way to the church. She scowled at the thought, pressing herself closer against the wall behind her, dank with the fog that rose from the wharfs. She'd been in shackles before, and she'd no desire to repeat the experience—chained at wrist and ankle, transported like an animal, and tortured beyond the point of expected death, all in the name of the crown. Her eyes turned dark as the images flickered past them, momentarily drowning her in a swell of remembered pain and anger that echoed through an emptiness she had long tried to fill.
In the flood of memories, panic struck. It wasn't a reasonable panic, but it gripped her all the same and held her tight with icy fingers. 'Never again.' She cast about for a way of silent escape. Had she acted sooner, she would have had her choice, but she was sure that the woman would have left with the watchman, and she had tarried too long in the shadows, urging her to leave. Now, the pair's attention was focused in her direction, and the path to either side lay blocked by the outer fringes of the lanterns' glow. She reached back for her sword, thinking wryly of the saying that sometimes the only way out is through. As her fingers wrapped around the leather-bound hilt, however, she was struck with another idea, and the smallest hint of a smile traced across her lips.
"...City just isn't safe, beggin' your pardon, for a lady alone after dark, though we try our best."
Saro smiled slightly at this concern, but began her protest nearly as soon as the guard had stopped speaking. She didn't see her former companion, but would almost bet that the woman was about somewhere- probably hearing and seeing this entire exchange. But she'll not remain hidden for long, she thought, if you keep this up, Saro. The guard, she noticed, had been following her eyes as she looked for the other woman; and now that she was sure of that woman's desire to stay unknown, she feared that the man's sharp gaze would find her anyways. The scholar didn't stop her nervous squinting into the darkness, but rather concentrated it on the areas nearest the docks- behind the guard and away from the alley she'd come from, the alley where she thought her former companion to remain.
"Forgive me," she told him apologetically, "I'm spooking at nothing more than the sound of the waves. And thank you for your offer, sir, but if I just have directions I'll make it back quickly enough alone. I don't want to take you from your watch; you have much better things to be doing than escorting scatterbrains about after dark. And I do know the way, in the daytime; I just got a bit turned around in the dark, is all." She smiled slightly, hopefully, and ran a hand over her hair in a vain attempt at ordering several vagrant dark strands, teased out of their ponytail by a salt-breathed wind. She was curious, very curious, as to where that odd, fire-haired woman had got to; but she marshalled all her self-discipline and focused on the guard's answering face, glancing into the shadows no more than would any person lost in the dark.
"I'm sure, miss, but, begging your pardon, you did get lost once already. I'd much rather escort you to the Cathedral now than have to bring your body there later." Hard words, Saro thought, but I suppose that man's seen enough, in this City, to warrent them and more. He waited for her reply, alert even in converse.
"Um...well, thank you very much, but I really don't want to take you away from your duties here. It's not very far, I think; I'll be quite all right." She was babbling, she knew; but she had an idea about that woman, an idea that had been hiding, crouched in the recesses of her mind for some time now. Only now had it come out into the light, tempted by the juicy tidbit offered it in the form of the woman's sudden, conspicuous absence. And now out it was, this idea; and the scholar's natural curiosity fed it until it was too big to return to the dark, so she instead sought to satisfy it- which required gaining the man's directions without his escort.
He looked sceptical. She knew she needed to give him something more substantial than she thus far had; something he might trust more than he did a single lost, disheveled, and absent-minded woman. The idea whispered breathily in her mind, waiting; and of all the straws to choose from she grabbed the first that seemed substantial enough to hold her. "And besides, sir, I'm staying at the Cathedral.
I'm a rather, er, semi-permanent guest there. Under it's protection and God's, and I think- I think that nothing would be allowed to harm me."
There were stories, she knew, of the Cathedral- she'd heard countless versions in the previous fortnight. Stories of miracles and magic, of paupers and peregrinators...of ghosts and demons and shadows clothed in flesh. Of these last stories, they were all in agreement on one thing: There was something otherworldly in the Church, and it was not to be messed with. If the guard thought she was under such protection, so be it. He gave her the requested directions, thought reluctant, and watched her walk away down the correct road for a moment before he took himself back to the docks and the drunks and his cold and lonely watch. Saro did not look back, but repeated something to herself as she headed onwards into increasingly familiar territory. If the guard thinks you're so well protected, so be it. You may not even be far wrong, Saro... You may not be far wrong.
She walked on, her shadow growing and shrinking and growing again in the occaisional creamy pools of lamplight, and the idea in her mind paced in time to her footsteps. She walked, and listened for a return she knew she'd never hear- for the other woman would rejoin her soon. She knew it, the idea knew it, and the silent streets and housefronts stood ready to bear their witness.
From her small patch of shadow atop the roof, Quaralyn blinked in surprise. The woman sent the watchman away. She sent him away and started off into the night . . . alone and seemingly without a care in the world. Indeed, she looked almost smug in her step as she walked heedlessly through the darkened streets, her shadow waxing and waning beneath the low-burning lanterns.
It was this last fact that bred anger, rather than gratitude within Quaralyn, and which pushed from her mind the fact that the woman could have easily alerted the guard to her presence. It wasn't trust that had prompted the woman to send the guard away. Quaralyn could have forgiven her that. No, it was curiosity that drove the scholar—a deadly feline curiosity that crept close on velvet shod paws, luring its victims onward with a soft rumbling purr before rending them with tooth and claw. It was a tantalizing hunger which the scholar couldn't afford, and Quaralyn gave an inward sigh as she slipped down to the street and fell quietly in step behind the woman. "You should have gone with him."
Much as she had been expecting it, the scholar still started at the words, coming as they did from the silence of the tiny, inconsequential noises of the night. She half-turned her head to glance back at the woman as she answered, words carefully neutral. "Oh- hello again. Well, yes, probably I should have."
A self-satisfied answer. The encounter was rapidly turning into something Quaralyn hadn't expected. A hint of irritation crept into her voice as she responded, and it was well that the woman couldn't see the matching look that fell across her face. "Then why didn't you?" She kept a step behind the scholar, still scanning the shadows, though perhaps now more out of habit or irritation than necessity. Anyone likely to be lurking therein would have beaten a quick and silent retreat when the watchman arrived. She was the only one foolish enough to remain behind, her concern momentarily shifted from herself to her self-assumed charge whose misplaced assurance was beginning to grate on her nerves.
Saro raised a silent eyebrow, thinking to herself. The other woman sounded upset, for one ostensibly lost herself and in need of directions. The scholar shrugged a shoulder; the other was not the pilgrim she pretended at, she knew. And the other knew that she knew, and Saro suddenly found herself playing an entirely different game than just scant minutes previous. She brushed her wind-whipped hair from her face as a sort of delaying tactic, and chose a simple reply. "Well, he was busy." The stranger was skeptical, she could tell even without looking. She wanted more, perhaps wanted something to tell her what part the scholar played in this tableau-- as the scholar in her turn was wondering at the other's role. Another careful answer, then, and simple, but its simplicity was made complex by a transparent wash of irony. "And it would have been rude to leave you, since I got you lost in the first place."
That was it. Quaralyn wasn't cruel by nature. To the contrary, though it might seem unlikely given her seeming profession, many, if not most of her actions were motivated out of concern for others; but she'd had just about enough of this. If the woman didn't know what Quaralyn was by now, she had to have a pretty good idea. There was no point keeping up the charade any longer, and so she let it drop to the cold stone streets—a festival mask torn free and discarded at the end of the ball. She moved quickly—too quickly for the scholar to resist, and too quickly for her to cry for help. In the dark light of the empty streets it took only an instant, and none was any the wiser as she grabbed the scholar from behind and forced her into one of the side alleys.
Within the narrow corridor, she spun the startled woman around to face her and pushed her back into a building side with enough force to dislodge the already skewed spectacles. The woman's blue-grey eyes went wide as one gloved hand clamped over her mouth while the other held her firmly in place against the unyielding wall. "Listen," Quaralyn whispered harshly, standing scarcely a breath away from the scholar, "I don't know what you think this is. But I'll tell you what it isn't. It isn't a fun little romp through the seedier section of Stormpoint, and it isn't a research expedition. So, look carefully at your directions, memorize them, and let's be on our way. Got it?"
((Co-written with Quaralyn))
She was pinned, pinned against a wall, no getting free, no one to hear, alone and trapped, trapped... Her eyes widened, and the pulse beating in her throat raced to catch up with the thoughts in her head. She was trapped, trapped, no escape; she should call the Guard, he would help, but she was held up against a wall, and she couldn't get free, and he wouldn't come anyway, wouldn't help... She stood stiffly, terrifiedly still; the rules had changed, and this was a game she didn't want to play. No, she thought, never again, never. Her thoughts romped in circles and helices and her conscious mind missed most of the words, stammered out something, agreement, a desperate bid for freedom.
Eloquence abandoned her, replaced by soft and frantic monosyllables. "Yes. A-all right. I will."
Her point made, Quaralyn backed away, allowing the woman to step from the wall, catch her breath, and regain her composure. She took no pleasure in frightening the woman, but the scholar had to learn that not everyone on the streets of Stormpoint was to be trusted. It was a harsh lesson, to be sure, and perhaps there were better ways to teach it, but Quaralyn didn't have time to consider them. Fear was a powerful motivator, and though the method might be impiteous, it was better that the scholar learn from someone who wasn't going to leave her to die in a lonesome, shadow-filled backstreet with only the trickling sound of her own lifeblood for company as it seeped from her cooling body. "Good."
She was free. The other woman had stepped back, had let go her shoulders. A warning, she thought. Just a warning. Calm down, Saro. And calm down she did, now that there was some space between them. Or rather, she made for herself a semblance of calm, forcing her breathing to become slower and deeper, more natural. No use in hoping the other woman hadn't noticed; but at least she could save what face remained to her and offer a somewhat more coherent defense. The words she had thought she'd lost in her terror came back to her; or at least, the gist of them did. The other had accused her of taking this as a "pleasant romp", and, damning, a "research trip" or somesuch. Research? You only told her you were a teacher, I'm sure. Nothing of the Library, nothing of your work for the priest. As the scholar considered this, she answered, words simple and direct as she'd thus far been careful to keep them. "I didn't think it was. I just got lost." Still.... "research trip"...she couldn't get that slip of the woman's from mind. If slip it was-- Saro was of half a mind to take it for a warning. She had already suspected the other was no-one to be trifled with; those two words, above everything else, made it abundantly clear.
Quaralyn stared at the scholar for a moment longer, trying to imprint her message indelibly in the woman's memory as the woman struggled to regain herself. Her face remained hard as she watched her, but her eyes seemed to soften, almost against her will. There was something tragic about curbing the woman's curiosity- like forcing the realities of the world upon a child unready for their truths, replacing questions with silence, and wonder with fear. A pang of . . . guilt perhaps . . . echoed through her soul as she watched the woman in silence. She wouldn't admit . . . she'd never admit that she might have seen a bit of herself in the scholar's naivete. That was too long ago, in another life she tried not to remember.
The same curiosity that gripped the scholar, however, still burned brightly within Quaralyn, and it allowed her to understand the woman's actions. It was dangerous trait anywhere, but especially in Stormpoint; an ironic twist of fate that the secret-laden cities most likely to draw an insatiable curiosity were also most likely to consume those compelled to peer behind the veil, adding them to the list of mysteries that drew still others of their ilk. She suppressed a wry smile. It was getting late and she wanted to get back to the guild before sunrise lest her activities spark another's curiosity and draw attention she wished to avoid. The woman appeared calmer now, though wary, and Quaralyn deemed that it was time to move on. "Ready?"
So, they were to continue to the Church. The scholar was relieved, and as her heartbeat slowed to just above normal, began to feel embarrassed about her earlier panic. This is Stormpoint. Shouldn't go about jumping out of your skin, every time someone touches you, silly. Especially not in present company. One corner of her mouth turned up slightly, a weak half-smile; and she extended a hand to the road, gesturing the woman on. "Lead on." There should have been another word, a name, to complete it as a quote; but her mind stubbornly refused to recall it, helpfully offering in its place a bit of Twelfth Night. "If music be the food of love, play on."...rather inappropriate, Saro. Suspect what you will, but this woman is hardly a traveling player. For one, she knows the area far too well....but will she admit that to you?" And with a tiny inward chuckle..."Aye, there's the rub."
Quaralyn nodded slowly in return. "Good," she answered with a more hopeful tone, "you're learning. Which way?"
It seemed the woman would not admit it, at least, not yet. And she'd proved already that she took kindly to neither fools nor folly, a lesson Saro had no desire ever to relearn. Very well, then; it grew increasingly late and the scholar grew increasingly eager to return to the safety and sanctity of the Church. She began walking- in the correct direction, she made very sure- and glanced once, out of habit, to mark whether or not the other followed. She did; and Saro answered her 'question' with two short words. "This one." And continued, fairly fast despite the departure of the adrenaline forced upon her by her panic. She considered starting a conversation, but decided to leave that to the other. Her observer's mind was fascinated, true; but she was also treading very deep waters. Prudent she might not be, but the scholar understood the threat that had just been made her, and was wise enough to heed it...at least for the moment.
Quaralyn closed her eyes and shook her head as the woman treaded off again, casting only a brief glance behind to see if she was following. As she had on so many other occasions, Quaralyn had spoken too soon, and her thoughts were nearly incoherent with incredulity as she watched the woman step away. 'Shades! Has she learned nothing?' This was going to take time. Time she didn't have. Perhaps a more direct approach was in order. Catching up to walk beside the scholar, she asked with undisguised sarcasm. "So, you used to be a teacher, did you?"
((Co-written with Sabhdh))
Quaralyn closed her eyes and shook her head in silent incredulity as the woman treaded off again, casting only a brief glance behind to see if Quaralyn was following. As she had on so many other occasions, Quaralyn had spoken too soon, and her thoughts were nearly incoherent as she watched the woman step away. 'Shades! Has she learned nothing?' This was going to take time. Time she didn't have, and she decided that perhaps a more direct approach was in order. Catching up to walk beside the scholar, Quaralyn tried a new tactic, asking with undisguised sarcasm. "So, you used to be a teacher, did you?"
"Yes, I was." The words were direct and unruffled. The other woman's arid tone might just as well have been simple curiosity, from the inflection that her answer received.
"Well then," Quaralyn began, leaning harder on her tone and ignoring the woman's glibness, "Let me put this in your vernacular. Lesson one: Don't let anyone you don't know walk behind you."
Saro deliberately slowed, matching her own pace to that of her companion. In an irony at the same time more subtle, and more glaring, than the other's tone, she even went so far as to match her strides exactly. The two walked together like soldiers or high-school band members for a scant handful of moments, then Saro broke stride gradually, still abreast of the other. She interrupted the pre-dawn silence with an observation as nonchalant as a comment upon the night air, or the architecture. "If anyone wanted to kill me, they could do it just as easily from my side as my back." Her tone shifted suddenly, subtly, as she qualified her statement. The closing words were no less open, but burned with the hidden flame of self-mockery- and, perhaps, recollection. "Knowledge may be power, but it's not the most effective weapon in a physical fight."
Flame red locks swung briefly across her face as Quaralyn shook her head a second time. This really wasn't going well. The woman's indifference was starting to grate on her nerves, and Quaralyn began to think that she must be suffering from a serious lapse in judgment to put up with her. She was sorely tempted to fire off a quick retort about at least having a chance to escape or to scream, but decided that it too would be ignored or turned with another articulate, but uninformed comment. Perhaps she should simply disappear, slipping back into her element and leaving the scholar to her own devices. She had enough headaches already without suffering through the scholar's flippancy, and nothing she had said or done so far seemed to have gotten through to the woman. Instead, her words and actions seemed simply to bounce off a sarcasm that shimmered with subtlety, but was, in fact, as thick as the scholar's ever-slipping spectacles. She reminded Quaralyn of someone, and the apparent thief turned courier nearly groaned in disgust when she realized that it was herself. Instead, she grimaced in silence—doubly determined now to leave the woman behind.
They weren't too far from the church now; surely the woman could find her way from here, couldn't she? She dropped back a quarter of a step and glanced furtively at the scholar again, reappraising both the woman and herself and frowning slightly at the comparison. Quaralyn's tongue might be sharp, but so too was her blade, and she never used her tone with one she wasn't prepared to handle. It wasn't so with the scholar. The woman was clever, to be sure, quick-witted and logical, and Quaralyn had no doubt that she could easily excel in many intellectual pursuits. Her own words, however, had aptly summarized her position should she be left alone on the darkened city streets, 'Knowledge may be power, but it's not the most effective weapon in a physical fight.' Annoyed though she was, Quaralyn couldn't leave her to fend for herself, and so she held her tongue and her step—a task which, for Quaralyn, involved no small amount of effort.
Wrapped in her own teethgritting silence, Quaralyn continued to watch both the scholar and the shadows with a mixture of curiosity and caution. The scholar was by far the more interesting, seeming as out of place in the city as a teaspoon in a tavern, but after a moment, it was the shadows that began to draw her attention. It started off as a nagging sensation she couldn't quite identify, hovering somewhere within the endless night that stretched out behind them. Then it drew closer, seeming to follow them just off to the left, or was it the right? Quaralyn couldn't tell before it faded again, backing off until it became a faint but persistent hum of warning that blanketed the inner silence. She looked back a few times with the use of the occasional glass window that some of the more well-to-do establishments boasted, but she didn't see anything. There might have been nothing to see, but still she kept a watchful eye and a keen ear as she walked on, letting the scholar lead them as she would.
It was quiet, save for the tap of one set of boot-heels on cobbles worn to smoothness by generations of passing feet. Saro noted, for the second time, that the sounds were her own; only the faintest echo of footsteps betrayed the other's presence to the carefullest of ears. She let the silence have its way. It seemed, even to her schoolroom sensibilities, that fighting it would be somehow very wrong, somehow akin to setting off fireworks in a hospital ICU. She concentrated instead on the way to the Cathedral, and lengthened her stride unconsciously as she took the next, absolutely familiar turn.
Quaralyn fell a few steps behind as the scholar's pace quickened. The woman was, no doubt, eager to reach the safety of the church. Her darker companion, however, was more eager to learn the source of the nagging feeling that plagued her, and her step slowed as she peered into the shadows cast by the low-hanging eaves of the surrounding buildings. The sensation was slowly evolving into a presentiment, and a familiar one at that. It troubled her all the more and consumed increasing amounts of her attention until the scholar was well ahead of her, her sudden enthusiasm perhaps rendering her unaware of the fact that her escort lagged behind.
A few yards, and Saro noticed that her companion had fallen behind her again. Or I was impatient and raced in front, she thought. Either way... She eased back her pace, as unobtrusively as she could manage. If it was a test- childish though it might be- it behooved her to pass it. She had an excellent memory, in general, but even had she not, Saro would not have easily forgotten the warning with which she has been so dramatically presented. Still, warning or no, she felt that the silence had stretched itself to the limits of comfort. The ball's in your court, Saro. You can tap it back to continue the game, or you can hit it back to score. She hit. In complete innocence and curiosity (she hoped), she offered a straightforward, innocuous question. "Do you really want to go to the Cathedral?"
((Co-written with Quaralyn.))
"Do you really want to go to the Cathedral?"
The scholar's question cut sharp and swift through Quaralyn's musings, and she whipped her head back to face the woman, distraction plain upon her face. Her lips parted, and for a moment, just a moment, her voice took on an entirely different quality. "What?" It might have simply been the distraction, but in truth, it was far more. To her credit, however, Quaralyn recovered quickly and continued in a more attentive tone, "Yes, of course. I said I did, didn't I?"
Score. In truth, the scholar was surprised to have caught the other so off-guard, if only for a moment. So. She is what you think, or something close. Then why bother to follow you, talk to you- reveal herself to you, even- under such pretense? She smiled just slightly. Curiosity, perhaps? Or something darker? Her hint of a smile has disappeared entirely at this, and her next words were very careful indeed. "Yes, you said you did." She could not resist, however, the most imperceptible flavour of emphasis to "said". Not baiting the other, certainly; just letting her know that whatever role the scholar playing in this game, it was not the fool. She followed, inscrutably, with, "Just checking, I suppose.."
Drawing on a reserve she preferred to leave untapped, Quaralyn pushed the worrisome disquietude to the back of her mind, replacing it with a close-lipped smile that bordered on the conspiratorial. The scholar was sharp, too sharp, and Quaralyn needed to pay her more heed. "Good then, you're learning."
"Teachers generally do." The comment was off-hand; but Saro wore a half-smile to match that of her companion. What is she getting at?
She quickened her step without warning, matching the scholar's earlier pace, and allowed the woman to fall easily astride her before she responded, "So you say, but then why haven't you learned not to wander the streets alone after dark?" The question, together with the thin gold band that graced the third finger of the scholar's left hand, made Quaralyn wonder herself, and it sparked another that she wouldn't ask. In truth, she didn't expect the scholar to answer even that one, for she had meant for it to serve as a reprimand rather than a request for information. But the scholar possessed the kind of naivete inherent to only the overeducated, and she answered all the same.
Saro laughed softly; this was a question she could answer. In several different ways. She settled on a very innocuous (and very true) reason, that she simply got preoccupied and never noticed as minutes and hours- on one occasion, even a whole day and night- flew past her. There were other reasons, of course; there were always other reasons. But only one she wanted to share with this woman, here in the vast abyss of pre-dawn silence and darkness. And so she answered lightly, tone genuinely guilty at the none-to-subtle reproach, but with the absolutely unrepentant guilt of a sinner who's sorry, and would do it again in an instant. "Well, learning and applying knowledge are very different creatures. But, um, really it's because I don't keep track of the time very well." She offered a smile with this confession, and waited.
Quaralyn tried very hard not to laugh. She wanted to frighten the woman; well, perhaps not frighten her, but she did want to instill within the scholar a healthy respect for the dangers of the city--particularly those that arose only after dark. She needed to be stern, or imposing, and the chuckle that was tugging mercilessly at the corner of her mouth wasn't helping. She liked this woman, though she couldn't say why. Perhaps it was the naivete, but more likely it was the very quality that grated on Quaralyn's thinning patience, the growing certainty that even if the scholar knew what lurked within the shadows, her curiosity would drive her out into the city all the same. It forced Quaralyn to smile, despite her best efforts to the contrary, and perhaps even allowed a tiny chuckle to slip past her lips as she spoke again. "Well, I imagine that only time and experience will help with the former, but as for the latter, you might have more need of this than I." She pulled a leather cord from around her neck and pressed it, and an attached gold disc, into the woman's palm. "See that you don't lose it."
The scholar stared the object in her palm for a moment, her face expressing only unreadable surprise. This was hardly the reaction she had expected from the silently deadly stranger who had thus far been her escort. First opinion perhaps too hasty, hm, Saro? Or is it all the fashion now to make someone what is, in this world, a very valuable gift; then turn around and slit their throat? New-age sensitive thievery, yes, my therapist recommended I try it.... She shoved her private musings to the back of her mind before her distraction was noticed, and sternly focussed her mind on the offering in her open hand. A pocketwatch, of very fine make, and, by the slight wear it evidenced, old but extremely well taken-care-of. Gold, too, with a strange beast- dragon? serpent? chimera?- worked in subtle bas-relief into the cover protecting its face. It was genuinely beautiful, and Saro wondered at how difficult it must have been to find such a device in this pre-Industrial world. It would have been difficult to find one of such quality in Cambridge, and she was silent as she thought of how generous an offer it was. Her reply was soft and heartfelt. "Thank you. But- ", she quirked her lips ruefully, loath to admit it, and pulled one sleeve back slightly. A ladies' slim-banded watch came into view around her wrist, roman numerals framed by a thin gold bezel. "Ah, I'm afraid my problem's a matter of s...rather, of absent-mindedness, not equipment." 'Software rather than hardware?" Oh, now there's a metaphor she' s sure to understand... She smiled as she extended the pocketwatch back towards the other, words flavoured with gratitude and no little surprise. "But thank you for your care."
A single brow arched high above a sharp green eye. 'Well, that's an interesting development,' Quaralyn mused as she wrapped the cord back around her neck and dropped the watch beneath her blouse. Any doubts Quaralyn still held about the woman being from someplace other than Stormpoint and the surrounding lands promptly vanished with the display of the wristwatch. Portable timepieces were somewhat of a rarity. Quaralyn herself had seen only a few dozen in her time, and most of those within the Kuriosity Shoppe. She had never, however, never seen one fashioned to be worn on a wrist. She frowned as she considered the implications, but said nothing on the subject, filing it away for later use. "Best keep it wound and remember that absent-mindedness can be terminal."
Saro nodded, accepting the warning for what it was without bothering to clarify that her watch, battery-powered, had no need of winding. Her thoughts were roiling, stirred by the interesting possibilities that had blossomed from the exchange. Fact: Hers were an offer and advice more suited to a concerned grandparent than a dangerous stranger. Fact: People who can afford watches like that-and who can afford to give them away on whims- do not walk around at night looking dangerous. So where does this leave you? Where it left her was right back where she started, roaming the streets with a stranger whom she now found simultaneously more companionable and more dangerous. That well-meaning offer was not as comforting as it might otherwise have been, and she opted for a quick, off-hand response. "I've, ah, been reaching the conclusion that so can a good many other things."
'It's about time,' Quaralyn thought. Finally, something had made it past the scholar's parrying wit and sunk in. She wasn't sure what it was, and she really didn't care. What mattered was that the woman now evinced some degree of understanding, and Quaralyn acted quickly to drive the point home. A smile with the cool trappings of danger slid slowly over her features as she spoke. "That's probably wise. I've heard stories, rumors about this city. They say that at night the shadows rise from the earth and roam the streets, waiting, watching, sometimes even venturing into the half light, pretending to be things they aren't. They say those shadows are so insidious that you can be standing right next to one and never know it . . . until it's too late." She paused, and gave the woman a meaningful glance before adding, as if by afterthought, "Or were you referring to something more specific?"
((Co-written with Sabhdh))
Still trying to scare you, is she, Saro? She should have stuck with the physical violence... The other woman's vague, half-veiled references were obviously intended to scare her off of her investigations- or her midnight perambulations, at least. But her research had been more prolonged- and more thorough- than perhaps the not-quite-stranger realized. Instead of widening in curious fright, the scholar's eyes gleamed almost in satisfaction. This was something she could handle, and she slipped into a tone and style of speaking just one hair off from that of a typical classroom lecture. "Both, I suppose. Thievery, murder, and petty crime have always been a part of this city- of nearly every port city, I've noticed. As for Stormpoint's less...garden-variety...characters, the atmosphere is especially good for them here." She paused, then added a short summation of her words, just as she would have done back at Cambridge. "Ghosts and demons and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night are stories most places; here, they're history."
Quaralyn didn't like the scholar's tone . . . or her words, and a thin red brow rose irritably in response. Petty crime? Petty? Quaralyn wasn't conceited, but she wasn't without a sense of pride in her work, and she wasn't without considerable skill. She'd wager that she'd opened more locks than the scholar had books, and she'd never, in all her years of practice, walked away with anything that could be described as petty. Petty crime indeed! Stung, but silent, she fought back the bitterness and the sneer that wanted so desperately to spread across her face, momentarily forgetting the absurdity of her reaction. The scholar might not have realized it, but she'd come dangerously close to offending her unlikely companion. Or perhaps she had realized it and was watching for a response. Too clever, this one. Uncertain, Quaralyn opted to hedge, responding in a dry tone laced with a hint of threat, "So are a good many of the people that go out looking for them."
Saro paused a moment, made suddenly uncomfortable by the other woman's response. She'd spoken too soon, too automatically, and her unthinking lecture had annoyed the other. The first part of it especially, she thought, where she'd so cavalierly dismissed the city's criminal class. This observation served only to shore up Saro's developing suspicions, and she was glad to know that the Cathedral was very near indeed, now. Very near, but not yet reached, and so she continued the conversation more warily, though still falling back on her newly-won knowledge. "Ah....well, yes. Three people, at least, have been drowned while looking for the old lighthouse spectre; there's a very old warehouse from which a few have gone missing- though whether that was supernatural or not is a matter of debate- and several other such places. And of course, there are the people who simply disappear, undocumented." Initially cautious, she was warning to her subject. She concluded with a heartfelt sigh for all the holes that still laced through her careful history. "Decent records are very difficult to lay hands on here..."
Back to the research, are we Dr. Wentworth? It was an impressive recitation, and one whose accuracy Quaralyn could vouch for and even supplement. "So, is that what you're doing out till all hours of the night? Trying to find decent records of dark and sordid events? Searching in shadows instead of books? That could draw unwanted attention, you know." She paused before adding in partial seriousness and half mockery, "Perhaps I should pick my escorts more carefully. You could be a dangerous companion."
She was being teased, she knew full well, but a brief surge of amusement flickered in her eyes nonetheless. Oh, yes, quite dangerous. Lurking in alleyways just waiting to drop heaps of history upon the heads of unsuspecting passers-by. Thieves and vampires and ghosts, Beware! She opted instead to turn the question back, mockery distilled into caution, teasing into sincerity. "I might say the same about you..."
A tiny twitch of a smile turned across her features. It wasn't entirely dark, but wasn't completely mirthful either, existing somewhere between the two with a mildly disturbing effect. "You might. You might be able to find another watchman too, but you're too curious for that, aren't you?"
Saro missed the smile, glancing instead towards the horizon. There, she noted, the first edges of night had started to curl in upon themselves, seared by a very few intrepid seeking tendrils of earliest dawn. It was very late- No, early, she corrected herself- and she could only imagine what the priest would say...but that would be later; for now, back to the question at hand. Her answer was quick, and faintly rueful. "Probably."
Quaralyn managed to suppress a smirk, but her expression did tip slightly in the direction of amusement. "Professional hazard, I imagine."
"Indeed." She was going to add more, perhaps, but the half-formed thoughts that would have organized those next words fled silently, unmarked, as she looked up. There, silhouetted sable on black, she saw- swore she saw- the unmistakable bulk of the Cathedral's bell-tower presiding over the city, the women, and the coming dawn. "Ah- unless I miss my bet, the square is just down here." Her lips quirked in amusement, and the next words were unmistakably wry. "Though I admit, my track record thus far has been somewhat less than perfect..."
Tempting as it was to let the scholar go the final steps alone, she continued to follow the woman, adding with hopeful sarcasm, "Well, I trust you'll remember your way next time."
Saro blinked in surprise. She quite distinctly remembered the woman asking her for directions...and though Saro by now knew that the other was no courier, it surprised the scholar very much that her companion should have been so careless in her words. Unless...was that, too, intentional? Absorbed in this, her response was made rather more absent-mindedly than was wont even for her. "Of course, of course. As will you, I trust..." She entered the square confidently, and tossed a brief, wistful smile at the brooding bulk of the Library. That could wait. For now, she carefully skirted the fountain adorning the centre of the square's cobbled expanse, and headed for the Cathedral's wide, ornamental doors.
Quaralyn had been inside once before—just once. It had been only a brief visit in a crowded service, and she'd worn a different face. She wouldn't be recognized, at least she hoped she wouldn't, but she was actually more concerned about her present appearance than her past. Dressed as she was and carrying one visible blade, she scarcely looked the part of the churchgoer. The scholar had fortunately played along, curiosity winning out over common sense. If she'd wanted to turn Quaralyn in, she could have done so when the watchman had arrived, but she hadn't, and the scholar's near certain suspicions no longer worried her. Quaralyn wasn't sure she wanted to press her luck, however. Others might be less prone to curiosity, and if she was arrested within the church, she'd have hell to pay when she made it back to the guild—if she made it back to the guild. Unconsciously making her decision, Quaralyn slowed her pace and allowed the scholar to pull ahead. She could watch the scholar's final steps safely from a distance.
Halfway up the steps, Saro paused and turned, noticing the other's hesitation. What's this? Your presence and conversation are not sufficiently stimulating to have made her follow you here, Saro; and as you're still wearing your ring and watch, she got nothing else out of the encounter... She beckoned the other towards the building, vastly curious. Her next sentence reflected this; slightly puzzled and half-question, half-statement- a verbal chimera. "You've come this far-surely you didn't ask for my directions- poor as they were- to simply look at the facade?"
No, she hadn't. She'd followed to watch over the scholar, to keep back some of the darker shadows that lurked beneath the low-hanging eaves of the city, to watch and perhaps to teach. She'd succeeded in the former, but the latter was another matter. The scholar wouldn't be persuaded. She'd continue her blind flirtation with danger in her desire to sate her curiosity, but Quaralyn could keep some of those dangers at bay. She held a high enough rank to place a name on the proc list, and the fact that the scholar was tied to the church would only make it easier. It wouldn't help against the more unnatural dangers, but it was all she could do, and it would have to be enough.
Quietly sighing in frustration, Quaralyn tried not to bite her lip as she looked back at the woman. The scholar was on the church steps now, looking quizzically at her companion and asking if she was going to enter. She really shouldn't. She should say her good-byes, slip away quietly, and get back to the guild. If she hurried, she might be able to slip in under Striker's notice, and she wanted to escape his notice. Still, she wavered, caught for a moment, like the scholar she chastised, between curiosity and caution. What could it hurt to step inside the church? Just a quick look, a short prayer, a small hope. No one will remember. No one will know. Swallowing her uncertainty, she glanced back over her shoulder one final time and followed the scholar into the building. If any could have seen her face in the soft darkness of the predawn hour, they would have found her expression both suddenly and markedly penitent.
With the falling of the daylight and the rising of the evening, the Sexton had roused himself from the sleep which was not sleep, and began to busy himself with the chores that had become his routine over the last year. In the dark recesses of the cathedral's crypt, he drank of some half congealed kine's blood he had obtained from the local slaughterhouse the evening before. With grim satisfaction, he mused that such a diet met the needs of his physical nature, albeit only barely, but left him with no "appetite" for anything more.
That done, he went out into the early night, and procured what supplies were needed for the rectory and the cathedral. Dressed as one of the wealthier commoners of the city, it always surprised him that none of the merchants he frequented ever asked after him. But then again, in Stormpoint, it seldom was worth the ensuing trouble to ask questions. He was sure that some guessed about him - but the few conversations he allowed himself to hear had always passed him off as a crazed recluse of some sort. Some had speculated he might not be quite human. But beyond that, nothing. And so the Sexton came to play his part in public. The occasional misanthropic sneer, and the off-hand irrational observation when transacting his business, had cemented his reputation, such as it was. And so he blended into the background of the city's bustle. There was much wisdom in not trying to hide, nor in trying to be noticed - for in the gray land in-between, Stormpoint was only too ready to offer indifference.
Of course, he had one other tool, which he used quite judiciously. In the years of his study and practice of the arcane, he learned the word which would simply dull the mind of anyone who became too interested in him. While he could not completely obscure the vital force that animated him, he was able to make sure that no one connected him to the cathedral.....and that others with "strange" skills never found him significant enough to investigate.
After two or so hours of errands.....which had included preparing the priest's dinner, the Sexton was at last ready to assume his post with the whole of his concentration. Another change of attire - blacks and grays to blend with the shadows of the night - and he ascended to the cathedral's bell tower, and found a perch. To all the world, he seemed to blend into the cold stone masonry.....perhaps a gargoyle.....perhaps the image of some forgotten saint.....but motionless......and dead.
Yet not dead, and moving with his mind. With a soft whisper, another word of power released him from the confines of his body so that he could touch any place in the city where a threat to the cathedral might emerge. First he checked on the Scholar....and found her in the Castle........searching for yet more history...yet more records....yet more books. Inwardly he allowed himself a wry grin....."of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."*
Then he moved to the guild.....curiously unmoved by the trouble a lone ranger was about to bring to himself.....for that sad drama was currently of no danger to the cathedral. He moved his attention to Lord Ogrek, and found the regent bogged down in the petty and soul-numbing duties of state. Again, there was nothing in that for the Sexton.....and so he moved on....passing over crimes, deaths, heartaches, furtive pleasures, and the thousand distractions that are life..... From time to time, he was troubled when he encountered an injustice that he could remedy......but long ago he had vowed that the cathedral would be his ground.....and old debt, if you will......and he had discovered that the price for letting down his guard over the place was far higher than he ever wanted to pay again. Still, he had a bad conscience when he passed by evil he could easily prevent....and ironically, he sneered at himself...."yes....there's an indulgence.....you, with a 'bad' conscience...."His active prowling of the city complete, and re-assured that the cathedral would be quiet when the priest had finally recited compline and retired for the night, the Sexton whispered yet another word, and came back to himself. But now, rather than seeking, he was opening himself. At first he began with the square, until he passively felt all its activity....and its potential......and then by degrees, he became transparent to more and more of the city until the whole moved in and through him. And then he waited his watch.....
It was late.....very late for the living....when the Sexton became suddenly uneasy. It was the Scholar.....she was out far past an hour when unescorted women were safe in the city, if such an hour existed at all in this place. And around her swirled the a vortex of uncertainty.....her path this evening was suddenly open to many possible futures....and as the Sexton let them wash over him, he saw few that he liked. Though his body still did not move, he began to actively follow the scholar through the streets.....the shadows hiding nothing to him. When she was joined by the second woman, the Sexton felt the vortex tighten.....this woman....she was the key.....he sharpened his attention to her.....impressions came to him......steel intention.....controlled reflex.....alliances only half given.....pride.....thief.....
Had anyone the ability to see the Sexton and observe his movements, they might have seen part of a granite capstone become dust when his left hand clenched tight....
As he focussed on the thief, he silently whispered in a spit...."guild....." But then, as he fought past his own memories and passion, he found that she too had a deep vortex around her.....her future was far from certain....she too was deep in potential...and he wondered how many of the paths before her she actually sensed....
However, what was paramount was that the Scholar remain safe....and so the Sexton merely looked into those futures formed by the confluence of the women's two vortices......in several paths they both died horribly before the dawn......in one path he saw them laughing together over wine in the South of France....in another it was the Scholar who died.....in another the thief.......in yet another the thief was jailed and he scholar compromised.........but there were too many.....and the Sexton saw several crises too near in time to indulge himself further with idle watching. So he began a long night's work.
Slowly, he closed down paths.....even though his slight influence caused the Scholar to be a bit more absent-minded than was her usual nature. Likewise, the thief was at several points more annoyed with the Scholar than she might have been otherwise.....but so it had to be. As he followed them along, he spoke words now and again that sent shadows, both human and in-human, far from them......in one case, a foul creature simply ceased to be......and the use of that word brought the Sexton more attention from other "adepts" in the city than he wanted......but so it had to be. There would be time to deal with those consequences once the Scholar was relatively safe again.
Finally, the two arrived at the cathedral.....and for the time, neither of their possible futures held either death or the end of the open practice of the Faith......at least for a day or so. The Sexton relaxed for a few moments and allowed himself a breath.
The cathedral itself was empty when the two women entered. And there was no light for them except that which came through the pre-dawn that illumined the windows of the North and East....and that which came from a very lonely sanctuary candle burning red up near the high altar. There was at least another hour before the priest would rouse himself to trudge over and recite Matins.
But the Sexton was quite awake. And once the women were in the narthex, he removed himself from his perch, and descended the stairs of the bell tower in a silent flash. Still using his skills to stay unseen in the shadows of the dark, he first scolded the Scholar, in a whisper for her ears alone, "Out rather late....hmmmmm?"
Then, coming from behind the thief, as a shadow he wrapped himself around her, and then whispered a silent word which left her frozen, and embraced her with a cold hand on her waist and a colder hand on her throat......"I will let you answer with a nod or a shake of your pretty head, guilder.....for I guard this place and those who find sanctuary here.......you mean the Scholar no harm...yes?"
And so he awaited his answer.......
* Ecclesiates 12:12
Entering the church, the scholar and her companion were greeted by a silent and empty sanctuary. It was dark within, lit only by a single candle burning steadily against the void that sought to press ever closer. The scholar's footsteps echoed clearly on the cold stone floor, but her companion made no sound. She had forgotten to. Instead, she was casting her glance wide and far to take in the entirety of the room. As she did, she noted with wry amusement that neither she nor the scholar cast shadows along the aisle. They were too far from the light. It seemed odd, but it was a simple truth, as so many things were. She filed it away for later consideration, for the room no doubt held other mysteries more peculiar to it than the relation of dark to light and substance to shadow, at least on a physical scale.
The scholar had relaxed visibly upon entering the Cathedral, glad no doubt for the safety and warmth she felt within its harboring walls. Quaralyn didn't feel the same. To her, the church felt foreign and imposing despite the heavy shroud of darkness that hovered over it. She shivered. Within the empty house she felt almost like a small, lost child, hoping to escape notice, but waiting for the inevitable moment when she would be discovered, drug by her collar from the room's supposed sanctum, and deposited on the street with a stern look and a hard-tongued reprimand that she should stay where she belonged. It was an empty feeling—a sick and empty feeling that gnawed away within her and threatened to leave her as nothing more than a hollow shell to be filled by whatever bitterness and darkness found their way within. She pushed this too away, for it would do her little good now, serving only to obscure the senses she must rely upon if she was to find her way back through the city's darkened streets to the place she now called home.
With the feeling gone, or at least suppressed, Quaralyn found herself torn between a burning desire to leave and a nigh insatiable curiosity that told her to stay. Later, she would say that it was this, and this alone, that caused her to realize too late that something was wrong—terribly, terribly wrong. She scarcely had time to determine its source before two lifeless hands sprung from the very air behind her and wrapped themselves about her waist and throat. So cold was their touch that they seemed to sear though her flesh and reach within to hold her fast, grasping hold of matter less substantial, but far more vital than flesh and bone. She reeled in momentary sickness, and then the voice came—a breathless, chillsome voice that echoed through the twin darknesses in which the thief was held.
"I will let you answer with a nod or a shake of your pretty head, guilder.....for I guard this place and those who find sanctuary here.......you mean the Scholar no harm...yes?"
Quaralyn's face blanched with the voice, and her eyes narrowed for just an instant before widening in an expression akin to fear, but which might have been something else altogether. She knew instantly what it was that stood behind her. She'd known enough kindred to recognize their touch, and had slain enough to know how to kill them. Instincts, long-honed and sharpened to blinding precision, flared to life in a sudden blaze of anger. The first of these instincts was to destroy anyone, or anything, that dared to come so close, to touch her, and to hold her against her will. But she'd learned long ago to control such instincts. She didn't ignore them, for they were often invaluable counselors, but she'd learned that their advice must always be measured and tempered by reason, even the reason that comes in the flashing of an instant. Held in the cold and lifeless embrace of the sexton, reason told her that an attack was not her best option, but it also suggested another.
She closed her eyes and allowed the instinct to flow from her body as a breath from her lungs—slow, full, and cathartic. The rage left with it too, and though perhaps touches of the latter lingered unbidden in places of her heart or mind that she either ignored or denied, what mostly filled her now was a growing sense of annoyance—partly with the scholar, partly with the death-ridden creature that held her, but mostly with herself for getting sidetracked from larger concerns to play escort to a lost bibliophile. That wasn't it, however. That wasn't what really annoyed her, but it was easier to believe that it was. It took her only an instant to realize this, but it was an instant too long, and the undead hand at her neck tightened.
She was certain that only a few seconds had passed, and that these seconds should have been attributed to the initial shock and excused as the same. But they weren't. Odd that a creature who had no doubt lived countless lifetimes and would face the burden of countless more should lack in patience. Odd, but not completely surprising. In fact, the impatience, the icy grasp, indeed the whole situation reminded her of something, and she strained against the chill touch of death and the steady buzz of vexation to remember what it was. Her eyes drifted as she thought, both in and out of focus and back and forth across the darkened sanctuary. At last they fell upon the scholar, and as they met the woman's blue-grey eyes, both the memory and the word she sought rushed through her like a wave. Irony. She fought back the sickened grin she felt rising from her stomach, and kept her eyes locked on the scholar.
She didn't regret her actions, not even in the cold embrace that held her. Oh, if she'd known that the scholar was protected by one such as this she wouldn't have bothered to slip from her perch atop the city's roofs and escort the woman on her way; but not knowing, she would have made the same choices again despite the embrace of the shadow that stood behind her. And so, as her eyes stayed fixed on the scholar, they held neither anger, nor pity, nor fear, nor accusation. Instead they held a plea—a plea first that the scholar would heed her warning, but also that the woman would not look on her with such thoughts even should the woman's "protector" lay bare facts which Quaralyn wished to keep hidden within the billowy darkness that comprised both her world and, she feared, her soul.
The grip tightened again, and she realized that this time she had perhaps taken a few seconds too long to respond. But the scholar would understand the delay, she hoped, if she'd even heard the creature; and if she hadn't then her immediate understanding wasn't necessary. Drawing in a tiny breath of the Cathedral's vaulted air, and still holding her gaze on the scholar, Quaralyn nodded slowly in answer to the question. She didn't know if the creature would believe her and truthfully, she didn't care. But, however unlikely her response might appear, it was true—truer than it seemed, and far truer than anything else surrounding the flame-haired woman who unerringly managed to find peril even in a supposed place of peace.
It was, if possible, even darker within the Cathedral than without. Saro blinked when she stepped in, straightening her glasses involuntarily, as if perhaps with their aid she might penetrate the sudden blackness. Her eyes gradually adjusted as she stood, pulling in the light of a distant sentinel candle and the grey pre-dawn of the sky outside. In the dimness, she could make out the long, shadowy lines of pews and the stained-glass window that overlooked them, though their pious pictures were robbed of colour and form by the thin veneer of light overlaying darkness. It was an improvement, for while raven night still perched high in the vaults of the ceiling, spreading soft wings over the scene, her influence was lessened. The scholar found herself no longer in utter blackness, but instead a grainy grey picture from some forgotten time. She relaxed, realizing only then that she had been tense with anticipation, and as she let the peace of the place draw her in, a few reproachful words whispered through the air.
"Out rather late....hmmmmm?"
She spun halfway around with a slight gasp, as if the speaker might be behind her, and she could expect any minute to have hands placed over her eyes and a gleeful "Guess who?" whispered in her ear. But the air was empty, and as the pulse racing in her throat slowed, she knew that this voice was one that would always come alone.... "Inpalpable and invisible...as it were two dream walking..."* Or one dream talking, as the case may be... But, though her involuntary spin had not betrayed the nature of the speaker, it did serve to reveal something else. Her companion of the trip, that quietly deadly woman of sword and street-smarts and scarlet hair, stood immobile. Frozen, more accurately, as if the least move might cause her to shatter into more pieces than were in the intricate stained-glass, and once shattered, as impossible to mend. It was not simply that she was overawed at the Cathedral's presence, Saro knew immedietly; she did not seem the easily-overawed type, to begin with, and as added proof the scholar need only look at the other's face. She was strained, pale, and ill - with fear?- even in this poor light, and Saro's eyes widened as tendrils of that fear, encouraged by her reason, crept through the air and began to wind about her as well. A woman who could walk the night streets of Stormpoint with impunity had no business, inside a holy sanctuary, looking like that.
And so Saro stared, horrified, for a moment, before the other woman's wandering gaze met and locked with her own. Green eyes held blue for the eternity of an instant, speaking silently to a tall and pale woman who wasn't entirely sure what was being said. It was not an accusation, she was quite sure; though why she couldn't say. Nor was it anger or betrayal, or any of that ilk. She was still uncertain when the exchange of gazes, between aghast eyes and anxious, was suddenly broken, the stranger gasping sharply as if in need of air. But, why...?
Saro, Saro, how stupid can you be? Startled, sea-grey eyes widened with sudden comprehension as she saw the captive woman nod once, slowly and with effort. The scholar froze in momentary indecision, then called out softly, her voice re-echoing eerily in the high shadowed vaults. "No- please." With that she stepped forward, behind the other woman, and approached to pull away the invisible hands which bound her. In her surprise and shock, it did not occur to Saro that the 'hands' might be other than physical. What did occur to her, remotely, was that if the other was unable to win free herself then a displaced bookworm would hardly be of much aid, but she really didn't care. She added mentally, not knowing whether it would be heard or heeded or not, three short and simple words. "Please don't...Michael."
* The Worm Ouroboros, E. R. Eddison
Over the years, the Sexton had become quite comfortable with a kind of game of "cat and mouse" with the world around him. Sometimes he was the mouse, but more often than not, he was the cat.....a place he quite enjoyed. And so it was that he had initially taken the Thief to be a mouse with which to toy. Truth be told, given that she had neither attempted to rob, cripple, nor dispatch the Scholar at earlier turns in the night, the Sexton already knew that she intended the Scholar no harm......but, he mused to himself, as he first descended around her, "it is often helpful for us to tell ourselves such things aloud....."
A slightly kinder game had been intended with the Scholar herself when he spoke to her hearing. He had honestly wanted to provoke her to thought about her safety...but he also wanted to distract her while he interviewed the Thief. In the first of many mis-calculations that morning, he had thought that a dis-embodied voice would send her into the cathedral's nave to investigate....he had not seen that she would choose to stand by the Thief......
When the Sexton felt the Thief''s dis-ease, he knew that she was already too late to stop him.....and so he began his "interview." This guild member actually fascinated the Sexton, the only one ever to provoke his curiosity.....and in first touching her, his guesses were confirmed.....she was not given to her "master" with heart and soul.....hers was a path that followed along with her guild's only as it met her ends.....and he felt juncture after juncture where she was separated from the guild or dead by the guild......
Involuntarily, his hand on her neck sought deeper attachment to her.....deeper contact with her path....he felt her anger and hatred at his "kin," he knew her rage at being touched without having given express permission, and he felt her reason through her immediate instincts in order to control her desire to attack.....even though she could not have harmed him, no matter what she purposed to do in the initial moments of their embrace.
And so he found himself in wonder and admiration of the Thief......"yesssss" he thought to himself, "here is a guilder without guile.....curious....."
As the moments passed...waiting for the reply he expected her to give.....it was then that the Sexton became troubled by a new vortex that arose and swirled around the moment...a vortex which included him. He was astounded. No......he was left absolutely perplexed. Unlike so many of his "kin" - whether the undead or the adept, he had attempted over the years to so remove himself from the course of time that he might never be touched by possibility.....he had sought not to walk as a god among mortals...but rather chose humility....."humility is endless" he told himself.....but still he had somehow fallen into vain imaginings...and now was the time when such foolishness was ended for him.
For he felt the Thief's deep ambivalence about this moment...he felt her review what had led to it...and, he saw her sense of .....irony........ He saw her choose again every moment that led her to his embrace....saw her do so willingly.....saw her do so for the sake of the Scholar......and attaching himself to the river of her passions that surrounded that choice.....he followed them back in time and saw her choose compassion for a broken and foolish ranger...and suddenly he realized she was much more than she presented.....if not in power, certainly in purpose......."this one......this one....." he thought again......"here could be an ally to the cathedral.....if she so chooses......"
And so, intently looking into the Thief, and examining the paths of potential that thickened the very air of the narthex, his hand tightened ever so slightly on her throat to compel the answer she would have given anyway.....and as he waited for her head to nod, he discovered too late that the Scholar was to be the cat this morning.
The nod came from the Thief, as expected.....and the Sexton, taking his hands off her, but not yet speaking the word of release, leaned to her and whispered close in her ear....
"Well now, guilder...that wasn't so difficult, now was it?"
He was about to say more.....for he saw that there was much he and the Thief should discuss...to their mutual benefit.....but as he prepared to release her and speak from unseen shadows, another voice broke the silence...
"No - please." The Scholar's thin voice echoed into the nave.
The Sexton looked up.....and to his shock, saw the Scholar approach......the vortex now tightened around them all.....death lay on too many paths that spun out from the moment.....he cursed softly..."damnation....."
His first temptation was simply to stop the Scholar in her tracks and close her eyes while he withdraw from the arena....but that path only led to the Scholar leaving the rectory and moving into one of Stormpoint's less desirable neighborhoods....he didn't have the leisure to contemplate what would come of that, but he didn't like the thought at all....
The Scholar's next step brought her closer....and for a moment he saw a future where she reached out and touched him as she sought to help the Thief..... what spun out from there was not happy either.
With the speed and agility of his kind, he moved just into the nave...balancing futures in his mind and searching for the moment when he could safely release the Thief. He watched the Scholar reach the Thief and puzzle over finding her still but not held by physical hands. When the Scholar gave up trying to free her companion....the Sexton sighed, began to smile....."hmmmm...lessons learned by all this morning..." and spoke the word that gave the Thief her freedom. However, in his satisfaction at having escaped one crisis, he had not watched closely enough to see what was about to happen. For while the Scholar was not adept, her thoughts were clear.....and not having seen her companion released, she was already thinking the words that came to her from insight born of desperation: "Please don't.......Michael......"
It was the last word that tore through the Sexton with the force of a raging tempest. He felt himself reeling backwards into the nave as if struck by an unseen hand that regarded him as little more than a rag doll. The word continued to slice through him....uncovering himself to himself.....blowing away years of deception and bringing to light memories long hidden in darkness......
And there was pain. So much pain in the remembering of things ill done....of betrayals small and large.....
A gasp escaped involuntarily from his pale lips grown more pale.....and in a moment, he forced his mind to pull back into a jumble all the thoughts that threatened to overwhelm him by their reckless scattering......all care for the future.....for the vortex that continued to engulf him was abandonned......now.....now.....there was only....
The women in the narthex blocked his way to the stairs leading down into the safety of the crypt.....the light outside was now too strong to risk a race with the dawn.....he looked around like a trapped beast......and had his face been visible in the gray darkness of the nave, one would have seen panic written across his features. There was only.....
He bounded into the cathedral's rafters.....clutching at a stout beam and blending into the solace of the dark....but there was no comfort to be found for the Sexton.....for as he motionlessly held his place there and fought to bring his mind back to clarity, he could only find wonder as his dead soul ached with regret and sorrow.....
She had not known; by all that was holy, she had not known...
Saro had thought only to help her companion, both by a simple and spoken plea and by a somewhat more active approach. But when she drew near to the other, and reached out, half-disbelieving, to loose whatever spanned her throat, the scholar grew suddenly more frantic. Eyes and outstretched hands met nothing, but yet the woman still gasped, still tried to force more air into her lungs...still suffered, though she did not struggle. And so, the scholar in her desperation tried a slightly different tactic.
She had not known...
She didn't truly think that the Sexton, Guardian and Protector, would hurt anyone who came to the Cathedral suppliant and peaceable. As she imagined her companion had come, despite her profession and garb. She didn't truly think...and perhaps that was part of the problem. She had just reacted, and rather unreasonably at that, with no consideration of the ramifications of those reactions; in the moment, she could not see past the other's helplessness and imagined pain. She found nothing funny in the role-reversal from earlier that evening; nothing at all, and would have much rather been caught in that crushing, intangible embrace herself than to watch impotently. It didn't take her long to decide her next course, for reason entered into it only on the most abstract of levels.
Still, she had not known...
Oh, she had known the name to say to get his attention, certainly. It had come to her on the walk back, when she added her latest research amongst the Castle records, piece by piece, to a puzzle half-completed but still vastly unclear. Before she was even halfway to the Cathedral, she knew the name she had to try, knew the two words that might bury one mystery, and bring to light countless more. Michael Chytraeus. How many months had gone into those two words, she didn't care to calculate, but she knew them now. She knew them now, though she had not meant to use them- not like this. But her hand was forced, and she was forced, and in the instant of her decision, she left so many, many things out of her reckoning.
She had not known...
She had not known, but she spoke the words anyways. Not aloud- in a sickening irony, she would grant him privacy from others, but not from himself. And so she thought the words, sure that he would hear. She had half-expected surprise from him, but likewise, she had half-expected that he might already know her mind, her new-won knowledge. Never had she expected him not to know his own....
She had not known...
There is power in a true name. How many times had she studied or taught about cultures where each individual had multiple names- one or more for everyday, and one that was strictly private. A name that was so personal, it might be known only to the person himself, his parents, and their religious leader- perhaps not even that many. It was a belief prevalent in several cultures native to America, many of which, highly animistic, even went so far as to say that each animal- robin, beaver, deer- had her own 'true name'. These names are not to be tossed about lightly- for to name an animal with it's true name is to compel it to listen to you. European folktales, too, carry this notion. Perhaps the most well-known private name in the world is that of Rumplestiltskin. Another legacy, another culture, another time- a common theme. Of all people, Saro should have seen this; of all people, she should have respected it.
She should have known...
She should have known, but there was new-won knowledge coursing through her veins, heady and precious; and she was tired and dulled by too many hours at her books. And so, when the moment came, when she felt forced to action, when curiosity and fear appealed to reason...reason lost. It was not wise, it was not prudent, but it was what she chose, and once done, there was no taking it back.
She should have known...
Please don't...Michael... The 'words' were out before she had a chance to reflect, for in bypassing speech she lost also that certain space of time necessary for changing one's mind. The effects were just as immediate. Her companion coughed slightly, flooding abused lungs with ample oxygen once more. A moment afterwards, Saro felt the caress of displaced air and the vague, unsettling wash of emotions she did not think were her own. Nothing distinct, no, but just for an instant a terrible feeling- hollowness, regret, shock- swept over her, following the physical breeze with the fury and unexpectedness of undertow after a wave. A realization, a heartbeat, and it passed, leaving the scholar alone with revelations of her own. She gasped, leaning one trembling hand on the back of a pew for support...as she realized what had just happened, she lost entirely what colour there was in her naturally pale features. Our Father, Who art in heaven, forgive me..., she prayed shakily, and then softly added another line aloud, to reassure the woman who, having recovered herself, was watching her with concern. "I...I think I've just done something unforgiveable..."
She had not known...
Too tight. The hands were too tight. Her body screamed for breath and her eyes began to tear as she struggled to force some tiny bit of air through the cold and unyielding fingers that still wrapped about her throat. For the first time, she began to worry, truly worry, and her thoughts flew in seemingly random directions, taking her down twisted paths she didn't want to go. She'd never expected to escape the shadows that lined each path in varying shades and depths. No, she'd never expected to place the grim shades fully behind her, but the paths before her led to places she couldn't go, not now, not yet. She had to escape, she knew, she had to get away before the deadened fingers tightened again, drawing out the warmth of her own flesh and replacing it with a silent and gelid promise. Shades, why wasn't he letting go? She'd nodded. She'd answered his question. He had to know she meant the scholar no harm. Why didn't he let . . .
She gasped. The chillsome fingers slipped from her neck and waist, and air, cold and bracing, swept into her lungs. Her eyes widened in icy shock, and had she not been still held by the Sexton's spell, she would have fallen forward with the sudden rush. But she was still held, and her captor wasn't yet through with his game—it was never that simple with his kind. No, they had to toy with their prey, delighting in feline cruelty, consumed by the feral need that drove them. If the one that held her spoke the truth, then he was different in some respects, but in this one way, at least, he appeared to be like all of his kin, whetting an unnatural appetite with the ambrosial taste of fear. And so she waited, still held fast within the ethereal grasp for the final taunt, the last bit of mockery he would savor. It came as breathless whisper in her ear.
"Well now, guilder...that wasn't so difficult, now was it?"
She felt a chill tingle at the nape of neck as the voice faded, and she hoped that his need for amusement been finally been sated. The tingle lasted but an instant, however, before it was replaced by something else altogether. Panic . . . sharp, biting, panic. It wasn't hers. It originated from somewhere behind her . . . from the Sexton. So strong that it was almost palpable, it raced through her frame as if it belonged to her as well before vanishing along with the power that held her, but not before the voice rang one final time in her ear.
She found the word quite fitting, doubly so . . . perhaps even more. Had the situation been different, it might have even been amusing in an empty, humorless way. But in the somber half-light of the church, and recently released from the intangible hold, there was no amusement. There was only freedom, and having thus recovered that freedom, Quaralyn spent the next handful of seconds trying to recover her wits. She could sense that the Sexton was still within the church, lurking . . . no, not lurking, hiding . . . hiding within the shadows. Something had stung him, though she knew not what, and he had fled into the dark and billowy arms of the shadows to hide. They were comfortable, she knew, and welcoming—and their warm, gentle embrace whispered quiet promises that pulled with the silken threads of a siren's song. Oh yes, she knew them, and she knew those who dwelt within them, including the Sexton, though perhaps not as well as she thought, or perhaps even more than he imagined.
She thought she saw him, focusing briefly on one shadow that seemed somehow darker and more substantial than the rest, and a thought flickered nearly aloud as she gave a final glance in what might have been his direction, 'This isn't finished.' It wasn't a boastful thought, nor was it threatening, but rather a simple recognition of something begun and left undone. She didn't know what the Scholar knew about the figure that now hovered somewhere above them, but she knew a few things the woman didn't. She knew about dark choices . . . about pasts best forgotten . . . about regret. She knew. And knowing, she decided to leave the Sexton to the solace of his shadows—for now.
At first she had disbelieved his supposed role as protector of the church and those that sought sanctuary within it, but after her anger had faded, she realized, with another wave of irony, that it wasn't without precedent. Guilt was a powerful motivator, causing those caught within its reflective gaze to do virtually anything to change the image that stared back at them with cold accusation. It might well turn kindred into guardian; she smiled wryly, or thief into escort—predator into protector. And so, while the Sexton's actions were at first surprising, even unexpected, they were not beyond her understanding.
The Scholar's actions, however, were largely incomprehensible to Quaralyn, and it took her considerably longer to bring them within any form of understanding. In fact, it was more likely the Scholar's actions rather than the Sexton's that caused Quaralyn to reel in mild shock following her release, for caught within the infinite seconds of the Sexton's hold, she remembered quite clearly that the Scholar had tried to help her. Guilt struck again with a savage blow, and Quaralyn found herself wishing sardonically that she could join the Sexton within the plenteous shaded that still graced the church in the last of the predawn hour. Throughout their strange and convoluted journey to the cathedral, Quaralyn had tried again and again to frighten the Scholar, employing threats both verbal and physical, both subtle and blunt. And yet, as she had stood frozen within the Sexton's embrace, the woman had stepped forward to help her. Quaralyn didn't know many people who would have done the same.
Free of the hold, she looked at the Scholar again as if seeing her for the first time. The woman looked the same—tall, slender, black hair framing a pale complexion, blue-grey eyes housing a keen intellect. She hadn't changed since the first glimpse Quaralyn had caught of her. She was the same research-oriented, book-toting, proverbial absent-minded professor she was before. But there was something more about her now. It had been there all along, but it had taken the preceding events for Quaralyn to see it, as if she, and not the Scholar, was the one in need of the spectacles that sat slightly askew on the Scholar's face.
It had been curiosity, she knew, that previously led the Scholar to send the guardsman away and to continue her journey with a dark-clad and unnamed stranger when prudence would have suggested a more careful course of action. But it wasn't curiosity that prompted her to help the same woman who scant hours ago had pinned her against an unyielding wall with a rough hand and daggersharp stare. No, not curiosity. It was something more—something Quaralyn didn't entirely understand, and she looked at the Scholar again as if closer observation would explain. It didn't. Instead it served only to add greater confusion to a mind already grasping for order. She felt . . . she wasn't sure what she felt, but she thought she should say something to the woman and she opened her mouth to speak, only then discovering that she didn't know what to say. After several unsuccessful attempts to find the right words, or indeed any words for that matter, she closed her mouth again and simply looked at the woman.
In the silence that followed, a look of mingled bewilderment and gratitude crept tentatively across her face, finding itself on unfamiliar footing in the dark green eyes and sharp features that usually housed suspicion and sarcasm. It was possible, just possible, that as Quaralyn looked at the Scholar, her expression and silence said more than any of the sharp-tongued comments that were her wont. But regardless, they lasted only an instant before the thief regained herself and pulled another of her snug-fitting masks across a ready palate of flesh and bone.
Now that she had recovered, she realized that Scholar had been shaken—badly. Her pale face had grown a shade paler, and the slate blue eyes had widened in a mix of emotion that Quaralyn partially recognized. A tiny gasp followed as the Scholar fell forward and placed an unsteady hand on the back of a pew. She was quiet for a moment, just a moment, before she looked to her companion again, breaking the silence with a trembling whisper. "I...I think I've just done something unforgiveable..."
"No," Quaralyn began. Her tone was something beyond mere compassion or reassurance, suggesting an additional knowledge which the thief may or may not have had. But the tone itself was certain, and it gave no hint that its owner might not be as sure she seemed, "No. It wasn't you. I think it's rather more likely that my presence here is not entirely appreciated." She looked squarely at the scholar as she spoke, her face devoid of nearly all the deception it generally held, as if she had plucked the last petal from a tired daisy in a game of childlike simplicity and let it fall in gentle quietness onto the cold, stone floor of the church. It was a look which said that she knew what the Scholar knew, and that the other's knowledge didn't matter. "I shouldn't have followed you in."
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