The Calling

The Calling

Soren paced impatiently back and forth in his office waiting for the Ranger he had sent for that morning to finally arrive. Glancing out the window at the sun as it hovered just above the horizon, he muttered a light curse. He hated to be kept waiting, a fact he tried to make abundantly clear to the Rangers under him, plus he wanted this business cleared before Lord Calo awoke for the evening. He had become the Rangers' second in command shortly after had Marcus disappeared, and was presumed dead almost two years ago. Soren had been one of the first Rangers in Stormpoint, and always he had been second to Marcus, always. To this day he felt the competition between them, even with Marcus in his grave, as if both the Rangers and Lord Calo were constantly comparing him to Marcus, and finding him wanting. The Rangers' seemingly constant tardiness whenever Soren would summon them only compounded this feeling, and only served to feed his near constant ill moods.

"Blast you to Hades, I left you for dead.. You're dead do you hear me... I watched him kill you.. So why the gods can I not be free of you?!?!" Soren hissed through clenched teeth, as he stopped in his pacing and shook his upraised fist at his unseen rival in the sky. He hated Marcus, hated him enough to have left him to die in that den of thieves waiting for Soren to step in and help him. Soren had watched Marcus fight and die through the skylight, watched as the thief brought the mace down repeatedly till Marcus laid there unmoving, and he had left Marcus there when the female thief had seen him through the skylight. Soren stood there, his short wiry frame trembling with rage as he tried to master his both thoughts and himself when the knock sounded from the door. His narrow overly sharp features creased into a scowl as he turned towards the door. His eyes narrowed and he could not hide the annoyance in his voice. "Come in, you're late."


"On the path of good intentions...."


"Come in, you're late."

He was angry, but then again, he was always angry; and like so many things, after a while, his perpetual cloud of gloom had lost its intended effect. Eventually, it would become amusing, and after that, pathetic. Right now, however, it was simply disregarded as unimportant by the uniformed woman who opened the door and stepped inside.

She didn't bother to explain her tardiness, partly because there was no real point, but mostly because she liked to keep her interactions with Soren brief. Prolonged exposure tended to cause nausea. His office, as usual, was neat . . . too neat in her opinion. She never trusted people with overly tidy offices, finding from experience that it generally meant that they weren't doing much in the way of work. Tidy idleness, someone had called it. She found it an apt description.

To be honest, Sherrill had never much cared Soren; and what had started as little more than an odd feeling of discomfort had grown steadily into dislike over the years they'd served in the rangers. Since Marcus' disappearance and Soren's subsequent promotion, however, the dislike had blossomed into contempt. She wasn't alone in her feelings regarding the rangers' current head, but she was pretty sure her feelings ran the deepest. She'd been cut short by him too many times, ordered to abandon fruitful avenues of investigation and instructed instead to follow circuitous paths to nowhere. Put simply, she didn't trust his instincts, but more precisely, she didn't trust him.

She didn't know why he had summoned her. She wasn't working anything of interest at the moment, largely due to fact that the assignments he'd given her of late could be handled by a half-blind trainee. With any luck, he'd keep it short and she'd be out quickly. She waited. Time ticked silently by and still he stood, mired in the same sullenness to which she'd grown accustomed. What the hell was he waiting for? Christmas? She strongly considered playing along and remaining silent herself, but the feeling of nausea was beginning to grow and frankly, it just wasn't worth it. Rolling her eyes and hoping for brevity, she broke the silence herself.

"Is there a reason I'm here?"

Sherrill Erynann


When she walked in, Soren made a show of reading some document as he sat on the edge of his desk. It seemed fitting that since Sherrill had made him wait for her, she should now she would wait for him. He didn't care for the woman much. Far too often she had questioned his orders. He had even petitioned Calo to reassign her to more mundane clerical duties for which he argued she was far more qualified. Unfortunately, Calo had not seen it Soren's way, and had ordered his second to do what he had to in order to make peace with the annoying female. To that end, Soren had gone out of his way to keep their interactions to a minimum, busying her with whatever minor assignment had appeared on his desk. He had hoped that she might leave on her own accord, but again he was disappointed as she handle each efficiently as ever.

A new chance had recently emerged, however, with the latest item that had fluttered across his desk, and he hoped it would prove to be distasteful enough that he might finally be rid of her. He held on to that pleasant thought when her grating voice finally broke the silence.

"Is there a reason I'm here?"

Soren shuffled the papers and shook his head softly, placing them neatly on the desk next to him. "Of course there's a reason you're here, I sent for you, now please have a seat."

He stood, folding his arms behind his back he turned to peer out of his office window that overlooked the Ranger training yards below. He did not look to see if she had taken his offer of a seat, as he really did not care either way. He stood there quietly for a few more moments before speaking, just to reassert his authority.

"I know your assignments have not been exactly to your liking of late, but we all have to do the best with what we get. But I received a request for a Ranger today from the Watch that I felt you might find intriguing. It needs to be looked into immediately. Since I know your current tasks can be placed on hold for the time being, I'm assigning you to this matter."

He waved towards a parchment that bore the Watch's seal laying on his desk before continuing.

"Apparently, there have been three murders in the shanty town at Stormpoint's northern quarter near, the gypsy camp. The Watch commander for that area, an orc named Grimald, feels that they are of a singular interest and that they warrant the attention of the Rangers. They have dealt with the scenes of the first two murders that happened about a week ago, and you will have to speak with them on what was found there. But the scene of the last murder, which was discovered this morning, has been sealed and the Watch are standing guard to insure it remains undisturbed till you arrive. I expect you to make contact with Grimald . . ." Soren could not help smirking since he was sure that the orc would get along wonderfully with the half-elven woman he was sending. " . . . so he can arrange an escort for you in the shanty town. You can make whatever inquires you need of him then. Do you have any questions? If not, I expect you to leave immediately and to have this matter cleared up with your usually efficiency."


"On the path of good intentions...."


"Of course there's a reason you're here, I sent for you, now please have a seat."

Preferring to keep their meeting as brief as possible, she remained standing while he prattled on about the triviality of her most recent assignments, acting as if fate, rather than he, had dealt her the hand of minor offenses she currently held. She was sorely tempted to let his words drift soundlessly away this time, but she'd made it a habit of keeping her ears sharp around him, waiting for the slip bound to come . . . eventually.

"I received a request for a Ranger today from the Watch that I felt you might find intriguing . . . . I'm assigning you to this matter. Apparently, there have been three murders in the shanty town at Stormpoint's northern quarter near, the gypsy camp."

Her eyes narrowed with no small measure of suspicion as she listened to his account. What was he up to? It had been years since she'd been assigned to a murder investigation . . . to a particular murder investigation, in fact . . . and he'd meddled in her inquests to such an extent that physical evidence had been irretrievably lost. Her jaw tightened as memories resurface, bone grinding against bone in renewed anger and frustration. Truthfully, smaller crimes and criminals bothered Sherrill very little, but seeing deaths go unavenged sickened her to the core. And when those deaths claimed the lives of friends, her blood nearly boiled with rage. The years that had passed and Calo's official closure of the case had only reduced the matter to a steady simmer that bubbled constantly in the back of her mind. It thus took very little to rekindle both the memories of the event and bitter ire they inspired. It took quite a bit more to regain control of herself and hide the flames of choler that burned in her eyes.

Fortunately, Soren wasn't looking at her, but was instead facing a window that overlooked the training yard below. She could hear the voices of the instructors barking out orders to their new charges and she focused on this and the unison responses, using the even drone of the cadence to quell the anger within. She took in the rest of Soren's sparse details with care, stifling a grimace when he mentioned the orc. There was long history of hatred between elves and orcs, and though she was only half-elven, she had not escaped the resulting sentiments. It wasn't going to make things easy, but then again, anything was preferable to her current duties.

"Do you have any questions?" Soren finally concluded with a verbal sneer. "If not, I expect you to leave immediately and to have this matter cleared up with your usually efficiency."

Eager for once to comply with his expectations, she took the parchment from his desk and left with neither word nor sound so that when his eyes turned towards her at last they found her already gone. It was a result which no doubt pleased them both.


It didn't take her long to make her way through the city. She knew Stormpoint well, very well, having committed every back alley and darkened path to memory long ago ... a trait from an earlier, if somewhat incongruous, profession. Brief as her trip was, however, it gave her time to consider and reconsider both her current assignment and Soren's motives. She was probably being sent on a fool's chase, and she more than half expected to discover that the "murders" he referred to were nothing more than the poisoning of someone's dogs in retaliation for an equally underhanded blow. Angered anew at what she considered a strong likelihood, she strode on, her boots landing harder upon the stone streets, kicking up small puffs of dust at her heels. It fit her mood.

Dour minded yet straight-faced, she rounded a corner behind what used to be The Raven and was greeted with the faintest wisp of music lilting buoyantly from the gypsy encampment. She'd always like the camp and those who currently dwelt there, and had known no major trouble within the city to claim the gypsies as its source. The music grew louder as she neared the camps, but did little to improve her current humor. She thus arrived at the outskirts of the shanty town that touched the far edges of the gypsy camp wearing much the same mien as she had earlier.

The watch station towards which she was headed stood on the border between the two, flanked by crimson-cloaked members of the watch. Garbed in the black livery of the rangers, she blew past them without regard or introduction and began her search for the commander named Grimald. Being the only orc in the room, he wasn't hard to find, and the insignia that hung from the shoulder of his uniform indicated that he was in fact the commander of the station. His dark green skin looked near black in the indirect light, and his musculared yet stooped frame bespoke the physical power his race wielded. They respected strength above all else and dealt poorly with those they perceived to be lacking it. As a half-elf and a woman, she thus had two strikes against her. She didn't wait to get a third.

Striding up towards the orc without hesitation, she stopped only when her boots stood a foot away from his and glared down at him with steel-trained eyes. "Grimald? Heard you've got a problem. I trust you don't want any more."

Sherrill Erynann


Grimald glanced up at the Ranger from the paperwork on his desk as his hand came up to absently reposition the wire-rimmed glasses. They looked out of place on the orc, given that his kind was known more for their martial than scholarly skills. Given an orc's strength, however, it's doubtful anyone would comment. He looked at the Ranger standing in front of him with a barely disguised scowl. They had sent him both a female and an elf to deal with, and to make it worse, as a Ranger, she out ranked him. But apparently this one at least had a backbone, unlike some of the quill-pushers he'd dealt with from the castle. His dark eyes held her stare for a few moments, pleased when she did not give ground to his hard stare. Finally, he grunted and he waved her to the chair in front of his desk.

"About time one of you has shown up.. I've been requesting assistance for close to a month now. Things have been damn peculiar of late. I've had more petty theft, violence, and general disturbances last month than the entire year before. And now this..." He paused with a grim look on his face as he handed a bound stack of parchments to her. "Bloody business that. I've never seen its like nor care to again..."

Grimald continued as he watched the Ranger untie the papers and begin to read. "Butchered like animals.. With no good reason for it. I don't know who or what's capable of something like that, but I suspect the gypsies. Near impossible to keep track of them, always coming and going without so much as a by your leave. Least with the squatters you've got some idea who's who, but that blasted camp can completely change over night. After that mess you're reading about, I gave orders that the gypsies were not to be wandering about at night without good reason. Thought that had worked, but we came across the.... the other site yesterday. They turned down my request to empty the gypsy camp and send them all packing back to wherever they had come from, and deal with the problem. So, here you are instead. You Rangers are supposed to be the best... I want whatever did these things off my streets one way or another. I don't care how. I have enough on my hands keeping the peace. If you want, I'll assign an escort for you. Personally, I advise it, the way things have been, but it's your choice. Aside from that, any questions? Are you clear what I expect?" The last statement carried a clearly defiant tone. The elf might outrank him, but this was his command and he wouldn't give up his authority so easily



The orc spoke in a slow and steady manner as she perused the documents he'd handed her, the end of his speech corresponding roughly with her completion of the report.

"Aside from that, any questions?" The orc asked. "Are you clear what I expect?"

The last statement carried a clearly defiant tone that wasn't missed by the ranger, and she wasn't in a mood to mince words.

"Perfectly," she clipped back.  "You expect me to do my job.  I expect you to do yours.  As long we're clear on that, we won't have any problems. Keep me apprised of any new incidents, and I'll let you know if I have further need of you. And one more thing. I'm going to give you till the end of the day to lift the curfew on the camps on your own."

She left without further "pleasantries," not finding herself in the mood for them either after the report she'd just read. It had painted a grim picture, one the orc hadn't been wrong in calling "bloody business," and involved a couple who had recently escaped from the shattered lands to relocate in Stormpoint.  Unfortunately for them, their luck hadn't held out. Two weeks ago they were discovered dead in their new home . . . no, not just dead . . . mutilated.  According to the watch patrol that detailed the scene, the couple appeared to have met their end with at least a small degree of defiance.  The watch believed that the husband was slain first as his body was found fully clothed with a slit neck.  The wife, however, was found unclad, and her body bore multiple bruises.  Both had been mutilated, presumably post-mortem, and were missing both their hearts and their eyes.

Sherrill was spitting mad. Why the hell hadn't Soren dispatched a ranger immediately after the discovery? With two weeks gone, the bodies had surely been burned and the house too contaminated by curiosity seekers to hold much in the way of useful evidence. Damn, what was he thinking? That it was some "garden variety" incident? She nearly snorted in derision. The slayer had taken the time to write runes on the walls and floor in the couple's blood.  Didn't that grab him as out of the ordinary? Had he even read the incident report? She kicked a small stone and sent it skittering down the street ahead of her as she marched angrily onward.

As of yet, no one had been able to translate the runes.  Sherrill had a fair amount of knowledge in arcane lore, but looking at the copy of them in the report, she couldn't translate them either. It only served to stoke her anger. The watch's best guess was that the pair was slain by agents from the shattered lands for some unknown reason, and that the runes were left as a warning for others who fled the area. Sherrill considered that unlikely.  The turmoil in the shattered lands was too widespread to take notice of any one couple's departure, unless they brought with them an item of considerable import, and if that were the case, the assassin would hardly wish to draw attention to their demise.  Moreover, even assuming that an unnamed force was attempting to prevent emigration from the lands into Stormpoint, it seemed likely that they'd leave a far more direct message than unreadable runes.  No, something else was going on, something far more serious than the watch could guess. 

If it weren't for the runes, she'd be tempted to say a necromancer was at work, as several of their vile conjurations required the culling of human organs.  It was, of course, possible that the runes might have been left as a diversion, but Sherrill deemed that unlikely too. A killer who had the time to draft such a grisly calling card had time to remove the bodies entirely, and that would be a far more effective way to elude capture. No, something else was definitely at work, and it hadn't stopped with the couple Soren had so blithely ignored.

This morning, three, no, at least three more were found dead in a shanty house located towards the northwest, outside of the city wall. The watch hadn't disturbed the scene, but had entered only long enough to ensure that everyone within the structure was dead and to learn that the same blood-written runes were present as well, strongly suggesting that the same killer was involved. She cursed aloud, not caring if anyone was close enough to hear. Soren should have acted on this sooner, and her report on the matter would say as much.

As she saw it, she had two options available to her. She could either go directly to the scene of the latest slaying, or she could find someone who might be able to translate the runes. Normally, she'd have taken the former, but as she had to pass the gypsy camps to reach the scene, she decided one trip was better than two. If the killer had struck twice already, there was a far better than even chance that he'd try to strike again. If Sherrill wanted to keep that from happening, she needed to move quickly. She thus entered, rather than skirted the border of the gypsy camps. The strains of music still lilted like drops of spring in the air, but her mood remained dark. Clad in the black and silver color of her cadre, she stood in stark contrast to the brightly dressed residents of the camps. It thus didn't take long for her to draw attention, and she politely yet pointedly let it be known that she was looking for either Sylvin Bordeaux or the one they called Leena of the Firelight. The former was the camp's current leader, the latter, someone Sherrill suspected could translate the copy of the runes she held clutched tight in a fist of raw anger.

Sherrill Erynann


Leena pursed her lips, a low purr drawing forth from the light rumble in her throat. She raised her arms over her head, pulling the knots from her muscles as her arms slid back to her sides. The morning had been a cool, uneventful one for her, and for that she smiled. The nightmares had haunted her sleep for near three weeks. Liliana was able to do nothing nor offer any words on the matter, which further bothered Leena. Liliana was her elder, gifted in the arcane, albeit a bit insane, she was still the perhaps one of the best in the camp.

Leena rose from the sitting position on the grass with a faint tinkle of the coins that lined the bottom of the light skirt she wore. Each step brought forth a faint chime from her ankle and those glittering coins slithering about her calves.

"Leena!" Josefina rushed towards the woman, out of breath. Wide eyes looked up at her elder in wonder and admiration. "Leena, there is a ranger here looking for you!"

Leena arched a brow, golden hues darkening at the girl's words. "A ranger?"

Josefina nodded. "It probably has to do with.." Josefina's words were cut off by a raise of Leena's hand. She knew all to well what it had to do with. The very same thing her nightmares had to do with.

The gypsy's steps quickened, a flash of bright orange and caramel skin rounding the corner of the wagons and starting across the fields. Perhaps there was more to the nightmares then Leena thought. A frown tugged at her lips, nimble fingers rising to push back the curtain of jet black hair. There was always something more to unpleasant dreams. She knew of the business that no doubt drew the Ranger out into the camps. She had seen the words on her eyelids, felt the chill on her skin at night.

The gentle chiming slowly halted as she approached the Ranger. Tall, Leena thought, in good shape and bad of mood. Irritated at such hostility and blatant desire for blood. She eyed the woman for a moment, noting her angry fists and her strong features. She had a fire in her eyes. Leena glanced up at the paleness of the sky, a flock of birds flying above took perch in a nearby maple. Leena nodded to herself before approaching. This one was someone she would see to helping. The signs were favorable.

"Buenos dias, senorita." Leena bowed her head for a brief moment before turning her amber gaze to match the woman's. "You come seeking information and fear none can answer the puzzling message, yes?"



Talina raced through the camps upon hearing the Ranger's words.  A small girl went largely unnoticed in the populous camp, and the Ranger's arrival caused a stir of activity that allowed the girl to slip away from her older brother's watchful gaze.  She knew someone else would fetch Leena, but few in the camps dared enter Sylvin's tent during the daylight hours.  Most were wary, and some were outright fearful, despite their respect for her.  Sylvin had developed a warm fondness for the small girl, seeing her as the daughter she would never have.  Thus, Talina went unafraid into Sylvin's carefully darkened domicile.  Immediately inside the tent flap was a table with a small candle and flint.  Talina carefully lit the candle and walked over to Sylvin's bed platform.  She reached out her small warm hand, and wondered anew at the marble-like feel of the woman's skin.  Cold as death, yet very much alive.  Sylvin had not been in slumber very long, and sensed the change in the rhythm of the camp the Ranger's arrival produced.

Rising to the edge of wakefulness, she sensed Talina's touch before she felt it.  "I am awake, lovey.  Do me a favor, won't you?  Go tell the Ranger and Leena that I will join them shortly."  Her luminous silver gaze touched warmly on Talina's cherubic face, and Talina nodded a silent assent before she turned to put the candle back on the small table near the entrance.  As she extinguished the tiny flame, her mind began to race about what the arrival of this Ranger could mean to the camp.

Sylvin rose from her bed after Talina closed the tent flap behind her.  With a long sigh, she moved across the tent to her armoire.  Not needing the luxury of light, she deftly rummaged through the drawers until her fingers came across the object of her search. Returning to her bed, Sylvin sat on the edge and reached for the pitcher of water and glass she kept nearby on the ewer stand.  Pouring herself a small glassful, Sylvin mixed the contents of the packet she pulled from the armoire and drank it down in three gulps. Tidying her appearance while waiting for the potion to take full effect, Sylvin let her mind drift to the only possible reason for the Ranger's visit.  Everyone had heard about the murders several weeks passed.  They all assumed it was an isolated incident, but grudgingly abided by the curfew imposed by the city's Watch.  Now, news had reached her ears of another incident too close in circumstance to the first to be merely coincidental.  Securing her long mahogany hair in a bun, Sylvin made a rare sunlight appearance as she walked to the edge of the camp where Leena and the Ranger now stood.  Talina walked quickly back up to her.  "I told them you'd be right there, just like you said!"  Sylvin smiled thankfully down at the girl.  "Thank you, Talina.  Run back to your brother now, like a good girl."  Sylvin watched to make sure her parents took custody of her and turned back to address the matter at hand.

Leena had not made mention of it, but little escaped Sylvin's notice.  She knew the dancer had not been sleeping well of late, probably due to nightmares.  Sylvin thought Leena most likely had at least a small measure of The Gift, if not more, and hoped her dreams were not prophetic of the violence plaguing the outskirts of Stormpoint.  Others in the camps with The Gift had also been chased by night phantoms since the first murders took place.  No one had approached her directly about the murders, they were all fearful The Watch would persecute the gypsies for the crimes if they spoke too openly, but she knew a handful among the camps knew something about what was happening.  Approaching where Leena and the Ranger stood, Sylvin tried her best to smile in a welcoming manner to dispel the Ranger's apparent black mood.

"Bienvenidos.  What can we do for The Rangers?"



It took only a matters of moments for the two women Sherrill sought to come into view and introduce themselves. The first, Leena, came with a jingling step and a prognostic welcome that Sherrill might have found annoying were she in a better mood. As it was, she was simply glad that the woman's reputation was proving to be accurate. She was soon followed by Sylvin, the camp's leader and, according to Sherrill's sources, a woman who was not usually about during the daylight hours. The ranger was gratified, but not surprised that they had come so quickly. In her experience, word traveled quickly about an encampment of any sort, and doubly so when the authorities were involved.

Both moved with surprising grace for humans, owing perhaps to the fact that their culture was rich with both song and dance. She made mental note of it, along with the fact that several of the other residents of the camp possessed a similar, if less fluid grace as they pretended to mill about while standing within clear earshot. She suppressed a grimace and said nothing as she gave a curt nod to Sylvin in deference to her leadership. Pressed for time and dour of mood, she began directly and without further formalities.

"I'm sure you've heard about the murders two weeks ago." It wasn't a question, and she didn't wait for affirmation. News of that import would certainly reach the ears of the camp leader, especially when suspicion followed fast upon its heels; and if Leena's reputation was in any way merited, she'd know of the slayings as well. "There's been another attack . . . nearby . . . a small house outside the walls. I'd like for you to check with your people . . . see if anyone heard or saw anything in the past few days."

She thought she saw the gypsy leader give a small nod, and thus she continued, broaching her next subject, that of the curfew, with a bit more caution. Though she wholly disagreed with Grimald on the issue, she didn't want to undermine the Watch's authority in the area. It was delicate balance, and she trod carefully. "As for the curfew you've been under, you can expect it to be lifted by tomorrow, though I suggest you encourage everyone to stay in at night for their own safety." She paused and drew a deep breath. "If this keeps up, there may be a citywide curfew, but you have my assurances, you won't be singled out again without cause." It wasn't a true apology, but it was as much of one as she could offer given her position, and she hoped the gypsy woman would understand.

Sherrill turned slightly to fully include Leena in the conversation, noting that the number around them had swelled slightly. Her and clenched hand clenching tighter on the parchment she held as she drew another deep breath and lowered her voice. She hated asking for help, but was smart to enough to realize when she needed it, even if her pride screamed fitfully in the background. "I was hoping also that I might be able to borrow the skills of some of your number. Our killer left some markings behind in the homes of his victims -- runes that no one's been able to translate. I've a copy from the first two murders here," she raised the parchment with a disgusted expression.

"I'm told you've some facility with such things," her eyes focused on Leena as she spoke. "If you would, I'd like you take a look at them ... see what you can make out, and come with me to the site of the latest slayings, where I'm told there are more." Her eyes flickered back to Sylvin as she added, "I'd be willing to take anyone else you think might be able to read them as well, provided they come with me now."

Sherrill Erynann


Leena's eyes befell the Ranger as she spoke. The twinge in her voice did little to hide her apparent anger. Perhaps there was more then lied on the surface of this one, Leena mused to herself, drawing her fingers to curl about her hips as she listened.

When the Ranger's eyes shifted towards Sylvin, it was then the gypsy dancer allowed her gaze to roam. She stood rigid and tall, a tight set to her jawline and determination belying hidden feelings that swirled within her eyes. Leena knew something deeper was plaguing the Ranger as she continued, moving on to the curfew her people had unjustly received.

Duly noted was the clenching and unclenching of her fists. Leena's gaze peered up through her lashes at the taller woman. She had indeed seen the slayings, albeit in her nightmares. There was no need for her to venture forth to the place of the latest slayings. This would go unsaid however because Leena was curious to see. Leena gave a quick nod in the Ranger's direction.

The gypsy dancer briefly gazed at Sylvin before offering a small smile to the woman Ranger. "Please do excuse our people, senorita, pero, they harbor ill feelings to those who would blame us for such brutality." Her tone was musical and light, meaning no disrespect, just statements of fact.

A chiming sound tinkled gently as she took a step to sweep a tanned arm out towards the caravan. "Perhaps you would join Sylvin and myself for a cup of tea in my home, Si?" She motioned towards the wagons forming a ring at the edge of the field. Small tents lied within the ring. "It would be more private for us to discuss such bad things."

Leena offered another polite smile. Amber eyes washed over Sylvin and an unspoken dialogue seemed to pass between the two gypsy women. She dropped her gaze towards the parchment that resided in Sherrill's hand before lowering her voice as if to offer a private explanation to Sylvin. "Yo los he visto en mis sueños." Leena understood that Sylvin no doubt already knew about her nightmares, but perhaps the meaning was now clearer.

With all settled, she once again swept a hand towards the caravan and began the lilting walk towards her tent. "I am afraid I did not catch your name."



Sylvin observed the Ranger as she made the reason for her presence known.  Her frame tight with suppressed anger and frustration, she seemed to be as affected by the murders as some of those in her camp.  Those who tried to unobtrusively observe the three women while doing busy work nearby would no doubt be sharing rumors and speculations over the campfires tonight.  Sylvin listened carefully to the Ranger's explanation of recent events and their possible consequences.  If her feelings were correct on the matter at hand, a citywide curfew would not stop the evil that seemed to be spreading towards Stormpoint.

Leena kindly offered to host the impromptu meeting in her quarters, for which Sylvin was grateful.  Her supply of lamp oil had grown low of late, and she had not yet ventured to town for a fresh supply.  Having taken her potion, Sylvin could at least tolerate the sunlight for a few more hours.  She turned to Leena to thank her for her generosity, but something in the dancer's gaze stopped her words in her throat.  An odd feeling washed over her as Leena seemed to share her impressions on the events without speaking a word.  Sylvin's acute ears caught Leena's almost inaudible whisper..."Yo los he visto en mis sueños."  So, Sylvin thought, she has seen the evil in her dreams.  Her silver gaze flicked to the parchment in the Ranger's hand and back to Leena in an unvoiced question.  Sensing her questions would shortly be answered, she followed Leena's lead.  "I am afraid I did not catch your name."  Sylvin smiled ever so slightly.  "Aye por supuesto, where are my manners?  Of course, introductions should be made."  Sylvin gestured to encompass herself and Leena.  "We have introduced ourselves, so it is only right we should call you by name.  Por favor, tell us your name."



"Sherrill," she answered as she followed her two hosts towards one of the many tents that dotted the sprawling camps, "Sherrill Erynann."

She had no interest in the tea Leena offered, and really didn't want to take the time retiring to the tent would entail, but as the number of curious ears had grown steadily since her arrival, she tacitly agreed that their conversation might best be continued in a more private locale. It was interesting, however, that Leena's offer had been followed by an aside to Sylvin in another tongue. The language she'd spoken was common among those who dwelt in the camps, suggesting that she'd used it for the singular purpose of keeping something from the ranger. It piqued the her curiosity. In Sherrill's experience, those who felt the need to maintain secrecy through such devices generally had questionable reasons for doing so; and though the message uttered seemed of no great import, she considered the matter as she followed the two women in silence.

Leena's tent was located near the center of the camp, giving Sherrill adequate opportunity to ponder the issue and to study both the camp's residents and its layout. As near as she could tell, the camp was about a hundred yards in diameter and formed a rough circle. Judging by the number of tents, she'd guess that it housed about twenty-five to thirty families plus a number of travelers whose wagons currently circled about its outer edges. Beyond the wagons, she could make out a few men casually circling the outside perimeter in a manner suggesting an informal guard -- a wise precaution given recent events. Nothing else struck her as remarkable, but rather seemed in keeping with the camp's daily life.

A few children were playing a game of seekers and seemed to be largely stumped by one of their number who was hiding, most inventively, by clinging to the saddles of two neighboring horses. She suppressed a smile. Older children were being schooled at various skills by sharp-eyed elders who currently brooked no mischief. A communal firepit sat unused, no doubt due to the impact the curfew had on hunting; but a few fires burned here and there, apparently drying a collection of herbs. Despite the seemingly normal atmosphere, however, Sherrill could tell that the camp's denizens were ill at ease with both the recent crimes and the blame which had fallen at their feet. She could hardly blame them, but met the gaze of those who looked her way without faltering. They reached Leena's tent in short order, and the seer held back the flap for them to enter. Sherrill was ready to defer to Sylvin's position, but when the camp leader gestured for her to enter first, she complied.

It was darker inside the tent, but the ranger's eyes adjusted with the speed of her kind, allowing her to take quick stock of her new surroundings. The canvas walls were draped with multihued fabrics, mostly dark blues and golds, but a few tones of red and orange appeared as well, giving the interior a warm glow in the aura of a low-burning candle that sat atop a scarf covered table. Beside the table was a simple cot, swathed in colors matching the walls. A low wooden table dominated the center of the tent. Atop it was an unadorned tea set and a deck of what Sherrill assumed to be tarot cards. A group of brightly colored pillows had been spilled about the table, creating a casual seating area on the floor.

Entering her tent with another ripple of chimes, Leena offered them a seat, waving a hand towards the floor pillows. Unencumbered, Sylvin sat gracefully upon the floor while the seer collected a kettle and went about the task of preparing tea. The ranger, being armed with the tools of her trade, had first to disarm. She removed both her bow and quiver with one fluid motion, and laid them carefully against one of the tent walls. A moment later they were joined by a katana, leaving their owner free to join the camp leader upon the floor. The leather of her uniform was supple, and she sat with ease across the table from Sylvin, trying to garner a measure of calm and patience while she waited for Leena to finish her task.

Sherrill Erynann


"Sherrill," she answered as she followed her two hosts towards one of the many tents that dotted the sprawling camps, "Sherrill Erynann."

Sylvin's ears perked at the peculiar accent of the Ranger Sherrill's name.  Sylvin had an ear for languages, and she'd spoken to the elven shopkeeper enough to recognize the similarities.  Deciding discretion would be best, Sylvin held further comments until they reached Leena's tent.  She sensed Sherrill's interest in the layout of the camp, whether for aesthetic or strategic purposes remained to be seen.  In passing through the camp, Sylvin sensed the curiosity of its residents directed toward the stranger.  One of the men, a trader by the name of Juan Carlos, shot the Ranger a look of spite out of anger over the current situation.  Sylvin caught his glare and held it ever so briefly, but it was enough for Juan Carlos to turn quickly away and direct his attentions elsewhere.

When they reached their destination, Leena held the tent flap to the side and Sylvin gestured for Sherrill to enter first as the guest.  Sylvin followed quickly behind and moved toward the low table at the center of the tent to allow Leena room to enter and tie the flap securely behind her.  Sinking gracefully to the pile of pillows strewn around the table, Sylvin watched with interest as Sherrill disencumbered herself of her array of personal weaponry.  First, the bow and quiver came off with such practiced ease that Sylvin's strong suspicions of Sherrill's heritage were confirmed.  The katana she stood next to the bow was of exceptional quality, and Sylvin had no doubt the blade was well oiled and honed to a keen edge.  She took note of the Ranger's tense posture and thought with displeasure on the topic their conversation would entail.  Knowing small talk would not make Sherrill any more at ease, Sylvin decided to get right to the heart of the matter.  "Before Leena finishes what I am sure will be an excellent brew, it might be wise to spread the parchment you mentioned had copies of the puzzling runes so we might begin this unpleasant business."



Leena noted the sound of Sherrill's last name when spoken. She nodded to the woman but the gypsy said nothing. Many tongues made up the world, including her own. Leena slipped into tent after Sherrill and Sylvin. She plucked the teapot off the table and turned to move to the other side of the tent, filling it with hot water from the little coal pile. She glanced at Sherrill's disarming, hiding a slight smile at the Ranger's arsenal.

"Before Leena finishes what I am sure will be an excellent brew, it might be wise to spread the parchment you mentioned had copies of the puzzling runes so we might begin this unpleasant business." Sylvin's words reached Leena's ears as she dropped a lemon slice into the steaming water. She frowned. These puzzling runes had been haunting her dreams for weeks now, vast slashes of red and black pushing out any pleasant image that dared to enter the Gypsy's mind. Leena already had consulted her cards which had told her nothing more than what she already knew; it was a dangerous situation the people of Stormpoint were in. The unfortunate souls of the people who were dead were no doubt trapped. Perhaps it was some twisted right of passage? Leena sighed and put a smile on as she turned towards her guests.

"Here we are." Leena slid to sit upon a cushion, placing the small teapot on the table and pulling a small pouch from underneath. She pinched tea leaves into each cup before following with lemon scented water. "Please, enjoy." She smiled toward the Ranger and settled her hands in her lap.

After Sherrill had nodded her thanks, but as Leena noted, drank very little of the tea, the Ranger's fingers unwound from the scroll to present it to the two Gypsy women. Leena's eyes immediately dropped to the scrawling writing, a frown tugging at her brow. She absently reached a few fingers towards the parchment and shook her head in contempt.

"Es malo." She whispered, entwining her fingers together and setting her folded hands on the table. "La Mal anda en el Stormpoint." Leena shook her head once more and looked up at Sylvin and then to Sherrill. She knew Sylvin had an understanding of the runes as well, though how much she was unsure of. This indeed was an ancient language, but in stories from various villages, and the lineage passed down from grandmother to mother to daughter, Leena had a pretty good idea what the symbols before her meant. She stood once more, the gentle chiming of her movements leading her to the small table by her cot. Leena reached inside for a few moments before drawing a small, weathered book out. She turned and took her seat again, pausing for a moment before looking towards Sherrill.

"These runes, senorita, are ancient." She had seen them, numerous times, and always tied with images of death and murder. "They have plagued my nightmares for weeks now. The cards have told me much of what I already know and things I still do not fully understand." She tapped a finger to the tarot deck. "There have been stories passed down from generation to generation, and tales told each dusk at firelight. It is also the way of those with a gift like mine to find meaning in things that seem unintelligible to others."

The gypsy paused for another moment to look back down at the book. Nimble fingers flipped through the pages until she found the one she was looking for. She slid the ancient tomb, yellow with age towards the parchment Sherrill had brought. The runes were very similar though apparently different on the pages in the book. "They are similar to other writing symbols, senorita, and though different, the general meaning is apparent." Leena flipped the page to reveal another set of similar runes before she tapped the Ranger's scroll. "These speak of Evil – La Mal." Leena slid her finger across the runes as she spoke. "It is a ritual of some sort, a ritual for killing others." She drew her fingers back and promptly raised the mug of tea to her lips. She was wary of evil forces and now, seeing the runes in front of her made her all the more cautious. She frowned, placing her mug back down and raising her gaze towards the Camp's leader. It was an interpretation and she knew it, but the ritual spoke of taking more than a life. With an apparent frown she looked back towards Sherrill. "These runes are at the murder site as well?"

For not wanting to go earlier, Leena was now ready to see the site of death. Perhaps it held more clues than she could gather from the writing. There was a missing link and Leena was going to decipher it, hoping to at least stop her nightmares and gather an understanding of what was going on. Leena glanced at Sylvin again. "Perhaps it speaks of the people, sin almas." She shook her head in apparent sadness. "We should see the site to gain a better understanding." As well as reveal more than the eye can see, she thought silently.



"Here we are." Leena slid to sit upon a cushion, placing the small teapot on the table and pulling a small pouch from underneath. She pinched tea leaves into each cup before following with lemon scented water. "Please, enjoy."

Sylvin nodded thanks as Leena poured the hot water over the tea leaves.  Raising the cup to her nose, she inhaled the pleasantly fragrant aroma before taking a cautious sip of the steaming brew.  Leena's next words caught her attention quickly.  "Es malo." She whispered, entwining her fingers together and setting her folded hands on the table. "La Mal anda en el Stormpoint."  Evil walks in the city...Sylvin knew as much herself already.  The runes now spread so casually before her gave off an aura of evil unto themselves.  It resembled ancient runes she had seen a very long time ago...almost in another life.  These runes, with their blatant connotations of evil, seemed designed to be part of a cruel ritual long abandoned.

Taking another sip of the tea, Sylvin detected a hint of chamomile and smiled wryly.  No amount of calm-enhancing herb was going to make this conversation more pleasant.  Sylvin watched as Leena rose to her cot and rummaged for something.  When Leena returned to the table, Sylvin listened to her words as she flipped through the yellowed pages of the of the book in her hand.  Leaning over slightly to observe the page she was showing the Ranger, Sylvin noticed the runes in Leena's book were virtually identical to ones she had seen in the past.  Leena's next words confirmed part of her suspicions.  "These speak of Evil – La Mal." Leena slid her finger across the runes as she spoke. "It is a ritual of some sort, a ritual for killing others."

"These runes are at the murder site as well?"

As Sylvin pondered the unpleasantness of the task at hand, Leena eerily voiced her thoughts.  "Perhaps it speaks of the people, sin almas." She shook her head in apparent sadness. "We should see the site to gain a better understanding."  People without souls...Sylvin shook her head as well.  Another of her thoughts also given voice with Leena's words; perhaps the runes were meant to trap the souls of the unfortunates from crossing into the next plane of existence.  She shuddered inwardly at the wickedness of it all, and glanced at Leena before she turned to Sherrill.  "Tell us what you think, Sherrill.  Is there some sort of ritual attached to these horrid crimes?"  Sylvin set her teacup carefully down on the table.  "Would it be possible for us to visit the scene of the murders to better understand them?"



Sherrill listened to Leena's interpretation of the runes without interruption, hoping that the seer was mistaken, but knowing at the same time that she probably wasn't. While the principle of parsimony might be preferred in most cases, to the best of the ranger's knowledge, William of Ockham had not visited Stormpoint. Sometimes a plurality of postulates was not only necessary, but prudent. Still, she was left with a bad taste in her mouth, and she doubted it was due to the tea. All murders were vile and twisted, to be sure, but murders of a mystical nature carried a further element of danger in both investigation and containment. The former didn't bother her. The latter did. Whatever evil the murderer was pursuing, he or she had already claimed at least five lives, and if Leena was correct and the runes did indicate some sort of ritual, more victims were likely to follow. She didn't like the thought of that, and she didn't like Leena's final theory that the runes might be referring to people as being 'sin almas' - without souls.

Her silent musings on the subject were brought to an end when the camp leader spoke. "Tell us what you think, Sherrill. Is there some sort of ritual attached to these horrid crimes? Would it be possible for us to visit the scene of the murders to better understand them?"

Sherrill grimaced shook her head slowly. Partly because she didn't like sharing her thoughts, and partly because she was sure that she'd asked for at least Leena to visit the site of the latest slaying before the whole business with the tea had started. She stopped herself short. She'd come to the camp for help, and the two before her had been nothing but helpful. They weren't her enemies, the killer was . . . she grimaced further . . . Soren was.

"I don't want to guess until we've visited the site," the ranger said finally, answering both questions at once. "And I'd like to get there as soon as possible."

There was storm coming. She could feel it in the air. It wasn't anything unusual for the port city, but Sherrill wanted to make use of the remaining light and, more importantly, she didn't want to wait while evidence washed away in the resulting rain. She'd already lost the chance to glean much information from the first site, and she be damned if she'd let it happen again now that she was on watch. She thus drained her cup in a hurried gesture of courtesy and set it back on the table before getting to her feet.

"Again, you're both welcome to come," she continued as she redonned bow, quiver, and blade, "but please, don't speak of the runes or anything else you may see to anyone."

Sherrill Erynann

Pluralitas non est ponenda sine ratione
(adapted from Ockham's Razor)


Outside the weather-worn house guarded by the city watch, a small crowd had gathered. Most were clumped together in groups of two or three, discussing in hushed whispers the theories and rumors that had sprung up like weeds in the wake of the latest slayings.

"I heard it was troll, come down from the mountains," a round-faced woman whispered.

"Naw, not a troll," a man next to her replied. "Troll woulda ripped the door clean off."

"It's the gyps, I tells ya," speculated another. "Nothin' but trouble ever come out of that camp."

"I bet it's the Ravenclaws," a gravel-voiced man declared. "Damn cutthroats, every last one of 'em!"

"Mrs. Norsol, who's nephew is in the watch, said it was a vampire," asserted a small woman with a pinched nose and an air of superiority.

"Er nephew couldn't find 'is arse with a curved torch," responded a heavily bearded man. His statement drew a few chuckles from those around, and he grinned at his own wit before adding, "Only thing that tears folks up like that is a weir."

Some nodded or murmured in agreement, others continued in rampant conjecture, a small handful remained silent. One, however, neither spoke nor speculated. He was a man of average height and average build with nothing to mark him as out of ordinary save for a peculiar expression pulled tight across otherwise nondescript features. He had moved from group to group for the past several minutes, not to hear their often wild-eyed theories, but to avoid the attention standing alone might draw. His expression changed little as he did so, remaining distant yet focused ...... a look of both concentration and contemplation that told little of what was taking place behind his unnoticed eyes.

None of those gathered paid him any heed ...... he was but one of many drawn like flies to the stink of the grisly scene ...... and no one marked when he stepped away from the crowd and began to walk back towards the city. His path took him across a high-grassed field to the side of the house, and here he paused ....... waiting ....... waiting while a small fur-covered creature squeezed itself out from between two poorly fitted boards of the house and snaked its way through the tall grass. Upon reaching the man, it scurried up his leg and took refuge inside an inner coat pocket. Both then left behind the house and field and continued unhurriedly back to the city of Stormpoint.

Striker Kel


Leena settled back, placing her hands on her knees as she listened to Sylvin's words. The gypsy's head swirled with possibilities, all dark and disturbing. Usually pleasant features turned to a frown as she turned her gaze to the speaking Ranger.

Quickly, the gypsy seer rose, gathering the book up in her arms before returning it to its place. She did not want any children who would happen to peek in her tent to get their hands on such a wealth of knowledge, and not all was good to learn.

"Thank you, Sherrill." Leena offered a smile. "We would certainly like to accompany you to see how we can further assist you." She nodded to the last words about keeping quiet. Leena could certainly understand the need for secrecy when the truth seemed was as dark as a moonless night.

She quickly stepped towards the entrance of the tent, slipping her feet into the slippers near the door. The gentle chiming of her movements commenced their singing as she pushed open the flap to the tent and held it open for the other two women.



Sherrill's mood improved only slightly as the trio exited Leena's tent and stepped back into the camp. It seemed to her that a few too many eyes were cast in their direction and that a few too many feet were moving quickly away from the tent, but she sincerely doubted they'd been able to hear anything of the conversation that had occurred within. Her face darkened as she shifted her bow to a better position. At least, she hoped they couldn't.

Leena followed in her wake, the chimes that she wore announcing each footfall. The ranger grimaced, but said nothing, glad that there wasn't any need for stealth and admittedly grateful that the woman had agreed to help. From the leader of the camp, however, she heard nothing, and she instinctively turned her head to glance behind. Sure enough, Sylvin wasn't following. The ranger's brow flickered momentarily, but she continued on her way. The woman may have had many tasks to oversee, but the ranger's suspicious attributed grimmer motives to her absence. It was already late afternoon, and when night fell in a few hours the woman's drive to feed would become stronger. Her stomach churned at the thought. So far as she knew, Sylvin didn't feed upon two-legged prey, but the ranger's elven nature roiled against that of the camp leader's. While she could accept that many of the kindred who lived within the city presented no danger to its warm-blooded inhabitants, their potential appetites still disturbed her, even if her patron now ranked among their number. Sherrill shook her head quickly. She didn't have time to muse. Sylvin was what she was, and if she wanted to join them later, she knew where to find them.

They thus left the camp and the city without speaking, traveling in silence save for the steady chime of Leena's -- each left to her own thoughts. For the life of her, Sherrill couldn't understand why Soren hadn't acted on the killings sooner. She'd been out of the city until yester eve, working on the same type of trifling affair he always assigned her; but he'd been in the city all along. Unless he was even more dimwitted than she thought, he'd had to have known there was more to these deaths than "usual." She bit the inside of her cheek as she considered the matter. Something was wrong, and she didn't like it.

She liked it even less as they drew near the site of the most recent slayings, a small house sitting on the outskirts of the city. The house was a hike from the main road, and the surrounding fields were left fallow this year. By rights, they should have found it standing alone, save for the small retinue sent by the city watch. Instead, they found it awash with a collection of "concerned citizens," who were buzzing about like so many bees.

"I still say it was a vampire," intoned a tiny woman with a look of exasperation about her features. Her immediate neighbors rolled their eyes, but otherwise ignored her, prompting an angry huff in response.

"It's the gypsies, I tells ya," a large man bellowed. "Thieves 'n killers, they are."

"Mighta just been a wolf," a thin, but wiry man suggested, "Tagris says e's seen em near 'is place."

"And just 'ow the 'ell does a wolf open a door?" another bystander asked as incredulously.

This last questioned led to host of speculation by those gathered about as one voice covered another, creating a pandemoneous drone that swelled as Sherrill and Leena approached as yet unnoticed. Annoyed as she was by their presence, Sherrill was somewhat mollified by the fact that their arguing gave her an opportunity to scan their number and commit many features to memory. None seemed overly suspicious, and in fact she knew many of them by name. The rangers made a habit of knowing as much about the city and its inhabitants as they could. It was an official policy, and it was kept very quiet, but it had served them well.

Her scan complete, the ranger wrinkled her nose as they pressed forward. She wasn't a full elf, but her senses were still far keener than those around her. She was paying for that now, as the acrid smell of blood and death assaulted her nostrils. Perhaps it was for the best that Sylvin hadn't come.

" . . . well ye should'na have been there in the first place!" The last voice of the bickering crowd rang clarion through the sudden hush. The ranger and her companion had at last been seen.

One man, bolder, or perhaps more foolhardy, than the rest stepped away from the others and moved slowly towards the new pair. Standing a good half foot taller than the gypsy woman, he stopped scant inches before her and glared down at her through narrowed eyes. When he received no immediate response, he learned forward and spat sharply at her feet. It was a mistake on many grounds, but the first of those grounds to catch up to him came in the form of a cat-quick hand that grabbed him by the front of his tunic shirt and pulled him before a clearly ill-tempered ranger.

"Well, I give you this, Korgin," she began, enunciating each word with clear derision. "It's the most intelligent thing that's come out of your mouth for some time." She resisted the urge to add that if he didn't clear out, the next thing to leave his mouth would be his tongue.

The quip drew a few chuckles from the others who had come to speculate and condemn, but it did little to stem the looks of accusation that flew as daggers towards Leena. The ranger the continued in louder, but no less derisive tone.

"If anyone has any 'useful' information, I'm ready to listen; but if you're here just to glut your morbid curiosity, I suggest you leave . . . now."

She held Korgin's gaze for another purposeful moment, then released him. His breathing pulsed with anger, but he said nothing as he shot one more look of disgust towards the gypsy then turned to walk away. A few followed him, slowly. Others appeared less eager to depart. The appearance of a ranger was noteworthy, and they wanted to know what it meant. Their curiosity, however, would not be assuaged that day.

"You!" Sherrill shouted at one the watch who stood beside the front door of the house. "In five minutes, start taking names of everyone here and see if you can find them 'lodgings' for the night."

The guard nodded, and the affirmed threat had its desired effect. The clumps of thrill seekers began to break up as individuals headed grudgingly back to either the city or surrounding farms. Their departure went some way to improving the ranger's mood, and she allowed herself a small moment of satisfaction as she watched them go. It was then that she noticed something odd.

Off to the side of the structure, standing in the fallow field, stood a solitary figure she'd not seen before. There was nothing remarkable about him, save his presence in the field and fact that his gaze was fixed, almost expectantly, on the house. Sherrill's eyes narrowed and she took a few slow steps in his direction, her own curiosity piqued. But the man seemed not to notice her and soon moved away of his own accord, the wild grass rustling around him. She wanted to follow, and had half made up her mind to do so when a rumble of thunder settled the matter. She cursed under her breath, squinting her eyes as she focused on the diminishing figure and trying to decide if she'd gotten a good enough look at the man to recognize him later. But whether she had or not, she couldn't go after him. She had to examine area around the house before any evidence that may be been left was washed away by the coming storm. She cursed again. There was nothing for it though. She had to stay and she didn't trust any of the watch enough to send them after the man. Moreover, she didn't want to spook him if there remained the possibility of finding him later. With a frustrated sigh and yet another curse, she let him go and turned back to the house.

The surrounding area where the onlookers had gathered might as well have been a parade ground. Footprints of all shapes and sizes marked the earth in overlapping and useless patterns. She gritted her teeth, but said nothing. Fortunately, the watch had had the wit to keep the cadre of curious away from the area immediately surrounding the house, not that it helped much. The windows were covered with mismatched boards, nailed over the remnants of rotting shutters. Sherrill very much doubted that anyone would have taken the trouble to remove them for entry and replace them afterwards, but she still knelt to the ground and looked for anything suggesting recent traffic. She found none. Anyone entering the house had done so through the front door.

The ranger's mouth twisted slightly to one side as she rose to her feet and strode back towards the front of the house. Two watchmen stood on either side of the door. The ground beside one of them had been recently disturbed, kicked into a small pile and pressed partially flat. The man who stood beside it wore a sheepish expression, telling Sherrill all she needed to know. She closed her eyes and slowly exhaled, hoping the frustration she felt would flow away so easily. It didn't, of course.

"Did you notice anything outside before you got sick?" She asked as patiently as she could manage.

The watchman coughed. "I'm afraid not. Sorry. But nothing looked out of place. We found the door unlocked."

She nodded and took a closer look at the door, running a gloved hand over its surface and around its frame, and finding nothing. A frown settled briefly on her face as she turned and walked back to where Leela stood.

"I'm going in now," she whispered. "If you'd like, you can come with me, or you can wait until the bodies have been covered."

Sherrill didn't appear surprised and said nothing in response when the seer stated that would follow immediately. But the ranger's mouth did twist to one side in an expression of quick contemplation before she gave a silent nod and turned on her heel. She didn't look back to see if Leena followed. She didn't have to, for the chimes that marked the seer's footfalls rang softly and steadily as they approached the guarded house. The sound drew the watchmen's attention, and as she saw their heads turn, Sherrill wondered briefly what they must be thinking. It brought the smallest hint of a wry smile to her eyes. 'Let them wonder,' she thought, deciding from their expressions that they were likely in need of something to think about.

Whether they had such need or not, they watchmen stepped aside as the peculiar pair neared, giving them berth to look around the entry once more; but Sherrill had already seen all that she needed of the area and decided that little else was to be gained from re-examining the watchmen's makeshift sand pile. She bit back the sound of irritation forming in the back of her throat and instead wrapped her gloved fingers around the handle of the door. The door's hinges were well-oiled, and it made no sounds of protest as the ranger opened it a few inches, allowing the air from within to rush out. The guards coughed as it did so, and one of them began to turn a pale shade of green.

The acrid smell of blood and flesh had been festering for over two days, if the ranger was any judge, and only the cool temp of season kept it from extending too far from the house and drawing every carrion feeder in the area. Sherrill wrinkled her nose, and reached her left hand into a pocket. She fished around for a few seconds, then pulled out a tightly sealed pouch and passed it Leena.

"Crush one and put a little in each nostril. It'll help with the smell."

It was an old trick--one she'd learned several years ago. Menthe leaves would cover just about anything. True, they didn't work quite as well when dried, but then again, their aroma didn't escape the pouch then either .... a fair trade. Helpful as they were, Sherrill couldn't use them just yet. She needed all her senses intact for the chore ahead, but there was no reason for Leena, or the watchmen for that matter, to suffer.

"If you start to feel sick, step outside . . . quickly."

Her last warning given, the ranger opened the door fully. She didn't enter, but instead knelt to the ground and studied both the threshold and the floor to the other side of it. Unlike the area outside the door, the watchman's earlier sickness hadn't altered the conditions within the structure; and she hoped that there was still a chance to learn something about the killer's entry.

Staring fixedly at the floor, Sherrill removed her gloves then slowly ran both hands over the worn wooden boards. For several minutes she stayed, hunched over and unspeaking, sweeping the floor with eyes and fingers. Her gaze narrowed from time to time, and on two occasions she lay almost prone on the floor, her stare nearly burning a hole into the boards beneath her. But when she finally stood, with her mouth tightened and her brow raised, she said nothing as she redonned her gloves and brushed the dust from her knees. To the unfamiliar, her expression might seem one of disappointment. The few who knew her, however, would have recognized it as a sign of evaluation. She might have hoped to find some sign of a struggle on either the frame or the floor, but she hadn't truly expected it. There'd been no such sign at the other killings. Whoever or whatever was committing these slayings seemed to have been let in voluntarily. She let out a sigh of indeterminate expression, then nodded toward the next room, indicating that Leena should follow her.

No stranger to either adventure or grief, Sherrill had seen many strange and gruesome sights during her life, both with the rangers and before. Still, what she saw within the common room of the guarded house stopped her cold and elicited a long intake of breath.

Blood and sinew strew the floor in red-slickened webs, and withered pools of crimson spread in eerily-distorted shapes far beyond their mangled founts. The smooth-worn boards of the floor and the hand-cobbled scraps of furniture were stained dark in many places, having drunk their fill of blood and fear; and the hearts as well as the eyes of all three victims were gone, their empty sockets reddened in an grisly stare of death. Vermin appeared to have already begun their work on the bodies, as the fingers of each and the nose one appeared partially gnawed, and small lines of blood trailed from the corpses to a tiny hole in the floor. But beyond it all, scrawled on the farthest wall from the door, were the same blood-written runes that stood witness to the earlier slayings.

The ranger closed her eyes momentarily, feeling suddenly less harsh towards the sickened watchman and wishing now that she'd told Leena to wait outside. But it was too late; and when she looked at the gypsy seer she found her constitution less affected than she would have guessed. She cleared her throat to draw the woman's attention, then spoke.

"Follow me, and be careful where you step."

She chose their path through the pallid remains of the house's occupants with care. She didn't want to disturb anything before she had a chance to take closer note, but she wanted to get Leena closer to the runes before the light waned any further. Already the sun was well past its highest point, and shadows, made sinister by their blood-crusted surroundings, grinned sardonically across the walls. Sherrill scowled back at them, but they were undaunted and only seemed to yawn and stretch further in response.

Once at the wall, the ranger left the seer to her private musings as she herself pulled a scroll from an inner pocket of her cloak and began to copy the runes with a sharpened bit of charcoal wrapped in hide. Their forms held little meaning for her, consisting of so many lines and curves painted onto the rough surface with the ebbing life-blood of those that lay below. She did note, however, that they were drawn with care. The killer had worked without haste had dipped his . . . or her . . . own hand into the blood for the work. The cool detachment of the act sickened the ranger, but her own expression remained impassive as she finished transcribing the runes then left the seer and the wall to begin her examination of the remains.

Sherrill Erynann


Leena followed Sherrill at a close distance. She did not want to be right at the Ranger's heels, yet she wanted to be close enough to read the features and movements of her guide. The images of the runes flashed through her mind as she thought back to what she had seen. The description Sherrill had given her of the deaths had done little to calm the incessant thoughts that plagued her mind; from her dreams, to the Ranger, to the mysterious runes.

Something was not adding up.

Leena frowned and looked up as they approached the apparent site of the deaths. There were a good many people standing by, and their words did not escape the gypsy's hearing. She sighed, knowing exactly what was going to happen when she wandered into this crowd. It was always the same when something bad happened in town. The very same people that came to toss coins at her dancing, who cheered for the shows at twilight, these people who came to get their fortunes read, trade for well bred horses or buy brightly dyed cloths, would rather damn the gypsies than think twice about what the gypsies really did.

Leena's footsteps fell short as the big man approached her. "Here we go." She inwardly sighed. Ready for an onslaught of angry words, she was taken aback when he instead spit at her feet. A set jaw showed nothing, though before she could lash out her own hand, Sherrill stepped in.

"Well, I give you this, Korgin," Sherrill began, enunciating each word with clear derision. "It's the most intelligent thing that's come out of your mouth for some time."

Leena, happy for the interruption on Sherrill's behalf, fell back and turned her attention to the rest of the crowd before looking to the small house a few yards away. When the Ranger was done with the crowd, the gentle chiming of the Gypsy's anklet began as she fell into step and approached the house.

She watched silently as Sherrill bent down to examine the ground, the house, and the guards. Very thorough, Leena thought, looking for something beyond what the eye can see no doubt. Everything the Ranger did pricked a deeper spot of respect inside Leena. She had long distrusted the Rangers, or any type of authority, but Sherrill was surely proving her wrong.

The evidence to support her previous thought grew as the Ranger pushed open the door to the house and the stench of death assailed their senses. Leena's mouth turned into a tight frown. When Sherrill offered her the Menthe, Leena nodded and kept silent, pushing the herb into her nose. She was slightly surprised the Ranger knew the old trick to keep unwanted smells from forming a home in the nose.

Leena watched as Sherrill hesitated to put the Menthe in her own nose. Not saying anything, she peered over the Ranger and into the house. What light was left was quickly fading, casting shadows all over the small room. Leena shivered, burying her fingers into the folds of her skirt.

Evil lurked within this house.

It whispered to her, riddles and secrets blowing easily through her mind. She could see it dancing in the shadows.

As the Ranger moved into the house, Leena followed suit, her fingers moving further to clamp on the folds of her skirt. The house was a sight of destruction and desecration of the human body. The gypsy had dreams and had seen nightmares of things people could not even imagine, but the blood and apparent maliciousness that lurked in this house sent Leena on edge. Never before had she witnessed firsthand something so evil.

"Dios mio." Leena whispered. "Bendiga estas almas!"

She was far more disturbed then she would let on. It was her job not to reveal everything she knew. Afterall, if someone had the stink of death or the shadow of the Gatekeeper following them when they came for a fortune, it was not the Gypsy's job to tell them such. They did not pay her for unwanted information, but rather for sugar-coated riddles.

Leena carefully trod behind the Ranger, allowing her eyes to slide across the room and drink in anything she saw. It was still in here, slithering across her skin and leaving a slimy trial of chills along her arms. The Gypsy watched the Ranger work, transcribing the runes. Leena simply stared, a hazy film covering her eyes. She was listening now. She could hear it, calling to her, the whispers too fast to make out words, but it was talking to her. It wanted her to know that it did this.

The sudden movement of Sherrill standing drew Leena back, and she focused on the runes that were carefully drawn onto the wall. They were like the ones that Sherrill had brought to her tent earlier that day. Evil. Images of murder, hatred, blood swam in the Gypsy's mind. She could almost hear the screams of past sins. Leena examined the runes, and satisfied they held a similar message to those earlier, she rose. She could compare Sherrill's transcribed ones to the ones in her tent later.

For now, she was going to focus on listening, and to watching the Ranger.

Satisfied with a job well done, the whispering began to fade, the slimy fingers slid down her arms. Leena glanced to the waning sun. Whatever evil was here was moving.



What was left of the victims lay not sprawled or in heaps upon the crimson-stained floor, but rather had been carefully laid out upon the boards so that their feet pointed toward the blood runes, as if by merely raising what remained of their heads they too might look upon the slayer's grisly message. This was no crime of passion. There was no rush. After the slayings the killer had worked with methodical patience to create the scene splayed across the room, and the ranger half-suspected that he'd enjoyed it. Sherrill clenched her teeth in disgust, but said nothing as she moved about the room, noting and recording distances between red-brown stains and various bits of flesh or sinew.

The light grew slowly dimmer as the sun continued on its westward path, but the ranger kept working, unmindful of it, owing perhaps in equal measure to stubborn determination and inhumanly keen eyes. She looked up only once during her task, when one of the guards at the door thought to enter and light two of the gas lamps that hung on an unmolested wall. A distracted nod in his direction was all he received by way of thanks, but it was more than he'd expected and he accepted it with a nod of his own before returning to his post outside.

"Sorry," the ranger intoned, focusing on the middle victim but clearly speaking to the seer. "I wasn't thinking."

She said nothing after this, but instead spent long moments in silent thought, either crouched by the bodies, or studying them from above, or staring hard at the wall; and in that silent thought, a picture was beginning to form. It was one that she'd have to check some facts about and receive some help to verify, but it fit the available evidence, and thus presented itself as a plausible working theory.

Judging by the resemblance between two of the victims, she guessed them to be parent and child -- the one a man, perhaps in his sixties - - the other a woman, somewhere in her thirties. On the third finger of the woman's left hand, she wore an unadorned band of silver. The third victim, a man, seemingly in his thirties as well, wore a similar band. The size of the house suggested that they shared it together, as did the contents of the neighboring rooms. The ranger hardly needed to examine their hands to tell that they'd earned their bread with rough labor, their home and trappings told that story plain enough, but she'd done so anyway and had noted a point of interest.

The father and daughter both bore wounds upon their hands, likely incurred, the ranger surmised, as they'd tried to defend themselves from their slayer's blade. The younger man, the husband, however, bore no such wounds. A wide and deep gouge to his stomach and two more to his legs had rendered him largely immobile. This one, Sherrill wagered, had been attacked first. She doubted, however, that he was the first to die. Though serious, the first inflicted wounds wouldn't cause immediate death .... that had been saved for later, seemingly caused by a long and likely slow-drawn cut across his neck. But prior to that, he'd been kept alive. If she had to guess, Sherrill would have said that the killer wanted him to watch his wife and her father die while he sat helpless at arms length, his own life-blood ebbing from his cooling body. Why though? So that the killer could relish in his victims' horror and anger? She shook her head as she knelt beside the woman.

This one had died first, or so the ranger thought. Her wounds, though few, were deep and quick. She had the least bruising, and she'd lost the least blood. The third victim, the father, had lost considerably more, suggesting that his heart had beat longer. And if the killer was in fact seeking to elicit his victims' fear and rage, what better way than to kill first the one who tied the three together--the wife of one, and the daughter of the other. Still kneeling beside the woman's body, Sherrill's lips tightened as she looked down at her bluing face.

The woman's eyes had been gouged out, as were those of her kin; but their mouths were sealed in grim, expressionless lines. The former she had expected, from the report of the last murders; the latter was surprising. Sherrill could think of only one explanation, and it made little sense. Why would the killer close their mouths? Her own mouth twisted to one side as she considered it for several long minutes, then finally opened to allow two words to float quietly down to the lifeless form below as her hand moved purposefully towards the woman's face.

"Goheno nin."

The stiffness of death had left the woman's body, and her lips parted easily beneath the ranger's gloved fingers. On first glance, Sherrill was relieved to find that everything looked normal, for she'd half feared that the killer had taken their tongues in some symbolic gesture of silencing them. Upon further examination, however, she discovered that rather than taking something from the woman's mouth, the killer had instead left something within it. Beneath her tongue, the hand that had dealt such vicious blows to her flesh had carefully placed a small, ebony disc. Frowning, the ranger removed it and raised it eye level, flipping it front to back in her leather-wrapped hand.

She knew what it was. Or at least, she thought she did. In the dim light by the floor, it looked for all the world like a thief's token, and not just any thief's token, but a dec. Her eyes tightened both in closer scrutiny of the disc and in consideration of its possible implications. A dec, she'd long ago learned, was more than a mere mark of trade, territory, or rank; but was instead a mark of a debt, of an obligation owed, of a favor to be repaid to the holder. They were given in return for an unusual and often dangerous service, and they could be issued by only one person -- a guild master. She'd seen one once, several years back. One of the High Justice's close friends had managed to lift it from its "rightful" owner. And another ranger, hoping to infiltrate the guild, had attempted to use it as leverage. The results were disastrous.

Her throat constricted at the memory. The small disc she now held in her hand was nearly identical to the one she remembered, to the one that had caused such grief; and for a long time she simple stared at it, unable to do otherwise.

But something about it didn't make sense. She nearly grunted with ill-tempered mockery. What had made sense in the blood-crusted room? Still, she mused, this made less sense than par. Why would something as valuable as a dec be left behind, beneath the tongue of a body left to rot? And why ....

She didn't finish the thought, but slid quickly to the bodies of the other two victims, too hurried to offer the quiet apology she'd given to the woman as she pulled from each of their mouths a similar ebony disc. Three victims. Three discs. Three tokens left to lie beneath three silent tongues. She shook her head in obvious frustration as her gloved hand clenched angrily around the three barbs. It was then that she seemed to remember that she wasn't alone, and her head snapped suddenly in the direction of the seer. Maybe the seer could sense something about them? She hesitated, for she could see Soren rolling his eyes at the thought; but she could also see herself landing her boot squarely in Soren's gut, and she repressed the guilty twinge of pleasure the image brought her.

Convinced that it was worth a try, she rose and closed the distance between her and the seer with deliberate strides.

"Could you tell me," she began, handing the strange, black discs to the gypsy, "do you sense anything, anything at all, from these?"

Sherrill Erynann


Leena peered around the house one more time. There was just so much in here that she did not want to see, but had to see. Leena shook her head and bit the inside of her cheek. Whatever feeling made her skin crawl earlier had seemed to leave the house, until Sherrill began to investigate the bodies.

Leena gave the ranger credit when she began to thoroughly look up and down the length of the bodies, and getting closer than she wanted, Leena bent over to watch. Sherrill seemed focused on the girl, though Leena wasn't exactly sure why. She did however notice, as the ranger reached towards the body, that the mouths were all sealed. No one screamed when they were attacked? Leena's first instinct would be to scream. Leena frowned and looked quizzically at Sherrill.

"Goheno nin."

"Excuse me?" Leena peered over Sherrill and watched as the stiffness left the woman's body and the ranger reached towards the mouth. Something small and black fell into the Ranger's gloved fingers. Without another word, Sherrill moved towards the other two bodies. The same appeared in each of their mouths.

"Could you tell me," she began, handing the strange, black discs to the gypsy, "do you sense anything, anything at all, from these?"

Leena looked from the bodies, to Sherrill and back again. Something inside her told her not to touch those discs, but at the same time, she was helping to solve this gruesome murder. Hesitantly, she reached out her hands and plucked one of the discs from the Ranger's gloved hand.

Instantly the Seer's eyes seemed to fade and flicker about. Leena's lips parted and then closed sharply. "Thief! Stop!" Leena's eyes flickered again and she quickly handed the disc back to Sherrill. "Ropes...binding... I don't know. I saw a shadow running down the street. A thief? ..." She frowned and slowly reached forward for another.

Again her eyes glazed over and she seemed to almost pale beneath the tanned skin. Leena hissed quietly and almost threw the disc back at the Ranger. "Blood drinkers! Night crawlers... Death. He didn't just scrawl with their blood.. he consumed it ... ?"

A riddle. Leena shook her head at the discs. She gently wrapped her fingers around the Ranger's glove and drew her hand up towards her face. Leena peered down at the discs once more. She pointed at the surface of them. "Runes." She released the Ranger's hand. "Like the visions. One almost looks like some sort of theft. I'd have to check. The other is very similar to the rune for consumption... the rune that's tied in with the blood drinkers." Leena frowned and looked towards the door. She did not want to stay here any longer than possible.

"The runes on the wall are similar to the ones we saw earlier. They have the same dark message of death as those you first showed me. Whoever made those earlier runes was the same as the one who did this..." She waved a hand behind her towards the wall.

Leena wrapped her arms around herself and absently rubbed her arms. The night was slowly creeping in and she would be more than happy to be away from the scene of this grisly crime before the stars rose.



The ranger waited while the seer overcame her reluctance and took the small discs in her hand. Sherrill couldn't fault her. It wasn't just squeamishness, but rather a natural loathsome of the gruesome indifference that surrounded them. She didn't know whether the woman had had occasion to realize it before. Few people did, but the ranger had long known the truth. Quite apart from the night-time assurances that parents gave to fearful children as their small hands nervously wrung the edges of their covers and their large, round eyes darted to the darkened corners of their previously sun-filled rooms; quite apart from the self-chiding reminders that many gave themselves as they traveled down lonesome alleyways at night, looking over their shoulders with every unnamed sound; yes, quite apart from these well-meaning or perhaps blissfully ignorant lies, there were, in fact, monsters.

It seemed an odd thing to say in a city like Stormpoint, where kindred dwelt openly, spirits hovered in the lamplight, and ogres served on the city watch, but these weren't the types of monsters that the truth encompassed. The *real* monsters, the ones to be feared, came not with fang or claw or leathered hide. No. The *real* monsters, the ones to be feared, looked and spoke and moved like any other, because they *were* like any other. It was comforting, of course, to say that they weren't human, or elven, or whatever race one happened to be. Oh yes, it was comforting, but it wasn't true. They were the same, born with the same heights and the same depravities of the soul. There was no visible difference. There was no formational fault. Where the true division lay, the ranger wasn't sure; and this very fact, this vague, amorphous boundary, this was the true, ice-fingered terror.

."Thief! Stop!"

Sherrill's heart skipped a beat with the seer's words, but her expression remained impassive. 'Are they decs after all,' she wondered, searching for any reason they'd be left behind.

"Ropes...binding... I don't know," Leena continued, "I saw a shadow running down the street. A thief? ..."

Sherrill nodded wordlessly, more in measured response to the seer's vision than in affirmation, for the idea of marking the corpses with decs still pulled against sense.

"Blood drinkers!" The gypsy hissed, nearly throwing the second disc back at Sherrill as she turned a near shade of pallor herself. "Night crawlers... Death. He didn't just scrawl with their blood.. he consumed it ... ?"

Kindred? The ranger's lips pursed, creating a small expression of vexed thought. The guild didn't employ kindred. At least, they never had in the past; and she didn't much care to consider what it might mean if they were doing so now. Their current cabalistic associations were bad enough. Nonetheless, she was considering exactly that when she felt Leena's hand wrap around her own, covering the discs with her palm as she raised both their hands to eye level.

"Runes," she said, pointing at the surface of the discs as she released the ranger's hand.

Sherrill blinked back her momentary confusion. What runes? She hadn't seen any runes before. But they were there now, glowing with a dark light against the smooth faces of the otherwise ebon discs. They faded too quickly, however, for the ranger to glean a clear impression of their shape; and so she had to rely on the seer's account, thankful that the woman's gift hadn't been over-reported.

"Like the visions," Leena explained. "One almost looks like some sort of theft. I'd have to check. The other is very similar to the rune for consumption... the rune that's tied in with the blood drinkers. The runes on the wall are similar to the ones we saw earlier. They have the same dark message of death as those you first showed me. Whoever made those earlier runes was the same as the one who did this..."

The runes were the same: theft, binding, consumption, death? The ranger's hand closed tightly around the discs and her eyes slid slowly from her clenched fist to the red-stained floor below as she tried again to tie all the threads together. Theft. But nothing had been stolen. Binding. But no one had been bound. Consumption. But no one had been consumed . . . at least not by kindred, she amended quickly, for the bodies had already begun to serve as sustenance for rats and other vermin. That much was clear from the shape of some of the smaller wounds and from the small, bloody paw prints that littered the floor around them. Puzzled, the ranger allowed her eyes to follow their mingled trails as her mind tried to follow similarly mingled clues.

Around the room, her eyes followed them. . . tiny, bloody prints dotting the floor, skirting about the bodies with ravenous purpose . . . tiny, crimson-soaked feet moving carrion-filled bellies . . . tiny death-spattered paws searching for food . . . .

She grimaced as she continued to trace their paths, following first one and then another while she mentally traced equally erratic paths of possibility. After a while, her feet began to move as well, following those same paths without any conscious thought . . . rambling . . . weaving . . . searching . . . .

Then, without warning, she froze. She froze and then moved again with greater speed and a more direct path, one word falling from her lips with the force of a lead weight.


Her pace and pulse quickened, following one set of tracks, one bloody set of prints, larger than the rest, as they scurried through the cloistered house. Like the rest, they were purposeful, but unlike the rest, their purpose was different. They weren't seeking food. Oh, their maker had stopped by the bodies, by each one, to be sure; but it hadn't touched them. And while other tracks had commenced and ended in other rooms, only this set visited each room of the house; and only this set had paused before the wall bearing the blood-scratched runes.

"No," the ranger repeated, this time in common. "No, no."

She followed them further, finding at last that they began and ended in the same place--a small and poorly-patched notch on the bottom of an exterior wall.

"Damn." The word was spoken quietly, too quietly, and it was soon repeated in a louder tone from between clenched teeth as the ranger strode quickly towards the door, her muffled steps sounding with self-apportioned anger. "Damn!"

Outside, the two guards were exchanging quiet smirks when the door suddenly flew open. They tried their best to stifle their expressions, and if the ranger noticed their amusement, she was either too busy or too angry to say anything as she stormed past them and around the corner of the house. The seer raced after her, no doubt both curious and slightly stunned at her display.

"Damn!" Her voice echoed again, this time as she found the same tiny set of tracks running from the notched wall and out into the fallow field that lay beside the home . . . the same fallow field in which she'd seen the strange, solitary man standing earlier. They ran into the field some forty feet where they met another set of tracks . . . this time, human . . . that traveled off into the bordering forest.

"Damn!" She shouted once more. Her whole framed had tightened to the point where she was almost vibrating with palpable anger, and she looked for all the world like she might suddenly explode in burst of ill-contained rage. But after a few moments she seemed to recall how to breathe, and walked back to the house and guards with a greater measure of control. When she spoke, however, it was with a low and smoldering voice that sat the guards' hair on end.

"You," she pointed at the larger of the two guards, "escort Miss Leena back to the camps. And remember, she's a guest, not a suspect. Got it?"

When the guard nodded, she continued. "When she's safely back, go to the morgue . . . no," she corrected herself, "it's too late. Go to 16 Crescent Lane. Ask for Simon Quait and bring him back here. He won't want to come, but tell him what's happened and remind him that he owes me a favor. When he gets here, do as he says. Clear?"

"Perfectly," the guard replied, nodding once more, "Sixteen Crescent Lane, Simon Quait."

"You," the ranger turned, pointing at the other guard, "you stay here. Don't let anyone or anything else near the house. I don't care if it's a squirrel or a chipmunk or the Lord Mayor of Rivenland. If it comes near the house, scare it off, ask it to leave, just get rid of it. Understand?"

The guard's face showed a clear measure of confusion over such an order, but he nodded anyway. "Yes, ma'am."

Confident that they understood the orders, if not the rationale, Sherrill gave what she thought was a final word of thanks to the seer and began to head back to the point in the field where the sets of tracks met. She'd only made it a few feet when Leena's voice rang out behind her.

"Wait. I'm coming with you."

Sherrill suppressed her initial reaction and instead continued forward, shaking her head. "Too dangerous. I don't know what's out there."

Behind her, she could hear the seer's determined chimes as she rushed to catch up.

"That's why I need to come."

The ranger stopped and spun back to face her, a hand on either hip and a look of determination that matched the gypsy's steps. "Look," was all she got out before a rumble of thunder drowned her voice.

"I've seen these runes," Leena explained when the thunder faded, taking quick advantage of the silence. "I've seen them nightly for weeks. They've haunted my dreams. They've brought terror to my heart and blame to my kin. I need to come. I need to."

Sherrill took a deep breath and held it for a long moment while the guards looked on from a few paces away. She could say no. She could say no and have one of them take Leena back to the camp by force if necessary, but she really didn't want the headaches that would cause. Relations were already strained between the camp and the rest of the city, particularly those in charge of its protection, and forcibly returning a gypsy who'd been asked to help would only make matters worse. As if in affirmation, another roll of thunder sounded. Furthermore, though she'd never admit it, she was moved by the seer's impassioned plea. She could understand the seer's need to absolve her kin and free her mind from the vision of the runes. And to top it off, despite her general dislike of relying on others, there remained the frustratingly irksome possibility that she might actually *need* the seer. She hadn't been lying when she said she didn't know what was out there. It might be more than tracks she needed to follow. What if the seer could sense something she couldn't? She shook her head, hoping that she wasn't going to regret what she was about to say.

"All right, but lose the chimes. We don't want them echoing in every ear of the forest. Use this."

She drew a sheath with a long hunting knife from her side and handed it to the seer, who reluctantly set to cutting the coins from the border of her skirts and removing the chimes from her ankles. At least, Sherrill thought to herself, she was wearing some sort of shoe, and the dim light of evening would soon render grey her bright-colored garb. She shook head again, still not believing that she was agreeing to this as the seer finished and started to hand the sheathed knife back to her.

"Keep it," the ranger replied, "and keep close."

Sherrill Erynann


The twins mingled among the crowd, hoping their long, dark drab skirts and shawls helped them to blend in. Even though it was hot, Seisha's hands stayed gloved and were shaking as they held the now empty lobster pots.

They had made a good sale that day and had been on their way back to their old tumble-down bothy at the Sea Cove when Sula had spotted crowds of people gathering near a solitary house in a nearby field .

"It's the gypsies, I tell you," they heard someone shout in a gruff voice. There was more shouting and muttering from the crowd. Intrigued, the girls had joined the crowd.

The air was heavy and dense. Sula looked at the sky. A thunderstorm was well overdue. She hoped they would make it back to the Cove in time before the rain started. She hated her skin getting wet. It became so itchy and patches of it would peel off!

They had arrived too late to see what was going on but there was plenty of talk from the crowd to give them a fair idea. A Ranger and a gypsy had been in the house for some time now, it seemed. Her sister nudged her as the Ranger came charging out and disappeared round the corner of the house, the gypsy woman following closely on her heels. A few minutes later they reappeared. The twins moved through the crowd to try and get closer to the Ranger who had stopped to speak to the Guards. As they drew nearer to the house, Seisha gagged at the smell and pulled her shawl over her mouth, giving her sister a questioning look.

Sula suddenly grabbed her sister's arm, bending forward with short, convulsive movements. "Don't be sick NOW, Sula," Seisha moaned. "We don't want to bring attention to ourselves." She spoke in a soft, low voice.

"The gypsy," Sula spat out through clenched teeth, wiping her mouth. The gypsy woman was not pleased about something, going by the raised voices. "Don't let her see you," whispered Sula.

There was a peal of thunder just as Seisha turned her head away and watched the gypsy out of the corner of her eye. There seemed to be a disagreement between gypsy and ranger, who were standing facing each other. Seisha couldn't make out what they were saying. It sounded angry!

There was another roll of thunder, louder this time. The crowd was dispersing and the twins were losing interest. Nothing more was to be learned and they didn't want to get caught in the rain. They started to move on.

"Wait! Look!" Seisha stopped and turned to her twin. "What is she doing? The gypsy woman! She is ripping off her enchanting bells!"

With raised eyebrows Sula answered, "That must be what they were arguing about. The evil spirits will get her now that she has no magic music to scare them away." She gave a curt laugh. It started to rain as they hurried back onto the path and they did not notice when the ranger and the gypsy disappeared again into the forest, being too busy with their own thoughts.

"Who do you think was murdered?" Seisha asked in hushed tones as they rounded the bend that would lead to the Sea Cove.

"What does it matter to us," Sula muttered in a temper. "Anyways, we don't know that someone was murdered."

Seisha stopped and jiggled the pots in annoyance. "It has to be a murder...the smell...the Ranger...guards..."

"...and the gypsy," added Sula, a peculiar glint in her stormy blue eyes.

"What is it with you and the gypsy, Sula?" Seisha started walking ahead, the lobster pots swinging wildly in her hands as a sudden wind got up. "You are frightening me."

Sula hurried after her twin. "And so you should be. Gypsies have the Evil Eye. Don't you remember Uncle Jankers warning us to stay away from THEM GYPOS?" Sula shook her sister's arm impatiently, unmindful of the lobster pot banging against her elbow. "We don't want ANYONE sneaking around our place. The gypsy could get to know about your hand! She might find out what we've done!" Then she added for good measure, "...just by looking you in the eye." She shook her head in exasperation, her shawl falling down to show her long, black hair. It shone with a bluish tinge in the last of the sunlight. How could her sister be so dumb at times. She looked down at the lobster pots, thinking she sure was smart when it came to fishing and hunting.

A groan escaped from Seisha as the realisation of this hit her like a sledgehammer to the heart. "Do you think this murder had anything to do with Uncle Jankers death?" Tears rolled down Seisha's dark skin as she remembered finding the old man lying on the floor clutching his chest, eyes staring wide open. That had been the worst part. The if begging for help.

Sula was losing all patience now. "I give up with you, sister! Uncle Jankers just lay down and popped his clogs." Sula was getting really worried for her sister now. Sula herself was quite normal looking, except for some strange ridges on her back... but Seisha had a few more anomalies that would mark her as mutant if ever anyone found out. Then they would be hunted down and torn to shreds like animals. She had seen this happen to a small boy who had strange, pointed ears! She had been a child, in the town with Uncle Jankers selling his fish. She had waited outside in the sun while Seisha had gone inside the store with Uncle Jankers. It had been horrible! No sound had come from the boy as the people had surrounded him. When they had moved away all that was left of him was his bloody, tattered clothes. And there had been a gypsy nearby...tinkling sounds had followed her as she moved. Sula felt the sickness rising again! She was glad her twin had not seen that! But then to find Old Jankers dead, by herself! Her sister's skin had turned a weird, grey colour. All covered in strange, blackish spots. Seisha was almost over the old man's death and they had to run into this! She didn't want her twin getting so upset ever again. Sula tried to think of some way to keep her sister calm...but she couldn't think of anything. Instead she said, "You are too imaginative."

Seisha started to cry. Sula put her arm around her and they walked awkwardly along in silence, the lobster pots banging against their legs. But Sula was still thinking. Perhaps they could hide in the forest for a while. A LONG while!

The rain was spattering down now, threatening to become heavier and soak them before they arrived at their run-down out-building. They still had a-ways to go. Wiping away her tears, her twin turned to her and said, "We could go and live in the forest...for a while!"

Sula didn't answer... merely smiled and held her sister closer. Soon the bothy was in sight. Sula sighed with relief and Seisha freed herself from her twin's arm to run happily on ahead.

Seisha and Sula


It wasn't difficult to follow the trail through the field. Though the land was dry, the grass had bent readily enough beneath the lone man's boots, leaving an easy path for the ranger and her unlikely companion. Judging by the distance in step, Sherrill would have placed their quarry at around five foot ten, a height which roughly corresponded with her recollection of the man. As they reached the end of the field and neared the tree line that marked the beginning of the woods beyond, the ranger silently cursed herself for failing to follow him when she'd had the chance. A timely boom of thunder reminded her again why she hadn't, but she grimaced anyway. A storm was coming and the sun was now fully setting; not many of its waning beams would pierce the leafy veil of the forest. Her half-elven blood would give her the ability to press on despite the dark, but the same would not hold true for the seer. A dry, single breath of a laugh noted the irony as she led on.

The trail was more difficult to follow on the canopied floor of the forest, but the ranger's eyes were keen and well-trained and she traced the tracks over moss, dirt, and root. She said nothing as they tread forward, but all around them the warm night air echoed with the voices of insects and evenbirds and the rumbles of the impending storm. In the final gasps of the dying light, the rangers lips turned downward in a small frown. Though it was warm, there were far too many cricket chirps for the current clime and the shrill voice of the cicadae seemed eerily off-key. The Tanglewood was a queer and unnatural place, even for Stormpoint, and it wasn't for naught that most avoided its moss-draped boughs.

It hadn't always been thus. Once the forest had been smaller and seemingly benign; but some years ago, no one knew quite when, it had grown . . . it had grown both larger and darker. In its arboreal hunger, it had covered the land where monarchs once dwelt, consuming cities and citadels with vine and bark. In the early days, several had ventured past its leaf-strewn borders with prideful plans to map its very heart. Only one had returned. He brought back no map, no survey, no explanation .... only a fey look that attended his features and a hoarse voice that spoke evermore in madness. His mind, he had misplaced somewhere within the tree-wrought maze of the Tanglewood, and it had never returned to him. There were other stories, darker ones, but the ranger pushed them from her head. It wasn't the time for campfire fare. The first few miles of the Tanglewood differed little from the scope of other forests, and so far their prey had not dared beyond that pale. For this, she was thankful, but curious.

The man seemed to be skimming along the inner border, well past the edges of the wood, but taking care to avoid traveling too deep. If his path didn't alter, they just might find him. The ranger's pace quickened with the thought, and she led on for about another half- mile before the light fully failed, shrouding both ranger and seer in a starless eclipse of pitch. She could press on, she knew. Her half- elven eyes had little need of light. She could still follow the trail. It would be slow-going, as she'd have to lead the seer, but she could do it. So long as the weather held, they could still follow. Reasoning thusly, she'd just managed to convince herself that they could still find their prey when the first drops of rain began to fall.


Sherrill Erynann


Beneath the buzzing streets of the city, beyond the reach of the sun as it continued its downward journey, two shadows flickered against the darkened wall of a dimly-lit room. One belonged to a man who stood, wavering slightly, before a large and uncluttered wooden desk. He was of average height and average build, and otherwise unremarkable save for the fact that a small, weasel-kin creature was currently draped about the nape of his neck, its alert, feral eyes daring to dart freely about the room. The other shadow belonged to a man whose cruel, aquiline features were lit by a dark scowl. He was seated behind the desk, and his foreboding silence and similar countenance caused the man who stood before him to shift uncomfortably on his feet. The latter cleared his throat in an effort to calm his nerves, and unconsciously licked his lips beneath the mounting silence. He'd never had lone and direct contact with the guildmaster, and he didn't know what to expect.

"They were the same?" The hawklike figure asked finally, breaking the silence.

"Yes," the man replied. He'd been warned by those who'd come before to keep his answers short and direct.

"The city watch?"

The man nodded. "They were there, but they haven't a clue."

The guildmaster snorted derisively.

"Were you noticed?"

"I don't think so."

The guildmaster said nothing, but his cold grey eyes bored deeper into the man.

"There was a ranger coming just as I left," the man admitted, resisting the urge to lower his owns eyes to the neatly-swept floor. "I didn't look to see if . . . ."

"And you didn't think that worth mentioning?" the guildmaster asked, his voice low and cool with the clear trappings of disgust.

The man shifted where he stood again and swallowed hard against the other's glare. He'd grown rather fond of breathing over the years, and didn't want to provoke the guildmaster to anger.

"It was just as I was leaving. I didn't think . . . ."

A dagger-sharp glare cut him off, and he wisely fell silent.

"We'll deal with the ranger. What did he look like?"

"It was a woman," the man answered. "Tall, slim, dark hair. Had a gypsy in tow with her. Maybe she thinks it's them."

The guildmaster closed his eyes and remained silent for some time, as if hoping that thereby the man and his incompetence would disappear in a sudden and blissful rapture of the dim. It didn't happen; and when he opened them again the man and his weasel-kin companion still stood before him. If possible, the guildmaster's features grew both darker and colder as a cruel glint, a portent of considered action, sparked briefly in his unblinking eyes.

Caught within stare, the man's heart quickened to the point where he could feel it pounding against his ribs. Beneath his skin, his blood burned hot as his pulse grew and swelled, drumming in his ears an alarm of deafening danger. His mind raced, dizzy with the searing heat of his blood, while a spectral hand plunged deep into his flesh and took hold of his gut, wrenching it into a tight knot of unspoken terror. He'd heard the stories....they all had....and now, standing paralyzed like prey beneath the shadow of the hawk, he believed them. He licked his lips again as beads of sweat began to form on his brow, trying to maintain a sliver of composure. It didn't work.

Fear-born voices began to echo in his head, whispering tales of failures' fates, and still he was unable to move. His heart continued to pound boiling blood through his veins, feeding the terror that held him with mocking promises of swift crimson and unending fog. They were so insistent, and so convincing that when the guildmaster spoke again, his words sounded almost merciful in the man's hot-ringing ears.

"Go. Give Gridec a better description of the ranger. And keep your mouth closed. If you speak to anyone else . . . ."

He didn't finish the sentence. He didn't need to. The man more than understood, and he nodded in wide-eyed silence before scuttling out of the office and down the shadow-draped corridor without looking back. He therefore didn't notice the guildmaster summon one of the guards that flanked the door of his office, or hear the later dark-laden order to the same.

"Bring me the Tres."

Striker Kel


He was breathing hard by the time he reached the east wing of the third floor, and within his chest his heart was pounding with fear. There was shouting on the floor beneath him, and he realized that Wick had been caught. With Logan and Chell having already been captured, it meant that he was the only one left. He could do nothing for them now, save escape ... and between him and escape lay only a long hall, a corner room, and an open window. Swallowing hard and clutching the bundle within his pack, he began his final steps.

His gait was swift and silent, and the shadows which hung from the walls embraced him as one of their own. He was close now ... so very close ... and the pace of his heart quickened further as his neck began to burn with blood. Ahead, the door to the corner room stood ajar, just has he had left it, and he inched carefully forward, his chest ready to burst. Noiselessly, it opened, its well-oiled hinges sliding with ease to reveal the room beyond. He scanned it quickly, then slipped inside. Beneath him, he could hear more shouting and the fading sound of heavy steps as they raced away from him and towards the upper stairwell. He didn't have much time.

Mopping the sweat from his brow, he crossed quickly towards the window, still open and still waiting. Its curtains billowed, stirred by the wind, revealing the coil of black silk rope he'd used to enter. His head reeled with adrenaline as he knelt to pick it up, and his hands shook as he wrapped an end around a hook driven into the outer wall, just beneath the sill. He never saw the pair of eyes that watched him from the shadows, and he never heard the wraithlike form that drew a black-edged dagger across his throat.

Eyes wide with frozen shock, he slumped wordlessly to the floor. His slayer crouched down beside him with a wicked smile.

"Not as easy as you thought, was it? Didn't anyone ever teach you to leave things as you found them? The room told me you'd been here. All I had to do was wait."

The reprimand given, the figure stood slowly and glared at the crumpled man for a few ticks of the clock before extending a hand down towards him.

"Come on, get up. The next team's coming through in thirty minutes and we've still got to take care of Logan's mess on the first floor."

The man sighed and accepted the proffered hand, pulling himself to his feet.

"I told him that was a bad idea," he began as his "slayer" pulled back her hood to reveal a shock of red hair, "but ...."

"But he's pig-headed and he doesn't listen," she replied. "Sounds like someone else I know." She stared at him levelly. "Look, the point is you were heading the job. You've got to make him listen. Threaten him, cajole him, promise him a pie, I don't care, just don't break anything that he needs to use."

Nodding, the man handed her the pack he'd been carrying, looking only slightly disappointed when she flung it over her shoulder without looking inside, then motioned him out the door ahead of her. The two walked down the hall and descended first one set of stairs, and then another before reaching the ground floor. There, the woman had expected to find her crew preparing for the next team. What she found, however, was an empty floor over which drifted hushed voices from beyond a set of open doors. Fuming, she passed through the doors, leaving the construct house and striding purposefully towards a knot of people talking over one another as they each tried to have a say.

"What the hell's going on here?" the woman demanded, her face flush with anger.

The tangle of thieves broke apart at her question, and though all looked toward her, none spoke.

Her eyes narrowed into lines of green flame as she continued to wait "patiently" for a response. Finally, one spoke.

"It's the Tres. They've been called."

Quaralyn was stunned silent.

"Herick told me just a minute or two ago. Apparently it's all over the guild."

She didn't speak for a moment, her look of rage fading as her normal mask returned to her features. The Tres. The words echoed ominously in her ears. The Tres.

"Stay here!" she barked, then took off running out of the proving ground and towards the heart of the guild's vast complex. If the Tres had been summoned, there was only one place they could be going, and if she was fast, she might get there first.

The thieves behind her held her order for a tense moment, their eyes darting to one another in curiosity. A moment later they took off after her. It was the one time she wouldn't punish them. They could hardly be faulted for wanting to see if it was true.

'The Tres,' she thought, mentally shaking her head as she raced through one tunnel and across another. The Tres hadn't been called in several years, well before she had come to Stormpoint. They'd been "disbanded." Their blades had been sheathed and they'd been reassigned to other duties within the guild. Until now.

Quaralyn turned a sharp corner, losing the group behind her and taking a passage known by only two. She emerged at the other end near breathless, but kept running, knowing that she was almost there. She stopped short, however, when she reached the end of her corridor and saw them approaching from a transverse hall, heading towards Striker's office. It was true. It was The Tres.

The first of the three, Garrett Nor, was of average height and strong build. His once dark hair, now streaked with grey, was tied back at the base of his neck and a neatly trimmed beard graced his chin. He was old enough to be dandling grandchildren upon his knee, but still agile and strong enough to scale walls and snap necks. Little about his past had reached Quaralyn's ears. The only thing she knew was that he had served in the military in his younger years, a fact which still evidenced itself in his evenly measured stride. He nodded to Quaralyn as he passed, in deference to her position. She returned the gesture.

Behind him strode Kor Hollen. He stood half a foot taller than Garrett, and a mop of dark blonde hair dusted his shoulders. His face was smooth and his eyes keen, and at twenty-eight years of age, he was the youngest member of The Tres. Another might have worn it with pride, but Kor's manner was too quiet to permit such foolishness. Besides, given what it meant, it was a dubious distinction at best. Quaralyn had spoken with him many times, and knew that he'd been raised in the guild from his youth, being one of the abandoned children the guild so often seduced into service. His "talents" had demonstrated themselves at an early age, giving him skills that surpassed those of many of his seniors. But despite this fact, Kor had adjusted well to his "less sanguine" assignment, and Quaralyn was certain that she detected a note of regret beneath the nod he gave her as he passed.

The last of the three was perhaps the most deadly. Dark-haired, small-framed, and ghostly-silent, she was known only as Nox. Where she had come from, no one knew. What she had been before, no one could say. She was distant from all, and she kept her past her own. Cold emanated from her eyes and wrapped her in a thick icy shroud. No one could see in, and few were foolish enough to try. She too nodded at Quaralyn as she moved noiselessly past, her glacial features never changing.

Too late to learn their purpose, Quaralyn watched helplessly as they entered the guildmaster's office, deadly all. But The Tres were more than just assassins. They were three of the only five assassins to have survived the purging .... the only ones allowed to survive .... having proven themselves the most worthy. The others had been given to the hunger of the demon, hired by the guild to eliminate the problems they presented. The fourth survivor had died two years ago of natural causes ... it being only natural to die when a poisoned stiletto is plunged between your third and fourth vertebrae, Quaralyn thought wryly. And the fifth and final practitioner of their trade? That dark distinction belonged to the man whose office door had just closed behind them.



Less than twenty minutes later, the door to the guildmaster's office swung heavily open, sending a cold swath of light into the hall and bathing the faces of those who stood guard in an eerie glow. Seconds later, The Tres emerged, leaving in stony-faced silence in the order in which they'd come ... Garrett, Kor, Nox. The door closed perfunctorily behind them. Once again, all three nodded towards Quaralyn, but only Kor met her eyes with his own. What she saw lingering within left her cold, and she scarcely waited for them to pass out of sight before she approached the guards flanking the guildmaster's door.

To her surprise, the broader-set of the two opened the door as she neared, not waiting to hear the story she'd come up with to gain admission. Apparently, she was expected. She wasn't sure what it meant, but she was fairly certain that it was nothing good. Stepping past the guards and into the pale glow of the room beyond, she took quick stock of her surroundings.

Like its master, the room was sparsely decorated. Maps of the city, excruciatingly detailed, hung on the walls. Most portrayed the city's current state, but a handful, obtained quietly from government offices, projected future designs both above ground and below. Well-thumbed copies of the city's laws and treaties sat tucked away on a shelf, awaiting further perusal should the need arise. Locked cases flanked the walls, holding copies of the guild's ledgers that required frequent reference, the rest being sealed away from prying eyes in a private and more secure chamber. There were at least two other doors, she knew, but the lighting of the room cast odd, angular shadows and swathed many areas in deep patches of black. The unseen doors were generally guarded, but some faint whisper of insight told Quaralyn that they now stood sentryless. Their absence wasn't the only thing she found unusual.

The large, dark-stained desk that dominated the back portion of the office was attended now not by one figure, but by two. The first stood before the desk in feignedly relaxed fashion, his arms folded across his chest and his gaze turned back toward Quaralyn as she crossed the bare wooden floor with silent step. A tall, muscular man, he wore a scar across his face from eye to mouth, and a sneer to match. Rilgar, the guild second, had never cared for Quaralyn, and he wasn't a man who kept dislikes to himself. Quaralyn met his gaze with glacial indifference, an expression which she knew infuriated him. Sadly, he didn't rise to take the bait, but turned from her to face the room's third and final occupant.

Sitting behind the desk was the grim-faced form of the guildmaster, Striker Kel. His dark blonde hair looked darker in the pallid light of the room, and the shadows falling across his face gave him a strange hawk like appearance, a look sharpened by a slightly hooked nose resting beneath two steel-grey eyes. To Quaralyn, he looked even more dour than usual, and as one who was often the recipient of his ill-humored moods, she was in a fair position to judge. He was leaning back in his chair, his legs perched atop the desk and his eyes fixed on Quaralyn as she moved to stand beside Rilgar. For a few tense moments, no one spoke. In the blistering silence, Quaralyn noted that the guildmaster's desk was frighteningly bare, the only items marring its surface being a rune-covered parchment and a rendering of a dark-haired woman with elven features garbed in an all too familiar livery of black and silver. It was only with considerable restraint that she kept her brow from rising in curiosity and alarm.

"I take it that word's already spread?"

It was the guildmaster who spoke, his voice low and quiet, but his intent unmistakable.

"Yes," she responded, adding a curt nod and nothing more.

"Hmmph," Rilgar snorted. "Didn't seriously think you could summon The Tres without sending tongues wagging, did you?"

This time Quaralyn's brow did rise, and she fought the sudden urge to take a step away from the large man. Rilgar might be the guild second, but she somehow doubted the position made him immune to the guildmaster's rigid and sanguine-laden expectations. True, she'd been known to answer questions with more lip than she should, but she wasn't foolish enough to do it in front of others, regardless of her rank.

The desolate tone of the guildmaster's response served at adequate warning that her suspicion had been correct.

"No, I didn't. Calling any one of them sends rumors scurrying like rats. Wouldn't you agree?"

Rilgar didn't respond.

"I think Quaralyn's the only one that could approach them without question, and that's only because Kor's taken a youthful interest in her." Turning his focus towards the burglary captain, he continued in a eerily wry yet solemn tone that didn't quite match his expression. "I think he'd kill his own mother, if you asked him sweetly."

"I wouldn't know," she answered, uncertain and uncomfortable in the shadow of his stare.

"No? Then, what about something you do know? How about the Rangers? You've some experience dealing with them, haven't you?"

She knew by his lingering over the word "experience," that he was referring to one event alone ... her failure to kill the ranger who'd tried to bluff his way into the guild with a stolen dec and a foolhardy plan. She'd told him that he'd escaped with the help of a comrade, and though he'd never questioned her, she always feared that he knew the truth. Fighting back her fear and steadying the mask she always wore before him, she answered levelly.

"Yes, some."

"Tell us then. Which is the more capable, the Rangers or the Watch?"

"The Rangers," she answered, not having to pause to think.

Rilgar snorted again, but Stiker ignored him, focused now on Quaralyn.

"Why?" he asked, his voice utterly devoid of curiosity.

"They're the High Justice's boys ..... hand-picked and fed on shadow and steel."

"You writing their recruitment material?" the guild second retorted. "Just because you couldn't take one of them out doesn't mean they're untouchable."

A wave of pallor washed over Quaralyn's face as she no doubt realized exactly what Rilgar was suggesting. "Do you know who the High Justice is?" she asked when speech returned to her. "Do you know what he is?"

The guildmaster leaned further back in his chair, watching the exchange between the two with the distantly reminiscent expression of one who'd heard this speech before.

"I've heard," the second replied, "but I outgrew bedtime stories when I was six."

The sudden shift in her stance told the guildmaster that her ire was rising, but she managed to answer in a tone not entirely dripping with disdain. "I've personally seen one of the former regents, and it's no bedtime story. There's a reason they picked Digerian and it's not because they liked his fiddling. They wanted one of their own in the position."

"If you believe that rot, you're more gullible than I thought," he shot back with a dismissive tone. "It's a wonder your teams aren't afraid of the dark. You sure Kit's the only one you have to tuck in at night?"

The remark didn't set well with the burglary captain, and she was fully facing the guild second now, her temper burning roughly the color of her hair. "I'm only going to say this once, Rilgar, so pull your head out of your ass and try to follow. If you kill a ranger, especially that one," she pointed to the picture on Striker's desk, "the High Justice will rain on you so hard you'll have to grow gills to breathe!"

"Yeah, well some of us know how to hold our breath for a while. Give it a try. By the looks of it your well enough equipped."

Her fingers twitched for her blade, seemingly ready to slice him a set of the suggested gills, but it was only her tongue that lashed back. The restraint, more than anything, surprised the guildmaster. Then again, considering the sharp edge of that particular weapon, Rilgar might have been better off had she drawn.

"Try taking your own advice before you shovel it my way. Who knows? Maybe you can hold your breath long enough to recover the last shipment you dumped outside the harbor. Remind me again. How much did that cost us?"

The quip struck a greater nerve than she knew and the man's hand latched on to his dagger, pulling it free from its sheath with a feral snarl. Cat-quick, she responded in kind, parrying the strike he made towards her chest. A dark glint of possibility lit the cold eyes of the guildmaster as he considered letting the two of them permanently settle their dispute. Intrigued, he let it linger for a few tantalizing seconds before snuffing it out, leaving only a smiling wisp of regret in its stead. The idea was amusing, yes, but he needed his second uninjured and clear-minded.

A heart beat later, a single throwing knife lodged itself deep within Rilgar's stubbled throat. Gasping for breath, his eyes went wide with shock and his dagger fell from his hand, clattering upon the ground as he furiously clawed at the blade in his neck. But the blade had cut deep and his slickened fingers found no purchase. Frenzied streams of blackened-crimson ran from the wound and more gurgled from his mouth as he fell jarringly to his knees, the floor beneath him shaking with the impact. Seconds later, he was gone, slumped sideways on the wooden boards, glistening foam now joining the ebbing trickle of blood as his eyes began to glaze in the fixed stare of death.

Dagger still in hand, Quaralyn spun in the direction of the guildmaster, a look of wild uncertainty pulled taut across her face. She said nothing. She didn't have to. Her expression, her stance, even the very air crackling about her screamed the question her lips refused to ask. Why?

"Do you remember what I told you when I brought you in?" Striker asked. His voice was low, quiet, and charged with warning.

She nodded.

Gesturing toward the crumpled form on the floor, the guildmaster continued. "Rilgar didn't."

He could tell she wasn't satisfied with the answer, but before she could complain an unseen door swung opened, heralding the approach of two dark-clad guards. Evidently instructed in their task, they pulled the lifeless body of the guild second from the room, pausing only long enough to pluck a ring from his right hand and place it wordlessly on the guildmaster's desk.

When the door had closed again behind them, Striker wrapped his gloved fingers around the trinket and, tossing it towards Quaralyn, announced, "You're taking over his position."

She caught it easily, her eyes never leaving his. "I meant what I said about the Rangers," she answered, still holding her dagger, but lowering it to her side. "It's a mistake to send The Tres."

He didn't respond, and she didn't speak again. In the minutes that followed the silence between them grew, pulsing and churning to near deafening levels. Neither spoke, neither looked away, each holding with steel resolve to their positions and grim set expressions of certitude. It was a dangerous move on her part. Only a handful of others had dared a similar mien before the guildmaster, and it had faded from their faces long before the warmth had faded from their flesh. He tolerated it now, from her, because it suited his purpose. There were other reasons........reasons they both knew.......but in the strained silence only one was needed, and even that faded into inconsequence as her eyes finally widened with epiphany.

Nodding her understanding, she placed the ring on her finger and left without a word. The door closed behind her in a muffled hush, sealing within the guildmaster and his unspoken plan.

Quaralyn and Striker Kel


Sula lagged behind, deep in thought, as her twin ran on ahead and entered their isolated dwelling-place.

No-one bothered with the twins much...this part of Sea Cove was too remote for any of the Townsfolk to stop by.  Besides, folks were used to Old Jankers going away for weeks at a time on his "fishing trips," but secretly they thought he was on one of his drinking binges. Several months had gone by now since his last trip to town and folks were starting to get suspicious!  "He be too old now," Sula would tell them when they asked when he would next be in town with his catch.  They would nod in assent, a knowing glint in their eyes.

"Too drunk, more like," Sula would hear whispered behind her back.

She reached the last sand-dune just as the rain grew heavier and started to trickle down her back. As she crested the top she noticed the little mercat popping up and down, watching her. They were such delightful, curious little creatures.  Normally Seisha, her sister, would keep a little tid-bit for them but there had been too much happening on the way back from town today.

Sula was thoroughly soaked now and the rain was dripping from her dark hair into her eyes. She watched the long, lithe body of the mercat undulating across the grassy slope of the dune. Through the curtain of rain it looked like it was coming straight at her!  It was going to attack her!  She stood still..fear pinning her feet to the ground! swerved away at the last moment! Sighing with relief, her body relaxed and her feet found movement again.  The mercat must have been blinded by the rain, too! Strange, for a moment she thought it had looked more like a weasel than a mercat! Trying to wipe the rain from her eyes, she realised it was dark now and ran on down into the shelter of the bothy.

They would have to move on!  It was no longer safe to stay here...not until they had sorted out the problem of old Uncle Jankers. They would have to report him missing! Half-blinded by the rain, her eyes nipped and her skin itched like crazy...Sula entered the room and grabbed a towel hanging on a nearby rail. Her thoughts continued as she stripped off her wet things. Do it later...perhaps his body would have turned up by then...while they were away...*adventuring*! She had started to rub herself dry...when her sister's shrill voice cut in on her thoughts, stopping her in mid-action...

"Look at the mess," Seisha wailed!  "The lobster pots are all chewed up!  The provisions for the next few days are ruined...and Uncle Jankers' that weasel!" Tears swam in Seisha's green eyes and poured down her face at the mention of Uncle Jankers. "You must have seen it.  It ran out as I came in and was making straight for you!"

Sula just stared, stunned into silence!

Seisha and Sula


Seisha was adept at clambering round the rock-pools in the dark! She moved further out and waded onto the sand-banks. The rain had stopped and she watched her sister further inland collecting the crabs, flinching with each one put in the bucket.

She so disliked anything to do with the sea! Flashes of the dream would appear in her mind. The entangling arms...the drowning feeling....

Her skin tingled every time the ocean spray had washed up over the rocks and wet her. It was so unreasonable! It didn't seem so bad when whole parts of her were submerged...rather soothing! She had filled her pot with mussels when her hand started to ache really badly! Her feet and ankles covered by the water felt so cool! Perhaps she! The dream! The gurgling noise...the choking...

Her hand throbbed and drummed! She felt it had a heartbeat of its own. Hesitating only a moment, she took off her gloves and, kneeling down, put her throbbing hand in the water! Aaaah! She closed her eyes in blessed relief. Perhaps if she just quickly flopped right into the water her skin would feel better! The fear still lurked deep in her stomach, a tight ball that threatened to unravel and envelope her with untold terror. The nightmare from the night before was still fresh in her mind...but her hand felt so good. Do it! Go on! The little voice inside was insistent.

Taking a deep breath, she counted, 1...2...3...and slid into the cooling water.

Sula had almost finished gathering crabs for the pate when she felt an aweful fear, like a hand gripping the back of her neck. She glanced around to see where Seisha was, her eyes glowing a strange dull green in the dark, as if lit from deep inside.

She had left Seisha to collect mussels further out, knowing how much she disliked collecting the crabs since the incident with her hand. That was over seven years ago and Seisha's hand still hurt. It had been getting worse lately. And the dreams had come back! Sula searched the horizon for signs of her sister's shadowy shape. Nothing! Her heart fluttered! Panicking, she threw down the bucket with the crabs and ran.

She ran...slithered and crawled when she fell...over the slimy rocks, her hear beating faster with every rasping breath. She came upon the wet footprints in the sand and followed them out.

Shouting and screaming her twin's name, she flailed about in the sea in a blind panick...and tripped over a dark shape in the shallow waters.

Both girls were now rolling around in the water, their screams shattering the quiet night air. It took a few minutes before they discovered each other, which started more angry shouting at one another until the fear subsided enough for rational thought.

Sula hugged her sister, crying with relief. Taking her hand she attempted to pull her to her feet. Seisha's hand felt very slippy and she gripped it harder as she tugged at Seisha again. She wasn't moving.

"What's wrong Seisha. Are you hurt?" Fear started to gnaw at Sula again, making her grip Seisha's hand too hard.

Seisha whimpered, trying to pull her hand away. "I can't move my legs...their numb!", she whispered, sending a chill over Sula's body.

It was then that Sula noticed the hand she was holding. There was a fine webbing of skin in between the six digits of Seisha's hand.

"No! No...this can't be's the dream. We will wake up and Unkle Jankers will come through and calm us down with beakers of his hot barley tea." Her sister started wailing at the mention of Unkle Jankers and Sula knew this was no dream. The nightmare had begun!

"Try and move your legs, Seisha", Sula grunted, still tugging.

The wailing grew louder still as Sula made another discovery. *I can't...they're stuck. They're stuck together with something."

Sobs and wails could be heard as Sula dragged her twin's body along the shallow sea and round the rocks. She was making for an inlet further up along the coast.

With grunts and groans Sula managed to pull her sister up a grassy embankment. Seisha was now able to bend her legs at the knees but her ankles were still stiff. They struggled together towards the cover of some straggly trees.

Shivering in the damp, night air the twins huddled close together under a weeping willow, where they felt protected.

Sula looked over at a rosy glow in the distance. "The gypsy camp is not far from here," They had come out east of the gypsy camp with the forest to the north. Unless Seisha could walk again soon, they would never make it to the forest.

Seisha looked up, tears filling her eyes. "Oh no! What are we going to do." Sula sighed, resting her head on the tree as the tears flooded down her twin's face.

"Perhaps they can help." Sula's brows wrinkled as she mumbled, "They are supposed to have magic powers!"

"! Remember what Unkle Janker's told us. They have the evil eye". Seisha started to bob about under the tree on her bottom, knees up and her feet pulling her about. "Look...I can almost walk again", she pleaded pathetically.

Sula started to laugh hysterically! For a moment, the shadowy form of Seisha had looked more like a giant weasel than a weasel itself as she manouvered about on the grass! But the skin covering Seisha's legs had continued to grow, taking on a deep blue hue in the darkness.

Deep inside Sula knew her sister was right. They couldn't take a chance on the gypsies. What were they to do?

All hopes of Sula making it to the forest with her sister unseen by the gypsies were quickly dispelled as Seisha's screams once more rent the air.

She had noticed the blue skin growing on her legs.

Seisha and Sula


The worst of the storm seemed to have passed and Sula shivered and shook as she watched the moon peep out between the cover of breaking clouds. The torrential rain had dwindled to a persistent drizzle but it was still too dark and blustery to see clearly in which direction lay the forest. She could still make out the rosy glow of the gypsy camp far to the left but she was still very concerned about Seisha! Her twin's condition didn't seem to be improving.

Seisha lay against the Weeping Willow, seemingly in a deep and peaceful sleep. Sula frowned as she leaned over her sister, checking her breathing, surprised her own shaking body hadn't disturbed Seisha by now! She was hardly breathing at all and her legs...they were now covered in green kelp! Where had all this seaweed come from? No wonder Seisha hadn't been able to walk! Her legs must have been so wrapped up in the seaweed and they hadn't noticed in the dark. This seemed a reasonable explanation to Sula but something still tugged at the back of her mind. She took a shuddering breath. She didn't have time to mull over it. If they didn't reach shelter soon she would die.

"Seisha...wake up Seisha"...she wheezed, giving Seisha's arm a rough shake. How I hate the forest, she thought as she watched her sister stir uneasily in her sleep. Seisha was good with a spear, even better with the bow and arrow but what good was that to them now with her twin unable to walk and she herself was feeling too ill to go any farther. "S..s..eisha", she stammered, shivering as she stood, pulling at Seisha's arm more vigorously. Her head was so hot now and her legs felt so stiff and stick-like, she thought they might snap like twigs. Sula just wanted to lie down and sleep.

Seisha opened her eyes and sat for a moment, not knowing at first where she was. Her eyes widened in horror as the memory came flooding back!

"My legs...", she gasped, reaching a hand down and...finding them covered with slimy, squishy stuff...she panicked, squealing and snatched her hand away from Sula to throw the stuff away from her legs.

"It's only s...s...seaweed," Sula grunted through clenched teeth. "We have to get to shelter...soon. It's no use...we will have to go to the gypsy camp...for help. We will surely die in the forest!" Sula staggered against the tree, hugging it for support in her exhaustion.

In her feverish state, Sula had not noticed that her sister was not affected much by the cold or rain.

Some seaweed still clung to Seisha's legs and she pulled at it, immediately letting out a horrendous scream as she stood up. "It's attached to my leg's bleeding", Seisha wailed.

"We're cursed already", Sula muttered in horror! "Best just to lie down and die...let the forest ghoul take us".

Seisha turned and looked at her sister...about to speak...when she realised how ill her sister had become. Now that most of the kelp had gone from her legs, she had discovered she could walk again, and hurriedly put her arms round her sister to help her.

"I can be strong for both of us and get us to the gypsy camp", Seisha assured her twin, trying not to let hear the fear in voice.

But Sula was past caring as they huddled close to each other and stumbled towards the pale glowing haze where the gypsy camp lay.

Seisha and Sula


Within the daunting thicket of the Tanglewood, the light had failed and the rain was growing stronger. It had grown from a soft misting of water, to near downpour whose thick drops pierced the canopy of twisted branches that formed the roof of the forest and washed away all traces of the trail Sherrill and Leena had hoped to follow. Fate, it seemed, had flipped a coin; and it had come up tails. In the sodden leaf-strewn darkness, Sherrill scowled. It was an expression that was in danger of becoming permanent.

She knew they had two choices. They could either find a place to wait out the storm, or they could continue to trod on through the rain. Neither was particularly appealing to the ranger, and she shielded her eyes with a hand as she craned her neck to look skyward. Heavy droplets of rain stung her face and clung briefly to her skin before trailing off. By her measure, this much rain shouldn't have made it through the densely-woven leaves. Then again, by her measure, the booming claps of thunder that sounded intermittently should have been accompanied by lightning. Her scowl deepened. She'd traveled within the edges of the Tanglewood several times, but she'd never grown used to it. The fact that she had Leena in tow didn't help.

It wasn't that she minded the seer, at least not anymore than she minded anything, but the woman simply hadn't been prepared for a trek through a tree-laden mire. The rain had thoroughly soaked her light-weight clothing, her shoes weren't designed for trudging through the growing muck, and the preternaturally thick darkness had surely rendered her almost blind. To her credit, however, she hadn't uttered a single complaint. In fact, she'd hardly spoken, and Sherrill hoped that in her silence she was gleaning something from the trail they'd been following. Another lightless clap of thunder sounded, shaking the trees around them with its roaring voice and showering them with leaves and added rain.

Brushing debris from her face, Sherrill lowered her head and looked back at the seer. Her elven blood gave her keen sight despite the darkness, and she could see that woman's hair and clothing were now plastered to her shivering frame. Pressing onward wasn't going to be easy, but even if they wanted to wait out the storm they'd still need to find a suitable place. Either way, they needed move and Leena needed to see.

The ranger sighed reluctantly, then reached into pocket and pulled out a small leather pouch. It had been worn smooth with time and its mouth was sealed tight with double leather cords. She tried to cover it from the rain, but the downpour was insistent and it quickly soaked into both pouch and cords, makig the job of untying the latter and opening former more difficult that it should have been and causing Sherrill to heave another, heavier sigh as she pulled off a glove. The added dexterity helped, and she soon loosened the cords and pulled open the pouch. A pale blue aura of light rose from its mouth, bathing both the ranger and the gypsy in its soft glow. After a few gentle shakes, the pouch's contents spilt out into the ranger's hand and the light grew suddenly brighter.

Leena squinted instinctively and drew a hand to shield her eyes; but slowly, they adjusted and she was able to gaze upon the object that shone from the ranger's palm. Small, round, and incandescent, the object had the appearance of a common stone that had been conjured to emit light. Sherrill pressed the stone into Leena's hand, then leaned forward to speak in her ear.

"Close your hand about it and use only as much light as you need. We've got to keep moving. Follow close and watch your footing."

The seer nodded wordlessly, and the unlikely pair set off once again.

Sherrill had little hope that they'd find any sign of the man she'd seen in the field, but if her sense of direction was right, their current course would at least lead them back to the city. In the blue light of the conjured stone, Sherrill's lips formed a tight and straight line. She'd guessed for some time now that the forest had been a diversion. It made sense. Few people would have been willing to follow into it, and fewer still would have been able to follow the faint tracks the man had left. In Sherrill's experience, only two kinds of people wore such soft-soled boots -- those in her current calling, and those in her former. It fit with the theory that the ebony discs were decs, and it fit with part of the seer's vision; but there still some big pieces missing.

The rangers had long known that there were two thieves' guilds operating in the city. But one of them wouldn't have had the skill to pull off the killings unnoticed and the other wouldn't have had a desire to. It didn't pay to frighten the populace and it didn't pay to draw legal attention. The empty streets, barred doors, and heightened scrutiny that resulted were bad for business. Plus, guild involvement didn't fit with the seer's other vision ... the one about blood-drinkers. Somewhere in the back of her head, the ranger was becoming aware of lurking headache ... and it was growing bolder by the minute. She tried to ignore it as they trudged on.

The stinging drops of rain pounded harder, if possible, and those that didn't hit them fell in heavy splatters upon the forest floor. Save for the watery drumming and the sound of the mud pulling hungrily against their feet, the pair had heard nothing within the bark-encrusted maze that rose around them. The dim, echoing whisper that suddenly hit the ranger's ear therefore came as a surprise, and she stopped without warning, motioning for the seer to keep both quiet and still. Fighting to filter out the tumult of the rain, Sherrill strained both eyes and ears, focusing on a point off to the left. She could see only trees and brush, but she heard something more. Within the darkened thicket there was the faint yet growing sound of voices. She couldn't make out the words, and she didn't wait to try. Instead, she grabbed Leena by the wrist and pulled her sharply behind the twisted stump of a fallen tree.

In the span of a heartbeat, Sherrill had taken the bow from her back and fitted it with a dark-tipped arrow.

"There's someone out there," she whispered to Leena, nodding her head in the direction of the voices. "Cover the stone."

Numbed by the cold of the rain, Leena's fingers ached as she curled them around the stone, and rays of light still peeked out from her hand, shining in several directions from between her fingers and palm. But before Sherrill could warn her further, Leena wrapped the edges of her sodden skirts about her closed hand, plunging both ranger and seer into complete darkness. Having no need of light, the former held her aim while the latter held her breath.

Rain fell unhindered from the ranger's hair and trailed in eager rivulets down her brow as she waited, arrow notched, for the owners of the voices to come into view. Theories formed and dissipated in her mind as the voices drew closer -- theories of who or what would be wandering within the darkened borders of the rain-drenched Tanglewood. But none of her theories came even close to sight that finally met her eyes.

Through the darkness and brush, two women ... no, two girls ... human and somewhere in their earlier teens ... stumbled into the ranger's line of vision ... two water-logged, near hysterical, and clearly lost girls. Sherrill held her aim a moment longer ... just to be sure, but when their appearance held firm and their voices continued to ring with the same timbre of fear, she lowered her bow and leaned closer to Leena.

"Hand me the stone," she whispered, "but stay hidden." The last two words were punctuated with heavy emphasis.

Reluctantly, the gypsy surrendered the stone to the ranger, careful to cover as much of its surface as she could until Sherrill's gloved fingers closed around it.

Without another word, the ranger slipped quietly away, moving from the shelter of one tree to the next until she was several yards away from the seer and but a few feet away from the unwary and increasingly unsteady pair of girls. One hand fell instinctively to the hilt of her blade while the other opened to dispel a small portion of the darkness with a pale, blue circle of light.

This isn't a safe place to be wandering. Do you need help?"

It was then that she realized that something was terribly, terribly wrong.

Sherrill Erynann


For a few heartbeats more the girls stumbled on blind and deafened by the rain before they realised someone had spoken.

Seisha froze, rooted to the spot, her mottled, bloody skin rippled strangely with her fear. Sula grew limp in her arms and exhausted, collapsed to the sodden undergrowth and Seisha, with a roaring in her ears and heart pounding, found herself crashing through the forest away from the voice.

She had no thoughts now other than reaching the end of the forest and finding water! She knew the sea was somewhere close by!

As the trees and bushes rushed by, tearing her clothes, gouging her flesh, Seisha had no thoughts for her twin left behind until she came to a clearing.

Gasping for breath Seisha slowed down, tears mixing with rain washed down her face. "Oh Sula, please forgive me", she whispered in the darkness. She had left Sula to the gypsies and their evil magic.

"I am damned," she cried to the wind whipping her face. She had to go on. Seisha had done everything to protect her and hide her from their *evil eye*. She could not be caught by the gypsies now.

She had to find the edge of the forest...find the sea! She knew the sea was somewhere close by...she could smell the change in the air. The musty smell of damp earth and rotten leaves was making her feel very sick. Her skin was...tensing...rippling.

The sea...must reach...the sea, Seisha muttered as she started running again, sure she was leaving the forest..and Sula...far behind!

Back in the forest in the swirling darkness of her fever Sula was not aware of any presence near her but she heard a voice. "...Help..."!

It was her twin's voice...echoing in her head, asking for help and she was helpless. For the first time she could remember Sula was unable to help her sister. She was no longer the strong one. How would Seisha survive without her? A deep ache tore at her heart...and the echo became a wailing!

Seisha and Sula


Sherrill cursed silently as one of the girls, clearly sisters even in the dim light of the stone, took off into the darkness of the woods. She almost gave chase, but the girl who lay crumpled upon the ground convulsed in seeming pain. Looking towards darkness one last time, the ranger shook her head, then opened her palm to allow more of the light to spill from her hand. It cast a pool of blue, rippling light upon the girl, revealing her to be both pale and shaking in the cold sting of the rain. The ranger, pulling off her gloves, knelt quickly by the girl's side and brushed the rain-plastered hair from her face.

"It's all right," she spoke in the most reassuring voice she could muster. "We're going to help you. You're Jankers' nieces, aren't you?" she added, recognizing the girl now that she was closer.

The girl nodded weakly. She was burning with fever, but she bore no sign of injury

"We're going to get you back to town and get you to a healer. But I need to find your sister. Are you Seisha or Sula?"

"Sula," the girl whispered back, coughing with the effort.

"Do you know why your sister ran off? Were you being chased?"

The girl shook her head.

For the first time, Sherrill was glad that Leena had insisted on coming with her into the forest, and she motioned for the seer to join her by the girl's side.

"Sula," she continued when Leena knelt beside her, "I'm going to leave with my friend Leena." In truth, the word "friend" was a considerable stretch, given that she'd only met the woman a few hours earlier, but she decided that the term would be more comforting to the girl than anything else she could come up with. "She's going to stay with you until I find your sister."

The girl nodded again, indicating that she understood. The nod was weaker this time.

Pressing the light stone into Leena's hand, Sherrill tilted her head away from the girl, then rose and took a few steps from her side. Leena followed.

"She's very ill," the ranger whispered, slipping a heavy belt from her waist and handing it to the gypsy. "You might find something to help her in here. If I don't come back with her sister in a half hour, take her back to town. Head straight that way," Sherrill pointed. "Don't deviate, and don't come after me, no matter what you hear or see." She glared hard with this last point. "Understood?"

"Yes," the seer nodded with some degree of reservation.

"Do you know how to use this?" Sherrill asked, indicating the katana at her side.

"No, but I still have your dagger."

Sherrill sighed, then pulled a long hunting knife from one of her boots and handed it to Leena as well. "Take this too, then. And remember ... a half hour ... don't follow ... straight that way," she pointed again. "If I don't make it back before you leave, I'll meet you at the camps."

With that, she disappeared into the night-draped branches of the Tanglewood.

Sherrill Erynann


For a few heartbeats more the girls stumbled on blind and deafened by the rain before they realised someone had spoken.

Seisha froze, rooted to the spot, her mottled, bloody skin rippled strangely with her fear. Sula grew limp in her arms and exhausted, collapsed to the sodden undergrowth and Seisha, with a roaring in her ears and heart pounding, found herself crashing through the forest away from the voice.

She had no thoughts now other than reaching the end of the forest and finding water! She knew the sea was somewhere close by!

As the trees and bushes rushed by, tearing her clothes, gouging her flesh, Sula had no thoughts for her twin left behind until she came to a clearing.

Gasping for breath Sula slowed down, tears mixing with rain washed down her face. "Oh Seisha, please forgive me", she whispered in the darkness. She had left Seisha to the gypsies and their evil magic.

"I am damned," she cried to the wind whipping her face. She had to go on. Sula had done everything to protect her and hide her from their *evil eye*. She could not be caught by the gypsies now.

She had to find the edge of the forest...find the sea! She knew the sea was somewhere close by...she could smell the change in the air. The musty smell of damp earth and rotten leaves was making her feel very sick. Her skin was...tensing...rippling.

The sea...must reach...the sea, Sula muttered as she started running again sure she was leaving the forest..and Seisha...far behind!

Back in the forest in the swirling darkness of her fever Seisha was not aware of any presence near her but she heard a voice. "...Help..."!

It was her twin's voice...echoing in her head, asking for help and she was helpless. For the first time she could remember Seisha was unable to help her sister. She was no longer the strong one. How would Sula survive without her? A deep ache tore at her heart...and the echo became a wailing!

Seisha and Sula


Sherrill cursed silently as one of the girls, clearly sisters even in the dim light of the stone, took off into the darkness of the woods. She almost gave chase, but the girl who lay crumpled upon the ground convulsed in seeming pain. Looking towards darkness one last time, the ranger shook her head, then opened her palm to allow more of the light to spill from her hand. It cast a pool of blue, rippling light upon the girl, revealing her to be both pale and shaking in the cold sting of the rain. The ranger, pulling off her gloves, knelt quickly by the girl's side and brushed the rain-plastered hair from her face.

"It's all right," she spoke in the most reassuring voice she could muster. "We're going to help you. You're Jankers' nieces, aren't you?" she added, recognizing the girl now that she was closer.

The girl nodded weakly. She was burning with fever, but she bore no sign of injury

"We're going to get you back to town and get you to a healer. But I need to find your sister. Are you Seisha or Sula?"

"Sula," the girl whispered back, coughing with the effort.

"Do you know why your sister ran off? Were you being chased?"

The girl shook her head.

For the first time, Sherrill was glad that Leena had insisted on coming with her into the forest, and she motioned for the seer to join her by the girl's side.

"Sula," she continued when Leena knelt beside her, "I'm going to leave with my friend Leena." In truth, the word "friend" was a considerable stretch, given that she'd only met the woman a few hours earlier, but she decided that the term would be more comforting to the girl than anything else she could come up with. "She's going to stay with you until I find your sister."

The girl nodded again, indicating that she understood. The nod was weaker this time.

Pressing the light stone into Leena's hand, Sherrill tilted her head away from the girl, then rose and took a few steps from her side. Leena followed.

"She's very ill," the ranger whispered, slipping a heavy belt from her waist and handing it to the gypsy. "You might find something to help her in here. If I don't come back with her sister in a half hour, take her back to town. Head straight that way," Sherrill pointed. "Don't deviate, and don't come after me, no matter what you hear or see." She glared hard with this last point. "Understood?"

"Yes," the seer nodded with some degree of reservation.

"Do you know how to use this?" Sherrill asked, indicating the katana at her side.

"No, but I still have your dagger."

Sherrill sighed, then pulled a long hunting knife from one of her boots and handed it to Leena as well. "Take this too, then. And remember ... a half hour ... don't follow ... straight that way," she pointed again. "If I don't make it back before you leave, I'll meet you at the camps."

With that, she disappeared into the night-draped branches of the Tanglewood.

Sherrill Erynann


Sherrill stepped into the inky thicket of the Tanglewood, confident in the fact that her day could not become any more bizarre. In less that twelve minutes, she would discover that she was sorely mistaken.

Unencumbered by that future knowledge, however, the ranger wove her way through the maze of bark-covered sinew in search of her quarry -- one girl, wild with fear. It was nearly pitch, and the slanting rain tried its best to wash away the girl's tracks, even as it stung the ranger's face, mocking her with icy taunts. The girl, however, had not been trying to hide her steps, but had been running in crazed terror, tripping over roots and snapping off smaller branches in her wake. Her path was thus clear enough for any tracker to follow, especially one with elven blood.

Convinced that she was closing on the girl, Sherrill quickened her pace, dodging the same branches and avoiding the same roots that had snared the girl in her flight. If she could calm the girl and convince her to accept her help, they could make it back to her sister before Leena began to take her to the camps. She didn't care to think about what she'd have to do if she couldn't convince the girl, and so she kept moving, hopefully purchasing additional time. By her calculations, she had just under twenty-minutes.

A few heartbeats later, the steady splattering of the rain beating against leaf, bark, and earth was pierced by the sound of a scream. The ranger froze, rain now pouring down her face and pushing soaked streams of hair before her eyes. She pushed them back with one hand, while her other reached for the blade at her side. Sound had a peculiar way of traveling within the confines of the Tanglewood, but Sherrill was convinced that the scream had come from the black-laden knot of trees to her left, as opposed to the black-laden knot of trees that lay straight ahead, or the black-laden knot of trees that stood to her right. She held back a sigh as she listened for anything further, reminded once again why she hated tracking in the fey forest. Less than a minute later, she was rewarded with the doleful strains of a growing wail, drifting from the same copse of knotted pitch.

Blade in hand, she crept into the thicket toward her left, hoping that the girl had just fallen and praying that she hadn't broken anything. The way her day had been going though, she wasn't counting on it, and in fact she soon convinced herself that the girl's foot had been caught by another of the forest's cantankerous roots and that the fall had broken her ankle, meaning that she'd have to be carried back. Winding around the thick trunk of a gnarled tree, the ranger discovered that she was half right -- there was no way Seisha was walking back.

Sherrill Erynann


The rain was clearing as Seisha reached the edge of the cursed forest and the moon was shining through a break in the clouds. She stopped for breath once more readying herself for the final hurdle to the sea. She could hear nothing but her thudding heart, her throat on fire as she took deep rasping gulps of air. Seisha's eyesight was dimming, her nictating film permanently closed now to protect her eyes from the lashing rain but she was sure that was the glimmer of the sea just over by the rocky cliff edge where the forest diminished to scrub.

Her legs ached, skin itched horribly. Perhaps she could just rest for a moment against this old tree. She placed her six-digit hand against the tree to steady herself. She was almost there...not far to go now...but she was so tired!

Dropping down at the base of the ancient, gnarled tree...she relaxed against the cold, rough bark, her outer eyelids drooped and her heartbeat slowly quitened, then...with a sudden dreadful feeling her eyes opened wide in alarm, showing the nictating membranes, as icy cold fingers of fear ran up and down her back.

Something was watching her!

Seisha lurched forward galvanised by the unknown fear which gripped her and fell headlong into the muddy dirt track she had been following.

Sobbing wildly she tried to stand but her legs were trembling and refused to move! The moon shone down on her lower body, binding her legs together in a grey-green skin with strange black marking. Seisha looked for her feet. They were numb and she couldn't see them at all! Worse of all...her nictating eyelids had now opened and she could now see clearly what had been watching her.

When she saw the eyes glowing in the gloom at the edge of the green, leafy forest Seisha knew then that she had been followed after all! The fear that had threatened to overcome her broke free. In a blind panic the runaway sister was only aware of the sound of some crazed person howling in horror!

It was Seisha herself...wailing in uncontrolled terror!

Seisha and Sula


Leena kept her mouth closed and her eyes focused on what was going on between the Ranger and the girl they found. Her heart nearly broke as she looked at the frightened child. No child should have to endure being lost and seperated from a loved one, especially in this forest.

"We're going to get you back to town and get you to a healer. But I need to find your sister. Are you Seisha or Sula?" the Ranger asked.

"Sula," the girl whispered back, coughing with the effort.

"Do you know why your sister ran off? Were you being chased?"

The girl shook her head.

Leena frowned, her arms crossing against the coldness that was threatening. She listened as Sherrill continued to speak reassuringly to the girl, telling her how she was going to be left with Leena... a friend? Leena bit her lip and was about to bend down toward the girl when the Ranger motioned her over.

Leena felt the stone being pressed into her hand. However much light it eminated, it was not warm to the touch, save for the heat that had transferred from Sherrill.

"She's very ill," the ranger whispered, slipping a heavy belt from her waist and handing it to the gypsy. "You might find something to help her in here. If I don't come back with her sister in a half hour, take her back to town. Head straight that way," Sherrill pointed. "Don't deviate, and don't come after me, no matter what you hear or see." She glared hard with this last point. "Understood?"

Leena frowned at the command but nodded. "Yes." As Sherrill slipped off Leena quickly moved back to the girl and knelt beside her. "It's going to be all right. I promise."

Gently Leena wiped the rain and sweat off of Sula's forhead. She dipped her fingers into a pouch at her hip, searching for a moment before pulling out a small herb. It smelled horrible, but Leena gently moved it toward Sula's lips. "I know this smells bad, and probably tastes worse, but it will help you with the fever."

"My name is Leena." She offered a smile and held out her palm, with the glowing stone, towards the frightened child. "Sherrill entrusted this to our care. This will keep glowing to light our path." She offered it to Sula to hold. "Keep it close and the shadows won't come." She gently slid the glowing stone off her hand into Sula's. "I heard your name was Sula and you had a sister. What is her name?"



Within the ring of trees encircling the clearing, Sherrill was still trying to understand how this latest curiosity fit into the events of the day when the girl's lips parted in a bone-scraping scream, tearing through the darkness and heralding another of its kin. It was a fair bet that anyone or anything within a mile radius heard the wails; and it was an equally fair bet that anything that heard would soon come to investigate. She had to calm the girl, and then she had to move her. Sheathing her blade, she left the partial concealment of the brush and stepped fully into the girl's view.

"Seisha," she began, moving close to the transformed girl and kneeling beside her. "Seisha, I don't know why this is happening to you or what's happening to your sister, but I'm here to help you. I'm with the Rangers. I know your uncle."

She held the girl's strange, paniced stare with her own, allowing her to catch her breath and quell at least one of her fears. The latter was far easier accomplished than the former, the ranger noticed, and she pushed aside the girl's rain-sodden hair to find what looked like deep lacerations running the length of her neck on either side. They bore no blood, but they narrowed and widened as the girl's chest heaved. Gills. The ranger's lips pressed into a thin, vexed line. The girl wasn't going to catch her breath ... not without more water than the trees were allowing to reach them.

"We've got to get out of here, and I've got to get you to water," Sherrill explained, trying her best to sound reassuring. As she slipped an arm under the girl's back to lift her, she hoped her tone had given more assurance to the girl than it had to her, for truthfully, she had no idea what she was doing. She'd seen a lot of strange things in her times -- an unavoidable consequence of her professions, particularly given the fact that Lord Calo was her patron -- but she'd never seen a nereid and didn't know what to do for one. She'd heard stories of them, of course. Stormpoint was, after all, a port city and drunken sailors loved to share sea tales of both fact and fiction. But all of the tales she'd heard occurred at sea, where such creatures were supposed to be. None of them had ever involved a girl, especially one she'd seen around town for years, inexplicably sprouting a tail and gills in the middle of a storm struck forest.

Seisha wasn't heavy, but the ground was slick and her mass had changed so that her center of gravity no longer fell where it did on a "normal" person. It thus took a few precious minutes before the ranger, grunting with effort and frustration, finally managed to lift the girl from the ground and ease her over her left shoulder. Seisha offered no resistance, and though Sherrill couldn't tell whether it was because of trust or exhaustion, it really didn't matter. What mattered was moving quickly, and so, pausing only a second to get her bearings, she sped back into the brush with due haste.

She was faster than might be expected, adrenaline and elven blood combining to spur her steps, and she managed to dodge most of the eager branches that reached out to hold her. One, however, caught her squarely in the face, tearing the flesh beneath her eye. She winced, more in surprise than pain, certain that the branch hadn't been there a second before. Lights appeared then, faint and blue-tinged, dancing just to the right of the pair, beckoning them to follow. "Death candles," the ranger muttered to herself as she wiped the blood from beneath her eye and continued straight ahead. Damn, but she hated the Tanglewood.

"Don't worry," she told the girl as she dodged a root and another groping branch, "it's not much further."

Seisha gave no response, and her silence worried Sherrill. She knew the girl was still alive, for she could feel her chest heaving as she continued to gasp through the slits on her neck, but the strength of the heaves had diminished and they were coming less frequently.

Ahead, however, the trees began to grow thinner and their branches less grasping, allowing the ranger to move faster. Taking full advantage, Sherrill quickened her pace. A after a few minutes, her goal winked into sight through the rain -- a small cove fed by the sea, shallow and secluded. Over her shoulder, the girl was beginning to stir, perhaps due to a realization that she was nearing the sea, or perhaps due to the fact that they were no longer shielded by the canopy of trees, allowing the heavy rain to fall unimpeded across her gills. Whatever the cause, it gave the ranger the first breath of relief she'd had all day as she navigated the stony terrain down to the mouth of the cove. She hardly paused as she dropped her bow and blade on the rocky shore, then waded into the rain-stirred water.

As the water reached her waist she shifted Seisha so that she was holding the girl before her with both arms. If this didn't work, she didn't want to have to search for the girl within the depths of the cove. Then, holding her own breath, she lowered Seisha into the water, nothing left to do but to wait .... and pray.

Sherrill Erynann


The glowing eyes emerged from the deep gloomy shadows. She felt rather than saw the elvish figure of the Ranger drawing near. The Ranger spoke. The words were familiar but Seisha could no longer understand their meaning. She attempted to scurry back further into the inky blackness away from the gleam of moonlight but to no avail. She was sorely hampered by a flopping tail.

The tail gleamed silvery-blue under the moonlight, catching Seisha's attention. Her six-fingered hand traced the strange grey markings lacing the silvery skin. The markings disappearing further down the tail to a double trailing frill. Seisha gasped at a rustling at her side. Her heart was racing. Panic welled up as the Ranger peered down at her and pain lanced through Seisha's neck.

Seisha heard the in-drawn breath of the Ranger as she drew her hair aside and saw the six small slits on Seisha's neck. There were six matching slits on the other side. Three deep gouches in the middle were covered with papery and flaky skin. The other three slits were barely scratches. The Ranger continued speaking. Glancing up at the Ranger through her long hair, the soothing sound of the Ranger's voice lulled Seisha into stillness.

To Seisha it seemed there was a golden glow emitted from the Ranger's eyes that shone in the almost mesmerising quality. Her heartbeat slowed. As in a daze, she allowed the Ranger to pick her up. Her body was so light she felt she was floating. The Ranger muttered to herself as she did her best to carry the slippery, floppy creature through the woods. Seisha's body flopped lifelessly in the Ranger's arms. Her neck felt so hot and dry and she was hardly breathing.

Then the world suddenly changed for Seisha. As she was jostled in the arms of the Ranger who seemed to gather more speed as if hell's hounds were after her, all of Tanglewood took on a goldlen hazy hue with little glowings lights of blue dancing around them.

The lights whispered in Seisha's head. *Come play - play!*, they entreated. They danced and jiggled in front of Seisha, entrancing her. *You belong with us, little nereid* , they commanded. The voices were becoming more insistent but just as Seisha reached out her webbed hand with the six fingers towards the delightful lights, the Ranger broke free of the forest and came upon a rocky clearing that lead down to a secret cove.

As Seisha became aware of the sea nearby her heart jumped to life and her green eyes lit up at the soft, swish of the sea washing against the rocks.

They stumbled down to the water's edge and Seisha felt herself lowered into the water. There was a brief moment of panic as the water covered her face and head. Water was entering her gaping mouth. She was choking! Seisha floundered and flapped, gripping the Ranger's arms tightly. The Ranger was trying to drown her!

Seisha and Sula


In desparation, Seisha suddenly started to scratch and claw at the Ranger who held her firmly. Squirming her slippy body and splashing her long frilly tail into the Ranger's face she finally managed to break free and swam off.

She was breathing! Her body felt firm and rounded, full of energy. She couldn't remember ever feeling so exhilirated! Ripping off the tattered remainders of her clothing Seisha gleefully swam round and round in circles, unmindful of the icy rain that trickled over her dark, blue-toned skin. Then she heard the dolphins!

They called to Seisha and she swam out to them. Together they played, diving among the waves in the moonlight. She held on to a fin as one dolphin rode near the shore to take a closer look at the Ranger standing watching! Such was her joy in her new-found freedom that Seisha had a strange urge to wave to the Ranger before the dolphin swam away with her clinging on, laughing merrily.

With silent speech the dolphins told Seisha of the Secret Cove where a mermaid lived. Her body tingled with little pin-pricks of anticipation! In return Seisha conveyed to them her journey through the forest with the Ranger...those parts she could remember, for her human memories were rapidly diminishing. These dolphins had no contact with humans in this part of the ocean. No-one knew of this cove. There was none fortunate enough to reach this part of the Tanglewood Forest...alive!. As far as they knew the Ranger was the first...perhaps she had stumbled by accident onto the cove path? Or something more...? Perhaps she wouldn't make it back?

The dolphins didn't seem aware of Elvish blood! Intrigued, Seisha decided to leave the dolphins and follow a river up into the forest where she could watch the Ranger journey back. Some strange connection tugged at her chest, like a tooth being pulled. She shook her head at the strange memory.

It was still too dark to see anything but silent shadows and menacing shapes. Feeling fairly safe within the water Seisha swam on until, with her weirdling blood she could now see the dim, golden glow of the Ranger's aura darting through the dark, encirled with dancing blue lights. The river was slowing to a slithering stream and Seisha could go no further. She watched the lights until they were swallowed by night's invisible cloak and wondered why she was watching the woods! A fog of forgetfulness had clouded her mind once more. Upon sensing a fish dart round her tail, she remembered hunger and followed it back out to sea.

Seisha and Sula


Deep within the Tanglewood Forest Seisha's now forgotten sister lay in the gentle arms of the Gypsy woman. The weird sounds of tortured animals had died down and the forest had become quiet once more...except for the eternal pattering of rain, the icy drips making Sula shiver and shake.

Sula slowly became aware of soft whispered voices and shadowy figures. Sula dreamed the Gypsy spoke, "...Leena", was all she could understand. Sula's eyes fluttered open showing little comprehension in their blue dullness. Her chest heaved and her breathing rasped as she mumbled feverishly.

The gypsy's words drifted through Sula's aching head as she smoothed something ghastly onto her lips but she was too weak to struggle. The warmth spread from her mouth down her throat and reached her fiery chest. As the pain in her chest eased she floated in and out of conciouseness, her mind a spider's web of distorted images. "Gypsies!" The gypsy had captured her but she hoped Seisha had escaped! She knew she would be taken to the Gypsy camp! "Torture...torn apart...", she croaked, barely audible.

"Mermaids...dolphins...!", Sula moaned unaware she was crying out. "She wants me...needs me...", Sula panted as she felt arms wound round her legs...pulling her down, down into the depths of the ocean. She struggled for breathe trying to free her arms...reaching up, needing air! "Noooo....."! Sula jolted upright in the Gypsy's arms, awareness returning slowly! She'd had the drowning dream again.

There was a gentleness in the Gypsy's voice that allayed Sula's panic. She had put a soft glowing light into Sula's hands and was attempting to lift her up. Her fever had abated but she knew the gypsy wanted to get out of the forest before...

Sula shivered as a new coldness swept over her and she became aware of the shadows rustling and wavering, seemingly moving closer in around her and the gypsy.

On her feet now and leaning against the gypsy, Sula clung tightly as they started towards the gypsy camps, both past caring how much noise they made in their haste.

Seisha and Sula


Bruised, scraped, and soaked to the core, the ranger watched as the girl she'd known as Seisha filled her lungs with water and joined the smooth-skinned creatures of the cove. She wished that she felt relieved at the sight, but a cold sense of dread still clenched the pit of her stomach even as the girl waved fare-well with a blue tinged arm.

She wondered first whether someone or something external caused the girl to change? It hardly seemed likely though. What purpose would it serve. No, more likely she had always been thus and her true nature simply hidden. After all, she thought, many species underwent transformation as age drove them from one state of life to the next; and with the thought, her heavy sense of dread gave birth to panic.

Age ... if age or time or something internal had brought about the change ... Seisha's sister, her twin, was still out there ... still out there in the care of the seer ... and she'd told Leena to take her to camps. If Sula was undergoing the same transformation as Seisha, she'd be stuck gasping for breath in the waterless ring of wagons that bordered the edge of town. Damn. Biting back the scream of self-condemnation that swelled in her chest, the ranger took off at a run ... back into the forest ... back into the Tanglewood.

A flurry of thoughts and predictions raced through her mind as she tore through the bark-encrusted maze of the forest. Each ended poorly. She hadn't had any choice, she kept telling herself as she tried to dodge the twisted roots and branches that snaked out the darkness and tore further at her rain-chilled flesh. She couldn't have caught up to Seisha with Sula in tow, and given the latter's state, she'd had to tell Leena to get her to the camps. There wasn't any other choice. It was true, she knew, but it was of little comfort to the ranger as she sped through the pulsing and darkening thicket.

Death candles swirled about her as she ran. Bluish wisps of light, they brushed softly against her bloodied face, whispering a gentle promise of release if she would but abandon her chase and follow them. She pushed through them, however, driven by the same anger they mistakenly sought to feed upon. She had no time for their games and poisoned promises. Twice more they tried to turn her, drawing from thoughts and fears the ranger had buried within the deep folds of distant memory. Pulling them forward, they filled her mind and eyes with images of loss, of failure, of despair .... all of which they would lift from her .... all of which they would they would gladly consume. But again, the anger they released only served to fuel the ranger's speed, forcing her steps to beat faster against the slickened earth, heedless of the briars and brambles that tugged against her as she passed.

Peals of thunder struck overhead, but their accompanying light failed to penetrate the dark-woven canopy that hung above. Driven by hunger, and perhaps by the roaring echoes of the lightless booms, the candles' attacks became more direct. Instead of past truths, they spread present illusions before the ranger's eyes. They were small at first ... causing her to change her course to avoid a tree that wasn't there, or jump too far to miss a false steam bend ... but as she accepted them, the falsities grew bolder. Masters of deception, they spun their lies well, and the ranger, tired and torn, followed their proffered path ... turning before a cliff face formed of only thought and air, slowing to avoid the detection of an imagined predator, and finally plowing forward toward the sound of the seer calling for help.

"Sherrill? This way! Quickly!"

Pleased with their craft, the candles quivered and hummed with anticipatory delight, but the ranger could no longer see them and their sound was one no human ... or half-elven ... ear could hear. The woman was theirs and they would feast upon her, their lights growing stronger even as hers ebbed silently away. All was in place ... all was ready ... and there was none to deny them the warmth of her soul. Or so they thought.

"I wouldn't go that way, if I were you," said a voice, cutting with sharp clarity through the candles' soft-spun web.

Stunned, disoriented, and for the first time unsure, Sherrill stopped. Without the sound of her padded boots striking the ground beneath her, the Tanglewood was eerily quiet, the only sound for miles seeming to be that of her heart pounding beneath her ribs. Her ears strained to hear the voice again, or at least determine the direction from which it had come. But the darkness held its counsel and kept its secrets close.

The candles, angered at the disruption, tugged hungrily at the ranger, urging her to follow. Dizzy with blood and their thought-numbing lies, her feet began to move toward their call, but the voice spoke again.

"I really wouldn't go that way."

This time, ranger's head snapped in the direction of the voice, clearing her mind from the candles' misty pall and allowing her to again feel the chill of the rain as it stung her flesh. Determined to find the voice, she scanned the walls of bark and bramble before her, her eyes shifting thoughtlessly from brown to lavender. New light now poured into the twin pale orbs, but the speaker still remained hidden.

"Who are you?" she asked finally.

"Oh," the reply came, languidly, "no one of importance."

Her eyes narrowed with the response, trying in vain to pierce a veiled patch of shadow that hung some six feet away. "Why can't I go that way?"

"I never said you couldn't," the voice replied. "You can go that way, of course, but you'll likely be eaten by the Grimwyrd."

The ranger suppressed a shiver. She didn't know what a Grimwyrd was, but she was pretty sure she didn't want to find out. "Much obliged for the warning," she spoke into the darkness as she began to leave, taking a few tentative steps in the direction from which she thought she'd come.

"Leaving so soon? You haven't even asked me what I want. And I thought those of elven blood were more ... refined."

Sherrill's blood ran cold, unsure of which she liked less, the fact that the voice's owner could see her clearly enough to determine her race, or the fact that it wanted something for its help. Creatures of the fey forest were not to be trusted.

"It's, not much really," the voice began from another location when she failed to respond right away. "I just want to follow you out of the Tanglewood."

"Why?" she asked, again trying unsuccessfully to the find the voice's owner.

"If you must know, I can't leave on my own."

Now the ranger was certain that she didn't want to deal with the voice. If the creature was bound to the forest, it was bound a reason, and she was seriously disinclined to loose it on the city. Letting one hand slide silently to the blade at her hip, she answered cooly, "Well, you won't be leaving with my help."

"Oh come now," the voice responded with an annoyed sigh, now just behind her, "aren't your kind supposed to be reasonable.

Spinning to face the speaker, blade in hand, the ranger's eyes were met by only darkness. "You've obviously misjudged me. Why should I trust you?" Thinking to level the field, she sent out a darkness of her own, encircling herself and the immediate area in an impenetrable cloud of ebony.

"Interesting." The word was spoken at length and with greater curiosity than Sherrill had expected. "Most very interesting. And you're the one who speaks of trust, hmmm? Very well, however. I'll answer. Why should you trust me? Well." the voice's tone took on an edge of sarcasm, "there's the small matter of saving your life. But, if you find that insufficient, there's the fact that the candles have led you far astray and you don't know where you are. I can show you the way out."

The ranger hated to admit it, but the voice was right. She had no idea where she was and precious little time to find her way out on her own. Damn. "Alright," she agreed resentfully and against her better judgment, "you can follow me out ... if ... you promise to do no harm."

"What makes you think I'd harm anything," the voice responded with slight offense, mock or otherwise, "I helped you, didn't I? But fine, I promise ... no harm ... unless, of course, you decide to release me from this promise later." It sounded almost hopeful.

Sherrill nearly advised it not to hope, but thought the better of it. "Swear it, she said instead. "Swear it by the heart of the fey."

"Oooh, clever female," the voice retorted in likely-feigned appreciation. "Very well, I swear it by the heart of the fey. No harm. Satisfied?"

She wasn't, but it would have to do. "Which way to we go?" she asked, letting her darkened globe fade into the already preternatural gloom of the wood.

"This way ... " the voice waited for her to turn before continuing, "for part of a league. I'll let you know when to change course."

Uncertain, but left with little choice, the ranger took off at a run, hoping that she'd reach the camps in time and that the her unseen "benefactor" would remain bound by its oath. She feared the likelihood of both.


She'd run through the gnarled twists of the forest for what felt like hours, following the voice's directions and cursing its presence, but it was only twenty some minutes later when she broke free from the rim of the Tanglewood and saw the fires of the gypsy camp dotting the near horizon. She managed to spit out a quick and reluctant, "thank you," to the voice, and cringed at its response.

"Oh no, she of elven blood, thank you. But don't worry, you'll see me again."

Fighting back her revulsion, the ranger pressed on towards the fires of the camp, slowing only when she stood within their flickering glow. Bloodied, sodden, and weary from more than tire, she grabbed the first gypsy she saw.

"Leena? Did she make it back with the girl? Where are they?"

Sherrill Erynann


That quick grip of arms left night emerald eyes bright and alarmed, one that knew the gypsy well may have seen that smolder of energy quicken like a dark flame in her eyes before it was smoldered out. Recognition did not rest easy with Rona as she eyed the woman before easing herself a bit away from the woman. Cautious as ever she did make attempts to make it all graceful if not polite.

Brows furrowed as recognition came forth with the name of the fellow gypsy. A murmur of agreement before the gypsy was gracious enough to speak.

"The last I saw her she was headed in that direction... rushing off in de forest at such an hour."

A click of tongue, Rona's eyes held the touch of concern for a fellow gypsy, gazing over a shoulder the shade of dusky bronze as teeth settled upon her bottom lip.

"Be der anetin' else... I must be on mora way." A motion in the opposite direction before gesturing down to that fiddle. GhostWood...after all the gypsy did need to earn her keep.

Rona Deykar


Sula soon realised that they had lost the path out of the forest when the gypsy kept stopping and turning to take yet another path.

They were back at the same old oak tree where one of the gypsy's ribboned bells hung. The Ranger had missed that one when she had ripped the little tinkling bells from Leena's skirt. Leena...where had she got that name from?

Sula closed her image flashed by...

"Leena"...the gypsy had whispered to her in her delirium, handing her a stone before giving her the potion.

The fog was beginning to clear from Sula's feverish thoughts.

Sula still gripped the stone in her hand. It must be a magic stone, she thought, gazing at it. It was deliciously warm and gave off a soft glow.

Sula shivered and fearfully gripped Leena the gypsy's arm in alarm. The whispering shadows had moved closer in. Sula felt unseen eyes surround them. Leena wasn't moving. Something was very wrong...

Something in the Tanglewood had changed since she and Seisha had played there when they were younger. Her twin was always the curious one, loved to skulk after the Rangers on their trails into the forest, her bow and arrows slung over her shoulder just like the rangers. There had always been fey in the Tanglewood although Sula couldn't remember any danger in those days. Perhaps they had been too young to notice...but it was here now...and the shadows seemed to circle closer still, whirling round faster and faster.

Leena was gypsy...another shiver ran through her at the thought...Leena had magic. What was wrong with her? Was she waiting on the Ranger coming back? was too till...stiff...her eyes if entranced. Why was the gypsy's magic not working?

Sula's fever had almost gone. Leena's potion had worked but Sula's skin felt cold and clammy and her back ached. Was it fear! Yes, hat was it! Then her skin started to itch and feel on fire. The fever was coming back! She had just imagined the shadows were moving round them. She sighed with relief and turned to Leena. Leena still hadn't moved! Then what was wrong with Leena?

The rain pattered on the leaves above them making the little bell on the tree tinkle as the shadows loomed over them. The rain soaked the two as they stood. It cooled Sula's burning skin somewhat and the gypsy seemed unmindful, still as a statue.

Sula thought of her twin as she rubbed her burning skin, hoping she wasn't going to have the horrible skin disease that she had seen on Seisha.

She wondered what had happened to her sister and the Ranger! That hideous howling they had heard...and neither had come back! Were they next, she worried as she let go of Leena to rub the lumps on her back. The lumps had grown since she last noticed them, and had sharp points on them. Oh no! Her nightmares were becoming a reality! Bringing her hand back round to grab a hold of Leena the little bell on the tree tinkled madly as her hand brushed against it.

"Seisha, Seisha, help me," she cried out wildly as the wind howled round them and the darkness descended.

Seisha and Sula


Leena sighed with exasperation. She had been half carrying the young girl for what seemed like hours. Sherrill had told her to keep the light as guidance and walk straight through the forest, in the exact direction she was heading. Yet, she seemed to get nowhere. The girl she was carrying gave a small whimper and Leena frowned, raising her free hand to touch the feverish forehead of Sula.

"Sssh.. we're almost there." Leena whispered. If I can find our way out of here.

Leena peered through the thickening brush with determination. She raised the girl's hands, the fragile pale hands that were clutching the glowing orb. Using the little light that escaped from between the girl's fingers, Leena once again sought the faded path they were on, and sure she had found it, she continued through Tanglewood.

"Keep that orb raised." Leena shifted the girl on her hip. "Esta luz… it will help us get you to safety."

The trees almost seemed to whisper and sing around her. "Escucha a mi canción…" it sang, trying to persuade her to listen to its song. More than once, Leena found herself slowing to listen and had to shake it out of her mind by sheer will to keep going. The voices were hauntingly beautiful, only a slight melodic whisper.

Up ahead, she spotted what looked like a clearing. She quickened her pace, careful to keep Sula glued to her side. The trees lowered their branches, trying to herd her in a new direction, but she kept her eyes straight ahead as the soft light from the orb illuminated the duo. She reached up, her nimble fingers pulling the branches away, even as new ones seemed to snap into place and leave little welts on her skin. Leena pushed through, determined. The rain came harder as they got nearer to the edge of the wood, the trees no longer sheltering them from the weather.

It did not matter. The gypsy stumbled out of the forest, pulling the girl behind her into the pouring rain. It had a cleansing effect and felt as if it could wash away the dirt and evil that forest had. Leena gently scooped Sula back to her side and hoped the rain at least brought her some solace, cooling her hot skin.

A small gypsy boy ran through the rain, his eyes wide as he looked at the girl Leena carried. "Puedo ayudarle, Leena?" The boy asked curiously.

Leena shook her head, wet strands of hair sticking to her skin. "No, gracias. Esta muchacha solamente está enferma. Pero, puedes traerme toallas."

"Si, Leena." The boy scampered off to gather some clean towels.

Leena found her tent and wiped the rain from her eyes, gently laying the girl down on a few blankets. She hastily lit a small fire in her tent, watching the smoke curl upward toward the small hole in the roof of the tent. She placed a kettle over the flames and waited for the boy to return.

With the clean towels, she gently wrapped Sula and dropped some tea leaves and herbs into a small mug. Filling it with the boiling water, she moved next to Sula and cradled her head. "Drink, chicita. It will help." The girl mumbled in reply, seeming to turn away from the mug, but Leena was persistent until she had drank almost half the elixir.

She kept an eye on the girl, listening to the breathing as it slowed, but was still traced with illness as Sula coughed and the fever continued. Where in the world was the ranger? Leena frowned, hoping Sherrill did not get caught in the forest . The boy peeked his rain soaked head in again. "Leena," he motioned outside.

Leena frowned at him and shook her head. "You need to go home." She smiled. "Tu mama… she is probably worried!"

The boy shook his head and grinned, running back out into the rain. Leena looked to Sula who seemed to be resting and some of the fever was gone. Leena looked through the storm, trying to spot what the boy was talking about and seeing a faint figure in the distance. She ran a few steps into the storm, afraid to leave Sula alone and yelled as loud as she could. "Ranger!" Waving her arms, hoping something would catch her attention, and waiting another moment more, she ducked back into her tent. She saw only one figure. Where was Sula's sister?



"Leena? Did she make it back with the girl? Where are they?"

"The last I saw her," the gypsy said in answer to her question, "she was headed in that direction... rushing off in de forest at such an hour."

Had she not be so concerned for Leena and her charge, Sherrill's temperament was such she might have arrested the woman on the spot, for she was either lying or grievously mistaken. As it was, she had no time to waste on the fiddler, and turned from the woman towards the center of camp, brushing another strand of hair, wet with rain and blood, from her face.


The cry came from a mid-sized tent that the ranger now recognized as Leena's, and the figure which stood outside it waiving her arms as signal was none other than the seer herself. Breathing a premature sigh of relief, Sherrill sped towards the tent, darting inside just seconds after Leena had turned back.

Within the tent, the air was warmer and a fair bit dryer, and the central fire that vented through the apex cast the interior in a golden glow. Tea was brewing in a kettle, and a half empty mug rested beside the girl Sula, who laid, pale and limp, on a pile of warm blankets. She was alive, and more than that, she was still human. The ranger hoped that neither of those would change.

"How is she," she asked quickly, kneeling beside the girl to take her own measure even as she listened to Leena's account.

She was fevered and her eyes were glazed with sickness and laced with panic. Faint groans rose from her mouth as the ranger pushed aside her hair to examine her neck. It bore none of the marks her sister's had, but there was still something terribly wrong with the girl. She might simply be at an earlier stage of the transformation ... or it might be something else.

Trying hard to suppress her own panic, lest it further add to the girl's, she examined the girl's hands, finding them to be no different from her own, and then her legs, finding none of the grey-green striations that had preceded Seisha's change. Though she tried to be gentle, the girl moaned and writhed in discomfort, twisting her form and shifting her weight from her back. Sherrill didn't waste the opportunity, and carefully helped the girl to her side, running her hand along the girl's back as she did so. Two large and sharp-pointed protrusions met her touch, and she moved to get a better look at them. It didn't help. They might be the beginning of some sort of dorsal fin, but then again, given the overwhelming oddity of the situation, they might be anything. For the first time in a long while, the ranger was at a loss, and it took considerable effort to conceal that fact as she moved back to face the girl.

"Sula," she began, hoping that she'd adopted a soothing tone. "I want to you finish you tea and rest. Can you do that?" She waited for the girl to nod. "Leena and I are right here. If you have more pain, or any trouble breathing, let us know." The girl nodded again and took another feeble sip. Sherrill rose and gestured with her head for the gypsy to follow her to the far side of the tent. When they were both several feet away from the young girl, the ranger spoke in a quiet whisper.

"I don't know what's happening. Her sister," she paused, drawing a deep breath and as she sought the resolve to say what sounded utterly ludicrous even to her, "her sister .... changed. She changed into a nereid. I know it's crazy, but one minute I was following her on foot, the next she was lying on the forest floor complete with tail and gills." The ranger drew another breath, hoping it would steady her. It only partially worked. "I don't know how it happened, I don't know it why it happened, and I don't know if it's happening again to Sula. It doesn't look like it, but I don't know what the hell's going on. I think our best bet is to find her uncle. He lives a few leagues from here, if you've got anyone you can send to fetch him. Other than that, I'm open to suggestions."

Sherrill Erynann


Sula stirred at the sound of voices. Her eyes felt so heavy when she tried to open them. Tall shadows flickered around her. Was she still in the forest? It seemed warm and soft where she lay. Blankets! She recognised one of the voices. The Ranger! Sula realised she must be in the gypsy camp! The spirits of the forest hadn't consumed her after all.

The voices faded out. Sula's last thoughts had been calling for Seisha in her desperation as the darkness had reached for her and Leena, the gypsy. She was sure she had heard Seisha singing in the wind! Dolphins chattering! No ...that can't be right. Had she been dreaming again? The drowning nightmare! And the tinkling bell! That was it! The bell had frightened the spirits away and had broken Leena's trance. The gypsies had strong magic!

Sula felt firm hands moving her about. The Ranger had made it back! Hope lit her eyes. Was Seisha here too! She tried to look around but sank back, too weak. Perhaps Seisha had eluded the Ranger and was waiting in the woods for her. She must escape somehow.

The Ranger spoke, and held the steaming cup to her lips. Sula managed a sip. It tasted very like Unkle Jankers herbal teas, the ones he made when the twins got fevers after their adventures in the woods. He was always so angry when they had been to the woods. Always warning them about the "changes"! Sula knew it had something to do with Seisha's six-fingered hand but it hadn't seemed so important to the girls. They had been more interested in his stories of the river sylphs who ran away with your spirit if you fell asleep near the water. They had never seen any water nymphs or fairies in the matter how often or how long they stayed in the Tangelwood. Lately though, Unkle Jankers hadn't been telling any more stories of his homeland from across the sea. After his last visit to town he had been raving about the gypsies. The girls knew about the gypsies and the "evil eye." They had slinked away from the town before being spotted at the murder scene. The gypsy had been there with the Ranger. Sula shook with dread. Here she was, a prisoner of the gypsy...and her body had already started to change. So this is what Unkle Jankers had meant! She was changing into a...a...water nymph...a fairy? What! Why! She didn't know. She hadn't understood what Unkle Jankers had been saying.

Now he was gone too! "Murdered," Seisha had wailed. "Heart-attack," Sula had told her, trying to keep her calm.

It was strange, murders in the town, then they come home to find Unkle Jankers dead! And the house ransacked, as if someone was looking for something. But he was a harmless old man, why would anyone want to murder Old Jankers? No! No! Sula sobbed quietly to herself.

The Ranger spoke again, disturbing Sula's thoughts. Sula nodded and took another sip. She felt too weak to move. She must try and escape, find Seisha!

Leena and the Ranger moved off to a corner, whispering. She heard the word "unkle." How she wished she could talk to Unkle Jankers now.

They would look for him at The Cove. Up at the Bothy. They wouldn't find him. With the help of her twin, she had managed to drag his body down the steps to the boat and they had rowed out to the island and gave him his "burial at sea" as he always wanted.

Tears streamed down her face and trickled down her neck. She missed him so much. Was it only yesterday it had all happened? It felt like weeks. Sula had lost track of time. But her sister was out there, somewhere. She felt her, in her head.

Sula knew she couldn't go back to The Cove, to their little bothy. She couldn't stay in the gypsy camp. She dreaded to think what the gypsies would do to one like her. That left the Tanglewood. She couldn't go back there...with the Spirits waiting to drain her energy. She had to...Seisha was there! All alone! Waiting for her!

There had to be a way. She would wait...get stronger! Tiny bells tinkled as the gypsy moved again. Sula took a deep breath, waited.

Then an idea came to her.

Seisha and Sula


Far out to sea, blissfully unaware of the hideous murders in the town and of her sister's peril in the Taanglewood, Seisha joyfully swam with the dolphins.

She raced the dolphins up to the Cove, thinking she was the only water-nymph in existence! All mine, she was thinking gleefully as she rested on the rocks near the edge of the cliffs, surveying the shimmering blue sea.

Unfortunately, Seisha would later learn that this cove was already taken and mermaids are not very sharing, caring nymphs!

Her little frilly ears rippled at a passing breeze and she shivered delightedly as frothy foam washed over her long lacy tail. A sound on the wind distracted her selfish thoughts. She shook her head, bewildered! The sound reminded her of something...seagulls? was so sad...she felt a pain deep inside and a low moaning escaped from her to be snatched by the breeze. The breeze gathered momentum to hurry away into the forest beyond the cliffs where it found the silver bell on the tree, dallied a while playing with the enchanting sound before going to ground under a pile of dank, sodden leaves.

The dolphins chattered and clicked excitedly, nudging Seisha to play on. The moment was gone...Seisha turned to a dolphin catching its fin, then they were gone. The strange impulse that had brought her to the shore , quickly forgotten.

As Seisha dived and swam round the cove , finding a hidden crevasse to investigate , her twin had reached the warmth of the gypsy camp and was being nursed by the dreaded gypsies!

Seisha did not feel the eyes watching her from the gloomy depths of the cave nor the warning chitterings of the dolphins she had left outside the entrance.

She had found a place to make her own!

Seisha and Sula


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