(Continued from A Ranger's Lesson)
I'd like to try to get inside, but without backup Calo would never allow............." Soren paused as Marcus raised a hand, interrupting him and smiling conspiratorially. "Don't worry about Calo, I think I know a way to get us into the guild."
"Whoa! Now just wait a second." Soren began, raising both hands in a dismissive gesture, "If you're suggesting that .... well, if you're suggesting what I think you're suggesting, you can count me out. If we get caught... Calo will have you confined to quarters until doomsday, and I'll be reassigned to the sewer patrol."
Marcus raised and hand to his mouth and looked about nervously to see if anyone had overheard. Satisfied that they were alone in the hallway, he looked back to Soren, "Shhhh, before someone hears you. And we won't get caught trust me." Soren crossed his arms and looked at Marcus with skepticism. The combined effect wasn't lost on Marcus. "Come on Soren, I'm going crazy just sitting around here doing nothing, and I'll have you for back up. Who could ask for a better match than the first and second Rangers working together? It'll be a synch. And you can take all the credit for it."
Soren remained quiet for a moment, chewing thoughtfully on his lower lip. "I still don't know. What do you have up your sleeve?" "Funny you should ask." Smiling, Marcus withdrew a small, obsidian object, roughly the size and shape of a coin from his sleeve and flipped it in the air. "Oh, something I saw Eowyn do when she was tracking the Broken Neck Assassin." He thought back briefly to the day Eowyn had taken the token from Giacomo and shown it to Calo as proof of the demon's ties, leaving it with the high justice for safekeeping. "It's foolproof. Guaranteed to work without a hitch. Well?"
Soren paced back and forth for a moment, mumbling to himself before turning suddenly to face Marcus, "Ok, ok I'm in. But I swear if this backfires .........."
The Golden Web was crowded this evening when the stranger arrived. As he entered, he shrugged back the dust-covered cloak from his shoulder, revealing the dark leather armor worn beneath, and the armor studs and hilt of long sword at his waist gleamed in the weak light of the common room. Walking to the innkeeper, the man dropped the heavy saddle bags that had rested on his shoulder, and pulled back the hood of his cloak. His hard face was framed by midnight black hair, tied back in a short ponytail, and an equally dark beard. A three-pointed scar on his cheek and two cold grey eyes riveted the innkeeper in place.
"H-H-H-How can I serve ye?" The innkeeper stammered as sweat begin to bead on his face under the steely gaze.
The man didn't answer right away, making the innkeeper to fidget more, before finally saying in a course whisper. "Take the bags to a room. If I find anything missing you will find fingers missing. One bottle of Orc Fire Whiskey and be quick about it." He tossed and few gemstones on the counter, causing the innkeeper's eyes to bulge with greed.
"As ye wish good traveler," the keep answered, grabbing the bags and scurrying from sight. Seconds later, a serving wench arrived with his request. The young woman curtsied, holding out a tray with a bottle of bright red liquid. "Milord, I have been instructed to see to all your requirements here."
He grabbed both the bottle and her arm, dragging her to her feet. "If I had wanted a woman, I would have asked for one. Get out of my sight," he hissed as he pushed her towards the kitchen, openly scowling at the innkeeper for a second before turning his attention to the common room.
Taking the bottle's cork in his teeth, he pulled it from the neck and spat it on the floor. He took a long draw of the strong spicy drink, and as he lowered the bottle he caught eye of an amusing distraction. A card game. Wiping his lips on his sleeve, he strode to the table, barely lit in a darkened corner of the inn. He was met with dark stares, which he answered with a smirk. It was a dangerous group to play with and was thus his kind of game. Setting the bottle down on the table, he took a seat in an empty chair. "Deal me in."
The dealer, a nasty look man who would look more at home in a slaughter house than the card table, placed the cards on the table and moved his hand to a dagger resting on the table. "Sorry. Private game." The other shadowed figures seated around the table matched the dealer's unspoken threat with their own actions.
Leaning back confidently in his chair, the stranger flipped an odd onyx coin of some type on the ante. "I believe that token cuts me in. So shut up and deal while you still can."
((The following events take place before those in Dulcinea.))
The guild was quiet when Quaralyn returned and few saw her as she slipped silently through the corridors. Though it had been a few days, she was still on edge from the encounter at the Raven. Her visit to the club had not gone entirely as planned. In fact, it hadn't gone at all as planned, but plans often go awry, and who could have anticipated the strange series of events that had transpired within the deconsecrated church. There was much to learn in the confrontations which had taken place, however, and Quaralyn had remained, hidden, concealed, until the final chord was struck and Giacomo fled with his young ingenue. She hadn't returned to the guild right away, for other tasks had required her attention, but she was still shaken from all she had seen and heard. She was glad, therefore, to be returning to the relative safety of the guild, for the rest of the city offered little protection from creatures like the one she had seen.
Winding through the maze of halls and passageways that led to her room, she was struck by a horrible thought that stopped her cold where she stood. What if Giacomo had fled to the guild, seeking sanctuary from those who sought him within the city? What if that thing was here? Now? Her heartbeat quickened with the thought and she cast her eyes about the torchlit halls before dismissing it with a slow and quiet sigh. She didn't sense any of the tension or fear which surely would have drifted through every corridor had the creature entered the guild, and besides, Striker seemed to have no love for the demon. This last fact puzzled her. Why would Striker make and maintain a contract with a creature he so clearly despised. She was too tired to think of an answer, but the question strengthened a suspicion that had been growing in the back of her mind for some time—Striker wasn't in charge of the guild, at least not completely. He was in charge of the daily operations of the guild, to be sure, and no questioned his authority on any matter. But other things, little things, suggested that someone, or even something, else was involved.
Pained cries echoed through one of the darker corridors of the complex as she passed, jarring her thoughts and speeding her step. Another independent had been caught in guild territory, and she grimaced in disgust as she imagined the punishment for his trespass. The last one had been hobbled, and the one before that had been flogged, but this one sounded different. A dozen possibilities rose to mind, and each brought a look of equal abhorrence to Quaralyn's face. The punishments were growing increasingly severe, a clear signal that encroachment would not be tolerated. Another scream rang from the same corridor, and faded into the darkness behind her as she continued.
By the time she reached her door, the images from the Raven and the imagined scenes from the corridor preoccupied her mind to such an extent that she missed the handful of minute signs which should have told her that something was wrong. She had left the door unlocked, there being little point in taking such precautions within the guild, and so she turned the handle with ease and stepped inside without a second thought. The room was dark, far darker than the hall, but not nearly as dark as she left it. The warnings, missed before, now rang clear through her previous musings and alerted her to what she should have known all along—someone else was in the room.
Closing the door behind her with one hand, she allowed her other to slide towards a dagger which hung at her side, fingers wrapping about the leather-bound hilt. Her visitor, however, was making no effort to conceal himself, and as she stepped further into the room she could just make out the grim form of Striker Kel leaning back in a chair against her writing desk, his dour expression surprisingly clear even in the dim light.
Neither of them spoke, and the mounting silence gave way to increased suspicion as they simply stared at one another, each waiting for the other to begin. Striker, noting Quaralyn's white-knuckled grip on the hilt of her dagger, finally decided to start.
"Why were you at the Raven?" he asked, his eyes narrowing and his voice little more than a harsh whisper.
Her eyes narrowed in turn, but didn't falter from his gaze. "Following me?" she quipped backed with more impudence than perhaps was wise, "Since when are my whereabouts any concern of yours?"
"Since you joined the guild," Striker answered, standing slowly and stepping towards her, stopping only when he stood close enough that she was forced to raise her head to meet his eyes. "Why were you there?"
Defiant as always, she didn't back away, but remained firmly planted, tilting her chin forward as she spoke and returning his cold stare with one of her own. "There was a large crowd and a larger distraction. I've been waiting so long for you to approve my plan that I thought I might need to switch specialties."
Her sarcasm didn't escape him, nor did her uncanny ability to use it simultaneously as a shield and a sword. It was her defining characteristic, and though he would have killed any other who dared use it with him, he had almost become accustomed to it in her . . . almost. Whether she realized it or not, she was treading on dangerous ground and one day she would go too far. For now, however, he needed her and perhaps, on some level that he wouldn't admit, even enjoyed the challenge she presented. It might have been this latter fact which led him to parry her sarcasm with indifference, ignoring for the moment her statement and instead glancing down towards the dagger she still gripped at her side. "Planning on using that?"
"Do I need to?" she queried in return, not releasing her hold on the blade. He waited before responding, watching as her grip tightened in the growing silence, revealing a nervousness that her eyes would never show. A smirk crossed his face with the discovery. "Not yet."
Jaryssa rushed into the room without so much as a knock. Having run all the way on her errand, she was out of breath as she stumbled inside, but just managed to spurt out the purpose of her interruption, "Quaralyn! Do you know . . . where Striker is?" Her face was flush and she bent over towards the floor with remarkable flexibility, trying to catch her breath as she waited for a response.
It took a few second her eyes to adjust to the gloom that hung heavily in the room. When they did, however, she saw the boots of a second individual standing in the dim light, and she realized that Quaralyn wasn't alone. She was about to make a quick apology and a hasty departure when she rose back up to her full height and recognized the second figure. The guildmaster, the object of her search, was in the room. She felt suddenly uncomfortable before the pair and just managed not to shift nervously as she wished that she had taken the time to knock before entering. Finding Striker here, in the darkened room of his new lieutenant, brought to mind more than a few of the rumors that had circled the guild about Quaralyn's actual talents. She struggled, however, to hide her surprise and suspicions, hoping that in the poor light neither of them would notice.
The two moved apart as she caught her breath and regained her composure, and they were focusing squarely on her as he began to speak. "There's a problem at the Web. A stranger came, asked for a room, and entered a guild game." It wasn't anything unusual, and she could tell that the two were starting to become annoyed that she found this to be important enough to come barreling into the room. She wasn't trying to be dramatic in keeping back the last piece of information. She was just worried as to how Striker would react. But she hadn't come all this way not to tell him. Planting her feet firmly beneath her, she looked at the pair again. "He, the stranger, he was gambling with a dec."
A dark scowl fell across Striker's face with the news and he looked at Jaryssa in growing silence before asking, "Are you sure?"
"I'm sure," she responded, shifting a bit nervously under the cold grey stare, "I saw it myself when he flipped it in the pot...it was an ebony token, a dec, sure as I live and breathe."
An ironic choice of words, Striker thought, struck by the grim humor, for if she was wrong . . . .
Taking a deep breath, he raised a gloved hand to his chin and sat thoughtfully in the chair by Quaralyn's desk, leaving Jaryssa to fidget in the silence. "Go," he said finally without looking up, and the woman wasted no time in leaving.
The door closed solidly as she left, leaving Striker alone in the company of his new lieutenant....a woman he was certain he shouldn't trust. He glanced up at her and wasn't surprised to find her staring back at him, the curiosity in her dark green eyes shining even in the dim light of the room. Whatever questions sparked to life in that look, however, she knew enough to keep quiet. For that he was thankful. Leaning back in the chair he looked away and returned to his consideration of Jaryssa's news. As far as he knew only one dec had been given, and Giacomo had it.......a small token of appreciation for his service to the guild. For it to turn up in a petty card game could mean only a handful of things.
He dismissed the first instantly. His "associate" wouldn't have given another dec without informing him. Striker had made the provisions of his return to Stormpoint and the guild unmistakably clear, and though he trusted no one completely he knew that his associate couldn't afford for him to leave again, especially now, and certainly not over a matter as trivial as a dec. With that possibility dismissed, only three remained. Either someone had forged a dec, an action of supreme stupidity as the giving of decs was carefully monitored and the punishment for their forgery extreme, or the demon had lost his during one of his insipid romps through the city, or the stranger in the tavern was the demon.
It was this last possibility that disturbed him the most and which required his personal involvement, for he had no intentions of sending an impressionable underling to deal with the devil. Rising from the chair, he strode evenly across the room, ignoring the look on Quaralyn's face. "Follow me," he called back to her as he reached the door and entered the hall. There was much to do, but he didn't call a page. He'd collect those he wanted personally this time. He couldn't hear Quaralyn behind him, but he knew she was there as he rounded the corner of the long hall and headed, grim-faced and foul-tempered, towards the heart of the guild.
Less than two hours had passed since the stranger first took his seat at the table and tossed the ebony token into the pot, simultaneously raising the brows of his new companions and the stakes of his game. His voice was cocky and his action rash, but the three men sitting at the table accepted him. They knew what the coin was even if he didn't. In the hands of the one to whom it belonged it served as mark of privilege. In the hands of another, it served as an inadvertent and potentially unwarranted mark of death. This, they knew with unswerving certainty. What they didn't know, was which of the two alternatives sat before them, and which was the more frightening.
A signal been given, silent but unmistakable, and a runner had been sent. Now, there was nothing to do but wait . . . wait and continue the facade of one game while they secretly played another. They kept quiet as they played, holding their tongues for fear of losing them, and spoke enough only to avoid raising further suspicion. They were an unusual trio. The man to the stranger's left spoke with an accent from the northern lands and was missing two fingers on his left hand. The man to the right was unremarkable. Nondescript, he could probably blend into any crowd .... anywhere. The man across from the stranger was bit taller than average and lacked the bulk to offset his height with the result that he bore some resemblance to a scarecrow ....... gangly, limp, and utterly harmless. His eyes, however, told quite another story.
They played throughout the crowd of the evening meal and throughout the arrival of other evening guests. They were still playing when a swarthy man with coal brown eyes entered the tavern. He wasn't alone. A woman with flame red hair and a low-cut dress hung attractively on his arm and smiled a bit too eagerly at any who looked her way. Together they made their way, she somewhat tipsily, to a table in a "quiet" corner of the room. The serving girl ignored them until the man grew annoyed and finally caught both her attention and her skirt as she passed. She turned in huff and nearly slapped him for his efforts, but something stopped her and she instead took their order and hastily returned with their requests, departing with the same nervous urgency.
Alone once again, the couple, well-amused by each other, paid little attention to the rest of the room's occupants. Or so it seemed. After a time, the man left the table and his overly happy companion and headed toward the bar. He spoke briefly with the keep and tossed a handful of coins onto to the counter, receiving a key in return. With quicker step and leering smile he returned to the table and pulled his companion to her feet, leading her across the common room and towards the stairs that climbed the back wall. She followed agreeably, being in a somewhat pliable state, and smiled suggestively at the card players as she passed.
They leered in return, and one, braver than the rest, called out, "How much?"
Her partner glared back at the man and quickened his pace, pulling her faster up the stairs.
Stumbling in tow behind him, she answered, "Sixty."
The card players chuckled briefly in response, but the woman's partner wasn't amused "Shut up, Lyrrah!" he snapped back, pulling her the rest of the way up the stairs. She disappeared around the corner, but not before giving a quick wink to the card players below.
They chuckled again as she left and eyed one another knowingly, appearing to share some private joke that they declined to share with their visitor. Cards, coins, and suspicions crossed and recrossed the table for nearly another hour before one of the players, looking hard and long at Marcus over the tattered edges of his cards, asked the dark-haired stranger if he was interested in raising the stakes.
The game drug on for another hour, maybe two, and the growing stack of coins that sat on the table before Marcus testified that he played his hands well. Even as he played, he could tell by the occasional nervous glance and scant conversation that his "fellow" players were small fish, if in the guild at all. He made careful note of their faces for later use, but he was after larger prey. His patience, however, was not infinite, and after the game entered its third hour he was thinking of abandoning this lot and trying his hand elsewhere.
He threw down his last card and was about to rise when the strumpet and her john strolled past the table, drawing the attention of the players and momentarily interrupting the game. Her expression was placid and her step uncertain, but she elicited a strange reaction from his fellow players. It was something more than lechery, but he couldn't put his finger on it, just a whisper in his ghost. It was enough to make him stay, however, and he played for nearly another hour before one of the players asked if he wanted to raise the stakes. Marcus simply nodded as he chuckled to himself. Little did they know that he was already playing a game in which the stakes were painfully high and the odds quite long.
As they led him down to the docks, winding their way through fog-filled streets, Marcus could feel the blood rushing through his veins as the thrill of the hunt gripped his heart. The trip was short, and soon they stopped before a weather-beaten building and told him to enter. Its boarded up windows and general state of disrepair bespoke of ensured privacy. ~~Finally getting somewhere.~~ Marcus thought as he entered the empty structure.
The players led him through the common room of what used to be a tavern long ago. Wisps of dust and old cobwebs fluttered in the air at their passing, and the hinges of a door groaned in protest as it was opened, revealing a back room. Light washed out as Marcus was ushered through, leaving one darkness behind to come face to face with another.
This new room had been recently used and contained no traces of dust or cobwebs that so dominated the common room. As his eyes adjusted, Marcus could see two shadowed figures flanking a single man who sat at the only table in the room. The man's dark blonde hair looked slightly darker in the dim light of the room, and the shadows that fell across his face gave him a strange hawklike appearance, a look sharpened by two steel-grey eyes that held an almost inhuman stare. It was a look that bespoke a certain confidence, even power, and Marcus felt sure that he was on the right track. He etched the man's features into memory before turning to look around the room with a sneer. "So, where is this so-called high stakes game? Or have you wasted my time?"
His answer came from the stranger at the table. He was leaning forward in the chair, his head lowered over gloved and laced fingers. Only his eyes met the ranger as he spoke in a coarse whisper, "Sit down."
Marcus knew how to deal with his sort, and he knew that any sign of weakness could be fatal, especially if he wanted them to accept him for what he pretended to be. He dropped a hand to the sword hilt and answered with a defiant look. "And why would I want to do that?"
The stranger didn't move, but only stared at the ranger with cold grey eyes and repeated the order with greater force. "Sit down." It was the voice of one accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed, and as he spoke the three card players from the tavern took a step closer to Marcus, eager to help him comply.
Marcus smirked with a practiced arrogance and tossed his cloak at one of the players. "That care of that, boy." He then swaggered to the table and drew his sword. Instantly, the two shadowed figures flanking the table drew their own weapons, as did the three men from the tavern, but the man at the table remained unmoving. ~~Ok, just five~~ Marcus thought with some degree of confidence as he embedded the sword into the wooden floor next to the proffered chair. "Well, if you are going to 'insist,'" he quipped, taking the seat and emptying the contents of his money pouch on the table. The gold gleamed in the weak light from the skylight above, and he pushed ten coins to the center of the table. He waited for some response from the man across the table, but received none. He might as well have been a statue, and it was beginning to annoy the ranger. "So are you going to talk all night or deal?"
Still the stranger didn't move save to glance down to the coins then back up to Marcus in a clear gesture. Marcus frowned, but he knew what the man was waiting for, and he pulled the black token from his pocket, watching the man carefully as he placed it on the table in front of him. The man's eyes flickered to the token, then narrowed in suspicion as they rose to meet Marcus' again. In the silence that followed with the man's scrutiny Marcus thought a glimmer of recognition sparked in the stranger's grey eyes, but it soon faded and Marcus felt the first twinge of relief since he had entered the room--he had been accepted, and he waited for the man to begin to deal. He was still waiting two minutes later, and the silence was growing both tedious and dangerous. Whatever game this man was playing Marcus didn't want any part of it, and he began to gather his coins to leave. "Well, if there's no 'game' to be had here, I'll be leaving."
As he spoke, the door opposite through that which Marcus had been led opened and two figures entered--the swarthy man from the Web and his flame-haired companion. The man was dressed the same, but the woman had changed into something more practical, but less revealing. ~Pity~ He recognized them instantly and realized at the same time that in her fictitious name and price they had told the gamblers of the time and place of this meeting. Clever, he thought, and in an inn like the Web, completely without suspicion.
The man spoke first, and quickly, "He's alone." The figure at the table didn't answer, but instead looked questioningly to his companion, waiting for her assessment. She looked less certain.
"I didn't see anyone," she began, then added in a voice that suggested both experience and intuition, "but I don't think he's alone."
"You didn't see anything because there's nothing to see," the dark-haired man responded, contempt ringing in his voice.
The woman didn't turn to face him, but instead looked only at the figure seated across from Marcus and repeated her statement in a clear and certain tone. "I don't think he's alone." The dark-clad figure at the table moved for the first time, raising his right hand slightly and cocking his head to the right in a small gesture. In response, Marcus heard only the opening and closing of an unseen door, and guessed that someone had been dispatched to search for Soren. ~~Good luck finding him. You'll need it~~ Marcus smirked quietly as he rose from the table. "And if you're done wasting my time, I'll be leaving to find where the real 'game' is."
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