Ready? Mismatched eyes shifted from the window to the panther who lay sleeping on the bed across the tavern room. One eye opened to regard her in irritation. It's not dark yet, Night, we don't hunt until after dark has fallen. The eye slid shut again slowly. Tanight we leave early, we're goin' ta beat 'im there. Let's go, cat, we 'ave ta 'unt tagether tanight. With a look of supreme reluctance she stretched and yawned. She jumped lightly off the bed and stared sullenly up and Satheers.
Satheers nodded slightly and moved towards the door. During the last two days the people in the inn had gotten used to her coming and going at odd hours of the night. She'd explained it by telling them she had trouble sleeping and walking helped. The inn keeper looked up and nodded once then looked back to cleaning the bar. Satheers nodded back, though he didn't see it and slid out onto the street. She hauled the door shut on her heels and drew her cloak around her. MoonHunter slid ahead, disappearing amidst the shadows. This was the one thing that they no longer even needed to talk about, they both understood there part and they both did it perfectly.
She moved quickly, letting her mind dwell on the information she'd managed to acquire about the man she was about to help steal from. This was a dangerous job, this Digerian was a powerful fellow. She hadn't been able to find anything about what they were stealing, it was hard to be indirect and get direct answers and she didn't know the people to talk to who could get her the answers she needed and keep their mouths shut. In time... She'd found what she could, the rest she'd find from the man she would be working with or she'd find out when they got whatever they were here for. Somehow, she doubted that it was a simple book of ghost stories.
She had, however, had a lot better luck and finding out where the graveyard was, that one didn't require much subtly to learn of though. She made her way for it slowly and waiting for it to get a bit darker first. It was nearly dusk as she stepped past the first head stone. MoonHunter was nowhere in sight, but Satheers had a pretty good idea where she'd be. She scanned the area slowly, looking for the man that she was to meet.
((posted as Dagen))
The sun had been hidden beneath a thick layer of clouds, and the sky had been grey all through the morning and into the afternoon. Only the darkening shades of grey and the cooling air signaled the change from day to night as dusk fell across the city of Stormpoint. Within the great miasma that enveloped the emptying streets, one of the darker shades of grey made its way towards the church and the resting place that laid beside it.
The cemetery was surrounded by walls of stone, which may have served as much to keep the occupants in, as they did to the keep visitors out. A heavy iron gate, fastened with a single lock, barred the only entrance to the graveyard, but the lone figure wasn't looking to use the gate, and he quietly slipped over the wall to land noiselessly in a small patch of mist-filled darkness. Fog, whether owing to the sea or some more ethereal source, rose from the ground, creeping over the headstones and around the mausoleums, beckoning its strange visitor forward with trailing fingers of frost and vapor.
He wasn't interested in either their lure or their promises, however, and he strode evenly over the grave-strewn grass, ignoring their call. The ground was sodden beneath his feet, and it clung to his shoes, slowing his speed as it pulled against him with each step, releasing his boots with reluctance and a harsh sucking sound that echoed in the empty darkness both around and within him. It was sound that would have sickened another in its possible foretelling, but Dagen thought little of the future, and as he wasn't trying to conceal his approach, the warning was lost on him.
He'd guessed she'd be there already . . . she, her cat, and her suspicions. Let her suspect. She'd never realize what they were after until it was too late, and even then she might not care. He'd seen her type before . . . shadow-clinging wanderers whose swords, skills, and souls could be bought by the highest bidder, and tonight, that was him.
He found her leaning against the trunk of an ancient tree. In the daylight, its branches no doubt reached out in cradling peace over those who slumbered beneath them, but at night . . . at night the twisted limbs, stripped bare by an early touch of fall, stretched out with skeletal arms and threatened to scratch and tear at any who wandered blindly into its grasp. He couldn't see the cat, but he knew it was there, somewhere, and he approached with the same steady pace he'd used since leaping the wall. As her face came into view, he could see that she still wore the same expression of suspicion and assurance. He doubted that it ever left her face for long, and though he needed her help, a part of him hoped that she might crack beneath the pressure of what waited for them in the hours ahead.
He stopped a few feet before her, but neither gestured nor spoke in greeting. Instead, he simply met her eyes and uttered a single word, "Ready?"
The sound of mud sucking at an approaching pair of feet warned her well in advance of his approach. She felt a momentary flash of disgust that he allowed his presence to be heard so well, then she shook her head. It didn't matter here and it emliminated suspicion, oddly enough. She shoved herself away from the tree as he appproached.
She nodded sharply in answered, crossing her hands behind her. She wanted to ask about teh book, but she kept her mouth shut and gestured for him to lead off. Questions ad a proper time and place, on a job wasn't one of them unless this looked to be something that could land them in more trouble than they could get out of.
((posted as Dagen))
Looking as grim as the regular occupants of the cemetery, the woman shoved herself away from the tree at Dagen approach. Her expression wasn't lost on him, but he really didn't care if she liked him or not. He needed only her skills, not her approval. "Ready?" It wasn't so much a question as it was an announcement that it was time to start. The woman seemed to understand, nodding sharply in answer, and gesturing for him to lead the way.
He scowled, biting back the contempt he had for her. He didn't trust her. He didn't trust anyone. But from what he'd heard, he was going to need help getting inside, and he wanted to get inside. He grunted and shook his head, but led on without another word, taking her back the way he had come. The scent of winter was strong, and pillars of smoke billowed from the chimneys of the buildings that dotted their path. They kept to the shadows as they passed each of them. Silent in their step, they might have been shadows themselves, each alone and quiet with their own thoughts and suspicions.
As usual, Dagen's thoughts were dark and seething, filled with anger and resentment. His position in the guild was tenuous. He had been looked over, had gone unnoticed. But that was all going to change. His mouth curled in cross between a sneer and a smile. Yes, it was going to change. Once he got his hands on the book, even Striker couldn't deny him his due.
After a time, the buildings became sparse, then disappeared entirely, replaced by a copse of barren trees. They offered little cover, but it was dark, and the two humans and the cat didn't need much. Still scowling, Dagen led them through the dead thicket, avoiding the fallen and crunching leaves as best he could. They were still a fair distance from their goal, however, and there was no one to hear them. Minutes passed without a discernible change in their surroundings, but finally their target could be seen through the heavy mist that rose without explanation from the cold ground. In a few more moments, they stood at the edge of the woods, in the shadow of the mansion.
Just within the reach of the dried and brittle limbs, the home of the high justice loomed high above them. It was a well-fortified structure, and several patrols walked the perimeter. They were rangers, of course, and though he had known they would be, Dagen still frowned and wished they had been just watchmen. Not to say that the watch members weren't competent, but they lacked the stealthful movement of this lot. Even the rangers weren't infallible though, as proven by recent events in the abandoned tavern still held by the guild.
Things had gone badly for the ranger. Marcus, wasn't it? But they hadn't gone smoothly for the guild either. Striker had made a mistake in sending Quaralyn to deal with the fallen ranger, and he had escaped. Smug in his superiority, Dagen knew he wouldn't have made the same mistake. She should have killed the ranger in the tavern, and carried only his lifeless body to a place where it would be found. He snorted quietly in disgust. She probably lacked the strength to carry him, and so had to force him to carry at least part of his own weight on that lonely march to Golgotha.......another mistake.
The sound of footsteps brought him back to the present. The patrol was passing again. Hidden in the mist and darkness, Dagen's eyes shifted furtively from the guards to his companion......uncertain which was the greater threat. Not a word passed between them as they watched the rangers continue their route. They were fairly certain now of their number and pattern, but would wait for another few circuits, just to be sure. It was only the first challenge they'd have to pass, but fortunately, Dagen knew what to expect once they passed it.
The fact that he knew as much about the defenses as he did bespoke a greater competency than the woman would ever give him credit for. From an objective standpoint, Dagen might not be as accomplished as some, but he boasted an impressive set of skills and the wherewithal to use them. As the rangers passed once more, Dagen stood and motioned for the woman to do the same. It was time to put those skills to the test.
Wrapped in the darkness of the new moon's night, they slipped past the first of the patrols and entered the courtyard of the mansion, beginning a journey whose end was by no means certain.
She doubted it was her imagination that he held her in a complete and utter contempt and the thought was oddly amusing. People rarely met her without finding a good reason to hate her, or at least one that was passingly well founded. This fellow, though, she wouldn't have truly expected it out of. She shook her head, smothering the half formed smile at the thought. She was slipping, or maybe she'd just been stupid on that one. If you're slipping, then I'm slipshod, Night. I didn't expect it either. He approached us after all Satheers looked down at the panther who had moved to pace at her side, more silent and well hidden than either of her humna companions. She mouthed the words "Means nothing" knowing the panther would catch the thought. Without a reply MoonHunter moved off again, passing a hairsbreath from their silent companion, the tip of her tail curling around his leg before she bounded out of sight.
As the buildings become more sparse she turned her thoughts more towards what she was doing. In the middle of the city no one who spent time in the alleys that they passed through would have remarked on two people skulking through the shadows, it wasn't that abnormal. Where there were less buildings, though, theives and the common criminals wouldn't usually bother with.
As they entered the thicket Satheers paused for a moment, then shook her head and followed, setting her feet in the same places that her companion had used. If there were crunching leaves in his path, she'd step on the ones that had already been crushed and were less likely to make anymore noise. The fog made the passage more difficult, but it also met that prying eyes were less likely to see them and for that she was grateful.
A grim smile crossed her features at the mansion came into sight. She'd been here the previous day after a few quiet inquires and had decided that getting in and out alive would take a minor miracle, just from the way things looked on the outside. Inside, though, was another matter. It could be better or it could be worse, she'd have to depend on her companion's knowledge for that, and that dependence disturbed her. She didn't trust the man and didn't like placing her life in his hands.
She knelt soundlessly, watching the guards intently. MoonHunter prowled somewhere around the perimeter of the place occasionally sending back a brief image of what she was seeing for Satheers. Satheers shook her head and glanced up at her companion. "What be ye waitin' fer?" She hoped that he didn't bite at the bait, if he did, she was leaving now. If he was any good, he would continue to wait for awhile longer, the night had a lot of hours and they only had one life to spare.
(posted as Dagen)
Inside the yard, Dagen led the woman and her cat past a second patrol. The new moon above offered only a pale guesture of illumination for the pair and the cat as they traveled, and when they came to rest behind a small building still some distance from the main gate of the mansion, the inky darkness had pooled into a think blanket of night such that each could barely see the other, though they were crouched but an arm's-length away.
Some thirty yards from where they hid, two torches were burning, held tight by brackets affixed to a large wooden structure. Through the evensong of the crickets, small and sporadic shuffles could be heard in the distance, emanating from the torchlit building. Muffled and distant, they could have been anything, but when the faint sound of a whinny drifted through the night air, the question of the building's nature was put to rest.
Outside the high justice's stables, two rangers stood guard. They spoke infrequently, though their conversation could not be discerned, and in their long watch they were unaware that they themselves had become the subjects of a yet another watch ..... a watch that crouched quietly in the distance, and waited ...... for the time to act had not yet come.
Within the deep pockets of shadow, far beyond the light of the stables' torches, minutes ticked by in empty silence. The woman and her cat might have been annoyed by the wait, but Dagen didn't care. The schedule, like the plan, was his, and he would reveal it as he saw fit ..... when he saw fit. Without looking away from the rangers, he pulled a stiletto from the side of his right boot. Its long blade had been darkened by a substance that was probably lethal, much like the expression that now darkened his already grim features. He nodded towards a blacker patch of shadow that sat off in the distance, barely visible and only vaguely suggestive of a wall, or a hedge, or some structure that might offer a place of complete concealment in the already near-pitch yard. "Wait five minutes," he whispered coarsely, "then have that cat of yours lure one of the rangers over there." He gave no further explanation, but slipped quietly away, heading in the direction he had given.
"Wait five minutes, then have that cat of yours lure one of the rangers over there."
She frowned faintly as he slipped away, then glanced at MoonHunter. The panther sat serenly a bit away, as though she hadn't heard the order. With a shake of her head, Satheers turned her eyes back to the pair of rangers. She had little doubt as to the fate of the ranger Moon was supposed to lure away, and she had no desire to comply with the order, she was being paid to steal something, not to kill someone and she wasn't going to sit back while the pair were killed. "Moon, lure one o' them away, but bring 'im this way." She kept her voice low and nodded to the rangers in question.
The panther followed the nod and sat silently for a moment longer before rising. I assume that you are going to spare them from the death your friend intends for them? Satheers snorted softly and gestured towards the rangers again. This time MoonHunter moved off immediately towards the building. With a nod to herself Satheers pulled a dagger from one boot and turned it over slowly to assure herself that the blade was clean. A small vial was produced from a small pocket sewn into the the cloak an she emptied its contents onto the blade of the dagger. Her eyes lifted to follow the movement of MoonHunter, now obvious as she tried to attract the attention of the rangers. With a small nod Satheers reached for a small cloth tucked through her belt and spread the sticky stuff over the blade. The covered part of the cloth was turned inward as she replaced it in her belt.
Rising slowly, she handled the dagger with care, the substance on it induced rather quickly a heavy sleep that often appeared to be death and there would be little chance the difference would be noted this night, not as dark as it was and not with the need not to remain there long after this act was done.
MoonHunter padded towards the building, emerging from the sheltering shadows to pass teasingly close to the rangers, a quick flitting from shadow, then again a bit farther out. She waited, then passed even closer than before, pausing to let what little light existed to catch her before darted back into the shadows. A moment passed impatiently for the panther before one ranger detached himself to move towards where she waited. Had she been human, she might have smiled in triumph, as it was, she just slid ahead, occasionally allowing herself to be seen to keep the ranger on her trail, making her slow way back towards Satheers.
Satheers watched them come, her eyes sliding towards the place her companion had indicated occasionally to assure herself that there was no shadow moving back this way. Once the ranger was close enough Satheers moved forward, her eyes on a spot where the ranger would temporarily be out of sight of his companion. This was going to be the difficult part here, she couldn't be seen, but she didn't have her choice of ground, she was in a hurry before her companion noticed the change in plan. She moved quickly, but carefully, never letting herself come out of the full cover of shadows.
She reached her chosen spot a moment before MoonHunter did and she crouched, eyes wandering towards the second ranger, finding him out of sight, then towards her companion's hiding spot. With a small nod to herself she watched the final few steps of the ranger, then rose swiftly, clamped a hand over his mouth and nicked the neck his neck with the blade. It would bleed enough to cover his throat and look convincing. The ranger struggled for a moment, then slumped in her grasp. She lowered him to the ground, checking quickly to make sure that the 'poison' had done its job.
With a small nod to herself she stripped him of his clothing and changed her own for it, keeping only the cloak on her shoulders and forgoing the one of a lighter hue worn by the ranger, hopefully the difference would not be noticed. "Moon, keep our friend busy fer awhile if'n 'e tries ta follow me down, I only need a moment." With those whispered words she drew up a corner of her cloak and covered part of her face as though to stop up a cut and stepped out of her hiding place, making her steady way down towards the stable.
She kept her head bowed as she walked, hanging close to the shadows. Had she still believed in such things, she would have whispered a prayer to the gods that the ranger didn't recognize the many physical difference between his companion and her. He watched her approach, his eyes occasionally shifting to study the surrounding terrain before returning. "Are you well?" he called finally. She shook her head, and paused where she stood, seeming to stumble. The ranger moved forward to catch her elbow.
She straigthened and grabbed the arm, twsiting it around. For a moment startlement held his tongue and it was long enough to her to get a hand firmly over his mouth and nick his neck with the treated dagger. As before he fought for only moments before slumping in her grip, hard asleep. She lowered the ranger to the ground and seated herself cross-legged on the ground to await the arrival of her undoubtably upset companion.
((posted as Dagen))
It took a few minutes for the pulsing red that covered his eyes to fade into a dark, smoldering brown through which he could finally see again. The sound pulsed for a while longer in his ears though, as he looked from the lifeless bodies of the rangers to the smug form of his companion seated cross-legged on the ground. It took more restraint than he usually possessed not to lash out against her, and instead he spat in a coarse whisper, "You ever seen a guard lounge about on the ground before? Get up before someone sees you."
If he'd been less prone to rage, Dagen might have realized that she'd done him a favor, for now she'd be the one to hang for their entry, but his soul was so twisted with acrimony that her actions only fueled the cancerous hatred that roiled within. There was nothing to be done now though, nothing but strip the uniform from the second ranger and hide the bodies as best they could. It took less than five minutes, all total, and the darkness of the hour and grounds hid all trace of the deed. All then that was left to do was wait, and the wait didn't last long.
The footsteps were heard before their makers were seen........steady, even footsteps that almost fell in unison, but landed just a shade off the mark. They grew steadily louder as they approached, and soon the flickering light from the torches reflected off the black and silver uniforms of another set of rangers, come to relieve the two who had stood before, unaware that another had already relieved them of both their posts and, as Dagen thought, their lives. The pair offered a brief word of greeting to their supposed comrades and took their place at the door of the stables without pause or ceremony.
Relieved of their post and concealed in the garb of the mansion's defenders, the intruders were free now to cross the yard with a veneer of impunity, but they still kept largely to the darker paths, more for the sake of the cat than for fear of recognition. Dagen led the trio with a wary confidence, passing two obvious points of entry and taking a winding stone path that snaked off into the darkness between the mansion and another compound that sat off at a distance towards the right. Here and there small tufts of grass and moss had sprung up through the cold stone, giving the path what some might find to be a cheerful appearance on a sun-filled day. At night, however, the mixture unwittingly served a more nefarious purpose, softening the footfalls of the three infiltrators so that none heard their approach.
They followed the path for an indeterminate distance before it split into two, leading both back towards the mansion and towards the compound that now loomed closer. The night air was thick at the juncture, not with fog or haze, but with a sweet, floral fragrance that drifted from the leftward path that led back to the house. As the trio veered left and neared their goal, the scent grew stronger and more defined. In better light, the travelers would have been able to see the matted vines of wisteria that laced the garden wall standing some twenty yards from the mansion and blocking all view into the flowered sanctuary, but in the pale light of the new moon the wall appeared only as a misshapen mass from which tangles of hands and fingers stretched out to catch those who ventured too close.
Dagen, however, was too intent on reaching his goal to notice, and even if he had it was doubtful he would care. It, like most things, was a distraction which served no useful purpose other than to amuse the simple-minded or those too preoccupied with metaphor to succeed in a world that measured success only by advancement and accumulation. The wall and the garden were thus largely invisible to Dagen, their scent obscured by the stronger, and to him, more fragrant promises of triumph and revenge.
The path he had chosen and led them down ended at an unadorned and unguarded door at the side of the house. The door was also unlocked, and it opened quietly in response to Dagen's touch. He wasn't surprised, but if he'd had a heart, it might have beat just a bit faster as the cool air within the darkened house slipped out and filled his lungs. Drawing it in and savoring each step that brought him closer to his aim, Dagen crossed the threshold of the manor, pausing to ensure that his information had been correct and that neither traps nor alarms attended his entry before gesturing for his companions to follow.
MoonHunter, seemingly simply out of spite for their companion, darted past him as soon as possible to stroll inside the hall. Satheers pursed her lips together at that. The panther wasn't normally that rash, she hoped that their companion wasn't getting to the panther too much. Satheers followed her companion in, more than content to allow him to go first. If anyone shot an arrow at them, he would likely fall first and she would have more warning in case of any attack.
After ascertaining that there was no immediate threat she allowed her eyes to drift around the room they'd just entered. It was a kitchen, very much what she expected for a place this size. With a small nod to herself she walked along the walls, then turned to look at the large table situated in the middle of the kitchen. It looked as though it would hold twenty, give or take a few. Cold meats and wine were set out on the table, presumably for those on duty to grab as they went through. With a quick smile she helped herself to a bit and ate it as she finished her inspection of the kitchen. If she was acting the part of a ranger, why not?
There were four ways out of the room, the way they'd come in, a trapdoor that she presumed led to a wine cellar or storage room, and two other doors. She glanced at her companion to see which to take since he was the one who knew where to head. She found him heading for one of the doors. With a shrug she glanced at MoonHunter and followed in silence. The panther padded along within the cover of shadows and Satheers paused a moment to envy the panther's ability to find a shadow even in these rooms lit by the light of magical globes. With a shake of her head she turned her attention back to the matter at hand. The hallways was simple enough. They passed two doors leading off the hall before it opened into a large foyer. The marble floor she stepped onto was a checker board of black and white. Overhead a witchfire light a crystal chandelier, casting rainbos of color about the room. She scanned the various ways out of the room, then glanced at her companion with a raised brow.
She didn't voice her question aloud for fear of breaking the disguise, but MoonHunter picked it up. Ho there, human! Satheers blinked in surprise at the mindvoice. She could feel that the panther was speaking to her companion, but had included her for some reason. Where next, human? Satheers eyed the panther suspiciously, wondering at the oddity in her behavior. The panther rarely spoke with any but her and never in that particular manner. When she heard the mind voice again it was for her thoughts alone. Let him deal with that, Night. I am... Curious...
((posted as Dagen))
A dagger was in his hand before the voice had faded and Dagen spun round, ready to face the speaker. There was no one there. No one except the woman and the cat. The former wore an expression of surprise. The latter's features bore the feline equivalent of amusement. Determining that it was the cat that had spoken, Dagen scowled and resheathed the dagger. He'd guessed that the cat and the woman shared some sort of bond and imagined that they could communicate in some way. He hadn't given it any more thought though, as he really didn't care. He needed them only this once. After that, time would tell.
Having received no answer from Dagen, the cat "spoke" again.
Dagen's scowl deepened and he gestured towards the right. If he'd been more clever he would have realized that the fact the cat could "speak" to him as well as the woman might be useful, for annoying as the creature's voice was, it couldn't be overheard. The idea might come to him later.....maybe in the type of clarity that came only in the grasp of desperation, but Dagen wasn't there yet, and the only clarity he could claim was the kind belonging to a mind filled with a singular purpose and which tolerates no distraction from its goal.
Turning towards the right, they followed the checkerboard floor around a corner before coming to a long hall that stretched out for twenty or so feet before fading into the darkness and out of their vision. It was the first of the obstacles they would face within the house and it was a clever one ..... not in the way of one requiring any great skill or intelligence to pass, but in the simplicity of its premise and operation, founded, as it was, upon the understanding of its opponents. Thieves rarely employed any more assistance than necessary, preferring to keep their numbers low for a variety of reasons, not all of which were wise. Even when working with others of their ilk, each was given a set of tasks to perform and expected to perform those tasks alone. The mansion's architect put this habit to use in designing its defenses. The floor could not be traversed singly. Ironically then, the hall posed no threat to the rampaging mob that sought an audience with the high justice, but stopped cold the single visitor, invited or otherwise, who intended to walk its length alone.
There was no other trick than this, but Dagen wasn't one to share, preferring instead to clothe himself in the appearance of usefulness. If the woman knew the secret of the hall, she and the cat could leave without him should they choose to do so, and he refused to be at their mercy. He therefore guided them carefully across the floor, directing each step and quavering at each threatened misstep. The theater might not be hurting for his absence, but Dagen was a convincing enough actor when properly inspired, and the floor's pattern lent considerable credence to his performance.
They thus traversed the hall without incident, finally reaching the far end which hadn't been visible from their starting point. They could see very clearly now, however, that the hall ended at the intersection of another, offering them two choices of direction. Darkened as the house was, both looked equally appealing, but the path to the left was just a shade darker. After a moment's consideration, that was path Dagen chose.
© 1999 Stormpoint Writers Guild
All rights reserved