The Game of Shadows - Part Three

By Deuce Traveler


Chapter Seven

Deuce Traveler and Raaf Ling stood side by side at a huge, brass-framed window on the top floor of their estate, overlooking their lawn. Raaf had sent the servants home and told them not to return a few hours ago. There was no light in the room, and they observed shadows moving towards their home, using the trees and rocks as cover as they approached. Raaf heard Deuce whisper to him, "I see three by the trees."

"Yes, as do I. And two by the far wall. I also saw more earlier, but lost them. I have to admit, they do seem good at this. I know few who would have noticed anything moving out there at all," was the whispered reply. Raaf was ashamed to realize that he was beginning to enjoy himself, especially with the young lives at stake. Both rogues had been eager to leave with their students, but two soldiers had come to join their ranks. Lord Mathias, of the king's Rangers, and Gabrielle Karma of the Dark Army had come to demand that the Evening Star Mercenaries join the war against the Brotherhood of the Blade.

The two rogues moved away from the window and walked to the first floor lobby to meet their guests and comrades. Gabrielle was discussing to an intently listening Azrail about the power of the Dark Army. Astral Eldroon and another of Deuce's pledges named Caroline Estes were staring at awe at the assembly. Saint stood sadly alone and leaned against a pillar, his eyes empty of feeling. Esk and Mathias were talking quietly on the far side of the room.

Lord Mathias was a broad-chested man, with large biceps and a loud voice. His forest green tunic and cloak marked him as a Ranger, and he carried a huge crossbow across his back. Large bolts stood in a quiver on his right hip, and a hefty broadsword rested on his left. His blue eyes were almost fiery with energy, and his silver gray hair had touches of red in it from when he was a youth. He had yelled for Deuce on his arrival and continued yelling into Raaf's calm face until the former assassin could finally and gently tell the man that his job was complete. The Evening Star Mercenaries had already joined against the Brotherhood. Mathias celebrated the happy news by jovially patting Raaf on the back and helping himself to some of the estate's whisky. The man had developed a small beer gut from his hard living ways, despite his continual campaigns on the borders of Amaranth.

"You're right, and that's the other problem. We would not only have to deal with the Shadow Assassins to get the third Eye of Brakkart, but the Brotherhood of the Blade too, who have also been searching...," Lord Mathias stopped his whispered discussion with Esk as the rogues appeared. "Alright, we're ready to get out of here. Your kids gave us a few days supplies."

Raaf pushed his glasses back up to his nose as he softly spoke, "And we have been waiting around for you to get ready for so long, that now I have the distinct pleasure of informing you that we are surrounded."

Gabrielle stared into Azrail's eyes, testing his resolve, "Excellent! We get to attack first. What's the plan?"

Gabrielle had arrived shortly after Mathias and was also pleased that her work to have the Mercenaries involved was over. The dark haired and beautiful Gabrielle Karma of the Dark Army wore purple robes to cover her heavenly body, and two featherly wings rested against her back. She was a fallen angel, formerly under the goddess Popple. Gabrielle had fallen in love with a mortal and had surrendered her wings for him. The mortal was a commander in the Dark Army named Lucifer Nightbringer, still famous in elven lore for atrocities against their people. Lucifer had twisted Gabrielle's mind and together they used her angelic power to drive the Dark Army deep into the Elven Kingdoms. When Popple had discovered that her fallen angel had abused her powers against the beautiful elven race she was hurt and angered. She cursed Gabrielle with a mortal body so that if the angel ever used her heavenly powers again she would be consumed by them. The next day the elves counter-attacked, and during the battle Commander Lucifer was mortally wounded. Gabrielle could not bring herself to make the ultimate sacrifice for the man she loved and in her guilt she became a follower of Tigress Silverclaw. She had also never forgiven Popple, and sought to destroy the goddesses creations.

"The plan is that we protect the pledges," she heard Deuce answer. "Lord Mathias, there are some by the trees and hedges about fifty yards from our front door. If we blow out the lights and open the windows, you think you can hit some with that crossbow of yours?"

They turned off the lights, and Mathias slightly opened a window. "Ah, these old eyes aren't what they used to be."

Gabrielle smiled to herself in the dark. "I sometimes forget that the darkness is not everyone's friend." Reciting a prayer to Tigress Silverclaw, she touched Mathias in the back of his head.

Mathias whistled in appreciation, despite the ranger's dislike of the Dark Army. His eyes saw the yard as if it was daylight, and he could clearly see one man beginning to slowly rise from the bushes. He fired one of his large crossbow bolts at the man, who was thrown back with a scream by the force of the impact. Loading another bolt quickly, Mathias fired his mighty crossbow at a man in the trees. This time there was no scream from the target as the man fell from his perch. The bolt had instantly killed the assassin as it entered his chest, pierced his heart, and flew out of his back. Mathias watched in surprise as the rest of the assassins started fading back, "They're retreating! After only losing two men."

Raaf nodded, "Of course. The Brotherhood does not engage in battle the way you do and that is why you are not winning this war in the shadows. They will discuss a new strategy and ambush us again."

Mathias thought about that for a moment as he stared at the window for new targets, "There is no way we can get these children out of Riversy. The nine of us stick out like a tower in an open field."

"We are not children," Caroline spoke defiantly and pouted.

Esk ignored her, "Mathias and I can get the pledges out for you. They are looking for you, Deuce, and you Raff. Why don't the two of you go with Saint and Gabrielle to the eastern city gate? We'll meet you outside by the tall hill near the river."

Raaf saw wisdom in that, "A good idea. We'll go first and you follow two minutes behind. We also need to go by Dominica's Pleasure Palace and the Carrion Inn. Our members like to stay the night there and have a drink amongst other distractions."

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Kronk was a new Evening Star Mercenary who had just left some of his friends at Dominica's Pleasure Palace. The dwarf remembered being told by one of his friends that he was so drunk he was soliciting one of the male prostitutes. He had enough judgement left to know it was time to leave the brothel. Kronk went straight to the Carrion Inn, his mind telling him that since he was too tired to sleep, he had best drink until he passed out. Kronk's logic was always slightly different from most. He entered the Carrion Inn, bought a dozen bottles of firebreathers from Filthy, put eleven in his satchel for later, and sat next to his fellow new Mercenaries, Ascal, Ronald, and Kale.

Ascal was saying, "Listen, they snuck in there and been gone for ten minutes now."

"And I say it's none of our concern," Ronald replied.

"What's going on," Kronk slurred drunkenly.

Kale smiled at the dwarf and held his nose, "I thought the other patrons in here stunk like crap, but I swear Kronk, you bring a whole new level to the term body odor." Kale frowned as Kronk just smiled lazily and began to pick his nose.

"Kronk, these two idiots won't go down with me into the bar's cellar. I saw a couple of guys slip in there and want to check it out. I know we don't get our noses into other people's business, but this is our hangout and it is under our guild's protection," Ascal reasoned.

Kronk grabbed his axe, "I'll slap them around a bit for ya and give them a fright. No one messes with my friend, Filthy's place."

"Umm...right. You lead," Ascal said. Kronk did so happily.

"You two are idiots," Kale yelled as his friends left the table.

Kronk and Ascal walked down the steps of the cellar, Kronk singing a dwarven battle song despite Ascal pleading of him to be quiet. At the bottom of the steps, Kronk peered around and only saw shadows and barrels of beer. "No one's here," the dwarf slurred. He thought he smelled smoke.

Two shapes leapt out of the darkness, one tackling Kronk, the other slicing Ascal's throat with a knife before the young Mercenary could react. Ascal fell on his face in a growing pool of blood, clutching his neck. Kronk was strong, even for a dwarf, and tossed his assailant through the air. His attacker smashed into some stacked crates of empty bottles. The second man attacked the dwarf as he began to stand up. Kronk fell to the ground and dropped his axe, slashes covering his arms. He stood there dazed, knowing he was in trouble. The dwarf thought to himself that if he could just remember the move Deuce taught him called the Blair Maneuver, he would be alright.

As the assailant attacked again, Kronk remembered the Blair Maneuver. From his fallen position he drove his foot upwards, between the man's legs and into his crotch with enough force that the man lifted a foot off the ground and collapsed like a sack of potatoes to the floor. The man didn't move as Kronk grabbed for his axe, and the dwarf began to think he may be dead. The man who landed in the crates recovered and walked painfully towards Kronk.

"No," the man with the painful crotch wound said to his ally, "we got to get out of here. He's dead anyway. Help me."

His friend sneered at Kronk, but seemed to agree with his friend. They bustled up the stairwell passed an angry Filthy. "Hey, what's going on down there," Filthy yelled into the cellar.

As Kronk began to stand he peered through the bottle racks and saw a lit fuse. A small flame was travelling on it, about to reach a pool of liquid and crates of firebreathers. Kronk looked around in slow realization and discovered the entire cellar was full of the flammable alcohol. He suddenly became sober and dropped his axe, holding tightly to his satchel in one hand, and grabbing Filthy by his collar in the other. He shouted a warning to the patrons as he dragged a screaming Filthy out the back door. The warning was ignored, the patrons used to the drunken dwarf doing and yelling stranger things. Kronk used the nearer back door and made it just as an explosion destroyed the floor of the bar, causing the entire building to collapse and catch on fire. Filthy and Kronk stared in stunned silence as what was to them the most important place in the world burned along with people they considered friends. Kronk opened his satchel and shared one of his eleven remaining firebreathers as Filthy and him wept like babies.

**********************************************

Gabrielle paced impatiently back and forth behind the hill. Daylight had begun to shine on this morning, and the lack of sleep did little for her disposition. She was about to snap at Deuce Traveler for the tenth time, when she saw the lost look in his eyes. They had passed the remains of Dominica's Pleasure Palace and the Carrion Inn, the only survivors they found being Dominica herself and some of the prostitutes. Deuce hadn't spoken since, letting Raaf lead them out.

Studying his face, she had to admit that he was quite attractive, and his sad, violet eyes were stunning. She could see why Caitlyn had fallen for him before she disappeared all those years ago. "And his body is...," her thoughts were broken as Deuce turned and looked at her, a blank look on his face. The fallen angel blushed, embarrassed at being caught examining him said defensively, "I was beginning to think I was going to have to ask if we were going to have to sit here all week."

She was surprised at his lack of emotion as he said, "We'll go soon. There's no point waiting around here. None of my students made it out."

Saint heard them talking as he and Raaf came up the hill from where they were resting. Besides his wife, Saint was worried mostly for his old friend, Esk. Her and her companions never met them outside Riversy. The priest saw Deuce's face and put a hand on his shoulder, "I'm sorry, Deuce."

"Yes, Saint. So am I."


Chapter Eight

"I still don't like this," the young Caroline said to her two fellow Evening Star Mercenaries. Caroline had olive skin, short brown hair, and deep brown eyes. She wore a loose skirt that reached her knees and a thin, long-sleeved shirt. A small backpack rested on her shoulders.

Azrail protested, "But this is our chance! Deuce would have had us just go and hide, but he'll forgive us when we come back with that sphere."

Astral Eldroon was thin, but of average height and wore gray robes. He was a young mage with blue eyes and short, blonde hair. He fiddled with his rune covered oaken staff as he spoke, "Still, I understand Caroline's protest. We don't know these people, and now they tell us we're going to Rodby to retrieve some stupid item. Why should we help them?" He motioned to a sitting Esk and standing Mathias in the corner of the Riversy-Rodby ferry. Esk's dark green cloak was wrapped tightly around her body, her sword in front of her and resting on her shoulder. Mathias just leaned off the rail of the ferry, his eyes shut and face pleasant as he smelled the water. The rest of the ferry was filled with farmers with their cattle, fishermen, and other merchants either on their way to sell their wares or just returning home for some well earned sleep.

"You heard about how powerful that sphere is, Astral. Think of what we could do with such an artifact. We're the only two in this group who can cast spells, so they have to let one of us hold it, "Azrail said, his voice full of excitement.

Astral began to feel a little worried about this journey, especially with his fellow mage becoming blind with greed. Azrail was Deuce's favored pupil, but didn't seem to learn much from the rogue. Astral remembered something Deuce once said, "One day a man is going to have a job for you, and promise you great rewards, but only after you perform a task he refuses to name. Smile sweetly at that man and say you'll do it and, as soon as he turns his back, run out of there for all you are worth."

******************************************

"I helped you get out of Riversy because I thought you would help me save my wife," Saint reminded Deuce pointedly. The four had an uneasy rest on a field near Hillby and began to discuss their plan of attack.

He watched Deuce's face contort in anger, "There is both a war going on that I am concerned with and the fact that you are no longer detecting the other black sphere. You're last set of directions were almost at your feet. Should I grab some shovels and maybe the four of us could forget about the war and dig for the next week?"

Gabrielle was enjoying watching the two men argue, but thought it was time to side with Deuce and get back to the fight against the Brotherhood. "Deuce is right...what...," her voice was manly and booming, echoing mightily against the surrounding hills.

"Enough tricks, Gab... why is my voice...," Saint's voice was also changed, but he sounded like a small child. Giggling could be heard around them and the flowers began to sway, though there was no wind.

Raaf looked up in concern, saying with his now silky voice, "And the sky is turning green." The sky was a sea green color, the clouds now a light yellow. He took a step closer to his companions and fell over, the laces of the rogue's walking boots tied together. Realization struck Raaf as he untied his boots. "Pixies."

A dozen tiny, multi-colored balls of light appeared from behind flowers and rocks, flying in close formation towards the adventurers. Gabrielle raised her hands as if to swat them, but she felt Deuce come from behind her and grab her wrists, whispering in her ear, "They can be dangerous so don't anger them, we'll play their stupid game and be on our way." The fallen angel noticed his dextrous hands were strong, but deathly cold.

Saint had little patience for pixie tricks, "What do you want, pixies? I know your queen well, and she would not tolerate such treament of me!" His tiny voice was so passionate, yet childish, that Gabrielle relaxed a bit and smirked.

The pixies giggled even louder and became more excited in their flying. Finally, one pixie flew from the flying formation and grew to two feet in length. "Are you so sure I wouldn't tolerate such treatment of you, old priest," an amused Tamora Blackthorn, queen of the Crimson Empire, asked. She wore bracelets and a silver necklace. She also had on a carriage driver's hat, and bright red riding boots. The pixie wore nothing else, and was also nicknamed the Naked Faerie.

Saint was glad to see his friend, but was still angry at the practical joke. He noticed his voice was back to normal when he spoke, "Tamora, normally I would not mind your sense of humor, but today is not a good day." He spoke quickly of the last few days events, almost weeping again when he got to the condition of his wife. The remaining balls of light had surrounded Tamora and were also listening as they floated gently in the breeze.

At the end of Saint's tale Tamora nodded, "Yes, we too have come under dark times. Undead things have come on the borders of our land and once again we find the mana stone we guard in danger. Although, admittedly, they could be entering our lands because of the nice scenery. Eight foot sunflowers don't grow everywhere."

Raaf asked, "Then why are you so far from your lands, Tamora? Does not the Crimson Empire need its Queen?"

"Yes, nosy man, it does. However, two items were found on the mana stone yesterday. One a small blade, the other a gem with a note. When I asked the mana stone what to do with the items it said I must find Deuce Traveler of Riversy and deliver them to him. I remembered that you have mentioned a Deuce in our conversations, Saint. Now understand, the mana stone never asks us pixies to do anything unless its extremely important. Well except that one time it told us it needed a cleaning, and that other time it asked for a blanket and a story, but normally the mana stone is quite responsible about these sorts of things." Tamora's face went blank for a moment, "Oh...where was I?"

A tall, slight man sighed and approached Tamora. "I am Deuce Traveler," she heard him say.

"Oh excellent! This is easier than I thought it would be! You see, I was all prepared to go through Riversy and question each person there about you, but humans tend to act odd when I ask them anything, and just stare at my necklace. You would think that they don't see pixies wearing necklaces every day. Umm... where was I?" Tamora suddenly remembered what she wanted to say and called, "Oh yes, Dalamar!"

Another ball of light grew larger until it was a recognizable pixie with wings. It grew man sized, and there appeared Dalamar, Armsmaster of the Crimson Empire. The pixie was well dressed in red and black, a scarlet red hat with a black feather resting on his long, black hair. The faerie took off his hat and bowed, "Greetings, Deuce Traveler, we have brought these items to you as gifts from the mana stone." He took out a dagger and a gem and handed them to the large rogue. The dagger had a metal handle with a sapphire at the pommel. The blade itself was a light pink crystal. "You can only use the blade once, as it will shatter easily. The blue sapphire will entrap the soul of the victim you stab. If you find out why anyone would want such a weapon let us know." Raaf, being the best with small blades, was handed the dagger by Deuce and he watched as Deuce put the ruby red gem in his pouch. "That ruby," Dalamar continued, "is activated with a word I am about to write down for you. Whatever you do, don't say the word out loud. Not ever. Or at least not with us around."

Deuce looked puzzled and asked, "I don't understand what good these are. I think you wasted your trip. Why are you giving me a gem that I can never use? What would happen if I say the word?"

Dalamar smiled happily, "Actually, we would love it if you could let us fly to that hill over there and let us watch you activate the ruby. When you say the word, the ruby will explode, taking its owner and whoever was around him with it."


Chapter Nine

"Something's out there," old Bringe said to Captain Yor. He had joined his captain at the SS Vesper's wheel when he had seen a small dot appear on the horizon. It had been two days since they left the harbor of Radaan, and the crew had been avoiding other sea traffic since.

"Aye, and it's coming south, from the direction of Vatos," Yor agreed. He had a bad feeling about this, Vatos was a notorious port to the north of the Caliphate, once built by the people of Tajuk when they conquered the wild lands there, but later taken back by the barbarians who were native to that area, since then the town had become a haven for pirates and raiders, with reputations far worse than any the Evening Star Mercenaries had. The captain of the SS Vesper wore the expensive, but wrinkled clothes of a merchant, and a captain's hat on his head. He shouted at the deck hands, "Zaztrian! Get to the crow's nest and look west!"

A red-furred catman in sailor's clothes looked up and nodded. Zaztrian took off his boots and ran towards the main mast on all fours, leaping at it near its base. Using his claws, Zaztrian made it to the top of the crow's nest and peered off into the distance. His exceptional cat's eyes saw two ships coming towards them. He signaled Yor with hand signals and remained as look out.

"Alright then, we have two ships coming at us according to Zaztrian," Yor told Bringe.

"Aye, I saw that, sir. Maybe they'll be just merchants and pass us by."

"Well, hoping is nice and all, but what do you say about us moving the SS Vesper out of their path instead? Head south and let's see if they follow." The SS Vesper sailed out of the path of the two ships, the crew growing nervous. Slowly Zaztrian gave the hand signals Yor dreaded. The ships were pursuing the SS Vesper.

"Commands, sir?" Bringe looked fearfully towards the incoming ships. They could clearly be made out by the human eyes on the deck now. "I don't think we can outrace them, they seem to be gaining quickly."

"Tell the boys to go grab their weapons. Demand that they bring as many shields and bows they can get their hands on. We'll have some fire between the ships before they try to board us. Oh, and come back and hold the wheel," Captain Yor ordered. When Bringe had returned for the wheel, Yor walked under the mast and ordered Zaztrian to come down. When the catman did so he said, "Good work, lad. Now go below, grab my cutlass, the scroll on my desk with the blue ribbon, and a weapon for yourself and come back up here."

As Captain Yor waited for Zaztrian he barked orders to the crew to try to put some distance between the ships. Running away would be preferable to having to fight two larger ships. As the chasing vessels approached, Captain Yor recognized them as the SS Windveil and the SS Minotaur. He frowned, knowing the two ships to be full of experienced buccaneers for hire. Both ships were bigger than the SS Vesper, and the SS Minotaur was smaller than the SS Windveil, but was recently fitted with a ram. Captain Yor stroked his beard and thought it wisest to stop the ship with the ram first.

Zaztrian came up with the scroll and an Evening Star scimitar for both the captain and himself. The catman was a good sailor, and had aptitude with magic and so became Yor's apprentice. "Here you are, sir," Zaztrian purred, handing the scimitar and scroll to Yor.

"Good job, lad," Captain Yor said as he unfurled the scroll. "This is a spell that I am going to need your help with. I need you to cast that spell I taught you that immobilizes objects at the smaller ship coming at us on the right. My spell I'm going cast takes a while, but you must hold that ship until I'm done."

Zaztrian's eyes grew slightly wider, "That's quite a big ship."

"I know you can do it, lad," Yor said assuringly. He began to read the scroll and concentrate on its spell. He sensed Zaztrian's straining threads of magic holding the ship in place as his own magic began to reach under the ship. Yor began to cause the water under the SS Minotaur to shape itself into a spinning spear, creating a small whirlpool under the ship. Zaztrian whimpered next to the captain and began to release the ship he had held. With a yawl, the catman fell to his knees from the effort and released the SS Minotaur. Before the ship could slip away, the bearded mage finished reading the scroll and threw his hands into the air with a yell. The spear shot upwards and out of the water, ripping through the rear of the enemy ship's hull with a sad groan and the sounds of screaming sailors. The SS Minotaur was dying, but the SS Windveil was now within bow range.

Arrows and bolts started to rain down on the SS Vesper, and cries were heard by the ocassional struck sailor. As Yor and Zaztrian ducked, they saw a flaming arrow barely miss their main sail. "Get the sails furled," Yor screamed at his men. It would guarantee the SS Windveil would catch them, but that was slightly better than having his ship lit on fire. As the sailors and mercenaries of the SS Vesper rushed to follow his orders, they began to get struck down. The crews return fire did little against the elevated targets on the SS Windveil. The taller ship's crew had a much better view than their opponent. Yor knew there was one more desperate spell he had the time to cast before the other ship began to board his. Getting up, he began to cast a fireball spell. The bearded mage felt the sail of the other ship begin to grow increasingly hot. An arrow fired at him hit someone else and he could hear a feline like yell, followed by the scream of a bolt passing his ear. An alert crew member ran up and protected Yor with his shield as the mage finished the spell.

The SS Windveil's sail exploded in flames, pieces of it falling onto the deck and sailor's below. The attacking men stopped firing their bows as they tried to save their doomed ship. Nine men jumped onto the SS Vesper's deck as the ships began to seperate, and a desperate battle ensued, each man knowing that whoever won the battle also won the one surviving ship. Yor stepped in with his cutlass yelling at his men, "These boys fancy themselves pirates, lads! Let's show them how pirates really fight!" He stabbed one man in the gut, but took a slice himself in the arm from another. One mercenary defended the captain and ran the man who injured him through. The battle was over quickly, and all nine of the dead attacking buccaneers were tossed unceremoniously over the side.

Captain Yor scanned the horizon for more incoming ships. Seeing none, he gave orders to help with the dying and the wounded. He looked down with tired eyes to see a dead Zaztrian, a painful expression stiffened on the catman's face, and an arrow in his chest. The aging captain sat down with tears in his eyes, and laid the dead catman's head in his lap as he looked out at the sea. The water was full of bobbing bodies, illuminated by the burning and distant SS Windveil. The old captain stroked Zaztrian's face and cried for his dead and dying men fighting for their lives all over Arainor.


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