The Game of Shadows - Part Four

By Deuce Traveller


Chapter Ten

Esk asked her companions if they could wait outside the quaint, serene cottage in Rodby. She opened up the gate to the white fence that circled the small building and walked up the brick covered path to the front door. Well-kept flowers flanked the brick path, displaying colors that ranged from cotton white to a light blue on their fragile petals. The warrioress walked up the two concrete steps and gently put her hand on the doorknob. She rested her cheek against the cool wood of the door, gathering her courage to knock on its surface and walk inside. Esk squeezed her eyes shut, took a deep breath, knocked on the door, and entered.

The inside of the cottage was just as she remembered it, a comfortable looking sofa sat in the center, and the floor covered in a pastel woven rug. The windows had a wonderful view of the Rodby harbor, and scenic paintings hung against the wood panel walls. A red brick fireplace had burning wood resting in it, creating a light crackling sound and burning ashes to float gently up the chimney. An old, white haired woman walked from the kitchen and into the living room to see who her guest was.

Esk's heart began to beat fast and she forced out a greeting. "Hello Lucy."

The woman in the cotton print dress named Lucy smiled pleasantly, "Oh, it's Cmot!" Lucy was a frail woman nearly sixty, but looked to be in her seventies. A white kitten with a blue collar and nametag that said 'Fluffy' rested in the woman's arms, rubbing its head against Lucy's breasts in an attempt to get the woman to resume stroking its fine fur. "Cmot, where have you been? You haven't visited old Lucy in years." The old woman gently put the kitten down, and ignored its indignant cries as she grabbed Esk's hands with her wrinkled own and led her to the sofa to sit with her. "Can I get you anything to eat or drink, dear?"

Esk sighed, "No, I'm fine. Lucy, the name is Esk now. Remember?"

"Oh, of course, Esk. How silly of me. Cmot was a horrible name for you."

Esk sighed again, "Cmot was a fine name, and I just needed a new identity after all that had happened." Esk was named Cmot at her birth in the old brothel called Lucy's Place. When she was a young girl, and vain of her looks, a drunken patron had slashed her face with a broken bottle. Her marred looks meant that she could no longer work in Lucy's Place and she went to work in the slums of Riversy instead. One day the marred and then diseased Cmot was lying in a moth eaten blanket in the slums when she discovered she was in a new and unscarred body. What caused the change was always a mystery to her, as she could not remember the night before. She accepted the miracle and left her old profession forever, taking up learning the sword.

Lucy looked sadly at the woman in front of her, "Yes, dear. You did. What happened to you was horrible."

"It was horrible, too bad the madame of the house couldn't protect her wares," Esk said and at once regretted it. The warrioress had come here to say goodbye, not to fight with the retired Lucy.

Lucy looked as if she might sob, and quickly released Esk's hands, "That's not fair at all. When you were a little young thing the girls and I tried to get you to stay away from the profession, but you always wanted to mimic us. If you remember, you weren't allowed to become a woman of the night, but you didn't listen. One of the other girls found out that you were selling your body down the street, all dressed up in bad clothes and cheap lipstick, and no protection at all. I realized that you were going to do whatever you damn well liked, and the only thing I could think to do is allow you to work in the brothel where at least we had guards to protect you. Oh, dear, I cried my eyes out that day. It's not the life any of us wanted for you."

Esk suddenly did remember. She almost smiled at the thought that she was as stubborn in her youth as she was known to be now, "Those guards didn't do much to stop that man."

"No, dear, they didn't. I will tell you they beat him near death afterwards. Oh, sugar, I really thought that it might have been a blessing in disguise. No man would want you with that scar, and maybe you could get out of the business. Then you ran away and started working in the slums. I thought you were dead until a few years later when you timidly walked in and talked to me. Since you looked so much different I wouldn't have believed your story, except for that look in your eyes. I know my Cmot's eyes anywhere," the old woman said touching Esk's face gently, "Oh, I mean my Esk's eyes. Tell me, dear. What is it like to be a sell sword?"

Esk held the hand by her face and smiled, "Not too much different from being a whore, just in the service of something else. I'm constantly in awe at the feeling of being alive and in touch with my body, and then disgusted the next hour by man's wickedness. Oh, Lucy, I've seen too much and my heart is tired."

Lucy smiled, "Yes dear, you take after old Lucy in that. Have you ever thought of retiring to Rodby? Maybe with that big boyfriend of yours, Rothor?"

"I can't retire. And Rothor and I aren't seeing each other anymore. We separated and he's seeing a woman named Seraphina."

"His loss, I bet she's not prettier than you. What about that looker, Deuce? I hope you're not seeing that devil. The rogue is going to get you into trouble one day."

Esk smiled at that and began feeling comfortable, "Oh, he's not all bad. I'm afraid his friends may have caused him trouble instead of the other way around this time."

"Ever kiss him?" Lucy's eyes twinkled as she remembered her own youth.

Esk sighed and rolled her eyes in frustration, "Ok, once."

"And?"

"And nothing, Lucy. We were in trouble and the moment got a little intense is all. I have had too many things on my mind the last few years to add men to the list."

"A shame dear, after all I've been through I still believe there are some good ones left, and I always liked your friends. I wish that Saint chap wasn't married and me about thirty years younger. Although I still have a retired fisherman that is beginning to visit me lately. He brought me some flowers last week, the romantic." The two smiled into each other’s eyes for a few minutes before Lucy asked, "Esk, why did you come back?"

Esk looked down in guilt, "I guess I should have seen you more. I'm trying to make up for it now, times have been dangerous for me lately."

"I know, honey, news still gets to old Lucy. Want to stay here with me until it's all over?"

"I can't do that. I'm close to something I need. A trio of artifacts that if brought together may give me the knowledge I seek."

"Knowledge? What knowledge?"

"I wasn't lying when I said I'm tired of this life, Lucy. I want to know why people hurt each other and why the world is the way it is. If I can understand it then maybe I'll be content with the answer or maybe I can make it better. Anything has to be better than this life. I'm tired of watching good intentions go bad and good people turn corrupt or get hurt," Esk said quickly, and stood up to pace the room, "You can understand that Lucy. Have you ever wondered the why of it all?"

Lucy sighed and stopped Esk pacing with a hug, "Yes dear, I do. I've given up trying to figure out the why, however, and I've settled myself on just living my life. Honey, sometimes all you can do is be the best woman you possibly can, and help the good souls in this world. You do that and no one can fault the life you live."

Esk hugged Lucy back and held her tight, "Thank you, but I have to try to find the artifacts anyway. You know I've always been stubborn and couldn't take no for an answer. I love you, mom."

Lucy sobbed and tears flowed from her eyes. She pushed away from Esk and sniffled, her hand to her nose, "Well, you haven't called me that in close to two decades. Why am I getting the feeling I won't see you again, Esk?"

Esk was suddenly glad she had visited her mother, her feelings of apprehension gone, "Because something tells me I might not make it back this time and I didn't want to leave without seeing you again. I think I'd like it if you would call me Cmot again."

The old woman held her daughter tight for some time and began to cry, "I love you too, Cmot. I'm the luckiest woman in the world to have you as my daughter."


Chapter Eleven

Esk left the cottage, a spring to her walk. She smiled and waved back to the elderly woman in the window and headed down the road toward where she left Mathias with Caroline, Azrail, and Astral. Esk was amused to see the laughing foursome playing next to an empty dirt intersection. Caroline was on top of Mathias’ back and playfully boxing him in the ears, Azrail was wrapped in his arms and being noogied, and Astral was smacking the large ranger in the ribs with his staff. The four of them disengaged from one another as Esk approached, all with guilty looks on their face.

"I’m glad that we are all having fun, but it’s time to get serious," Esk told her companions. "Mathias, you said you’ve discovered the location of the Shadow Assassins’ guild, so you lead while I take the rear." The adventurers headed north, passed the harbor of Rodby, and into an immense open plain, with occasional wooden shacks resting lazily in the soft ground. There was no breeze on the cloudy day, and golden barley and wheat grew wild at their feet. Mathias pointed towards one run down shack in the distance, with a dull, rusting gate hanging on warped hinges. Mathias pushed the gate inward, the rust creating a shrill shrieking noise that rang out in the still air. Mathias looked at Esk apologetically, and she simply shrugged in return. "No problem, Mathias. We wouldn’t want to sneak up on the Shadow Assassins anyway. They might respond badly."

"Like they probably won’t respond badly, anyway, but one can only hope." Mathias continued to the door of the shack, the two steps to the door groaning in protest of his weight. The man walked inside and looked around the empty room before his companions entered. The room didn’t even possess furniture, except for a wooden chair and small table that seemed not to have been used in years. The group’s footsteps resounded off the planks on the floor. "Hmmm... I swear this is the shack I followed them to. Maybe they knew I was following and led me astray. Wouldn’t be the first time."

"Or maybe you talk too much and use your eyes too little," mocked Caroline as she ran her hands against the floor. She found a small handgrip and lifted a wooden panel out of the floor, a ladder disappeared into the dark depths below. "Wow, cool. I’ll go first," the young rogue said as she began to scramble down the ladder.

Mathias grabbed her by the collar, stretching her shirt, and lifted her out of the hole easily. "Not so fast, girl. Did you look closer at that ladder?"

Caroline’s face was red with anger, but she followed his pointed finger to the first step and saw the brownish red stain, "Blood?"

"Aye. I’ll go first. Someone give me a light," Mathias asked. Astral pulled from a pocket in his robes a glowing stick of white light he had created as a student in the mage’s guild and handed it to Mathias. After a few minutes, Mathias called up, "I think it’s safe to come down. There’s only a bunch of boxes down here."

His companions joined him, and he gave Astral back his glowing stick. Azrail mumbled an incantation and a ball of yellow light rested in his palm and further illuminated the room. Mathias was right, there didn’t seem to be anything inside the room except for a bunch of empty boxes and rusting farm tools. Astral felt a breeze from the eastern wall ruffle his hair and approached one of the larger boxes, standing upright, it's back firmly against the wall. Its bottom panels had bloodstains, and the mage pushed against them, revealing a passage beyond the box. "Wow, I think I found something!"

Esk drew her sword and squeezed passed Astral, "I would say so. I’ll lead, Mathias takes the rear and covers with his bow." Esk began to enter the passage, her senses on edge. The warrioress wanted the Eye of Brakkart that the Shadow Assassins were rumored to have, but she wanted to deal for it. Esk didn’t want a confrontation with the mysterious Shadow Assassins and was hoping one would simply appear for her to talk to. She looked ahead for danger and waited for her allies to all enter the passageway.

"What are those things?" asked Azrail, mystified. He illuminated with his ball of light a dozen bodies on the ground. The bodies were black, but almost transparent and seemed to be humanoid. They all seemed dead, and when Astral poked at one with his staff, it went through the shadow creature as if it wasn’t there. "It’s intangible. It would take magic to kill such a thing."

Esk nodded and continued on, holding her sword in front of her. She believed the creatures to be dead, which meant that there was some kind of battle here, most likely recently from all the visible bloodstains. She came to a large chamber, the walls of the cavern obviously carved by man-made tools. Cloth practice dummies hung from wooden stands, slashes and punctures in their surfaces indicating frequent use. Bodies of dead people lay everywhere, both male and female. An assortment of elves, halflings, humans, and other races were among the dead. The blood on their clothes was red, and looked fresh, perhaps only a day old.

"By Hauk, what happened here?" Mathias asked in astonishment. To the ranger’s surprise, the flesh on the bodies began to writhe and melt, flowing like a sickening river between the group’s feet, and into the center of the room. The flesh stacked on itself, forming first a large blob of noses, hair, lips, and eyes. The disgusting abomination began to sprout two legs and arms, becoming a headless humanoid. The dozens of eyes opened to look at the group before it, and its many lips emitted a painful scream as it charged. Esk dove under its fist and swung her blade upwards. Her blade cut a gash into the mass, but the slice quickly sealed itself.

"Flesh golem!" Astral screamed in warning as he began to run back to the passageway. He didn’t get far. All that was left of the numerous dead Shadow Assassins were skeletons, and they began to rise, brandishing weapons from their torn clothes and a red glow coming from their empty sockets. "Skeletons!" Astral cried the second warning as Azrail picked a quarterstaff from the ground and placed his back against his fellow mage’s own. The two guarded each other as the dead began to stand up around them.

Mathias fired his crossbow at a row of nearby skeletal assassins, the powerful bolt going through three of them. The damaged skeletons fell, then began to rise again, though missing some shattered bones. With a growl, Mathias slung his crossbow over his shoulder and swung his broadsword two-handed in a wide arc. The sword connected with the closest skeleton’s skull, shattering it and causing the remaining bones to fall to the ground. These remains did not attempt to reform. "Shatter their skulls," the ranger yelled over the sounds of battle. Astral and Azrail nodded to him as they began to swing their staves high. Caroline was nowhere to be seen.

Esk dodged the flesh golem above her again with ease, slashing again at its leg. She thought she heard someone swear under his breath followed by the incantation of a spell. The warrioress tried to look around for the unknown spellcaster, but again found herself having to roll out of the way of another swing by the golem. Esk began to worry if she was going to tire out before her assailant would show signs of wearing down. She heard the sounds of the spell now being finished and looked over her shoulder to see a frail man in black robes smiling at her in glee. The man had bone white skin and bad teeth, his red lips giving him the ghastly, sick appearance of a necromancer. She took a step towards him, but skeletal hands ripped from the ground and grasped her legs, causing her to fall to her knees and a squeal of joy to emit from the man. When Esk fell, more skeletal hands gripped onto her, pulling her down by her thighs, then her waist, neck, arms, and face. The flesh golem stood above her, a fist raised to finish the struggling swordswoman off.

Caroline had finally located a target she could do damage against and got behind the necromancer. The young thief was scared, but seeing Esk in trouble she gritted her teeth in determination and charged the man. The desperate lunge was discovered at the last minute, and the man in black robes tried to get out of the way. Her knife missed the back of his neck, but she buried her blade into his shoulder instead. The necromancer twisted under her knife, screaming, and grabbed the young thief by her neck. He muttered a quick spell and Caroline began to feel her body go into uncontrollable convulsions under his shocking grasp. As blood flecked her lips she knew she wanted her trainer, Deuce to save her. Then as tears of helplessness flowed from her eyes and her body began to feel cold she wished her parents were there to hold her.

Caroline’s strike had disrupted the necromancer’s spell of holding, and the skeletal hands crumbled to dust under Esk’s thrashing. The warrioress barely rolled out of the way of the flesh golem’s falling fist and swung her sword upwards, separating its leg from its torso. The flesh golem fell forward and on its face as its leg began to reattach itself to the body. Before Esk could try to finish it off, three skeletons separated from the hard-pressed Azrail and Astral to attack her.

Astral and Azrail both had cuts along their bodies, Azrail a slash against his forehead and Astral a deep gash in his leg. Five skeletons had gone down to the two mage’s combination of magic and skill with the staff. "Three for me, Astral Eldroon. Do I have... to do all... the work?" an exhausted Azrail asked.

Astral panted heavily, not used to having to exert himself so much, "Two for me... I figured... you could... do all the heavy work... and I’ll at least get... some rest." Both mages knew that they still had more than ten skeletons to go and were running low on the strength to cast any more magic.

Mathias had taken out four of the skeletons by himself, and without taking more than a few scratches. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the black robed necromancer holding Caroline in one hand, and a black sphere in the other. Her body was arched back in pain, and her arms lay limp at her side. Mathias dropped his sword and removed his crossbow as two skeletons attacked him, blades over their heads. He ducked under the first leaping skeleton, watching it roll over his shoulder, while bringing up the butt of his crossbow into the skull of the other, shattering the top of its head with his great strength. He pulled a bolt out, loaded his bow and aimed at the arm holding Caroline, then hesitated. Lord Mathias realized he may only have one shot and switched targets to the sphere. With a heavy heart he thought to her, "I’m sorry sweet Caroline," and pulled the trigger. The bolt flew true as the skeleton that he had ducked under before, leapt onto the ranger and plunged its blade into his shoulder, causing him to cry out and fall.

The necromancer knew he was in trouble when the black sphere was shot out of his hands, causing his flesh golem to collapse into a pile of ooze and most of his skeletons to collapse lifelessly. He called himself the Aballister and was sent by Redin with a group of undead foot soldiers to invade the Shadow Assassins headquarters and recover the black sphere. They had succeeded, despite losing many of their more powerful undead servants. The Aballister thought he would simply build a new army of the dead in the wrecked guild, but these new invaders had ruined that. The necromancer released the girl in his hand as he used her lifeforce to power one last spell. As the red haired woman stabbed him with her sword the Aballister transported his soul into a cadaver he had left in a stronghold far away. "Redin can do his own damn scavenger hunt," the Aballister thought as his spirit transferred itself.

Esk looked at the frail body that rested at the end of her blade with disgust. With their master dead, the few remaining undead fell to the ground in a heap. The woman flung the body off her engraved sword and cleaned the blood off on its black robes. She made a mental note to burn and wash her blade later.

The woman searched and found the Eye of Brakkart resting against one of the wooden posts holding up a practice dummy. She picked up the sphere and stared into it, lost in its black swirling mist until a sob returned her to reality. Esk turned and saw Mathias holding the lifeless body of Caroline in his arms.

Mathias was bleeding from the shoulder, but didn’t seem to notice. He looked up at Esk, "I had to shoot the sphere, Esk. I could have saved her, but I couldn’t risk all our lives over it."

Esk put a gentle hand on Mathias’ shoulder. "I promise, I’ll find a way to make it all well again. You did what you had to, Mathias. The girl saved us and we’ll take the time to give her a decent burial. We should carry her to Rodby and see what they can do for her there."

Azrail quietly walked over to the dead necromancer as his comrades mourned over Caroline. The young mage, amazed at the powers that Aballister possessed, went through the fallen necromancers robes and found a small journal. Flipping through it he found descriptions of incantations and diagrams for conducting ceremonies utilizing the lifeforce of the living and the souls of the dead. With shaking hands and a pleased smile, the young mage pocketed the book and happily returned to the group.

Astral felt numb as he looked at Caroline’s broken body, not noticing Azrail’s search, "Oh, poor Caroline. Esk, what are we going to do now?"

Esk vented on Astral, "We, young mage? It was a mistake to bring inexperienced children with us, as Caroline has proven. We will leave you here in Rodby until hopefully everything calms down." Esk held Caroline in her arms and carried her out of the cavern.

"So now she walks off with the sphere. What is she going to do with its power? She can’t even cast spells," Azrail asked.

Mathias rose and gathered his equipment, trying to relax and not strangle the youth, "Esk does not want power, Mercenary. If she did I would not have aided her in this quest."

Astral looked at the ranger who he began to admire and asked softly, "What is it she seeks then?"

"Salvation."


Chapter Twelve

"It is evident that we are losing this war," Raaf thought into his scryer. The Evening Star Mercenaries had a good plan to fight the Brotherhood of the Blade. They had informed the other guilds of where to locate the hangouts of the Brotherhood's spies and assassins. Then they had joined with the Rangers to spy on Brotherhood troop movements, reporting those also to their allied guilds. The Brotherhood were experts at subterfuge, however, and raids on known assassins homes or shops would rarely turn up with the men they were looking for. Brotherhood troops would seem ready to attack one morning, just to hide and turn up on a flank the next day. They were patient, and would only engage their attackers when they had the upperhand.

"I'm open to suggestions," Captain Yor stated. "I still don't want to risk coming to port. We lost some good people, and I don't want to invite another attack by showing everyone that we're still alive."

"Alright, sir. Here is my suggestion," Raaf started. They were running out of gold fast, and the Mercenaries didn't run on good intentions. There were one option left. "An all out assault. We know where their headquarters in Riversy is, so maybe we'll get lucky and hit an important target. Such an attack might slow their operations long enough for the other guilds to regroup and bring this war to a treaty."

Yor was shocked, "Is it that desperate, Raaf?"

"Sir, they have Riversy firmly in their control. Whoever controls Riversy controls Amaranth, and whoever controls Amaranth controls the trade routes and lines of communications to create an empire. Their central location and influence allows them to strike where and when they choose. Our only hope is to bring the fight to them," Raaf concluded.

There was a morbid silence until Deuce's thoughts were heard, "No. There is another way. One of our biggest problems is that they have all the money, while we have none, being on the run. They have some of their biggest vaults in Riversy and Logby. Raaf and I can hit those. The one in the abandoned city north of Rockby, Esmerelda can visit. That leaves one in Laketown and one in Elwyn that I'm sure Moloon and Karoman would like to break into. These won't be all their vaults, but it will be a majority of their money."

"Nice idea, Deuce, but how do we get that money out? If we sneak in and grab a sack of it that's one thing, but you're talking a small building full of gold," Esmerelda asked.

"I have an idea for that, also," came Deuce's reply. After the tall rogue finished telling them his plan, Yor began to smile widely. He would make a real first mate out of Deuce yet.

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

Raaf had to admit he was a little jealous over Deuce's plan. Smiling warmly at the other rogue he asked, "I can take Riversy if you want Hillby."

"No, I want Riversy. If I'm second in command of the Evening Star Mercenaries, I should take the tough work. I'd like to take Saint with me if you want Gabrielle as support. Saint and I have always worked well together."

Raaf shook his head, "That is not going to happen. You will take Gabrielle with you. Saint would be too distracted in that city, and we are having a trying time convincing him to be patient as it stands."

"Point taken. Alright, I'll have Gabrielle come with me tonight. Maybe I can get Dirk's help on this. I'm sure he's angry about the Carrion Inn being burned. You could always find him having a drink in there."

"I doubt you will be able to find Dirk. It will be getting late by the time you can get to Riversy and you will have to move fast. Did you know that our estate was burned down, also?"

"It was too damn fancy for my tastes, anyway."

The two rogues joined their companions at the bottom floor of the Fox and Hare Inn, in Hillby. The busy inn was easy for the group to mingle in, and they needed the rest, having slept outdoors since their leaving Riversy four days ago. Raaf explained their plan, and Gabrielle was flattered that Deuce chose her to accompany him rather than his friend Saint. Gabrielle and Deuce left their two companions, packed, and caught the carriage towards Riversy.

Deuce had his face and eyes hid with a farmer's hat he tilted low and wore well used worker's clothes. The tall rogue was trying to escape anyone recognizing him when they got to Riversy. Gabrielle also wore farmer's clothes, which was not uncommon for women of Hillby to wear. Gabrielle was jumpy during the carriage trip, feeling uneasy about sitting close to the rogue. She decided to break the silence, "I'm flattered that you decided to bring me with you instead of Saint. I know that a lot of men prefer my company, but I'm flattered none the less."

"Well... actually, I wanted Saint to come with me instead, but Raaf brought up the fact that his mind wouldn't be on the job if he came back to Riversy," was Deuce's answer.

Deuce seemed oblivious to the daggers Gabrielle was mentally throwing into his back, as he kept his eyes watching the scenery outside the carriage. "Damn that man," Gabrielle thought. "I should crack my knuckles against his lips."

The carriage had saved them time, but it was already becoming night when they reached Riversy. The two adventurers hopped out in between the burnt wreckage of Dominica's Pleasure Palace and the Carrion Inn. They ignored the crowds around them, as Gabrielle allowed Deuce to lead her to the city dump. "I know you said we were going under the Brotherhood's mansion, but you didn't say anything about a trash dump," Gabrielle said as Deuce began to open a grating and walk down a ladder into the sewers.

"Why did you think I told not to wear clothes you don't mind ruined," came the voice from the hole.

Gabrielle swore for the hundredth time that she was going to kill that man, and began to walk down the hole, being careful not to stumble on her useless wings. Deuce pulled out a small lantern out of a satchel he wore, handed it to Gabrielle to balance, and lit it with some flint and steel. The lantern illuminated the tunnel, and had small shutters on the side that could be closed to limit the glare of its light. As the two traveled down the sewers, Gabrielle was surprised to notice that Deuce seemed to know the way well, "Been here before?"

She saw Deuce nod in the candlelight, "Well enough. The leader of the Brotherhood of the Blade is an acquaintance of mine named Sarrel."

"How much of an acquaintance," Gabrielle asked suspiciously.

"Well, the last time I traveled this way to the Brotherhood's mansion in Riversy it was to help Sarrel overthrow his guildmaster. Shortly after, he named himself guildmaster. Wisely, I never did tell Sarrel how I got inside to assist him."

Gabrielle wheeled in front of Deuce and asked angrily, "You mean to tell me that all this trouble with the Brotherhood of the Blade is because of you?"

Deuce had the expression of both guilt and frustration to the fallen angel's eyes, "It seemed a good idea at the time. I really think the Brotherhood of the Blade would have been a threat sooner if I didn't help Sarrel create the civil war inside the guild. And I also thought that Sarrel would be different, as he was a pretty decent child when we were younger."

"You knew that man as a boy?"

"Of course. He was my adopted brother. In fact, another adopted brother and sister of mine are next in line to run the guild."

Gabrielle laughed, "And now they're trying to kill you?"

She heard Deuce sigh heavily in the dim light, "We can't always get along with family." His lantern swayed in the darkness as he walked down the sewer once more. Gabrielle followed as they continued down the sewers for another hour, the fallen angel beginning to think that she would never get the stink of garbage out of her skin. Finally, Deuce pointed up a small ladder and dimmed his lantern, setting it on a ledge for later. Gabrielle felt him grab her by the waist and whisper in her ear, "Ok, we need to go up the ladder and wedge ourselves underneath the grate above. It leads into the mansion, and I need you to cast your sense life magic and tell me when the guards are coming close to us."

The rogue helped her up the ladder and then followed her climb. The two of them laid down in a brick drainage pipe, with a grate laying two feet in front of them. Gabrielle muttered a few words to her spell and signaled to Deuce that there was a guard right over them. The adventurers listened silently, waiting for the guard to move on. Gabrielle's heart beat heavily in her throat, this game of hide and seek new and exciting to her. When she looked at the rogue, however, he was laying back, seemingly asleep. She smacked him hard against the leg to wake him after the man walked away. Deuce tipped his hat to her and started worming his way to the grate.

Gabrielle watched Deuce get a canister of some oil from his satchel and start applying the liquid to the screws and edges. Every now and then she would tap him again on the thigh, and he would stop his work to join her, waiting for the guard she sensed to pass. Then he would climb up and continue. After what must have been hours, Deuce came back to lay next to her, "Ok, I'm done oiling the grate and I've removed the screws this time. I don't think it will make any noise at all. I want you to concentrate on the life forms you're sensing and let me know when they are far enough that we can get out of this pipe and go for a nearby door."

Less than a minute later she whispered, "Now!" Gabrielle was surprised at how quickly and silently the grate was removed as Deuce lifted himself out of the tunnel. Gabrielle tried to move as quickly, but failed, finally sticking her hand up to be pulled out. With both of them out of the tunnel, Gabrielle watched as Deuce put back the grate and headed for the nearest door. It was unlocked, and she saw him motion for her to enter.

It was a storage room for grain, and when Deuce closed the door Gabrielle listened as he explained, "I'm going to spy around outside. It's never hard to find where someone keeps their money." He left her alone, bored and anxious. After ten minutes the door opened, causing her to jump. The fallen angel began to reach for a small flail she had tied to her the side of her thigh, when she saw it was Deuce returning, "Ok, I found the door. Tell me when you sense lifeforms approaching."

Gabrielle renewed her spell, thinking that since she did not sense Deuce coming it might be wearing off, "Deuce, I'm not sensing your lifeforce."

She saw Deuce frown, "Are you saying your magic isn't working properly?"

"It should be, I've been right about the guards."

Deuce looked a little relieved, "I have that ruby in my pocket. It must also be able to mask a person's presence from a spell like yours. I'll have to look into that later."

Gabrielle nodded, but there was still something that nagged her. Shrugging it off for later, she signaled the rogue when she sensed the guards were far away from their location. Deuce led her down a hallway where there were two doors, one a large steel door with a hefty lock under its metal handle, and the other a door similar to the one at the storage room they had just left. Deuce opened the simpler door and led her inside. They were in what looked like a janitor's closet. Gabrielle asked, "Let me guess, the huge door nearby is what we're after."

"Well, I'm pretty sure it is, but I've been wrong before. This part may take a while, since I want to search the door for any traps before I open it. Of course, everytime a guard approaches I need you to tap me," came the reply. After the fourth time of shuffling back into the janitor's closet while the guards passed them by, Gabrielle felt she was going to scream and kill someone, preferably the rogue in front of her. She couldn't understand how he could be so patient. Finally, on the fifth time to the steel door, she watched the rogue smile and pull the handle with a stick. Two one inch long needles popped out of the handle, a sappy liquid flowing from them. The fallen angel looked on as Deuce took a tool and broke off each needle at their base. They then went again into the janitor's closet.

"Poison," Gabrielle asked.

"Aye, and some nasty stuff I've never seen, either," came the reply. The rogue pulled out a glass vial and some gloves that he began to put on, "Ok, tell me once more when the guards are away. This is ironrot, and isn't harmful to humans, but it does corrode metal and causes a lot of smoke and a really bad smell. Hopefully, it will clear out by the time the guards come back."

Gabrielle signaled Deuce again, and followed him as he left the room. She observed him taking out a wooden stick from his satchel. He painstakingly poured the ironrot unto the stick, the liquid travelling down the wood, into the crack in the door, and onto the bolt that connected the lock to the wall. Gabrielle held her breath as smoke began to billow from the bolt, the ironrot corroding its metal. When all the ironrot was poured, the two went back inside the closet. "I thought you thieves picked locks."

She watched his cheeks grow red, "I'm no thief, I'm a fingersmith. Besides, picking a lock like that takes time, and there are a lot of guards out there. I bet most of the guards are on the higher levels, though, protecting the guildmaster. We'll give the ironrot some time to work before we go in."

"I'm glad we are almost done. I was ready to scream. Life in the Dark Army is much more exciting than this sneaking around. Tigress Silverclaw would never bless her army if it was a bunch of sneaks."

"Don't be so sure. Although most of the Brotherhood members worship Brakkart Fellblade, Sarrel worships Tigress Silverclaw, as do a large portion of the Brotherhood of the Blade. In fact, I think it is why Sarrel has been the easiest on the Dark Army in his war against the guilds."

Gabrielle hissed angrily, "What are you implying? That the Dark Army is allied with the Brotherhood of the Blade?"

"No, such an alliance would cause the Brotherhood to fracture. Still, do you not think it's curious that the only thing the Brotherhood has done against the Dark Army has been to foment unrest in their lands to keep them busy. Oh, and the ocassional light skirmish before running away when discovered? Everyone else has had to deal with assassinations of key figures or incursions deep within their controlled lands. Just something to think about."

"I think you should keep your thoughts to yourself for now on, fingersmith. I gave my wings for Tigress Silverclaw."

"The way I hear it you gave your wings up for a man."

Gabrielle's hands flew in a rage, slapping Deuce in the face twice before he could grab her arms. She began kicking him in the shins before he finally was able to quiet her down. The fallen angel was debating five different ways she could kill him when she heard his voice say softly, "It was not meant as an offense. You gave up your wings to fly so your heart could soar a different way. I envy you that. I always wanted to know what it was like to have wings." She relaxed a little, only remembering two ways to kill him. "Now, I'm going to let you go, and if you feel like killing me when the mission is over you will always have your chance."

Deuce let her go and headed for the door, waiting for her signal to tell him the outside was clear of guards. Gabrielle felt it strange that she didn't want to kill him anymore. "Silver tongued devil," she thought to herself. She gave him the signal and they left the room and to the vault door, where he pulled its handle with his gloved hands. The corroded metal gave with a light clinking noise, and the two of them entered a room filled with bags of coins, documents, and art pieces. Closing the door behind her, she cast a spell so the rogue could see in the darkness. Gabrielle watched as Deuce communicated to Captain Yor through his scryer, reminding herself to inform her superiors about that ability. A tiny flame appeared in front of the two and began to grow in size, revealing a compartment inside the SS Vesper. Deuce and Gabrielle began to throw the largest bags of coin through the firegate and into the hold. Firegate was a spell that Yor perfected years ago. It had little use since it could only be used to travel one way without another mage on the other side casting a connecting firegate. The gate would also harm any living thing that stepped through it. Still, the firegate was perfect for a heist, and many vaults would be emptied this night.

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

"Our bad news just got worse," Victor said to Sarrel. A representative of the Brotherhood of the Blade guild members in Hillby had attempted to buy some more assassins when it was discovered that their vault was empty. At first, Victor suspected that the men must have stolen from their own guild. Still needing to buy the assassins, Sarrel sent Victor downstairs with the key to the vault to grab the appropriate amount of coins needed. Victor had found their own vault broken into and nearly empty, and informed Sarrel.

Sarrel was stunned. "How is that possible? And if both our vaults in Hillby and Riversy have been robbed, what about the others?"

"Now it gets interesting," Helena said with a smile. "Our war is a costly one. How are we to progress if we can't pay off our assassins, informants, and swords for hire?"

"We are going to have to ask Redin for more forces," Victor said with a frown. "Although I don't like that option at all. As Redin gathers more strength he has begun to treat us as servants rather than allies. This is not a time for setbacks. Maybe we should consolidate our power and make peace with the other guilds."

"No, they would smell blood and eat us alive," Sarrel decided, "Our only course is to ask Redin for more help and plan to separate him from that black sphere in case he gets too arrogant. The three of us together should be able to handle him. For right now, I think we can all agree that Deuce Traveler had something to do with this. It is time the three of us got more involved in these operations. You two will go find and kill our older brother. Since we need to save some coin, take the dreadguards Redin left us with you. I'll go lead our men against the remnants of the Highlander Clan. If you can, find out from Deuce where our money is before you slit his throat."


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