Post Thu Dec 08, 2005 5:48 am

Savant's Blood: Shadow of the Avatar -- Chapter 2

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I have always had money. I rarely keep even
a copper of what I steal. It is the
danger, the risk, and the challenge that
I crave. I know some day it will be the
end of me, but at least I will have lived.<BR>
<DIV ALIGN="RIGHT">—Grahm Tuffala</DIV>
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<div align="center"><font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 18pt;">Chapter 2<BR>
<font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 16pt;">A Question of Flawed Strategy</div>
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It took over a bell cycle to make their way back to the guild. Packs of Dagger thieves roamed the streets harassing anyone who looked like a Brethren member. She feared they might already be too late to help their comrades. As they moved furtively from alley to alley, Wren’s mind flitted back to what Grahm had proposed. A romantic liaison—me? Even as she focused on the guild’s upcoming battle, she began to see it as a way out. He and she had been with the guild entirely too long. They could cut their attachments to mistress Desiray and strike out on their own.

She’d always been proud to be a part of the Brethren. Mistress Desiray had aspired to make it different than other guilds, by design their prey were Corwin’s predators. Cinnibar, the wizard whose jem she stole had a nasty reputation for kidnapping street people and doing magical experiments on them. He deserved to be stolen from.

Justification—it used to be so easy to explain away her stealing. She needed to eat. Then the guild adopted her. The mistress explained their thefts as balancing things out, making the wealthy less so and the poor more rich. That appealed to a homeless girl with a magical talent for climbing and a knack for foiling wards; especially the idea of being part of a family. She guessed the mistress was an orphan like herself because she had a soft spot for parentless children. She’d covertly channeled guild funds into at least three way-houses for street children that Wren knew of. On top of that, she adopted people into her fold.

Wren’s mentor Sireth, Grahm and herself; they all lived in the streets at one time. Desiray gave them a home. That alone had kept her tied to the guild for many summers. Benefiting the poor made Wren’s calling easier on her conscience.

By many standards, she was wealthy now and the guild had lost touch with many of its altruistic ideals. With Desiray gone all the time, things had deteriorated to the point the Brethren resembled any other guild in any of a dozen big cities. She once thought she might spearhead a movement to get back to benefiting the unfortunate. However, the death of her mentor, Sireth, who led the guild in Desiray’s absences, killed any thoughts she might have had about improving things. Desiray destroyed any hopes of a benevolent resurgence when she hired out-of-towners to carry on in Sireth’s stead.

It had been the Dagger guild who killed Sireth. Now, they were back to do what they failed to do the first time.

Crush the Brethren.

They stopped in an alley across from the Guild. Its pitted granite walls extended two stories above the surrounding buildings. They saw no one manning the crenellated roof or lookout platforms. The only guardians were the stone gargoyles mortared into the corners of the building.

As they climbed the steps, she noticed other empty sentry posts as well. They stopped. The chirping of bugs and barking dogs sounded loud in the ominous silence.

"Don’t like this," Grahm whispered.

She nodded and pulled his loose breeches higher on her waist. The only clothing available to her had come from his wardrobe. A wharf sack would have fit as well. She pulled at the tunic to stop the itch. The fabric was nothing she wanted against her breasts, especially after the recent burns. At least his spare weapons were serviceable.

Dirk readied, he opened the door.

Together, they stepped into the dark lobby. The air smelled of cinnamon incense and tallow. The marble floors looked recently swept. No one occupied the greeter’s alcove or tribute stalls. It didn’t look to Wren as if anything were secured against attack.

Silence.

Grahm frowned and crept toward the corridor. Reaching the archway, he gestured for her to follow. The lanterns felt cold to the touch. Beyond the point where the passage turned, candles cast flickering shadows on the stonework.

Could they be leaving everything unguarded on purpose?

A glance up revealed bare ceilings. Why didn’t they put up the nets? That served as the first line of defense against a raid. She saw no way for the guild to be overrun without a fight, and yet found no evidence of battle.

Grahm pointed to the ceiling and shook his head. Her partner was thinking the same thing. Though he and she were senior members of the Brethren, mistress Desiray’s favorites ran things. Perhaps it was as Grahm said, Vulcindra was afraid that Wren might replace her. Vulcindra was only half the equation though, Desiray was not paying attention to her operation or she would know how inadequate her operative was. In the last few moons, the situation had been a growing irritation for Wren.

She gave fifteen summers of hard work to the Brethren. Even after completing the toughest jobs the guild had ever staged, she still didn’t rate with Desiray’s street-green toe-kissers.

Grahm turned a corner heading for the main meeting area. They still heard no sounds except the crackling of burning tallow. Testing revealed all the doors to be shut and bolted. In an attack, the minimal lighting would hurt more than it would help. The shadows gave Brethren defenders better hiding, but hampered recognition of friend and foe in a tight battle.

A chilling sense of doom crept into Wren’s bones. Could Vulcindra be this strategically incompetent? Why no barricades? Shouldn’t the heavy crossbows be put on their tripods and placed so they could shoot into the main passages?

A silhouette darted across the passage from the dry goods storeroom over to the armory.

Grahm froze.

Heart leaping, she drew her sword and slid close to Grahm. They still didn’t know conclusively whether Vulcindra had allowed the guild to be taken without a struggle, or if this was some unorthodox defense tactic.

Grahm hand signaled her to cover on the right side of the hall. She nodded and faded to the side opposite him. Ahead, she heard someone try to mute their breathing. A support joist jutting down into the corridor provided a prime hiding spot for an ambush. Her blood pulsed in her temples as she strained to sense the enemies hidden in the shadows above.

One step forward; two, three. Grahm signaled for two enemies and indicated the top of the support.

She switched the sword to her left hand and pulled a dagger. Pointing, she indicated her intention to cover the other opponent.

Grahm took two steps, started the third but dove and rolled instead.

Two figures dropped. Both missed him. Grahm sprang to his feet and spun a kick into left one’s stomach. Wren clubbed the right man across the shoulders with the hilt of her dirk.

Both men fell with groans.

The one on the left tried to rise and Grahm pushed him down with the point of his sword. The other tried to rise from a prone position to hands and knees. She booted him in the buttocks, knocking him into a sprawl.

"Roll over," she ordered.

The man turned. He looked at her squint-eyed and brushed strands of hair out of his eyes.

Recognizing one of their junior members, she shook her head and sighed. "Idiot. We’re on your side!"

Grahm jerked the other to his feet. "We almost killed you two!"

"Vulcindra wants us to spread out and ambush the Dagger."

Wren’s stomach knotted at the confirmation of her worst fears. "Of all the hollow headed—" she stopped, seeing the men pale at her tone. Few of the Brethren would even raise their voices when talking about mistress Desiray or her subordinates. The fear seemed almost magical in its potency. Desiray had never done anything to inspire it.

Even Grahm became tense when she complained about the mistress’ biased favoritism. She knew her tone sounded icy. "Where is Vulcindra?"

"The mistress’ office."

"You lead. We don’t want to have to hurt somebody."

As the two men led them to the stairs, Wren’s anger continued to simmer. When Desiray first formed the guild twenty summers ago, she started with ten members. One of them was Sireth, the woman who taught Wren and served as her surrogate sister when she joined the guild. She learned much about stealth and quick thinking from Sireth. A few summers later, Sireth taught Grahm as well. Sireth respected Desiray and would not tolerate any criticism of the mistress. Regardless, Sireth admitted that Desiray sometimes worried more about how they looked, than how well they did their jobs.

How did Desiray strike such fear into everyone? She possessed incredible charisma and inspired devotion. It made Wren wonder though that no-one could ever speak badly of her. She’d practiced with their white-haired leader and acknowledged her mastery. She clearly was one of the best thieves ever born. Still, she wasn’t a god who could strike dead those who dared speak blasphemies against her. She put a roof over Wren’s head, gold in her pocket, and provided the security of numbers. Wren expressed her gratitude in tithes willingly paid for membership in Desiray’s organization. It went no further than that for her. Sometimes it seemed as though she was the only one who felt that way.

As Desiray spread her power, opening guilds in other cities, she spent less and less time in Corwin. Sireth, who apprenticed under Desiray, led the Brethren well in her common absences.

The Dagger guild attack that killed Sireth happened almost two summers ago. In retaliation, Desiray led a successful assault on the rogue guild. The few Dagger members who survived were banished from the city of Corwin. Rather than allowing Grahm or Wren to accede Sireth, Desiray brought Tarmagal and Vulcindra in from another city.

Sireth had been good to Wren. She felt that Desiray betrayed Sireth by not choosing one of her pupils to carry on.

Wren nodded at two old-timers who stood guard at the stairs to the upper story. One touched Wren’s arm and she stopped. Smiling, he rubbed the patch over his eye and scratched at the stubble on his craggy face. He spoke with a rasp caused by drinking too much ale. "Hey, Wren, did you manage to grab the Malicent gem?"

The other, a stringy man bobbed his bald head, his swarthy features intent like curious rodent.

"What do you guys think? It was guarded by a sorcerer-ring. Nobody has busted that in two centuries."

One-eye rubbed at the back of his head. "Hey, we know it ain’t been done before. I told Jace I seen ya get past some scary stuff almost as hard just last moon." He leaned forward. "They heard whistles a bell or so ago. Doesn’t mean ya came away with it though."

She looked at Grahm and shook her head. "You should have set the odds on me as two-to-one for, not against."

One-eye’s grin vanished. "You did it?"

"It’s stashed at Grahm’s hidey." She frowned. "Shouldn’t you worry about the defense preparations rather than on the hit-or-miss heist pool?"

"Hey, Vulcindra has it in hand."

"Sure." Stomach churning, she pushed past and climbed the stairs.

One of their escorts glanced back. Her angry tone had been obvious. He didn’t say anything.

Grahm put a hand on her shoulder. "All right, you’ve a good reason to be upset."

"Desiray is who will be upset when this guild gets gutted. Maybe then she’ll put competent people in charge."

He kissed her on the ear. "You’re beautiful, you know that?" He whispered.

She scowled at him. Right now, romantic thoughts were far from her mind. "You should probably bed me now. It might be the last chance you get."

That backed him off and made him sober. She regretted saying it, seeing the hurt look in his eyes. He wasn’t taking this situation serious enough though. An inner sense screamed that people would be dying soon if she didn’t do something.

Topping the steps, they went down the long corridor that ended in Desiray’s office.

Sully stepped out of a side doorway, a towering scarecrow of a man who looked as if he had more bones than flesh. He knelt down to eye level, angular face set, blue eyes narrow. Taking Wren’s hand he spoke in a low voice. "Wren, it’s good you’re back. Are you going to—"

"Yes. Abandon this stupid scheme. Get the other experienced men and start building some barricades and hanging the nets. Vulcindra will order it done right, or I’ll kill her."

"Kali bless you, Wren. I’ll get on it."

Sully stood and jogged off.

Grahm watched him go. "You’re taking a big chance undercutting Vulcindra."

She snorted. "What’s she going to do? Kick me out? You and I earn as much as the rest of the guild combined."

At the door to Desiray’s office, she knocked and entered. Her guides turned away not even bothering to look inside.

The mistress’ office was a small but opulent room lined with rose-wood paneling and decorated with exquisite tapestries, paintings, and statuary. A few of Grahm’s pictures graced the walls, alongside some of Desiray’s own paintings. The mistress’ art was every bit the equal to Grahm’s though many had stood unfinished on the easel until Grahm’s greater discipline filled in the missing highlights.

Wren’s gaze went to Desiray’s painting of Sireth and a group of orphans gazing into a stormy sky. The mistress had captured every detail of the contemplative look on Sireth’s angular face. It looked as if she were staring at something infinitely far away. Wren often wondered what her surrogate sister had been thinking about to get that distant expression on her face. Maybe she’d foreseen her own death.

A huge desk dominated the middle of the room. Willowy Vulcindra paced behind it, hands clasped behind her back, long gold hair forming a halo around her face.

She envied the woman’s striking beauty. On her, even plain black leather looked like royal attire. She turned to look at them and her eyes widened as though she were startled. "Wren, Grahm," she paused, and her throat muscles worked. "You— made it back. Apparently, the Dagger were ready to move sooner than we thought. I’ve started—"

Wren held up a hand to interrupt her. She didn’t like the surprise in the woman’s face. She acted as if she thought they wouldn’t be coming back. She didn’t like the implication. Vulcindra was the one who told them Cinnibar would be out tonight. Something else she just happened to be wrong about. "Vul, forget that mess you started. Have them barricade the corridors, make tight openings and guard them with the heavy crossbows. Get the nets from the basement and hang them. That’s what they’re for."

The blonde woman’s eyes widened. "Have you told anyone else?"

"Of course, I want to live through this! There’s three hundred Dagger out there, they’ll overrun us. Where’s Tarmagal?"

"I sent her to the temple of Isis for sovereign Dauntless."

"Good! How many guards did you send with her?"

"Three."

She slapped a hand to her forehead in frustration. "Ishtar! On the way in—" Grahm took hold of Wren’s shoulder and squeezed. She lowered her voice. "We saw groups of Dagger men numbering a score or more."

The door slammed open interrupting Wren’s words. Tarmagal staggered in followed by a host of concerned Brethren. The chunky red-haired woman let out a gasp. "Vul, they’re coming. I couldn’t get through."

Cuts striped Tarmagal’s leather armor and blood covered her arms. She collapsed into a chair. It would have taken a fierce battle indeed to turn her back.

"We ran into more than fifty up on Beast Street. They’re blocking all the main avenues into the temple district. My guards are all dead."

Vulcindra swallowed. The expression on her face was difficult to read. A mixture of fear and confusion. She looked to Wren. "Come on, show me what you want to do."

Wren worked fast, not knowing how much longer the Dagger would wait. She gave Vulcindra and Tarmagal tasks to oversee while she and Grahm tried to gather and organize stray members. People were scattered everywhere in confusion. Their defenses couldn’t be any weaker if they had been intentionally scrambled. The air smelled of sweat, and she felt the hum of tension in the walls.

After a half bell, they stopped in the back hall to check on Vulcindra’s progress. The tall woman looked nervous and agitated. Sully ran up to them. "The barricades and nets in the main hall are in place and manned. We have them working on the side passages now. They—"

Screams cut through the last of his words sounding far too close to have come from the main entrance. Vulcindra spun. The look on her face was pure terror. She bolted down the hall.

"Vulcindra!" Wren cried. "Worthless witch. Damn, they must have found another way in!"

The three of them drew their weapons and plunged into the chaos. In a space of heartbeats, the cultists were appearing everywhere.

They fought a retreating battle from the start, clashing and withdrawing simply to keep from being overwhelmed. Heart hammering and lungs burning, she launched herself into the focus of steel-on-steel and blade-into-flesh. Clash, kick, drive, duck, stab.

The battle became a confusion of arms, legs and faces. She and Grahm worked together against single opponents, picking off stragglers and using the cover of doorways to surprise the enemy.

The air reeked of sweat, urine and bile. The howling of the injured and dying stabbed into her as painfully as any steel. Her friends were dying and all she could hope to do was survive, perhaps help a few escape. She wanted to run, but where could she go? The guild was her home.

They punched through a skirmish line and ran straight into the teeth of the main Dagger assault. The main hall echoed with battle. Plate-armored men hacked away at a knot of Brethren thieves led by Tarmagal. Her swords licked out like adders, cutting anything that ventured near.

Wren pulled a dirk and threw it into the eye slot of the nearest warrior. He pitched over and vanished into the tangle of bodies. She put another knife to similar use.

A roar came from behind them. She dodged a huge sword that slammed into the floor. Grahm’s sword and hers clanged and sparked against the heavy armor of their new opponent.

Somehow the Dagger forces had flanked them.

She stabbed one of the rogue guilders trying to get to her while the plate-armored mercenary closed in. She leaped over a low sword swipe and landed in a puddle of blood. Her foot shot out from under her and she felt a shock of pain as her shoulder cracked into the floor.

"Wren!"

She rolled. A sword clanged and struck sparks near her head. She shifted right. Another smash. The warrior’s eyes glowed behind the slits in his demon mask. His laughter echoed in his helmet. He drew back and thrust.

Grahm slammed into him, knocking the sword wide. The two fell into a tangle. Wren scrambled to her knees.

"No!"

She leaped to interpose herself between the struggling pair and two cultists. She blocked one but the other landed knees first on Grahm’s back. Slicing through the throat of the one she’d intercepted, she hit the other man in the back of the head and kicked him away. Grahm stiffened. The cultist had stabbed him between the shoulder blades. The armored warrior beneath Grahm shoved him off.

Everything in Wren’s vision fogged over in a red haze. She struck the side of the mercenary’s helm with all her strength, hammering at it until the man stopped moving.

The defensive line of Brethren disintegrated under a wave of cultist thieves.

"Grahm!" She turned him over. Her stomach tightened when she saw his glazed eyes. He blinked and grabbed Wren’s arm. "Get out of here. Find Desiray."

"You’re coming with me."

She dragged him up and they staggered down the hall. He clung to her and it took all of Wren’s strength to stumble forward under his weight. A peal of thunder roared through the halls. More blasts that sounded like lightning strikes rumbled through the building.

No time to get out—need to hole up—escape during a lull.

She pulled Grahm into a storeroom and bolted the door. Propping him against the wall, she started to tend his wound.

"Won’t do any good," he croaked. "It’s not deep." She strained to hear him over the battle. "Bastard used—" He grimaced. "—poison." He convulsed and she gripped his arm.

An icy hand knotted in her chest. No. Not Grahm, he couldn’t leave her like Sireth did. They were the best. A team.

Grahm’s skin tinged yellow and his limbs shook.

"Oh Grahm," she felt the tears burning on her cheeks. "What can I do?"

"Kiss me." He forced a smile. "Last chance I’ll get."