Post Tue Dec 13, 2005 6:31 pm

Savant's Blood: Shadow of the Avatar -- Chapter 7

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When I was around nine, I climbed the
Corwin perimeter wall. I don't remember why,
probably just being a kid, and just the fact
that I could. Standing on one of the
merlons around thirty paces above the ocean
I was leaning into the wind. I scared one of
the guards so bad he almost wet himself...
<DIV ALIGN="RIGHT"><font style="font-size:12pt">—Wren</DIV>
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<div align="center"><font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 18pt;">Chapter 7<BR>
<font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 16pt;">The Unexpected Companion</div>
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Wren closed the temple doors behind her with a click. She stood on the marble steps and looked up at the afternoon sun shining bright in a sky dappled with dark clouds. A swirling ocean breeze brought the odors of salt, dried kelp, and cook smoke. The smells coupled with Jharon’s warning made her stomach churn. The clerics were usually right. What if the priest leading the Dagger guild was an avatar; a mortal hosting the energies of a god? The touch of the priest had burned like fire and being near him caused pain. Is that what a god’s power felt like? The thought made her chest tighten. How did mortals fight an Avatar?

She turned her mind to the task at hand. Find Desiray. It was mistress’ guild and her responsibility to get rid of him, even if he was an avatar. Wren had accepted the lesser task of tracking her down and getting the white-haired lady back to Corwin city.

Sanctum street was a hive of bustling people slogging through the mud created last night. Carts creaked by, splashing through ankle deep puddles. Street priests sermonized on corners to small gatherings of poor people who could not afford the donations required in the precincts.

Wren searched for Dagger thieves, knowing some would be waiting. With a moments search, she found two. They stood behind a stationary cart peering across the street at her. One was tall, the other short.

She hopped off the steps and jogged along statue studded front of the temple to Ishtar. Columns carved into the aspects of the goddess of love and war thrust weapons and held out embracing arms overhead. The two men tripped over themselves in their haste to get after her.

A voice called to her from behind. “Wren! Wait!”

She glanced to the two thieves who were looking for an opening in the constant stream of carts and people moving down both sides of the busy lane. Jharon, stood on the temple steps in his city clothes, hair tied back and waving a walking staff.

“Come on!” Wren called to him. “Hurry!” She checked the thieves. They knew she’d seen them. One man was tall and reedy, his hooked features and knock-kneed gait made him look like scarecrow. The smaller man was paunchy, his flat head and massive shoulders all bunched together. His hairy arms and blocky hands looked like they belonged on a man two sizes larger.

He has no neck. He probably uproots trees for a living in the off season. Hurry, Jharon, get here.

She couldn’t afford a fight during the day. No telling how many Dagger thieves might be within hearing. The best Dagger guilders were likely recuperating from a night spent in the storm. These were probably neophytes. Dark guild policy often ruled that greens were expendable. If she fought now, there’d be corpses everywhere. She bloodied her hands enough on the night of the raid. She took more lives in the first moments of that battle than she had in her entire life. The memory of it sickened her.

The taller of the two thieves darted between some carts causing the horses to rear and paw the air. Winnies, angry shouts, and curses shot down the lane.

“I’m coming with you,” Jharon said sliding to a stop.

“We can’t talk here,” she told him pointing at the ruckus in the street. “This way. Run.”

She grabbed Jharon’s arm and plunged down the street. This district consisted mostly of the huge temple complexes with shops and homes jammed into the between places. Walls were stone and rarely less than two stories high. These were the best conditions for her, but not when she had a beefy tag-along like Jharon.

A glance back showed the chunky Dagger thief had forced his way through the tangle of bodies and was sprinting after them. The short legged thug was made for power and not speed, and the gap between them widened as Jharon leaned into the run with her.

“Through here,” she ordered, turning into an alley.

Jharon followed her into garbage strewn space between two shops. The crumbling brick walls were bowed with age, and laundry hung from lines strung from second story windows across the gap overhead. Their footsteps echoed as they dodged around drunken derelicts and scavenging cats.

“Wren!” Jharon cried, catching her arm. “This is a dead end! There’s no way—”

She skittered to a stop. Rotting crates and barrels were shattered at the base of a support wall blocking the end of the lane.

Did she have time or would they have to stand and fight?

“Get ready,” she said.

“What—?”

Wren plunged for the wall. An upended barrel leaned against the brick on the right. She leaped, hit the top of the cracked wood and kicked off again, reaching for as much height as she could get. She slammed into the wall with a stinging thud. The force all but knocked the wind from her. The instant she hit she spread her fingers and dug in her toes. At first she fell, then a familiar buzz started in the back of her skull and shot through her limbs.

Her fingers and toes took hold. Heart thundering, she clawed her way up, hands and feet humming with each new purchase. A short breath later she reached the narrow top.

She heard running feet. “Quick! Toss up the staff.”

Jharon looked like a black-horn caught in the glare of a hunter’s lantern.

“Move!” she ordered.

He threw the pole. She caught it, took a grip on the wall and swung it down. Jharon snatched for the end and missed; a half pace short.

“Jump! I’ll hold it.”

He looked back and saw the two men. “I’m too heavy.”

“Do it!”

A ripple went through Jharon’s burly frame. Wren braced herself. All that beautiful muscle would be heavy indeed.

He struck the end of the staff like a galloping horse hitting the end of its tether. The force wrenched her down, smashing her against the brick in a rasp of pain. Jharon’s weight dragged her over the edge. The staff started to slip as he began a fast hand-over-hand climb.

The tingle in the back her head became an angry buzz. The staff locked in her palm and her counterbalancing hand clamped into the far side of the wall. Her shoulder ached with each vibration of the pole on Jharon’s upward ascent.

“Hurry!” she gritted out.

She let go of the pole as Jharon grabbed her forearm. The wood clattered at the feet of the two thieves who slammed to a stop at the alley end. Jharon grabbed the wall edge and swung up as the scarecrow drew his knife.

Wren broke loose a pea-sized piece of crumbling brick and let fly as the thief drew back to throw. The fragment scored in his right eye.

The man yelped, dropping the knife to clutch his face. Jharon dropped off the far side of the wall. She swung over, hung, then dropped.

They stood in the shadows on the far side breathing heavily and listening to the invectives growled by the injured man.

Jharon put his arm around her. “Are you all right?”

She rubbed her shoulder, feeling the burn of strained muscles. “Think so. Should have said you wanted to come when we were in your office.”

“Didn’t know it,” he huffed. He glanced up at the wall. “That’s six paces up. How did you—?”

She put a hand over his mouth. The thief had stopped cursing. “They’re probably going around. They’ll have help if they find us again.”

Wren led him down a darkened lane that was a twin of the one they entered. This exited onto a lesser traveled street.

They were six blocks from the temple of Isis. If they took the direct route, the Dagger thieves would sight them. She wished she could use the rooftops. They’d never get close to her there.

“This way,” she told him. “Hunch down, don’t keep your back so straight. You walk like a bloody nobleman.”

“I’m a priest of Ishtar!” he said with an indignant tone.

“If you want to walk with me; you’re a peasant. Shuffle your feet. Act trod on.”

Jharon growled, but complied. Keeping an eye out for Dagger spies she followed a circuitous route, keeping in the cover of crowds and trying not to appear too watchful.

When they had turned onto a little traveled back street Jharon took a breath and ran a hand through his dark hair. “You going to tell me how you climbed that wall?”

She shrugged. “Just did. That’s all.”

Jharon’s brow furrowed and he narrowed his dark eyes. “Only a mage could have done that; straight up with no hand holds.”

“Always been able to do it. I start up a wall, I feel this buzz in my head, and up I go.” She frowned, not sure she was comfortable sharing this with him. “When I feel that tingle, I can hold onto something like it’s a part of me. Weird talent, isn’t it?”

“Quite useful in your line of work I imagine.”

She nodded. “When I was little I used to climb up under gables to get out of the rain. I’d hang there in my sleep.”

“Like a bat?” he asked, obviously incredulous.

“No!” Wren smacked his arm. “Hugging the wood. Never understood how, just sensed I could.”

He stopped and studied her. A dog barked from a nearby alley. A gull cried. “You never mentioned it before.”

She met his gaze. “It’s not something that comes up in conversations, ‘oh, by the way, I stick to walls.’”

Jharon smiled. “You have a point.” He rubbed his chin and started down the street again. “I knew you were good at throwing. That pebble you planted in that thug’s eye was like one of your trick dart shots. Nobody in town will run a gamble on darts with you anymore.”

“Price of fame I guess.” She sighed and felt a tremor go through her. Now that the excitement had died down, her mind had returned to the thoughts that troubled her on the temple steps. “Damn it, what if you’re right and that bastard priest who raided the guild is an avatar?”

Jharon blinked, apparently surprised by the change in subject. “Then the problem is bigger than your guild. Other people will have to assist.”

“Just like that?”

He put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “The precincts of Ishtar could hardly ignore an avatar of Set being on their doorstep.” He smiled. “We’d simply have to do something.”

How she loved that smile, damn temple politics. She laced her fingers in his. “Thanks.”

“It’s the duty of a good friend.”

They walked for a while in silence. She stayed wary for any Dagger members who might be hunting for them. This next loop around the block would bring them to the temple of Isis. The buildings grew steadily better built and kept, and the numbers of people more frequent. A street priest could be heard above the background hum, his voice rising sharply to extol dogmatic verse.

“Since the temple forced us apart we haven’t talked much.” She heard the way he kept his voice level. He had been extremely displeased with the decision of the temple elders. “Have you no other friends outside the guild that might help? Whatever became of that dancer friend who roomed with you? I heard she had royal connections. Maybe you could get the palace guard to oust the Dagger.”

“Ziedra?” Wren sighed. “She let her favor in court go to her head. She fled town a few summers ago with the Princess’ headsmen chasing her. Silly girl got involved with the Baron, and as I predicted, the moment there was any contention he forgot he even knew her.”

“That’s unfortunate.”

“Very.” Wren sighed. “She was one of the best friends I ever had.” She looked at their clasped hands. “So are you actually. So, how is it that a temple patriarch can fly out the door on a whim?”

Jharon’s features tightened. “He can’t.”

“What is this?” She squeezed his hand. “You stretching my arm for nothing?”

“Didn’t plan it that way. Thought I’d help at the temple of Isis. I know some of the priests there.”

Wren smiled. “All help is appreciated.”

A tinker’s wagon drawn by a pair of fat marsh-horns rattled by, pots and pans clanging. A half-dozen laughing children chased after it.

“I have a question for you now.” He reached out and pulled the phoenix loose from its confines in the neck of her jerkin. His face had turned serious. “Where did that come from? You didn’t have it when you came to the temple. It’s not the Dame’s.”

She wrapped her hand around the emblem. The metal grew warm. “I told you Ishtar spoke to me. This is a sign.”

“It’s not one of her ward signs, Wren. It came to you in your sleep?”

Wren opened her hand and let the gold bird emblem glint in the light. Two tiny ruby eyes seemed to wink at her. “Yes.”

“There was no vision accompanying it?” He took the metal and examined it close.

“Well, yes, but—” Her chest felt tight. “It’s private.”

“It was Grahm, wasn’t it?”

His words made a chill race through her. “How—?”

Jharon drew a breath. “Spirits. It feels heavy with life. It only makes sense that your—friend—would linger near you.” He turned the gold metal over in his hands. His brow furrowed. “There’s other omens on this metal as well.”

He let go of the necklace, turned and started walking.

Surprised by his abruptness, she let him get several steps away before running to catch up. “What’s the matter? What omens?”

Jharon didn’t look at her. “That you will be involved in the matters of gods.”