Post Tue Dec 13, 2005 6:33 pm

Savant's Blood: Shadow of the Avatar -- Chapter 10

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My competitiveness has always been something of a handicap. It's a trait that I've noticed that seperates me from many women. I suppose it's related to the same flaw in me that likes to take risks and rise to challenges. I must have gotten that from my father... or did I...?
<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 10<BR>
<font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 16pt;">Off To See the Wizard... or Not</div>
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Wren stood in the tavern doorway looking for the junglelands Myrmigynes. Nothing. It was as if they stepped out the door and vanished. Breaths still came a little hard, and the smoke from the bar had left an itchy feeling in her chest. Her stomach burned from the strong ale.

Clutching the phoenix emblem, she stepped out avoiding bits of rubble caused by Beia’s frustrated attacks on the bricks. The air smelled of dust, lye, and wood cleaner. All down the street shop keepers swept, lowered awnings, and rolled away carts in preparation for closing. Customers hurried about to get deals on the day’s leftovers.

Wren focused past the bustle on the busy lane toward the forbidding blue-gray spire that belonged to the wizard of Ivaneth. Cinnibar’s tower had been a third smaller and had nothing like the extensive grounds surrounding this one.

Studying her goal, she rubbed the talisman, clicking her thumbnail in the indentations on the back. How thoughtless she’d been to risk this last remnant of Grahm. She felt the impressions again. Strange, she never remembered feeling those before.

She pulled her gaze away from the tower and examined the phoenix. Her grip tightened. The indentations were letters inscribed in the metal. Liandra. Who or what was that? A suspicion dug at the back of her mind. Did the Damrosil or Beia put it there?

More questions. No time for them now. Brethren members suffered at the hands of the Dagger right now. A cold rush of guilt went through her. She played games while they languished. She must get to the wizard. Her friends needed help.

A voice from close behind startled her. “Hey, lady.”

Heart thudding, she spun and pulled her sword. She yanked back on her stroke when she saw it was a young boy.

A lanky youngster wearing a tattered wool jacket and canvas breaches covered his head with his arms. “Don’t hit! Wanted to talk is all!”

She let out a breath. “Fool.” She slammed the sword back in the sheath. “Get killed that way.”

Bronze-colored eyes glassy, the boy stared at her from between stick-like arms. After a few moments, he straightened and grinned at her. Red-haired and freckle infested, he looked gawky with big ears, a pug nose, and a smile that appeared to be more gaps than teeth.

Wren put fists on hips. She let this kid sneak up on her. “Well?” she growled.

He flinched. “Uhhh, you’re new around here, right?”

Wren sighed. “Not to be unkind, but you have anything beyond the obvious to say? I’m in a hurry.”

“I—” He swallowed. “I saw you play daggers. Bet you’re the best dagger player in the world!”

This must lead someplace. “Thanks. So, if I am?”

He tentatively met her eyes. “That is a guild tattoo right?” He pointed at her neck.

Wren frowned and rubbed under her left ear. It’d been summers since she received her membership mark and she rarely thought about it. How did he know it was a guild sign? She sized him up, noting the wrapped on foot bindings and worn patched fabric.

“You don’t want a sponsor do you, Kid? You’re too young.”

His face reddened. “Am not!”

Hit that one. No time to argue. Besides, she’d been a part of the Brethren for a year by the time she was his age. “Don’t make the mistake I did. A guild is a waste. You—” She stopped herself. “Find someone else.”

She turned and headed for the tower. She had no desire to relive her blunders; to remember what she no longer had. Regardless of how many Brethren she saved, the guild she knew as her family died with Grahm.

“Wait!”

She ignored him. Getting to the wizard would be tough enough without some half-grown guilder wanna-be tag-along. She weighed the pouch of coins Damrosil gave her. Far more than a hundred if her practiced hand were any judge. More than enough for a good bribe. Even from this distance, she saw that the guards at the tower gates looked well dressed.

“Come on, at least tell me what it’s like!” the boy whined behind her.

Wren rounded on him. “It’s chains, Kid. It’s flirting with the law to survive, and making enemies. Most of all, it’s living a lie. Convincing yourself there’s no better way to live. You’re wrong, but you don’t see it. Can’t—damn—see anything at all.”

He stared at her with wide bronze eyes, tousled red hair hanging in his face. “Oh,” he said.

Her words were lost on him. He didn’t understand—couldn’t. She hadn’t understood when the lifer tried to discourage her from joining. Only now, it made sense.

“Look, Kid, just stay out of my way, okay?” He nodded vigorously. “What’s your name.”

“Garr.”

Wren looked at him one-eyed. “Sounds made up to me.”

Garr gave her an indignant look. “Better than some weak name like Alphonse.”

She shrugged. “Well, Garr, I’m off to see the wizard.”

His eyes grew round. “Really? Nobody sees him.”

“Watch me. But,” she pointed across the street. “Do it from there.”

His shoulders slumped. Garr mumbled something and kicked a pebble as he trudged to the designated spot.

Shaking her head, she went toward the entrance of the wizard’s estate. Two brawny sentries kept a wary eye on her. Both wore Ivaneth livery; a gray tabard with a symbol of a yellow sea horse and trident emblazoned over the left breast. Beneath the supple leather she saw chain-mail armor. These weren’t common foot soldiers, but hired mercenaries.

One guard was a hirsute northlandsman with red hair and a thick beard, the other a dusky-skinned easterner with jet hair and slanted eyes. She looked at the bigger man.

“Your business?” he asked.

She smiled. “I’d like to see the wizard.”

He smiled back. “You have an appointment?”

The Myrmigynes warned her of this. “No,” she admitted.

“Then you don’t get in.” His smirk told her he liked denying people entrance.

“How do I get an appointment?”

“Through the King’s minister of affairs.”

“Takes weeks I bet.”

“If ever,” the other guard put in. “Few get in.”

Wren sized the two men up. “Is there a chance you two might be persuaded to say... be distracted for a moment or two.” She jingled the coin pouch.

The bearded man leaned forward as if to whisper. Next to her ear in a quiet voice he said, “not a hope in Hades.”

She scowled. “I’ll keep my money then, nest face.”

The men laughed. She ignored them and stalked off down the wall. From the corner of her eye, she saw Garr shadowing her. This boy would be persistent.

The wall looked about eight paces high and possessed no visible joints, seams or rough spots of any kind. Someone made it with thieves in mind.

She walked until the wall’s curve hid her from the sentries. No barrier made, ever kept her out.

Wren opened and closed her hands limbering her fingers up. She jumped, hit and clung. The tingle in the back of her skull became a fierce snarl. Pain shot through her fingers and toes. She slid back to the ground.

She stared at the smooth stone. That never happened. She touched the surface, it didn’t feel that slick.

Wren took a running start and leaped. Again the snarl in her mind, the tenacious cling, but she couldn’t get traction. She slid down to the ground. Her fingers came away from the wall with an audible snap. The skin looked red and chaffed. An ache throbbed in the back of her head.

One more try. She hit and stuck. Focusing her will on holding, she took a higher grip and pulled. She rose a handwidth. Pain shot through her skull. Sparks flickered around her hands. Her fingers burned. She pushed off with a foot and rose a bit more. The agony grew. With a gasp, she surrendered and let herself slide down.

She flailed her hands and danced around in a circle to shake off the pain.

Amazed, she stared at the barrier. Magic must be preventing her climbing ability. Interesting—that implied that someone understood that special talent.

Sucking on fingers alternately, Wren looked to the huge tower. The Sovereign said that Ivaneth’s wizard was among the most imminent mages on Titaan. For a mage, power meant knowledge. Understanding things that she couldn’t even imagine. This wall must be product of one of those things.

“Wow, can you teach me that?”

She jumped, staggered back a step, then glared at Garr. “Don’t do that!”

He looked hurt. “What?”

Wren growled. “Nevermind.” Arms folded, she glowered at the wall. “Ever hear of anyone getting over this thing?”

Garr frowned. “No. Everybody’s afraid of getting turned into a toad.”

Wren snorted. “Faery story. Wizards can’t do that.” I hope, she added to herself.

What about a ladder or pole? The voice of experience told her that if she thought of it, that someone had tried it. What could stop it? Of course, what prevented her from climbing? The answer to both—magic.

“What do we do now?” Garr asked.

“We?” Wren pointed a finger. “No ‘we’ here. I’m going up on that roof up there.” She pointed to the top of three story hostel. “You stay.”

He scowled, but didn’t try to follow as she crossed the street and clambered onto the roof. From her vantage, she saw all the tower grounds.

A cobbled path led from the gate through lavish gardens filled with flowers, little streams and lakes with floating islands and stylized bridges. Topiary figures carved into the shapes of dragons, griffins, and sphinxes lay throughout the extensive estate. Jeweled gold, silver, and platinum statues of unfamiliar heroes set in strategic spots.

It was a thief’s dream. Even from here, she saw that the gems from one statue alone more than equaled the value of the jewel she’d risked her life to steal from Cinnibar.

This vantage let her see that the wall possessed no projections or anything to hook a grapple on, the buttress and walkway were rounded to prevent hook purchase.

The treasure might be the stuff of dreams, but that wall was a nightmare. Nowhere along its length did a building lay closer than ten or fifteen paces. Unless they could fly, no-one would jump from a rooftop.

With all that thought put into it, she simply had to accept a ladder wouldn’t work. What other way was there?

She sat on the roof and thought. A look south across the maze of buildings to Ivaneth bay gave a view of a moving forest of sails and pennons flaring on the water’s sparkling surface. West over the city walls, waves curled into the purple rocks of a rugged coast. The sun’s edge tickled the water, casting orange glimmers on the breakers.

About to give up, her gaze fell on salvation. To the East, several men were carting a long ridge pole toward a building under construction. The pole looked too heavy for a vault, but situated right it could get her over that wall.

Climbing down, she followed the carpenters. Garr fell in step behind her. How could she shake this kid? Be mean to him? She didn’t have the heart for it. Not that many summers ago she was in the same situation.

Use him? She needed to keep the carpenters from hoisting it on the roof.

The carpenters were working on a large manse with a steep arched roof. Including the four workers carting the beam, twelve broad shouldered men worked steadily, planing rough planks, pinning, nailing and gluing wood into place

They set the ridge pole down. Wren measured it as she walked by. She counted twenty-six steps. The distance between to the wall looked to be twenty paces.

If she planted one end of the pole a few paces from the manse, the high end could swing close enough to the top of the wall for her jump to the buttress. With the timber nearly perpendicular it should only take a good kick to get her going. Falling force would do the rest.

She turned to Garr. “You want to help?”

He nodded, his face very solemn.

“Your first test, Kid. Pass it, we’ll see about the rest, okay? Here’s some silver, see if you can get some friends together. See that big beam? Moment those carpenters get one end of it up against the building I want to make sure not a wit more work gets done. Understand?”

“Uh huh.”

“Go. You get to keep what’s left over.”

Garr sprinted off.

From the moment the carpenters lifted one end of the beam to the support joists, their task became one calamity after the next. Wren stole tools when the men weren’t looking. Garr and his friends rampaged through the site, grabbing materials and implements, scattering things as they ran. A bell later, the men gave up in defeat.

By the time the men cleaned up and left, the shadows had grown long. No sign of Garr. He’d probably gone off to enjoy the leftovers from his first guild job.

Wren used a stud to lever the beam into position. It took some work, being mindful of the precarious positioning of it leaning against the roof. She took a mallet and spikes she’d borrowed from the carpenters earlier, and hammered them to keep the beam from sliding.

A few times she ducked out of sight to avoid being seen by sentries patrolling the wall buttress. An extra length of rope lashed around the wood made sure it wouldn’t slip.

She scaled the structure to the ceiling joists as the last light vanished in the West. She took a breath, nerving herself and waiting for the guards to be the farthest away. People would hear that plank hit the street for blocks. Wren hoped the guards would think it a coincidence; simply a badly moored piece of building material.

She climbed the rafters. The wood wobbled. Wren gripped the tip of the beam. With her legs wrapped around a rafter she prepared to commit herself to the air.

She looked down. Sixteen paces up, her target lay twenty away at an angle, part of that distance a leap toward a narrow walkway eight up the side of a wall. One mistake and this would be very messy.

“Details, details,” she mumbled.

Committing herself, Wren pushed off sharply. It felt like flying as she hurtled out over the street. She shifted her balance as the beam reached the top of the arc. The plank groaned, seeming to hesitate at the top of its swing. Visions of getting flung back into the construction flashed through her mind. Taking a deep breath, Wren leaned toward the wall. The rafter creaked. Wind whistled through her hair as she timed her leap.

She sprang clear, somersaulting to land upright. The walkway rushed up with stinging force. Wren rolled to save her legs, hoping for enough space. Flailing, she tumbled over the edge. A painful twist. She grabbed the edge and hung there panting, a long drop below. The echo of the board’s fall died out.

Pulling herself up, she dashed to a nearby ladder and slid to the ground. She raced into the garden where the hedges and statuary provided cover. Men ran on the wall. No one appeared to have seen her.

She took a moment to sit on a bench, catch her breath, and slow her hammering heart. A sumptuous mansion huddled at the foot of the tower. All its windows and doors barred in iron. If she had her lock picking tools she could have undone a lock. One open window far up the tower appeared to be the only means of entry.

Energy coming back she walked through the beautiful garden to the base of the tower. There appeared to be plenty of projections and rough spots to make the climb. The poor light of the moon made it doubtful that the guards would see her camouflaged in black leather.

Gingerly, she put hand and foot against the cold stone. It felt slick and she prayed to Ishtar that it hadn’t been protected like the outer wall. She rubbed her hands together, ready for the burning if the warding were present.

She flashed on two nights ago. She’d been scaling another wizard’s tower. That had ended up with her getting burns all over her body.

She leaped and clung. The buzz in the back of her head was strong but not as bad as the curtain wall. It took the span of several long breaths to reach the windowsill. She pulled herself up to look in and found that a dim light pervaded the area.

Damn, the room was occupied.

She started to slip away, when something grabbed her. Wren’s heart jolted as an invisible force tore her loose from the sill and spun her around so she hung inverted looking down the tower wall. Icy fear clutched her stomach. The phoenix necklace slipped from under her tunic and hung across her face.

“Are you aware,” said a feminine voice. “Of the damage inflicted on a body that drops 77 paces onto cobblestones?”