Post Tue Dec 13, 2005 7:32 pm

Savant's Blood: Hecate's Bounty -- Chapter 2

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Sure we play rough, but it heals—eventually...<BR>
<DIV ALIGN="RIGHT"><font style="font-size:12pt">—Algernon D'Tarin</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;">Penalty on the Play</div>
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Heart still beating fast and throat dry, Wren looked around and saw nothing familiar. The moderator’s teleportation had deposited her in an enclosed courtyard with an old three-story temple on one side. Vines and trees had overgrown most of the outlying buildings, and the air smelled of burned wood and street salts. Twenty paces up the side of the temple, a chunk had been broken out of the wall; probably from a ground tremor. It looked big enough that a small person might get through. Unless her pursuers knew about her climbing ability they wouldn’t think she could get up the smooth brick.

Hiding was the only course of action right now. Having the moderator teleport her had been an act of desperation. Now, all the players knew what area she was in. That might include the kidnappers. Even if they didn’t know, they could follow the players combing the area for her.

She sprinted across the courtyard and leaped onto the wall. Wren felt the snarl of her climbing ability in the back of her skull as she scrambled up toward the hole and squeezed through.

Inside, it stank of old dust and dead bugs. She flailed to get cobwebs out of her hair. The crack opened into a section between the supporting walls and not a room inside the temple. It was dank inside and the single slice of light from the crack provided minimal illumination. To be safe she moved so as not to be visible from the yard below.

What did she do now? It seemed that the moderator was either involved with the kidnappers or conveniently ignoring anything to do with them. What had happened with Damay? She doubted Desiray had found her, otherwise she’d probably have received some telepathic message by now.

Wren removed her pack. She saw no sense in risking the loss of the gem. She looked around and found a spot that would be impossible to reach unless the person could fly or climb on a ceiling. She clambered up and wedged the leather satchel into the opening. She pulled some cobwebs over the spot and threw a handful of dust across it for camouflage.

Now, as long as she survived to tell the tale she could always come back for the gem. She hated giving up the opportunity to possibly negotiate for allies to help get Mishaka, but she had to be realistic. If she didn’t find some way to deal with those armored men she’d end up in a cell or worse.

Now to get out without being seen coming from this area. She noticed that the back half of the chamber opened into the temple proper where the tremor had shaken part of the ceiling out. Wiggling through the opening, she dropped down into the shadowy temple interior. The plaster and bricking of the walls was cracked and broken, defaced by names and pithy sayings scratched into the stone. Splinters and metal strapping strewn across the rubble clogged floor were all that remained of the pews, long since picked over by the street people.

She slipped across to the far side, seeing light coming through an opening. The sill opened into a section overgrown with bushes. She pushed into the foliage, leaves and twigs stinging her face as she dove under and rolled to her feet on the far side. She’d heard no-one teleport or score for a while. What was going on with the game? Had she been cut off from messages?

Wren jogged down an alley and looked south and east. In the distance, half way across town she could make out the top of Cassandra’s tower. How long had it been since she sneaked over that wall? It seemed like a lifetime. Little had she known her whole existence would change once she got to the other side.

She turned north and kept moving. It was still early, the sun barely painting the eastern horizon. The scud of early morning clouds looked thin enough that it would burn off by midmorning. This would be a hot day. People were starting to come out, beginning their mornings. She saw a few shopkeepers sweeping out their establishments in preparation for business.

Things in her head had been quiet for so long that when the moderator’s thought boomed in her thoughts, it knocked her off balance and she had to catch herself against a wall. **Falor defeats Tarrantil. Possession changeover. Scores updated. Move logged.**

Breathing hard, she held her breath from being startled. So, she hadn’t been cut off. Apparently, they abandoned the initial search for her to go after other scores. Where did she go now? Back to Damay? She hated leaving her at such a critical stage. The elder savant was going to be confused and disoriented, wondering what in Hades had happened. Especially waking up in body that wasn’t her own.

No, she might accidentally lead the kidnappers to Damay. Hiding was a bad choice. She didn’t know how they found her, whether through informants in the game, luck, or some magical form of tracking. If they did it once, they probably could do it again. Logically, her staying in one spot it made it easier for them.

Keeping her feet moving, eying every side path and roof she kept to the shadows. She scanned the sky overhead. It was so damn quiet. After all kinds of teleports and moves, abruptly this silence. She assumed players were stalking other players or trying for scores. If any of the other objects were anywhere near as hard as getting that gem, she could see why there might be a lapse. Whoever set up that score knew a lot about thieving, magic, and traps. Brin—that’s the name Desiray mentioned—Dorian’s husband. She guessed it was fitting that sneaks should marry each other.

Letting out a breath, she decided to chance getting up on a roof. She still hadn’t seen a familiar street, nor any evidence of game activity save the most recent move.

At the next intersection, she checked to make sure she wasn’t observed and crept up the wall of a two-story tenement building and scooted up the slat roof to the apex. She stayed low so her silhouette wouldn’t be obvious.

Now, she knew the location. Ranfast’s Emporium lay only a couple stone-throws away. That gave her a fair idea of how they broke up the sectors of the game. At Ziedra’s flat, everyone had been going to A-3. Going to B-6 took her perhaps 300 paces east and maybe 300 paces south, so each section was probably a hundred paces on a side. She found out the hard way you weren’t allowed to teleport more than four sectors at a time. She wagered that there were probably a limited number of teleports per game.

She needed to test to see if the moderator were still listening to her anyway.

<Moderator,> she thought. <Rules verification. What are the limits on teleport requests?>

There was a pause, then the moderator’s dark boom rang in Wren’s mind. <Teleport requests are limited to one transit per every twenty-five points earned by the team. All teams begin with three free tactical teleports.> Wren heard a slight hiss in her head. **Team Idundaughter. Rules verification requested. Transcript updated.**

Now, if the dark armored men suddenly made an appearance, she knew the moderator was collaborating.

She hurried down to the far end of the tenement, watching for signs of activity. After that initial flurry of action, the game had become boring. She frowned. Best not to get complacent. She suspected that situation could change with blinding speed.

A rope for suspending lanterns dangled across the street from the tenement to the next building over, a slightly taller stone crafts-house. She moved over to the rope tested the mooring to make sure it was solid and edged out onto it. In the morning calm, even on a thin rope such as this one she felt fairly safe negotiating the length.

As she moved across, she realized her neck was tingling. Thirty steps and she stood on the other side. She tried to remember back. Had it always felt like that when she was moving across narrow beams and precarious spots? Over the summers, she’d become casual in negotiating areas that made even the most experienced cat burglars sweat. In memory, she never lost her balance or slipped when she was focused. She never realized how many parts of her life her savant talents had permeated. She’d always thought it was simply good balance and better luck. Only recently did she really sense her ability working. After Hyperion had worked his magic on her, the talent worked with far more strength.

A few buildings away she heard a crash that sounded like breaking wood. The moderator’s voice rumbled out an update. **Team Ariok. B-5. 75 points, magic penalty, bystander bonus. Scores updated. Move logged.**

Ariok? Could Gabriella be involved in this game? If what she knew of the game so far was true, all the rough-housing didn’t seem the Dragon Queen’s style. Wren didn’t doubt for a second that the woman could fight like a demon unchained. She simply projected that don’t-get-dust-on-me demeanor that suggested she would feel this game beneath her dignity.

She shivered, hoping the name was a coincidence, it had sounded close by. She knew sooner or later, someone would find her. Wren moved across the building to the far side to look at the street below. Still not much activity. She felt stupid standing on a roof posing like a damn target. She needed a plan. Players weren’t even chasing her anymore. So, she couldn’t necessarily count on them to help against the ones Desiray had called Territaani Sen’Gen. Ironic, that when she wanted to get caught, nobody was interested.

Light flashed unnaturally off to her right. Sunlight hitting polished metal or glass. She searched for the source and saw nothing. Now, what?

Keep moving. She teetered across a narrow pole to the next building, all the while keeping an eye out for anything unusual. Of course, she might not see anything. From her encounter with hot-tempered Arabella, she knew that some of these people could become camouflaged or invisible.

How many teams were there? She’d heard six announced. Tarrantil, Ariok, and Felspar had been the first names she heard. Later she heard Targallae, D’Shar, and Falor. Felspar was Cassandra’s team, Targallae was Beia, and Falor would be Tal. Arabella was with Cassandra, and Tal had a male partner—the one that ran into those Sen’Gen. Was it possible he took care of them? With the powers of these people, it wasn’t improbable. After all, Vera, handled three practically by herself. Wren sighed, there would be no reason for those armored bastards to stand and fight against that unknown player—and no reason for him to pursue them.

She needed Desiray. The Mistress would be on one of the other three teams. All she had to do was find her. A city a half league on a side—how hard could it be…???

Right now, she couldn’t afford to be picky. Tal, Beia, Cassandra—anyone she knew would be able to help. She shook her head, after all that effort to avoid these people, now her best chance for freedom relied on finding one of them. She shuddered. If she could explain the problem before someone ripped her arm off…

No activity in either hearing or sight. She edged up to the north side of the building and leaped across the three-pace gap to the next roof. Mentally, she thanked Vera again, she was in the best shape of her life. Without thinking, she jumped gaps now that a summer ago would have been white-knuckle lunges of faith.

Ears tuned for any unusual sounds she moved to the apex of the roof and started down the far side. Wren froze as she heard wood creak. It had been off to the west. She stared at the flat rooftop in that direction.

Nothing.

Her heart speeded and her breathing quickened. This felt wrong. She sensed presences but simply couldn’t see them. Instinct said it wasn’t players from the game. Could the kidnappers be stalking her? Why? They’d just come at her head-on every time before this. It didn’t make sense for them to be trying to sneak up on her now.

Move.

She jogged east down the roof edge and vaulted across wide gap toward a five story brick tenement. Hands outspread, she hit the wall feet first and leaned into it. The sharp buzz of her ability coming alive shot down her spine as she gripped the wall and spidered up it to the roof edge. Lunging up to the overhanging ridgepole she flipped up to stand on top.

Right as her feet found purchase on the narrow spar of wood she heard something hiss and thud into the brick underneath her.

“Damn!” She heard a thick male voice curse. A high pitched whistle pierced the silence. “Go! Go! Go!”

She glanced down to the roof she’d just vacated. A man dressed in chain-armor holding a crossbow stood half way down the ridgepole gesturing franticly.

Her whole body went icy as the roofs all around her began creaking and thumping with the sound of at least a dozen running pairs of feet.

Oh spit. She charged in the direction where she didn’t hear anything. Loud clacks sounded, followed the whiz of something coming toward her at high speed. She ducked and rolled as crossbow bolts thumped into the wooden roof above and behind her. A glance back showed men shimmering into the view, discarding their bows and starting pursuit.

Who are these guys!?

Reaching the end of the roof she plunged off to the house-top nearest, praying the rickety looking shakes held. She hit with a crash, one foot piercing the flimsy structure. She fought to disentangle herself as two armored warriors jumped off the higher building toward her.

With a wrench, she rolled aside as a wiry man with a dagger in his fist punched straight through the thin planking. With yell of surprise and pain he shattered the rafters and pounded into ground floor below. His companion did little better as he thudded waist deep into the rotten roofing with a cry.

While the cursing, grunting man tried to keep from falling through the roof she righted herself and swung down off the wall.

In the wan morning light, the buildings formed an unfamiliar maze of corners and angles. The smell of rotting garbage and unwashed chamber-pots stung her nose. She hesitated for an instant and then ran as she heard the unmistakable thump of boots hitting the ground.

Wren charged east up the street and slid to a stop as two men with swords sprinted out of an alley to block her path. She spun to go the opposite way only to see three more men blocking that path. The only choice left was a three story crafts-building at the edge of the square. She plunged for it as her enemies rushed in.

She leaped before she hit the wall, hands and feet thrashing the air as she scrambled straight up the vertical incline. Behind her she heard oaths of surprise and dismay as she practically ran up the side of the building. In ten heartbeats, she was standing on the flat roof gasping for air, heart humming in her chest.

The sound of crossbows being cocked shocked her into action. She glanced around, recognizing a roof she’d been on only a short time before. Her only route of escape was the narrow cord she’d walked across earlier. Those bastards wouldn’t follow her across that.

She raced for it and hit braded cord at a jog. Scooting across at best possible speed, Wren froze half way across when she heard the snap of a crossbow lever being yanked back right in front of her.

A bald man in chain armor faded into view, his weapon aimed at her. It was the guard captain from Ranfast’s Emporium! That’s what all this was about!

She shifted to go back the way she’d come only to see three more men, also armed take up positions at the other end. Below, two more thugs stepped from an alley and took up ready positions.

“Missy, I must say, you are three kinds of amazin’,” the captain rumbled, rubbing his hairless scalp. His craggy seamed face was a study in bad skin, scars, and natural born ugly. His thin lips were pressed tight to his gray teeth. “For your sake, I hope you got that gem with you. I been up all night trying to catch your skinny ass and I’m in a foul mood.”

Skinny? She rubbed her bottom. Had she lost that much weight? Inwardly, she smacked herself for having foolish thoughts at a time like this. While these morons had her cornered, those kidnappers could come and snatch her.

She drew a breath, slowing her heart and getting the shake out of her hands. She wobbled slightly on the line.

“You know, in a way, I kinda hope you don’t have it. I’m goin ta enjoy watching you fall. Derick, light that torch!”

One of the men behind her pulled out a brand and a tinderbox. He thrust the wood into the box. The treated fabric wrapped around the shaft sputtered to life, spitting and popping.

Wren swallowed, watching the flames. She glanced down. It was a ten pace drop onto a hard cobblestone street. She might survive the fall, but it was a fair bet the men would hack her to pieces if she somehow lived through the drop. Nice options, fall and die, or fall, break both legs, and then die.

Suppressing a shudder she met the gaze of the captain. “So, let me guess. You guys are a little annoyed.”

The man grimaced. “We’re a lot annoyed, Girly. We’ve got a reputation to protect. Cough up the gem or take a dive.”

Her insides tightened. Ironic she could face two avatars and survive, and here she was three hairs from being axed by a bunch of disgruntled guards with attitudes.

“Friend, I’d like to help, but you’ll never find that gem unless I get off this rope alive to show you where it is.”

The captain shook his head. “You get off that rope and you’ll vanish on us. Think I wasn’t watching. You’re faster than a cat with its tail on fire, and climb like a bloody bug. A priest at the temple of Posiedon owes me favors. I hear he can speak with the dead. We’ll get the information from your corpse. Derick, light it!”

The man behind her leaned forward with the torch and touched it to the rope. On the other side, the captain produced a dagger and started to saw through the strands.

“Hey,” she protested. “Hey! Guys, honestly, I’ll take you to it—really!” Her voice rose as strands parted. She drew her sword, there might still be a chance to get out of this mess.

Still sawing on the rope, Baldy glanced toward the sword in her hand. His dark eyes glinted. “Try anything funny and they’ll shoot you full of bolts before you fall.” The men on the ground and the two behind her took aim.

“Not much mercy in you mercenaries, huh?”

“No,” he growled. “Hurry up and fall.”

She glanced to the windows lower on the wall and estimated the length of the rope. Escape was possible. If she could swing fast enough to avoid being perforated by enemy bowshots. The timing had to be perfect.

The air erupted on her left causing her stagger back several steps on the rope. Wheeling her sword, she kept her balance, wincing at the twang of further strands parting.

A pace above her, a dark-haired woman shimmered into view. Long hair in tails, dressed in a red surcoat and black leggings, and carrying a huge jeweled staff she was, by far, the most welcome sight that had touched Wren’s eyes in recent memory.

The woman seemed surprised that she’d appeared in the air. She flailed for a moment and started to fall. She only dropped a short distance before her decent halted. Scowling, she stared at the sky. “That wasn’t funny.”

**Team Ariok—teleport request A-6. Move—logged.** Was that a humor Wren heard in the moderator’s metallic tones?

“Dorian! Am I glad to see you!”

A mage’s skin glistened with a golden light and she rose until her eyes were level with Wren’s. “Wren—darling—I am quite pleased to see you too.”

“Uh, Dorian, I’m kinda in bad way here…I need—” The rope frayed to threads to terminate her statement. Pitched off, she yelled and snatched hold of the braiding with her free hand. “Help!

Dorian sniffed. “Help? I thought you didn’t trust me.”

Oh Hades. Last chance. She swung her sword to cut the rope. Hoping she could swing and keep the fall from breaking half the bones in her body. Right as her sword moved, the guard captain ripped through his end of the rope.

“Oh spiiiiit!” she cried.

She realized abruptly she hadn’t moved. She was hovering in the air.

“I guess it would be small of me to hold a grudge,” Dorian said, hand on chin. “We have been through quite a bit together.”

Dazed, Wren nodded vigorously. She glanced around. There were still half a dozen crossbows aimed in their direction. “Dorian, watch out! These guys are…”

A whirring bolt whacked into the mage’s shoulder. The wood and metal shaft shattered into splinters.

“Ouch!” Dorian glared in the direction of the shooter. “None of that!” She gestured and his crossbow exploded into flames. She looked Wren in the eye. “They’re armed and pissed off. Is that what you were about to say?”

“Uh, something like that,” she responded in a weak voice. She looked back to the scowling guard captain. He had to be ugliest human she had ever encountered. She glanced again toward the ground and the guards waiting below. “You know, I don’t feel safe up here.”

The mage sniffed, her gaze flicking to the men below. “You shouldn’t. It’s a long way down.”

That sounded like a threat.

“There will be a lot of people really ticked off if you just let me die.”

“Stay out of this, Mage!” the captain snarled. “We saw her first.”

Dorian glared at the man. “If you’re not out of my sight in a ten-count, you will find yourself resembling a toad even more than you already do.”

**Team Ariok, moderation warning. Bystander penalties apply. Deliberate accosting of locals will incite a level two penalty.**

The woman’s eyes widened. “Level two!? For turning a toad into a toad?”

**Questioning a judgment is a level one penalty. This will be your second warning.**

Dorian made a disgusted sound and glared at the captain. “If I’m going to get penalized for it—better make it good, some kind of slime perhaps—” Her voice trailed off. She cracked her knuckles then rubbed her hands together.

The captain gaped at her. It was already apparent from the miniscule affect the crossbows had on her, that Dorian was nothing to be trifled with. “Damn you for interfering. You’ll pay for this, Mage.”

Dorian growled. “Five! Four! Three—!”

The men didn’t need any more incentive. They broke and ran.

The woman nodded and slipped closer to Wren. “Now that nuisance is out of the way, back to business.”

“Dorian. I’m in big trouble.”

The line of the mage’s youthful face hardened. “You certainly are. Especially if you don’t have that gem with you...”