Post Tue Dec 13, 2005 7:34 pm

Savant's Blood: Hecate's Bounty -- Chapter 8

<div style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 12pt; margin-right: 3.0in;">
It's action plus insanity while
wielding magic weapons at full strength
that can crush rock and split steel.
That's why it's a spectator sport...<BR>
<DIV ALIGN="RIGHT"><font style="font-size:12pt">—T'Gor</DIV>
</div>
<div align="center"><font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 18pt;">Chapter 8<BR>
<font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 16pt;">Pass Interference</div>
<font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 14pt;">

As they floated away from Desiray and Bertram, Wren wanted to do a lot worse than bite Cassandra. Not only was she dizzy, she felt humiliated. She knew the air would get let out of her ego eventually—but couldn’t it have been someone besides Cassandra? Vera humbled her every day during training, but she didn’t mind because the G’yaki turned cook was so self-effacing. She still held something of a grudge against the gold mage. Cassandra had forced her to fight Hethanon. She and Desiray came within hairs of dying in that encounter.

Cassandra took them down the street at the speed of a fast run. She kept them well over four paces up, but people scattered out of their path anyway. Fingers were pointed at the gold woman and it was apparent that she was a recognized and feared figure in Ivaneth. The woman didn’t make any overt acknowledgement but continued on, dodging around turns and ducking between buildings. After a good distance, she turned into the shadows of an alley between two large four story buildings and brought them up to hover beneath an overhang.

“What’s the plan?” Arabella asked Cassandra.

“Look for opportunities. Either that or persuade Wren to let us have that gem.”

“Slim chance of that,” Wren grumbled.

They all winced at a crashing sound that echoed through the buildings about a hundred paces away.

“Damn, they must still be trying to get Sindra and Drucilla,” Arabella said, shaking her head. “They’re all crazy. I want to stay as far away from those two as possible.”

“What do you mean?” Cassandra stared at Arabella. “You make music with them. Why would you be afraid of them?”

“Don’t be silly, Cassandra. Sharing some tunes is a little different than matching swords. They’re—well—lethal. They’re fine when they’re happy, but lords help anyone or anything stupid enough to get them angry. Only Luthice is crazy enough to butt heads with those two.”

“Well—Luthice and me,” Wren said, raising a hand. “Sure you want me on your team? I’m certain they’d be glad to thrash both of you to get to me.”

Arabella’s blue eyes widened and she brushed back her flaming red hair. “What in Hades did you do?”

“Ummm, let’s see, punched Sindra through a wall. Made Drucilla almost impale her sister, and knocked both of them through about a dozen warehouse crates.”

You—did that?” Arabella breathed. “You must have a death wish.”

“I take it Desiray helped you,” Cassandra remarked. “You look remarkably unscathed for someone who went at it with those two.”

“We combined our resources, yes. We also didn’t antagonize them without first being threatened. Aarlen was chasing me around with Sen’Gen and decided to send the twins after me to speed the process up.”

“I missed something again. If you mixed it up with them, why aren’t you two prisoners? They obviously didn’t go down.”

“Desiray negotiated with Aarlen to put it off until the end of the game. Sindra and Drucilla were still hacked about the fight and followed us. Aarlen warned them off, but they pressed on after Desiray goaded them. That’s when Aarlen called open season on Sindra.”

“Desiray negotiated?” Cassandra said, black eyes wide. “Now, there’s a first. She really must have been scared.”

“Hey, look those two in the eye and see if you aren’t scared too!” Wren snapped.

“Oh, I guess they’re scary enough,” the gold mage murmured. “What interests me, is how you managed to fight them.”

“Desiray and I did a shape-union. It gave us more power—a lot more actually.”

Cassandra narrowed her eyes. “That’s what grandmother was hinting at.”

“Cassandra, I hate to interrupt your magely muse, but we have a game on, and if we just hang up here hovering, we’re going to get spotted and thumped. Especially, if those two big silver-eyed witches are looking for her.” Arabella indicated Wren with her thumb. “You and I have not trained enough to go clashes with them.”

“Well, I just held up to see if we could persuade Wren to gift us with her gem. I heard she wants Mishaka smacked, I think I’d help with that for a game win.”

Wren snorted. “Oh yeah, the way you helped against Hethanon? I can do without that kind of assistance, thank you. In case you forgot, Jharon is dead because of that bitch.”

“I remember,” Cassandra replied. “Perhaps your memory is short, but I pulled you two out of there.”

“Right. After we got stomped. Your timing stunk.”

Cassandra put hands on hips. “I had no idea you harbored so much ill will toward me over that misadventure.”

Wren let out a breath and pushed a hand through her hair. She glanced around. Hanging in the air made her nervous, especially when there wasn’t any visible means of support. “Dying does that to me.”

“Funny, you don’t look dead.”

“Cassandra, I had the good sense to know I should stay away from that bastard. You pushed me into it, and cranked me up with that fight-happy dagger. That poison was a slow painful way to die. The girl that went into the Brethren guild disintegrated on the table in Jharon’s temple. It’s only because I have a savant’s tao that you could put me in a new body. So, pardon me, if I harbor a little resentment over that misadventure.”

“Oh,” Cassandra frowned. “You know about that.”

“Sure. I know I’m not as bright as everyone else around that house, but I catch on eventually.”

Arabella looked at Cassandra askance. “You did that to her? Sent this baby to fight an avatar?”

“Hey, who’s a baby?” Wren bristled.

“Guilty, I suppose,” Cassandra admitted. “I gave her a star-wand to fight with. It just wasn’t enough.”

“Well, fancy that,” Arabella shook her head. “I don’t blame you, Wren. I’d want to crack her skull too.”

“Hey, thanks, Partner,” Cassandra snapped.

The red-haired woman shook her head. “Don’t you hate it when mages get all high and mighty, and try to run your life?”

“I sure do,” Wren agreed. Maybe this Arabella wasn’t so bad after all.

“They’re always sneaking around trying to make you think down is up, and left is right, feeding you drekked up information to keep you in the dark.”

“Yeah!” Wren growled, thinking about Dorian. “It’s really frelled!”

“Are you two done dumping on magic-users!” Cassandra growled. “Or do I have to let you fall on your pointy little heads?”

Arabella looked down seeming to remember they were twenty paces up. Her cheeks colored. “Oh, sorry, got a little carried away.” She grinned at Wren, with a mischievous twinkle in her blue eyes.

Arabella had a violent temper, but she was fun too, but that made her more human to Wren.

“So, is that a ‘no’, Wren. There’s always a chance that I learned from my mistake last time. Maybe I might even go in with you from the start this time. We mages may be really ‘frelled’ at times,” she shot a dark look at Arabella. “But we can be really handy to have around.” She pointed at the ground. “Like when you need to fly.”

Wren looked down. “You think you could fight Mishaka?”

Cassandra narrowed black eyes. “Well, I wouldn’t stand and let her pummel me with magic, no. I know how Beia beat her and could duplicate that assault if it became necessary. Besides, you’re not limited to me—there’s a good chance I could persuade my husband to come along. I’m fairly certain he could take care of things.”

Wren stared at the gold woman. “You really want to win this game don’t you?”

The mage sniffed. “As a matter of fact—yes.”

“We could start right after the game—within a couple tendays?”

Cassandra drew a breath, glancing around. “That would be acceptable. I would agree to that.”

Wren held out her hand. “All right, Cassandra, you have yourself a game.”

The mage’s dark eyes widened. “Really?”

“Just because I don’t like you, doesn’t mean I can’t trust you—you never lied to me... only bullied me around.”

The woman frowned. “Thanks—I think.”

“The gem is stashed way back in B-6, so I don’t have to tell you it’ll be tough to get.”

“Damn it,” Cassandra murmured. “Sneaking all that way this late in the game is almost impossible. Too many people on the streets. Guess we do a screamer. Where in B-6? What building?”

“It’s an old unused temple with a cracked tower, there’s big green hedge on the east wall.”

“That’s very ironic choice of a hiding place, Wren,” the mage said with a shake of her head.

Nodding, Arabella smiled and pushed a hand through her red hair.

“What?”

“Well, before the paladins and lords smashed that place and killed everyone inside.” Cassandra shook a finger at Wren. “That was a temple of Hecate. That’s why it’s still abandoned. Good clerics won’t build on the defiled ground and the street people think it’s cursed.”

Wren gasped. “The frell you say! Gick!” Her insides twisted. Irony be damned. To think she’d been crawling around in one of that hated witch’s precincts without even knowing it. “Let’s get it out of there then.”

“Directly,” Cassandra agreed. “Wards down. Invisibility up.” The mage spun her staff over her head. Around them a sparks danced around a spherical around them, then the light faded. The three of them wavered in the air as the woman made passes over herself with the staff. With each swing she became progressively harder to see. She went from solid to a faded image, then to a figure of shimmering glass, and on the third swing finally disappearing from view.

“Dorian’s way seems faster,” Wren remarked. “Your method definitely has more style though.”

“Why—thank you!” A voice answered from empty air. The sincerity and enthusiasm in Cassandra’s tone made Wren realize she’d inadvertently paid a high complement.

The mage was chortling as she repeated the process on Arabella. Wren pulled her calf sheath off her leg and strapped it on her left arm. She summoned Dorian’s dagger Vectra and slid it into place. If they were going to mix it up with other players, she needed to be quick on the pull. She wished she hadn’t needed to leave Desiray’s dagger back at the alley. It had been a beautiful weapon.

“You really shouldn’t encourage her,” the red-haired woman said as she went from blurry to glass-like. “She needs a cart to carry her ego as it is.” Wren heard a crack. Just as she faded from view, Arabella jerked putting a hand to the back of her head. “Ow!

“Low bridge,” Cassandra remarked. “Ignore her feeble attempts at humor, Wren. You go right ahead and complement me any time you want.”

Wren rolled her eyes. Mages, great big children with way too much power. In another moment, she was rendered transparent.

“A word of warning ladies,” Wren said. “I might be good for points, but I have only one returning dagger—the one Dorian loaned me. The rest of my throwing daggers are scattered all over the city. One dagger, one throw—if you want more—you have to provide the weapons.”

“Maybe you should take up the bow,” Arabella mumbled. “I have a spare.” Wren felt the air shift near her, and the hilt of a dagger was shoved into her hand. “His name is Quicklick. He’s good to thirty paces then starts tailing left.”

“Quicklick?” Wren chuckled. “I won’t ask. Just think his name and imagine him in my hand, right?”

“Standard dagger of flight,” Arabella agreed.

“Standard?” Wren rumbled. “Since when are magical returning daggers standard?

“Since there were mages who saw the utility of weapon that doesn’t get lost,” Cassandra said. “Here’s my back-up, Azimuth.” Another weapon was shoved into her other hand.

Wren frowned as she realized something. “Can you two see me?”

“Sure,” Arabella answered. “If we couldn’t, we’d frell each other up half the time.”

“I don’t see either—” She felt a sharp rap of knuckles on the top of her head. “Ow! Why’d you do that?” she growled.

“Just blink three times and look,” Cassandra ordered. “Bloody savant. Always have to tweak my spells so they work right on you.”

She did as she was told. Herself, Cassandra and Arabella became perfectly visible again except every few heartbeats they shimmered like a reflection in a pond. She rubbed her head. “Did you have to put a dent in my skull?”

Cassandra shrugged. “You’re just like my hard-headed kids, Wren. Sometimes you simply need a little sense knocked into you.”

She snorted. “The difference is I’m not one of your stone-for-bone children. That hurt. Keep your hard knuckles to yourself in the future, please.”

The mage rolled her eyes and three of them rose higher in the sky above the avenue. “Okay ladies, this is going to be really fast and a little rough.”

Cassandra held her staff out horizontally in front of them and the red-haired woman took hold. Wren wrapped her fists around the iron and wood shaft. She felt her heart speed up. She knew this would be just like the high-speed ride with Dorian.

“On a count of three. One—two—three!

The burst of speed was like being fired out of a catapult. Having a death grip on the staff definitely helped as they arced up into the sky the wind howling in their faces with eye-watering speed.

“Eeee-haaa!” Arabella cheered.

Flying with Dorian had been different. Perhaps the way that the auburn-haired mage had held onto her made it not quite so terrifying. Her chest hurt from controlling the fear. Maybe down deep she still trusted Dorian in ways she had never trusted Cassandra. Dorian never asked her to face danger alone. When the scheming woman put her at risk to test their powers, she had been in the fight with Wren.

Clothes fluttering at a high pitch they peaked out high enough in the sky to see the harbor and the shoals that shielded it from the open ocean. The white and black dots of birds in flight looked like the rise and fall of motes caught in the rays of morning light shining through a window.

Cassandra angled down. Wren could see that she’d picked out the temple that was their destination was making an arrow shot straight toward it.

The jagged lines of the structure grew with dramatic speed. Wren’s heart pounded and it took effort to find her voice. “East side, the tallest tower!”

“Understood,” the mage replied, narrowed dark eyes distorted by the crystal strapped to her face.

“Drop me at the bottom,” Arabella said. “I’ll be decoy. Meet me at C-5 if we get in a mix up.”

The three of them swooped down into the temple courtyard and the red-haired woman let go while still several paces up. She hit the stone, rolled, and came up running sword in hand.

As Cassandra angled up, Wren pointed. “That big crack near the top.”

The mage whipped up to the indicated spot and Wren clambered into the opening. Eyes adjusting to the dimmer light and dusty confines, she glanced up to where she knew she’d hidden the bag.

A jolt went through her body as she noticed the brown color of the leather wasn’t visible behind the cobwebs. Skin icy, savant power snarling in her head, she scrambled up the inner wall to the spot. That wasn’t possible! She’d been certain that no-one had been watching. Even if they had, the hiding place had been nearly perfect.

Pulling away the cobwebs, she reached into the gap and her fears were confirmed. Her hand touched nothing.

“Frell!” She yelled. “Damn it!”

“What’s the matter?” Cassandra called back, voice raised.

The words burned in her throat. “It’s—not—here!

“Whaaat?” Cassandra burst out. “No wait. It must be there, if someone else found it. It would have been announced.”

Wren felt kicked in the stomach. No matter what, the universe somehow managed to conspire against her. “Maybe it wasn’t someone in the game who found it.”

Still hovering, the gold mage peered in through the opening, light reflecting off the crystal lenses shrouding her eyes. “Look harder,” she said, voice distorted in the irregular space. “Maybe it slid or moved.”

She didn’t understand. How could anyone have found it? Even the cobwebs weren’t disturbed. Grinding her teeth, Wren reached deeper into the spot. Her hand found only empty space.

“Damn! It’s—gone!” Frustration and rage fueling her, she drew back her fist and slammed the wall. A flare of blue light erupted from the impact sending a hot shock up her arm.

Cassandra flinched away from the flash. At the same time, the aged masonry cracked and shattered along the support joists. Hunks of stone all the way down the wall broke loose and fell to floor.

Half way down the joists was the leather bag that had somehow shifted and slid down since she had placed it. Face still hot with anger, Wren saw the bag and let out a laugh that hurt like being stabbed with needles.

“Oh lords.”

“What!? What!?” Cassandra yelled.

Wren dropped down and grabbed the backpack. Just to be certain she flipped it open and found the gem still swaddled in the rags she had wrapped it in to keep it safe. Stuffing it back in to the bottom of the pack, she cinched the top tight. Still tingling and breathing hard, she slipped her arms through the straps, shrugged into the pack, then climbed back to the opening. “I got it, let’s go.”

“Don’t scare me like that!” Cassandra snapped, frowning.

She held out her staff and Wren took hold. As she gripped the iron bound wood, she felt the levitation magic take hold and the air seemed to become solid under her feet.

“We have to get out of here in a hurry,” the mage warned. “We’ve been here too long, and that little outburst of yours might have been detected.”

Cassandra angled down into the courtyard where Arabella was standing, sword raised and alert.

Before they reached the ground, Wren heard the shriek of something hissing at them from behind. She grabbed Cassandra around the neck and spun the two of them in the air and threw with her free hand.

“Hey! Acck!” the mage let out.

Barely a pace from them a speeding dagger collided with Wren’s hastily thrown knife and both weapons veered. The spinning weapon passed through Cassandra’s hair, sending parted strands flicking into the air.

Thirty paces away, a big woman with a wild mane of dark-brown hair wearing black chainmail and polished thigh-high riding boots paused in the sky as though surprised. She blinked with brilliant gold eyes. “My my, you are good.”

Down below the street erupted with the sound of clashing blades. A bearded man dressed in gray and wielding a two-handed sword in great spinning arcs pursued a retreating Arabella across the uneven cobbles.

“Oh damn!” Cassandra raised her staff.

Unfortunately, Wren was still holding onto it, so the motion swung her around. “Cass—!”

A dagger appeared in Terra’s hand and she threw. Wren released her own weapon with a gasp. The spinning steel again deflected the attack. She didn’t hesitate but launched her last dagger at woman’s shoulder.

Terra didn’t dodge and in an amazing burst of speed snatched the whirling dagger out of the air. “Oh yes,” the woman crooned. “You are fast. You’ll have to turn it up a notch or two to hit me though.”

“Oh spit! Cassaaandra...” She summoned Vectra and Azimuth to her hand.

**Team clash, B-6. Team D’Shar defeats Felspar. Arabella neutralized. Scores updated. Move logged.**

Wren glanced back and saw the red-haired woman had been backed against the temple wall and that the man had somehow managed to get her even wielding that huge blade.

“Now this should be fun,” Terra said, lacing her fingers and gave them a crack that sounded clear to where Cassandra and Wren hovered. “Me against you two. I can’t see your little blade master helping much while weighing down your staff like that. She obviously can’t fly under her own power, and I’ll thump you before you can even start a spell to make that happen. Yes, yes, fun indeed.” She crept forward, voice low and mesmerizing. “You can’t afford to simply hang around up here either. Pretty soon everyone else will come sniffing after that juicy six hundred point gem that she so masterfully pilfered.” Only a dozen paces away she paused. “I say declare a no-contest and agree to a team split on the score.”

“Like hades,” Cassandra growled. “You haven’t defeated me yet.” She spun around, grabbed Wren by the belt, and flung her toward the temple wall. “Run!

The movement happened so fast Wren barely had enough warning to focus her savant power and cling to the wall. Even as her hands and feet struck the stone and the buzz of her power hummed in her mind, Wren saw Terra’s partner race to a position beneath her, holding up the huge blade. Daggers in her teeth, she scrambled toward the crack in the tower.

“Hey!” She heard yelled below. “Terra, opponent shift!”

Clambering through the hole and across the fragile spars toward the opening at the back, Wren listened for signs of pursuit. Terra seemed too big to possibly squeeze through that opening, but with the powers she’d seen displayed by some of these people, the woman could probably make an opening big enough.

Something loud rasped through the air and exploded outside. The tower shuddered, and objects hissed through the air.

“Moderator!” she heard Cassandra holler. “Unbind proxy Idundaughter!”

**Team Felspar relinquishes control of mortal proxy Idundaughter. Move logged.**

“Dammit! T’Gor! Forget Cassandra, we want the girl!”

Something made a high-pitched whine, then a low roar made the whole temple shudder.

**Team clash, B-6. Team Felspar defeats Karlin. Terra neutralized. Scores updated. Move logged.**

Wren dropped through the opening into the destroyed temple worship area. She hit the ground running, scrambling toward the shattered wall and the hedge at the back she’d encountered before.

Heart hammering she dove through the hole shielding her face from the sting of sharp branches and serrated leaves. Head down she drove through the resistance and plunged into the street. She glanced back, saw no pursuit and raced north.

Didn’t she already do this once before? Where to now? Cassandra released her, but that was obviously to keep Terra’s team from gaining control of her if Cassandra lost. She guessed the best thing was to go where Arabella had mentioned, C-5. Unfortunately, that was near Ranfast’s emporium, and those mercenaries might still be around.

Only quick reflexes brought her up short and caused her to dive backward, hit her hands and handspring back to her feet. Terra’s bearded partner T’Gor shimmered into view, a blur of whirling two-edged glowing steel, blue-eyes narrow, and a crooked smile on his square face. He spun the blade, flipped it to the other hand and whirled toward her like a tornado.

Wren lunged back, dove and rolled, leaped over a blade cut and summoned Azimuth and Vectra to her hands. She ducked a cut and dived at his feet, rolling and slicing. The man laughed, dancing around her swings reversing his great sword with seemingly impossible turns of the wrist and bends of his wiry body.

In the middle of flailing at this agile opponent, bolts of light shot in from a position above him. Blade abruptly aglow, he deflected the magic aside as if he had known it was coming.

Cassandra shimmered into view and dropped down behind him swinging her staff. Wren figured that was her opportunity to press the man while he was involved with a more powerful opponent.

“Good! Good! Bring it to me!” he called in a deep voice, grinning the whole time. He switched the sword from hand to hand, leaping and lunging between the two of them, guarding away Cassandra’s staff and Wren’s dagger cuts with maddening ease. He moved as though simultaneously made of wet cloth and steel, flexing like a reed one moment and hard as iron the next. He used every part of his body, elbows, knees, feet, and shoulders, pushing, blocking, and disrupting everything that came at him.

Wren felt the bruises all down her arms and shoulders from his body blocks. She made a mistake thinking that giant two-handed sword would be a liability up close, only to find tight-in is where he wanted both her and Cassandra. She blocked a grab, swung an elbow at his face, and leaped away as he ducked. Gambling every thing, she twisted in the air and threw both daggers.

Still laughing and using that same maddening flexibility and speed, he spun the sword and knocked the first dagger aside, and twisted to evade the second blade. Cassandra yelped, barely dodging the first blade and deflecting the second.

“Hey! Watch it!”

Yelling in frustration, Wren charged straight at him, leaping as he swung the sword into her path. Her feet came down on his hands, driving the blade into the ground. Pushing off, she launched forward, bringing her knee up under his chin with a crack.

The force rocked him backward off balance so that he fell to the ground with a grunt. She hit the ground, rolled and turned so she stood next to Cassandra. Chest heaving, she faced T’Gor who had righted himself almost instantly. Apparently, she hadn’t struck hard enough to score on him.

**Team clash, B-6. Accumulated clash time exceeded. Proxy Idundaughter and Team Felspar versus D’Shar ends in a draw. Ten bonus points awarded for highlight worthy play. Move freeze on Terra Karlin and Arabella ends. Opponents have thirty count to clear.**

“Damn,” T’Gor muttered, shaking his head. “You’re sharp girl, almost got me. What’s your name?”

“W—Wren,” she managed between gasps for air.

“Well, Wren, look for me,” he grinned and winked. “I’ll be looking for you.”

“T’Gor,” Cassandra said, breathing hard with hands on hips. “Has anyone ever told you, you’re too good natured?”

He bowed. “Anyone ever tell you, you’re too serious? This is a game remember? It’s supposed to be fun.”

“That—” Cassandra gasped. “Wasn’t fun. That hurt.”

The man shrugged. “Train harder! Better run girls, unless you want me to start on you again. I’m not tired, I could do this for at least an bell or so.”

“I’m done!” Wren cried. “Run!”

She turned and sprinted up the street taking the nearest turn that would put her out of sight of the bearded man.

She ducked into an alley and zigzagged through a few more turns. What had happened to Cassandra? Why hadn’t she followed? Certainly, she hadn’t been incapacitated by that exchange. T’Gor had obviously not even been going as hard as he could have. That thought alone made her tremble inside. What kind of people had she fallen in with? She had thought Beia to be a uniquely gifted (cursed?) warrior. However, Tal, Algernon, and now this new man, T’Gor, all possessed such incredible capabilities that if she were asked to tell which was the most dangerous she wouldn’t be able to say. The bearded man was different from the other men in that he didn’t seem to rely on strength the way Tal and Algernon did. He did it with speed, style, and reflexes. A quiet warrior that just smiled and did what he was so obviously good at.

Well, Wren, look for me. I’ll be looking for you.

She couldn’t help but shiver. As smiling and jovial as he seemed, she thanked the lords this was only a competitive game and not blood serious. Smile or not, she had no doubt he was the type that would track his prey to the ends of the realms.

Dodging through ever thickening crowds of people, hawkers, and merchant wagons, she continued to zigzag north-east toward C-5, where Arabella had said she would meet them. The city smells had begun to stiffen with the acrid reek of animals, smoke, and burning garbage. Her arms and shoulders still ached from the pounding she’d received. She couldn’t even blame T’Gor, he never struck her—she hurt her own fool self trying to get inside that defensive maze of iron hard elbows, knees, and shoulders that always managed to interpose themselves. She sighed. Come to think of it, it was the same way when she practiced with Vera. The biggest bruises usually came from getting excited and putting all her muscle behind a kick or punch that she thought would score, only have the attack meet bone.

Practice. She needed practice to get anywhere near as good as these nightmares in human form. How long did Dorian say she’d been adventuring—five decades? She didn’t think she’d live that long, much less get that much practice. All of these people were older than they looked, and amazingly powerful because of their knowledge and experience. She didn’t doubt that Cassandra would be more formidable if her magic wasn’t constrained.

She looked up and realized she’d been moving along the same main avenue without making turns. Most of the alleys had been choked with people and vendors. She wasn’t sure whether the extra cover was worth taking the chance of getting tangled up. The serious danger was that she had the gem with her now. If she lost an exchange, the team would take it away and her negotiating opportunities would be done.

Damn, she wished Cassandra had stayed with her. The invisibility was gone and she was running in the open with nobody watching her back. Ducking around wagons, carriages, carts and horses she watched the sky and the streets around her. She was paralleling the main street where Ranfast’s Emporium lay. She did not want to tangle with those guards again.

<Wren,> she heard in her mind. <This is Desiray. Are you in trouble?>

She sighed and struggled to continue running and focus enough to mindspeak. <I’m always in trouble.>

<That’s what I thought.>

A huge figure materialized in front of her in a rasp a displaced air. She threw her weight backwards, heels stuttering across the cobbles as she attempted to stop out of arms reach.

The dark-haired woman brushed her hair back, silver eyes glinting. “Hello, Wren,” Sindra growled. “I believe we have unfinished business.”

<Correction!> Wren gasped. She tried to make the volume of her thoughts echo the panic she felt. <I have big trouble!>