Chapter Ten: Gathering Forces

Kevin Bartolli sat alone in his meeting room trying to sift through and make sense of the story he'd been told. His mind did not want to accept any of it, and yet there was a strange feeling in his heart that it was true. It left him with few options for moving forward, and all of them were dark for him and those who followed him.

"May I come in?" Mikey asked as she knocked lightly on the door.

"Please," Bartolli said. He watched as the beautiful young woman took a chair across the table from him. This woman was the hardest part of the story to accept for him personally. She claimed that in her world she had been his daughter, and that he had died several years before. The fact of his death didn't bother him so much; a thief lived a nervous sort of life to begin with, so death was something you made friends with or spent your life running away from.

"How are you taking all this?" Mikey asked him quietly. Now that their confrontation was past she treated him as an equal in most things, and showed deference in others. It was as if she truly believed her to be her father. The thought made him smile, in spite of his misgivings.

"It's a wild tale," he said with a wry smile. "Your Melissa would make a master bard I think."

"That's kind of what I thought when we met her," Mikey said, chuckling. "Niall and I had just had a group of Gray's thugs interrupt our drinking. She took care of the one that tried to run by just touching his forehead." She shivered at the memory.

"Have you and Niall been together long?" Bartolli asked. Mikey cocked an eyebrow at the tone of voice in which the questions had been asked.

"We met not long after I became the guild master," she told him. "We became friends almost right away."

"Not lovers?" Bartolli asked in surprise.

"Not likely," Mikey snorted. "He thought I was a man for quite a while. At some point he began to suspect the truth I was hiding. Melissa blew the secret though. She was calling me 'Michaelina' the first time we met. Niall was quite happy to get confirmation that he was falling in love with a woman and not a man." Bartolli laughed with Mikey at the image.

"I can see where that would be something of a relief," he told her.

"I decided for some strange reason I don't really understand to follow Melissa on this quest of hers," Mikey continued. "Niall wouldn't let me go alone, and he insisted on coming with me. The love came along the way for me, especially after Melissa told me to stop grieving for you, or my version of you, so much that I couldn't accept the love of my life. I'm happy that I took that advice."

"So it's serious between you two?"

"Yes," Mikey said simply. "He asked me to be his wife, if you can imagine that."

"No kidding?" Bartolli said, surprised anew by this young woman. "The king marrying a thief, now there's something I never thought I would see. A thief in the royal government, not sure I can believe that."

"Then you've never met the city council," Mikey said, laughing. "Those thieves put us all to shame."

"That's the gods own truth," he agreed. "So what are you planning to do from here?"

"Oh, I don't know," Mikey said offhandedly. "I sort of thought we would drive out the Wraith Army and save the city."

"Just like that?"

"Just like that," she agreed.

"And I suppose, judging from the stories I heard from Melissa, that you will accomplish this all by yourself?"

"Don't be silly," Mikey said. "No one can do that."

"Thought so," he said, snorting laughter.

"My friends will help," Mikey said confidently. "And so will you, and your thieves." Bartolli stopped laughing. He glared at her, trying to see if she was joking.

"Surely you aren't serious," he said.

"Oh yes," Mikey replied earnestly. "I know what this city is supposed to be like. It tears at my heart to see people driven from their homes by a despotic government. It grieves me to know my lord and love was murdered here by treason, which never would have happened had I been here to protect him. And it never would've happened if your thieves had been passing certain bits of information to him."

"Such as?" Bartolli asked her.

"Such as Zavius Gray's alliance with the Wraith Army," she said. "No one in the city would have stood by Gray if they'd known he was the reason the Wraiths came here in the first place. Yet now the demons walk freely in the city and people fear for their lives."

"That's the king's problem, not ours," said the thief master. "Let Gray deal with his allies, and leave us in peace."

"That would be one solution," Mikey told him, "but for one small problem. Gray is dead."

"What!" Bartolli shouted in surprise. "You said nothing about killing the king! You've brought down our doom, woman."

"Calm yourself, daddy," Mikey said. Bartolli started to speak again then stopped, wide-eyed at what she had called him. Mikey laughed before continuing. "I wasn't the one that killed Gray, I just happened upon the truth while I was leaving the palace. There seems to be a new power lurking in the palace, using Gray's name as a shield to hide behind. He's the one we need to defeat in order to remove the demons from the doorstep."

"And, why exactly, should I agree to help with any of this," Bartolli growled, leaning across the table toward Mikey.

"Because a father should always help and support his little girl?" Mikey asked, batting her eyelashes at him outrageously. Bartolli nearly laughed, but reminded himself not to let this woman manipulate him to his death.

"Oh fine," Mikey said, getting serious. "You should help because your thieves are being killed and replaced with shapeshifters. You should help because business is always bad during times of turmoil, because people carefully protect what they value. You should help because they are taking away everything we value!" Mikey's voice had been getting steadily stronger. She rose to her feet, fists on the table, and leaned across to put her face inches from Bartolli's. "If you sit down here clinging to your narrow view of the world, you will soon find you don't have a world left. My father would rather die than lose his freedom. He even worked for the Royal Intelligence office to make sure that Kor Opan remained a place where people could live free under a just king."

"Your father is dead!" Bartolli shouted back in her face.

"I never felt that way until right here and now," Mikey said in a deadly, quiet voice. "Don't force me to challenge you for the guild. I know all your tricks, but you don't know most of mine." They stared into each other's eyes for several minutes, each refusing to blink or back down.

"That is quite enough of that!" Melissa said firmly from the doorway. "There will be no challenges issued or accepted. Michaelina, I need you far too much to risk you getting hurt. Master Bartolli, I thank you for your hospitality, but we will be going now."

"I thought you needed me and my thieves to save the city?" Bartolli asked her.

"Whatever gave you that idea?" Melissa asked in surprise.

"My daughter here said so," he growled, pointing a finger at Mikey angrily.

"Oh that," Mikey said offhandedly to Melissa. "I was just trying to be nice. He's obviously too weak and frail to be of any use to us. I'm sorry Melissa, I know you said not to burden our group with losers that couldn't fight, but he reminded me of my father. At least until I discovered he's a coward."

"Well, see to it you don't make that mistake in the future," Melissa told her with a serious expression.

"What was that you said?!" Bartolli roared into Mikey's face.

"Which part?" Mikey asked calmly. "About you being a coward? Or about your being too old and frail to fight?"

"I fear no man or woman," Bartolli shouted. "And I would fight to the death for freedom, as any thief worth his salt would."

"It must be because the king was killed by a demon that wants to use the city as his personal feeding ground," Mikey said to Melissa.

"You may be right," Melissa answered. "I've seen many otherwise brave men turn into cowards at the sight of a demon. I just find his reluctance odd after seeing a powerful demon killed in his own hall by a mere woman."

"I know, it's quite odd," Mikey agreed. "Oh well, there's nothing to be done for it. Have a nice life hiding down here with the other rats, father. I promise to think of you when you're dead." Mikey stepped away from the table and moved to the door to join Melissa. They turned and started to leave the room.

"Wait," Bartolli said. "I give up, you win. We will aid you. Are you certain we can drive the Wraith out of the city?"

"Absolutely certain," Melissa said.

"Then the thieves will stand with you," Bartolli told them.

"Thank you," Mikey said simply.

"Now go away for a time and let me try and salvage some dignity," he pleaded. "Me, being out-swindled by a pair of women, who would believe it?"

"But you should be proud of Michaelina," Melissa told him. "She's really quite good at it." Mikey smiled at her.

"I'm the best," she said modestly. Melissa laughed and put and arm around Mikey's shoulders as they left the room.

"Why me?" Bartolli asked no one in particular.

*     *     *

"Our biggest problem is the number of shapeshifters in the city. We don't know who they are or how much power they wield," Melissa told the assembled group the next morning. They had gathered to discuss their options for driving out the demons.

"I thought our best idea was for you and Celora to amplify that magic you used to protect Jane's inn?" Mikey asked. "Is there any way we can go back to that idea?"

"I for one love the idea of creating a barrier that protects everyone in the city from demons," Niall said.

"That might just be possible," Celora said. "I have been studying the Emerald Crown since Mikey showed it to us last night. I know now why the demons wanted it so badly."

"What have you learned, Celora?" Melissa asked.

"The crown is a powerful source of spiritual energy," Celora told them. "I think I could draw on it to generate enough power to bless the entire city, the way we blessed the inn before. If Melissa works with me as then, we can cast of warding circle with enough power to drive out or destroy any demon within the walls."

"Then once you cast that circle, we've won?" Niall asked.

"Not completely," Celora told him. "Remember in the inn how the stalker and the possessed rats were destroyed?"

"Yes, I do," Niall said.

"That would not have happened to the demon that Mikey killed last night," Celora said. "It will cause a demon of that level a great deal of pain, perhaps enough to kill it over time, but it will not kill fast enough to avoid a fight."

"Still, it will get rid of all the lesser demons, right?" Cara asked. "That has to be a good thing."

"Yes it is," Celora said, smiling. "It will greatly reduce the number of demons that we must kill."

"And what is the bad news in all this?" Ingvar asked. Mikey noted how Celora and Melissa looked at each other before either replied. They aren't sure this will work after all, she thought.

"It will take time to cast the circle over the entire city," Celora said. "The demons will surely sense what we are doing and mount an attack."

"Celora and I will be vulnerable while we are casting," Melissa said quietly. "It will be up to all of you to protect us during that time. If we are interrupted the circle will be incomplete and we will fail."

"Exactly how much time are we talking about?" Bartolli asked.

"According to Niall, Kor Opan is approximately five miles across at its widest," Celora said. "It will take nearly eight hours to fully protect the city."

"Oh my," Niall said. "That sounds like a long day's work."

"Indeed," Ingvar agreed.

"Where is the best place to do this?" Cara asked.

"It must be near the center of the city," Celora said. "We are creating a circle, so the closer we get to the absolute center of the city, the better this will work."

"And it needs to be a place you can defend for that amount of time," Melissa said.

"Well, as near as I can figure it, the center of the city would be the Broken Temple," Bartolli said. "And it has the benefit of being somewhat defensible."

"Define ‘somewhat defensible' if you please," Ingvar said.

"The temple rises above the surrounding streets on a series of steps," Bartolli explained. "There are stone pedestals at each corner with statues rising from them, or at least there used to be statues. They were broken down when the temple was destroyed long ago and the stone removed. But the pedestals are still there and they block the corners fairly well. You end up with four slopes to defend and lots of stone to hide behind at the top."

"That sounds promising for me," Ronin said. "Do you have any people that can shoot a bow?"

"A few," Bartolli said. "We might be able to prepare some other surprises as well."

"Alright, we'll use that place," Ingvar said. "Niall, why don't we go take a look at this place today and start making some plans."

"Sounds like a good idea to me," Niall agreed.

"We are going to want to bring everyone in from outside the walls," Melissa said. "They will be much safer inside the walls once we start, and they might even be able to help."

"Some of my folk can spread the word," Bartolli assured her. "Once we know when this is happening, they can let folks know and start getting them moving in."

"I think we will want Thomas to bring the packs in, don't you think?" Melissa asked Niall. "He should be here for this fight and the dogs will be a great help."

"I don't feel good about asking it of him after everything he's lost, Melissa," Niall told her doubtfully. "I don't know that he would come."

"He must," she insisted. "I will take care of getting him and Mathilda here on time; you won't have to worry about it. But he will be here."

"Why is it so important?" Niall asked her. "They have suffered enough, why reopen their wounds?"

"I'm afraid I can't describe it now, but it is important," Melissa said firmly. "Trust me, please." Niall made a noncommittal grunt but didn't argue. "Very well, let's get started making our preparations."

Mikey and Niall went with Ingvar to have a look at the Broken Temple. At the last minute, Kevin Bartolli joined them. They left the guild hall by a different route than they had used to enter. Niall began to wonder how many ways there were to enter and leave the guild hall. Knowing what he did of thieves from his time with Mikey, he was fairly certain there were at least a dozen. Once they got out on a street, Niall turned north automatically, heading for the temple district. Bartolli stopped him and instead led them south into the heart of the city.

"So we're going to a temple that isn't in the temple district?" Niall asked.

"No, the Broken Temple isn't in the temple district," Bartolli told them. "As near as I can tell, it was originally on the edge of the old city. But over the years, the city expanded unevenly, and now it stands in the center of the current city. It's been abandoned for hundreds of years, and rumor has it that it's haunted. Add to that the fact that it was looted thoroughly when it collapsed and you have a pile of stone that no one has any business visiting."

"Is it haunted?" Ingvar asked nervously.

"Don't tell me you're superstitious," Niall said to the bigger man.

"Not so much, no," Ingvar replied. "I'm just prudent enough to know that legends sometimes are built around truth."

"Good point," Niall said. "I hadn't thought of it that way. Is the temple haunted?"

"I really don't know," Bartolli answered with a shamefaced grin. "I am a bit superstitious, so I never went in to find out."

A short time later they came out of the narrow street they'd been following and into a wide open space. There was a wide circular street running around the border of the open space, and the center of the space was occupied by the Broken Temple. Mikey saw at once where the name came from; the temple had once stood high on its raised base towering into the sky until it reached a tall dome. But now most of the dome was shattered. The once gleaming white stone had turned a dingy gray like most of the city around it. Mikey thought it odd that an abandoned place wouldn't have more plant life trying to overtake it, but the Broken Temple seemed devoid of all life. Not a good sign, Mikey thought.

They looked around to see if anyone was watching them. There were no people in the open space surrounding the temple. Or, more precisely, those people who entered the space, left it again as soon as they could. As they watched, a couple of workers walked across one edge of the space, their previously booming voices becoming hushed and their glances furtive until they once more crossed out of the space. Mikey and Bartolli exchanged glances.

"Odd," Bartolli told Mikey. She just nodded in response.

"Let's go in closer and walk around the temple," Mikey suggested. Bartolli looked distinctly uncomfortable with the idea, but he obviously couldn't let himself be outdone by a woman. He nodded finally and the four walked out into the sunshine.

As they crossed into the open space, Mikey was sure she felt something touching her skin; it felt like a spider web trailing across her skin. She began hearing the voice soon after she entered the open space. At first it was only a whisper; a sound that she knew held meaning but that was just outside her conscious awareness. As Mikey walked closer to the Broken Temple, the voice became clearer. The fact that no one came near this place helped to make it audible, there were no sounds of other people nearby. The area was vacant but for her and her friends, and the sounds of their footsteps.

…But you aren't supposed to be here, Mikey.

"What did you say?" Mikey asked of the others.

"No one said anything, Mikey," Ingvar replied. Mikey frowned at him as though he were joking with her.

I wished you away so you wouldn't be hurt…

"There it was again," Mikey muttered.

"There what was again?" Niall asked her.

"It's like there's a person talking to me or about me, and I only catch bits and pieces of what he's saying," Mikey answered, shaking her head as though trying to clear the cobwebs.

"Maybe you should take her knives away?" Ingvar said in a loud whisper to Niall. Niall started and then looked fearfully at Mikey. Mikey just laughed.

…and carrying the Ravens here…should not be here either…

"Now I am hearing this voice," Ingvar said. "Except that I have heard the voice before in my dreams." Mikey raised her eyebrows at him.

"Then that is Charlie we're hearing?" Mikey asked him.

"That would be my guess, yes," Ingvar said softly. He looked sad when Mikey gazed at him. Apparently his dreams had carried a lot of emotion, and those feelings had stayed with him even now.

"Think we should keep going?" Mikey asked, stopping and turning to face Ingvar. "Do you think he means any harm to us?"

"I doubt that he does," Ingvar said slowly. "Still, we shouldn't stay long if it upsets him. He is the god of our worlds, after all. Who really knows what he could do without meaning to."

"Agreed," Mikey said. "We'll bring Melissa back before we do too much. I have to believe her presence would comfort his mind." She turned and started walking directly to the temple.

They reached the steps and started to climb. There was no sign of living creatures, nor sound to indicate that they weren't alone. The companions were at once relaxed and feeling secure, and also growing more wary with each step. Mikey found the mixture of feelings odd and kept her eyes moving, scanning for potential danger.

The steps were mostly clear, though here and there were chunks of broken masonry. The temple had once been a beautiful structure with a high soaring dome, supported by tall columns. Some of the columns had fallen outward in whatever cataclysm had broken the place. They lay at odd angles across the steps and nearly blocking the top level once they climbed the steps to look at the ruin within the temple. The inside of the temple was strangely clear of debris, as though the force that destroyed the place had blown outward in a massive explosion. In the center of the temple was a statue of the god that had been worshipped here. The statue was disturbing, and none of them were comfortable looking at it for long. It was of a standing man, his arms raised and hands covering his face. It was a posture of extreme anguish, as though he had been captured while wailing aloud.

"If ever I had my doubts that Charlie needed help," Mikey said, her voice trailing off.

"Aye," Ingvar agreed. "I swear to free you Charlie. You will be whole once more."

…NO, you must not! He won't let you. NO!

The stones beneath their feet gave a strong lurch, causing them all to stagger. When they were able to stand easily once more, they looked at the statue. It was gone! All that remained was the stone base the statue had stood upon. They all looked wildly around the inside of the temple, almost as if they expected to find the statue hiding behind a wall like a child playing hide and seek. It was nowhere to be seen.

"Ok, I think I've seen all I need to see," Bartolli said as he began backing away toward the direction they'd come from.

"Yeah," said Niall. "We ought to be getting back before the others worry." He looked quite pale, but otherwise showed no fear.

"Alright," Mikey said. "Let's leave it up to Melissa whether this place will work for our purposes. She will know what to do, I'm certain of it."

They moved out of the plaza as quickly as they could without looking like they were retreating from anything. No one spoke until they had once more stepped into the full sunshine surrounding the Broken Temple and entered one of the streets leading back to the guild hall. As she stepped across the circular street and back onto the normal pavement once more, Mikey again had the sensation that she was stepping through a boundary. Again, the feeling of cobwebs trailed across her skin. This time, she shivered and glanced back over her shoulder, halfway expecting to see Charlie's statue peeking out over a broken wall. The Broken Temple remained as it had been though; there were no signs of a giant guardian statue hiding anywhere in sight.

When they reached the guild hall they found that Melissa was gone. Celora was involved in preparing for their plan. Cara and Ronin were there and they listened avidly to the report of their scouting trip. "Are you sure that was Charlie?" Cara asked when they had finished telling the tale.

"The statue looked like what I remember from my dreams," Ingvar told her. "And the voice we heard was familiar. Yes, I really think it was him."

"Where has Melissa gotten to?" Mikey asked, speaking what was on all their minds. "She needs to hear all of this, too."

"She went to talk to Thomas," Ronin said. Niall sighed audibly.

"You really are against having Thomas help us, aren't you?" Mikey asked him.

"Yes," Niall said. "I really am against it. I don't want to risk him and the dogs, even though they would make a big difference."

"My love," Mikey said, laying a hand on his cheek. "Melissa wouldn't insist if it wasn't very important. We chose to trust her, so let's trust her in this." He stubbornly wanted to protest, but the touch of her hand and the direct look she gave him pierced his defenses. He sighed again, this time yielding.

"Very well, my lady," he said with a half-smile. "You're right that we did choose to trust her. I keep forgetting that this isn't our own world, and then I start trying to protect the people I love even when they aren't the same people I knew at home." Mikey smiled at him.

"I'm still the same," she said, and then she leaned in close and kissed him lightly.

"No you aren't," Niall said with a smile. "But I like the ways in which you've changed."

"I guess it's about time I used a knife on you again," Mikey said seriously. "You seem to be getting too comfortable." Cara covered her mouth to conceal a smile.

"Why me?" Niall asked, bringing smiles to his friends. He looked at their smiling faces and tried to be irritated, but instead he chuckled. "I'm not sure ‘comfortable' is the word I would choose, my lady. Perhaps ‘madly in love' or ‘contented' would be better descriptions." Mikey smiled back at him.

There was a commotion near the entrance of the guild hall. Mikey and Niall turned to look and found that Melissa had returned with two cloaked and hooded companions. Mikey set a hand on Niall's arm to urge him to be calm. When he looked at her, Mikey nodded and tipped her head toward the newcomers. He turned back to them and saw them lower their hoods. With Melissa were Thomas and Mathilda.

"You!" Bartolli shouted when he saw Mathilda. Mikey noticed that Mathilda tightened her jaw as though preparing for something she had been dreading. Then the older woman lifted her chin and became once more the cool, commanding presence she was familiar with. "What are you doing here?" Bartolli asked, still nearly shouting.

"Hello Kevin," Mathilda answered calmly. "You're looking well for someone who is dead to his own family."

"No, it's my family that is dead to me," he answered in a more moderate tone. "Not the other way round as you would have it."

"I'm confused," said Mikey.

"You aren't the only one, I'm afraid," agreed Niall.

"It's really rather simple, Majesty," Mathilda said as she overheard Niall. "Kevin here was disowned by his living family when he chose the thieves over his duty to the Crown."

"But the Bartollis are all dead in this world except him, aren't they?" Mikey asked. "Well, and me I suppose."

"Not precisely," Mathilda said. "Do you want to tell them or shall I?"

"I guess I'd better," Bartolli said glumly. "There's no telling how garbled the story would be if I let you tell it."

"Huh? What story?" Niall asked in confusion.

"It was a few years ago," Bartolli began with a sigh. "I happened to acquire an interesting document in some new possessions of mine…"

"He robbed someone, found some money and a document," Mikey translated for Niall. Bartolli looked offended but continued.

"This document told of an interesting business arrangement between a certain wealthy merchant and a foreign power," Bartolli said.

"And he thinks I would garble the story," Mathilda said wryly. "Kevin found a document linking Gray with the Wraith Army well before our king was murdered. I found out about it and tried to persuade him to tell the king, but he refused. He seemed to think that it was the king's problem and wouldn't affect the thieves. He also thought that it would be unwise to work with the Intelligence office. As a result, our king was driven out of the city and murdered, and Gray became king."

"So how does that relate to family being disowned?" Mikey asked.

"When Kevin refused my request, I disowned him," Mathilda said.

"What she means to say is that I disowned her," Bartolli added sharply.

"You two are family? You're a Bartolli?" Mikey asked in wonder.

"Kevin is my younger brother, yes," Mathilda said as though she were admitting a deeply held shame.

"That explains a few things," Mikey said with a broad smile. She walked over and hugged Mathilda, "Auntie." Mathilda looked startled but then hugged Mikey back.

"With my brother's rise to fame in the Guild, I couldn't very well use the family name," Mathilda explained. "I was already in service to the Crown and it might have reflected poorly."

"Why didn't you tell me, Niall?" Mikey asked. Niall just kept on looking confused.

"He didn't know," Mathilda said. "I stopped using the name before he was born. I was always just Mathilda to Niall."

"So you served Niall's father, then?" Mikey asked.

"Yes, and then Niall after his father died," she agreed. Mikey began having suspicions about other relationships right about then, remembering an older discussion about who Thomas's father might be. She didn't say anything then, not wanting to share potentially dangerous ideas in front of the thieves. Mikey glanced at Melissa and found the woman smiling at her. What did I do? Mikey thought. Why is she looking at me like that?

"Lady Melissa tells me you wanted to leave me out of the fight, my liege," Thomas said quietly to Niall as he approached. "I'm here to fight, whatever the cost. There are still people in the city worth fighting for." Niall frowned at him for a long moment before replying.

"I only wanted to spare you, my friend," Niall said at last. "I swear I never meant to give offense."

"You were right to question me, lord," Thomas said. "I had lost sight of many things over the past year. Melissa helped me to understand my obligation."

"There are few men I would rather have at my side in a fight, Thomas," Niall said, clapping a hand on the Hunt Master's shoulder. "Please forgive my reservations." Thomas nodded and then gave a half smile.

"The dogs will join us when we start tomorrow," Thomas said. "I thought it best to hide them outside the city for tonight. They'll come when I call them, though."

"That will be a welcome aid," Niall said. "Although it might scare many people half to death when they come running in."

"From what I've heard, the people in the outer city have seen worse than the dogs," Thomas said with a serious expression. "In any case, from what Melissa described, there will be plenty of other things to worry about once we begin."

"That's for certain," Niall said.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a flurry for the companions as they readied themselves for the coming battle. Thieves were coming and going constantly as Mikey and Bartolli sent them on errands to alert key people. They decided to simply tell the people to gather at the Broken Temple the following day at noon, rather than trying to explain the battle and what it might mean for the city. They were all concerned that the Wraiths might learn of their plans and attack before they could be ready to defend Melissa and Celora.

Ingvar suggested at one point that they should retrieve their horses and gear from Jane's inn, and bring Jane and her staff in at the same time. There was some debate about the need to move them at all, since the inn was protected by its own blessing. Finally they decided to alert Jane and give her the option.

"Our gear and horses will be safer there than here," Mikey said. "If I understood Celora and Melissa correctly, only the largest demons would be able to cross that line and give them trouble. And those demons will be most likely focused on stopping us once we get started, right?"

"Yes, that's true," Melissa said. "Perhaps Jane could offer safe harbor to some of the children and weaker citizens outside the walls?"

"That would be an excellent idea, Melissa," Mikey said brightly. "I was worrying about how to get them inside the temple."

"We can go and talk with her and be back after dark tonight," Niall offered. He stood up and held Mikey's chair as she joined him.

"Need any help?" Ronin asked. "I'm just sitting here, and not really contributing anything."

"You're welcome to come along, but I think we can handle everything just fine if you want to stay," Mikey told him.

"I feel like I need to stretch my legs a bit if it's all the same to you two," Ronin said with a smile. "I promise not to watch while you smooch." Mikey laughed and Niall blushed.

"Come along then," Mikey said. "Let's go and see Jane."

They left the guild hall with Sapphire tagging along like a black shadow. They were watching carefully for signs that they were being watched, but the immediate vicinity seemed clear of spies. The streets were still lit by the afternoon sun. People were passing on their way to or from their business about the city. No one paid any attention to the companions as they walked casually toward the eastern gate and Jane's inn. Mikey's practiced eye noted that few people had more than a couple coins in their purses. She frowned at the state of these people's lives compared to what she knew.

They saw a pair of guards coming toward them along the street. Sapphire seemed to read Mikey's mind and went gamboling off toward the guards. The black dog capered around the two men and they turned this way and that trying to follow her antics. Mikey ran up toward the guards as if she were embarrassed by her dog's behavior.

"I am so sorry, kind sirs," Mikey said obsequiously. "You naughty girl, come here at once and don't bother these good men." Sapphire looked at Mikey and the hung her head and came to lean against Mikey's leg. "My apologies, sirs."

"Keep that mutt under control, wench," the shorter guard said threateningly.

"Oh leave her be, Jaff," the taller guard said with a half smile. "The dog's just being playful. No harm done."

"Thankee, sirs, we won't be no bother," Mikey said, keeping a firm hand on Sapphire's collar as the two guards went along their way again.

"What was that all about?" Ronin asked once the guards were out of earshot.

"I thought it would be nice if they paid for a couple rounds of drinks and some dinner," Mikey said with a smile.

"How's that?" Ronin asked. Mikey smiled and bounced a couple of small leather purses in her hand. From the sound, Ronin figured there were quite a few coins in each one. Ronin laughed. "I won't object to a tankard of that ale Jane serves, and perhaps a bite to eat. I already owe her for looking after Bob while I've been gone."

"Well, it seems only fair," said Mikey. "The guards have been shaking down the citizens, and we're shaking down the guards. Then we buy what we want from the citizens and they get their money back."

"Yes, but they're still getting the short end of the deal," Niall said quietly. Mikey's smile faded as she nodded.

"But we're doing what we can for them," Mikey said. "Soon they will be free again and we'll be moving on to our next challenge."

"Let's just focus on what needs to be done here, my love," Niall told her. "There will be time for what comes after once we're done here." Mikey nodded without saying anything further. By this time tomorrow, it will be done, she thought. One way or the other.

A short time later they were walking out through the eastern gate of the city. As usual, there were several guards loitering around the gate watching the people passing. Mikey felt a little shiver run up her spine as they passed, and fought not to show any discomfort. Sapphire growled softly but didn't turn around.

"You felt it too, girl?" Mikey asked softly. Sapphire didn't answer.

"Yeah, felt like someone was walking on my grave," Niall said. Mikey looked sharply over at him.

"Please don't say things like that," she told him. "I have a lot invested in you now, and I never want to lose you." Niall smiled broadly at her and took her hand in his as they continued on.

"I think we picked up a tail back there," Ronin said softly. Mikey resisted the urge to turn and look back.

"Think it's a demon?" Niall asked him.

"Really not sure, but I think it might explain the feeling that gave Mikey the willies back there," Ronin said.

"You two go on ahead to the inn," Mikey said with a sly grin. "I want to try something."

"Yell if you need help," Niall said with an answering grin. The two men walked on ahead toward the inn. Sapphire stood looking at Mikey.

"You too, little one," Mikey said. "I won't be long." The black dog trotted on after Niall, and within seconds they reached the inn and went up the steps and inside.

Mikey looked around as if searching for something. She didn't see the follower directly, but she did manage to catch sight of a shadow slipping behind a stack of crates farther back along the way they'd come from the gate. She stooped and picked up a rock about half the size of her palm. She straightened suddenly and sent the rock flying at the crates. The rock flew true and bounced off the wall and ricocheted behind the crates to smack something soft. There was a startled yelp from the crates and then silence. Mikey had the feeling once more that she was being watched by something that hated her.

She then did one of the most immature things she could think of. Mikey stuck her thumbs in her ears, waggled her fingers at the watcher behind the crates, and stuck her tongue out in a long raspberry. Then the thief turned and ran for the inn. Mikey hadn't taken more than two steps before she heard something crash through the crates and then come pounding up the dusty road in pursuit. She spared one glance over her shoulder and saw what looked at first like a city guard, but then began transforming into something reptilian. She turned forward and ran a little slower. She wanted the beast to think it was going to catch her at the inn, and didn't want it to think about anything else.

Mikey could almost feel the hot breath of the stalker on her neck as she bounded up the steps of the inn and inside the common room. There was a flash of light directly behind her accompanied by a piercing scream as the stalker crossed the blessing line the protected the inn. Mikey turned along with the other people in the common room to see the stalker burst into golden flame and vanish as it tried to enter the room. Mikey bent over to catch her breath, shaking with laughter.

"Well, we know the blessing still works," Ronin said laconically.

Niall was standing nearby looking from the now empty doorway to Mikey and shaking his head. "You are one crazy woman," he said wonderingly.

"Oh, that made me feel much better," Mikey said when she could breathe normally again.

"You certainly know how to make an entrance, Mikey," Jane said from just behind Niall. "Maybe I should bill you out as entertainment." Several people in the room laughed and applauded Mikey's entrance. Mikey bowed with a flourish.

"Thank you, I'll be here all week," she said. Sapphire came over and leaned against Mikey, almost knocking her over. The dog had her tongue lolling out as if laughing in approval of Mikey's idea. Mikey leaned down and massaged Sapphire's ears and neck. As she stood once more, the dog wandered over to the fireplace to sniff noses with Bob and join him in the warmth. As she watched the two canines greeting each other, Mikey was struck by the fact that their relative size had reversed. When they started their journey, the white wolf had been larger than Sapphire. Now, though, Sapphire was slightly larger than Bob. She's growing fast, thought Mikey.

Niall led the way over to their favorite table near the kitchen and Mikey followed. Ronin went over to greet Bob and check on him before coming to join them. One of the kitchen girls brought a round of ale tankards and took their orders for food. They all drank gratefully, washing away the dust. Jane came to sit at the table with them.

"It looks as though business is better, Jane," Mikey said with a smile, which Jane returned.

"Aye, it has been since folks have been quietly learning about the blessing," Jane said. "I owe you all much, but I owe your priestess the most."

"Well, here is a little bit of money to help with what we owe you," Mikey said as she slid the two leather purses toward Jane. Jane hefted them thoughtfully.

"You don't owe me anything, Mikey. None of you do," Jane told her.

"Oh come now, Jane," Ronin said with a chuckle. "I know full well how much Bob can eat when he's settled in a homey like he is here."

"Well, he has been getting mothered a bit," Jane admitted. "But this feels like quite a bit more than what would be fair."

"Then please take it and spread it out where it can do some good," Niall said quietly. "I'm certain you know of a few that can use it well."

"Yes, that I will do," Jane said, smiling. The purses disappeared into her apron and nothing more was said of them. "So tell me what you've been up to. There have been thieves running throughout the poor town all afternoon, and people are getting ready for something."

"Is it that obvious?" Niall said.

"Only if you know what to look for," Jane replied. "Don't worry too much, no one's come nosing around here looking for trouble; at least, not until Mikey pulled her little stunt a while ago."

"I was only having a little fun," Mikey said with a pout. Jane laughed out loud at that and Mikey smiled at her.

"Oh, it was worth it lass, don't apologize," Jane said. "Although, you did cause a bit of work for my girls when you left that pile of ash on the threshold to sweep up."

"Oh that," Mikey sniffed. "I'm sure once Dobby here gets to telling stories, there'll be enough wind to blow that ash right out the door." Ronin roared with laughter, while Niall looked offended.

"Sorry, lad," Ronin apologized. "But you have to admit, that was funny."

"Why me?" Niall asked. Mikey chuckled and leaned closer against him. He kept up the sulking for another minute or so before he gave in and put an arm around her.

"We're going to do something about all the problems in the city, Jane. You have a choice to make," Mikey told the bigger woman.

"What kind of choice?" Jane asked her.

"We're trying to get folks to join us at the Broken Temple tomorrow at noon," Niall said. "You can choose to join us there or to stay here where you can be safe."

"We can join the fight," Jane said fiercely. "Or at least, I assume there will be a fight. With you folks, I doubt things will change peacefully." Mikey grinned at her.

"There may be a fight here, too. Don't be too quick to leap into danger," Mikey told her. "We were thinking it might be best to gather the children here with a few folks to protect them. Those who are too weak or old to fight should come here as well."

"I see your point," Jane said slowly. "Will the blessing be enough to protect us here?"

"Yes, unless one of the greater demons should try to enter," Niall said. "We're fairly certain they will be busy with us at the temple, but we can't be sure. There could be danger here, but it could also be the best way to protect the children. That's why it is a choice for you and yours to make."

"You'd never get the children through the city quickly, and they would be a problem if there's a battle," said Jane as she pondered what they were telling her. "I don't really see that we have much of a choice. Bring them here and we'll do the best we can."

"Thank you Jane," Niall said simply. Mikey reached across the table and handed one of her daggers to Jane. Jane looked at the weapon, puzzled.

"Just in case something makes it inside, that may keep it at bay," Mikey said. Jane nodded and then slipped the dagger in her apron.

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Jane said. "We'll protect the ones who need it, and just keep our heads down."