Chapter Two: A Bitter Homecoming

The royal estate was a charred wasteland. Mikey stared in stunned disbelief, and Niall nearly wept at the devastation. The grounds were recovering after a year, but many of the large trees near the manor house had been burnt to stumps. Here and there, they could still see bones peeking through the weeds; most likely the remains of the fallen guards, thought Mikey. It shocked Mikey to think that Gray's men had been so cruel as to kill those men and just leave them lie for the scavengers. She rode close to Niall and laid her hand on his arm. He looked at her and she saw the depth of his sorrow and his anger.

"Are you going to be alright, you two?" Melissa asked from behind them.

"Yes, I think so," answered Mikey.

"These men did nothing wrong," said Niall in a tightly controlled voice. "They only tried to protect their king. They served in honor and fealty. They deserved much better than this."

"I am very sorry my lord," Thomas said. "There was no way to bury them. Gray's men were here for months after the fires died. In fact, we had best not be in the open here for long, for they still keep watch at times."

"Aye. Mikey and I will continue on to the city now, then. Ingvar and Cara, you'll follow tomorrow?" Niall asked them.

"Yes, we'll be on the road early," Ingvar said quietly. He felt a great deal of sympathy for what Niall was going through. He found it disturbingly easy to place himself in Niall's shoes. It's easy to think of Niall as a soft city-man, Ingvar thought. But there is steel beneath that surface and a dedication to his people that I would be hard pressed to match.

"And Celora, Ronin, and myself will start out the following morning if things go as planned," Melissa said. "And then when we know what we are doing and when, I'll be back for Thomas and Mathilda."

"Just be careful, all of you," said Mikey with a sad smile. "And we will see you soon." Niall didn't speak, just nodded to the rest of the group and kicked his horse to start off toward the trade road. Mikey leaned over to embrace Cara and then Melissa. Then she too urged her horse off in a trot to catch up to Niall.

"May the Light guide you both and keep you safe," Celora murmured as the two departed.

*     *     *

Niall and Mikey rode easily, playing the part of adventurers that had been on the road a long time. They were hesitant to reach the city, and at the same time their eagerness for home pulled them onward. It was a strange feeling for Mikey. She felt that she was coming home to the only home she had ever known, and yet even from a distance they could tell the city had changed from what they knew. The domes and towers had a dingy look as though they had been smudged by soot and dust. Kor Opan was no longer the shining city they had left. The people they passed on the trade road kept to themselves, clearly unwilling to talk with strangers. Mikey thought that was a bit odd.

Another change was the frequent patrols of guards wearing Gray's black and white colors, which seemed to pass them on the road several times an hour. They were still nearly two hours from the city when they were stopped by one of the patrols and questioned. Mikey tensed until she realized there was no way these guards could know anything about her. She smiled at the corporal who was asking the questions, and saw him glance shyly at her and smile in return. Niall looked askance at Mikey and then continued answering the questions of the corporal.

After a few minutes, the guards seemed satisfied that they were merely travellers on the road and eager to reach the city and find a place to get some well-deserved rest. Mikey was mildly surprised when the corporal recommended the Pig's Bristle as a good, quiet place to stay. Jane's inn had always been a fun place to drink and eat, but Mikey had never thought of it as a good quiet place to stay. She began to feel very curious about the changes they would find.

"Are you weary of me already?" Niall asked as the rode on.

"Not really," Mikey answered. "Why do you ask?"

"You were flirting with that guard," Niall answered. "So I thought that perhaps you were tired of me." Mikey laughed at him.

"I had no intention of flirting with anyone, you ninny. I was just realizing that I don't have to worry about them recognizing me," Mikey told him with a broad smile. "The thought of the city being a blank canvas for me to paint upon makes me very happy." Niall gave her a small quirky smile. It's a shadow of his normal smile, Mikey thought. But it's a start.

They rode on toward the city, unmolested by further guard patrols. They came into sight of the city walls and found them partially concealed by a shanty town. There were muddy streets running off to the north and south of the gates, with crowded shacks and the occasional two story wooden building. Niall's mouth hung open as he beheld the first visible difference brought by Gray's reign.

"Are you trying to catch flies, Dobb?" Mikey asked him. Niall snapped his mouth shut, looked at her in irritation, and then went back to gaping at the slum town.

"How could Gray have let this happen? Why aren't these people able to find homes within the walls like they always have?"

"Taxes, that's why," said a man on the steps of one of the rare two story buildings.

"Do you pay a lot of taxes, then?" Mikey asked the man.

"We've always complained about our taxes, missy," he said with a chuckle. "But with our new king, they just keep inventing new ways to take our money."

"Jeb, you keep your mouth shut, you hear?" A woman said as she came out on the steps near the man. She must be his wife, Mikey thought. "We don't need the guards giving us any trouble again."

"That's the truth, Ma, no doubt about it," he said. "They even try to put taxes on truth sometimes," he told them with a wry grin.

"Tell me, Jeb," Mikey said to the man. "Is this your business here?"

"No, we just happen to be lucky enough to work here," he told Mikey. "My wife and I work for the innkeeper, helping in the kitchen and serving when needed."

"Perhaps we could come in and buy some ale to rid ourselves of several days' worth of road dust, and perhaps learn about what's been happening in your city," Mikey said.

"I think we can help you with that, Lady," said Jeb. "How about I take your horses around the back to the stable while you follow my wife Kate inside and make yourselves comfortable?"

"Well, Jeb," Niall said. "I think that sounds quite welcome indeed. Thank you." They dismounted and Jeb took the reins and led the horses around the corner of the shabby building. Niall waved Mikey to precede him into the building after Kate. The inn wasn't too bad, considering its ramshackle appearance from the outside. There was a fairly nice taproom with a few patrons in the middle of the day, the sign of a decent establishment in Mikey's experience. The maroon curtains at the windows betrayed a woman's touch, but it was the battered old inn sign hung behind the bar that caused both Mikey and Niall to pause as they entered. It was the sign from the old Pig's Bristle inn, where they'd spent so much time. Mikey looked around the room quickly and saw her old friend polishing mugs with a towel behind the bar near the kitchen door.

"Jane! Look Dobb, it's Jane!" Mikey exclaimed with an elbow to Niall's ribs.

"Jane my lady love, where's my kiss?" Niall called loudly. Jane looked up, startled. She saw Niall and all of the blood drained from her face, she dropped the mug she'd been cleaning, the shattering mug sending bits of pottery flying across the room.

"But you're dead," she said weakly, her knees beginning to buckle. Mikey was closer and ran to catch the bigger woman before she could fall. She guided Jane to a nearby chair and then poured her a mug of ale. Jane smiled up at Mikey as she took the mug and then drained it in one draught. "Be a dear, sweetie and bring me another?" Jane said to Mikey.

"Dobb isn't quite so easy to kill, Jane," Mikey told her.

"And you," Jane said softly. "I keep thinking I should know you. Yet at the same time I know I've never met you before. Isn't that strange?"

"I have that kind of face," Mikey said with a smile. If I don't exist here, how can she recognize me? Mikey thought. I wonder if we bring some hints of our reality with us? Maybe it hangs about our shoulders like a cloak. If that's the case, I had better be careful even though no one should know me here.

"With that short hair and wearing man's clothing, I'm surprised you caught Dobby's eye," Jane told her. "But from the way he hovers so close to you, it's plain you have. What's your name, lass?"

"Folks call me Mikey," she said. "I'm pleased to meet you."

"Dobby here used to come in to my inn when I had the Pig's Bristle in the trade district. I had someone tell me you were the king in disguise," Jane said. "That was when the old king was killed, defying the new king, or so they say. I cried that day, though, for King Niall was good to us."

"You cried for me? You?" Niall said in surprise. "I'm touched."

"No, not you, you scruffy lay-about," Jane said, swatting him with the towel she still held. "I cried for the king. Nowadays I just cry for all of us who try to make a living. Kor Opan isn't the shining city she once was."

"Kate, could we possibly get some food and some ale? Whatever's ready to eat will be fine." Mikey said.

"Yes, ma'am, set yourself down at one of the tables and I'll be right back," said Kate before she scurried off to the kitchen.

"Can we trust Jeb and Kate, Jane?" Mikey asked quietly.

"They're loyal to me, if that's what you're asking," Jane answered. "I have no fear that they will bring the king's men down on us here."

"They've been with you a while?" Niall asked.

"Long enough," Jane answered. "They came to me just after the king was killed, when things began getting tough for those of us with businesses in the city. I took them on so they wouldn't be without a home when their own shop was taken. And then when I was taxed out of the Pig's Bristle in the Trade District, Jeb and Kate helped me build this place. I'm not permitted to hang my sign out here, since the king has given someone else my business in the Trade District and they get the benefit of the name I built."

"So just why did things get so bad?" Mikey asked.

"Well, they didn't at first," Jane told them. "At first, when the Wraiths were camped on our doorstep, Gray seemed to have everything under control. He made promises like a pretty boy talking the skirt off a tavern girl. Oh we would all be cared for, whenever we were sick and needed care; they would take care of everyone. He would see that our children all received an education. And my personal favorite, that everyone would share in the wealth and success of the city."

"But how did he plan to pay for all of that?" Niall asked doubtfully. "There is no way that the treasury could have supported that kind of spending."

"He said that by sharing the wealth we would all share the benefits," Jane said spitefully. "Our taxes went up every time we turned around. It appears that his idea of sharing the wealth meant that we would share our wealth with him. When we complained, people started disappearing. It didn't take long to realize that the only way we would survive was to move out of the city. And so here I am."

"I'm glad you're safe," said Niall. "And I'm glad you found a way to help others, Jane." Jane just sat and looked at him for a few minutes, and then at last she smiled.

"You're a good man, Dobb," Jane said. "Mikey, I hope you have a good leash for this one. Don't let him wander too far."

"No ma'am," Mikey replied calmly while Niall spluttered. "We're already working on commands like 'heel' and 'stay,' he's doing fairly well." The women laughed, while Niall sulked.

"Jane, do people have any problems entering and leaving the city?" Mikey asked.

"You might, until you have your papers," Jane told her. "But once you do you should be able to come and go as you please, except for the occasional shakedown of course."

"Papers? What's that?" Mikey asked. Jane fished a small packet of paper from a pocket in her skirt and handed it to Mikey. Niall leaned closer to read over her shoulder. The piece of paper featured the crest of Kor Opan above small handwriting that gave Jane's name and heritage, and described her business in the city.

"The king requires that all citizens carry these at all times, and the guards are liable to stop you and ask for them whenever they feel like it," Jane said. "If you can't produce them fast enough when asked, the guards use that as an invitation for whatever pleasure they might find in you. It can get ugly at times, and no sane woman walks alone anymore."

"How do we go about getting our papers so we can enter and leave?" Niall asked.

"Ask at the guard house at the main gate when you enter," Jane said. "They will tell you what you need. Be prepared to offer them a bribe to make everything happen smoothly. Otherwise, the process can be quite unpleasant."

"The guards are asking for bribes?" Niall was outraged.

"Oh no honey, they never ask for bribes," Jane told him. "They demand them."

Kate returned with their food and a pair of chilled mugs of ale, setting them down quietly. "Kate, why don't you set our friends up with the big room over the street? Is one room alright?" Jane asked.

"Well…" Niall said as he looked over at Mikey.

"One room will be just fine," Mikey said with a smile. Niall blushed and then smiled at Mikey. Jane looked at him speculatively.

"Definitely keep this one on a short leash," Jane said. Mikey laughed again and then turned her attention to the food. Jane excused herself and went back to the business of running the inn. Mikey and Niall sat quietly at the table and ate, listening to the muted conversations in the room. Mikey noted that the patrons clearly kept to themselves, or spoke only to people they knew. This was contrary to the taproom of most inns she had ever visited, and certainly different from the Pig's Bristle that she remembered.

A pair of guards sauntered in the front door and paused to look around the room. Mikey noticed that several of the patrons hurriedly finished their ale and scurried out past the guards, doffing their caps as they passed. The two guards made a show of noticing Mikey and Niall and then came directly to their table.

"Greetings, citizens," said the shorter guard.

"Greetings yourself, but we aren't citizens of your fine city," Niall replied cheerfully.

"We're travellers, you see," Mikey added. "We've never been here before and wanted to stop and have a bite to eat and a couple tankards to wash away the dust."

"Oh, I apologize ma'am," the guard said. "I had mistaken you for a man from the back. Please let your husband respond, this would be man's business." Niall almost chuckled, thinking of how Mikey would handle this and how many knives she would use in the process, but she surprised him.

"Oh certainly yer guardship, I meant no offense surely," Mikey said with a folksy accent. "It's just that my man here is kinda simple, so I have to talk for both of us sometimes."

"I see," the guard said. His companion, taller and more muscular, leaned closer to appear more intimidating. "And do you have the proper permits to be here in our fair city, ma'am?"

"I think that's rather unlikely since we've just arrived not more than fifteen minutes ago," Mikey said. "Say, perhaps you can help us with that. Can you and your tiny little friend here direct us to the office where we apply for the proper permits? I would be ever so grateful." The taller guard looked startled, apparently he'd never been referred to as tiny before, but the shorter guard smiled in spite of his officious manner.

"Of course we can, you can apply for the permits at the guard's office at the main gate," he said. "I suggest you and your man here present yourself at the office just as soon as possible. I'd hate to think what might happen if you were to neglect your permits."

"Golly, you're right," Mikey said with wide eyes. "I can't imagine what would happen either, thank you so much for the help."

"Very well, good day citi… er, travellers." The guards stood there another minute as Mikey and Niall went back to their meals and pointedly ignored them. Finally, after a moment of awkward silence, the guards turned and left.

"Simple?" Niall asked when they'd gone.

"You're a man, aren't you?" Mikey said with a straight face. "There you go. Simple." Jane walked up to the table, chuckling.

"Nicely handled Mikey," she said quietly so other remaining patrons wouldn't hear. "I was expecting them to haul you both out of here for questioning. Obviously one country woman and her 'simple' man aren't a threat."

"Does that happen very often?" Niall asked, choosing to overlook the fact they were still making fun of him. Jane sighed and then sat down at their table.

"Too often," she said. "You noticed, no doubt, how some of my patrons fled as soon as the guards came in?" Mikey and Niall nodded. "No one wants to get caught up in someone else's problem with the guards. Newcomers are easy prey since they can't call on anyone for help."

"And what happens around here if they bother someone who can call someone for help?" Mikey asked.

"Then they usually find the guard's body in a dark alley, with no witnesses," said Jane with a wink. "Not that I would ever hold with such violence or goings on, you understand."

"If you're finished my love," Niall said to Mikey. "I think we should go pay the guards a visit."

"If they let you go, come on back and we'll get you settled in your room," Jane said.

"If they let us go?" Mikey asked, startled. "How likely is it they'll hold us?"

"It's a strong possibility, dear. I've never learned how to predict when they'll do anything unfortunately," Jane told them. "Guards are about as smart as an idiot sheep. But they do have a lot of authority to throw around, and there are a lot of them. Be careful not to offend them."

"Perhaps we'd better leave our horses here and walk in?" Niall asked Mikey.

"Aye, let's do that," she answered. "Jane thank you for the meal and the company. This should cover the expense of keeping our horses, I hope." Mikey handed Jane a small gold coin.

"In the city, this will buy you a single day's keep," Jane warned her. "But in my inn, this will keep them happy for a week."

"I guess I'd better obtain more gold," Mikey said in surprise. "Legally, of course," she said looking askance at Jane. Jane looked innocently back at Mikey.

"As long as you leave my friends and customers alone, dear, I won't have any objections what you do or to whom you do it." The two women smiled at each other.

"Heel Dobby, good boy, let's go for a walk," Mikey said as she started walking to the front door. Niall just stood there glaring at her for a minute. Jane howled with laughter.

"Gee, thanks Jane," he said and then stomped off after Mikey. He could hear Jane laughing as he walked up the street after Mikey.

*     *     *

They headed toward the city gates from the front of Jane's inn. Mikey noticed that the only people near the guard's office were the guards themselves. As she watched, she saw several people stop and then walk to the far said of the road as it passed near the office, just to put as much distance between themselves and the lounging guards. Mikey thought she recognized one of the guards near the office as a thief in her guild. She walked up to another guard near the man she recognized, while flashing a complicated sign with her fingers.

"Excuse me sir, is this the place where travellers can apply for permits to enter and leave the city?" Mikey said fawningly. Niall remembered to act simple minded, and just dropped his mouth open and stared around at the sights and sounds of the guards as innocently as he could. He was honestly so amazed at the changes, that staring was easy. Pretending not to be angry at what he saw was proving to be a greater challenge.

"Yeah this is the place, missy," the man responded, looking her slowly up and back down before meeting her eyes. Mikey felt her skin crawl as the man ogled her and wished she were disguised again. Niall just stared stupidly. "Maybe your fella here can find something to occupy himself while you and I talk about your fee."

"That won't be necessary corporal," said the guard that Mikey had recognized. "I will take care of these two myself." He was looking coldly at Mikey and Niall. The first guard stood up quickly, however, and saluted.

"Yes, sergeant," he said sharply. The guard wandered off, clearly disappointed to lose out on his entertainment.

"Carry on," the sergeant said to the guard. "I'm Sergeant Kelly, if you will come with me please?" He led them into the office building and to a separate room. As Niall followed Mikey into the room, Sergeant Kelly closed the door behind them. "Alright, you've earned yourself a private hearing. That's about the best I can do for you without knowing more."

"Do you acknowledge thief's sanctuary?" Mikey asked him.

"I will honor it far enough to let you walk out of here unharmed," Kelly answered. "More than that I cannot promise."

"Fair enough," Mikey said. "We're brethren from Whiteford. We needed to take our leave from that town for a while, and thought we would try our luck here in Kor Opan."

"Whiteford, eh? Who is your guild master?"

"The Shark, though his mother calls him Billy," Mikey said with a smile.

"Anyone could know that," Kelly said, squinting his eyes.

"Even the part about his mother calling him Billy?" Mikey said. "Not a chance, only his senior thieves know that part. He's very sensitive about his mother and doesn't like to be called Billy." Kelly laughed.

"OK, I'll buy that you are who you claim to be," Kelly told them. "You'll need to stop in to see the guild master to get permission to set up shop inside the city. Outside the walls, you're on your own. Find the Blue Dog Inn near the river on the west side of town, and give the recognition sign there. Someone will meet you and take you down to the guild hall."

"Thanks my friend," Mikey said. "What about our city permits? I heard we have to have papers to go in and out."

"True, that will be five crowns each."

"Five! Even for dear brethren of the guild?" Mikey asked in shock.

"Yep, and that's just for the real papers," Kelly told them. "You'll want to buy some alternate papers from the guild master if he approves you so you can move around more freely. Those will run you about twenty crowns each."

"Oh my, I'm not sure this is the place for us to hide, Dobby."

"Do we have a choice, though?" Niall answered. "This is where the Shark told us to come, and it gets unhealthy to go against his orders."

"True enough," Mikey said with a sigh. She opened her coin purse and made a show of counting out ten crowns. Kelly took the gold and then sat down at the desk to make their papers.

"What name should I use on yours, ma'am?"

"Mikey Bartolli," she said. Kelly looked at her sharply.

"Any relation to the guild master?"

"Why, what's his name?" Mikey asked innocently.

"Kevin Bartolli," said Kelly.

"Not that I know of, does he perchance have cousins in Whiteford?" Mikey answered innocently. Kelly stared at her for a long minute, then snorted a laugh.

"You'll have to ask him that yourself, I think," he said with a smile. He wrote Mikey's name on the paper and then inked a large stamp and pressed it onto the paper. He handed the paper to Mikey and then turned to Niall. "And you?"

"Dobb Martinson, sir." Kelly repeated the process of writing the name and stamping the paper.

"These will get you in and out of the city, alright," Kelly told them. "Don't lose them and don't leave them somewhere convenient. At least, not until you have another set for work."

"Thank you Sergeant Kelly," Mikey said. "You've been most helpful."

"Just see to it that you're presenting yourselves to the guild master before you go working inside the city," Kelly said. "I'd hate to go through all this just to have you show up dead in a gutter somewhere. The city can be hazardous, you know."

"Oh I understand, don't you worry 'bout us," Mikey said.

"Good luck to you both," Kelly said as he guided them to the door. "Happy hunting."

"Thank you kindly Sergeant," Mikey fawned for the benefit of the other guards in the outer room.

The walk back to the inn was uneventful. The afternoon was fading toward evening. Here on the eastern side of the city, the shadows were lengthening even though there was still light in the sky. Here and there around them, lights were coming on in windows of the shacks and tattered buildings. Mikey wondered how often they had fires out here. A single misplaced lamp or candle could bring this all to the ground. Mikey suddenly looped her arm through Niall's and leaned against him. He looked down at her and smiled.

"Do I always have to be big and dumb?" He asked her. "Or can I pretend to be smart some times?"

"That depends on how happy you keep me, I suppose," Mikey said with a twinkle in her eye.

"Why don't we go up to our room and talk about that?" Niall said.

"After we visit our poor horses in the stable," Mikey said. Niall started, and then nodded ever so slightly. "After we get our bags off the saddles, maybe we can roll around in the hay a little?" Mikey giggled as she said this, like a silly country girl might when leading a boy into the barn. Niall put one arm around her shoulders and dropped the other hand to his sword hilt. He shifted to one side as they passed through the side door into the stable, and caught the shadow of someone following them.

"Clever girl," he murmured softly to Mikey. She smiled and ducked quickly behind the door. Niall kept walking to where there horses were stabled and made a show of going through their tack and looking over the horses. Hardly more than a few seconds passed before Mikey could hear a soft sound on the other side of the door, almost as if a dog were sniffing to find them. She almost thought it was Sapphire following them against their instructions again until she caught the foul odor coming from whatever was following them. She held her breath and waited.

A shadowy dark shape blocked the light outside the door briefly as the person entered. Mikey thought it was a person, as it walked more or less upright, though crouched a bit as it came sneaking. It wore a hooded cloak even though the late afternoon air was warm. It seemed about her size, so she wasn't overly concerned about fighting it. As it moved past her into the stable, moving toward Niall, Mikey closed the door slightly so any chance passersby would be less likely to see her, and then moved swiftly up behind the intruder. Mikey was just about to slip an arm around the other's throat when it spun to face her, moving faster than any person she'd ever fought.

Mikey found herself staring into a face that was only barely human; there were two eyes but they had slit pupils, the nose was very broad and flat, and the mouth was almost a muzzle. The creature hissed and then seemed to blur, becoming Jeb the stable hand in a split second. Mikey was so startled that she failed to react when a knife came out of the cloak and slashed toward her middle. Niall's sword flashed between them and parried the knife. The shape changer turned to face the new threat and they began trading blows, blocking and parrying so fast the blades were only blurs. Mikey heard Niall's sharp intake of breath and snapped out of her surprise to join the fight.

Mikey pulled a second dagger and sprang toward the creature's back, slicing a long gash through cloak and skin. There was a spray of black blood and then the creature was on her, and it was all she could do to defend herself against its speed. Then her opponent hissed again, tried to turn, and then fell to the ground. Mikey could see that Niall had slashed the creature's legs, cutting tendons. She started to relax, thinking the fight won, but then she felt the world tilting as the thing swept her feet out from under her. As she hit the floor she saw another door open at the rear of the stable and saw Jeb walk in.

The older man stopped dead in his tracks at the spectacle before him. Mikey had time to wonder what it would be like to walk in and see yourself covered in black blood confronting two fighters, before the thing was on her, trying to bite at her throat. She was pushing it away with one hand and stabbing it with the other. Suddenly the thing went limp. Mikey pushed away from it and saw that Jeb had stabbed it with a long spear.

"These things only die to silver," he said grimly. "Did it cut either of you? Or bite?" Mikey felt around for wounds and didn't find any, saw Niall doing the same. They looked each other over quickly and then answered that they were fine. "That's good, they use a poison that takes a long time to kill you, and we haven't found a cure yet."

"Thank you Jeb," said Mikey, still breathing hard. "What in the name of all the gods is that thing?"

"This is a Wraith stalker," he answered and then spit on the ground beside the crumpled form.

"A Wraith? So the Wraith army never left, eh?"

"Nope, they're still outside the city on the far side," he answered. "That's why we built our new town out here on this side. These things seem to only come out at night, and usually only come near people who have given the guards some reason to be curious. They're spies and sneak-thieves mostly. Why don't you go on inside? Use the door I came through, it leads to the kitchen. Kate can get you upstairs and get some bathwater prepared for you. Wipe the blood off with your clothes, we can burn them later. Tomorrow we'd better get you some new weapons, something with a healthy amount of silver."

"What about our friend here?" Niall asked.

"I'll take care of the beastie; you just get cleaned up before anyone else sees you. Go on, now," Jeb urged them.

"Thank you Jeb," Mikey said and then moved quickly to the door he'd indicated, Niall close behind her. Mikey opened the door to find the kitchen of the inn active with two or three people they hadn't met yet. Kate was there, though, and she took one look at them both and dropped what she was doing.

"This way," Kate said, drawing them toward a staircase. "This will keep you from view and get you upstairs. Did that no-good husband of mine tell you what to do?"

"Yes he did," Mikey said. "He ended the fight just in time I think. I wouldn't call that no-good."

"Just a habit from being married so long, ma'am," Kate told her with a smile. "I value my husband right well enough. I just don't let him get a fat head."

"I'll try to remember that," Mikey said with a smile toward Niall.

"Like you let me get a big head now," he said with a half-smile. Mikey laughed.

Kate led them carefully and quickly, and they didn't meet anyone else in the hallways. She opened the door to a larger room near the front of the inn, with a bedroom and a separate bath. Kate went in first and closed the curtains before lighting lamps in both rooms.

"Alright, you two," she said. "We brought your bags up here this afternoon, they're in the wardrobe there. Get out of those clothes quickly, the blood is like acid and will start to burn soon if it isn't already. Wipe yourselves down as best you can while I get the water started for your baths. I'll be back shortly."

"Thank you Kate," said Mikey as the other woman started out the door.

"Thank me later, ma'am," Kate answered. "Get you busy now, here?" She closed the door leaving Mikey and Niall looking at each other.

"I'll use the other room if you prefer," he offered. "Or you can and I'll stay here."

"I get the impression we don't have time for that, let's just get this done," she told him. Mikey was blushing as she removed her weapon belt and tried to pull off her boots. She lost her balance and fell and Niall laughed.

"Here, give me your boot," he said, still laughing. He pulled her boots off and then sat on the floor himself. "Can you return the favor?"

There wasn't a lot of the black blood on either of them, but there was some on their shirts and pants. Mikey could feel a burning sensation on her legs and moved faster to pull her pants off, and then her shirt. Niall stood there watching, obviously enjoying the show, until he suddenly flinched and started pulling frantically at his own splattered clothes. Mikey almost laughed, but we busy trying to carefully wipe at the remaining blood with a cleaner spot of her shirt.

"Here, let me help," she told Niall. She used his shirt, which was cleaner than hers, to wipe the splatters from his neck and chest and then had him turn around. She was finally satisfied that she had done what she could and handed the shirt back to him. He carefully wiped the blood from her back with trembling hands.

"Are you alright?" Mikey asked in concern. "You're trembling."

"It's just that this is the first time you have asked me to touch you without your clothes," he said. "I'm having trouble concentrating." Mikey laughed and then kissed him. They were starting to feel very interested in pursuing that but they both noticed that they were scratching where the blood had been, and the burning was getting more intense. The door suddenly opened and Kate came in with two other younger women. All three had pails of steaming water, and the young women poured theirs into the tub in the bath room before nearly running back out the door, concealing grins and giggling.

"They will be right back with more water for the tub," Kate said matter-of-factly. "Use this water and these wash cloths to get your skin clean, and then set them out here. Once you've done that, get in the tub and get clean." Kate pulled a bottle of purple powder out of her pocket. "This will neutralize the burning on your skin; add it to the bath water before you get in. Questions?" Mikey and Niall both just stared at her a moment more, still stunned to be standing in front of the woman with only their small clothes on, still half embracing.

"No ma'am," Niall said at last. Mikey giggled. "I think we can handle it from here."

"Don't go getting silly you two," Kate scolded them. "This is serious stuff, and I don't want you giving my girls any bad ideas." As she spoke, the two young women came hurrying back into the room with more water. Kate waved them out of the room ahead of her and then closed the door behind her. They could hear her muttering to herself as she walked away from their door. Niall looked at Mikey and laughed.

"Well, so that's what it feels like to have your mother walk in on you when you're kissing a pretty woman," he said, still laughing.

"I've never had my mother walk in on me while I was kissing a pretty woman," Mikey told him. He just laughed harder. "C'mon, let's get cleaned up."

*     *     *

Sometime later, after they had bathed well and found other clothes to put on, Mikey and Niall went downstairs to the taproom to see about getting some dinner and information. Jane was moving about the room talking with customers and serving. Kate was nowhere in sight at first, but then came bustling through the swinging door from the kitchen with an armload of plates for a table of men in the far corner of the room. She saw Mikey and Niall on the stairs and signaled them to take a table near the kitchen. They sat at the table and Kate soon reappeared with two steaming plates of food and tankards of ale.

"Thank you Kate," Mikey said with a smile.

"You're welcome," she said. "I'll get my girls to clean up your room while you're eating. We'll see if we can't replace your clothes tomorrow when shops are open."

"You seem to have experience with this sort of thing," Niall observed.

"I'll let Jane and my husband tell you more about that," she said with a wry smile. "I just know a lot about the cleanup." Niall chuckled as she walked away.

"I've never heard of the Wraiths having anything that could change shape like that creature did," said Mikey. "Have you?"

"No," Niall answered. "They could definitely make things more interesting, couldn't they?"

"We need to learn everything we can about killing them," said Mikey. "I have a strong feeling we'll be seeing many more."

They ate in silence, pausing only to drink from their tankards and listen to the conversations around them. No one had said anything about the Wraith being in the area or their fight. Mikey hoped that meant they'd been successful in concealing their activities. Once more she felt a strong sense of thanks that Jane was on their side.

It must be hell living here with those things hunting, Mikey thought as she ate. You can never really know whether you're talking to a human or to a demon-spawn. We must find a way to know the difference and how to deal with them once we find them.

"I think you should park yourself on the front porch tomorrow," Mikey said to Niall after a time.

"You don't want me to come with you to see your father?" Niall asked, raising one eyebrow.

"It's not that," Mikey was blushing for some reason. Damn it, the man isn't even really my father, she thought. I really don't need to be shy about introducing Niall as the man I will marry. "Our friends will be looking for a place to stay. We should recommend this place to them, don't you think?"

"Oh, that's right isn't it?" Niall said. "I'd forgotten after all the fun we've had today. Sure, I'll stay here and watch for them. Will you be alright? You heard what Jane said about sane women not walking alone."

"I should be fine," Mikey said. "If I'm not back in a couple hours you can come rescue me when Ingvar and Cara arrive." Mikey had been watching the room fairly carefully, but hadn't yet seen anything that roused her suspicions. She finally saw Jeb come out from the kitchen and step over to their table.

"Good evening folks," he said. "Enjoying your stay?"

"Oh yes," Niall said with a broad smile. "The food and drink are fine. The entertainment leaves a bit to be desired, though." Jeb chuckled at that and took a seat at their table.

"We will have a harper in later, if things go well," he told them loudly. A few of the patrons nearby cheered at the mention of the harper, and then went back to their own concerns. Jeb leaned in closer to talk without being overheard.

"I've cleaned up our mess from earlier, and here's your share," he said laying a few coins on the table. They were gold crowns from the city, standard coinage but they had a distinct reddish color to them.

"I didn't realize we could earn gold by dealing with something like that," Mikey said. "Maybe we can pay our bill after all." Jeb laughed.

"They never carry enough to be worth the trouble of hunting," he said. "But they carry a few coins so they can blend in easier. I kept a few for my share, and to buy new clothes for you two tomorrow. I assume you'll be wanting clothes similar to what you were wearing?"

"Aye," said Mikey. "Plain pants and shirt, red is my preference if possible but anything will do really. Probably should keep it simple."

"We don't want to draw too much attention while we're at our business," added Niall. Jeb nodded.

"I'll pass that along to Kate, she has a better eye for sizes an such," he said. "I asked a blacksmith friend of mine if he could supply you with weapons. I'm sorry to say that all he had was a pair of daggers." Jeb passed a long bundle of soft leather across the table to Niall, who took the bundle and laid it across his legs under the table.

"Now, as for how to deal with those beasties in the future," Jeb continued. "We have only found two things thus far that really hurts them. Silver is one, and holy prayers from a priest is the other. Unfortunately, priests have been scarce since the Wraiths came; we think they were the first targets of the stalkers. The silver is expensive now, as you might guess, but it doesn't really take very much to modify a blade to work. My smith friend, and the others in his line of work, have taken up the trade of adding ornamentations to blades. And it's funny but the customers always seem to want the work done in silver." Jeb smiled.

"I'm guessing the longer the weapon the better, too," said Niall.

"Yep, it's a good thing to keep the beasties as far from you as you can," said Jeb. "Silver tipped arrows are the best if you're an archer. Spears are the next best, but you may not always have the room to deal with them using a spear. We got rather lucky that you were fighting in the center of the stable. If that thing had cornered you in a stall, it would have been very different."

"We have some friends arriving over the next couple days, Jeb," said Mikey. "Will there be room for three more rooms?"

"I think we can handle that," he answered. "But you and your friends might want to consider someplace safer than Kor Opan if you have a choice."

"We don't really have that choice right now," Mikey told him. "But our friends will be able to help deal with these little annoyances. One of our friends in particular I think. She's a priestess, and a very powerful one from what I've seen." Jeb smiled broadly.

"Now that is some of the best news I've heard since this whole mess started," he told them.

"will we be safe in our room tonight?" Niall asked.

"As safe as we can make you," Jeb told him. "Before our priests disappeared, Jane got one fellow to come bless this building. The stalkers don't come inside. I think they could if they really had to, but it seems to cause them pain. I think you'll be fine tonight anyway. They won't know anything's wrong until that one fails to report. Even then, they might not know where to look."

"That's a relief at least," Mikey said. "I'm looking forward to sleeping tonight in a real bed again."

"And I'm looking forward to being in a bed with you," Niall said with a wicked smile.

"Who said you got to use the bed?" Mikey asked with an innocent expression. Niall sighed and took a deep drink. Jeb looked between them and then put a compassionate hand on Niall's shoulder.

"Drink a little more, son," he said. "It may not help, really, but you might not care as much when you're trying to sleep in the tub." Niall started to retort and then saw the glint in Jeb's eye. Niall looked over at Mikey and smiled.

"Maybe I will at that, Jeb, thanks."

"I'm not carrying you upstairs if you drink too much," Mikey warned him. Jeb laughed and then excused himself and went back to his work. "Besides, you don't need to drink at all." She smiled warmly at him.

"I am feeling rather tired," he told her. "Maybe we should retire for the evening."

"As my lord wishes," Mikey answered, fluttering her eyelashes. Niall had to force himself to walk at a normal pace as they headed up to the room.