Chapter Five: The Demon's in the Details

Evening fell over Kor Opan, the sun settling over the dingy domes and towers. Groups of men were still roaming the city, allegedly looking for a murderer. The guards were not directly involved in the search, but they were looking the other way when the gangs waylaid and beat citizens in their quest for leads. Mikey had gone directly to their room and locked the door after she'd had hot water sent up for a bath. Niall and Ingvar had gone to the empty taproom to tell Cara of everything that had transpired in the city. The three then discussed the possible meaning of the strange man that had led the group of thugs knowing who Mikey was, and by extension, all of them.

"I still think it would have to be a magic-user of some kind to travel between worlds to follow us," Niall said.

"That goes without saying," answered Ingvar. "Or at the very least, he is able to gather information from someone who knows about us."

"I think we'll have more answers tomorrow when Melissa arrives," Cara said. They had been circling the same positions for more than an hour and not getting any farther. Niall was getting closer to being seriously drunk with every mug of ale that came to the table. Cara privately thought that he was upset about Mikey's reaction, but kept her opinions to herself. She watched Niall closely, however, and noted that his head often dipped toward the table as if he were very tired or nearly drunk enough to pass out.

Kate brought them food, which Cara and Ingvar sampled happily, but which Niall ignored. Cara tried to encourage him to eat, but Niall just kept distracting himself wondering about their enemy.

"The only thing that really bothers me about that man this afternoon," said Ingvar, "is that I'd swear I've seen him before somewhere. I just can't figure out where."

"I can't help with that, since I never saw him," said Cara. "Maybe it will come to you if you get some sleep?"

"Maybe," Ingvar agreed.

"I understand you folks have brought trouble to my inn," Jane said quietly as she walked up to their table. "And now poor Dobby is trying to escape responsibility by drinking himself into a stupor?"

"Well, he is a man, after all," Cara said with an impish smile. Jane laughed and joined them at the table.

"Jeb just had word from a friend of ours inside the city that the gangs of enforcers that work for the king are still tearing the city apart looking for whomever it was that killed one of their gangs," Jane told them. "I don't recommend being seen tonight for certain, and maybe the next couple of days."

"It'll probably take that long for Mikey to stop being mad at me," Niall said sourly. "I hope you don't mind if I sleep beside the fire down here tonight, Jane." Jane laughed and then laid a hand on his arm.

"Dobby, she will always love you," the big woman said. "Women just get angry sometimes and take it out on their men. Just let her decide when she's over it and you'll be fine."

"That's easy enough for you to say," Niall said, taking another drink. "I'm just not ready to take a chance on her daggers." Jane laughed again.

"Aye, her blades do rather complicate things, don't they?" Ingvar filled Jane in on what had happened. She listened quietly, not interrupting with questions until he had finished his tale. Jane sat and thought for a few minutes before speaking again. Ingvar used the time to signal Kate for another tankard of ale.

"I've not heard of anyone with the ability to just disappear like you described," Jane said after a few minutes of silent thought. "He sounds like something new in the equation."

"Please don't talk about mathematics at a time like this," Niall moaned. Jane smiled fondly at him and then continued.

"So do I understand you correctly that you come from another version of our world?" Jane asked.

"Nia… uh… Dobb does, and Mikey," Ingvar stumbled. "Cara and I come from another place. We just met Mikey and her love-sick puppy a few days ago." Cara giggled at his description of Niall. Niall was too far gone with drink to really notice.

"Then Dobb really is…" Jane's voice trailed off and her face drained of color. She visibly shook herself to bring herself under control once more. "Then Mikey is also someone of high rank?"

"The highest ranking thief of Kor Opan," Cara laughed. "I guess you could call that royalty." Jane frowned at that.

"Is she related to Kevin Bartolli in her world, do you know?"

"From what she's said, he was her father but he died years ago in their world," Cara told her.

"Has Mikey met him face to face yet? Since you've all come here, I mean," Jane asked.

"No, I haven't," Mikey said softly from right behind Jane. Jane flinched at the sound of her voice and placed one hand over her heart as if hoping to still its wild beating that way. "I'm sorry to startle you, Jane." Mikey smiled at the woman and then stepped around her to shake Niall's shoulder.

"Mikey?" Niall said at last, blinking his eyes like an owl exposed to sudden light.

"When's the last time you ate something?" She asked him. Niall thought for a minute and Mikey started to laugh. "You silly oaf, you need food in your belly to put on a proper drunk. You know that."

"Why don't we get him something then?" Jane asked with a smile. She rose from the table and went to the kitchen. She returned a moment later with a steaming bowl of stew and a large piece of dark bread. She set the food in front of Niall, and Mikey set to work getting him to eat.

"You aren't going to cut me again are you?" Niall asked Mikey around a mouthful of stew. Cara was giggling while Mikey tried to mop up the resulting mess, thinking that Mikey was getting some valuable experience that would apply when it came time to feed a baby.

"Probably not right now," Mikey said with a smile. She turned to Jane. "So you've figured out our little secret?"

"I'm trying to understand it all still, but I think so," Jane responded. "I hope you aren't angry with me for prying."

"Why is it everyone I care about is afraid of my anger, and the one person who should be concerned just sits in his chair and smiles at me?" Mikey asked no one in particular.

"That one is drunk too," Cara said. "He just hides it better." Ingvar just kept smiling.

"Actually Jane, it's something of a relief to me," Mikey said. "In the world we come from, you were one of my oldest and dearest friends."

"I'm guessing that the other me… that is still so weird to think of," Jane said with a shudder. "I'm guessing that I knew your father?"

"Yes, both of my parents as a matter of fact," Mikey told her.

"In this world, Kevin Bartolli never married and never found anyone or anything to soften his nature," Jane said. "He rules the thieves guild with an iron fist. Anyone that interferes with that is dealt with quickly and viciously."

"You're leading up to something, Jane, out with it," Mikey said with narrowed eyes.

"Just thinking, dear, don't pull your daggers on me." Mikey started and gave a why me gesture at the ceiling. Jane continued, "I'm just wondering what a man like that would do if someone told him that a new thief in town was actually the guild master of his city in another world. If he were convinced it were true, or true enough, what do you think he might do?" Mikey sat back in stunned disbelief.

"He would order the death of the invader," she said. "My own father?"

"This one isn't your father, dear," Jane told her forcefully. "He has the name and the face, but nothing else, from the way you talk about your father. You seem to have loved your father very much."

"He was the most important man in my life," Mikey said with tears in her eyes. "At least until now, that is." Mikey looked down at Niall, who was just watching the two women talk and looking less drunk than he had been a short while before. Jane followed Mikey's glance and looked at Niall for a moment before speaking.

"It's odd that you two are together," Jane said.

"Why? Mikey asked her.

"In this world, Kevin Bartolli and the thieves of the city supported Zavius Gray," Jane said. "Our king never had a chance against them."

"In our world, Gray was responsible for the death of my father," Mikey said with some heat. "The king and I had met around the time that I became guild master. We became friends, eventually. But I was already plotting revenge on Gray."

"'Eventually' became friends?" Jane asked. Mikey giggled.

"I was picking his pocket, thinking he was drunk. He's the first person to catch me at it since I was a child, which surprised me no end. He saw me standing close holding his coin purse with a startled expression on my face, and he decided to fight back," she told Jane. "We fought for quite a while and then I left him with a long gash over his ribs. When he'd healed up he came looking for me."

"He wanted to get revenge?" Jane guessed.

"No, he wanted to be friends, or so he told me," Mikey said with a wistful look at her man. "He said that no one had ever bested him with a dagger and he wanted to learn. I said no, of course, but he was persistent and persuasive. Eventually we did become friends."

"And then lovers?" Jane asked, and then blushed for being so bold when Mikey cocked an eyebrow at her.

"No, he thought I was a man," Mikey said.

"Well, in my own defense," Niall said. "I had a suspicion that our master thief was really a woman pretending to be a man, and that fascinated me."

"Any woman fascinates you, Dobby," Jane laughed.

"There's some truth to that," he agreed with a smile. "But Mikey was a woman pretending to be a man so she could run the thieves guild. That told me, if I were correct, that she was uncommonly intelligent. That was the quality that drew my attention the most at first. But through our friendship I fell hopelessly in love with her. She never admitted that she felt anything beyond friendship for me so I couldn't show what I felt."

"Until we met Melissa," Mikey said. "She went and spilled the whole thing in front of Dobb and left me nowhere to run. Once he knew I was a woman, he forced me to confront my own feelings."

"Forced you?" Niall said indignantly. "I would never force you to do…"

"You forced me to love you just by standing there and loving me," Mikey interrupted. "Just hearing you describe your feelings made me think about how I felt, you big dummy." She smiled warmly at him to take the sting out of her words. "And then Melissa gave me some very good advice about not getting so caught up in mourning my father that I overlooked the love in front of me."

"Remind me to do something nice for her," Niall said with a smile.

"Who is this Melissa you mentioned?" Jane asked curiously.

Everyone around the table looked at each other as though reluctant to say anything else about Melissa. Mikey at last sighed and broke the silence. "Melissa is a special kind of person. She's the one that gathered us together and asked us to help her," Mikey told her.

"Asked might not be the right word," Cara said. "She ordered Ingvar to go on this quest. And then she threatened to hit him over the head with his own axe if he didn't."

"I wish I had been there to see that," Mikey laughed.

"I admit I was too angry with him to see the humor right then," Cara told Mikey.

"Melissa has a story behind her that's pretty hard to accept," Mikey told Jane. "It's even harder to believe than our tale of being from another version of this world. But then again, it was Melissa that gathered us together and brought us here from our own worlds so that we might help her."

"Help her do what? If I may ask, that is," said Jane.

"Help her save the Creator of these worlds," Mikey said with a straight face. Jane was about to object but caught the haunted expression on their faces and decided to accept that at face value for now. "Whether you believe that or not, Melissa has some strange powers when she chooses to use them. I hope she and the others get here soon."

"Considering the trouble you stirred up today, I hope she's bringing an army with her," Jane said, smiling.

"I hope so too," said Niall with a laugh. "But something tells me we'll have everything we need to handle this. I just wish I had a better idea of what we need to do."

"You and me both," agreed Mikey.

"Tell me, Jane, do the men that are searching the city have any idea who they're looking for?" Ingvar asked, his deep voice seeming to boom in the quiet room.

"Jeb seemed to think not," she answered. "Apparently, the word on the street is that they're looking for a small gang of men that were good enough fighters to kill a dozen thugs. From what he said, it took them a while to sort out the pieces so they could tell how many men they'd lost." Jane shuddered.

"So they aren't looking for Mikey? Or Dobb and I?" Ingvar asked.

"Not by name or description, no," Jane told them. "The people are talking about someone called the Scarlet Rat, though. According to some tales, he's a fierce warrior eight feet tall swinging a huge axe in one hand and a sword in the other. They say he disappears into smoke only to reappear and kill at whim. Folks in the city are a bit frightened."

"Well, well, well," said Mikey with a mischievous glint in her eyes. "Maybe I should add that to my job description. No one's ever describe me as an eight-foot tall warrior before." Niall laughed along with her, while Jane looked puzzled.

"In our world," Niall told her. "Mikey is known as the Scarlet Rat. Famed for her, or rather his acrobatics and stealth. And of course, there was that bright red cloak she liked to wear. Greedy merchants feared the Rat, the merest suggestion that the Rat was near could cause grown men to faint." Jane was looking incredulously at Mikey and Niall through all this. Mikey was trying hard to keep a straight face, but finally burst out laughing and leaned over to kiss Niall. Niall stopped his description of her exploits and stared at her.

"What was that for?" Niall asked Mikey.

"For building my legend?" Mikey laughed at him. "Or perhaps because I love you? I don't know, maybe I just felt like kissing someone right then and you were the only thing I could find." Niall's eyes narrowed as he stared at Mikey, but he said nothing. Jane giggled and tried to hide it behind her hand.

"It is a good legend, you have to agree," said Ingvar, coming to Niall's defense.

"It's not bad," MIkey said. "I think I like the additions that are running around the city though. If everyone thinks the Rat is eight feet tall and male, I'll be able to move around rather freely."

"That's true enough," agreed Cara. "Maybe you should consider swishing around in a dress for a few days."

"Swishing?" Mikey asked. "I don't know how to swish."

"Oh yes she does," Niall tried to whisper to Ingvar.

"How do you know?" Mikey asked Niall sharply.

"Observation, my dear Michaelina," he told her. "You most definitely swish, at least when you aren't trying to look like a man who swaggers." Mikey was looking more and more irritated as he spoke. Ingvar tried to hush him, without much success. Mikey pulled out one dagger and made a show of checking its edge.

"Tell me more about this observation of yours, dear," she said. Niall stopped short.

"Ah, no," he said. "I think I've had too much to drink. Maybe I should visit the privy and think about it?"

"Yes, that might be wise," Mikey told him. "Unless you're wanting a matching scar?"

"I'll be right back," Niall said, rising abruptly and weaving his way out the back door of the inn. Jane looked at Mikey and burst out laughing.

"You really do have him trained, don't you?" Jane said when she could breathe again.

"It helps to be fast with a dagger," Mikey said sagely. "I believe every woman should mark her man at least once." Cara looked speculatively over at Ingvar, who suddenly stood up.

"I think I'll go see what's taking Dobb," he said before staggering out the way Niall had gone. The women all laughed.

A few minutes passed. Mikey and Cara discussed whether their men were drunk enough to require fishing out of the privy, and whether they were worth fishing out if they had fallen in. There came the sound of what sounded to Mikey like a man's scream, followed by booming laughter. "I think Dobby just fell in," Jane said, laughing. They were about to go see what the commotion was when Niall and Ingvar came striding back into the inn through the back door. They were both chuckling, though Niall did appear to be embarrassed by something. Trotting along behind Niall, as if nothing were wrong, came Sapphire.

"Sapphire! C'mere sweetie," called Mikey when she saw the dog. Sapphire came gamboling over to her mistress, tongue lolling out in a canine laugh. "You aren't supposed to be here yet, you big goofy dog. Where'd you leave our friends?" Sapphire didn't say anything in response.

"Your dog just scared several years of life out of me," Niall said huffily. "I was standing there at the privy, minding my own business when I hear a chuff and get a cold nose somewhere I'd rather not mention."

"Sapphire, you bad puppy," Mikey scolded. "I hope you washed you nose afterward." She burst out laughing and Sapphire grinned. Niall started muttering to himself something about dogs and women.

"Was that you that screamed, Dobb?" Cara asked innocently. Niall just gave her a smoldering look and said nothing.

"Oh aye, that was our brave warrior alright," Ingvar said between chuckles. "Although I don't blame him after a sudden greeting like that. Mikey, your dog is almost impossible to see in the dark. Other than her blue eyes and white teeth, which is a bit disconcerting at best."

"I know," said Mikey when she could talk again. "Some of Gray's men found out about that the hard way when we were on our way to the Tower. Sapphire had one of them down before anyone knew she was even there."

"I normally don't allow dogs in my inn," began Jane. "Maybe I'll make an exception for this one, since she's so very fond of Dobby." That comment sent Mikey off into another gale of laughter. "Besides, we could use every watcher we can get tonight after the excitement you three stirred up this afternoon."

"Thank you Jane," Mikey said. "I'm sure we'll be ok, but we should keep a watch for stalkers. I won't feel safe until Melissa and the others get here."

"Which, if that really is Bob and not another problem, I think maybe they are," said Cara. She was pointing at the front double doors of the inn which were being pushed open by a large white wolf. Ronin appeared above him, looked around the room and disappeared. They heard him talking outside the door with someone they couldn't see and then he reentered the room with Melissa and Celora right behind him. Mikey and Cara got up and went to hug the women.

"I take it these are the other members of your party?" Jane asked Niall.

"Yes, Jane, they're the ones we've been waiting for," Niall answered. "Though I didn't expect to see them until tomorrow." There was much scraping of chairs and settling of travel bags and packs as the three newcomers gathered around the table. Jane called Kate to bring more food and drinks and to send one of the girls to prepare more rooms. Slowly the commotion quieted, Sapphire and Bob went off to guard the place in front of the fireplace. The two canines were given large meaty leg bones by one of the kitchen girls, to which they gave their immediate attention.

"Hello Jane, I'm Melissa." Melissa placed a familiar hand on Jane's shoulder. Mikey was amazed that the bigger woman didn't take offense, but seemed to accept it as normal. But then again, what is normal where Melissa is concerned, Mikey thought.

"Welcome to my inn, Melissa," Jane said with a warm smile. Melissa then introduced Celora and her father.

"We weren't expecting you so soon, is everything alright?" Mikey asked Melissa.

"We are all fine," Melissa answered. "Not long after Ingvar and Cara left, there were some patrols near the estate. Add that to Sapphire's distress at being separated from you and it seemed that coming along sooner was the wisest course."

"Or at least, the only choice that would give us any chance at finding some quiet," said Ronin. "Sapphire seemed to think you needed saving, I'm guessing." Mikey gave a startled glance over at her dog, wondering if there was more of a connection between them than she'd realized.

"What has been happening here?" Melissa asked. They took turns recounting their adventures since they'd arrived, Mikey telling most of it. Jane provided some information and history of the Wraith Army and the various agents they'd sent among the citizens of Kor Opan. Melissa and Celora shared a frowning glance when they described the encounter with the Wraith stalker.

"That stalker sounds disturbingly like it's related to the demons we encountered in the Haunted Hills," Melissa said.

"Jane, do the Wraiths respond to holy energy at all?" Celora asked intently.

"Yes they do," Jane answered. "That's what made them go after our priests first, we think. They were the ones most suited to resisting them."

"Celora, I think you just became the most important person in this inn," Mikey told the young priestess.

"I don't believe that's really true," Celora said, blushing. "But I do think we need to look to our defenses right away. How are the Wraiths killed other than holy power?"

"Silver is about the only physical thing that hurts them," Jane said thoughtfully. "A few men succeeded in killing them by beheading, but that proved to be costly since the body doesn't die immediately. They either produce a deadly poison or they dip their claws and weapons in one. Either way, scratches and cuts that seem minor become infected sooner than they should. The infections bring death within a day. Even their blood is perilous unless it is washed away immediately."

"Then we must needs begin with our weapons," Celora said decisively. She lifted her prayer book and began thumbing through the pages as though looking for something in particular. She looked for several minutes, the others watching her and holding their breath at first, caught up in the excitement. After the first few minutes, they drifted back to casual conversation, and the food and drink before them.

"Ah! Here it is," Celora said a short time later. "If you will all lay your weapons on the table, please." She set the example by placing her battle mace on the table. The others cleared away the plates and mugs and then began laying down their assorted blades. Cara and Melissa only had small daggers, mostly used for food and minor tasks. Ronin laid his bow and a small hand axe on the table, then paused and produced another pair of daggers and his quiver of arrows. Ingvar laid the Ravens on the table, covering most of the other weapons, and then added his sword and dagger. Niall had only one dagger and his sword. Mikey, however, took a while to stop producing various small daggers hidden in her clothing. She finally finished with the pair of silver hilted daggers at her waist and her long slender sword.

"Is that all of them?" Celora asked with a surprised expression. Mikey sighed, and pulled out a slender dagger from each boot.

"That's all of them," Mikey said.

"At least the ones she can get to right now," Niall said. "I always worry what she's going to produce." Mikey stuck her tongue out at him and crossed her eyes. He just laughed.

"I'm sorry Celora," Melissa told her. "I'm afraid I've brought you among scoundrels."

‘That's alright My Lady," Celora replied serenely. "Even the Heavens themselves must sink their pillars into the mud and mire." Mikey and Niall both looked offended and then surprised as Celora burst out laughing in silvery peals.

Celora clasped her prayer book over her heart with one hand and extended the other above the pile of weapons on the table before her. She began to speak the words of the prayer softly, so that the others standing around her could only catch a word here and there. The darkness seemed to hang heavy at the doors and windows. Bob and Sapphire looked quickly at the windows and then stood and came closer to the people around the table as though concerned at the apparent threat of the dark. Mikey thought that the more the dark gathered around them, the more that the light shone from Celora. After a couple minutes of praying, Celora was burning as brightly as a flame against the encroaching darkness. As they watched, the light began to flow from Celora's outstretched hand to flow down over the weapons. There were tiny strands of light, almost like liquid snakes, moving this way and that over the contours of blade and hilt, shaft and strap.

Mikey was seeing dark spots in her vision and realized she was holding her breath again. She let it out with a whoosh and breathed in fresh air smelling the ozone smell of an impending storm. Celora's voice rose in volume and then abruptly sank to a whisper. She halted her prayer, her hand held still over the brightness of their weapons for another moment. And then the light in the room returned to normal and she collapsed into her chair, clearly exhausted by the effort.

"Is it safe to touch them?" Ingvar asked her. Celora smiled and nodded. They each took their personal weapons back, noting with wonder the shimmering light that now played over the metal parts of the weapons. "How long will the enchantment last?" Ingvar asked Celora in wonder.

"How long will your weapon last?" Celora asked him in response. "The prayer is now a part of the physical material of each weapon. They will not need to be sharpened, they will not break or chip against normal weapons. Against demons, and I believe the Wraiths as well, they will be deadly. Few will choose to stand against the holy energy that now lives in your weapons."

"No more sharpening?" Ingvar's face looked like a child that had just received its most desired gift. Cara laughed at him.

"Does that mean no more complaining about the Ravens?" Cara asked him archly. He smiled beatifically.

"Thank you Celora," Ingvar said, and then he bowed to her in deep respect. She smiled in response but didn't move.

"You're welcome," she said softly.

"When Celora has recovered sufficiently, we should see to protecting the inn for the night," Melissa told them. She placed a hand on Celora's arm and smiled at the girl. "Do you think you can cast your warding circle tonight, dear?"

"If I can rest for a short while, I believe so," Celora told her. "That prayer takes far less energy than this enchantment, or deep healing."

With the table once more cleared of weapons, they returned their plates and mugs and once more sat down at their ease. Mikey was still tucking her daggers away in their normal hiding places while Niall watched with a smile. I wonder if Niall's trying to remember where she puts all of those blades, Cara thought, hiding a broad smile.

Sapphire laid her head in Mikey's lap, her blue eyes glinting in the lamp light. Mikey absently stroked Sapphire's ears. Bob returned to his place in front of the fire and took up working on the leg bone. Celora recovered enough strength to sit up in her chair and eat some dinner. She washed it down with a few sips of ale, making a face at the taste. "Jane, I hate to sound ungrateful, but do you by any chance have some mead? Ale doesn't set very well with me I'm afraid."

"Of course, dear, I'll go bring you some," Jane said, rising to bring a cup of sweet mead to the table for the priestess. Celora took a sip and then smiled.

"It's very good, thank you," she said. Celora cleared the food on her plate and then sat back with a contented sigh, holding her cup of mead in both hands and sipping the golden liquid.

"Celora," Ronin said her name softly. Her violet eyes opened and then turned to him. "You told us that your circle won't keep demons out, is that right?"

"Yes, Papa, they can still cross the circle," Celora answered. "But it causes them pain to do so. If they aren't expecting it, the surprise should be enough to cause them to cry out, which should alert us to their presence. Lesser demons normally won't cross that circle at all unless driven across by a greater demon."

"So what will happen if they are already within the perimeter of the circle as you cast it?" Ronin asked her.

"Very good, Ronin," Celora said with a frown. "I see your point. We'd better be prepared for a fight when I cast the circle, and I think I had better cast it now rather than giving them a chance to get away and report." Celora struggled to rise from her chair, and Melissa and Mikey each took one of her arms to assist her. The young priestess smiled at them for their thoughtfulness. "If we do surprise any demons, please don't get hurt," she told all of them. "I'm much too tired to do any deep healing tonight."

"I think I have an idea that might help us," Melissa said. "Celora, why don't you lay your hand on mine when you cast your circle? Perhaps if your prayer flows through me as it is cast, I can add some teeth, in a manner of speaking."

"Yes, my Lady," Celora replied from habit, and then ducked her head. "I mean, yes Melissa." Melissa laughed and gave Celora a quick hug. Melissa focused once more on her mental image of Charlie working on his writing, the way he would chuckle with a nasty edge when he thought of something tricky to do to a character. She then overlaid that image with an image of the demons they'd fought in the Haunted Hills, and the way they had burst into flame when struck by Celora's mace or when they had run into Melissa's net of light. When she had those images in place, she nodded to Celora.

Celora spoke her prayer of warding with a soft but intense voice, and they thought her words were slightly different this time. Before, she had always cast the ward in a domed circle above their heads and surrounding them. This time the light of the prayer went from her hand to Melissa's hand and then poured down onto the wooden floor. Mikey had the oddest thought that it was like someone pouring glowing liquid onto the floor. The light spread out from where it landed, rising from the floor like a bubble expanding. As the light passed through each person there they felt a slight tension somewhat like putting a finger into a soap bubble. The light brought the sensation of warmth and peace, a renewed sense of well-being and energy. Cara giggled like a little girl as it passed through her and Ingvar smiled.

The light coated the floor of the taproom and vanished where it intersected the walls and ceiling. There was a yowling screech from the back entrance, causing several of them to jump. Niall and Ingvar drew their weapons and went to investigate. Celora continued her chanting and the light continued to flow. The kitchen staff came out to watch in wonder; Kate and Jeb were standing together near the back entrance looking a tad wild-eyed. There was a series of scrabbling sounds from the upper floors followed by poofing sounds like a flammable powder cast into flame. They heard the whinnying of the horses as the ward expanded beyond the stables. Finally, Celora stopped chanting and the light flowing from her hand into Melissa's hand stopped. After a few heartbeats, the light from Melissa's hand also stopped and the light on the floor began to dim. It took several minutes for the light to entirely fade from their sight, but at last everything appeared normal once more. Celora sank back into her chair, her eyes sagging with fatigue. Melissa also sat again, passing a hand over her eyes.

"What were those horrible noises while Celora was casting?" Jane asked nervously.

"I can answer that, Mistress," Kate said from the doorway. "There was a Wraith stalker just inside the rear door apparently. We didn't see it until that light reached it." Kate broke off, shuddering. Jeb chuckled nastily.

"The light sort of pounced on the infernal beast," he said. "No sooner did it begin that caterwauling than the light burnt it to ash right there on the floor."

"Kate, please check to see if anyone is missing," Jane instructed her.

‘Yes, ma'am," Kate said and hurried off.

"That will tell us if we were infiltrated," Jane said. "Tanya, grab a broom and get rid of the ash pile from our ‘guest.'" One of the kitchen girls jumped and ran off to clean up the mess. Niall came back down the stairs from checking the upper floor.

"Apparently, the Wraiths can control the rats somehow," Niall said with a chuckle. "That was the source of the scrabbling sounds we heard. All the rats are gone now, and there are small piles of ash to mark where they were. You two ladies could make a fortune getting rid of rats, you know."

"And put every cat in the city out of work," Mikey added with a warm smile. "But at least we can sleep safely now, right?"

"I think that every minion of the Wraiths that crosses that circle now will end up as a pile of ash," Melissa said tiredly. "Celora's ward now not only discourages evil, it punishes as well."

"Thank you my Lady," said Celora. "I for one will appreciate the peaceful sleep tonight."

"If only there were a way to apply that to the entire city," Niall said wistfully.

"To get rid of rats?" Ingvar asked him.

"Well, that would be a nice bonus," answered Niall with a wry grin. "I was thinking it would rid us of all of the Wraiths in the city. That might solve much of our problem here." They all laughed, except Melissa and Celora, who were looking at each other speculatively.

"I don't have that much power," Celora said.

"And I don't know if I do either," added Melissa. "But if we could find a way to amplify your power…"

"That might work, then," Celora finished her thought. "We should talk more about that tomorrow."

"You mean, there might be a good idea behind his crazy idea?" Mikey said wonderingly.

"Hey," objected Niall. "Play nice."

"It's not a crazy idea, actually," Melissa said. "I don't know if we can actually do it, but it's not crazy. We should think about it and see if there isn't a way to pull it off. What do you think, dear?" Melissa asked Celora. Unfortunately, Celora was dozing in her chair, her head resting on one raised fist. "Celora?"

"Huh?" Celora said, startling awake. "I'm sorry, I must have fallen asleep."

"Why don't you go up to bed, dear child," Melissa said with a gentle smile. "You have certainly earned it."

"Thank you my Lady, I think I could use some rest at that," Celora rose unsteadily and moved slowly toward the stairs.

"I'll go with you," Ronin said. "We need to keep you safe."

"That's alright Ronin," the priestess answered sleepily. "Bob says he'll go with me and keep watch. You should stay and offer your experience." The white wolf conveyed the message as clearly as if he'd been the one speaking, looking first at Celora and then at Ronin. Then Bob gently leaned against Celora's side, giving her what support he could and together they climbed the stairs to their room.

"Well that's something I never expected to see," Ronin said at last. "A war priestess that become like a daughter to me being escorted by my wolf. That's a lot of change to cope with in a short time. Jane, could I trouble you for some ale? That might help this old man adjust."

"I'll bring you plenty of ale, but I wouldn't call you old," Jane said with a wink. She went off to the bar to pull a mug of ale.

"Watch out Ronin," said Mikey. "I think Jane likes you."

"I can't see why," Ronin said with a smile. "Battered old hunter like me, why, I probably even smell like a badger, I've been out in the wild so long."

"Is that what that smell is?" Niall asked Ingvar.

"Almost certainly a badger," Ingvar replied. "Perhaps a dead one." Ronin shot the two of them a hard look. Ingvar kept a serene expression, while Niall collapsed in laughter.

"You don't exactly smell too sweet, my lads," said Jane as she came back to the table. "I think you should visit the bath house before you cause my guests to puke up the ale they're drinking. It's up to you, though, but it might lessen your bill if I don't have to charge you for the cleanup."

"No, it's not up to them," said Mikey. "At least not for Dobby if he expects to come to my bed."

"I think I will say the same for my lord," Cara added, clearly amused by the banter. "While it may not be badger, the smell of something dead definitely seems to linger about him."

"Yes, my love," Ingvar said, kissing Cara's hand. "I shall be guided by you."

"Damn, I seem to be outclassed here," Niall said. "And by the barbarian, too. It's just not fair."

"My friend," Ingvar said as he stood, "A wise man always keep his woman happy."

"That is very true, my friend," Niall answered. He took Mikey's hand with a courtly bow, and kissed it lightly. "Especially when she has a dozen daggers hidden in her clothing." He skipped away before Mikey could pull one of those blades. Mikey just remained sitting, calm and serene.

"Perhaps you are losing your touch, Niall," Melissa said archly. "You don't seem to be getting a rise out of her."

"I'm just trying to contain the nausea I feel from the stink," Mikey told her. The women all laughed. Niall stood there a moment with his jaw hanging open, trying and failing to think of a witty response.

"Come with me Niall," Ingvar said pulling him gently along. "Let's visit the bath house before it gets ugly in here. Care to join us Ronin?"

"Yep, I think I should do that," he answered, draining his mug of ale in a couple gulps. "I don't want to be the only man here if the women get riled." That set the women laughing again. Jane stood and laid a hand on Ronin's arm.

"Let me send you off with another mug of cold ale," she told him. "Jeb should have the fire burning out in the bath house and there is water a plenty for all of you."

"Thank you kindly, ma'am," Ronin said.

"Would you like me to wash your back?" Jane asked him. Ronin stared for a moment, then quickly blushed and headed out the back to catch up with the men. Jane watched him go and then tipped her head back and laughed her full laugh.

"Maybe you should sneak up on him a bit more quietly, Jane," Mikey told her.

"Why would I do that when he blushes so pretty?" Jane said, grinning. "And besides, missy, I've bedded more men than you. So you can keep that advice ‘til you've bagged your own man." Mikey blushed and shut her mouth. Cara took another drink to hide her smile and try to avoid getting pulled in.

"So how are things between you and Niall, Mikey?" Melissa asked. Mikey sighed.

"Good, I think," she answered.

"Have you two talked about your feelings anymore?"

"Well," Mikey said. "Not really. We slept together last night…" Melissa raised her eyebrows at Mikey's words and Mikey blushed and stammered. "We didn't do anything, it's not like that."

"Oh?" Melissa said. "That's too bad." Melissa sipped her ale and waited for Mikey to respond.

"I rather thought we should wait until we're married," Mikey said lamely.

"If that's the reason you're waiting, then you're doing the right thing and I hope Niall understands," Melissa told her. "But if you are telling him to wait because you're frightened…"

"I'm not afraid!" Mikey replied heatedly. Melissa raised her eyebrows and waited. "Well, maybe just a little."

"Why are you afraid?" Melissa pursued. "We've all made love to our men and survived," she said, indicating the other women with them. "Or is this fear about losing Niall?" Mikey nodded.

"I'm sorry Melissa," Mikey said with tears in her eyes. "I've been thinking about what you said, and I do love him dearly. I'm still afraid that after this adventure is over he'll go back to being the king and I'll still be the thief girl that's fit for tavern crawling but not for the palace."

"Oh Mikey," Cara said. "I felt the same way about Ingvar; I understand your concern. But can't you let yourself enjoy the love you have here and now? Tomorrow is a long ways off and may never come. It would be a shame to reach the end of the adventure and not know the fullest depth of the love you both share."

"That might be easy for you," Mikey said. "As his queen, you wouldn't have the same kind of worries that I feel."

"Me? A queen?" Cara laughed until tears were streaming from her eyes. Mikey was puzzled.

"Oh Mikey, my friend," Cara said at last. "I am his serving girl, or at least I was. Now I pretty much run his whole household."

"Not his wife? I thought…" Mikey said.

"Not his wife, and maybe never his wife," Cara told the thief. "But I do hold his heart and he holds mine. That's all I really care about." Cara patted Mikey's hand. "I was the daughter of a minor noble family, passed into slavery before Ingvar took Semaar to be his kingdom. I was chosen to serve him and he came to prefer my company. I hated him at first, blaming him for the fall of my homeland."

"How did he overcome that?" Jane asked.

"Time, mostly," Cara said. "Ingvar puts a lot of effort into maintaining his image of barbarian warlord. But beneath all that he's actually very gentle and caring. Once I saw that I realized I was falling in love with him. Time did the rest."

"Well, I think Michaelina and Niall will choose their own time regardless of our advice," Melissa said. Mikey smiled shyly at her.

"Maybe Cara could give me some advice on being a beautiful woman to catch a king," Mikey suggested shyly. Cara smiled at her.

"I will be happy to," she answered. "If you will teach me to use a dagger better?"

"It's a deal," Mikey said with enthusiasm. They both laughed then, and the others joined in.