Chapter Eight: The Hunt Begins

The sun rose in red-gold splendor in the east only to disappear into a cloudy haze, turning the eastern sky a fiery red. Mikey shivered, wondering what the red dawn portended for the day. She turned her attention back to the palace before her on the north side of the roof peak where she crouched. She was on her third consecutive day of watching the guard's routines around the perimeter of the palace grounds. They had identified very early that the palace was quietest early in the morning, just after dawn. Apparently, the new king believed in throwing parties nearly every night. Niall, in particular, found that offensive. People were being taxed out of businesses their families had owned for generations and rather than doing something to help them, Gray was partying with his favored cronies. Mikey tended to think most nobles were out of touch with the people they ruled. Niall had proven himself different in his willingness to listen to the people, but Mikey still found herself introducing him to things that should be addressed.

Mikey had been watching one particular spot on the outer wall of the palace compound where she thought she might be able to gain access. There was an old twisted willow tree growing beside the outer wall that she thought she could use to gain the top of the wall. She'd been tracking the movements of the guards, timing their patterns. If they continued to be consistent, she would have a span of about one hundred heart beats to cross the square, climb the tree, and vault to the top of the wall. Niall said that there should be a stable inside the wall at that point. She hoped that she would find another rooftop within reach once she topped the wall. If that was so, she could move her observation inside the compound. She watched the pair of guards coming along the wall from the west. If they held to the pattern, they would continue walking past the gate without turning. Once they reached the gate she would have enough time to reach the ground from her perch and make her dash to the tree.

There, they're at the gate, she thought. Off I go. Mikey slid down the long slope of the roof where she perched and somersaulted off the edge to land softly in the alleyway beneath. She flattened herself against the wall to watch the guards as they walked past the gate. Once they had passed beyond the gate a few paces, she ran across the square directly to the tree. Mikey ran up the trunk to the point where gravity began to pull her back down to the ground and then caught at a branch. A quick flip and she swung from that branch, higher into the tree. She paused for a few heart beats to make sure there was no outcry. Satisfied, she leapt from the branch upwards to the edge of the wall. She was a little above the wall at the top of her arc and could see the construction. There was a line of glass shards embedded in the center of the wall where they could not be easily seen from the street. Apparently, they had been placed there to discourage people from doing precisely what Mikey was now doing.

For an instant, Mikey considered trying to hit the edge of the wall with a foot to abort the climb and fall back to the square many feet below. Then she gritted her teeth and went through with her climb, carefully placing her hands on the near edge of the wall. She changed her momentum into a flip that landed her on top of the wall, straddling the glass shards. Mikey felt a tingling sensation as she paused there, but then she was moving in a fast crouching run farther along the wall to reach the stable roof. Once she had dropped to the roof she paused again to listen for sounds of alarm. Nothing seemed out of place, as near as she could tell. She appeared to have made this step unnoticed.

Mikey settled into the shadow offered by the peaked roof on the stable and began identifying the patterns of guards inside the wall. She was heartened to notice that there seemed to be few guards inside the wall once you were away from the gate. Most of the ones that she could see were clustered around the gate on the inside. Apparently, Gray cared more about keeping people from coming in through the gate than he did preventing them from moving about freely once they were in. Of course, Mikey thought, there are likely many more guards that I can't see. She decided to stay where she was for a time and see how things went.

*     *     *

A guard came trotting down the marble hallway from the throne room, his boots raising a loud clatter and setting echoes to cavort in the palace. With so much marble, one would think they would learn not to run, the captain thought. The guard stopped suddenly in front of his captain, nearly sliding into the man as he struggled to stop himself on the polished floor.

"Captain," the guard said with fist to his chest in salute. "His Majesty sends word that there is an intruder within the compound."

"What? Send the first and second squads out…" The captain responded.

"The king also says to do nothing for now," the guard interrupted his captain, plainly nervous at doing so.

"Is that so," the captain said, thoughtfully eyeing the guard. "Odd that none of our guards raised any kind of alarm and yet His Majesty knew of the intrusion, is it not? What else did our beloved king order?"

"He instructed me to convey his wish that we observe the intruder, and that we apprehend her when she tries to leave."

"Very well, you may leave me now," the captain said, waving a hand in dismissal. The guard saluted again and then walked back down the corridor to return to his post by the throne room. The captain sat lost in thought for several minutes before rousing himself to post a few scouts to watch and follow the intruder. He found himself very curious as to why the king would want this intruder to be allowed in and then apprehended. It was as if he wanted her to see something and then be eliminated.

Unusual, he thought. Most unusual.

*     *     *

Mikey felt comfortable moving away from her spot on top of the stable after nearly an hour of watching. She had identified the patrol routes of the visible guards, and now lowered herself cautiously from the roof. She crouched in the shadow of the stable for several minutes before standing and slipping inside the stable. She found a straw hat hanging from a peg, and a shovel leaning against the wall next to a bucket. She put on the hat to hide her features somewhat and then picked up the shovel and bucket. She pictured a stable hand in her mind and tried to assume the slouching gate such a man would use. When she felt that she had it fixed in her mind she walked out of the stable and directly into plain sight.

There were no cries of alarm, and no one called out to her for identification. She smiled slightly and continued across the courtyard before the palace and up the western side. Niall had described a route to the garden near the private quarters and that was her immediate goal. Once she reached the side of the palace and was confident she was out of the line of sight of the guards at the gate, should they choose to look that direction, she removed the hat and left it on top of the shovel handle against a wall. The bucket she carried a bit farther and set on the ground, upside down to form a crude step, in from of one of the decorative inner walls. Mikey used the bucket quickly to boost herself high enough to reach the top of the wall. She hung from the top of the wall gazing over to check for guards before hauling herself to the top of the wall.

She dropped quickly into the bushes on the far side of the wall. Mikey was now within the garden that surrounded the private quarters inside the palace. She skirted the first suites, moving quickly and silently to the rear of the compound. Niall had described the layout of the palace to her, so she knew that the closer suites were normally used for visitors or family if the ruler had many children. If this world was like her own, Gray had no children and only one wife, so that would be at most two suites in use for them. She had no way of knowing how many guests might be housed in the palace, of course, and that detail caused her to be nervous. Mikey told herself to trust in her skills and hope the Light smiled on her. The king's suite was located on the rear edge of the palace, directly behind the throne room. That was her first target. If she didn't find Gray there, she would try the throne room itself.

Mikey soon reached the king's quarters and slipped into a shadow beside a tree that grew next to the terrace outside the room. She was impressed by the beautiful furnishings and the architecture. I might have married Niall even if I didn't love him just to live here, she thought with a smile. Mikey thought it was strange that there weren't more guards in view. She had only seen a handful since she had entered the garden, and the ones that had been outside had been simple to avoid. The ones inside seemed to stand at their posts without ever looking around. She began to have a bad feeling about this, wondering if there were other things guarding the place that she couldn't detect. For a long moment she considered leaving, but decided this was too important to give up such a good opportunity.

Mikey slipped from her concealment and entered the royal suite, slipping over a low balustrade and onto the edge of the terrace. Niall had given her a few select secrets about the palace when they were alone the night before. He had been loath to give them up at all, she could tell. The fact that he had divulged them to her spoke volumes about his commitment to her. He'd described a hidden entrance that led to a concealed passage in the space between the first and second floors. That was what she went looking for first.

She found the alcove he'd described quickly, and then spent a few minutes trying to find the latch, which was hidden in an artistic swirl of gold on the chair rail that decorated the walls. She gave up trying to see it and felt along the pattern for the release. Using her fingers she found it fairly quickly and pressed it as he'd instructed. A panel about three feet wide and four feet tall opened in the wall and she quickly stepped inside and closed it behind her. There were candles and matches stored on a shelf beside the door. Mikey quickly found one of each and had a small light to guide her through the unfamiliar space. She took a couple spares and slipped them in her pocket in case she ran into trouble later.

The Emerald Crown should be stored in a hidden room just off the king's dressing room. According to Niall, there was a high chance that there would be guards stationed outside the room and traps that could maim or kill an unwary intruder. When Mikey had told him that she was hardly an unwary intruder, he'd smiled and said there was another way. The ancestor who had built this palace had feared for his safety and built in provisions to retrieve his dearest possessions in the event of an uprising. If those means of access were available here, Mikey should be able to quietly reach down from above and lift out the crown without the guards ever knowing she was there.

Mikey stopped suddenly, freezing in place to listen at a soft sound from below. It almost sounded as if someone was trying to open the panel stealthily. After listening and watching the panel for minutes, Mikey shrugged it off as mice in the walls. After all, she had yet to be in a building where there weren't rodents. It stood to reason that the palace would have similar problems. Niall could have told her that wasn't the case, but he wasn't there. Shrugging, Mikey moved on silently, climbing the steps that would take her up into a hidden space between the floors of the palace where she could move more freely.

She closed her eyes briefly to recall the precise instructions Niall had given her. Seven paces forward, three to the left, quarter turn to the right and eight paces in that direction. Mikey had to stretch her steps to match the pace measurement that he'd demonstrated for her. Her legs were long, but he was several inches taller than she was and had a longer natural pace. She carefully measured off the paces in the empty darkness. When she was satisfied that she was in the correct place, she doused her candle and knelt to feel for the panel release. She found it simply enough and was once more pleased that Niall had been able to give her such precise instructions though he had not been in this place for years.

When she felt the latch release, Mikey carefully lifted the edge of the panel and peered through the smallest gap she could make. She didn't want to discover that Gray had added guards inside the room by lifting the panel wide and being seen herself. Her stealth was rewarded when she saw that there were, indeed, two guards in the room below her. They were standing side by side, facing the entrance to the room. They did not appear to have noticed anything, so Mikey carefully lowered the panel back into place to think about things a bit.

She cautiously moved to the far side of the panel to see if she could repeat the process and get a wider view of the room. What she saw filled her with hope. The Emerald Crown sat on a velvet cushion directly below her position. The two guards were the only ones present in the room and they were watching the entrance rather than the crown itself. She could reach down and take it if her luck was with her.

*     *     *

The captain of the guards listened carefully to the report of his scout. These scouts were so stealthy they could pass through a room with you and you might never notice them at all. They were normally employed in the wild lands surrounding the city to thwart invaders or to find information. Over the past few years they had been employed more widely inside the city, proving that they were also stealthy enough to spy within buildings and even the palace itself. The captain wondered if they could be trained to become effective assassins, shivering ever so slightly at the thought that perhaps they already had been trained thus.

"We located the intruder quickly, a young woman and highly skilled," the scout said. "She was able to elude us twice in the gardens, but we reacquired her within minutes each time. She entered the king's suite and moved directly to the alcove on the eastern side of the main room. There she appeared to release a concealed panel in the wall. She disappeared inside and sealed the panel behind her. We have not seen her since."

"Are you saying that she is loose in the palace somewhere and we do not know where?" The captain asked incredulously.

"Yes sir," the scout replied. "We posted a watch at the panel hoping she would return and we are tracing possible routes for a concealed passage down into the store rooms and tunnels beneath the palace."

"I want the intruder found," the captain growled. "I do not want to deal with a possible assassination attempt, I'd much prefer to catch her while she is a thief. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, sir," the scout said with a salute. Any further discussion was interrupted by the arrival of the king's advisor, Haefyn.

"That won't be necessary Captain," Haefyn said. "The king has instructed me to put a stop to the hunt. The intruder is being dealt with in… other ways. Please return the guards to their normal duties and do not worry about the intruder."

"If those are the King's orders, Lord Haefyn, I will of course obey," the captain replied after a moment.

"That is good, Captain. Good day," Haefyn said. The man swirled away in his odd white robes and headed back up the corridor toward his office beside the throne room. The captain of the guard watched him leaving thinking the man would make a decent assassin himself. Haefyn was medium and nondescript in most ways, a strange man surrounded by mystery. The captain only knew that the man was not to be crossed and that he spoke for the king in all things. Sighing, the captain went about issuing the orders to stand down and return to normal duties.

*     *     *

Mikey carefully lifted the panel once more, moving very slowly to avoid any noise. If either guard below her were to turn and look up they would instantly see the opening, and mostly likely see the thief as well. She had tied a slender rope to a support beam above the opening that would let her lower herself down the reach the crown. She frequently carried a length of the rope coiled about her waist like a belt, her shirt hanging loose folded over to conceal the coils. It was only about twenty feet long, but it was enough to provide options to access places that would otherwise be beyond her reach. She also carried a folding grapple that could be attached easily to the rope to let her climb up to roofs when she need escape options or when trying to scout.

For one crazy moment, she nearly laughed at the mental image that the guards were actually suits of armor and not living beings at all. Mikey had to bite one knuckle to keep herself from laughing at the idea. She carefully wrapped the rope around one leg and then gradually applied her weight to it. It held her easily enough, as it had in the past, but she wanted to avoid any noise the rope might make as her weight forced it to stretch, and the knot to tighten. Once it had taken her full weight, Mikey begant the task of lowering herself silently. She inverted herself and lowered herself head first so she could see any possible sources of danger as soon as possible and also to bring her arm within reach of the crown sooner. Thankfully, the space above this room was tightly sealed; Mikey figured the greatest risk of having the guards turn suddenly and see her would be if there was an errant breeze in the room.

Mikey was able to reach down with one hand and lift the crown from its velvet pillow. She then tied it to her belt so that she could reverse her progress and have both hands free for the climb. The ascent was much harder than the descent had been, since she had to push herself up the rope with her arms. Her shoulders were on fire with the effort by the time she was far enough above the opening to release her legs from the rope and cautiously flip them down so that she was standing on the edge of the opening once more. She accomplished the move with grace that would have made a gymnast proud, and then quickly lifted the rope free of the opening. Then she closed the panel and latched in back in place. Mikey was grinning fiercely in the complete darkness, knowing that she had at long last done the one thing that her father had been unable to do. She knew he would be proud of her if he had lived to see this day.

Mikey relit her candle and then sat on the floor gazing at the Emerald Crown. The crown was made of gold and silver, intertwined like vines. Emeralds and diamonds winked here and there like blossoms on the vines. The stone that gave the crown its name was quite large, a perfectly shaped massive emerald set in the center of the crown. The piece was quite beautiful, but hardly worth the blood and pain it had caused, at least in Mikey's opinion. There must be some other reason for its importance. She slipped the crown into a velvet bag she had brought for this purpose. She was still amazed she had gotten this far. She had only intended to scout the palace today, not to actually steal the crown. But things had been so clear it seemed a shame not to take it. Now she simply had to get back out.

From Niall's description, there was another stairway that led down from this space and into the foundation of the palace. From there, she would follow a passage that led back under the courtyard and into the city. The passage supposedly led to the cellar of a tavern near the temple district. She was very curious to see where it came out, since from his description it sounded as though it came out very close to the thieves guild hall.

Mikey set out across the dark space, carefully following walls so she would avoid stepping on panels covering the ceilings of rooms and hallways. She was afraid that her boots might make too much noise and draw undue attention. She had walked for several minutes when she began to have a very bad feeling that something was amiss. Her candle only threw its illumination for a few feet around her; she could only see the floor beneath her feet clearly. There was no frame of reference, but judging by the time she had been walking, she should have reached the edge of the palace already. But there was no sign of walls. She kept walking, expecting to encounter her destination any second.

After another ten minutes of walking, she realized that something was terribly wrong. Ten minutes of easy walking would be enough to walk from one side of the palace to the other. The building simply wasn't big enough to enclose this much space, and Niall hadn't said anything about this space being magical. Mikey considered trying to backtrack, but wasn't convinced that she could without references. Her stomach growled, reminding her that it had been some time since she had eaten or had anything to drink. It took all of her discipline to smother her panic and keep moving.

Mikey walked until her candle began to splutter at the end of its life. The candle she had used normally burned for about eight hours of continuous use, and she had used one that was broken in half. That means that she had been in this space above the palace main floor for nearly four hours! She was walking the same direction that she had taken from the opening above the treasure room in the king's suite, the direction that should have led her to the passage to the exit route Niall described. Once her candle began to gutter out, Mikey was walking with her attention primarily focused on the tiny flame perched on the flat piece of wood she had found. At last she stopped and took out another candle from her pocket and lit it with the remains of the first candle. She was just in time; as the new flame took hold the original sputtered one last time and then died.

When she again raised her eyes to the darkness before her, Mikey found a brick wall. There was a passage opening in the wall a few feet to her right. She scraped the remainder of the first candle off the small piece of wood and left the bits of wax lying on the floor in front of the passage opening. She then used her dagger to scratch a tiny symbol in one of the bricks about the height of her eyesight. If she came back this way, the mark would help her to identify the passage. She sighed and started walking down the passage into more darkness.

Mikey told herself not to panic and not to try to understand her predicament just yet. She focused on remembering her path and observing everything she could. It might become very important soon. Taking a mental inventory, she knew she had enough light for approximately twenty hours. She did not have any food or water, not any idea where she could be. She had her sword and her various daggers. And she had the Emerald Crown. She did what she could do; she kept moving forward.

*     *     *

"Mikey is very resourceful, Niall. Try not to worry," Melissa said.

"I know she's resourceful," Niall answered. "And I know that she was taking care of herself well before we met. I'm just saying she should've been back by now. I'm getting worried about her."

They were sitting in the taproom waiting for Mikey to return from her morning scouting trip. After they had watched the palace around the clock one night, they had reached the conclusion that morning would be the most successful time to infiltrate the palace. Mikey had then spent two mornings watching the guards before today. Today should have been the final morning of observation before making their plan to steal the crown.

"What if Mikey decided to take the crown today?" Celora asked. "Does that sound like something she would do?" Niall started cursing quietly.

"Well, judging by Dobby's reaction," said Jane, "I would say yes."

"I think we had better go and see if she needs help, then," Melissa said. "Ronin you and Celora had better go to the meeting place we identified behind the palace grounds. Ingvar, you and I…"

"She won't be going out that route," Niall interrupted. "I told her of a way that she might be able to reach the crown without being observed. And I told her of another exit route. But she wasn't supposed to use it until I went with her."

"Do you think she went without you?" Ingvar asked him.

"It's either that or she ran into trouble with the guards," Niall answered. "And I don't want to consider anything that leads to thinking she might be dead or wounded. I don't think I could live without her."

"Don't court trouble by imagining the worst, my friend," Ingvar said, laying a hand on Niall's shoulder. "We'll find her. From what I've seen of your lady, she will likely have the whole adventure finished by the time we get there." Niall smiled at him.

"Thanks," Niall said quietly.

"Where will this escape route of your lead her?" Melissa asked him.

"It comes out in a warehouse cellar, between the temple district and the river," Niall told her. "Mikey mentioned that this would put it near the thieves guild hall. If Kevin Bartolli is an enemy to us, then that might just be a very dangerous neighborhood."

"Roof tops," Ronin said enigmatically.

"I wish you wouldn't do that, I have enough trouble following all this as it is," Cara said.

"Sorry," Ronin said. "I'm not used to talking to people much in recent years. I forget that you can't hear the rest of what I was thinking, I guess."

"And? What you were thinking was?" Cara prompted him. Ronin chuckled.

"I was thinking that we should get up on the roof tops before we get too close," Ronin said. "The thieves are likely to be watching, of course, but I can clear them out fast enough that they won't be able to give a warning."

"With Ronin covering us from above, we will be a lot safer on the ground," Niall said thoughtfully. "Will you be alright up there alone?"

"Aye," Ronin said.

"I'll go with you Papa," Celora said.

"You should go with Niall, daughter," Ronin told her. "I will be fine, and they might need your healing. Then, too, there might be more Wraith down there."

"I have that feeling too," said Melissa. "They seem to be taking a larger role for themselves here than in your world, Niall."

"That was probably because Mikey thwarted their plans in our world and they were forced to withdraw," Niall said.

"Then we shall just have to add our efforts to Mikey's and see if we can't thwart their plans in this world as well," Melissa told them. "But first, let's do our best to help our thief, if she needs help."

"I wouldn't be much help in close fighting," Cara said. "But perhaps I can go with Ronin and be a second set of eyes for him."

"That would be most welcome," Ronin told her. "Thank you."

"Very well, then Ronin and Cara shall cover us from above," Melissa said. "And the rest of us will look for this tunnel."

"Bob, you won't be able to help on this one I think," Ronin said to the wolf. "Why don't you keep guard here?" The wolf looked at him for a moment and then turned and went to lie down by the fire. Ronin chuckled.

"That's a good idea," Niall said. "Sapphire… Now where did she go?" Mikey's companion was nowhere to be seen. "Like mistress, like dog. They both seem to get into things without letting anyone know."

*     *     *

Mikey had been wandering these halls for days, it seemed, though she occasionally reminded herself that it couldn't have been that long because she still had candles. Her throat was parched; she would give almost anything for a drink of cool water. She was wandering through what seemed like an endless corridor. That first passage had gone on for quite a ways and then reached a point where she could go either right or left. Mikey had chosen the right hand path and continued after carefully making another small mark on a brick in the wall. And so it went. She would reach a turn in the passage, mark a brick, and continue.

Mikey came to another decision point, she could see at a distance that she would be able to turn left or right again. She paused at the intersection to catch her breath and think. When she shifted her feet, she heard a small sound like something grinding on the floor. She looked down and saw the burnt-out remains of her candle lying on the floor. "How did you get here?" Mikey asked the candle end. The candle didn't answer so she had nothing to explain its presence here. Mikey shrugged, too tired to figure out the mystery that was literally under her feet. She began walking again to the right hand path.

Mikey went on like this for hours, perhaps even days. She was starving and dying of thirst. She staggered on down the endless corridors of red brick. She found the burnt out candle end several times. Sometimes she found it in the middle of a straight corridor, and sometimes at a junction. Each time, she would stop and ask the candle how it had gotten there, and each time the candle would refuse to answer. Once, she even ground the taciturn lump of wax under her boot heal for failing to give her the answer she so desperately sought. At last, Mikey ran out of candles and was plunged into total darkness. She used her hands to feel along the wall, reaching out with each step to test the floor before her.

She woke once, unaware that she had lain down to sleep. She tried to stand, but found that her strength was nearly gone. It took her several tries to lever herself up from the hard floor of the corridor to her knees, and many long minutes to climb to her feet. Mikey tried to work up some saliva to moisten her mouth, but it didn't work. Her lips and tongue felt like swollen bits of leather. She felt as though she were running a fever; she was sometimes hot and other times shivering uncontrollably.

She was dying alone and in black darkness. She started to cry, wishing her parched body could still produce tears that might wet her lips. She just wanted Niall to hold her once more.

*     *     *

"Alright, this looks like a good place to go up," Niall said.

"Right," said Ronin. "Give us a few minutes to get set. We'll give you a signal when we're ready to move forward." Ingvar embraced Cara for a long moment and then kissed her.

"Take care, my lady," he said to her. "Try not to take risks, but watch Ronin's back."

"You forgot to tell me to tie my shoes," Cara said. She suddenly grinned and slapped his shoulder. "I'll be fine; I'm not totally helpless you know." He smiled, but she could still see the worry in his eyes. Ingvar nodded and stepped back.

Ronin began climbing a pile of crates that were stacked against the side of a building. The top of the pile would put him within reach of the roof. He made it without too much trouble and turned around to give Cara a hand up to the roof. There was silence from them as they began to get in position to cover their friends.

"She'll be fine up there, don't worry," Niall said to Ingvar. Ingvar laughed, surprising Niall.

"I worry more about the fool of a man that tries to hurt her," the barbarian lord told them. "My Cara is a lot to handle any time, and from what I hear your lady has been teaching her to use knives."

"I am so very sorry my friend," said Niall, leaning against Ingvar in mock sympathy. "You'll never be safe again."

"Perhaps not," Ingvar said with a smile. "But what man is when his woman has something sharp in her hands?" They both laughed. Melissa looked at Celora with a raised eyebrow.

"Men," said Celora with contempt. Melissa burst out laughing and after a moment, Celora joined in. The men just looked at them with wounded expressions.

"So what kind of signal are we waiting for?" Niall asked. There was a loud thudding sound directly behind him as the body of a thief landed. Niall jumped, causing Celora to giggle.

"I think that would be my father's signal," she said.

"Good signal," Ingvar said with a straight face. They looked up at the roof and saw Cara lean over and wave before disappearing again. Ingvar started walking down the street toward the alleyway that would lead toward the rear entrance of the warehouse. Niall loosened his sword in its sheath and followed him. Celora and Melissa followed.

Ronin held out a hand to stop Cara, and then motioned for her to get down. She complied and then looked past his shoulder. She could just make out the silhouette of a man standing in a shadow on the roof across from them. If it weren't for the thin curl of smoke rising from the shadow she would never have seen him. As it was, Ronin's arrow cured him of a bad habit. They moved forward to the far edge of the building they were on and paused once more to scan for more lookouts. They heard a scuffle from the street below and then the sound of a fist striking a face. Then all was silent again.

*     *     *

Lord Haefyn watched the prisoner through the barred window in the cell door. The woman writhed on the floor as though caught by deepest grief and pain. He smiled. Very soon she would die of thirst and starvation, even though her body was uninjured. Her mind believed the body was dying and that was what really mattered. Torturing the mind was ever so much cleaner than torturing the flesh. Torturing the mind was more efficient in many ways. He was unable to deal with the thief himself; indeed he dared not open the cell door lest she touch him. But he was so confident in his power over her that the door wasn't even locked. He had instructed the guards to leave her completely alone, implying that she had a disease that would mean the death of any man to enter the cell. He only cared that the crown was still in the thief's possession and that he could not risk having a simple guardsman take it while thinking to find a bit of pleasure with the thief before she died. He sighed and turned away from the cell.

"See that no one enters that cell," he instructed the lone guard on duty in that part of the dungeon. "And send word to me directly when she dies."

"Yes, Lord Haefyn," the guard responded with a sharp salute. Haefyn smiled at the man's obvious fear of him. He felt confident the guard would do exactly as told. Without another word to the guard, Haefyn left the room. He walked down a long brick hallway to the cellars of the palace, returning to the light and warmth of the inhabited sections of the building. He failed to notice the black shape crouched in a shadow near one of the doors in the dungeon as he walked past.

*     *     *

Ingvar and Niall burst through a doorway into the empty warehouse where the tunnel exited. They were greeted with the frenzied flight of dozens of pigeons, but there didn't seem to be any humans in the building. And, judging by the thick untracked dust on the floor, there hadn't been anyone here for some time. They lowered their weapons and motioned for the ladies to follow them in. Melissa and Celora entered the room and the group proceeded to look for the stairs leading down to the cellar, which was where Niall expected to find the tunnel exit.

"Over here," called Niall. He stood at the head of a narrow flight of stairs that led down into darkness. They followed him down the steps, moving cautiously in the deepening gloom. The stairs led them into a larger room beneath the western portion of the warehouse. The floor and walls were covered in the red brick that was used commonly in this type of construction in Kor Opan. The space was dry and cool, and utterly silent. The walls were uniform and showed no sign whatsoever of a tunnel exit.

"What the…" Niall muttered. "The exit should be here, but I don't see anything at all that would mark it."

"Have you ever seen it before?" Melissa asked.

"Only once, when I was a child," Niall said. "My father brought me through here so I would know the path. When the door opened, it was right there in the western wall."

"Perhaps it's still there," Melissa said. "Could it be hidden by an illusion?"

"That seems sensible," added Celora. "You wouldn't want people coming in through this tunnel, only out."

"Can either of you ladies detect and remove an illusion like that?" Niall asked.

"Maybe," replied Celora. "Let me try at least, I will do what I can."

Niall stepped aside and let the priestess approach the wall where the door should be. Celora placed both hands on the wall and bowed her head in concentration. She stayed motionless for several minutes, while the others grew increasingly anxious.

"There is an illusion here," she said at last. "I think I can defeat it temporarily… Yes, there we go." She stepped back and they all saw a steel door take shape before them on the section of wall she had been touching. There was a rusty handle but no sign of keyhole or locking mechanism. Celora took hold of the handle and tried to turn it or pull it open. The handle refused to move for her.

"So how do we open it?" Ingvar asked. "I certainly don't want to use my axe on that door."

"Did your father mention how to open it?" Melissa asked Niall. He thought for a moment, obviously trying to remember a conversation from many years prior.

"He said…" Niall began. "I remember, he said that only one of royal blood could open it. But he didn't say anything about how."

"Try it," Ingvar suggested.

"Celora already tried it," Niall answered. "It looked pretty solid to me."

"Just try it," Ingvar repeated with a smile. Melissa was also smiling. Niall threw his hands in the air and reached over to take hold of the handle. The handle turned easily in his hand, and with a look of wonder he pulled open the door to the tunnel.

Ingvar took down a torch that was hanging in a fixture on the wall just inside the door. He used a flint and his knife to strike sparks onto the head of the torch. It caught after a couple attempts and brought light to the darkness around them. They saw a dark tunnel leading straight ahead into the darkness. There were cobwebs and a heavy layer of dust, which showed that no one had come this way. They knew that Mikey hadn't come through here at least, though Niall found that small comfort. They started down the tunnel, walking slowly so the torch could burn away the webs. Before they had gone very far, the torchlight revealed a solid wall of brick and stone where the tunnel ceiling had collapsed sometime in the past.

"Now what?" Ingvar asked. "And I hope you won't suggest digging through that."

"We could dig through all that, I suppose," said Niall. Ingvar sighed and the slapped the back of Niall's head lightly.

"Is there another way?" Celora asked, ignoring their antics.

"Only through the palace," said Niall. He was still staring at the rock fall as though unwilling to believe it was there. "Could this be another illusion?"

"Try walking through it and we'll see," suggested Ingvar. Niall walked forward and nearly tripped as he encountered the first, very real, bricks. Ingvar snatched at Niall's back as he started to fall, catching the back of his jacket just in time.

"It sure feels real to me," Niall said sadly. "I guess we'll be going around and trying to enter through the palace after all." They started back the way they'd come and soon reach the exit from the tunnel. The door was still standing open as they had left it. As the circle of torchlight revealed the floor beyond the door, they could see the feet of many men waiting for them.

*     *     *

Ronin watched as a group of men came out of one the buildings across from the warehouse. Cara started to speak, but he quickly held up one hand and she fell silent. Together they counted more than twenty men, all appearing to be ruffians and thieves and only one or two decently clothed. Most were in rags and filthy clothes that would make them appear as beggars were it not for the well cared-for weapons they brandished. Ronin and Cara kept silent until they had passed.

"Why didn't you shoot?" Cara asked softly. "My lord is now trapped in there with no warning."

"And my daughter," Ronin said with some heat. "There are too many for me to stop in that narrow space. And there are too many for them to effectively fight in there, so they will have to come along with them and we will follow."

"But they could be killed," Cara insisted.

"I don't think so," Ronin said thoughtfully.

"Why not?"

"Because of the ones that were well dressed," Ronin answered. "They appeared to be someone important from the way the others deferred to them. And don't forget our friends are quite capable fighters each in their own way." Cara thought about that a moment and then Ronin saw her relax somewhat.

"Alright, I can't see anything wrong with your argument," she said. "What do we do next?"

"We wait to see what happens and prepare for anything," said Ronin.

*     *     *

The two groups stood and silently gazed at one another. The adventurers were confronted by a group of thieves and thugs from the look of things. They were unwashed and unkempt for the most part, and Melissa regretted her husband's view of the average low life thief as she experienced the full reality of ‘unwashed.' She covered her nose and mouth to try to keep herself from gagging at the smell in the enclosed space.

"It appears we are going to be civilized, then," said a man pushing through the group of thugs. He seemed to be more important, as the others gave way instinctively. He was well groomed and washed, and seemed to be dressed as well as any successful merchant might be.

"Kevin Bartolli, I presume?" Niall said. The man stopped short in surprise and looked at Niall for several seconds before replying.

"You have the look of someone I know to be dead," Bartolli said. "It cannot be so, but I think somehow that my eyes do not lie."

"They do not lie, and yet I am not the same man," Niall answered. "So where does this put us?"

"I think perhaps you and your companions will be our guests for a time while you and I discuss that," Bartolli responded.

"Fair enough, provided you guarantee safe passage for all of us," Niall said. He watched Bartolli's face, noting the resemblance to Mikey as he did so.

"Agreed," the master thief answered after a short pause. "No harm to you or your companions until we have finished our conversation and then you may leave freely. What comes after that will depend on our discussion."

"Deal," said Niall, sheathing his sword. Weapons were lowered and they permitted themselves to be led away.