A DEADLY SURPRISE
Danny froze at the sound of voices in the corridor, reaching for the dagger at his belt he moved silently in to a corner. The room was rectangular with a single door as the only way in or out, a heavy desk almost filed the space at the far end, while a couple of recesses each containing a large cupboard were set in to the wall either side of the door. Moving in to the alcove to the left side of the door beside the large cupboard, Danny quietly melted in to the shadows.
His mind was racing as the voices grew louder, it was already well past midnight and he knew the wealthy merchant who owned the house liked his bed. The building was large and sprawling which for Danny meant it was easy to break in to, with that in mind he'd spent many nights during the previous month observing the comings and goings of all the occupants.
He knew all those within were tucked up in their beds long before the moon was at full height, more importantly they remained there until well after sunrise. This all fitted well with Dannys plan, it was a good plan, a simple plan. Not only was the merchant rich, but he liked to flaunt his wealth by displaying many valuable items throughout his home. The only security was a tired old guard who watched over the house through the night, and since the man only ever made a single walk round the building before scurrying off to the cellar to sleep by the fire, the place was perfect for a talented thief like Danny.
His thoughts were interrupted as the door to the room was flung open, the merchant strode in to the room and it was immediately obvious he was not happy to be out of his bed at this hour. As he stood in the darkened room glaring at his desk, a thin pale man Danny knew to be the butler shuffled in behind him carrying a candle lantern. Turning round abruptly forcing his servant to halt with a frightened tremble of the lantern, the merchant flung his arms wide in frustration.
"I don't care who they are, banging on my door in the middle of the night demanding to see me won't work." At this point the man drew himself up to full height and waved his hand through the air for effect, "don't they know who I am?" the little speech was all but ruined however by the fact he was barefoot in an ankle length nightgown.
Dannys mind kept telling him this shouldn't be happening, he'd spent too long preparing this nights work and he felt irritated that his carefully planned job was being messed around with. His pack was already half full of riches and the items in this room would've filled it, now he was trapped by the arrival of a random visitor no thief could've planned for.
As the merchant fumed Danny tried to come up with a new plan, he could easily kill the merchant and his butler but needless killing was something he tried to avoid, besides he knew they wouldn't have the good grace to die quietly. He didn't like the idea of any alarm being raised, but he really didn't like people upsetting his plans.
The merchant was pacing the floor in front of his desk, pausing every so often to tut or shake his head. The butler remained silent, he obviously knew better than to interrupt the master when he was angry. Abruptly the man stopped pacing and snapped his fingers, turning to the butler he gave a thin smile.
"Leave me to prepare and bring the visitors to me in the time it usually takes me to dress." The butler turned to leave but was halted by his master snapping his fingers again. "Leave me the lantern you old fool." He growled angrily, the butler placed the light on the desk and left without another word.
In another part of the house two figures were waiting impatiently, chairs were placed around the room but both remained standing. The long hooded travelling cloaks wrapped about their shoulders hid their faces and were protection from the weather, but they did little to hide the fine suits of leather armour they both wore. The woman was leaning on a staff heavily decorated with strange carvings that seemed to writhe when looked at directly, the man wore a well used longsword and his hand rested on the pommel as if he was eager to draw and use the weapon. Both figures stood patiently awaiting the butlers return, but something about their posture filled the air around them with hostility.
The butler reluctantly entered the room and immediately became the focus of their anger, without waiting for the man to speak the woman stepped forward. She planted the base of her staff on the wooden floorboards with such force it sounded like gates opening to the next world, which it certainly looked capable of doing. Regarding the butler with suspicion the lady threw back the hood of her cloak, the man beside her followed the example leaving the hapless butler to gasp in fear.
Amber coloured almond shaped eyes glared at him from skulls with gracefully pointed ears, the man had seen Elves before but none like this. The womans hair was long and flowed elegantly down her shoulders, by contrast the man wore his short in a soldiers cut. But what was truly shocking about the figures appearance was the colours, the hair was white as snow and contrasted abruptly with their inky black skin. Staring in horror the butler could not speak and was forced to grip the door for support, his mouth moved but no sound came out as his mind screamed Dark Elves again and again.
"You will take us to see your master now." The womans voice had all the gentility of a lady, but the tone was like flint and her words were like a statement of something already passed. The butler was trembling but pushing the door closed behind him he avoided looking at the Elves.
"Regrettably my master is not yet dressed, he begs your leave while he prepares to meet you and has instructed me to provide refreshments while you wait." Almost imperceptibly the temperature in the room dropped as the two dark Elves exchanged glances, without a word being spoken a decision was reached. The man stepped forward until he was no more than a few inches from the butlers face, partially drawing his sword he allowed the blade to drag on the side of the sheath. The truly individual noise this made sounded like the groans of the dying, and as he looked in to the amber eyes of the man the butler felt certain this man had heard many mens dying groans. As he watched the drops of sweat break out on the butlers forehead, the dark Elf whispered quietly.
"What precisely, is he preparing to meet us with? I don't think we should give him time for that do you?" The butler swayed as he realised his masters plan had been anticipated, cursing himself for letting the visitors know what even he only suspected he tried to rescue the situation.
"Forgive my foolish words I meant he was preparing his dress, he has no hostile plans for such honoured guest as yourselves." Even as the words left his mouth the man knew he'd only made matters worse, as he tried to protest he found himself propelled bodily through the door and in to the hallway, almost carrying the protesting servant between them the dark Elves made their way to confront the merchant.
Back in the private room the man was pacing again, Danny was tempted to make his move and eased the dagger from his belt, the blade whispered from its sheath and in the half light a thin sheen of poison glistened dimly. But what the man did next made him step abruptly back in to the shadows, stepping behind his desk he opened a small door just big enough for his hand in the wall. Secret compartments didn't normally bother Danny, but the fact that he'd missed it when searching for traps earlier was alarming. The merchant reached in and his wrist snapped down in a jerky motion as if he was ringing a bell, no sound reached the room but the man closed the little door as if satisfied and sat behind his desk to wait.
In what seemed like just a few moments another much larger hidden door opened in the wall next to the desk, another secret Danny had failed to discover, but before he could reprimand himself again, two large grim looking men stepped through holding long daggers in light underhand grips.
Dannys blood ran cold, concern had turned to real fear now. So far he'd only been worried about the merchant calling the town militia, now he knew he'd be lucky to leave this room alive. He was a wily thief and his fighting skills were improving but he recognised these men, neither riches nor fighting prowess drove them. They wore long dark cloaks with hoods that could conceal them from view in the slightest shadow, their skill lay in swift and silent killing, they were assassins and only a fool didn't fear them.
As the merchant held the mens attention discussing whatever plan he was hatching, the men sheathed their daggers and each loaded a particularly nasty looking mini crossbow strapped to their wrists, Danny sheathed his dagger too. He knew it would be useless against the professionals before him, he had no illusions about his chances of sneaking up on either one of them. His only hope lay in concealment and surprise, despite the chill of the room beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. As he watched the discussion behind the merchants desk, Danny couldn't help feeling somewhat impressed. To have men such as these available at such short notice must cost the merchant a small fortune, but these men were not to discourage the odd burglar, they were only ever used for killing.
Slowly Danny removed the small crossbow from his back, he wished he too possessed the assassins wristbows as they were known in the streets of the city, but they were expensive and the militia would throw you in the cells for a week just for owning one. Conscious of every movement he drew the string on his larger more cumbersome weapon, and with trembling fingers placed a bolt in the firing groove. Like his dagger the tip of the bolt glistened with a poison that would kill in moments, carefully holding the crossbow against his chest he did his best to be as still as a statue. Straining to hear what the merchant was saying to the assassins, he cursed inwardly as the conversation was too quiet to hear, resigning himself to having to wait for his chance, he sent a silent prayer to the Goddess that he would actually get a chance.
The sound of voices in the corridor caught everyones attention, all save Danny turned to look at the door. With a violent curse the merchant waved his hands at the assassins as if shooing them away.
"Conceal yourselves quickly, and remember, don't make your move until I say the code words, I am your loyal friend." With the briefest of nods the men glided across the room, Danny was eternally grateful that neither chose the hiding place he was already in. one moved to stand beside the cupboard across the room from him and instantly vanished in the shadows, it was only because Danny had seen him take up position that he even knew he was there. The second assassin blew out the candle lantern on the desk and huddled down beside it, wrapping his cloak about him the man resembled a pile of untidy washing within moments, in spite of the situation Danny was impressed.
The merchant had just enough time to gather his nightgown around him before the door to the room was flung open, with all the grace of a falling sack of grain the harassed butler was propelled through the opening.
"I have already told you my master is not yet ready to receive you." As the man struggled and failed to keep his balance the merchant stepped quickly back against his desk, allowing the luckless servant to sprawl across the floor and come to rest at his masters feet. With amazing luck the man held on to the candle lantern he'd been carrying, it was a miracle he hadn't dropped it and set the whole place on fire. Nobody in the room moved to help him, all eyes were on the two figures that strode calmly in behind him.
The tall woman in the finely crafted suit of leather armour was leaning on her carved staff, her male companion was still resting his hand on the pommel of his longsword, but his face betrayed his eagerness to draw the weapon. Silence descended on the room like an anvil, there was so much anger boiling within the Elves the air between them and the merchant virtually crackled.
Danny felt a pang of recognition touch his memory, he'd realised the two were dark elves the moment they'd entered the room. But something made him feel he'd met these particular two before, searching his mind he had flashes of recognition but nothing he could pinpoint.
Leaning down slowly the merchant helped the butler back to his unsteady feet, his eyes never left the visitors but he gestured towards the door.
"It's alright Campbell, leave us and fetch my guests some refreshments." The butler nodded with relief and out of habit put his candle lantern on the merchants desk, as he turned to leave Danny noticed it cast a dim light over the assassin concealed beside it. The hidden killer was still hidden, but the light made the chance of being discovered so much greater.
The Elves didn't seem to notice, but Danny wondered if they just didn't want anyone to realise they'd noticed. Once the butler had closed the door behind him, the merchant stepped forward with his arms spread wide as if in welcome.
"It's good to see you again Elandra, even this late, but I must confess I thought our business was concluded." The last words held just the hint of a reprimand, but the lady merely shook her head in disbelief.
A spark lit up in Dannys head at the mention of the lady's name, she was a capable Cleric and her friend was a Ranger of the wild woods known as Du'Kat. He knew they were from a mountain settlement of Grimdale, Danny couldn't help wondering what had brought them so far from home.
Some years before he'd travelled to the mountains and met these two on a deserted mountain trail, the bandits he'd been ambushed by got a nasty surprise when these two had turned up to help him out. Then as now he felt he owed them a debt for their help, perhaps this night would see him repay it. His thoughts were interrupted as the lady stepped forward, planting her staff on the floor with a resounding thump.
"Our business did not include the destruction of my settlements and the murder of my people." The words were not a question but a simple statement of fact, if the merchant had hoped to pretend ignorance her tone left no doubt that she knew of his guilt. Shifting uneasily the man tried, and failed to look hurt.
"Some side effects of any deal cannot always be foreseen, even by me . . ." with a swishing noise that made the staff glow, Elandra abruptly cut the man off.
"My family and friends are not side effects, my people are not side effects, they are dead and we are here to see you pay for their suffering."
The merchant held up his hands as if in surrender, Danny tensed waiting for the code phrase that would make the assassins act, with a deep breath to conceal his fear the merchant slowly lowered his hands.
"Elandra there is no need for violence, as you know I am wealthy, more importantly I am willing to share more of the profits of our deal in return for peace between us." A hard look settled on both elven faces, Du'Kat slowly drew the first few inches of his sword and Elandra leaned forward menacingly.
"What kind of friend talks of peace, and at the same time prepares to kill with treachery?" before anyone could react she cracked her staff sharply on the floor, a bright red flare leapt from the top and crashed in to the hidden assassin beside the desk. With a scream the man jumped back and staggered in to the wall behind the desk, desperately he tore at the cloak as it burned with an unnatural ferocity, an acrid smell filled the room as the doomed killer collapsed in to the fire and was consumed.
Danny knew that in all his life he'd never been so still, he was motionless. The room was charged with an almost unbearable tension, the merchant looked shocked as he stared at the assassins smouldering remains, perhaps he'd never seen a man die at his feet before, but the consequences for him were no doubt running through his mind. Abruptly and with a shake of his head, the merchant rallied a little and decided to play the victim.
"He was just a loyal bodyguard instructed to protect me only if you attacked, if you'd remained peaceful he would've remained hidden . . ."
"He was never hidden," Elandra cut the man off in mid sentence, "I saw him the moment I entered the room, your trickery won't fool me, I am more powerful than you know." The silence in the room was broken only by the occasional crackle from the gently smoking assassins remains, seeming to accept his fate the merchant spread his arms in a gesture of surrender.
Danny sensed what was coming next, a shadow of movement in the opposite corner told him the second assassin was also preparing for action. Slowly the man extended his right arm without moving any other part of his body, the wristbow was now pointing at a spot between Elandras shoulder blades. The merchant kept his eyes away from the movement, but he'd seen his assassin prepare and smiled thinly.
"Whatever you may think of me Elandra," as he started to speak Dannys heart began to race but he quietly made his move, reaching forward he levelled his crossbow and aimed as carefully as he could at the assassin. For the first time the man saw him, whatever surprise he may have felt he didn't show, he simply brought his wristbow round to fire at the new threat, but Danny had already triggered his bow and both their fates rested with the Goddess now. "I am your loyal friend."
The merchant looked suddenly confused, he'd expected Elandra to fall and his assassin to make short work of her companion. Instead the two elves spun round at the sound of crossbow fire, as he turned Du'Kat drew his sword staring in to the corner opposite his killers hiding place. None of this made any sense, until a low groaning sound caught everyone's attention. The assassin stepped clumsily out of the shadows, his left hand clutched the feathered end of a crossbow bolt protruding from his right shoulder. The wristbow on his right forearm was empty and useless, he tried weakly to draw the dagger at his belt but Dannys poison was fast acting. With a gasp the man fell at Elandras feet, his body convulsed once then remained still.
The silence that followed was only broken by the shallow breaths from the merchant, seeing his last hope die at his enemies feet made him feel suddenly very alone. Du'Kat ignored the dying assassin and kept his eyes on the other dark corner, his ears had told him that was where the killing shot had come from.
Slowly and carefully Danny stepped forward in to what little light was in the room, he had to duck to avoid the assassins bolt which had stuck in the wall so close to his head it'd brushed his hair. His crossbow was empty but he held it by his side to ensure it wasn't seen as a threat, his left hand rested on the hilt of his dagger but the weapon remained in its sheath. As the light fell across Dannys face Du'Kats eyes narrowed in thought, Elandra smiled as she recognised the young thief from their earlier mountain encounter. Stepping forward she placed a calming hand on her friends shoulder, she knew his memory was slower to catch up. The merchant was truly bewildered, his world had changed much in a very short time and he was struggling to keep up. As each person in the room came to terms with his presence, Danny shook his head as if in frustration.
"What's a man got to do to work in peace around here?" his voice broke the silence as if it was a spell, the two elves visibly relaxed and Du'Kat sheathed his sword as recognition dawned on his face.
"You haven't changed my friend." The two men embraced as the tension melted away, Elandra smiled as Danny broke away from Du'Kat and turned to her bowing solemnly he grinned broadly.
"An honour to meet you again my gracious lady." Shaking her head at his cheek the elven cleric smiled with relief.
"Your intervention tonight made a profound difference my friend, you chose the perfect moment to repay the favour from the mountains." She put a special emphasis on the word profound that spoke volumes, she knew just how crucial his actions had been.
The merchant was staring at Danny as if he was an apparition, he could see the elves knew him but were truly surprised he was here, equally he couldn't understand why the thief was in his private office. As he struggled to make sense of the situation, his anger overcame his fear.
"How can this be." His voice brought the attention of the small group back to him, as she turned to him the merchant glared at Elandra and pointed at the young thief. "how long have you been plotting my downfall with the help of this amateur cut purse?" Before Elandra could reply Danny stepped forward and grasped the merchant by his collar, the hard cold expression had returned to his face.
"The only amateurs in this room lie dead on your floor, so show some respect or join them." The menace in his voice was unmistakeable despite the conversational tone, Elandra smiled at the way the merchant recoiled from Dannys words. Stepping forward she stood before the man as Danny released him and stepped aside, holding her staff before her she stared solemnly in to the merchants eyes.
"Using deception and betrayal you tried to kill me and my companion this night." Her tone was solemn, as if she was talking to the faithful at her temple. "Prior to this you broke promises made to the people of Grimdale, a betrayal which led to the destruction of that settlement and the deaths of all it's people." She almost spat the last words at the trembling merchant, he tried to speak but just made some choking and blubbing noises. "For these crimes you have shown no regret or remorse, now you will pay with your life and explain your actions to my lady." The speech was a statement of fact, as if the merchants death had already happened. The man felt panic clutching at his heart, accepting he probably had nothing to lose he glared down his nose at them all.
"You dare speak of my treachery, when you use a lowly thug hidden within my home to aid your murderous plans." His accusing finger was levelled at Danny, who glared menacingly at the man but made no move towards him.
"My bodyguards lie dead by your hand and that of your friend from the gutter, what will your Goddess think of your dishonourable behaviour this night?" He'd hoped to at least regain some feeling of superiority with what he thought was a commanding speech, but it was plain he'd immediately failed. Far from looking guilty the Elves and their cut-purse friend merely smiled knowingly, to add to his misery they began to chuckle amongst themselves. The merchant felt sure he was the only one not in on the joke, as his frustration grew he stamped his foot like a spoiled child. "I fail to see what's so funny."
Danny smiled grimly and stepped forward, taking the pack from his back he opened the top flap and showed the merchant its contents, his eyes went wide as he stared down on his stolen valuables. In return Danny simply smiled, enjoying the mans confusion he chuckled softly.
"Pure chance led me to this room tonight, but for your plans to kill my friends, you would never have even known I was here." The merchants face was ashen, realisation was finally dawning on his tiny evil mind. "You set a trap and thought you were so clever, never knowing you were already caught in the trap set by me." Still smiling, Danny put the pack over his shoulder. The merchant was still struggling to come to terms with the evenings events, his mouth opened and closed but no sound came out. Elandra made to step between the man and Danny, but before she could a fury overtook the merchant. Jumping forward and pushing her aside, he stopped with his face a few inches from the young thief's nose.
"You're nothing but a common thief," the outrage in his voice was plain to hear, but it was wasted on Danny. Grabbing the mans throat, he pushed him back across his own desk.
"I am a very UNcommon thief, I could take the laces from your boots as you walked down the street and you wouldn't even notice." The merchant was shocked by the speed of Dannys reactions, he tried to push him away but it was hopeless. With a contemptuous shake of his head, Danny released the man, stepping away and turning his back.
What happened next was something neither of the elves could've foreseen, but it was something Danny had guessed at when he turned his back. Perhaps madness finally overtook the man, or maybe he genuinely believed he could kill them all, either way the merchant reached under the edge of his desk drawing a curved dagger from its hiding place.
With an incoherent scream of rage he lunged at Dannys back, Elandra grasped her staff trying to summon a spell, but knowing she would already be too late. Du'Kat snatched desperately for his sword, but the man had surprised them both.
A split second later the merchant found himself back on his desk, looking up in to the flinty eyes of the thief. The man stared impassively back, then shook his head in mock sympathy.
"You got no idea who you're dealing with." Looking down his body the merchant could see the thiefs dagger, lodged in his chest all the way to the hilt. His own dagger was still in his right hand, but like the rest of him it was pinned to the desk by the thief who'd moved so astonishingly fast.
Elandra and Du'Kat stood like statues frozen in time, both of them were shocked by Dannys speed and transfixed by the scene before them.
The merchant still boiled with hatred but it was now tinged with despair, the pitiless eyes gazing down on him held no hint of compassion or regret. An image swam before his eyes as they began to blur, Grimdale as it was being destroyed, his orders had been very clear. He'd wanted no survivors, and as he watched his men in the vision kill anybody they could find, he knew at last the pain and suffering he'd caused. Self pity filled his heart as Dannys dagger drained it of blood, a veil of red that quickly turned black drifted across his eyes and he knew no more.
Danny stepped slowly down from the desk, leaving the merchants body pinned to it by his dagger. As his feet touched the floor it broke the spell of the moment, Elandra shook her head as if to clear it, smiling at the sight of her enemy lying on his own desk like a sacrifice on the alter. As the thief reached for his dagger, she raised her hand.
"Leave it there a moment old friend, I have plans for the soul of this traitor." Danny stepped back letting his hand fall to his side, with a slight bow of his head as she approached.
"As you wish my lady." Laying her staff against the desk Elandra gently lifted her necklace over her head, resting it on the dead mans chest she wrapped her hand around the ornate silver pendant and closed her eyes.
"My dark lady Loviatar hear my plea," as she spoke, the pendant began to glow with a cold inner light. Danny worried that the light would burn Elandras hand, but to his surprise a thin frost of ice formed where her hand touched it. Lost in the rhyme of her chant, the dark elf cleric continued. "Take the soul of this unbeliever and clasp it close to thee, judge him for his deeds either foul or fair, consign him to his fate within your lair."
As she finished speaking an unnatural breeze sprang up within the room, it swirled around all those present blowing out the candle lanterns and circling in to focus on the body of the merchant. suddenly the pendant glowed bright enough to light the room, the wind was drawn to the light and sucked down first through the pendant, then the merchant, until it finally thundered through the desk taking the mans soul down through the floor. As it left the room and darkness slowly returned, it disappeared with a howl that sounded like, and very probably was, the wailing of a lost soul.
Du'Kat moved to light a candle lantern and a dim glow slowly returned to the room, Danny could see the pendant was completely gone and Elandra was massaging some feeling back in to her hand.
"A cold hand from a cold deed my lady?" for a moment anger flared on her face, but she relaxed when she saw he was merely concerned for her, not judging her. With a casual flick of her hand, she smiled and nodded with respect for his concern.
"This will pass, but that traitor is in a place far colder, his actions damned him not my prayers." Reaching across the desk Danny jerked his dagger from the body lying there, slowly it slipped down to lie in an untidy heap on the floor.
Without giving it a second glance, the three friends turned their backs and walked from the room.
As they made their way along the corridor towards the main door of the house, Du'Kat turned to Danny patting the pack on his friends back.
"Your works not finished my friend, wouldn't you like to complete the job you started?" Danny merely smiled and gently shook his head.
"I've enough on my back to keep me living well for some time, besides, I've learned it's never wise to linger where you've killed." Du'Kat nodded with understanding, questions would be asked when three dead men were found in a rich mans house. As the three passed the room of one of the other occupants in the house, the butler, who'd stayed well away from his masters room after being dismissed earlier, they paused outside his room. The light showing under the door was abruptly snuffed out, the man wisely knew better than to interfere with his masters business, whichever way it turned out.
Leaving the man to settle down for the night, Danny and his friends left the house. Heading for a tavern several streets away, aiming to enjoy a few drinks, and then perhaps a few more. As the doors closed behind them there was only one sound to be heard within the house, the gentle snoring of the merchants guard asleep in the cellar.