Tuesday, December 7

The day after the morning before

Elaine placed her left hand on the glass of the window, and watched as
the rays of the setting sun carved between her fingers, setting her
white skin ablaze with rose light. Shelzar, the part of Shelzar she
knew, was waking three floors below her. Music filtered up through the
winter air, and drifted past the silk and lace curtains, dancing on
the wind, and into the mansion, whose former owner still stood, pinned
to the wall by the shafts of three arrows through his head.

"If you had to guess, if there was no other choice, if you had to
venture a reasoning to all of this, what would you say Sorlaya?"
Elaine asked the elf woman behind her, leaning against the ornate
wooded table, as the sunlight continued to fade behind her hand, the
rose light deepening, turning crimson, and then to blood.

"Say about what?" Sorlaya asked, idly sipping a high ball of whisky
from a silver and crystal glass, and wondering if this state the young
girl now found herself in would be permanent, or would the power of
the dragon crystal, now embedded between her breasts, return Elaine to
the her true state eventually? Right now, the youth resembled the
persona of death magic.

Elaine parted her fingers just enough to let the last rays of the sun
slip through, and enter her eyes directly. The warmth felt wonderful,
but some how far away. "When my father arrived here only two years
ago, he soon found himself not only a captive, but a vampire as well.
Cursed by the dragon Duruk." The sun dipped below the horizon, and
Elaine turned to her protector. "He came searching for something
important to him, and found it, and then was cursed. And now, I have
come to this land, searching, and though I am not a vampire, I am
cursed."

Sorlaya set her glass down and looked at the young woman, now 17 years
of age. The youthful blond hair, now raven black, with silver streaks,
her soft skin, now marble white, the eyes once warm and green as a
tropical sea, now dark and violet. But more than that Sorlaya could
feel the death magic in her, even standing across the room; it pulsed
with Elaine's own heartbeat. Looking at her in the growing darkness of
the room, she was both the most attractive woman Sorlaya had ever
seen, and the most repulsive creature she had ever been near. The
correlation to her father's vampirc state was obvious. But Elaine was
not vampire, and the curse was her own doing.

"Are you looking for answers?" She asked Elaine.

"No, just possibly a direction, or perhaps a pattern. Patterns
sometimes show motive, and motives sometimes show a personality."
Elaine replied.

Sorlaya set her glass down beside the bow for which she had become
famous, and gave Elaine a wry smile, "Perhaps your mirror, Elaine,
would be a good place to start. It is true that your arrival, and the
events we have been through afterwards have been close to your
father's recent history, but from where I stand, it has been a chain
of events which you have chosen yourself."

"So you don't feel that perhaps an outside force would use my personal
weaknesses to be more like my father?" Elaine asked.

Sorlaya lifted and eyebrow, she hadn't thought Elaine was thinking
along those lines or even old enough to consider the aspects. Young
people, such as Elaine, normally couldn't see beyond their own needs.
The world was still centered on them. Their visions traveled no
further. Elaine recognized her own personal errors, summed them up,
and was now looking for who else may have noticed the same pattern.
Perhaps there was more of Edrin, her father, in Elaine than she
suspected.

"Let me ask it this way Sorlaya, how many people, do you suppose know
my father's history here well enough to recognize my naive blunderings
and use them to either predict my next move, or manipulate it?" She
asked.

Sorlaya leaned back, putting her elbows on the bar table. Her pose was
obviously attractive to Mac Anu, lounging in a well stuffed chair to
her left, who shifted his pose slightly and looked away. She smiled
inwardly at his response, but then addressed Elaine's question
further. There was the group that came over with Edrin; so Heilan,
Shane, Tanasha, and her husband Sal Woodcloak. Shane probably knew
more facts about it than anyone, but he was dead now, his mind
destroyed by a Penumbral Lord, and his body by Edrin himself. Tekane
knew enough to put most of the parts he didn't know, together. He was
too smart to simply discard on a list of 'who knows what'. Also on
that list would have to be Jerro. The little gnome simply attracted
'secret' information, and he seemed to know everyone. The dwarves
couldn't be discounted either, Torrdek was the one who cleaved the
rod, to break the curse on Edrin, and was a good friend of Jerro.
Edberk, traveled with Torrdek, and knew just about everything the
younger dwarf knew eventually.

Narrin had to be added to the list as well. The halfing was uncanny at
simply 'knowing' things about people. Sorlaya found him to be a bit
unnerving most of the time. Nabilia Silverheart the sorceress in
Mithril who helped Shane remove the curse from Edrin, and Ashmere,
Edrin's lover for a time, and then Natalie of course, Edrin's wife to
be.

Her thoughts were interrupted by Elaine, and she noticed the rest of
the group was starring at her, as time continued to pass before she
could answer. "I see," said Elaine, "from the look of concentration,
the list is more than five or six." She was smiling as she said this,
and Sorlaya returned the smile.

"Yes, the list is more than five, though less than twenty or so."
Sorlaya responded.

"I'm not sure about that Sorlaya." Elaine said, walking from the
window, now grown dark. She drifted across the room, shadows clinging
to her like lover's hands, and pointed at an ornate lamp of silver and
mithril on the wall behind Nail, and said a minor word of power. A
tongue of fire gave life to the wick, and life to the room, though
shadows still clung as they could to Elaine, who continued across the
richly decorated room. "While my father was a mock-vampire, or
whatever you call that state, he as attacked several times in the
crypts below Mithril City. Attacked by shadow beings and other
vampires. One of those shades sent to kill him, is still with him in
fact, the wolf shade. Those beings didn't just show up, they were
sent."

Sorlaya nodded her head to this, confirming the information. "Sent by
Dar' Tan, we think, though that is probably not true. We suspected
Dar' Tan himself simply because he was the only Penumbral Lord we knew
about at the time with enough power to control such beings. Since
then, we have learned that there are a great number of them who could
have been at the heart of attacks."

"So we know at the very least, one or two knew about his history at
the time, but since my father has been in the service of Drendari,
and has proven to be very effective at hunting them down, I'm sure
more of these Penumbral's have been told, or found out in their own
way about my father, and his trials here in the Ghelspad. I'm sure
they all know that he is a prince from Elentra, City of the Elves, and
about the shade wolf he now shares his spirit with."

Again, Sorlaya nodded her head.

"Excuse me." Interjected Mac Anu, "I hate to interrupt, and this is
all very fascinating, learning about your family and all. Normally
this would be very entertaining. But, we just killed the leader of the
Sa'an Crime Cartel, who by the way is still pinned to the wall in the
other room by three well placed arrows through his skinless skull, and
we are now just sitting around in his former personal living room,
drinking his, " he paused to take a sip of wine, "very good wine and
liquor, talking about old times, while down stairs is another dead
body, one of his personal body guards I would imagine, as well as two
dead young lads on the front porch, who looked as if they died rather
horribly, and in a great deal of pain. Is anyone else a little freaked
out by this?" he asked, looking around, and raising his left hand to
cast his own vote.

Fesoj, and Nail both raised their hands to answer his question.

"Yes, Mac Anu, this is all true, and my question right now is, why?"
Elaine said, pouring herself a glass of wine, and taking a small cube
of cheese from a silver tray sitting on the bar. She nodded her head,
appearing to approve of the taste, and plucked two more from the tray
into her hand, and sat down on the couch across from Mac Anu, who
watched her do this without comment, except for the look of
astonishment in his eyes.

"Why, what?" Mac Anu asked. "Why are we sitting around eating cheese
and sipping wine in a mansion full of dead people, or why are we
talking about the good ol' days, when we should be running for our
lives?"

"None of the above Anu," Elaine said quietly, "Why are the dead people
dead, is what I want to find out, before the Cartel arrives to kill
us." She popped a cube of cheese in her mouth and took another sip of
the wine. The liquid on her lips, against the marble white skin looked
like blood. Mac Anu, averted his eyes, not sure what he was feeling
about her at the moment.

"They are dead," Mac Anu said, coming to a sitting position, and then
leaning forward as if to explain something very important to a small
child, "Because we killed them. People are dead after we kill them
Elaine, it's just the way things go."

"Why did we kill them Anu?"

"Because they took from us, what we spent a great deal of time and
skill in stealing from the Calistian Embassy, so we could help you,
and it pissed us off!" Mac Anu answered, and leaded back, "And,
perhaps out of frustration as well."

"Frustration?" She asked, seeming to be distracted from her own
thoughts for a moment.

"Yeah, frustration. Frustration Elaine, frustration at going all the
way to Vashon, breaking into the Spire, getting all the way to the
Tapestry Room, to find that not only was the Dragon Crystal no longer
there, but that you already had it, not to mention the fact that all
of this seems to have been for naught!"

"Naught?" Elaine asked, lifting an eyebrow, "who speaks like that?"

"I do, when I'm pissed off." Mac Anu spat back. "Look at you Elaine,
you look like death warmed over and shoved back in the cold box! What
exactly did that Dragon Crystal do for you?" He stood up and began
pacing back and forth in front of her. "Its there, an extremely
powerful artifact, embedded in your chest, with weird things writhing
inside and doing what it does, what ever that is, and you are reeking
death out of every pour, which from what I see, right now, isn't very
many. You look like a living statue Elaine. Is that thing helping you
at all?" He slumped into another chair, and tossed his legs over the
back of another. "Are you going to get better, or is this as good as
it gets?"

"We don't have time for this line of questioning." Fesoj, said, from
beside an open window, looking out to the sea, and the night, "The
Cartel will be here soon, to discover who we are, what we want, and
extract their revenge if our answers aren't what they want to hear. We
can find out about Elaine's state at another time, or, it won't be
important."

"I agree." Piped in Nail, "besides, I'm not sure I really want to know
the answer to that one right now."

"My concern right at this moment is not the Cartel, although they are
a problem, it is one that I think I can handle, after talking with Mr.
Asuras earlier." Elaine said, popping the last cube of cheese in her
mouth and looking over at Fesoj. "The Cartel, under Mazat, the late
Shadow of Shelzar, were looking to take over House Asuras. Not very
well, sort of looking with one blind eye, but none the less, causing
more than small problems for them."

"Were they the ones behind the warehouse fires?" Nail asked, sitting
up, now more relaxed since the tone of Elaine's voice was the one she
remembered. Sure, solid, exact. She felt more comfortable dealing with
the world when in action, and that's where this tone of Elaine always
put them, in action.

"No, I don't know anything about the warehouse fires, and since Mr.
Asuras didn't mention them in the long list of damages the Cartel has
caused directly and indirectly, I'm sure he doesn't know who is behind
that either. We might want to look into that soon, if you think you
can get results Nail. Could be a playing piece for us later."

"Mr. Asuras?" Mac Anu, asked, "Seems like a bit of respect going that
way. I've never heard you use a person's title like that over and over
before."

"Yes," Elaine said, "Mr. Asuras, Mac Anu. He's over 100 years old, and
has been the leader of the most powerful organization in the Ghelspad
for most of that time. The Ancients might be the most feared, and the
Mithril Knights the most revered, but House Asuras is never to be
taken lightly."

"And Mazat was trying to take them over?" Sorlaya asked, "The man was
an idiot then."

"Yes, that would be true, and always has been. Blunder after blunder
brought him to Shelzar in the first place, such as trying to take over
the Lokil Library, with a band of half starved desert raiders." Elaine
said, smiling.

"After which he blundered into becoming the head of the largest crime
cartel on the Ghelspad." Fesoj said, popping a cube of cheese into his
mouth from the silver plate on the bar, and giving an approving nod to
the taste. He picked up another, and walked back to his place by the
window, which Sorlaya noticed was the farthest point in the room away
from Elaine. "One should not take fools lightly either, for the wise
often fall to fools." Fesoj finish.

"Not only wise men, but fools often fall to their own kind as well,
Fesoj, as Mazat fell to us." Elaine said. Fesoj nodded to her on this
one, a twinkle in his eye giving more than approval to her ability to
follow his line of thought.

"So, we are the next fools in line?" Mac Anu asked.

"Yes." Said Elaine simply, sipping her wine and shucking off her boots
to wiggle her feet in the lush carpeting on the floor.

"And these Cartel guys, who are on their way, which we aren't worried
about." He continued, "Are they fools or wise men?"

"They are greedy." Elaine said. "And were not all that happy with
Mazat's tactics of late, as his plans were often very expensive, with
very little profit margin. But you don't simply walk in the front door
of the Shadow of Shelzar and kill him off because you don't like
something he did."

"Yeah, certainly not. I can see that." Mac Anu said, and finished his
wine in a gulp and went looking for more. "I can see it so clearly, my
previous question comes to mind, as well as Fesoj's, and this leaves
me wondering why we are still here and not on a nice fast boat going
some place far away? This city Elentra sounds interesting, and far
away."

"We aren't going to my father's city." Elaine said, with a sigh.

"Where are we going?" Mac Anu said, tossing the wine glass over his
shoulder and picking up what looked like a bottle of whisky. "And more
importantly, when?"

"No where until I know what is going on and who is pushing us. I can
be certain, as much as I can be certain of anything that it is not
Drendari." Elaine finished.

"Not Drendari." Man Anu said, "So, you and her are still on good
speaking terms, with this change of yours and all?" He said, and then
continued to answer his own question. "Of course you are, she sent you
to Hollow Faust in the first place."

"Mac Anu," Fesoj interjected, "again, I don't think this is the time
or the place."

"Yes, you said that. I don't remember agreeing, but you did say that."
Mac Anu said.

"Who are you so mad at, Anu?" Elaine said, standing up and walking
torward him at the bar. "Drendari? Calistia? The Liche? Me?"

"Um. Sure, and anyone else I can get my hands on at the moment." Mac
Anu said and walked away from her to sit back at the table.

"So you believe," Fesoj started in again, ignoring Mac Anu, "that
someone or something else is pulling our strings?"

"In a word, yes", Elaine said turning away from Mac Anu, and facing
Fesoj, but not walking closer to him. She could see he was
uncomfortable with the death magic still pouring out of her. "But not
directly. In prayer earlier, I had a vision. No, that's too strong of
a word for it really, it was as if I was in a fog, and suddenly it was
clear, and I saw myself, as if I was someone else, and how I was
acting, and what was happening. Through this clarity, I saw how easy
it would be to manipulate me, and events around me, if someone was
simply paying a bit of attention, and had a little inside information.
Sorlaya, has confirmed for me, and us, that enough people have access
to my history, and my father's history to use effectively. For
example, the stolen papers from the boat."

"What about them?" Mac Anu asked, setting his glass down, his thoughts cooling.

"Did the Cartel take them?" Elaine asked. "The gentleman that met us
at the restaurant, never confirmed, or denied that they took them
directly. Perhaps someone else did and merely sold them to the Cartel,
who would be a very willing buyer in such a transaction. This would
be, while I was in a fog, an easy manipulation for us all. Those
papers could have been the deciding factor between my life and true
death, or undeath. On top of that it put all of you in danger, having
to enter Calistia without them, and certainly put the war to the
north, and Fesoj's people in more danger than if we could have put
those papers in the hands of the druids there or my father. It was a
decisive blow to us, as a whole, and many of the areas of our lives
that we care about."

"We responded to this, as we saw it, as a personal threat. On top of
that, the target was also an insult to Drendari, calling himself the
Shadow of Shelzar. My intent when we arrived here, was to chase him
out of town, to put him back in the desert. To scare the crap out of
him. With the death magic still pouring out of me, I believed this
would not be difficult, and by the time he regained his composure, the
Cartel would have closed the door on him. I knew a few months back
that the Cartel was not happy with him, although as we said before,
you just don't knock off the head of the Cartel, and they weren't
ready to make a move on him yet."

"But then things got ugly fast, and Sorlaya killed him. Also, there
weren't many guards here when we arrived and they certainly weren't
the best available, as they should have been. Also, our gentleman
friend was not here, although I followed him not only to this house,
but watched him walk in."

"Now, he could have just ran out the back when the front door guards
screamed, and it could have been that the best guards were still
behind us, having been sent to the restaurant to watch over our
meeting there. But it seems to convenient to me."

"Convenient? What is convenient about being trapped in a house waiting
for the heads of the Cartel to arrive and take our collective heads."

"They aren't coming to take our collective heads, Mac Anu, they are
coming here to meet their new boss." Elaine explained.

'Their new boss?" Mac Anu spat, "I think that maybe you should lay
down for a while."

"It is tradition in the Cartel that the leader is the one who
vanquished the last leader." Elaine, explained.

"Like wolf packs." Fesoj, said, nodding his understanding.

"Yes." said Elaine, "that is why they haven't come yet, and why they
have given us plenty of time to prepare for their arrival, and why it
will be the leaders showing up, and not a hit squad, or shock troop."

"So Sorlay is the new leader of the Cartel?" asked Nail, looking at
Sorlaya, who spat out her whiskey.

"If she claims it," teased Elaine, "after all, she is the one that
made the killing blow."

"I am not claiming leadership over a group of criminal humans."
Sorlaya stated flatly.

"Then you shouldn't go killing what you can't eat." Mac Anu said,
"Isn't that like some hunter rule?"

Sorlaya gave him a hard look, and Mac Anu quit smiling.

"So it is you they are coming to see?" Asked Nail, to Elaine.

"They don't know who they are coming to see. They are coming to see
us, and since we have not left the house, they are assuming that they
are expected and we are prepared. They are coming to find out if they
have a new leader, or a house full of scared rabbits, who got
themselves in too deep. If they find the later they will kill them, if
they find a possible leader, then they will continue forward, testing
the leader to see if they will follow, or challenge."

"So, what if we are not rabbits and don't want to be leader?" Mac Anu asked.

"Not really sure on that bit. They will probably leave, peacefully and
send a hit squad after us, seeing this as an act of war from the
Cutpurse Gang."

"Ah." Said Mac Anu. "So. Um, not really sure how to put this, leader,
but I hope you are up for the job, at least until we can get out of
this spot."

"That's my point Mac Anu. Once again we are in a situation where it is
one or the other, not many gray areas floating around. And once again,
one path far outweighs the other, and once again the more appealing
path is one very close to my father's history." She started to pace in
the room. "Once again, it looks like we got here, by mere
circumstance, where we were caught up in perfectly acceptable natural
causes led us here, and the next indicated step is the one which will
give us continued life and even a step up."

"Mac Anu," Elaine continued turning to him, "less than a year ago, you
couldn't afford a decent jacket, and I was in the Calistian Embassy
basement, wrapped up in a blanket. Now there is little you can't
afford, and I'm about to become the leader of a group who could be a
serious threat to any group on the continent, or even the world. You
might ask, 'why us?' but I believe the answer to that question is not
that we were the most capable, or blessed, but that we were not in a
position when this started, to ask many questions, or even know what
questions to ask."

"So you are saying we are someone's pawns." Nail said.

"Yes", Elaine said looking over at her, "and now I want to know whose
pawns we are." Elaine said, and then raised a finger, "before, I make
another move." She sat down on the couch again, and curled her feet
under her. "Look, our path from Drendari, and Denev is clear, find the
other eight Dragon Gems, before the Penumbral do. Wouldn't you agree
Fesoj?"

"Yes, I concur with that. Denev has made at least that much clear to
me." The druid said, coming from the window to face Elaine. "Though
there is some doubt as to exactly how we accomplish that task."

Elaine nodded her head, going deep in thought for a moment, and then
said, in a low whisper, "so we need resources, and just at the time we
need resources to follow our directives, a huge resource presents
itself, a resource, that we weren't really looking for, but one that I
have resources to control, and make the most of, but they are not,
'my' resources. It is like my father, again. Right down the line." She
folded her hand and put them under her chin. "It is an unknown path,
foriegn to me, but some how comfortable, because I can look to my
father and feel a connection, and get guidance."

"And you say this isn't Drendari's work?" Mac Anu asked.

"Why would Drendari put me here. These thugs are not her followers. In
fact they are everything she despises in a Rouge. Greedy, selfish, and
only interested in making sure they get the next gold piece, no matter
who they hurt to get it." She looked at Mac Anu, "and before you
suggest that this is why I am here, to bring these cut-throats
to her and show them the way, let me remind you that Drendari's
followers find her, she doesn't seek them out .If Drendari's hand was
here, we would be with the shade touched of Hollow Faust, or the Cut
Purse gang, or back in Mithril, or maybe even in Freeport, but not
here, not with these villains."

"I don't like being manipulated by anyone, and I'm certainly not
feeling pawnish today, so I say, we take the money we can find in this
house and get out of here." Mac Anu said, getting up and starting to
look around for possibilities. There were plenty to choose from.

"That is one choice, the other is to use the Cartel until we don't
need them any more." Said Fesoj.

"Taking the money and running means we are now on the run from the
Cartel, not a very happy future there. The Cartel's resources are
extensive." Suggested Nail.

"We can take them." Mac Anu said, walking into the master bedroom.

"Perhaps we can," Sorlaya said, picking up her bow from the bar top,
"but we can not take them, and continue on with our path at the same
time."

"Ah," Mac Anu replied, poking his head back out of the bed room door,
"Well, no harm taking inventory and seeing what we have to work with
is there?"

"There are always three or more answers to any problem." Elaine said,
standing up again. "My point here is not that we have been
manipulated, or that we are going to be, my point is that we have not
bothered to look for the third option for a very long time. My point
is that I have not been a good Drendari follower. I've chosen between
light and dark, death and life, and have not been looking to shadow
for a third option. I wish to change that, now. And if we find out
later, that we have been manipulated, then we will be in a better
position when the cards are finally placed on the table."

"What?" asked Mac Anu, walking back into the private living room, "Are
we playing poker or chess here?"

"We are playing, 'stay alive'" retorted Nail.

"Oh, good, I like that game. Count me in." Mac Anu said, and
disappeared back into the bedroom. "You guys should at least check out
this room, it has many interesting things."

He was interrupted by the sound of claws running down the drain gutter
outside, and then Silver, Elaine's Mink, jumping into the window and
bounding across furniture to Elaine. "We don't have time for that
right now Anu, get out here, the Cartel boys are here."

"Fesoj, answer the door please," Elaine said, "Sorlaya, cover him from
the stair way and then as soon as you can slip out and onto the roof,
make sure we aren't interrupted without warning. Nail, stand by the
door and try not to be noticed right away. Don't hide. Just stand
there. Mac Anu, you are here in the living room with me, stay
standing, and near a shadow."

"What is your plan Elaine?" Nail asked, as the others headed for their
positions.

"To stay alive long enough to come up with one." Elaine answered.

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