Sarlene's Touch Ch. 08byFuinimel©
Zarenis woke up as the sun began to dip in the sky, casting its orange light through the narrow window in her garret apartment. She had slept through much of the day, which was not unusual. She preferred the night over the day, when harsh sunlight could make things all too visible. At night, she could see better than humans, or even elves, could, allowing her to see without being seen.
That much was practical, especially given her chosen stock in trade, but there was also, she thought, beauty in the night. Haredil's skies were often clear, an advantage of its arid environment, allowing the stars and moons to shine brightly amidst the velvet blackness. And darkness was so much more beautiful than harsh light. The way things shrunk into the shadows made them somehow cleaner, purer, than they were when their reality was exposed by sunlight.
Her diabolic heritage might also have been relevant, of course.
She slipped out of the bed, pushing the thin sheets back into place, and quickly dressed. She did not have a wide range of clothes, just enough spares to ensure that some would always be clean, and her tastes were simple – and practical – enough. Perhaps if, one day, her job should take her to some high class party in disguise, she might have to buy an expensive dress, but the thought held no attraction for her.
So she pulled on tight leather trews and a form-hugging jerkin over a sleeveless cotton shirt. The clothes showed off her figure, making her appear more shapely and attractive than she herself realised. In her own mind, her hell-spawned deformities were all that really mattered. After pulling on calf-length boots, she paused to look in the mirror, fluffing up her sleep-mussed hair to conceal her horns as well as she could. With them hidden, she looked as human as she ever would, with an oval, pale face and shoulder length brown hair with just a hint of auburn. Her eyes were the give-away, though, their unnatural dark reddish hue visible to anyone who got close to her.
She tried not to let that happen.
Satisfied with her appearance, she strapped on her belt, and threw on the hooded black cloak that was her best protection against being seen too clearly, and left the room, setting the poison dart trap that she always left on the lock, just in case. There was only a narrow staircase beyond, leading down past other apartments to street level. It was a poor area of town, for she had difficulty living anywhere more salubrious. One day, perhaps, the money she had earned would allow her somewhere better, but it would have to be private, and she knew she could never afford the sort of discretion that Lady Amloth needed to live as a drow merchant in a human city. It was often the way with tieflings.
By the time she left the building, the sun was already dipping below the horizon, and the shadows deep in the streets. She had learned what she could about the adventurers that Amloth wanted her to steal from. Enough to know that facing them head-on was no sensible proposition at all, even had that been her preference. It was hardly surprising; adventurers were amongst the most deadly of opponents. Assuming they survived their first few expeditions, they would have already faced more horrors than most people would encounter in a lifetime, and lived to tell the tale. Not to mention whatever helpful magical loot they had managed to obtain.
No, direct combat was not an option. But she had known that already; she had simply needed it confirmed. The next question was the security of their home, how easy it would be to sneak and out undetected. It was unfortunate that they did not simply live out of an inn, as so many did, but they were too clever and successful for that. So, tonight, she would learn what she could of their villa.
She kept to the shadows as much as she could, which became easier in the gathering gloom. Most people in the neighbourhood knew enough not to remark upon her hooded cloak, and, around here, she was hardly the only person who wished to avoid the limelight anyway. You did not, as a rule, make much comment on passers-by in this part of the city. Even so, she slipped into the back alleys as soon as she could, walking briskly down passages familiar to her since childhood.
She saw them well in advance, of course. In fact, she had probably seen them before they had sighted her. But she had given them little thought, just two newcomers to the city, lost in the backstreets. And clearly they were newcomers, from their style of dress, and still with the dust of travel on their clothing. They were gaunt, somewhat ragged, clearly having fallen on hard times, as so many had around here. Perhaps they were looking for a cheap flophouse, or even a sheltered step to spend the night on.
One suddenly stepped out in front of her, blocking her way. Her eyes flicked up with annoyance, for he was a good six inches taller than she. She noted his lank hair and the stubble on his chin, her nostrils assailed by an odour of sweat and grime mixed with a clear hint of some rotgut booze. He held a knife in one hand, pointing towards her.
"Your money, now," he demanded, the smell of the alcohol fresh on his breath.
"I think not," she said calmly, her hand already moving surreptitiously beneath her cloak.
He held her gaze, either too drunk or too stupid to interpret the look in her eyes, or notice their unnatural colour. Or perhaps it was just too dark. His friend was already circling behind her, cutting off her escape route. Too bad for them.
"Oh, you will," he said, "and maybe something else, too, eh?" He leered, his grin showing broken and stained teeth. His knife hand still held towards her, he reached out to try and grab her breast with the other.
Her response was lightning swift, grabbing his knife hand in her left, and twisting it hard. Her own right hand shot out from beneath the cloak, plunging the knife up beneath his sternum, driving it in to the hilt.
He gasped, but did not scream, just emitting a blast of foul breath. He staggered backwards, tottering, his eyes wide with astonishment, and gazed down at the rapidly growing stain on his shirt front. She had already yanked the knife free, and whirled to face the other attacker. He had done nothing, apparently as frozen and shocked as his companion. He looked at the knife, still dripping with blood, and then towards Zarenis, his face a mask of incomprehension. The idiot deserved to die, she thought.
But instead, he turned and fled, running into the night as fast as his legs could carry him. She did not bother pursuing him; he would not have any friends here, and there was little point in wasting her energy. Behind her, there was a thud as the first man collapsed to the floor. She turned to look, and saw him gasping like a fish out of water, trying to stem the flow of blood as he sprawled on the earthen alleyway floor.
He was dying, that much was clear. But not quickly enough. She knelt down in front of him, watching for a second or two as he tried to scrabble away and staunch his wound at the same time. He looked up at her, pleading, but she simply flicked her dagger out again, cutting deep across his throat. His head lolled to one side as his eyes glazed over. She wiped her blade on his clothing, and re-sheathed it, then stepping carefully to avoid putting her feet into the pool of blood, she walked over his corpse, and on down the alley. After all, she had business to attend to.
The villa was a typical, two-story affair, with two long wings stretching either side of a walled-off courtyard. Like so many buildings in this part of the city, the roof was flat topped, although two small copper domes stood at the corners where the wings joined the main building. She had to be careful, not wanting to draw too much attention to herself in this rather more well-to-do part of the city. Leaving a dead body here would tend to attract rather more directed attention than she wanted to deal with, after all.
Nonetheless, she was soon able to confirm that the windows on the ground floor had strong iron trellises across them that prevented any ingress to anything more than two or three inches across. They had shutters too, which would doubtless be closed later in the evening. The walls were sheer, which would make climbing up to an upper window, or onto the roof, impossible without a grapple... still, a grapple was something to consider.
Of more use, however, would be some intelligence on how the group spent their days and nights. How likely was it that the house would be left empty, for example? Best of all would be some idea of where they kept their treasure when they were not using it. There had to be a vault somewhere, and it would obviously be preferable if she did not have to search the whole villa to find it. Of course, she thought ruefully, any chance they would give away information on that was slim indeed.
Lamplight spilled out of the courtyard and from the upper story of the villa. Many people went to sleep as soon as it got dark, and the twilight was already deepening past the point for any human to read unaided. Or do much else without a light source, for that matter. But the adventurers were still active. On her second pass by the gates to the walled compound, she stepped as close as she dared without it being obvious, and heard the sound of conversation from within. So, at least some of them were in the courtyard now, not the building. And that gave her an option.
She looked about at the neighbouring buildings. Like the villa itself, most were two stories high – which meant that they must overlook the courtyard. The streets were emptying, but even so, Zarenis was careful as she slipped into the back alley behind what appeared to be a regular house. The house was dark, so, either nobody was home, or they had already retired for bed, either of which would suit her purposes.
Glancing about to make sure she was alone, she stepped up onto a ground floor window ledge, grabbing the lintel above it. Moving quietly, yet confidently, she pulled herself up the wall. Fortunately, it was ornate enough for that not to be a great difficulty for anyone with experience, unlike the smooth walls of the villa itself.
At the first floor, just as she reached for the edge of the flat roof, she froze as she heard sounds from within. The place might not be as empty as she had thought.
"Pookie-wumpkins," said a woman's voice in an obviously fake little-girl sort of way, "I don't know if I should be wetting you up here. What if you might see things?"
The way she was speaking gave Zarenis the impression that she might be talking to a cat, or some other pet, and the ridiculous name supported that theory. But, instead, a man's voice replied, "Oh, but I promise I won't look at anything you don't want me to."
"As wong as you don't do anything naughty... it would be too embawasing!"
Zarenis let out her breath as the two stopped talking, and went into what was presumably a bedroom. They did not appear to be going to the roof, which was all that mattered. She briefly considered choosing another building, but it was a little late for that. With the couple safely out of earshot, she hauled herself up onto the top of the building.
The roof, like so many others, was flat, with a low wall around it, and a trapdoor leading down below. She was confident that the inhabitants had gone to the opposite corner of the house, and hopefully now, they were going to sleep, leaving her undisturbed. With almost catlike stealth she moved across the roof, and lay down on the side facing the villa, peering over the wall, which was only eight inches or so in height. She was in darkness, and the villa was illuminated; it was unlikely they could see her from here, even if they happened to look exactly in her direction, which they had no reason to do.
She could hear giggling from down below, breaking off every now and then for the irritating woman to make some inane comment or other. She hoped they would shut up soon – or, at least, that the woman would, because she seemed to be the one doing most of the talking – since, then, she might even have a chance to hear conversation drifting up from the villa across the street. But she had to listen carefully, and for that she needed at least some quiet.
The adventurers were clearly holding some sort of outdoor dinner party. They had a large table set up in the courtyard, with chairs spread around it, and numerous lanterns hung around the walls. They had obviously finished eating, and even as she watched, a young manservant was clearing away the plates. He might be a problem; he was likely to be at the villa even when they were away. Of course, he would not be so difficult to deal with if she had to fight him, but that would be messy, and she would rather avoid it if she could. After all, she did not like leaving a trail of bodies behind her, even if it was sometimes necessary.
There were more people in the courtyard than she knew of in the group, which suggested they had guests. Three of the adventurers she identified immediately. Dolrim would be the dwarf, and Vardala the gnomish woman. The handsome one with the dark hair and short beard was surely Almandar, since he was the only man besides Dolrim not be wearing a uniform. The others, however, were less easy to pin down.
She was looking, she knew, for an elven magician and a human paladin, both women. As luck would have it, though, the remaining six people around the table included four women, two elven and two human, while the other two guests were men. The men she could have ruled out anyway, since both were dressed in the uniforms of the Church of Pardror, the god of honour, one a knight, and the other a cleric. They had to be friends of Lady Tarissa, the paladin and leader of the group, and she knew they did not live here, so they were not an immediate concern.
Both of the human women were light haired, and wearing elegant dresses. One had to be Lady Tarissa, but, for the moment, there was no telling which was which. One elf hd long blonde hair, the other wore it cut into a bob, but she did not have an accurate enough description of Calleslyn for that to help. Nor did their clothing help, since either could have been a magician... did Calleslyn go in for traditional elven garb or a simple white dresses in the human style? There was no way of knowing.
"Oooh, Pookie-wumpkins!" cried the woman from down below, in obviously feigned shock. "You can see my boobies! Whatever shaw we do?"
Zarenis clenched her fist, willing the ridiculous woman to just shut up and get it over with. Aside from the sheer drivel that she was talking, her voice alone was annoying and penetrating, a perpetual high-pitched squeal. Whoever 'Pookie-wumpkins' was, the man had a poor taste in women.
She tried to focus on the group across the street again, but with the noise from the house below her, it was impossible to hear anything that they were saying. The manservant had stepped into the corner of the courtyard, outside the circle, as if waiting for any further instructions, but the others were drinking wine and chatting among themselves. It was a clear night, with a cloudless sky... surely she could hear them were it not for the interruptions from downstairs.
"Oooh, you mustn't touch me there – that would be vewy naughty!"
The man, who had been largely silent up to this point, broke in with his own interjection. "Snuffle-buns – suck my cock!" Thank goodness, thought Zarenis, as this action at last silenced the woman. Perhaps the man had got as bored with her prattling as she had, and had thought of an effective way of shutting her up.
With the sounds from below at least temporarily quietened, it was, as she had suspected, possible to hear snatches of the conversation from the group. It soon became clear that the guests were not adventurers themselves, but that three of them were associated with the temple of Pardror. Since that included the elven woman in the white dress, the other elf had to be Calleslyn. It was also obvious that Almandar was flirting with the short-haired elf, although Zarenis sensed from their body language that things had not got far between them. Still, if he had a weakness for women, that might be something she could use.
With the adventurers currently describing their latest exploits, it soon also became clear which of the human women was Tarissa. There was no real clue as to the identity of the other, who did not seem to be talking much, and, at times, seemed a little uncomfortable. More importantly, though, Zarenis hoped that she could gain some clue about their treasure from the tale of how they had found it. Clearly, there was some sort of deep underground tomb involved, out in the wild lands to the north. The perfect place, she supposed, to find some sort of black magic item that would fit Lady Amloth's description. If she listened a little longer, then...
"Did my Pookie-wumpkins wike that? I'm suwe he did! But I feew a wittwe damp between my wegs, can my Pookie-wumpkins think of anything to do to make me feew better?"
Zarenis ground her teeth, and resisted the temptation to bang her head against the wall. Or, better yet, to go downstairs and kill the simpering idiot. If it weren't for the fact that a murder would draw too much attention, she was not sure she would have had the strength to avoid doing so. The next-door neighbours might even thank her for it.
"Oh, fuck, yeah," said the man's voice, followed by a long drawn-out squeal of delight from the woman. If she had been prattling before, she was even worse now. Her high-pitched nasal voice, which sounded like it ought to have broken glass, was alternately ululating and squealing like some sort of tortured animal, in between occasional exhortations to her lover and the sound of vigorously slapping flesh. Zarenis wondered, from the sounds, if he was spanking her too, although she would have thought that strangulation would have been a better option.
The tiefling held her head in her hands, and glanced across at the other nearby buildings. It would be difficult to get there, but it might be worth it. Although, being further away from the villa, it might not even help very much. How long were these two idiots going to keep at it?
At last, just as she was beginning to formulate ways of killing them that might not cause unwelcome attention, the man let out a loud groan, and the pair lapsed into blissful silence. Zarenis removed her hands from her ears, and looked over the balcony again. As luck would have it, the guests appeared to be leaving. Whatever information she might have gleaned was gone forever now. She wanted to punch the roof in frustration, but that would have made a sound, alerting the now silent couple below.
There was, she suspected, nothing further to be learned. So, as quickly and quietly as she could, she snuck back to the far wall to climb down again. The sooner she was out of here the better.
As she lowered herself down, she heard the penetrating voice one last time. "Oooh, shaw we do that again...?"