"I will have your head, mighty Prince!" the lead troll bellowed. It lifted the broadsword snatched from the hands of one of the Dracopolis Prison Guard and lifted it, preparing to cut Avan Weatherstrong's head from his shoulders. Avan struggled against the two trolls who were holding his arms but the situation was hopeless.
Saeed had seen enough. He lit the tip of the sparkle tube and threw it down on the floor in front of the troll. The troll paused, looking down to see the last inch of the fuse disappear in a curl of smoke. That was the last part of the before that Saeed could watch before he had to close his eyes tightly.
Saeed heard the sparkle tube explode and the sudden cries of alarm from the gang of trolls who had ambushed Avan at the crossroads. Only when the glow of light had faded a little from its initial intensity did Saeed risk opening his eyes.
It appeared that Avan had noted the sparkle tube and just managed to close his own eyes before the contents of the small alchemical device had ignited. He had managed to twist out of the grip of the trollish henchmen and was even now choking one of them into unconsciousness.
Saeed smiled to himself and dropped down from the rooftop to join in the fray. Blind trolls were still dangerous but both Saeed and the Prince had received training in unarmed combat, the trolls could only crush their opponents if they could find them. Neither Prince nor thief were stupid enough to allow themselves to be caught.
After the trolls were unconscious and restrained the problems began.
"You're following me," Avan said to Saeed, his tone cold.
"You were in trouble, I thought I could lend some assistance," Saeed replied.
"I have never needed assistance before," Avan said.
"Well, there's always a first time," Saeed responded. "I'm sorry that I acted rashly and was played for a fool. I have been long away from Faerie, studying in a strange city beyond the edges of reality. I was arrogant to think that I was the most sophisticated thief in all of these lands."
"You were," Avan said, Saeed believed that he detected an infinitesimal softening in the Prince's tone.
"I have never made the same mistake twice, Prince Weatherstrong," Saeed said. "Please, let me help you set things right."
"I suppose that it would do little good for me to refuse," Avan sighed. "Don't make the mistake of thinking that I couldn't escape you. I can't both escape you and defend Dracopolis from harm. Once this situation is resolved we shall re-examine our relationship."
"I accept the terms of the agreement," Saeed said as the Prince strode away from the heap of tied up trolls they had left at one corner of the crossroads.
"There's no agreement," Avan said. "Just a statement of the way things are."
"Then I accept the way things are," Saeed replied hastily.
"Well, none of us have much choice about that, do we?" Avan muttered as he reached the edge of a nearby plaza.
Saeed looked over the scene with Avan, everything was not as one could hope. One of the buildings to the eastern edge of the plaza was ablaze. There was no one outside watching the fire, that meant the inhabitants of the building had fled in terror, or something worse.
Saeed could make out the odd motion from the side streets around the plaza but no one was venturing out into the open square. Anyone foolish enough to do so would present too easy a target.
"I was hoping that the guard would have set up a defensive position here," Avan said. "Something must be preventing them from getting this place under control."
"So what do we do?" Saeed asked.
"We'll go to the palace, someone there will be able to tell us what's occupying the guard. The sooner they're free to lock down the city the sooner this will all be over."
So Avan and Saeed made their way carefully towards the central Palace in Dracopolis, the chief residence of the Draco Emperor. Saeed marvelled at how easily the decision to stroll into the palace had come to Avan. Saeed had never met anyone who could just go wherever they pleased before. There was something refreshingly direct about his approach to problem management.
Of course, Saeed considered, as the palace guard waved them through each outer section of the palace in towards the central residence, Avan Weatherstrong was the most heroic figure in the entire history of the Faerie realms. It was no surprise he could just walk into the palace and ask for information. If Saeed had tried this alone he would have been skewered and beheaded by now.
As Saeed was beginning to wonder if they were going to get waved all the way through to the emperor himself the answer to the question was resolved. They were shown into a room where the General in charge of the Palace Guard was poring over a map of the city upon which were arranged a number of models, some like trolls, lizard men and other minor monsters, others were in the shape of Dragon Guards.
There was one model on the table that was white, whilst all the others were carved out of deep grey stone. The white model was a skeletal figure wrapped in a flowing cloak. Many of the guard figures were arranged around that figure but so far away from it that it took Saeed a moment to see the pattern.
"Prince Weatherstrong," the General said, ignoring Saeed entirely, "I am so glad to see you, we really could do with some assistance."
"With this individual I take it?" Avan asked motioning to the white skeleton figure on the map.
The General nodded grimly.
"That is Sergeant-Major Xalotl," the General said. "He's in charge of the City Guard. Sometime shortly after the jail break he became possessed by the spirit of Oban Reif. Reif used Xalotl's body to steal the Star Arrow from the palace vault and escape towards the north."
"So the available Guard are busy tracking him down," Avan said, nodding as he understood what was preventing the guard from taking back the streets.
"To use the Star Arrow, Reif needs the Sky Bow," the General explained further. "That's locked in a vault in the Sapphire Treasure House, we have guards there now, hopefully we'll be able to capture Reif before he gets the bow."
"Is there anything we can do to assist?" Avan asked. "My sword and my companion's wits are at your disposal."
"We really just need Reif stopped," the General said. "Then we can get on with containing the escapees from the jail house."
"I take it that if Xalotl can be returned to you unharmed that would be appreciated," he said.
The General pursed his lips and cast a gaze back over the map.
"If the Sky Bow and the Star Arrow fall into the wrong hands," the General said. "The consequences would be grave indeed. Xalotl understands, as we all do, that he has given his life to the protection of the capital."
"I understand," Avan said. "We shall do everything we can to help your people resolve this matter."
And then they were off again. Avan strode purposefully out of the palace with Saeed following along very much in the prince's wake.
"Did you just agree," Saeed asked. "To kill this man who has been possessed?"
"I didn't agree to kill anyone," Avan said. "I don't know what conversation you were listening to."
"It just sounded like..."
"The General is a military man," Avan cut Saeed off. "When it comes to matters such as this he needs to believe that drastic measures are available to the people he trusts."
"So you lied to him?" Saeed asked.
"I never said that I would countenance killing a victim in cold blood," Avan replied. "What he wanted to hear is up to him."
"But what if it does come down to that choice?" Saeed asked. "Retrieve the artefacts or let Xalotl live, not both?"
"Do you feel like the kind of person who would let it get to that point?" Avan asked.
"Well then," Avan said with an air of finality, "that makes two of us, come on."
The chaos on the streets of Dracopolis was worsening, without the guard's full attention on containing the break out the freed prisoners were running rampant. Saeed had a little experience of dungeons and jail houses so he knew that not every inmate of such a facility was a danger to the common folk. However Saeed also knew that a significant number of them would be, releasing them all onto the streets of a busy city in the hours of darkness could only really have one effect, the one that was playing out before them now.
Saeed was impressed to note that Avan had enough skills in stealth to avoid detection by roving criminals so Saeed and himself made it to the Sapphire Treasure House in under an hour. Fires had been set in several locations across the city, the interplay of firelight and deep shadow served only to give them a larger number of places to hide on their journey.
The Sapphire Treasure House was, in many respects, identical to the Diamond Treasure House where Saeed and Avan had first crossed paths. The main difference was that this treasure house was situated in amongst a bustling nest of small residential dwellings.
As they drew near to the high, forbidding walls of the vault Avan ducked into an alley. Making use of the narrow walls in the space between two houses Avan scaled up to the roof of one of the properties by bracing his legs and arms against the surfaces. The prince made the move look easy, as did Saeed when he followed on behind. Saeed knew that his own proficiency at the action required constant disciplined practice.
Admittedly the prince's own movements were a little less fluid than Saeed's but it was a difference only a professional thief would have noticed. From their new, elevated, position Avan lead Saeed over the roof of the dwelling to jump onto the uneven surface of a nearby, taller wall.
Saeed had to concede the prince some skills again as he scrambled up the surface assuredly, using hand and footholds that most people would not even have noticed. Saeed made up some ground on the prince reaching the top of the wall. Saeed did not allow himself any sense of pride in the achievement, he knew that Avan Weatherstrong was a great sorcerer and a formidable fighter and tactician in addition to his stealth and dexterity. The prince would never win in a thieving contest with Saeed but then, that was not the man's goal.
"What is this building?" Saeed asked quietly as they walked along the edge of the steep sloped roof.
"Temple-Almshouse," Avan replied, "erected in service of Akanno, goddess of the waters. It's the tallest point outside the treasure house walls in this district."
"It's not tall enough to provide us with an entry point to the treasure house," Saeed said.
"Not my intention," Avan said, pulling a pebble-sized roll of bread from a pouch on his belt. He crushed the roll in his hand and sprinkled the crumbs in a little pile towards the lip of the ledge. Following this the prince pulled a small vial of liquid from his pack. He took a sip of the liquid and then drizzled some more over the crumbs, ensuring they were completely soaked.
"Move back," Avan said to Saeed. The prince and the thief retreated into the shadows cast by a belfry in the north east corner of the roof top to wait.
After a few minutes birds began to drop out of the sky and peck at the crumbs. They were small dark birds with odd spiky feathers of a type Saeed had only encountered in the Terra Draconis. Before long a number of the birds had pecked up the crumbs and taken off again.
"So, what now?" Saeed asked.
"Now I can see everything that's going on," Avan said, leaning against the angled slope of the roof. "The effect of the potion lasts almost an hour. You are going to have to help me now."
"What do you want me to do?" Saeed asked.
Avan picked a leather cord up from around his neck. A number of beads were strung off the front, one black, a number of white ones and then one red. Avan took the black bead and the red bead off the cord. He held the black bead out to Saeed.
"Lodge this in your ear," he said.
Saeed did as he was told. Avan popped the red bead into his mouth.
"Now you will be able to hear me wherever you go, until you return the bead to me," Avan explained. His voice had a strange echoing ring to it that Saeed guessed was coming from the bead in his ear. "The birds have already shown me Xalotl. How long will it take you to reach that house over there. The one with the spiraled ornament on the northern ridge." Avan pointed to a house in the distance.
"A minute, no more," Saeed replied.
"Xalotl will reach that location in just under half that, be swift," Avan instructed. "Try to render him unconscious. Do not hurt him. Once the body is down put this in his mouth until the jewel glows blue." Avan handed Saeed a small totem figure with a very large head. A small black gemstone was lodged in to a head band carved at the top.
Saeed didn't ask any questions, he just grabbed the totem and set off at full pelt across the rooftops to his intended destination. Although he was faster than he had ever been before Xalotl had nearly walked the full length of the street beside the house by the time Saeed dropped silently onto the street behind him.
Sneaking up on some one and rendering them unconscious were two things that Saeed did very well indeed. Within another minute Xalotl's body was laid out flat on the street and the jewel in the totem's headdress was glowing a bright and steady blue.
Before long Avan had joined Saeed and reclaimed the totem.
"Good work," Avan said, and he sounded as if he meant it. "I'm still feeling the effects of the scattereye potion, you'll have to help me check if Xalotl's still got the artifacts."
Saeed rolled Xalotl over, the Sergeant-Major had a pack slung over his shoulder but it was empty.
"I think, if Xalotl ever had the items he already handed them to someone else," Saeed said.
"Not to worry," Avan said. "I can still get information from the birds flying overhead. Most of them have settled into nests now, there's less motion in my mind's eye than there was before. Just give me a moment-" Avan's face, wearing a look of intense concentration, suddenly dropped into a mask of alarm. "Oh... no," he said.
"What?" Saeed asked.
"I know who took the artifacts from Xalotl," Avan said. "And she's just released a horde of vampires into the Almshouse."
"Miranda!" Saeed said, there was really only one person she could have referred to at this point. "I'll get after her."
"No," Avan said. "We have to save the nuns in the almshouse, I can't do it alone with the scattereye still in force."
"What about the bow, and Miranda?" Saeed asked.
"We can catch up with her later," Avan said. "For now, we have to make sure no one gets hurt."
Saeed and Avan did manage to save the nuns, returned Xalotl to the palace and Oban Reif to jail. They did, also catch up with Miranda Felix and discovered why it was she had stolen the artifacts from the Treasure Houses of Dracopolis, all of this is a story for another time.