On the Trail

[Karyn, Regina]

Takayoshi found the others in the alley. Regina was bent over the spot where Ari had lost the scent. The Tracker examined the trail for some time, then stood and motioned for the others to gather around her.
"Your quarry is very adept at hiding his trail," she said, "but not so adept as he thinks. They went that way, through the east gate."
"All right, then." Karyn said, "Let's go. Keep close, everyone. Uh, Takayoshi, cover our backs. Breannyn, stay close to me. You and Sammel take the lead, Regina."
The party followed the trail out of the gates and then northward, through sparsely populated farmland. Whatever trail Regina was following, it was indiscernible to all but her. The Tracker did not seem to hesitate when they came to a crossroads or a break in the path; she seemed very certain of the direction of Kieraan's escape.
The trail climbed a darkened hill and dipped into a gully with high, sandy banks on either side. It seemed a rather suspicious looking area and Karyn halted the group for a moment.
"Would anyone care to scout ahead?" she asked.
"Allow me," Breannyn said softly as she stepped forward, "sneakin' around is what I do best. Picked it up from my father I s'pose." Then, before anyone could answer, or try to stop her, she had ducked into the shadows. Her voice drifted back to the group for a moment, "be back in a bit," and she was gone.
Brea crept silently and cautiously around the hill. "Well, just like old times," she thought to herself as she concentrated on all the sounds around her. As she came around into the gully, she stopped. She didn't have to see or hear them in the shadows beneath the tall sand banks to know they were there.
"Gods," she thought to herself as her nose wrinkled in disgust, "someone's been eating garlic."
Lowering herself carefully to the sandy ground, she crawled towards the shadows of the gully. Suddenly, the area lit up slightly as the clouds momentarily revealed the moon. Within the shadows that remained, she could just barely discern several deeper shadows, a couple of which shivered slightly in the dampness. As the light faded back to darkness, she began making her way back to the others. She was sure there were at least three on this side of the trail, and more than likely just as many on the other.
"There are at least three to either side of the trail," Brea said quietly, as she emerged from the shadows like a cat. Her green eyes glistened brightly as the moon emerged from the clouds once again. "An' from the smell, I'd say a couple of 'em have been drinkin'."
[Takayoshi T.]
The former ninja heard the "good" news about the three drunk men, as he protected the rear.
"I say it's either time to sober them up or to put them out of their misery, but we should be very quiet about it. Since, I am sure there are more of them out there." The ninja then smiled, and put his hand onto the hilt of his katana. "If you want, I can take care of them permanently, unless you want them alive?," he then paused and cracked a smile, "Sorry, I just haven't seen much action lately..."
He then stopped, and listened very carefully.
"SSHHHHH!!", he put a finger to his mouth, "I think I hear more of them out there right now. I'd say, at least 4 or 5 of them. What do you think Regina and Breannyn?"
While waiting for Regina's and Breannyn's reply, he tightened his grip on the katana and pulled it out just a little, where enough magical light was able shine upon on his black-hooded head.
The Bardmistress thought for a moment before replying. "I'd like to avoid bloodshed for the moment, Takayoshi." She said at length, "If you can subdue the three on the left the rest of us can take the others. But take Brea with you, just in case. We'll give you a couple of minutes head start. Go on."
Karyn and the three remaining party members watched as the Takayoshi and Breannyn slipped into the darkness. Thaddeus Troll crouched low just ahead of them, keeping an eye on the pair's progress with his enhanced troll sight. The Bardmistress, Sammel, and the strange Tracker drew their weapons and prepared to move out. Karyn paused to regard Sammel with a concerned look.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
Sammel started, then looked over at Karyn. "I will be," he replied, though he wasn't sure of that himself. He was struggling with a bloodlust he'd never felt before, one he hadn't known he was capable of feeling. He wanted only to slice through anything, and anyone, who stood between him and his friend. But he knew that if he didn't keep his control, he'd be of no use in this rescue mission. So he closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, and channeled his anger into a prayer to any god that would listen. Then he drew his rapier and silently followed Regina through the forest.
Meanwhile, Brea was trying desperately to keep her eye on her companion (not an easy task when that companion is a black-clad Ninja). Finally, she gave up trying to adjust her eyes to the dark figure slipping in and out of the shadows ahead of her, and simply attuned her hearing to his soft, padding footsteps and his rhythmic breathing.
Then, as they neared the men hiding along the trail, she switched gears again, and let her nose lead the way. She angled off towards the first man, who, she noticed as she crept nearer, looked as if he was about to nod of at any moment. A quick smack to the side of his head, though, put him to sleep a little more immediately. "Nighty, night," Brea laughed inwardly, "Hate to wake up with the hangover you're goin' to have in the mornin'."
[Takayoshi T.]
He nodded in compliance and understanding upon seeing Breannyn's departure to subdue the first man. Then, when she disappeared into the forest shadows, under his own will, he disappeared! "I love this 'ring of invisibility'", he thought to himself.
Meanwhile the former clan-obedient ninja, stalked behind his prey. "I would really love to cut his throat, but I did promise Karyn to no bloodshed," the former assassin contemplated, "Anyway, drinking like THAT, he'll probably die by the cup."
The hidden grin of the masked ninja went unseen as he got behind the drunken man. In a flash of lightning, the drunken man was dragged out into the forest by his neck. With an invisible choke hold around his neck, no one could hear his screams. The grasp got tighter and tighter as though a giant was literally squeezing his neck...moments later the drunken man fell on the ground, unconscious. The ninja then reappeared. "Your lucky I forgot to bring my girdle of storm giant strength", he thought to himself, realizing that, in fact, he DID forget, "Shucks, I left it on the stupid table. I knew I forgot something, that explains the bare feeling around my waist! Oh, well, I don't work out and channel my chi' for nothing."
The 6' 230 lb. muscular and flexible ninja found a good a length of rope on the man and began to tie the man's legs together. He then took the other end of the rope and put it around the largest nearby tree trunk. He then tied the other end fairly tight around the man's neck (of whom had his back against the tree trunk), but not tight enough as to choke him. (until, he starts moving.) He then tore two pieces of the man's clothing. One of them he tied the man's hands together. With the other, he tied it around the man's head, in order to gag him. He then look on the ground to search for any tracks or evidence that would lead to him or the Bards. Upon seeing nothing, he walked away. He then stopped and turned around.
"He won't be going anywhere for a while," the ninja's hidden smile, would've shown you how much he loved his job. Again under his own will, he disappeared into thin air as he went off into the darkness of the forest.
"I live for this kind of work," he thought to himself in esteem. He reappeared out of thin air, as he approached Breannyn. "Don't worry my guy is not going anywhere," he whispered to her, "by the way, what about the third one? Do you want to take care of him? Just asking."
[Breannyn] "Be my guest," she whispered back in reply, "you seem to be enjoyin' this."
[Takayoshi T.]
The ninja nodded in compliance and in happiness, as he disappeared into thin air. The unseen menace quickly dragged the man down and into the forest with an invisible choke hold. Like, his unconscious compadre, the man passed out.
The phantom ninja then appeared out of nowhere. Even though he could not find any rope on this man, he proceeded by tying the man's legged and feet together around a favorably sized tree trunk using the mans own clothing. (preferably the man's pants, which he took off). He then took off the man's shirt. He used that to tie up the man's hands around the trunk as well.
The ninja then proceeded to use his wakizashi to cut down a relatively straight and firm branch. He put the branch across the man's mouth. Using the man's own belt (that held up his pants and scabbard), he tied a loop that ran around each end of the branch and around the back of the man's head.
As before, the ninja searched the area for ANY trace of his or the Bard's presence. Upon seeing nothing, he looked toward the man and mentioned that the tree straddling man was going nowhere.
The ninja's hidden smile again shown his love for his job. He then turned around and vanished into thin air!!
The ruffian crouched in the woods with his three compatriots, waiting for the party to appear. They had been paid in gold by the strange dark robed man to waylay the Bards as they came up the hill. Herman burped, rather loudly, thinking that perhaps it had not been a good idea to drink half their profits before coming out here. He sighed, and then the world turned around very fast and he was staring at a Troll.
The very large, very grumpy Troll wearing black sunglasses held the drunk degenerate aloft by the scruff of his neck. Baring his teeth, Thaddeus growled in his usual eloquence, "Go away."
Sammel pressed Ari and Khale down into the leaves. "Stay," he breathed to them, then sneaked up behind one of the ambushers, whose attention was momentarily riveted by the appearance of Thaddeus. Sammel tapped him on the shoulder, and as he turned around, punched him in the face with the hilt of his rapier. The brigand dropped, unconscious and with a badly broken nose.
Sammel grinned. 'That'll have to do for now,' he told his bloodlust. At his soft whistle, Ari and Khale rejoined him.
Regina had by this time disarmed one of the other would-be ambushers, and another had fallen asleep from the liquor. Karyn Silversheen strode out of the darkness, checking across the road to see that her companions had taken care of the other group of ruffians. Turning to the Troll, she smiled and said. "Wait. Check him for clues, Thaddeus."
The Troll grinned and, inverting his quarry, began shaking the man violently until his pack, pockets, and fillings were empty.
"Ugh! Urp! I k-now nuh...nuthing...nuh....nothing! He went that way.... Ugh! Ugh erp! Help! Erp!!!"
"Well at least we know we're on the right trail." Karyn said. Calling across the road she summoned the others, and then had Thaddeus release the hapless ruffian and his cohorts.
Sammel pondered the situation for a bit as they waited for the rest of their party to rejoin them. He walked over to Karyn.
"It's curious," he said in a low voice. "So far most of Kieeran's hired help hasn't been very effective. I wonder...is it due to a lack of resources, or has he invested most of his resources in something we'll run into later?" He smiled wryly.
"You don't think he wants us to follow him do you?" Brea asked, as she crossed the road to join the others. "I don't know much about this guy, but he could just be usin' Melyda as bait. I mean, why else would he leave such an easy trail to follow? Unless he WANTS to be followed."
[Takayoshi T.]
The ninja spoke up.
"You do have a point about him wanting us to follow. Believe me, I never thought that before, but now you mention it...Anyway, if he wants us to follow him then, by your god, we should follow. I understand it could be a trap, but if we don't follow him...", he paused dramatically, "We all know what could and possibly will happen. I laugh in the face of danger. Besides, as my Master Ikashi once said, 'You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink'. Meaning, if he wants us to follow him, then we should. That means, we can AT LEAST find him. If he does have a trap set for us, then we should be ready for it. I say we move on and keep our eyes and ears open."
"You all make some valid points." Karyn said. "It may well be that this Kieraan fellow wants us to follow him. Or it may be that these men were only meant to delay us while he plans something else. Either way, we have no choice in the matter. We're not leaving Melyda in that madman's grasp any longer, not if we can help it. We go on. Takayoshi, take point. Thaddeus, watch our backs. Let's get moving."

(part 3)
The first thing Melyda became aware of, as she climbed back to consciousness, was the vile taste in her very dry mouth. The second thing she became aware of was the throbbing pain in her left elbow. Luckily, she was lying on her right side, so there wasn't any added pressure on it.
Melyda stirred her sluggish thoughts to try to remember how these conditions had occurred. It took a few moments, but she finally remembered...
'The Festival... the theft of that book... the alley... Kieeran!'
She held her breath, listening intently. There was no sound. She appeared to be alone, at least for now. She let out her pent-up breath, then slowly tightened the muscles in her arms, trying to move them apart. No luck; her wrists were bound together. She didn't dare move her legs to find out, but she assumed they were bound as well.
Fear quickened her breath, tightened her muscles, threatened to overwhelm her. 'Stop this! You've got to stay calm,' she told herself. She focussed on her breathing, making it slow and deep, as if she was still asleep. Only when that was accomplished did she turn her mind again to her situation.
She didn't know how long she'd been unconscious, but surely it was long enough that Sammel and the others were aware that she was missing. They may even have started looking for her by now. But she'd bet good money that Kieraan had worked to disguise his trail, and he might have implemented some delaying tactics for any would-be rescuers. Somehow, she had to delay him herself until help arrived, keep him from being able to use the book. But how?
'First things first,' she thought. 'Keep pretending you're unconscious.' That wouldn't work for too long, but it was better than nothing. But once her deception was exposed, what could she do? She pondered Kieeran's actions, hoping it would lead her in the right direction.
'He was pretty quick to snatch me, and his kidnapping had to have taken some time to set up. I doubt he studied my spell for long. Perhaps I can fool him, make him think it really is complicated to remove. I'll have to be careful, though. He's undoubtedly a much better mage than I am, and he'll be looking for deceptions. Still, most mages like him think that spells like mine on the book have to be complicated. I may as well try to fulfill his expectations...'
Melyda began to meditate, trying to keep herself calm and relaxed. She automatically started to send healing magic to her elbow, then stopped. 'I can't do that,' she reminded herself. 'He might sense it, and then he'd know I'm awake.' She settled down to endure the pain, the dryness of her mouth, and the fear that she couldn't completely purge.
He strolled into the upstairs bedroom, making his footfalls loud enough so that she could hear him approach. Sitting down at a chair, he poured a glass of water from a pitcher on the table, and settled back. Turning to a mirror that hung on the wall across from him, the mage waved his hand, forming a magical sign with his fingers.
"Your friends are most efficient." He said, knowing she could hear him, even though the bookseller still feigned sleep.
The mirror now depicted an image of the Bards as they dealt with the drunken ruffians. The images shifted and shimmered, focusing on each member of the rescue party in turn.
"Yes, most efficient indeed. A troll! That's unexpected. And one of those vaunted Rangers of Havenwood....Is that Karyn Silversheen I see? Lovely girl. You know, I once saw her in the city of Karesh? She was in "The Minstrel's Song" playing the mayor's daughter. Brilliant performance. Hmmm...that fellow in the dark clothing, now he is someone to be reckoned with....and who is this fellow?"
The mirror had focused on Sammel, his face hard and grim, his eyes reflecting pain and concern. "Well, he seems rather determined....I wonder why that is?"
Melyda grimaced inwardly. Kieraan didn't seem the type to talk to himself... or an unconcious adversary. Plan A wasn't faring very well. Still, it might not be a bad idea to continue. If she did, even though it was quite obvious that he knew she was pretending, he might think it was the only way, short of direct confrontation, that she had to delay him. That upcoming confrontation, she knew, would be rather unpleasant, and she'd just as soon put it off as long as she could in any case.
Besides, she still didn't know for sure what he wanted of her. She'd been assuming that he wanted her to lift her spell because he hadn't done it himself; she'd have felt the backlash if he had. But what if he *did* know how, and was just waiting to do it later, for...well, for whatever reason he might have? What if she was just being used as bait to lure the others in? Her heart squeezed at the thought.
'Enough,' she told herself. 'Cross that bridge if you get to it.' She kept herself still and silent, even as Kieraan started describing the rescue party. Thaddeus... Karyn... would Elwynn come too? Takayoshi... and that last one... it took all her discipline to keep herself still and not look at the one she knew must be Sammel. She schooled herself to patience. Soon enough, Kieraan would put an end to her deception-that-was-no-deception, and the battle would truly begin.
"Well, whoever he is, we won't have to worry about him much longer," Kieraan continued. "Not to sound like an overused clichee', but we are quite safe from your friends here, Bookseller. Would you care for a glass of water? We have all the time in the world, you know. I'm sure you have several questions. I may not answer some of them, but it won't hurt you to ask."
Melyda sighed and sat up. Quite honestly, she didn't know *what* approach to take with Kieraan anymore. 'One shouldn't theorize without data,' she reminded herself in the words of a favorite book of hers. The only way she could learn enough about Kieraan to know whether she could even start Plan B, let alone make it successful in delaying him, was to interact with him. 'Weakness doesn't seem to have helped me much; let's see what a little strength does.' She kept her eyes closed for a moment and sent a spurt of healing magic to her elbow, bringing the pain down to a bearable ache. Then she opened her eyes and looked directly and measuringly at Kieraan.
"I might as well start with the obvious, then, and get that out of the way. Why is that book so valuable to you, and why have you brought me here?"
The sorcerer laughed. "I would think the answers to those questions would be equally obvious. The book contains magic of a sort which would make me the most powerful mage in Ifrean. You are here because you have the key to unlocking that magic. Specifically, the unlocking of that clever little spell of yours. I could, of course, research it myself, but that could take years. However, I imagine that getting it from you would take considerably less....say, perhaps a few months. Unless of course you are willing to be cooperative?"
Melyda sighed inwardly with relief. He *didn't* know how to remove her spell. She quickly scanned it, feeling its weave. It was a little ragged in spots, but had held up very well. Perhaps her planned bluff would work after all, if she needed to use it. But no need to start it right away--Kieraan would definitely become suspicious if she gave in too quickly. So she smiled a little sourly at him.
"I would think the answer to *that* question would be obvious. I'm as committed to stopping you as they are," she said, nodding at the mirror. "And I don't think they'll give you even one night of peace, let alone a few months."
"Oh I don't expect them to." Kieraan said, an icy smile pervading his lips. "I expect them to come after me. That's why I've taken certain precautions."
He nodded to the magic mirror and waved. The image of a small keep appeared in the frame. The view expanded to reveal a wall with a drawbridge and portcullis, and then a wide moat. The drawbridge was in the process of being drawn up, and armed men could be seen moving about the walls.
"This is where you are, my dear. I took the liberty of obtaining this edifice before I came to Montfort. You can see here the outer walls and moat. I have thirty trained mercenaries on the walls, and enough food and provision for a long siege. Do you really think a handful of Bards could breach my defenses? Oh, and you needn't worry about that silly woman with the blue pointy hat, either. This place is fully warded against magic assaults. So it appears, my dear, that we are going to be together for some time."
Melyda stared at the mirror, frowning a bit and gnawing the inside of her lip. She wasn't at all familiar with the territory around Montfort, so she had no idea where she was. 'I wonder how he could afford all this,' she thought--then immediately snorted softly. 'He's a dishonest mage, Melyda. Of *course* he's got money.'
She was worried, but not nearly as much as Kieraan likely wanted her to feel. Her friends were already on her trail, and she didn't rate their chances as low as Kieraan did. But even if they did rescue her, there was still a good chance that one or more of them would be killed, and she *hated* the thought of that. There wasn't much she could do about that, though...except to distract Kieraan however she could. For now, she maintained her worried frown and waited for Kieraan's next move.

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