Well, secret project is done, but now I'm on vacation.
Which is not enough to stop my updates! Hahahah!
"Oh, that's Juriss, alright. But you don't want to go there." The bartender took a few absent swipes along the bartop, not quite watching Lodaris. The latter scratched his beard absently, and frowned.
"Let me be the judge of where I wish to go." The bartender looked up at the grim tone in Lodaris's voice. "Are there any boats departing for there soon?"
"Not soon." The bartender shrugged, and put down the rag, pointing outside. "There's been a lot of piracy west of here. Rumours say Lintha. Juriss-bound ships get sunk, or ships coming back. There's only one ship left willing to make the trip." He paused, thinking. "Actually, it's in port at the moment; not leaving for a few days yet, though. You can go talk there."
Lodaris dropped a silver coin on the table, and nodded. "What's the name of the ship?"
A hand slipped out, and the coin vanished. "It's the Azure Rider. Docked in Berth Three. Nice enough, but very strange." He paused, before trying again. "They say strange things about Juriss lately. Odd visitors, the Lintha. Might not be safe even for an Exalt, if you'll pardon my saying so."
Lodaris smiled grimly. "It won't be safe for anyone who tries to stop me." The bartender looked into his eyes, and decided not to press the issue. Turning, Lodaris strode from the room. Sitting at the bar, Alina watched him go, and turned her attention back to her ale. As she took a sip, she listened to the regulars talking amongst themselves.
"Wonder what an Exalt wants in Juriss?" A scarred man sitting at the bar frowned thoughtfully, taking a swig of his drink. "Not much up there except that damned mountain."
"And Lintha, these days." Another man grinned humourlessly. "Maybe he's decided to hunt pirates."
Alina listened carefully, sipping her drinks. It had become a habit on their trip northwest. She would enter the bar quietly, behind Lodaris, her magics shielding her from notice. After he left, she would listen to the gossip of the regulars, and then leave and give any information she had found to Lodaris. Twice, this had saved them from running into trouble - once when the bartender gave Lodaris incorrect information out of spite, and once when they almost booked passage on a slave-runner. Not that they would have been prey for the slavers, but they were trying to keep a low profile, not go around flaring their animas and sinking ships.
This time, however, there didn't seem to be much of interest. While the locals were gossiping about the extensive raiding on Juriss-bound ships, it wasn't anything she hadn't already heard. She was about to stand and leave when the door swung open again, and she glanced over out of reflex as a man strolled in, looking as though he owned the place.
He was tall, with short blonde hair and pale skin, wearing a deep blue jacket and seaworn breeches, with a long black cloak careless tossed over one arm. He smiled to the bartender, and gestured. "One of the usual, Max." The bartender nodded, pouring a glass of wine from a dusty bottle that he pulled from under the bar, and one of the men in the corner raised an eyebrow.
Ignoring him, the man took the glass easily and glanced around the bar. Alina's breath caught in her throat as his eyes passed over her... and then returned. His smile widening, the man strolled over and nodded. "Mind if I sit here, miss?"
Alina smiled a bit nervously. He had seen through her Charm. "Of course, sir. I was just leaving." She stood smoothly, as his smile took on a sour expression, and nodded to him. "Good evening." As she swept from the room, out into the damp streets, a thin silver of moon casting shadows down across them in a cold, clear sky, she shuddered despite herself. She didn't know how he had spotted her, but it was too dangerous to stay around. Better to slip back to Lodaris as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, she was so focused on moving quickly, she didn't move as quietly as she should have. More importantly, she didn't pay close attention to her surroundings. As she turned around a corner, she spotted a man breaking away from the shadows and walking towards her. She instinctively shifted into a defensive stance, looking him over. He was poorly dressed, and holding a nasty-looking knife in his right hand, and he grinned nastily at her. "There's a toll for this street."
"Really?" She kept her voice level, but with the slightest hint of fear. Subtly, she gathered Essence around her, letting her movements become more limber, as she considered how much force she could use against him without revealing her nature.
"Yeah." His grin widened, and he started to step forwards. "Everything you got, and maybe you get to..."
The stars went out.
Both Alina and the thug glanced upwards in surprise, as the night abruptly became that much darker. In that moment, a shadow detached itself from the darkness and moved with blinding speed. As Alina's attention moved back to the thug, he gasped in pain and doubled over, an arm clenching his shoulder in a painful grip.
"Now, this is no way to treat a lady, sir." The voice was light, and easygoing, as the man from the bar smiled. He nodded to Alina. "Would you like me to help this vermin shuffle off the mortail coil, madame?"
"Uh... no, thank you." Alina looked at the terrified thug, and back at the strange man. "I think he's learned his lesson." She glared at the thug, who tried to nod before wincing in pain at the grip on his shoulder.
"Very well." The man smiled again, and let his arm snap out, sending the thug stumbling sideways. "You heard the lady. Leave. And pray I don't meet you again." He smiled, and Alina saw that his teeth had extended into fangs. The thug scrambled to his feet, running for safety, and the stranger turned back to Alina, with a bow.
"Madam. The streets of this squalid town are not safe at night."
"I see." She nodded, still transfixed by the teeth, and the man turned to glance at the retreating thug. When he turned back, his smile was a normal one, without fangs.
"I must apologize for the state of this town. No matter how many rats one kills, there always seem to be more. Are you staying nearby, or would you like an escort?"
"Thank you, kind sir, but I am quite nearby." She managed a curtsy, and a weak smile. The stranger nodded solemnly.
"Very well then." With a second florishing bow, the stranger turned. "In the future, you might want to watch yourself." He winked, and then strode down the street; as he did, the stars began winking one by one back into being. Alina watched him go for a moment, and then, catching her breath, turned and made for the inn.
Somehow, she couldn't shake the feeling that she would meet that bizarre man again.