Sneax owes "rent money" to Russitan Lassiter, a dangerous thug from the Docks District of the port city of Wanderhaven. Desperate to avoid getting her ears cut off for failing to pay, she volunteers to help Lassiter with a shady deal up at the Old Church, only to discover that the deal involves a Fire Elf!
Sneax and her best friend, the apprentice mage Elaina Emboo, were put on lookout duty while Drax the Fire Elf and Lassiter finish their deal over a valuable alchemical substance called Distilled Tiger Essense. But when the Tiger Essence is stolen, Sneax has no choice but to go after it--at the City Guard Headquarters!
And now... Chapter 6: Coming Up Empty.
It didn’t take long for Sneax to search the Guard’s headquarters. After all, she was only really concerned with the third floor. That’s where Thorin Battleaxe had his office, and as it happened, it was also where the Guard kept impounded evidence. Moreover, with the Guard so preoccupied due to the threat of fire elves, the Headquarters itself was practically empty, giving Sneax the next best thing to free run of the place.
Not that it helped.
Sneax had to dodge guards twice, but in neither case was it hard. After all, it’s not like they were expecting to find anyone on the upper floors of their own headquarters building. Plus, the place was mostly dark. There were a few lit oil lamps, true, but even those shed little more than weak light—and left lots of shadows. No, the problem wasn’t that Sneax had to sneak around. The problem was that no matter where or how effectively Sneax looked while she was sneaking, the fact was, she couldn’t find the Distilled Tiger Essence anywhere. At first she thought that the problem was that Thorin had hidden it very cleverly, but after a solid half-hour of searching, even that faint hope faded, and Sneax had to face the truth.
The Distilled Tiger Essence just wasn’t there. Sneax could keep searching—could, in fact, search all night—but there was nothing there to find.
Deflated, Sneax made her way to the portal she’d used to break in. She waited for the guards to pass, clambered down the side of the Headquarters building, and then melted into the shadows. In a moment, she was back in the alley where she’d left Elaina.
But she didn’t see her friend.
“Elaina?” she called.
“Over here, Sneax.” That wasn’t Elaina’s voice!
Sneax whirled, knife in hand.
And there he was, emerging from shadows of his own. He had his arm around Elaina’s neck and his dagger was drawn up next to her ear. Elaina’s eyes were the size of saucers. Sneax could tell she was petrified with fear.
“Now, now,” he said. “I really didn’t come here for your friend, Sneax. All I need is you. We got’s to go see a man about a deal. Seems one of us owes him an explanation.”
Sneax heart fell through her stomach. “You’re giving me to the fire elf?”
“I just need you to explain to the man what happened is all,” Lassiter replied. “I figure maybe he’ll take it a little better if it comes from you.”
Sneax starred at Lassiter, saw that he was serious. She saw in the same instant that she could get away, that with him holding Elaina, there was no way in the world that he’d be able to catch her before she disappeared. But she saw just as clearly that it didn’t matter. That all of her worrying, her searching, none of it had mattered. She couldn’t let Elaina get hurt. Ultimately, she was at Lassiter’s mercy, and there was not a thing in the world that she could do about it.
“Yeah alright,” she said. “Whatever you say, Russ. Just let Elaina go, okay?”
Lassiter smiled. But he shoved Elaina away with a push. She stumbled and went down, but at least Sneax knew she’d be safe.
“Elaina, you get on home, okay?” Sneax said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Elaina mumbled something, but before Sneax could so much as turn and help her to her feet, Lassiter was grabbing her by the hair.
“Come on, Sneax,” he said. “We got work to do.”
Lassiter shoved her away, and Elaina stumbled to the ground.
“Elaina, you get on home, okay?” Sneax said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Sure thing,” Elaina replied under her breathe. But even as she said it, she began to draw power to herself. This thing with Lassiter had gone far enough. Live or die, Elaina was going to blast Lassiter in the face with whatever magic she had at her command.
“Come on, Sneax,” Lassiter said. “We got work to do.”
Elaina breathed, giving herself a moment to clear her mind and channel her power. Then she stood slowly and turned, ready at last to give battle.
But Sneax and Lassiter were gone. She’d waited too long and missed her chance.
Defeated, Elaina slumped to the ground. Her power ebbed away.
“It’s not fair,” Elaina said to herself. “I could’ve helped her. I could have!”
It was all so frustrating. Elaina thought about the past two days. About Master Marconi’s words to her and about all the missed opportunities to get Melanie McGonagallinvolved. Sneax liked Melanie, had even lived with her at the Temple of Apollo when Sneax was younger. Melanie could have helped.
Maybe Melanie still could help, Elaina thought.
Just like that, Elaina sat up. She gathered what little power remained around her back into herself and began furiously shaping it.
“It’s not too late,” Elaina told herself.
She could only hope that that was true.
Lassiter led Sneax back to the Docks, to an abandoned warehouse at the edge of the district. The place was a wooden structure, and it was old. The clapboard shingles that made up the walls were weather-worn and faded with age. Like the Old Church, the roof on the warehouse had partially caved in, as well. Still, the place was big. Sneax guessed it had once been a major transshipping point, but at some point fire had struck and gutted the both the roof and one of the walls, leaving it standing like some kind of freeform manmade cave. Racks that had once held bundles of wool and straw and barrels of whiskey and wine now stood blackened and empty. Shadows grew thick in the place; what little moonlight there was offered nothing in the way of real illumination.
As they approached the warehouse, Lassiter picked up a couple of bullyboys—rough-looking characters straight off the wharf. The one on the right—Sneax thought of him as Righty—was a sharp-faced man with mean-looking black eyes. He wore a dark sweater with holes worn in it and a pair of dirty dungarees not unlike her own. Righty’s greasy black hair was tied back in a ponytail, and his chin was rough with stubble. Lefty—the one on the left—could easily have been Righty’s brother, but his face was a little rounder, and his eyes were ice blue. And instead of an old sweater, Lefty wore a long sailor’s coat.
“You boys seen anything?” Lassiter asked.
It was Lefty who answered. “Nah, man. It’s been quite. You sure this is the place?”
“’Course I’m sure,” Lassiter replied. He thrust Sneax out in front of him. “It ain’t like Old Draks can just go walkin’ into town, you know. He’ll be here. Ain’t that right, Sneakatara?”
“Yeah, Russ. That’s right.”
Righty and Lefty both smiled like Sneax had made a joke. Suddenly she found herself wondering why that was funny. Can’t be anything good, she thought.
Russ came up behind her. “Well don’t just stand there, girl. Go on in.”
He pushed her, and Sneax turned, ready to give him a look like he was crazy. But she saw that he already had both his dagger and his short sword in his hands, and his face was tense with concentration. Sneax gulped and turned back around. The shadows of the building loomed up in front of her, and she took a step forward.
“Go on,” Lassiter said again. “This ain’t the time for half-steppin’.”
Sneax wasn’t sure how she did it, but somehow she kept walking. She just put one foot down in front of the other, step by step, until the building was all around her, the shadows swallowing her whole.
“Um… hello?” she called into the darkness.
A silky voice answered from the shadows. Draks. “Ah… if it isn’t the lookout. And Mister Lassiter. Good evening to you.”
Draks materialized from the darkness as if by magic, and Sneax could see immediately that he was holding a loaded crossbow leveled right at her. Gone was the dandy from the other night. Where before Draks had seemed dangerous but playful, this time he was all business. He wore black fighting leathers in place of the previous night’s flamboyant suit, and his hat was gone. Instead, his hair was tied back in a simple fighting braid.
“I should warn you that you are surrounded, Mister Lassiter. Have you brought my Distilled Tiger Essence?”
“I, uh… I ain’t got your stuff, Draks. But I know who took it.” Lassiter pushed Sneax roughly forward. “It was this little sneak-thief, here.”
Sneax whirled. “What? But I didn’t—“
Lassiter cuffed her hard, right on the ear. “I only just caught her,” he said, “but I figured, you know, maybe you’d want her. So’s you could make her talk and all. Make tell you where she hid the stuff.”
At that, Draks smiled. It was the scariest thing Sneax had even seen.
“Well then,” he said, “I guess you’d better hand her over.”
But before Lassiter could do that, the building exploded.