All the Crown Jewels. Part Two

“Okay,” He breathed, still being careful to keep his voice low. “We are in. You have an idea of where the treasury is right?”

Kara shook here head. “No. Where would the fun in that be?”

He stifled a groan.

“Don’t worry.” She went on. “We will find it. It will be where the most guards are.”

Stark sighed. They kept their ears open and strolled through the passage. It opened abruptly onto a rather large cavern which had been fashioned into a training yard. Barracks and what appeared to be the armoury was embedded in two of the three walls that faced them and a gate dominated the third.

There was considerably more light here as well. The flickering gaslights and torches of the city were gone. In their place were bright glowing orbs. They filled the empty space with eerie blue and green, unwavering light.

“We can’t stay here.” Kara murmured. “There is no cover. That gate must lead into the palace proper, but where are the guards?”

“I don’t know.” Snark replied. “And I don’t care. It’s bad luck to look too closely at found coin. Let’s go.”

The pair dashed across the open space to the gate. Even here, there were very few shadows. The gate had been cut into the wall seamlessly and all the stone had been polished to a mirror shine. All the better for maximizing what little light there is underground. In all of the known world, there was no one better at stonework than a dwarf, and it seamed that only the best laid hands on this gate and the palace beyond.

Their luck was holding. Not only were there no guards stationed at this gate, it had also been left open. Snark followed Kara through and gently closed the gate behind them. Open gates, especially those leading into the homes of kings, had away of drawing unwanted attention. He didn’t pull the bar down though. It was always best to leave possible escape routes open. One never knew when one was going to be needed.

They kept to the shadows as best they could. It wasn’t long until they found their way into the palace proper, and the place was filled with more of that eerie blue and green light. There was far more light here than Snark had expected, and it was quiet. It would have been easy to avoid any patrolling dwarves because they would have heard them coming. The average dwarf wouldn’t be able to sneak up on a man if his life depended on it. Dwarves simply just didn’t know how to move quietly.

Which made the silence of the palace corridors grate on Snark’s nerve all the more. Where were the courtiers? The dukes? The earls? Or whatever passed as nobility here in this nation? And the servants, where were they?

This is wrong. Kara signed. It feels too easy. There is no way these halls should be empty like this. We should have seen someone by now.

Agreed. He replied. Let’s just find that treasury and get out of here. I don’t want to get caught up in whatever is going on here.

The layout of this place is starting to feel familiar to me. Her fingers twitched as her she looked around. I think that the treasury should be close to the royal apartments.

Just lead the way to the gold. He winked. I will follow.

Snark followed her as she lead him through the grand halls of the palace. If there was one thing that he could appreciate about dwarves, it was this. They liked to build in a nice ordered fashion. This made it difficult to get lost and much easier to find what one was looking for. They kept off the main corridors as best they could. Kara had a good sense of direction and a almost supernatural knack of ending up exactly where she wanted to be. Snark, well, he did get lost in his own house once. In his defence, he was awfully drunk at the time.

They came to a junction where several corridors came together and it was here that their luck gave out. Heavy footsteps bounced off the marble walls, making it impossible to determine the direction that they were coming from.

“Crap.” Kara swore. “Where are they coming from? They are coming closer.”

“Damned if I know.” Snark replied. “I have an idea.”

He ran to nearest lamp and blew it out. Kara, following his lead did the same and the pair of them crowded into the shadows behind one of the columns. Snark hoped whomever it was would pass by without noticing them.

A pair of kolbolds rounded the corner, followed by another pair. Snark wasn’t up on kolbold livery, however he could guess that the over large goblinoid creature that loomed over the rest was a person of importance, a chieftain or maybe a shaman perhaps.

Next came the dwarven king. He was paced by two kolbold warriors, one on either side of him. He still held the emblems of kingship, the jagged crown that shown from his brow, and a sceptre which was heavy and little more than a heavy mace. It was quite clear that the king was no longer running the kingdom. His once proud head hung and his gaze rarely left the polished floor. Lines of magic threaded themselves through the dwarven king’s aura and seemed to be feeding from him.

The entire procession marched pasted Kara and Snark and didn’t seem to notice anything at all amiss.

Kolbolds! Her fingers quickly flashed in front of his face. What the hell are kolbolds doing here?

He shrugged. How the hell am I supposed to know? He signed. I think the better question would be, what are they up to and how can we get in on the action?

Kara crossed her arms and glared at him.

Isn’t it obvious?

Okay, dumb ass. Her fingers flashed. Explain.

Snark sighed. Dwarves in general do tend to have a lot of coin. While it is true that they don’t mine a lot of it, they do mine a lot of other metals. Iron, copper, silver and of course mithril. Mithril is worth more than gold. We shouldn’t forget that people pay a hell of a lot for dwarven crafted weapons. Even the stuff that the dwarves throw away as junk is far better than what the most skilled blacksmith can make.

Her eyes went back to the scaly bat like creatures. So, she replied. They are here for pretty much the same reason we are.

Pretty much. He agreed. But hey. This doesn’t change anything. We are still trapped here. The entire dwarven nation is still hunting the city and the countryside for us. That hasn’t changed, though I suspect that we had disrupted their plans by swiping the idol.

What are we going to do now?

Snark grinned. Did you see the size of that diamond?

Kara’s sudden grin matched his own. And that crown looked pretty shiny too. I don’t think that the king really needs it anymore now that the kolbolds are running things.

They took extra care as they moved away from the door. Kolbolds in more civilized lands are seen as brutish creatures, and for the most part that was true, it was never a good idea to underestimate them, or dismiss them as purely vermin. Those ears of theirs could hear almost as well as the bats that they resembled and they were known to have powerful shaman’s among them.

Snark knew for a fact that there was one close by. He didn’t know the purpose of the lines of energy that snaked through the stone around them; there was no way for him to know, but it was a good solid guess that it wasn’t anything good.

Shuffling steps echoed from the stone around them. Snark grabbed Kara and pulled her with him through the nearest door.

“Mine!” A high pitched squeaky voice protested.

They slowly turned around.

A short kolbold stood in the centre of the room with a dwarven child dangling from his arms. Blood pooled around the creature’s feet and soaked into the rug. Small limbs and the occasional torso were piled high off to one side. In the farthest corner from the grim scene, a dwarven woman was bound hand and foot. She struggled fiercely against the ropes that bound her while a small group of children cowered behind her.

The kolbold dropped the corpse. Snark flinched. “They were given to me,” The kolbold pounded on his chest. “Grimloch. Grimloch the bold. Grimloch the sneaky. You no take them.”

The Grimloch creature pulled a squealing infant from the arms of its sibling and cooed as he caressed the child’s head. He opened his mouth wide revealing jagged teeth and moved to pierce the baby’s skull.

Kara let fly. Her dagger buried itself to the hilt in the kolbold’s eye. Instantly Snark rush forward and caught the babe before the body could hit the floor. He breathed a sigh of relief as he cradled it in his arms and looked the little one over.

“I bloody well hate kolbolds,” Kara muttered under her breath. She plucked her blade from the cooling body and wiped it clean on it’s rags.

Snark looked up from the baby in his arms and glanced at the group of dwarves. “So much for not being seen. What should we do about them?”

Kara shrugged. “Leave them as they are. We can’t take them with us and we can’t let them roam about on their own. They would just raise the alarm to our presence and they probably would just get eaten by the kolbolds out there.”

The dwarf maid squealed and shook her head vigorously. She tried to tell them something around the gag that was clenched between her teeth.

Snark blinked. “I think that she can understand us.” He stepped closer to get a better look at her. “You know, this might be the queen.”

“Really?” Kara went over to stand beside him. “Are you sure?”

“I am pretty sure.” He replied. “No servant or underling would wear any of those jewels. That ruby is flawless. I think that is diamond dust in the grooves of those hair things that she is wearing.”

“Clips.” Kara corrected him. “They are called hair clips.”

“Whatever.” Snark brushed the hair from the dwarf’s eyes. “That is a royal circlet. If that isn’t a sign of royalty them I am a orcish bard.”

Kara snickered. “You are an orcish thief. That is almost the same thing.”

Snark leaned over the queen and examined the ropes that bound her. He adjusted them, making them both more comfortable for the dwarf and more secure at the same time.

“It’s too bad that we have to leave them here.” Snark said. “We can’t afford to get caught and between the kolbolds and the children, she is going to have more than enough to worry about than what we are up to.”

“What are we going to do with this little guy?” Kara waved her hand at the baby in his arms.

Snark looked around the room. “Give me a few moments.”

It didn’t take long for the pair of them to scrap together a make shift bed for the babe. They placed it next to the queen and placed the now drowsy child within it.

After that was done, Snark pulled a spare dagger from his boot and thrust it into a near by table. One that was just out of the queen’s reach. Kara arched a brow. “Are you sure that you are not going to need that?”

“No.” He replied. “But she is going to need something in case one of those kolbolds wander in here looking for their buddy over there. If she is smart, she will get herself and those children some where safe as soon as she manages to get herself free, and forget that we were here at all. I don’t want to leave her defenceless. I am just buying us some time. We should be long gone before she has managed to cut herself free.”

“Makes sense.” Kara shrugged.

He turned towards the door, then stopped. “Just one more thing before we go.” Snark smiled at the queen and her eyes narrowed. “I think that we should take our reward for saving them now. Since, we have no intention of ever coming back this way.”

Kara nodded and went to listen at the door. Snark’s slender fingers plucked the circlet from the queen’s brow. He held it up to admire it a moment before adding it to the idol that was stowed in his bag. Her rings and the golden chain that held the ruby quickly followed. The worry and desperation in the dwarf’s eyes quickly turned to astonishment, then rage.

Snark merely shrugged at her expression. “Nothing is free in this world. This is a small price to pay for the life of the little one. Don’t you think so?”

The dwarven queen snarled at him.

“Are you done yet?” Kara asked. “I can hear movement in the corridor. We have to get our asses out of here before we get pinned down.”

“All done.” Snark saluted the queen and turned away. “Time to move on.”

The dwarf screeched at him as he silently slipped through the door leaving her and the children behind.

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All the Crown Jewels. Part One

The entrance to the tunnel was his only way out, and it was filled with dwarves. He told her that this was a really bad idea and like always, she managed to wrap him around her little finger.

This was going to be an easy score, she said.

They won’t even know that they were there, she said.

Don’t be a coward, she said. This was going to be the heist of a lifetime.

Yeah right.

Now like always, he was left holding the bag, quite literally at the moment, and Kara was nowhere to be seen. Typical. One day he was going to learn that she was going to bring him nothing but trouble and that she was going to be his downfall. He knew this in his head, but damn it, other parts of his body disagreed and here he was yet again. All she had to do was smile that smile and like a bloody fool, he would end up doing whatever it was that she wanted doing. Kara knew exactly how to play him and he was starting to hate her for it.

One thing was in his favour, they didn’t know that he was here, yet. It was only a matter of time before some one discovered that the idol was missing. He had planned on being far away when that happened, but right now, there were a dozen or so dwarves standing between him and freedom.

He shrank back into the shadows and prayed to the laughing god for away out of this mess alive. He didn’t even want to think about what they would do to him if he got caught. After all, this was the most sacred relic of their faith and not only was he a heretic, he wasn’t even of the same race. He smiled to himself. If, by the blessing of the laughing god of thieves, he could pull this off, he would be named as one of the greatest thieves who ever lived.

This wasn’t the time for dreaming though. Everything had to happen in the right order. Never count the gold until you are away and free, Snark, he told himself. Stopping to count the gold when you have the constables on your trail is what gets good thieves caught.

He watched then from the shadows and cursed. The dwarves were calm and there was no sense of urgency or alertness to their actions. The theft hadn’t been discovered, but they were not moving on either. What he really needed was something to get their attention. For that kind of thing, he really needed his partner in crime and she was nowhere to be seen. The idea of going deeper into the underground didn’t appeal to him, it might be days or weeks before he would see the sun, if ever again, but there wasn’t really another choice. This was still the only way out, and it was only a matter of time before one of those dwarves looked in his direction at the wrong moment.

Snark jumped out of his skin when a hand tapped him on his shoulder. He spun around, his hand automatically going for his dagger, and meet laughing emerald eyes. He slowly let his relieved breath out.

She tilted her head and smile impishly. Her slender fingers flittered about in the intricate silent language of thieves. What are you still doing here? I thought that you would have left long before now.

He motioned towards the gaggle of dwarves milling about between them and the tunnel’s entrance in answer.

Her gaze followed his gesture and she shrugged. So? She rolled her eyes at him. What of them?

Snark shifted the weight of the bag so that he could reply, scowling all the while. The movement of his fingers flowed as gracefully as her’s despite their burden. They are between us and the way out. There is no way to sneak past them. The passage is too well-lit.

Details, details. She signed back.

Kara, as much as he loved her, was going to get him killed. The marker for his grave was going to read, “Here lies Snark. A good man who was lead to his death by a woman’s wiles. May he rest in peace.”

Do you know what they do to heretic’s here? Snark frowned at her. When it comes to their religion, dwarves are not a forgiving race.

Oh shush. Her fingered danced in fount of his face. It isn’t as bad as all that, besides. She tilted her head and graced him with her most beguiling smile. I have an idea.

Oh gods, he thought. I am surely going to die.

This wasn’t a typical dwarven city. It was much smaller and less grand than the great crags that he was accustomed to seeing in the north. He wouldn’t have dared to even attempt to steal anything from there. Foolish, he might very well be, however suicidal he was not. The dwarves their selves didn’t even speak the same language and everything else just felt more primitive. They had just as much treasure though. Gold was gold no matter what shape it was in and jewels sparkled just as much. The tunnels and pathways wound just as deep into the mountain, Now, that is what was really bothering him the most.

Snark just wasn’t built to spend any great deal of time underground. The mere though of the tons of rock that hung over his head was enough to send his heart racing and make his hands shake. It just wasn’t natural for any sane person to like having stone rather than sky above their head.

He did his best to put all thought of the ceiling from him mind and concentrated of following Kara back into the depths of the dwarven city. He followed her fleeting form as she kept to the fringes and found pathways that even the dwarves seldom used. The shadows were their friend and of those there was no shortage. He wasn’t a tall man by any means and Kara was just a mere slip of a girl, however, there was no chance of either of them being mistaken for dwarves should they be seen. They were both too tall and too slender.

It wasn’t until they came to the great iron gates of king’s palace loomed before him in all of their glory that he realized just what might be going through that pretty little red head of hers. Snark skidded to a halt and stared at the sight. The gates were thick and heavy, heavy in the way that only dwarves would build, which was bad enough. What really caused the hair on the back of his neck stand on end were the thin lines of eldritch force that shimmered before his eyes.

These were not the elegant spidery thin lines and glyphs that he was accustomed to seeing. These were set in blocky runes. They were solid, square and utterly impossible for him to read.

Snark snatched at Kara’s cloak and spun her around to face him.

“What?” she asked. He cringed as her soft voice bounced though the darkness and he clapped a hand over her mouth as fast as the words had left her lips. Laughter shone from her eyes as she gently pried his fingers from her face. “No one here can hear us silly.”

“Are you insane?” He growled at her in a hushed whisper. “Do you really want us to break into the palace?”

“Well, no.” Kara tilted her head in thought. “The treasury is where the crown jewels are kept. I think.”

His hands flew to his own mouth and he stomped his foot. It took every inch of his will power and training to keep himself silent.

The distant sounds of boots hitting the pavement caught their ears. Kara pushed them both deeper into the shadows and sighed.

It’s a great plan. She signed. Any minute now they are going to discover that the idol is gone. This is the middle of their high holy days after all. When that happens every dwarf is going to be out for blood.

Yeah. He agreed. Ours.

Yeah. Kara continued. And when that happens all but the most minimal guard will be sent to the gates and every other way out of the city. Why? Because that is what a good thief would do. No one would ever dream that we stayed to rob the royal treasury, much less steal the crown. It would be almost unthinkable and that is why they wouldn’t even think to look for us in the palace itself. We could swipe them, lie low and when they are searching the city for us.

A slow grin started to creep on to his face. We use the shock and confusion to escape the city.

Exactly. She grinned.

Okay, he thought to himself. It wasn’t that bad a plan. It would give them a far better chance of freeing themselves from the dwarven city with their necks intact. The odds just went from impossible to slim.

They turned their attention to the iron gate that arose before them. The new-found plan was simple, but implementing it wasn’t going to be. Snark studied the gates more closely with practiced eyes. It was clear that they would not be able to slip in through the front, which wasn’t a surprise. With the extremely rare exception, it was never a good idea to walk in the front door. A good thief always slips in through the most unexpected way, and that was what he was looking for.

He was ready for the challenge. They couldn’t go around, because the gate was set within the substance of the mountain itself. There was no wall to climb over and no window to climb into. It was a puzzle that was starting to fascinate him, if only because his life was depending on it.

The city shuddered with the sudden sound of blaring horns and pounding drums. Kara swore under her breath and pulled Snark back into that ally by the scruff of his neck.

They appeared almost from nowhere. Dozens of dwarves marching two a breast, sometimes three where the passage would allow it. Their armour was polished to a near mirror shine and the light from the lamps glinted from the sharp edges of their axes. On each chest the stamp of the royal house could be seen. There was a good chance that these solders were those who served and protected the king. They would be the elite, the best of the best, and they were marching away from the palace.

Snark peered around the corner of the building, taking care to not be seen. He didn’t need Kara’s tugging on his shirt to remind him that he shouldn’t stick his head out too far.

What are you doing? She frowned at him as her hands flashed the words before his eyes. Do you want to get us killed?

Snark shook his head and signed back. No, he replied. I just need to see where they are coming from is all.

Why?

He rolled his eyes at her. Because, his hands moved very slowly and deliberately as if he were signing to an apprentice who had yet to master the silent language. I think that this is the royal guard and the are marching from the palace. Not towards. They are coming from somewhere.

So?

He blinked. If they have a way out besides the gate, then we have a way in without being seen.

Kara’s eyes lit up, and he turned his attention back to the marching dwarves. He didn’t get a good idea of how many of them there were, but that didn’t really matter. What mattered is that they appeared to be going away from the palace and towards the centre of the city where the high temple stood. Some clever thief did steal their most holy artifact after all.

When the last of them passed by the pair of them slide from the depths of the shadows to peer down the passage. It looked like every other street in the city and at first glance it appeared to be unchanged. But as they watched, a pair of guardsmen surveyed the area and went back to their posts.

“And that is our way in.” Kara whispered into his ear. “We just have to get past them.”

“Easier said than done.” Snark murmured. “I think that we are going to need a distraction of some kind. I would suggest that you get their attention and lead them off somewhere, but that would give the plan away, and both of us need to get through those doors besides.”

“Or we could look for another way in.” Kara suggested. “If there is one door, there are bound to be others. In a cavern this size, there is bound to be vents to bring the air in. Maybe we could use one of those.”

Horn’s blared somewhere in the city again. The cavern walls of the city bounced the sounds around and made it difficult to pin point exactly where they were coming from. They couldn’t see the dwarven solders and guardsmen, but from the rhythmic pounding of boots on pavement that echoed through the ally, Snark could tell that they were getting close. While the dwarves were not searching for them within the heart of the city, it just wouldn’t do for the pair of them to be seem. It was absolutely essential that they remain unseen. Snark wanted the dwarves to think that they had escaped the city and to take their search out there.

Kara nudged him in his ribs. “Look.” She whispered. “I think that they are leaving. Foolish dwarves.”

Snark turned his attention back to the gate. She was right. While he was distracted by the blaring horns, a commander of some sort had arrived and was furiously yelling at the guards at their post. He couldn’t understand a word of what was being said, but it was clear from the waving of arms and stomping of feet, that the commander wasn’t having a good day. While it was impossible for him to understand exactly what was being said, Snark had a fairly good idea of what was going on. When the commander was done, he and the two guards followed the path of the column and disappeared into the shadows.

“Quick.” Kara whispered into his ear. “How fast can you pick a lock?”

Snark smirked. “Faster than you.”

They took a moment to be sure that no dwarven eyes were peering their way, then darted over to the door. It was made from a solid wood. Snark suspected that it was iron oak, but he couldn’t really tell because of the poor light. He didn’t really care much about the door. What interested him more was the stout lock that was embedded in it.

With dwarves being a paranoid lot, the locks that they make are the best of the best. High merchants, aristocrats and anyone else with anything of value for that matter, always paid top coin to get their hands on good dwarven locks. Which was why, Snarl had spent countless hours learning the art of opening them without leaving a trace. He pulled the specialized picks from his pocket and moments later they were inside with the door closed and secured behind them.

Into the Wilds

They were close. She could hear the hounds baying as they caught her scent. She could smell the musk of the hunters who followed them. If they got too close, there would be no loosing them. They would catch her, then kill her.

She gathered all four feet beneath her and ran. She had no time for anything else. There would be no backtracking, no laying down of false trails, or for any of the other tricks that would throw them off her scent. She had no time.

Her world was nothing more than the pounding of her heart, the rhythm of her feet hitting the ground and the trees that rushed by.

Her only hope was to put as much forest between herself and them. She didn’t dare think about who they were, or what they had meant to her. She couldn’t afford to let the grief consume her. Her life depended on it.

It didn’t take long for her to for the hunters to fall behind. The same could not be said for the hounds. The dogs were almost nipping on her heels. No matter how hard she ran, they were still closing the distance between them. These dogs had been trained to relentlessly run down prey. They had been conditioned to do so from the day they were born. She has only had a few hours to learn how to be a wolf.

If only there was a creek or river that she could use to make them loose her scent. If only there was time for her to change back into a girl. If only she knew how.

Her only hope was to get as deep into the forest as she could and prey that there was a point where the hunters would not pass beyond.

From the time before she could walk, she had been told stories about the things in the forest. Those tales wound themselves inside her head. Her aunt had filled the evenings with yarns of the dark and unnatural things that lurked in the shadows of the trees. Things that always waited to pounce on the unwary.

Naughty children were particularly delicious, she had often been told.

She had no idea if any of it was true, and it didn’t matter. There might be something dreadful in the wilds, and then, there might be nothing. It might kill her, and then, maybe it wouldn’t. There was no way for her to know for sure. But she did know, those who hunted her, people whom she had known her entire life, most certainly would end her life.

Trees grew larger the deeper she went in. The undergrowth became more dense. Branches clawed at her fur and the ground became uneven beneath her feet. Having more legs meant only that there was more ways to trip.

She burst through the trees and skidded to a halt. A deep ravine split the earth open before her. It was too wide to jump and too deep to climb. She could go left or right, and she picked one.

She did her best to hurry, but the uneven stone forced her to walk. The granite edges were uneven and unstable for her to do anything other than to walk.

She came to a dead end before long. Looking up at the crumbling wall of stone before her, she sighed. It was over. There was no where else she could go.

Her tongue rolled out of her mouth as she panted to catch her breath. The baying of the hounds sounded on the air, and the hunters would not be far behind them. Every muscle in her body begged for rest, and she lay to rest, first on her belly, then on her side. She had nothing left to do but wait. They would find her soon enough and end it.

Even wolves can cry.

The cold seeped from the rock and into her fur. She didn’t notice that the cries of the dogs are her trail faded away and ceased. There was a part of herself that didn’t care. She didn’t even hear the sound of the person approaching her. Feet covered in leather boots appeared before her eyes and by then it was too late.

Gentle hands rubbed her ears and she whimpered at the touch.

“It’s okay, little sister.” A deep voice said. “You are safe here. Welcome home.”