Episode 4: Expected and Unexpected Competition
Tension permeated the abandoned Mechanist Tower from almost the moment Harlan began his entrance into the second-floor passageway. Several minutes after the twins descended into the access point, Harlan pondered the all-too-real possibility that if he were to follow, he would wander into another of Ryker and Rayner's traps, setting him up to be cut open and his share of the statues lifted from his corpse. Instead, he donned his climbing gloves, secured the wall, and scaled the outer face to the window leading to his sixth-floor quarters. As he entered, he noticed to his relief that the door was still closed. Harlan performed a thorough search of every square inch of the room before sitting on the bed, facing the door with his bow at the ready. Before long, his door creaked open, and two familiar, shadowy figures swept through. Harlan raised his bow, and the two shadows drew back at the sound of the taut string.
"And what are you doing up here?" Harlan inquired.
"Just getting a feel of the place," Ryker returned.
"I'm sure you're also trying to get a feel of where my throat is so you can cut it in my sleep."
"Now that you mention it, that may not be a bad idea."
Just then, the door flung open a second time, and a familiar commanding voice broke the tension.
"Now, if you all were to kill each other, I would lose quite a lucrative investment. I decided three master thieves working for me were better than one, and I intend to keep three master thieves. I thought something like this might happen, so I decided to stop by just to ensure that nobody tries anything funny. Because if you do kill each other, the one who gets hurt in the end is me, specifically my bottom line. I will say this only once: the job is more important than any one of you. And if you turn on each other, how can I trust you not to turn on me? The simple answer is, I can't. Let this be a warning to you: if I come back here and find any dead bodies, I will add to the body count personally. Hate each other all you like, but if that hate turns to murder, I will...preserve the balance." Garrett's voice faltered as he uttered these final words, as if they would bring about an alarming revelation. However, as he finished, he vanished from the room once more, leaving the twins to slink back to their rooms shocked and flustered.
Under Garrett's stern warning, Harlan, Ryker, and Rayner stayed their hands from their weapons in each other's presence. Where the roommates once faced off as paranoid sentinels, they gradually began to view each other as worthy rivals. While each thief routinely checked his stash of loot after leaving his room unattended after a given period of time, they no longer feared death by their rival's blade or arrows. Harlan and the twins all resolved that they would still emerge victorious, but pledged to do so by theft, rather than by murder.
After five days of tension and competitive mind games, Garrett once more returned to Angelwatch for the four statues from the warehouse competition. "I see things have calmed down here," he remarked upon seeing his students gathered together without a weapon in anybody's hand. "I think you all know why I am here now."
Harlan sprang to his feet in anticipation. "You have another job for us, don't you? Well, let's have it! Who am I...er, we, taking on now?"
"Will you relax," Garrett retorted. "We still have some business to take care of from the Tybalt job. Remember, those statues you stole are more than just contest prizes. They are going to fetch a high price on the black market. We have to get them pawned before we move on to the next job. Besides, I have to show Ryker and Rayner how to deal with my fence the same way I showed you. We're making a little trip to Stonemarket. Get ready; you have some money coming your way too."
Garrett directed the twins to Douglas' pawn shop, with Harlan in tow. He ran through the same procedures with the twins, teaching them the burrick hide code, and introducing them to Douglas. Once again, the pawn was more than pleased with the haul, lining the statues up like a rank of soldiers, studying them intently. Douglas' demeanor floated between effusive praise for the young thieves and stupefied marvel at the trinkets they brought him. As the group left, he urged them to come back soon, a sentiment Harlan once again echoed as the party reached the streets.
"Garrett, please tell me you have a job lined up for me...er, us," he corrected as he noticed the twins eyeing him with a look that reminded him that from here on out, he no longer had to contend with only house guards and City Watch, but with them as well.
"As a matter of fact, I do," Garrett responded. "I checked with Douglas, and he told me that Lord Pocrates has in his possession a black obsidian music box. Hand-crafted, sleek, glassy sheen, complete with the usual sickening covering of gemstones, as the nobility does to show off their fortunes. It should fetch a high price once we bring it in. Of course, Pocrates has devoted the bulk of his guard force to watching over that little monstrosity, so getting close to it may prove to be difficult."
"Sounds like a challenge," Harlan mused, checking his sword in anticipation of the upcoming conflict. "Of course, the three of us will all be going after it. Which means..."
"Which means there is only one prize," Ryker interjected. "This time, there will be no tie. We will see once and for all who is truly deserving of the title of The City's greatest thief."
"Your competition is good, as it makes all of you steal at the highest level possible," Garrett observed, looking over his charges intently. "But don't let it get in the way of your job. Remember, all three of you are working for me. You are expected to complete any task I assign you, and if you let your egos get in the way, I won't have any use for you anymore." The thieves quickly nodded in agreement, and headed back to the tower to gain the necessary equipment.
An hour later, Harlan, Ryker, and Rayner were gathered in a bush watching Lord Pocrates' guards circle his extravagant manor, scouring the facade for any weaknesses. As they watched the patrolling guards intently, they suddenly heard a figure drop to the ground behind them. Before any of them could turn to react, a familiar voice reassured them that they had not been caught in an ambush. "Just wanted to say, good luck," Garrett offered. "As Harlan already knows, you will receive my encouragement, but nothing more...except for this." Garrett tossed each of his charges a small scroll, which, when unfurled, revealed a crudely drawn map of the manor. "Remember, you each have your own strengths and weaknesses that can make or break this mission. It's better to use them towards your common goal than against each other. Use your skills for every detail of your theft." The young thieves heard a quick flutter as Garrett jumped back over the wall and into the shadows, undoubtedly to where he could watch the entire job unfold. Ryker and Rayner attempted to make sense of Garrett's words, but memories of the Waterdike job flooded back to Harlan's mind. He silently nodded to himself, resolving to complete a flawless mission to prove to Garrett, the twins, and himself that he was now The City's greatest thief.
After observing the guards' outside patrol route for several minutes, Ryker observed a door at the far end of the building that was left unguarded for an extended period of time. He quickly signaled to his brother, and the they silently made their way through the bushes, with Harlan in tow, pausing whenever they detected a guard nearby. As they reached the door, they waited until the coast was clear, before Harlan darted to the door and pried it open. As he peeked inside, he suddenly felt a hand clutch his shoulder and yank him out of the room. Initially indignant that the twins once again opposed him, he soon heard the sound of snoring, and once he had pinpointed its source, he quickly realized that they may have saved him from a fatal mistake. Had Rayner not pulled him back, Harlan would have burst directly into the guards' quarters. His gaffe, however, was sufficient to rouse one of the drowsy guards. "Hello? Who's there?" the guard slurred as he reached for his sword. Ryker pulled himself out of the shadows just enough to alert the guard that something was there. "That's it, I'll find you!" the now-conscious and suspicious guard proclaimed, stomping out into the garden. As Ryker retreated back into the shadows sufficiently and the guard emerged fully from the room, Rayner sprang from his hiding spot and descended upon the guard with his blackjack. Harlan offered his gratitude by stashing the body in the bushes, and the thieves cautiously peered back into the room, noticing that two remaining guards had somehow slept through the disturbance. Harlan and the twins covered the floor with moss arrows before sneaking into the room, shutting the door behind them, and snuffing the candles burning on the tables. The twins blackjacked the two remaining guards to avoid a future confrontation, while Harlan rummaged through their foot lockers. Each of them scrounged up a paltry collection of coins, but not quite untold riches. The trio huddled at the door leading into the manor, and cautiously eased it open to find a guard walking halfway down the hallway away from them. As they watched him go, they determined that they should wait for him to make another pass before they attack. Not about to let the twins carry the majority of the task, Harlan quickly whispered, "Mine!" and brandished his blackjack. Sure enough, as the guard walked back towards their direction, Harlan glided up to him and knocked him out as soon as he turned. The twins focused their water arrows on the torches down the length of the hallway. As they did, a second guard approached from the hallway perpendicular to the corridor where Harlan had blackjacked his last victim. With the torches covering his hiding spot extinguished, Harlan watched as the guard strolled up to the shadow and, at mere feet from his face, turned on his heels and began his patrol back in the direction from which he came. Harlan raised his blackjack a second time and dispatched his foe with ease. He lifted the guard's body as the twins did the same to the first unconscious victim and deposited them inside the guard's quarters, out of sight for anyone who may stumble across them.
The three thieves made their way down the darkened hall, treading silently on the worn carpet. All three kept watch from different angles, half-expecting a sudden life-or-death encounter. The calm silence and surrounding shadows did little to alleviate their tension. As they passed a door to their left, Harlan pulled it open and snuck inside a small sitting-room. He was able to pull two golden candlesticks off a table in the corner before the twins were aware that the room might contain valuables. As he emerged back into the hallway, he noticed that his companions had opened a second door to an adjacent room, and entered to seize whatever goods contained therein. Harlan realized that just as the twins had missed their opportunity with the first room, he had missed his with the second. He cautiously but steadily continued down the hall to discover the next room ripe for the taking. He entered into a study where he grabbed a stack of silver coins from the table. Meanwhile, Ryker and Rayner, having emerged from a storage room from which they had each taken a bottle of rare and valuable wine, continued the game of one-upsmanship when they reached the next room on their route, another sitting-room containing one small jeweled goblet that Ryker tossed into his loot bag.
The give-and-take stopped at the end of the hall, when the thieves suddenly became alerted to a voice humming and muttering as it approached from the corridor leading down the opposite end of the manor. Harlan grabbed a water arrow and doused the nearest torch illuminating that hallway. The guard, however, was close enough that the flame's sudden demise aroused his suspicion. "Who did that?" he inquired to the intruder he somehow expected would answer him. The twins flung themselves against the walls in the darkened hallway, while Harlan sought refuge in the room from which Ryker had just emerged with the last prize. The guard materialized in the hall, but stayed just far back enough that he could not detect the presence of the unwelcome guests. After several minutes of baited breath and pounding hearts, the guard sheathed his sword, sighed in frustration, and blamed the disturbance on a type of rat that apparently had the ability to extinguish torches. As soon as his back was exposed, Rayner crowned the guard with his blackjack, and stuffed his unconscious body into the sitting-room.
The thieves turned the corner and emerged into the next hallway. Once more, they doused the torches burning on the walls as a safety precaution before proceeding down the hall. They noticed three doors leading to various rooms on the wall to their left, and another door leading to the room on their immediate right. Harlan creaked open this door and leaned in to catch a glimpse of a brightly-illuminated kitchen, and a servant facing his direction, but lost in preparing the dish on the table in front of him. Ryker immediately closed the door again while Rayner tiptoed back in the direction from which they had come. Harlan stood to take another peek, but Ryker threw up his hand, ordering him to stop. After several minutes passed by without movement, Ryker once again slowly opened the door. Before long, the cook rotated to another side of the table to work on the next portion of his meal. As he did, Harlan could see another door open on the opposite end of the room, and Rayner emerge behind a similarly occupied domestic. Ryker followed suit from his side, and within seconds, the twins had subdued their prey. Harlan quickly joined his comrades in the kitchen in scouring for unsecured valuables, but while their search turned up plentiful amounts of bread, apples, and cheese, they were unable to locate any gold. "That's alright," Harlan mused out loud, "The music box we came for should be more than enough." The twins nodded in agreement, and they retreated back to the hallway they had just left.
Having examined the kitchen without much luck, Harlan and the twins decided to focus their attention on the rooms down the hallways. "I got these three," Harlan explained. "If I'm not mistaken, there are three rooms exactly like these on the other side of the manor. Those are yours." The twins silently agreed to this plan, and they set off for the rooms on the opposite hallway, by way of the kitchen. Harlan, meanwhile, drew a deep breath and approached the closest of the three doors. He pried it open and stepped inside a small but ornate library, with shelves adorned with books and, from the looks of things, various trinkets for the envy of Lord Pocrates' wealthy visitors. However, as he began to inspect the shelves and desks, he noticed that the customary baubles were curiously missing. He pawed through the litany of papers and books in search of anything that might fetch a price in Douglas' shop, but was unable to recover any significantly valuable pieces. Bewildered and disappointed, he exited the library, and opened the next door in his path.
The next room Harlan entered was similarly elegantly decorated, with Pocrates' blue and brown crest displayed on ornate tapestries adorning the walls, and vases and fine china on fireplaces and shelves. However, as Harlan inspected his loot, he realized that, while beautifully lacquered, these items were made of common, ordinary material, and Douglas would laugh him out of his shop should he pull them out of his loot bag as prized captures. Frustrated, he hurled a vase to the floor, shattering it to pieces, and ran about the room, cutting the tapestries in half, hoping to possibly find a safe or passageway hidden behind one of them. When no such treasure turned up, Harlan stormed out of the room and marched to the final door down the hallway. He flung the door open and wildly began to ransack the area, neglecting to make a thorough casing of the room beforehand. Fortunately, no guards or servants were waiting to greet him, but the room was also equally devoid of valuable loot. A treasure box sat on a desk in the corner, but when Harlan went to open it, he discovered it to be empty. He exited the room shocked and amazed that all three rooms on his side of the lower level did not yield a single treasure.
Harlan opened the door on the other side of the hall, leading out into a massive courtyard that occupied the middle of the mansion. Just as he opened the door, he glimpsed the back of a guard to him, setting off to examine the other side of the yard. He raised his blackjack, dispatched his unaware victim, and deposited him behind a series of bushes and trees in the shadows. As he peered out from around a tree, he noticed a second guard on the opposite end of the yard heading his way. Harlan prepared to set another ambush, but the guard suddenly slumped to the ground, and he could see two figures dragging him to a similar spot across the yard. "Well?" he inquired as the twins emerged into the light in the middle of the yard.
"Nothing," Ryker announced. "We've checked every room down on the floor, and there is not a single trinket worth taking." He and Rayner gazed intently at Harlan, waiting for him to reveal his fortunes.
"There wasn't anything valuable on my side either," Harlan admitted. "This job has been a complete disappointment so far."
"What was Garrett thinking when he set us out on this mission?" Rayner wondered aloud. "Either Douglas gave him some bad info, or we're walking into a trap. Either way, I want to get out of here sooner rather than later."
"As long as the music box is there it should be alright," Harlan reassured him. "Garrett wouldn't set us out on a job like this if the main loot wasn't worth it. The music box is our focus, and we have to concentrate on taking it. I'm sure we'll be rewarded more than enough for it, so whether we grab a bunch of vases and plates won't matter in the end. However, if we come back without it, we will have failed, and we'll get nothing."
"I guess you're right," Rayner muttered. "Let's get going. The music box is on the second floor, and there are no passages to get us there past the guards on the main stairway. We're going to have to find a way to throw those guards off their posts." The thieves peered around the corner to see a large, curved staircase ascending to the second floor, the only means of access to the treasure room. A single guard stood at the base of the steps, and as Harlan and the twins looked upward, they could make out the feet of a second guard at the top. "How are we going to get past these guys?" Rayner inquired. Without a word, Harlan pulled a noisemaker arrow from his quiver and sent it clattering across the room. The commotion alerted both guards, who began circling the immediate area with their swords raised, hurling threats to nobody in particular. Before long, the guard at the bottom of the steps approached the shadows where the thieves were hiding, but was unable to distinguish the dark cloaks hiding the three intruders. As he turned his back once more, Harlan sprung from his position and struck like a cat, rendering another victim unconscious. He dragged the guard into a safe spot and ran into the main hall, halfway up the stairs. His brazen charge into the brightly-lit hall and quick run up the marble staircase instantly alerted the other guard. "Thief!" the sentry shouted. "I'll run you through for sure!" The guard drew his sword, and once again, Harlan found himself running for his life down the stairs and back into the shadows from whence he came. Unlike his other encounters, this one was not an accidental occurrence. With a yell of "Now!", he averted his eyes as one of his companions dropped a flash bomb at the feet of the guard while the other pounced with his blackjack. Ryker quickly disposed of the body in a dark spot under the staircase before the three thieves moved to the top floor unopposed.
The thieves crept through the doorway and onto a balcony overlooking the main hall. They darted from shadow to shadow until the wall gave way to a door. Ryker eased the door open and stepped into a tiny sitting-room. As usual, even this tiny room was bedecked in lavish furniture, ornate carpeting, and fascinating paintings. And as usual in the House of Pocrates, nothing of significant value was available to take. The thieves continued down the balcony until they came to a second door. This time Harlan eased the door open and stepped inside. A fire roared inside a hearth, with another exquisite painting on the wall above. However, the room once again proved barren in the way of potential loot. Harlan emerged from the room dejected and once again began his trek down the corridor. Towards the end of the hall, one final door stood, inviting the thieves to try their luck. By this time, all sense of wonder and anticipation had vanished from the thieves' minds. Harlan nonchalantly flung the door open and, while he made sure to conceal himself as he peered in to avoid a potential meeting with a guard, he slowly trudged into the room once he determined that nobody else was inside. Sure enough, neither guard nor gold awaited him in this sitting-room. As he exited the room, he noticed that the balcony ended a few feet ahead, and had given way to another long hallway consisting of three doors, and a similar hallway on the other side of the balcony. "We'll split up again," he commanded to the twins. "I'll take this hall, and you two double back and see if you can find anything down the other hall. We'll meet up halfway once we clear this area out." The twins nodded their approval before making their way back to the opposite corridor.
As Harlan crept up to the edge of the hallway entrance, he spied a lone guard stationed at his end of the hallway, mere feet from where he stood. Fortunately, this guard held a stationary position, and would be an easy target as long as he did not make any noise. Harlan quickly dispatched the guard via his blackjack, and deposited him in the sitting-room where he last examined. He made his way down the hall until he reached the first door on his journey. He opened the door to a lavish spare bedroom that, upon first glance, would be naturally enticing to any burglar, but once again was oddly deprived of any sort of riches, from the mantelpiece to the tables to the empty box beside the bed to the closet in the corner of the room. He angrily stomped out of the room and down the hall until he arrived at the second room in his path. He once again opened the door and was greeted with an empty spare bedroom, nearly identical to the one he had just emerged from. Identical in furniture design. Identical in extravagant décor. Identical in its solitude. Identical in its refusal to yield any items of worth. Harlan made his way down the corridor, dejection rapidly turning to anger, until he spied the third and final room of the hallway. As he made his way to the door, his eyes also came to rest upon another stationary guard at the end of the corridor. Harlan readied a water arrow and quickly extinguished the torch on the wall behind the guard. The immediate death of the burning torch raised the guard's suspicion, and he began to venture down the hallway towards Harlan. Harlan opened the door and ducked into the room until the guard passed. As soon as he did, a blackjack to the head removed the threat, and Harlan laid his victim across the bed. Once again, a survey of the room showed no items worthy of thievery. Harlan closed the door behind the now-occupied room and emerged into the final hallway at the back of the manor.
At the corner of the hallway, to Harlan's immediate left, a wooden door stood. Harlan edged the door open to reveal an ordinary broom closet, with no immediate danger and certainly no treasures to be taken. Harlan emitted a cry of anguish, only to hear a muffled voice from slightly down the hall. "What was that?" inquired a gruff voice from a room on the opposite side of the corridor. Harlan moved slightly down the hallway and eased the door open. "Huh? Who's there?" the voice once again asked. Harlan peered in to see a guard standing sentry over a room containing a table and a small dish rack. Harlan hurled a flash bomb into the room, and when the white light abated and the guard stumbled around pawing at his eyes, he pounced, rendering the guard unconscious. He closed the door behind him and made a quick survey of the room, once again expecting a fruitless search. This time, however, the table held a single jeweled chalice. The chalice would not fetch a particularly high price; it was a relatively common item on the black market. But to Harlan, after endless frustration, he might as well have stolen the chief prize itself. He stuffed the chalice into his loot bag and stepped back into the hallway, his confidence renewed.
Ryker stood over the unconscious guard, rubbing his blackjack at the point of impact. He almost wanted to roust his victim from his new-found slumber and press him as to the nature of the manner. Why has no room on this floor yielded a single treasure? He and his brother have scoured their end of the corridor, and found three identical bedrooms, none of which contained anything they could bring to Garrett. The twins emerged into the final corridor at the back of the manor, where the treasure room would surely be. The room that would surely make up for the rest of this miserable haul. A door in the corner of the hall opened to reveal the servants' quarters, with several of the help snoring in their rows of bunk beds. The twins scattered moss arrows over the floor and rained blows upon the heads of the servants to prevent any potential disruption before checking their foot lockers. The search turned up the occasional pile of brass coins, and while this loot marked the most successful discovery for the twins in some time, disappointment still overcame Ryker and Rayner, who had hoped to plunder massive riches from the nobility but were instead reduced to pinching pennies from their hapless servants. The brothers carried on down the hall until they arrived at a door on the opposite wall. As Ryker opened it, he peeked inside to spy the long table of the mansion's dining room. As he creaked the door open further, he heard, "Hello? Who's there?" The twins recognized the voice not as the menacing threat of a guard, but the weak apprehension of a domestic. The brothers' eyes met in instant agreement on their strategy. Each thief crouched down and flanked the table, circling toward their victim. As Ryker reached the servant's side, he sprang up to utter terror of the poor manservant. The servant lunged backwards, directly into the path of Rayner's blackjack. Out of habit rather than hope, the twins scoured the room for valuables, and were utterly amazed and delighted when they noticed two glittering gold candlesticks on the table. Each of the twins stuffed one of the candlesticks into his loot bag and hurried back into the hall. Glancing down the corridor, they noticed two large iron doors in the middle of the hallway, each wrought with extravagant ironwork. As they descended upon what they were certain would be the room containing the music box, the loot that would make this entire miserable job worthwhile, they spied a dark figure creeping along the shadows towards the doors from the other end of the hall. Before long, their fellow intruding traveler gave them a wave, and the twins were reunited with Harlan in front of the ornate doors.
"I don't believe this," Harlan greeted his companions. "I actually found one little piece of loot in a spare room, but none of the bedrooms on my side had anything else. What really amazes me is that the rooms themselves are so highly decorated. Expensive carvings, artwork, beautiful carpets, you name it. But not one damn piece of treasure anywhere for a thief to lay his hands on."
"That's exactly how our attempt went," Rayner returned. "A few valuable items here and there, but for all this decorative excess, it is astounding that there is almost nothing laying around to be snatched. Usually, these nobles are so greedy and vain, they will display any ounce of wealth in every acre of the manor. We haven't seen that here tonight."
"It's almost as if the treasures are supposed to be there," Harlan mused, "and for a master thief to miss them, something has to be wrong. Either Pocrates is the cheapest lord in The City, or something happened before we got here."
"Well, as long as we get the music box, we'll be handsomely rewarded," Rayner declared. "Judging by the size and decoration on these doors, one of them has to lead to the treasure room." Rayner pulled on the door, and, to no one's amazement, it was securely locked. He quickly produced his lock picks, and prepared to work on the security mechanism.
"Careful," Harlan warned. "The treasure room is always the most heavily guarded room in the manor. And a lord will not trust his most valuable belongings with a mere horde of half-drunken slobs. It will be the most elite of the force in there ready to slice open any intruder who may come in." With that, Harlan and Ryker readied flash bombs and swords, preparing for the absolute worst: a full-fledged massacre.
"Come to think of it," Ryker interjected, "wouldn't we see some guards standing outside the door too? Right about where we are now? This treasure room seems pretty lightly guarded for me. The more I think about it, the more this seems like a trap."
Rayner took his lock picks to the keyhole, but could not budge the mechanism an inch, no matter which way he tried. As he struggled to maneuver the lock open, Harlan produced his own picks, snuck over to the door to the adjacent room, and tried his own luck. He quickly motioned with his head for the twins to cover him. "It's a tough lock," he announced, "but I think I can get it open." After a minute of toying with the mechanism, the lock gave way and Harlan flung the door open to an opulent master bedroom. A high-vaulted ceiling rested above a bed covered with a plush scarlet canopy. A collection of The City's most popular artists lined the walls surrounding the bed, which was accessible through a set of elaborately-carved white marble stairs that led the way down towards a sunken spot in the middle of the room. The twins canvased the area surrounding the bed, while Harlan searched the mantelpiece on the opposite end of the room. Once again, the thieves were met with disappointment and dejection; expensive statues and furniture were fixed to the floor and walls, but removable items that could fetch a decent price in Douglas' shop were nowhere to be found.
"There's another door over here," Harlan called to the twins as he moved towards the next potential point of entry. "You guys check around the walls on the other side. Garrett says that the nobles like to install hidden passages to get to their treasures. A way of constantly checking on their valuables when the captain of their guard has the only key."
"I don't like this at all," Ryker remarked. "When the master bedroom is empty, you know something has to be wrong. Everything about this feels like a set-up. The sooner we find this music box, the sooner I want to get out of here. Harlan, have you found anything in that room?"
"Wash room," Harlan answered from behind the half-open door. "Nothing at all in here."
"Wait," Ryker whispered from the corner of the room. "This torch might lead to something." Ryker and Harlan joined their comrade in examining the sole unlit torch in the bedroom. "Looks worth a shot," remarked Ryker. "Give it a twist and see what happens." Rayner twisted the torch to the right, and, to the delight of the thieves, a nearby bookcase swung out from the wall, revealing a short tunnel leading to the adjacent room that was previously inaccessible from the main hall. The three men crowded inside and slowly made their way down the passage, until they reached a stone wall with a lever off to the side.
"Remember," Harlan warned, "This room is bound to be loaded with guards, powerful and alert ones at that. Keep in the shadows and pick them off with your arrows as much as you can."
"And if they do spot us from here," Ryker added, "be sure to close the entrance back up. Get them to chase us back into the master bedroom, then we'll slice them up with our swords as they run through." Ryker gave a nod of agreement and threw the switch, causing the previously dead-end wall to swing out into a brightly-lit treasure room with a large pedestal in the middle to display Lord Pocrates' prized music box. The thieves examined the room and were met with a horrendous sight; indeed, no less than seven guards had been stationed inside to keep watch over the music box. However, these seven guards now lay lifeless on the ground, splayed out in various positions. Of the guards that lay face-down, the thieves noticed a bright scarlet line slashed across the backs of their necks. With bows at the ready, Harlan and the twins set hawk eyes on every square inch of the room, all the way up to the rafters. When they were absolutely certain that they were alone, the thieves slowly eased into the room, staying in the small shadows that the walls provided. After a second thorough scoping of the room, the thieves converged in the middle to confirm their deepest fear: the music box was nowhere to be seen.
"Looks like someone beat us to it," Harlan stated. "Now we don't have any payoff for this worthless job. All those empty rooms for nothing."
"Why do you think those rooms were empty?" Rayner observed. "Obviously, someone cleaned this place out before we got here. But judging from all the guards we had to knock out on the way, they must have gone completely undetected before they reached this room. And then...a slaughter."
"Hold on a minute," Ryker said, kneeling to examine the bodies. "None of these guys are dead. They are all just knocked out." Sure enough, the thieves bent down to notice that all the guards still had faint breath in their bodies through their heavy armor, and that their protective helmets bore the distinctive dents of a blackjack. Ryker brushed his hand across the guard's neck, only to discover a red chalky substance that crumbled from his fingers.
"I don't know what's going on here," Rayner exclaimed, "but the longer I stay here, the worse feeling I get. Let's get out of here now!"
With the entire guard force unconscious, the thieves had no difficulty in exiting the manor. They settled in a small courtyard near the side of the mansion, and within minutes, Garrett suddenly materialized, sitting at the top of the wall. "Well," the master implored of his students, "Let's see what you got for me this time."
"Well...we...ah...," the thieves stammered for some time, struggling to find the right words to explain their defeat, until Harlan finally pierced the mumbling dance. "We couldn't get the prize."
"Failure? From all three of you? That is a first."
Garrett's students began to relay the details of their mission, from the sparse treasures to the untouched guards to the missing music box. All the while, Garrett sat with a thoughtful frown on his face, contemplating the young thieves' story. As they began to tell of the unconscious guards in the treasure room, with a red line drawn across their necks, Garrett's good eye lit up in shock and amazement, while his mechanical eye eerily echoed his expression of surprise.
"Him?" Garrett uttered, with a mixture of fascination and loathing. "I didn't think he would show up tonight. And if he knew you guys were after the same loot, your days on these streets would be numbered."