One Night In Cascade
A/N: The Sentinel belongs to Pet Fly, UPN, and Paramount, elements of drow culture to TSR. No infringement is intended for any of these.
Sharmayne Millithor sighted down the shaft of the peacock feather, turning bright plumage so it threw back emerald sparks of light. The vane shone green-gold against ebony skin, rich contrast to fingers just a shade longer and more slender than human. Her fine-boned face remained expressionless, but inwardly she delighted in the rainbow play of color; enticing and exotic as the scents of the manifold surface-world spices that filled this small apothecary. She'd have to mark out a few bundles for her own use before bringing the rest into the T'lindhet market. "And these."
Mr. Shang nodded once, ballpoint pen scribing one more tally on her lengthy list of purchases. The elderly Chinese shopkeeper did not grant her the grace of a smile, but after more than a year's steady patronage the human had at least ceased making warding signs he thought she didn't see against the dark energy of her presence. Chi, they call it here, Shar thought, peering out from the midnight depths of her hooded cloak. A wise precaution. If futile, shaped by one with so little magic.
Not that he needed the precaution. What sort of trader would she be if she ravaged one of her best suppliers?
An Ilythiiri one, Shar admitted to herself, hand going to the miniature crossbow in her cloak pocket as the door opened to admit another customer. A relatively short human male, this one; only a few inches over her own height, clad like what they called a "college student" here, with more curls than a cave-lake watercress. Teal eyes scanned the store in a practiced sweep, yet there was a bounce in his step the like of which she hadn't seen since she'd last had the misfortune to tangle with an Eilistraee-born cub. Oh, Dark preserve us. An optimist.
More interesting was Mr. Shang's reaction; a reflexive brightening, as if greeting an old friend - then a flicker of panic crossed the lined face, before he summoned once more the inscrutable mask of his profession. "We will honor the usual arrangement. Yes?"
Don't want me near him, do you?Shar thought, remaining still as she unobtrusively watched the newcomer. Now, why would that be? "Of course."
Soft as her words were, they still drew attention from the man currently digging into the garlic and ginger. "Oh, man, I didn't even see you!" He came up with a handful of white-skinned bulbs, switched them to his left arm to offer a hand to shake. "Blair Sandburg. You come here often? Best place for ginger this side of Cascade-"
The rest of the babble was lost in a white haze as Shar backed up, shaking her head against the overwhelming sense of power flowing from the talkative innocent. Mage... no, shaman, she corrected herself, sensing the way his magic tangled itself with the spirits of the city. Feeling the shivery chill of elemental attention on her, as a possible threat. And native to this dimension.
Which she was not, for all the visits she'd made here. Magic against magic, it gave him an edge she might not beat, even with over a century's experience as a mage behind her.
Tugging shadows about her, Sharmayne fled.
Blair stared out the closing door, having gotten no more than a vague impression of pretty, dark and female; shadows and the flowing cloak had conspired to obscure most of the details. Jet on black border embroidery, the anthropologist noted, wishing he'd had more time to study the subtle pattern that had flashed by on midnight-blue cloth. And wondering about the kind of person that would wear a cloak after sunset in Chinatown. Wasn't as if there were a Medieval Faire in the area. Celtic pattern? Looked like knotwork. "Who was that?"
"A... customer," Mr. Shang said carefully. "Ah! Fresh ginger. Let me measure it for you."
Someone you don't want to talk about.Someone Blair literally hadn't seen until she spoke. He'd looked right at her - he knew he had, Jim had drummed that much into his skull, never walk into any place without checking it out - and he hadn't seen her.
Suddenly the grocery list was the last thing on Blair's mind.
"Mr. Shang. Is she dangerous?"
The elderly gentleman gave him a bland look that faded into a sigh of resignation. "You will not leave this alone. It is not in you." He folded himself into an old teakwood chair. "And if I tell you nothing, you will seek your own answers, and I will perhaps lose two customers."
Anything that wanted Blair would have to go through Jim first. Not to mention a fair amount of the Cascade Police Department. If Shang thought whoever had rushed out of here was capable of that.... We're talking not just dangerous, but very dangerous, Blair thought.
"She comes," Mr. Shang said simply. "Sometimes once a month. Sometimes less. She buys simple things. Paper. Candles. Fruit. Spices." He nodded at the discarded plume. "Feathers."
Okay, nothing so far to worry about.
"She pays in gems." Shrewd black eyes met his. "They are never stolen."
Now he was worried. "And?" Blair probed.
"She causes no trouble. She looks for no trouble." Shang sighed. "But she has powerful chi. It is not of this world. She... is not of this world."
A joke. It had to be a joke. Blair offered an accepting smile, waiting for the punch line....
Shang looked back, silent as the foo dog statues guarding his shop door.
No joke. "Um." Blair searched for words. "Does this happen often?"
"This," Shang said gently, "Is Chinatown." He rose, graceful as an ancient willow. "Come. I have found two chilis you will wish to try; pasilla and Aleppo. Much flavor, yes, but little of the burn that so upsets your companion...."
Fear is like the night. It is friend and enemy.
Clinging to wrought steel, Shar forced trembling feet up the fire escape. Her steps were silent as ever, but sweat tangled her white hair. Only ten more feet to the roof. Step. And step.
Fear only slays if you lend it the knife.
No Ilythiiri would let a potential enemy pass without observation. And humans - used to clear sky overhead, unfamiliar with cavern life where attack might truly come from any direction - rarely looked up.
To fight fear is to fight Dark itself. Let it flow. Ride it. Use it.
Other Ilythiiri might fear sunlight, loathing it with every ebony shred of their souls. She was a mage, who wielded fire with a flick of her fingers; she feared light no more than any surface-dweller would.
Up and over. Soft boots touched down on tarry shingles; Shar drew in a soft breath as she moved back from the edge.
She would not fight fear. But neither would she arm it.
Settling in so she could see Shang's shop door, Sharmayne considered her options. Stay, fight, or flee?
She'd hate to leave this Realm permanently. Trading had been good here. Very good; items surface-dwellers took for granted, like beeswax and those wonderful crimson fruits locals called strawberries, were valuable luxuries in the Underdark, sought by noble Houses, merchant clans, and commoners alike. Likewise, the small gems she offered such as Shang - pale garnets, opals, and rough turquoise, to name a few - while not favored among her people, were pleasantly valuable here. She profited, yes; but few had the skills to world-walk, and fewer still the self-control to blend in among... humans.
Say rather, avoid drawing undue attention, Shar corrected herself sharply. Which you now have.
Doubtful the young shaman would know her for what she was. This Realm was unknown to most of her kind, too tainted with technology and alien magics for most world-scryers to grant it a first look, much less a second. So far as she knew, she was the only Ilythiiri to have passed this way.
But he would know enough. She was alien. Not of this world. And not of the Light.
She should have little difficulty besting him, did she take him by surprise. Weak as her spells were in this Realm, she had practiced them on every visit, finding ways to compensate for the alien currents of this world's magic. And she had more than magic to defend herself. A sniper's position here, a few sleep-venomed darts, a swift stab - it would be swift. Even painless.
And yet... he had done her no harm.
But he will, Shar reminded herself ruthlessly. What? Are you one of those silver-haired idiots of Eilistraee now? Running under the moonlight, babbling on about peace and joy and hoping the humans will let you stay on the surface? She shuddered at the thought. He's a shaman! They survive by manipulating emotions!
She ought to slay him simply for that.
Watch him,Shar decided coldly, catching a glimpse of blue plaid through glass that meant someone was approaching the door. See who his allies are.
Then she would decide whether to flee. Or kill.
Being watched, Blair thought, feeling the itch between his shoulder blades as he carried his grocery bags down the street. It was faint, faded in and out - but unmistakable. She's good.
Unless it wasn't his mystery woman at all.
Shang wouldn't even tell me her name....
But the shopkeeper hadn't objected when he'd picked up the peacock feather. He'd be home in less than twenty minutes; with luck, Jim might be able to tell him what Shang wouldn't.
Though if she really is... where he says she's from, I don't think we'll have her fingerprints on file-
The sickly-sweet stench of chloroform hit like a hammer.
Slender fingers clinging to brick, Shar watched three human thugs pluck the limp form of the shaman off the sidewalk. She knew the type, on this world or any other. Hired muscle, touched by shadow's charm, with just enough brains to be almost as cruel as Ilythiiri. Blair Sandburg was as good as dead.
Solves that problem.
Only... there was a hesitation in the night. A sense of Powers moving, of spirits roused and angry....
Night preserve me.Flash-flickers of magic near her, a sense of attention, rage, hate. A mystical whirlwind, ready and willing to sweep up all in its path.
The thugs below could not see the spirits. Could not hear the unnatural silence of the city. Had no clue how concrete and wind twisted near them, waiting for that split-second of belief in Things in the dark that would let the elemental powers protecting the shaman strike.
But she was quite visible. And vulnerable.
Dark take it.
"You do realize," Shar murmured to the massive power that was Cascade, drawing her hand-crossbow from her cloak pocket, "This is blackmail."
Sharp. Acid. Blair flinched away from this second invasion on his nose, reeling back against a wall of cold concrete. Ow.
"Good." A lovely voice, but chill as the first snow. A feather-whisper of cloth; he sensed her moving away.
A second try pried his eyes open. The woman was bending over a limp, apparently sleeping form; with a start, Blair recognized one of the three who'd grabbed him. Slim fingers fastened thick wrists with a pair of Blair's handcuffs, then plucked something feathered from the muscled neck. A dart? "Who are you?"
Caution, in the tight lines of her back; then sudden, braced decision. Turning, she swept back her hood.
Snowy hair, cascading around an obsidian, fine-boned face. A glint of dark chainmail at wrists and throat. And fine white brows like sweeping wings over eyes dark blue as autumn sky.
"Okay." Blair swallowed. "What are you?"
"Wiser." She stalked near, graceful as an ocelot, eyeing him as he tried to gather himself from his awkward sprawl on the sidewalk. "I am Ilythiiri. In many of your tongues, drow. I am darkness. I am death."
And given half an excuse, she'd be his death; he could feel it. Blair gathered his courage. "Then why did you save me?"
Autumn eyes slid to the nearest of the slumbering thugs, resting with distaste on the drool dripping onto grimy denim. "There is one who would challenge you for this city. He touched these. Sent them for you." She sniffed. "A needless waste of power. Money is far better a hold on such as these than magic."
"Challenge me?" Thoughts were still rambling, disconnected.
Lightning crackled in her cupped hand, casting blue-white light over the alley. "Do not," she said evenly, "Play the fool with me, shaman."
"Thought never crossed my mind," Blair whispered. Lightning. Actual, bona fide lightning. Nestling in her hand like cobwebs. Oh Jim, where are you?
Her head jerked up; eyes narrowed. Hood raised, the drow turned to go.
"So your companion can attempt to slay me?" She snorted. "Please. I've been insulted enough for one night."
So Jim was coming. He thought he'd read that warm feeling right.... "I am the shaman of this city," Blair said forcefully, scrambling to his feet. "If someone's trying to take it from me, you have to tell me who."
"You are an insolent human stripling," she said evenly, striding away. "And I have no idea."
Oh no you don't.Tell him he was in danger, then walk away.... Who did she think she was? "Give me your name!"
It staggered her; he felt the lash of power as she whirled, hate hot in her eyes. "I am," she bit out, advancing on him with hands full of lightning, "Sharmayne Millithor. Merchant-mage of clan Millithor, of the city of T'lindhet, that dwells under the Chill Land of Night's Favor. And you-" Sparks crackled near his face; Blair smelled hair burning. "Call on me at your peril, Blair Sandburg!"
Oh god, I gave hermy name....
The world dissolved in fire.
Jim Ellison drummed his fingers on Sweetheart's wheel, grumbling under his breath as he turned into Chinatown. Blair was half an hour overdue, and his nerves were jumping like overheated crickets.
Then again, letting Blair go anywhere in Chinatown alone grated on the detective's nerves. Relax, he ordered himself. Blair knows Shang. He's shopped here all the time he's lived in Cascade. Probably just got caught up discussing chi and feng shi. Nothing to worry about.
And none of that meant anything, weighed against the fact that there was sage in Shang's shop. If Blair had gotten into trouble in there, Jim would have to try to drag his guide out while in the full throes of an allergic reaction.
Sometimes being a sentinel sucked.
And sometimes.... Jim grinned, studying the lithe form that had just swept out of the alley. Unaided vision told him she was slim and pretty; he couldn't wait to see what she'd look like when he zeroed in-
Triedto zero in. He saw shadows; dark, soft boots; a glint of glassy black on the edge of a midnight-blue cloak. Nothing more.
What the heck?Jim focussed on the edge of the hood, tried to use it to lead him to the face. He caught a glimpse of silver-gray that might be a shirt collar, a few white strands over it... Is that her hair? She doesn't move like she's that old.
Subtle as shadows in twilight, she slipped around the corner.
And he still hadn't seen her face.
So listen, Jim told himself, reaching out with his hearing. It was barely full dark; any ordinary human ought to be picking their way through the shadows loud enough for him to hear a mile off. Let's see...urban coyote caught a mouse, someone two alleys down's emptying their trash, wind in the fire escape-
No. That wasn't wind. Not with a heartbeat attached.
A cat?The speed was almost right, but the way it resonated... way too big to be a cat. Unless the Grandview Zoo had lost a stray snow leopard they'd neglected to mention.
And there were other sounds with it; a subtle rustle of cloth, a creak of fire escape steel that meant a careful hand had grabbed the railing, an almost-infinitesimal scuff of soft leather against a stair.
Movement sounds said very quiet human. Heartbeat said not.
He was at the curb and out in seconds, almost tripping over three handcuffed - snoring - lumps of muscle. What the heck? "Blair!"
His guide was leaning heavily against the concrete wall, the scent of singed hair and chloroform hanging around him like an acrid cloud. Grocery bags were neatly set near his feet, tattered brown paper a bit the worse for wear. "Did you see her? Did you see Sharmayne?"
Jim was at his partner's side, letting the smaller man lean on him instead of graffiti. "The woman in the cloak? Did she hurt you?" God, his partner was shaking like a leaf.
"She could have killed me. She could have let them kill me." Teal eyes turned a look of pure disbelief on him. "She didn't."
Jim glanced at the handcuffed men, dialing his cell for uniformed officers as he sniffed the chloroform still clinging to limp hands. A scent that hadn't left this alley. Whoever she was, she wasn't working with them. And if she wasn't, protecting his guide took priority over hunting her. "Okay, partner. Take it from the top."
"Jal khaless zhah waela," Shar whispered, lighting the last candle to ready the inter-dimensional gate that would take her home. Her debts were paid, her trade supplies packed and ready for transit in the small hotel room she'd rented last night. Humans of this Realm never seemed to care what went on in hotel rooms, so long as you paid your bill and left no visible blood behind. "All trust is foolish."
Yet trust was what she'd been forced to, by a shaman's power. Power that had left her true name in human hands. In knowing hands; if he knew little else, Blair Sandburg knew how to use a Name.
She'd have to do something about that....