When Althea came downstairs the next morning, she almost did not recognize the place. She stopped at the foot of the stairs and stared, mouth slightly agape, at the pub proper which now showed no sign at all of dust or cobwebs. The front door and windows stood open, letting in the bright morning sunlight.
“What in the world?” she muttered.
“Good morning, Althea,” Loren’s voice called from her right, snapping her back to her senses. She turned and found the elf standing behind the bar and wiping it down with a rag. “Sleep well?”
Althea walked over and took a seat on a barstool. “Well enough, thanks,” she said. “Did you do all this?” She waved a hand at the rest of the room behind her.
He nodded. “Yeah. I woke up early and couldn’t get back to sleep. It was too early to go out into town, so I decided to start cleaning up around here.” He paused. “You were right, you know. It really doesn’t look all that bad once it’s clean. I might could get used to it.”
Althea gave him a playful smile. “Even if it’s haunted?” she teased.
It took Loren a moment, but he finally answered, “Yeah, I think so. Just so long as the ghost stays friendly.”
She gave him a warm smile this time. “Great. So how about opening one of those bottles? We need a celebratory drink, I think. And unlike food, liquor usually gets better with age.”
Loren returned the smile. “Right you are,” he said, and grabbed a bottle of dark amber liquor and a couple of mugs off the shelf behind him.
After their drink, Althea and Loren left the pub. They made their way down the boardwalk to the cobblestone street that headed into town. Anju walked on ahead with a purposeful gait, as if he knew exactly where they intended to go and how to get there. I don’t think I would be at all surprised if he actually does know exactly where to go, Althea thought as she watched the white wolf.
Beside Althea, Loren started to hum. She cast him a dubious, sidelong glance and noticed a big grin on his face. “Well, you’re certainly in a good mood,” she said.
“And why not?” he returned. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” His chocolate-brown eyes gazed at the bright blue morning sky. “And just smell the sea breeze off the river. Doesn’t it smell great?”
Althea’s eyes narrowed slightly. “You’re not usually this cheerful, Loren. You’re drunk. Aren’t you?”
“Are not,” he retorted. Then he staggered slightly and caught himself before he could fall. “Uh, well, maybe just a little,” he amended. “That liquor was rather strong; more so than I was expecting. What did you say it was called again?”
“Maarkessian brandywine. It’s a local specialty known for its strength. And I warned you not to drink more than one mug, especially on an empty stomach. Didn’t I? But you just had to go and have another one.”
“Yeah, I know. But I just couldn’t resist. I’ve never had it before, and it tasted so good. Better than some others I’ve had before.” He raised a hand to his forehead and clinched his eyes shut for a moment. “Oh, gods, now my head is starting to hurt.”
“See, I told you, Loren. Maybe next time you’ll listen to me.”
“Yes, dear,” he said, giving her a feeble smile and a wink.
Althea rolled her eyes, but chuckled and gave the elf a small smile in return. “We’d better catch Anju up before we lose him again. Do you think you can walk a little faster? Or do I need to carry you?”
“As if you could,” Loren replied smartly. “Don’t worry about me, Althea. I’ll be fine. I’m not that drunk. I’ve been worse, you know.”
Althea did not know, but opted not to press the issue as it was not really all that important. She did not care if he occasionally got drunk - she sometimes did so, herself - just so long as he did it on his own time and not when they were on a hunt.
They quickened their pace down the busy street. Anju had stopped halfway down the road to wait for them. All the people who were out and about stayed as far away from the wolf as they could. When he saw his companions, Anju gave a loud sharp bark, as if to say “Come on, hurry up already!”
“Yes, yes, we’re coming, Anju!” Althea called to the wolf, her loud voice making Loren flinch.
Anju barked again then took off running down the street.
Althea groaned. “Well, come on, Loren,” she said. “It looks like we’re running now. I wonder why he’s in such a hurry, anyway.”
“He’s probably hungry and knows that the sooner we have money, the sooner we’ll be able to eat.”
“Maybe,” she said, and broke into a run with Loren following right behind her.
Anju led his two friends on a merry chase up one street and down another - and sending pedestrians scattering out of their way - for about a quarter of an hour. Althea began to think that she had thought wrong about the wolf knowing where to go, until he stopped outside a small pawnshop. The amused look on his face as he sat waiting for them outside the little building made her think he had just been having fun with them and could have gotten them there a lot sooner if he had wanted to.
“That wasn’t funny, Anju,” Althea said as she and Loren stopped in front of the wolf and caught their breaths.
Anju just panted and wagged his tail, gazing up at them with his pale blue eyes shining bright.
“I...I think I’m going to be sick,” Loren said from beside Althea before placing a hand over his mouth.
“Not here you’re not,” Althea said tersely. “Go over there beside the building.” She pointed to a small little alleyway. “We don’t want to offend the public, now do we?”
Loren did as she asked, and while he ran off into the alley to take care of his business, Althea looked over their destination. The building Anju had led them to was a simple little one-story red brick construction. A couple of windows faced the street. Above the door hung a polished wooden sign with the words “Tyler’s Pawnshop” engraved in it to identify the place. Considering the store’s location in the “better” part of the city, Althea figured she could probably get a good price for Loren’s dagger. She reached down to pet the white wolf. “I don’t know how you did it,” she said, “but good work, Anju. This place looks promising.” The wolf’s tail whipped back and forth and his tongue lolled out of his mouth.
Then Loren returned, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Feeling better now?” Althea asked the elf.
“Yeah, I think so,” he replied with a weak smile.
“Good. Then let’s go in.”
Althea brushed her red hair behind her ears and reached for the doorknob. As she opened the door, a bell tinkled overhead. She ignored it and stepped inside with Loren and Anju on her heels.
The large torchlit room they entered was cluttered with tables, shelves, and curio cabinets filled with jewelry, weapons, glassware, old toys, figurines, and just about anything and everything someone might consider at all valuable and was willing to part with for some quick cash. Anju immediately began wandering around, his nose sniffing at everything.
Before Althea and Loren could do more than just glance around, a door at the back of the room, between two curio cabinets, opened and a tall, skinny, mousy-haired and bespectacled middle-aged man in a simple brown suit entered the room. “Hello,” he said as he adjusted his spectacles then walked up to Althea and Loren and shook their hands respectively. “I’m Quinten Tyler. Welcome to my shop. How may I be of service?”
“We’re new in town,” said Althea. “We’re just starting up a business, and find we need a little extra money. What can we get for this?” She reached under Loren’s cloak and, before the elf even realized it, pulled out his second silver dagger. He frowned as she held it up for display; he knew this was going to happen, but he still was not happy about having to sell it.
Quinten’s eyes widened behind his wire-frame glasses and a gleam shone in his eyes as he beheld the bright, slender blade in Althea’s hand. “M...May I?” he asked, holding out a hand. Althea nodded and handed the dagger to the shop owner, who held it carefully in his hands and eyed it intently for a couple of moments. “Unbelievable,” he finally said. “Never did I think I would ever see one of these. It is as lightweight as I had heard, and the blade as skinny and narrow. But this identifying mark, here,” he said, pointing near the hilt to an engraved symbol of a snake wrapped around a shield bearing the image of an upright and roaring bear facing a crouching lion, “makes it unmistakable.” He looked pointedly at Althea and Loren. “You do know what this is, don’t you?”
Althea opened her mouth, but Loren spoke first. “Of course we do. So how much can we get for it?”
“I can give you a hundred platinum pieces for it. It’s worth more than that, but I’m afraid that’s all I can afford to give.”
“A hundred platinum pieces?” Loren repeated as his chocolate-brown eyes opened wide.
“That’s the same as five hundred gold pieces,” Althea said wonderingly, her jade-green eyes as wide as Loren’s were.
“That’s right,” Quinten said. “So, do we have a deal?”
Althea and Loren simply nodded their assent, too stunned to say anything more than they already had.
Quinten smiled broadly and hurried back through the far door with the knife. When he returned a couple of minutes later, he held a leather coin bag in place of the dagger. “Here you are,” he said, handing the bag to Althea, “a hundred platinum coins, as promised.”
Althea opened the bag and checked. “Thank you very much, sir,” she said with a small smile as she closed the bag and tied it to her belt.
“Please, call me Quinten. If you’re to be new business owners here in Maarkess, we should be friends and on a first-name basis. Right?”
“I suppose so,” she said with a small laugh and a warm smile. “Very well, Quinten. If we’re going to be friends, I suppose introductions are in order, then. I’m Althea Morrigan. The elf here is my partner, Loren. And the wolf that’s wandering around is our companion, Anju.”
“I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, Althea and Loren,” Quinten said, shaking their hands again. “You’re the famous monster hunters, aren’t you? Word has spread that you were here and had actually purchased Smitty’s old riverside pub. Is that true ?”
“Yes, it’s true ,” Loren said. “Word certainly spread fast. We only got here yesterday afternoon.”
“Yes, it can be a bit surprising how fast word travels here in Maarkess. But you’ll get used to it eventually. So, have you seen Smitty’s ghost yet?”
“No,” Althea said, “and nothing odd has happened, either.”
But beside her, Loren nodded his head. “I’ve seen him,” he said. “And what do you mean, ‘nothing odd has happened’, Althea? What about the mug?”
Althea frowned and turned to him. “I told you, Loren, that it was probably just someone playing a prank on us while our backs were turned. There was no evidence to attribute it to ghostly activity. Personally, I don’t even think there is a ghost.”
“But I saw him!”
“It was just your imagination. You do have an active imagination, you know. So it’s not surprising you would think you saw him, considering how worked up you had gotten over all the ghost stories we were told.”
Quinten had watched the exchange in amusement. “How interesting,” he said with a small chuckle. “A skeptic and a believer. Well, don’t worry, Loren. If the stories floating around are true , she’ll come around soon enough. Why don’t you tell me what happened? I do like a good ghost story.”
Loren took a deep breath and recounted the strange experiences of the day before at the pub. When he was done, Quinten nodded. “Fascinating,” he said. “And very similar to many of the stories I’ve heard about the place over the years. The description of the man you saw sounds like Smitty, as well, from what I’ve heard – excepting the part about seeing through him, of course. I’ll have to stop by when you open to see if I can have a similar experience. I've never been to the pub since the stories began circulating. I kept intending to go, but it always closed up before I could get the chance.”
“Well, we look forward to seeing you there,” said Loren with a smile. “Though we hope you would come by to enjoy our company rather than that of the ghost.”
“Yes,” Althea said, “that would be preferable. We're friends now after all, right?”
“Yes, of course I’d be there for your company over that of Smitty’s. I didn’t mean for you to infer otherwise.”
“Good,” Althea said with a smile. “Well, I’m afraid we have to go now. We have a lot to do, and we haven’t even had any breakfast yet.”
“Well, it’s certainly been a pleasure meeting you both, and I hope to see you again soon. Might I recommend Lexie’s Cafe, just down the street? The food there is quite good as well as affordable.”
“Thank you,” Althea said. “We’ll check the place out. Well, good-bye. We’ll meet again soon, I hope.”
“Yes, thanks,” Loren added. “We’ll see you later.”
The partners left the store, with Anju following right behind them.
“He sure seems like a nice guy,” Loren said as they walked down the street. “I like him.”
“You just like him because he gave us so much money and because he believed you about the ghost,” she teased.
“Not true ! Those are a couple of good reasons to like him, granted, but he really seems like a very amiable and good-natured guy.”
“Yes, he certainly does. I kind of like him myself.” Then she cast the elf a warning look. “Now, Loren, I know you must be very hungry, but don’t go overboard at Lexie’s, all right? Remember that most of this money is for supplies and repairs for the pub.”
“Yes, dear,” he quipped with a wry grin.
* * *
The sun had just reached its zenith in the bright blue autumn sky when a chestnut stallion bearing a young, brown-haired man in red priest’s robes upon its back stopped in front of the community stables just inside the western gates of Maarkess. On the roof of a nearby building, a large raven settled down. A blonde boy not more than ten years of age ran out of the stables, trying to straighten his ragged shirt and pants as the red priest dismounted.
“May I take your horse, sir?” the boy asked eagerly.
Tarn nodded and handed the reins to the boy. “Take good care of him, son,” he said with a smile. “He’s a fine animal and he has run a very far distance in a short time.”
“I will, sir,” said the stable boy. Then he held out a hand to Tarn, who placed his last two gold coins in the waiting palm. The boy eyed the coins with a big smile on his little face. “Thank you, sir!”
“You’re welcome, son. Tell me, do you know if the famous monster hunter Althea is here? I heard she was headed to this city.”
The boy nodded his head vigorously. “She got here yesterday. She and her partner – he’s an elf, they say - bought the old haunted pub down by the river.”
Tarn’s eyebrows rose. “That so?” he remarked, finding himself surprised once again by his quarry. “Well, thank you, son. I think I’ll head on down there now. Remember to take good care of my horse until I return.”
The boy nodded affirmation and the priest gave his horse an affectionate pat on the neck then walked off. Unnoticed, the raven quietly flew off after the priest.
* * *
Tarn had no trouble getting good directions to the pub, so it was not long at all before he found himself standing in front of the run-down riverside establishment. As he stood staring at the old and neglected building, a big black bird alighted on the roof of the pub and stared down at the unsuspecting priest.
“They actually bought this place?” Tarn wondered aloud after a moment. “What a dump.”
“Isn’t it, though?” said a melodious female voice in response, startling the young man. “But I’m sure it’ll look better once it’s fixed up.”
“Wha...” Tarn stammered with shock as he looked around for the source of the rather familiar voice. All he saw were the dockworkers down by the river, nowhere close enough to account for the nearby voice – not to mention none of them were women. As he turned back to the pub, he noticed the bird. A sigh escaped him. “I should have known,” he muttered.
With a flutter of wings, the black bird left the roof and landed on the ground before the red-robed priest. Then a bright white light flashed, causing Tarn to close his eyes briefly against the assault. When he opened them again, the bird was gone. In its place stood a person in a black robe, its hood up over their head. Lifting slender, delicate white hands, the figure lowered the hood, revealing the lovely pale face of a young woman framed by long black hair. Fierce green eyes glinted with amusement at the startled expression on Tarn’s face. Even though he had known who it was, he was still surprised at the sight of her.
“Hello, lover,” the woman said with a sly smile on her rosy lips.
Tarn shook off his shock. “Hello, Raven,” he said dryly. “I should have known it was you following me. And could you please not call me that? Not only was it a long time ago, but it was also a mistake.”
Raven stepped up to Tarn with a cute pout painted on her lips. “Oh, you don’t really mean that, do you, Tarn?” she whined coyly. “Not after all the time we spent together. I’ve missed you so very much, you know.” She pressed her lips to his in a tender kiss.
Tarn grasped her arms. Seeing her again had awakened old feelings that he had buried deep inside himself long ago, and he now wanted more than anything to take her into his arms and return her kiss with a passion, but instead he forced himself to push her away.
“Raven, please,” he said sternly. “I don’t have time for this. They could return at any moment and I have a very important job to do.”
“I know you do, silly,” she replied with a small giggle. “Why else do you think I followed you? Besides the chance to be with you again, I mean.”
“You’re looking to cause some mischief again, aren’t you?”
She nodded. “Exactly. You know me so well, Tarn.”
“A lot better than I should,” he muttered under his breath. “Well, it looks as if you’re off to a good start, Raven,” he told her. “However, this is a very important job, and I cannot afford to have you meddle with it. So would you please leave me to do my job in peace? We can settle things between us afterward.”
Raven pouted again. “May I at least stay to watch, Tarn? Please?”
Tarn sighed. “Very well. You may watch if you like, but you have to stay out of the way. And don’t try to interfere at all – in any way. Deal?”
She smiled broadly. “Deal.”
A bright flash of light later, Raven the woman was gone and a black bird flew up to perch on the roof of the pub. Tarn took a seat on the steps to wait.
* * *
“Well, I would say it was a fairly profitable day, all things considered,” Althea remarked to Loren as they followed Anju’s lead down the road towards their pub in the late afternoon light.
“What do you mean, ‘all things considered’?” Loren challenged with a hint of indignation. “I thought we did rather well, getting some really good deals for ordering in bulk. And we still have some platinum pieces left, so we’re not broke again.”
“Yes, but we would have closer to half of our money left if not for all the other extra food we bought today.”
“Hey! I kept my word! I didn’t go overboard at the restaurants!”
“I know. I was referring to all the food that Anju swiped and which we had to reimburse the various proprietors for.”
“Oh, that. Okay. I’ll have a little chat with Anju about that later. It won’t happen again.”
Althea looked askance at the elf, wondering it that would really work. Anju was just a wolf, after all. Would he really understand? Then she remembered just how smart the animal had seemed at times and how, many times, he seemed to truly understand every word they said, and mentally shrugged away her question.
About a hundred paces ahead of them, Anju suddenly stopped. With his fur bristling, the white wolf stood in the middle of the road, about a hundred yards from the pub, and snarled and growled in the direction of the building. Althea and Loren glanced at each other and hurried to the wolf’s side.
“What’s wrong, Anju?” Loren asked, to which the wolf responded with another growl, his gaze fixed on the pub.
Human and elf followed his gaze and saw a young man in red robes sitting on the steps, his head slumped against his chest. Loren and Althea sighed, and the elf placed a hand on the wolf’s head. “Calm down, Anju,” Loren said. “I don’t think he’s any trouble. Look at him. He’s asleep, for crying out loud.” Anju’s snarl faded and his fur flattened, but he still remained tense.
“Do you know him, Loren?” Althea asked.
“No. Do you?”
“Would I have asked if I did?”
“Good point. Well, whoever he is, he knows us. He seems to have fallen asleep while waiting for us. Let’s go see who he is and what he wants.”
Loren strode up to the sleeping young man, with Anju and Althea a step behind. When Loren stopped to study their visitor, Althea stepped up beside him. “He’s a priest of Samaryu, Althea,” he remarked in wonder. “See the gold medallion he’s wearing?”
“Yes,” she replied, “but what could a priest of Samaryu possibly want with us?”
“Only one way to find out,” Loren said, then knelt beside the priest.
* * *
Tarn was dozing. A feminine voice called to him to wake up. He opened his eyes and found himself lying on his side in a bed. The bed was in a room of a cozy little cabin. The place seemed familiar but he could not place it. He also could not remember how he had gotten there, or how he had lost his clothes. He felt a poke in his side and a repeated plea for him to wake up. He turned over to find a beautiful black-haired woman lying beside him and smiling at him, and it all came back to him. Tarn smiled in return, reached out and pulled her close, and brought his face close to hers in order to kiss her...
“Hey!” a distinctly masculine voice cried out, and the side of Tarn’s face suddenly hurt.
Tarn’s eyes snapped open, and he found himself sitting on the steps of a pub and holding a blonde elf man closely in his arms. A pretty redheaded woman stood, laughing, in front of him. Behind her, a white wolf sat watching him with what looked like a smile on its lips.
As Tarn instantly grasped the situation, his eyes widened and he let the elf man go with a meek, embarrassed, “Sorry about that.”
Tarn then took a closer look at the people around him, and suddenly realized who they were. “It’s...It’s you!” he exclaimed, and stood up abruptly, knocking Loren down in the process. The young priest locked eyes with Althea and reached into a pocket of his red robes. “By the command of Usiah, High Priest of the Order of Samaryu, I, Red Priest Tarn, have been sent to find you, Althea the monster hunter.”
Althea blinked with confusion. “Why?”
Tarn pulled from the pocket an ornate golden dagger with a ruby embe dded in the pommel. “I must kill you,” he said simply.