Tales of Ellemarlene, Book 1
by Beth Caudill
Moonlight Mountain Books
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9853781-3-4
Print ISBN: 978-0-9853781-4-1
Caitlyn Sinclair’s hunger for souls drives her into the Mage Guild where she fights to maintain her sanity while embracing her magical nature.
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Stretched across the attic floor, amongst outdated furniture and boxes, Caitlyn listened to her target move around the first floor. She wiped a bead of sweat off her nose with the sleeve of her dark gray tunic. Surveillance in a hot, confined space was not her idea of a good time. Summer’s heat turned the air into a furnace and she struggled for each breath.
Tendrils of her brown hair escaped the confines of her ponytail and stuck to the sides of her face, driving her insane with the need to scratch. But she was a professional, her focus remained centered on her prey.
An assassin by trade and need, she’d learned long ago to ignore environmental incidentals while on an assignment. Except for the dark, gloomy sensation in her gut driving her to dig deeper into this case. The details from her surveillance didn’t correspond with the information Guild Master Jameson had given her; most disturbing, the bright white aura of her target. Only a person pure of heart possessed an aura that color.
Caitlyn had one rule for the assignments she undertook. The target had to be a Betrayer—a traitor to their family, work, or country. It didn’t matter who they were, so long as they were an adult and unfaithful to the trust granted to them by others.
Usually she spent no more than three days surveying her targets, but the inconsistency in the target’s aura spurred her to scrutinize everything. Now on her seventh day, her target’s aura still glowed the pure bright white of innocence. Not a hint of betrayal or wicked intent. And the heavy lump of unease strangled Caitlyn’s heart.
Betrayed by her Guild Master. But like the stealthy spikey-crowned monitor lizard waiting for its prey, she’d be patient and gather more evidence before denunciating the man before the guild.
The front door squeaked and Caitlyn rolled over to watch through a peephole.
“Marcus, I’m glad you’re finally home.” A momentary silence fraught with tension ensued. “What happened now?” Sarah Townberry asked her husband.
“It’s nothing Sarah. Just a small cut.”
“And how did you get it?” The bite of a steel dagger wouldn’t cut as sharply as the tone of Sarah’s voice.
“One of Prince Talley’s personal guard shoved me.”
Sarah paced the length of the small living room. “Maybe I should’ve slept with him. You wouldn’t be attacked everyday if I hadn’t turned him down.”
Marcus crossed the room and wrapped Sarah in his arms. “Honey, you did the right thing. Most of the Paladins are ethical people. They uphold our laws. And it would’ve hurt me more than any physical punishment his guards give me if you’d gone to him.”
The couple shared an intimate kiss and Caitlyn quietly moved away from the spy hole to the opposite end of the attic. While surveillance was a part of her job, she’d never been one for viewing other people’s sexual exploits.
Perched on a large box, her mind processed the details of the case. First, the Guild Master had refused to tell her the name of the contractor. Not a requirement, but usually given to the assassins. More information always made a hit easier to undertake. Second, her target was innocent, had in fact refused to break her pledge bonds.
While three Masters ran the Miscreants Guild, only the Guild Master held responsibility for assignments. He had to have known of the target’s innocence. Why give this case to her? There were other, less particular members of the guild, who would’ve done the job without a thought. Was it an accident or a purposeful betrayal?
Time crept forward while she waited until dusk, when twilight’s shroud provided concealment and people on the street rushed to get home. Folk paid more attention to their safety at full night than when the streets teamed with people intent on reaching their homes. After an hour, long shadows enclosed the attic in gloominess. The trick to a good escape was to act as if you were doing nothing wrong. If you tried to act stealthy, you’d be caught. No one cared about citizens who went about everyday, mundane activities.
Grabbing the hanging rope, she climbed to the hole where the vent usually resided. After swinging through it and then onto the roof, she coiled her rope, attached it to her belt and replaced the attic vent. Spinning together her dwindling reserve of life-force, she created a slide to the alley road.
No one else could see or use the glittery, golden magic. Eventually the magic dissipated and Caitlyn imagined whatever essence remained of her victim’s soul returned to the aether. A soul acted as a catalyst for her magic, sparking many spells before needing to be renewed.
With a break in foot traffic, she walked out of the dark alley and joined the nighttime crowd. Strolling easily, she kept a wary eye on those nearby but didn’t focus too hard. Most of the criminal element stayed away from this part of town. Near the palace and the center of law for Ellemarlene, Paladin knights frequently patrolled these streets and took a dim view of common criminals.
Of course, if you were an uncommon criminal, like herself, the patrols only added to the excitement. At the end of the street, she turned right. Here, stone façade houses gave way to wooden homes. Lower ranked judicial workers mingled with members of the clergy.
Ellemarlene boasted more than 120 different religions. Some were small and some had large congregations but all of them had a place of worship within Blessed Acres, the large area between the city center and Shelbeigh Forest. Usually Caitlyn avoided this part of the city. While she didn’t believe in a particular deity, she didn’t want to be preached at on the street either.
Foot traffic increased and she found herself pushed against other pedestrians. Each contact roused the magic within her and the intense need to feed. Her last assignment had been over five months ago. Soon, her power would lash out and take what it needed but she refused to terminate an innocent’s person life as long as she had a choice. What did the Guild Master know of her powers? Had he given her the assignment because he thought she might be desperate?
She found a shadowed nook between two storefronts to wait for the mass exodus to pass by. One of the bigger churches must have been holding a service. Her stomach rumbled. At least she could feed one of her hungers. A few blocks over, there were some good taverns, so long as you didn’t mind a monk having a philosophical discussion with you. Although, if you looked grim enough, they usually left you alone.
Foot traffic slowed to a trickle. Caitlyn stepped away from the nook and avoided the steaming messes left by draft horses on the cobblestone road. Around the corner, she crossed the street and stopped before a small wooden single-story house with a hanging white, gold, and green sign of a lizard lying on a desert stone. The Sunshine Perch, home to the best corn pastry in Ellemarlene.
She pushed open the door and walked into the noisy, darkened interior. Luck turned against her as most of the tables, the two back corner tables in particular, were filled with patrons. Only one of the chairs setup for clerics along the back wall near the kitchen was occupied. Good odds that she would eat alone tonight. Gliding around occupied chairs, Caitlyn made her way to a two-person table between two, four-seater tables.
At least her back would be against the wall, even though her nerves twitched at having to sit next to people. Like they said, if you have evil thoughts in your head, you proscribe evil deeds to those around you. It would be easy for either of the men next to her to slide a knife into her side.
The waitress ambled to Caitlyn’s table. Laughing at some of the male customer’s comments, the woman’s smile shone brighter than her lime green scales. A young woman, based on the subtle darkening of the scales covering her arms and head. An older Angorian would have darker brown and green covering all her scales.
Most of the waitstaff exuded the same easy charm. It made coming here enjoyable. Too many eateries forgot that good service brought repeat business, more so than cheap food. Caitlyn wasn’t a regular, but sometimes a job brought her to this part of town and this was a pleasant place.
“What can I get you?” the young woman asked, placing a complimentary glass of cantaloupe juice on the table.
“Are there any corn pies left?” Caitlyn asked, her mouth watering at the thought.
The waitress shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. We’re sold out. We have a wonderful seafood stew available.”
“I’ll take that. With two cheese and herb biscuits, please.” The waitress’s aura confused Caitlyn. It was dull, almost nonexistent, in contrast to the vibrant woman.
The waitress nodded and walked to the back toward the kitchen. A slumped figure sitting along the back wall reached out and grabbed the woman’s wrist as she walked by. The waitress’s aura blazed pale yellow while the monk held her hand. The woman had dampened her magic but couldn’t hide her aura when touched by someone with stronger powers. While curious as to why the young woman would hide her powers, Caitlyn had enough troubles of her own to worry over.
The old man nodded towards Caitlyn’s table. With a sinking feeling in her stomach, she knew she wouldn’t be dining alone tonight. It was the one downside to dining in the Blessed Acres area, each restaurant was allied to a particular order and their priests could join a customer at anytime. While she respected those who followed their faith, it was hard for her to believe in an ultimate Supreme Being when she ate people’s souls to stay alive.
The waitress helped the elder stand and they crossed the room at a slow shuffle. Caitlyn wiped her sweaty palms against her pants. Closing her eyes, she inhaled slow deep breaths to subdue her chaotic thoughts. Her problems could wait. She’d be calm and friendly. Not every cleric wanted to see her in chains once they figured out what she was.
“Miss.” The young woman requested Caitlyn’s attention. “May I present Elder Jaspar?”
Caitlyn opened her eyes and smiled. “My pleasure to meet you. Won’t you join me?” It never hurt to be gracious even when all you wanted was peace.
The elder bowed his head. Magelight reflected off the silver veins interspersed amongst the moss green and brown molted scales. “Ssshank you,” he said. His long, thin tongue gave him a reptile-like speech pattern indicative of the Angorians.
The waitress hovered as he sat in the chair. When he’d settled, she squeezed his shoulder before saying, “I’ll be back with your dinner shortly.” Then she turned and walked around several of the tables at the front of the inn, talking to other customers.
Caitlyn stared at the elder. What did he want to talk about? She wasn’t pretty enough for the younger monks to bother with and many of the older generation preferred to converse with other males.
Under his silent stare, she felt the urge to bounce the heel of her foot like a nervous child. But restraint had been an essential element to her education. Control over her powers and her face and body. Nothing was given away because it could always be turned against her.
“Here you are,” the waitress said, setting a large bowl in front of Caitlyn and a plate of green lettuce in front of the elder. “Enjoy.” Her voice carried the tone of an automatic response. Her lips compressed, she glanced between the two of them.
“Weez are fine. You mussst go, Ssabrina.” His words were a command.
The waitress paused, as if she wanted to argue, but instead she nodded and walked away stiff-backed.
There was an increased tension in the room. Several tables had been cleared and the few monks now sitting along the back wall watched her table with unyielding gazes. Even those with other patrons paid more attention to Caitln’s table than their own.
How much power did the unassuming man before her wield? The room had possessed a carefree atmosphere before the elder joined her. Now, with the tables on either side of them vacated, apprehension caused her to grab the handle of her hidden knife.
“Eat,” he said, stabbing his lettuce with a short eating spike.
Caitlyn eased her grip then picked up a spoon, but she kept a wary watch on the room despite or maybe because of the half circle of empty tables around them. She didn’t trust the sudden attention, especially from the man across from her. Hesitantly, she took a bite and savored the spicy broth, which complemented the tender white fish.
“Soon you will face a crossroads.” The elder’s gaze held her captive. “Our seers say you will be the darkness that shields us or you will be the darkness that buries us.”
She stiffened. Her magic had always been a dark two-edge sword, the power over life and death. Why would it be important now?
“There are only these two choices. It is most unusual for the future to converge like this.” The weight of his gaze froze all thought. “When the time comes, choose wisely.”
“Thank you for the warning.” For that was what his words were, a warning that despite her control, sometime soon she might walk this city–her home–and kill everyone in it. “May I provide you with some advice?”
The tip of his tail stood straight up and he tilted his head, his gaze a weighty regard. “Please.”
“The waitress, your…” She could tell they were related but unsure of the connection.
He hesitated, his tongue flicked out, tasting the air, evaluating her. “My granddaughter,” he whispered. “She is my granddaughter.”
She bowed her head, acknowledging the admission. “Your granddaughter hides her magic. It is very powerful but uncontrolled. She must be trained.”
“That’s impossible. She was tested and found lacking.” His voice choked.
“Either she had not come into her power yet, or she hid it from you. Take it from one who sees. She has very powerful magic. Train her to use it before it uses her.”
Her bowl empty, Caitlyn stood and placed three silver coins on the table. “Thank you for your words.” She bowed at the waist in honor of his position. Only the highest elders heard the prophecies of the Seers
She walked toward the front door, but stopped before the tortoise sitting on a medium-sized bench. Made from green jade and elaborately decorated with gold, silver and precious gems, the coffer held customer gratuities.
Bending over, she pulled an iron dagger from her boot sheath. With an obsidian handle, the weapon appeared innocuous unless you saw magical auras. This one pulsed a bright emerald green. During the blade’s creation, the blacksmith had applied a small magic spell. No matter the wielder’s skill level, the blade would always strike true when thrown.
Given the amount of power the waitress wielded, Caitlyn thought the girl needed this particular dagger. Standing again, she faced the tortoise then dropped the blade in its mouth. “For the waitress Sabrina, granddaughter of the elder.”
For a moment, the animal glowed, and then it hummed, accepting the offering. It was a magical artifact, not quite alive but discerning. Money left on the tables went to support the whole sect. Anything given to the tortoise would be split among the workers unless someone whispered a name. Then the guardian would only relinquish its treasure to the specified individual.
It was theft-proof. No one could bypass the tortoise’s magic. Sabrina would be the only one to touch the dagger, and Caitlyn had no doubt the girl would figure out how to wield it. And that it would keep the girl occupied until the elder convinced her to train her powers.
Caitlyn would not wish anyone to suffer with magic as much as she did. You couldn’t run from the power, only embrace it and accept it as a part of you.
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