"Krin! Hurry up!"
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Des kicked open the back door of the hut and ran out into the yard. The box lay half-buried in the tall grass, just as the groundskeeper had said. She crouched down before it, eager to open the latch, but too wary to grab at it. Jarek came out the back door a moment after her, and Mikal- who, she had no doubt, had gone through the dead man's pockets for change- followed after him.
Jarek hunkered next to her. "Thoughts?"
Mikal stopped behind them, breathing hard. "What is it?"
"It's what the old man said it was," Des answered, not looking back.
"Before we killed him," Jarek said.
"Yes. But we killed him in self-defense."
"If you'd killed him before, when I said, we wouldn't have had to worry about it."
She looked back at Mikal. "Is that always your answer? If you have a problem, kill it?"
He grinned at her. "That's right."
Jarek was still contemplating the box. "What you killed inside wasn't an old man. If the box is what your pet wizard says it is-" He pointed at Mikal. "Then he was likely some sort of guardian."
"Oh." The thief considered. "Can we open the box now? Nothing in the old man's pockets."
"Krin." Des pushed her hair out of her eyes. "You'll be paid. Ashenbach will have something to give for this information, at the least."
"It's the principle of the thing."
"Bollocks." She turned to Jarek. "What do you think? Should we enlist Mikal to open it? Could be dangerous."
Jarek considered, rubbing at his chin. He looked up at the sky as if consulting with a higher power, then reached out and yanked the box open. Des flinched.
They peered inside. The rose lay in a bed of black satin. Even in the dim light from their lanterns, it gleamed brightly up at them.
"Looks real," Mikal said.
"No. No rose was ever that shiny." Des reached in to pick the crystalline flower from its bed.
Jarek's big hand shot out and wrapped around her wrist. "Don't touch it yet," he said. "The box has no magic, but the rose might."
"You mean you don't know?" She turned to look at him, surprised.
"This is unfamiliar magic to me. I can feel...something...but buggered if I can put a name to it."
Mikal scratched at the back of his neck. "So what do we do?"
"Shut the box," Jarek said. "Take the whole thing."
"Do you still want to see where those steps go?"
Jarek nodded. "Now more than ever."
"Merrick." ... "Merrick?"
He turned around and blinked. "Hmm?"
Lunice was climbing out of her leather armour, straightening the now oddly-creased undershirt as best she could. "I was trying to get your attention," she said. "You were years away, weren't you?"
"I guess I was."
"When did you last sleep?"
Merrick squinted at the sky. "What day is it?"
"Er. Morning or evening?"
Lunice raised her eyebrows. "You don't know?"
"Er." He looked around, thoughtfully. "Morning. Right?"
"Yes." She peered at him with her keen, oval-shaped eyes. "You figured that out because-"
"-I realized you were at the end of your shift, yes." Merrick yawned. "Don't hurt me."
Lunice frowned. "I won't hurt you. You should get some sleep. You get less sleep than I do."
"I'll seriously consider it. But you came to me for something else? Or did you just want to nag?" A hint of a smile crept across his face.
"I did want to speak to you," Lunice said. "But not on my shift. Are you free? Could you spare the better part of an hour?"
"If you say it's important, I can."
"I don't know if it's important." She scratched self-consciously at one arm. "It might be. I think you should see it, at least. Tell me if you think I'm imagining things."
"I don't think you're imagining things."
"I don't think I am either. Want to see?"
He tugged his cloak higher on his shoulders. "I think I need to, now."
She led him down into the Lower City, to the decrepit, crumbling houses along the southwest wall. The streets that ran between these buildings were narrow and dark, made of dirt or shattered, unstable stone. They bulged sightlessly upward, humping up in places and falling away into massive holes in others. She seemed to know where she was going, and Merrick, who could not remember ever visiting such an unhallowed place, followed blindly.
They came at last to the remains of an old church, the roof half caved-in and leafblown.
"I was walking past this place on patrol," Lunice said. "And I felt...something." She kept her voice pitched low, although there were no other people to be seen. "Something looking at me."
Merrick stepped forward and put his hand on the door of the cathedral. He pushed, and it opened further inward. In the blackness beyond, he heard something like a sigh.
"We should go," Lunice said. Edges of fear were creeping into her voice.
Merrick looked into the darkness.
Something seemed to stir, and build itself out of the shadows. The feeling was insubstantial and only half-real, but Merrick felt it looking at him, marking him, seeing him seeing it.
"We'll go," He said. He pulled the door shut. They both backed away until they were standing in the street, then turned and started walking. Lunice was pale.
"Something bad," she said quietly. "Bad spirits. They saw us."
"They might have done."
"What did you see in there?"
"Nothing much. It was too dark."
"Merrick. What did you see?"
Merrick sighed. "Trouble," he said. "More trouble."
"Quit this world, quit the next world, quit quitting!" -Sufi proverb.