Part 1 - It's On

"People often ask of me why I did what I did. The answer invariably remains the same: While material possessions and notoriety were inevitable results of what I did, what we did. However, the reason behind my actions are simple and frightening: I did what I did because it was what I was born to do."

Another slow day dragged its nails down the chalkboard of eternity as sentinels throughout various stages of procrastination idled at their desks. While free time was never a resource that was readily available, the aura choking the guildhall implied that if you were stuck inside the walls of the building that you had nothing to do. All the really interesting stuff was happening outside, while everything that happened inside was merely clerical.
Schrau Cadnos sat at his desk, several months worth of paperwork filed or stacked on his desk, and with no real work to do. Somehow, despite the insanity of recent events, he had found himself stranded in a sweet spot where everything he had to accomplish had been accomplished. So he relaxed at his desk, not a frequent occurrence.
"Schrau Cadnos?"
The vulpin glanced to the side, and a messenger stood there in a way that suggested he had been waiting for some time. Odd, Schrau hadn't reached the stage of nodding off at his desk, so the messenger must have been very good at getting in and out of where he was supposed to be. He clutched an envelope in one hand.
"Delivery for you." The messenger announced, pushing the envelope towards the surprised vulpin and nodding once when he accepted it. Without a word, he turned and left.
Schrau inspected the envelope. Sealed with a non-descript blob of red wax, the only other feature was two words scrawled on the face in very average handwriting. The contents were too heavy for a letter, yet not heavy enough to be something substantial.
Schrau grinned. He knew exactly what the envelope contained, and knew that he didn't even need to open it to head to where the sender had intended him to be. He also knew what it all meant.
Life for the vulpin had never been dull, but he suddenly felt an edge forming that was never there before, but one he knew he was born to expect. He slipped the unopened envelope into a pocket inside his jacket where it would take a very concentrated search to discover by anyone not familiar with the many intricacies of the green leather coat.
Schrau sat upright in his chair. Time to get a little ahead on his work, since the next few days would be very busy indeed.

There were exactly twenty people crowded into the basement beneath Bazz Street of Gydnia. Exactly half were gathered together at one side of the room, babbling amongst themselves far too loudly and excitedly considering what they were; the other half were bunched up in knots of twos and threes talking quietly amongst themselves. The twenty were thieves, and tonight was the first of what would be a series of very important nights for them.
Taking up a special reverence among the twenty were two thieves that were particularly well-known. Outstanding examples of skill, and both unusual specimens of being.
The first, and possibly most feared, was a catfolk wearing a long velvet evening dress. Her name was Kell'rrhr Ashman, and she was a vampire. Having contracted vampirism many centuries ago, Kell'rrhr quite found the affliction to her liking. Not that she cared that she was fulfilling some sort of stereotype with her usual attire, since Kell'rrhr had been born into the upper echelons of Crypt society before that one embrace. Ironically, Kell'rrhr was what many considered a social vampire - One who did nothing to hide what she was, and still move in the same upper crust circles that she had done before her affliction. Having more wealth than the rest of the people in the room combined, Kell'rrhr seemed to be an unlikely thief, but the truth was that her kleptomania was a far more demanding disease than vampirism.
The second, cradling a large funnel-mouthed blunderbuss in his arms, was the ranger minotaur named Gordal Bowhorn. Two huge white horns framed his shaggy brown head, looking much like a longbow from above. Gordal was in truth two people: In the forests, he was a pure ranger, at one with nature wearing dull brown and green leathers and cloths to blend in with the scenery, stalking his pray and only taking that which he could repay to Nature. In the cities, Gordal was a vicious and some may claim psychotic hunter, a graduate of the sharpshooter guild and carrying the heavy blunderbuss rather than his forest bow. Gordal's city attire was glossy black leather and shimmering grey silk, another sort of camouflage, and he saw civilization as a parasite that could be preyed on.
The two senior thieves had, between them, more skill than the ten junior thieves babbling away amongst themselves from their position of segregation from the nine senior thieves and Razputin Veshen.
Razputin, or Raz as he was known to pretty much anyone who had traded more than ten words in conversation with him, could best be described as a sidle in human form. Behind the rat-like but not unhandsome face was a keen mind that controlled a pair of eyes that could accurately count the contents of your change purse and hands fast enough to dip in for a second opinion. Raz was a thief, and a damned good one, but his real skill lay in forging documents and indeed entire events. For example, a riot had broken out in Abarack three months ago, at least if the many rumours and word-of-mouth could be trusted, and the riot was so bad that the mayor of Abarack had announced great measures to ensure that the likes of which would never happen again. There had in fact been no riot, just a serious of rumours that Raz had expertly woven into the very fabric of society without so much as a drop stitch. Why? Because the mayor of Abarack had, much like many other officials including the mayor of Sauronan one fateful day many centuries ago, acted in a way that protected his own arse, reassigning the Diamond Guard to offer extra protection around the affluent centre of the city and taking that protection away from the outer ring of Abarack; which was now considered very much a safe haven for thieves. Raz was that good.
Exactly twenty people huddled, stood, or sat in the room. There should be exactly twenty-one.
As Raz meandered through the crowd towards Kell'rrhr and Gordal, the catfolk produced a small black coin and passed it to the human. The coin was excellent counterfeit Keystone coinage, not that anyone would attempt to use it as legal tender given that the metal used for the coin was blacker than night.
"Someone's late, Raz." Kell'rrhr haughtily sighed. An odd side-effect, or possibly a benefit, of Kell'rrhr's vampirism is that it erased her racial speech impediment cleanly. Unlike other catfolk who spent many years partaking in elocution training, Kell'rrhr never reverted to her natural speech.
"Yeah, he'll be here." Razputin mumbled to the catfolk, who despite having shared a good friendship still scared the crap out of him. "Shouldn't be long at all."
"Shame about Morgan." Gordal absently said.
Kell'rrhr nodded, "Yes. I must say that it's a shame I won't have the chance to lock horns with that thief again. It was... Exhilarating."
"Whoever this guy is, he ain't gonna be a patch on that old dog." Gordal shook his head. "Can't even keep time properly."
That line seemed to be some sort of perfect cue for the inner door to the basement to open and a cloaked shape to descend the short flight of steps. The newcomer was about four foot tall and wearing a large dark blue cloak and hood that all but obscured his form, with a long red scarf wrapped around his neck over the cloak. The figure made a straight beeline towards Raz without even pausing to see where he was.
"Ah, here he is." Raz grinned to the catfolk. "Got a good one 'ere."
"Awright Raz?" The figure chirped, a black-furred hand emerging from the cloak and flicking a black coin at the human, who snagged it from its arc with a practiced ease. "Sorry I'm rate, hadda dump my swords an' badge an' greens back home."
Kell'rrhr's mouth dropped open. For once in her unlife, she was almost speechless. "Th- Th- That's-"
"Schrau Cadnos." Gordal rumbled. "Tell me this is some sort of sick joke, Raz."
"Hey, you know the rules as much as I do." Raz said defensively. "If the previous master thief is unable to defend his title, then a thief nominated by the master or next of kin may automatically attend."
"But he's a sentinel!" Kell'rrhr spat. "He'll betray us!"
"My royarty is sound, Kerr." Schrau responded. "By the way, it's good to see you too."
"You've cracked." Gordal muttered. "Finally cracked, Raz."
"Oh? So you think I'rr turn you arr in?" Schrau chided the minotaur. "Uh, what wirr I terr them? That I was considered a good enough thief to attend this secret get-together? I've got a reputation, Gordie."
"Be that as it may, you're unproven. Neophyte." Kell'rrhr spat the word as an insult.
Raz grinned with his eyes and nodded at Schrau. "You wanna tell them or me?"
"It's gonna sound better coming from you."
"Fact is;" Raz began, "this little vulpin managed to stage and pull off several of the most high-profile thefts in Nimbus history, managed to cover his own arse too. Got Angelo Horas nicked for the bloody lot, who we all remember as being a complete and utter dick towards us."
"This changes nothing." Kell pouted.
"This changes everything," Schrau corrected her. "now, whire the thefts were authorised by Girgar Radisgad, they were not sanctioned by the guird. If word gets out of what I did, I'd be out on my arse, and so would the officer that was supposed to be controrring me." The vulpin looked a bit sheepish. "Besides, I guess I kinda went a bit overboard with the originar ransom of three mirrion gord."
Gordal's eyes narrowed. "How much overboard?"
"He nicked the whole bloody Diamond Quarter." Raz grinned.
"Oh, bloody hell." Gordal moaned.
"What? The... whole Diamond Quarter?" Kell'rrhr asked.
"Yep. Forged the documents on that one meself." Raz nodded.
"Not that it got Horas very far. That deed was what did him in." Schrau added.
"Did a theft straight from the trinity too during that little event." Raz pointed out. "Now, may I remind you all that it's not your decision who gets in and who doesn't - it's mine. I trust Schrau, I trust he'll do the right thing by us, and if you've all finished grousing, I think it's time we kicked this off. Yer attentions puh-lease!"
As the menagerie of thieves started to settle into something approximating attention, the senior thieves sitting in the chairs close to where Raz was standing before the junior thieves, Schrau nudged Kell'rrhr in the ribs. "You've been watching the kids ronger than me. Any good ones?"
Kell'rrhr looked at him like he was a cockroach, but indulged his enquiry. "Well, the muridan's got some pedigree. And that arakun has proven herself." The catfolk seemed to catch the eye of a female vulpin, who smiled nervously and adjusted the green bandana that covered her head, allowing her ears to stick through. "Oh. Her."
"A brat of a midland merchant." Kell'rrhr explained as if talking about an old acquaintance. "Father is straight as a die in business, but rumour has it that this was not always the case. From what I hear, there's not a lock she can't pick."
Schrau settled back in his seat and crossed his arms.
"Trinity?" Gordal asked.
"On fire." Schrau replied by way of explanation. "Heard you got sinking."
"Yeah. Old keep built on marshland." The minotaur snapped his fingers together. "Could've bought the deeds for a song, but I can't carry a tune and it wouldn't be as much fun, would it?"

Part 2 - Oh, It's So On

"Contrary to the old saying, there is no honour among thieves. If an irresistible enough opportunity comes along, then most thieves would abandon any friendships and stab those whom were considered comrades in the back. There is no honour among thieves, but through reputation and renown a skilled thief such as myself will earn respect. One ounce of respect is worth a thousand of honour, and a shield of respect from your fellow thieves will protect you far better than honour could ever manage."

Schrau sat on an ancient wooden chair that was approximately five termites away from being dust as the junior thieves all sat or stood in a semicircle before Raz. With the senior thieves either sitting on chairs or standing behind the others in a similar fashion, the forger stood at the centre at a very ragged circle of thieves. Raz favoured standing closer to the seniors, since it was the juniors he was addressing.
"Alright ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Grand Heist." He eyed each and every single one of the juniors. "Pretty much everything you neophytes has heard about the Grand Heist is largely inaccurate, even if you were told by your sires or parents. They knew just how much to tell you, what to tell you. Now for the facts: We're not doing this for the money, we're not even doing it for the fame. The real reason for the Grand Heist is to crown a new Master Thief."
"So what do we do?" The muridan, idly playing with his sharp dagger, asked.
"Your purpose is to learn from these ten behind me." Raz explained. "Each one of these has more skill in their little fingers than the rest of you combined. Each one of you will be paired up with these fine thieves and taught the sort of things you don't develop. The things that for all your pedigree and breeding - An' believe me, kids. I know you all, I know all that you've been taught and I know who taught each an' every one of you neophytes - The things that you just can't learn from your original mentors. I've picked each and every one of you because I believe you're the best of a new generation, but without these guys behind me tellin' you what to do and how to do it, you'll never reach the next level." Raz turned a full rotation, his right arm in an expansive sweep of the senior thieves. "In fact, I'll probably go as far to say that some of the thieves here are the best of any generation."
"So who is the master thief?" A particularly ferret-like changeling asked from the back of the room.
"The master thief is the one who stands out head and shoulders above the rest." Raz explained. "That distinction is usually determined by who manages to pull off the duties placed before him with particular skill, but I know of at least three times when the master thief was crowned solely on the fact that he was the only one not arrested." The forger grinned brightly, and then it faded. "The previous master thief was Morgan Cadnos. Descendant of Bardur Cadnos. He won the last Heist twenty years ago, but was tragically killed in the ultimately futile defence of his village as it was raided by slavers fifteen years ago." Raz glanced briefly at Schrau, who nodded in response. "The rules dictate that if the master thief is unable to defend his title for the next Heist, then a nominated thief or next of kin will take upon that honour. Therefore, I have asked Schrau Cadnos here if he would attend in his father's memory."
"Despite being a sentinel..." A devil senior thief sat at the far end of the semicircle to Schrau's right snorted.
"Yes." Raz said with a certain grain of humour. "Yeah, we may as well get this out in the open: Schrau is a sentinel. The current guild mentor, if I'm not mistaken."
Schrau leaned back in his seat and grinned despite the threatening creak. "Yep. No one in this room knows about how crimes are committed than me."
"This is crazy..." The arakun chattered. "He's a green. He's gonna have us all banged up."
"No, he's not." Raz rolled his eyes. "Let's just say that Schrau has given me certain assurances that he will not betray us. In fact, some of those assurances are... compelling. And not the sort of things that he would like us mentioning to his superiors during questioning."
"He's a snake." The devil said, completely nonplussed.
"He's our snake, Jihm." Raz spat back.
"No, I'm the snake." The vipyr directly to Schrau's left cheerfully said. "I remember Morgan. If his kid's half the thief that ol' crook was, then he knows where his loyalties lie."
"And that's the problem." Kell'rrhr absently muttered.
"Okay, okay, that's just about enough." Raz snapped. "Anyway, I have a good feeling that this Heist is gonna be a good one. Kids, you're lookin' at true thief royalty here. Four thieves here have completed one part of the Trinity each, and that's been unheard of."
The vulpin girl blinked and raised a hand. "Um, what's the Trinity?"
Raz grinned. "Glad you asked, darlin'. Better than just keeping shut an' pretending you know. Schrau?"
Schrau cleared his throat. "The Trinity dates back to Rath Banner, head of the Brack Sheaf. Once, during his triar, he was asked if there was anything he wouldn't stear."
"The answer he gave was 'anything that isn't nailed down, sinking, or on fire.'" Gordal added. "He thought he was funny as hell, though the magistrate didn't."
"And nor did the thieves that forrowed him." Schrau continued. "In fact, quite a few thieves saw it as a charrenge. So, anyone that managed to stear one of the things that Rath couldn't stear saw themserves as a better thief."
"Though there is no thief better than Rath." Raz snorted. "Now, completing any of the Trinity ain't easy: There's rules. You can't steal somethin' that's s'posed to be on fire and it counts, you can't steal somethin' that's s'posed to sink either. As for 'nailed down'..."
"Too easy." Jihm grunted. "Any idiot can steal something that's nailed down, all they need is a crowbar and enough strength to rip it out when it's held down by a single nail."
"So it got changed." Kell said.
"To what?" The arakun asked.
"'Not there.'" The vipyr said.
"Anyhoo, the vast majority of thieves never manage any of the Trinity." Raz ploughed on with the lecture, lest they be here all night. "It takes a certain skill and cunning and guile, and unfortunately that's actually something most thieves ain't got. Those that do usually go their entire lives only managing one part of the Trinity, or not bothering at all - There's rarely any profit in stealin' anything that could be part of the Trinity, and if there ain't no profit there ain't no point. Only two thieves have managed two parts, Vena Shorraman; 'fore she quit thievin' and married a paladin, and Maria Volpnotti."
"Yes." Kell sighed happily. "Proof that such skill requires a female touch."
"An' there ain't no one what's done the three." Raz said, ignoring the vampiric catfolk completely. "Believe me, kids, it's a nice dream to complete the Trinity but that'll be all it ever will be for all of you." He glanced around the basement and nodded. "Tonight, these old geezers here get to see you kids in action. Okay kids, you've all got your marks an' you know who your partners are. Get the job done, and get it done safely. No heroes."

Schrau stood in the middle of the crowd, waiting for whatever thief had been shacked up to him. It didn't take long for someone to tap him on his shoulder.
He turned into the wide brown eyes of the young vulpin girl who smiled at him. "Uh. Hi." She grinned and waved. "I'm, uh, a big fan of your work."
Schrau eyed the girl and smiled. "I'm not sure if I should be flattered or insulted."
"Well the, uh, way you got Dietrich Gheed. That was something of a help to my family." She managed to compose herself. "My name's Hope."
"Okay, pleased to meet you." Schrau said, knowing there was no need to introduce himself. "Orders?"
Hope nodded and produced a sealed envelope from her cloak and passed it to Schrau. He inspected the seal, saw the inverse of the obtuse side of a Keystone gold coin pressed into the black wax, and cracked it open. It was a little tradition, sometimes the senior thief asked the junior to open the orders, but others were in the mindset of opening the sealed orders and committing the details to memory in a split second before passing it back to the junior to read. Schrau did this, and Hope read the orders.
"I don't even know what this is." The girl admitted.
"It's a sort of protection talisman, favoured by Sikkarites." Schrau explained. "I know the shop he wants us to break into. Nice an' easy. It won't be a problem."
Schrau flipped up his hood and gestured with his head toward Hope. The two vulpins weaved through the crowd of thieves that hadn't left the basement or were still discussing tactics and ascended the stairs leading out.
The Great Heist was on.
Part 3 - Bee and Eee

"Theft is a pretty simple matter; most thefts actually succeed. It’s merely the ‘getting away with it’ part that most people fail at."

The two vulpins stalked the back alleys of the merchant district of Keystone with their cowls far over their faces. Neither saw fit to speak as they neared their target, though even Schrau would have admitted that even for a midnight the city was quiet.
Then Hope asked, "Why the hell do you smell like spearmint?"
"Cloak's lined with crushed and spearmints." Schrau explained. "That reminds me, take this and rub it over your cloak." A small leather pouch emerged from the folds of Schrau's cloak and Hope caught it.
She opened the pouch and took a sniff. "Crushed spearmint?"
"The biggest mistake that most thieves make is forgetting that we have noses." Schrau explained. "They break in, bold as brass, then wonder how the hell we actually caught 'em when all we do is go in to where they've been and had a good old sniff around. I recognise most repeat offenders by scent alone, truth be told."
"Ah, I get it." Hope said, pouring a handful of the spearmint and rubbing it into her cloak. "You want to mask our scents."
"Actually, I don't particularly care about you." Schrau grinned. "But if I'm going to be involved in this theft, I don't want to be recognised. Pretty much every city guard here knows me, some by scent. It's still a good precaution to take though."
"So won't anyone be suspicious when you turn up for work tomorrow smelling of spearmint?"
The cowl shook. "No. Because I usually crunch a tin full of Herberger's Extraordinarily Strong Mints every morning as habit, and peppermint stinks worse than spearmint."
"Oh." Hope said, finishing off the pouch of spearmint. "You don't care about me?"
"No." Schrau said. "Because you're an unknown. We're here."
The faded sign on the back door of the store read "Farnsworth's Ecclesiastical Supplies".
"If there's proof that there's no such thing as divine protection, this shop is it." Schrau explained. "Farnsworth gets broken in about once a week, it's a wonder why he bothers replacing the locks. Got a guard dog, but he's easily subdued. Still, Farnsworth is a nice old fool, always ready to put the kettle on for a cup of tea and a chat for the guard that has to poke around his store to try and catch the tea leaf that blagged his stuff."
"Guard dog?" Hope asked.
"Yep. His name is George and Farnsworth loves him, he does." Schrau slowly shook his head. "No matter how much stuff gets stolen, Farnsworth could never get rid of that dog."
Hope stared at the door and took a deep breath. "Okay, so how do I get by the dog?"
Schrau rested a hand on her shoulder. "First things first, get inside the shop."
The girl looked at the lock and nodded. "Oh, easy enough." She produced a pair of picks from seemingly out of nowhere and set to work on the lock.
"So you can pick locks?" Schrau asked. "Who taught you?"
"Ol' Leatherhead Toshen." Hope explained.
"Toshen... That's a tortlish name." Schrau noticed. "How does a tortle pick a lock?"
"The same way porcupines make love." Hope said, "Very, very slowly."
Schrau chuckled as he put a hand on Hope's. "Okay, stop. You've still got much to learn."
"Hey, Leatherhead may have been slow but-"
"No, not that." Schrau looked at the door before drawing a sturdy dagger. "Checks and balances, sweetheart. Think about what you're stealing and what it means."
Hope stared blankly back at him.
"Okay," Schrau sighed, "you're breaking into this shop just to steal a pointless little trinket that'll prove that you can at least show mastery of the basic principles of stealing." Schrau waved the dagger, and Hope noticed that it didn't gleam at all. "How much is that trinket worth to you, really?"
"Um... Well, if it gets me a better standing-"
"Standing with your fellow thieves is irrelevant." Schrau dismissed her. "The fact is that this is a generic theft; a theft that could take place anywhere and anyhow with the same end result. You could cross the alley..." Schrau pointed in the direction with his dagger, coming to a rest at 'Fairworth's Tailoring', "...and it would prove just as much as if you'd gone through with breaking into this shop. This particular theft means nothing to you. Nothing. Now, what does it mean to Farnsworth?"
"I dunno." Hope admitted.
"A lot. Guy's old and forgetful. Like I've said, he's been ripped off dozens of times in the past, and quite a few of those were due to the fact that he'd simply forgotten to lock the back door. Now, the state and even the church will compensate him for any thefts, but they tend to give a lot less if it's because he messed up." Schrau eyed the picks in Hope's hands. "I admire that you're a good lockpicker. My mother was the best in the business, but she only taught me how to break shackles, and I can only do that while my hands are behind my back. However, not every break-in requires the subtle approach."
Schrau dug the dagger in between the door and frame before dragging it down hard. The bolt broke with a muffled crack and the door swung open slightly. Schrau stopped it with a hand. "Here's your homework. Since I hear you're a merchant's daughter it should be pretty simple. Find out who makes the doors to various stores you want to break into, find out who made the locks, the bolts, and figure out where all the locks and bolts are typically placed on all the doors. Learn all that, then learn how to break them all with the least amount of fuss." He smiled lopsidedly at Hope. "Sounds like a lot, but it isn't really. You'll find that out once you start."
"Okay." Hope nodded. "Now, about the dog."
Schrau handed her a small sphere of loose weave burlap. "Scent bomb. Throw it, and once it hits it'll puff out a nice cloud of mint and finely-ground pepper. Plays hell with his sense of smell, and it'll put him into a sneezing fit so badly he won't be able to smell you. Either bean him right on the head with it, or chuff it right under his nose on the ground. Cover your nose when you do it though."
Hope took the bomb and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Thanks."
"Now, go in there, get whatever you have to get from there, and this is important - Something else."
"Something else?" Hope asked. "Like what?"
"Anything. Just so long as its easily fenced, worth more than the talisman, and easy to carry. Grab a couple of things if you can, but just taking one worthless trinket by itself is gonna raise some suspicions. On your way out, don't just open the door, give it a single tap at about knee height so I can open it if the coast is clear. You've got two minutes." Schrau nodded insistently and held the door open. "Now go. Hurry, before ze Perdeese get here."
Hope disappeared into the store and Schrau almost closed the door on her tail before turning around and sitting on the step. The sentinel pulled his cowl over his face and grinned in the darkness as it started to rain. Pure, cleansing rain, washes away evidence faster and cleaner than the attempts of anyone with a guilty conscience.
"This is the best side of the law..." He muttered, "Not sitting in a courtroom all day..."
About two minutes later, he heard a gentle tap on the door just below his head. Slowly, moving so just to be a shadow, Schrau stood up and glanced both ways down the street for sight of anyone be they beggar or thief or sentry.
"Okay." Schrau whispered, opening the door. "Did you get it?"
Hope emerged from the store clutching a bag in her one hand. "Yeah, plus a few things more. You were right, that dog is useless."
"All right, let's get the goods to Raz, and I'm sure you can fence the rest. Buy yourself something nice." Schrau added, closing the door carefully.
"Oh? Don't you want your cut?" Hope teased.
"I'm not in this for the money, sister." The sentinel told her as they walked down the street, "I'm not sure what sort of person I would be if I actually profited from this."
"So why are you doing this?" Hope asked.
"I have my reas-" Schrau began before quickly shushing Hope into silence. "Quick, hi-"
A faint glow rounded the corner, followed quickly by the clinking of chain mail. A muridan guardswoman, tall and scowling, rounded the corner of the back alley and stopped before them. "What's going on here?" She demanded.
"Huh?" Schrau responded, adopting a much deeper voice than his normal tone before wrapping an arm around Hope's shoulders. "Just two rovers out for a strorr."
"In this weather?" The muridan snarled.
"In all fairness," Hope pointed out while taking Schrau's cue in adopting a falsetto, "it wasn't raining when we reft."
"I see. May I see what's in the bag?"
"No, you may not." Schrau calmly replied.
The guardswoman put a hand to the hilt of the short sword at her belt. "We either do it here, or in the watch house. Your choice. Stay where you are, sir." She added as Schrau took a step forward.
"Good, but you've made one mistake." Schrau pointed out. "There's no way you can draw your sword, keep a hand on your torch, and get your berr out to summon the rest of the watch without dropping something."
The guardswoman froze for a brief moment, before pointing out that, "You're assuming I need the torch," and dropping it, her free hands drawing the sword and the bell from her belt in one swift motion.
"Run!" Schrau snapped, charging at the guardswoman and swatting the bell out of her hand with a previously concealed blackjack so hard that it cracked and shattered against the back wall of the nearby store. Hope turned tail and sprinted down the alley in the opposite direction, hearing the wet thump of her partner's blackjack in the distance.
Down on one knee, the guardswoman snarled and tried to slash her blade at the vulpin. "You... Bastard..."
Schrau was too quick for the crippled muridan, swinging away from the cross-bodied swipe and darting behind her. "Hey, my mother married my father." He replied, snatching her tail and swinging closer to the gutter.
Practically in a knot, the guardswoman tried to turn to her right in order to get a clear strike on her assailant, but her sword swung uselessly overhead as the vulpin quickly dropped to the ground before rolling away a frantic moment later. The muridan tried to stand but found that something held her close to the cobbles.
Following her tail back to the gutter with her eyes, she noticed that it had been tied securely to a drain grille. Her jaw dropped, which was a shame since she realised she needed to call for help.
Schrau left the muridan screaming for aid behind him and grinned. He knew that Hope would hopefully go straight to the basement, and there really wasn't any reason why he should follow. Then again, he supposed he ought to put in an appearance, just to make sure the girl made it.
Otherwise, it was an absolutely flawless operation.

Weary and satisfied, Schrau slapped down a file that had been flagged for his attention onto his desk before placing a mug of coffee next to it. He climbed up onto his seat and reclined before drawing a tin from his pocket and procuring a mint. He looked across the small pile of paperwork on his desk to the muridan scowling at a report he was reading.
"Why, Krysospas, you rook positivery twitterpated." Schrau placidly said as he reached for the file. "Mint?"
Carnely glowered at him from across his desk and slapped the report down on his desk. "My idiot cousin let a bunch of thieves go last night."
"Hmm?" Schrau asked. "Where?"
"Keystone." Carnely explained. " Yisa, she just got transferred to the Keystone guard a few weeks ago."
"Ah, Yisa. I remember her," Schrau cheerfully reminisced, reaching for the coffee. "sweet girr. No way she's rerated to you. So what happened?"
"She tried to apprehend a pair of vulpin thieves last night in the alley behind Silver street. Pair o' lovers, they said. The woman ran and the male smacked her bell out of her hand with a blackjack-"
"I keep terring 'em..." Schrau muttered, shaking his head, "...Penford is a terribre smith, his berrs break as soon as you rook at 'em..." He started to drink from his mug.
"-Before thumping her leg and then tied her tail to a drain."
Schrau's face quickly disappeared behind a fine cloud of sprayed liquid as his coffee wound up in his nasal passages. The sentinel started laughing out loud as he tenderly placed his mug and file down on the desk. "Oh man, that's a crassic. Absorute crassic!"
"It's not funny, Schrau." Carnely snapped.
"Yes it is! Vurpins have been purring that trick on muridans for centuries, an' you never get wise to it!" Schrau managed to choke down a chuckle. "Herr, I can do it drunk. Remember Angero's party?" The vulpin calmed down. "So, what, if anything, was taken?"
"Not sure yet. The back door on Farnsworth's shop was found busted open again last night, George stunned by a pepper bomb..."
The vulpin resumed reading his report, "...Keep terrin' him he needs a better guard dog..."
"...A couple of trinkets, both expensive and inexpensive were reported missing from his inventory."
"Fascinating." Schrau calmly said, "Normarry, this would be my fierd of expertise but I've got a bigger pasture to graze on." He flipped the coffee-stained report closed and hopped off his seat. "A thief was kirred by the city guard in Drandiss. Yisa used to be with them, right?"

Part 4 - Man Down

"When looking for a traitor among your colleagues, do not suspect he who has the most to gain by betraying your security. Do not suspect he who has the least to lose if discovered. Suspect yourself; for in absolute belief of your own guilt may you find the evidence of your innocence."

Schrau barely recognised the body; not due to the poor physical condition it was in after falling messily onto his head after falling from a fifth-floor balcony, but because he had barely laid eyes on the young changeling when they were gathered in the basement beneath Gydnia.
Poor sod, he was just a kid. As much as he recognised him, it was as the thief assigned to Peshk Verhooves, the vipyr that had seemed to put so much faith in him that night. Boy, she was gonna be royally pissed.
Brushing a clump of bloodied hair away from the boy's face, Schrau noticed without any revulsion that the force of the landing had popped his left eye out of his socket. Maggots already infested the gaping eye and around the cracks of his skull.
The Cadnos in Schrau wanted to stand straight and scream at the guard responsible for an hour straight. He wanted to, but it wasn't what he was supposed to do. The part of him that was Chamberlain Schrau, mentor of the Guild of Sentinels, glanced over his shoulder at the fidgeting guard.
"Not a good way to go, eh?"
The guard was a dhampir, and certainly less confident than Schrau would have normally expected from a street watchman of one of Perdow's great cities, but he had it on good authority that the kid was new and a good arrest would shine like the brilliance of the gods on his record. Shame he killed the one thief and let the other get away. "N-No, sir."
"Stirr, at reast you nor I are the ones stuck with the job of sweeping him up." Schrau stood and swept the seemingly perpetual dust of the city from his jacket, impossibly creasing it further. "Right then, from the top."
The dhampir looked confused for a brief moment, before glancing up at the balcony and beginning to mouth the word, "Excuse-"
"What happened, champ." Schrau sighed. "Describe the event reading up to the incident."
"I was patrolling late last night," the guard suddenly said, an unnerving clarity and confidence in his voice, "when I heard the sound of a lock being broken."
He pointed at the wooden door beneath the balcony the thief had fallen from. "I saw the deceased with another suspect, a vipyr dressed in a baggy cloak. When they sighted me, they both ran into the store and ran up the stairs, past the owner who had been awoken by the disturbance. I followed them to the upstairs bedroom, where..." He gulped down some unspoken fear, "...the vipyr had gone, presumably onto the roof. The changeling was balancing on the balustrade and lost his footing when I surprised him."
Sounded simple enough. Sikkar only knows how many would-be free runners the city guard had to scrape off the cobbles because they assumed that a stone balcony wasn't slippery when mouldy and wet. If anything, it was a good security measure.
Schrau looked down at the corpse, then up at the balcony again. "Okay, I seen no probrem here. You did everything you could have done. Just an accident, nothing more."
"Yup, happens all the time. Doesn't it, Cadnos?"
Schrau half-turned, stopping only when he recognised the voice and smiled. "Yeah, Xzain. Three wound up in Sauronan rike this rast night."
The satyr leaned against a glowing lamppost, almost tangling his horns against the iron. Xzain Fairhoof was once a night watchman in Gydnia, but managed to finagle a more permanent and important position with the Drandiss city watch. Schrau considered Xzain to be 'good people', which generally meant that he had no vices that Schrau could easily exploit, aside from a love of strong alcoholic beverages that could melt the lamppost the satyr was leaning against.
"Frankly, I'm surprised that this incident was deemed important enough to drag a sentinel across the worlds just to mop it up." Xzain theatrically swept a hand towards the corpse. "So, Cadnos, what's your professional opinion?"
"He's dead, Xzain." Schrau calmly replied.
"Exactly." The satyr bobbed a head at the dhampir. "Okay, I think you can clean up this mess. So, Schrau, why is it that you are here?"
Schrau shook his head, his ears bashfully dipping. "I dunno, to be honest. For some reason it's assumed that if a thief dies anywhere across the Six, I'd know who they were."
"Well, do you?"
"No." Schrau lied.
The satyr sighed with resignation, giving Schrau the impression that he actually believed him. "Fair enough. You heard that last night was a pretty busy one, right?"
Schrau shook his head, "Haven't had time to sit down this morning. Aside from this incident, the onry other crime I've heard of today was two thieves making off with some junk from a store in Keystone."
"Really?" Xzain said, the surprise tangible in his voice. "There were a spate of robberies last night. Nearly a dozen shops across the worlds were hit, including this one, and all that was stolen from any of them were moderately-expensive junk."
"Izzat so?" Schrau commented, pushing his friend to continue.
"Yeah, sometimes it was just one object, probably stolen to order, the rest decided to fill a sack each and split. You know, the same sort of thing happened about twenty years ago."
"I wouldn't know, I hadn't been born then."
Xzain nodded. "Kids today. Anyway, it all started small but widespread - Again, nearly a dozen seemingly-unconnected robberies taking trinkets from shops. Then the numbers started flipping..." Xzain held a hand out, palm-down, before flipping it palm-up. "...The number of crimes went down, but the value of what was being stolen increased. In fact, they might not have been connected, though everyone thought they were because the estimated value of what was stolen was about equal each time."
"So how did it end?"
"Eventually, there were three simultaneous thefts - An original Montalvo from the mayor's mansion in Sauronan, a manuscript of the original translation of the Levetikon from the office of Lord Zandar himself, and a giant yellow diamond from Sultan Odie's private museum in Suthnas. After that, nothing."
Schrau shook his head and whistle appreciatively. "Interesting. I'rr see if I can dig up anything from a few ord famiry friends to see if there's some sort of rituar going on or something, not that thieves are big on rituar..."

Schrau shook the Charthurian rain off his weatherproofed cloak as he stepped down into Raz's basement. The Charthur forest canopy did an excellent job of collecting and filtering heavy rain to such a degree that drops the size of marbles constantly peppered ones skull. Only a handful of thieves sat around the basement, the rest either proving tardy or had probably already been assigned. Peshk sat in the corner separate from the rest, her chin resting on a hand with a rather pensive look on her face. Schrau immediately felt a pang of sympathy for her, especially now that he had seen the broken body of her junior in the cold light of day, or at least in the well-lit gloom of Perdow. He felt the need to talk to her about it, to get her side of the story, but had something else to do first.
He saw Raz and Hope standing nearby, his junior talking to the human in a rather hushed tone before noticing that Schrau was there, whereupon she flashed him a rather guilty look. Schrau was suspicious, but it failed to bother him, for he knew firsthand that the two natural states for a vulpin in the company of non-vulpins was either guilty or suspicious. He approached the pair, interrupting whatever it was that Hope was discussing with Razputin.
"Uh, Raz, I gotta have a word with you. A few, in fact."
"Yeah, sure." Raz sighed. "Is it about Somy?"
"Peshk's junior? Yeah, I was the one they sent to inspect the body." Schrau glanced over at the vipyr, "I'm gonna write it up as an accident. It's not the first time some thief figures he's far more acrobatic than he actuarry is, his death was the fourth I know of rast night."
"Well, that's awfully generous of you, Schrau, it really is." Raz said, his voice colder than Schrau would have liked. "Kell and Sohzeh had their runs interrupted by nosy guards last night too but managed to get away with the haul, as did you I hear."
"You're right." Schrau agreed. "Raz, there's something I've got to terr you; as I was inspecting Somy's body this morning, I got talking to an ord friend of mine on the Drandiss watch. The rast Heist, twenty years ago, he armost figured it out."
"Yeah, he managed to draw a connection between the number of crimes and the varue of what was storen at each round. He noticed that as each time the number of robberies went down, the varue of what was taken went up each time."
"Smart guy." Raz commented. "I get the picture. Okay, I'll start throwing in a little variance into the tasks, speaking of which..." Raz pulled an envelope out of his jacket and passed it to Schrau. "'s yours for tonight. Make sure the girl learns something tonight."
Schrau made a sour face. "Aw, I made her rearn something rast night."
"Yeah, he even set me homework." Hope quietly said as Schrau cracked the seal on the envelope.
Schrau quickly committed the task to memory. "Easy." He said, passing the note to Hope. "Not gonna be a probrem, Raz." He nudged Hope's arm and nodded towards the door. "Hurry up, before ze Perdeese get here."

Part 5 - Guardians

"Respect is something you should reserve for yourself and your peers. Success should be reserved for no one but yourself."

A harsh and ominous wind whipped the roofs of the city of Keystone, rattling shingles and guttering. Like waves crashing against a beach, the wind surged and ebbed, washing against all.
Poorly shadowed by the bell tower of the Sikkarian Church, Hope pulled her cloak even tighter around herself. "I can't believe we're doing this." She moaned.
Schrau sat next to her, perched like a gargoyle, utterly unfazed by the wind. He sat there, staring out across the city as if it were his; a lord surveying all that he owned.
Once again, despair wracked Hope's soul. "I can't believe we're really doing this."
Schrau grinned, "Why not?"
"This... This is evil!"
"Stealing a paladin's shield?" Schrau offered. "Evil? No more than stealing anything else."
"But... but..."
"Oh, so you're worried about some sort of divine retribution?" Schrau cheerfully said, "Is that it? Don't worry. Sikkar is watching..." He looked up to the skies. "That's all he ever does. Watching. Doing nothing else but watching."
"This is wrong..." Hope whispered.
"It's just a shield, Hope." Schrau snapped. "A hunk of metal. It sure as hell means a lot more to the paladin holding it than it does to anyone else."
"And how are you supposed to get a shield off a paladin?" Hope whispered. "I thought it took a lot of hitting to get one to let go of their precious shield, seein' as it means so much to them."
"Trust me, the paladin I'll be stealing from would not be in a position to try and take it back." Schrau replied. "I said it'll be easy."
Hope sighed and shook her head, "I don't believe you're so-" She hesitated.
Schrau sat there, stock still against the wind. He kept staring ahead, his hood down due to the fact it would be useless in this wind. The bluster rippled the fur on his face, while two brown eyes stared unflinchingly into the distance without hesitation nor fear of recrimination. "Speak your mind."
"-Heartless!" Hope spat.
"Are you a Sikkarite?" Schrau quietly asked, no hint of snare nor barb in his tone.
"Well, I-" Hope began, before tripping over the same steps that most ordinary folk tend to tumble over when questioned about their religion. True, the presence of the deities was that much more tangible across the Six Worlds that only a few mentally-deficient individuals dare question their existence. This sort of thing does, however, tend to take much of the faith out of Faith.
"Exactly." Schrau nodded understandingly, apparently interpreting Hope's hesitation as a reply. "No offence, but when it comes to religion I can't help but think of all those blasted, nightmarish years that I spent in that blasted pit..." Hope noticed the sudden flash of anger in his voice. "Guardians. Pah."
"You seem too eager to do this."
"No," Schrau said, "all I want to do is prove myself a good thief. When I take this shield... It'll mean nothing more than that. I won't care about it, or what happens afterwards." He unclenched his jaw. "Hell, the way I see things, they owe me a shield."
"So this is why you decided to prosecute Lord Zandar?" Hope asked.
"Actually, no." Schrau cocked his head back, the crown resting against the bell tower. "Personally, I like Zandar. It's also not as if I have anything against the Church itself, I consider quite a few of the templar good friends."
Hope felt that something was still going unsaid. "Any paladin friends?"
"None whatsoever." Schrau plainly said. "Which is exactly why this job is going to be so much easier. There ain't a single paladin out there that I respect, and quite a big bunch of them that I consider complete idiots. Paladins and sentinels don't exactly mix, y'know? On the one hand, you've got a bunch of prissy knights in shiny armour impressing the bards with tales of being protectors of truth, justice, and the way of good; and on the other you have a few ragged individuals protected by nothing more than green leather who live and get killed in the pursuit of protecting truth, justice, and everyone who needs protecting."
"You're led by a paladin."
Schrau stood up and crossed his arms against the wind. "Yeah, a paladin who actually had sense knocked into him and realised that he could either sit on his arse all day only doing what Sorush told him to do, or actually jump the fence and sit on his arse all day tellin' people what to do." Schrau's eyes twinkled in the dark. "I like Gilgal. As much as I make life tough on him, I like him. An' I know for an absolute fact that he's no more a paladin than I am these days."
"How?" Hope asked.
"'cause a paladin wouldn't have a naked child molester beaten to a semi-conscious lump." Schrau snapped. "He'd just pray for the bastard."
At that moment the bell in the tower above them pealed, deafening them both. Twelve strikes, the twelve hollow beats of midnight, and then they stopped.
"That, or he would've sent another paladin in to do the dirty work and get killed by some cowardly fucker who, in a perfect world, should've been eatin' her sword." Schrau calmly growled. "Midnight. Give 'em five minutes to sweep the hallways, and then I go in."
"What do I do?"
"What I did for you last time: Get me in, and watch my exit. There's a skylight up ahead, drops down to exactly where I want to go. Got the rope ready?"

The rope snapped taught barely half a foot away from the tiled floor, and a shrouded figure dropped off it soon afterwards. The thief adjusted his cloak and stared into the gloom for long enough to allow his vision to adjust.
The room was basically a long dead end, yet it occupied an entire wing of the Church by itself. This was because rows and rows of paladin shields in various states of damage adorned the walls and double-sided racks that lined the room like shelves in a well-stocked library.
The paladins named this room the Hall of Honour. To everyone else it was a mausoleum, a graveyard, thousands upon thousands of kite shields acting as gravestones for paladins that had fallen in service of the Church.
Casting a suspicious eye over the various shields, Schrau took a few steps forward before voluntarily dropping onto one knee and bowing his head.
"I come here to defile this place." He whispered, "I come to take that which one of your fallen held to be more important than his or her own life. You see yourselves as protectors, as guardians and as custodians of the weak; you are wrong."
He raised his head. "The weak will never become strong for as long as you protect them. The law is my charge, not yours. I am here disobeying the word I gave once, but my word is no more important to myself than these shields are to anyone but yourselves. What is important to me, what really matters, is blood. Family. Irrevocable bonds that were forged for me in my birth. This is what I was born to do."
Schrau stood up and grinned in the darkness. "Now, which one of you is gonna be coming home with me tonight?" He turned to his left and sighted the nearest shield that lay in state on the rack, an eagle spread across black and green chevrons.
Schrau fiddled with the arm straps of the shield and eventually loosened it. He looped the straps back loosely and fastened the buckles, before stuffing it up the back of his cloak and threading his arms through the loops. A brief, pained memory washed through his mind that had something to do with the last time he did this. The very moment this happened, the glint of a shield in the impossible darkness caught his eye.
Slowly turning towards the source of his curiosity, Schrau stalked through the hall and came face to face with what he saw. A bat in flight across quarters of blue and white.
The shield of Havral Glommon.
Schrau bowed his head and placed a hand on the shield. "You would've made a good sentinel, girl. Shame you fell in with this crowd."
Suddenly, something tried to pierce his back, Schrau felt the sharp blade glance off the shield across his back and digging into the cloak. Shocked, and more than slightly irritated, Schrau grunted and let the knife held up his sleeve slip down into his palm.
Before the would-be assassin could rectify the mistake he had made, Schrau had turned and snapped his arm out, aiming a strike at the guts of a normal height humanoid, but actually plunging his own dagger into the neck of the dwarf.
Schrau had assumed that a paladin, or at least one of the knaves assigned to securing the church at night, had managed to get the drop on him and unlike the guard in Silver Street Schrau had no intention of letting anyone that attempted to incapacitate or kill him in this place live. However it was clear that the dwarf, with its black clothes, darkened face, and black beard tied into a thick braid, had about as much permission to be here as he did.
Schrau gave the knife a brief twist, and the dwarf coughed blood into his face. Schrau's paw was sticky where blood ran down the blade onto his hand, and he suddenly realised that now the attacker's scent was on him.
The dwarf collapsed, and Schrau wasted no time in going through the man's pockets and clothes for any clue. As he did so, another set of realisations went through his mind.
Schrau straightened and frowned. The amount of blood on the floor meant that moving the body away from this certain location a futile one. Fortunately, he hadn't stepped in any of the blood so leaving distinctive vulpin footprints behind wouldn't be an issue. Biting back a curse, Schrau sprinted towards the rope that hung from the skylight in the middle of the hall.

Hope watched the rope at the end of the grappling hook bob and weave, and rushed towards it to help Schrau up. The sentinel, however, seemed to be an apt climber and had made it almost to the top before she got there.
"Stay back!" Schrau hissed, poking his bloodstained head through the window.
"What happened?" Hope snapped back.
"Someone jumped me." Schrau breathed. "Waited by a certain shield and tried to kill me."
"But that's-" Hope began. "-What do we do now?"
Schrau had begun pulling the rope up and looping it around his arm. "First of all, I don't want to get any of his blood on you. Dwarf blood stinks like a brewery in the summer, and the paladins are gonna find his body soon enough. I know a few tricks to shake this scent, but..." Schrau sighed. "Sorry to do this to you again, kid, but we're gonna have to split up. Also, since this rope is covered in his blood you're gonna have to find another way off this roof."
"How?" Hope asked, before realising the answer. "The drainpipe. I'd considered that as a way up and down before you even got the rope."
"Good girl." Schrau grinned. "Stay safe. Just get home and have a nice, long bath."
"Will do. What about you?"
Schrau tapped his back where the hollow peal of the shield. "Well, first off I'm gonna have to get this stink off me. Then I'll turn in the goods before catching a few hours sleep. With any luck, I won't be the one investigating this sorry mess tomorrow."
"Okay, good luck Schrau."
Schrau nodded. "Now go."
And she was gone.

Part 6 - Meanwhile...

"Violence is never the solution, but quite often one of many. However, if you're in a situation which obviously calls for violence and have yet to work your way through it, the problem is not that you're using violence, but that you're not using enough."

Kell'rrhr quietly slipped into the mansion's vault and tried very hard to stifle the grin that crept at her features. Breaking into the mansion of a minor Wysoomian dignitary had, so far, been the most difficult part. Which was good.
Good because it meant that nothing had taxed the vampire's progress through the mansion. Kell almost considered this an insult to her abilities, but in all honesty it was probably better this way.
The vault was full of riches, various antiques and paintings, the value of which actually surprised Kell due to the fact that they didn't seem to equate to the dignitary's social standing. Kell was that much more higher on the social ladder than this man, and yet had a tenth of riches contained within the vault. Kell considered her regrets about the fact this act of thievery would force the lord of the manor to tighten his security, so coming back later with a bigger sack was pretty much out of the question.
Kell quickly sighted what she had came for, an exquisite Soselian jade statue of an ancient shogun. Small enough to pocket, Kell approached the statue and stretched out a hand. Her fingers clasped around the statuette and lifted it, before it disappeared into the bag at Kell's hip. Absolutely perfect. Kell considered herself lucky that, for once, Razputin's almost fetishistic love of religious paraphernalia had not swayed his decision as to set the object of Kell's desire this night.
Time to escape: Kell had broken into the building via a skylight on a single-story extension of the manor, dropping the distance and landing soundlessly on the stone floor beneath. Getting into homes and buildings was practically imprinted onto vampires on a genetic level, Kell could practically break into any building an able architect could conceive. One would think that leaving a building would also be a vampiric skill, but most forgot that usually by then a vampire was fed and firing on a completely different set of neurons. Kell could return to the skylight, a single leap would see her clear. The layout of the manor was, however, almost idiotically simplistic: Hallway, branching off to the servant's wing, extension, and the dining room and vault, with the bedrooms for the dignitary and his family upstairs. There was a balcony up there, Kell remembered from her previous visit here, though she would have to go through the master bedroom to get to it, which would almost certainly be occupied.
It took but a moment for Kell'rrhr to sprint up the stairs, her feet falling silently on the hard marble. It took about as long for the thief to make it to the door of the master bedroom, knowing that the lord of the manor had nightingale floorboards installed upstairs. The boards were designed to creak when stepped upon, and for a thief without Kell's abilities they would have alerted practically everyone upstairs to the presence of someone on the balcony. Kell suspected that the elaborate door handles to the master bedroom rattled as well. If only the dignitary had paid as much attention to security with his vault and skylight.
It then occurred to her that he had: The skylight had been connected to an elaborate set of alarm bells that Kell had spent but a moment circumvented, while the vault door had been locked in a way that any incorrect entries on the numerical dial would have alerted the guards snoring away in the servant's quarters. Kell had simply been operating under a different mentality before the theft as after and had treated the security measures as something below the level of a distraction.
Kell clicked the door open, slipped inside, then closed it behind her. The dignitary and his wife sleeping on the bed a few feet away from her, separating her from the closed balcony door. Almost arrogantly, Kell actually leapt over the bed, clearing it in a single standing leap, before softly landing on the other side of the room.
She would love to see Cadnos do this, or even Bowhorn. As much as she liked the minotaur as a friend, Kell considered Gordal as unlikely a thief as an anakim would make a fallen. Kell slipped beneath the silk curtains, fiddled with the catch on the balcony door, then escaped.
A few seconds later, she was on the grass of the garden; undetected and with her prize. Now all she had to do was find Arthos and leave. If the werewolf could be trusted to stay in one place, he should be near the extension through which Kell made her way into the manor.
And there he was as Kell rounded the corner, slumped against the wall with his head lolling at an unnatural angle. Kell dispassionately assumed that the werewolf's neck had been broken, most likely by the devil dressed in black that knelt hunched over the body.
"I think you were supposed to hide," Kell calmly told the devil.
"I would have..." The devil quietly hissed. "I had no idea you would take such a short time for you to make it out of there, and your boy wasn't easy to put down."
Kell smiled brightly, not bringing her lips back over her teeth. "Of course. And that was your second mistake."
The devil straightened and drew a wicked dagger. "My first?"
Kell closed the distance between them faster than a lightning bolt. The devil's weapon arm cracked sickeningly as the vampire quickly twisted it three times around each joint before plunging her fangs into his neck. Before the devil could scream, Kell reached out with her free hand and pulled his jaw sharply to the side, breaking and dislocating it.
Kell drank deeply from the vampire. To the vampire, the devil's blood was hot and almost sulphurous, but there was a certain bitter quality about it that she liked. The devil twitched in her grip, his scream emerging as a pained groan mangled beyond all sense of recognition, before becoming limp. Kell wasn't sure if it was a ploy or if he had given up completely, but the devil was not dead yet as his rapid heartbeat kept pumping what little blood that remained in his body into Kell's mouth. Eventually it stopped, the muscle collapsing around itself as the blood pressured dropped, yet Kell still kept drawing from the wound to get as much blood from his body as she could. Only when the vampire was satisfied did she let the body collapse hard onto the floor.
The vampiric thief sighed and stared at the body of her junior thief. She couldn't leave the body here, though with her strength carrying Arthos would be easy enough. Kell also knew of a few places to hide the body until a decision could be made as to how to deal with it.
Whatever would happen next, Kell wanted blood. She had a fairly good idea who was responsible for this, and Razputin be damned she would have her fill.

Kell'rrhr quietly closed the door behind her and quickly inspected the cellar room. There were only four other people in the basement: Jihm and his junior; a weasel-like human named Renk or Runk or Rehk or something, they sat in the corner quietly whispering to each other. The slight grin the devil offered her when he noticed her arrival reminded Kell of the devil assassin far more than she would have liked.
Schrau was talking to Raz in the middle of the room, the vulpin leaning against a paladin shield while the human listened intently. A low growl in her throat, Kell stormed towards the pair.
"...had seen her then I don't-" Schrau was saying as Kell hissed and lashed out with an arm, gripping him by the throat and lifted him off his feet. The shield clattered on the floor as the vulpin's eyes bulged.
"You traitorous sneak!" Kell snapped. "I was going to drain you, but the thought of having your blood in my veins-"
"Kell!" Raz barked.
"He set me up!" The vampire yelled back. "I got out of the target, and a murderer was waiting for me! He killed Arthos!"
"Let him go!" Raz ordered. "Arthos is dead?"
"Yes." Kell coolly told him. "We were betrayed, Raz, and this little-"
Schrau by now had forced a few fingers into Kell's grip and loosened it enough to speak. "Someone was waiting there to kirr me too!" He wheezed.
"What?" Kell balked, still not loosening her grip any.
"If someone had sord you out, they did the same to me!" Schrau explained. "I got to where I was s'posed to stear from, an' when I was there some dwarf jumped me from behind." Kell dropped him, and the vulpin collapsed into a kneeling position on the shield he had been leaning on. "Rucky... I store the shierd first. He woulda got me..."
"How do I know you're telling the truth?" Kell snarled.
"Trust me," Raz answered, "tomorrow morning, we're all gonna be hearing about it."
Schrau nodded, rubbing the black mark on his neck but saying nothing.
"I sent him in to steal a shield from the paladin guild." Raz continued, "If the scruff is tellin' the truth, then they're gonna find a murdered dwarf in the Hall of friggin' Honour."
"Interesting..." Kell noted, before realising something. "Where's your junior, Cadnos?"
"Got a good drenching of your favourite wine from my attacker." Schrau explained. "Didn't want to make things more difficurt for us by spreading the scent to her, so I sent her home. Where's Arthos?"
Kell's eyes narrowed. "He's dead, you-"
"Yeah, I can hear. Where is he?"
"He's safe. I'm still figuring out what to do with him."
"So he's not where he was kirred." Schrau said. "How was he kirred?"
Kell shook her head, wondering where this was going. "Broken neck."
Schrau blinked in thought for a moment. "Okay. We can fake it. A farr or something. No one need know he was invorved in this. You did the right thing, Kerr."
"Of course I did, you-"
"Shut up, shut up, shut up...." Raz quickly said. "Okay. Okay, this is... Something's up." He closed his eyes and thought. "Other than you two and Jihm the only other team to make it back so far is Gordal's, and I sent them home. You know where he lives, right Kell?"
Kell nodded. "Of course I do. I'm not sure where that arakun-"
"Gordal will." Raz turned to Schrau. "And do you know where Hope lives?"
Schrau shook her name. "No. Don't even know her furr name."
"Oh," Schrau brightly said, "I know now."
"How do you know?" Kell asked.
"I know the Hassengers, and I knew that their daughter moved out and purchased a home in Abarack. I've seen the deeds in my, uh, professionar capacity." Schrau nodded. "Yeah, I know where she rives. Why?"
"I want you to go out and bring them back here." Raz said. "Hopefully, the rest should show up in their own time, I'll hold 'em here, maybe get Jihm to tell a few of his lewd jokes as entertainment."
"Your mother never thought they were lewd!" The devil merrily barked from the corner where he sat, and his human partner sblack personed.
"Your mother? Very originar, Jihm." Schrau snapped. "Wha's going on, Raz?"
"Haven't fully decided yet." Raz replied. "I will have thought of something by the time you get back."
"You had better." Kell snapped, before remembering something. She pulled the small bag from her belt and practically threw it at Razputin. "Oh, and here's your jade statuette. It was easy. A snap, you could say."

The water had started to cool, but the suds hadn't eroded much since Hope had poured the bath. She lay in the tub, her head resting on a towel at the lip of the bath, mistress of her own home.
It's not as if she loathed her family life, but Hope had wanted freedom. The fact that her parents had paid for this home did not bother Hope as much as it would others, since she knew that she was a talented and hard-working tradeswoman, as well as a skilled thief. It wouldn't take her long to legally and illegally work off the debt she owed her parents, and the fact that it gave her a goal to work towards with little of the associated pressure was sufficient to drive her forward without the looming threat of failure and the burden that would bring.
However, something was troubling her, and it was a massive worry. She had tried to talk to Razputin about it, but Schrau had neatly interrupted their discussion. She was worried by Schrau's phrase, "hurry, before ze Perdeese get here." He had said that right before a Perdeese guard had discovered them, and while Schrau had claimed that he had dealt with her, Hope couldn't be sure that he had someone negotiated with the guard instead.
Hope had tried to voice her concerns to Raz, but Schrau had seen them talk and went so far to use the same phrase again in a misplaced attempt to distract her from the relevance of the phrase to the guard that night. That really worried Hope, and she wasn't sure if Schrau could be trusted. Sighing, Hope almost drifted off to sleep in the tub while vowing that she would try and ask someone about it the next chance she got.
A single tap from the window snapped her out of her catnap, Hope hadn't drawn the curtains on the window since the building was tall enough to prevent her neighbours from looking in on her while she bathed, and she found that looking over the city was incredibly relaxing. Hope's eyes snapped open, and saw Schrau perched on the windowsill outside.
"Nice place you've got here."
Hope screamed and made a desperate grab for the towel to throw it over herself. As she panicked, she caught Schrau grinning at her, though probably at her reaction rather than any other reason.
"What the hell are you doing here?" She hissed as she eventually wrapped the now-soaked towel around herself.
"Well, it's very simple." Schrau said, his tone becoming condescending. "I tried the door, and every other window than this one, and there's no way I'm trying the chimney. Therefore, via a process of elimination..." Schrau left the sentence hang. "By the way, this glass must be pretty thin for us to talk like this."
"Yes." Hope snarled through clenched teeth. "It gets very cold in here in the winter. What. Are. You. Doing. Here?"
"Tryin' to raise you, sister." Schrau said. "Raz wants all and sundry back in the spot for an emergency meeting."
"Not gonna tell you while I'm perched out here, especially with how thin this glass is. Aren't you going to invite me in?"
Holding the towel with one hand, Hope release the catch on the window. "A real thief would have broken this latch."
"A real thief made sure that couldn't happen." Schrau pointed out, slipping inside the bathroom and not even turning to catch a look at Hope's back as she closed the window behind him. "Dry off, get dressed, I'll take a nap in the hall. I'll need it if I want to turn up at the guild bright-eyed and bushy-tailed tomorrow.
Hope glanced at Schrau's tail and never would have used the term "bushy" for it. Thorn bushy, maybe. She was positive he was keeping things in there. "I have a nice, soft bed." Hope sarcastically mentioned.
"I'm sure you do." Schrau smoothly replied, stepping out into the hallway and closing the door behind him. A few minutes later after Hope had finished drying off as quickly as she could, she emerged into the hallway to find Schrau leaning against the wall next to her bedroom door, arms crossed, eyes closed. She breezed past him without a word, stepped into her bedroom, and changed back into the clothes she had worn on their last thieving run.
As she stepped out of her bedroom, Schrau's eyes snapped open. "Kell's junior was killed by an assassin during her run, and she's really pissed about it. With what happened to us and her, Raz is starting to get a little riled." Schrau stared evenly at Hope, "I don't know what he's gonna do, but it takes something bad to freak Razputin out. With what happened to Kell's partner, I guess we should both be very thankful that our attacker was dumber than a sack of bricks."
Hope's muzzle opened to say something, but quickly failed. Hearing that someone just like her had been killed shook her; and Schrau was right in that they were lucky. Had the assassin come for her instead of Schrau...
Schrau nodded towards the stairs. "Let's go, Hope. Hurry, before ze Perdeese get here."
Part 7 - Appeasement

"Generally, if a thief has to stop to explain himself, that means he's been caught which is far from an ideal situation for a thief to be in. Think first, act second, and leave the scene of the crime long before anyone has the wits to stop you and ask you what you've just done."

Hope's mind swam as she followed Schrau into the basement. The pair had barely exchanged a word between them as they made the trek to Gydnia. Someone was killing thieves, and despite everything she couldn't exactly bring herself to trust the sentinel. For some reason, the crowd pressed on her like a weight and she wished that she was back in her bath.
Schrau on the other hand had a trained eye with regards to crowds. He took but the briefest of moments to scan the crowd before commenting, "Last ones in."
"Finally." Gordal growled from his position near the door, his arakun junior was perched on one of his broad horns while peeling a banana nonchalantly and glaring down at Schrau with the most wicked expression on her face.
"Yup." Schrau calmly replied. "Finarry. Oh, Gord; you've got some food on your horn."
"Sit down, Cadnos." Gordal snapped, uncharacteristically bitter about something. Schrau sighed, gestured with his head to Hope and moved to the front of the pack where he crouched down. Hope joined him, still staying separate.
Raz was at the front, finishing a hushed argument with one of the seniors, a Soselian human whose full name escaped Schrau but generally answered to Ronin. Everything about the man's stance, including the way he carried the rather wicked looking katana with a professionally blackened blade indicated to Schrau that the man had formerly been a bodyguard of sorts. Even though he could have listened in on every word the two men were exchanging, Schrau chose not to out of professional courtesy.
Something about the atmosphere struck the sentinel as odd. Given Arthos' death and the attempt on his life he had expected a level of tension in the room, but the absolute suspicion in the air was palatable and instantly recognisable to Schrau.
And even though not every pair of eyes were set straight on him, Schrau could practically feel that everyone was thinking about him, accusing him.
He felt angry. A genuine sense of betrayal and fury. He clenched his jaw and tried to quell the fire rising up in him, and remembered the Cadnos family motto: You can't prove I did it.
"Okay, settle down." Raz said without any of his usual enthusiasm. "I'm pretty sure the story has been circulating around you all, but for the record here's what happened: First off, Kell's run was interrupted by an assassin who took out Arthos as he ran watchdog for Kell's escape." Raz glanced over to the feline vampire, who simply favoured him with a blank, cold stare. "Kell drained the bastard, left him at the scene, and took Arthos' body and put it in a safe place while we decide how exactly we're gonna make his death look like an accident."
"Someone's selling us out." Sohzeh accusingly announced out loud. Schrau felt the back of his neck burn under the collective gaze of everyone in the room, even Hope was trying not to stare sideways at him. Schrau's tongue quickly thought of a retort as his brain strangled it; any denial he could offer would only heap further suspicion on him.
"Yeah, but that ain't the half of it Sohzeh." Raz's eyes settled sadly on the two vulpins in the front row. "At about the same time, Schrau's run was interrupted by an assassin."
"Who would've gotten me had I not been smart enough to hide my mark under my cape." Schrau brightly said, though he didn't feel the enthusiasm he spoke with.
"In short, we have two dead assassins, and two dead juniors."
Peshk shook her head. "No, Somy's death was an accident."
"It was," Raz sighed, "but the fact is we have two dead juniors, and now someone is out to kill us. From the descriptions I got from Schrau and Kell, these assassins are probably from the same group, and they are dangerous: The one did manage to kill a fully-grown werewolf."
Schrau almost wanted to comment that he himself had managed to kill a fully-grown werewolf, and one that was decidedly more dangerous than Arthos. Instead, he said "An' I was very rucky."
"I bet." Someone snorted from behind Schrau's position. The sentinel quickly recognised the voice as Jihm's and catalogued the insult away for future reference.
Raz snapped a cold glare at the devil, then shook his head. "Now listen: I'm responsible for all of youse. You all think you're grown-up boys and girls, but the fact is that I'm the one who ought to be lookin' after you, not sending you to your death." He sighed, "I hand-picked each an' every one of you for this, but I didn't know it would come to this. I'm sorry, but the juniors are gonna have to pull out of the Heist. Non-negotiable."
This bombshell was met with a response that Schrau had expected. There were complaints, fairly vocal ones. It didn't surprise Schrau much to even see the fur on Hope's neck rising in anger.
"Look, I have my reasons, okay. The big one is not gettin' you all killed. The seniors are old enough and skilled enough to look after themselves."
"So we're still in?" Gordal asked.
"Yes, but from now on you don't have to keep an eye on your juniors."
"This is bullshit!" Jihm's partner snapped. "So that's all we are, a burden?"
"No, you're not." Schrau calmly said. "But why don't you ask your senior this? What would he be abre to do to keep you safe?"
"I can look after myself." The human snarled.
"So could Arthos." Kell countered, her voice as calm as Schrau's but with a vengeful ice-cold quality that promised thin ice to collapse beneath you a cold depths to drag you under. "Arthos could rip your arms out of your sockets, so tell me human, what could you do exactly?"
"She's right." Raz interposed. "They're right. Rehk, you think you're able to look after yourself, but what about the others? What about Hope or Shyen or the rest? Can they look after themselves. Don't answer that." Raz added as it appeared as if Shyen and Rehk were both about to offer their thoughts. Shyen settled down on Gordal's horn to sulk while Rehk just simmered. "My mind's set: The Heist will go ahead, but without the juniors. It's too risky.
"The rest of you, come back tomorrow night where I'll have your assignments ready for you."

The next night, Schrau skulked his way down to the basement with some good news in tow. Fortunately, he hadn't been assigned to investigating either of last night's "murders", but he did get a good look at the findings when he was asked to sign off on the reports.
Raz was in conversation with Gordal and Jihm, the former was clutching his sealed envelope in his hand while the latter was reading his note with a disinterested air. "Hey, am I rate?"
The three men stiffened at the sound of Schrau's voice; Jihm's body-language being the simplest of the trio to read. Schrau shot them a withering look and sighed. "C'mon. I am a sentiner. I can spot guirt from three streets away. You were talking about me, right?" Before anyone could deny the accusation, Schrau shook his head and added, "I won't pry. Raz, guys, I've got some good news for you."
"Let me guess." Raz said with a sigh. "Somehow, whoever was investigating last night's events somehow had a massive lapse of common sense and deduced that there was nothing suspicious about both instances."
"On the contrary: The events were suspicious enough." Schrau dredged the contents of both reports from memory. "First off, Kerr's kirr: Amusingry, the guy she was ripping off craimed that the 'assassin' was actuarry part of his security detair, but that story didn't fry."
"How so?" Gordal asked.
"Because we drew a rine between the two deaths." Schrau reached into his cloak and fished around for something. "I took this from evidence, ostensibry using it to ask a few of my contacts what it could be but I have a pretty good idea anyway, it used to berong to the dwarf that tried to kirr me."
He produced what seemed to be a bracelet made of two fine leather straps no thicker than twine tied together at one end. About midway along the length of the straps was a complicated knot that gaped loose.
"Sorry, I don't recognise it." Raz said.
"Werr, it's not comprete." Schrau explained. "See this knot? We had to take them out, but they herd down four pratinum coins."
"So?" Gordal asked.
Schrau briefly hesitated, "Um, werr, we're talking about four hundred gord pieces, right? Four hundred is about the going rate for a initiar payment for the services of a good defense attorney. Or a bribe."
"So if they get caught, they can buy their way out one way or another." Raz said, understanding.
"Anyway, since the two events are considered connected, we didn't buy the 'security' story."
"So what do you believe?" Jihm asked.
Schrau rubbed his chin. "First off, they're thinkin' that the two guys beronged to some sort of guird. Rike us. And since something was taken from both scenes..."
Gordal scratched his shaggy head. "Um. Pardon my denseness here, but isn't it suspicious that, if that was the case, two thieves are dead?"
"Oh, I put it down to betrayar." Schrau simply said. "Everyone knows if you can see a thief, you shouldn't trust them..."
"...and if you can't see a thief, then you mustn't trust them." Raz finished the saying.
"Whatever. Anyway, me an' Kerr are off the hook." Schrau grinned, before interrupting the silence that followed, "'Thank you, Schrau, thank you for spending an inordinate amount of your working hours sorting out the issues we had with the two dead attackers rather than catching up on some werr-needed sreep'." He sighed. "Got something for me, Raz?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah, sure." Raz fished around in his jacket for an envelope and handed it off to the vulpin who cracked the seal.
Gordal and Jihm wandered off, the conversation bled dry, no doubt eager to get on with their assignments. Schrau pulled out the thin scrap of paper from the envelope and read it. "Oh, Raz. What did I terr you about rerigious stuff?"
"To cut back." Raz said. "I did some reading on this, uh, dee-al?"
"It's a 'Diall'." Schrau explained.
The human stared flatly at the vulpin. "How come you can say that but can't even pronounce 'vulpin'?"
"It's a vurpin thing." Schrau instinctively replied. "And so is this."
"I gathered, but I thought you vulpins weren't big on religion."
Schrau gave Raz a lopsided grin and crushed the note in his hand. "Hmm, I bet you just caught a non-expranative description of a Diall in a crappy textbook somewhere and now you want to know what it is?"
"Do you believe in this stuff?"
Schrau cackled. "Raz, there isn't a vurpin in my rine of work that doesn't. You're curious, ain't ya? Finished up with the hand-outs?" The human nodded. "C'mon. I'rr show you."
Raz shrugged dismissively. "Hey, I can't come with or help. You know that?"
"This is a resson, Raz. Extracurricurar, so to speak. You won't even be a participant in the theft, arr you have to do is stand there and rearn. C'mon."

Part 8 - Understanding

"For a thief, faith is unnecessary and a potential hazard. Should a thief find some use in faith, it is in forcing others to believe that his religion may be exploited against him."

The place Schrau led Razputin to was some sort of old temple, carved out among the roots of a huge Charthurian tree. For some reason, Raz figured, the place was a fitting place for vulpins to come an worship. Probably because it resembled a fox den of some sort.
The door was wooden, surrounded in sturdy stone, with a single handle and a symbol that had been carved into the wood much later: A thick circle surrounding an equally thick cross, and where each point of the cross met the circle's circumference, it formed the centre point of another circle twice the thickness of the lines.
"Nice place, where did you get it?"
"We store it." Schrau grinned as he pushed open the door. "Seriousry. It used to be some pagan tempre or something. Come on in."
Raz had to crouch beneath the lintel to enter the short doorway. Inside was more spacious, though not by much. The circular stone room was about twelve feet in diameter and eight tall, with another door at the opposite side of the room behind some sort of wooden pulpit, but no seating of any kind. A short, withered vulpin wearing fairly decent brown robes stood at the far end of the room sweeping the floor with a weathered broom. The elder vulpin glanced up, nodded and smiled at Schrau, before resuming his task.
"Shen, this is Razputin." Schrau said as way of introduction.
"Ah, yes. I've heard of you, young man." Shen said, without pausing from his task.
As Raz's eyes settled to the gloom, he noticed that the same symbol on the door had been carved into the floor, with some sort of coloured crystal-like material inlaid at the centre of each of the four small circles that appeared at every quarter of the outer circle. From the top around clockwise the circles were coloured red, yellow, white, and purple. Likewise, on the pulpit was a smaller, free-standing version of the symbol that glittered with a golden light but Raz was almost certain that it was merely cheap gold foil over a much cheaper metal. It wouldn't have surprised Raz to know that the crystals, like their counterparts on the floor, were just coloured glass.
"Okay," Schrau quickly sighed the word, "Diall. It's... Werr, rike you said before, vurpins aren't big on rerigion."
"This place suggests otherwise."
Schrau paced towards the centre of the room, standing perfectly balanced on the centre of the cross. "Diall is our word for 'to understand'." Schrau gestured widely to the circle around him. "This symbor is it. This is a Diall."
Raz eyed the cheap metal cross on the lectern.
"Yeah." Schrau grinned. "You know there are four types of vurpin, right?"
"Southlanders, midlanders, northlanders, and Rajiians." Raz automatically reeled off.
Schrau nodded, then took a step back so he was standing on the red glass portion of the floor. "I'm a Red, I understand that I'm cunning."
Raz snorted, "If that was only the half of it."
Schrau's suddenly stern expression didn't change. He then calmly walked around the circumference of the circle like a tightrope walker until he rested on the silvery-white circle. "Wit. The merchant's razor, one with which to negotiate the finer duers of commerce, and one that midranders excer in. I understand that I arso have some innate abirity in wit."
"Oh, I get it." Raz quickly said. "The four coloured circles match up to a particular regional breed of vulpin, as well as their respective traits."
Schrau nodded. "You understand." There was something distinctly strange about Schrau's voice, almost as if he had become some sort of religious speaker. This realisation, as well as the way Shen kept rhythmically sweeping the floor and the flickering of the candles, chilled Raz more than the cold.
The sentinel balanced his way around the circle to the white section. "The north. Cord as ice, and the vurpins there have to be strong. Most of them are ferar, but those that are not have a vicious and marignant edge to them that is much rike the southern cunning, but far more twisted. Guire." Schrau took a deep breath, let it out as a hiss between his teeth. "This is something Ardar forced into me with his training and his intentions. Something, truth be tord, the sentiner guird arrowed me to deverop by any means. It's not something the south is typicarry fond of; we prefer the fine art of the con, not the dogged and determined way of trickery and corruption."
"I'm sorry." Raz said.
"Don't be." Schrau said as he made his way to the purple circle. "Raji. A few centuries ago my kind did not exist on that shattered pranet. As vurpin sravery became more and more common, many of my kind found themserves working their way to freedom, as artists and entertainers. They deveroped grace. My knowredge of crime, the skirr with which I can both execute and prevent it, as werr as my training with the sword arr brends together as a grace of sort.
"Cunning, wit, guire, and grace. These four virtues define vurpin, both as a race and as One Who Stands With His Peers." Schrau melodically said, "That is what we berieve in, that is our creed." Schrau walked over to the red circle, then turned suddenly to face Raz. "Did you know the Diall also highrights the rerationships between the four breeds?"
The human grinned, "Schrau, until about ten minutes ago, I didn't even know what a Diall was."
"Opposites and arries." Schrau said, pointing sideways at the yellow and purple circles. "Reds get on with midranders and Rajiians, we feer we can rearn a rot from them about how society and civirisations work so we can exproit it, but we rook at northerners as nothing more than uncivirised barbarians. Rikewise, they rook as us as common gutter-rats. Rajiians rook at midranders as grossry serious stick-in-the-muds, and midranders rook at them as hedonistic timewasters." He smiled. "But we arr get arong. In a fashion."
Raz shook his head, "I never knew you guys were so deep."
Schrau beamed happily, "Truth is, I find the subject pretty fascinating myserf. For most vurpins, arr this is common knowredge and pretty mundane stuff, but I had to rearn arr this hard and fast. Had to take on a rot in a year or so, so it probabry seems more impressive to me than it usuarry does." The vulpin suddenly appeared pensive, before sighing and sadly closing his eyes. "Anyway, what were we here for? Oh yes."
Schrau cleared his throat then turned at the sweeping vulpin. "Shen, can I take that Diall prease?"
The elder man looked at the sentinel with a look of mixed understanding and amusement. "No, young Cadnos. You May Not." He said before turning around and sweeping away at the wall of the room.
"And so permission has been denied," Schrau said aloud, as if the whole process was some variety of ceremony, "and therefore I take this with no regar justification." His hand reached out for the Diall on the pulpit, black fingers wrapped around its rim, and with a cocky cry of "yoink!" Schrau theatrically took it from the pulpit.
"And now the Deed has been committed so that I May Understand." Schrau finished, before tossing it towards Raz, who clumsily caught it.
As the human took a moment to comprehend what had happened, Shen had already propped his broom up against the wall, walked behind the pulpit behind which he stooped down, before producing an identical ornament and ceremoniously placing it on the pulpit. "We're running out, Schrau. Onry got three reft." Shen informed him, "Oh, and you'd better bring that young rady you've been talking about here, she seems to be of age."
"Hey, wait a minute!" Raz quickly yelped, "That's cheating!"
"No, Raz." Schrau said, his expression innocent, "It just proves that vurpins ain't hypocrites. C'mon, ret's get back."

The pair of thieves had barely turned into Bazz Street when a large shadow loomed out of an alleyway. It was Gordal, and the minotaur looked worried and angry.
"We got a problem." Gordal growled. "Sohzeh and Jihm were arrested, and Ronin's dead."
"What!?" Raz hissed, "How?"
"Seems they were tipped off." Gordal began to eye Schrau, then thought better of it and proceeded to continue with his accusation. "City guard were waitin' for them. Each and every one of them."
"How did they kirr Ronin?" Schrau asked, grimly aware that he probably understood the means and reason.
"Idiot went at 'em with his sword. They hadda put him down."
"Shit." The sentinel hissed, "Rook, I know everyone suspects me, but this is the first I've heard of this. Normarry everything gets put by the sentiners. Everything."
"So what are we gonna do about it?" Gordal asked, looking at Raz.
Schrau shook his head. "I'm gonna see what I can do to get Jihm and Sohzeh sprung." He quickly said. "You said city guard, which ones?"
The minotaur snorted, "Don't you know already?"
"No, dammit, I don't."
"Ease up, guys." Raz interrupted. "Sohzeh's job was in Sauronan, and Jihm was in Abarack."
"The Wysoom statue is in the Biomancer guild." Gordal informed him.
Schrau nodded. "I know. I'rr start there, see what strings I can purr."
"You're taking a big risk doing this, Schrau." Raz said.
The vulpin snorted. "To be honest, I'd be taking a big risk not to."

Sohzeh had been surprisingly cooperative. The irrdu had realised the risk of being a thief, and knowingly realised that literally being caught red-handed at the scene of the crime had, really, been more about failing as a thief rather than bad luck. Schrau had informed Sohzeh regarding the other incidents, and that had dulled the prisoner's enthusiasm.
The fact that Sohzeh had been caught by the Celestials with the amount of corroborating evidence made it near enough impossible for Schrau to get the charges dropped or reduced. Sohzeh, however, managed to bear the brunt of total responsibility, willing to be charged as acting as a lone thief, without betraying the trust he held with the rest of the group.
Sohzeh's acceptance had genuinely surprised Schrau; the fact the thief was willing to fall on their sword, not for him, but for the entire group struck Schrau as particularly noble, and the vulpin sincerely wished that he could do more to help Sohzeh. Now he had a few hours before dawn to deal with Jihm, and that involved dealing with the Diamond Guard, and that in itself was not something he was looking forward to considering the recent incidents. For once, being a Cadnos would be the least of his problems in dealing with that group.
Schrau snagged a report from a bemused clerk, demanded that the thief be brought to a secure interrogation room, and promised all sorts of vile duties for anyone caught eavesdropping on the interview. The usual routine of a sentinel dragged out of his bed at well past midnight. Act fast and hard enough, and no one would have the time nor the sense to actually question why.
The devil lurked on his seat behind the table. Schrau stormed into the room in full sentinel uniform, not even bothering to check his swords on the way in. In the centuries between the day that Jeb Ski'var stood atop a ruined building in Sauronan and pledged that which would become the Sentinel Creed and the moment that Schrau Cadnos had made a good impression of an orange-and-green guided missile throughout the Diamond Barracks, most city guards had learned that if a sentinel chose to take his weapons into an interrogation not to pry. And prepare a mop and bucket.
The sentinel slammed the heavy door hard behind him, noting with a grim satisfaction the sound that the chain mail-clad officer that had arrested Jihm made as he fell flat on his backside outside the room. Schrau waited a moment for the officer to recover, stand up, and walk away before leaning heavily on the table and whispering, "You rucky bastard."
Jihm smiled sweetly, offered Schrau a look of complete innocence, and said; "Excuse me, officer? How, exactly, does getting caught make me lucky?"
"Because it appears that they haven't found what it was you arregedry took." Schrau hissed. "Arr they've got on you is reaving the scene of a crime, and even the most inept and pathetic defence attorney I could crush in the palm of my hand can make it rook as if you were just an innocent bystander who just happened to be caught at an area where a crime happened to take prace. With their eyes crosed."
"So why the hell am I still here, then, fuzzbutt?" Jihm asked. "Why is it that an obviously innocent man is still sat in interrogation?"
"Because, dammit Jihm, the events of the rast few nights have gotten everyone on edge." Schrau finally sat down. "The thefts, the murders; suddenry every guardsman worth his badge is out there, hoping to get a nice srice of the action." Schrau jerked a thumb towards the door. "The kid out there is rooking for a promotion, and arr it takes is for me to walk out there and terr him to formarry charge you and he gets it. On the other hand, I walk out there and chastise him for his obvious ineptitude for arresting someone without any corroborating evidence, and that could sink his career."
Jihm still had that slight smirk on his face. "Why don't you go easy on the kid, hmm?"
"'cause I have a reputation as a hard-ass." Schrau snapped. "Now, here's what's going to happen. You are going to walk out of here; wherever you've stashed the goods, you don't go and pick it up: The chief here's probabry going to have you watched at reast for tonight. You go home, go to bed, and wake up in the morning just rike you arways do. Then, when you are absorutery positive you ain't being forrowed, you go get it tomorrow night and turn it in to Raz. Now, I'm gonna try everything I can to make sure you ain't forrowed. Got that?"
Jihm gave Schrau a long, measured stare, then leaned back in his seat. "Or, how about this, Cadnos? I send you away, I ask to see another officer. I tell him that you and I both are members of the same thieves group. I walk away in exchange for exposing a thief among Radisgad's precious sentinels. A fitting betrayal for a betrayer, hmm?"
It did not take long for the full implication of what Jihm was proposing to dawn on Schrau, and even less time for him to counter it. "Nice try, but you ain't gonna."
"And why is that?" Jihm grinned.
"A few reasons. The first is that if you serr out one of us, you serr out arr. Raz ain't gonna stand for that, and neither are the others." Schrau leaned onto the table, the leather of his coat creaking like gallows. "I'm arready working out the odds on who wirr get you first. Peshk is stirr pissed at rosing her junior, Gordar wirr hunt you wherever you chose to hide and skin you and wear your hide as a waistcoat. And Kerr..." He leaned back, "...wirr probabry drain your for the fun of it. You do that now, and you're a dead man rater. Or even now, because I can kirr you in this room here and now and be above suspicion: I'm carrying a non-descript dagger, protected from scent, that I can prant on your cord and dead headress body.
"Second thing is that you're right. I did betray everyone."
Jihm smiled satisfactorily but said nothing.
"Yeah, I'm the betrayer." Schrau continued. "I'm infirtrating the group, hoping to bring it down from the inside. My superiors know this, as does the chief of every guard across the Six. So fine, go ahead and terr that officer what his superiors know." The vulpins teeth glittered menacingly. "In order to keep things sweet, you'rr be charged and sentenced so fast you won't even have time to get word out, and I'rr be exonerated of arr wrongdoing. Might even arrange an accident to happen to you on the way to your cerr."
Jihm's tone suggested he wasn't in the slightest bit concerned. "Now you're threatening me."
"No, I'm trying to protect the group. Same as Sohzeh. Same as everyone but you. You talk, and if you're wrong you're dead and if you're right you're even deader. Now you've got a crear shot at walkin' out of here without any probrems, so why try and find any?" Schrau stood, glared at the devil. "Now, I'm just gonna forget your threat. Despite appearances, you ain't stupid, Jihm; as much as you'd hate to admit it, you know your onry way out of this is through me, and Sikkar herp me I'm hording the door open for you. So, you gonna take it? Are we crear?"
Jihm seemed to consider the offer for a very long time, before silently nodding.
"Smartest thing you've done arr night." Schrau said, straightening. "Now sit here, shut up, and wait untir I finish your rerease." He turned around, open the door, then stepped out slamming it behind him.
The arresting officer, a young dwarf fresh from the training barracks, saluted him. Schrau predicted he was going to ask him a question and never gave him a chance. The vulpin grabbed the dwarf by the beard and slammed him against the wall. "You idiot."
"Ex-" The dwarf gasped before Schrau interrupted him.
"You are not under orders to speak! Now then, sonny, I know you're eager and want to make your first arrest a good one, but you rearry ought to think first!" The dwarf squirmed in Schrau's grip for a moment, agonizing whether to put his thoughts into words, but Schrau wasn't ready to let him speak. "Next time you arrest someone, make sure they have something first. Something we carr evidence. Eh-vee-dense." He repeated, as if talking to a particularly slow-witted child. "Terr me, when you searched him, did you find anything? Speak."
"N-No, sir."
"Did you find anything that ties him to the crime?"
"No, s-sir.
"And did you search the nearby area?"
"N-No, s-s-s-s-s-sir."
Schrau let him go, then stepped back. "And now what are you going to do about it?"
"I-I- We hold him. Sir."
"Wrong answer!" Schrau barked. "You can't just hord someone on the account that they rook a bit shifty! What you want to do and what you HAVE to do next are two different things. You now have to ret him go."
The dwarf nodded in furious agreement. "And then I follow-"
"He's not an idiot!" Schrau snapped, "Or at reast he's not as much of an idiot as you! He knows you're gonna try and forrow him. He knows you're gonna try and catch him red-handed. He knows this because he is smarter than you." Schrau pointed at the door. "That's why he's sitting in there with a big grin on his face. That is why he's raughing at you, at us!"
The sentinel half-turned to walk away, "Ret him go, and you'd better pray that I don't see your name in a report on my desk in the near future son."

Part 9 - Inside Job

"A fed fox is perfectly trustworthy to guard a chicken coop."

"Okay, it's elimination time."
Raz paced along the front of the room before the eight remaining seniors, Ronin and Sohzeh not being able to join them for obvious reasons. "Naturally, Ronin is out, as is Sohzeh. Jihm, you came very close to being dumped out, but you demonstrated great skill and ability to stash the goods and hide them for future pick up." Raz glanced over to a short, myopic elf name Magadha Swiftrider. "Maggie, since you failed to actually get your target, you're also out. I'm very sorry."
The elf nodded and sighed, removing her glasses to polish them. "Sorry Raz. I suppose my luck had to run out some time." She pushed her spectacles back onto her face and adjusted the short black hair that framed her freckled face.
The human nodded, then produced a bundle of envelopes from his jacket. "The rest of you, here's your assignments. Take your time over these ones; they were supposed to teach your juniors the art of planning and preparation, but frankly that's a lesson you should all be taking now. You've all got four days to make your score, unless you all succeed or unquestionably fail during that period. Schrau, since you had the easiest of the lot last night, you get the hardest."
"Goody gumdrops." The sentinel mockingly replied, plucking the envelope out of Raz's hand. "Ret's see what we have here..."

Schrau tried hard not to stare incredulously at the file before him. It was a standard assignment file, of which he had received hundreds of similar documents since joining the sentinels. The assignment was also very much a standard round of guard duty, detailing that which needed guarding and what support he could expect to aid him in his task, in this case being a half-dozen members of the local watch. Officer profiles, complete with woodcut sketches, were supplied with the package.
The target was an elemental crystal used in some long-forgotten magical battle. The crystal itself had long been drained dry of any magical essence but apparently contained some residual energy that could be sensed by those skilled in the arts of magical detection.
Coincidentally or not, that crystal was exactly the same object that Raz had told him to steal.
And that really was the problem; it could be one huge coincidence, but coincidences were horribly convenient things. Schrau didn't know if someone was already suspecting him, or if the whole thing was a trap of some sort. Whatever the reason, the fact that someone had decided that this artefact required protection indicated that there was indeed a leak in the group.
And now Schrau had to figure out how to steal the crystal from right underneath his own nose. He consulted the profiles of the guards that were to assist him, wondering if any of them had a history of criminal activities, and thus be suitable to frame. None did, but one of the men reminded Schrau of a semi-famous thief.
A few minutes later, Schrau had found the file of that thief and consulted it. No know relatives, accidentally killed by an overzealous guard at a fairly young age. It appeared as if the guard had only resembled the thief, and his inclusion was probably another trap that Schrau had almost stumbled into.
Another thought occurred to Schrau. Perhaps the fact that the crystal had deserved fresh attention and was needing of additional security had nothing to do with the activities of his group. Perhaps there was a genuine threat to its security. That meant that someone else would be interested in stealing the crystal, and that meant that Schrau had to act sooner, not later.
Tomorrow night, Schrau decided. He would spend tonight organising a routine for his security detail. The next day he would gather the equipment he needed to steal the crystal, and then he would do it while on-shift the next night.

Schrau sat at a desk just outside the room the crystal, as well as a few other glass-cased displays. Amusingly, the crystal itself was on an exposed stand, just tempting enough for someone to reach out and grab. The door, the only door to the room, was to remain locked at all times, and Schrau had placed one person inside to constantly patrol that room. It was small enough to warrant only one patroller, and that was fortunate since Schrau wasn't sure he was able to execute his plan against two guards.
A stiff breeze through the corridor extinguished the single source of light in the hallway, the candle at Schrau's desk. The vulpin grumbled in the darkness for a moment, but did not reach for the lit taper immediately. Instead, he waited until the guard patrolling his corridor would come around the right angle bend of the hallway, carrying a torch. The anakim smiled wryly at the vulpin, and Schrau relit the candle with the taper.
This would be it. The candlelight did not carry all the way to the far end of the hall, where the corridor took a turn, so as the anakim turned around, Schrau quickly and noiselessly snuffed the candle. He stood up, threw the cloak he had concealed beneath his desk over his shoulders and wrapped the black scarf around his muzzle, allowing his eyes to be uncovered. The hood went up just as he heard the very quiet footsteps of the guard in the exhibit room approach the door, then turn.
Schrau had spent last night timing the patrol routes. It would be this part of the cycle where both patrols in the hallway and the exhibition room would have their backs turned to Schrau. If Schrau's timing was impeccable, then when he had finished his task and the hallway guard would need to be summoned, then he would be at the far end of the corridor and would take the longest amount of time to react.
Of the other four guards, one was positioned at the front door, the second at the mouth of the pitch-black alleyway directly outside the single window beyond the exhibition room (Though Schrau had demonstrated his dislike of wasting a man there, since it was a six floor drop down into the alley, which those save the flightless would be unlikely to survive or escape from), and the final two on a wide patrol route of the museum interior. In five minutes, Schrau would then begin a similar patrol route to cover even more of the museum.
That would never happen.
The scrutiny the seven guards were under was unbelievably strict. Schrau had even had his equipment, namely his swords and a battering ram weighed to an exact measure. The additional equipment, that which he needed to steal the crystal, had been smuggled in by Schrau in disguise earlier that evening during the final few minutes of the museum's opening hours, and had been recovered during one of his earlier patrols.
The door was locked securely, and only the guard inside the room had the key. Fortunately, Schrau had taken the liberty to actually jam the lock in a way that still convinced the guard that it was still locked.
The vulpin felt no nerves as he flipped the hood of the cloak up around his head and placed a hand on the doorknob. He knew the risk, he knew what would happen if he was caught or otherwise failed, and actually knew that his career was at risk if he succeeded. However, deep down he knew that this theft, not that of the final round, would prove him to be the greatest thief in all the Six Worlds.
He pushed the door open soundlessly and no light from the hallway spilled into the room, the guard inside was less than two meters away and walking with his back turned. Schrau slipped in, closed the door behind him, and silently circled the room to the window. The guard looked in his direction for the briefest of moments, but the vulpin was the colour of shadows, utterly invisible. As he passed the window, Schrau opened it before moving to the display stand.
The crystal was grass green, and did not glow with an inner light like so many similar artefacts. It was the length of Schrau's forearm and tapered at both ends, which made it as thick as the vulpin's wrist at its thickest. Schrau lifted the crystal without hesitation, knowing there to be no security measures on the stand. He quickly tucked it into his sentinel jacket then produced a small, spherical device from the cloak's pocket.
The guard had turned, began patrolling back across the small room, and noticed the thief. He opened his mouth to speak, but Schrau had already pulled the tab on the device and rolled it towards the guard, before closing his eyes tight and pulling the heavy cloak tight over his ears.
The device was some sort of ordinance, crafted by a particular group of rogue alchemists. It was made out of strong but brittle seashells, and had until recently featured a small metal loop that released a pin when pulled. Upon receiving the bomblet from his source, Schrau had comfortably glazed over when the alchemist had mentioned the contents consisting of odd materials like magnesium and ammonium percolator... something or other, but his interest had picked up when it was told what the crude mix could do.
As a sentinel, Schrau could think of a dozen or so legitimate uses for the strange device, but so far they remained to be an exclusive weapon for the criminal classes.
A loud explosion rang out, and a light so bright flashed that Schrau could see the capillaries on the inside of his eyelids as angry red fractures. He opened his eyes, and saw the bulky human stagger, his eyes wide open and unseeing. He crashed into a display stand and knocked it crashing onto the floor.
Schrau quickly whipped off the cloak. A metal pipe inside the shoulders of the thing gave it sufficient weight to be flung out the window and drop practically straight to the alley floor below.
Schrau quickly turned, the flash and bang still slightly disorientating him even against the precautions he had taken against their effects. He slipped through the door, removing the metal plate that had prevented it from locking, and closed it behind him. In a single motion he had lit the candle once again and hoisted his heavy battering ram, which he then drew back and slammed hard into the door with.
The anakim patrolling the corridor sprinted around the dogleg just as Schrau was preparing his second strike. The door broke on the third, and the anakim quickly shouldered the door open.
Inside, the guard was still on his knees, his hands and arms cut as he knelt among shattered glass and ruined relics. His eyes were only just regaining focus, and he shakily pointed at the open window. Schrau and the anakim ran to the window and leaned out, where they saw the guard on alley duty run up, nearly falling into a manhole that gaped open next to a black-blue cloak that fluttered in the wind.
Schrau slammed his fists in anger onto the windowsill. The thief had escaped.

"How could you let this happen, Cadnos?"
Schrau watched the guard heft his battering ram onto a large set of scales and balance it out with exactly nine kilogram weights. He consulted a notebook, nodded, then removed the ram and placed one of Schrau's swords onto the scales.
The senior Keystone guard, a balding man named Armande, and the officer that had demanded Schrau's support for the operation, was not happy to say the least.
Schrau shot the guard a sour look. "Maybe if I had sixteen of your men to cover the museum, rather than just six I might have stood a chance."
"You had time to lodge a complaint."
"I DID rodge a compraint!" Schrau suddenly snapped, fully aware and counting on the fact that the manner in which he had filed the complaint meant it would probably be tied up in red tape 'til next Sikkarmas.
"Unfortunately, it seems that the theft took place in the most heavily-guarded area of the museum."
"Fancy that. And there was me thinking it happened where the thing that was storen was." Schrau snorted. "The fact is that the thief scared a warr, crimbed through a window into a rocked room, and took out one of your guards before escaping whire another of your men was standing in the arrey biting his fingernairs!" Schrau's voice had converted into a full bellow at the end of the sentence.
The guard who had allegedly been cleaning his fingernails on duty stepped through the doorway a minute later, with him he carried the cloak and scarf that the thief had worn. "Just checked it, boss." The man said. "No scent, other than strong spearmint."
"Fancy that." Schrau muttered, producing a tin of peppermints and crunching on one, offering the tin to Armande, who gruffly refused.
"Stay out of this Cadnos. This is my investigation."
Schrau grinned and sat back. The guard weighing his equipment returned the battering ram and swords, which Schrau then spent a moment strapping to his body.
The guards unfolded the cloak onto a table, wrapped up in it was the scarf, a steel pipe, and a small twist of leather string tied around four platinum coins.
"What is this?" Armande asked, poking the coins.
"I know." Schrau annoyingly crowed. "I know what that is." He added in a sing-song voice.
Armande turned to face the vulpin and scowled. And now they were dancing to Schrau's tune. It was at that moment that Schrau knew he had succeeded in stealing the magical crystal, and it felt good.

Part 10 - This Time We'll Blast It All to Hell

"Distractions are often a waste of time. While I do appreciate the value of a good distraction, in an ideal situation those around your target should not even be aware that something is happening."

"What the hell was that?"
The rumble reverberated around the Wysoomian barracks a few hundredths of a second after the bright light illuminated the watchtower.
Corporal Gatterweld stood up from his position and looked in the direction of the disturbance, and saw with great horror that the fireball was rising from the only way out of the moat-protected installation. "The bridge, Given. The bloody bridge has been blown up."
"Sikkar bless us." Given gasped, also standing. "Ring the alarm bell, Gatterweld."
"I think that's rather a moot point, sarge." The younger man said. "Anyone who didn't hear that explosion is probably deaf enough to sleep through the sound of the bell."
Given sighed, and found himself agreeing with the junior officer, "Ring it anyway, I suppose we ought to- Wait, what's that?"
A blazing piece of debris arced down from the heavens, in a split-second, Given had quickly calculated its trajectory, and worked out that it would land...
"The oil cart! Get down, son!"
The watchtower rocked as the nearby cart exploded into fire, and flames licked the side of the stone tower. The building would endure, but unless either man decided to risk a forty-foot drop onto the blazing ground below, they were essentially trapped.
Gatterweld shakily recovered a moment before his senior officer.
"I'll... I'll... I'll ring the bell, sir."

"This is it, men." Captain Farrell announced as he stood up from the briefing table. "To your positions."
The collected lieutenants saluted, then nodded respectfully at the captain. An old tradition that Farrell had encouraged the development of, even though it was normally against regulations. The lieutenants filed out of the captain's office, leaving the most senior officer on base temporarily alone in his thoughts.
It was only a small training barracks, but Fort Veyron had a long and illustrious history of training many a fine soldier in Wysoom's army. A slight twinkle affected Farrell's eyes, the fact that the battle had been brought to his own home was both terrifying and exciting.
Now to lead the lads against their foe. Now was the time for victory.
The captain glanced briefly at the ceremonial scimitar that he had won during a long-forgotten conflict on Raji and smiled. It represented everything he stood for; strength, deadly purpose, and clarity. It was a sword you could rely on. He debated whether to take the weapon into battle, but decided against it.
"Now's the time to find out what sort of person would dare attack us." Farrell snorted, scooping up his helmet and stomping towards the door. He slammed it shut behind him.
A moment later, the large cupboard at the back of the room opened and out stepped a rain-soaked minotaur.
"Someone with more brains than this entire platoon combined, cap'." Gordal grinned as he scooped up the scimitar, slipped it into a bag, then left via the office window.

Gordal ducked into the cellar, followed closely by Schrau. The minotaur gruffly acknowledged the vulpin's presence, and noticed that he had a sentinel's battering ram across his shoulders. "You're really trying to be obvious about your job, ain't ya?"
"Eh, it's not that." Schrau muttered. "I forgot my door key, and I don't fancy sreeping on the streets tonight."
Gordal snorted and carried on down into the room.
"How did it go?" Schrau asked.
"Good. Got in, got out. No troubles. You?"
"Yeah. Went smooth as butter."
Raz looked over in their direction as they approached. "Ah, first two in. A day early, too."
"Yeah, well, this stuff is hot." Gordal said. "I can't run the risk of gettin' caught with this, especially since it happened on scruff's turf."
"Huh?" Schrau mumbled, "Oh, yeah. Same here. If I get caught with this, my ass is grass, especiarry since I'm in the rist of suspects."
"Awright then, show me watcha got." Raz asked.
"Gord, you first."
Gordal grinned and pulled the scimitar out of the sack before unsheathing it in one smooth motion. He heard Schrau whistle lowly in appreciation.
"That's captain Farrerr's ceremoniar scimitar, right?" Schrau asked. "Boy, I bet he's pissed."
"Dunno, I never hung around long enough to find out." Gordal pointed out.
"Oh, so it was you behind that faired attack on Fort Veyron?" Schrau added. "At reast, that's what they put down on the report."
"Well, it was only a small distraction."
"You blew up the entrance bridge." Raz snorted. "Zero out of ten for subtlety, but the result is all that matters. Gord work, Good."
Schrau and Gordal both grinned at Raz's slip, but neither mentioned it. "So Schrau, I heard your mark was stolen from the museum, were you the one responsible for it?"
"You're damned right I was." Schrau plonked the battering ram down on the floor and began to unscrew the iron cap off it. "Cost me a damn fortune in equipment and it made me appear incompetent in front of Christopher Armande, but it was totarry worth it."
The cap popped off, and Schrau lifted the ram. "Had to find out exactry how much the crystar weighed, otherwise I'd have been caught out on the dairy weigh-in. In fact, what I used to substitute the weight of the crystar untir I took it is in evidence. The guard thinks it was some sort of weapon or pry bar, but it just covered my arse."
A dull green crystal slid out of the battering ram, Schrau caught it and lifted it up for inspection. "Had to have the ram magicarry-seared too, otherwise this thing would've been detected. If I were you, Raz, I'd dump this as soon as you can."
Raz took the crystal and grinned. "Will do. Good work, Schrau."

Peshk and Veget were eliminated during that run. Fortunately for both, they had merely failed to steal their targets as opposed to being intercepted. Peshk's depression was now becoming so tangible and disruptive it was secretly agreed among the thieves that it was for the best that she had been eliminated. Veget, a changeling, had accepted his loss with about as much grace as Maggie, which wasn't that unusual since it then came to light that after leaving the basement he had found his way into her bed rather than his own.
That left Schrau, Gordal, Kell, Jihm, and a vicious kizanki named Kayne. The remaining five thieves received their targets and made their preparations. Despite three deaths, one arrest, and the exclusion of the juniors, the Grand Heist continued.

Part 11 - Judgement At Last

"Accept the inevitable; struggling will only weaken you and leave you drained for when you might actually be able to do something against grim fate."

A precious manuscript tucked within his cloak, Schrau deftly deflected the incoming sword lunge of one of his three attackers with his only weapon, a single dagger. This brought the tall man's head down far enough for Schrau to reach his throat, and strike he did; the vulpin felt the spray of blood against his face and the man went down gurgling.
Unfortunately, this left Schrau with his back turned to his remaining two assailants. He quickly turned, parried again, and tried to retaliate.
A grim realisation settled across Schrau. Both fighters were of a much better quality than he was used to dealing with. Most of Schrau's opponents had either been too effete in their combat styles or lacking in discipline. Those that were well-trained rarely survived longer than their first mistake, like the poor fellow that now thudded onto the floor. The remaining two combatants had made very little in the way of mistakes.
That angered Schrau more than anything. He was grimly aware of the fact that he had been betrayed somehow, that he was in a battle without his favourite weapons, and that his death would go largely unrecorded.
The man armed only with a dagger lashed out, Schrau dodged and parried but his partner then struck Schrau's weapon arm with his sword. The clatter of Schrau's dagger on the floor rang through the vulpin like a death knell.
He had been in exactly the same position as this practically a lifetime ago, only instead of one man who wanted to put a young vulpin in his well-deserved place he now faced two men that only wanted his blood.
"Make your peace, furlicker." The swordsman snapped, and Schrau vowed to curse gods with every one of his last breaths just to be contrary.
A sharp pain pierced Schrau's gut, he looked down to see the dagger of his second adversary lodged into his stomach. The man grinned and lifted Schrau, supporting him by an armpit. Then suddenly he withdrew the dagger and then slashed at Schrau's throat.
The pain overwhelmed him so greatly that he could now no longer feel anything. Schrau felt his eyes glaze over as the drop brought him to his knees, and he collapsed onto the floor, rolling onto his back.
"Get the manuscript." One of the thieves said in accompaniment to the beating of Schrau's own heart.
"Gotta leave it there. Boss said so." The other said as Schrau's heart slowed, the beating then becoming an off-cycle to another thudding now sounding louder and louder.
"Do you know how much that-" The first said as Schrau's vision faded to grey, which was when Schrau saw the most incredible thing ever. The head of the man suddenly jerked and with the sickening crack of bone made just over a half-revolution. The head bobbed loose for a moment, hanging backwards down the man's chest, just before he fell to his side.
The second man half-turned, and then his throat was seized by a large, black-fingernailed hand that lifted him off his feet. He began to protest, but a sudden tightening of the unseen attacker's fingers crushed his windpipe with a sickening finality.
And then the world as Schrau knew it, as all he had ever known it to be, faded into nothing.

Nothing. No white light, no tunnel, no heavenly choir. However Schrau was far too pragmatic to actually count on the latter. There was no sensation of up or down or forward or Tuesday. Just infinite nothingness.
Oddly enough, Schrau felt a release from all emotion. He felt free.
"Stupidest thing you ever did in life..." A voice crowed in the darkness.
"...Was get yourself killed." The voice continued, but seemingly from another direction.
"Oh, I don't know." Schrau said to the darkness, and much to his surprise his voice came to him distorted, sounding exactly like the two disembodied voices that had mocked him. "There was that time I got smashed that Sikkarmas in the Flying Barnacle."
"That was about a close fifth." One of the voices said, and at that moment the sources were revealed to Schrau.
They were him.
Both figures, appearing to be realer than real, stood some distance away from him. They were both vulpins, identical to Schrau; one wore sentinel greens and stood with arms crossed and a stern expression. The other was dressed very much like Schrau did while thieving: Dark blue-grey hooded cloak and a long red scarf which drooped outside the cloak. Both vulpins looked back at him, their faces carefully measuring him, evaluating. That was not the most disturbing aspect of them.
Where Schrau's hereditary black mark lay on his neck, those of the vulpin apparitions were gaping open and constantly bleeding a thick and blackened blood. The sentinel allowed the stream to flow down his chest, pouring over his badge and down onto the floor while the blood of the thief was soaked into the scarf and dripped down its length.
"Okay, I'll bite. What the hell is this?" Schrau asked.
Thief shrugged and Sentinel smiled wryly.
Schrau decided to make a guess, no matter how stupid it was. "So I'm dead?"
"Do you really know?" Sentinel muttered, rubbing his muzzle. "It's not as if there's a precedent for death filed away in your mind."
"Think of it this way:" Thief said, "Those that have near-death experiences can't really give a good enough eyewitness report, since they've never really been dead-dead."
"And those that are dead don't really get a chance to relay the experience."
Schrau himself sighed, an unusual experience considering his spiritual self lacked lungs of any sort. "My own conscious self is pedantic."
"Could be worse, ey?" Thief cheerfully said.
"Yeah, your conscious self could be judgemental."
"I also know that neither of you would be here if you didn't have a reason." Schrau said. "And I really don't think you would be here if you didn't know that reason."
"You make choices sometimes, and sometimes you don't." Sentinel said.
"So that's what this is? I never made a choice in life so I have to make it now to move on?"
"Not that simple." Thief said, much to Schrau's complete lack of surprise. "You have made that choice, subconsciously. Back in the land of meat, however, you were never really allowed to realise what that decision was and which way you went."
"That's why we're here," Sentinel added, "to make you aware of that choice."
"Not that it matters any," Thief grinned, "bein' dead an' all. On the upshot, if the outcome of that decision dictated what quality of afterlife you will have, at least you'll find that out soon enough."
Schrau studied the two apparitions carefully, and they both appeared to allow themselves to be scrutinized. That's when Schrau realised that both presented a possible future, two futures denied.
The thief wore a cloak Schrau would have chosen to wear, but it was of greater quality than he normally would have had access to. Schrau could tell from the fineness of the tailoring, of the material, of the way it actually enveloped his visionary self indicated that it was an obscenely expensive cloak, one that few save the best of the best thieves could ever hope to wear. It was the purple of thieving royalty, the finest armour. Around his left wrist a single black leather bracelet threaded together to resemble an ear of corn was wound tightly, and his right hand was encased in a fingerless red glove; representing both the Black Sheaf and the Red Paw, Bardur Cadnos, both. A resurrected Black Sheaf, a mortal second-coming of that legendary vulpin. The Thief clearly represented a life of wealth and respect among the thieves.
Sentinel's jacket was still as foxed as Schrau's regular uniform, but it too was of a better quality than he normally wore. The fact that his badge was clearly the same metal as his current badge, despite the blood that coated it, indicated that this future Schrau had deigned to seek further promotion with the guild but that hardly surprised him – Most officers gravitated to their ideal ranks and simply refused to move from there. Of course, nature's sergeants often found themselves forcibly promoted to a more useful position, but Schrau's current standing in the guild allowed him to refuse promotions if offered. On a chain looped around his left shoulder hung a hardback copy of the Abridged Book of Common Law (All two thousand pages of it) which rested at his hip, and that was normally a decoration granted to none but the most senior Sentinel Mentors. On his right shoulder a small pin gleamed, indicating that the future Sentinel was a veteran prosecutor. Over five hundred cases fought and won.
As the Sentinel lifted his left hand to stroke his muzzle once more, Schrau now noted the simple gold wedding band on the finger. Future Sentinel was a veteran of the guild, respected among the circles of Law and Order. A family man.
"Ask us anything." Thief asked.
Schrau considered a few possible questions. "Which of you is happier?"
Both shook their heads. "Neither. Both. Happiness is relative." Sentinel said.
"I'll never know, will I?" Schrau asked.
"Nope." Thief said. "Not even if you had lived."
Schrau waited in silence for a moment, then asked; "What's the afterlife like?"
"Ask someone who's been there." Sentinel shrugged. "We're just fragments of yourself."
"At best, we can inform you what a screw-up of your life you've made." Thief said. "How much of a disappointment to your family you've been."
That comment actually hurt Schrau more than it should have. "What do you mean?"
"You never really got to mould a successor, a heir of the Cadnos name." Sentinel said. "The last Cadnos, dead without a chance to pass on what it meant to be a Cadnos."
If his brow had existed in this reality, Schrau would have frowned. "Wait a Sikkardamned minute. I joined the sentinels, made a significant impact of harm on the very lifestyle my family thrived on, became the Lord of Agony, murdered the man who raped and killed my sister in cold blood and then went ahead and betrayed everything that I had built a professional career of by competing in the Grand Heist... And all that failed to be a disappointment to my family name?"
Thief gave one of his lopsided shrugs. "Well, you have to admit..."
"...Through all that, you behaved as a Cadnos would."
"Being a Cadnos is not what you do, but how you do it."
"Did you berate my sister in the same way?" Schrau asked.
"Well, not us..." Sentinel said. "Can't really comment on what she experienced as she died, but at heart she was never really a Cadnos."
"She was a Volpnotti." Thief added. "Just like her mother."
"Ironic." Schrau mumbled. "As a kid Rhiannon spent so much time with dad before Aldar came, and I was raised by my mam."
Thief smiled kindly at Schrau. "Your parents respected each other so much..."
"...that they spent all their days telling their children about how the other had lived."
Schrau cleared his mind of all but one question. "So what's next?"
"Accept the inevitable, Schrau." Sentinel informed him, before suddenly fading into nothing.
Thief nodded. "Whatever happens, it's out of your hands now." And then he was gone.
Leaving Schrau alone.
"I bet that stings, whelp." An aristocratic Welstarian voice echoed in the darkness. Aldar's. "Not being in control of your own fate, that is."
And with that, Schrau was left with nothing. Not even his own thoughts.

Part 12 - No Honour

"When all else fails, regroup."

Deep in her hood, Kell'rrhr grinned. She had been betrayed and had been assaulted by a group of black-clad men armed with very sharp blades, but the fact that they were bothering to attack her in this manner indicated that they clearly did not know what they faced.
From the off, Kell decided that she would not take a drop of their blood, unless bloodlust overcame her. So when the first man lunged for her, the vampire grabbed his arm, dragged him close, and lifted him by his shirt. He kicked out, and Kell absorbed the strike as she flipped him up into the air and caught him on his back, carrying the muscular man like a waiter would hold a tray.
"Are you watching, mortals?" She sneered, before suddenly thrusting upwards. The would-be assassin's spine cracked like a twig.

The axe cleaved the barrel of Gordal's musket neatly, and as the minotaur stepped back and discarded the remaining end of his rifle he realised he was pissed.
This was an alien sensation to the thief on a run. Normally he felt confident, or even nervous on the most risky of encounters. Now he just felt bitter and angry and full of hatred. The two men that accompanied the third were now moving to flank him, and Gordal knew that time was running out. Yet to complete his mark and trapped in the basement of the home he was stealing from, it wouldn't be long before someone chose to investigate the disturbance.
Not giving his attacker the chance to react, Gordal took a very fast step forward and aimed a straight punch at the man's head. He felt bone give way under his strike and felt a little better.

In his basement, Raz was alone.
There was something strange in the air. Despite his years of experience, Raz knew that he came off as a joke to the other thieves who had been blessed with natural skills and abilities that shadowed his human traits. However Razputin had been a thief for most of his life and had developed senses that served him well enough.
In his basement, Raz was alone. Yet while no one was around to hear his words he said aloud, "Lads. We're being fucked..."
The door to the basement creaked open by the time Raz had his hands on a large military crossbow that he almost certainly knew how to use with deadly skill.

The Black Guard clattered down the stairs, the faceplate of his helmet caved in by Kayne's powerful punch.
The kizanki was furious. Furious at being stopped at the scene of the crime, furious at not being able to make away with his target, but above all he was furious at the fact that he couldn't kill these guards. Except on accident.
Killing a guard was strictly forbidden. There was no honour among thieves, but there was a code: Guards were working for a living, to put food on tables to feed hungry mouths. Any assassin trying to kill a thief was considered fair game, but while one was stealing during the Grand Heist thieves were only allowed to incapacitate guards without killing them. Except on accident.
So Kayne decided to try and make as many "accidents" as possible.

The second assassin closed like a book over Kell's fist as she punched him hard in the gut. With her hand so placed, she lifted her assailant and grabbed his throat with her other.
"You dare to try and kill me?" Kell hissed, before tearing the flesh from the throat of the assassin, letting his warm blood splash across her face and teeth and tongue.
"You dare try and end that which is immortal?"

Gordal gripped the stricken assassin's ankle, who despite everything was barely alive. "C'mon!" The minotaur barked, swinging the man around single-handedly. One of the assassins tried to weave under the reach of the ranger's makeshift club, but Gordal lashed out and struck the man so hard his ribs splintered.
The second assassin stepped back, wheezing in agony as the third tried to flank Gordal, but the thief swung the now-dead assassin over his head, narrowly missing the ceiling, before bringing him down with a heavy finality on the man's head.

The door burst open, and the first man through wound up getting a heavy crossbow bolt lodged into his skull. Raz winched the bowstring back as fast as he could before slamming home another bolt.
The man was wearing black. He fell forward, and the man following him tripped over his corpse. Raz's second bolt pierced his throat.
"Come and get me, you dogs!" Raz taunted, reaching for a third bolt.

One of the guards grabbed Kayne's wrist. He struggled against the sudden press of bodies, but the Black Guards managed to force him to the ground.
"You're under arrest, filth!" One of the guards spat. Kayne felt shackles close around his wrists.
The guard with the smashed faceplate staggered to his feet and pulled his helmet off. "Hey... Shouldn't we, uh, beat him up a little?" He said around the blood streaming down his face from his broken nose and left eye socket.
"Yeah, I don't see why not?" The lead guard said, and suddenly Kayne's back rocked with the heavy striking of bludgeons.

The final assassin cautiously backed away from Kell, wondering how best to approach the vampiress. Kell smiled sweetly, the blood of her last kill still staining her face and beckoned with a blood-stained hand at the man.
"Come. This won't hurt much, I promise."
Suddenly a greenish-brown length of serpentine skin and muscle dropped from the ceiling and coiled around the man's throat. As he was lifted into the air, a shape resembling a humanoid torso dropped from the ceiling before him. There was a sudden, startled scream followed by the tearing of flesh, and suddenly the assassin dropped from the grip of his attacker, the pinkness of his bloodstained skull shining brightly in the gloom, exposed to the world.

Gordal rotated his shoulders, limbering up. "Buddy, you've got about five seconds to surrender before I rip you apart."
"You're dead meat on a stick, bull-man." The assassin hissed. "I'm gonna skin you and turn you into a canoe."
"I'd be better at it than you."
"That doesn't mat-" The man began, before suddenly jerking painfully. He grunted for a moment, the gurgled, then a thin stream of blood flowed from the corner of his mouth.

A third man went down to Raz's crossbow, but by then there were far too many people pouring into the cellar to make the crossbow viable. Raz knew this was a battle he couldn't win, so he decided to do what would give him a chance.
Grabbing an oil lamp, Razputin swung the crossbow across his back and ran to the back corner of the basement. He pulled open a hidden door and leapt vertically to grab onto a handhold.
"Don't let him get away!" One of the pursuers barked.
Raz grinned and let the lamp drop. It shattered, and a wave of fire radiated out of the shattered light. Raz had kept that corner of the basement soaked with oil and turpentine so badly that few of the thieves would actually stand near there. The thief felt a wash of heat sweep over him, and he carried on climbing upwards.
The trapdoor above him opened suddenly and unexpectedly, and two pairs of arms dropped down into the pit and grabbed Raz. "We got ya, Raz."

"Hey, what the-?"
There was a loud clattering of plate mail, and Kayne felt the pressure ease from his back. He tried to turn around as much as he could, but all he could see were the legs of the attackers scrambling to attack.
Suddenly, several of the guards scattered like bowling pins.

The shape hanging from the ceiling turned to face Kell; it wore the face of the assassin it had just killed like a macabre mask. The killer giggled sweetly and let the face drop on the floor.
Peshk grinned at Kell, who smiled back. The vipyr had wrapped her legs around the rafter, and had dropped on her prey like a spider.
"Oh, come on Kell." The vipyr admonished the catfolk's even stare. "You got to kill two. I needed that one for Somy."
"Right." Kell said.
"Got your mark?"
"Then there's nothing keeping us here."

The assassin slumped to his knees and fell forward. Perched on his back, armed with a pair of daggers, was Shyen.
"Heya, big guy. Looks like you got yourself in a right jam."
Gordal sighed and nodded in agreement.
"Got what you came here for?"
"Nope. Never got-"
"Hey, what the hell is going on here?" A voice from the doorway into the manor demanded.
"Time to go." Shyen chittered.

Two elvin faces looked down at Raz as they helped him up from the basement. The human sighed appreciatively and pulled himself onto his knees.
"So I take it from the fact that you're here means the plan is in effect?"
Maggie and Veget nodded in agreement. "Yep." Maggie said.
"We'd better get out of here before those clowns circle around." Veget said.
"Agreed." Raz said, now on his feet. "And by the way, no one was supposed to know about that entrance."
"You're bad at keeping secrets, Raz." Maggie grinned.
"Really bad, boss."

The shackles on Kayne's wrists popped loose, and the angry kizanki leapt to his feet. His rescuer was one of the juniors, previously Ronin's. She was a particularly heavy-set dwarf who carried a large two-handed maul easily in one white-knuckled fist.
"As much as it'll kill you to admit this, you owe me one."
Through gritted teeth, the kizanki agreed. "No good staying here." He said. "We'd better get back to Raz."
"Yeah, but we're not to go back to the cellar, aye?" The dwarf said. "Any idea where that is?"
Kayne nodded. "Yeah, I know the place."

Rehk rounded the corner, only to find Jihm standing among a pile of unconscious guards while holding one of their clubs as if it was the source of his very own life.
"Looks like I got here a little late." Rehk weakly said.
"You think?" Jihm snapped back. "Is the plan in effect?"
"Yeah. We gotta regroup. The big guy says that all of the runs tonight were due to be hit."
Jihm tossed the club aside. "Someone is gonna pay for this." Checking the bag in which his stolen merchandise in was still with him, the devil followed Rehk away from the scene of the crime.

Part 13 - Carte Blanche

"There is much that a thief does not understand. It is not in our nature to understand that which is unfathomable, but rather to perfect the understanding of all that ensures our success."

A sudden pain in his chest, and Schrau doubled up with a gasp. It took the vulpin a moment to realise that he could feel anything at all.
"Whoa there. Stay down, kiddo." A heavy hand pressed into Schrau's forehead and forced him back down onto a firm bed, and Schrau struggled to open his eyes. He couldn't see anything for a few moments; but then shapes, blurry shapes, began to form. The hand felt weak and distant against his forehead, his hearing was almost overwhelmed with crackling, and all Schrau could smell and taste was iron.
"You're okay now." The same voice said, and Schrau determined it was female. "Just relax."
"Close call there, scruff." Another voice said, and despite his disorientation Schrau recognised it immediately. Ignoring the first voice's advice, he sat upright and forced his eyes to focus.
Schrau could just about make the shape of a female satyr sat at his right, while a shock of orange fur peeked in at the left corner of his vision. Smack bang in the middle of Schrau's view stood a satyr with a perpetually merry expression.
"Welcome to the land of the living, Schrau."
"Now don't get him too worked up," The voice at Schrau's right said, and the female satyr stood and started to walk away.
"Um. What happened?"
The satyrs exchanged a brief knowing glance, "You got stabbed and your throat slit, scruff." Xzain said. "Lucky I was there to haul that magnificently tangled tail of yours out of there, I managed to bring you back here before you completely died."
"I was dead?"
"Only mostly." The female satyr said.
"Schrau, this is Stratha." Xzain said, by way of introduction. "Fine biomancer, wonderful lover, beautiful wife." He added, each word widening his grin. Stratha seemed to blush for a moment, then moved her head towards his. They romantically kissed for a moment, then disengaged.
"I'll go get some water." Stratha said. "Schrau, better stay quiet for a while until you get something to drink." Stratha sidestepped around Xzain, the giggled happily as he goosed her on the way past.
"Got any questions you want to gargle out, Schrau?" Xzain asked as soon as she was gone.
For some reason, 'which of you is happier?' bubbled to the surface of Schrau's subconscious; but since that failed to make any contextual sense in his current predicament he simply opted for "What the hell...?"
"Long story, scruffball." Xzain said. "Short of it is that I knew that you and every other run tonight was in trouble, so I put the plan into effect."
"How did-?" Schrau began before his throat dried up completely. Only now he realised that the taste in his mouth was blood rather than iron.
"Well, it seems that a certain watch captain has delusions of grandeur. He also has a mole in the group, but I don't know who it is yet. Anyway, he had information on where and when several targets were being hit tonight, so he organised local guard intervention for a few of the runs. The rest..." Xzain shook his head. "Seems this guard isn't exactly straight and narrow, if you know what I mean. He's also got a hand in a mercenary outfit, I heard you and Kell already met a few of their members a few nights ago. Anyway, the rest of the runs were hit by them."
Schrau blinked. "Wait a minute... You're-"
Xzain grinned, "Anyway, to the plan: Basically, I get to know where all the runs are going on, and who got them from Raz. This was an agreement we had: If anything like this was about to happen, we put the plan into effect: Extraction of the thieves regardless of what progress they've made in their acquisition. Some of the eliminated seniors helped out – Pesh went to get Kell, Maggie and Veget went to help Raz if he needed any. Otherwise, any juniors went out to pull the others out of hot water."
"Sorry I couldn't help you, Schrau." A familiar voice croaked from Schrau's left.
It was Hope. She was seated next to his bed, and had until recently been hunched cross-armed on the bed. Her eyes were deep-set and darkened.
"Hey, kiddo. You helped enough." Xzain said. "You held the door open, otherwise I'd be dumping this stiff at the biomancer guild." Xzain jerked a thumb at Hope. "Did ya know she's a fully-trained telemancer?"
"You... You know-"
Xzain smiled brightly. "I know. Hell, twenty years ago I was one of the finalists in the Grand Heist."
"Here's your water." Stratha interrupted, carrying possibly the largest jug of water Schrau had ever seen in his life. He quickly grabbed it in both paws and began to drink directly from the pitcher.
"Yeah, well, I suppose you and I both live the same lives." Xzain said. "I didn't work out the thefts of the last Heist like I said I did, I was actually involved in them. Came a third against your father and Kell." He added. "I bagged the Montalvo, in case you're wondering."
Schrau stopped drinking for a moment to chuckle, even though the feeling was like trying to cough up a pineapple. "I would've thought the painting was more Kerr's styre."
"Nah, she had an easy time breaking into Odie's personal treasure room." Xzain explained. "Anyway, I wasn't really eligible for entry this time, but Raz kept me as an ace up his sleeve. When things got heavy and he was forced to exclude the juniors, I..." He looked embarrassed for a moment, "...Sorta put them to work elsewhere. A second Heist, so to speak. Kept 'em busy and learning, and that's what's important."
Schrau finished the pitcher. "The more. Who do you think it is?"
"Gonna be tricky to say, actually." Xzain said. "It could be anyone, save you."
"Why not him?" Hope asked, while trying not to sound accusing. Xzain just smiled.
"I'm the ace, he's the wild card. Anyway, we can't really count anyone out, except you and possibly Kell. She's far to into the prospect of being the Master Thief to screw with the system. It could be anyone still in it, it could be someone who has already been eliminated."
"Could be Sohzeh." Schrau hazarded. "I don't want it to be, but we can't rure Sohzeh out."
"I haven't even seen Ronin's body." Xzain added. "Guard won't release it. He might not even be dead."
"We gotta assume that whoever it is wants the best thieves out of the way, either dead or in custody." Schrau said. "Arso, the fact that I'm stirr at rarge means that I haven't been betrayed to any rocar guard, so whoever is doing this is keeping the identities of the thieves a secret from his captain for some reason."
"Insurance." Xzain reasoned. "If the plan fails, and the Heist goes ahead without crippling the group, then the last thing the mole needs is for everyone but him or her to be arrested and exposing him. Raz still has a few less-than-honest buddies in the Crypt Expedition from his army days, Kell could probably break out of prison before she gets staked and will hunt his rat-ass down. And you..."
"...Have ways of getting out of any punishment."
"What do you mean?" Hope asked.
"Simple." Xzain said. "It's not pretty, but simple. Schrau was investigating the group like the good little sentinel he is, and his arrest would then break his investigation. He kicks up an official fuss, I back him up on that as a Drandiss guard captain and confidant, and Razputin suddenly remembers that he never actually turned in his military commission and turns the whole investigation from one lone vulpin's crusade to a military/sentinel collaboration, all geared towards breaking apart a dangerous group of thieves. That's another reason why Raz wanted you juniors out the moment he realised that things were falling apart, he figured there might have been a reason to actually go through with this threat."
"Wait." Hope insisted, "You would have actuarry done that?"
Schrau and Xzain exchanged glances. "We might have had to," Schrau said, "but I'd rather not send the rest of the group up the creek just to get me an' Raz out of troubre." Schrau grimaced. "I'd rather gut the bastard who did this to me straight up."
"So, any ideas Schrau? You know the group better than I do."
Schrau sighed. "Don't know, truth be tord. The answer could be so obvious I've ignored it, or the bastard has hidden themserves too werr." Schrau thought for a moment. "If I'd have to put money on anyone, it would probabry be someone who is arready out of the running. Possibry one of tonight's eriminations."
"How do you figure that?" Hope asked.
"I see where he's coming from with this." Xzain said. "Whoever it is wants to stay close with the group, but probably doesn't want to be caught red-handed on the last run which usually draws the most attention. In a sense the guards catch the new Master Thief, the master of ceremonies, and the other finalists while the mole backs away undetected."
"Anyway, ret's see who went out tonight before making judgement."
Xzain nodded and threw Schrau a set of clothes from the nearby dresser. "Hope, how about letting us have a little privacy?"
The vixen nodded, got out of her seat, and left the room. Xzain closed the door behind her. "Incidentally, you've got a sharp one there. She's pretty much won the junior heist already; barring any major incidents, there's no way the other juniors can catch up with her."
"New rures?" Schrau grinned, pulling a shirt over his head.
"Eh, I had to improvise."
"Say, who is the guard captain that our more is reporting to?"
Xzain told him, and Schrau grinned.
"Looks like you have a plan, kiddo." Xzain added, a grin on his face.
"I do." Then Schrau told him.

"Ret's go." Schrau said, suddenly bursting out of the bedroom, catching Hope unawares as she sat drinking a cup of tea with Stratha.
"Where to?" Hope asked, before gulping down the last of her drink.
"Raz's backup prace. Xzain knows where it is."
"Grab your stuff, kiddo." Xzain told her. "Got the manuscript, Schrau?"
"Shoot, no." Schrau muttered, before catching Hope's grin as she produced the thin book.
"Not a drop of you on it, Schrau." Hope said, standing up.
"Wonderful. See you later, honey."
Stratha simply smiled, "I won't stay up, sweetie."
"Yeah, well, we'd better go." Xzain sighed impatiently as Hope fumbled in pulling her cloak around her. "Hurry, before ze Perdeese get here."
Hope stiffened. "What did you say?"
Xzain blinked in confusion for a moment, "That we, uh, gotta go?"
"But you said-" Hope began, before deciding to change her approach. "What does that mean, exactry?"
"That we gotta go." Schrau said, clapping a hand on her shoulder. "What erse is it supposed to mean?"
"So why not just say so?" Hope asked. "Why... Why 'hurry, before ze Perdeese get here'?"
Xzain and Schrau exchanged a slight knowing glance. "Oh. That."
"Well, it's a little bit of history, sister." Xzain said. "C'mon, we can talk on the way about it." They left Xzain's home, which was on the very outskirts of Drandiss, and began the long walk west across the darkened plains of Perdow. "During Welstar's last war with Perdow - And in all honesty they will deny this outright if asked, but it's the absolute truth - The Sikkarian church employed a number of-"
"Freerance Acquisition Agents." Schrau interrupted.
"Thieves?" Hope asked.
Xzain nodded. "They were positioned in the back lines of the Perdeese front, and their role was to basically steal supplies from the Perdow army and bring them back to the Welstarian forces. Useful on two accounts: You deny the enemy resources and increase your own side's in the process."
"His grandfather was one of 'em." Schrau said, pointing a thumb at Xzain. "Funny enough, there wasn't a Cadnos in that group."
"Yeah, well even in the middle of a war the Church wouldn't be so distracted as to trust a Cadnos.
"Anyway, they'd sneak in to enemy camps, grab what they could, and reave."
"It became pretty common practice if the, uh, acquisition was taking too long for some wiseass in the group to start saying 'hurry up, before ze Perdeese get here' in that accent."
"After a whire, it pretty much became the standard bug-out carr for thieves across the Six." Schrau finished, before stopping dead.
"What?" Xzain asked after he and Hope had continued walking for a few paces.
"She's a teremancer!" Schrau yelled, pointing at Hope. "Why are we walking?"

The backup meeting spot was actually the storehouse where Raz kept the proceeds from the runs, not that anyone would be able to tell from the appearance of the rather elaborate sitting room in the countryside retreat that Raz owned. The observant would be able to tell that the room, and the adjacent one, were approximately half a metre too short for the dimensions of the building to make perfect sense. And that's where Raz hid all the stuff.
Schrau stepped into the room, looking to see who among the gathered thieves looked surprised to see him. In fact, that just happened to be everyone.
"We thought you'd been killed." Kell said, genuine surprise and something vaguely approaching concern in her voice. "When you and you junior didn't check in..."
"I had been." Schrau cheerfully replied, "I got better."
"So, how did it go?" Raz asked.
"Apart from being stabbed and reft for dead, it went fine." Schrau reached into his cloak and produced the volume. "The Arcane Manuscript of Dath Shethan. Thank you very much." Schrau crossed his arms before him. "Okay, so who's in?"
Gordal shrugged. "I'm out."
"Me too." Kayne growled.
"So that makes me, Kerr, and Jihm?" Schrau hazarded.
"Looks like it." Raz sighed. "Okay, tomorrow, you three come to me for your final assignments. Given what happened tonight, I don't think it's a very good idea for us all to meet up together."
"So what did happen tonight, Raz?" Schrau sarcastically asked. "Forgive me for bein' a bit pissy, but having a near-death experience does make one a bit narked."
"It's true. It does." Kell agreed, almost sagely. "You get over it though."
"Look, Schrau. We're tired and angry..." Raz weakly sighed. "I'd love to give you the full story, but I'm pretty sure your junior has already filled you in on this."
Schrau hesitated for a moment; this was a much angrier Razputin than he was prepared to deal with. Schrau's comment had been a barb to try and sting whoever was actually responsible, but Raz had neatly blunted it. That usually meant that he had his own agenda, his own plan. The sentinel killed the brief smile that threatened his lips, and instead hung his head and allowed his ears to droop. "I'm sorry, Raz. What happened to me tonight was something I rearry don't want to think about, and I just want to find someone to disprace the suffering onto."
"Understandable." Raz stood up. "Okay people, clear out. Schrau, Jihm, Kell, I want to see you all tomorrow night. Now are you all sure you're up for this?"
Kell and Jihm nodded their agreement, but Schrau was a little slow in reply. Part of him actually wanted to back out, hopefully put him in a position where he could spend a few days alone with Raz and Xzain and picking apart the list of suspects.
Something in his mind clicked; a phrase, one that he hadn't actually heard anyone speak but it rang loud and clear in his own head in his own voice.
'Through all that, you behaved as a Cadnos would.'
"I'm in." Schrau firmly said. "I had an epiphany tonight too. I can do whatever the herr I prease. And no one is going to stop me."

Part 14 - Crisis of Self

"Absolute security in one's self is the greatest weapon and shield a thief has. Steel cannot best confidence, hardened leather cannot protect against sheer belief. Be strong, be secure, be sure that you are what you are and no guard or watchman will ever have a chance."

"It's been a while, hasn't it?"
Again, nothingness surrounded Schrau. In his current state, the discussion with the two future selves rang loud and clear in his memory. However unlike that time, Schrau wasn't even sure he existed at all now. He was a bodiless and mute observer in his own subconscious. Standing before him was a vulpin; perfect crimson fur brushed immaculately against his face, red silk waistcoat and a white linen shirt, black leather jodhpurs, and a small black hat balanced between his ears.
Bardur Cassnor.
Brothel-owner and potential slaver for the Kuroryu family. It had been the magically-enforced identity Schrau had worn to infiltrate the estate, and one he had shrugged aside. Bardur Cassnor had not existed.
But he had. Schrau had worn his identity for a few days, during which he had suffered and overcame a severe crisis of self, but Bardur Cassnor had been destroyed.
"You thought you could get rid of me that easily." Bardur hissed. "You thought you could cast me aside like a used cloth. You were wrong, Schrau. You were wrong." Bardur smiled. "You were wrong... You couldn't quite get rid of me, could you?"
He spread his arms expansively, only emphasising the sheer nothingness around him. "I have been a driving force in your life for a long time, Cadnos. A very long time.
"Did you feel me there while you watched Auschvast plummet to the death you granted unto him? How about when you heard that Havral had been killed? How about when you couldn't care less when you were told she loved you?" Bardur flashed a tight grin. "No, Schrau. Everyone you've ever cared about, or those that care about you, you wind up driving them away or destroying them. Do you really care about anyone anymore?
"And that is my punishment to you, Schrau." Bardur whispered. "I've always been there, a tiny part of your mind. It was me who drove you on to great things, and when you brought me to the fore I could have led us to absolute greatness. But you indignant, ungrateful little bastard couldn't stand not being in control."
"You owe me, Cadnos!" Bardur spat, now flying into full rage. "You owe me! You are in debt to me!" The apparition calmed down. "All your success is down to me.
"You think you are a prosecutor? You don't have the guile. The reason why you were able to bring down the Silver Eye, the reason you stood by so calmly when Daste butchered Havral, how you didn't care at all when Vesto was murdered while awaiting the guilty verdict you could not save him from was because I was there. I have always been there." Bardur crossed his arms. "For a long time, I had been a small, dark part of you. The part that considered doing that which you would never consider. During your time in the Kuroryu estate, I became reality. You thought you had discarded me, but I remained."
Bardur grinned, "Tomorrow, you become the greatest living thief ever to walk the worlds. You will tower above them all, and it will all be down to me. Remember that, Cadnos. Remember that when credit is due."
A backhanded slap with a case file woke Schrau up. As his vision cleared and focused on Carnely standing over him.
"Sleep on your own time, prettyboy." Carnely snarled, slapping the file onto Schrau's desk. "Diamond Guard report from the Sathran murder, I thought you should have a look at it, prosecutor."
"Thanks." Schrau yawned.
"Something up?" Carnely asked, even though Schrau knew he hadn't given his friend much to go on.
"Nah, just a rittre tired is arr." Schrau looked at the large mechanical clock on the wall at the far end of the room and stretched. "End of the day, better go home and get some sreep. Enjoy the night shift, Carn."

Schrau eyed the three envelopes that Raz had placed on the small table between them. "This isn't gonna be that ord trick where I pick two enveropes and you end up making the choice for me?"
"Just pick one, scruff." Raz sighed. "Not really in the mood for this tonight."
Schrau studied the three identical envelopes, not rushing, since this choice could literally change his life. "Spoken to Xzain?"
"How'd the junior heist come off?" Schrau asked.
"Hope won it." Raz emotionlessly said. "Strange, considering she don't have any pedigree."
"I heard her father-" Schrau said, "-wait, Hassenger. Gordie must've been wrong about her."
"Just pick an envelope, Schrau."
Schrau planted a finger on the leftmost envelope, took it, and broke open the seal. "The Ephemerar Spirit." He frowned.
The Ephemeral Spirit was a massive, green diamond that once featured as decoration for the previous sultan of Suthnas, so green in fact that it was often mistaken for an emerald. It had originally been labelled the Eternal Spirit, intended to be passed down the bloodline for centuries to come, however the previous sultan had only been in the position a week before Odie overthrew him. The diamond itself now resided, like so many other artefacts of form Suthnan sultans, in a museum in Nimbus.
"We can't actually allow the Spirit to be stolen, Schrau." Raz shrugged, reaching into a pocked and producing a small leather pouch. "At least not for a few days. Here's a replica. It should stand up to close non-expert inspection. Reports say she's been cleaned for this week, so it'll be a few more days before anyone gets their hands on her."
"That's not the issue, Raz." Schrau said, taking the pouch and slipping it into a pocket. "The probrem I have is that there was a very recent attempt on the theft of the Spirit, and now it's guarded by at reast six guards around the crock."
"Complaining, Schrau?"
"This thing is considered pretty much unstearabre." Schrau said. "I've got the numbers with me. Six guards in the exhibition room, doubred during viewing hours. Sixteen spread across the corridors outside, five on each door into the museum. I've seen fortresses with ress security."
"So you're sayin' you can't do it?"
Schrau glanced down at the piece of paper. "I can think of exactry a dozen ways to do this. And exactry thirteen of those are guaranteed to fair. Considering the amount of time I have to execute this, and the resources I have, this theft is probabry more difficurt than anything the Brack Sheaf ever managed."
"So you're sayin' you can't do it?" Raz repeated.
The sentinel quietly sighed. "Can't do it, no. It's an impossibre task. But I never said I won't do it, 'cause I'm a thief, and no thief would give up the chance to do something rike this."
"Good man."

Kell'rrhr genteelly broke open the seal on the second envelope and pried the note inside free. "The twin ivory models of Masatatsu Akira and Oyama."
The two ivory statuettes depicted a pair of ancient Soselian samurai twins, the only difference between the two men and statues being Akira being left-handed.
"The two statues are held in a Welstarian baron's private collection. I think you know him." Raz blandly stated.
"Yes, I do." Kell nodded in agreement. "Baron Verdis, a Keystonian noble of some breeding."
"Then it shouldn't be too difficult for you, hmm?"
Kell shook her head. "Maybe. He's a paranoid nut, especially since his wife was murdered in their very home a few weeks ago. An entire detachment of the Welstarian guard now watches his home with a keen eye."
"So you're sayin' you can't do it?"
"It's possible, I don't fancy my chances is all."
"So you're sayin' you can't do it?"
"I'll do it." Kell firmly declared. "I'll have those models to you."

Jihm ripped open his envelope and read the note inside. "Oh, you've gotta be kiddin' me, Raz."
"Do I look like I'm kidding?" Raz wearily rasped. "Is my face painted? Red nose? Floppy shoes? I am not a clown, Jihm."
"The Personal Diary of Watch Captain Gravis."
Gravis was a watch captain in the Gydnian guard, and a faithful follower of Duke Karl. He was a stern, somewhat vengeful man, and was said to have designs on the position of sentinel guildmaster as soon as Karl released him from his service.
"He keeps it in his desk drawer, by all accounts."
"So you're asking me to sneak into a fully-staffed guardhouse, and break into the office of their big cheese, crack open his desk, and take his diary?"
"So you're sayin' you can't do it?"
"Hell yeah I can do it." Jihm grinned. "I thought you had a challenge planned, tha's all."

Part 15 - May We Have Grace

"That is where I failed. I simply took my eye off what really mattered, and got far too greedy for my own good. That is why I am now sitting in a cell, writing this manuscript. Being one of the greatest thieves means nothing if one forgets the very reason why they steal. I stole money from them, and now they will steal my very life.
"Forgive me, my love, for I will never see you and our child again. You were the most precious of my possessions, and it gladdens my heart that you were never taken from me. May grace be with you and our children always."
- Excerpts from 'Thievery - The Red Paw's Manuscript', written by Bardur Cadnos

The three thieves returned at almost exactly the same time, with Kell practically fighting Jihm and Schrau through the doorway. The vampiress was almost incandescent with fury.
"The pair weren't there!" She spat, slamming down an ivory carving about eight inches in height on the table. It depicted a samurai with a sword raised in celebration in his right hand.
Raz studied the statue for a moment, and shook his head. "I asked for a pair, Kell."
"But the other statue was not there!" Kell hissed. "It was gone. Missing from his private collection! I can't steal what isn't there, Raz!"
Raz's grin suddenly became somewhat sardonic. "Well then, you might just win if the other two failed to steal what was there. Schrau?"
The sentinel smiled, closed his eyes, and breathed in through his nose. "I concede." Schrau quietly said. "Security was too tight. Rast night was the wrong night to do it. Given a week of preparation I might have been abre to purr it off, but I never stood a chance."
"But you weren't caught?" Raz asked.
"Nope. I wouldn't be here if I had been." Schrau promised.
A flicker of hope blazed in Kell's eyes. If Jihm failed to produce whatever it was that he was supposed to steal, then the title would be hers.
And that hope was snuffed the very moment Jihm produced a thick book from his cloak and slapped it down next to the statue of Masatatsu Oyama. "Read it and weep." The devil crowed. "The personal and very private diary of Gydnian Watch Captain Johan Gravis."
"Rearry?" Schrau offered, his tone congratulatory. "Nice one, Jihm."
"Gotta have it validated first." Raz calmly said. "Since Xzain ain't here, and Schrau no longer has anything at stake here, he gets to do it. If that is Gravis' diary, then you win Jihm." Raz then turned his gaze to Kell'rrhr. "If not, then Kell's single statue of Masatatsu Oyama wins."
"Wait." Jihm and Kell said in unison. "Why him?"
Schrau pulled the diary towards him. "As the man said, I'm out of the running. I'm out. I concede." He lifted the diary and flicked through it. "His handwriting. Werr-documented." He turned a page. "Hah, yeah. I remember that..."
"Is it genuine?" Raz asked.
"It is the diary of Johann Gravis." Schrau said. "There's no doubt about that."
"Yes!" Jihm crowed and punched the air.
"Pity he doesn't keep a diary." Schrau's suddenly icy voice interrupted him.
"What?" Jihm quickly replied, his arms still in the air.
"You heard him, Jihm." Raz coldly said. "Johann Gravis does not keep any personal diary."
Schrau clapped the book shut and set it down next to the statue. "In fact, he discourages his subordinates from keeping their own diaries."
"A frivolous waste of time..." A voice in the shadows quietly said, and out stepped Xzain, followed by Gordal and Maggie. "His words. His policy."
Jihm was now swallowing air, and Kell looked on in confusion. "Wait, if-"
"It was a trap." Schrau calmly said, realising for himself for the first time. "Kerr, I know for a fact that you couldn't have storen both Masatatsu statues. Because the statue of Akira was the murder weapon that kirred Verdis' wife. It's in evidence."
"And the security around the Ephemeral Spirit was far too tight for anyone to break without outside help." Raz explained. "Unless the thief was nothing short of brilliant."
Xzain crossed his arms across his chest. "I found out who was responsible for putting the pressure on the group, but not who his mole in the group was. It was Captain Gravis."
"Ambitious sod." Schrau agreed.
"So the three of us followed you three on your runs." Gordal announced. "I followed Kell, who did make it into the Verdis manor."
"Schrau did get into the museum, but I was unable to confirm if he made the take." Maggie confirmed.
"And I followed you, Jihm." Xzain hissed. "But you didn't steal the diary. In fact, I followed you directly from the time you had your assignment."
"He went straight to Gravis." Schrau hazarded. "Of course, when you tord Gravis that you had to stear his diary, he figured that he didn't have one, so quickry forged one for you to take." Schrau's fists tightened. "It's you."
"You- You've got this wrong." Jihm pleaded. "I-I-I..."
"-Got nothin'." Raz finished.
"You bastard..." Kell whispered. "I'll bleed you dry!"
"No you won't." Xzain interjected. "He dies, we all do."
Kell stared across at the satyr, who now carried a lengthy object swaddled in an oilcloth. "Jihm's not stupid. Nor is Gravis. There's one reason why we're all still free men and women."
"Gravis doesn't know who we are." Schrau reasoned. "That was Jihm's insurance. He was abre to operate with impunity in the group in return for none of the guards knowing who was in the group untir they were arrested."
Xzain nodded. "And, at the end of it all, Jihm did become the Master Thief, he could then supply a fake list of names, barring those who were actually arrested or killed. That way, he stays sweet with the group and Gravis is happy."
"Unfortunately, we have no idea where his dead drop is." Maggie added.
Suddenly, Schrau's grin became astonishingly evil as he fixed Jihm in his sights. "We can kirr you and find out."
Xzain nodded. "Now you're thinking."
Schrau produced a notepad and a thin scrap of a pencil and hurriedly scribbled a list of names. "Raz, I want you to forge this list of names, including the names of the guys that were arrested or killed, in Jihm's handwriting." He tore the page from the notebook and slid it across the table.
"Do these guys have alibis?" Raz asked, picking up the list.
"Of course they do." Schrau snapped a little more furiously than he should have. "Even better for us if they do."
"'cause we want Gravis to think Jihm's been screwing with him since day one." Schrau explained. "The onry way Gravis is gonna get off our backs is if he stops trusting Jihm, and the best way to do it is to embarrass him." The sentinel grinned. "A speight of wrongfur arrests is gonna be just the thing we need."
"You'll never get away with this, Cadnos." Jihm growled.
"Oh, you're right." Schrau nonchalantly said, before suddenly grabbing right Jihm's hand and quickly pulling the ring he wore there. He took a sniff, then lobbed it casually at Raz. "Wax. Red, if I'm not mistaken. In fact, you're better off going to Jihm's house and forging the rist with his own stuff. Mags, Gord, go with him, make sure he gets there. Kerr, I want you to keep tabs on Gravis' office. If he doesn't mention the drop before I arrive, he's gonna mention it after."
"Since when did we start listening to you?" Kell snapped.
"Since I became the one thing that's standing between us arr and a sperr inside." Schrau said. "Besides Kerr, we're rooking at murder charges, me and you. Gord too, and Raz."
"What are you going to do?" Raz asked.
"Clear up some business." Xzain calmly said. "Do you want to do it, or should I?"
Schrau rummaged around in his cloak, then produced a shining star, which he clipped to his cloak. "I'rr do it. See, what happened is that I was out roamin' Gydnia city whereupon I encountered a thief that was known to me." Schrau almost miraculously produced his swords from his cloak. "He entered a basement which very recentry had been the hub of a rocar group of thieves."
"You've been carrying those with you the whole time?" Kell quizzically asked. "No wonder you never got the Spirit."
"Thank you. Anyway, I forrowed and noted that so far he was the onry person in the basement, whereupon he produced a book that appeared to be a diary of some description. I confronted the individuar, whereupon he produced a weapon."
Xzain released one corner of the oilcloth, letting the contents roll out onto the floor. A short sword, Jihm's, rolled to a stop between them. Schrau grinned. "The thief attacked me, and I was forced to kirr him in serf-defence."
"There's no way they'll buy that." Jihm cowardly said, backing away from the sword. Schrau took a meaningful step forward, kicking the sword towards him.
"Oh, they wirr." Schrau whispered. "I can be very convincing." He swept his gaze across the room. "Night's stirr young, don't you arr have praces to be? Oh, Raz, gonna need that ring back ASAP."
Razputin, Maggie, Gordal shuffled out of the room quietly. Kell took one unsure look at the vulpin and the devil, before picking up the ivory statue and leaving with the rest. Xzain continued to lean against the support pillar. "Want me to stay?"
"Nah, you go on home. Maybe herp Kerr keep an eye on Gravis. No witness..."
"...No crime." Xzain nodded, smiling. "See you later, scruff."
And it wasn't long until Schrau and Jihm were the only two people in the basement.
"You can't do this..." Jihm pleaded in a whispering hiss.
"Yes I can." Schrau said. "I can do this because I know just where justice doesn't gaze. I know this because whatever I do, I do so as a Cadnos. And I do this because you're a sneak, Jihm. You had Arthos kirred, and Ronin, and Sohzeh put away, but mainry because I saved your arse that time, Jihm." Schrau's eyes narrowed as he kicked the sword towards Jihm once more. "Pick it up, man. You might just kirr me and get your freedom, but even if you don't you'rr go down fighting."

"I saw that it was your diary," Schrau calmly said, referring to the thick and expertly-weathered book that sat on the desk between him and Captain Gravis, "Therefore, it's onry right that I return it to you."
"I see." The captain calmly said. His tone was level, even polite, but Schrau could feel the mounting fury and despair building up behind it and threatening to break it down like a dam. "And the thief... Attacked you?"
Schrau nodded. "I tried to subdue him, but in the end I was forced to put him down. I'rr have a furr report for you by the morning."
Gravis' eyes narrowed. "Cadnos... I know that name..." Schrau never even let his spine stiffen at that comment. "Oh yes. You begin prosecuting the Sathran murder in two days. Pretty high-profile."
"Yessir." Schrau responded with the usual blank respect.
Gravis waved a hand, and Schrau instantly knew that the watch captain was seeking a way to brush him off as quickly as possible. "Oh, never mind about the report, Cadnos. Just file whatever paperwork you have to do and leave it at that. And go get some sleep."
Schrau grinned at the captain, "You're starting to sound rike Radisgad now."
"Yes, yes. Dismissed."
Schrau held the salute for a moment longer than necessary, then turned heel and left the office. Gravis was left for one brief moment, his gaze on his own forged diary, before he picked it up and threw it into the trash with a sigh. "Morgan!"
A few moments later, the junior officer, one of Gravis' best, shuffled into the office. "Yes sir?"
"I want you to do something for me." Gravis said, "Head to Keystone, and check the wall in the alley behind the bakers in Copper Street. There should be a loose brick and a sealed envelope behind it, bring it to me."
Morgan nodded. "At once, sir."
And as the door shut behind the man, a dark shape unseen by all dropped off the windowsill of Gravis' office onto the hard cobbles three floors below. Kell wrapped her cloak around her and started the sprint towards the city gate. It wouldn't be long until dawn, but she knew that Schrau lived nearby and wouldn't mind her slumming there for the day. It was the least he owed her after making her run across two cities on what was technically one of the greatest nights of her unlife.

Schrau and Razputin sat on the roof of Razputin's home on Wysoom in the early hours of dawn. Despite the fact that Schrau was due to turn up at work in a few hours, both men were drinking bottles of beer. The vulpin seemed pensive, the human relieved.
"Not the best heist we've had." Razputin said before taking a long pull on his beer, "Still, it's gonna be a memorable one."
Schrau grinned lopsidedly. "Yeah. And here's to the new Master Thief." He raised his bottle up in a toast to Kell, and Raz clinked his bottle against Schrau's.
"So you knew that the three final items were essentially unstealable?" Raz said.
"No, but if I had done I would've prayed arong anyway."
"Sorry to put you in that position, Schrau."
"Nah, it's good." Schrau said, drinking.
There was an awkward silence for a moment, then Raz nudged Schrau. "You know that replica Spirit I gave ya?" Schrau nodded, "Well, maybe one day when the heat's off, I'd like to see if I can get the Ephemeral Spirit."
"And you need the copy." Schrau stated, producing the leather pouch from a pocket. "Here. This one's better thought." He said, producing a second pouch.
Raz eyed the vulpin suspiciously, before opening the pouch and letting the green diamond copy fall into his palm. It was a better copy than the one he had given Schrau.
"What? You don't need this anymore?" Raz asked, "Why the hell do you have something like this anyway?"
"Werr, during the Horas thing, I thought about taking the Spirit. It would be a usefur thing to have, and if I could do it without Horas knowing I had taken it then arr the better, he couldn't have thrown it into his estimations when he decided to up the price." Schrau explained. "I had the copy made, and pranned out how to take the Spirit without Horas or Carn knowing."
"And in the end it wasn't needed?" Raz added, raising his bottle to his lips.
"Oh, I took it anyway."
Raz's bottle stopped at his lips. His eyes swivelled towards the calm vulpin sat next to him. "You took it?" Raz asked, mumbling around the mouth of his bottle.
"Yeah." Schrau said. "Never catarogued it, since I didn't even need it. Horas raised the ransom way above what the Spirit was worth, so I needed a bigger bargaining chip. I arways meant to return the Spirit, but never had the time to untir now."
Raz eyed the copy, placed his bottle down on the flat roof, and shook his head. "But you said-"
"Werr, I didn't take the Spirit." Schrau said. "It wasn't there, Raz. I put it back and took the copy with me instead."
Raz held up the copy for inspection against the rising sun. "The Spirit wasn't there?"
"No, 'cause I had it with me."
Raz studied the quality of the fake gem, its quality being such that it actually fooled the curators at the museum for the many months between the Horas incident and the now. To many people, the gem he held in his hand was the Ephemeral Spirit. "It wasn't there, but you took it anyway. Schrau..."
"Rook, if you want to know why I didn't say I succeeded or just turned in the Spirit when I had it, it's because I don't want to be the Master Thief." The vulpin peevishly said, "Okay, not so much as 'want' as 'need'. I don't need it, Raz. If I want to remain a sentiner, if I want to remain what I am, I don't need to be the Master Thief." Schrau drained his bottle and rolled it into the guttering. "Dun' need it. And why the herr do you have a frat roof on Wysoom anyway?"
"Schrau... You don't get it..." Raz clenched the ersatz Spirit in his hand. "It. Wasn't. There. Kell said she couldn't steal something that wasn't there, but you went through all the motions to steal the Spirit and it wasn't there."
"The Trinity." Raz explained. "Something on fire, and now something that wasn't there. Two parts down, one to go." Raz patted a hand on Schrau's shoulder. "First thief with a pair o' nuts to do it too. Grandma Maria would be proud o' ya."
Schrau leaned back and sighed happily. "Maybe." He looked across to the sunrise. "Maybe, but right now I'd rather be happy than have dead vurpins be proud of me."