"I want him dead!"
The Marquis de Tabernu slammed his fist down on the tavern table, sending the still full tankard of ale teetering on its side. The right hand of the other man at the table shot out and steadied the drink before a drop could spill. The speed of the reaction was enough to take the Marquis aback. He stared at his companion. The man spoke as if nothing untoward had occurred.
"The Ghost is not called as such for nothing. You must realize this. In the three years he has operated in this city, he has absconded with countless treasures - from the storerooms of the well-guarded merchant quarter, to the hidden safes of the nobility - and left nary a clue to how he does it. No one knows what he looks like, what establishments he frequents or how to contact him. Some doubt he is even real. What makes you think that anyone can even find such a man, let alone kill him?"
"The reputation of your master says he can. Do you think I would risk sullying my own good name by coming personally to a wretched hole like this unless I believed what they say?"
The man rubbed long fingers over his clean shaven chin. "And what do they say, milord?"
The Marquis exhaled loudly and leaned forward on the table. "They say The Hand can kill the king's own babe in its crib and the blame will be placed on the nursemaid. They say he can slip into a camp of battle trained soldiers, slit the bully sergeant's throat and have no one be the wiser until they realize they've slept past noon. They say he can remove a man's heart so quickly he can watch it beat its last with his own eyes before he dies."
"But surely, milord, the man that cannot be found cannot be killed."
"They say that no one can hide from The Hand."
"So they do. They also say that his services do not come cheaply."
"I am prepared to pay whatever is required."
The man seemed to consider. "My master will require 10,000 gold royals."
The Marquis' face turned a violent shade of red. "That sum will impoverish me!"
"Only for a year or two, milord. If it is too much...." The man began to rise from his chair. The Marquis grabbed at his sleeve.
"No. Not too much. I will pay. Where and when?"
They made the arrangements and the Marquis rose to leave.
"If I might be so bold, milord, what did the Ghost steal from you that you would be so willing to pay my master's fee without requesting the safe return of the item?"
The Marquis' eyes took on a dangerous look. "Do you have a daughter, sir? Some things, once stolen cannot be given back."
He shouldn't take the job. He didn't need the money - his exploits over the last three years had made him wealthy enough to retire comfortably for the rest of his days. He wasn't concerned about his reputation either; that was flawless. The Ghost had no equal and everyone knew it. There were a dozen other reasons why he should leave the job alone, including the very real possibility of a trap.
The Marquis de Tabernu had put a price on his head. Funny how touchy some fathers were about the chastity of their daughters when others were willing to sell theirs hourly for a pittance. The sum the Marquis was offering was large enough to finance a small army. It was certain to empty the man's vaults. The Marquis had substantial assets, it was true (not the least of which was a stunningly attractive, very well endowed daughter), but most of those assets were tied up in his business dealings. Liquidating sufficient funds to amass the amount of gold he was offering in such a short period of time was sure to cause him substantial losses. Marc Leclerc, the Marquis's chief rival, was bound to take full advantage of the situation. Could it be simple coincidence that the item to be stolen belonged to Leclerc?
He didn't think so. The Marquis was behind the job. He had to be. The plan was so transparent: Hire the Ghost to steal the Eye of Cheqat - the most well-guarded, valuable jewel in the kingdom. If he was caught, the Marquis had his revenge. If he was successful, the Marquis would attempt to capture the Ghost as he made delivery, and then sell the jewel back to Leclerc to recoup his losses. A two for one. No, there were no positives to this job. It was an impossible situation.
Which was exactly why he was going to take it.
Thieving had become too easy. Everything was so mundane. This would be a challenge, and the Ghost was starving for a challenge. He would do it. It would be his final job, his last great heist. His grand triumph. Could even the Ghost steal the best guarded treasure in the kingdom? People had said not. The Ghost was about to prove that he could, in spite of the clever traps of vengeful fathers. After all, he was the Ghost.
He could steal anything.
The guards on Leclerc's estate were more plentiful tonight than they should have been. Their patrol routes were new and more complex, the men more alert. The Ghost knew there could only be one reason. Leclerc had heard about the job and had increased his security. The Ghost wasn't surprised. No one could compete so successfully with de Tabernu in the financial arena as Leclerc had managed to without an extensive information gathering network. Leclerc's spies had tipped him off to the robbery attempt.
The Ghost smiled. Not that it would matter. What good were guards against a ghost?
The thief grasped the ring on his left hand and twisted the setting clockwise. The large sapphire flared briefly, a flash of brilliant blue, and then all color faded from the stone. A moment later all color faded from the Ghost as well. Both transparent and insubstantial, the man became a ghost in fact as well as in name.
He patted the ring, smiling broadly. He thought back to the mark he had taken it from; another thief, boasting loudly about his pretty take. A few drinks and a sharp knife later and the ring became his. It was unlikely the man had known what he had. Magic items were not common, after all. In all of his subsequent heists he had failed to find another. It didn't matter. The ring was enough. It was his most prized possession. It had made him the Ghost.
He moved past the guards at a leisurely pace, waving hello as he floated by. They did not see him. The Ghost smirked. They never did.
He penetrated the wall of the mansion and took a moment to gain his bearings. If the floor plans he had obtained to the estate were accurate, Leclerc's treasure vault holding the Eye would be in the cellars. Forgoing the unnecessary stairs, the Ghost descended down through the floor.
It took a few minutes, but finally he arrived at the vault. Security had indeed been tight. He had passed several guard stations - one with dogs, been through a number of locked doors - each fiendishly trapped, and discovered one room that housed what looked like a basilisk! A normal thief, however skilled, wouldn't have stood a chance.
The Ghost was not a normal thief. He passed through the door.
He was surprised to find Leclerc himself in the room sitting in a straight-backed wooden chair, flush against the door. The merchant's sword was unsheathed, lying across his knees. He stared intently at a chest in the center of the room. The chest had been wrapped in chains, secured with multiple padlocks.
Leclerc didn't look it, but the Ghost judged the man certifiably insane. To go to such lengths because of one thief? Still, even these lengths would not be enough.
The Ghost moved to the chest and peered inside. There was no light source in the confines of the chest, but the ring made that moot. While under its power the darkest places appeared as if at noonday. The Ghost could make out the shape of the stone under a silk cloth. Atop the cloth curled the sleeping form of a pit viper.
Shades and shadows, but the man was paranoid! And all for naught.
The Ghost slid his hand in the chest, through the snake to the Eye. For the briefest of instants he willed his hand solid. He grasped the stone and let the power of the ring return him to full ghost form. The Eye remained solid to his touch.
He pulled the jewel from chest and held it before him. The Eye of Cheqat, a beautiful blue diamond larger than his closed fist. Guarded against the assault of a small army, the Ghost had succeeded in removing it from under the very eyes of its owner.
He waved the stone in front of Leclerc's nose, and then made his triumphant exit.
The dropoff location was at a crossroads about an hour north of the city. With the exception of a small stand of trees, open farmlands stretched for miles in all directions. The Ghost surveyed the spot for a full hour before the appointed time. He was certain it was not being watched. This puzzled him. He had been so sure de Tabernu would have his thugs out in force, ready to seize the prize. Instead, there was nothing.
Just before the hour arrived a lone figure walked up the road from the direction of Town, carrying a large rucksack. The hood of the man's cloak was up, obscuring his face, but the lithe shape was inconsistent with de Tabernu's bulk. He appeared unarmed. When the figure reached the crossroads it set the rucksack down in the middle of the road and stepped back the required fifty feet.
The Ghost shook his head. The whole thing seemed unreal. Where was the trap?
He waited an additional fifteen minutes. When he was certain no one else was coming, the Ghost twisted the ring and advanced to the road. He made a thorough inspection of the rucksack and its contents. Everything seemed normal. He carefully placed the Eye in the sack and retrieved the balance of his payment in its leather pouch. The transfer complete, he moved back to the woods.
The deal was done. He should have walked away, but curiosity burned in a very real way in his chest. He turned back to the road and twisted the ring.
"Why?" he called out as he became solid again. "Why have you made no attempt to capture me?"
The man walked to the rucksack and opened it. Only after he had withdrawn the Eye did he look at the Ghost.
"I was not paid to capture you, my friend. I was paid to kill you."
"Then I'm afraid you failed, friend, for here I stand." The burning in his chest grew stronger. Strange that he should feel such a passionate animosity against one who could hardly harm him. Not when he possessed the ring.
"Actually, you died the moment you relinquished my jewel." The man threw back his hood, revealing the smug face of Marc Leclerc. "You must be feeling the heat of its wrath even as we speak."
The burning grew more intense. Painfully so. "What...what have you done?"
"It's not what I have done. It is what you have done. The Eye of Cheqat is no ordinary diamond, my friend. It is cursed. The possessor of the stone is required to do everything in his power to protect it. Should he ever fail to do his best, should he lose the stone because of a lack of effort, the Eye exacts its revenge. You, my friend, have given it away freely. You feel its wrath even now."
The Ghost's skin was on fire. Smoke hissed from his pours. The pain was so acute he fell to the earth screaming. In his agony his eyes fell on his ring. The ring! It could save him. It would save him. He reached for it, and everything went black.
When his servant arrived with the horses a few moments later, Marc Leclerc was standing over the smoldering remains of the Ghost. He sifted through the hot ashes with his toe. A glint of sapphire caught his eye. He bent and retrieved the ring.
"Give this to the Marquis de Tabernu as proof of the Ghost's demise. Tell him the Hand has fulfilled his contract."
The servant took the ring and dropped it in a pouch. He handed the reins of the second horse to Leclerc.
"How did you do it, Master?" the servant asked. "How did you kill a ghost?"
"It was quite simple," the Hand replied, mounting the horse. "I invited him to kill himself."