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~:: Perilous Atonement
Chapter II ::~

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"Keep who from killing you?"

Both girls' necks snapped around so fast that they could almost be heard as a slightly damp Dawl materialized in the patio doorway.

Sheken swallowed hard and shifted in her chair. "Hi, Mom."

The tiny demoness glanced from her offspring to her niece. Both of them were struggling to mask the 'deer in the headlights' look that had suddenly plastered itself across their features. Her empathic senses told her they were up to something, but Adara was keeping a tight rein on her emotions and Sheken's psionic strength gave her the ability to effectively block any attempts to read her thoughts.

Keres came up behind DawL with two steaming mugs, handing one to his lover and the other to Sheken. The tiny demoness gave him a scowl as her hypersensitive sense of smell identified alcohol as part of the contents of the cup that was now being quickly gulped by her errant child. He brushed aside her annoyance with a gentle laugh and a shrug.

Adara moved over to the patio set and pulled up a chair. Lowering herself gently she folded her hands in front of her and tried to think of a disarming topic for conversation. "Aunt Vu, did you hear that they extended the green line into Skyway City and all the way out to Founders Falls while you were gone?"

Dawl nodded. "That is fantastic news. That is an improvement that has been years overdue."

Keres nodded his agreement. "Although with the base telepads, we don't use the monorail nearly as much as we used to."

Dawl shook her damp tresses and smiled at him. "Remember when we used to have to go all the way to Steel Canyon to catch a connecting line just to go from Founders back to Atlas or Kings Row? The newer heroes have it much easier than we did back then."

Sheken coughed softly and mumbled. "Speaking of new heroes..."

As both her mother and Keres riveted their attention upon her, she squirmed in her chair. "I wanted to let both of you be the first to know..." she paused dramatically, "...that Marcus got his certification this week."

Keres reached over to pound Dawl on the back as she spewed the mouthful of liquid she'd been attempting to swallow. After a few tense moments of choking and dabbing her coffee-covered décolletage with a napkin she finally managed to recover her voice.


"He's officially a hero now, mom."

Dawl's jaw dropped. "Well," she snarled icily, "I guess the give out badges to anyone who can tie a sheet around their neck and call themselves a hero these days."

Sheken took a deep breath and let it out in a protracted sigh. Keres gave her a look of genuine concern. "Do you think he's sincere, Sheken?"

"I have no doubt of that," she answered emphatically.

A conspiratorial look passed between Sheken and Adara as the older girl swallowed hard and continued.

"I guess I should also tell you that..." She gulped the last of her drink as she invoked a lengthy pause while trying to summon the courage to drop her verbal bombshell, "...he's asked me to marry him."

Keres wasn't sure if his mate was going to leap across the table and wrap her fingers around her daughter's throat or keel over in a dead faint, but he was taking no chances. He reached over and wrapped his arms firmly around her, effectively pinning her in her chair. It took a moment for the initial shock to subside enough for her to find her voice. The first sound she uttered sounded much more like a growl than any verbage.

Adara moved close to Sheken and hugged her, more to shield her with her body than to congratulate her.

"What the HELL are you thinking, Sheken? You aren't really going to do this, are you?" Dawl shouted.

"Shhhh, sweets... the neighbors..." Keres began.

Dawl snarled as she spat an expletive that involved getting to know their neighbors in ways he had no desire to experience. Turning to her daughter she growled in a commanding tone, "You cannot marry him. I forbid this."

"Mom, please don't be like this. We LOVE each other," Sheken pleaded.

"He is a cold-blooded killer, Sheken! He doesn't know what love means."

"That is SO judgmental." Sheken snapped back. "You aren't even giving him a chance."

"It isn't judgmental, it is realistic. Facts don't lie. He's nothing but a hired assassin."

"Mom," Sheken wailed, "you don't know him. He's changed."

The little demoness snorted derisively. "Yeah, right. Like a leopard changes his spots. He's a KILLER. He was going to kill YOU. As it was, he kidnapped you, and raped you. Or did you forget all that?"

Sheken blushed hotly and shifted her gaze towards the ground to avoid her mother's piercing glare as she mumbled, "He said he was sorry, and I forgave him."

"He SAID HE WAS SORRY?" Dawl screeched. "How the hell does someone just SAY they are SORRY for things like that? How can you even believe what he says?"

Adara spun around and faced her aunt as her eyes misted with tears. "Aunt Vu," she began, her soft voice quavering with emotion, "weren't you just telling me earlier that what a person becomes is a result of the choices they make for themselves? You aren't giving Marcus the chance to make those right choices."

The gentle child's words hit the demoness harder than any physical blow. For a moment she stood speechless. Sheken began to cry. "I knew you wouldn't understand," she sobbed.

Keres grimaced as the sound of the doorbell echoed from inside the apartment. He was certain that it was the neighbors in the apartment below coming to complain about the sound level generated by this skirmish. He shot Adara a pleading look to let her know he wasn't ready to release the still fuming demoness from his firm grip just yet. Adara leapt to her feet and ducked into the house, only to return a moment later, trailed by a worried-looking Marcus.

A renewed growl rumbled deep within the small redhead's throat as she glared daggers at the man who would be her new son-in-law. The force of that realization caused her to suddenly burst forth from Keres' firm embrace with a snarl and a loud crackle of electric energy. Keres stumbled backwards and quickly moved to intercept her as she launched herself towards the doorway. He caught her around the waist just as her talons raked the air within millimeters of Marcus's jugular. Lifting her high into the air, he held her fast while she flailed uncontrollably.

Sheken jumped up and rushed to her lover, placing her body between the infuriated demoness and an unflinching Marcus. "What are you doing here?" she asked frantically. "I thought you were going to wait for me downstairs?"

"I was worried about you. Why should I let you be the only one to face the music? This is as much my responsibility as it is yours," he stated gently. "I love you and I belong at your side, no matter if you are fighting Tsoo, or...." He nodded towards Dawl with a tense smile.

Sheken hugged him tightly as her mother seemed to run out of endurance. "Are you going to behave?" Keres asked her as he lowered her to the ground and turned her to face him. "You can't just kill him. That's doing the very thing you are condemning him for, you know."

She took a deep breath and growled deep in her throat. She spun around but Keres moved like lightning to step in between her and the young couple. "Look, sweets, normally I am pretty indulgent with you, but this time I have got to put my foot down. You are not going to attack him. Don't make me turn you over my knee and give you a spanking." Normally this statement was interpreted as foreplay and resulted in a few lighthearted swats on her rump as he carried her off towards their bedroom. This time, however, he was met with a stony glare as she sunk sullenly into the nearest chair.

"I know you don't like me," Marcus began slowly as he stepped towards the tiny demoness.

"That would be an understatement," she growled darkly.

"I don't expect you to. And though I know I have no right to ask this, I would like you to do me one simple favor."

He was met with a deeper growl as her eyes narrowed.

"I know you have no reason to trust me. I just want an opportunity to somehow redeem myself in your eyes. Please just give me one chance to prove to you that I love Sheken, and that I truly have changed. Tell me what you want me to do to prove this and I will do it, whatever it may be."

The green in her eyes flashed and glittered angrily as she thought upon his words for a moment. "You want to prove how much you love her?" A vicious smile curled upon her lips. "Fine. She is about to reach her age of awareness, upon her next birthday. When that happens, the pieces of a dire prophecy will fall into place and she will face her own brother and your dear friend Naimah in battle. I want you to go back to the Rogue Isles, perform a binding ritual, and banish Naimah from this plane forever."

Four sets of eyes widened and stared at the diminutive demoness. Keres found his voice first. "Dawl, you know that is like sending him to a certain death."

She snarled and shook her head. "It can be done. And if he wants one chance to prove how much he loves Sheken, he will be the one to do it."

Sheken clung to Marcus as she sobbed uncontrollably. Adara approached them and hugged her cousin with tears running down her face. Both knew that Naimah was the one who had managed to kill Azazela, a powerful, experienced heroine. Marcus would not stand a chance.

He stood for a moment, staring deep into the eyes of his adversary. "I will accept your challenge."

"Nooooo," Sheken wailed.

"It is done," Dawl nodded darkly. "Return to me when Naimah is bound."

Marcus nodded and bowed, and turned to Sheken, kissing her tenderly. "I will do this. For you." His fingertip traced her jaw line, slick with the wetness of her burning tears. "Don't worry. I will be back..."

He turned to head towards the door and she clung to him. "I am going too."

"No." He set his jaw and shook his head. "You can't go. Remember the prophecy. Don't give her a chance to thwart you before you can fulfill it."

Sheken spun around and faced her mother as she screamed. "All my life, I have lived in the shadow of this stupid prophecy. I have HAD ENOUGH. It is MY life and I am going with Marcus."

"You will not go with him," Dawl screamed.

Sheken took one step forward, and met her mother's angry gaze, "I am an adult now, mother. I will do as I DAMN WELL PLEASE and you CANNOT STOP ME."

Dawl snorted angrily as her eyes blazed with an almost unholy light. Her hand sliced through the air in a wide arc, aimed directly for her wayward daughter's flushed cheek. Before it could make contact, however, it stuck a hard obstacle. Sheken raised one arm to block the incoming blow, and with the other hand, returned a blow of her own, driving her open palm firmly into the side of her astonished mother's face.

Before things could get any further out of hand, the three bystanders intervened. Keres grabbed Dawl, pulling her backwards and encircling her with his strong arms. Her legs flailed as he lifted her off the floor with arms pinned to her sides.

Marcus and Adara had stepped in front of Sheken, Adara taking her by the hand and Marcus putting his arms gently around her waist. "Please, baby, this isn't going to help matters. Don't make this any harder than it is."

Sheken's resolve and rage subsided like a tide ebbing after a surge has passed. It left her drained and shaking. She leaned into Marcus and began to cry.

Adara looked at Marcus and shook her head silently. Keres had dragged Dawl back into the house. Marcus followed their retreating forms with an agonizing look. He dreaded running that gauntlet in order to get back to the door. Adara could read his sentiments simply from the look on his face. "Let's take the back way out," she suggested gently.

He looked at her with a puzzled gaze. The small balcony did not connect to any other access. Just as he was about to open his mouth and ask what she meant by a "back way out," she leapt over the edge of the balcony without a word. Moments later, a startled Marcus materialized next to a trembling Sheken on the sidewalk in front of the building. "Thanks, Adara," he murmured with sincere gratitude.

"Anytime," she said, with a solemn gaze. "You really can't be serious, Marcus. Naimah is the one who killed my mother."

"Of course I am serious." They could both tell by the set of his jaw that he was determined to carry through with his word. "If this is what I need to do in order to prove my love for Sheken, then I will do it."

"This is insane, Marcus," Sheken cried. "You can't go along with this. She knows there is a good chance you won't make it back. That's why she suggested this."

Marcus cocked his head to one side thoughtfully, and drew a deep breath. "What else can I do? She won't settle for anything less. And really, if you think about it, either I deal with this now, or we must deal with it when the prophecy comes true. Either way, I am going to face Naimah."

Adara turned and began walking towards the tram, motioning for them to follow her. "I just thought of something. Let's go to Salamanca. I need some advice, and I know just where to get it."

Sheken and Marcus exchanged a puzzled glance, but followed the slender blonde. Wordlessly, they boarded the monorail heading for Salamanca, and settled back onto the hard bench seats to endure the long ride.

Adara stared out the window at the changing hues of the leaves on the ancient trees. This had become home to her, as much as the Kings Row apartment where she'd spent her youngest days with her mother. She heaved a quiet sigh to herself. Why was she so apprehensive, she wondered? After all, this is what they all wanted. Revenge. Since the day her mother died, she vowed to repay her evil half-sister. Maybe it was just time to make good on her vow.

Marcus held Sheken gently as she laid her head on his shoulder. He, too, stared out the window, but he was not drinking in the beauty of the forest. His mind was far away, in a place full of malice, betrayal and evil. His brow furrowed with a grim scowl as he ruminated on the fate that now was about to bring him full circle.

If it weren't for Naimah, he'd probably never have seen Sheken again once he had delivered her safely to Pocket D following his first encounter with her in which he rescued her from an unfortunate drug-laced-drink misadventure. Because Naimah had subsequently dispatched him to kidnap and later kill the girl, he found her in his home and in his bed a second time. His train of thought ran headlong into the memories of that fateful encounter. A wave of intense guilt flushed over him so hard that it pressed tears from his eyes. As he closed them to stem the tide of saline he saw her cowering in the corner of his shower. Suddenly the memory replayed like some Technicolor film of the entire sordid act. He saw himself grabbing her and lifting her up, slamming her into the corner where he could pin her against the wall and impale her. She was sobbing so hard he thought for a moment she was choking, and then she simply went limp in his arms. Finding it hard to support her unconscious and slippery form, he reached behind him and turned off the water. Scooping her up in his arms, he carried her into the bedroom and laid her on the bed. In his memories he could hear her crying out in pain even though she was unconscious. He remembered ignoring her responses and roughly plunging ahead to gratify his own urges.

The remorse he felt as his mind relived the assault made him physically ill. He opened his tear-filled eyes and looked at the gentle, trusting girl who had become his friend and lover. He was grateful to the succubus, Dark as Syn, who had entered Sheken's fragile subconscious, and taken the memory from her. He sometimes wished that Syn could have done the same for him, but reminded himself that even reliving the terrible memory was still probably not near the punishment he deserved for what he'd done. He held her gently in his arms as he tried to fathom how she could possibly avoid hating him.

Sheken looked up into his eyes and tried desperately to avoid probing into his private thoughts. The longer they were together, the easier it became for her psionic powers to penetrate his mental defenses. She opened her mouth as if to speak. Leaning in close, he covered her lips with his own. He moaned softly as he pulled her close.

Across the aisle, Adara blushed and turned away with a smile. She was a bit skeptical herself when she met Marcus, realizing that he'd been a key figure in the plot that ended with her mother's death. But the child had a tender heart and she felt that he'd truly seen the error of his ways, so she was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Sheken and Marcus were panting by the time the tram pulled with a clatter into the brightly lit station at the edge of Salamanca. Adara always thought the building looked so out of place against the backdrop of the sleepy little town.

She coughed loudly to alert the lovebirds that they had reached their destination. She shook her head as they both smoothed their hair and wiped their lips. Perhaps someday she would understand what made people act in such a manner. For now, she was just thankful that no others had chosen that exact time to venture to the region called Croatoa, for they would have been treated to quit the show enroute.

Adara breathed in the sweet fresh air as they walked down the cobbled streets of the quaint burg. The smell of fallen leaves mingled with the crisp freshness of a lovely fall day. The young couple followed closely, as Adara led them through the narrow streets to the opposite side of the small town. They stopped when they reached an older brick building near the larger university building. Adara lifted the worn ornate brass knocker and let it fall with a loud thud. Almost instantly the door was answered by a weathered older woman, whose face lit up with a smile as she gazed down at Adara.

"Come in, my child. It was my understanding that you were going to spend the weekend in Paragon City. Is something wrong?" Even though she realized Mary often knew the answers before she asked the questions, Adara nonetheless politely nodded.

 "I wouldn't bother you, ma'am," Adara said, in a tone of quiet respect, "but I have a serious problem that requires more knowledge than I have attained so far."

Mary nodded sagely. "You know that I will do anything within my power to help you, Adara. You have become one of the best students ever to grace our institution. Tell me, child, what is it that is troubling you?"

As she spoke, the woman gestured for the trio to enter and follow her down a narrow hallway. The ancient pocket doors rasped softly as she slid them open to motion them towards a group of chairs near an ornately carved desk. The room was full of warm smell of old books mingled with lingering tones of myrrh, cinnamon and clove. As Adara began to relate her tale, Mary eased herself into the worn leather chair behind the desk with a grave expression on her face. She listened attentively while the girl explained the events leading up to Marcus being sent to the Rogue Isles on this nearly impossibly mission to bind the very demoness that had killed her own mother.

When she'd finished, the sage sorceress leaned forward and folded her hands into a steeple as her gaze swept over the three unlikely heroes seated before her.

A pall of silence hung over the room for many moments before she cleared her throat and looked directly at Marcus with a stern glare. "You realize that your previous actions precipitated this situation, do you not?"

He swallowed and dropped his gaze to the floor, answering her with a nod and a meek "Yes, ma'am, I do."

Sheken opened her mouth as if to speak in his defense, but the woman silenced her with a look. Turning her gaze to Adara, she spoke in a low voice. "Do you have any idea of the danger you will face?"

Adara nodded and answered her, "Yes. That is why I came to speak with you. This is not a task that I would undertake lightly."

"It is not one that you should deem to undertake at all," Mary retorted. "Do your parents know of this?"

Adara shook her head. "Mom's been very busy..."

Mary smiled a sad little smile. "Of course she has, dear." She stood up suddenly. "Wait here."

Mary disappeared through a small side door as the three gazed at each other in puzzled silence. When she returned, she had a worn tome in her hands. The leather binding was faded and cracked and the edges of the pages were worn, but a pale light seemed to glow from between them. She laid the book on the desk before her as a chill wind blew through the room. The lights dimmed as Sheken shuddered and scooted closer to Marcus. Adara simply stared at the volume in reverent awe.

"This," Mary began, "is the second Testament of Solomon."

All three pairs of eyes riveted upon the book looked up simultaneously to give her a puzzled look.

"The ancient king?" Adara asked in a tone of awe.

The wizened woman nodded. "While the first testament told of the demons he bound and ordered to build his temple, this volume gives very specific instructions for the binding, and contains..." her voice trailed as her nimble fingers lifted the worn cover that looked as though it might crumble to dust at her touch. A diffuse golden glow emanated from the pages as she opened the book, casting an eerie light upon her visage. She muttered a few unintelligible syllables and held her hand over one of the pages that bore a glowing picture of a ring, surrounded by a cadre of ancient symbols. As she chanted, she raised her hand slowly and the picture seemed to somehow lift itself from the ancient page to float upwards into her outstretched hand. The image wavered and contorted as it hovered just above her palm, casting a ghostly glow upon her skin. It seemed to grow smaller as it appeared to fold around itself until it had morphed from the flattened picture into the form of thick metal ring that dropped with an audible plop in the center of her palm.

She turned to Adara, with a grave frown on her face. "I cannot give this to you," she said flatly. She leaned forward and crooked a finger at an astonished Marcus, who leaned across the desk in obedience to her silent summons.

"You," she began darkly, "must take charge of this precious relic. This was entrusted to me by its previous owner, on the condition that I guard it jealously and insure that its power never be abused."

"What...what is it?" Marcus asked.

"This is the Seal of Solomon. By the authority of He whose name is upon this seal, you may bind demons to do your bidding." Mary gave him a stern glare. "I give you this ring for the purpose of binding the demons who murdered Azazela, and who oppose your family's destiny."

"My family?" Marcus asked, in a hoarse whisper as Mary grabbed his hand and slid the ring onto his right index finger. The ring pulsed with light for split second before wrapping itself tightly around his trembling digit.

"You are betrothed to Sheken, are you not?"

Marcus recoiled in shock. "How..."

"I know many things that remain unspoken, young man. Let me warn you of this. This ring is only to be wielded by one with integrity. If you are not that one, then speak up now. If it is used for malicious or selfish reasons, it will bind not only the demons but will also bind your own soul."

Marcus swallowed hard. "Why me? Why not Adara or Sheken?"

"They cannot bind that from which they came. Both girls are descendants of a prince of demons, the wicked Azazel. This ring, sadly, cannot be worn by those of demonic bloodlines, no matter how pure their intent. To do so, even for a short time, would be enough to bring punishment upon themselves and their descendants."

She stood up straight and glared daggers into his eyes. He suddenly felt as though her gaze was burning a path straight through him and into his very soul. "Marcus Aurelius Vespa, do you vow to use the power of this seal only according to that which is good and true, in the eyes of the One whose name is inscribed upon it?"

Marcus trembled as he dropped to his knees. "I do," he gasped, his voice quavering.

She reached down and placed a gnarled hand upon his forehead. "Go, and do this task, however, I must warn you that it will not be without great cost."

He rose to his feet slowly and looked the sorceress in the eyes. "Will Sheken be saved?"

A strange smile crept over her face. Wordlessly, she nodded. "Marcus, you are indeed upon a path that will lead you to redemption."

She turned and looked at Adara. "My child, you were born with incredible power. Even though you are still very young, the impact of your deeds will be felt far into the realms of Hell. Remember the amulet. It will serve you best when the time comes." Adara reached down and fingered the stone embedded in the buckle of her belt. She nodded gravely at her wizened mentor. "Thank you. We could not undertake this mission without your help."

The elder woman gave her a terse nod. "Two children and one man are setting out to attempt a task where teams of experienced heroes have failed."

Sheken made a face when the sorceress deemed her also a child, but Mary turned to her with a stern countenance. "You have much to learn before you reach your age of awareness. In many ways, little Adara is wise far beyond both your ages. Watch her and learn, Sheken. I say this not to bruise your feelings nor to demean you, but as a warning. You have heard it said, pride goes before the fall, and holding its hand to drag you over the precipice is overconfidence. Embrace your weaknesses, and learn from them, and the strength you gain by doing so will increase sevenfold."

Sheken swallowed the curt remark she'd first formed as a reply, and humbly nodded.

"You have all the assistance that I have to offer, save my keeping you in my dearest prayers." Mary moved towards the doors. As they grated noisily open, the three fledgling heroes gazed at each other and simultaneously drew a deep breath. Adara reached out her arms as she moved towards the door, hugging the sorceress tightly. "I will expect you to make up the school work you are going to miss while you are on this little adventure," Mary said, a mischievous grin lighting up her eyes. "Think of this as a field trip." She winked at the small girl. "Promise me this. You must tell your parents where you are going before you depart."

Adara nodded solemnly. "I will. I promise."

Sheken and Marcus bowed with respect and thanked Mary for her kind assistance as she ushered them to the door. On the way back to the tram, Sheken spoke up first.

"I have heard many things from my mom about her. It seems they were all true. She appears to be an amazing woman."

Adara nodded. "I've been in school there since I was four. She's always treated me like I would expect she'd treat her own child. I have nothing but the utmost respect for her."

Marcus remained strangely silent, a mask of worry drawn across his rugged features. Sheken squeezed his hand as the sun began to set and the streets took on an eerie pall. Deepening shadows crept forth from a ghostly glow that emanated from more than just the antiqued street lamps. They picked up their pace until they were almost running as the ramp leading up to the monorail station came into view. A car was just arriving as they approached the gate. Two older heroes sped out the doors as they opened, gesturing with a friendly nod to the youthful trio as they slipped into the car. Sliding into a seat beside Marcus, Sheken once again laid her head on his shoulder. Adara, lost in thought, watched out the window as darkness gathered across the scenic landscape.

A dark figure slipped quietly from the small yacht onto the dock. This was not a pleasant beachhead off the coast of Paragon City, that much was for certain. The air was pungent with the stale odor of fish combined with the metallic smells of brine and petroleum. She pulled the thick velvet hood of her cape down over her face, effectively occluding her features. Stopping at the end of the pier, she approached a drably clad old man who might have been a sea captain before whatever lot in his life brought him to this fateful place.

"Can you tell me the way to the Imperium Clinic?" she asked in a hoarse, rasping whisper.

He eyed her suspiciously for only a moment, and then nodded his head in a northerly direction. "Up the stairs until ye hit the street. Head west down the street, go around the curve, then make a left at the intersection. It's the second set of doors on the left from the corner. Older brownstone building. Right across the street from building with the big HappyCorpse billboard. Can't miss it." He curled his upper lip and flipped his hand over in an overt gesture. She reached into her décolletage and produced a crisp bill, palming it to him as she shook his hand. He gave her a wide grin that displayed the results of his lifelong lack of dental care.

She nodded a wordless thanks and made her way up the pier. Slowly she climbed towards the street, keeping her gaze upon the ground except for an occasional furtive glance to insure she didn't run into anyone that might cause her trouble.

Immediately after she rounded the curve in the road, she saw the billboard for "HappyCorpse Morgue overflow service." She shuddered at the thought of what possible end products such overflow might produce. An image of Dr. Vahzilok immediately came to mind making her pause long enough to will the twisted images from her psyche.

She pulled open the heavy oak door to step into the reception area of the clinic. She inhaled deeply, appreciating from the very smell that the doctor was indeed a wealthy and powerful man. The furniture was all the finest imported leather. The thick carpet was a deep burgundy. Gleaming cherry paneling covered the walls. If not for the copious amount of lush plants, the huge cathedral style windows, bright paintings, and well placed lighting, the dark colors might have been overwhelming. Instead, the entire décor oozed of opulence and tranquility.

She allowed her eyes to adjust to the change in light levels from the overcast daylight. The dark glasses she wore made it hard to see clearly in the indoor lighting. Smoothing her long gown, she pulled her thick cape tight around her and approached the raven-haired dainty young woman who was seated behind an ornate desk of polished mahogany. "May I help you?" she asked politely.

The woman nodded and gestured with a hand towards the back. "I'd like to see the doctor," she said in a husky whisper.

Syndi Johansson had seen many people come through the doors in her long tenure as Doctor Maritus' personal lackey. Her senses tingled slightly as she peered up at the partially hidden visage that peered from beneath the dark cloak. Gently, she probed for access to the woman's thoughts, but found her efforts rebuffed.

"Do you have an appointment?"

Enveloped in the shadows of the shrouded hood, the woman shook her head.

Pursing her delicate lips Syndi dutifully nodded and asked, "May I tell him the purpose of this visit?"

The dark figure shifted her weight from one foot to the other.

"What kind of problem are you having," Syn asked gently.

After a moment of hesitation, the woman answered in a hushed rasp, "I do not have a problem. I bring a solution."

Syndi's face registered a truly puzzled expression as she looked down at her schedule book. There was indeed a free appointment immediately following the client the doctor was in with at the moment. "I can work you in as soon as he finishes with his current patient," she explained softly.

The woman nodded slowly and turned to take a seat on the soft leather sofa.

"May I tell him who to expect?" the petite brunette prodded gently.

"No," the figure answered in a gruff croak.

Syndi opened her mouth as if to say something, and then drew a deep breath. She got up from her desk and walked back towards the doctor's office. She clipped a small note to the doctor on the wall pocket outside the examination room he currently occupied. Slipping back down the corridor, she stole a glance at the small shrouded figure that perched nervously on the edge of the couch in the waiting room. Shaking her head, she slid back into the chair behind her desk and tried to focus on filing some insurance forms instead of the lingering sense that something was about to go terribly wrong.