Introduction

                                                                Survival
 

         Survival of the fittest.
         Sages call it the law of the wild.
         But in truth it is the law of all life.
         Men like to think themselves above the animals, but in truth they live their lives by the same principles.  This is an unforgiving world, and there is no greater instinct in life than survival.
         There are other instincts.  Love, greed, lust, fear, hate.  But they are all part of survival.
         It is theorized that man created society and humanity, and that this is what sets him apart from the animals.  Once, in my naive youth, I also held with this perspective.
         But now I recognize that what sets man apart from the animals is that animals kill to survive, while man kills to thrive.
         In all peoples, in all times, those who have power have gained and maintained their position by eliminating all rivals.  The main tool is assassination.  In the decadent empires of the south, assassination has become an art form.
         Assassination, when performed correctly, is the single most impersonal act a man can make.  When done incorrectly, it is simply murder.
         But if a man can become completely impersonal; if he can kill another man for no other reason than that he will be paid for it, if he can kill without hate, or malice, or bloodlust, then he may become the perfect killer.
         Once, in my younger years, I found such impersonality horrifying.
         Now I do not.  I am counted among those possessing it.
         Every man's life is shaped, to some degree, by death and mortality.  But I learned to be death's master, and so I became, like an elemental force, the one who gave it to others.
         I am the bringer of peace.

         - Artemis Entreri
 
 

                                                         Chapter One

                                              A Birth in the Midst of death
 
 

         The flickering lights of a thousand campfires spread across the darkened valley.  The last blood-red rays of the dying sun spilled across the far edge of the western mountains, both highlighting and shadowing the grim contours of General Sharboneth's face where he stood, perched on a rocky outcrop overlooking his forces.
         The past four days had been on the march, and there had been no time for anything other than planning for the campaign ahead.  Now, on the eve of what might be his greatest victory, there was nothing left for the general to do except wait.  The battle lines were drawn; the men had their orders.  Sharboneth ran an eye lazily over his forces, his mind unconsciously analyzing the military soundness of their position.
         He relished this time alone, away from his aides, and usually he found an certain contentment and relaxation in it.  Not tonight, though.  Too much depended on the outcome of tommorrow's engagement.  For perhaps the thousandth time he wondered if what he was about to do was really wise.
         Angrily he supressed the thought.  He had built the Tethyrian Royal Army into a force to be reckoned with, ruthlessly crushing the rogue nobles and their bandit forces.  Tethyr was surrounded by enemies, both within and without, and now that old fool, King Alemander Tethyr the IV, threatened to cave beneath the pressure of the nobles.  Sharboneth would not stand idle and watch the monarch give back the land his armies had paid for in blood.
         A cool night breeze ruffled Sharboneth's grizzled black beard, bringing him back to himself.  The sun had set.  In the distance, on the far side of the encampment, a tiny line of torches approached.  The prince and his party had arrived, and Sharboneth would have to be there to meet them.  The general sighed, and began picking his way back down the hillside.

                                                                 * * *

         Prince Alemander Tethyr was a young man of about twenty years.  Clean shaven with rakish brown hair and piercing blue eyes, he would have been attractive save for the cruel twist of his lips and the foppish and gradiose manner in which he carried himself.  He liked to think of himself as a warrior, and wore a jaunty rapier at his side.  The weapon was more ornamentation than instrument, though, as the prince was an indifferent swordsman at best.
         "Greetings, general," he said elegantly, inclining his head as if he were adressing an underling rather than a co-conspirator.  "If you will forgive the observation, even the elements contrive to hide this night's work."  He gestured expansively.  "The night is black and moonless, and the evening winds cloak even our voices."  He gave a chuckle at his own cleverness.
         General Sharboneth frowned and did his best to hide his dislike of the man.  Alemander may not have been more than a pretty rooster with petty ambitions, but he was close to the king, and had already proven an invaluable tool.  "Are your men in position?"
         The prince assumed a hurt look.  "You wound me, general!  Do you think I would betray your confidence?"
         Ass, thought the general.  "Is that a yes or a no?"
         The prince sniffed.  "They are in position."
         "Good."  At least he's managed to do that much by himself.  "Can we be assured of the king's ignorance regarding the advance of my army?"
         Alemander gave a cruel smile.  "I have surrounded my father with men who are loyal to me alone.  The few reports of your advance that have leaked through have been downplayed.  The old doddard suspects nothing."
         Sharboneth nodded.  "Good.  Now remember, my troops will reach the palatial estate at dawn.  I will personally direct a straightforward attack on Castle Tethyr at daybreak.  The castle itself is well constructed, and could sustain a siege of many months.  That is why it is imperative that a small force of my men infiltrate the castle before the battle is joined.  To that end, you will have your own men in place at the southern gatehouse just before dawn."
         Alemander yawned.  "We've been through this before."
         Sharboneth ignored the complaint.  In order for the plan to work, every detail had to be exact. "My men and yours will attack from within while I attack from without, setting fire to the royal chambers to destroy any evidence of your own treachery.  You are one of the few people who are allowed to see the king directly, so you will have to be the one who kills him."
         "Ah, I prefer the term 'remove'" interjected Alemander.  "It's so much less... indelicate, don't you agree?"
         Fop!  "Very well, then, remove," Sharboneth said impatiently.  "Once the king is dead and my men are inside, we'll have broken the backbone of any remaining resistance.  After that it's all finished except for the fine details."
         Alemander nodded, his lips twisting into a feral grin.  "And before the day is out, I'll be crowned king.  'From the ashes of the crushing and unexpected disaster will emerge a new government, jointly ruled by the two of us.'  I came up with that myself, as a sort of acceptance speech for afterwards.  Glorious vison, is it not?"
         Pompous ass! thought Sharboneth.  "Glorious," he said aloud.

                                                                     * * *

         The prince and his retinue had departed, but Sharboneth had not yet retired.  He expected one more visitor this evening.
         He had not long to wait.  Less than fifteen minutes after the prince's departure a man clothed in the uniform and armor befitting a captain of Sharboneth's elite troopers entered his tent.  So quietly did the man move that the general was not immediately aware of his presence.
         Sharboneth gave a start as he realized he was no longer alone.  Gods!  How does the man do that?  He knew this man was no soldier of his, no matter what uniform he wore.
         The man said nothing, and Sharboneth felt a shiver run up his spine.  The general had used this man before, and always with great success, but somehow the assassin always made him uneasy.  Sharboneth had risen to his rank by facing all manner of foes, and he feared almost nothing.  The assassin was an exception.
         "You startled me," muttered Sharboneth.
         Still the man said nothing.  No shouts, no alarms, thought Sharboneth.  I am guarded night and day by men personally loyal to me,  How does the man get past them so easily?
         The general adopted a gruff, irritated look.  It would not do to show weakness in front of this man.  "You know what I want?"
         The assassin gave a slight bow, barely more than an inclination of the head.
         "Make certain the prince's body is never found.  I want no evidence that he did not die a natural death."
         Again the assassin bowed.
         Sharboneth eyed him nervously.  That should have concluded their business; the man had already been paid.
         The general stood, and went to fetch himself a cup of wine.  "Would you-?" he started, but by the time he had turned back, the man had disappeared.
         How does the man do that? he wondered again.

                                                                        * * *

         A baby cry rang out, filling the small and dank torchlit chamber and echoing off the cold stone walls.
         The gnarled old nursemaid checked the limp form of the young mother.  "No pulse."  Her voice was old and tired.  "Her encounter with the prince earlier must have caused complications."  Everyone knew that Alemander was a cruel man, given to tempestuious fits of rage.  The young lady had been brought in senseless, nearly beaten to death.  Still the man should have known better than to beat a pregnant woman.  "At least the baby's healthy."
         "And noisy," said the middle aged guardsman who was standing nearby.  He sighed.  "Another of Alemander's bastards we'll have to put to death."
         The nursemaid clutched the bawling infant protectively.  "Not that!  There's been enough bloodshed in this misbegotten family!  I won't add another innocent to the list!"
         "What then?" asked the guardsman in surprise.  "If the prince learns we spared the child, our heads will rest on pikes before morning!  You know his policy as well as I.  No potential heirs!  I have my orders."
         "The prince will learn nothing," insisited the nursemaid.  "The druids take unwanted children.  We'll pass the child to them, with no story of its origin.  No-one will ever suspect."
         "If you do this, you do it alone," said the guardsman shortly.  "I say we just slaughter the brat.  Life with the druids is no pleasure.  It would be a mercy blow."
         "I'll make the journey alone then."  Her tone brooked no argument.  "A life with the druids is better than no life at all.  I will leave on the morrow."
         "You'll be missed," protested the guardsman.  "And the brat's howling during the night will be heard."
         The old woman was resolute.  "Then I'll leave tonight.  The commander of the west gatehouse owes me a favor anyway.  And I won't be gone long enough to be missed.  The other servants can cover for me easily enough, and none of the other women with child are due for several weeks yet."
         The guardsman bit his lip, uncertain.  "It's better just to end the little bastard's life, here and now."
         Wordlessly the old woman pulled the child closer to her breast.
         The guardsman sighed resignedly.  He had no taste for the slaughter of children.  "Very well.  Begone with you then.  I'll dispose of the girl's body."

                                                                         * * *

         Prince Alemander was in an ebulliant mood.  All his plans would soon come to fruition, and he would have the power he had always craved.  A cup of wine in one hand and one of the serving girls in the other, he made his way to his private chambers.  He was feeling especially energetic tonight; the girl already had a darkening purple bruise under one eye from where he had struck her earlier.  He could almost feel sorry for her.  It was unlikely she would survive until morning.
         He made his way past the sentries at his door and stopped cold.  There was already someone waiting for him in his chamber.
         Recognizing the waiting man, he thrust the girl to one side, already forgetting her, and shut the door behind him.  "Well, well.  This is a surprise.  I expected you earlier."
         The other man shrugged.
         The prince scowled.  "I assume you are as good as your reputation?"
         The man gave a slight nod.
         "Well then," said the prince, a little annoyed that the man hadn't yet deigned to speak, "your instructions must have already reached you.  I shall reiterate them to make them clear."  He paused expectantly.
         The other remained silent, much to the frustration of the prince.  Alemander prided himself on his ability to irritate others, and disliked men who couldn't be provoked even to speech.
         "You are to find Sharboneth and eliminate him, sometime near the aftermath of tomorrow's battle.  And make it thorough!  I want no hedge wizard or priest able to use his remains to summon his spirit."
         The other man gave the ghost of a smile, and nodded, almost mockingly.  There was something in his eyes which told of amusement.  If Alemander hadn't known better, he would have sworn that the assassin knew something important.  Suddenly he felt uneasy.
         "Then get to your business," the prince barked.  "I have other things to see to!"
         The assassin was gone before he finished speaking.  For a long moment Alemander stood, thinking back on the words he had exchanged with the man.  His eyes rested on the serving girl, huddled against the far wall, and he smiled.  She had heard too much.  She would have to be disposed of.
         But his blood was up, now, and he needed something to sate both his lust and his rage upon.  She would not die quickly.  No indeed.

                                                                     * * *

         Smoke curled up and wafted through royal chambers of King Alemander Tethyr IV.  From the distance came the clash of weapons and the screams of dying men.  Twenty imperial guardsmen lined the walls, a final line of defense for the king.  The royal thaumaturgist stood at the king's right arm.
         The two huge doors to the chamber boomed once, then swung wide.
         For a moment the guardsmen tensed, fearing that Sharboneth's forces had finally breached the final ring of King Tethyr's defenses.  Instead prince Alemander strode in, bearing proudly a huge and ancient two-handed sword.
         King Tethyr smiled grimly, the light of madness filling his eyes.  "How goes the battle with these treasonous upstarts?" he asked.  The king refused to believe that his forces were being defeated.  To his mind, it simply wasn't possible that some rabble led by some commoner should threaten him.
         "Not well, father," said the prince, "but the tide is about to turn!  Behold the sword of our ancestors, father!"  He unsheathed the great blade.  "With you to wield it, none shall stand against us!"
         The king stood, reaching out for the sword.  A trickle of spittle leaked from a corner of his mouth.
         The prince lunged forward with the sword, snarling.
         The king might have been old and senile, but in his youth he had fought a fair number of battles.  With the speed and luck of the mad, he yanked himself out of the path of the blade, so that instead of being pierced through the heart he recieved only a scratch on his right arm.
         "Treachery!" wailed the king, backing away.  "Guards!  Your king is betrayed!  Slay him!  Slay him!"
         The guardsmen hurried forward, surrounding the king protectively.  The prince smiled.
         A moment later the guardsmen had seized the king and carried him forward.  The king, uncomprehending, still struggled and spat incomprehensebly.
         "These are my men, father!" laughed the prince, lifting the sword for a second blow.
         The king looked about him in confusion.  Were all his men traitors?  His gaze fell upon the thaumaturgist, who refused to meet his gaze.  "Even you, Vintharius?"
         The wizard bowed his head.  "I can see which way the winds of change blow."
         "Enough prattle!" roared the prince.  He lunged, piercing the king through the chest.
         Shock passed over the old man's face.  Then, as his eyes began to glaze, be began to laugh, raspily and painfully.  "I suspected... made sure!  There is... another!  Your brother!"
         Alemander's victorious smile faded.  "Brother?" he demanded, grasping the dying kings robes.  "What brother?  Where?  Where, you old fool?"
         The old man crumpled to the floor.  "Beyond your reach... protected by the greatest mage alive..."
         "Who?  Tell me who, old man!"
         But the king had passed beyond.  The smile was frozen on his face forever.
         Still frowning, the prince let his father's corpse fall to the floor.  Slowly his scowl was replaced by a sardonic smile.  His shoulders began to shake, and he burst out with a cackle of laughter.  "A brother, father?  A brother?  What is that to me?  Who will ever know about my brother now that you are gone?  Soon  I will rule all of Tethyr!  No brother can keep me from my destiny!"
         The prince turned from the corpse.  "Who is your king?" he bellowed, spreading his arms wide.
         The assemblage dropped to their knees in homage.
         The prince gave a feral grin.  "You may rise."  He sat idly on the throne from which his father had ruled, draping his right leg over one of the throne's golden arms.  "Now something must be done about my father's body."  He stroked his chin thoughtfully.  "Give it to the dogs.  That would be fitting."  He chuckled.  "That is my first order as king of all Tethyr!"
         A man stepped out of the shadows in the far end of the royal chamber.  Alemander's eyes widened.  The assassin!
         "Do you bring news from the front?" he asked, summoning the man forward.  "Has general Sharboneth fallen?"
         "I bring news," answered the assassin.  His hands moved, almost faster than the human eye could follow, and a whirring sound filled the air for a split second.  The royal wizard's head toppled from his shoulders, neatly severed by some incredibly sharp instrument.
         The wizard's body tottered forward, arms flailing, blood spuring from the neck.  The prince stared in horror as the body crumpled to the floor a moment later.
         "Guards!" he shrieked, sinking down into the the throne and throwing up his arms.  "Strike that man down!"
         The guardsmen leaped forward, surrounding the assassin.  They were battle-hardened veterans, men who lived and died by their skill with their swords.
         Two blades appeared as if by magic in the assassin's hands and whirred into action, cutting a swath of death that was almost too fast for the mind to comprehend through the guardsmen's ranks.
         The guardsmen were like sheep led to the slaughter.  The assassin killed and killed again.
         An instant later the two surviving guardsmen were fleeing for their lives.  An instant following that, they were dead as well.
         Horror- struck, the prince had watched this nightmare unfold.  He had soiled himself already, and was stammering out pleas and curses, holding the ancient sword before him.
         Almost contemptuously the assassin lashed out.  His glancing blow sent the ancient sword skittering across the bloody marble floor.
         The prince was dead before he had a chance to scream.
         The assassin paused a moment, stooping to remove a purse of gold  from the prince's body.  Calmly he counted out the proper amount owed to him, then let the rest fall to the floor.
         "Half done," he murmured under his breath.

                                                                     * * *

         The general stood on a slight rise, from which he could see the burning palace and most of the battle that raged there.  From time to time he would give an order to one of the young aides at his side, and the aide would run to deliver it to the lieutenant or company commander the general had ordered it given to.  The battle was all but over already.
         One of the general's elite troopers made his way from the palace to where Sharboneth stood.  As the man drew nearer, Sharboneth recognized him as the assassin he had employed.
         "Leave us," he barked to his aides as the assassin made his way up the hill.  As the man drew closer Sharboneth noted he was carrying a huge two-handed sword strapped to his back.
         With a start he recognized it.  "You were able to retrieve the sword as well!  This is good fortune.  As a symbol, the Sword of Tethyrian Kings will be invaluable to me in my consolidation of power."
         "It isn't for you," said the assassin.  "I took it for myself.  A memento."
         Sharboneth scowled.  "What do you mean?  Is the prince not dead?  Is the contract not completed?"
         "The body of prince Alemander is ashes," said the assassin.  "One contract is fulfilled."
         "One contract?  Was there more than that?  What do you mean?"
         "Only this," said the assassin, lashing out.  His blade pierced Sharboneth through the heart instantly, cutting through sinew and bone as if they were paper.
         The general gave a shudder as he died, his mouth hanging open in stark incomprehension.
         With a twitch the assassin removed the sword fromt he general's body, which slumped to the ground.
         The assassin studied his victim for a moment.  "You have an interesting face, my friend," he murmured.
         He bent over the body, taking his payement, then poured a vile of incredibly concentrated acid onto the remains.
         He stood.  "The contracts have been fulfilled."
         His silver ring glittered in the dusky light.  Etched onto its surface were two fangs, dripping poison.

                                                                     * * *

         The stunning loss of central control in the Tethyrian power scale led to devastating consequences.
         The common people, for as long as anyone could remember, had been downtrodden and overtaxed to the point of desperation by the social elite.  Now that the king and his heir were dead, there was no-one powerful enough to take the throne for himself.  As the remaining lords and nobles squabbled for whatever power they could grasp, civil war erupted throughout the countryside as commoners rose in a blood-lusting, unstoppable mob.
         Over the course of the next ten days, the mobs swept the country, pillaging the cities and putting to the sword any who had or made claim (however distant) to the royal blood of Tethyr.
         When the mobbing and pillaging had finally died, Tethyr had been changed forever.  Bandits had sprouted like weeds,, and petty lordlings held tyrannical sway over patches of land.  Tethyr became a shadow of itself, and was thrown into a state of extreme anarchy in which only the strong and charismatic survived.  It has never recovered.