Calimport was dark
this night. The lamplighter's guild was on strike, and as a result
only the upper class regions of the city had streetlamps burning.
The cloudy sky obscured the moon and the stars, and a cool wind played
along the avenues, tickling the rooftops and whispering along the walls.
It almost seemed peaceful. But Jitinder knew better. This would be a night when thieves and murderers took to the streets. His work would be difficult this night.
Silently he flitted through the shadows, between buildings and down sidestreets, occasionally taking to the rooftops.
Jitinder was a man with a purpose. As a child, he had seen his parents torn to pieces in front of his eyes. Not long after, the mobs had come, looting and raping. He himself would surely have perished at the hands of the maddened populace, were it not for the monastary of St. Tchazzar. The monks there had taken pity on him, and raised him as one of their own.
He had studied with the monks for twelve years. They had advocated patience and inner peace. And he had tried to adhere to their teachings.
But his past haunted him, and in the end he knew he could not take that route.
He had honed himself physically, dedicating himself to the destruction of the man he held responsible for the murder of his parents. The man they called the Viper.
After his time with the monks, he had begun his search. But the Viper left no trails, no traces, and the hunt had not been easy. For six years he had followed rumors and myths, trying to track the Viper. The search had led him here, to Calimport, and, deep within his heart, Jitinder believed that this was the city where he would eventually find the assassin. He was here. Jitinder knew it.
But it was frustrating. So far he had been here for over a year, with nothing to show for his effort. A less-dedicated man would have given up. But Jitinder was patient, that much of the monk's teachings he had learned well. He would wait.
In the meantime, he spent his daytime hours as a personal guardsman for one of the cities wealthiest merchants. By night, he had taken to roaming the streets, hunting down muderers and thieves and making them pay for their crimes. It kept him honed, sharp.
The Calimport underworld had quickly learned of this young vigilante, and were doing their best to learn his true identity. They called him Nighthunter, and shivered when they spoke of him. Sooner or later, Jitinder knew they would try to trap and kill him. He wasn't worried. He was the hunter, not the prey.
He paused for a moment, listening. A dead silence hung in the air, a feeling of tension, of expectancy. He smiled grimly. Yes, tonight would be a good night for hunting.
* * *
The target was an older
man named Mith, a wealthy noble from Calimshan who was paranoid about his
own safety. He stood in a clothing shop, admiring the wares while
his four guardsman stood watch at the door. Standing nearby was a
gnarled old man dressed in the flowing robes of a guild wizard. The
shopkeeper was nowhere in sight.
Athos darted through the busy street, keeping close to the storefronts. After surveying his target, he made his way into the back alley which ran behind the little shop, searching for a rear entrance.
He discovered a small rear window and a back door, but both were obviously little used. He tried the door first, and found it was locked. He picked the lock in moments, but found that the door wouldn't budge. Either there was something on the other side wedged up against it or it had swelled into its frame after years of disuse. He turned his attentions to the window. The paint was peeling from the rough wood frame, and the brittle panes were caked with grime.
The window might make a good exit, but it would be too noisy and difficult to open to be used as an entrance.
Instead, Athos sprang upwards, catching the top of the wall with his fingers and pulling himself onto the roof.
He kept low. It wouldn't do to be seen from the front street. There was an old wooden trapdoor near the center of the roof. Athos approached it.
It was locked, but the lock looked simple enough, so he set to work. The mechanism was rusted, and it took a few moments to pick it.
Then it clicked open, and he prepared to lift the trapdoor. The hinges were probably rusted and would creak, so it was better to get in quickly, strike, and be gone before anyone realized he was there.
He lifted the trapdoor, swinging down silently into the shop. Amazingly, the hinges made no noise.
He landed almost on top of a young boy. It was unexpected, but he dealt with it, shoving the boy aside and moving quickly towards the target. A dagger appeared in his left hand.
As he threw the dagger, he unsheathed his longsword, continuing forward. The dagger flew straight and true, taking the merchant in the back. Then, before the wizard had a chance to turn, Athos swept the shortsword out, taking off his head.
Before the bodies had even fallen he had turned, dashing up onto a nearby table and scattering the wares. He leaped from the table at the back window, exploding through the blackened glass and rolling to a stop in the street. He sprang to his feet.
"Stop," said the Viper, studying the situation. "Not bad," he said after a moment, "but you made a few mistakes."
Athos waited for him to continue. The model of the shop and the mocked-up dummies of the merchant and guardsmen stood mutely, as if they were also waiting.
"First of all," asked the Viper, "why did you not eliminate the boy?"
Athos shrugged. "He was not a threat."
"Wrong! In real life, people move! He could have tripped you, delaying you - perhaps costing you your life. And he could have screamed warning for those in the next room. Most important of all, he would have been a witness who had seen your face. Never leave witnesses alive.
"Also, your manner of eliminating the wizard disturbs me. A wizard will always be your most dangerous opponent; therefore he must be your first kill. I cannot stress this enough. Fighters are easy enough to deal with, and thieves are even easier, as long as you don't let them get the drop on you. Priests are the easiest of all - they rely neither upon weapons nor magic, but rather on a combination of the two, and this makes them more indecisive. But mages have spells that can kill you from halfway around the world. Always take out the wizard first, preferably from a distance."
This was an old lesson, and Athos had heard all of this before, but he listened respectfully. Obviously the Viper didn't feel that he had heard it enough.
"Your method of leaving was acceptable," continued the assassin, "and it is probable that you would have escaped unseen, except by the boy, of course. However, there was a better method of egress. The roof. You could easily have outpaced any pursuit by leaping from rooftop to rooftop."
The Viper paused thoughtfully. "All in all, though, you did well. You are quickly approaching the day when you will take on your first assignment."
* * *
Athos lay on his cot,
staring up at nothing, pondering.
"your first assignment", the Viper had said.
That phrase kept going through his mind. Harmless sounding words that meant he would soon have to murder another human being in cold blood.
And why? Not for revenge. Not for loyalty. Not even for money. For fear. Fear of what the Viper would do if he failed in his task.
He kept turning the matter over in his mind. Curiously, the thought didn't upset him the way he thought it should. Perhaps that was the most frightening aspect of all.
* * *
Timoth Hinsdale, better
known to his customers as Pip, glanced up from polishing his glassware,
viewing the newcomer with thinly-veiled suspicion.
The first thing he noticed was the man's eyes. A person's eyes were windows into his soul, that's what Timoth had always stoutly maintained. And this man's eyes were empty. To Pip, that spelled danger.
Pip hadn't always owned The Sailor's Pipes. It was only within the last five years or so that he had settled down, married, and begun to start a family. Before that, he had been a member of an adventuring company, and had roamed the northern realms, fighting monsters and daring tombs in lost cities. He was fond of saying that for all its fearsome predators and rough barbarians, the northern realms were a far safer place to live than the south. At least there trouble came from in front, where a person could see it coming. Here, it came from behind, like a dagger in the night.
Yet here was trouble, right in front of him. Pip could sense.
The Sailor's Pipes was not busy this evening. It seldom was. It was a cozy place, tucked away in the east quarter, far from the busy thoroughfares of the city, frequented mainly by locals. It was a comfortable establishment. Pip knew his customers and they knew him. And that was the way he preferred it.
It was not a place for mysterious strangers, and Pip gave the man a long, unfriendly stare.
Athos stared right back, and entered. He had wandered the streets aimlessly earlier this day, watching the ebb and flow of life from the shadows. He was uncertain why he came; he was so uncomfortable around other people that it was almost painful to speak with them, and held himself apart rigidly. Yet at the same time it was a sweet misery, and he could not stop himself, drawn to it like a moth to the open flame.
He took a table against one wall, sitting with his back to the wall so that he had a clear view of the rest of the room. The room was nearly empty, but there was someone who caught his attention. It was ayoung man, not much older than Athos himself, with long raven hair pulled back into a ponytail. His face was dark, and a few strands of hair fell over piercing blue eyes. The two locked gazes for a moment, each measuring the other.
The dark-haired man stood, and smiling, approached.
Athos watched him move, saying nothing. Very few weak movements. He was obviously well-trained in the fighting arts. If he intended Athos harm, it would not be an easy fight.
"This is a local tavern," he said, sitting. "Everyone knows everyone here. We don't like strangers much, I'm afraid."
Athos said nothing.
The other only smiled more broadly. "So Let us sample some fine elven wine, and become acquainted. That way you won't be a stranger."
"I don't drink."
The dark-haired man cocked an eyebrow in surprise. "No?" he asked, amused. "I was under the impression you were human and needed sustenance. How is it that you do not?"
Not human, thought Athos. How far was that from the truth?
"Alcohol," he said aloud. "I don't drink alcohol."
The other man clicked his tongue in disapproval. "Too bad. You really have no idea what you're missing." He sighed. "But then, I suppose that's the point. Still, I don't mind sampling elven wine by myself. Perhaps you would care for something else? My treat." He gestured towards the bar. "Pip keeps a running tab for me."
Athos said nothing.
The man seemed unfazed. "My name is Jitinder, by the way. I'm a guard by trade."
"I am Athos," said Athos grudgingly, after a moment's silence.
Jitinder nodded. "And what will you have, Athos?"
"Water," replied Athos.
Jitinder laughed. "I don't mind picking up the tab for water, although I warn you, water here in Calimport isn't the same water as everywhere else in the world." He motioned to a young serving girl, who approached quickly.
"Hello, Ysmina," Jitinder addressed her. "Wine for me and water for my new friend."
She smiled prettily. "Will you be taking supper sirs?"
"Nothing for me," answered Jitinder, looking to Athos. "You?"
"I'll have whatever the house special is today."
She nodded and spun off.
"She is Pip's daughter," said Jitinder, glancing after the departing girl appreciatively. "Well-rounded, but a bit too plump for my tastes."
Athos said nothing.
"So, Athos," Jitinder said, turning back to him, "exactly what kind of man are you, who doesn't drink alcohol?"
It was a barbed question, and Athos knew it. He wants to know who I am. "Alcohol deadens the senses and weakens the mind."
Jitinder chuckled. "It also excites the senses, and pleasures the mind. But, each to his own. You are not from our city, I take it?"
"I am a newcomer," answered Athos, suddenly wary.
Jitinder nodded. "I suspected as much. You have a strange accent. Where are you from then, and what brings you to our city?"
Another barbed question. What was this man after? Athos must be very careful.
"I live far away," he said, choosing his words carefully. "I came here for personal reasons."
"And how long do you intend to stay?" The question was asked casually, but Athos sensed there was an intensity behind it.
"Not long," answered Athos. "But I'll return."
Jitinder shook his head in amusement. "Mysterious fellow, aren't you?"
Athos shrugged. "Just private."
Jitinder chuckled again. "Keep your secrets, then. You certainly have that right."
Just then another person brushed quickly into the tavern, rushing up to the barkeep.
"Hello Pip!" a feminine voice said brightly. "How's the pipe collection?"
Athos whirled, recognizing the voice.
"What do you care, Artemis?" replied the old man, a twinkle in his eye. "You don't smoke, and none of my pipes are worth enough to steal!"
The girl assumed a hurt look. "Steal? Me? I would never stoop to such a mundane task!" She laughed musically. "Besides, I took enough money from a rich fool today to last me at least until the end of the week." She smiled mischieviously. "And you'll never guess how I did it."
"No, I never will - I won't care enough to venture the idea that you pilfered it," replied the innkeeper, not missing a beat.
She assumed a scoffing look. "For your information, it was the most brilliant swindle ever devised. Thought it up myself, of course. But, if you're not interested in hearing about it..."
Pip shook his head, covering his ears. "I'm not."
She ignored his protests and happily began detailing her earlier adventures.
"Artemis," said Jitinder to Athos, seeing where his attention was focused. "A young girl who enjoys living her life on the edge. I like her."
Athos glanced back to Justin. "And she returns your favor?"
Jitinder laughed. "I only wish. Half the rogues in this city crave her affections. I can only claim friendship."
Athos looked back to where she sat. She was still recounting her exploits to the innkeeper. "And who does she give her affections to?"
"Well, well, who's asking all of the questions now?" said Jitinder with a smile.
"She gives herself to no man. She says she wants to be properly married." Jitinder snorted. "I don't believe in the institution myself." He considered for a moment. "I don't believe in denying myself pleasure of any sort, for that matter."
Athos thought for a moment. "And who is she thinking of marrying? A wealthy merchant? An important noble?"
Jitinder laughed, shaking his head. "She's not attracted to wealth or power. She's still wating for the one. I've told her it's nonsense, but still she waits. Tyr only knows who the lucky person will be. I can't picture her trying to marry money, though."
"Indeed," said Athos softly, his gaze still focused on the girl.
Jitinder noted the look in his eyes and smiled. "I'd forget what you're thinking of, friend. She's never been immediately attracted to anyone - at least not in a romantic way." He shook his head. "Except for someone she met a couple of weeks ago, and that will probably fade quickly."
Athos felt his hopes falling. "Oh?"
"Yes. Apparently some mystery man saved her from an unwarranted attack by one of the city's less-then-desirable slum lords." A hard look came into Jitinder's eyes at that. "When I learned of the incident, I hunted the man down and made sure he wouldn't bother her again."
He shook his head. "Anyway, it was probably more gratefulness she felt for the man who saved her than any kind of attraction, and that's why I think the feeling will fade fairly quickly."
Athos mind spun, as an unexpected surge of adreneline flooded his system. What? What!
He held his composure with a will of iron. This was ridiculous! Jitinder was probably right - he was simply a passing fancy. Perhaps it wasn't even him she was interested in. She probably wouldn't even remember him.
"Hello, Jitinder!" said Artemis, appearing at the dark-haired man's elbow. "Who's your companion?" Athos felt his heart jump into his throat.
She blushed, recognizing him. "Oh! Hello again!"
"We meet again," said Athos, smiling. That seemed to come out alright, he thought silently, trying to keep himself from saying something stupid. Or had it been too cliche?
She giggled. A sound that sent shivers down his psine. Was she laughing at him? It had been cliche to answer that way, he was certain of it now. An itch had sprung up underneath his collar. Athos thought it strange; a moment ago his shirt had been quite comfortable.
"Won't you join us?" asked Jitinder, standing to hold her chair for her.
Athos jerked up too, trying to be polite. The girl looked at him strangely, and he sank back down again, feeling clumsy. Perhaps it wasn't considered good manners to stand while a lady was seated. He felt a fool.
Jitinder seated himself again, looking at Athos. "You didn't tell me you knew Artemis," he said, half-accusingly.
"Well, I don't - not really," said Athos, feeling the itch growing under his collar.
"This is the one who saved me that day from Marpell," put in Artemis. "You should have seen him with those swords."
"Indeed?" Jitinder looked at Athos with new respect.
Artemis nodded. "I told you about him, Jitinder."
"In great detail," Jitinder said archly, grinning. Artemis blushed deeply.
The itch under Athos' collar was slowly growing unbearable.
* * *
For five days Hodkamset
had secluded himself within his private chambers, communing with his deity.
Strange smells and sounds emanated from the rooms, as he performed rites
to which only he was privy.
At the end of five days he summoned Nekiset.
She entered cautiously. She had failed in her task to retrieve the Viper, and knew that even a high priestess was not above reproach.
Hodkamset was kneeling in meditation as she entered, surrounded by black candles. "He is within our reach now," he intoned.
She was surprised. She had thought that perhaps now that their quarry knew they were after him, the gap between them had widened beyond hope.
The high priest's eyes snapped open. "Through Set, all things are possible," he said accusingly, as if reading her thoughts.
She smoothed her brow, and bowed deeply. "Set has made it known where we may find him?"
"No," frowned Hodkamset, "Set demands we work to achieve his goals, so that we may prove our loyalty. He has made known a method by which we may locate the one we seek."
"How?" she asked.
He stood, facing her. "Find the one they call Nightrunner. Watch him. He will lead us to the one we seek. Set has spoken.
* * *
"You are absolutely
positive?" demanded Pook.
The little man squirmed uncomfortably.
"They are seeking the Viper, master - I am certain."
Pook chewed his lip thoughtfully. He had wondered for time what these newcomers to the city were about. "Why do they seek him?"
The little man squirmed again. The scars were still fresh from the beating Pook had given him the last time he had had no answer. "I don't know," he admitted, "some religious nonsense, from what I can gather. They call themselves the 'people of Set'."
Pook's eyes narrowed dangerously, and the man flinched. Pook was secretly pleased with the effect he could generate. Fear was a powerful motivator. "Did they specifically mention him by name?"
Again the little man cringed, afraid to answer honestly but more afraid to lie. "No. But the description is the same."
Pook leaned back, fingering his chin. He was silent for several minutes. "Perhaps," he ventured at last, "the Viper has not eluded our grasp after all." He turned a baleful eye on the cringing man. "Keep track of them - they may lead us to him."
* * *
"You have the sketch?"
"Here," responded Tulmara, handing a drawing over. "This is what Shand claims he looked like. He was uncooperative." She had been forced to have the boy beaten badly. If his attitude did not improve in the near future, it was a certainty that he would die.
Arkail nodded, looking the drawing over briefly. "We leave for Calimport tonight. We should make port in one week. It will be a long, difficult trail, but eventually we will find him. And he will lead us to the Viper."
The Viper was too dangerous to be allowed to live. Arkail had personally researched the assassin's movements, trying to pinpoint the center of his operations. He searched through libraries, examined guild records back as far as they went, and had consulted every sage he could find.
It soon became obvious that the Viper did not - and had not ever - live within the city of Zazesspur at all.
Instead, all clues pointed to Calimport, capital city of Calimshan, far to the south.
Calimport - oldest and most powerful to all the southern cities, and rival to powerful Waterdeep in the north.
It made sense.
Arkail turned away from Tulmara. It was time to prepare the Entreri - the elite squad of assassins he had trained specifically to deal with the Viper.
Entreri. He liked the name. It seemed to resonate with an inner power. He had chosen it himself. It was an ancient oriental word, which dated back several millenia. It meant 'father of all assassins' literally, and the story went that it was the actual name of the first asassin, the man who had purportedly created the art.
And the young men he had trained were well worthy of the name.
He smiled grimly to himself. Soon the Viper would be no more.