Grimwalde smiled to
All the precautions were in place. All that remained was the arrival of the Viper.
Patiently he waited.
He never saw the man appear, but suddenly he was there.
"Who do you want me to kill?"
Grimwalde laughed. "To the point, aren't you?"
The Viper glanced back and forth. "I don't like it here. Perhaps we should reschedule our appointment."
Grimwalde saw his quarry backing out of the trap, removing its head from the noose. "No! Wait!"
The Viper paused. "All right, then. Who do you want me to kill?"
"You are aware of who I am?"
"Yes," snapped the Viper, not liking the turn in the conversation.
"And you are aware of what I do?"
"I research all my clients thoroughly, before meeting with them. I will not agree to a contract until exactly who you want me to kill. So, dispense with the pleasantries. I am an assassin, and such gestures are lost on me. Who do you want me to kill?"
Again Grimwalde smiled, this time in victory.
"I want you to kill me!" he cackled gleefully, awaiting a reaction.
He hadn't long to wait. The Viper flung a dagger at Grimwalde instantly, as he turned to back out of the alley.
The dagger passed harmlessly through Grimwalde's form - he had earlier cast a spell which projected an noncorporeal identical image of himself through which he could both speak and see..
The Viper backed into a magical wall of force - another of Grimwalde's spells - which blocked the exit to the steep walled alley.
Now Grimwalde began casting - through the projected image - his third spell.
Knowing the limits of the projected image spell, the Viper began looking around for the true body of the wizard. It would be nearby.
He spotted it off to the right, disguised as part of the wall by another spell - this one a very effective illusion that the Viper would not ordinarily have been able to see through without the magical charm he wore around his neck and beneath his clothes.
As he started for it, pulling out a crossbow and aiming, a pair of earth elementals sprung up from the ground, lumbering forward as another pair pulled free of the dirt behind them. They were unwieldy creatures, composed entirely of bits of earth and rock, and shambled about on two leg-like appendages, flailing with two arm-like appendages. The Viper knew they were magical beings, summoned here by the wizard from another plane of existance.
Grimwalde finished his mind control spell, and smiled confidently, waiting for the glazed look of one controlled to come into the Viper's eyes. "Stop what you are doing and give up your weapons!"
The Viper didn't even look at him as he sprang forward, firing the crossbow at the wizard's true body and attacking the first two earth elementals with twin longswords that had appeared in his hands as if by magic.
A dull pain erupted in Grimwalde's shoulder, and he looked over at his body to see what was wrong. The crossbow bolt was embedded within it.
Impossible! thought Grimwalde. A lucky shot - the Viper could not have known where his true form lay!
One of the earth elementals had stepped in the way of the Viper's shot, and the bolt had brushed by it, saving Grimwalde's life as the shot went wide of its true mark.
Already the Viper was driving back the elementals. The swords the assassin wielded must surely be magical, thought Grimwalde distractedly, for the elementals were being slowly destroyed, thick chunks of earth and mud flying off their shambling bodies with every stroke of the Viper's blades.
The assassin was very quickly whittling the unearthly creatures down to nothing.
For a lesser mage the speed of the assassin's recovery and the ease with which he seemed to be handling the earth elementals might have been unsettling.
Not so for Grimwalde. He knew exactly who he faced, and had prepared for the encounter accordingly.
He began casting another spell. This one was a bit more powerful than the first. With this spell he would blast the Viper's mind with a magical mental barrage. The utter fury of the spell would turn the assassin into a mindless automaton for a few days before his santiy returned.
Griwalde hadn't wanted to use this spell; he'd wanted the assassin's mind as unaffected and as close to its natural state as possible.
He finished the spell as the Viper destroyed the first of the elementals, reducing it to a pile of dirt. He was still ducking nimbly under and leaping over the attacks of the remaining three.
The spell was so powerful that Grimwalde was physically draned when he finished it. He felt it flow from him, reaching across the distance between him and the assassin.
The force was almost overwhelming, and for a moment Grimwalde shut his eyes.
When he opened them again, he fully expected to see the assassin stretched out on the ground, mewling like a baby.
Instead, the Viper had cut down another of the earth elementals. He appeared to be unaffected by the spell. Nothing had happened.
The Viper felt the magical charm around his neck tingle with power, and he realized it was protecting him from a powerful mental attack. He began to understand what this mage was after.
Grimwalde was becoming dismayed. He ran though a variety of spells - even resorting to the weak charm and sleep spells - as the Viper finished off the remaining elementals and raced towards his body.
Grimwalde saw that he would die in mere moments. He had to take some action!
Just as the Viper was upon the body, Grimwalde cast the only spell he could think of that would save his life - a spell Grimwalde had been so confidant he wouldn't need that he almost hadn't memorized it this morning.
The Viper's swords whistled down, arcing through nothing but air as Grimwalde teleported.
The assassin glanced around the alley, looking for other possible attackers.
There were none, and a few moments later he left the alley, opting to scale the wall and use the rooftops for locomotion rather than test the magical wall of force again.
He was almost angry.
The wizard had been trying to capture him!
And he knew enough about Grimwalde to realize that the wizard would try again.
His lips curled into a feral smile, grim and foreboding.
Grimwalde was a mouse playing at trapping a cat. The Viper would not allow the man to live for much longer.
* * *
The ship arrived in
Calimport early the next morning, and Arkail and eight other men left it
moored to one of the docks in the lower section of town.
They began their work.
Their eyes were hard and cold, and they moved with a purpose.
By the end of the day, they were settled into an old cottage near the docks, and were already investigating quietly into the present state of the underworld of Calimport, learning and absorbing any information that might steer them in the direction of the Viper.
* * *
The rusted iron door
protested squeakily as Athos was flung forcefully from behind to land facedown
on the floor of the cell.
"What is the purpose of this?" he asked quietly of the Viper, turning to look back at the assassin.
The Viper closed and locked the cell door. "Even the best of assassins may be arrested," he said, only his face visible through the bars in the small rectanglar window set into the top of the door, "perhaps by mistake or through bad luck. It is important to be prepared for such an eventuality."
He turned away from the window and Athos hoisted himself to his feet to get a better view of what was going on outside the small cell.
The Viper seized a dummy and placed it behind a desk sitting across the room from the cell. The dummy's back was to the cell door.
The Viper crossed his arms and leaned back. "How are you getting out?"
Athos considered. "If I had a pair of lockpicks, I could pick the lock."
The Viper's lips curled into a slight smile. He shook his head. "It is ordinary for those arrested to be strip searched. In such a case it is hardly likely that the authorities would leave you with a set of lockpicks. Even if you had them, you must have observed how the cell door squealed. Its noise would surely give your efforts away."
Athos conceded the point. "Alright, then, how do I get out?"
The Viper smiled. "By being prepared."
He extended his arm, pulling back his sleeve to expose a small scar on his arm. He then opened his shirt, exposing a larger scar across his stomach.
He peeled off the smaller scar first, revealing a small needle with a tiny cap at its tip which rested beneath the false scar.
"Take off the safety cap, and you have a needle dipped in Athkitlis."
Athkitlis was a powerful poison which induced immediate sleep. "Why not a more powerful poison?" asked Athos.
"Remember where you're keeping it. If its container is broken while you're still carrying it, you certainly want the effects to be nonlethal, don't you?"
"First, take care of the guard with the needle."
"How?" asked Athos.
"Make a blowgun. Usually they'll leave you the materials to do so - a rolled up napkin would do the trick. Use your mouth if you have to."
The Viper reached down and pulled off the second scar, revealing a pair of long wire lockpicks, both very thin but effective.
He looked up, locking gazes with Athos. "In most cases, being prepared will save you when you're in a tight situation."
"And if it doesn't?" asked Athos.
"Then you have to save yourself," responded the Viper. "Or you will die."
* * *
"Hello, Zip," said
Zip whirled. "Athos! When did you come in?"
"A moment ago."
The halfling turned away from Athos, calling over to where Jitinder sat. "Hey, Jitinder! Athos is back in town!"
"Athos!" boomed Jitinder energetically, standing and gesturing. "Come, have a seat!"
Athos patted Zip on the shoulder and crossed the room. He smiled as he sat down.
"It's been a whole week. What have you been doing with yourself?" queried Jitinder.
"What have you been doing with your own self?" Athos shot back.
Jitinder shook his head, still smiling. "Always one to dodge a question."
Athos shrugged. "I don't know much about you either, except that people sometimes cringe when they hear your name."
"Only the criminals," said Jitinder, his smile fading slightly. "But I don't mind telling you why - it's common enough knowledge. The Viper slew my parents when I was a child, and I've been hunting him ever since. He's not an easy man to find, but I'll find him. And when I do..." He shook his head. "Anyway, I try to keep the streets clear of crime. Criminals are no better than animals, and deserve no mercy. I've got quite a reputation among the underworld, as I understand it. The price of fame, I suppose."
Inwardly Athos sighed with relief. He was very glad he hadn't given away the truth of his past to Jitinder - the man was a vigilante, and one with a death wish against the Viper!
"Now, then," Jitinder said, his smile returning, "that's my story. What's yours?"
Athos shook his head. "Your story was already public knowledge. Mine is not, and I prefer to keep it that way."
Jitinder's eyes narrowed, but he let the subject pass. "Very well, then, if you really don't trust me to keep your secret."
Athos shook his head again. "It isn't that I don't trust you, Jitlin."
Jitinder waited several moments for Athos to finish, but Athos remained silent. He leaned back, shrugging. "Anyway, that isn't what I've been wondering most about you. I've been wondering why you've been acting so strangely around Artemis - so hostile, I mean."
Athos jerked back as if struck, his eyes growing wide with concern and surprise. "Hostile? I hadn't meant to be rude! What did I do?"
Jitinder chuckled, shaking his head. "It isn't rudenss, I think. You just act so uncomfortable when you're around her - like you were on pins and needles. Why don't you relax? I already told you that she likes you."
Athos shifted uncomfortably.
"That's exactly what I'm talking about!" exclaimed Jitinder with a laugh, pointing. "You're uncomfortable even at the mention of her name! What is it? What's so terrible about Artemis?"
"I'm afraid," admitted Athos after a moment.
"Araid of what?"
"Afraid that I'm going to make some huge blunder, or insult her in some way, or just say something wrong. I don't know how to act around her."
Jitinder smiled. "You act as though you've never been with a girl, Athos."
"I haven't," replied Athos seriously.
Jitinder tsked. "I don't understand some people's need for denial. But I wasn't talking about that - I just meant you act as though you've never before been around a girl, talking with them and acting witty and all that sort of thing."
"I haven't," replied Athos seriously.
Jitinder rocked back. "You haven't!" he said, shaking his head in disbelief. He smiled. "Come on, now, really!"
When Athos' expression didn't change, Jitinder leaned forward, astonished. "You're serious, aren't you?"
Athos nodded, perplexed at the other man's amazement.
Jitinder shook his head. "Well, then... we've got a lot of ground to cover, haven't we?"
Athos stood. "I can't now. I have to go. I've got to get back to... I've got to go."
Jitinder leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head. "Very well, then. Some other time. When will you next be in town?"
"I really don't know. Soon. I'll look you up."
Jitinder's eyes narrowed as he watched Athos leave. "Indeed. Farewell."
Athos turned at the door. "Farewell," he said, and then he was gone.
Jitinder reached down, lifting his weapon from where it lay near his feet. He stood, and made his way to the door. A moment later he was gone, following the elusive Athos, determined to uncover his secret.
* * *
"One of our patrols
has spotted the one we seek," Nekiset reported, panting. "We've sent
reinforcements, but the patrol is in the market area of town, far distant,
and our help will probably arrive long after the fight has been joined."
Hodkamset peered his nose at her. "If the patrol fails, I will personally see that any survivors are flayed alive to serve as an example to the rest."
* * *
Athos was aware he
was being followed the instant he left The Merry Halfling. He walked
forward as if nothing were amiss, stopping at the next turn and, acting
as though he'd forgotten something, turned left.
He did this again for three more turns, until he had made a complete circle. He scanned the streets behind him from time to time, but saw nothing. Whoever was trailing him was good.
Certain now that he was being followed, even if he had failed to root out his pursuers, he turned and jogged down a side alley, vaulting up the steep wall that lay at its dead end and catching hold of the rough edge of the rooftop with his fingertips. In almost the same motion he pulled himself up and over.
Not pausing to look back, he ran up the steep tile roof, leaping its apex and running down its far side. The next house was ten feet distant, but with the built up momentum he made the jump easily.
This roof, however, was constructed of weathered and very old shingles, and they ripped loose under his feet, skidding down the slope towards the street.
He skidded backwards and teetered at the bring for a moment, the darkened street below, before finding his balance and holding himself from the thirty foot fall.
He ran up this second roof as possible, again vaulting the apex.
This time the roof didn't continue sloping downwards on the other side. Instead, it stopped altogether, giving way to a ten foot drop onto a raised open-air patio.
Athos tumbled through the air, barely managing to avoid landing on the fine wood and glass table which sat at the center of the patio. He rolled as he landed, springing lithely to his feet.
He could hear sounds of pursuit now, both on the rooftops behind him and the street below.
The next jump was too far and high to make, especially from the patio, so he turned back towards the house, darting through the open doorway which let out on the patio.
He found himself within a large bedroom, furnished with a bed large enough for two, a pair of chests, and a large mirror. the door to the room stood open, and vague smells of cooking wafted up from the lower floors of the place.
He darted out of the bedroom, across a foyer, and into a second bedroom across the hall, on the far side of the house from where he had entered.
This bedroom had a window facing the way he had come.
It opened after a good tug, and he was through it in a moment, leaping through open space towards the window of the house across the street - the very same house whose roof he had used first.
His fingers caught hold of the sill, and for a moment he clung there, grasping for purchase, his legs swinging wildly. The wood of the sill was old and rotten, though, and with a creak it gave way beneath his weight.
He plummeted to the street below, rolling to reduce the shock.
A moment later he was on his feet. To his right, six men approached, cutting off that avenue of escape. They were wearing the same black clothing with red sashes and turbans as the men who had attacked him in his room at the inn earlier, and had wicked-looking scimitars out. Some sort of huge crocodile, which stood four feet tall and nearly eighteen feet long, waddled along behind them. The men seemed perfectly at ease with it, as if it were some exotic pet.
Athos whirled to his left, but a similar group of four men, identical in dress, blocked that direction. This group was accompanied by a huge scorpion of only slightly smaller dimensions than the crocodile.
Who are these people? thought Athos, then drew his weapons. He looked about for some avenue of escape, found none, and sprang towards the smaller group in hopes of taking them down quickly enough to get past them.
* * *
"That's him!" breathed
Childric to no-one in particular from where he lay in the shadows.
"That's him! I've got to tell Pook!"
He started to get up, then stopped himself, thinking.
Pook wanted the Viper dead. Maybe that was what was about to happen. He had better wait and see.
* * *
"Is that our man?"
asked Melvic. "Should we be helping those black-robed ones?"
"Not quite," replied Arkail softly. "We have no idea who they are, or what their purposes are. The enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend. Besides, that one isn't the Viper."
"How do you know?"
"I've seen the Viper before, although that means virtually nothing, as the man is a master of disguise. However, I recognize this one as the Viper's apprentice - I have a good sketch of him made up from the boy, Vermos's description."
"So what do we do?" asked Melvic.
"Nothing. This one may lead us to the Viper in time, but for now, we just sit back and watch. This should be very interesting."
* * *
Jitinder panted as
he dropped down onto the patio, turning towards the open door into the
Gods, but you are a difficult one to keep pace with, Athos! he thought silently.
He leaned over the balcony, looking into an empty street. The drop was not inconsiderable, and it was probable that Athos had not taken this route. But where then?
He turned back to the gouse, gripping his weapon more tightly. The house?
He stepped through the open door, and came face to face with a lanky middle-aged man with a red expression, who reeled back in surprise.
"Who are you? What do you want? What are you doing in my house?"
"I am Nighthunter," he replied, as if that were all the explanation he needed.
The man fell back, open-mouthed, and Jitinder brushed past him.
Jitinder examined the first room carefully, making certain Athos was not hiding in the shadows, before he caught the sounds of battle.
He rushed across the hallway, and peered out the window in the house's far side, looking down into the street below.
His jaw dropped in astonishment as he caught sight of what was happening there.