Angel of Death, chpt 20
The Viper had left abruptly earlier, leaving no word of where he was going or what he was doing. Athos was fairly sure he wouldn't have wanted to know anyway. The Viper did this sort of thing occasionally, so he wasn't too concerned. As usual, he was left to his own devices.
Feeling no great urge to visit either of the two cities he had access to, he took to roaming the halls of the Viper's home. Ordinarily he would not have dared to do so, but a few days past the Viper had given him permission to move about this place freely, and with the assassin gone, Athos felt free to take full advantage.
After an hour of wandering the passageways and seeing many interesting sights and rooms, Athos found something which made him look twice.
A locked door. It was a small and ordinary door, but Athos knew something of great portent must lay within, for the Viper did not use locks, with the exception of the lock-pick training room. He was too confident - almost arrogant - in his abilities to keep anyone out.
Athos went to work on the door.
It was outfitted with a number of the finest locks he had ever yet attempted to pick, as well as several deadly traps, and another hour went by before he was able to safely open the door.
It opened into darkness. Apparently this was another room in which the Viper did not employ magical light.
He had not expected this.
Athos listened intently, wondering for the first time if perhaps the locks were designed to keep something in rather than out. After a moment, when no sounds emanated from within, he dismissed the thought from his mind. This door would be relatively easy to open from the inside.
He went to fetch a candle, leaving the door ajar, and returned moments later. Everything was the same as before.
He advanced into the room cautiously, the small candle flame flickering wildly.
An iron grip seized him by the shoulders, striking from behind with unearthly strength.
He spun, unsheathing the dagger strapped to his leg and striking back into the darkness behind. The candle went spinning to the floor, where it rolled once and stopped, the flame still lit and playing weirdly.
There was a splintering crack, and Athos felt pieces of something hard and chalky spray him, as the grip that held him relaxed its hold. Something clattered to the floor, and Athos backed warily out of the room, leaving the candle where it lay. He waited for whatever had attacked to come after him.
An instant later, it stepped into view, although its movements were silent even to Athos' keen ears.
It was a human human-sized skeleton missing its right arm below the elbow.
An undead! So that was why he hadn't heard it! Most undead, especially the lesser forms, were supernaturally silent.
The Viper had trained him extensively on the different forms of undead, and how to deal with them. But knowing that things like this existed and actually facing one in combat were two very different things.
He took a step backward, watching the thing approach in horrified fascination. It was not an elegant creation; it lurched forward in an ungainly fashion. The bones were old and yellow - the ligaments which maintained their grip were wasted and torn.
Almost Athos felt pity for the poor damned thing. Skeletons were the lowest order of undead, nearly mindless automatons that the dark arts had ensorceled and bound to a semblance of life. They were also the weakest of undead. Already Athos had taken off its right arm.
But it felt no pain; only the dark compulsion to destroy. Grotesquely, it reached for Athos again, the shattered remnants of the right arm extended as well, as if unaware of its loss. And yet this once must have been a man...
Athos shook off the revulsion that gripped him and sidestepped the clumsy attack, his blade once, twice, three times in quick succession.
A minute later and the animated bones were reduced to a scattered pile on the floor. Skeletons were weak and slow, certainly no challenge to one who had been trained by the Viper.
And not much of a guardian either, Athos reflected. Why would the Viper, who never even used locks, use this poor creature as a guardian?
Perhaps it was placed her so that I might destroy it. Then certainly he would know if I had invaded his privacy.
He shrugged inwardly. The skeleton was destroyed; there was no way he could put it back together again, and he wouldn't have done so in any case. He might as well find out what was in the room. The Viper had given him free reign to roam where he pleased, hadn't he?
He advanced into the room, wary of a second attack.
When nothing else came out of the darkness, he stooped to retrieve the candle, then held it up to look around.
Something the color of brass caught the light, reflecting it. It was a lamp, of some exotic make, and Athos quickly lighted it.
After a moment of playing with the wick, it flared to life, and he looked around himself.
He was almost disappointed. There was only a sturdy oaken desk with a pen and ink upon it. Above the desk, in long rows that stretched around the room, were three shelves filled with books.
He didn't know what he had expected, but it certainly wasn't this.
He looked closer, and found that none of the books had titles on their backs.
He reached up, pulling one of the ones from the lowest shelf and glancing at the cover, which was also blank. He flipped it open to a random page.
Surprised, he shuffled through the pages. They were all blank.
Baffled, he replaced it, then, on a hunch, selected one of the books from the top shelf. The books there looked older somehow, more worn.
He turned it over, looking for the cover. Again it was blank. He opened it to the middle, and discovered writing - neat and even, the kind he imagined the Viper's hand would make.
'12 Harpenoth, Year of the Dream,
The northern kings have grown too powerful, and now the god-kings of Unther have retained my services to assassinate one of them - Yormick I'
Year of the Dream? That was over two hundred years ago!
Numbly Athos sat at the desk and continued to read.
* * *
"You are the one they call Dondon?"
Dondon looked up at the human, squinting because the man stood with the sun at his back. Try as he might, he could not make out the man's face. "I am. Who might you be, then?"
The man extended a black-gloved hand. On the middle finger rested a silver ring embossed with a symbol. "You will know me by reputation, I think."
Dondon paled, silently said a brief prayer to Brandobaris, halfling god of thieves, and prepared to die. "The Viper."
He couldn't be sure, but he thought the assassin smiled. A moment passed. Then:
"What is it you want with me?" Dondon struggled to keep his voice from quavering.
"I want you to carry a message. You can do that, can't you?"
"Assuredly," said Dondon, nodding. "You may count upon my discretion... my silence, I mean."
"I don't care anything for your discretion. I want this message spread to everyone you can reach."
"Everyone I can reach?" Dondon echoed, a little bewildered. "Why?"
"I do not care to explain my actions to you. It is enough that I require you to do it. I want to be sure what I have to tell you will spread like wildfire. You can do that?"
The halfling gulped. Maybe he was going to get out this alive. "I... I think so, yes."
"Good. If you don't, expect to see me again, under less... pleasant circumstances."
So much for hope, thought the halfling. "What... what's the message?"
"Simply this: In one week's time, someone - possibly me - will be undertaking a mission for an eccentric but very wealthy noble. This person, whoever he may be, will begin his journey in Calimport, and will end it in Waterdeep.
"He will be carrying a medallion with him - a golden medallion which will bear the words 'To Run the Gauntlet' over an inscribing of a winged foot. This medallion, when presented to the barkeep at The Shining Cradle in Waterdeep, will be exchanged for two million gold pieces. The payment will be made to the bearer of the amulet - no matter who that may be.
"Do you understand?"
"Please repeat it."
The halfling did so, haltingly. "And this amulet," he finished, "it's worth two million gold to anyone who has it at the end of the run? Anyone at all?"
The halfling chuckled. "That'll make every thief from here to Waterdeep itch to have a try at the bearer."
"I certainly hope so. Get the word out, halfling." He turned away.
"You have my word," Dondon called after him.
"Don't give me your word," said the Viper. "Give me results."
Dondon breathed a sigh of relief as the assassin left. A moment later he was giddy with excitement.
Two million gold pieces! Perhaps he had a chance at the prize!
* * *
'It was then that I realized this one was fully my equal. Never before had I encountered the man I could not slay within a few heartbeats. I was forced to flee the encounter, to my eternal shame, at the approach of other dark elves.
Athos shook his head with wonder.
Long past had he ceased disbelieving the amazing exploits of the man who had trained him. Now he simply accepted them. It seemed that nothing was too fantastic to be true, at least where the assassin was concerned.
He looked up from his reading.
"I see," said the Viper from the door, "that you've discovered my diary."
Athos nodded, putting the book down.
"You dealt with my guardian as well." The Viper spared a glance for the pile of bones. "That was expected, of course. I only placed it here so that I would know if you ever entered this room. Of course, since I caught you in the act, I suppose it was an unnecessary precaution. I couldn't know that when I set it here."
Something in the Viper's eyes turned Athos' blood to ice, and he found himself wondering if perhaps this was his last mistake.
"You gave me permission to roam freely," he reminded the assassin.
The Viper nodded slowly.
"I did. And that is the only reason I am not going to kill you. From now on, this place is barred to you."
The Viper shifted, allowing passage through the door again.
Athos swept past him, then paused, looking back. "May I ask a question?"
The Viper was quiet for a moment, then gave a nod.
"Have you ever been beaten in a fair fight?"
"No." The answer was immediate. "No such thing as 'fair', anyway. I thought I'd taught you that much, at least."
Athos nodded. A moment later he was gone.
* * *
He had been beaten once - only once - and he remembered it vividly.
A particularily fast mark had taken an original turn in trying to escape him. He had fled into the Underdark, the caverns that lay deep beneath the surface of Toril.
The Viper had followed him into the vast subterranean world.
The mark hadn't lasted long; he stumbled into a drow patrol, and the dark elves tortured and slew him mercilessly.
The underdark had presented many interesting sights for the assassin, but the drow were something else altogether. The dark elves were near-mythical creatures on the surface, the source of fearbabe-talk. The Viper knew of them, certainly, but in all his long life he had never seen one.
Fascinated, he had followed the patrol back to one of the drow cities.
The vast cavern of the drow city was a series of wonders, filled with magical sights and sounds, and an entirely alien culture.
The assassin had stayed there for three months, observing them unnoticed. Here he was presented evil so tangible, even he respected it.
The drow were organized into huge noble houses, each with a certain ranking withinthe city. Advancement in drow society was ruthless and amoral - it was a simple matter of assassination. If a dark elf wanted to move up, he murdered another drow who was socially above him. If a drow House wanted to improve its ranking, it undertook the destruction of another House above it. All this was permitted and even encouraged - so long as the murdering drow took care not to be caught. Punishment for those who were was swift and merciless. The law was unforgiving.
The Viper had studied them for three months, living among them undetected. It hadn't been until he left that he ran into trouble.
He was spotted by a drow patrol as he was leaving the city, and was hunted through the Underdark.
Ordinarily he would have been able to shake off pursuit easily, but here he was out of his element, and the young captain of the patrol that was after him proved an incredibly adept tracker.
Eventually he knew he would have to turn and face them, so he doubled back and began taking them out, one by one.
Each of them were fighters of incredible prowess, but he always proved faster, and he slew three of them in the same manner before taking on the captain.
The young captain, however, had proved a different story.
The Viper had leaped down on him from above, hoping to take him unaware, but the drow reacted quickly, pulling himself out of the way...
* * *
Zaknafein pulled himself out of the roll and into a standing position, his adamantine swords at the ready.
The Viper sprang forward, his katanas moving as if alive.
There was a flurry of ringing blows, and the assassin was momentarily forced backwards.
The two circled each other, each having taken the other's measure.
More cautiously now, they exchanged a series of feints and lunges.
Suddenly the Viper saw his chance, and he rolled forward, his katanas cutting through the air towards the drow's legs.
Zaknafein leaped the katanas easily, and came down on the assassin with his swords.
The Viper changed the motion of one of his weapons into a block, then used the other in a lightning fast disarm that sent one of the draw weapons spinning off to the side.
I have him now!
He came to his feet, attacking furiously, unwilling to allow the dark elf any time to recover from the loss of one of his weapons.
A crack sounded, and the Viper was yanked off his feet. A whip had suddenly appeared in the dark elf's hand.
He rolled back and somersaulted to his feet, barely evading the dark elf's blinding assault.
The assassin backed off cautiously. How adept was the drow with the whip?
The whip lashed out again, and the Viper snapped his blades up in a cutting manuver, intending to slash it in two.
Instead, the katana in his left hand was jerked away. It landed several feet to the side.
Apparently the drow was very good with the whip.
With the loss of one of his weapons, the fight had shifted to the drow's advantage. The Viper heard, dimly, the approach of other drow. He made a decision.
He feinted a charge at the dark elf, who fell back, and then reversed the direction of his motion.
* * *
How he had eventually escaped the drow patrol was unimportant.
What was important was that the drow captain had beaten him. And someday the assassin would repay the favor.
He rearranged the diaries on their shelves, swept the room of the shattered bones, and closed the door, locking it and the secrets it held again.