Angel of Death, chpt 22
"To Run the Gauntlet"
The cool northern-bound night wind rippled through Athos' hair as he stepped out of the portal, bringing to his nostrils the pungent aroma of the Calimport docks which lay on the Shining Sea.
His alert eyes scanned the now-empty marketplace. Nothing seemed amiss, but something within him detected a tenseness in the air.
Calimport did not sleep this night, it only gave the quiet appearance of doing so.
Instinctively he kept to the shadows, and trotted off into the city.
* * *
LaValle moved through the lower passageways of the tower undetected, trying his best to ignore the pleas, cries and ravings of the lunatics. He seldom came here to study them. Insanity was not his passion, and the sight of the poor wretches who had once been men never failed to turn his stomach.
No, he had not come here to study - at least not the insane. He was following Grimwalde, although it was proving a more difficult task than he had imagined.
LaValle was no master thief, but he had learned enough in his childhood growing up on the streets to keep to the shadows. He was unconcerned about being heard - the wretches who were kept here masked any noises he made. And he was fairly certain Grimwalde's eyes weren't sharp enough to detect him. Yet Grimwalde, distrustful always, even of himself, was making routine stops in his journey, trying to determine if he was being followed.
LaValle frowned and slid back into the shadows, as Grimwalde, far ahead, suddenly halted and peered back the way he had come. LaValle could see the other mage's thoughts playing across his face. His heart told him he was being followed, but his mind scoffed at the lack of visible proof.
LaValle held his breath as Grimwalde's gaze raked over him again, this time stopping to lock onto him.
Then, abruptly, the other mage turned away.
LaValle sighed in relief and a moment later followed. Grimwalde's pride in his intellect had blinded him.
Grimwalde came at last to an ornate and heavy iron door. He fumbled with a ring of keys for a moment, then produced the correct one and, with a snick, inserted it into the topmost lock, turning ponderously until it clicked. He then moved down to the second lock, and selecting a different key, did the same. Three more locks were undone in quick succession.
He then stepped back, muttering a brief incantation which dispelled the magic which still held the portal closed.
With a groan, the door swung wide.
LaValle paused, then followed the other mage out into the Zazesspur night.
* * *
Athos kept to the back alleys, staying away from the major thoroughfares. Something was wrong; he felt it in the air, and had decided to keep clear of anyone, no matter how harmless they appeared.
Soundlessly he glided through the darkened streets, darting from shadow to shadow. He traversed four blocks in this manner, then suddenly pulled up short, catching sight of someone ahead.
It was a man, slouched against the wall of the alley, slumbering lightly. His clothing was in disarray and an emptied bottle of cheap elven wine lay on its side nearby.
Athos considered. One drunk was certainly nothing to fear, and it would take time to double back.
Stealthily he stole forward, slipping quietly past.
The drunken man snorted in his sleep as he passed, then rolled to one side. A moment later his breathing had gone back to normal.
Athos stared at him. Something didn't feel right...
He waited a moment, then shook the feeling off, turned, and sped on his way.
As soon as he was gone, the drunk picked himself up, gazing after him. A moment later he was off and running.
* * *
"What did they say?" Artemis asked.
Jitinder sighed, taking his seat across from her. "Calm down. There's no news yet. Not even rumor."
Artemis glanced around uncomfortably. "But tonight's the night," she said, trying to keep her voice low. "There's got to be some word from somewhere. Are you certain we should just be sitting here?"
Jitinder held up a palm. "Calm down," he said. "Word will come, just be patient. As for this place, it will suit our needs."
They sat at one of the smaller tables in The Smile of the Seventh Storm, a run-down tavern in the port district. Jitinder had brought them here earlier in the afternoon, insisting that the search for Athos would be made possible only by following word of his movements. "Look," he'd said, "three different guilds and gods only know how many rogue thieves and cutthroats will be watching for him. We can't cover every possible route anyway, so why not let their agents work for us? Word will travel to us."
And so they had waited. Jitinder had given up on passing the time in conversation - Artemis was too distracted to make good company - so he had ordered dinner some time before. With relish, he had devoured two bowls of steaming lamb stew. Artemis' own plate was untouched.
Artemis wasn't convinced that waiting here and doing nothing was the best plan for locating Athos, and she had said so several times as the evening had dragged on.
"Are you certain this is the right thing to do?" she asked, for perhaps the fifth time.
"Relax," said Jitinder. "Trust me, If Athos is spotted, news will run through here. There's nothing else we can do."
Just then the worn plank door clattered open and a man rushed in. He was a tall fellow, with lank brown hair and a day-old beard. "Saw him! I spotted him!" he panted.
Jitinder was already out of his seat, crossing the room. "Where?" he demanded, not bothering to ask who the man was talking about.
The man looked at him. "That depends, stranger. I figure that's valuable information - not just to you but to a whole lot of people. And since I'm the first to bring word, I should be compensated."
A small group of others had gathered. "How much?" asked a short blond man with a goatee. "Ten gold?"
"Twenty," said an olive skinned woman with a patch over her left eye, "with the provision that you talk to me, and no-one else."
"A fool's bargain," said a heavily-muscled man, "He'll sell to anyone who'll pay."
"How much?" asked Jitinder, ignoring the others.
A crafty look came into the man's eyes. "A hundred gold."
Jitinder shook his head. "I don't have a hundred gold."
There were similar mutters from the others. "It's too much," complained the blond man.
"I'm sure if you all pool your resources you can make do," said the man with a false smile. "I'd come up with it quickly, if I were you. Remember, the more time passes, the farther he'll be from where I spotted him."
"He's right," said Jitinder, fishing in his purse. "I have twelve... no fourteen gold pieces." He glared at the others. "Look, let's just get this done, shall we. I've got fourteen. That means we only need eighty six."
"Here's twenty-seven," said the woman with the patch. She glared around at those surrounding her. "Well? Come on then, we all want the same thing."
There were general grumbles but little by little the other men produced gold and silver.
"That's... eighty-seven gold pieces and twenty-two silver," said Jitinder, when he had finished counting the total.
"I said a hundred," said the man. "That's not a hundred."
"Look you," said the muscular man angrily, "I don't mind telling you how close you are to getting a sword in your gut-"
Jitinder cut him off. "It's not a hundred, no. But it's as close as it's going to come. If I were you I'd take it."
The man considered for a moment, then snatched it up. "Right then. Spotted him over on Crescent Avenue, heading northeast. It's in the Market Quarter."
"How long ago?" asked the woman with the patch.
"Maybe ten minutes, maybe less," said the man. "I ran all the way here."
"And you told no-one else this?"
He gave her an irritated look. "Who else would I tell? I ran straight here."
"Good. I'll take my money back, then." A blade flashed in the lamplight as she struck, and the man grunted once as she drove a dagger into his breast, then stumbled to his knees.
Jitinder leaped back as she pulled the blade from his body. "Cover them, Zandros," she said.
Apparently she was speaking to the short blond man, for he had produced a medium crossbow and was holding it trained on the rest of the small group. "Don't move, any of you."
The woman was bent over the messenger's body. A moment later she stood, holding the purse of gold.
"Hey!" said one of the men standing beside Jitinder. "Some of that's mine!"
"Was yours," said the woman, backing towards the door.
"You've only got one crossbow bolt there, chum," said the brawny man. "Just one. The rest of us could easily overpower you."
"Right," said the blond man with a cocky smile. "So which one of you wants to sacrifice himself? Any takers?"
"Come on Zandros," said the woman from the door. "We've got a fool to catch. This night is shaping up to be even more profitable than we'd hoped."
The crossbowman backed out slowly, keeping his weapon trained on Jitinder and the others. "So long, fellows, and don't even think of going after us." He ducked through the door and vanished into the night.
There was a general rush for the door, as those around Jitinder snatched up weapons.
A moment later, Jitinder and Artemis were the only ones left in the inn.
He sighed. "Well, at least we have a place to start now."
She swallowed. "I heard." Her eyes were fixed on the body of the messenger, laying slumped in a slowly spreading pool of blood.
He glanced at it. "He brings death. I told you that before."
She gave him a defiant look. "This isn't his fault. We should go. Crescent Avenue isn't far."
"We won't find him there. He'll already be long gone. We have to anticipate his movements."
Jitinder considered. "Well, we know he's leaving the city. The nearest gates are the one in High District and the one in the Slum Quarter. On the other hand, he may opt to scale the city walls rather than risk being spotted by the guardsmen at the gates. I think that would be the more probable. In such case, the nearest sections of wall are all in the High District."
Artemis shook her head. "I don't think he'll go that way. He doesn't know he's in danger."
"That's the assumption you were willing to make, not me."
She ignored him. "I think he'll head through the Slum Quarter, towards the wall in the older part of town."
"Because he doesn't know he's in danger. He'll assume it's the safest route."
"Assuming he's unaware that he's wanted dead by almost everyone, why would he care about the safety of his route?"
"Because the Viper trained him," she said. "Look, call it... a woman's intuition. That's the way he'll go, so... Never mind, we're losing time. Let's go."
* * *
Athos stopped short, listening.
Footsteps, made by men who were treading steathily.
They were coming from behind, mostly, although he picked out a few approaching from ahead.
He exploded into motion again, veering to the right, onto an adjoining street. He trotted steadily but calmly. The street continued for a short distance, made an abrupt right turn, and dead ended.
He was being hounded into a trap.
He continued at the same steady pace, and when the street stopped, he used his momentum to leap upwards. He scrambled up the craggy stone wall with ease, but halted at the top.
On the other side, just below where he perched, a group of three men waited, lurking behind a corner, one holding a rough woolen bag and the other two holding makeshift clubs. All three were peering anxiously around the corner, awaiting some victim.
"Tell me again how ye'r going to trap 'im, Brandum," hissed one of the men after a moment of silence.
"When he comes round the corner, I'm gonna bag the blighter, and you two're gonna beat the bloody stew out of him. It's foolproof, that's what, and we'll be rich come morning."
Athos dropped to the street, landing silently behind them. He turned in the opposite direction and continued on his way.
Whatever they were up to was none of his affair.
At the next intersection he weaved right, doubling back on his trail to throw any pursuers off.
He darted around a curve and slowed, his trained ears catching stealthy footfalls and confused whispers ahead.
He came to a halt, scanning the darkness ahead.
The whispers ceased.
He backed slowly, certain now he'd been seen, or at least heard. There was a pile of refuse to his right; a stack of crates atop a wine cask. Abruptly he seized the cask, yanking it onto its side. The crates went tumbling down with a crash, spilling into the street and cluttering it. He dashed back in the direction he had come.
Behind him there were a few shouts, and the sound of pursuit.
He hadn't gone far before the street in front of him erupted with motion. The shadowy figures of cult members lay ahead, hedging him in. Behind came the sounds of another large group, pursuing.
He veered to the left, into a darkened and narrow side alley. It dead ended after twenty paces, but he had expected this.
There was a small mound of refuse at the end of the alley. He used it as a springboard as he leaped upwards, catching hold of one of the window boxes above by his fingers and hauling himself upwards. Behind him, he heard a startled cry and the sound of metal ringing on metal.
By the time he had reached the roof, a pitched battle had erupted behind him.
Darkness would be the greatest enemy his pursuers would face.
* * *
Grimwalde hurried through the streets of the slum quarter.
It was obvious to LaValle that he was looking for someone. Probably an underworld contact he had kept from Thenedain.
At last Grimwalde halted at the mouth of a darkened doorway. It was difficult to tell from this distance, but LaValle thought he was speaking to someone within, hidden in the shadows.
LaValle slid into an enclosed doorway across the street and several houses down, hoping the shadow here would mask his presence. He backed into something that moved.
A hand, strong as steel, closed over his mouth, while another held him.
"Be very quiet and very attentive, or you will find yourself dead," hissed a soft voice.
* * *
Jitinder slipped through the darkened streets like a wraith, leading the way.
Artemis almost stumbled into him when he suddenly stopped.
"What is it?"
Jitinder cocked his head to one side. "Listen."
At first, all she could hear was the beating of her breathless heart. Then she heard it: the clink of steel against steel, the shouts, the curses, the screams. Somewhere ahead, a battle raged.
"Come," he said, starting forward cautiously.
A gap-toothed man jumped out of the darkness, slamming a worn woolen sack over Jitinder's head.
"Gotcher!" he exclaimed dully, yanking it down.
Jitinder's naginata sliced cleanly through the bottom of the sack as it came down.
The man stumbled as his momentum pulled the sack down past Jitinder's waist.
Almost languidly, Jitinder struck with the haft of the naginata, bringing it down with a resounding crack on the back of the man's head.
Unconscious, the man continued downwards, until his body met the hard cobbled street.
Two other men leaped out of the darkness, each swinging a club.
Jitinder took a step back, stepping out of the torn sack, allowing the men to complete their swings. The clubs continued in their downward arcs, missing him entirely, and the two men succeeded only in whacking their unconscious companion soundly.
He struck twice, both times using the butt of his weapon, and a moment later, the two men lay beside the first attacker.
"What in the world!" exclaimed Artemis.
"Fools," said Jitinder. He looked at her. "Everyone - and I mean everyone, even amateurs like these - is after that amulet."
* * *
"What's going on out there?" asked Pook, nearly frantic. "I'm getting conflicting reports!"
"The Viper!" Childric gasped, still panting. "He's killing us by the dozens! He's cut down entire patrols!"
"What are you talking about? Make sense! He's only one man!"
"He's only one man we can't see!" Childric raged in frustration. "If he were any less a coward, he'd show himself and fight like a true warrior!"
"The abyss he would!" Pook shook his head. "No, he's not killing us - we are! Ourpatrols are running around attacking anything in sight, even each other. Now get out there and maintain some discipline!"
"It is an evil night, lord Pook. The sky is black; we cannot see! Worse, that damn cult is on the streets as well. We've run into five different battles with them so far. Besides that, every pickpocket or scoundrel in the city is out tonight, trying their luck at getting him!"
Pook scowled. "The cult? Damn them! By Tarterus, I thought they'd work with us in this! It's high time I used my influence with the city rulers and had them ejected - they have been a thorn in my side for long enough."
"But what would be the point? The Viper will be gone after tonight."
Pook whirled on him. "By all the demigods in Hades, man! There is more than the capture and execution of the Viper to consider! Can't you get that through your thick head?"
Childric cringed back, looking properly cowed. "Sorry, lord Pook."
"Alright then," said Pook, regaining some of his composure, "we have to get organized. Keeps the scouts in place - I want runners to keep me informed on exactly what's going on. We'll start sending the patrols in sweeps along the streets."
He strode to the table and jabbed a pudgy finger at the map that was laid there. "Here, here and here. Here and here also. This way we don't run the risk of our men fighting each other. And pass the word, if the cult members cross our path, they are to be scythed down. No mercy, understood?"
The other man nodded.
"Good. The gates are being watched?"
"Yes, my lord. No reports have come from any of those patrols yet."
"Then go. Go! He isn't out of our grasp yet!"
* * *
"Well, that's that, then," said Jitinder, surveying the carnage. "If he did pass this way - and there is a possibility he didn't - then he's gone. And surely now he knows he's in danger."
Artemis shook her head. "He doesn't know why, or that the danger will follow him from the city."
He glared at her. "So what? He's gone, and it's out of my hands. I can't track him across the Calim desert!"
"We don't need to track him," she maintained. "We already know what his ultimate destination is. We have to go after him!"
Jitinder shook his head. "How? I'm no ranger, to trace a man across a continent!"
"He'll head for Memnon next. If we travel by ship, we can beat him there."