Angel of Death, Chapter 24
The docks of Memnon were alive in the bright sunlight, and Athos cheerfully picked his way through the milling crowds of dock-workers and fishermen.
He almost felt like whistling. He was in a city he had never before seen, and strange new sights seemed to wait around every turn, beckoning for his attention. Best of all, there was no chance of his being recognized here.
He was much closer to his goal. By evening he was certain he could charter passage on a ship which would take him all the way to Waterdeep.
He made a conscious effort to keep away from the shadows and in the mainstream of traffic, where he could be seen by all.
Perhaps it was foolish, but he felt bolder somehow. And there was no risk of being recognized here - there was no-one in this city who had ever seen or heard of him before.
He left the port area behind and wound his way through the dusty streets.
This city was much smaller than Calimport, but it was unique in its own way.
Almost half the population here was made up of merchants and traders who were either preparing to cross the Calim desert to trade in Calimport, or were returning from such a journey. As a result, the residential areas of the city were small and clumped together. Inns and taverns did the most business here, and the town was full of them.
He chuckled to himself as he made his way towards one, a tavern with a sign swinging in front which depicted a frollicking mermaid. There were no words on the sign, but that made sense since there were very few sailors who could read.
In such a place, Athos knew he would be able to find someone who could book him a place on an outgoing ship.
He also knew that travelers would have to have money to book passage, and he had none. Stealing the money he needed would be easy enough for one with his skills, but he was ignorant of this city's laws and customs, and preferred to find out more before exposing himself to any risk, however small. The information he sought would be found here as well.
He entered the tavern.
It was dim within, but his sharp eyes made out the many patrons scattered about the room, even the ones sitting in the deepest shadows.
The room went silent, and everyong turned and looked.
Athos halted in the doorway.
What was going on here?
Suddenly he was shoved roughly from behind, and he found himself stumbling in. A big brawny man, dressed in dockworker's clothes, was right behind him.
"It's him!" the man said to the crowd, "the one that's worth fifteen million gold pieces!"
Fifteen million gold pieces?
Athos turned the momentum from the man's shove into forward motion, rolling lithely up onto the nearest table, coming to his feet scattering silverware.
The crowd rose, the nearer ones hearing what the brawny man had said and surging forward to attack, the ones in back thinking there was to be some sort of fight.
No sooner had he come to his feet than he was leaping to the next table. He landed lightly, not even disturbing the plates and mugs there, and continued on smoothly, carrying the motion of his first leap into his second.
A man grabbed for his ankle as he landed. Athos kicked him in the face, sending him reeling backwards, and evaded a second man's grasp as well. He leaped again.
He cleared the third table, and landed lightly atop the bar just as the barkeep - a weathered-looking dwaf - swung a loaded crossbow up so that it pointed directly at his face.
Athos slapped it to the side, rolling off the top of the bar and landing behind it, and the bolt went wide of his head, thumping into the shoulder of an unlucky mercenary in the crowd who had been brandishing a shortsword. The unfortunate man gave off a yelp of pain as he was knocked backwards off his feet.
Athos' dagger came out then, cutting a red line across the dwarf's throat and returning to its sheath in the blink of an eye. The dwarf's arms flailed a moment later as he toppled backwards, dying, and his final convulsive moment sent the crossbow sailing into the crowd.
Athos looked around for some avenue of escape, knowing he had lost valuable time dealing with the dwarf and expecting the crowd to come crashing down on him at any instant.
Instead, he was surprised to find them fighting among themselves.
"He's mine!" cried one man, a lanky bald fighter with a patch over one eye and a longsword in his hands as he sprang forward.
A much smaller man, perhaps a large halfling, cut the lanky fighter down from behind before he had taken three steps. Another pair of men were throttling each other, rolling on the floor.
Athos didn't pause to consider his good luck; he used it.
There was a small window to his left, some four yards away. It was the only avenue of escape he could see. However, it was blocked from him by several fighting bystanders.
He looked down.
Two large pitchers of dwarven spirits were on the counter.
He seized one as a man came rushing for him, hurling into his face. It shattered, and the man was sent reeling back into the crowd. Athos' quick reaction had bought him some time; perhaps a few seconds. He had to make the most of it.
The second pitcher he lifted with his left hand, reaching blindly behind him for the small lamp hanging beside the mirror behind the bar with his right. He had seen it hanging there earlier when he had entered the tavern, and he didn't want to take his eyes from the fight while he reached for it.
His hand closed on it almost instantly. It was right where his mind's eye had said it should be.
Deftly, and with one hand, he removed the upper part of the lantern from the lower, leaving the flame open to the air. He hurled the glass and metal that made up the top of the lantern into the face of another person rushing forward.
He turned the second pitcher of dwarven spirits on its side as he flung it in the same direction, and a thin trickle of the fluid within the pitcher trailed fro it as it sailed through the air.
He lifted the lamp, connecting the open flame with the trickle. He moved so quickly that the trickle had only dropped a few scant inches.
A whooshing sound filled the room as flames leaped up the trickle and disappeared into the lid of the pitcher, which was still in midair.
A moment later, it exploded, the fiery rough pieces of porcelain shooting in all directions.
Flames sprang to light everywhere as the spirits from the first bottle also caught fire.
The crowd danced back from the flames momentarily, howling - some in pain, others in lust for blood.
Athos leaped through the small window, landing hard on the ground outside. His breath whuffed out of his lungs and pain lanced through his arm where the brittle glass from the window had cut him. He found himself in the dusty narrow alley which ran beside the tavern.
A heartbeat later, flames whooshed out of the now-broken window as the entire bar and the liquors on it caught fire.
Athos rolled to his feet and began to run.
Behind him, he heard panicked screams and shouts as the fire raged, spreading from the tavern to the neighboring building.
* * *
"Artemis, look there!" said Jitinder, pointing.
She peered in the direction he was pointing. "What is it?" she asked, frowning.
She bit her lower lip, her eyebrows furrowing as she tried to make out what she saw. "It must be raining there - the clouds are dark above it."
Jitinder shook his head gravely. "Those aren't storm clouds. That's smoke."
She laughed. "Smoke? All of that? Practically the entire city would have to be on fire to create that much smoke."
Jitinder nodded. "I think it is."
Her smile faded, then died. It was smoke.
After a moment, she sucked in her breath and looked up at Jitinder. "You think..."
He nodded. "I think so. Athos is here."
* * *
Athos stumbled through the back alleys, confused.
Fifty million gold pieces?
How had they recognized him?
He halted for a moment in a shaded doorway, glancing back to see if he was pursued.
Behind him the city sky was black in the midday sun, and thick clouds of smoke obscured vision any farther than thirty feet.
He turned, and began scaling the rough, sunbaked adobe wall of the nearest house.
At the top he paused and rested.
The smell of burning timbers was acidic in his nostrils, but he was glad for the fire. It was a good distraction, and it produced smoke that made it difficult to see.
How had they recognized him?
He froze as a group of men ran through the alley below him, shouting. He leaned well back from the edge, listening. A minute later they were past and gone.
He looked back at the burning portion of the city. The thick dark smoke blanketed it in artificial night.
He gazed back at the rest of the city, exposed to the midday sun, noting the unnervingly quick transition from darkness to light. He was wanted dead by everyone in the city - that was what he had to assume - and he knew he could not go that way. Too many people would see him.
Night and day.
He turned back to the fires. That was the way he would go.
* * *
It was late afternoon when Jitinder and Artemis debarked.
Save for the smoke, which was everywhere, and the occasional city guardsman running by, the streets were abandoned.
As they moved farther into the city, they saw more destruction than the shattered husks of burned out buildings. There were corpses, newly dead, strewn about the streets haphazardly.
Jitinder halted for a moment to look some of them over.
"Some died from burns," he said, moving through the bodies, "and some died from smoke inhalation." He looked up from the corpses, locking gazes with Artemis. "Most died in battle."
She turned away angrily, knowing what he was implying. "It isn't him."
"You know it is." Gravely, he surveyed the bodies again. "Maybe he didn't kill them himself - but he's the reason they're dead."
"You don't know that!" she protested.
"I know it," he said, "and so do you."
She folded her arms in front of her. "It isn't his fault."
Jitinder said nothing but his eyes spoke volumes.
For a long moment they stood like that, neither speaking. Finally Artemis gave a small sniff. "Are you going to help, or not?"
Jitinder shrugged helplessly, his shoulders slumping in defeat. "I already told you I would." He gestured at the bodies. "I'm only stating the obvious. You would do well to listen."
"I've listened," she said, her voice icy. "Now let's go."
"Fine," he said, his own voice frosty now. "Follow me, and try not to make too much noise."
They melted into the smoky streets.
* * *
An occasional scream would sound in different parts of the city, and guardsmen would come streaming by occasionally, but for the most part Athos found himself alone.
Where was all the smoke coming from? He had yet to catch sight of the fires he had started.
Suddenly he halted. Had he heard whispers?
There was silence for a moment, and then a group of guardsmen came running out of the smoke.
Athos darted into the nearest doorway.
Instantly he realized he'd made a mistake. Though the room he had entered appeared empty, he sensed that he was not alone.
He froze for a moment, listening.
The shadows around him exploded into motion.
Instinctively he dropped. He heard the whisk of an arrow pass just over his head. If he hadn't dropped it would have taken him in the heart.
As he dropped into a roll he started counting. There were twelve of them in all, most dressed in beggar's rags, some with crutches or arm slings. Athos wasn't fooled. They were far too professional to be beggars.
He rolled straight into the lower legs of one of them, toppling the would-be attacker and putting his throat within easy range of Athos' knife.
He came to his feet, leaving the unfortunate attacker's body in his wake, and backed away. The group hadn't been fooled by his quick move, however, and in a rush they were upon him.
Athos found himself parrying madly with his shortsword and dagger. There were too many of them for him to do anything other than defend himself, and they were fighting in the wide-open space of the room, so that all the ambushers could attack him without hampering each other.
Athos looked around wildly for a doorway or something which would force his attackers to come at him one by one. He found nothing, not even a window. They had chose the site of their ambush well. He realized they would try to encircle him.
He backed quickly, keeping each of them from getting behind him, until he felt the wall behind him. At least they wouldn't be able to come at him from behind.
Abruptly he noticed the quiet. None of the attackers had spoken a word, and aside from the metallic 'ching' of weapons clashing together, there was no noise. They were communicating with one another through hand signals.
Why the need for silence?
Suddenly Athos realized why his attackers were trying to keep silent. The guardsmen outside!
"Help!" he screamed at the top of his lungs, wondering whether the guardsmen would still be in close enough vicinity to hear him. "Help! I'm in here!"
The fighting continued for a moment unabated, and Athos felt himself tiring. No matter what the Viper had taught him, he couldn't hope to stand against eleven skilled opponents forever.
Just when he was beginning to despair of the guardsmen ever arriving, the door was flung open and ten of them stormed into the room. "At them, boys," shouted the commander. "No mercy!"
The eleven ambushers were caught between Athos on one side and the guardsmen on the other, and a short but bloody battle ensued.
Ultimately the ambushers were doomed, but to their credit they did not break ranks.
It was over in moments, and the guard captain peered through the smoke and carnage at Athos.
"Thank you," said Athos. "That was very nearly the end of me."
The captain's eyes narrowed, and he looked back to his men. "It's him!" he shouted. "The one we're after! Kill him!"
Athos stumbled back in shock, instinctively parrying the first blow.
Even the city guard were after him!
His sword took the first man's life instantly, the second man a moment later.
Impressed by his fighting ability, the guardsmen backed off slowly, one of them raising a crossbow.
Athos leaped forward, attacking futilely, knowing that the crossbow would be able to fire before he could get to the guardsman holding it.
Nevertheless, he managed to kill two more of them before the bolt sang out, whistling straight towards Athos' face.
He lifted his shortsword as a reflexive action only, holding it before his face, and the bolt slammed into the steel blade, snapping it in two. Amazingly, the bolt careened off in another direction, leaving Athos untouched.
The man with the crossbow quickly pushed it down on the ground, locking it into place, and began turning the windlass, frantically trying to reload.
Athos hurled the hilt of his broken sword at the captain, buying time to back off from the four remaining men. He had only a dagger left to fight with now.
Suddenly, Jitinder appeared behind the reloading crossbowman, attacking from behind. The vigilante's naginata cut down, whirring through the air just above the man's shoulder.
Athos leaped to the attack, striking out in blindingly quick blows against the guardsmen, attempting to distract their attention.
It seemed to work, because Jitinder was able to attack them from behind, taking down another guardsmen before the rest were even aware of his presence.
The captain and the two remaining men turned, and Athos used the distraction to leap forward and slit the captain's throat.
The two remaining men took only a few moments more to dispatch.
Jitinder looked down at the bodies disgustedly. "Now you've turned me into a murderer, too," he said.
"I wouldn't lose any sleep over them," said Athos. "They were obviously corrupt. They wanted me dead."
Jitinder snorted. "And how does that make them corrupt? I want you dead, too."
Athos gave him a hard look. "What are you doing here?"
"I came here to warn you, against my better judgement."
Suddenly Artemis appeared in the doorway.
Jitinder saw the sudden shift in Athos' gaze, and he whirled. "I thought I told you to wait outside!" he scolded her angrily.
She shrugged. "I had to know."
"Had to know what?"
"I had to talk to him."
There was a long silence.
"Have you told him yet?" she asked Jitinder.
Jitinder looked back at Athos. "You're in danger."
Athos shrugged. "I'm in danger?" he asked flippantly. "I had no idea."
Jitinder scowled at his sarcasm. "I happen to know why everyone's after you."
"Because of the amulet you're wearing," broke in Artemis. "They're after the amulet."
Athos looked down at it, gently running the chain through his fingers. "Really? Is it so valuable?"
"More valuable than you think," said Artemis.
Athos looked at Jitinder.
Jitinder nodded. "It identifies you as the Viper - and if it is presented to a certain barkeep in Waterdeep, it will bring the bearer two million gold pieces."
Athos scowled. "So, that's it," he said, almost to himself. "That's why. I was beginning to think it might be something like this." He looked up suddenly. "I assume the Viper was behind all of this?"
Jitinder shrugged. "How should I know? We just came to warn you and go."
Athos nodded to himself. "Of course he was. Brilliantly engineered. My first test - all I have to do is survive." He looked up again. "I heard a rumor that I was worth fifteen million golds instead of just two."
Jitinder shrugged. "Must have been just a rumor. Or maybe the rumor mill has inflated the reward. Either way, I couldn't care less." He turned back to Artemis. "I've done my part. Now he knows. He can hide the bloody thing from now on, and pass safely."
"Not quite," said Athos. "I can't hide it."
Jitinder gave him an annoyed look. "What do you mean you can't hide it?"
"I mean it has to be in clear sight on my person at all times."
"Why?" asked Artemis.
Athos sighed. "Because it is enchanted. If I hide it or disguise it in any way, I will die."
Jitinder turned away, heading out. "Whatever. You can hide it or not hide it. It isn't my concern. I've done what I said I would do. From now on, whatever happens to you is your problem. It's time for us to go."
He stopped in the doorway, waiting for Artemis to follow him.
She crossed her arms stubbornly. "I'm not leaving. We have to help him."
"The abyss we do!" snarled Jitinder.
'I don't want your help," said Athos mildly. "You would only be placing yourselves in danger."
Jitinder turned again. "Don't worry. I don't intend to help you at all. In fact, allow me to wish you the worst of luck as I bid you goodbye." He looked at Artemis. "Are you staying?"
"Yes," she replied.
"No," said Athos, a little more forcefully.
"Yes!" she said, whirling on him. "I won't let you kill yourself.
"I'm not going to kill myself."
"Perhaps," said Jitinder, departing, "if we're lucky, someone else will kill him." He walked out into the street, then looked back at Artemis. "If you want to get back to Calimport instead of trying to protect this killer, I'll be in the port section of the city. If not, then I won't lose any sleep wondering what happened to you."
She folded her arms and stared defiantly at him, her jaw set.
He shrugged and stalked off.
"I'm staying with you," she said firmly, turning to Athos, hands on hips.
He shook his head. "I appreciate the gesture, but I don't need your help. I don't need anybody."
"I don't care what you think you need!" she stormed. "I'm going with you!"
"Why?" asked Athos, suddenly angry, "Why should you? It's true what Jitinder said - I am a killer! Look around you! I did this! It's what I am! Do you really want a part of it?"
The sound of stamping feet reached his ears, and he realized another patrol of guardsmen was approaching.
"Come on," he said brusquely, taking her hand, "we've got to get away from here."
They hurried through the house, leaving through a back door. Quickly they scampered down the alleyways, dodging right and left, and right again before stopping.
"What-" Artemis began, but Athos cut her off with a gesture.
He listened for sounds of pursuit. There were none.
He looked around, trying to figure the best way back to the port section of the city. "I've got to get you back to the docks, to where it's safe."
She shook her head. "There is no place in this world that is safe," she said slowly.
He said nothing.
She turned away, suddenly unable to face him and bitter that he would brush her off so easily. "Besides," she said venomously, "why should you? You're a killer, aren't you? Why don't you just leave me here?"
Athos' eyes blazed. "Maybe I will."
"Go ahead!" she sneered, a tear running down one cheek. "I'm nothing to you, am I?"
He turned away, the anger melting into sadness. "You are everything to me," he said softly.
"Then why won't you let me help you?" she asked, touching his shoulder. "I want to help you-"
The anger came blazing back. "I don't want your pity!" he said, flinching away from her touch.
There was silence between them for a moment.
"I don't pity you," she said softly. "I never could."
He looked at her. "Then why are you here?"
She sighed. "You thick-headed..." she almost laughed. "Why do you think I followed you here all the way from Calimport?"
Athos remained silent.
She leaned forward and kissed him. At first his lips were cold, resisting. Then suddenly he was kissing her back, holding her closely.
A moment later they separated.
"I've... I've got to get you back to the port district," he said distractedly.
"You won't let me come with you?"
He shook his head. "It is too dangerous. I don't want you to die. You... you mean too much..."
"I see," she said, her voice soft and sad. And she did.
* * *
They made their way through the streets carefully, keeping away from anyone they saw.
It took them thirty minutes to reach their destination, and they crouched against an alley wall, surveying the dock area.
"There it is," he said, pointing. "If you look through the taverns, I'm certain you'll find Jitinder nearby."
She looked at him sadly. "Assuming you live through this, will we ever meet again?"
He shook his head. "I don't know," he answered honestly.
She kissed him, then, and walked away, never looking back.
A blind begger watched the exchange with interest from his place in the shadows, unnoticed by either person.
A moment after Athos left, the beggar was on his feet and running, tossing away the bandage that had been wound about his eyes.