Angel of Death, Chapter 26
Exchanges on the Sea Cutter
Dawn found Athos standing on the prow of the Sea Cutter, gazing out across the water. The coastline was a brown ribbon which ran to his right as far as the eye could see, forward and back.
When the first gray light brightened the darkened sky with the first hint of day, he realized he had been standing here all night. He liked the feel of the boat as it swayed gently through the darkened sea.
The weather was clear and the wind favoried them. If the conditions didn't change, they would likely reach Zazesspur by nightfall.
Zazesspur. The thought of the city raised an uneasy feeling in him.
Before Artemis' kidnapping, he had hoped to avoid Zazesspur. Like Calimport, Athos was known in that city. He would be recognized, and he had many enemies there. But now he had no choice.
Jitinder yawned and stretched, coming up beside him. "Did you stay out here all night?"
"Yes," Athos answered simply, as if it was self apparent.
Jitinder's gaze turned towards the sea and swept back and forth. "Well, it seems a fair enough day, anyway. The wind is stiff and to our backs; we should make good time. Why did you? Stay up, I mean. I offered to stand watch if you were worried that the crew might turn treacherous."
"I was thinking."
Jitinder scratched his face, his hands noting the rough whiskers there. "I need a shave," he said with distaste. "What I wouldn't give for a good razor and mirror. What were you thinking about?"
"What a coward I am."
Jitinder looked at him, surprised. "Why are you a coward?"
Athos shrugged. "That's what I've been pondering. Maybe I was just born that way."
"No, I mean why do you think you're a coward? It's one label I would never have thought to give you."
Athos stared out at the rolling sea. "Why would I think I was a coward? Great abyss, why wouldn't I? I've never done one thing in my whole life that wasn't motivated by fear - except when I was very young."
Jitinder turned to fully face Athos and leaned against the rail. "I still don't understand."
Athos' face twisted into a parody of a smile. "You were right. I'm a killer. Have you ever wondered why a killer kills? The reason varies from killer to killer. Some men killin self-defence. That isn't really so bad. Others killin fury. That's bad, but at least there's a human emotion there. Some men kill for pleasure. That's sick, but again, at least there's some sort of human emotion.
"I used to think the worst kind of man was the one who killed merely because he was paid to kill. There's no emotion, no real reason - nothing. A man like that can kill his mother without blinking an eye, and the victim would never understand why. I think... I think that's the worst way to die, not knowing why."
There was a momentary pause.
"I used to think that was the worst kind of killer," he said at length, resuming. "Now, I know differently. I've killed for the Viper, and the worst of all. I know. I killed before that - once in self defence and once in anger. But when I killed for the Viper, I killed because I was afraid of what he would do if I didn't."
"Sounds more like self preservation to me."
Athos gave a slight head shake. "Not quite. A long time ago, I stopped caring about my own physical welfare, partly because I saw the monster I was becoming and partly because with the Viper you just never known when death will come. I'm not afraid to die."
"If you aren't afraid to die, how can you be a coward?"
"I'm a coward because I can't bring myself to let myself die. I cannot refuse any order the Viper gives. I never have and I never will. My body almost seems to act of its own volition."
Jitinder gave him a dubious look. "Are you saying you cannot stop yourself from killing?"
"In a way."
There was a moment of silence. "Why, then, am I alive? Why is Artemis?"
Athos shook his head. "You're missing the point. You are alive because the Viper hasn't ordered me to kill you. If he did, I wouldn't hesitate, much as I would hate myself for it."
Jitinder stared at him, a hard flat stare. "If you're trying to say you've never had a choice-"
"No," said Athos, almost vehemently. "No. I've always had the choice. Do you know what happened the first time I refused him? Refused to kill for him? He made me watch while he did it. It took the man three days to finally die." Athos shook his head, and his voice lowered. "His screams still echo through my dreams." He gazed out at the waves. "Since then, I... cannot resist him. And I am too much a coward to take my own life."
Jitinder remained quiet. He didn't know how to respond to Athos' argument, so he said nothing.
"The Viper likes death," said Athos softly. "He feeds off their fear. The fear of his victims. Did you know that?"
"I thought you said he killed without emotion," Jitinder pointed out. "And yet he enjoys killing?"
"No. He does not kill for any reason, even enjoyment. He is a machine. Yet he appreciates the 'beauty of death'." Athos glanced at him. "His words, not mine. He sees it as some sort of... art form. It interests him instead of stimulating..."
Jitinder waited, but Athos' voice trailed off, and he did not turn from his place. What must it have been like, he wondered, to be raised by such a one as the Viper. Never knowing when death would take you... A sudden chill took him.
Just as he was about to turn away Athos spoke again, so softly that the wind nearly carried his words away.
"Do you know what's worse? I'm becoming insensitive to death. I'm becoming insensitive to other people's pain. That's what frightens me. I'm becoming like him."
* * *
Three snaps exploded in the air near LaValle's right ear, changing the air pressure.
He came awake instantly. He found himself facing a man of average height and build, with nondescript features.
"I am the Viper," the man said, "and you are LaValle. Keep quiet, and listen to me very carefully, because your life depends upon what I am about to say."
LaValle gave a shaky nod, trying to keep from panicking. His heart felt as if it were trying to beat its way out of his chest. Powers above, is this the way I die?
"You are about to be drugged. When you wake, you will find yourself in Waterdeep. I understand you've never been there before? No?"
LaValle shook his head.
"Don't panic. It's just another city. You will take a room at the inn named The Silver Crescent. You will stay there for two weeks - I will provide you the gold required - and you will not leave the boundaries of this inn for any reason. For any reason. If you do, you will die. Do you understand?"
"After two weeks you may leave if you like, and go your way. If you obey my instructions and wait the two weeks you will live, and it is probable that our paths will never cross again. Defy me and die. Do you understand?"
LaValle nodded again, and The Viper suddenly jabbed him with a needle.
A tingling sensation shot through his body. LaValle took one quick breath of astonishment, then slumped forward, losing consciousness.
The Viper went about his work with a grim sense of humor. He had not lied to the young mage; if LaValle managed to stay alive and within the confines of the inn he need fear no reprisal from the master assassin. But the Viper thought it highly unlikely that LaValle would be leaving that inn alive.
* * *
"Is everything ready?"
Grimwalde grimaced. He was tiring of Thenedain's grating voice, weary of being treated like some incompetent underling.
"Yes," he replied. "All the spells we can have ready before they arrive have been readied. The apprentices are standing by. The magical servants are ready."
"Good." Thenedain made the word sound more like 'barely acceptable' than 'good', and he said it with a condescending sneer. "Double check them and report back to me."
"I have double checked them," said Grimwalde, a trace of irritation showing through his voice.
"Then triple check them!" barked the older man nastily.
Grimwalde bit back a sharp retort and turned away. He had already failed to trap the Viper, and he vowed that this old fool would not outdo him. Somehow, even if Grimwalde had to intercede, the Viper would escape. Probably the Viper would slay Thenedain. Grimwalde smiled to himself. Yes. That was an even better scenario. The Viper would slay Thenedain and remove him from Grimwalde's worries.
His patience for the cranky old fool was wearing thin. It would have long ago run out, but Grimwalde held himself in check. He didn't know where LaValle was; that was what stopped him from acting on his anger. LaValle was Thenedain's confidant; his second. The old man was insufferable, but he was no fool. The moment Grimwalde made his move LaValle would suddenly appear...
But Grimwalde was no fool either, no indeed. He would wait the old man out. He would find LaValle. And when the time was right, he would strike, destroying them both, once and for all. When the time was right...
But that was not yet. For now, he would swallow his pride and take the old man's orders, and console himself with the thought of his certain and terrible vengeance. Thenedain was playing a game with him - a game in which he did not yet know all the players. It was a game he was determined to win.
* * *
Arrogant young snot-nosed pup! The insolent man's impudence was beginning to grate on Thenedain's nerves. He was disrespectful and ill-mannered.
And what was more, he thought he could challenge Thenedain!
Well, though Thenedain, accidents do happen, and Grimwalde is as prone to them as anyone else. Perhaps... Perhaps an accident could be arranged during the capture of the Viper. The man was dangerous, after all.
Thendain's patience had worn thin. It might have snapped altogether, but Thenedain didn't dare move against the younger mage until he learned where LaValle was.
Grimwalde must have killed him. Yes, the archmage was certain of it. And yet, until he had proof, he would have to step cautiously.
Thenedain smiled to himself at the thought. Grimwalde was playing a dangerous game, indeed. But Thenedain would win.
* * *
A black crow wheeled high in the sky above the ship, alighting high on the mainmast, above the crowsnest.
A murmur went through the sailors and a moment later the captain appeared on deck. He glared up at the bird, shielding his eyes from the sun with one hand over his brow. "Suren it's a fey sign," he grumbled.
"It's a bird," said Jitinder. "What of it?"
The captain gave him a dark look. "It's a bad omen. Only proves out what I knew from the moment you stepped on board my ship. This voyage is ill-fated."
Jitinder gave a scornful laugh. "It's only a bird."
The captain glared at him for a moment then turned away, grumbling. "Telthian! Jeros!" he roared, and two of the sailors jumped at the sound of his voice. "Get up that mast and get that filthy thing off my ship!"
"Aye captain," one of them said, as they made for the rigging.
"I don't see what all the fuss is about," said Jitinder. "It's only a bird."
The captain only grumbled
under his breath.
"He's right," said Athos quietly once the captain had moved away. "I can feel... something. Something malevolent. And it's coming this way."
* * *
It was half an hour later when the storm struck.
One moment the sky was clear; the next it was filled with dark clouds and raging winds.
Jitinder came running from below, almost losing his balance on the shifting deck. "What's going on?" he cried, yelling to be heard over the wind.
"The storm came out of nowhere," Athos answered. "The men don't think it's natural. Neither do I."
The captain was charging by. "Secure those lines!" he cried, pointing at a crewmate near the stern. "Now, blast your hide!" He turned to Athos. "You brought this on us!" he accused. "It is the storm that follows you! Were I wise, I should toss you over the side right now!"
Athos didn't answer. Instead he put one hand on the hilt of his sword. "I think not."
The captain took a sharp step backwards, glaring at Athos' sword hilt as if it might bite him. He stared at Athos for a moment, then whirled away, yelling at the crewmen again. "Bring in that foresail! The foresail, you lazy dogs!"
The men hurried to their positions, bringing in the sails.
Without warning, rain suddenly began coming down in sheets, obscuring vision.
The seas grew heavily agitated, and the ship was tossed from wave to wave.
Thunder boomed through the air, and lightning lanced through the clouds, giving the scene an unearthly aspect.
Jitinder was almost washed from the deck when the waves began crashing over the sides.
Grimly, he clutched the mainmast, his wet hair plastered over his eyes and obscuring his vision as he looked for Athos.
Athos came stumbling out of the rain, running for the foremast.
It seemed strange to see Athos stumble. He was always so fluidly graceful.
Another wave came roaring across the deck and Athos was swept off his feet.
He slid into the wooden railing on the side of the ship. With a sharp CRACK! it gave way and he was pitched out, over the side. There was an unsecured line from the mainstays flailing about, the tip of it dancing in the water, clearing the heaving waves for a moment then plunging down into the water again... Athos caught it with his left hand as he was falling. Jitinder saw him catch hold of it, then almost immediately another monstrous wave crashed into him, plowing him beneath the surface, burying him. Jitinder could not see it, but he imagined the huge wave slamming Athos against the side of the boat, forcing the air from his lungs, perhaps breaking bones.
But a moment later, when the wave had cleared and the momentary appearance of a trough appeared, Athos was still there, clambering hand over hand up the line. Almost as quickly and unexpectedly as the first wave had struck another appeared, again sweeping over him, burying him under the dark, foaming water.
This second wave crashed over the side, slamming into Jitinder, and he almost lost his grip on the mast. He saw the sailors around him lashing themselves down so as not to be thrown into the ocean. When he looked again, he saw Athos come scrambling over the side, through the broken railing and back on deck. There was a grim but determined look on his face.
Fifty feet from the ship, the water exploded, and a huge form came crashing up.
It looked vaguely humanoid, but was of gigantic proportions.
* * *
Athos could see it more clearly. It was male, with green skin, lightly brown hair and a long beard of the same color. As far as he could tell, it wore no clothing, although it stood exposed only from the hips up. It held a huge trident in one massive hand, and it brandished it menacingly.
It spoke, and the grumbling booming of its voice dwarfed the thunder.
"HEED ME, PUNY MORTALS, FOR DEATH IS THE PRICE OF DEFIANCE! YOU WILL ALL PERISH IF YOU FAIL TO APPEASE ME! THROW ALL YOUR VALUABLES INTO THE SEA, AND I WILL CONSIDER SPARING YOU!"
"A storm giant!" cried the captain, half in despair and half in amazement. "What is one doing this far east?"
"WILL YOU COMPLY, PUNY MORTALS, OR WILL YOU INCUR MY WRATH!"
"Yes!" yelled the captain desperately. "We hear and obey, oh mighty one!"
The raging of the storm lessened slightly. The captain gestured frantically at the men behind him and they began rushing below decks, seizing the little that was in the cargo hold and tossing it recklessly over the side. Personal valuables followed. Clothing, chests, coins, even some weapons.
"NOT ENOUGH!" it rumbled. "TOO LITTLE!"
"That's all we have!" the captain yelled back. "Please-"
"YOU LIE, FOOLISH MORTAL!" it thundered. "NO SHIP WOULD LEAVE PORT WITH SUCH A PALTRY CARGO! FOR THIS, I WILL DESTROY YOUR SHIP AND SORT WHAT I WANT FROM THE WRECKAGE!"
"Please!" cried the captain, "We do not lie, mighty one! Spare us! We were forced to leave port ahead of schedule, with almost no cargo!"
Athos raised his hand crossbow and fired.
The creature bellowed in sudden pain, slapping a hand over his eye. It staggered back a half step, then roared in anger and rushed at the ship, an enormous swell building at its hips as it surged forward.
"What have you done?" screamed the captain. "Great Talos, what have you done? You fool! You've doomed us all!"
The monstrous being took two steps forward then halted, a blank look passing across its face. It stiffened, and the trident slipped from its fingers. It raised its hand halfway to its throat, uttering a horrible coughing gasp, then suddenly fell backwards, creating a tremendous spray. Slowly it slipped beneath the foaming water, its eyes open and staring at nothing.
The pitching and heaving of the angry sea smoothed and calmed, and in moments the sky became clear again. The sea was still choppy, but the waves no longer sloshed over the railings and onto the deck.
Athos stared at the place where the creature had disappeared beneath the waves for a long moment. "I killed it," he said simply.
"How?" Jitinder asked, incredulous.
"A very potent poison." Athos looked at him and shrugged. "I told you I was a killer. It is the one thing I do well."