Angel of Death, Chapter 28
Destination in Sight
The sharp rasp of metal on whetstone sounded every few heartbeats, as Jitinder honed his naginata slowly to razor-sharp perfection. He sat on a chair directly in front of Seleros' former bed - they had appropriated his quarters for their use after coming aboard - with his back to the wall of their cabin, never taking his eyes from the doorway beyond which a short flight of stairs led up to the afterdeck.
Athos dozed lightly a few feet away in a hammock he had slung after coming aboard, gently swaying to and fro, his weapons within easy reach. Artemis slumbered on the captain's bed.
He jerked awake suddenly, and he gripped his hand crossbow. "Someone is coming."
A moment later Seleros stole silently down the stairs, peering into the semi-gloom.
"Yes, captain?" asked Jitinder.
Seleros appeared startled. "Oh! Er... you are not asleep then? I thought you might be - I hadn't wanted to disturb you."
"We're awake," said Athos, levelling the small crossbow on Seleros, "and you are disturbing us."
Seleros grinned broadly. "I... er, came down to inform you that we are not far from Waterdeep. I thought you would want to know, yes?"
"That's it?" muttered Jitinder, irritated.
"How much longer before we're there?" asked Athos.
"Not long," the captain assured them. "Not long. Um... have either of you two gentlemen visited Waterdeep before? The 'city of splendors', it is called, and with good reason."
"We don't care how splendid it is," said Jitinder sourly.
"No," said Athos, answering the captain, "and we're not going there to see the sights, so why don't you leave us alone now?"
Seleros grinned broadly as he backed out. He was fairly certain he had his answer. "We will arrive in Waterdeep with the dawn," he assured them. A moment later he was gone.
"I'll certainly be happy when we arrive," said Jitinder, his eyes on the now empty hatch. "I don't trust that man. He's the kind who's happy to fawn over your every need to your face while plotting to put a dagger in your spine."
Artemis stirred from her slumber then, rolling over and yawning.
"I can take the watch," said Athos. "You catch up on your rest."
"I don't need any damned rest," said Jitinder.
"Well take some anyway. There's no sense in exhausting yourself."
Jitinder started to protest, then grunted. "I guess I could do with a little nap."
"Don't worry," said Athos, "I'll wake you if anything comes up."
* * *
The door to ship's navigator/ship's mage Thimble's quarters (he served in both positions) abruptly swung wide, and a smiling Seleros swaggered in.
"We have them now!" he said, his voice pitched low and full of gleefull menace, as if Thimble should know exactly what he was talking about.
"Have you never heard of knocking before entering someone else's room?" asked Thimble, irritated by the sudden intrusion.
Seleros's smile evaporated, to be replaced by a sneer. "Whose quarters are these? Do I need to remind you? They are mine, and I'll bloody well come and go as I please! This ship is mine, every plank of her!"
"Indeed?" Thimble affected an amused look. "Whose ship is it? That is the question, and I hardly think the answer - at present - is that it belongs to you."
Seleros turned livid. "This is my ship, and no-one will flout my authority!"
"No-one?" the mage asked pointedly, cocking his head in the direction of the captain's quarters. "What about them?"
"I'm dealing with the problem." The confident, craftly look returned to Seleros's face. "I think I may even have found a way to turn the situation to considerable profit."
"Yes. How far are we from Baldur's Gate?"
Thimble shrugged. "Another two hours perhaps, if we continue to hug the coastline as we have."
Seleros nodded. "Excellent. Set a course that will take us full circle, out to sea and back again, so that we won't reach port there until tomorrow morning."
Thimble frowned, realizing the logistics involved. "Difficult, but of course not impossible. But why do it? I thought we were bound for Waterdeep."
Seleros shook his head, as if Thimble's question wasn't important enough to answer. "I also need you to use your crystal ball-"
"I don't have a crystal ball," interjected the mage with a sniff. "I use and amulet of communication. It's easier, and the messages are far clearer."
Seleros waved his hand disparagingly, as if it didn't matter what the mage used. "Whatever. Use your amulet, then, and contact the thieves' guild of Baldur's Gate." He smiled menacingly. "I still have a few friends there, from my earlier days. You'll tell them the hour that we will arrive there and who we're carrying, and try to negotiate a big cut of the prize for us when they kill our three passengers."
Thimble frowned. "Speaking of the passengers, what are you planning to tell them?" He motioned towards the captain's cabin again. "Won't they be a little upset when we arrive in Baldur's Gate instead of Waterdeep?"
Seleros grinned, rubbing his palms together gleefully. "We won't have to tell them anything. That's the beauty of my plan! None of them has ever laid eyes on Waterdeep before. They won't even know they haven't arrived there. With a little help from the guild and a good ambush, they'll die ignorant. And best of all, the guild can be the ones to deal with them. We won't have to lift a single weapon against them!"
Thimble cocked an eyebrow. "How can you be so certain none of them has ever been to Waterdeep?"
Seleros's smile faded slightly. "Because I asked them."
"Just like that?" asked Thimble, skeptical.
"Yes, just like that," answered Seleros, a little irritated. "I've given them no reason to lie to me. I have little doubt they are telling the truth. Look at them. They are younglings from the South, just seeing the rest of the world for the first time. None of them have ever dreamed of what Waterdeep is like."
He frowned to himself. "At least I think none of them has. I'm not certain about the girl, but I'm pretty sure I'm right."
Thimble shrugged. "It's your life to gamble with."
"Yes," snapped Seleros, "It is. Now hurry up and get in contact with the guild. The more time they have to prepare, the easier it will all be."
* * *
"The coastline has disappeared," remarked Artemis languidly. "I wish our troubles would disappear with it."
She and Athos were leaning against the railing of the ship, gazing out at the water. The sun was slowly slipping down into the horizon, and its dying red rays illuminated the sky in a ruby light.
They stood in silence for a few minutes, just enjoying being in each other's company.
"I... I'm very happy with you," Athos finally said, looking into her eyes. His words seemed clumsy, halting.
She turned her gaze from the horzon to his eyes, a gentle smile on her lips. "I'm very happy with you, too."
He sighed, turning his gaze back to the sea. "I don't know why. I'm not worth the attention."
"I think you are."
Athos felt himself flushing, said nothing. Artemis closed her eyes for a moment, letting the wind play across her face.
The silence continued for several minutes.
"What are you wearing that amulet for?" she asked suddenly. "Why don't you take it off, throw it into the sea? And leave your former life behind."
Athos was quiet a moment. "I would like nothing better," he said at last, his voice hardly a whisper over the wind. "But my former life would never leave me. With luck, I might escape the Viper for a few years. With luck. But he would find me eventually, and when he did I would die. As would anyone near me."
Artemis gave him a mournful look. "What happens when you deliver the amulet," she asked at last. "In Waterdeep."
He shrugged. "I don't know," he answered honestly. It was one of the questions he had hoped she would not ask. "Delivering it is only one of the final tests."
"Tests? What are the others?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. This is only the first one. I don't even know how many others there will be."
She touched his hand. "What happens to you after you complete them all? Will you be free of the Viper then?"
Athos shook his head. "I don't know. I... I've never even thought of it before. Maybe, if I survive them all. I don't think I'll ever be free of the Viper, though. He's playing some sort of game I don't understand, and I'm one of his major pieces. He... he won't let me go, not that easily. I can't explain why, but I know it."
Her jaw set stubbornly. "Why don't you just go to him, tell him you won't play his game?"
Athos was flustered. "Because... because he would..." He shook his head. "I don't know what he would do, or how he would react, but I know it would cause pain and death to someone. Besides, everything I am, everything I was trained to be - he made me. What would I do with the rest of my life?"
"You could settle down," she said softly, her hand still touching his. "Get married, maybe. Have children. I know it sound boring compared to the life you're leading now, but lots of people do it... There must be something to it." Flustered, she turned her face away.
Athos turned to face her squarely. "Would you be bored with a life like that?"
"I don't know. I suppose it would depend on who I was sharing it with."
"With me, for example."
She smiled. "I don't think that anything involving you could ever be less than exciting."
"Would you, if you could?"
She was silent for a long moment. She touched his cheek. "Yes."
He nodded. "So would I. I can't think of any life I would like better, boring or not."
She stared at him. "So what are you saying?"
"I'm not saying anything," he said, turning away.
She sighed. It had only been a passing thought. The Viper would never let Athos do anything like that.
He turned back, suddenly taking both her hands in his. "I'm... asking you. To marry me."
She was shocked. "You are?"
He nodded resolutely. "I am."
She smiled. "Then I will."
They came together then in a passionate kiss, their arms wrapped around each other, and for moment none of it - the amulet, the price on his head, the Viper - existed. For one timeless moment there was only them, together.
They held each other for a long time, even after the kiss, just enjoying the nearness.
"What about the Viper?" Artemis asked at last, her face against his chest. It was the first thing that was spoken.
Athos was silent for a long moment. When he spoke, she could feel the vibrations of his voice through his chest. It was warm and oddly comforting. "I can't live the way I've been living any longer. If he won't release me, then he'll have to kill me. I think it's worth the chance."
She looked up at him. "So do I, though I hate the thought of harm coming to you... If he won't release you until after your final tests, then do them first. I can wait. I will wait. Forever, if need be."
He smiled. "I don't know if I can."
They came together again, the wind and the water and the swaying of the boat under their feet all ignored.
* * *
It was four hours after nightfall.
Jitinder sat at his post, still sharpening his weapon.
A slight shudder went through the hull as it bumped into something solid, and Athos came awake.
He nodded to Jitinder, who went up on deck to see what was amiss.
A moment later he reappeared. "We've arrived," he announced, almost tonelessly. "The bump was merely the boat being tied up to the dock."
Athos nodded that he understood, then woke Artemis.
Scant minutes later they were dressed and on deck.
Captain Seleros stood not far off, conversing with a tall, skinny man.
"We've arrived earlier than you anticipated," Athos said as he came on deck, interrupting them.
Seleros turned to him, smiling and shrugging. "Ah... yes, well, the wind favored us." He smiled even more insincerely. "We're always happy when we can speed our passenger's voyage."
Athos heard Jitinder snort from behind him.
If Seleros noticed, he did not show it. "This is the harbormaster, Skorlson Hardom."
The tall man bowed low, flashing a gap-toothed smile. "Very pleased to meet you."
Athos looked past him, at the city lamplights beckoning in the darkness. "That's strange, because I couldn't care less about meeting you. Where can I find the tavern called The Shining Cradle?"
The man's smile only widened. "It is not far, but the way is... complex. I can guide you there if you like."
Athos quirked an eyebrow. "You don't want to remain at your post?"
The other man shrugged. "My replacement takes over in only twenty minutes."
Athos shook his head. "Thank you for the offer, but I don't think I'll take you up on it. Complex or not, if you give me the correct directions, I will have no trouble finding the inn."
"Have it your way then," replied the man, his smile melting slightly.
Artemis came up from below. "That's Waterdeep?" she asked, staring out at the darkness.
"Yes lady," Seleros put in hurriedly.
"'City of Splendors'," snorted Jitinder.
"Then this is the end of the journey," she said with a sigh.
"Perhaps it is," said Athos. He turned to Jitinder.
"You two stay here. I don't want the Viper to know anything about your existence."
Jitinder's scowl deepened. "I've been waiting my whole life for a chance to confront the Viper. I'm not going to miss it now."
Athos shook his head. "I don't want to leave Artemis unprotected, and I don't want to let you commit suicide. Trust me, you don't want to let him make you into a shadow of yourself; a husk of a man who lives his life for only one purpose. I've seen that all before. It isn't worth. Just let it go."
"I can't," said Jitinder softly.
Athos sighed. "Will you stay?"
"I'll stay," replied Jitinder sullenly, "but only to protect Artemis. All your other reasons don't count for anything to me, and if I ever have a chance to get back at the Viper they won't stop me from trying."
A few minutes later, Athos had the directions he needed from the gap-toothed man.
An instant afterwards, Athos was down the gangplank, moving swiftly through the night and melting smoothly into the shadows.
* * *
He had gone barely thirty yards before he knew he was being followed.
Two blocks later and he knew exactly how many there were following.
Three blocks and a very smooth double-back after that, no-one was following him.
He took to the roofs after that, keeping a wary eye on the streets below.
The moon was dark this night and the sky was partly obscured by clouds, but Athos' keen eyes were still able to cut through the darkness, and as he looked across the city from his aerial perch, he could find no trace of Mount Waterdeep. The mountain should be easily visible from any section of the city.
He also noted the stores and businesses, and the names of the streets.
He shook his head. There was something wrong here. He knew that the Viper's maps might have been outdated, but nothing pertaining to Waterdeep fit.
On a hunch, he swung down from the roof into the nearest house, entering through an open window on the fourth floor.
He entered the bedroom silently and stole up on a snoring man.
He placed his hands over over the man's mouth, and the fellow awoke.
The man's eyes widened with fear, but he said nothing, and did not attempt to move.
"Where can I find The Shining Cradle?" asked Athos, taking his hand away from the man's mouth.
"Take anything you want," the man hissed, his voice trembling, "just don't hurt-"
"Where can I find The Shining Cradle?" he asked again.
"I don't have any cradle, I swear it!"
"It's a tavern," said Athos. "Where can I find it?"
The man shook his head, panicked. "I never heard of it, I swear! I don't go to taverns, never did, but I never heard of anything like that! I'm not a native, maybe on the far side of the city... but I swear, so far as I know, there's no tavern like that in all of Baldur's Gate!"
"Baldur's Gate?" asked Athos, surprise and anger mixed in his voice.
The man looked at him as if he were crazed. "This city," he said, explaining. "Baldur's Gate."
Athos cursed under his breath.
"What-" the man started to ask, but Athos was already gone.
* * *
"Our scouts have lost him," reported a thief to the guildmaster of Baldur's Gate, who cursed under his breath at the news. Baldur's Gate was the mercenary-company capital of the world, and there would be many powerful men after Athos if he was loose in the city.
"Move on the two who were left behind on the ship," he instructed after a brief moment of consideration. "It's our only option. The amulet bearer may show up at the ambush, he may not. Either way, we'll have the two on the ship to lure him with."
* * *
The empty streets Athos had passed through earlier had filled with different groups of men, all making their way stealthily in the direction Athos had gone.
He made his way silently, carefully, and though he had to twice double back, he passed unseen.
He came up on the docks, and spotted a group of eight men boarding the ship.
He heard the clash of steel on steel, and heard a scream and a splash. He raced down the dock.
But by the time he reached the battle, it was already over.
Jitinder stood over the huddling form of the captain, the bodies of the attackers - including the harbormaster, apparently - were strewn about the deck. Nearby stood Artemis and the ship's mage.
Jitinder looked up as Athos came on board. "One moment everything was normal, the next they attacked."
"I swear I knew nothing!" plead Seleros, wringing his hands and sweating profusely.
"He's lying," said Athos. "We're not even in Waterdeep. This is Baldur's Gate."
He turned to the ship's mage. "You are the navigator, are you not?"
"And you knew exactly where we were?"
Again he nodded.
"And this one," Athos pointed at Seleros, "gave you orders to take us here?"
Again Thimble nodded.
"He's lying!" cried Seleros desperately. He threw on one of his ingratiating smiles. "Please, you must listen... He's just trying to save his own skin, can't you see that? He's the one who betrayed you - betrayed us all! Kill him, not me!"
Jitinder kicked him in the face, sending him sprawling backwards.
Athos turned to Thimble. "You are now not only navigator and ship's mage, but also the captain of this vessel. If you wish to retain your command, I suggest you cast off and make sail for Waterdeep. Immediately."
Thimble nodded, then began calling orders to the crew, rousing them from their bunks. "We'll only have a skeleton crew unless we wait for the sailors that left the ship."
"Then we'll make do with a skeleton crew," said Athos. "We leave now."
A few moments later the docks of Baldur's Gate retreated behind them as the ship headed for open water.
After several minutes, Athos turned back to Seleros, who cringed back, his hands pressed to his bloody nose.
"You are no longer welcome on this ship," said Athos.
"I'm giving you five seconds to remove yourself from it."
"You can't be serious! I.. I can't even swim!"
Athos drew his shortsword and sent it through an attack motion. "Two."
Seleros backed off three steps, then, with a cry, turned and leaped over the railing. A splash followed.
Athos strode to the rail and looked down. Seleros was treading water and falling behind the ship quickly. He raised his fist and cursed Athos roundly.
Athos said nothing, but watched him until he faded out of sight into the darkness.
Satisfied, he turned away.
* * *
LaValle paced the length of his room at The Shining Cradle for perhaps the hundredth time.
He looked down, and his gaze fell upon the tools that lay on the floor.
The furniture had all been pulled away from the center of the room, leaving plenty of room for the spell.
He had all the necessary equipment. The spell itself was reasonably simple and straightforward. A mage of half his experience could have done it easily.
He paced again.
The Viper had told him to remain here for two weeks, and LaValle was honestly afraid to disobey the man.
He paced for another two hours, and finally reached a decision.
Sitting down, he picked up a jar of black paint and began inscribing the design of the runes upon the floorboards.
Minutes later he stood, uttered a brief enchantment, and a glimmering portal shimmered into existance above the runic symbols. He heaved a sigh, steeled himself, and stepped through.
It vanished once he had passed through.
And the room was empty.