Angel of Death, Chapter 29
The Viper; mentor, teacher, mortal enemy. In my younger years I hated him blindly, for what he was, for what he was making me into. In later years I came to recognize that he had changed my life - possibly for the better, possibly for the worse, but certainly so that I might better survive the hell we call life. And I respected him for it.
There was one lesson he taught me which will remained forever ingrained upon my mind.
Life is pain, death is release. This is the only true moral.
I no longer hold myself to the petty morals that mankind has invented for itself. Life is pain, death is release. There are no other rules, only half-obscured realities with which we hope to deceive ourselves. Life is an endless test.
What is the test? Many hold with the precept that the test is remaining devoted to law and goodness and resisting the temptations of evil. Others hold with the opposite position.
Both good and evil are very powerful forces within the universe, but they are meaningless in the end.
The true test is one of survival and advancement.
I am the perfect killer, and that is all that matters.
- Artemis Entreri
The Osprey cut throught he blue green water at a quick pace.
Athos had earlier climbed up to the crowsnest, and as he stood there gazing across the water, he wondered what the future held for him.
On the morrow, the Osprey would arrive in Waterdeep. When it docked, he would finish his journey, complete his first test.
And, of course, he would confront the Viper.
He shook his head. He still wasn't certain he could go through with it. It was all well and good to decide to confront the master assassin here on the Osprey, miles out to sea, but it was another thing altogether to stand in front of the man and find the courage to tell him no.
He thought again of Artemis, of the life they might lead together. It was a chance at happiness, a chance at life for the part of him that for so long he had thought was dead.
If there was even a shadow of a chance... No. He would not pass it up. He would not throw away the chance of true happines. And he would no longer live his life according the Viper's whims.
He woud stand up to the assassin and face whatever consequences might come.
* * *
The Viper was as close as he had ever come to being angry. Which meant he was faintly amused.
Athos would be arriving in Waterdeep sometime soon, perhaps within two days, and that fool wizard LaValle had dared to defy him. Had teleported away.
The Viper had had hinged all his plans for Athos' next test around LaValle's presence. And now...
Mildly annoyed, the Viper put the mage out of his mind for the moment. LaValle was gone. Not beyond retribution, of course; no-one defied the Viper and lived to tell of it. But in the short range, LaValle was gone, and that meant the Viper would have to alter his plans. He would have to come up with something new.
LaValle had sealed his fate. The Viper would hunt him down and kill him slowly. But that was the future, and it was the present he was concerned with.
He had to find a replacement.
* * *
The screams echoed through Jitinder's sleeping mind, tormenting him, and he groaned and twitched as he slept, his body covered in a sheen of sweat.
The carnage stretched before him. His parent's bodies strewn like horrible dismembered ragdolls across the floor. The blood...
To the eyes of a child, the horror and destruction were impossibly wide and high.
And over it all loomed the Viper.
He looked down at Jitinder.
It was a laugh that chilled the soul, with mockery, anger, amusement, scorn, and evil all buried somewhere within its awful tone.
Jitinder flinched before it, cowered before it as if it were a physical weapon.
He twisted about violently, eventually rolling out of his hammock - not an easy thing to do in itself - and thumped into the wooden deck, still groping blindly for his weapon. Gradually the images faded and he became aware of where he was.
As he became more awake and aware of the conscious world, the images of his dream began to fade from his mind.
All except one.
The Viper's laugh still rang hollowly in his ears.
"Going to kill you, Viper," he sputtered in a voice that was little more than a defiant hiss, his hands opening and closing reflexively as if they sought the Viper's throat. "Going to make you hurt. Going to make you fear. I'm coming for you, dark man!"
* * *
Athos returned to the maindeck later and stood by the port railing, gazing down at the foaming sea rushing by and into its depths. He was joined by Artemis after a few minutes and the two stood wordlessly together for some time.
"Ship to port!" came a call from the crowsnest, and Athos was jerked from his reverie. He exchanged glances with Artemis, then walked with her to the opposite railing, squinting against the afternoon sun, looking for the other ship.
There was a black speck out on the edge of the horizon.
A heavy-set bald man with a sallow face and a thin mustache came thumping over to stand a few feet away from where they stood. He was the second mate, and as he peered out he called up a question. "What flag do they fly?"
"Can't tell yet," the man in the crowsnest shouted back.
For the next two hours, it paralleled the Osprey's course.
Finally it drew a little nearer and the spotter in the crowsnest was able to make out the other ship's flag.
"What does she fly?" called up the first mate.
"A moment," said the crewman. "She flies no colors!"
The first mate grunted.
"What does that mean?" asked Athos.
The man shook his head. "Maybe nothing. But pirates sometimes fly no colors, hoping to use it as a trick to get closer to their prey."
Athos nodded grimly. "Then we'd better assume they're pirates. And they're probably after us." He looked back to the ship, still hardly more than a black spot in the distance. "I admit my ignorance of the sea," he said. "But it seems to me that we should prepare for a battle."
The man nodded. "I'll get Thimble and the ship's priest on deck. He cupped his mouth with his hands and yelled up to the men in the rigging. "You men there!" he yelled. "Get your lazy bones moving! I want this ship rigged for battle! Prepare for boarding and combat actions, and get anything loose tied down or stowed below! Now!"
He turned to Athos again. "It's difficult to tell what type of ship she is at this distance," he said, "but it looks like something large, a galleon perhaps. Which means she'll be well armed, and since she's already matching our course we know she's fast. But she is large..."
"You have an idea?"
The man shrugged. "Mayhap. Perhaps she has a larger draft than we. If so, our best option is to make for shallower water, where she cannot follow."
Athos nodded. "Then make for the coastline."
The man shook his head. "We are within the Dertholius Strait. These waters are well mapped, and along this section there are dozens of reefs to snare us should we approach too close to the headland. My advice is that we swing to starboard and bring the shoreline into sight but approach no further. Then, should the need arise to make a run for shallow waters, the option will be viable. We keep close enough for a quick run to safety, but far enough that we avoid treacherous water."
Athos glanced up at the sails. "As I said, I know little of the sea. But it seems to me that with the wind as it is, coming from the northeast, we should make slow time heading for the shoreline. Would not we have to tack to move in that direction?"
"Aye," said the man with a broad grin. "But so would they. We'd still beat them to shallow margin, so long as they aren't a ship of mages what can defy the wind."
Athos considered. "It sounds a good plan."
The man nodded, then began shouting new orders to the men in the rigging.
Jitinder emerged from belowdecks a moment later, roused by the first mate's shouting and rubbing eyes red from lack of sleep. "What's happening?"
Athos pointed. "A ship is paralleling our course," he said.
"They fly no colors. It is a tactic used by pirates."
Jitinder nodded grimly. "A battle, then."
"Perhaps," said Athos.
"Good. I'm just in the mood for a good fight."
The crew hurried to their tasks and in minutes everything that could be done in preparation was done.
But the other ship approached no closer.
Athos waited, watching.
At long last he motioned to the first mate. "What are they trying to do?" he asked.
The man shrugged helplessly. "Mayhap they aren't pirates after all."
"Right," grumbled Jitinder. "They've been paralleling us for nigh on an hour now."
The man shrugged again. "I do not know, young masters. The Osprey is rigged for battle should she attack."
And the wait continued.
The sun climbed the sky slowly over the next three hours, and the tension grew so palpable it could nearly be seen. Every eye was on the black spot just at the edge of the horizon, waiting. Waiting. ...waiting. But it approached no closer.
"Ship to starboard!" the man in the crowsnest called down suddenly, and all eyes swung in that direction. "Ship to starboard!"
A second ship, still too far off to be identifiable, had appeared as if by magic, its sails a tiny white dot against the far-off black strip of the mainland.
The first mate cursed. "Bloody... we've played straight into their hands. The damn ship must have laid wait in some cove or inlet, then made a dash to catch us unawares."
The new ship, too, made no move to close with them, only paralleling their course from a distance.
"We're caught between them," said Athos grimly.
"What flag does she fly?" the first mate shouted up.
"No flag!" the lookout called down a moment later.
"Reinforcements," muttered Thimble. "We should have expected this."
"What do we do now?" Athos asked him.
Thimble shrugged helplessly. "How should I know? I'm a ship's mage, remember? I navigate. I'm no tactician." He gestured toward the first mate. "Ask him. He'd know better how to answer you. I'm captain in name only, and that only by your decree."
"Right," said Athos, turning to the other man. "What should we do now?"
The first mate grunted. "That's up to you, sir."
"Make a suggestion."
He scratched his head. "Not much to do now. Can't make for shallower water. They've outmanuevered us there. We're already running under full sail, so we can't hope to outrun them."
"So we sit here and do nothing?" asked Jitinder, growing edgy from the long wait. "Let them dictate when and where the battle will be fought?"
Athos stared hard at the first mate. "Stop telling me what we can't do and tell me what we can. Can we attack one of them?"
The man pursed his lips. "Aye, we could. Mayhap if we were fortunate we could close with one and destroy her before the other could reach the battle. That'd even the odds a little, and pirates hate even odds. Likely the second ship would turn tail and run if we made quick work of the first."
"Assuming there isn't a third out there somewhere," grumbled Jitinder.
Athos ignored the comment. "It sounds like a workable plan," he said. "Which ship appears the weaker?"
The man shrugged. "They're both too far off to make out much. Offhand I'd guess that the ship to starboard would be the more lightly armed of the two, simply because she sails in shallower waters."
"Right," said Athos. "Then we swing starboard and attack."
"The wind doesn't favor us in that direction," reminded the first mate. "The other ship would have the real edge, and her companion would be given the time she needs to close with us. It will be impossible to make a quick enough turn to catch it before the other one is upon us."
Athos sighed. "If we can't turn in that direction then it stands to reason that neither can the ship to port. Can we turn to port?"
"Then let's go hard port and give that ship a fight."
The man nodded. "Should we ram them?"
"Ram?" asked Athos. "Yes, of course, if we can."
"I think we can manage that, sir. Ramming positions!" he yelled to the sailors. "Hard to port!"
The stays and rigging creaked as the booms swung round, and the Osprey veered off to the left, cutting through the waves in a beeline to the ship out to sea.
"You do realize," said Thimble a moment later, "that when we ram them we'll probably get caught in their rigging."
Athos shrugged. "If we're caught together with them then I should be able to get to the men aboard. And if I can get to those men, I can kill them."
He saw Artemis, and gave her a quick nod. "You'd better get below until this is settled."
She shook her head. "I'm staying on deck with you."
"Get below," he said, brooking no argument. "You'll be safer there."
She was about to reply when there was a grinding crunching noise and a terrible vibration went through the hull of the Osprey. Men yelled in suprise and fear as the ship lurched from a fast clip to a dead standstill. It had closed to within three hundred yards of the enemy ship and had been skimming the waves at a good pace. Now it lurched about wildly, the deck pitching to a steep angle. Several crewmen were thrown off their feet and over the side by the unexpected halt.
Artemis and Athos found themselves catapulted through the air.
Athos' hands moved instantly, one catching the railing and the other catching hold of Artemis by her wrist. He secured a hold on both as they were flung over the side and into empty air.
There was a painful wrench as he was forced to support not only his own weight but hers as well. His fingers held firm though, and a moment later he had hauled them both back onto the dangerously unsteady deck.
"We're caught on a reef!" yelled someone - Athos thought it was the third mate's voice.
"Bloody hell," swore Thimble, clinging to the mainmast. "I should have known they'd have something like this prepared. Now we're in real trouble." The wild swinging of the boom must have clipped him, for there was a bruise on the side of his head and a trickle of blood coming from his scalp.
Athos had a grip on one of the belaying pins lashed to the rail.
"Do I still have to go below?" asked Artemis sardonically, clinging to the rail beside him.
He almost smiled in spite of himself. "Stay low," he instructed. "And keep near to me. Not too near; I'll be at the center of the fighting. But near enough that I can protect you." The absurdity of his logic didnít hit him until she grinned.
The ship rocked once, the timbers splintering and shrieking in protest as she heeled, then came to rest with the deck pitched at a sixty degree angle, the starboard side unnaturally far up in the air and the port railing almost beneath the water line.
Jitinder clung to the ringing at the lowest part of the deck, swinging out over the swelling waves and holding on for dear life. The tops of the waves were already over his boots; he scrambled up the line he was holding, but had some difficulty. If he gets snared in that mess and goes under, thought Athos, he's finished.
A sailor stumbled up from belowdecks, walking mostly on the wall instead of the stairs. "She's been holed!" he called. "We're taking water below!"
Athos looked out over the water. The ship to port turned slowly to starboard, making a large circle, as the one to starboard changed tack and sped towards the Osprey. It would be only minutes before the Osprey was rammed by it. "Thimble, I hope you have some powerful spells ready!"
"I do," the mage said, "but so will the sorcerers on that ship, and there's likely to e a lot more of them than there are of us."
"Hopefully they won't throw anything too high-powered at us for fear of damaging the amulet."
Thimble shook his head. "I can think of quite a few powerful spells that would kill every man board without so much as scratching it."
"Then cast some of them!"
The first ship came closer, until the men aboard it could be seen, brandishing weapons and howling in bloodlust. Even the ship's name, Ripper, stenciled on its side in small letters, became easy to see.
Jitinder climbed upwards in the rigging, somehow managing to keep his grip on his naginata - how he had ever held on to it during the sudden lurch was beyond Athos - and fighting free of the lines which had snagged him, trying to get out of the path of the oncoming ship's ram.
A moment later, with a splintering crash that nearly shook Athos from his perch, the Ripper's ram went directly over the Osprey's port railing, smashing into the main deck, piercing it at an angle almost at its center.
The Ripper hadn't quite come to a standstill when Jitinder, hurled outwards by the shock of the blow, landed on its main deck, almost on top of the men who had clustered there, banging their swords against their shields in anticipation of battle.
The action probably saved his life, for almost immediately afterward two fireballs exploded outwards, aimed towards the masts, sails and rigging of the Osprey. More than one sailor never screamed even once as he was hurled into the ocean by the force of the explosion, burned to charred and unrecognizable meat before he ever hit the water.
Most of the upper parts of the masts collapsed then, sliding along the deck with a grating sound, aflame, and sweeping several more men off the deck like some hellish broom. Their screams were drowned in the roaring of the fires.
Athos steadied himself on his perch, raising his hand crossbow and sighting along it to the far end of the ship, where a flamboyantly-dressed man he guessed to be the enemy captain stood, clustered round about with aides.
From this distance, in the uncertainty of battle and under these conditions, the shot was next to impossible to make. He took a breath and fired.
The man's body jerked, the force of the bolt lifting him from his feet and sending him stumbling backwards over the Ripper's railing, his lifeless body plummeting into the sea.
Meanwhile Thimble, who had miraculously escaped the brunt of the fireball attack and who was clinging to what was now the broken base of the mainmast, had been spellcasting, murmuring and gesturing from where he clung. He made a few more quick passes with his hands and an ice storm erupted in the thickest knot of men aboard the Ripper, freezing several of the pirates where they stood.
A moment later the pirates responded with a hail of crossbow fire aimed in his direction. He gurgled as a bolt tore out his throat, looked at Athos once in desperation, and crumpled. Several of the nearby sailors who had survived the fireballs also went down. His hold on the mainmast slipped, but the rigging caught around his neck, and his body was left dangling obscenely, his eyes staring sightlessly.
Athos was looking about desperately for some means of achieving the deck of the attacking ship. We're easy targets for them just sitting here, he thought. A burning rope caught his eye. It swung back and forth over the small area of sea between the two ships, attached to one of the Osprey's toppled masts.
He took one look at it, measuring the wild swings, and jumped.
His hands caught it as the met in midair, andhe used the momentum of his leap to carry him out over the deck of the other ship.
The rope gave way suddenly, and Athos did a complete backflip in order ot work off the unexpected extra momentum the snagging rope had given him. He landed lithely on his feet next to Jitinder, who had his back to a bulkhead and was already battling the pirates ferociously. The pirates stared in blank astonishment at the newcomer. The last thing they had expected was to be boarded.
Athos ignored the sudden pains from the burns on the palms of his hands and drew his weapons. Unlike the pirates, he did not hesitate.
Then the killing really began.
* * *
The second ship swung lazily around, always on the horizon, and made its way towards the two grappling ships. It took the second ship the better part of two hours to complete the manuver, and when it did its captain fully expected the fighting to have ceased, the Ripper to have pulled away from the Osprey, and the amulet to have been captured.
Approaching, he noted with interest and surprise that not just one, but both ships were now aflame, and still locked together.
The decks were still on both ships. Nothing moved but the flickering of the fires.
The captain of the ship Tidestorm was concerned. If the captain and crew of the Ripper were up to something, they would find that he and his men would not give up their share of the treasure easily, whether they had been part of the fighting or not.
The Tidestorm approached slowly, pulling astern of the Ripper.
The decks of both ships were littered with bodies.
Now the captain felt a vague unease gnawing at the back of his consciousness. Something was wrong here.
"What do we do, captain?" asked Khumsh, the second mate.
The captain frowned. "Board her, of course. See if there's anyone still alive. And get that damn amulet."
A few pirates leaped the narrowing gap, lines were thrown across, and the two ships were tied up to each other in moments.
"Stand by with axes to part those lines," ordered the captain. "If she starts to sink, she'll not be bringing us down with her."
"How many men shall we send aboard, sir?" asked Khumsh.
"Twenty," said the captain. "No more. Something here is not right."
He handpicked the small band himself and sent the group aboard.
"Search both ships," instructed the captain. "The amulet must be found. And have a care!"
The men climbed across the ropes which bound the ships together and began searching through the bodies.
The captain waited impatiently for several minutes when one of the pirates emerged from belowdecks of the Ripper and moved to the rail.
"The hulls have been breached, sir!" he called. "In both vessels, and they're taking on water. A lot of water! They'll be going down double quick!"
The captain cursed.
"Should I recall the men and part the lines?" asked Khumsh.
"What? No, you idiot, not until I have that amulet! Find it - that's what we do! All of you get aboard those ships. And find me that amulet!"
Quickly the bulk of the Ripper's crew scrambed onto the sinking vessels. Only a few of the captain's bodyguards and bullyboys stayed on the Tidestorm, taking up positions around the captain, who waited impatiently for news of the amulet's discovery.
* * *
Athos brushed a hand across his face, shaking off water droplets from the swim. He scrambled over the rail of the Tidestorm, followed scant moments later by Jitinder.
The Ripper's captain was lounging in a chair on the main deck, watching with interest the search being conducted on the other ships. His few remaining guardsmen, rough pirates all, were busy focusing their attention in that direction as well.
They saw a strange sight.
Nine of the corpses nearest the stern of the Ripper, including a girl, suddenly came to their feet and rushed to scramble across the lines lashed to the Tidestorm.
The guardsmen around the captain leaped forward to attack, and were cut down from behind by Athos and Jitinder almost instantly The captain jumped up, his sabre whisking from its sheath.
"Help!" he yelled across the gap. "We've been boarded. To me! To me!" He had not time to yell anything else for Athos stepped forward and engaged him. The captain's concentration was held by the young man's intricate swordplay, and he only grunted and cursed.
A few moments later, with a casual twist of his blade, Athos sent the captain's sword spinning off into the sea. The captain followed it a moment later.
The bulk of the crew, still searching, had begun to take notice of what was happening when the captain had started screaming, and now several of them scampered forward, scrambling onto the mooring ropes in an attempt to get back aboard their ship.
But Jitinder was there, severing the mooring lines and sending those pirates who had been climbing across the ropes plunging into the sea. The former pirates of the Tidestorm were left on two rapidly sinking ships.
They screamed curses and leaped into the water, but the Tidestorm drifted with the wind, and quickly was beyond swimming distance.
Athos surveyed the survivors of the Osprey. There were eight of them, not counting himself, Jitinder, and Artemis.
The former first mate was one of them. Athos realized he didn't even know the man's name.
"You're in charge," he said. "What's your name?"
Athos marveled at the strangeness of the man's name. "Is that a real name, or one you made up for yourself?"
"One I invented. I always admired the northern barbarians, so I-"
"Never mind. You're the most experienced, so you're in charge. Is it possible to sail this ship?"
The man pursed his lips and nodded slowly. "She's seaworthy enough, but we've scarcely the manpower. Barely, if we use a quarter of the sails. The going will be slow."
Athos shrugged. "Good enough. See that we reach Waterdeep. I have an urgent appointment there."
"We can get you there, but we'll not be able to do it alone. You three will have to help."
"We aren't allergic to work."