Angel of Death, Chapter 31
The Shining Cradle was crowded this day, though not so crowded as Jitinder might have expected.
He entered, scanning the room for any sign of Athos and finding no trace of him.
Scowling in frustration, he looked again. Athos was not here.
He looked to the barkeep. A short, balding dwarf was behind the bar, serving a few customers. By all accounts the Viper was human, in form if not in heart, so this could not be him.
His eyes drifted over the room again, searching for any other man who might fit the description of the master assassin.
Near the bar stood a lone man with a longsword strapped to his back. He was tall and fairly wiry, and his movements were confident, sure.
Farther away a tall rugged man sat casting sulen glances at all who happened to look his way. Jitinder couldn't immediately tell what weapons the man was armed with, but he also matched the general physical description of the assassin.
Nearer the bar but to the left sat a man toying with a dagger. He twirled it between his fingers expertly and sat as if waiting for an appointment.
There were others, but these three drew his immediate attention.
Just then Artemis burst through the tavern's doors, colliding with Jitinder's back.
He whirled. "What are you doing here?" he hissed. "Fool girl, don't you know you could get hurt?"
Her jaw set stubbornly. "Why is everyone suddenly treating me like some sort of porcelain doll? You never used to. I can take care of myself."
"Sure," he said, "in ordinary situations. This is not one of them. The Viper will be here, if he isn't already. Anywhere near him is too dangerous for you. If I had known you were going to follow me I would never have left the ship."
"But you did leave," she said, "though Tyr alone knows why."
"To get a shot at the Viper. You know that."
"So it's alright for you
to run off and get killed trying to get revenge, but it isn't acceptable for me to try to find out what happened to Athos. All you care about is your vengeance! You really don't care at all what happens to him, do you?"
"I sure do," said Jitinder. "I want him dead."
"Not the Viper. Athos."
He shook his head. "What? Well of course I... what's that got to do with it? You've got to get back to the Tidestorm, where it's safe."
"No I don't. I'm sitting down right here and waiting for Athos. There isn't any danger here unless you're stupid enough to take on the Viper, and though you're fool enough to try I doubt you'll get the chance. The Viper doesn't want me dead. Doesn't care about either of us."
"You're a stubborn fool!"
She sat down at one of the tables.
"A woman in love!" he muttered under his breath in frustration, but a moment later he joined her. "You've got to keep low. Run at the first sign of danger."
* * *
The Viper was pleased. It seemed that fate had favored him.
Now he had an adequate replacement for that fool wizard, LaValle, who had dared to defy him. Two of them, actually, though he suspected the girl would serve his purposes better than the young man.
Everything was going according to his plan.
Now all that was missing was Athos.
* * *
Athos made his way quickly through the streets, retracing the route the guardsmen had taken.
He entered the Dock Ward again and opted for returning to Dock Street and retracing his original route to The Shining Cradle in favor of taking the less-direct path the guardsmen had followed.
In a few minutes he stood once again before the tavern. This time there was no-one to stop him.
It was a small and comfortable looking place, the kind of spot locals frequented, and Athos wondered for a moment whether this was the correct location.
He dismissed the thought from his mind. The Viper always made deadly situations look appealing.
He entered, and was surprised to find the place fairly crowded. He spotted the Viper almost immediately, even through the disguise, and started forward.
The sound of a familiar voice to the right caught his attention, and he shifted slightly, glancing in that direction peripherally. A chill went through him. Both Artemis and Jitinder were here, sitting at one of the tables near the far wall. They were conversing in low tones, and neither had spotted him yet.
He was so shocked that he barely restrained his impulse to look at them. He forced his eyes back to the assassin. There was a chance, however slim, that the Viper did not yet know who they were. He would not betray their presence.
He tried to walk briskly and nonchalantly, hoping to pass them unnoticed, but to his chagrin, Jitinder stood suddenly and approached, meeting him in the center of the room.
"Which one is the Viper?" he asked as he came near, studying the three men he had earlier picked out as possible matches.
"The barkeep," replied Athos tersely, knowing now that the Viper would realize something was wrong. "Get back to your seat."
"The barkeep," blurted Jitinder, surprised. "But he..." His voice trailed off as he began to note details about the dwarf he had earlier failed to notice. The barkeep was very tall for a dwarf, almost human-sized. He had thought earlier that there must be some sort of raised platform behind the bar, but now... It was the way he had been standing which gave the impession of smallness. And something about he beard was wrong somehow...
"Why is Artemis here," said Athos. "You know the danger-"
"She followed me. Stubborn idiot. You know how some people are - you tell them and tell them not to come, but they do anyway."
"Yes," said Athos wryly. "Like you." His eyes darted to the side. "There!" he hissed, and Jitinder turned.
Athos clipped him on the back of the head and Jitinder dropped like a stone.
"Get him out of here," he said to Artemis. "Now."
Artemis, pale-faced, rushed forward and took hold of Jitinder's limp form and pulled him back to the table.
Athos cursed himself and turned away.
The Viper smiled as he approached. "What'll it be then, ye'r worship?"
Athos scowled and held up the amulet.
"Oh!" said the dwarf. "Follow me, then."
He led Athos back to a room behind the main tavern area.
"Very impressive," said the assassin, letting his disguise fall away. "You've completed your first test." He took the amulet.
"Just out of curiosity," asked Athos, "what if someone else had come with it? Would you have paid the gold bounty?"
The Viper laughed. "Of course. And then I would have killed him. Anyone who can take out a protege of mine is far too dangerous to be allowed to live."
A few moments passed in silence.
"Was there anything else you wanted to know, since you're feeling curious and I'm feeling generous?" asked the Viper.
Athos took a deep breath and steeled himself for the question he knew he had to ask. "How many more tests will there be?"
The Viper's eyes narrowed. "Two."
Athos' heart jumped into his throat. He had not expected this. He paused, bracing himself, and dared to ask another question. "Will I be free of you once the tests are complete?"
"Irrevocably," said the Viper, a strange look in his eyes. "Should you survive all three tests, you will never see me again."
Athos nodded slowly. It was more than he had hoped for. "And how much longer will it be before I am finished with them?"
"That depends on you," said the Viper. "Not long. Perhaps before the day ends."
Athos nodded. "What is the second test?"
"The girl in the tavern room," said the Viper. "The one who came into port with you. Kill her. That's all."
Athos was frozen in complete and utter shock. He felt as if he had been kicked in the solar plexus by a warhorse. Every hope he had ever had drained from him.
"It need not be done discreetly," continued the Viper, as if he hadn't noticed the blood drain from Athos' face. "Broad daylight is perfectly acceptable. You may kill her in any way you wish. Time is no obstacle. I will give you... two weeks, if you wish. Though were I you, I would do it as soon as possible. This is a lesson you must learn."
"You bastard," said Athos in a hollow voice when he finally found his breath. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"
The assassin gave him a blank look. "Are you going to do it or not?"
Athos sneered. "You know that I am. You know that I cannot refuse you. I am trained to obey." His voice took on a bitter rage. "To refuse you is to die. But why?" The last word was nearly a shout.
"Because you are still in training," said the assassin. "Because you are not yet the weapon I am crafting you to be. You fell prey to the illusion of love. I will have this weakness tempered out of you. The blade I forge will be pure. You will divorce yourself from all emotion. All emotion. You will obey."
Athos stared at his master for long minutes. At last he turned, walking back into the main tavern-room.
The Viper watched him go, a faint smile on his lips.
Athos walked with almost wooden steps towards the table where Artemis sat. He was curiously emotionless. His entire body was numb in the realization of what he would do.
"I've been told to kill you," he explained calmly, looking down and raising the dagger that Khelben had given him.
Here eyes widened for a moment.
"Do you trust me?" he asked.
She nodded. "I trust you."
"Then listen to me carefully. When the dagger comes down, you have to run - as fast and as far as you can. Don't ever look back for me; I won't be there. Today I die. I'll try to hold him as long as I can. Ready?"
"Athos-" she said, her eyes tearing up. She choked on the word.
He realized his hand was trembling. He forced himself to calm. No! There was no time for goodbyes! "Ready?" he asked again, keeping his voice level.
Despite his efforts, something wet glistened in his eyes. "I love you," he said simply.
A tear trickled out of the corner of her eye and slid down her cheek. "I love you," she said. "Always."
Jitinder had been awake for several moments by then, listening quietly, and Athos looked at him. "Here's your chance, Jitinder. Here's your chance to take the Viper."
He gave a bitter smile. "I've waited my life long," he said. "Don't make me wait any longer."
Athos nodded to him, then looked to Artemis. Their eyes locked together for one timeless moment.
And then the dagger flashed down, cutting the air near Artemis' throat before swerving to the side.
"Now!" yeled Athos. "Run!"
Jitinder leaped up, naginata in hand as Artemis dashed for the door. Athos whirled to face the Viper.
And the Viper went into motion.
The dwarf disguise fell completely away as his two katanas leapt out of nowhere to appear in his hands, and he lunged frward, crossing the room in a hearbeat.
Jitinder and Athos struck forward as one.
Almost contemptuously the Viper parried both Jitinder's naginata and Athos' newly acquired magical weapons.
He lashed out with a kick that sent Jitinder tumbling backwards, and aimed a flurry of light blows at Athos' head.
He had brushed by them both in another instant and was out the door, running in the direction Artemis had gone.
"NO!" cried Athos, sprinting out on the Viper's heels, Jitinder right behind him.
As he sprang out the door he caught a glimpse of the Viper speeding around the corner of the building. He followed.
The Viper was fast and the gap between them widened as he flung a crate back at Athos, striking him in the knee and sending him to the ground.
Jitinder leaped over Athos' sprawling form and continued the chase around the next corner.
Athos was on his feet instantly, but battle had already joined.
By the time he had rounded the next corner, it was over.
* * *
Artemis stumbled and fell, and the Viper kicked her once, in the back of the head, knocking her senseless. He whirled to face Jitinder.
Jitinder lunged and feinted twice, his naginata humming.
The Viper parried and double thrust.
Jitinder knocked the first thrust aside easily, but the second thrust was a feint, and the Viper whirled it back, then sent it whispering through Jitinder's
For a moment they stood frozen, the blade of the Viper's katana plunged through Jitinder's body. Then the Viper pulled back, and Jitinder collapsed to his knees, looking down at the blood gushing forth from the terrible wound in disbelief. His blood.
He looked back up at the Viper, who was watching him intently, and feebly touched the wound with his fingers. "No-one is that fast," he tried to say, but his mouth filled with blood and he slumped back against the wall, his eyes already glazing in death.
The Viper raised his katanas and turned to Artemis.
* * *
Athos rounded the corner in time to see the Viper hunched over Artemis. His katanas were wet with her blood.
"No!" he screamed. "NO!"
The Viper stood and looked at him. "It was nothing personal. If it is any consolation at all, she didn't give me a last look to paint, though your friend did."
Athos glanced to the right to see Jitinder's body slumped against the wall.
Everything that was human drained from Athos at that moment. He felt his control snap.
"I'm going to kill you, Entreri," he said, very quietly.
The Viper cocked an eyebrow. "Skipping to the final test, are you? And exactly how did you learn my name?"
Athos said nothing. He merely stepped forward, combat stance but weapons by his sides.
The Viper tsked. "Your weapons aren't in ready position. I could kill you where you stand."
The Viper smiled, then lunged with blinding speed, one katana aimed at Athos' throat.
Athos side-stepped, his weapons whistling into motion. Impossibly he parried the Viper's attack, and the assassin's eyes widened.
"Very good, boy," he said. "I'm impressed. But it will take more than a miracle to save you now."
The magical weapons Khelben had gifted him with sang as they sped forward in Athos' next blinding attack.
The Viper deflected them easily and began to circle, expecting Athos to back off as he often did in training sessions.
Instead Athos pressed forward, his weapons arcing back and forth, and the Viper was hard pressed to stand his ground as he blocked a flurry of blows.
Still the blows fell, and the Viper backed slightly. "You're tiring," he said, knowing that Athos could not sustain this pace.
Athos said nothing as he pressed in even harder.
Finally the Viper managed to go into the offensive just as he was backed almost to Jitinder's body.
He swept Athos' blades to the side, and saw an opening.
Just as he lunged forward he felt a searing pain explode in the back of his left leg.
Glancing down, he saw that Jitinder's naginata had swept out, slicing through his hamstring. Jitinder's eyes were open and staring sightlessly at the sky, but his face was set in a grim smile. Some things went beyond death, apparently.
The assassin's left leg collapsed beneath him, and he went down on one knee, one katana flicking behind him briefly as he made certain that Jitinder was dead.
Athos came down then, and the Viper once again had to block a series of blows. This time because of his wounded leg he had no mobility, so it was twice as difficult.
He feinted and Athos lunged, and opening presenting itself to the assassin. He struck out for it and Athos revealed a counterfeint as he batted the blow aside, then lunged into the opening the Viper had left in his own defenses.
This time it was the Viper who revealed a counterfeint as the opening Athos aimed for closed impossibly quickly and his weapons were swept to the side, almost torn from his grasp.
The Viper used the opening, the split-instant that Athos was off balance, striking in a killing blow.
But Athos had never been off-balance, revealing his feint as he blocked the strike and moved in to finish the assassin off. The Viper smiled grimly, revealing that he had never seriously lunged in the first place as he recovered himself instantly and parried Athos' blows aside, nearly knocking the dagger from his hands. The young man was sent reeling and his defenses fell for just a moment. The assassin went straight for the heart. This battle was over now. He had expected, almost hoped, for more of a fight from his pupil, but he was Entreri and he had never been beaten at anything. He almost wanted to prolong the battle, as if savoring a great meal, but he was Entreri, and he killed as quickly and efficiently as he could.
Athos neatly recovered his balance - which he had never truly lost in the first place - and stepped around the lunge. He planted his dagger in the Viper's left eye as his shortsword pierced the assassin's heart.
The Viper was stunned as he realized he was dead.
He looked down with his good eye at the shortsword embedded in his chest, the movement of his head wrenching the hilt of the dagger from Athos' hand. "I am the Viper," he said. "I cannot die!"
Then he laughed, a cruel and bitter laugh that brought up blood. "The game is over. I wish I could see my face," he said, and died.
* * *
They found him huddled over Artemis' body, his shoulders heaving with sobs. When they lifted him, they saw that his face was devoid of tears, his expression blank. His eyes unblinking.
He would not respond to anything they did.
"We should put him to death," said Percival after consideration. "It would be a mercy."
"Not so, my lord," replied Thenedain, bowing low. "This man is clearly insane. He must be studied, lord. I would be willing to offer a large sum-"
"I want no part of bribery," snapped Percival.
"You will admit, my Lord," said Grimwalde, interrupting, "that this man is insane. He is by his very nature innocent of any offences against the city. Putting him to death might seem a mercy, but it would be a waste. It is possible that we might be able to use him for study, so that others like him might be cured. Think of the good that might be accomplished."
Percival fingered his chin thoughtfully. "For the good of others, I will not put him to death. I will consult the other Lords of the city on the matter.
"If we do decide he should be given over to you for study, I will insist that he be kept within Waterdeep - under lock and key."
"But-" Thenedain protested, but Grimwalde cut him off.
"We would be delighted at the chance to move our base of operations to your fair city."
* * *
"Athos?" asked Grimwalde, trying to get him to move. "Athos, get up."
He looked up at the mage blankly. "Athos is dead," he said. "That was another person, another lifetime. I am the Entreri. The... Artemis Entreri."
Grimwalde turned to his assistants. "Strap him down. He may become violent."
The dark ritual was about to begin.
Hundreds of cultmembers filled the dark cavern with their moaning as the great pillar of fire in the stagnant pool rose to greater and greater heights, finally burning upwards into the solid rock that made up the chamber's ceiling.
Hodkamset and Nekiset did obscene things before the pool.
Hamsetis watched from the back end of the chamber, absorbed in the spectacle.
There was a power here, a malign and evil power. It was tangible in every corner of the vast chamber.
The ritual went on for hours more before the body was carried in by ten priests.
It was set on an alter, and then the ten priests slowly - and in excrutiating pain - sacrificed themselves for the greater glory of Set.
Hodkamset and Nekiset came forward then, and began casting spells on the body, using a mix of the strongest wizard and clerical magic to strengthen it so that it might be able to hold the sheer power of the essense of a god.
It was hours more when they finished, but the chanting of the cult did not waver. If anything it grew stronger.
The flames, which had turned black some time ago, now rose to their highest point, burning a hole through the cavern floor to the surface above.
And the Viper's remaining eye opened.
He screamed then as the dark god Set entered him, and rolled off the alter to lie twitching on the floor.
All bowed before him.
* * *
Pook sat contentedly on his divan, plucking fruit from its bowl and stuffing his face.
The Viper was dead, and now the final obstacle to his rise to power in Calimport was removed.
Now he simply needed a way to consolidate his power, and he knew it woud not be long before he found it.
* * *
Deep beneath the Snowflake Mountains, within a lethal dungeon complex never penetrated or even constructed by any man, lay a pedestal.
Atop the pedestal sat a gem, as large as dwarf's fist and colored red.
It sparkled with magical might and, if there had been anyone there to witness it, it would have caught their immediate attention, for the gem was magically imbued with the ability to sway minds. All it needed was someone to hold it.
And that someone would be arriving very soon, it sensed.