She ran like a shadow, a simple darkening of the light on the muddy streets of Calimport’s back alleys, darting from building to building, carefully avoiding the exposing gleam of the moonlight. Even the few humans who were out that late night had no knowledge of her, dismissing the light patter of feet or the splash of a mud puddle as a rat or other sewer animal.
For Ayra Shaan-Duar had important business this night.
The half-elf assassin, one of the most famed mercenaries of Calimport’s back alleys, hired herself out to few and trusted no one. Her feminine appearance, her lithe, tanned body, russet hair, and crooked smile belied her finely honed muscles and stealth to shame the most expert thief. Many times a drunk had approached the pretty half-elf, only to stumble back astonished at the deadly flash of a dagger in Ayra’s slender hand.
Ayra Shaan-Duar loved contests, reveled in the glory of a duel against a worthy opponent.
And tonight, she had been promised the battle of a lifetime.
The half-elf slipped into the shadow of a deserted alley and ran, crouching low to the ground, until she was in sight of a tall, well-constructed building just across the street—the former headquarters of a prominent guild in Calimport, eliminated years ago.
With a furtive look to both sides, Ayra sprinted across the street to the building and opened the door.
The lobby of the guild still bore signs of the last battle it had sustained. Broken furniture lay strewn about the floor and piles of rubble were stacked where a wizard had thrown a fireball. Telltale splotches of long-dried blood marked the walls and floor.
But what the half-elf’s green eyes fixed on instantly was the door at the far end, slightly ajar, with the flicker of torchlight showing around the cracks. Knowing from experience the many traps that a wizard could set around such a door, Ayra moved cautiously, staying to the shadows.
Her hand brushed against the doorhandle—unlocked—and Ayra pushed against it, lightly.
It swung open, and the surprised Ayra saw a round wooden table, with a gathering of the most unusual variety of humans and humanoids that the half-elf had ever seen in one place.
A wizard was seated in a fancy wooden chair at the head of the table, his long gray beard brushing the edge as he drummed his fingers impatiently on the wood. He was flanked by two orcs, one carrying a gigantic halberd and the other fingering the edge of a single-bladed battleaxe. Both orcs boasted a wide array of tattoos and jewelry that jangled gratingly, the halberd-bearing one even having an immense gold nose-ring in his piggish snout. Beside the orcs was a burly man with a shaved head and a braided goatee. His muscled torso was encased by a ragged leather vest around which was strapped a belt holding a spear. Sitting near him was an armored dwarf with a tangled black beard, brandishing a short axe which he was tapping on the table, and an average-sized man in a hooded cloak with a dark moustache and beard.
All eyes turned to the half-elf, though, as Ayra entered, her shapely legs covered in dark, form-fitting trousers that ended with two stylishly tapered boots. Ayra wore a ruffled white shirt under a leather vest cut alluringly low. Her auburn hair curled temptingly to her shoulders, tied with a purple bandanna. Her cocky smile and confident bearing concealed her inward alertness.
“Greetings, Ayra Shaan-Duar,” the wizard hailed her, bowing. “I am LaValle.” As she nodded in assent, the wizard continued, “these are my compatriots. The orcish twins, Graalit and Begno”—both humanoids growled in reply—“Tengor Kennot, Loakar Stonereaver, and M’tun of Memnon.
“And this,” he concluded, to those around the table, “is Ayra Shaan-Duar.”
There was a silence as Ayra took her seat in the vacant chair, between M’tun and the orc Begno. LaValle cleared his throat, awkwardly, and then began:
“You all are great fighters, Calimshan’s most famed brawlers and assassins. Some of you rely on brawn, others on brains, still others on your skill with weapons. You enjoy proving yourselves in battle, using your talents for personal gain. I have called you here for a single purpose”—LaValle hesitated, then continued—“to kill a man who has never before been beaten.”
Involuntarily, Ayra leaned forward, intrigued by the wizard’s words, and realized the others were doing the same.
“To kill Artemis Entreri.”
Not one of those in the room could suppress an involuntary start at the words.
“Are ye crazy?” the dwarf, Loakar, said incredulously. “Kill Artemis Entreri? The bastard would have our heads on a silver platter.”
LaValle kept his face impassive, knowing it was imperative he play his cards well, play his unsuspecting puppets like strings on a harp.
“He is not unbeatable,” the wizard replied. “Despite the incredible reputation of the assassin, despite all his skill and perfection of his art, he has a weakness.”
Again, they leaned forward. Again, they listened raptly, not wanting to miss a single word.
“His pride,” LaValle said. “Entreri believes he is secure, believes he has eliminated all rivals to stand securely on the throne of Calimport. He will not dream that skilled fighters, working as a team, could possibly dare to take on the great, the terrible, Artemis Entreri.”
LaValle paused, studied their expressions. The humans and the half-elf looked skeptical still, but the orcs looked slightly pacified by the compliment he had paid them, and the dwarf was obviously thinking the matter over.
“And think of the glory you would win if you kill Entreri! You would be the revered of Calimport, of the entirety of Calimshan! The team of fighters who defeated Entreri—people would be scrambling in the streets to hire you!”
“Or scrambling to collect our dead bodies when he kills us all,” grumbled the dwarf, but LaValle sensed he was weakening.
“It’s a great risk,” muttered Tengor doubtfully.
“Yes, but the rewards are beyond imagining,” said M’tun, half to himself and half to the others. “What do you say, half-elf?”
Ayra shook her russet curls from her shoulders. “It would be a challenge,” she grinned, “but I love challenges.”
“Bah, I’ll have to join ye then,” growled Loakar. “Never would it be said that a Stonereaver was shown up by a half-elf!”
“We kill puny human good,” agreed Graalit, and banged his halberd on the floor.
Everyone looked to M’tun, who simply shrugged helplessly.
And so the plan to kill Entreri had begun.
* * * * *
The assassin sat in his chair, his chin resting on the palm of his outstretched hand. He wouldn’t have been recognized on the street, for Artemis Entreri was rather nondescript, a man with slightly graying black hair cropped short and a dark moustache and beard. He was approaching his late forties, but did not nearly look it; a casual observer would have put the man at no more than mid-thirties. Entreri’s constant, relentless training had preserved his youth on the outside, but a close observer would have seen that the man’s face was drawn and haggard, almost skeletal.
And his eyes! Gray and cold, without compassion, indifferent to other’s troubles, but alert and wary. They betrayed no hint of Entreri’s inner self, for the assassin had suppressed it to the point of becoming a shell, transforming himself into a pure killer, no feelings or emotions beyond what the assassin chose to show on the surface.
Entreri was the archetype of a physical fighter, his entire being focused on that which he had perfected. Only rarely did Entreri allow himself to slip back to his feelings, to move out of the present and look to his future, and even more rarely to his past.
And those times were becoming all the more rare as of late.
These were the thoughts of Artemis Entreri as he slumped listlessly against the sides of his chair, contemplating the world from a perspective that he almost never viewed it from.
A creak from the door downstairs jolted the assassin out of his reverie. He drew his jeweled dagger, always ready at his side, and skirted the floor space to the stairs, creeping downstairs with the stealth of a cat. He saw nothing, but that was of little significance in this room of shadows. The only sign anything had happened was the door, hanging open and allowing a shaft of moonlight to peer through.
And then Entreri’s reflexes sprang to life as a huge orc wielding a halberd leaped from the shadows, surprisingly agile. The polearm’s sharp point was aimed right for his chest, and the average person could not have hoped to block the amazingly quick and well-aimed blow.
But Artemis Entreri was not any average person.
The assassin’s jeweled dagger was up, deflecting the stab of the halberd’s spike and turning it aside and to the left as Entreri smoothly stepped to the right, following the angle of his parry. He flipped the dagger to his left hand and drew his saber, smiling perilously as he circled the orc.
Then Entreri was surprised again as another orc jumped at him from behind, swinging an axe. Entreri barely dodged aside as the axeblade smashed into the wooden floor. As the orc struggled to extricate it, the assassin kicked him in the chest, twisting to block another blow from the other orc’s halberd.
The odds had changed, and not in the assassin’s favor, as the two large, well-armed orcs, obviously skilled with their weapons, moved in on him, grinning as they anticipated an easy kill.
Entreri shot aside, avoiding both the axe’s chop and the halberd’s slash. Too late the assassin realized the halberd-orc had worked a feint, and doubled over as the polearm’s butt hit him in the belly.
And the other orc came across, spinning his axe and bringing it down in a slicing downward angle.
Enteri, however, was less badly hurt than he had pretended, and both his weapons flew up to intercept. The orc’s pure strength jarred the assassin, but the block was perfect and the orc retreated a few paces, lining up his next attack.
Entreri realized the halberdier was approaching from the side and turned, deflecting a thrust and then following up, twisting his saber away from the halberd and stabbing it in. As the orc stepped back away, Entreri came across with his dagger, and the orc slapped it aside with the shaft of its weapon.
Then Entreri attacked with his saber, slashing in a flurry that the orc could barely block, and didn’t try to, stepping back across the room toward the corner. Entreri pressed it hard, coming across speedily with the saber, and then changing its angle so that it slid in a thrust toward the orc’s throat.
To his surprise, the orc got up its halberd in time to block the blow.
But that was exactly what Entreri wanted.
His jeweled dagger arced in from the side, cutting the orc deeply, but not fatally. The beast snarled at Entreri defiantly.
But then it went limp, its ugly face frozen in an expression of pure horror as it realized the potent magic of the weapon. Entreri merely smiled wickedly as he felt the orc’s life force being sucked from its body and transferred to him, as he felt his aches healed and his energy renewed that he had expended in the fight.
And the dead orc slumped to the floor.
Then a throwing axe slammed into the wall beside Entreri, and the assassin spun around, seeing a dwarf and a stocky human running through the doorway. Now faced with three opponents, two of whom were fresh, the assassin backed away, retreating toward the stairs.
M’tun drew a longsword, its gleaming blade slightly curved and wickedly sharp, and ran to the attack, Loakar right behind him.
Both blades swung at the same moment, M’tun coming at Entreri high, and Loakar’s axe arcing low for the man’s midsection. They were both experienced fighters, more so than the orc’s Entreri had just faced, and Entreri quickly aligned his defenses, swinging his saber up to block M’tun’s downward slash and twisting his dagger to deflect Loakar’s axe aside.
Entreri stepped backward up the first step, both his blades working furiously to parry both the man and the dwarf’s attacks. His leg snapped out, forcing M’tun to retreat a step, and he twirled his saber in a series of flourishes to deter the man from attacking, all the while evading or intercepting Loakar’s attacks with his jeweled dagger.
Ayra, watching the fight from her vantage point upstairs—she and Tengor had stolen in when Entreri went downstairs to engage the orcs—was struck speechless by the assassin’s perfect command of his weapons.
Entreri was now halfway up the staircase, holding off three opponents—Loakar, M’tun, and Begno—as he retreated, impossibly managing to hold them all off.
From his hiding place upstairs, Tengor saw his chance to catch the assassin unawares, and he rushed, his spear thrusting for Entreri’s unguarded back.
The assassin could not have seen it coming, but some sixth sense, some warrior’s reflex, told him of his impending doom and he flipped, soaring over his three astonished attackers and kicking Begno and M’tun as he passed, then grabbing the banister and leaping to the floor. M’tun had to get his sword up to parry the spear of the off-control Tengor.
Entreri, seeing the four opponents before him, again retreated, running out the door and trying to get away from the horde of killers and lose them in the streets.
His hope was abruptly ended when there was a crash of glass and Ayra leaped from the upstairs window, landing right in front of the surprised Entreri as the four others closed in from behind.
Entreri got both his weapons up in time to block the sideward slash of Ayra’s fine scimitar, then removed his saber from the block and thrust twice at the half-elf’s neck, forcing her to retreat.
The assassin knew his advantage would not last long, though, not when her four companions closed in.
So the assassin went for the unexpected, falling into a backwards roll and lashing out at Begno’s legs, forcing the orc to leap aside.
And, in that instant, Entreri was up. Surprised and off their guard, every one of the group was vulnerable, but the most defenseless was the burly Tengor, his long-hafted spear unwieldy in the close-quarter situation Enteri had just effected.
Entreri’s jeweled dagger stabbed for the man’s throat, and the man twisted his spear-shaft to block, but a saber slashed down, splitting the man’s skull even as the dagger thrust into his belly.
And the assassin sprang aside, avoiding Begno’s axe and bringing his saber across the shaft to force it down. Normally, Entreri could then have finished him off, but Loakar and M’tun both attacked, forcing him to back off to avoid their blows.
Loakar drew another hand axe and flung it at Entreri, but the assassin dodged and the missile only grazed the edge of his cloak. Another followed, though, and Entreri barely got his saber up in time to deflect it.
A scimitar came in for his side, and the assassin parried it with his dagger, twisting it out of the parry a second later and kicking Ayra aside. Then Loakar swung for his chest, and Entreri blocked, very close in where he was vulnerable.
But the dwarf had overextended himself, and he had exposed his vulnerable chest and neck, a mistake Enteri took advantage of by slicing Loakar’s throat with his dagger.
Begno, seeing the assassin finishing off Loakar, gave a roar and charged in from the aside, thinking Entreri off his guard.
He realized his error a second later when Entreri’s dagger slipped between his ribs.
Ayra and M’tun looked at each other, realizing the skill of this master assassin, and M’tun, considering the odds and the fact Entreri had just killed five of his companions, decided the best course was to run.
Unfortunately, Entreri had sensed M’tun’s course, and a jeweled dagger flashed in the moonlight, spinning unneringly from Entreri’s hand and burying itself in the small man’s unguarded back.
M’tun’s body toppled to the ground.
Ayra drew a second scimitar from a back scabbard and spun her blades in an arc as she rushed at Entreri, hoping to get to him before the assassin could recover his dagger.
Entreri met her with a flurry of slashing blades, a display of amazing swordsmanship Ayra could barely block, let alone counter. The half-elf retreated, frantically parrying the dazzling weapons, while Entreri pressed forward, his gleaming smile terrifying her. His control over his weapons was precise, his movements measured and exact.
Ayra deflected his saber and tried to counter with a thrust, but the assassin was too quick and slashed at her, ripping her ruffled sleeve and drawing a line of blood on her tanned skin. With a growl, she rammed him with her shoulder and aimed a double thrust at his head, but he ducked beneath the blades and grabbed her around the middle, laughing.
He made as if to kiss her, and Ayra jerked away, but the assassin just laughed all the louder and kicked her legs out from under her, and she fell.
The half-elf knew she was beaten, knew she had never been so overmatched by anyone she had ever fought. Entreri could predict her moves precisely, get his blades in position to counter her attacks before she had even begun them.
Entreri laughed again, knowing her thoughts as he raised his saber to finish her off.
But Ayra was not finished yet, and she kicked the assassin in the groin. As he doubled over she slashed viciously at his head, but Entreri grabbed her wrist and twisted, forcing her to drop the scimitar. She managed to turn her hand inward, grasping for one of the knives hidden in her jerkin, but his jeweled dagger came across, slashing the bindings of her vest so it fell to the ground.
“Perhaps I will not kill you, not at once,” said the assassin, smiling his terrible smile. “You give me good sport.” Then his expression changed, and his saber was up to her throat, cutting ever so slightly and drawing a thin line of blood. “Or perhaps I will change my mind.”
“Please,” Ayra begged.
Entreri’s smile showed a complete indifference, a complete disregard for her, and the woman realized she was a pawn, just another object to torture in Entreri’s schemes.
She was an insect, Ayra realized, a mere nothing before Entreri.
But then the assassin’s expression grew thoughtful, and his grip relaxed, ever so slightly. Ayra saw a flicker of—was it pity?—in the gray eyes, but it quickly was overshadowed by the cold mask the assassin wore.
“What would you do if I let you live?” muttered Entreri
“Anything!” Ayra pleaded. “Please, I beg of you!”
Entreri looked at her, dropping the cold, stony facade, and Ayra saw remorse, even sorrow.
“Calihye,” Entreri whispered, and Ayra understood he was not seeing her, but seeing something from his past. Then he shook his head, as if clearing his thoughts.
“Go,” Entreri said, and Ayra shook her head, hardly understanding.
“Go!” Entreri repeated, more harshly, and released her. Stunned by his unexpected action, Ayra fell to the streets.
Entreri’s voice was a tortured whisper. “Go, and never return, or your death will follow swiftly.”
Ayra was only too happy to oblige. The half-elf scrambled up and was gone in another instant, running away, far away from Entreri.
Entreri fell to his knees, remembering a half-elf he had loved, and lost.
And he screamed his denial.
Edited by Ar-Adûnakhôr, 15 August 2009 - 01:22 AM.