The most feared assassin in Merchest has a new target...
|Ralph’s tavern was the kind of bar that all but the most desperate drinkers stayed far, far away from. Even the fact that one could go there and get passed-out drunk on roughly the same amount of coin it took to tip the ever-present beggars squatting in the surrounding neighborhood into going away didn’t help bring in the customers. A chill wind blew through its rotted wooden walls, causing the sign hung outside the door to squeak as it swung back and forth on rusted chains. The inside wasn’t much better, though there was at least a fire roaring in the fireplace to ward off the chill. It was a rather Spartan building, with just a few tables and chairs scattered around a bartender’s counter surrounded by multiple stools. The room was kept more clean then one expect from looking at it from outside, but only just as clean as it needed to be to prevent people from thinking the building was abandoned. The titular Ralph stood behind the counter absentmindedly reorganizing some of the glasses and tankards while he tried to tune out the drunken ramblings of the only customer present.
“Sho I says to him, ‘if you think I’m going to buy that anvil for that price you must think I’m shtoopid,’ and he says ‘but it’s magical, halfling-made! It makes anything made on it ash strong ash adamantine.’ Sho I laugh at ‘im an shay ‘if that was really magical you’d be sellin’ it for a lot more’n that.’ An then I walk away and he’s yellin’ at me, callin’ me an idiot and all that for misshin’ out on shuch a deal. What a jerk.” He paused for a moment to take another swig from his tankard. Ralph rolled his eyes.
“How many times do I have to say this to you: I. Don’t. Care! The only things I want to hear coming out of your mouth are ‘give me another one’ or ‘here’s the money I owe you, Ralph, sorry it took me two months to pay off my damned tab!’”
Ralph didn’t actually look like the type of person you would expect to find behind the counter of a bar. He was a fairly small person, both in height and frame, and kept both his gray-streaked black hair and a small mustache neatly trimmed. Middle aged, he had the kind of face you would expect to be trying to convince you to buy some rare, exotic merchandise instead of waiting for customers to wander into an old tavern in one of the worst areas of Merchest.
The customer glared at him and pointed his finger in an intimidating, albeit unsteady manner. “Hey, I’m a customer of yoursh and I desherve shome reshpect. Don’t make me punch you inna face.” Ralph ground his teeth but went back to his sorting. The man in front of him was a solid slab of muscle, and a confrontation would more than likely end with him extracting the glassware he was currently tending to from one of several highly uncomfortable locations on his person. The drunken lout continued his rambling, and the bartender held up a pitcher to the pale dusk light coming in through the door to see if it required any additional cleaning. To his surprise, he saw a figure through the glass, a dark grey cloak covering most of its face and body.
It slowly and deliberately stalked up to the counter and addressed the bartender in a voice as hard and edged as a steel razor, ignoring Ralph’s verbose patron. “I received your message. What do you wish to discuss with me?”
The customer turned around on his stool and addressed the man behind him. “Hey! I wash ‘ere first and ‘m not done talkin’ to ‘im yet ya rude bashtard!”
The cloaked figure shifted his focus to the surly man sitting before him. “I have important business to discuss and I am not going to be detained by a drunken degenerate.”
His face burning with anger, the customer rose to his feet. Though the man in the cloak was fairly tall, the top of his head only reached the nose of the irate man in front of him. “You care to repeat thosh wordsh, friend? You wanna take this-“
A gloved fist shot forth from the folds of the cloak at a speed almost too fast to be seen, slamming into the muscular brute’s stomach with a massive amount of force. The breath was knocked from his lungs in an audible woosh as he doubled over from the pain. A second hand emerged, swung in a downward arc until it connected with the back of the drunk’s head and sent him crashing into the floor.
Ralph glanced warily over the counter at the man now sprawled out on the ground. “By the avatars- is he dead?” he asked apprehensively.
“No. Just unconscious. Now, what-”
“You sure? I don’t think he’s breathing.”
“Yes, I am sure. I do not use lethal force unless it is a requirement of the job. It draws unwanted attention.”
“I’m just sayin’ I don’t want to have to drag that moron’s corpse out of here. I don’t even know if I could.”
“I will remove him from the premise on my way out, if he has not awoken on his own by then. What is it you wanted to discuss with me, Ralph?” the smallest hint of impatience was starting to creep into the figure’s voice.
“Alright, alright, keep your pants on. Follow me.” Ralph walked out from behind the counter and opened a door leading off from the room, which revealed a set of stairs leading into a cellar. It was just like the room above, looking old and derelict with cracked wooden walls and floorboards. Ralph walked across the floor to the opposite wall, fiddling through his pockets. “I got you another job. The guildmaster of the tailors has a problem that requires your services.” He pulled out a ring of keys, selecting one. After a moment of squinting at the wall, he inserted the key into a hardly noticeable hole and turned it. Pulling on the key with both hands, a door-sized section of wall swung out on hidden hinges, revealing what appeared to be the door of a safe. It looked very high quality, solid steel with just a single keyhole adorning its surface.
“What kind of problem?” The cloaked figure removed his hood, revealing the face of a man who looked to be in his early thirties. He had short, jet-black hair, and a pale face with highly sharp, defined features.
Ralph selected another key from the ring and inserted into the keyhole. “A man named Thomas Walker. I don’t know how much you’ve heard about those strikes that’ve been going on lately, but long story short, he’s the one behind all of it. All the laborers are striking, demanding higher wages, and insisting that Walker be named the new guildmaster. It’s gotten pretty heated lately.” He muttered a few words under his breath and small flash of light emitted from the keyhole, along with the clunk of a lock being opened. He pushed on the handle, the heavy door opening smoothly into another room. “The current guildmaster tried to take him out a couple times before now, but the guy’s smart enough and paranoid enough that he hasn’t succeeded. If he’s not dead within two days, the strike’s going force the guildmaster into negotiations with Walker, and he’s willing to pay out the ass to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
The two men stepped into the hidden room, Ralph lighting an oil lamp along the wall so he could see. Inside was what appeared to be a workspace: a desk stocked with writing supplies, bookshelves stocked with record-books, and several locked chests filled the room. Ralph grabbed one of the books from the shelf and flipped through it, pulling out several pieces of paper that had been wedged between the pages. He handed them to his cloaked companion, who looked them over carefully. “That’s the terms of the contract, as well as all the information me and the guild-master could find on this Walker guy,” Ralph said as he unlocked one of the chests and pulled a small pouch from within “And here’s the first half of your payment. Next half will come once the job’s done.” The pseudo-bartender turned the coinpouch over to his silent companion, who took it with one hand. Opening it, he looked inside, tossed it gently it slightly to get a more accurate feel for the weight, then dismissively gave it back.
“Approximately a pound of gold, correct?” With his arm extended, the cloth of his sleeve rolled down, exposing the pale skin of his arm. A simple bracelet wrapped around his wrist, a band of silver set with a thumbnail-sized opal, fitted so it clung tightly to the skin. Ralph’s eyes briefly rested on it before returning to meet his contact’s expectant gaze.
The bracelet was one of many things Ralph hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask about. It seemed incredibly strange to him that such a cold, ruthless man like Blade would bother with something as ornamental as jewelry. Still, he knew there was a reason. If there was one thing he knew, it was that Blade was a man who never did anything without purpose.
Jarring himself out of his contemplation, the assassin’s contact responded hastily. “Yeah, a pound exactly. Weighed it myself. Like I said, they’re desperate.”
“Tell them I will get the job done without a problem. I will be back in five days to make sure that the rest of my payment is settled.” He took the pouch beneath the cloak, tucking it into some concealed pocket on his person. Ralph was sure he had quite a few of them.
“Yeah, sure.” Ralph suppressed a shudder. Blade was the best assassin in the entire city and had yet to be anything but a reliable source of revenue for him, but being in the man’s presence always unsettled him slightly. It’s that stare, He thought to himself. That stare always gives me the creeps. Blade’s eyes were light blue, shining like polished ice. He hardly ever blinked, and he never just looked at anything. Every time he looked at something, you could see him calculating how he could best use it to his advantage, which was rather unnerving when he turned the gaze on another person.
Blade turned to leave, bringing up the hood of the cloak to cover his face once more. “Good luck,” Ralph called after him. The assassin turned and affixed his contact with an icy stare.
“Luck is for fools and the incompetent,” he retorted, before leaving as quickly and purposely as he had entered. Letting out an exasperated sigh, Ralph methodically closed up the secret workroom, making the same steps in reverse. He climbed back up the stairs, closed the door, and went back behind the bar. He was alone- true to his promise, Blade had removed the limp body of that troublesome oaf- or he had gotten up and left while he could still move under his own power.
Looking out the door, he could tell that the sun had finally set, and pretty soon the only light would be from the crackling fireplace off in the corner. Best to close up shop, then. Despite being a bar, anyone who would walk into the place after dark was either insane or the kind of character even Ralph wouldn’t to deal with.
As he diligently swept and wiped down the counters, spreading the dust and dirt around more evenly, his thoughts turned back to Blade. The bartender suppressed another shudder. Sometimes he wondered if it was even worth it to keep him as a contact. Then again, it was probably safer to be the one paying him. Ralph didn’t know if he could sleep at night if he knew there wasn’t a definite, logical reason for Blade to keep him alive. He looked out the door again, half expecting to see that same grey silhouette outlined against the door. Shaking his head, in an attempt to clear it he went back to his “cleaning.” He was being paranoid and he knew it. An assassin that good had better things to do than stalk around outside his door.
Though, now that he thought about it, he didn’t really know what those things were. What did Blade do when he wasn’t working? It was so hard to imagine him doing anything else. Ralph did his job for the coin, pure and simple, but Blade…most of the time it was like he didn’t care whether he got paid or not. Sometimes he would even turn down a good job just because, in his words, “it is too trivial to waste my time with.” Ralph snorted. The man had an odd sense of “trivial,” in his opinion. Some of them would have paid enough to make the average guy set for life. But no, they were “not enough of a challenge for someone of his skills.” Though, come to think of it, he hadn’t heard that for quite awhile.
He stopped momentarily, reflecting. Blade had been acting odd lately. Well, odd in different ways than he had come to expect. He hadn’t turned down a single job in months, even the ones Ralph would have sworn fell under his definition of “trivial.” He’d been more particular about money, too. Normally he wouldn’t bother asking about the payment, letting Ralph take care of it so he didn’t have to bother. Now he was holding onto the funds personally, and withdrawing as much as he could from what he’d saved. He was saving up for something, that much was certain.
Finally finishing to his satisfaction, the owner of the run-down establishment crossed the room to another set of stairs, these ones leading to a top floor far more comfortably furnished than one would expect. He was still thinking as he climbed up the creaking staircase, trying to put together all the pieces. It didn’t take him long to give up. Trying to get into Blade’s head was probably impossible, and even if it wasn’t, not something he really wanted to explore.
Still, there was one thing that was pretty obvious for someone who’d been in this “business” for as long as he had. He couldn’t count on Blade being around for much longer. In his experience, people only consolidated their funds like that when they were getting ready to hit town. Frankly, it didn’t surprise him much. Blade was the best he’d ever seen, but being the best meant he had a lot of people with a lot of reasons to want him gone. No matter what the assassin may think, it only took one person getting lucky one time, and that was the end of a legend. And considering how many people would love to have his head on a platter…Luck was not on his side.
Two days later, the first light of dawn crept over the sprawling metropolis of Merchest, and Blade gazed down at the city from his position in the belfry of town hall’s bell tower. He had chosen the location due not only to the fact that it was one of the highest buildings in the city, but the tailor’s guild was only a block away from it. He lay prone, checking the crossbow in his hands to make sure no last-minute malfunctions would affect his shot, though he highly doubted such a thing would happen. The crossbow he held in his hands was masterfully crafted, and infused with magic to increase performance. Such a routine check was more habit then anything else. However, to leave anything to chance was foolhardy- and Blade had not gotten to his position through being foolish.
Thomas Walker’s carriage was making its way down the street adjacent to the tailor’s guild, surrounded by throngs of admirers; those he had inspired to revolt against Blade’s customer. They all believed that soon his carriage would arrive at the tailor’s guild headquarters where a new deal would be struck and all their problems would suddenly disappear. He almost felt sorry for dashing their hopes. Almost.
Dressed in grey, skintight cloth that covered his entire body, with a mask covering all but his eyes, the assassin pulled a vial from one of the many pockets hidden on his person, watching the procession out of the corner of his eyes. He uncorked it, revealing a greenish paste within. Removing the bolt from the crossbow and dipping it in the vial, he made sure the tip was thoroughly coated before setting it back in place and putting the crossbow against his shoulder. If Walker didn’t die from the wound, the poison would certainly finish the job.
It amazed him how blindly stupid people could be. They worshipped Walker, seeing him as an altruistic hero championing their cause. They failed to even consider that he might have ulterior motives. It didn’t take a genius to understand what his strategy was: gain the support of all the people in a disadvantaged position and use their collective bargaining power to put himself in the guildmaster’s place. If Blade felt any remorse to begin with, the thought would have reduced the feeling somewhat. Everybody died eventually, after all. He just made it happen a little sooner.
The carriage had stopped outside the tailor’s guild now. Blade lined up his shot, lightly placing his finger on the trigger. The door of the carriage opened. The shot was from a range of roughly two hundred yards, but there was no wind and he had a clean shot. As the face of Thomas Walker appeared, stepping down to the street to the cheers of the crowd, Blade began to mutter an incomprehensible string of words. The language was strange, otherworldly, and hummed with power. Each syllable fit into the last like pieces in a puzzle, and as the sounds combined and became more complex, the faintest of shimmers began to form at the tip of the speaker’s crossbow bolt and shot forward to form a near-invisible bridge between it and the intended target.
Blade finished the spell and took careful aim, sighting down the length of his weapon. It always came down to this. All it took was the single movement of a finger and a life would reach its end. You set up a good defense, Mr. Walker, the assassin thought with quiet satisfaction, but it has proven inadequate.
He pulled the trigger, and the bolt shot forward. It streaked through the air, making a whistle that no one heard until it was too late to prevent the sickening thunk it made upon driving itself deep into Walker’s chest. For a moment, it seemed like everything was frozen in time. Then, almost in slow motion, the man who had become a champion for the people around him fell to his knees. There was screaming and yelling, guards rushing forward to try and save him. They were too late. The light had already left his eyes by the time the rest of his body hit the ground.
The few who managed to remain calm amongst the chaos looked over the buildings to try and see where the bolt had come from saw a figure standing in the belfry, silently staring down at the scene. Before anyone could move to try and chase it, it vanished.
Blade quickly climbed down from his perch, his hands and feet sticking against the stone wall like a massive, four-legged spider. Crossbow held tightly to his back by its shoulderstrap, he sprinted off as soon as he reached the ground, ducking into back alleyways and darting across streets when no other option was available. That was the problem with invisibility spells: as useful as they were, the amount of concentration needed to maintain one made it difficult to keep them up for long, and maintaining a climbing spell at the same time didn’t help. No one noticed his flight, though the slight shimmer his form made in the air as he rushed past did garner a few confused stares.
Finally, he reached his intended destination. It was an abandoned building, decrepit and on the verge of collapse. The assassin slipped inside, the door hanging on one rusted hinge providing no significant barrier to his entrance.
He dropped the spell the moment he stepped foot inside, flickering back into visibility. He hated to cut it as close as that, but this was the closest place he could find to change back safely. Looking around the shadowy room, his eyes landed on what he had come here for- a cloth satchel he had stored here earlier. Picking it up, he stuffed his crossbow inside. One of the more useful items he had decided to purchase, the bag was much larger on the inside then it would appear, allowing him to store his weapon without raising suspicion. Next, he rolled up his sleeve, exposing the silver loop that adorned his wrist. Closing his eyes, he placed a finger on the bracelet and concentrated intensely. In his mind’s eye, he pictured an average-looking man. Brown hair, brown eyes, medium build, the kind of person you wouldn’t give a second glance if you saw them on the street. That was what he was counting on, anyways.
Soon, his features began to blur and shift, matching the image he focused upon. Gray cloth became unremarkable civilian wear, his face becoming similarly disguised. His transformation complete, the assassin looped his satchel over one shoulder and prepared to leave.
“Well, well, what have we here?” Blade whipped around at the sound of the voice. He had been so deep in concentration he hadn’t heard someone else walking in. Standing in the doorway of the room he had just left was a young man, probably still in his teens, staring at him with a nasty grin plastered across his face. Everything about him screamed guttersnipe, from the ragged clothing to the crude knife he casually flipped from hand to hand. “I don’t know what you’re doin’ in my hideout, but I’m just gonna to chalk it up to a lucky fluke. For me, at least. For you, this is gonna to be the unluckiest experience of your life.”
Though he remained calm on the surface, internally Blade was berating himself for his own stupidity. With only two days to plan the job, he hadn’t had the time to properly scout out the building. He should have known some of the city’s squatters would have had the idea to use the building before he did. It was fortunate the satchel hadn’t been discovered before now. He kept a wary eye on the guttersnipe, who began to advance slowly, waggling the knife mockingly.
“Tell you what. Hand over the bag, and if there’s some nice stuff in there, I may be kind enough to letcha leave here in one piece.” Narrowing his eyes, the assassin clutched the satchel closer.
“I can assure you, if you attempt to steal my possessions, I will kill you. I will say this only once: even though I am unarmed, you cannot defeat me in single combat.” His voice betrayed no fear, and contained no arrogance. He was simply stating an undeniable fact to his would-be assailant, who only continued to move forward.
With the same condescending sneer, he shrugged. “Well, it’s a good thing this won’t be single combat then, Isn’t it?” It took Blade only a split second to understand the meaning behind the thug’s words. He quickly turned around, only to be faced with two more assailants wielding similar knives. This was not a good situation. Blade had trained so that he never would be in situations like this. A fair fight, let alone a three-on-one assault such as this, was something an assassin avoided at all costs.
Taking advantage of his target’s momentary distraction, the first guttersnipe lunged forward with a wild swipe. Blade just barely managed to dodge out of the way, his cumbersome movement leaving him wide open to the other two attackers. With a powerful thrust, the assailant’s blade was plunged deep into Blade’s chest.
Staggering backwards in surprise, the satchel he had been clutching so tightly fell to the floor. How could I have been so sloppy? He thought, staring at the metal protruding from his torso. Even now, there was no fear on his face, no emotion of any kind, except mild disbelief that he could have made a mistake.
The three thugs leered in triumph over their victory, their grins staying in place until they noticed a rather critical detail: even though their victim had a four-inch piece of metal buried inside him, he didn’t seem to be having any problem remaining on his feet. In fact, it didn’t seem to be affecting him at all. He simply stood there, looking at the blade as though it were no more then a particularity interesting spot on the wall.
As the three thugs watched in astonishment, Blade grasped the knife’s handle and withdrew the weapon with a quick jerk. His gaze moved from the knife to his attackers, who were looking at him in a mix of astonishment and abject terror. Finally, one of them spoke in a near-whisper, his voice chocked.
“Gods…it’s him…he’s the Blade…” None of them seemed able to move, paralyzed with fear as their would-be victim affixed them with his icy stare. The assassin couldn’t help but let a small smile briefly cross his face. For him, there was no greater pleasure then having his abilities recognized- and from the looks on the thug’s faces, he could tell they were quite familiar with his exploits. It was good to know that his reputation had managed to trickle down to even the lowest levels of society
“I am going to leave now. If you stay here until I exit the building, I will allow you live so that you can tell others what you witnessed today. But if you call attention to my egress in any way, I will kill you.” He spoke in a chillingly level voice. Not even a stab in the chest made him loose his calm, rational demeanor.
The spell finally broken, one of the thugs let out a terrified cry and bolted for the door. Without a second thought, Blade threw the crude knife in his hand. It flew with unerring accuracy, making two spins before sinking deep into his back and throwing him to the floor. He turned back to the other two, who quickly dropped their knives and fell to the ground submissively. Satisfied they wouldn’t cause any trouble, the killer walked up to their friend, who was still trying to drag himself away, blood dripping from his mouth as he let out a few pitiful whimpers begging for help.
Placing one foot on the thug’s back, he yanked the knife free with one hand, causing the boy to let out a gurgling shout of pain. He grasped the ruffian’s mangy hair with one hand, lifting his head off the floor, before cooling dragging the freed weapon across his throat. As the guttersnipe gasped and choked, Blade let his head fall to the floor, careful to avoid stepping in the blood that was pooling across the floor. He didn’t have an aversion to it by any means, but it would cling to his clothes and make other people suspicious.
Rising back to his feet, he adjusted his clothes to hide the tear his assailant has caused and coolly walked out the door, tossing the worthless knife behind him as he went. Emerging onto the street, he quickly blended into the other pedestrians, all blissfully ignorant of the events that had transpired just yards away.