In our world filled with violence,
It is best to keep one’s enemies close
to one’s bosom.
And closer still, the bosoms of our friends.
-From the Book of St. Alban’s-
The assassin’s first attempt came as we strolled in the darkness of the inn’s walled gardens. The silence of the night was vibrant in my ears. As was the winter’s cold. The raw smell of snow looming over us filled our nostrils. A heavy snow was about to fall. In front of us I could see the glowing auras of the Zhintii brothers as they trekked along the path. Around us my Inner Eye felt the presence of distant Malaweian and Hartooth spies hiding themselves on the tiled roofs of the surrounding buildings. I could feel their collective frustrations at being unable to see anything around the inn in the heavy darkness.
I felt safe as the Mauk paladin and I quietly discussed some ideas while we walked slowly over the gravel crunching underneath our feet. Safe and relaxed, knowing no assassin was lurking in the darkness to suddenly strike. Ah, pilgrim! Even wizards lull themselves into dangerous cocoons of laxity when they rely on their magical powers too much. So it was that night.
It was not my training as a wizard which saved the paladin’s life. It was the years of training and experience as a warrior-monk. The years of surviving combat and assassination plots. Years of training to make one’s reflexes faster and automatic. I heard the rapid strumming of a bow string twice in quick succession from above and behind us. I heard two arrows cutting through the cold air downward from above and behind us. To be honest I don’t remember moving. So fast was the attack, and so fast my reactions, there was no time to become aware of what I did until it was done.
With one hand I shoved the paladin violently away from me. With the other I reached up and caught the first arrow with a sudden jab of the hand. I then twisted to one side and felt the barest touch of the second arrow’s barbed head rip through the light cloth which hid the coat of chain mail covering my chest. A mere three inches closer and the deadly barb would have penetrated the light mail and buried itself into my heart.
“Ho, there! Stop and identify yourself!” someone behind us shouted.
Dogs began barking and men’s voices lifted into shouts as they poured out of the inn in front of us. Torches were lit. Warriors loyal to the paladin flooded out of the inn and began to nosily search the area. But it was too late. He had, like an evil wraith, already disappeared into the night.
Ankor Muak stepped to my side, sword drawn, and glared at the arrow I held in my hand. Hakim and Bellus, with swords draw, stood between us and the point from whence the attack was staged.
“Humph!” the green and yellow paladin grunted, turning his gaze toward me, “You move like the wind, monk.”
Someone handed Bellus a torch and he held it up over our heads. The paladin and I looked at the black arrow I held. Black, with a distinctive barbed triangular head of hammered steel. The unmistakable signature of a Hartooth’s Shoga clan assassin.
“Uncle,” Hahim grunted when he turned to glance at the deadly object I held, “Your adversaries want you very dead. And very quickly I might add. A Shoga assassin this far north is almost unheard of.”
“Come,” Bellus growled, “Let us get out of the open air. More surprises may be lying in wait for us the longer we stay out here.”
The Mauk and his nephews turned and began moving toward the inn. I did not. I found myself staring at the arrow and frowning. I was frowning because two thoughts kept echoing over and over in my conscience. I had not felt the presence of the assassin. My Inner Eye had not seen the aura of the one who launched these two kisses of death. It was as if the darkness itself plucked the bow string and sent the feathered messengers hurtling into the darkness.
As uneasy as I felt contemplating the failure of not feeling the assassin’s presence it was the second thought which worried me more. The paths of the arrows hurled by the assassin had not been aimed toward the Mauk. They had been meant to bury their deadly barbs into my back. Deep enough to piece the heart. No Shoga clan assassin hunted the paladin. He hunted me.
Even though I wore a disguise, and even though I was sure no one recognized me, it seemed as if the Hartooth knew of my identity here in Malagna. But how? How could they know? Was all of our efforts to mask Ursla’s powerful mind from the Netherworld a failure? She had, over the recent weeks, attained some control. The caves she hid in, along with the Niscian monk and the twin Vik brothers, partially hid her powers as well. Still a powerful Null Stone, Alvus Fairhand’s power should have masked her mind from view even more. Obviously it had not.
A Null Stone assassin lurked in the darkness of Malagna. Using, with skill, the Shoga bow and their signature barbed arrows to announce his presence. But another question haunted me. Was this the act of a Dragon Shoga assassin? Or was this the first attempt to silence a Maleus Apostate from the hand of an old and accomplished Bretan assassin of legendary fame? I knew of such a creature. I knew him well. An assassin–philosopher–Null Stone. A Null Stone of immense power. Powerful enough to easily mask the unconscious mind of tiny Ursala.
He was of the Bretan. Master Breen of the monastery of St. Rolla. One of my old tutors. An old and trusted comrade. Old. But very much alive and still quite deadly. And only a journey of four days riding the powerful shoulders of a Great Wing.
Looking into the darkness, the weight of the deadly Shoga arrow in my hand, I cursed myself for the futility of the mission I wished to accomplish. If Master Breen was already hunting me, as any Bretan monk must do when a fellow monk has been labeled a renegade wizard, there would be no way I could convince him to join us. I would have no other choice in the matter. He would never stop coming after me.
In order to stop him I would have to kill him. Yet therein laid the problem. The ancients have oft stated killing a legend was nigh on to an impossibility.