Waiting Game Sample Chapter II
Shade stalked the streets of Jile, his leather boots splashing down the gray slush road. Ordinarily, Dark Elves were killed on sight in Doljinaar, but Jile was a different kind of town, a town steeped in shadows…a refuge for criminals, runaway slaves, half-breeds, night mortals and others who wished to remain out of the public eye. Doljinaar may have bothered to wipe Jile off the map like a solider might wipe a smudge off his shiny breastplate, had the seedy town not been so remotely located in the sodden, stinking heart of the Ice Marshes.
Shade pulled his black travel cloak more tightly about him, but kept his hood down. The harsh late winter wind blew fiercely against his cheeks. He breathed deeply and enjoyed his last few frigid gusts of free, unoppressed air. The Dark Elf could show his face in scarce few places out west. He pressed briskly down the puddled road anxious to reach Kurn. It had been too long since he had crossed blades with a worthy adversary. Warlord Lewd would be a target of high honor, and the assassin hoped, high challenge.
Rowdy taverns, steamy brothels, and closed shops with barred windows lined the gray trod streets of Jile. Men braved the winter roads, too many fiery passions and too much frosty ale burning in their bellies to feel the full effects of the cold. Jile scraped the bottom of the barrel of human society. Shade saw among their number hard-featured, dark-haired Doljinns, husky long-bearded Haradrik, fiery redheaded Braznians, brawny black-bearded Grulls, the feisty braided topknot-wearing Tulestines and the greedy jewel-covered Shamites. Most were wanted men—thieves, rapists and murderers masquerading under false pretenses.
Shade squinted smugly as the very din on the streets died down to a low murmur. Every eye followed the deadly Dark Elf. Harlots calling down to men from porches and balconies offering warm beds and hot bodies, stilled to quiet purrs at his passing. A group of merrymakers rounded a corner roaring a drunken song. They laid eyes on Shade and turned back. Even the hardest warriors held their breath and thieves shrunk back into the alleys, but it was not just men who feared him.
Shade saw the dim glowing yellow eyes of a Doelm runt staring at him from an alleyway. The Dark Elf’s piercing night vision could see the Doelm down to the finely tuned details. The runt had dark indigo skin and a fierce warlike face. His long black matted hair rested on his butcher’s apron. His massive heaving chest had been scarred with self-inflicted claw marks, evidence of his tribal upbringing. Thick tufts of hair grew down his beefy back and all the way down the length of his arms. His fist was clenched, but the assassin could discern the runt’s long black fingernails capable of goring out the inside of a man’s chest.
Jile was the only town in all Covent where Doelms lived freely among men. Most of them were runaway slaves, not much taller than five-feet, runts by the standards of their race. They were the kind that would not last two seconds in the Kurn underworld, the kind that would be branded nothing but grueling laborers back in their own black country, but Shade knew better than to underestimate even these stunted Doelms. What these runts lacked in height, they more than made up in girth and the brutal savagery common to their race. Shade had seen more than one Doelm runt tear a boastful man limb from limb nearly twice his size in a drunken scuffle.
Shade chuckled as the runt averted his gaze, a sign of submission. The assassin drunk in the Doelm’s respect, a silent toast passing between two of night’s most savage sons. Dark Elves were feared the world over, heralding from the black forests of Jui-Sae, though seldom seen outside its dark borders. Nor were such borders seldom violated. Jui-Sae, Forest of Darkness. The mere utterance of its name roused in other races nightmarish visions of a black forest littered with the bones of a thousand butchered trespassers. The Unseen guarded Jui-Sae. Anyone who crossed into Jui-Sae held their breaths, eyes searching wildly for these infamous invisible assassins. Death came suddenly and without warning.
Shade too had been trained in the ranks of the Unseen, but living in the outside world had helped him come to understand that his people could wield as much power in seen form as unseen. He knew all too well how to twist the deadly legends of his people to his advantage. He had found early in his career that merely casting off his hood and revealing his dark heritage could tip the outcome of a deadlock into his favor. Shade used to relish the moment when a worthy adversary blinked in stunted recognition and the Dark Elf seized the opening to deliver a killing blow. But he no longer needed such trifling advantages. He couldn’t remember the last time he had the privilege of facing a worthy foe.
The assassin hurried down the street. He heard a loud crunch of snow behind him. Then another footstep and still another…as if someone were trying to shadow his steps, but failing miserably. He was being followed. He pressed on. Whoever tracked him was clumsy and heavy-footed. They were certainly not the stealthy footfalls of a Shaltearan Assassin. That at least might give him due cause for concern.
Wood splintered and cracked. Shade’s head snapped in the direction of the noise. His hands found his blade hilts.
Two bodies tumbled down the stairs of The Pig’s Trough eat house. A pair of fiery red-haired Braznian warriors rolled around in a snowdrift swapping punches in a drunken brawl. The assassin exhaled in relief. It was rumored that Braznian men feared nothing; that they looked death in the face and laughed. Funny. Shade had never found much credence in the rumor, not in Jile, not since he had personally castrated the first few who had dared press their luck. Braznian eunuchs weren’t very popular among the ladies.
Shade stopped, glaring in annoyance.
The men froze. Their scarred features turned white with horror when they recognized the legendary assassin and the unfortunate fact that they now blocked his path through the street. In fact, they inconvenienced him so much that he would be forced to take an entire step or two around them.
“Shade!” said the bearded Braznian, “We ah, didn’t realize it was you.” He rolled off the other man and the two warriors backed awkwardly away.
“Sorry,” the other man mumbled through punch-swollen lips, “won’t happen again.”
Shade merely glared at them.
The warriors continued to stumble backward, tripping over their own feet.
They neared the alley, cautiously turned their backs and rounded the corner. He heard their boots banging nosily as they clamored down the alleyway; their frightened curses ringing clearly in the chill night air.
Shade breathed deeply. He reveled in his power here. This was his town. Not even the world renowned assassins of the Shaltearan Brotherhood dared stake a claim in Jile. Assassins rarely encroached on each other’s territory except on business. Business, of course, should never be another assassin, though it happened on a rare moon. Kills were always supposed to be professional, impersonal…the hired killer no more than the instrument of death than say the dagger that did the taking. Personal feuds were left to the victims and paying customers. No kill had been personal to Shade, not since he left Jui-Sae.
Naturally, that didn’t stop a certain number of ugly reprisal jobs from arising and so Shade always kept two eyes open. He didn’t mind. He usually found the retaliation amusing. Besides hot-blooded revenge always paid better gold. It had been some time since Shade’s life was threatened. He almost wished for a bereaved loved one to send someone after him or perhaps another assassin to try and move in on his territory. It had been too long since he had a sincere worry in this town and Shade grew bored.
Shade turned off the main street under an unlit street lantern that creaked in the wind and headed down another road heading west. Sober men and half-breeds hurried out of his way, but drunken and less sensible men staggered through the gray slush streets. This street was also filled with taverns, brothels and old shops, though the buildings ran east-west. An old drunkard lay passed out in the snow. No one stopped to help him, nor did Shade. The old man would be dead by morning.
The Dark Elf shook his head in disgust. Men were slaves to such vices. Only through strength of will, relentless discipline, and self-conditioning could one achieve true greatness. Men who never realized this truth received the due penalty for their inexcusable weakness. Shade left the man to die without a second thought. He had spent many years among humans and he understood them all too well. It never ceased to amaze him how many colossal fools plagued Doljinaar’s proud streets.
Shade’s own people would never have stomached such behavior. Although Dark Elves shared men’s fond love for drinking and Jui-Sae was known for the finest dark wines in the world, drunkenness and gluttony were strictly forbidden. His people embraced the sampling of fine food and drink, but prized temperance in all things. To allow one’s body to be ruled by any physical need was to allow that need to master you. Stealing even a loaf of bread was a crime punishable by death.
Trade with the outside world was also forbidden in Jui-Sae. While Doljinaar’s greatest strengths grew through its allegiances (and Shade would argue many of its greatest weaknesses), Jui-Sae’s strength was found in self-reliance. Dark Elves needed no one but themselves, just as Shade shed even his need for his people decades ago. He only missed the occasional bottle of fine Dark Red Oliverian Wine, fresh off the summer vines of Jui-Sae. He had managed to locate a bottle or two on the black markets of Kurn, but even that was a rare luxury he had learned to do without.
Shade brushed past a small cluster of heavily armed guards chatting around a burning brazier in the winter cold. These were not thugs like most of the other guards on these streets, but soldiers adorned in thick blue plate armor, emblazoned with the insignia of the white lion of Doljinaar. The small company of guards did not so much as raise an eyebrow at the Dark Elf’s passing. Most soldiers posted in Jile had been disgraced or demoted. Their embittered resentment for their military sticking them in this backwater post made them that much easier to buy.
The assassin turned down an alley leaving the main streets of Jile behind him. He slipped onto a quiet street lined with tall gray brick homes and wood shingled roofs. Steam fogged the paned glass windows from the glow of brick hearths, warm baths or the company of women. He continued down the empty streets on his way out of town.
Shade froze. His keen senses picked up on a near inaudible scurry of movement down an alleyway not five paces in front of him. Soft footfalls. A cold rush of adrenaline washed over him. He felt like his spine was being pricked by a thousand icy needles. His hands went back to his daggers. ‘A Shaltearan Assassin!’ he thought. He peaked cautiously around the building. He half-expected a dagger to be thrust into his face, but he was able to glimpse down the alleyway.
A small rat-like-man, no taller than four feet in height, knocked over a garbage can at the far end of the alley. He scowled. A Dragol!
Shade’s blood boiled. Dragols were ugly creatures with beady black eyes, whiskered cheeks and big buckteeth. Dragols had the face of men, except for their rodent-like shaped skulls. They were hairless save the few stray hairs on their scraggily scalps and the long, usually crusted, black goatees under their chins.
His fingers danced along his dagger hilt. For a moment he regretted his reluctance in not slaying the creature. He could watch in satisfaction as it sunk into the Dragol’s back. Instead, he was left glaring in the rat-man’s wake. He watched in disgust as the rat-man stuffed a rotten fish into his mouth and tucked a maggot infested drumstick and three moldy rinds under his arms. The Dragol glanced guardedly about and ran off down the alley. Shade frowned. He despised Dragols. He noticed three more spilled garbage cans in the alley.
Shade ducked back behind the wall as the nauseating stench of garbage hit him too hard in the face. He shook his head. Jile harbored a much larger population of Dragols than he would have liked. Dragols had been hunted down like night mortals for decades, but like rats they had only managed to survive and flourish. These days Doljinaar had a growing number of places that actually found uses for the vile race. In Jile Dragols were paid well to retrieve Stardust from the Ice Marshes. Shade found it ironic that no matter how much a Dragol made, the miserable creature never lost its unquenchable taste for garbage.
Shade whispered and his hand left his dagger hilt, “Wretched trollbreed.”
The assassin thought again of his quarry. He pondered over Warlord Lewd’s race. Lewd was called Troll due to his revolting appearance and unknown racial roots. Trolls had existed only in tall tales and fables up until a few hundred years ago. They had not been discovered like other people groups, but occasionally bred into existence. It was said that when Doelms and men crossbred they produced a race far more hideous than any that walked the face of Covent. This race was so vile and malformed that newborns were put to the sword.
Shade could not say whether Warlord Lewd was in fact a living, breathing Troll. He was curious about the crimelord’s race, but he would wipe Lewd off the face of Covent just as quickly as a man might butcher a trollborn child. His only intrigue was that Warlord Lewd’s indistinguishable race had proven to be an asset which had catapulted him into the highest seat of the Kurn underworld. Lewd must be an exceptional leader to rise so high in such a cold prejudiced world.
The assassin frowned at the irony. In some ways Warlord Lewd was just like him. The Dark Elf looked forward to that fateful meeting, but until then he’d have to settle for duller recreational diversions. He saw several shadows reflect off a building in the moonlight. He knew who followed him. The assassin’s wits were always sharp and sensing, even when lost in the privacy of his own thoughts. He decided he had toyed with them long enough. He just hoped they were man enough to finish the game they started.
Shade stopped calmly. He kept his back turned. “You’re a slow learner.” he said in a cold callous tone that wafted up in puffs of steam.
“We humans are a stubborn breed,” said a gruff, familiar voice from behind him, “I told you, we don’t like being told what to do in our own country.”
“We?” Shade turned slowly. He saw Bearus, the tall Brigorian man and the two other thugs he had thrown out of the tavern.
Bearus had drawn his huge battleaxe.
The assassin was amused at the small tears of bloody cloth jammed up the man’s nostrils. The other two ruffians brandished long swords and had stuffed themselves into so much armor the Dark Elf thought he could tip them over and roll them down the street like trashcans. He sighed, bored already, “Stubbornness and foolish pride. Those failings will see you to an early grave, friend.”
“Shut your filthy mouth, Welf!” Bearus snapped, “It’s time someone showed you how we welcome your kind in Doljinaar. Tell you what…we’ll even throw you a party, you know, the kind where we leave you dangling from the end of a rope?”
Shade shifted his weight and blinked at Bearus slowly.
A huge portly Grull lumbered out from an alleyway with arms as thick as tree trunks. The man even towered over Bearus, filthy from head to toe. His black hair was clumped into grease-matted locks, not by the skill of human hands, but the neglect of tending one’s hair. The Grull wore a big dumb grin on his lips. He held a noose in his left hand and clutched a massive spiked ball and chain in his right.
“Bearus,” the assassin said calmly, his yellow eyes burning in the night, “tonight you and your friends are all going to die.”
“Y—” Bearus stammered, then recovered, “You said you could take me without the aid of your shadowcraft, dare to make good on that boast?”
“Ah, I see. Tell you what, I’ll do you one better,” said Shade, “I’ll take all four.”
“NOW!” shouted Bearus, then he whistled.
Shade threw two daggers and before Bearus’ fingers even left his lips, he gasped and looked around in staggered shock. His eyes bulged out of his head.
Two of the Dark Elf’s knifes had been planted neatly in the hair-thin chinks in his companions’ armor. The pair teetered over and hit the ground dead with two loud clangs. Bearus gasped.
The assassin vaulted forward, pulling off a perfect handspring and landed right in front of the stunned man. Bearus stumbled backward. He had not even seen the assassin draw fresh blades, but already he felt the stinging pain of three gashes—one across his left thigh, another on his right side and the last running down the full length of his sword arm.
Shade brandished his two bloodstained daggers and winked at Bearus. This would not be a quick death, not for Bearus. Bearus nursed his right arm. He struggled with his axe and fell back just as eight other men came running around the corner.
Shade grinned. The Grull was not the end of Bearus’ cowardice. The men surged forward, waving their weapons, but the assassin lingered long enough to ensure Bearus caught his boastful glare.
Bearus was still reeling, stumbling back in a blank haze. Panic twisted his face into a horror-stricken mask. He had not expected Shade to move so fast. Nor could any man fathom the full measure of lethal grace and swiftness displayed by their adversary. The assassin wheeled to the side, biting down on the flat ends of his blades, just as the Grull’s ball and chain smashed into the ground.
Shade spun around and took the blades from his teeth. He kicked swiftly at the first attacker. He caught the man in the gut and knocked him back into the line of others. He made quick work of the other frontrunners. He slashed one across the throat. He lodged another dagger in the second man’s chest.
Shade whirled back around. The Grull was right where he expected him. The filthy giant blinked and gaped dumbly around, his thoughts far too slow to comprehend the assassin’s lightning quick movements. Shade found great satisfaction in slaying huge, impressive specimens such as this hulking Grull. He often toyed with them picking apart their big clumsy movements. He taunted, “Right here, big man.”
The Grull’s eyes opened wide in simple rage. He whirled his ball and chain around his head. He swung it downward in a devastating blow.
Shade back-flipped over the six remaining men. He landed squarely behind them, his boots barely crunching in the snow.
The men skirted to a stop. They bumped into one another and pushed the lead man forward. The ball and chain crushed the man’s face. The Grull licked his lips in a bloodthirsty delirium, confident he had heard the satisfying crunch of Shade’s skull. The others shouted frantically for the Grull to stop, but he swung the ball and chain back again crosswise. He sent the next man flying.
Shade ducked swiftly just as Bearus’ axe cut through the air in a wide arc. He felt the swing whiff overhead and slice through a single hair.
“Almost forgot about you, Bearus,” Shade chuckled, slashing the man across the cheek, “just a little kiss on the cheek.”
“Curse you!” Bearus growled and wiped the blood off. He waved his axe in an unbridled rage, grimacing fiercely each time Shade drew another trickle of blood.
The assassin ducked. He nicked the Brigorian over and over again. He might have drawn every last drop of the man’s blood, but the other men charged back into the fray. They boxed the assassin in—the size of the Grull, the unyielding swings of Bearus’ axe and the walls of an alleyway cut off any acrobatic escape.
“Impressive, it only took twelve of you to box me in,” Shade said, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “trouble is…that hardly gains you an advantage.”
Shade’s yellows eyes glowered as he sprung into a quickness that chilled Bearus to his soul. He danced around the circle of men, gracefully drawing daggers from his vest and lodging them in his attackers’ flesh. Men cried out in pain, but he no longer permitted them to die so easily. He left blades lodged at the kneecaps and elbow joints, plunged deep into muscle tissue and between the ribs. Yet he left every stab just far enough away to miss the vital organs. He did not wound, so much as slay their pride. And then when the moment was ripe, he drove terror into their hearts like a stake.
Shade disappeared suddenly, cloaked in the shadow arts of his people. The Shadow Magic covered his skin and made him completely invisible to the naked eye.
The men gasped, their faces ghosting white with terror.
“What?!” one man said.
“Where’d he go?” said another.
Bearus cursed, “Why that backstabbing devil!”
Shade sat crouched on a wooden awning, watching…planning. He allowed the men to drink in the full terror of his vanishing act.
The men breathed hot and heavy, their faces cold with fear.
The men’s heads snapped up in the direction where they had heard Shade’s voice, but they were too late. The assassin back-flipped and landed noiselessly behind them. The Grull groaned unexpectedly and fell flat on his face in the gray snow. The men took one look at the single dagger lodged into the back of the Grull’s huge, hulking neck, turned and fled the opposite direction.
But Shade was already there waiting for them. He moved among them, a silent messenger of death. He opened up the throats of two more men.
Bearus and the only other two survivors screamed in horror as they witnessed their companions die at the hands of an unseen killer. They shrieked even louder bloodcurdling screams and ran for their lives. An invisible knife cut one man’s scream short as it sliced cleanly through his windpipe. The other man nearly made it down the alleyway. He hit the ground. A dagger appeared sunken into his back.
Bearus limped down the alley. His hands shook uncontrollably as he tried to stop the bleeding from his many wounds. He was the only man left.
Shade would take his sweet time with this one. He followed the man’s bloody trail in the snow. The assassin no longer bothered to conceal his steps. He wanted Bearus to hear…to hear the footsteps of death coming for him.
The big man gasped pathetically for breath. He looked around eyes wild with panic. Shade watched as the man shambled back toward the main streets seeking help. He allowed him to lurch forward in a fast bleeding hope.
Shade whispered coldly in the man’s ear, “Bearus.”
Bearus jumped and tripped in the wet snow. He rolled pathetically on the ground, wheezing in a mad hysteria. He barely managed to scramble back to his feet.
“Bearus,” Shade whispered again.
The man gasped, choking on his own fear. Tears stung his eyes. He stumbled on unable to speak. He tried to muster words, but he found no strength. He seethed heavily. His breath grew hotter. He finally spit through his teeth, “You coward! You said you wouldn’t use your magic!”
“You didn’t play by the rules either,” Shade replied, “a hidden mob in the alley? Honestly, Bearus.”
“And now you’re begging for your life,” he continued to whisper, “gasping pathetically for breath,” Shade stopped and sniffed the air, “you think I can’t smell that? The reek of your own urine running down you leg and freezing in the winter cold. That’s just sad Bearus….pitiful!”
Bearus’ face reddened in shame. He shut his eyes and stumbled on like a shell-shocked child trudging through a gruesome warzone. He spoke the words of a desperate disillusioned man, “Be gone! Shadowdemon!”
Shade laughed darkly. His cutting laughter bit down deep.
“Please, spare my life. I beg you.” Bearus stumbled back onto the main streets of Jile.
Shade shoved the man to the ground. “No.”
People watched curiously as Bearus, bloody and beaten, stumbled in the slush road. He fell over and over again, as if pushed and then they knew.
Bearus struggled back to his feet, only to be shoved cruelly back to the ground. He tried again, but he ended up facedown, whitewashed in the snow, his face burning red with streaks of blood, sweat and humiliation. Bearus crawled and clawed his way through the gray snow on his hands and knees.
“Help!” he shouted, “Someone help me!” He gasped around in shock as the citizens of Jile coldly ignored him. None dared interfere.
“No one will help you. This may be your country, but this is my town.”
Bearus looked around in wild abandon and caught sight of the guards chatting around the brazier. He crawled towards them, clawing his way through the slush. He waved his arms in desperation.
“Guards!” he screamed, “Guards, help me!”
“They won’t help you either. They’re too well paid,” Shade whispered, the words seeping into the man’s ear and freezing over his heart.
“Come out then!” Bearus demanded bitterly, “Come out here and show your face, you filthy demon!”
“I’m right,” Shade whispered, “here.”
The legendary assassin’s face materialized before the man’s eyes. His yellow eyes burned devilishly in the night. A wicked grin spread across his dark lips. He grabbed Bearus firmly by the jaw. He squeezed tightly as the man struggled. He brought his dagger to Bearus’ mouth, to the man’s wiggling tongue. The citizens of Jile went about their late night pleasures as a member of their own race screamed until he could scream no more…