A pungent mix of cheap ale, smoke, and the body odor sweaty men filled a small rundown tavern. A moldy hole filled ceiling reasted unsteadily on thin walls. The scene was faintly illuminated by dull lights which were only one yank away from falling to the floor. Every step a man made was met with loud creaking, and a fear you would fall right through the floor. At every worn out table sat hearty men, drinking to their heart's content as a small bartender carefully catered to their bottomless stomachs. With every gulp the men seemed likelier and likelier to either laugh and cry, or scream and attack one another.
It was far too much activity for Shadow.
In the back corner of the tavern, shrouded in darkness and misery, sat a man. He was a tall man dressed in an all black cloak which covered him from head to toe. Over his face he wore a small even blacker mask which concealed his nose down to his chin. All that was left were cold, midnight colored eye which darted across the entire tavern.
To any regular passersby he was invisible, a ghost among the living. Always did he choose the perfect spot where a man's eyes never wandered and where the dark was too great to see him even if they did.
As he sat back against the splintering, chipped booth, he kept a hand resting on his thigh. A pair of black pants covered his legs, further concealing him and acting as camouflage. Clinging to those jetblack pants and resting against his thigh was none other then a dagger, small yet razor sharp. It clung to him via a small sheath and would leap from its hiding spot at a moment's notice.
Truth be told, Shadow was a walking arsenal. On each thigh rested a dagger, both carefully kept to. However, the one on his right thigh was dipped in a lethal poison once a day, every day. Connected to the side of his left calf was a small axe, and on the opposite leg rested an all purpose utility knife. A hidden blade extended across Shadow's left wrist, and three throwing knives were kept hidden within a pocket under his right. A bow was laid out across his back, carefully concealed by his long black cloak. Around Shadow's waist, a belt filled with a dozen arrows quietly rubbed against his stomach. To top it all off, in Shadow's left boot was a blowgun, and a bag of darts was stitched through the laces of his right boot.
He was a man prepared for any situation, any type of prey. So there the hunter waited, carefully watching each man without bothering to blink. Doing so would be too much of a distraction.
As far as Shadow could tell, his prey had yet to enter the building. He was certain that the man eventually would however. Various interrogations had confirmed that sir William Benninghan found his way into the Creaking Donkey every Wednesday around 7 o'clock. Judging by the lack of sunlight peering through the collapsing ceiling, it was a little after 7.
Just then, Shadow's keen ears heard the sound of a creaky door opening. A second later and steps followed in pairs of two. The man must have had some type of companion, perhaps a bodyguard. Shadow would deal with them as well.
However when Mr. Benninghan made his way past Shadow's line of sight, he saw that there was no one behind him. Shadow quickly became aware of the fact that the second set of footsteps had merely vanished. Whoever had been with Mr. Benninghan a second ago, had now disappeared.
While Mr. Benninghan sat down, careful not to tip the seat he chose, Shadow thought of the peculiar incident. Haf he imagined the second set of footsteps? No… impossible. His hearing was far too keen.
His thinking was interrupted as Mr. Benninghan's drink was brought to him. As he brought his full attention to the display, Shadow resisted an urge to smirk while he watched the poor fool grab for the beverage.
The victim was a man of habit. Every Wednesday he came to the tavern at 7 o'clock and he would always order the same exact drink without fail. Frog ale, it was called. A smelly beverage that tasted as good as licking a frog's ass. How anyone stomached it, Shadow did not know. Still, the strong taste masked the poison quite well it would seem. Mr Bemminghan drank it without a worry in the world, and Shadow watched with a sadistic grin which he was now unable to suppress.
Finally his vengeance had been enacted. Finally had the members of his family been avenged. No longer would Shadow have nightmare after nightmare of coming home to piles of blood and dying parents. The poison was instantaneous, the man had mere seconds. Finally Shadow had done what he had set out to do. Mr Bemminghan had been killed.
Yet the man did not die. In fact, he quickly gulped the drink down and ordered another. Shadow's eyes widened. Had he poisoned the wrong drink? No, he made certain it was the Frog ale. Then how could he still be alive? How could Shadow have failed!?
"Why are you watching that man?" a voice whispered from the dark, its pitch high and uncaring very much akin to a lazy hipmunk.
Shadow gripped his dagger as he spun to look to where the voice had originated. He prepared to lunge for a quick kill, then perhaps he would take Mr Benninghan using the same method. As Shadow turned, he found himself a millimeter from driving his dagger into the throat of a homeless man, just barely visible by the dim light over his leathery face.
"Is this some kind of strange hobby?" the homeless man asked. He turned himself in the booth, and sat by Shadow's side. Now the two were watching Mr Benningham, enjoying the comfort of the darkness together.
Eventually the silence and confusion became too much. Shadow slid his dagger back into his pocket and whispered, "What do you want? Can't you see that I'm busy?" He contemplated bringing the dagger back out and scaring the homeless man off.
Yawning a loud yawn, the man slid deeply into the booth. He said, "These things certainly make an old man's back ache… I want to know why you're watching that man drink ale while dressed in all black. It's rather creepy you know."
Yes, perhaps grabbing his dagger would be the best option here. When he went to grab it, Shadow found it was gone. "What?" he gasped in surprise, feeling up and down his leg for it. "Where in the hell did it-"
Turning over to the man once more, he saw the glint of his dagger. Expecting the old man to attack, Shadow prepared to dodge and take the dagger back. However no attack came. The man simply held it there, moving it ever so faintly. Until finally he said, "Ah! There we go. I had the darndest piece of corn stuck in there and I've been trying to get it out for weeks!" He set the dagger on the table, and sighed contently.
That was the last straw. Shadow didn't know who this homeless moron was, but he wouldn't be toyed with like this. Snatching the dagger from the table, Shadow held it menacingly against the man's throat. He hissed, "Look you old bastard, if you don't get away from me and leave this damn booth, I'll paint the walls red with your blood."
For a moment the man was silent. Finally he said, "Oooowee. Someone is mentally unstable." He pushed the knife away with his index finger. Shadow could faintly see the man patting his chest and legs, then finally standing up. He turned and said, "Well personally, the color red would look horrible on these walls. So I shall take my leave."
He gave Shadow a small bow, then walked into the light revealing his full figure. Shadow was only further confused as the homeless man parted ways.
The old man wore a massive set of electric blue robes which covered him from neck to toe. Splattered across the robes were bright yellow and white stars. They were assembled in no pattern whatsoever, and some looked to have been scribbled on by a drunk child. Above his head sat a long and pointy hat adorned with equally terrible yellow stars across a blue background. Finally, across the man's shoulder was a long leather strap which connected to a satchel hanging on his side.
Suddenly he turned around and scoffed, "My I'm getting far too old! I almost forgot…" he walked back over to the booth and reached down into the darkness. A long thick shape appeared, nearly as long as the man. As he walked back into the light, Shadow realized it was a massive walking stick.
As the man winked his soft blue eye at Shadow, he saw that the man was extremely old with a wrinkled and worn out face, now in full view of the lights above. A thick white beard completely covered the lower half of his head, and nearly reached down to his chest.
Finally rid of the nuisance, Shadow sat back and contemplated a follow up assassination attempt. That was until he heard the man speaking once again, as well as Mr Benninghan's voice in reply.
Shadow shot up and looked across the tavern to see that the old man was now sitting across Mr Benninghan. The strange man was ranting and raving, flailing his hands up and down, left and right, this way and that. Mr Benninghan looked a peculiar mix of intrigue and uncomfortability by the odd man's display.
Much to Shadow's confusion, the robed man ordered six more bottles of Frog Ale. Shadow knew this to be the entirety of the tavern's supply, and wondered why he would get it. Mr Benninghan took the first bottle, and began gulping it down. Between gulps the two would chatter, and then Mr Benninghan would take a long sip.
This was how the entire affair went on for roughly another hour. Benninghan had gone through three more bottles, and Shadow could tell by body language that he was beyond drunk. If the man were to attempt to stand on his own two feet, they'd likely hop away leaving him to fall over himself.
In contrast, the other man had not sipped a singular drop of alcohol all evening. Although that didn't make his behaviour any less eccentric. He still danced with his hands and frollicked around on his fingers, merrily chatting up the drunken man in front of him.
At last Mr Benninghan stood up. He took a step away from his chair and promptly began a sloppy descent into the wooden sea beneath himself. If not for a swift intervention by the other man's stick, he surely would've slammed into the floor. He assisted Benninghan up and began carefully walking him out of the bar.
Gritting his teeth, Shadow stood from his booth. He silently glided across the tavern, unnoticed by the drunk men inside the other booths. Shadow's cloak did well to disguise him as he snaked between the dark patches in the tavern.
Once outside the tavern, Shadow stepped onto a cobblestone path, which stretched left and right for nearly a mile. On each side were lines of homes, taverns, shops, forges, and abandoned buildings. Even in the evening, dozens of people were able to be seen coming and going in each direction, all chattering and bustling about.
"Damn it!" cursed Shadow, looking around for the duo. He quickly found it apparent that they were nowhere to be found. Knowing it to be the way to Benninghan's manor, Shadow turned left and hoped to find the two's trail.
The city was a labyrinth of buildings, trees, and an occasional lake. Shadow navigated past churches, restaurants, homes, and manors with wonder at how anyone could live like this. For most of Shadow's life he had been in a village with no more then a hundred people, surrounded by dense forestry. This city was a bustling behemoth of stone, wood, and roughly 30,000 people.
Were it not for his near photographic memory, Shadow surely would have forgotten the way to the Benninghan Estate. It was near the edge of the city, while still being surrounded by a thin layer of civilization. Perfect for Shadow.
After a near half an hour of walking, Shadow finally saw the estate up ahead. With every step towards it, the buildings around him thinned while the trees once sparse and small, grew both in size and number. By the time Shadow had reached the estate, only a dozen or so buildings were surrounding him.
The estate was a marvelous thing, making most passerbyers envious. It was the second largest property in the city, directly behind the Duke's own living quarters. It was three stories high, stretching the span of five normal homes across each side, and the length of four hundred yards back. Clear windows were carefully placed throughout the chiselled stone walls, with a strong brick roof to cover the entire place.
As Shadow looked through the thick fence and to the gate in the center, he saw the old man from before carrying a drunken Mr. Benninghan. At first the two gatesmen looked suspicious and hesitant, but eventually allowed the man through. He bowed to both of them, then continued onwards.
"Great…" Shadow muttered. He had arrived too late to intercept them, and now had to find a way into the home. While he had a rough outline of the home sold to him by an informant, it was not nearly enough to find his way through the entire house.
While the cover of night made his job easier, Shadow still would have to navigate past a stone wall, several guards, and somehow get into the house. That alone would be a pain, but the vengeance in his veins would not let him refuse the challenge.
Stepping back a few feet from the fence, Shadow then charged at it. He ran with the speed of a horse, yet the grace and quietness of a mouse. A second later and he met the fence, grabbing it as if it was second nature, and lifting himself up. A moment later and his other hand had reached the top of a nearly ten foot tall fence, and he pushed himself into the air. He did a roll through the air, let go of the fence, and a second later his feet silently met a grassy ground below.
Taking in the scenery once again, Shadow found himself in a very elegant and well kept garden. Rows upon rows of every kind of flower imaginable stretched on far, far past the manor deep into the horizon. A stone pathway expanded across the estate, with a forehead high trail of shrub following it on each side.
Yet several groups of guards could also be seen patrolling said garden. Shadow quickly ducked behind the plant based walls. He adjusted his face mask once more, then slowly looked across a corner. The nearest guard was alone, standing a dozen or so yards away. Seeing that no other guards were around, Shadow grabbed his dagger from his thigh, and charged the man.
Before the poor guard could turn around and see his attacker, Shadow had his arm around his mouth. Shadow punctured his razor sharp dagger through a weak point in the armor, then through flesh, like a hot knife through butter. The dagger tore into his heart, killing him. Shadow quickly disposed of the guard in a thick bush trailing along the walkway.
As Shadow rounded another corner, he looked to the right then the left. To his right he saw not a single enemy, but to his left he saw a patrol of two guards coming his way. While he could divert his path, that was the fastest way to the manor. So Shadow took a step back, becoming one with the bush.
A few seconds later and the guards walked by him, his cover working to conceal him. Shadow elongated his hidden blade, then leapt at the one to the left. His blade slid effortlessly through the man's skull as Shadow tossed his dagger into the throat of the man on his right. True he could've spared both of them and it likely would've made his life easier, but his vengeful nature would not let him. These people had chosen their side by guarding Benninghan. Now they'd get what they signed up for.
Once again Shadow quickly disposed of the body by hiding him in the thick bushes beside him. Then he continued his way through the garden, making his way closer and closer to the manor. Occasionally Shadow would ambush small groups of patrols, while leaving any with more then two alone.
Finally Shadow made his way to the manor. He once again hid himself in shrubbery as he contemplated the best way to get inside. The front doors were far too noticeable and many more guards would be inside. He would have to-
"Guards! To me! Now, hurry!" a voice cried out in the distance. It cried once more, "There's an assassin on the premise! I need extra men in our lord's chambers! Go now!" A guard at the door opened it and said something to another man inside. Shadow heard the rushing of feet as more armed men made their way upstairs.
Shadow cursed his luck. There was no way he could get to Benninghan's room now, not with all the racket he had caused. Unless he was a guard there'd be no way in hell that they would let him through. So he would just have to become a guard…
As Shadow backtracked to the site of his last attack, a bold plan came to his mind. He was in too deep to leave the estate without his kill, and by now there'd be only one way in.
Several minutes later and Shadow was now donning the uniform of a guard. Beneath it he still kept his stealth uniform, outfitted with an entire armory. All the gear would have made a normal man collapse from heat, but Shadow merely ignored the intense nausea and urge to vomit as he began strolling up to the front door.
"What do you need?" the guard at the door asked.
Feigning a yawn, Shadow said, "It's the end of my shift for the night, but I'd like to stay and look out for the lord. You see, that dear Mr. Benninghan brought me and my kids in he did! Kept my family from starving on the street, bless his heart! So if anything were to happen to him… if he were to die when I could help… I don't know what I'd do. For god's sake how-"
"Yeah yeah just go in for damn sake! I'm tired of your ranting. Maybe if you could have done your job out here in the first place, no one woulda been murdered anyway."
Shadow wiped his hair, now soaked with sweat. He said, "Thank you so much! I will guard him with my own life, for it is far more valuable!"
"Damn right it is!" the guard barked back. Shadow did not hear him however. He was already inside, making his way up the first flight of stairs. Suddenly he stopped, and ran back down and across the room. He found a nearby jug of water and sipped it for a minute or two in order to hold back the urge to vomit. Two guards sitting at a nearby table playing some sort of card game gave him odd looks, but not much else. Then Shadow went back up the stairs.
The second floor of the manor was a long hallway with nearly a dozen doors on each side. In the center was a connecting hallway making the layout the shape of a +. At each end of each long hall was a massive glass window. Shadow saw stairs at the end of one of the halls, and followed it. He remembered that Benninghan slept at the top of the manor, overlooking the city below.
As Shadow hurried up the stairs, two big guards appeared at the top of the flight. They were covered head to toe in armor with a sword and shield around their waist. When they saw Shadow, one asked in a gruff voice, "What are you coming up here for, young man? You're guarding outside, are you not?"
Thinking fast, Shadow answered, "I was told to come up here because Lord Benninghan needed more guards. Is there a problem, sir?" He spoke as innocently as he could, hoping the men would see no reason to stop him.
"Name and rank?" the other asked in a short, snappy voice.
That, Shadow was not prepared for. He dodged the question, "Look I really would like to see Lord Benninghan. He's in danger, and I've been hearing all this news about assassinations, please I'd just like to-"
"Name. Rank." the man repeated, this time in a louder voice. Shadow could feel the two guardsmen staring at him, waiting to see how he responded. Finally they said, "Maybe you should come with us. We have the perfect job for you."
"I'm afraid I can't do that," Shadow explained.
"And why not?" the guard asked, but Shadow was already upon them wielding a dagger in his left hand, an axe in the other.
Shadow went to plunge the axe against the guard's unarmored mouth but he was swifter then Shadow anticipated. His axe swung through air, and Shadow heard a sword being drawn behind him. A second later and Shadow ducked as a blade cut through where his neck had been a second prior.
He barely had to to recover, for a second sword sliced towards the spot he had been just ducked to. Shadow rolled backwards down the stairs, as the guards kept their advantage. One yelled out, "We have the assassin! On me, men!"
Shadow was going to have to improvise, and fast. He threw his dagger into the air, right above the guards, then gripped his gauntlet. His agile hands quickly undid the straps, and he threw the gauntlet at the guard on the left. Naturally the guard went to block it, as Shadow rushed past him, and grabbed his dagger before it fell back to the ground.
Behind him he heard, "The assassin is on the top floor! All men, guard the hallway! Bar the doors!" As Shadow began rushing down the hallway, it quickly became filled with five more guards.
A man only a few feet away stood poised and ready to fight, his spear aimed towards Shadow. Shadow regripped his dagger and rushed the man, immediately finding a weak point in his armor, right above his gut. The man plunged his spear towards Shadow, only to hit the ground below. Shadow on the other hand jammed his dagger into the man's stomach, pulled it back out, and rushed past him.
Two more men armed with maces stood in front of Shadow. Shadow set his dagger on the floor, and raised his hands. He sighed, "I surrender." He could hear more guards behind him, and he knew he was surrounded.
"Damn right you do…" the one with the mace said. He began approaching Shadow, who saw the smallest weak point in his armor where his neck met his chestplate. Even for Shadow it was a tough shot, but he had no choice. With the speed of a hummingbird wing, Shadow slid a throwing knife into the palm of his hand, and threw it into the throat of the guard in front of him.
"Eric!" the other mace wielder screamed. Shadow had already grabbed his dagger by the time the man got into a defensive stance. Two quick stabs through his forehead was all it took.
All that remained between Shadow and the door at the end of the hallway were two guards. Behind him three or four guards were quickly chasing after him. Shadow had no time to fight, no time to act. All he could do was run.
Tucking his hands against his sides, and tilting his head as low as he could, Shadow charged at the two men in front of him. He knew they were too armored for him to fight, and by the time he finished them the guards behind him would've skewered him. So he ran as fast as he could. Armor slammed into armor as Shadow barreled through the two guards.
Still he was not as fast as he thought. A sharp blade ran through his armor and stuck itself into his back. Thanks to the armor it was not a deep cut, and Shadow kept running. As he ran the blade cut further down his back an inch from his bow string, leaving him with a hole in both his cloak, and flesh. Shadow wasn't sure which mattered to him more.
Still, he had succeeded. As he approached the last door, he quickly opened it and ran inside. He slammed it shut behind him and locked it, only to realize that it would not hold the men long.
"Use this! It's quite sturdy!" a familiar voice offered out from behind Shadow.
Before turning around, Shadow already knew who it was. For a brief instant he wondered how strange it was for Benninghan's room to be left unguarded. Then he saw three guards all collapsed on the floor, their weapons beside them.
The same homeless man who had been plaguing Shadow was offering him his massive stick. It was a foolish idea, but Shadow was desperate. He took the stick and slid it between the door handles, then quickly pushed a desk in front of it. Then Shadow saw Benninghan sleeping peacefully on his bed.
"How… these men… who are you?" Shadow asked. Ever since he had met the senile gerriatrick, Shadow's day had only been getting stranger and stranger. Now he was stuck with the man as the door behind him was being bombarded with guards.
The man indicated the door as a blade slammed through it. "Perhaps now would not be the best time to talk. If you get me out of here then I would happily explain everything. I'd go quickly though, those men look rather angry."
As if on queue, the left door collapsed as an axe slammed through it, cutting it down the middle. The old man ran up and quickly grabbed his stick before it could be destroyed. Then he darted for the window.
"Wait a minute!" Shadow screamed, chasing after him. Suddenly he stopped. Looking at the bed, he saw Benninghan still sleeping peacefully. More then that, he saw a man who had taken everything from him. A man who had robbed him of his hopes and joys. Forgiveness was a forgotten emotion abandoned by the shadows of Shadow's shadowy mind. There was only vengeance.
The old man leapt through the window, and disappeared into the darkness. Shadow followed him out the window and into the darkness as well. There was a sadistic smile over his face. The corpse on the bed a symbol of his mission's success.
Even with his mission accomplished, Shadow still was not safe. As the old man hobbled through the garden and Shadow followed closely, a dozen or more guards could be heard coming after them.
"Where are we going?" Shadow asked, following the old man past a right turn, then a left. They seemed to be going nowhere in particular. Shadow felt more like a headless chicken rather then a calm assassin as he made his way across another turn.
"Beats me!" the old man confessed, turning another corner randomly. He continued moving between a frantic sprint and a hobbled walk as he used his stick as a cane. Finally the two came to a dead end, with the sound of metal boots only growing.
The old man looked left, then right. Finally he said, "Very well, it seems I'll have to perform a spell." He undid the button on his satchel and began reaching around in it.
As the old man reached around, Shadow tried to move through the bush but it was much too thick. With the sight of three guards bending around the corner behind them, Shadow realized what the man had said. "Magic?" he asked in confusion
The man's reply was a hysterical laugh. He finished digging into his pouch and pulled out a dark glass bottle containing some type of liquid. In his other hand he had a set of small sticks that Shadow couldn't properly make out. The guards came to a stop in front of him and aimed their blades towards the two. "Halt!" they ordered.
But the old man did not halt.
He uncapped the bottle, and Shadow was hit with a very strong odor. Then the man poured the fluid in front of him, on the bush to his left, then on the bush to his right. He rubbed the stick against the bottle and suddenly there was a small flame. "I summon the breath of a dragon!" he yelled, then dropped the spark into the liquid. A second later and the garden erupted in flames.
Shadow stopped, mesmerized by the flames. A firm hand on his shoulder snapped him out of his daze. "Vault the bush you moron! You're supposed to be an assassin!" Shadow snapped out of his confusion and jumped over the bush. A second later and the man was by his side.
The two sprinted across the rest of the garden, finally finding the gate as fire erupted behind them. Shadow quickly went across the gate, and the old man miracuously followed. He had a strange sense of agility as he used the stick to vault over the gate and land softly across.
"Now what?" Shadow asked, but the man simply stood there. A few seconds later and Shadow yelled, "We need to move, They're going to be here at any second!" He looked around nervously, waiting to see shining armor coming from the dark corners of the road.
Still that old fool just stood there, calm as could be. Finally, just when Shadow was about to flee back to the darkness, a carriage screeched behind the two. Shadow turned around slowly to see a man on top of the carriage, gripping two reins tightly.
While Shadow watched in confusion, the older man simply walked up to the driver. He reached in and pulled out a few coins and handed them to the driver. "To Forkstead, please. It's the one between the massive forks leading to Thieveshallow and Oaklake."
The driver's eyes lit up in terror. "But… the bandit raids! Sir I have to tell you that that town has been suffering nonstop bandit attacks by the new Sharp-Iron group." There was an obvious terror in his voice. Shadow had heard of the town as well and wondered why the man would want to go there. Still he was curious and needed to get out of the city, so he went inside the carriage without a second thought. While waiting for the man to come in, Shadow took off the rest of his armor, finally feeling some relief as his sweat began soaking the seat underneath him.
Outside the old man merely laughed. "I'm counting on it," he replied. Then he handed the driver another coin, and went into the carriage across from Shadow. As the carriage began moving across the road, both looked outside the back window. Off in the distance guards could be seen rushing out of the Benninghan Estate's front gate.
Finally they seemed to be safe. Shadow looked to the man and said, "You owe me some damn answers. Now." He waited for an answer, then waited some more. Finally the quiet carriage became filled with loud snores, and once more Shadow cursed his luck.