And now, as promised, here's a snippet of a thing I wrote for my players to highlight how awesome their intended foe truly was...and how truly frightening in ability. Keeping with my previous post, in where I discussed what makes a memorable villain, the villain presented here is perhaps one of my most memorable.
His name is the Grey Shadow, and he's an assassin of the highest order, a fearful whisper in the darkness of night. His trademark: Every kill of his is beheaded, and the head is never found. His mantra: Do it with style.
The BorderCity of Baraden
Istus, Continent of Ashra
Baraden didn’t exist on the maps of Ashra; it was a township held only in rumor, preserved in secrecy. Of course, that had everything to do with the sort of business that was conducted there.
Hidden from the skies by a large overhanging ridge of land, its foundations laid in a cavern that time and the elements had carved over thousands and thousands of years, Baraden was a marvel of engineering and ingenuity. With glowflies acting as the natural luminescence, swirling about in their hives on the ceiling, it was passably lit. A complex set of dams and culverts diverted the water from the seasonal rains into deep reservoirs that its inhabitants used to live off of, and further plumbing took the city’s waste out through underground tunnels to the Ocean of Idane to the south. Other tunnels led to the caverns beneath Ashra; the places where men feared to go, but others trod regularly. Dark elves, monsters almost indescribable, and countless others would occasionally pass through Baraden, and provided they did not seek to threaten it…were allowed to come and go as they pleased, for a small fee.
That was where its business came into play. The city, a marvel of its time, was home, hospice, and den to some of the worst brigands and cutthroats to ever betray the night’s tranquility. Partially in Samael’s Lands and partially in Istus, it held allegiance to neither, but Istus certainly lied more in line with the business interests of Baraden. It was home to the Mist Riders, a fabled group of assassins whose name sent dread into the hearts of goodhearted men and women.
That fact didn’t escape the Grey Shadow’s thoughts as he maneuvered through the damp, musty streets of Baraden. It had been approximately two months since he had last been here, and he had only stayed an afternoon before he grew tired and left.
Well, that and the fact that he had killed one of the Mist Rider’s apprentices. It had been the stupid boy’s fault, anyway; Taking on the assignment of trailing after him, in hopes of seeing what lied underneath the cold, gray iron faceplate. Out of amusement, the Shadow had let him think he was undetected; he killed him only after letting the boy see what he had been hired to see.
He still couldn’t decide what had been more delicious; The look of utter surprise when the youth realized the Shadow had known all along, or the noiseless, openmouthed scream when the Shadow had taken off his faceplate and let him see the true monster underneath.
Naturally, the fool’s death had won him the Mist Rider’s open hostility. Still, they were nobody’s fool; the Grey Shadow had made and kept a reputation as being one of the best in his line of work. While they let him know that he wasn’t welcomed in Baraden, they didn’t attack him openly. It just wasn’t done.
Convenience and necessity had brought him back; Convenience, for entering into Istus through Baraden was a safer option than through Road’s End, and necessity, for his latest contracted employer had arranged to meet him here for the payment of that job of his in Sorvindal.
His latest job had been particularly harrowing on him, really; Had he known that the Cursed Blade would have caused him so much trouble by getting new, and decent companions, he would have stayed around with the orcs and killed Ness himself.
Hindsight, as they said…
Even in the relative darkness, the Shadow kept his tattered black shroud around him, hiding every part of his armored body except for the skeletal faceplate he wore, and his curiously sized boots. If he were to walk in at his full glory, shortswords clasped at his sides, he would have attracted far too much attention for his liking. At least this way, there was some element of obscurity to it. He wasn’t the only sort of fellow who hid away in shrouds and cloaks, after all…
Although I’ve never seen anyone as cunning at hiding himself than that blasted Sorceror…
He frowned and let the thought pass, pushing into a well-lit alley. Ten feet in, there was a raised doorstop and a bolted entrance. He went up to it and lifted a gloved hand out of his shroud, knocking on the door with deliberately slow force.
A slot in the door, positioned for a pair of eyes, slid open to a gruff-looking set.
“Whaddya want?” Came the snarl.
The Shadow pulled the edge of his shroud back, revealing his masked face more clearly. The eyes did nothing, and the voice kept its edge. “He’s expecting you.” The slot slammed shut, and the door swung open. The Shadow calmly entered inside the tavern through the back entrance. The only people who used the front were fools who didn’t mind being seen, after all…
His contact was sitting up in the balcony of the dank, odorous tavern, swirling his finger through a half-empty snifter of brandy with utter disregard for the impropriety of the motion. The studded velvet robes, even covered by the thick and rough material of his cloak, gave him away. That and the ruby red ring that sat on his finger, capable of launching a salvo of scorching rays once every day.
The Shadow casually took the seat opposite of him, waiting for his employer to begin the conversation. It took a few moments for the wiry middle-aged spellcaster to conclude his bizarre ritual before he finally looked up at the Shadow with an unsurprised look.
“You took the back entrance. I almost thought you might brave the front this time.” He said.
“Save your Scrys for someone who cares, Arlemyst.” The Shadow rasped back. “I’m here for my money.”
Almost in disappointment, the wizard sighed and motioned to a brass lid sitting on the table. It was the kind used to cover dishes while they were being delivered to a dinner table. “Always so professional, Shadow? I thought we might stay and talk for a while.” He said hopefully.
The Grey Shadow lifted the lid up and found a thick moneypurse underneath, filled with platinum coins. Nodding appreciatively, he tucked his service fee away. He couldn’t help but try and calculate how much he had spent just to get here, and how much he had thrown at all those useless buffoons and beasts he had paid to get in the way of his pursuers. Even with those expenses, he had earned himself a tidy sum. “Sorry, but unless you’ve got another job to discuss, our business is concluded.” He summarized solemnly.
The wizard smiled, touching his fingertips together as he leaned on the table. “And if I did? Arlemyst Destane has many enemies, you know.” That curious habit the mage had of referring to himself in the third person was something that had grated on the assassin’s nerves from the moment they had met.
If anyone had reason to speak in such a fashion, it wasn’t this aging arcanist, that was for certain.
“Perhaps another time.” The Shadow rumbled. “For the moment, I have other business to attend to.”
“You’ve been chased out all this way?” Arlemyst mused, stroking at his chin. The candor surprised the shroud-covered assassin, but he didn’t let on. “Curious. I thought you were better than that.”
The Grey Shadow narrowed his eyes into slits at that, but said nothing.
“Well, as long as you’re here, could I offer you a drink for your troubles?” Arlemyst asked. “Something for the road ahead of you?”
“I don’t think that this place carries…my brand.” The Shadow said, growing tired of the conversation. Like all conversations with Arlemyst’s kind, they were pointless, layered in fickle intrigue, and rooted in a sense of superiority that the Shadow found sickening and completely laughable.
“Too bad, too bad.” Arlemyst said waving his hand about and humming briefly to himself. The motion seemed less than coincidental to the Shadow, and he found himself wondering if the man didn’t have some hidden plot at work. It certainly seemed like he had cast a spell, but there was no immediate sign that he had.
The Grey Shadow stood up, tired of the brief meeting. “I believe our business here is ended.” He rumbled, reaching out with his finely tuned senses about the tavern. No, he should have anticipated the possibility of danger…Because whether he wanted it or not, there was clearly danger present.
Arlemyst gave him one of his insightful grins, as if some master plan was unfolding. It was a trap, the Shadow realized with calm realization. “I believe you’re correct. You should think of a way to spend that money…while you still can.”
On the main floor below, and in the balcony, several of the tavern’s patrons stood up, glancing towards the Shadow and the curious wizard.
The Shadow recognized them the moment that the closest knave, only six feet away, drew out an ornate dagger with a stallion engraved on the pommel. The Mist Riders. It figures.
He hadn’t turned his head to see the danger, but he knew it was there anyway. Arlemyst had an odd smile on his face as he looked up to the standing assassin. “Is something the matter, friend?”
“Tell me something.” The Shadow rasped, keeping his voice calm while he lowered one hand down to the hilt of his first shortsword. “Did you hire the Mist Riders…or did they buy you?”
“A little of both, actually.” The wizard replied smugly. “See, I just didn’t feel like parting with that much money…and they had an old score to settle with you, apparently. So, in turn for bringing you here and helping in your eradication, they waived their fee…and I have an entire guild of cutthroats to use for eliminating my enemies.”
The Shadow laughed a little bit at that; a low, watery laugh that seemed more of a wheeze. It set the odd mage off his balance, and that was his intention. “Of course, there’s one flaw in your plan to not pay me.” The Grey Shadow announced coldly. “You’re assuming that you’ll be able to pry back your coin from my cold, dead hands.”
His fingers wrapped around the hilt of his shortsword. Hissing in triumph, the Shadow threw off his shroud. It struck the face of his nearest aggressor, blinding him and stopping the first charge.
There was the barest moment of surprise on the wizard Arlemyst Destane’s face before the Grey Shadow’s shortsword was out and flashing through the air, slicing through his frail body in a clean slice.
Too clean. There was no resistance, no form to him at all. The illusion of Arlemyst sitting at the table vanished into wisps of vapor, and the Shadow whirled about and drew his other shortsword.
So, misleading me all this time, were you? He could make out at least six other assassins from the Mist Riders now running towards him, and the rest of the tavern was clearing out at the sign of danger.
The presence of an armored, dextrous combatant with two jagged toothed shortswords was something that nobody wished to be in proximity of.
Under more ideal circumstances, the Grey Shadow would concentrate with his finely tuned senses to locate the invisible mage before he could escape. However, he had a feeling that the self-proclaimed Arlemyst didn’t have flight on his mind, not while he could watch the Shadow be overwhelmed and enjoy his chicanery. The other thing that kept him worrying less about where Arlemyst had gone, for the moment at least, was that there were seven members of the Mist Riders guild spoiling to chop his head off.
The first one threw the Shadow’s shroud aside angrily and reached at his side. Curiously, as the Shadow turned in towards him with his wicked blades, the man did not flee or feint, but held onto a pouch as he jerked a skinny arm towards the Shadow’s face.
The Grey Shadow closed his eyes too late to completely block the spray of sand. He could feel his eyes burning and stinging. The sensation was displeasing.
Under different circumstances, it would have meant a very feeble and pointless resistance. But underneath his staring faceplate, the Shadow offered a dark and malevolent grin, stumbling back in a feigned gesture of surprise and weakness.
Just as he thought, the first of the Mist Riders came in, hoping to score that needed critical stab. Just as he had practiced so many times, he knocked aside the small dagger with one lazy swing of his left shortsword, and then severed the man’s arm clean off with his right. There was the briefest moment of shock on the poor man’s face before the Shadow jammed his shortsword through the man’s chest, piercing his heart easily. The Shadow pulled his sword back as the now dead Rider fell, finding the entire affair displeasing. It wasn’t his preferred method of killing; open conflict.
There was just…no style to it, really. There was fighting, but an assassin did not live for open combat. All the same, they stood in his way. And they had made their first mistake;
They had thought the Grey Shadow needed to see them to fight. He didn’t, of course.
Smugly, he chuckled as his perception reached out and felt every one of them in the room. Turning to one of his favorite abilities once more, he began to hear the surprise and fear that echoed in their thoughts.
Heh heh…I can see you. He paused for a moment as the second and third Riders, carrying shortswords themselves, charged in towards him. The wizard Arlemyst had moved downstairs, and from his thoughts was preparing to fire a lightning bolt at him before his invisibility wore off. And I can see you, too.
The next two Riders came in towards him, ready to end his life. There was a magic blast being aimed at him from behind. The Shadow could have cared less. He simply lowered himself into a crouch and grinned.
This was going to be fun.
They came together as a single team, working their shortswords in tandem in a pattern of flash and weave. It gave them an edge in the direct conflict, and any attempt to dodge to the side or jump over them would have certainly met with failure.
The Shadow came at them, enjoying a brief clash of swords before he seemed to lose his footing and slip down. Taking the advantage, the two assassins swung their blades down, ready to lop off his head. They struck the wooden floor instead.
They were dumbstruck just long enough for the Grey Shadow to pull himself back to his feet behind them and kill them with two clean backhanded stabs. There was a brief pair of shuddering cries, and then they slumped silent and dead.
A shame. Did they have horror or surprise on their faces? He wondered briefly, sensing the third Mist Rider barreling towards him. Taking a chance, he opened his eyes against the burning sand, and got a somewhat blurry image. His new attacker carried a pair of daggers, but there was an aura to the weapons. The black hazy glow about them made the Shadow frown for a moment; they were magically enchanted to drink the life out of the poor souls they were used against.
A pinprick in the back of his mind reminded him of Arlemyst, finishing the last motions to unleash that lightning bolt of his. Idly, he wondered if he should have just taken it, for while it would hit, his natural resistances would stop it cold. Then he recalled, with the sort of lazy memory one possessed of utter calm had, that there was still the fourth Mist Rider coming at him with those troublesome daggers.
If there was a graceful or particularly stylistic way to kill somebody, the Shadow knew how. He knew how to make it count this time as well. Casually, he turned the handle of his shortsword about in his hand, letting the fourth assassin come at him.
Only when he could nearly feel the electricity of Arlemyst’s lightning bolt singe at his neck did he dart to the side. It missed him completely and soared on, moving in an unerring line.
With some amount of satisfaction, and still half-blind, the Shadow heard the crackling force strike at a target it was not meant to hit. He heard Arlemyst’s horrified curse as well, and that made him smile all the more in tandem with the sound of the fourth Mist Rider collapsing to the floor, charred and dead.
I suppose I could spare a moment, he thought to himself. Slipping his shortswords back into their scabbards, he fumbled around through his blurry eyes across a nearby table, grasping about a goblet. He splashed it onto his faceplate, and exhaled a bit in relief when it dripped down to his mouth and he could taste it. Aah, small miracles. Somebody was drinking that weak swill they call wine. The burning sensation faded from his eyes as it washed away the sand. The Shadow looked about the tavern again, seeing the last three of the Mist Riders charging up towards him. Arlemyst was busy ruffling about in his components pouch for something to fire another spell.
Casually, the Shadow looked to the three assassins, and then gave a hard, piercing look to the spellcaster. While he certainly wasn’t afraid of most magic, Arlemyst could prove to be a distraction in the wrong moment.
He reached down to the dead and thunderblasted Rider he had allowed Arlemyst to kill with his misplaced shot, then quickly scooped up the two enchanted daggers the assassin had been fixing to use on him.
Relax, friends. The Shadow mused, ignoring the three remaining Mist Riders as he jumped over the railing of the balcony. It was a solid ten foot drop, but he had barely touched the ground before he came charging at Arlemyst. The wizard’s face, so smug and superior for the longest time filled with dread. I’ll deal with you all in a moment.
Arlemyst reached for the one spell that he, like nearly every other arcane spellcaster, could pull off without fail. Wiggling his fingers at the charging assassin, he launched off a volley of five magical missiles. They all swung in with unerring force, and there was a glimmer of hope in the mage’s eyes.
Every shot disappeared and fizzled just before impact, just as Marik’s had. The similarity wasn’t lost on the Shadow, gripping the borrowed life-stealing daggers in his hands.
If he could replay that fateful night’s duel…
One dagger was jammed through Arlemyst’s shoulder, and the other the Shadow sent through his hand, pushing him back against the wall and pinning him there. The wizard screamed in pain and began to whimper, and for a moment, the Shadow thought of killing him on the spot.
But, he thought, with one arm paralyzed with that critical shoulder wound and the other hand helpless and bleeding, stuck to the wall by his weapon, he could afford to wait.
“I’ll be back for you.” The Grey Shadow hissed, leaning in his cold metal faceplate close to Arlemyst. The wizard moaned in pain and shut his eyes, begging for death to take him quickly.
Satisfied, the Shadow stood up and turned about, drawing his favorite serrated shortswords once more. Two of the three Mist Riders had reversed course and were charging down the steps. The last one had decided to leap off the balcony like he had earlier.
The Shadow rolled his eyes. At least he had made the jump with style. The other man would be lucky if he didn’t sprain an ankle in the fall.
He spun his shortswords in his hands again and narrowed his perfect eyes.
Now we shall see how the Mist Riders can fight against their better.
It was really no contest at all, not when he was so focused that he could almost predict their moves before they made them. The Mist Rider who had thrown himself off of the balcony landed a little harder than he would have liked, and stumbled. The Shadow came towards him at a leisurely pace, ignoring the quick kill for something better.
Gritting his teeth, the Mist Rider leapt away from the Shadow. He was biding his time, the Grey Shadow realized, waiting for his two friends to come in. It was a pincer maneuver, meant to trap him between three warriors…and simultaneously, to give the Riders an advantage of three swords against two.
Smiling to himself, the Grey Shadow kept walking towards the lone bandit, all too aware of the foes charging behind him.
If you’re going to kill, then kill smoothly and without warning. And always remember…Do it with style.
Idly, the Shadow tried to remember who had said that to him. Had he come up with that on his own, or was that phrase an alteration to some sage piece of advice he had heard in the past, and lost in his long years of being a feared killer?
It mattered little, and he could think on it later, when things of little matter could gain importance. For the moment, he reminded himself, he had other issues.
He could cast a spell of invisibility on himself; that momentary edge would give him the time to strike once, perhaps twice at them without immediate fear or danger.
It would be clean…
It just would have no style. And that was unacceptable.
So he let them come, and as he dueled against the first with one blade, he turned his body sideways and met the charge of the other two with his second.
Steel met steel, crashing with angry gnawing sounds, and the teeth of the Shadow’s shortswords scraped viciously against the weaker, mundane metal of the Mist Rider’s blades. In time, the Shadow knew, even his impressive body would be hard-pressed to maintain the physical output that taxed his seemingly endless stamina. A move would have to be made soon, and still holding all three at bay with his artful weaves, his elegant sword strokes, and that eternal dance on the razor’s edge between life and death, he ran over the options in his mind.
He could pull down in himself and exert the full force of his untapped fury…But that would raise too many questions, and for all he knew, there were still others of the Mist Riders, hidden eyes watching the duel unfold for later reference. No, he could not expose that, just as he could not expose his true identity.
Another option was to use his incredible dexterity to leap out of the conflagration and approach the fight from a different, more secure angle. His rational side favored this one.
The last option was to give in entirely to the hypnotic dance of his blades, of his arms, of his legs and torso, and become the sadistic dealer of death he relished in as a self-granted privilege. It would be risky, for he would shut off most of his rationality to let himself go…But it was preferred by his impulsive side.
After all, he reminded himself as he grinned behind his cold gray metal faceplate, the third option carried the most style. And he could use the practice in the sort of close combat he so rarely got to get into.
He whirled about to face the paired Mist Riders, working his blades in a feverish pattern that matched their own and slowly began to turn it back. They had built their determined cooperative bladework over years. The Shadow had had decades to perfect his art. There wasn’t much of a contest.
He contorted his body into one arch after another, pleased that not a single blow landed from them. The single troublesome Rider behind him came in too close for comfort, and the Shadow could feel the point of his shortsword tickle across the armored mesh covering his torso.
He ignored it for about a quarter second more, just long enough to gain the advantage against the two. He disarmed one with a quick double swipe of his blades, but did not throw the shortsword aside. Juggling it between his own swords for a moment, he hefted it into the air and delivered a blow with the flat side of one of his weapons to the shortsword’s hilt, forcing it through the air. Stabbed through his side with his own weapon, one stunned Mist Rider stumbled away from the fight.
Casually, the Shadow hurled the first of his own blades against the second of the former pair, and while the man was able to divert it from its course to his heart, it still slammed through his leg, bringing him down with a grunt.
And then there was one.
Knowing that if they were determined enough, the pair could return to battle in a moment, the Grey Shadow did a leaping backflip over the last of the Mist Riders. With his injured ankle, he couldn’t get enough reach into the air to deliver a solid blow, and his sword just scraped along the woven armor.
The Shadow landed behind him, squatting low to the ground with one leg held out to the side. The man was still turning when the Shadow rotated his entire body in a circle, using his extended leg to knock the Mist Rider’s feet out from under him.
He fell, expecting to bounce against the floor…He did not expect the flaring pain in his back, or the bloody tip of a serrated shortsword jammed clear through his chest for his eyes to see.
Chuckling to himself, the Grey Shadow stayed like that for a moment, suspending the man off of the ground by inches as he was speared on his blade. The eyes of the dying man, fluttering as his heartbeat and breathing became erratic, came to the side to stare at the emotionless skeletal faceplate that covered the Shadow’s entire face.
“You’re a monster…” The man rasped. “Nobody…can be that good…”
The Grey Shadow mustered a watery, derisive snort. “You have all eternity to figure out why you were wrong.” He tilted the man onto his side and pulled his weapon out, making sure that every inch of his weapon’s teeth sawed away at the Mist Rider’s insides as he did. He wiped the blood off of his weapon onto the man’s back, noting the growing pool of blood underneath the assassin.
The last two weren’t much of a challenge at all. The one with his second blade made a feeble attempt to defend himself with his own weapon, struggling to pull out the Shadow’s shortsword as well…But he couldn’t do much in the span of three seconds, which was exactly how long it took the Grey Shadow to sever his head from his body. The last Mist Rider had gone into shock from his wound, and it became a mercy killing to decapitate him.
Wiping his blades off one last time, the Shadow turned about in the empty tavern full of bodies and looked towards the wizard Arlemyst, still pinned against the wall and whimpering. The daggers the Shadow had left in him had done their work; his face was ashen, and he was beginning to shiver as the life was drained from him.
Somehow, as the Shadow approached, the spellshaper managed to focus enough on the ring on his right hand to muster three blazing rays of fire. They struck out at the Shadow, and there was the barest impression of heat before they, like the mages’ magical missiles, simply snuffed out.
“Oh, stop it. You’re just embarrassing yourself now.” The Shadow chastised the wizard, shaking his head. Arlemyst’s lower lip trembled as the assassin came towards him and knelt, entirely unafraid.
“Please, d…don’t kill me.” He begged. The Shadow rolled his eyes, even more disgusted at the wounded man. Even when he was dying, Arlemyst Destane found a way to annoy him. “I’ll give you anything! Money! Gems!”
“I have my payment.” The Shadow commented drily, patting a hand against the moneypurse of platinum coins. “And besides, now you’ve gone and forced me to play my hand. I’m afraid I just can’t let anyone live who’s seen me at work. Professional security…and personal pride.”
“I could work for you!” The wizard said, panicking. “Surely, the services of the great Arlemyst Destane could be of use to your endeavors!”
He’d said his own name again. The Shadow let out a long sigh, and tilted his head to the side as if he was thinking about it.
“And what could Arlemyst Destane do for me?”
“Arlemyst could bring all manner of magical doom upon your foes!” The mage promised eagerly. “He can help to make your enemies bleed!”
The Shadow hadn’t been seriously entertaining the notion, of course…but he had thought it would be amusing to play the part for a while.
And the while was over.
Slowly, he pulled out the enchanted dagger from Arlemyst’s shoulder, and the Wizard began to sigh in relief…
Up until the Grey Shadow jammed it deep into his heart, and his velvet robes grew darker around the wound. Dumbstruck, unable to speak, he looked to the Shadow in disbelief.
“My enemies always bleed.” Came the Shadow’s response. And then that was the end of it, and Arlemyst Destane, unloved arcanist of intrigue perished with a final exhalation.