(The following is an excerpt from an, as yet, unpublished novel, ‘When Blood Runs Cold’.)
Peace would not come to him. The ache that the Abbot had repeatedly told him would lessen and fade away still stabbed at his heart. Four years! Four years of brutal, gruelling training of both mind and body. Studying the arts of potions and poisons and their delivery systems. Developing his skills with all manner of weapons, from the smallest darts to the large and cumbersome broadswords. He had been taught that anything, including his own hands, could become weapons of destruction. And Jon Firevan had learned well. Of those who had begun training with him, he alone survived. The rest had paid the ultimate price for failing to master their lessons. He alone stood poised to become the next Artinen assassin.
Today, Jon was practicing. The Artinen monks, an order that traced its beginnings back into the earliest mists of time, had trained him to find the shadows in even the brightest rooms and how to use them to become invisible. It took discipline to slow one’s breathing, still the mind, find the balance between light and dark, and then seemingly disappear. But the ache interfered with that concentration.
I’m trying too hard, he thought. I must let go of everything to become my own shadow. Finally he crossed over. He reached the shadow state where he felt and acted like a wisp of smoke from a dying fire. Jon felt and thought nothing. He was invisible, even to himself. Shortly thereafter he saw them.
* * *
Jon remembered later being a little surprised to see his mother with the Abbot as they came out of his office, but at that moment he was simply a mirror on the wall of time, reflecting and absorbing whatever passed his way. His parents had wanted him to become a teacher at the academy run by the order, and he had agreed until he understood that they really wanted him to become a monk first and a teacher second. His mother especially wanted him to dedicate his life to the church, so to complete her prayers and promises to the Abbot. Seeing her with the Abbot was not, then, all that odd. The conversation between them, however, was.
“We have a moment or two before my aide will join us.” The priest spoke barely above a whisper. “Ruth, are you sure you wish to pursue this contract with us? I understand your motives, but do you really understand the cost? Will you sacrifice yourself to us to be rid of someone who may be gone soon anyway?”
“Not soon enough!” Ruth responded hoarsely. “As for the sacrifice to you, dear Ruddit, well that’s something I have thought of for a long time.”
The two stood, staring into each others’ eyes until the aide appeared.
“You have a duty for me, Abbot?” she asked.
“Yes, my dear,” he replied. “Take Ruth to the spa and prepare her.
“She will be spending the evening with us.”
“Certainly, Abbot.” She smiled at him and turned to Ruth. “My name is Aerial. Please follow me. You are about to discover the definition of being pampered. There are few pleasures that cannot be found in the Abbot’s spa.”
The Abbot watched the two women disappear down the hallway. As he turned to reenter his office, he looked directly to where Jon was standing. For the briefest moment it seemed to Jon that the Abbot would walk over to him, but instead he returned to his office and shut the door quietly.
* * *
Jon remained for a while longer, reflecting on what he had observed. His mother was obviously dealing with the Abbot to have someone killed. What else could “contract” mean to an Artinen Abbot with the world’s most renowned assassins at his command? (Few on Artimar knew this was the case, fewer still lived long with that knowledge, but Jon suspected his mother had close-enough ties with the Abbot to be one of those who were permitted to live with that knowledge.) And what sacrifice was his mother making that involved a trip to the Abbot’s famous spa? That didn’t really sound like a sacrifice; unless the rumours of the Abbot’s appetite for sexual pleasures were more real than rumour. Then it hit him. He stilled himself, squatting motionless on the floor. Jon knew he had seen the truth. His mother would lay with the Abbot and the Abbot would have someone killed. It was as clear to him as the air atop the Hand of the Holies mountain.
While Jon had long ago stopped caring what happened to his parents after they had interfered with his plans to wed Lela, his childhood sweetheart, he was interested in whom the contract was on. He wondered idly if it might be his father.
“Would she kill her own husband just to be with the Abbot? That didn’t seem too likely. She was here sleeping with the Abbot anyway. No, it must be someone else. I will put my will into this. I will be the contractor!”
* * *
Jon moved quietly in his cell. There was no real need, as there were few monks in this wing; it was just a habit he had instilled in himself. He went to the bookshelf that looked like a staircase leaning against the wall and put his full weight on the bottom shelf on the left-hand side. Nothing happened. He then stretched to the other side, second shelf, and did the same. Again nothing happened. But when he moved up to the third shelf on the right side, a panel in the ceiling rose up and shifted to the side, revealing a square black hole. Using the strength of his spring-like legs, he propelled himself from the third shelf through the opening and landed without a sound in the attic. He took a few seconds to reset the panel that had lifted and let his eyes grow accustomed to the lightless gloom of the upper floor. He checked the four crossbows that would fire should anyone actually put any weight on the edge of the opening.
Now the whole complex was open to him. He had spent many a night exploring the secret reaches of this domain. Several times he was almost killed by traps set by previous explorers, but he had been lucky. (He preferred to think skilled or blessed.) Tonight he would head for the Abbot’s spa. He had never bothered with that area of the building before, thinking it would be of little use to him, but his mother’s appearance had changed everything.
Before he started, he calmed himself and prayed. He asked the holies what he should be wary of, and they spoke to him as they always did.
He felt them warning him that the Abbot would protect what he feared most to lose or have exposed. He was given the sense that the spa would be well protected. Very well, this night could be a learning experience.
Jon had memorized all of the drawings of the monastery complex that he could get his hands on over the years and committed them to memory. His shipboard stargazing had stretched his memory past normal limits and he had developed an eidetic memory; once seen, forever repeatable.
He headed off through the rafters and braces towards the wing that held the spa. He moved easily, without hesitation, but with a wariness learned from past experience. As he neared the spa he slowed and became even more watchful. What appeared to be a spider web could be a trigger to certain death. As he took a moment to compose himself he saw the slightest movement to his right. He reacted by moving around the beam he was leaning against to put it between him and whatever threat existed over there.
“Jon. The Abbot does not want you here tonight.” The voice spoke from the darkness.
He knew immediately who it was.
“Why is my teacher among the bowers so late at night?” he asked.
“The Abbot saw you this afternoon when you were trying pathetically to be invisible,” came the reply. “He does not want you interloping on his evening with your mother. Return to your room and he will consider assigning you to this contract. Remain and I will kill you.”
Jon considered his options. His teacher just might have the skill required to best him, yet he was very curious about the Abbot and his mother. He decided to live to kill another day. “I will retire,” he said into the gloom.
“Good,” came his teacher’s voice from less than a hand’s length behind him. “I would have hated to eliminate my protégé.”
Jon tried very hard not to be surprised. Without turning to face his teacher, he said, “See you at practice in the morning.” He headed back towards his cell without another word.
Several times along the way he considered turning around and going back to the spa, but he was not positive that his teacher wasn’t following him. He decided that the safest course of action was to feign defeat and return to his cell. Jon wondered idly if his teacher would really believe he was retiring, or if he would remain on guard all night.
As he approached the trapdoor above his room, a sense of unease came over him. He could not identify the cause but he had come to trust this extra sense. Knowing there must be danger near, he slowed his movements even more and then crossed over into the shadow realm of invisibility. (Regardless of his teacher’s derogatory comments, he was becoming quite adept at “disappearing”.)
He was reasonably certain his teacher could not have beaten him back to his room, so this threat must be coming from someone else. But who?
Jon’s curiosity rose. He knew of no other adept in the Artinen ranks, other than his teacher and the Abbot, who could conceal themselves from him. He wondered now if the existence of other assassins had been kept from him.
Then they were face to face.
“Be still, Jon,” the Abbot spoke quietly. “The least move and I will release your soul from this plane.” When the Abbott saw that Jon had practically frozen in place, he continued. “Seeing you outside my office today, I knew you would try to spy on us tonight. Your curious side could not let the presence of your mother go unwatched. I was unsure that you would have the wisdom to obey your teacher; I’m glad to see that you did. Of all the students I have witnessed, you have shown the most promise. It would be a blasphemy against the holies to waste such a talent just because family is involved.”
“I want you to remain in your cell tonight and tomorrow. Come to my office after prayers the following morning, and we shall discuss the assignment your mother brings us.”
Jon bowed his head slightly in response. When he straightened up, the Abbot was gone.
This has been quite a day, thought Jon. My mother arrives with a contract that she means to pay for by sleeping with the Abbot, and I get to deliver it. Yes, by the holies, quite a day.
Jon knelt and released the hidden catch that kept the four crossbows armed and then leaned forward to lift the panel that gave access to his cell. He stopped just short of lifting it. The feeling of unease had returned; this time strongly. From his crouched position Jon made a visual sweep of the area and saw nothing. He reached for the trapdoor again, and again stopped short. The crossbows! The Abbot must have done something to them, he thought.
One by one he examined the deadly little weapons. The first three were disarmed, as he had expected, but the fourth, the one that would have been pointed at his back had he lifted the panel, was still armed. The Abbot (who else could it be?) had cut the release cord.
Jon disarmed the bow and then carefully went over every inch of the panel before he tried to open it. Once he was satisfied that no other danger existed, he opened the door and slid into his room. From the inside he re-armed the remaining three bows above, slipped to the floor, and knelt before the small shrine in his cell. He lit some incense and prepared to meditate.
I must learn all I can from this evening, he thought as he melted into his meditation. May the holies teach me well.
* * *
His prayers finished, the Abbot carefully arranged his office for the expected visitor. Tureg, the assassin teacher and primary contractor for the Artinens, waited patiently for the Abbot to complete his preparations.
“Tureg,” the Abbot said, as he lit the candles whose incense would bring a calming atmosphere to the room, “I would like you invisible by my side, but I cannot trust that the boy would not see you. His talents seem to be growing exponentially.”
“Surely my Abbot exaggerates,” replied Tureg, “I have not seen such astonishing acceleration during my training periods with him. He is good and will get better, but either one of us could easily defeat him.”
“Do not deceive yourself, dear Tureg, lest I find myself in need of a teacher. A teacher I would have to train and I have neither the time nor the patience for that task.” The Abbot looked hard at Tureg.
“You, Jon, and I are the only three capable Artinen assassins. We have legions of monks that could muddle through a murder here or there, but we three are the only ones with the skill and knowledge to do the deed and make it look like an act of the holies. As much as I dislike the idea, until the two of us can recruit and train some decent talent we need to use him as a contractor.”
“Now, I have rearranged my confessional curtains to hang close to my desk. Conceal yourself there and reveal yourself only if absolutely necessary. I don’t want the boy to think I fear him.” The Abbot spoke the last sentence so quietly Tureg had to strain to hear it.
“Do you, my Abbot?” asked Tureg. “Fear Jon Firevan.”
The Abbot’s glare almost burned a hole through the teacher. “I know the holies speak to him and give him visions. He has confirmed this to me. I would have hoped that a man of your experience and training would know that anyone favoured by the holies should be feared. For in any struggle the holies may just reveal your weakness to him and have him prevail.”
“My Abbot, I did not mean to minimize the danger he represents,” a truly chastised Tureg responded. “I just don’t see him as posing a threat to us.”
A knock on the door stopped any further conversation. The Abbot motioned Tureg to his hiding place and went to his desk as Tureg slid silently behind the curtains.
“Enter,” called the Abbot, now seated comfortably behind his desk.
“Jon Firevan is here to see you my Abbot,” the secretary said, looking a bit nervous. “He says he has an appointment but I don’t have one in my book.”
“Show him in, please,” replied the Abbot with a smile. “I made the appointment, and I always forget to tell you. It’s OK. I’ll try not to make that mistake again.”
Jon entered the room as the secretary retreated to her station. He closed the door and headed for the chair in front of the Abbot’s desk.
“Why does my Abbot want me dead?” he asked without preamble. As he seated himself he noted the smell of another in the room. It could only be his teacher; the Abbot would trust no other for this interview. Interesting, thought Jon. Perhaps the Abbot is not invulnerable after all.
“I merely play the hand the holies deal to me, Jon.” The Abbot’s tone was calm and practiced. If Jon had expected to catch him off guard with his directness he was about to be disappointed. “The contract we’re going to discuss is very important to the monastery and I needed to know that the holies approved of my choice. Had you died I would have grieved the loss of a promising talent, but as you survived, I feel vindicated in offering you this contract. I assume that you still have not told your mother that you are one of us?”
“My parents are lost to me. They do not exist in my reality,” Jon answered with a hard edge to his voice. “I assume the contract is on some slaver, perhaps the most prominent in Corvenus, Mr. Boxtin?”
“You are quite correct,” replied the Abbot, “we will do some research on Mr. Boxtin for you while you plan your practice run. We have chosen Thoren Jensen, the father of the woman who jilted you, as the target. He is reasonably well protected and, as we like to balance the scales, is definitely on the other side of the slavery debate.”
Jon’s blood beat in his temples. He knew the Abbot was trying him, seeing if he would demand another target. He knew the Abbot would have learned that Jon loved Thoren as a second father. But this time it was the Abbot’s turn to be disappointed. “Very well,” said Jon in as dispassionate a voice as possible, “when do I leave?”
“We need to clear Tureg’s time, but I think within a week or two,” answered the Abbot as he glanced over the calendar at his desk. “Yes, I think by mid-month you and Tureg will be heading to Corvenus.”
“I don’t need a babysitter,” snarled Jon.
“You will have backup,” stated the Abbot flatly. “And you will take all your directions in the field from him. Let there be no mistake, Jon Firevan, this is a test of your capabilities. You will do as you are instructed or Tureg will separate your body from your soul. Do you understand me?” Without realizing it, the Abbot had risen out of his chair and his voice had risen to a moderate shout by the time he finished admonishing Jon.
Jon rose as well. “I’ll await your instructions,” he said. He bowed and left the room.
“I think that went well,” said Tureg sarcastically as he emerged from the curtains.
“If I didn’t need you I would have the holies remove your intestines,” spat the Abbot. “Now leave me, I have work to do.”
Tureg spun on his heel and left by the rear entrance. He was too preoccupied by his anger with the Abbot to notice the pair of eyes that followed him across the courtyard.
So it was Tureg, thought Jon. Now they scheme against me. We will use this to our own ends. Thanks be to the holies for this knowledge.
Jon watched Tureg disappear into the training gym and then headed for his cell. He knew who his real target would be, he just needed to pray and plan to make his choice work.
* * *
Months later, in another city, Jon stood silently in a dark, cold attic and listened to the winter rain beat on the roof. He let all emotion drain from him, then all feelings, anything that might make him less of a weapon. He felt neither joy nor sadness, love nor hate, hot nor cold, pain nor pleasure. He was an Artinen assassin and he was about to kill again.
It had taken him almost a week to rid this attic of all the traps that Kannis, the figure lying on the floor with the end of a shiny silver dart protruding from his right ear, had set up to protect his master. Jon had respect for men who took pains to foresee different attack possibilities, and Kannis would be near the top of that list. The respect was not lessened by the fact that Jon had blown a poisoned dart into his ear; an Artinen assassin expected to overcome all odds and deliver the contract. The fact that Kannis had come to inspect the attic, even though he had set traps and alarms, put him in an elite class of bodyguard. The Artinens were simply better at killing than Kannis was at protecting.
When he finished here Jon would need to decide whether to make a quick kill of Kannis or leave the dart in his ear. The poison did not kill; it just suspended all voluntary muscle activity. The victim breathed, though almost imperceptibly, and was aware of his surroundings, but was unable to communicate. They were almost always buried alive.
But that was for later. Now he must prepare for the main purpose of his visit to the city of Corvenus; the assassination of Mr. Boxtin, the slave trader. Jon had been given the contract over a year ago by the Abbot of his monastery. It was the first challenge that he would handle alone and he felt honoured to be given the responsibility after so few years with the brothers. His quick rise to sole operator was, he felt sure, due mainly to the results of his last engagement and his trainer’s bungling. But enough of idle thoughts! There was work to do.
He slid easily back into his trancelike state and waited for Mr. Boxtin.
Several hours passed before sounds from the room below signalled Mr. Boxtin’s arrival. He was always accompanied by three guards within the house. (Kannis was, or had been, his outside guard.) Mr. Boxtin felt safer with a division of labour between the people who watched over his safety. He did not like to give one person the total responsibility. The room Mr. Boxtin had just entered was the bath and shower room attached to his main bedroom. Jon knew that Mr. Boxtin took his bath in different rooms on different nights and this night had always been the main bath.
Jon listened to every sound coming from the room below. He could imagine what was happening almost as well as someone watching through a window. The three guards had taken up their places just inside each of the three doors to the bath. They faced the door so as to provide Mr. Boxtin with some privacy. Mr. Boxtin had checked out the showers for any possible assailants and then had tested the temperature of the bath his slaves had prepared. Once he had decided that all was to his liking, he had removed his robes and settled into the tub for a leisurely soaking.
Jon had remained motionless until he was confident that Mr. Boxtin was well settled into the tub, and then he reopened the small hole he had cut in the ceiling tile. The hole gave him a view from above the tub, slightly behind the end where Mr. Boxtin’s head lay nestled in several pillows. His quarry was relaxing nicely below him.
Without a sound, Jon removed a small vial from his belt and very carefully removed the stopper, making sure to hold on to the thin thread that had been wedged between the glass and the top. Holding the thread, he tipped the vial upside down over the hole. A small, black-and-white striped spider, about the size of a child’s fingernail, fell through the hole and, deftly guided by Jon’s thread, headed for Mr. Boxtin. It landed gently on the fat part of his shoulder, and he was so relaxed by the warm water that he didn’t feel a thing.
What happened next needed to be seen to be believed. The moment the spider landed on the warm skin it seemed to begin sinking into it, becoming part of it, and then it just disappeared. Jon knew what was happening and pulled the thread back up through the hole and replaced the plug in the ceiling. He was done with Mr. Boxtin, but the spider wasn’t.
In the dark recesses of the monastery in Manderville where the assassins train, Jon had been introduced to the Jelly spider and had been amazed at how it worked. Once on warm flesh (it must be warm, and it must be skin; hair, fur, or clothing negate the spider’s instinctive action) the spider’s body disassociates and passes through the skin and muscle tissue of its host until it reaches bone or an internal organ. There it re-associates and lays eggs; from several hundred to a thousand. (There is no identifiable male or female, all Jelly spiders behave alike.) If the spider has not laid the eggs on a bone it then travels through the body until it finds one. Once found, the spider burrows into the bone and, as its dying act, releases a toxin from its body into the bone marrow.
The Artinen teachers had, over the years, verified that the size of the spider‘s prey did not vary the outcome at all. The same results occurred in a small mouse as in a lumbering milk cow whose weight would be at least five times that of a large man. During the first day nothing appeared to happen except that the spider’s host seemed to bruise somewhat more easily. On the second day all bone-like material, including teeth and cartilage, began to soften and eventually take on the consistency of jelly. Toward the end of the second day, the eggs hatched.
By this time, the host was dead. Since breathing requires muscles pulling on bone to pump the lungs, breathing became impossible, and the victim suffocated, leaving the newly hatched young a veritable banquet hall to grow in. In the wild, they rarely take more than a week to devour the carcass and then they disperse on the winds, looking for prey of their own to start the process again. Fortunately, many events can disrupt the successful acquisition of a host for the spider, so they remain quite rare on Artimar, except in the labs of the Artinen teachers.
On his way out of the attic, Jon decided how he would deal with Kannis. This was an employee of honour, who took his position seriously, and so should be given an honourable death. Jon removed the dart from his ear and carefully put it back into its leather holder on his belt. He then gathered up the inert body of Kannis and moved through the attic to a dormer opening that looked over the front courtyard. Once on the roof, he looped a cord around Kannis and lowered him quietly into the courtyard and then slid silently down one of the support columns to join the hapless bodyguard. Jon sat Kannis on a bench in the courtyard garden, took the ritual assassin’s needle from its scabbard, and plunged it into his ear. The weapon pierced through Kannis’ brain but left no noticeable mark on his body. An honourable death that the doctors would explain as “natural causes”. Withdrawing the weapon, Jon wiped the small trickle of blood from Kannis’ cheek and sheathed his weapon. He then crossed over into the shadows and slipped past the two guards in the gatehouse (who had also missed him earlier in the evening) and headed for the river.
The Abbot should be pleased with how well this first solo assignment has gone, thought Jon, as he walked to the docks and the return ferry ride to Manderville. *
About the Author: Jonathan Saville holds a Master’s in math and has bounced between teaching and working in the computer field since 1970. For the last 12 years he has been a self-employed computer consultant working in the Edmonton, Alberta area. He is married (for twenty-three years this time) with two boys, ages 21 and 18, who are still living at home. His wife is a CA who is currently consulting to the provincial government. The book that this story is excerpted from is his first attempt at producing something other than a lecture, a client presentation, or system documentation.
Story copyright 2010 Jonathan Sayville
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago is standing right behind you. Right now.
Illustration copyright 2010 Romeo Esparrago