The blade glinted in the moonlight. Perfectly straight, razor sharp, it was a weapon… no, a tool specially crafted and fitted for the task at hand.
Just like me.
I put the dagger away, hiding it in the folds of my cloak. No sense in taking any chances. The odds that anyone would look up to the roof were slight, but I hadn’t survived this long by taking unnecessary risks. The light from the burning building further down the street bathed everything with a reddish glow, but I knew how to remain hidden. I knew how to keep to the shadows and let the darkness surround me as if it was an extension of my cloak.
I waited there, silent, still. My quarry would be passing below me at any moment. The strike had to be swift, the action precise. Nothing less would do to please my patron.
I can’t remember my parents. My birth parents, that is. They disappeared one day. Some accident while travelling I was told. All they left me was my name.
I was taken in by a family that was part of the Sundabar nobility. Emeline and Robert Wayne already had two children – Gunter and Helen. They had been good friends with my mother and father, so when my parents vanished without a trace, the Waynes took me in. They brought me up in the traditional ways of the noble – horse riding, fencing, etiquette and so on.
I hated it.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I was grateful to them, and I became firm friends with Gunter and Helen, but I felt stifled, imprisoned, so I ran away.
I won’t ever forget that first night. I was twelve. I had no money, no food, and I had just run away from the only home I had known. I remember digging through the refuse as the sunset, looking for something halfway edible, wondering if I would have to go back with my tail between my legs.
That’s when I met him. Zhayne. He was a half-elf, a good few years older than me – but with elves you can never really tell can you? I didn’t hear him come up to me. The first thing I knew was when he spoke to me.
“Don’t think I’ve seen you around here before,” he said, his voice smooth.
I didn’t know what to say. I dropped whatever rubbish I was holding and stood up.
“You another runaway?” he asked me, “This city seems to attract them like flies.” Taking my silence for an answer, he continued. “Look, you don’t want to be out here at night. Come home with me, and I’ll make sure you get fed.”
Obviously, I was reluctant to go with him. He sighed. “I promise on my honour. I won’t hurt you.”
I had little choice. I followed him through alleys and tiny side streets until eventually, we reached a small wooden hut, little more than a shed. Zhayne opened the door and beckoned me inside. Still not entirely trusting him, I stepped through.
The first thing that hit me was the smell. The most amazing smell of something cooking hit me almost like a fist. I closed my eyes and just breathed it in. After what seemed like an eternity I opened my eyes and looked around the hut’s interior. I saw several children – some my age and some even younger – gathered around a cooking pot which was being stirred by…
For a moment I forgot to breathe. She had dark hair, almost black, and brown eyes. Her nose was covered with a light dusting of freckles. She bit her lip in concentration. I think I fell in love with her right there and then.
Zhayne’s voice shook me from my trance. “Astrid! I’ve picked up another stray!”
The girl – Astrid – looked up at me and smiled. “There’s plenty to go around. Why don’t you sit down here?”
I sat in the small gap she indicated and silently accepted a bowl of the soup she had made. It tasted wonderful, so much better than the food I had had back home… no, back at the mansion. I was dimly aware that Astrid had asked me a question.
“E…excuse me?” I stuttered.
“I asked what’s your name,” she replied, a smile on her face.
“Danyel” I replied, not trusting myself to say anything more. The moment was broken when Zhayne sat down next to me.
“Look,” he said, “You’re welcome to stay here, but if you do I’ll need to teach you a few things.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like how to survive in this city. All the nobles and gentry are fine with their bodyguards, but down here in the dirt, we have to fight for every scrap we can get. What do you say?”
Again I didn’t have much choice. I nodded. Zhayne slapped my back. “That’s the spirit! Get a good night’s rest; we’ll start bright and early tomorrow!”
Over the next few months, Zhayne taught me how to move silently, how to hide in the shadows and how to distract someone with one hand while the other hand went into their purse. We ran through the streets and alleys, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes with others of a similar mindset and disregard for authority. We were careful only to take as much as we needed, as we saw what happened to those who got too greedy – their bodies, or at least parts of them, would often turn up within the next couple of days.
I also helped Astrid with looking after the other homeless children. I would find ingredients for her to cook up into nourishing meals. She would often send me out on errands to the city’s free clinic, that catered for the poor and homeless. The clinic was run by a dwarf whose name was Dr Tomrus Rockcleaver, although we just referred to him as “Doc”. He had come down from the mountains many years ago and had set up the clinic to help those who couldn’t help themselves. I don’t think we would have been able to do half as much had he not helped us. He was a kindly soul, always ready to drop whatever he was doing to come to a child’s aid.
The worst days were when I learned that Astrid had an incurable wasting disease. From what she had been told she was expected to live for another five or six years, and Dr Rockcleaver gave us herbs and medicines to help with the pain.
We lived like this for about three years, then one night, while Zhayne and I were running across rooftops in the merchant district of the city, Zhayne turned to me.
“Danyel, there’s someone I want you to meet.” His voice sounded unsure, as though reluctant to speak the words.
“Who?” I asked, my curiosity aroused. In all the time I had known him, Zhayne had never once given any indication that he mixed with anyone else.
Zhayne said nothing further but beckoned me to follow him. We made our way along a winding path of roofs and alleys, sometimes doubling back on ourselves, other times seemingly going around in circles until I had completely lost track of where I was. I suspected this was intentional. Eventually, we stopped outside a door that looked no different from any other door in the city. I could have been past it a hundred times and thought there was nothing special about it. Zhayne knocked a complicated rhythm on the door, which opened slightly in response. I heard whispering between the half-elf and whoever was behind the door, then it opened fully. The inside was in near total darkness. Zhayne nodded at me, indicating I should follow him inside.
As soon as we had entered the door shut with a loud slam. Someone lit a candle, and I saw we were in a house. Beside us stood a thickly built man who I took to be the doorkeeper. He had scars across his face that spoke of many years of fighting.
“This way,” he mumbled and moved off towards a staircase. Zhayne and I followed him up and stopped when he motioned us to. We were standing outside a set of double doors. The doorkeeper knocked another complicated rhythm. A voice responded from behind the door.
“Come in! I want to meet our new friend.”
The door opened, and Zhayne and I entered. The doorkeeper left us, presumably to take up his post behind the door again. I looked around the room in which we now stood. The walls were bare, only a thin layer of peeling paint adorned them. There was no furniture besides a wooden desk in the middle of the room and a single chair. On that chair was sitting a man I had never seen before. He looked like one of the nobles with jet black close-trimmed hair and a bushy moustache. His clothes were black and finely embroidered with silver thread. But it was his hand that caught my attention. On one of his fingers, he was wearing a gold ring shaped like what seemed to be a winged serpent. This man was dangerous. I could sense it as if I could smell it.
His voice broke my line of thought. “Zhayne my boy, why don’t you introduce me?”
Zhayne cleared his throat nervously. “This… this is Danyel. He’s been helping me. I’ve been teaching him how to survive.”
The man looked at me appraisingly. I felt my cheeks redden, but I managed to fight the urge to look at my boots. He nodded. “Hmm, interesting. Danyel, is it? How good are you?”
Zhayne started to speak again, but the man cut him off. “I want him to answer me.”
With difficulty, I opened my mouth. “Zhayne’s taught me how to hide and how to steal. We’ve never been caught.” I stopped, not knowing what more to say.
“Have you ever killed?” The man asked.
I was taken aback. “N…no sir,” I stammered.
“Do you think you could?” he asked.
“I don’t know sir,” I responded, my voice quiet.
The man in black shrugged. “Well, we’d better find out. There’s a merchant – a jewellery seller – who double-crossed me and took my money. I want you to visit him and silence him. Permanently.”
All I could do was nod. I felt my knees knocking. Did I have what it took? Could I take a life? Did I want to?
That night I killed my first target.
What no-one really tells you about doing something you are not sure about is that after the first time it gets easier. The man – whose name I came to learn was Baron Blackwall – gave me more targets to kill. Sometimes I worked with Zhayne, occasionally alone. Zhayne told me that Blackwall was a member of the Zhentarim, a shadowy network dealing with organised crime. Although neither of us came out and said it, that also meant we were members as well.
Astrid noticed a difference in me. She drew me aside one evening and said that I had become quieter, more withdrawn, somehow darker. I said nothing. I barely even met her eyes. She let the matter drop, but she said she would be keeping an eye on me. I still helped out with looking after the children staying with us – different children arrived and left over the years – and I still helped out Dr Rockcleaver at the clinic, but I felt something growing cold within me.
I spent two more years balancing what passed as my home life with my work for the Zhentarim. Then one day Baron Blackwall told me he had come to a decision.
“I’ve been speaking with some of my associates,” he started, with a definite pause around the word ‘associates’, “and we believe that you have been useful to us. And so we shall use you in a greater capacity.” He reached into a pouch underneath his cloak and withdrew a small item. He put it on the table between us.
It was a gold ring with a winged serpent, identical to the one he himself wore.
“This is it, Danyel,” Blackwall said, “After this, there is no going back. If you take this ring, you are one of us forever. Your old life will be dead. You will belong to us, mind and body. Will you take it?”
Slowly, almost dreamlike, I reached out to the table. There was a moment’s hesitation as my hand hovered over the ring, but I picked it up and slid it onto my finger.
Blackwall nodded. “Very good. From now on your name is no longer Danyel. Your name is Talon Shadowkin of the Zhentarim. And I have your first official task – no different from any other job you’ve done for us.”
He sat down on the chair. My gaze was fixed firmly ahead as he continued. “There is a man – a dwarf – who presents an obstacle to our plans.”
“What has he done?” I asked.
Blackwall shrugged. “Nothing directly, but his intentions and occupation are not in our interests. I believe you are acquainted with him. A doctor Tomrus Rockcleaver?”
My heart skipped a beat at that, but I kept my gaze steady. “I am, yes.”
“Will that present a problem?” Blackwall asked, leaning forward, eyes gauging my reaction.
“No.” my voice was flat, emotionless.
“Good.” Blackwall leaned back again. “I need you to remove him and destroy his clinic utterly. Nothing of it can be allowed to exist. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes,” I said, my voice sounding as though it came from a long way away.
“Good. Get to it then.” With that, Blackwall left the room.
It was a busy evening for the clinic. As I entered some of the nurses waved at me in greeting. I waved back briefly. The receiving room was filled with the poor and needy of the city, none of whom could afford treatment at the bigger houses of healing.
One of the nurses – a young female elf with red hair – spoke to me. “If you’re looking for the Doc, he’s not here yet. He had to take delivery of some new medicines. He’ll be here later.” I nodded my thanks and continued walking.
At the back of the receiving room was a smaller room filled with various medicines and ingredients. That was my objective. I entered the room and locked the door behind me. From under my cloak, I produced the bottle of flammable oil I had been carrying, took out the stopper, and poured it all around the room. I dropped the empty bottle on the floor and took out two more items – a short candle and a piece of flint. I struck the flint against the wall and used the resulting spark to light the candle. I set the candle on the floor in the middle of a pool of oil, unlocked the door and left the clinic, waving to the nurses again as I walked to the doors.
I hadn’t gone thirty feet when I heard the whoomph of a giant fireball. I turned to look. The clinic was ablaze. Fire and smoke poured out of all the windows and doors. Dimly I heard people screaming as they burned alive. I turned away and walked down the street. The second part of my plan was about to begin.
I knew the quickest route from Dr Rockcleaver’s house to the clinic. I also knew the best place to wait – on a rooftop over a darkened alley, in sight of the clinic. I climbed up to the spot and waited, taking my knife out to check its sharpness, watching it glint in the moonlight.
Presently I saw my target. Dr Rockcleaver walked quickly along the alley, his hands wringing. In the moonlight, I saw his brow furrowed with panic. He didn’t look up – his gaze was fixed on the burning building in front of him. As he passed underneath me, I dropped down. Before he could react, my hand was over his mouth, my knife slitting his throat. Dr Rockcleaver fell to the ground, his lifeblood pouring from the wound. I didn’t wait around. I melted back into the shadows. I managed to get two streets away before I bent over vomiting.
After a few minutes, I staggered back to our hut, wanting nothing more than to just sleep. Astrid was not there. I asked one of the children where she was.
“She had to go out on an errand. She left a note for you.” the little boy gave me a scrap of parchment. I read it, a growing sense of horror and dread filling me.
“Danyel”, the letter began, “I’ve had to go to the clinic to pick up some remedies. Please think about what we discussed. All my love, Astrid.”
I moved without thought. I dropped the parchment, ran back out into the street and made my way back to the clinic as fast as I could, all attempts at stealth forgotten.
The fire was starting to die down. The building was little more than a skeleton. A crowd had gathered around it and buckets of water were being passed around and thrown onto the fire. I shoved some people aside and ran into the entrance.
Then I stopped.
One of the bodies had fallen near the front desk. It had been burned almost beyond recognition, but it was unmistakable.
It was Astrid.
My legs collapsed beneath me. I fell to my knees, willing it not to be true, willing Astrid to still be alive. I don’t know how long I stayed like that, but eventually, I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Come on; there’s nothing you can do now.” A dwarf leaned over me, helping me to my feet. I had a brief vision of Dr Rockcleaver, but it passed quickly. I allowed him to lead me outside. My hand brushed against the door, and I heard a clink. I looked at my hand. The ring glinted in the light. I took it off, intending to throw it away. Instead, I tucked it into the bottom of my pack. I vowed to take revenge on Baron Blackwall and the Zhentarim for this, but something told me that now was not the time. I left the embers of the clinic and vanished into the night.
Waterdeep, the so-called City of Splendours, was a bustling seaport. Merchants, lords, scholars, criminals and the curious came here in droves. One could lose oneself very easily in the crowds here.
Perfect for me.
The ship I had signed on to was waiting in the harbour. The captain was said to be a harsh taskmaster, but that was fine — anything to help me get away from what I had done.
Danyel was dead. I boarded the ship, ready to start a new chapter in the life of Talon Shadowkin.