Padded feet scuffed their way across the dry sands, lifting a whisper of noise to drift off against the muted cries of the karakara bird. Veils of black silk and tied-off dark abas hid the features of the party dashing from shadow to shadow.
A glance of steely eyes, a slight flick of a finger was enough to direct the practiced assassins toward their target, a low house of wind-blasted sandstone. No light shone from behind the thin tattered cloth covering the windows. Their target lay within, a man outspoken against the Faith. His specific crimes were matters for superiors: the holy slayers were weapons, drawn and wielded by others.
One man, the leader, unsheathed an obsidian blade, its polished dark surface seeming to draw the starlight down into its shimmering black depths. This would be the blade to strike the killing blow, and its razor-sharp edges would rest in the heart of the victim until morning. Thus The Storm Which Destroys warns others against sacrilege, and the grim consequences thereof.
The simple lock of the dwelling was a matter of a few seconds silent work, and then they were through the door, spreading out quickly, nimble feet passing over the strewn toys of a small child with unconscious ease. The master bedroom lay to the right, according to the spies' reports and the leader's mental map.
Lesser slayers kept watch, while a picked band made their way to the prey. Eyes and ears trained by fights to the death on the darkest of nights guided the leader infallibly to the bedside. Two dwarves lay side by side, sleeping soundly, oblivious to the spectre of death hovering over them.
"Umar Ibn Dayim!" the leader's voice boomed. The dwarf woke with a start, his wife trying to jump up, only to find a long sword perched across her throat. "You stand convicted of crimes against the Faith. Let the sentence be carried out!"
The dwarf gasped for air, grasping for words to refute the slayer. He had no time, though, for the razored edge of an obsidian longsword slammed through his chest an instant later, piercing his heart and pinning him to the bed with a surprised, confused look frozen onto his face. A sharp intake of breath from his wife indicated a coming scream, so the sword at her neck sliced deep. She collapsed next to her husband, choking and bleeding to death simultaneously.
The second slayer wiped the metal blade on the wife's bedclothes, and then a retreat was signaled, the job completed -- no one even remotely acquainted with this Umar would dare to slander the Faith again.
The first slayers already were disappearing into the night mere moments after the signal was given. The leader was the last out, to make sure all parts of the job had been completed. The sword itself was enough of a sign -- no note need be left to indicate the killer's identity.
A last glance back as the slayer passed through the threshold revealed a witness: a dwarven child, barely tall enough to reach the killer's knee. It stood there, staring at him across the room, framed in a dwarven-sized doorway. The child's eyes seemed to burrow into the slayer's very soul, and unconsciously the killer found a dagger pommel in his hand.
Then the spell was broken. The child lowered its eyes. The slayer hesitated only a second, then dashed off silently into the darkness, leaving the child to discover for himself what horror had been visited upon his family that night.
Late the next morning a neighbor found the three of them. The child sat between his parents, their blood soaked into his nightclothes. He sat still, and mute, and with eyes as dry as the desert sands. He did not speak for five days.
Thus began the second life of Anwar Ibn Umar.
"Grandfather, a prisoner wishes to speak to you."
"On what matter?" a husky voice replied.
"I do not know. We apprehended him as he attempted to infiltrate the compound, and he gave no resistance. It is my belief that he wanted to be captured."
"Very well. Send him in. He must know his life is now forfeit. If what he has to say is of such dire import, we shall not keep him waiting."
The grandfather assassin had no fear of an attempt on his life, here in his stronghold. He knew that his seconds would have already had the man stripped and searched to the bone for every manner of weapon, magical and mundane.
The man his lieutenant led in was not a man at all, but a dwarf. Only a short beard sprang from his chin, a sign of low station among his people. Though his hands were bound securely behind his back, and the trained eye of the Grandfather detected the awkward steps characteristic of an overzealous search, the fellow held himself straight as he walked toward the most senior assassin.
"Grandfather," the dwarf began, falling to one knee and lowering his head in deference, "I am Anwar Ibn Umar, and I wish to join the ranks of The Wrath of Old. I place myself in your service, until you see fit to release me from it, or from my life."
Anwar remained kneeling, not daring to provoke censure by looking one of such superior station in the eye until asked. The senior assassin remained silent.
For many minutes, neither moved. Anwar's muscles began to cramp from his awkward position, but he only clenched his teeth and waited, certain that his testing had already begun.
"Rise, Anwar Ibn Umar," the senior assassin said. "Are you prepared to live and die for the Faith?"
"No, Grandfather. I am prepared to live and die for The Wrath of Old."
"You pledge allegiance to our order, but not our cause?"
"That is correct, Grandfather. You see before you a weapon that you may point in whichever direction you wish. If you choose to use me to advance the Faith, are the actions and outcome any different?"
"Then tell me truly, Anwar Ibn Umar. Why do you make this pledge?"
"Truly, Grandfather, I wish the training your order provides to settle a score of many years ago."
"Ah, the sweet lady revenge. It is the specialty of The Wrath of Old. Is this why you have chosen us above other orders, since you say you care not for the Faiths?"
"It is, Grandfather. As well, the score I wish to settle involves a member of The Storm Which Destroys, the prime enemy of your order. Any harm I can do them in your service will be one step closer to repaying the debt due me."
"What if I were to ask you to lay down your life, for me, here, today, and thus fail in the revenge you so desire?"
"I would do so," Anwar replied. "I have given my pledge, and I can only trust that you will allow me to live and serve you for as long as my life is more advantageous than my death. In order to accomplish my own goals, therefore, it only remains for me to serve you well enough that my life is always worth more than my death. You see, my need for revenge is not a hindrance, but a powerful incentive for service."
"And what if I were to ask you to kill for me?"
"Truly, Grandfather, and though it pains me to say it, I cannot promise I will slay any man, if he is wholly innocent. A wrong was done to me in this manner, and I will not compound the injustice by perpetrating it myself. All I can say is that I fully understand my life is forfeit under such a circumstance, and that I accept it."
"Anwar Ibn Umar, you present me with the visage not of a committed assassin."
"Grandfather, I have seen the evil men do. I have seen the evil men think. There is barely a man living without dark stains on his soul. Point me toward such a man, and I will send him to his eternal reward without a backward glance. I have seen into the depths of hypocrisy: how the noblest priest hides shameful secrets from even himself. None of us is fit to crawl in the footsteps of the Loregiver. Releasing men from their own tortured souls is a blessing, not a crime."
"What of the innocent you spoke of?"
"No man I have known is truly innocent. I speak only of the man whom I seek, the one whose soul is in perfect harmony. Such a one I will not slay, for that would be a crime against the world itself."
"You are a confusing man, Anwar Ibn Umar."
"I speak my mind, Grandfather. Would you have preferred I worm my way into your organization with false dedication to the Faith? I present you only with the truth, and trust my fate to your wisdom."
Anwar dropped again to one knee, awaiting the judgment of the assassin. Silence once again descended on the chamber.
"You are dismissed, Anwar of The Wrath of Old."
Thus began the third life of Anwar Ibn Umar.
The training of the dwarf took many many months. Though the discipline was brutal, and the exercises rigorous, the stout folk's natural endurance and his own immense dedication saw him through it. Many a cold night, his fellows would see him perched cross-legged, alone in the desert, moving not a muscle, lost in some private meditation of his own.
He always volunteered for scouting missions, always observed his victim well in advance of the actual job. From lookout and footpad he progressed quickly to a reliable second, and then was put in charge of simple missions himself. Not a few opposing moralists found their eternal reward via Anwar's dagger.
Though he kept to himself, his fellows respected both his abilities and his unswerving dedication to service. Twice he drew blood from his own neck, a split second from taking his own life at the orders of a superior, before the test was passed.
He never spoke of his past, though several times his comrades thought they saw him fingering a dagger with a blade as dark as night on one of his midnight vigils.
"Grandfather wants to see you."
Anwar nodded. He knew this day would come. The day when his training had gone as far as the confines of this compound and the simple tasks so far assigned him could take him. The day his debt to the Grandfather would come due.
He was shown into the same room as on the day of his third birth. The Grandfather sat in the same chair, looking a little more wizened, but still with the same aura of power. "Grandfather," Anwar said, bending his head but remaining standing, the proper deference when given by a trusted underling.
"Anwar of The Wrath of Old," the most senior assassin began. "You have done well. I will admit to you now that I did not expect this of you. But my lieutenants tell me you have taken well to our training, and have not failed in the least on any of your missions."
"Thank you, Grandfather. I am happy my lowly efforts have pleased you."
"They have, Anwar. They have. But still I do not trust you. Have you any idea why?"
"Wise men say, Grandfather, that a man should not always trust even himself."
"Well spoken. Anwar, you have failed in no task, but I do not give you more challenging assignments. I have full faith in your abilities, but not in your character. You see, I have no hold over you beyond your word and your life."
Anwar began to answer, but was silenced with a raised finger.
"Until now. I know much of you, Anwar son of Umar son of Dayim. I know your parents were slaughtered by The Storm Which Destroys. I know you possess powers of the mind. I even know that the black dagger you carry with you always is formed from the tip of the obsidian sword that killed your father."
"I have sworn, Grandfather, to let it rest only in the heart of his murderer."
"Indeed. But, Anwar Ibn Umar, I know more. I know the identity of the man you seek. Your father's murderer lives yet, and his name is known to me."
Silence descended on the room. Anwar did not move at all.
"Will you not ask me his name, Anwar? Will you not seek to lay your father's ghost to rest?"
"Grandfather, it is not my place to demand information of you."
"Patience is one of the best of the assassin's weapons. You have indeed learned our trade well. You see, Anwar, now I have a hold on you. And now that I have such a hold, I can use you to your fullest. One day, after you have completed your obligation to me in full, I may reveal his name to you. I will make no promises to you."
"I understand, Grandfather. I ask only that I, and not the hand of Time or Fate, be allowed to one day end his life. I will make no demands of you."
"The first stage of your training is at an end. You have learned the basics of weaponplay and stealth, and have been blooded in the service to the Faith. You have learned the discipline necessary to carry out a task with half a dozen men at your command. But now your true education begins. The assassin works alone. Always. One slayer, one victim is the rule among the worthy. Today you receive your first solo assignment."
"Grandfather, I would travel to the ends of the earth for the order."
"You will, Anwar. You will. Your victim is Maramon Al-Bezza. Many years ago, he fled punishment at our hands. Now his existence offends me. Take whatever steps are necessary to end this nuisance to me. Return when you have done this."
"I understand, Grandfather. Is it known where this man fled?"
"To the ends of the earth, Anwar. He was last seen boarding a ship bound for the Ruined Kingdoms. You see, Anwar, it is only to a person like you I can entrust a mission like this. More zealous followers would chafe at such a long absence from slaying in earnest, and less trustworthy ones would be tempted to disappear, the job undone. You, I know, will return, in order to one day color your black dagger red."
"I will not return to you until he lies dead, Grandfather. Is there any way I can prove this to you?"
"He is known to wear a tattoo whose design is known to me. Bring me back that tattoo, and I shall know you have not failed."
"I shall not, Grandfather. I swear it."
The senior assassin nodded. "Passage on a ship bound for Huzuz has been secured for you. The rest is your own affair. You are dismissed, Anwar of The Wrath of Old."
Anwar nodded, bowed deeply, and left, thus beginning the fourth, and by far the most interesting, of his lives.