Chapter Thirteen

                                   Secrets Exposed and Misinterpreted
 
 

         Athos went into motion, his body a blur as the weapons he carried whistled about in blinding speed.
         He cut down the first two men before they knew what was upon them.  But the third leaped back as the scorpion darted forward, its stinger shooting out.
         Athos threw himself to the side as it brushed by his chest, causing stinging pain in the exposed flesh it touched there as it ripped his shirt.
         The two pincers moved simultaneously, and the right one almost caught his foot.  He leaped just in time, and lost his balance for a moment, stumbling backward.
         By the time he had recovered, the second group of men had closed the distance, and he found himself encircled.
         The scorpion backed off to his right, while the crocodile loomed behind the men on his left.
         The men around him were harrying him, and as he would move to engage one, another behind him would attack.
         He dodged blow after blow easily, but knew he would tire soon.  These men weren't trying to kill or capture him.  They were merely holding him here as a delaying tactic.  They must be awaiting reinforcements.
         "No!" came a shout from above as Jitinder somersaulted down into the fray, landing easily on his feet.  "He is mine!"
         A humming filled the air as Jitinder whirled his weapon in deadly arcs about himself.  The blade licked out, cutting down one of the men in black.
         Athos recognized it as a naginata - an oriental weapon.  It was a cross between a spear and a polearm.  It had one large blade affixed to one end, and another smaller blade attached to the other end.  It was slighly shorter in length than the average spear, making it very manueverable, but had a long reach.  The one Jitinder wielded was pitch black.
         The dark-clothed men reeled back in suprise at the unexpected assault, and Athos took the opening as an opportunity.
         He leaped forward, breaking through the circle, taking one of the men in the throat as he did so.
         At the same time Jitinder's naginata swept out again, giving another of the men a mortal blow.
         The crocodile sprang forward to kill the unwanted intruder.
         The remaining men facing Jitinder, three in all, backed off and let the creature pass.  One of them took out a small crossbow - this one they only wanted to kill, not capture.
         The scorpion lunged forward again, its stinger racing towards Athos' face.
         He ducked, and wondered momentarily why men who wanted him alive would use a beast such as this, which would surely slay him if it landed a hit.  His shortsword swept up, and the scorpion shrieked.
         This time the tail pulled back without its stinger, and greenish blood oozed from the huge cut, leaking onto its shiny black shell.
         It chittered and clicked more as if in anger than in pain, and it scuttled forward again, intent on catching him in its pincers.
         Meanwhile, the crocodile had rushed upon Jitinder, engaging him as the man with the crossbow worked to load a bolt in his crossbow and began cranking the windlass.  The bowstring began its slow climb to the lock.
         The crocodile lunged forward, its mouth gaping.  Jitinder met the lunge calmly, his naginata sending the crocodile reeling back in pain.
         Again the crocodile lunged, and this time Jitinder knew would not cause enough pain to the enraged creature to save him.  Instead he rammed the large blade into the thing's eye and used it as a fulcrum as he pole-vaulted onto the thing's back.
         It roared in pain, thrashing and twisting wildly, and Jitinder was hard pressed just to hang on.
         At the same time, the scorpion and Athos played a game of cat and mouse, each circling the other warily.
         Suddenly Athos was pulled off his feet from behind.  A choking cord with a large hard lump in its center was slowly crushing his larynx, and he realized that in a moment his neck would surely be broken.  One of the other men had managed to get behind him, and he cursed himself mentally for allowing himself to be distracted - the Viper had taught him bettter than this.  He recognized the cord as what it was - an effective assassin's tool.  The lump in the center was where the scarf had been filled with a large rock, to give the fibers of the cloth more strength in such an attack.
         Athos jabbed backwards with his parrying dagger, striking the man behind him solidly somewhere between his upper chest and his waist.
         The man screamed in pain, but did not release his hold.
         The world began spinning, and Athos realized he was losing consciousness.
         He flicked the trigger on the hilt of the parrying dagger, and the two spring blades were activated.  With a click they sprang out to either side of the main blade, which was still buried in Athos' attacker's body.
         Again the man behind him screamed, this time his hold loosening slightly.
         The world swam back into focus.  Athos began twisting the dagger.
         This time the man let go, falling backwards and, in so doing, wrenching the parrying dagger from Athos' hand.
         Athos gasped for air, stumbling back from the still advancing scorpion as the thing scuttled quickly forward, its pincers clicking ominously.
         Jitinder had managed to retain his hold on the crocodile, which bucked and twisted like a whirlwind.  For the first few moments it had been all he could do just to hang on, but he now he raised his naginata and plunged it forcefully into the beast's other eye.  The crocodile thrashed in pain, and tried rolling over, hoping to crush its tormentor.
         Jitinder leaped clear of the beast, rolled once, and came to a standing position.
         The crossbowman had managed to load his weapon, and was raising it to aim.  His two companions were hanging back, their swords out.
         He leaped toward the three men.
         Athos kept himself from stumbling any further back from the scorpion; it was harrying him, and he preferred to choose his own ground.
         Instead, he reversed his motion, and suddenly rolled forward, underneath the gigantic insect, shearing off one of its six legs at the joint in the same motion.
         The leg gave way with a click, and was surprisingly easy to cut through after the sword bit through the chitinous armor.  The scorpion lurched to one side, not realizing yet that it was less one leg.
         The ring within Athos' pocket tingled suddenly, and he was nearly crushed as the monstrous insect suddenly flipped over onto its back.
         He barely managed to roll out of the way.  Then, before it could right itself, he lunged forward and stabbed it through its softer underbelly, piercing into its brain area.
         It quivered for a few moments more, reflexively, as he backed away from it.
         Jitinder leaped forward, disembowelling the men on the right and left of the crossbowman in two neat strokes, batting away their feeble attempts to block his attack.
         The crossbow was pointed directly at his face.  the man's finger was on the release.
         His naginata arced down, just as the release was pulled.
         The bolt never left the crossbow.  Jitinder's blade severed the string, releasing the force within it as it whipped, quite literally, through the crossbowman's head.
         The corpse tumbled to the ground, and suddenly he had no more foes to fight.  the crocodile roared impotently, striking out blindly at nothing.  Jitinder swiftly imparted a death blow.
         The remaining men facing Athos turned and fled.  Panting, he let them go.  He fished in his pocket for a moment, producing the ring the Viper had given him, holding it up to the light.  He had read, in one of the books in the Viper's library, that scorpions had a piece of magnetic dust within their brains from which they determined their sense of balance - what was up and what was down.  Was the ring magnetic?
         No, there must be more to it than that.  He had distinctly felt the ring tingle.  There must be some magical properties-
         "Murderer!"cried Jitinder, lunging forward, striking out with his naginata.
         Athos barely managed to parry the humming blade, so surprised was he.
         "What?" he managed, backing off a few steps in shock.
         Jitinder sneered.  "Listen to my weapon, foul one!  Hear your death approach!"
         Again he lunged, and again Athos was almost skewered.
         "I spit in your face!" screamed Jitinder, his face contorted in fury.
         "Why are you doing this?" asked Athos, backing off under a series of crushing blows which resonated up his sword arm painfully.
         "I know you, Viper!"
         Athos shook his head.  "I am not the Viper!"
         "And now you lie!  So much like the coward you are!"
         The blows fell faster.
         "Why do you think I am the Viper?" protested Athos, hard pressed to parry the lightning strikes of Jitinder's naginata.
         "I've seen you in action before - serpent!  I recognized your fighting style!  From when you slew my parents!"
         "I am not the Viper!" yelled Athos.  "I will never be him!  Never!"
         "You lie!" spat Jitinder.  "Explain that!"  He motioned to the ring which Athos had dropped when Jitinder had first sprung upon him.
         Athos shook his head.  "It is mine, but I am not he!  He gave it to me!"
         Jitinder's face set.  "I have no more use for words, assassin!  Let my weapon speak for me as it drinks your lifeblood!"
         He concentrated on his next attacks, and Athos found himself giving ground steadily.
         Athos felt a cold wave of anger wash over him.  This fool who knew nothing had judged him worthy of death on the basis of the ring he wore!
         "I!" he cried, leaping forward and parrying the main blade of the naginata with his shortsword.
         "Am!" he continued. catching the haft of the naginata with his free hand as Jitinder whirled the smaller blade at his face.
         "Not!"  He twisted the naginata slighly, weakening Jitinder's hold.
         "The!" he shouted, punctuating the word with an upwards kick to Jitinder's jaw, which sent the other man arcing backwards to land hard on his back.
         "Viper!" he finished, flicking the naginata to one side and putting the tip of his shortsword to Jitinder's throat.
         Jitinder stared up at him for a moment, then closed his eyes.
         "Finish it, then," he said, so quietly that Athos barely heard him over the roaring of his own heart.
         "I am not the Viper!" he cried.  "I am not the Viper."
         He pulled back, removing the tip of his sword from Jitinder's throat, and backed off a few steps, panting.
         Jitinder opened his eyes.  "What's your game?" he asked suspiciously, not reaching for his weapon, but eyeing it.
         "I am not the Viper!" maintained Athos.  "Why can't you believe that?"
         "You are the Viper!" cried Jitinder, leaping towards his weapon and lifting it in one motion.  "I will never believe otherwise!"
         Athos backed off a few steps, then turned and fled.
         Jitinder looked after him, stunned.  Belatedly he realized he should probably be giving chase.  Instead, exhaustion overcame him, and he went and leaned against the wall, catching his breath.  Tears stung his eyes.  After a moment, he turned and sprinted in the other direction.

                                                                 * * *

         "Come on," whispered Arkail to the Entreri troop.  "Let's see where he's going.  Maybe he'll lead us right to our prey."
         Quickly the other men moved from their hiding places, stealthily following Athos' trail.

                                                                 * * *

         Childric got up from his own hiding place, certain that he had seen more than he'd wanted to.
         He sat down just as quickly as nine men appeared from almost nowhere, and followed the one he had earlier thought was the Viper.
         Who are they? he wondered.  What have they to do with this?  Pook will want to know.
         After they had gone, he stood again.
         And dropped back down just as quickly, as the entire area was suddenly flooded with more of the black-clad, red-sashed men.  This group was much larger than the previous two, and accompanied by two of the gigantic scorpions.
         More cult members!  What were they doing here?  He still had no idea how the Viper concerned them.

                                                                 * * *

         Athos ran heedless, tears he had thought long gone rolling down his cheeks.
         He came to the marketplace, dark and abandoned now, and made his way to the wall where the portal to the Viper's lair lay.
         Quickly he tapped his ring on the wall, and a moment later, he was back within the confines of the Viper's lair.

                                                                 * * *

         Across the marketplace, the Entreri troop halted, watching carefully.
         "A magical portal," murmured Melvic.  "And a magical ring.  We'll have to get one like it."
         "Not so," replied Arkail.  "All we need is a wizard - one of them can crack the magic.  Now that we know its location, we only need the wizard."
         He smiled grimly.
         The noose his tightening around your neck, Viper, thought Arkail.  Can you feel it?