Chapter Fourteen

                                Past Revealed Obscurely:  Future Uncertain
 
 

         Grimwalde shrieked out a formless cry as the crossbow bolt was pulled from his shoulder.
         "Dolt!  Imbecile!" he raged, lashing out with his free hand and striking the young acolyte who had grasped the bolt.  The skinny young man staggered back, spatters of blood flying from the shallow cut Grimwalde's ring had left on the acolyte's right cheek.
         "It had to come out, lord magist," protested the high priest in a calming voice, stepping forward and holding his palms up placatingly.   "The blessings of Selune only extend so far."
         "Don't babble to me about the blessings of Selune, you old faker!  I pay you well for your services.  I expect healing, not obscure hedge magic and bumbling apprentices who tear the flesh from my bones!"
         Again the old priest held his hands up.  "My apologies, lord magist.  I should have attended to the removal myself."  The gaunt old man's voice was calm and untroubled.  He shot a look at the young acolyte who stood clutching his cheek with a wounded expression and a baleful look in his eyes.  "Nyklos obviously was clumsy.  We are both extremely sorry."
         The young man gave Grimwalde an icy glare.  He didn't look very apologetic.
         Grimwalde glanced at the other three acolytes, who had helped to hold his injured arm still and who had all backed off a step after the wizard had struck their companion.  "I don't care to hear your pathetic excuses," he snapped.  "I expect results!"  He started as a bolt of pain seized his upper arm and shoulder, and nearly cried out again.  "Gods, my arm throbs!" he yelled, his free hand instinctively moving to clutch at it.
         The old priest nodded his head sagely.  "Of course, of course."  He gestured to one of the remaining acolytes.  "Harod, see to the potion."
         The smallest of the three, a plump fellow with a hangdog face and bushy eyes, nodded briskly and moved away, rummaging through one of the bags the priests had brought with them.  The high priest approached.   "This will only take a moment, lord magist."
         "That's what you keep saying," answered Grimwalde testily.  "I keep waiting."
         The old man raised his hands to the height of Grimwalde's chin, opening his fingers and presenting the palms upwards.  His head tilted slightly backward as he looked upward, and his eyes rolled back.  Somberly he intoned a series of arcane phrases.  The words were pronounced and easy to understand, but they were in no language Grimwalde was familiar with, and although they had meaning when he heard them and fairly crackled with sorcerous power, they immediately faded from his mind the moment they were spoken.  Grimwalde was unconcerned.  He knew enough about priestly magic and the mechanics of wielding it to expect this effect.  Besides which, he was in pain at the moment and didn't really care.
         After a few moments the priest's incantation was complete.  His eyes appeared once again and he looked down at Grimwalde.  "This my sting a little," he said.  "Are you ready, lord magist?"
         "Yes, yes.  Get it over with!"
         Gently the old man laid his hands on the wizard's shoulder.  Grimwalde winced as they connected, expecting a spasm of pain from the increase in pressure, but instead he found himself gasping as if he had been thrown into an icy lake in middle of winter.
         The priest's hands were freezing with an unearthly cold, and instantly chills ran through Grimwalde's body.
         "Away!" he cried after a moment, reeling backwards from the unexpected onslaught.  The old priest backed off with a slight bow.  He waited a minute for the wizard's shivers to subside.
         Grimwalde's teeth were still chattering.  "You could have warned me it was going to freeze me, you old goat!  What manner of healing is this?  You save my shoulder from infection merely to deliver it into frostbite?"
         The old priest gestured, and two of the acolytes hurried forward with a blanket, which they wrapped around the wizard.  "It is different each time, lord magist," he explained with a shrug.  "For some it is heat.  For others cold.  For still others-"
         "You should have warned me, you old badger!"  Grimwalde clutched the blanket and waved the acolytes off angrily.  "Away, leeches!"
         He peered down at his shoulder.  The wound had closed and a small pinkish scar was all that remained.  Experimentally he moved his wounded arm.  He still felt twinges of pain around the wound, but he discovered that aside from some tightness in the muscles, he had full range of motion.
         The priest stepped forward with a chalice one of the acolytes had handed him.  "Drink, lord magist," he said, handing the vessel to the wizard.  "It will soothe the pain and speed the healing.  Fortunately the bolt failed to strike bone, but for the next few days it would be advisable to keep your arm in a sling, to prevent unnecessary irritation."
         Grimwalde accepted the chalice with misgivings, and sniffed the hot brew that was within.  He took a small sip, then spit it out in disgust.  "What manner of foul poison is this?  Do you seek to make me forget the pain in my arm by assaulting my tongue?"  He hurled the goblet at the priests.  "Out!  Get out of my sight, all of you!"
         The priest bowed politely and backed out of the room.  His acolytes scrambled to follow, looking relieved at the chance to depart.
         Grimwalde gazed after them balefully.  He was furious, not just at them, but at the whole situation.  The very idea having to be put through all this made his blood boil.  And most of all, he was angry at the Viper.
         I had him! he thought.  I had him in my hands, and I lost him!
         He was more than simply angry - he was a little frightened.  He had planned for months, arranging for the perfect trap.  He had studied his prey vigorously.  He had examined the area where the trap was set time and again, and he had lain awake nights perfecting his spells and planning for any eventuality.
         And the Viper had escaped!  Even more frightening, the man had very nearly managed to kill him!
         Grimwalde was still a relatively young man, only thirty-two years of age, and still hot-blooded and quick-tempered.  He fingered his neatly trimmed black mustach distractedly, then brushed his hands through his short wiry hair, his mind replaying the encounter for the hundredth time.
         Perhaps he should await the return of his master, Thenedain.  He pondered the thought momentarily before summarily rejecting it.  No!  He would do this alone - and prove once and for all he was Thenedain's equal.
         Still, it was disconcerting.  This was the first time he had been undone by the object of his study.  What had gone wrong?!
         He realized, of course, had had happened.  He had been viewing the Viper as a curiousity to be studied, not as a possible threat.  He had known the man was dangerous and resourceful, but somehow he had never considered the notion that he might have been putting himself in harm's way.
         He had underestimated the assassin.  He shivered again, reminded of how dearly he had almost paid for his mistake.
         But he would not repeat his error.  He would not underestimate the man again.  He would construct a new plan, a new trap.  This time there would be no mistakes.
         And what if the man really is undefeatable?
         He shook the sudden eerie feeling off.  He would not underestimate his prey again.
         Now, how would he lure the assassin a second time?

                                                                 * * *

         "Deepshadow sends his greetings, Viper," said the small man, his pale eyes darting about the small darkened booth nervously.   Outside, beyond the thick curtain which served as a doorway/partition, the main tavern room bustled with the sounds of dining patrons.
         The Viper gave a slight bow from where he sat at the small round table, the flickering light of the candle on its surface painting his features in an eery uncertain light.  He indicated to the chair opposite, gesturing for the other man to join him.  "It has been long since that one last called on me."
         The little man licked his lips.  "This is an unusual location for such a private meeting," he said at last.  "Are you certain we may speak freely here?"
         "Do not be concerned.  We are in private.  What does the master of the Shadow Thieves desire of me?"
         The man shot a second distrustful glance at the curtain, then sat.  "The death of Arkail Rhassan.  My master wishes to put an end to the rise of the Zazesspur guild."
         "He sent my usual fee?"
         The man nodded.  "Yes, I have it here."  His wiry fingers produced a small leather bag, which he slid across the table to the Viper.
         Carefully the Viper undid the drawstring, spilling the contents onto a leather-gloved palm.  Four gemstones of various shapes, sizes, and colors looked up at him.  He turned each one over carefully, examining it, before nodding.
         "Another point before our business is concluded," said the small man.  "My master stated specifically that he wanted this operation quiet - he doesn't want anyone to know who killed Arkail or why.  He was most insistant upon this point."
         "Indeed.  There is nothing else?"
         The little man shook his head and started to rise, then stopped himself.  "One more thing before I go.  Deepshadow made me memorize this phrase.  'The walls, the ground, the night, and dead men all.'"
         "That's all of it?"
         The man shrugged.  "All he made me memorize.  I don't know what it means, but he seemed to think that you would."
         The Viper stood.  "I think I can puzzle it out."
         The little man jerked once as he died, a surprised expression on his face as the life faded from his eyes.  Carefully the Viper arranged his body on the chair, to look as if it were slumped over in exhaustion, or drunk.
         A moment later and he had departed the booth and was on his way.
         So, Deepshadow wanted Arkail dead.  How convenient.  His desires coincided with the Viper's own.  The assassin smiled grimly to himself.  It was always better to be paid for your work.

                                                                     * * *

         "Excuse me, master Athos."
         Athos was awake and on his feet in an instant, a dagger swiftly appearing in one hand.
         If the older gentleman who stood attentively just inside the doorway was alarmed or surprised by Athos sudden reaction, he did not show it.  "I apologize for disturbing your rest, master Athos," he said smoothly, "but master Viper desires to see you in the Octagonal Chamber."
         "Who are you?" Athos demanded suspiciously, taking a step backwards.  He hadn't heard the door to his room being opened, and had certainly never seen this man before.   "How do you know me?"
         The older man shook his head.  "I see that master Viper failed to mention my presence.  He usually does, during the initial training process.  I am Entrus, master Viper's foremost personal servant.  Most of the other apprentices know me well, as I often have occasion to serve them.  No doubt the same will hold true for you, young master, in time."
         Athos eyes' narrowed, and he took another step back.  "What do you mean?  What Octagonal Chamber?  What other apprentices?"
         "Oh, my," the man said, one eyebrow lifting archly.  "You're one of the more recent arrivals, aren't you?"
         "I have been training here for nearly seven years."
         The man seemed surprised.  "More recent than I had thought.  You must be very promising indeed if he has decided to bring you out of the isolation stage this quickly."
         Athos rocked back, a sudden wave of confusion passing over him as the meaning of the man's comments started to sink in.  Can this possibly be true? he thought in shock.  I am not alone?  There are others?  I've been here for seven years and seen no-one.  It must be a trick!  He eyed the old gentleman who had appeared so suddenly in his room.  But then who is this?
         The man gave a quiet cough.  "Really, master Athos.  We shouldn't keep master Viper waiting, should we?"
         Athos stood frozen for a moment, then slowly straightened and sheathed the dagger he had bared.  "Very well, then," he said, making his decision.  "Lead on."
         The servant nodded, turned, and made his way out the doorway, leading the path down the hall without a backward glance.
         Athos paused only for an instant, then followed, his head still swimming.  In just a few moments, the man's words had changed his entire world.  He wasn't alone?  There were others here?
         He considered the man who had introduced himself as Entrus, automatically inventorying and catogorizing his appearance as he had been taught.  The manservant was dressed in flowing silks of a vaguely oriental fashion Athos wasn't familiar with.  The clothing was tailored well but not constricting, allowing easy range of motion.  The man himself walked perfectly erect, with the carefully controlled stride of a man who, while aged, is still vigorous.  He was clean-shaven, with neatly clipped hair which had nearly given over completely to gray from whatever its youthful color might have been.  He possessed alert gray eyes, tightly compressed lips, and a worn and lined face which bore an expression and demeanor of unshakable calm.
         Athos had expected the man to lead him downward, towards those areas of the Viper's home which were forbidden to him, but to his surprise the path seemed to lead upwards, to those halls he was already well familiar with.
         At length Athos spoke.  "There are other... apprentices here?  Young men like myself, in training?"
         The manservant spared him a nod.  "Oh yes, sir.  Not all men, of course, and the term 'young' is subjective, but there are others."
         Athos' mind was roiling with questions.  "And I will meet them?"
         "In due time, perhaps.  Training is very specific for each individual.  Some, of course, are still in the isolation stage, and others are far advanced, and no longer train against mere apprentices."
         Athos pondered this.  "You make it sound like there are a great many here.  Why have I never seen them?"
         The manservant shook his head.  "Not very many, actually.  Around thirty, at any given time.  New ones are recruited, and some die in the training, so the number is never constant.  And, of course, the Viper ordered that you were not to be contacted during the isolation phase.  None of the apprentices would disobey his missive, of course."
         Athos considered this.  "Why then have I never seen signs of anyone else?"
         "Those that are advanced out of isolation are well enough trained to conceal their presence.  And, of course, those that are still in the isolation phase are unaware of the presence of others.  Also, the immense size of master Viper's home makes it extremely unlikely any apprentice would stumble into another."
         "They are aware of my presence here, then?  They have been... observing me?"
         "I should think some of them have.  It is even possible one of them is watching you now."
         Athos glanced around him, at the featureless walls of the corridor.  There didn't seem any place in which a watcher would be able to conceal himself, but all the same he felt an uneasy feeling crawl up his spine.  All this time, and he had never felt the hidden eyes?
         "This way, sir," said Entrus, gesturing to a doorway that Athos was surprised to find he recognized.
         "This is the Octagonal Chamber?" he asked, walking by the older man and opening the door.  This room was known to him as the Study.  "It has six walls, not eight.  And I thought it was called the Study."
         "It is," came the cold and clear voice of the Viper from behind him.
         Athos whirled to find the Viper standing where the servant had been a moment before.  The master assassin's hair was slightly whitened and made to look much shorter than it actually was, while his face bore the faint marks of makeup around the cheeks and eyes.
         "Where-?" Athos started to ask, then caught himself as he realized what had happened.
         "A disguise," stated the Viper matter of factly.  "Today we begin working with them."
         Athos' jaw dropped.  "A disguise?  But how-?"
         "A disguise is not merely the act of hiding behind makeup," continued the Viper as if Athos had not spoken, "It is the art of assuming an entire personality.  You will not that I did not say 'false personality'.  That is because personality must be absolutely real, in every respect, and a part of you."
         Athos snapped his mouth shut and listened attentively.
         "There are five points that are imperative to assuming a disguise, and makeup isn't one of them.  Neither is costume.  Both help, but they are accessories, not substitutes.
         "The five points are:  eye movement, head movement, gait, manner of speech, and manner of gestures - or lack thereof."
         The Viper gave Athos a hard, appraising look.  "Consider for a moment.  In assuming the personna of the chief servant of the Viper, what did you notice concerning these five points?"
         Athos concentrated, thinking back.  "Your voice was different," he ventured after a moment.  "The way you-"
         "How was my voice different?"
         Athos paused, considering.  "It was less precise sounding.  It was an older man's voice, although it didn't have a quaver, so I'm not certain why it seemed that way.... It was the way you said things - not just inflections but the things you said.  The tone was very formal and dignified, in a respectful sort of way."  Athos shot him a look.  "Your true voice has never held any respect, only control."
         "True.  And your observations are fairly good so far, for a first try.  Go on."
         Athos collected his thoughts.  "You walked stiffly but not slowly - I remember thinking about that specifically."
         "Describe the gait more precisely."
         "It was the gait of the man whose responsability is to take care of a museum filled with priceless artifacts - and a man who finds satisfaction in his work.  You stepped carefully, and again there was definite respect in your walk - this time for your surroundings.  It was the walk of an old man, but not a tired or sickly one."
         "Very astute.  Please continue."
         "Let's see... There was almost no arm or hand movement - no gesturing."
         The Viper nodded.  "Remember that no movement is just as definitive of personality as great movement."
         Athos thought.  "You kept your arms by your sides because that was where you felt they should be.  The position was uncomfortable to you, but it was your nature to be more comfortable with discomfort, I think."
         "Exactly.  Continue."
         "Let me think," said Athos.  "Head movement.  There was very little of this, and and you always held it up, but not in a haughty way.  It was much like your arm movement, and I think it was generated from some of the same feelings."
         "Good.  It's important to make the five points correlate, and often one is generated for the same reason as another.  Continue."
         Athos nodded.  "Last of all, there was eye movement.  I don't really know what to make of it.  You looked down whenever you mentioned 'master Viper' - probably in fear as much as in    respect, but otherwise you kept a calm and commanding gaze, as if you were keeping a constant vigil over your domicile."
         "Very colorful description, but essentially correct."
         There was a moment's pause, while Athos gathered his courage.  Finally he mustered the     temerity to ask what he had been wondering about.  "Are... are there other people here?  Within this place?"  He asked it hesitantly, having weighed the risk against the worth of the question.
         To his surprise the Viper seemed neither offended nor scornful.  "You bring up another interesting point.  In assuming a disguise, if it is possible, reach down into the depths of the person you intend to deceive and pull something out to catch him off his guard.  This will distract him, and make it more likely that he will not penetrate your disguise."
         And that answers my question not at all, thought Athos silently.

                                                                     * * *

         The mage bent forward, back hunched over, examining the wall.
         He was a young man, barely out of his apprenticeship, with a boyish clean-shaven face and intelligent brown eyes, but he was an expert in his field - a prodigy, and for this sort of work there was none better.  His fingers gently caressed the rough surface, expertly divining each crack and bump.  The subtle sorceries he wove did not require words to give them form, but merely the touch of his hands.
         Surrounding him and shielding him were four of the Entreri troop, each dressed in plainclothes and facing out towards the crowded marketplace, who had taken up position to fend off the occasional passerby and block view to the rest.  Most who passed gave them a single disinterested glance, if that.
         After a few minutes more, the mage straightened, frowning slightly, a troubled expression on his brow.  He glanced over to where Arkail stood, stroking his beard impatiently, and nodded.  He looked as if he were about to say something, but a quick gesture from Arkail silenced him.
         The Entreri men shifted, surrounding the two of them in a different pattern, as Arkail turned and walked into the passing crowd, the mage close behind.  The Entreri men spread out, so as not to appear to be traveling in a group, while still remaining close enough to provide protection if called upon, and soon they had melted almost completely from sight.  The mage moved up until he was beside Arkail, keeping pace.  Only when they had moved a good distance from the wall the mage had been examing and were safely ensconced in the anonymity of the crowd did Arkail speak.
         "Well?" he asked, sparing the young mage a quick glance.
         "Difficult," said the mage.  "It will take time and money, and I cannot guarantee success.  Inter-planar gates are almost impossible to create, for any amount of time, but as the gate already exists, all that must be done is to find a way to open it."  He gave Arkail a warning glance.  "I don't mean that that will be easy.  It may well take months to discover a way to open it.  And it will definitely cost.  But it might be possible."
         "We saw it operated by a ring," stated Arkail.
         "So you've told me.  If we had a ring similarly enchanted, it wouldn't be a problem.  In fact, I doubt you'd need my help.  But we don't have a ring, so we must go the hard route."  He gave Arkail an inquisitive look.  "There is no chance of getting access to any such ring, is there?"
         Arkail shook his head.  "Extremely unlikely."
         The mage sighed.  "Then we do it the hard way.  And, as I said, it won't be cheap."
         "Allow us to worry about the expense.  You will be well paid."
         The mage nodded.  "Very well, then.  I shall get started immediately."  He pondered.  "You know," he said, in the manner of one who is thinking aloud, "this would be a lot easier if we could find out exactly what plane lies on the other side of the gate.  Then we could cut straight to the chase, open our own portal, and not have to worry about opening the one that's there."
         "There's virtually no chance of that, I'm afraid," said Arkail.
         The mage shook his head.  "Let me be the judge of that.  Perhaps there is a way...  Well, it's somewhere to start, anyway."  He glanced at Arkail.  "How soon do you want me to start?"
         "Immediately."

                                                                    * * *

         There was a vague rushing sound as the portal opened, and suddenly the cool wind of the Zazesspurian night wafted over Athos, bringing with it the vaguely sweet smell of night lilies, which bloomed there this time of year.
         The Viper glanced back at him once, then stepped through.  Athos followed a moment later, and the portal sealed itself immediately after.
         It was a bit chill tonight, but not enough to make it uncomfortable.  Overhead the moon was full, casting silvery light into the darkened and deserted streets.  A few thin, long and misty clouds wandered high across the sky, and the wind wisped gently across the night city.
         Athos raced after the swiftly departing figure of the Viper.  The master assassin was incredibly quick, and very difficult to follow, as he seemed almost instinctively to melt into the small patches of shadows.  A lesser trained man would probably never have noticed his passing, even had he been staring exactly at the path he moved along, and even Athos had difficulty, but he managed to keep pace.
         The two flitted silently through the shadows, wending their way through the sleeping city.  At this hour, the streets were nearly completely abandoned.  There was only the occasional drunk tottering home from an alehouse, or a pair of guardsmen from the city watch, making their appointed rounds.  Once they had to pause in a darkened doorway as a team of scrawny horses hauled a wagon filled with vegetables trundled by, headed in the direction of the marketplace.  The sleepy-eyed farmer who drove it never looked up.
         Inwardly, Athos' heart pounded.  An hour ago the Viper had appeared at his chamber door, and announced that tonight they would be going on an assignment.  A real assignment.
         "You're going to take your first live mark tonight," the Viper had said, and sparing him no details had instructed him to dress and arm himself.
         Athos had felt a cold vise grip his heart, and a sudden chill had run down his spine.  A 'live mark'.  Tonight, for the first time ever, Athos would be called upon to kill.
         He had known that this time would come, of course.  He was being trained as an assassin, after all, and killing people was the trade.  But up until now it had all been practice dummies in mock-ups.  Tonight it would be the real thing.  He would be called upon to end someone's life - a stranger whom he had never before met, and who had never done him any harm.
         He was uncertain how he would react.  But he said nothing, and followed the Viper further into the city.
         As they moved, Athos found himself wondering about the target.  The Viper had told him nothing.  It could be anyone, from a petty thief  to a merchant prince, or perhaps a noble of some kind.  The only requirement was that someone was willing to pay to have the target eliminated.  It might be a man or a woman, either young or old.  The Viper was an equal opportunity killer. It might even be a child.  Athos paled as he considered this, and found himself hoping fervently it was not so.
         They had moved from the lower quarters of the city and the houses were nicer, the streets cleaner and better lighted here, as they began to enter the high city.
         This area was slightly better patrolled, but they still had very little trouble avoiding city watchmen.
         Luckily for the watchmen, Athos thought to himself.  The Viper would make short work of anyone who tried to hinder them.
         As they passed through a side alley and headed towards a well-lighted street that was one of the main thoroughfares of the city, the Viper suddenly changed his course, bounding up a wall and taking to the roofs.  Unhesitatingly Athos followed, and the traveled from rooftop to rooftop, beneath the silvery light of the moon, quiet as wraiths.
         A few minutes later and they took to the streets again.
         This was definitely the best section of the city.  Here, interspersed between small parks and gardens of exotic tropical plants, were the estates owned by the wealthiest of the Zazesspurians.  There were walls around most of them, and the guards that patrolled the streets here were well-armed, with fine armor.
         The Viper threaded his way along the walks, heading for one wall in particular.  It was low, standing only about fourteen feet in height, and made of smoothly-joined stone.  At the top jagged shards of glass were embedded in the rock, jutting upwards as a deterrant for any who sought to scale it.
         He looked back at Athos and gave a gesture.
         Athos raced to the foot of the wall, and turning, made a cup of his hands.   The Viper leaped, using Athos' hands as a step, and, without pausing, hoisted himself atop the wall.
         He paused there a moment, listening and looking about, then disappeared down the far side.
         It was the work of a moment for Athos to scale the wall.  Smoothly-joined it might be, but there were small cracks and crevices aplenty, more than enough to give him purchase.
         At the top it was a small matter to splay his fingers out, avoiding the jutting shards of glass, and grip with the fingertips.
         He was atop the outer wall of a very large estate.  Athos gazed down.  There was a second, much higher wall around the house proper, and Athos could see torches stationed along its top, indicating that it was probably patrolled by personal guardsmen. Filling the area between this inner wall and the wall on which Athos was perched was an exotic garden/courtyard filled with high vegetation, low-hanging trees, and appealing flower and fruit plants.  There was no sign of the Viper.  Obviously the master assassin had already entered the foliage.
         Athos took a moment to look at the garden area.  The plants were aloud to grow wildly and thickly, with small cleared paved areas running throughout.  Somewhere off to the left, hidden by the dense foilage, came the tinkling sound of a fountain.  And off to the right, Athos heard movement.
         He listened.  Heavy crackling, ponderous movement.  Definitely not the Viper.  Probably some sort of exotic animal, let loose on the grounds at night to discourage trespassers.  It was about twenty yards to the left of him, and upwind, so Athos had no doubt he would have little trouble avoiding it.
         He sprang down, landing lightly on the balls of his feet in the damp earth.  He gazed around for signs of where the Viper might have gone, but found nothing.  It didn't matter, he knew full well the assassin would be headed for the inner wall, if he hadn't reached it already.
         Quickly Athos made his way forward, whispering between the trees and through the thick, leafy foliage.  Lithe branches hung down in his path, and knotty roots sprung up from the ground, hidden in darkness, ready to trip his feet.  But Athos sidestepped these obstacles almost as if he had a sixth sense, walking the grounds with the surety of someone who had been born here.
         He stopped in a moonlit glade, listening.  The wind had shifted slightly.and he was aware that it no longer favored him.  If the creature which was prowling the grounds had a keen olfactory sense, it would scent him.
         The crackling had turned in his direction, and he heard a low grumbling.  The creature had scented him.  He unlimbered his shortsword and raced on.
         A moment later, he very nearly lost his footing.  He halted headlong, almost tripping over the freshly slain body which lay inert in the uncertain light.
         It was a thayvian white tiger, fully 500 pounds.  Athos had never seen one in the flesh, but had read of them.  They differed from the more common tigers principally in size (they were larger) and ferocity (very prone to bloodlust and rage), as well as the lighter coloring and the reddish markings around the eyes.  This one, Athos saw at a glance, was a female.  It had died with its fangs bared, and now snarled soundlessly up at Athos, sightless eyes fixed on the moon.  A gaping wound under the throat told where something very sharp had nearly separated the gigantic furred head from the torso.  The Viper had come across it only minutes ago, no doubt, and finished it off.
         The crackling sound of something large approaching brought Athos out of his momentary reverie.  The other creature, likely this one's mate, had scented the blood, and was bounding forward.
         Athos turned and fled.  Less than ten steps later he emerged from the edge of the garden, entering the cleared space between it and the inner wall.
         Less than ten yards from the inner wall, a roar of fury sounded from behind him.  The other creature had found the body of its mate.  Issuing a further roar, he heard it bound after him, charging from the thicket behind him.
         Not looking back, Athos sprinted to the wall, and reaching it, leaped onto it.
         Not halting his momentum, his fingers found purchase and he began hauling himself upwards.  Below him, he felt the impact as the second tiger (he could see now that it was the first one's mate) impacted the walls, and with a roar, lunged upwards at Athos' foot.
         The hot, fetid breath of the beasts slavering jaws bathed his left foot with moisture as he jerked it up, out of the way.  The gigantic jaws snapped shut less than three inches from the sole of his foot.
         The creatures claws scrabbled on the stone, and with an angry roar it slipped, sliding back to the base of the wall.  Immediately it gathered itself for another leap and surged up again.
         This time Athos was several feet above the level he had been at before, and the jaws missed him by some distance.  As before, the tiger slipped down the wall.
         Enraged, it circled, staring up malevolently at him, and roaring its anger.
         Athos spared it hardly a glance, continuing his climb.  The inner wall was rougher than the outer, and so provided even better purchase, and Athos made quick time.
         Suddenly, the flaring light of a torch appeared over the edge of the top, and a man's face appeared, peering down.  The roaring of the tiger must have alerted one of the guardsmen.
         Athos hugged the wall, shifting his body to move under a slight overhang.  He was still ten or twelve feet from the top.  If the man spotted him, he wouldn't be able to climb the rest in time to get to him before the guard could take action.  A well placed shot with a bow would make short work of him.  The guardsman need not even be a good shot.  If Athos was dislodged from the wall, the fall alone would injure him.  And the tiger waiting at the bottom would find him an easy meal...
         The man's eyes narrowed as he peered down into the darkness.  One of the things favoring Athos was that the guardsmen held a torch.  Not only did the light from the torch make the man effectively night blind, it also illuminated his position.  Likely he couldn't see a thing beyond the radius of his torchlight, while Athos could see him very clearly.
         The man squinted down into the darkness, and muttered a curse.  "Shut up, you loudmouthed beast!" he yelled down after a moment.  "You'll wake the master, and then I'll see you skinned and turned into a rug as you belong!"
         The tiger have another roar, enraged.
         "Foul creature," muttered the guardsman.  He shook his head and started to turn away, then uttered a sharp cry of distress.
         Athos heard the sound of steel rending flesh, and suddenly the guardsmen was flung over the edge, and hurtled past, his torch following in an eery blaze of light which trailed down to the ground.
         "Are you coming?" asked the Viper.  "We haven't got all night."
         Athos pulled himself to the top, and over the edge.  He looked back down.  The torch had gone out when it had struck the ground, so all was darkness at the bottom of the tower, but the tiger had stopped roaring.  Athos wondered whether it was busy rending the corpse of the guardsman.
         He turned to the Viper.  "Why?  He would have passed on in another moment.  Why kill him?"
         "He would have slowed us," stated the Viper evenly, moving relentlessly forward.
         Athos trailed after him, along the landing which ran about the inside of this inner wall.  The inner wall apparently constituted the outer wall of the house proper, for there was no interior courtyard that Athos could see.  Instead the center of the building was filled with roofs, which stood only a few feet higher than the wall itself.
         The Viper led the way to an open doorway which led into the house.  Within was a guard station, cheerily lit by torches and the firelight from a crackling fireplace.  There were a set of myshi cards on the plain wooden table, and a second guardsman sat slumped in one of the chairs, his head lolled back in death, a crimson gash opening his throat.  Apparently the Viper had already been here.
         Without pausing, the Viper led him through a second door and into a darkened hall.
         They raced down it, coming to a stairwell at the end.
         Slipping quietly down the stairs, they made their way down a second hall, this one interspersed with ornate wooden doors and lit every ten feet by a softly glowing oil lamp set into the wall.  A side hall intersected it after about twenty feet, and the Viper turned to the right, leading them into it.
         There was a massive wooden door at the end of this second hall, and the Viper halted before it.  He looked it over once before turning to Athos.
         "It's locked.  Pick it.  Quietly."
         Athos crouched down, examing the door handle from every angle as he had been taught, checking for hidden mechanisms that could mean traps.  Finding none, he produced his lockpicks, made a selection, and bent to the task.
         A moment later he stood back, replacing his tools in the pouch at his side and nodding to the Viper.
         The Viper seized the handled and opened the door, swiftly entering.
         Athos followed, swinging the door shut behind them.
         Within, the splendidly appointed room was lit by a soft lamp on the gigantic redwood table which dominated the left side of the room.  A four poster bed was set against the far wall, adorned with silks.  Thick oriental rugs carpeted the floor, and beautiful paintings hung on the walls.
         A thin, older man with a black bushy beard was up late, working at the desk, writing something.  He glanced up as they entered and gave a violent start.  "Who are you?" he started to ask, reaching for the hand crossbow that lay, cocked and loaded, on his desk.
         The Viper had already reached him, and seizing his arm, gave it a mighty twist.  The man cried out as he was flung back into his chair.  A moment later, one of the Viper's katana blades was at his throat, gently pressing him back into his seat.  "Sit still, and stay quiet."
         Athos had ignored the man completely, concentrating on examing the room and making certain there were no other occupants.  Satisfied, he approached.
         "This is the mark," said the Viper to Athos.  "Finish him."
         The man looked up at Athos, his wide eyes pleading.  "What... I don't... who are you people?  What do you want with me?"  His expression was one of helpless bewilderment.  Athos felt a lurch go through his stomach.
         He lifted his shortsword.  One pass through the heart would finish the man.  Swift and relatively painless.
         "Please," said the man.  "I have children... please!  Please!"
         Athos felt a tremor run up the length of his arm.  He lowered it.
         "Finish him," commanded the Viper again.
         Athos looked at him.  "I... I cannot."
         "You can and you will!" responded the Viper.  "Strike!"
         Athos' lower lip trembled.  "I cannot.  I... I will not."  A dizzy feeling of fear overcame him.  Never, in his entire relationship with the Viper, had he dared to defy the man.  He drew himself up, waiting to die.
         The Viper smiled grimly.  "That is one, boy.  Remember that you have only two more chances.  The penalty for disobedience is death."
         "Please," pleaded the man, repeating the word as if it were a prayer.  "Please!"
         "I cannot," said Athos, looking at the ground, his stomach roiling.  "I cannot."
         "I see," said the Viper.  He reached out, casually clubbing the man over the back of the head with the hilt of his sword.  "We'll see how long that lasts."

                                                                     * * *

         The screams kept coming, incredibly.  Athos' ears rang from them, and the sights he had seen inflicted on this man would burn in his memory forever.
         The man had pleaded, had begged for the mercy of death a hundred times.  The Viper had left him the use of his tongue, up to the very last, so that Athos could savor his screams.
         The Viper was a machine, going about his terrible work relentlessly, oblivious to the man's pleadings and ravings.  He was merciless.
         Athos turned away and retched, not for the first time.  This time no bile would come, and he found himself crouched on the floor, stomach spasming with dry heaves.
         He was locked in a small room less than three feet wide by three feet long.  The ceiling, likewise, was only about four feet from the floor, leaving him insufficient room to stand.  The far wall was a thick sheet of transparent glass, and beyond it lay the room where the Viper slowly tortured the man to death.
         The Viper had been slowly destroying the man Athos had earlier refused to kill - naively out of a sense of mercy.  He had been at this task for several hours.  And the man, while still alive and screaming, was at this point barely recognizable as human.  Tiny holes in the bottom of the sheet of glass allowed Athos to hear every whisper the man made.
         The Viper halted for a moment, seeing that Athos had turned away.  "Look," he commanded.  "Face me!"
         Athos turned his eyes toward the glass, and the terrible work that the Viper had done.
         "This is your work!" said the Viper.  "You will look!"
         He turned and continued his work.
         Gradually the screams faded to moans.  The pleading and cursing faded to a murmur.
         The Viper finally turned from his work, facing Athos through the glass.  "It will take this man approximately three days to die.  This is your fault.  This is the mercy that you showed him."
         "No," moaned Athos.
         "Yes," said the Viper.  "He will linger, in great pain.  Will you slay him now?  Will you end his suffering?"
         "Yes!" cried Athos.  "Please!  I'll kill him!  Let me kill him!"
         The Viper shook his head.  "I don't think so.  You made your decision already.  Now you will bear witness.  You will watch this man die."
         Athos slowly sank down, his back pressed against the wall behind him.  His head rolled back in defeat, tears streaming from his eyes - as they had been for some time now.  "Why?"
         The Viper shook his head.  "Admittedly, this man did not deserve to die such a terrible death.  That was your work.  However, he did deserve to die.  They all deserve it.  I've never slain a man who didn't."
         "What about my father?" cried Athos, too filled with hurt and rage to care what the consequences of speaking freely might be.
         "Your father," said the Viper, "most certainly deserved to die.  But you never knew your real father.  You were speaking of that man who raised you, no?  He also deserved death."  He cocked an eye at Athos.  "You do know why he came to Zazesspur, don't you?"
         Athos turned away, unwilling to give the master assassin the pleasure of an answer.
         "Of course you don't.  Let me spell it out for you.  He came to Zazesspur to sell you."
         "That's not true," said Athos quietly.  "That's not true!"
         "It is true.  If it were not, why did your foster mother never come looking for you?"
         Again Athos turned away, his hands over his eyes.  "I'm not listening to you."
         "You'd better listen Athos," said the Viper, steel in his voice.  "This is the real world, and the real world is pain.  Life is pain, Athos."  He gestured back to the suffering man.  "Death is a release, not a punishment.  Remember that, Athos."
         Athos slumped over, weeping.  He kept the position long after the Viper left, the moanings of the man in the next room loud and clear in his ears.
         He felt disgust, repugnance, and horror.  He felt crushing loneliness.  But most of all he felt a deep sense of betrayal.
         As much as Athos hated and feared him, the Viper had come to represent a father figure in Athos' mind.  He had trained him, after all.
         Now, however, he felt as though the Viper had crushed all humanity from him, laughing as he had done it.