The Entreri Troops
It was a night for
One man of the two patrols which had been dispatched to capture Athos had survived the encounter. The sole survivor had crouched among the fallen, laying as if dead until the exchange was over and reinforcements for the forces of Set had arrived. The man was a coward and a traitor to the cause.
Or perhaps, Nekiset mused as she watched him writhe and groan under the hot kiss of the coals, the man had told the truth when he claimed to have been clubbed down and passed out during the battle, and had come to his senses afterwards. It made little difference to her whether the man was a coward or not. She would savor his cries and pleas for mercy all the more. His death would serve as an example to others. He had failed, and failure would not to be tolerated.
However, pleasant and distracting as the task of torturing the unfortunate soldier to death might prove, Nekiset could not forget that this failure meant that once again the one chosen by Set for the ultimate service had managed to elude their grasp. Hodkamset would not be pleased, and even Nekiset paled at the thought of his rages.
It had been the one called Nighthunter who had foiled them, arriving in the pitch of the melee and taking the forces of Set from behind. Damn the headstrong boy! But for his meddling, the chosen vessel would be within their grasp! Who could have predicted his sudden appearance at such a critical moment, or his ferocious defense of the boy called Athos?
She left the dying man to his final hours, pacing the hallways in deep thought. Yes, it was obvious that the Nighthunter must be eliminated. He was an unknown, and further he no longer served any purpose in her designs.
But the real problem was Athos. How would they lure him again? Straightforward attempts at trapping and capture had failed twice, and now more than ever he would be on his guard against them. And there was no way of determining when or where he would appear again.
Suddenly an idea dawned on her. She pondered it, examining the still-forming plan for flaws. When she had made up her mind that it would work, she mustered her courage. Hodkamset would not be in a receptive mood this day, and it would be wise to avoid crossing his path, lest she become an outlet for his frustration. Still, time was of the essence.
Steeling herself for the encounter to come, she made her way to his chamber.
"Yes?" he asked as she knocked, the tone of his voice clearly announcing his annoyance at having been disturbed.
She took a breath and opened the door boldly.
He stood over the alter, ceremonial dagger in one hand. He looked as if he were tempted to use it on her.
"You disturb my meditations, woman," he barked, a fire smoldering in his eyes. "Can you not see that I am in the midst of ritual?" A young woman, barely out of adolescence, lay bound hand and foot on the alter before him, terror and resignation plain in her eyes. A slave, no doubt, taken for ritual sacrifice so that the high priest would be able to commune with Set. A hopeful look sprang into her pale blue eyes as she caught sight of Nekiset. The priestess spared her hardly a glance. What was a slave girl slated for sacrifice to her? She had more pressing concerns.
"We are approaching our task in the wrong manner," she said, refusing to flinch before his gaze.
"What task?" he growled.
"Our mission here. To capture the chosen one."
His eyes narrowed. "How so?"
She ignored the dangerous look in his eyes and continued on. "We are searching for this one person with brutal ferocity and single-mindedness."
Hodkamset frowned. "You would have us do otherwise?" he asked, his voice mild but his eyes glittering dangerously.
"Yes," she replied boldly. "If we continue in our present course, we will eventually be arrested by the city guard. It is a miracle that we have not brought their wrath down upon us already. If that happens, our task becomes even more difficult, if not impossible."
A tinge of anger colored his cheeks. "We have been careful!" he protested.
She shook her head. "Not careful enough. And we have yet to catch the chosen one. I believe it is time to consider a new plan of attack."
She took a breath. "The one we seek is a killer of much repute. The underworld here must have some knowledge of him. Not only will an alliance with them provide us with new avenues to investigate, it will undoubtably go a long way to protecting us from the wrath of the city. Surely we can come to some mutally beneficial understanding with them."
He considered this for a moment. "And how do you propose to contact them?" he asked at last. It was an angry question, but there was a certain amount of interest in his tone.
Outwardly Nekiset remained impassive, but inwardly she was sighing with relief. He was going to go for her idea after all.
She took another breath and continued, outlining her plan.
* * *
The markets were crowded
this day, and the streets of every quarter of the city were thronged with
thousands of people from all walks of life.
Partially because of the large crowds roaming the streets, but more because of the gaily-painted costumes so many of the people wore, Athos decided early in the day that this must be a holiday of some kind. Ordinarily he would have been curious as to what the holiday was, and why and how it would be celebrated, but today he could scarcely muster any interest at all.
After what had happened between him and Jitinder that night in the alley, he had felt a great hurt, and strongly desired to speak with Artemis. But after the three days spent in his glass prison, listening to the dying man's moans, he knew he was walking the edge of sanity, perilously close to madness. There was an aching in his heart and a heaviness in his soul.
Still, there was one hope left to him. He must see Artemis. She was his one light, his one hope of redemption. And the desire to talk to her was so strong it was almost a physical need.
However, in order to speak with her he must find her first, and that was proving no easy task. She was nowhere to be found, though he searched the places she frequented, the places she had taken him.
As the day wore on without success, the search began to take on an almost dreamlike quality. More than once he spotted a girl among the crowd that looked like her from behind or from the side, only to find that it was not her when he approached. It seemed more and more likely to him as the day slowly passed that she was deliberately hiding from him, avoiding those areas where he would search. Another man might have abandoned his quest then, but Athos was driven by a need to strong to admit defeat.
The rosy shades of dusk colored the sky, and in certain quarters of the city the snapping crackle of fireworks was erupting as the revelry began, when at last he finally caught sight of her. She was some distance away, standing at a merchant's stall in the lower markets, her normally bright face devoid of happiness, her smile gone, her brow troubled.
"Artemis!" he called over the noise of the busy marketplace, pushing his way through the busy throng towards her.
She whirled, and catching sight of him her eyes went wide. Expression paling, she stumbled backwards, then turned and ran.
"Artemis!" he cried again, forcing his way clear of the crowd. She was nearly out of sight, fleeing down a small side alleyway without looking back.
He pulled up short for a moment, a vice of pain closing on his heart. She feared him!
"No!" he said to himself, brushing back tears. "No!" It wasn't that. Never that. He would talk to her, make her understand...
He raced after her. "Artemis!" he cried.
She was swift, but he had been trained by the master assassin himself, and quickly closed the gap. "Artemis! Wait!" he panted, approaching.
She looked back once, then veered to the side of the alleyway, where a cluster of wooden crates stuffed with refuse lay stacked up against the wall. Hardly slowing, she yanked it so that it fell behind her, in an attempt to block his path.
He dodged easily through the falling debris, losing no speed. "Wait! Please!"
She looked back again, a frightened look in her eyes, and suddenly went sprawling. Athos stopped himself short, nearly running into her.
"Artemis!" he panted. "Why are you running? I have to talk to you!"
"She doesn't want to talk to you," said Jitinder icily, emerging from farther down the alley, naginata in hand. He took up position about ten feet away.
Artemis scrambled on her hands and knees, getting behind him.
"But I... I have to talk... I need to..."
"Not interested." Jitinder's voice was hard.
Athos locked stares with him. "Why do you think I'm the Viper?" he asked. "Why?!"
"I don't," Jitinder said levelly. "Not anymore. But you know him, and that's enough for me. Artemis feels the same. Leave her alone. Stay away from her." His eyes gleamed dangerously, and his fingers tightened around the haft of the naginata as if he were anticipating having to use it.
Artemis huddled behind him, defiance painted on her frightened expression. She said nothing. She didn't have to. The message was there, in her eyes, the way she stared at him like a monster.
"Artemis, I..." Athos started, but his voice failed him, and he felt a great pain growing in his heart, as if he had been stabbed. "You don't understand," he finished weakly.
"We don't care," responded Jitinder. "Just go. And tell your master that I'm coming for him. Soon."
Athos backed off a half step, a numbed expression on his face. A single tear crept down his left cheek. He half stumbled, then turned and ran, unable to face their terrible gazes any longer.
* * *
"I can hold it open
for a few moments only,." The young mage rubbed his slender fingers
together nervously. "It is a difficult spell to master, and I don't
know what plane-"
"You don't know what plane lies on the other side," Arkail finished for him. "I know. You've been repeating that for the last half hour. We only need it open for ten seconds or so. You can manage that, can't you?"
The wizard sniffed. "Yes, I believe so. It is, however, a difficult spell-"
"I know it's a difficult spell!" snapped Arkail, tiring of the mage's constant tirade.
"Yes," the mage snapped right back hotly, "it is a difficult spell! You have no knowledge of the forces involved in such work! And you have stepped up your deadlines. I need more time to perfect the process!"
"Time is one thing we don't have," said Arkail. "Now let's get on with it."
The mage gave him a suspicious look. "What is this all about, anyway? What's on the other side of that portal, and why do you want to get there? You've kept it a secret long enough."
Arkail shook his head. "That's business that doesn't concern you. How long before you can get it open?"
"Two minutes, perhaps three. But there are risks-"
"We'll take them." Arkail turned to the eight men ranged around him, each waiting alertly for the word to go ahead. "Remember, this is not an elimination. This is strictly recon. We have no idea what's on the other side, and that is to the Viper's advantage. Stay calm and follow my lead."
The mage paled. "Viper? You're going up against the Viper? What manner of madness have you dragged me into?!"
Arkail gave him a hard look. "Never you mind. Just open the portal, as you were paid to do."
The young mage shook his head. "Maybe you people are all set to commit suicide, but you can count me out. I'm smart enough not to mix in the affairs of the Viper. You can find some other fool to do your sorceries. If the Viper finds out I'm treading on his domain, I'll be dead before morning."
Arkail seized him by the collar as he backed away. "Open that portal, right now, or you'll be dead before nightfall, and won't have to worryabout the Viper or anyone else. I personally guarantee it."
The mage blanched, but shook his head. "You never said anything about exposing myself to this kind of risk. I want double what you promised, and I want it now."
Arkail released him, considering him with distaste. Killing this man would gain him nothing, and paying him, even double the amount promised, would not be difficult. Gold is only gold, after all. He had bigger game in mind.
He jerked a nod at one of the Entreri troop, and the man stepped forward. "Pay him."
The man produced a pouch, and tossed it to the mage, who caught it clumsily.
Arkail waited as the young man hastily examined the contents of the pouch, conting the gold that lay within.
"Just a minute," said the mage, looking up after a moment. "I said double. This isn't enough."
"Half now," said Arkail. "Half when we return."
The mage looked doubtful.
Arkail shook his head. "Don't try my patience. It's the best I can do. We don't have enough with us to pay you double, and besides, it will ensure your... good faith. I don't want that portal closing behind us and leaving us with no way back."
The young mage shook his head. "Of course not, of course not. Very well, then."
A moment later, and he had begun the incantation, stepping back and facing the wall.
Arkail and his men waited.
At first nothing happened. Then, very faintly, the outlines of a doorway began to fade into existance.
Almost as quickly as the phantom doorway had appeared it vanished again, leaving featureless blank wall again. Beads of sweat started out on the young mage's face, and his eyebrows knit together in concentration.
A few seconds later the doorway appeared again, this time not fading but coming more distinctly into existance, until the doorway was the reality and the blank wall gone.
A cool breeze issued forth from the hole in the wall, darkness laying beyond. The mage, still sweating from the strain of holding the portal open, turned and gave Arkail a nod.
Instantly the eight men rushed in, quickly and efficiently, Arkail right behind them.
He stepped through, giving a quick look around before turning back to the mage. "You, too!" he ordered. "I don't want you out of my sight."
The wizard gave a vicious grin and made an obscene gesture, letting the spell lapse.
The portal rushed closed, and the blank wall reappeared.
The mage fingered the moneypouch at his side a little regretfully, wishing briefly that he had its mate. Still, he had to be happy with what he had been able to get. There was no way he was going to follow those fools into the Viper's lair.
* * *
Arkail swore under
his breath, suddenly confronted with a darkened and featureless marble
wall rather than the portal to the Calimport marketplace.
He turned to his men, who had secured the immediate area and were waiting for instruction. "It seems we have been betrayed. We have no avenue of retreat. Therefore, the plan changes. We are trapped here until we slay the Viper, or Athos." He left unsaid the second part: "or until they slay us."
His men calmly nodded their understanding, uneasy perhaps, but far from panicked. He had trained them well, and they were prepared for any eventuality.
Arkail regarded their surroundings again.
Cold dark marble walls curved upwards ten feet, meeting at the top and making the hallway in which they stood seem like a tunnel. The lighting was soft and white, although it was scarce, and appeared to come from magical globes of light set into the apex of the ceiling at twenty foot intervals. There were no side passages leading off in other directions for as far as he could see. The only direction to go was up the hallway, to discover where it led.
Arkail proceeded slowly and deliberately, leading the team, scanning the floor and walls, searching for release levers or tripwires, watching carefully for detection devices of any kind.
His most careful attempts turned up nothing, and this unnerved him more than if the Viper's voice had appeared in the empty air, promising death. No traps? No detection devices of any kind? Surely the man could not be this confident.
But apparently he was.
They proceeded down the hall in silence for several minutes, before Arkail noticed a change in the light somewhere far ahead.
As they neared, he realized that the hall let out into a large chamber. After pausing and listening to make certain nothing waited for them there, they entered.
It was a spacious circular room with a high, domed ceiling ringed by eight of the light globes. Apparently it was a nexus of some sort, for their tunnel was not the only one which led here. There were several other hallways, along with a set of stone steps set into the floor of the room which led downwards, and an entrance in the far wall which led into a staircase which led upwards and curved out of sight.
He turned back to his men, and issued a series of commands in hand gestures. "Miridor, take watch at the mouth of this tunnel," he communicated, leading the rest out. He didn't want to end up lost in this place.
Deciding it would be best to spread out and cover more ground, he split the group into teams. Melvic and Nithis he ordered to take the staircase heading up. Shiffen and Mran he ordered to take the tunned ninety degrees to the right, while Tranlos and Per he told to take the one opposite it, to the left. All groups were to double back and meet here in twenty minutes, reporting what they had found.
Finally, he mostioned for Drake to follow him down the steps leading into the depths of the Viper's domain.
* * *
Athos was at his desk,
pouring over a volume on Waterdhavian politics. He had been slumped
over the book for an hour now, trying to concentrate, and still he hadn't
finished the first page.
A deep and heavy weight had settled on his soul, and although he tried to distract himself from the sorrow by throwing himself into his studies, he seemed incapable of mustering the will to concentrate on the spidery handwriting which splayed across the ancient page. Instead, the words swam before his vision time and again, and he found himself drifting back to that terrible conversation with Artemis. The pain in her eyes was more than he could bear.
A cold numbness had engulfed him since that encounter. He was as quick in the learning of his training as ever, but now a vague fear was haunting him. Had he now passed beyond the point of no return? Was he doomed, forevermore, to be a monster? Was he beyond redemption.
He started, momentarily distracted, as the door to his chamber opened, and the Viper peered in.
"We have visitors," the Viper said quietly. "Come along and help me dispose of them."
"Visitors?" It took Athos a moment to understand.
"Yes, unexpected and uninvited ones."
Athos pulled himself out of his chair. "My weapons-" he began, as both his favorite shortsword and parrying dagger appeared as if by magic within the Viper's hands.
"I have them already," said the Viper.
* * *
Melvic was an elf,
a rare sight in the realms since the departure of most of that mystical
race to fabled Evermeet. He was of moon elf stock, slender and graceful
of manner, and had been deadly with the longsword at his sight even before
he had been recruited into the Entreri troop.
Trailing a half step behind was his companion. Nithis was human, but a looked enough like Melvic that the two could have been brothers. Small of frame and fair-skinned, his alert blue eyes showed competence and intelligence. His weapon, a practical and well-used falchion sword, was out and ready. Its hilt was no stranger to his hands.
Melvic led the way up the long staircase. It spiraled around and upwards, the curve making it impossible to see more than a few feet ahead. Surrounded on both sides by the same curving featureless marble walls as in the hallway they had left below, and capped by the same apexed ceiling along which were interspersed the coldly glowing light globes, it felt as if they were crawling through a tunnel.
Quietly and carefully the two were making their way upwards, making hardly a sound.
"Clumsy," said the Viper, standing next to Athos and listening to them approach. "But better trained than most." He turned to Athos. "Take them out."
Athos listened to them approach for a moment.
The Viper mistook his pause for reticence. "Unless, of course, you want me to do it?"
Athos shuddered. "No. I'll handle them."
* * *
Melvic spotted it first,
as they rounded the final curve of the staircase and discovered that it
opened into yet another hallway, which ran perpendicular to the staircase.
A dark cloak lay splayed out on the floor, resting partially against the far wall.
They halted, Melvic peering carefully both ways down the new hallway to make certain it was clear.
He glanced back at Nithis, giving the 'all clear' signal, and they stealthily entered the hall.
Melvic stepped to the cloak, giving it a considering look. An ordinary garment, it probably have excited any interest from him except that here, in the endless and featureless halls, it was an anomoly.
Something in the folds of the cloak glittered in the strange light, and Melvic crouched down to get a better look.
A golden brooch.
He reached forward, fingering it gently. There was some sort of slick coating on it making it sticky to the touch.
He started back at a sudden nip of pain, and drew back, looking at the sudden trickle of blood on his forefinger. Someone had sharpened the brooch's sides.
He felt a wave of dizziness pass over him, and suddenly, horrified, he realized he had been poisoned.
He started to turn back to Nithis, to warn him, but with a roaring sound the world went dark, and he slumped to the ground, dead before he hit it.
Nithis lurched back from the falling Melvic just as Athos dropped from where he was hanging over the doorway, landing lightly behind the second man. Athos took him from behind, and the second man as quickly as the first.
* * *
Miridor stood watch
at the tunnel warily, his back pressed up against the cold marble wall
and his hands caressing the small hand crossbow he held. He had taken
a position of strategic strength, and would be able to cover all the entrances
to the chamber. He waited motionless, eyes attentive.
Suddenly he straightened, his grip tightening on his weapon. Someone was coming down the stairwell Melvic and Nithis had gone up. And whoever it was was coming quickly.
Suddenly Nithis appeared, stumbling down the last few steps and fell to his knees. Both hands were pressed against a bloody wound in his torso, and he groaned.
"What happened?" demanded Miridor, approaching and realizing as he asked the question how absurd it was. There was no point in asking where Melvic was. "The Viper?"
Nithis groaned, scrabbling towards Miridor, extending a bloody arm and pointing back in the direction of the stairs. "He's coming!"
Miridor nodded grimly, and stepped over him, taking up position at the bottom of the stairs and leveling his crossbow expertly, waiting for something - anything - to appear.
He grunted once as Athos killed him, the crossbow tumbling from nerveless fingers as he fell.
Athos stood, swiftly removing Nithis's clothing, as he gazed upon his bloody work. He had to admit there was a certain horrible exultation in it.
Suddenly he felt a cold chill pass through him. It was bad enough to murder someone, ending a life - it was pure evil to take satisfaction from the deed.
He cocked his head, listening for a moment, then moved on. His work was not yet finished.
* * *
Shiffen and Mran stood
gazing upon another doorway identical to the one through which they had
entered. They looked at each other, and then Shiffen started forward.
Carefully he made his way into the new hallway, looking back and forth,
and then looking back he gave Mran a nod.
Mran nodded back, then halted, looking back the way they had come. Had that been a noise?
He listened for a moment, then shook his head. It seemed almost silly to think that someone could sneak up on them here - everything was so utterly quiet, save for the vague whispering sounds of the slight breeze that played through these tunnels and echoed off the walls.
Suddenly his eyes caught on something - or rather the lack of it. His line of sight continued back the way they had come for some thirty yards before the tunnel branched off again. There, using a small piece of graphite, they had left a slight mark to denote which way was the right way.
But the mark was no longer there. Mran took a step back, squinting, wondering if it were just a trick of the light. No, the wall was blank.
Alarmed, he turned back to Shiffen.
Athos looked up from Shiffen's corpse and struck.
* * *
"What was that?"
Per looked wide-eyed at Tranlos. That had definitely been a human cry. "I think that was a good enough reason to rejoin Miridor in the main hall and find out," he said after a moment.
Tranlos nodded. They started back.
And halted almost immediately. The next branch was bare of markings.
"Gods!" snapped Per, "This place! I guess we didn't even notice that the tunnel had branched."
Tranlos turned to Per, not quite convinced that they hadn't. He was fairly certain they had marked one of the halls. "Perhaps. Which way do we go?"
"We'll have to split up. You take the right and I'll take the left. One of us will find a marking at the next branch, and double back for the other."
"I don't know, Per," said Tranlos, slightly unnerved. "I don't think we should separate."
Per gave his companion a scornful look, attempting to bolster both of their courage levels. "We can't do that. What if we choose the wrong one and can't find our way back? We'll really be lost then. Besides, we'll only be a few feet away from each other, on opposite sides of the wall. We'll be within shouting distance, and if either of us gets into trouble, a call will bring the other."
"Alright," said Tranlos, still uncertain.
The two moved forward into their respective tunnels cautiously.
Tranlos paused after only a few steps, listening.
He uttered curse under his breath. He was only a few yards from his companion. Logic dictated that he should have been able to hear Per's footsteps. The acoustics of this damn place!
"Per?" he called uncertainly.
No answer came.
He waited a moment or two. "Per?" he called again, a little more insistantly and turning back in the direction from which he had come.
"What?" came the irritated response. Per had halted at the sound of Tranlos's second query, somewhat annoyed. They hadn't been separated for more than a few moments and already the man was calling for him like an unnerved lamb.
He waited impatiently for a moment, but Tranlos did not respond.
He took a step back the way he had come, calling a little louder this time, irritation falling away as a sudden premonition of foreboding grew. "What is it?"
Still there came no answer.
Per waited there a moment, listening and indecisive. It was only a few steps back to the fork in the hallways, and from there he would have a clear line of sight to where Tranlos was, or at least he should have. But a chill had settled in his spine at the ominous silence, and he found it difficult to get his legs to move.
He paused there a minute longer, the silence stretching, then, cursing himself for an indecisive coward, he mustered his courage and strode forward, his sabre coming out of its sheath and into his hands as he moved.
He approached the corner with cautious expertise, and swung around, crouched low and ready for an attack.
The second hall was quiet and still. And completely bare of any sign of Tranlos.
After a moment, Per straightened, entering the hall and moving forward.
"Tranlos?" he asked, fearing the worst. There was no sign that any human had passed this way, much less that there had been a struggle of some kind, but Per knew Tranlos, and Tranlos would have responded by now.
He inched forward, moving sideways so that he could keep a constant vigil on the stretch of hall behind him as well as that in front. He didn't want to get caught from behind. His alert eyes searched the walls expertly, looking for telltale cracks which might mean some sort of secret entance, and combed the marble floor for signs of a covered pit, or some other trap.
The walls and floors were featureless and blank here, as they were everywhere, and there was still no sign of his companion, not even a droplet of blood on the wall.
"Tranlos?" he called again, much more softly this time, not expecting an answer.
He halted suddenly, five yards from the end of the hall, where it made a sharp ninety degree left turn and continued on beyond his sight.
The hair on the nape of his neck prickled. There had been a whisper of movement coming from somewhere just ahead.
He took tight grip on his sabre and calmed himself. He was an expert swordsman, well skilled in its use, and should not allow himself to be spooked. If the person or persons who had taken Tranlos were waiting for him around that corner, he should be prepared enough to face them in combat.
He didn't move, undecided. Should he go forward?
Surprise, he knew, was a deadly weapon. He knew where his opponent was, and that the opponent was waiting for him. Knowing the trap was half the battle of disarming it. If he timed it correctly, he should be able to get around the corner and close with whoever was waiting before they had a chance to respond, perhaps turning the tables on them and surprising the surpriser.
He glanced around at the hall he was in. He was a sitting duck here if his unseen opponent had a missile weapon of any kind. The hall was thirty feet long, with no cover of any kind. He was close enough now that he should be able to close before the opponent could get off a shot, but if he was heard backing off, he would have put too much distance between himself and the opponent. Retreat would be suicide.
Unless the opponent didn't have a missile weapon. And if the unseen man had a crossbow (which seemed the most likely missile weapon, considering the environment), then why hadn't he used it already? Why wait until Per had proceeded nearly the entire length of the hall, when it would have been more prudent to cut him down at the halfway point, when neither retreat nor advancing would be possible for him and the hall would have been one long shooting-gallery deathtrap.
No, it didn't make sense. His opponent wanted him to close within striking distance. And if that was what he wanted, then that was exactly what Per didn't want.
Per took a step back, concentration still one the bend in the hall ahead. No movement, not even a shadow.
He took another step back.
There was a whirring sound from behind him.
He whirled, just in time to take Artemis's blade in the throat, his blade falling from suddenly nerveless fingers.
He gasped once, making a gargling noise as blood sprayed, then toppled backwards lifelessly.
* * *
The steps led down
Apparently, these lower levels of the Viper's domain were not lighted by the magical light globes which illuminated the upper halls.
Arkail paused, suddenly uncertain. If he lighted a torch, he and Drake would be an easy target for anyone waiting in the darkness below. On the other hand, he couldn't go on without light, and didn't want to go back up the steps, leaving this area unexplored. No tactician left a blind spot in his rear flank.
Besides, if this area was unlightened, then perhaps it meant that this was an area the Viper didn't want visitors intruding upon. Which meant this was exactly the way he should go.
He made a gesture, and took up an alert position where he could keep an eye both on the stairs up and those that led down, while Drake pulled off the backpack he had been carrying and rooted through it for a torch. A moment later, and the torch was lit and Drake had donned the backpack again. With one hand the boy held the torch aloft, while the other clutched a sabre, ready for combat.
Arkail led the way downwards, while Drake guarded their rear. It was unlikely they would be surprised from behind, as Miridor was covering the hallway nexus above, but Arkail had trained his troops not to take chances, and all of them, even young Drake, had learned the lesson well.
Arkail focused his attention on the way below. If something came up out of the darkness which lay coiled beyond the hazy and uncertain edge of the torchlight, it would have the element of surprise, but they would have the higher ground. And from the quiet, Arkail was fairly confident they had nothing to fear.
The flickering light of the torch played across the grayish-blue marble walls and steps harshly, making them appear bone-white etched in black shadows. The air was cooler down here, as if they were penetrating the depths the earth, and Arkail had the eery sensation of entering a mausoleum.
Carefully they made their way to the bottom of the steps.
A large set of heavy oaken doors lay at the bottom of the landing, and ordinarily Arkail presumed they would seal off the area beyond. Now, he saw as they approached, they loomed open, inky darkness waiting beyond.
Arkail paused, considering the doors, suspicious of some trap.
They opened inward and he could see the thick hinges which supported them, but he still searched diligently for some hidden trap.
A few minutes later, finding nothing out of the ordinary, he took a step into the large room that lay beyond, reaching back to take the torch from Drake and holding it aloft.
"Gods!" he breathed, staring around him.
Drake gasped from behind him, catching sight of what lay beyond.
Suddenly a shrill scream erupted from above, back in the direction which they had come, and Arkail whirled.
He spared Drake a glance. "Stay here," he ordered. "Get behind the door, and load the crossbow. If anyone comes through who isn't me, kill them."
Without waiting for Drake's nod, Arkail raced up the stairs, taking the torch with him.
A moment later and Drake was left in darkness.
* * *
Arkail flew up the
stairs, steps sure and quiet, holding the torch before him.
He paused about fifteen steps from the top, listening.
He heard nothing, and could see nothing in the square view of the room afforded him by entrance to the stairs beyond the white, domed ceiling, with its ringing light globes, but his nose detected something.
It was faint but unmistakable - the coppery smell of blood.
He set the torch down, still lighted, and prepared himself.
In a final burst of energy, he fairly exploded up the last few steps, leaping forward and rolling in an attempt to elude any attack that awaited him at the top.
Coming to his feet warily, unharmed, his eyes widened at the sight that awaited him.
A pile of bodies was stacked neatly in the center of the room. His men. There was Per, mouth agape in surprise and head nearly severed from his body. And beside him was Miridor, face down but with a horrendous gaping wound in his back. And Tranlos. And Mran. And Nithis. And Shiffen...
Shocked as he was, he tore his eyes away from the sight, looking around him in something near to panic. His eyes darted from hallway to hallway, searching for some sign of an attacker.
There was none.
Suddenly a movement from the bloodly pile of corpses drew his attention.
A low groan emanated from one near the edge of the pile. Was one of his men still alive?
He darted forward, bending over the stricken man. It was Melvic! Quickly he helped turn the dying elf over.
"What happened, Melvic?" he demanded. "Who-"
Athos lunged upwards, catching him in the windpipe with the blade of his sword.
Arkail sputtered, dribbling a bit of spit from the corner of his mouth as he died, still confused.
* * *
Drake swung the right-hand
door closed, taking position behind it and quickly removing his crossbow
from his pack.
Unhindered by the encompassing darkness which surrounded him, his fingers expertly set the bolt in place, winding the windlass and arming the weapon. He had been trained to know his weapons the way he knew his own body, and loading in a crossbow in the dark was a skill he had drilled into himself.
He settled down to wait, his eyes quickly adjusting to the darkness. While the room in which he waited was filled with impenetrable blackness, a very faint light spilled down the steps from the room far above. He would be able to see anyone approaching while they would necessarily be blind, and he should be able to get off a shot.
He settled down to wait, ears cocked attentively, listening for sounds of anyone approaching.
He felt a calm overtake him. Whatever was happening above did not upset him. He would not be panicked, or even allow fear to rule his actions. He was well-skilled, and not afraid to die.
The air huffed out of his lungs as he felt himself jerked from behind and slammed into the floor. He tried to trigger the crossbow but found it was no longer in his hands. Lungs on fire, he tried to rise, only to find he was being held immobile, a boot on the back of his neck.
Dimly he wondered who his attacker was, and how he had managed to get down the stairs without being seen to take him from behind. Or had the unseen man been in the room behind him the entire time, waiting for an opportune moment to strike? He tried to squirm, but it was useless. A blow to the back of his head left him dizzy and reeling with pain.
"Athos!" called the man who held him. "Come down here - you've one yet to slay!"
The room brightened as a light came down the steps, and Athos entered a moment later, pushing past the closed door and holding aloft the torch that Arkail had departed with. He was dressed in Melvic's clothing, blood smeared over him, and his eyes held a glittering, dangerous look.
He gazed down at the still-struggling Drake and recognition dawned in his eyes, his expression changing to the haunted look of a man gazing upon a nightmare. "Drake?" he asked hollowly.
The boy did not respond, glaring angrily up at him.
"Drake," Athos repeated, and this time it was not a question, but a resigned statement. "You... you were supposed to be dead."
"Yes, he is," stated the Viper evenly. "You will ensure that he becomes so."
Athos looked up. He was not fool enough to plead, but there was a desperate look in his eyes. "He was... is... a childhood friend. Couldn't-?"
"Your childhood has passed," said the Viper. "You are an assassin now. You have no friends. Only victims." He gave Drake a cursory glance. "He came here to kill you. I expect you to return the favor."
"But he is good... He is talented!" Desperation was showing forth in Athos's tone. "He could become an apprentice!"
"Never!" spat Drake from his prone position.
The Viper shook his head. "I don't take apprentices. No matter whether they are talented or not."
"You took me!"
"That was for reasons of my own. Slay him."
Athos closed his eyes, uncertain he could force himself to do so. He started to lift the shortsword, then dropped it again. Great Gods! he thought. What have I become?
Drake glared up at him. "Kill me!" he spat defiantly. "I deserve that much at least! I deserve to die like a true Entreri!"
The Viper laughed. "What did you say?" he asked. "Entreri?"
Drake refused to answer, and the Viper's amusement grew. He looked at Athos. "Kill him. Remember the first time you defied me. Don't make this two."
Athos raised his sword. He couldn't allow that to happen again, especially not to a childhood friend. It would be a mercy blow.
"Entreri!" yelled the boy as Athos' blade came down.
Athos stood for a moment, looking down at the corpse. His knees buckled, and he sat down heavily. What have I done? Dear Gods! I am damned! I am damned forever!
After a time, he became aware of his surroundings once more.
The Viper was lighting lamps about the room, and Athos realized he had never been here before. Unsteadily he got to his feet.
The Viper turned to him, in the middle of lighting another lamp. "Magical lighting isn't right for painting," he explained.
The room, Athos saw, was filled with portraits. They lined the walls, stood on stands, and a few were even laying flat on the several worktables which were scattered about. Each was exquitely rendered, by a master hand.
Each depicted a person dying. Sometimes the wound was visible; in other portraits only the victim's face was rendered, but Athos knew that he was staring at the faces of dead men.
"I like it when they see me coming," said the Viper. "That is a treat. When a certain expression takes my fancy, I feel the need to recreate it in art."
Athos approached, regarding the portraits with a horrible and morbid fascination even though he wanted to turn away.
The Viper looked at him. "You see, I combine two art forms into one. Magnificent, aren't they?"
Athos stared at him. "I hate them. I hate you for painting them."
"Really?" The Viper seemed genuinely surprised. "What is there to hate?"
"The fear. The fear in their eyes. I hate it." His gaze returned unwillingly to the paintings. "You took their lives when you slew them. Did you have to strip their dignity as well? Does that fear have to live on here forever, immortalized?"
The Viper shook his head. "You misunderstand my work. These stand as condemnation for the ones I slew. Fear deserves death. Justice was done."
Athos paused, staring at one of the more recent renderings. "My father," he said, turning away.
"Your stepfather," the Viper corrected. "Yes, he provided me with an unexpected surprise. His last expression is one of my favorites."
Athos turned to him. "I thought there was nothing left you could take from me," he muttered. "I was wrong." Unable to remain in the room any longer, he turned and fled.
The Viper watched him go. Yes, he was doing his work well.
Soon Athos would come to appreciate the beauty of death.