The prime emotion of my younger life.
I lived in perpetual fear then - of myself, of the Viper, of the world at large.
Now I cause fear. Though it is my constant companion, I am no longer tormented by it. It is a favored ally.
Fear brings the worst out of people. Fear is ugly.
Fear is my tool.
If a man fears you, he will be paralyzed, both in thought and action. This makes him slow, and gives you the advantage.
I hate and despise fear. It may be my best tool, but it is not my best-loved.
I know fear. Most people live with fear all their lives. They fear pain. They fear the unknown. They fear losing loved ones. They fear death.
I never feared these things. I was forced to live with pain every day of my life. Each day brought surprises, a few good but most bad, and I never feared the unknown. I lost all my loved ones early in life, and I had no more to lose. I was confronted with death and mortality at every turn, and I did not fear it.
I did fear the Viper, and that was worse than all the others.
And now I fear nothing at all.
I am the perfect killer and that is all that matters.
I am the perfect killer, and that is all that matters.
- Artemis Entreri
Meaning of a Word
Athos lay on the hard
mat he called a bed, thinking.
Over the past years, during the time he had spent training with the Viper, he had felt his humanity slowly stripped away. His return to civilization had showed him just how estranged he really was.
But now, he found himself wondering whether humanity was only a vague concept, an outdated phrase best left to scholars and philosophers and their dusty tomes. Man held no real ingrained and instinctive civility, he only liked to believe he did.
He was beginning to think that man was a reactive creature only. He knew himself to be solely reactive.
He had thought there were people in the world who were different - those that acted upon their environment instead of reacting to it, and that had given him the hope that perhaps someday he would find the strength to act upon his own environment.
He considered more fully on the matter.
When he was younger his friends had joined the thieves' guild out of reaction to fear.
He had thought Jitinder independent. But Jitinder was only reacting to something that had happened to him in his childhood. He had built his life around avenging the murder of his parents.
He had thought Artemis free, and had been highly attracted to her because of her independance. How many times had he sat on this same mat, daring to hope that she was as attracted to him as he was to her. How many hours had he whiled away, thinking of her, of some impossible future together with her. He had even childishly compared his name with hers, thrilled by the similarity.
Yet she had run from him as if he were a plague. She had reacted with fear and horror; loathing and revulsion, and the dreams had died in his heart, turning to ash.
He was no longer certain there was even such a thing as humanity.
* * *
Asib Ben-Orr, wizard-for-hire,
was pleading for his life.
His right hand was pinned to the wooden wall behind him by a small crossbow dart, which was pierced through his wrist. His fingers spasmed uncontrollably, a trickle of blood making its way down the wall.
His left hand was engaged in weakly pulling at the crossbow bolt which held him pinned, trying to get himself free, but it was a half-hearted attempt. He already knew he was a dead man.
"I see," said the Viper from where he stood several feet away, "that you are curious as to why I am killing you."
"Please!" cried Asib, "I'll give you anything you want-"
The Viper studied him for a moment, the man's pleas and cries falling on deaf ears. "You are the mage who opened the gateway to my home." It was not a question.
At this revelation the mage burst into sobbing. The Viper had found him, and he was a dead man.
"You understand, then, that I must kill you?" asked the Viper.
The mage continued to sob.
"Tell me that you understand."
The young wizard was unable to manage words. Finally, in between sobs, he nodded dumbly.
"It can be quick and painless," said the Viper, "or it can take a long time. I assume you prefer a painless death?"
The weeping man managed another nod.
The Viper smiled. "Ask for it then. Ask me to kill you. Beg me." He studied the doomed man's face, noting the expression.
* * *
Zip was sweeping the
floor. It was too early for breakfast and too late for late night
customers, so the tavern room was empty.
He felt a chill wind breeze in from the open door leading outside, and shivered. It had been a warm night, so he had left it open earlier, but now it seemed that the morning was bringing in a cold front with it.
He turned and went to the door, shutting it.
He hesitated then, looking at the lock. It was old and rusty; disused. He had only used it a handful of times since he had first purchased the inn.
He shivered again and locked the door. The bolt grated and protested, but slid into place with a little pressure. In light of the truth about Athos, Zip felt he could not be too careful. To accept such a one into his inn so readily, to put a viper like that to his breast... He shook his head and shivered again, a different sort of chill descending on him. He must be a poor judge of character indeed.
He turned, going back to his work, this time sweeping behind the bar, sighing as he did so. He had dropped a glass earlier while straightening up, and tiny shards dotted the wooden planking. His hand had always been a steady one, but tonight... well, accidents happened, he supposed, even though they did not usually happen to him.
Something shiny sitting in the corner captured his attention, and he bent down to examine it.
It was a ring - a fairly valuable one, at that. One of the patrons had lost one earlier, and the description given matched this one.
Zip chuckled, pocketing it. It looked pretty valuable, and he wasn't certain he would be able to bring himself to return it. He stood, then jerked back in surprise.
"Hello Zip," said Athos from where he stood before the bar. His eyes were sad as he read the expression on his former friend's face.
Zip took an involuntary step backwards, his eyes narrowing. Slowly and meaninfully he turned his back on Athos, retrieving his broom, and went back to work.
"You can ignore me if you like, Zip," said Athos sadly. "It does wound me, but I can understand. I have a message. I... I need you to deliver it."
Zip gave no sign of having heard.
"It's for both Jitinder and... and Artemis. Tell them.... tell them I will return here in two days, just at nightfall. Tell them I feel I owe them both an explanation."
Still Zip continued his work, not turning.
Athos shook his head sadly. "Good-bye, Zip."
* * *
"You are the one called
Pook regarded the beautiful dusky-skinned woman before him, appraising her before replying. "I am," he said at last.
"I am Nekiset," she said. "I represent the cult of Set."
Pook pretended ignorance. "The cult of Set?"
"A religious organization."
"Ah," he said, "I see. Or rather I don't. What has this to do with me?"
Nekiset took a calming breath, irritated by the obese man's manner. "We are inquiring about the one called the Viper."
Pook pursed his lips, considering. "I know of him."
Nekiset paused, uncertain how to phrase her request. This could be a disaster if Pook's guild helt the Viper in high standing. Finally she decided to be bluntly honest. "Do you know how we may locate him?"
"Why? What business have you with him?"
"Private business," said Nekiset icily, and Pook gave her a knowing look.
"I see," he said, smiling. They both knew what sort of business the cult of Set had in mind.
Pook chuckled. He reached over to the silver tray at his side, and plucked up one of the sweetmeats there. Placing it on his tongue, he chewed slowly, savoring the taste. "I have some information," he said at last, "that may prove helpful in your search, to be sure, but I am afraid I do not share it freely."
Nekiset nodded. Here it was, then. "Name your price."
Again Pook chuckled, this time to himself. These people would be doing him a favor by eliminating the Viper, and they would pay for the privilege of doing it.
Knowing he could turn the situation to his best advantage, he began to bargain.
* * *
"I have a second assignment
for you," said the Viper
"After your display last time, I think you can go alone. It is a very simple assignment."
Quickly the Viper outlined all he knew about the man - where he worked, where he lived, where he was likely to be at any certain time of the day - everything except who had contracted the man's death, and why.
Athos was sickened to learn that the man had four children and a wife who depended on him, and he mand a mental note to avoid killing the man in front of them.
"And why does he deserve to die?" asked Athos, when the Viper had concluded.
"Because another man contracted his life. I do not know what his evils are, but he possesses them, just as every man does."
Athos departed on his terrible mission. It went smoothly, and Athos accomplished his task with ease.
He left the body arranged in a dignified manner, hands crossed over the chest, and closed the staring eyes.
"Was his last expression fearful?" asked the Viper after Athos returned.
"No," responded Athos, glad to be able to disappoint his master. "I took him from behind. He never knew what struck him."
"Good," said the Viper. "Desire to see a man's face is no excuse for inefficiency. That is why the expressions I paint are so valuable. I kill perhaps one in thirty who realize his fate before it takes him."
Athos said nothing, hating himself for it.
As he retired to bed that evening, Athos realized he had not even thought of the possiblity of not obeying the Viper's commands and letting the man live.
* * *
Tulmara looked up from
her desk. "What is it?" she asked, facing a pale young errand boy.
"Master Arkail..." the youth stammered. "He was found this morning, ma'am... His head was, anyway. At the top of the steps to the guildhouse."
Tulmara fell back into her chair, mind reeling. "What?" Arkail was dead?
"Yes ma'am," said the youth, and stood there uncomfortably in the resulting silence.
"Only his head, you said?" she managed after a time.
"Yes ma'am," he said. "There was a note attached to it... in a manner of speaking."
"A note?" She suddenly quivered with rage. "Bring me this note!"
The youth bowed awkwardly, and started to back away. "Ah, ma'am? The note is... attached to the head in such a way that we cannot..." he gulped. "We cannot separate it, ma'am."
"Bring it!" she cried.
He bowed and hastily retreated.
Tulmara paced the room in shock. Arkail was dead. Was the Viper unstoppable?
A moment later the youth returned, bearing Arkail's head on a silver tray. He placed his grisly burden on her desk.
Steeling herself, Tulmara approached and forced herself to look.
The message was scrawled bloodily into Arkail's forehead.
"'Arkail returns to Zazesspur, head held high'" she read aloud.
"There was candy on the tray when we found it, ma'am, but we removed it."
Tulmara glanced up at the youth. "Leave me," she said in a broken voice. "Leave me!"
Again the boy made a quick bow and beat a hasty retreat, stammering an apology.
Tulmara didn't hear him. She was looking at something imprinted into Arkail's forehead - a symbol.
A symbol of the cult of Set.
* * *
"I want to know something."
The Viper was never surprised, but he regarded Athos with interest. Athos had never before come to him for any reason. "Ask, then, and I will decide whether or not to answer."
Athos cleared his throat. "You are continually reminding me that I never knew my true father - that... that Marinbow, the man I knew, is not my birth father."
The Viper regarded him a moment before responding. "Yes. Your true heritage is of somewhat more... noble stock."
"Who were they?"
The Viper shook his head dismissively. "No-one of any importance now. Suffice it to say that your mother was a chambermaid and that you are a bastard."
Athos waited. "You will tell me nothing more?"
"Not yet. The time is not yet correct."
"When will the time be correct?"
"After all your training is complete."
Athos was frustrated. "I see," he said. He paused a moment, but did not turn to go. "Am I correct in assuming you trained me as an apprentice because of my heritage?"
"I haven't finished training you yet."
Athos ignored the correction. "You said that you didn't train apprentices, but you trained me. Not because of my talent alone, either. You aren't an old man, and I doubt if you would want a successor, so that can't be it. It's because of my heritage, isn't it?"
"This is all some sort of game for you, isn't it? Taking me on as an apprentice was just another move towards winning some twisted game, isn't it?"
The Viper shrugged. "All of life is a game. The sooner you realize that truth, the better you will play it."
Athos shook his head. "If life is a game, I do not understand it."
"That is why I am still training you."
Athos nodded, frustrated with the Viper's lack of answers, and started to turn away. He stopped himself, and faced the Viper again. "One more thing."
"You laughed when Drake said he was an Entreri. Why?"
"The reason lies in the meaning of the word."
"What does it mean?"
The Viper considered, as if the answer was difficult to phrase. "It means," he said at last, "ultimate assassin."
"Yes. I laughed because he was hardly worthy of the title. It's an ancient word, and I doubt he understood fully what it meant."
Athos regarded the Viper.
If it meant ultimate assassin, then there was only one Entreri in existance. That much Athos was certain of.