Zazesspur was hot this
Athos wandered the streets in a haphazard sort of way. He had thought he would never return here again - yet here he was.
There hadn't seemed any reason to return to Port Calim. He felt rejection there, and a hurt so painful it made his heart ache. He was even debating the wisdom of trying to contact Artemis and Jitinder, and was wondering whether it might be wiser not to go through with the meeting he had set up.
Also, there was a certain amount of risk involved in any such visit which could not be discounted. He had been attacked twice now by the black-clad men, and he had no doubt that more attacks would follow. He wanted to know more of their purpose before venturing again into the unknown.
Probably it had something to do with the Viper. Perhaps they meant the master assassin harm of some kind. Certainly they weren't friendly. He wondered briefly whether the Viper was even aware of their existance.
How will you handle that little addition to your game, Viper?
Athos shook his head. The Viper had never asked him anything about his visits to the outside world, and this puzzled him. It wasn't out of character for the man, but neither was it in character. The master assassin was a difficult man to anticipate, and Athos got the feeling he knew more about Athos' visits than he let on.
He dismissed the subject from his mind, catching sight of the person he suddenly realized he had come to see.
The halfling looked up. Today he was playing a blind beggar, but Athos knew full well that Dondon could see him clearly enough through the bandage which was wound around the top of his head.
"Athos?" he asked. "Is that you? I can't see a bloody... wait a second."
A moment later the cloth had been taken off, and a grinning Dondon stood facing him. "Athos!" he said. "Where have you been?"
"I..." suddenly a wave of shame engulfed him. "Attending to things," he said at last. "Dondon, I can verify Drake's death. He was a member of the Entreri squad."
Dondon was confused. "The what?"
"The Entreri squad - the group that the guild sent to kill the Viper."
"I see. I assume they failed, then?"
Athos nodded. "I thought you should know about Drake."
"Yes." The halfling nodded. "Too bad. You didn't see it happen, did you?"
"I made it happen," Athos said softly.
Dondon gave him a strange look, not certain how to reply.
"I took out every member of the squad," Athos continued, sounding as if he were delivering a confession. "They made it as far as the Viper's base of operations before I stopped them."
"But..." The halfling was perplexed. "But I thought you wanted them to... well, to succeed."
The halfling shook his head, failing to understand. "Then why did you kill them?"
"Because I was afraid of what the Viper would do if I didn't. I did want want them to succeed, though - in both their missions."
"Both?" asked the halfling, and it dawned on him. "They were sent to kill you as well, then."
Athos nodded. "I murdered them."
"Don't talk crazy," said Dondon. "You killed in self defense."
"No," said Athos. "I killed them because they couldn't kill me."
Dondon shook his head. "Look, I don't pretend to understand, but I trust you. You did what you had to do. Don't let it weigh you down needlessly. I'm you're friend, Athos."
Athos looked up at him. "Thanks, Dondon. I'm glad you... I feel better, having told you."
Dondon nodded sympathetically.
"So," said Athos, forcing a little cheer into his tone, "how are things here in Zazesspur? Pretty much the same, I would wager."
Dondon gave a hollow chuckle. "Hardly. All the demons, daemons, and devils of the lower planes could never have caused such a stir if they were let out upon the city."
"Oh? Something's happened, then?"
Dondon nodded. "Two days ago the former guildmaster's head was delivered to the front steps of the guildhouse, but I guess you'd already know that."
"Actually, no," said Athos, "although I'm pretty certain I know who delivered it. What kind of affair has it caused? An internal struggle? Are the leaders battling for the now-vacant position Arkail held?"
"Just the opposite," said the halfling. "Tulmara assumed the position with no complaints. The problem was that the head was delivered with the symbol of Set carved into it, and Tulmara is now certain that they are allied with the Viper somehow. I guess you would know the truth of that-"
"I don't even know who this Set group is," said Athos. "I've never heard of them."
"Well, then," said Dondon, I guess that means they aren't allied with the Viper."
"Not necessarily," said Athos, reflecting on how little he knew of the master assassin's movements. "Who are they?"
"A powerful underground religious group from Mulhorand. They worship Set - apparently he's one of the older gods."
"They're here to convert?"
"Hardly. Whatever their purposes here are, converting isn't one of them."
Athos considered. "You must have heard something."
"No-one understands their presence here," Dondon denied. "That's what makes them so suspicious. They arrived about a year ago, and dug in. They've got some sort of creatures with them that they let out at night. Big, nasty-looking things, full of teeth. Fortunately, they don't let the creatures prowl alone. They keep them leashed, and travel about in small groups as if searching for someone."
Athos cocked his head, an idea forming. "What do they look like, these patrols?"
"Well, the members and underlings dress all in black, with red or yellow sashes. They wear some sort of head wraps, leaving only their eyes uncovered."
Athos nodded. So, these are the same ones that attacked me in Calimport, he thought, or at least members of the same group. And if the Viper delivered Arkail's head with the symbol of their cult on it, then he must be aware of their presence, maybe even their purposes. But what do they want with me?
A thought suddenly occurred to him. Could this have something to do with his mysterious heritage? "I'm interested," he said a moment later, "exactly how did this group receive entrance to the city? Dressed like that, with dangerous and exotic animals, I don't see how they got past the city gates."
"They only wear those clothes at night, when they roam the streets. During the day they disappear, or seem to. I don't know exactly how they got in the city, but I can hazard a guess - small groups in plain clothing."
Athos considered. "That seems likely. It's how I would do it, anyway. Who leads them?"
Dondon smiled. "That was the question everyone was wondering. I cracked it soon after they entered the city. The man's name is Hamsetis."
"Hamsetis," Athos repeated, rolling it around his mouth. "Strange name."
"A strange man," Dondon conceded. "Short fellow, muscular, with dark skin. It seems he isn't used to sneaking about, and although he was instructed by his superiors to keep a low profile while within the city, he himself doesn't seem to see the value of it. He was fairly easy to locate and identify."
"What are his orders?"
Dondon shrugged. "I couldn't guess. That's the million-gold-piece question at the moment. If you find out, be sure and let me know."
"I will. So, what as the guild done in response to all of this?"
Dondon lowered his voice. "Nothing yet, but there's a tension on the streets - like when a storm is approaching. A war will explode between the two groups soon, you mark my words. I only hope I can watch my back and keep out of it. Tulmara has the full resources of the guild and this is home ground to her, but from what I understand this Hamsetis is supposed to be a formidable leader in battle. Some kind of general back in Mulhorand, or something like that, and he's never yet lost an engagement."
"One more thing," said Dondon.
"Shand has quit the guild."
Athos was surprised. "I told him to be careful in what he did!" he swore. "Now the guild will want him dead!" They might even contract the Viper to slay him - and that could mean that Athos would have to kill him.
"No doubt," said Dondon. "But the move was hardly unexpected, after what they did to him."
"What did they do to him?"
"I understand they beat him so badly he couldn't move for two days."
Athos was silent for a moment. "It was because of me, wasn't it?"
Dondon nodded. "Because he talked to you, yes."
Athos cursed himself silently. Would this always be his legacy to others?
* * *
He had some free time
on his hands after speaking with Dondon, so Athos began wandering the streets
in the hopes that he might run across Shand. He didn't put much stock
in the idea, however. If Shand was on the run from the guild, the
wisest action he could take would be to go into hiding and stay there.
Wandering the streets would be the last thing Shand would do.
Had he the time, he was certain he could have tracked the boy down using the the techniques the Viper had taught him. As it was, he didn't even bother to begin.
It was late in the day when they found him. He was on the street of lanterns, one of the major thoroughfares in the slum section of the city, when abruptly the late afternoon traffic melted away, leaving the street virtually abandoned.
Interested, but not alarmed, Athos stood his ground, waiting to see what was happening.
A moment later, they appeared. A dozen or so members of the cult of Set, at the far end of the street. Athos turned faced them for a moment, realizing that they were after him and wondering how they could possibly have found him. He measured the distance between them. He could escape.
But when he turned, he found that there were a dozen more only twenty yards behind him.
"They only roam the streets at night," he murmured, recalling Dondon's words. They were certainly risking quite a bit appearing in daylight like this, and again Athos wondered at their actions. Why did they want to capture him so badly?
The last of the townspeople disappeared from the street.
Silence hung heavy for a moment, and neither the cult members in front of him or those behind moved.
Athos looked around furiously. There were no side alleys he could reach. The windows and doors nearest him had been shut and barred. He looked up. There was a three story climb before him on either side - and this only at the wall's lowest point. He knew he could not scale it before they would reach him.
He was forced to admit that they had boxed him in quite effectively. Perhaps if he hadn't been so preoccupied with his musings on Shand, he would have realized he was being trailed. But now...
He shot forward, towards the wall on his right, and the two groups of cult members rushed him, a roar emanating from them as they sprang to the attack.
Apparently these members had no compunctions about using weapons against him, because he saw more than one sword out and waving in his direction.
He couldn't make it up the wall in time; that was certain.
Making it to the wall, he put his back to it and prepared to sell his freedom at dear cost. The false scars on his arm and his side which held his wire lockpicks were in place, and he hoped that they at least would ensure he would have one hidden weapon left to him even if he were captured.
And they were upon him.
He slew two with his sword before it became useless in the crush. The cult members didn't mind dying; they literally threw themselves on his blade in their determination to take him.
He took out three more with his dagger before it became embedded in a black-clad body and was ripped from his grasp.
And then he was helpless, crushed up against the wall and unable to move, strong hands holding him immobile.
There was a pinprick as one of the men jabbed his neck with something, and then the world became a blur.
He realized dimly that he was drugged, but found himself too distracted with trying to make out the people in motion around him that he didn't care.
Another roar sounded on the street, and suddenly a second force joined the fray, crashing headlong into the rear flanks of the first.
This second force was less organized, and comprised of ununiformed men and women in various states of dress, and armed with whatever they could bring to bear. The members of the Zazesspurian thieves' guild descended on the cult of Set with an unmatched fury. Today they would take back their streets and avenge their former guildmaster - or die trying.
The cult members, surprised and confused, turned and met the charge, defending their prize.
Athos found himself dragged to the side as two of the black-clad men tried to carry him away from the fray, attempting to deliver him to their master while the others covered their retreat.
A crossbow bolt took down one of them almost immediately, and an instant later a wiry thief cut down the second, who was having so much trouble carrying the limp Athos without the aid of his dead companion that he never saw the other man coming.
Athos landed hard on his back. At another time this would have been painful, but now he was too interested in the amazing blueness of the sky. He lay there, limp, his lips moving slightly as he tried to say the word 'blue' over and over again.
A second thief didn't seem him laying there, a fact that cost the thief his life as he tripped over Athos' limp form and was easily dispatched by a nearby cult member.
Athos saw this, but didn't mind. He was busy saying the word 'blue', though he couldn't remember quite why.
He felt two small hands grip him by the arms.
Dimly he was aware of being dragged on the cobbled street. This was fascinating to him, for while he was moving, the sky was not. He tried to puzzle out how this could be.
Gradually the noise of the fighting faded, and Athos found himself looking up at a small face.
"Shammmbldd," he slurred, then giggled at the sound.
Shand put a hand over Athos' mouth. "Quiet. The city guard will arrive soon. You don't want them to find you anymore than you want one of the guild or cult members to find you, trust me."
Athos only laughed harder. He stopped abruptly, and licked the palm of Shand's hand, admiring the taste and texture.
"Yuck!" said Shand, jerking back his hand.
Again Athos giggled.
"You've been drugged!"
Athos only laughed harder. "Shammmbldd," he said again, and closed his eyes for a moment.
* * *
When he opened them
again, roughly five hours had passed.
He sat up groggily, his blurred vision making the room spin around him.
"Where am I?" he croaked.
It was twilight outside, and the room he was in was dark, having only one small window set high in one of the walls where the ceiling met it. Other than the light from the window, there was only a weak lanter to illuminate the small room.
"Athos!" said Dondon, crossing the small room towards him. "You're awake!"
"Awake," repeated Athos slowly. His tongue felt like it was made out of cotton. "Yes, I am. What happened? There was a battle..." His voice trailed off as he tried to recapture the memory.
"A battle between the cult of Set and the members of the thieves' guild of Zazesspur," put in Dondon helpfully. "The cult drugged you before the battle really began, and Shand was able to drag you to safety when the thieves attacked."
"Thieves?" asked Athos slowly, shaking his head. His vision was still slightly blurred. "Do they know where I am?"
Dondon shook his head. "No, of course not. Shand risked his life in going against their orders to retrieve you."
Athos locked gazes with the halfling, memory starting to return. "Shand! Where is he?"
"Gone. He took you here when everything was settled, and left. He was afraid he'd been seen by the guildmembers, so he didn't want to waste time in any one place."
"Where?" asked Athos, looking around at the small room.
"I don't know," answered Dondon, misunderstanding. "I told him it would be a good idea to leave the city."
Athos shook his head. "I meant where am I?"
"Oh. This is my basement."
Dondon's brow wrinkled in confusion. "To my basement?"
Athos shook his head again. "The battle. How did the battle end?"
Dondon nodded. "Oh. The guild members wiped out the cult people to a man, although it cost them heavily. The whole affair was finished by the time the city guard arrived. All they found were bodies. They're still trying to puzzle it out."
Athos nodded. "What time is it now?"
"It's seven and one-half hours past noon."
* * *
Grimwalde was ecstatic.
He hadn't known as much about the Viper as he had thought he had, after
all. Apparently the man had an apprentice of which Grimwalde had
known nothing. If it weren't for the Zazesspurian guild, he still
wouldn't know about him.
It was good his mentor had established a strong alliance with the guild.
As long as they thought the older wizard was still around, they would help Grimwalde if he needed it.
Of course, lately he had been having trouble keeping up appearances. Soon he was sure the guild would want to see Thenedain in person. Which would be impossible.
Thenedain was long gone, dead and unmourned in some far lower plane hopefully. And that smarmy Valle, the apprentice Thenedain had taken with him, was hopefully dead too.
Oh well. He'd just have to think of some way to stall them when the time came.
* * *
Pook shifted in his
padded seat uncomfortably, his hand stroking his corpulent chin thoughtfully
as he pondered what he had just learned.
He had been concerned when he had learned of the nine men who had been seen by his man the night the cult had attacked Athos. They represented an element of which he was entirely ignorant. He had understood exactly what each of the other people involved in the incident were doing there, but the nine men had remained a mystery.
A systematic inquiry search had led to the answer. An informant within the Zazessurian guild had been able to tell them who the nine men were, and more importantly what their purpose was.
An assassination group, formed for the sole purpose of slaying the Viper.
Pook had immediately sent out orders that they were to found and brought to him.
Apparently, though, the group had vanished, and Pook was even more concerned.
He briefly considered the possibility that his informants simply hadn't found the group he was looking for, but with a wave he dismissed the thought. The streets had eyes and ears, and they answered to Pook. If the men were within the city, they would have been found. No, they were not here.
He had wanted to seek an alliance witht hem, or at least find out how much they knew of the Viper. They could have been useful to him, in much the same way as the cult of Set would be.
Should he tell the cult of the Entreri squad's existance?
He contemplated the idea for a moment, then decided against it. It would be better if the cult was kept ignorant of this Entreri group's existance.
Now he needed to know more about where the small group had disappeared to.
How could he use this information to better his position?
He would have to wait and see.
* * *
Hamsetis smashed a
chair into the wall, then turned and broke an oaken table in half with
a strike from one of his bare fists.
He roared in anger.
If only he could have been there!
If he had, the one they sought would not have escaped so easily. So close!
But how could he have known that the common thieves and beggars of Zazesspur would attack him? What purpose did this serve? Who directed their efforts and why?
He would find the one responsible and kill him.
He turned to the black-clad servant before him. "Set is angry with our failure. We must avenge ourselves!"
The man blanched, but betrayed no fear. He was loyal, as were all of Hamsetis men, and he knew that they had done the best they could. No doubt Hodkamset or Nekiset would have ordered them executed for their failure, but he knew the value of loyal men, and did not endorse the needless slaughter of good men. That was why they followed him, and would continue to follow him.
He reigned in his anger. "You had better leave me alone right now," he said in a dangerous voice, and with a quick bow his manservant departed. He knew his master's rages well, and was prudent enough to avoid them when he could.
Hamsetis flung another chair at the wall. It burst into kindling, one leg lodging itself in the wall itself.
He raged on for a few minutes more before calming down enough to think fairly clearly.
Hodkamset! The high priest would not be pleased with this news. How was he going to explain this to Hodkamset?