The two came together,
blades flashing forward in lightning fast strikes and blocks almost to
quick for the eye to catch.
A moment later they sprang apart again, and began circling.
Athos was looking for weaknesses he knew he would never find.
Time and again the Viper would betray himself with a subtle movement, off guard for a split second or leaving himself open for an instant. Athos didn't react to these apparent weaknesses, knowing full well they were merely ploys.
Athos himself was using a few.
Suddenly he saw a twitch - it looked too subtle to be a trap - and he was springing forward, his blades aiming for the Viper's heart.
Instantly the Viper swept his right-hand katana before him, deflecting Athos' blades, and simultaneously aimed a kick at Athos' head.
Athos ducked under the Viper's sweeping foot and swung around leading with his dagger and protecting himself with his shortsword.
The katanas arced down, but Athos swept under one and blocked the other with his sword.
The dagger was within a finger's breadth of the Viper's heart before he felt his legs swept from beneath him.
Refexively he flung his left arm down to break the fall, and the dagger spun from it.
He felt a twist in his right wrist and the shortsword flew from his other hand as the Viper disarmed him.
He rolled backwards, barely avoiding the Viper's descending blade, and came to his feet, defenseless.
"Very good," said the Viper, pausing. "Very impressive work. You were almost able to exploit a weakness. Of course, 'almost' isn't quite good enough. Remember you have to be aware of exactly where your body is at every moment."
Athos panted for a moment, then started to reach for his weapons.
"There's no need to exhaust yourself," said the Viper as Athos retrieved his sword. "Take a short break."
Athos complied, picking up his dagger a moment later and settling down in the corner, back to the wall. He watched as the Viper snapped through a precise and methodical practice routine with his weapons, apparently still fresh and untired although they had been at this for several hours.
"You are aware of the cult of Set?"
The Viper didn't look up from his routine. "I am."
"You are aware that they are after you, then?"
"They are after one of us, yes, but I wouldn't make the the assumption that it was me."
Athos considered that. "How do you know of them?"
The Viper laughed then, and turned from his routine to face Athos. "Do you think I am a mindbender? That I read people's minds?"
Athos shugged. "I don't suppose I would have reason to doubt it, if that's what you told me."
The Viper sheathed his weapons. "There was, perhaps, a time when I would have allowed or even encouraged you to believe that, but now it is time for you to understand one of the keys to becoming a successful assassin."
Athos leaned forward, listening attentively.
"Contacts," said the Viper, "are essential."
The Viper nodded. "Contacts. When someone wants somebody eliminated, how do you think they reach me with the request?"
Athos shrugged. "I hadn't thought about it."
"They come to one of my contacts and arrange for a meeting with me."
Athos looked confused. "So, these contacts know how toreach you?" He waved an arm. "They know about this place? That seems like a potential weakness."
The Viper shook his head. "No. They no nothing about me, or this place. I know them, and where they live, and I drop in every once in a while, always unannounced, to find out whether they have any assignments I am interested in. That way I don't have to worry about an army suddenly storming into my home, howling for blood."
"What about an army laying in wait for you?"
The Viper shrugged. "That would be easy enough to spot and avoid. In such a circumstance - and it has happened before - I wait the arm out. After they finally left, I would end that particular contact's life - painfully."
Athos looked down. That made sense, and it fit in with the Viper's style. "How many contacts do you have?"
"I have contacts in most of the major cities on this side of the continent, and a few on the other side as well. I even have two on another continent entirely, on the other side of the planet."
Athos started. The planet? The Viper had contacts spread across the entire world? Incredible, but, from what Athos had seen, not necessarily impossible.
"I see you are surprised," said the Viper. "Why? Assassination is one of the few things common to every civilization. Why should I not practice it everywhere?"
Athos was still amazed. "And why do your contacts do this service for you? How much do you pay them?"
"Nothing. They do it out of fear of me, not for money. I would kill them if they ever lied to me. Besides, they usually charge a finder's fee to the customer, usually fairly high."
"When the time comes, you will have to find contacts for yourself."
* * *
Once again, The Merry
Halfling loomed on his right. This time it seemed larger, more threatening
Athos shook of the feeling and ascended the steps, halting at the open door.
Zip looked up when he entered, then pointedly turned away.
Athos scanned the room.
Neither Jitinder nor Artemis were here.
He stepped through the doorway, his shoulders slumping in defeat. He made his way to a table and sat, looking at the brightly flickering candle that was se there.
In a moment, self-pity gave way to anger.
Who were they to judge him? They hadn't lived their lives under the shadow of the Viper! They had no idea who he really was; what he had been through!
The voice broke his reverie, and he looked up. Jitinder stood at the table, Artemis behind him. As quickly as it had come, the anger was gone. They had come.
"Sit down," he said, "please."
A glance passed between Artemis and Jitinder, and exchange Athos didn't quite understand. A moment later they both sat, making certain to take the far end of the table.
"I owe you both an explanation," Athos started.
Jitinder scowled. "I don't really care about any explanation. The only reason I'm here is because Artemis insisted on seeing you, and I wanted to make sure she was protected." There was a threatening growl to his voice, and his eyes blazed with fury as he spoke.
Jitinder's abrupt manner rekindled something akin to his earlier anger. You couldn't stop me if I wanted to kill her! he thought silently, and then was immediately ashamed. Artemis deserved better of him than thoughts like that. Jitinder did too.
His voice was mild when he continued. "Whatever your reasons for being present, I would like to offer you an explanation."
"Go on," said Artemis, her voice curiously gentle.
He found it was difficult to put the story into words. He had never told it to anyone before. "My...my father," he started hesitantly, "came to Zazesspur when I was four. I don't really remember much about him, just images mostly. The Viper murdered him one night, leaving me alone and penniless in a city I was unfamiliar with." He shrugged. "I did alright. - I was skilled with my hands and took to thieving. When I was seven, I killed a man. Two of them. They were trying to get me to prostitute myself."
He took a breath. It seemed to get easier to tell as he told it. "Anyway, the city guard was after me, and the only way out I could see was to join the thieves' guild, who claimed they could grant me protection. I joined, but before I could settle into the guild, the Viper came and took me - for reasons I have yet to understand. He took me to his domain - I don't know where it is but it is definitely on another plane - and he began to train me. I was raised there, under his tutelage. A few weeks ago he started allowing me access to the outside world again. He has a portal to Calimport, and one to Zazesspur. Those are all that I know of, but I'm certain he has many more. That's how I came to be here. I didn't know who the cult of Set was until after they attacked me twice. Apparently they believe I'm the Viper, although I am not." His voice trailed off as he finished.
Jitinder sat back. "That's your excuse? That you are training to become another Viper?"
"I will never be another Viper," said Athos. "I haven't figured out his reasons for doing what he's done yet, but I know I will never succeed him. And I do not stay with him out of free will."
Artemis sat very still. She said nothing.
"Well," said Jitinder bitingly, "I, for one, don't buy your fantastic story. We're supposed to pity you, I suppose, and tell you that we'll all be friends again?"
"I don't want your pity,"said Athos, "or ask for forgiveness." He looked at Artemis. "I know I can never have that. I just... I just thought you should know."
There was a moment of silence.
"Well, then," said Jitinder. "Now we know. If that's it, we'll be leaving now. And I hope you'll be doing the same - forever."
Athos lowered his gaze. What had he expected? Absolution? He had known he was too far damned for that. "Yes," he said, "I will. It would be dangerous for you if I stayed, with the cult hunting me."
"It would be dangerous for you," said Jitinder with a dangerous tone. "Yes, it would be dangerous for you, all right."
In silence, they departed. Artemis gazed back at him once, from the door, and it almost seemed as if she would cry.
* * *
Grimwalde looked up
from his work.
"Master," said one of the younger apprentices. "Do you feel it?"
Grimwalde motioned for silence, listening intently.
Once again he felt the tower shiver.
There was only one explanation. The portal was opening.
Yes, it had to be! Thenedain was returning. The only question was whether this unexpeted event would be fortunate or unfortunate for Grimwalde's plans.
He hurred out the doorway of the laboratory, the apprentices on his heels, and started up the steps, breaking into a run.
A moment later he was at the top of the stairs, in front of the door that led to the highest room in the tower.
He fumbled with his keys, finally finding the correct one and unlocking the door. A moment later the lock clicked and the heavy oaken door swung wide. As it did so, the low rumbling sound which was emanating from its far side turned into a roar.
He looked about the dusty room, seeking the portal. Locating it, he raced across the floor to it, hauling off the heavy cloth which hung over the device.
It was already glowing with hellish colors. Red alternated with blue, yellow, and green, but in each case they seemed somehow sinister. The device was shaped like a full-length oval mirror, and when not in use, it could serve as one. Of course, it's true purpose was to create a gateway between the planes.
The mirror's surface rippled like frothing water for several minutes, and faint shadows could be seen behind it, as if were some sort of dark window to another reality.
Which, of course, it was.
The device rumbled on for a few moments more, the edges of the mirror alternating colors more rapidly, the surface roiling more feasomely.
Then, all of a sudden, the roaring dropped to a purr. The mirror's surface smoothed.
A foot came through, sliding out of the mirror as if coming out of water. It found the ground, and a moment later the body followed. Grimwalde started. He did not know this man!
"Who are you?" he barked, trying to keep the fear out of his voice. This device should not allow access to the prime-material to any of the demon races that populated the lower planes, but such an occurance was a possibility.
"Thenedain-" the man began, after looking about himself.
"You are not Thenedain! I know Thenedain, and he could not have changed so much! Besides he is missing part of his left ear, and yours is whole!"
"Thenedain follows me," explained the man tiredly. "I am the only surviving apprentice that journeyed with him."
"But they are all boys, the oldest not more than twelve," said Grimwalde, suspicious. "You are a grown man!"
A moment later, Thenedain himself arrived, stepping through the portal. He leaned on his magical staff. A glance at him told all.
When Thenedain had departed, not more than six months past, he had been a middle-aged man, not handsome, perhaps, but healthy and hale, in the prime of his years.
The man before Grimwalde was old and grey. Where deep black hair had hung in lustrous abundance, there was now a wrinkled and yellow bald head. Where a finely trimm mustach had rested, there now was a foot-long beard of white hair. The younger Thenedain had stood straight and erect; this man stood hunched over, leaning painfully on his staff.
"What happened?" asked Grimwalde, shocked.
Thenedain looked at him, sneering.
"We got snared, boy. We have aged much, but I see that you have aged little. How long have we been gone?"
"Six months. I was about to send some apprentices after you to see what had happened-"
Thenedain spat disgustedly. "Certainly you were, boy. And manes can fly."
Grimwalde was uncertain how to reply. "May I ask who your newfound companion is?"
"I can speak for myself,"said the younger man. "I was called Valle when I left."
"Well, Valle, you'd better help Thenedain to his room."
The man gave him a warning look. "That's LaValle to you. I am no longer an apprentice. Help him to his room yourself - if he wants to go. More likely he'll want to take a look at the tower and see how you've changed it in his absence."
Grimwalde jerked back in surprise at the not-so-gentle rebuff. 'La' was a title some wizards added to their names when they had achieved suffient power. Thenedain hadn't adopted the prefix, though Grimwalde himself had considered it.
In truth, Grimwalde had been hoping that Thenedain was dead. It had seemed likely, given the long absence of the older mage. Apparently, however, Thenedain had been caught in some bizarre magical time distortion which had aged him several years in the same time that it had take for only a few months to pass on the Prime Material, and no doubt he had grown more powerful in those extra years.
Now that the older mage had returned Grimwalde was no longer the master of the tower. Instead, he would be demoted to the status of Thenedains assistant.
Not only that, but the mage had returned with LaValle. Six months ago LaValle had been simply Valle, a lowly apprentice. Now he was a man grown, probably a powerful mage in his own right, and definitely a potentially dangerous rival.
Again Grimwalde found himself wondering whether Thenedain's return would be fortunate, and decided that it probably wouldn't be.
He sighed to himself. Today was simply not his day.
* * *
"Stay away from him!
You'll end up dead if you don't, mark my words!" Jitinder towered
over Artemis threateningly. "I can't protect you all the time!"
Artemis stood up to him, undaunted. "I believe him!" she snapped stubbornly, her jaw set.
Jitinder shook his head. "So do I! So what? Does that make him any less a killer?"
"Who says he's a killer?" she shot at him.
Jitinder crossed his arms. "If the Viper's training him, he's either killed someone already - murdered, I mean - or he's going to have to in the future. What do you think he's in training to become? Eventually, no matter how sincere he is now, his senses will deaden, and he will kill. I fought him myself; I know how lethal he is!"
"What about you?" she asked. "You've seen a lot of death. You've killed people yourself. Am I not to trust you either?"
"I only kill to protect the weak," blurted Jitinder angrily. "Criminals. Murderers. People who deserve to die. And I haven't become deadened to pain and suffering, either."
"Really?" she asked venomously. "It doesn't seem to bother you much that he might be suffering!"
"Look," said Jitinder, flustered momentarily, "I'm different, that's all! There's no comparing us, in any way!"
She snorted and turned away. "I don't see the difference," she said defiantly, almost under her breath.
Jitinder reached out and took her shoulders, turning her to face him. "The difference is that I'm no murderer," he said, his voice subdued. "I wasn't raised and trained by the Viper to kill people."
Artemis folded her arms stubbornly. "You're afraid of what will happen when - no if - Athos loses his sense of sympathy for others, but cutting him off entirely from the only friendship he knows will only push him in that direction."
Jitinder sighed, releasing her and turning away. "Look," he said after a moment. "Just don't play with fire, alright? Even if, by some miracle, he doesn't become as dead in his heart as the Viper, as a result of your 'help' the Viper will probably end up killing you. And those cult members are after him too, remember. It isn't safe."
He stopped and turned back to her. "Stay away from him. It's for your own good. You don't have to like it, you just have to do it."
Artemis had turned away. She said nothing.
Jitinder sighed. "I... I know you love him. I don't pretend to understand why. If you truly love him, the best thing you can do for him is to stay away."
Artemis bit her lip, a single tear running down her face.