Angel of Death, Chpt 19
"The thieves' guild of Zazesspur has an assignment for me."
The words were spoken casually, as if the Viper were discussing nothing more interesting than the time of day. But Athos knew that someone would die by the Viper's hands - or, even worse, his own - because of this assignment. "I thought the guild was responsible for sending the Entreri troop after us," he said.
"Simply because they wish me dead is no reason to refuse a perfectly good contract."
"And the assignment?"
The Viper looked at him as if he had asked whether rocks were hard. "An assassination, of course. What else?"
"And the target?"
The Viper shrugged. "I have a standing agreement with the guild - when one of its members is ejected from it, I am assigned to track and slay him."
A sudden chill went through Athos. Shand! "What's the name?" he asked, carefully neutral.
The Viper frowned. "What's the difference?"
"No... nothing," said Athos, trying to keep his face blank. If the Viper learned of his connection to Shand... "No difference."
The Viper gave him a hard look. "You seem overly concerned. Perhaps you should come with me."
For a moment Athos was quiet, considering. "I will go," he said at last. The Viper nodded as if it were the expected answer. "When do we leave?"
* * *
The night was bright in Zazesspur, with a full moon and an array of twinkling stars shining down from overhead. For two lesser men, traveling unseen would have been problematic. For Athos and the Viper, the way was made easier by the brightness, which made the shadows darker and more deeply defined. They made excellent time.
Soundlessly they slipped like ghosts through the darkened streets. To see them in motion was to watch a kind of dance. Every movement was poetry.
To be them was a very different thing, as Athos well knew.
He dreaded this journey, for murder lay at the end of it, whether Shand should be the victim or not.
The Viper veered to the right, darting down a small alley, and Athos halted. A shiver rippled down his spine, for this was the one street that he had never yet revisited in all the years since he had last been here.
The Singing Crossbow, the same inn where the Viper had murdered the only father Athos had ever known, stood only a few houses down.
The Viper started towards it.
"Wait!" hissed Athos. "That place!"
The Viper smiled. "You remember it, then? Ironic, isn't it? Through the years, many marked men have fled to this place and awaited their deaths."
"I can't go there!"
"Then don't. This isn't your mission, remember? I allowed you to come as a courtesy." The Viper continued forward.
Athos felt an urgency take hold of him, but his feet remained rooted. He struggled to breathe. Something about this place still frightened him deeply.
What would he find there?
The Viper darted across the street, keeping to the shadows, bent at the door, and picked the lock. A moment later he disappeared into the inn.
Athos realized he was trembling. Nothing, he thought angrily, there will be nothing there you cannot face! He stepped forward, trying to shake off the trepidation that gripped him.
He stepped through the now-open door and into the darkness, and automatically moved to the side, that his silhouette would not be outlined in the entrance for anyone within to see.
His eyes adjusted a moment later. Here was the common room - not quite the same as it was in his memory, but close enough to send another thrill of horror shooting through him. There, looming before him, were the stairs. The same stairs he had been dragged down by the city guard before being thrown into the muddy street.
He felt a sense of dread overtake him at the sight. His father's body had lain at the top.
Fighting down panic, he forced a step forward, then another. Keeping his breathing steady, he mounted the stairs, soundlessly moving upwards.
At the top he stopped and scanned the hall ahead. The Viper was gone; no doubt in one of the rooms doing his dark and bloody work.
A piercing cry rag out suddenly, slicing through the still and silent night air like a razor. It was cut short almost instantly.
Athos waited, heart pounding. The scream the night his father died had been like that.
The second door to the right opened. The Viper stepped out.
He looked at Athos. "A most satisfying kill. It has been long since I last took a boy that young who was alert enough to know what was happening to him. His face was... interesting."
A sickening sensation washed over Athos at the words. Shand. Deep down he had known the boy would be the Viper's target, but he had hoped... Shand must have been the target.
He stood rooted for a moment, uncertain whether he could face the body. Whether he could face the eyes. Shand's eyes, staring sightlessly, accusingly...
He forced himself to step forward. Shand at least deserved to be seen.
The Viper misunderstood his hesitancy. "There is beauty in death. Do not fight your instinct. You will begin to appreciate it."
Athos felt his stomach protest at the thought. "Never!" he replied softly, stepping past the assassin and entering the room.
For a moment he dared not believe his eyes. Then a dizzying wave of relief rushed over him, leaving him weak-kneed.
A young boy's body lay on the floor, but Athos did not know him. Shand yet lives!
Abruptly he forced down the surge of relief which coursed through him, disgusted with himself. How could he rejoice in the death of another? No, that way led to the madness of the Viper.
A muffled sound came from further down the hall.
Athos turned as an old woman emerged from the fourth door down, the flickering light from the candle she held spilling into the hall.
Instinctively as breathing, Athos shifted into the shadows. His heart froze as he caught sight of her face. No! It can't be!
"Who's there?" she asked, holding the candle higher and peering in their direction, trying to make out shapes in the deeper blackness the tiny candlelight was creating all around her.
Athos jumped as the Viper spoke softly into his ear. "We have wasted enough time here," he said. "Kill her, and let us be on our way."
Athos felt his soul shudder. "I... I can't. I know this woman!" Hyullis!
"That sounded like a refusal," said the Viper dangerously. "I hope for your sake it wasn't."
"Please," said Athos numbly, "please... no. Don't make me do this! She raised me."
"Who's there?" the old woman asked again, taking a step forward.
"I know who she is," said the Viper, "and I knew she would be here. It is why I took you with me. She is a witness, and must die. And you will slay her."
"No! She can't even see us! Please, let her go!"
"She dies," said the Viper flatly. "If you are foolish enough to refuse, than I will be the one to take her. And if I do it, I promise you it will not be quick. Remember what happened the last time you dared to refuse me."
Athos faced him, speaking more loudly. "She was She doesn't deserve to die!"
The Viper stared at him. "It isn't a question of deserving. It is a question of obedience. I have told you that she must die."
The old woman was backing off slowly, starting to understand what the two were discussing. "Who are you?" she asked of Athos.
"She doesn't even remember your name," said the Viper. "Are you willing to disobey me for someone who doesn't even know your name? Kill her."
Athos raised his shortsword. Somehow his vision had gone blurry; hot tears trickled down his cheeks.
Her eyes went wide at the sight of the blade, and she cowered. "Please, don't do this, whoever you are," she said, shrinking back.
An eternity passed like that, with his blade raised and her pleas.
"I can't," he said at last, his voice barely more than a whisper. Gently he lowered the blade. "I can't."
The Viper stared at him. "Very well. I see the lesson has yet to be learned." In two steps he was past Athos. A quick strike to the base of the woman's neck and he had scooped her up, slinging her over his shoulder like a wet rag, where she lolled unconsciously.
He turned to Athos again. "Now she gets to die slowly, courtesy of your cowardice. Make no mistake - you will learn obedience, boy."
Athos realized he was shaking. "No," he said grimly. "No!"
He lunged suddenly forward, his blade singing as he struck.
The Viper sidestepped, but not quickly enough. Athos' blade had done its work, and Hyullis was beyond any fiendish torture the Viper could devise.
"That," said the Viper with a dangerous tone as he let the corpse drop, "was definitely two. Remember that you have only three chances." He moved past Athos, slipping down the staircase.
Athos was left staring at Hyullis' body. My handiwork.
He felt suddenly cold; emotionless. The tears had stopped, replaced only by a curious detachment. The pain... the pain was not as terrible as he had imagined. Now it was only a dull throb that could be ignored. Almost he wished it were worse. Truly, I am damned.
After a moment he turned and followed the Viper down the stairs, and out into the Zazesspur night.
As they made their way back through the streets, the Viper found himself silently pleased with the outcome of the night's work.
It seemed that Athos had learned a valuable lesson.
* * *
"What is this?"
Grimwalde shifted uncomfortably as LaValle leaned closer to what it was Thenedain was talking about.
The older mage was holding Grimwalde's notes on the Viper. The book was open to a diagram of the alley where he had sprung his trap.
Inwardly Grimwalde cursed. He hadn't wanted Thenedain to learn of his interest in the assassin. How could he have been careless enough to leave his notes lying on a workbench, where anyone could find them.
"That's... a personal project of mine," he answered hesitantly.
"Really?" said Thenedain sarcastically, sensing his discomfort and homing on it as a shark searching for blood. "Well then, if it's personal, then you must know what it's all about. Why don't you explain it to me?"
Grimwalde shifted uncomfortably. "You wouldn't be interested."
"I already am," said Thenedain. "If it is a puzzle, perhaps I can help you with it."
"I don't think so," said Grimwalde. "Like I said, it's personal."
Thenedain's smile hardened. "You will explain to me what this is. I don't tolerate impertinence from subordinates."
Inwardly Grimwalde seethed. Subordinates? Who did this doddering old mage think he was? "It concerns a man I think may be insane in a most novel way, and how I intended to trap him for study." He spoke woodenly, unable to think of any other explanation the old mage would accept. Thenedain may have forced his hand this time, but next time the younger mage would be prepared.
"Oh?" asked Thenedain. "And did you succeed?"
"Apparently," said Grimwalde, each word bitter in his mouth, "I underestimated him slightly."
"I was almost killed."
Thendain gave a hard laugh. "I should say that being almost killed constitutes more underestimation than just 'slightly'. Who is he, and why do you think he is mad? And what makes him so dangerous?"
Grimwalde was quiet a moment, deciding which of the questions to answer first, not certain he knew the answer to any of them.
"The Viper," he said at last, answering all three at once.
LaValle, who had been leafing through a tome, lifted his eyes at the name, suddenly interested.
"So," said Thenedain with a low whistle, obviously impressed. "A very big fish to catch, eh?"
"Don't act smug!" snapped the older mage, looking down at his notes. "You went about this affair in entirely the wrong way. Next time we will do it my way."
Grimwalde felt hot rage building within him. "What do you mean?"
Thenedain chuckled. "Careful, boy. You look like you're about to choke." He scanned the notes again. "I think your idea has merit - the man is likely to make fascinating study. But, as I've said, you haven't nearly the wits to catch the Viper. Only someone of intelligence would ever hope to have a chance."
Bragging old fool! Grimwalde thought to himself, cursing the bad luck that had allowed his notebook to fall into the older mage's hands in the first place.
"Now then," said Thenedain, setting the notes aside, "what do you know about him?"
Grimwalde cursed again. Now he would have to tell all he knew about the assassin. He hadn't time to decide what he could safely keep back.
"Come on, dolt!" said Thenedain. "Out with it! You must have done at least some research on your quarry. What have you found out?"
Grimwalde swallowed his bitterness and smiled respectfully. No, he would not tell the older mage everything. Thenedain would never learn of the Viper's apprentice. That much at least he could safely keep to himself.