The lamps were low
as the final business on the guild agenda was finished.
The council met in a spacious chamber within the guildhouse. The chamber was filled with an immense oaken table which formed an arc around the back of the room. At the center point of the table's arc stood a podium which sat to the right of the guildmaster's chair. It was this podium from which guildmaster Denthal addressed the council.
The council members were scattered around the table, a few jotting down notes. Tulmara, the secretary, was noting down everything that had been discussed. For a moment she looked up, her eyes resting on Arkail, who lounged indolently across the table from her, and the two exchanged a bored glance.
She was a ravishingly beautiful woman who had managed to keep her good looks past her teens and use them to advance herself. She had lustrous raven hair which cascaded well past her shoulders, unmarred skin that was delicate and white, and large innocent brown eyes. Her eyes were the only thing innocent about her, though, for within she was hard and cold as any two men Arkail had ever known.
They had taken to each other immediately.
"The Shadow Thieves have made preliminary inquiries," droned the guildmaster, concluding his report. He was at his seat, reading from a sheaf of papers. "At our next meeting, we will discuss with a representative of that worthy organization the possibilities of cooperation between us." He sighed again, pausing momentarily to go through his notes and make certain that everything on the agenda had been covered. It had been a long night. "Until then we'll have to wait and-"
From the far side of the room came a slight hiss, and the guildmaster looked up.
There was a thwacking sound and the guildmaster's eyes crossed, as if he were straining to see the crossbow bolt that had suddenly appeared between them. He toppled bacwards soundlessly, dead before he hit the floor.
Immediately the members of the guildcouncil leapt from their seats, come ducking low beneath the table for cover, others backing into defensive postures and eyeing the shadows.
"Guildmaster Arimos failed to pay me my proper sum," said a voice from the shadows. "I have exacted my vengeance."
All whirled towards the sound, several firing crossbows and similar missile weapons.
"Who are you speaking of?" asked Tulmara incredulously. "There is no Arimos here."
"No?" asked the voice, slightly amused. "Then who did I just slay?" The voice had come from the opposite side of the room this time.
Again several bolts were fired on it.
"You slew guildmaster Denthal!" said Arkail in surprise. "There is no Arimos here!"
"Really?" called the voice from a different point in the room. "My mistake then."
Again some of the council members fired crossbows, though this time notably less did so.
"Who are you?" asked Tulmara.
There was no answer.
"For the sake of the gods!" raged Arkail to the other council members. "Can we get some better lighting in here?"
Rymond, the council treasurer spoke from under the table. "I've got a lamp in here somewhere," he said, fumbling with a pouch. "Give me a moment."
Arkail unsheathed his shortsword and leaped into the shadows, striking out blindly towards the place where the voice had last been.
He encountered nothing but air.
"How am I doing so far?" Arkail jumped at the touch on his shoulder, and the sudden whisper in his ear.
"You!" he hissed back, recognizing the voice. "What are you doing?"
"Fulfilling the contract," the Viper whispered back.
"You fool!" Arkail spat.
"I resent that," whispered the Viper. "I'll meet you later to discuss your payment."
"Wait a minute-" Arkail started, but the other man was gone.
"Here we go," said Rymond a moment later, his lantern flaring up brightly.
"Except for the council members and the guildmaster's body, the room was empty.
* * *
"You idiot!" Arkail
"Please keep your tone down," said the assassin. "You sound upset. Were my services not satisfactory?" "Not satisfactory?" sputtered Arkail in disbelief. "Not satisfactory!"
"You were supposed to make it look like an accident!" shouted Arkail.
"A natural accident!" Arkail shot back. "An act of the gods! That didn't look like an accident! It looked like a cold-blooded murder!"
"You should have specified. I am a natural force - entropy. And when I kill someone, it is an act of the gods."
Arkail sputtered. "You deliberately misinterpreted me!"
The Viper shrugged. "Let's discuss my payment. I am very certain you don't want to renege on it."
* * *
Valle sat alone in
the alley, holding a board across his lap. In his right hand was
a small blunt stick. His left hand rested palm down on the board.
He began to tap the stick between his fingers.
"Not so difficult," he murmured, tapping the stick slowly between his splayed fingertips. He began to increase the pace.
"Ow!" he yelped, suddenly striking one of his fingers.
"There's no trick to it, really," offered Athos, approaching.
The smaller boy looked up, the finger he had struck in his mouth. "How does it work, then?"
"Simple," said Athos, sitting cross-legged facing Valle and taking the board. He splayed one hand down on the board, took the stick, and rapped out a quick rythm. "It's a pattern. Watch carefully. You start behind your thumb - let''s call that point 1-1. then you move to the space between your thumb and your index finger. That's point 1-2. Now you move back to point 1-1. Now you move to the space between your index finger and your middle finger. That's 1-3. After that, you again move to 1-1. From there you move to the space between your middle and ring fingers. This time you move back to point 1-2. Let's rename that point 2-1, because now it's the starting point. You move from point 2-1 to the space between your ring and pinky fingers. That's space 2-2. Move back to 2-1. Now you move to beyond your pinky finger, point 2-3. Now repeat the process, going backwards. Go over the pattern again and again. If you start out slowly you can pick up the pace over time."
Valle took the stick and, with Athos' help, began to go through the pattern. He was slow and clumsy the first time through it, but the second time he was more confident.
"Ouch!" he cried, striking the same finger again.
Athos laughed. "Don't worry about it. Train your hand where to go. When the muscles in your hand know the pattern, you won't even have to think about it."
Valle looked up at him. "Thanks Athos. You always seem to come through for us."
Athos turned away. "Yeah, well, you have to learn to take care of yourself."
* * *
Arkail paced the room
endlessly. "The guild's falling apart! None of the other council
members trust us!" he exclaimed heatedly. "How are we going to keep
it together? Someone had the representative of the Shadow Thieves
"I know," purred Tulmara softly from where she sat on the bed. "Did you pay the Viper?"
"Of course I did," spat Arkail, "much as I didn't want to. You don't refuse to pay the Viper."
Tulmara nodded. "That was wise. He would have killed you if you hadn't." She pursed her lips thoughtfully. "He is much too dangerous to be allowed to live. As soon as we have consolidated power in the guild, we must destroy him."
Arkail shook his head. "The Viper is no longer the issue here. I'm speaking of our inability to take control of the guild!"
"Sit down," she said, patting the bed beside her. "Now is not the time to get distraught. We simply need to analyze the situation facing us."
Arkail looked pained, but he eventually sat.
"Good," said Tulmara. "Now, the way I see it, each of the factions is considerably weakened and frightened. There's never been a better time to seize power. We simply have to find a way to take it."
"But how?" exploded Arkail. "No-one trusts us now! And with funds at an all time low, we'll have to cut members from the guild!"
Tulmara shook her head. "Cutting members isn't the answer. The proper course lies in the opposite direction."
"What do you mean?" asked Arkail.
"If we were to expand, we might gain the other members' trust," she answered.
Arkail chewed his lip thoughtfully. "Expand our operations? But how would we support it? And in what direction were you thinking about expanding?"
* * *
"You're the one they
call Athos, right?"
Athos looked up as the man sat down. "I'm eating my breakfast here, if you don't mind."
The man grinned lecherously and leaned forward, displaying a set of yellowed teeth. Athos was immediately struck by the man's extreme case of bad breath and his bad complexion.
"Handsome boy, very handsome." He mad a move as if to caress the boy's cheek.
Athos drew back, avoiding the hand.
"I am eating here. I want no part of your company."
The man smiled and leaned back. "You are an intelligent boy, Athos. I want to make you an offer you would be a fool to refuse."
"I know of your offer," said Athos, his appetite gone. "I would spit in your face if I wasn't afraid you'd enjoy it."
"Is that a refusal?" asked the man in surprise. "I'm talking about a lot of money."
"It's a nonviolent refusal. That can change if you don't leave me alone."
The man leaned back and chuckled. "Threats from a boy. How quaint."
Athos stood and made as if to leave.
"Rathan!" the man called. "This boy doesn't seem to want to accept my generous offer. I can't force him, but perhaps you can talk some sense into the lad."
Rathan's sneering visage came into view.
He stepped around to grab Athos by the ear. "Listen here, runt. I've decided you can make me more money working for this man. Besides, I always said you had a pretty face. I might even pay you a visit myself, just to see how you're enjoying your new vocation." He gave Athos' ear a shake. "You're going with this man, and that's settled." With a painful tug, Rathan shoved Athos back into his chair. "I don't want to have to get physical with you over this. You know how much I hate getting physical. I've already been forced to beat Valle." He chuckled to himself. "Poor lad felt the same way about it as you do. Eventually, though, he came around."
Athos felt a rage burn within him, consuming his soul. The room spun about him. "Rathan," he said, "I'm going to kill you."
Too quickly for the eye to catch, Athos' hand snapped out, and his dagger found it's way into Rathan's left eye.
Rathan stumbled backwards, unaware of the fact that he was dead. He tripped over a chair and went down.
Athos pulled the dagger free from Rathan's eye as the older boy instinctively moved backwards, and made an arc which drew a line across the other man's neck.
The man gasped once, then blood jetted from his throat, covering Athos in a warm and sticky wetness.
Athos was off and running before the serving girl could scream.
* * *
Valle entered the small
dingy alley. Athos sat across from where he had vomited earlier.
He looked up.
"You're in a lot of trouble. The city guard want to hang you on the highest wall. They're serious, and they've got a good enough description of you to track you down."
Athos remained silent.
"This is serious, Athos."
"I'm not sorry. I would do it again!"
"I think I've got a way out for you. You're well known as the best of the rat pack, and now the thieves' guild wants us. I talked to them, and they can offer you protection if you'll become a member."
A rush of terror engulfed Athos. That night - the assassination! "I... I don't know. What did the others do?"
"They all joined."
"I told them I'd join if you did."
Athos sighed. Could he sign away his life?