That is what I recall most about my time under the Viper.
There was never a break or a letup. I was never given time to catch my breath or regain my feet. I was kept continually off guard and int a state of semi-shock.
At the time I thought it was cold cruelty, but looking back now I am at least more understanding, if not grateful, that I was pushed to my full potential in such a way.
Now, I am never off guard.
Now, I am never shocked.
Because I never knew what to expect, I learned to expect the unexpected and to assume nothing.
Now, I trust nothing, least of all fate and the laws of probability.
The Viper forced this upon me, and I hated him for it for some time before realizing the gift for what it truly was.
The Viper still amazes and confuses me. His methods of teaching were superb, and I learned the lessons well.
The Viper was brutal without being cruel. Strict but impersonal.
Impersonality. The key to the perfect killer's existence.
The Viper was to me the perfect killer - the only true assassin in a world of imitations.
The Viper was, and still is in many ways, a mystery to me.
I knew from the start that he was anything but human, but I still have no idea exactly what he was.
A man without a soul?
- Artemis Entreri
The Cult of Set
When he had first arrived
here, Athos had lain awake night after night, weeping.
Nearly six years had passed since then, and he had no more tears to cry.
He still lay awake night after night, but he had long ago forgotten how to weep.
Now his eyes stayed open, as visions of the Viper's death danced before his eyes. Would he scream as Athos' dagger ripped up through his spine? What would be the message in his eyes as Athos cut his throat?
One thing that never seemed to fade was the pain. Each night he lay scrunched up into a ball, his bruised muscles groaning inwardly with pain. He never cried out.
Life no longer held meaning for him. It had long ago faded into a series of lessons and blows. He hadn't seen another person, besides the Viper, for all the time he had been here. He wondered what he would do if he did suddenly meet someone else.
He hated the silence, but was afraid to break it.
* * *
The caravan wound its
way slowly forward.
Nekiset, High Priestess of Set, whipped the slaves bearing her litter mercilessly until they pulled up beside the wagon of Hodkamset. She was a very beautiful woman, dark skinned and well-formed. Her head was shaven in honor of her priesthood, and she wore dark robes of rich quality, befitting her station.
Hodkamset, Lord of Set, was the most powerful of the wizards in the service of Set. More than that, he was touched by the hand of Set, and imbued with holy powers. He was the leader of the Cult of Set, and the spokesman of that god. His appearance changed according to his whims, as he was an expert in magical disguises. Lately he had taken to using his true appearance, that of a middle aged man with silvery hair that suggested age, but a clean-shaven face that was young and unwrinkled.
He was, as usual, within the wagon's luxurious interior.
Nekiset stepped out of her litter, still in motion, onto the back of a slave and into the wagon of Hodkamset.
Hodkamset looked up from the artifact.
"Why are we proceeding so slowly?" asked Nekiset.
"Patience, priestess. The one we seek is hidden from our sight by powerful magics. He is not even on this plane. It will no doubt take us much longer."
A messenger rode up, stepped off the horse and into the wagon, and fell to his knees, touching his forehead to the ground before Hodkamset as he spoke.
"Master, Hamsetis has arrived in Zazesspur with his minions."
"Good," smiled Hodkamset. "Now he has only to wait. Our own journey still lies before us. The road is long, but it will lead to Set's ultimate glory!"
* * *
Athos blocked a flurry
of kicks and punches, and leaped a foot sweep. He launched a counterattack
then, driving the Viper back.
The assassin caught a kick calmly with one hand, then kicked the other leg out from under Athos. The boy landed well, his arm taking most of the shock, instantly lashing out with his free foot and managing to brush the Viper's chin before the assassin released Athos' foot and leaped backwards.
Athos rolled back and snapped up, his body arcing through the air as he landed on his feet.
The Viper turned and pulled a pair of oriental swords from the rack and sprang to the attack.
Athos didn't show it, but he was surprised. The Viper had never before used a weapon against him.
He backed off slowly, giving ground steadily and dodging the singing blades time and time again. Blows that would have taken his life scythed through the air harmlessly to the sides and over his head.
Intent on watching the motion of the blades, Athos was caught by surprise when the assassin's foot swept upward in a front kick, connecting solidly with Athos' chin and knocking him backward off of his feet.
As suddenly as it had started, the attack ceased.
"You are ready to be trained with weapons."
* * *
Tulmara strode silently
through the halls of the guild training center.
She swept by the regular training rooms, which were filled with young thieves honing their skills in such things as picking pockets, opening locks, and climbing walls.
She walked to an apparently blank wall, a dead end.
Not missing a step, she reached up and pulled the torchholder on the wall to a certain angle.
The secret door swung silently open, and Tulmara walked calmly down the steps.
Arkail was at the bottom, training the eight men whom he had personally selected.
"The Entreri troops are almost ready."
She smiled. "The time for their use has not yet come."
* * *
The wall was slick
with grease and smooth as a mirror. It rose forty feet straight up.
"Climb," instructed the Viper.
Athos placed his hands on the wall, feeling for tiny cracks to support his weight.
Slowly and painstakingly, he made his way to the top.
The assassin was there already.
"Far too slow."
* * *
The darkness was complete.
The targets would have been moved from their last positions - they always
A tiny sound caught Athos' ear.
He turned, and launched the first dagger without hesitation. He was rewarded by a rich thunking sound.
Again he whirled. This time the noise had come from his right. Again he pinpointed the location of the sound. He hadn't time to listen for the thunk, for he caught another tiny sound, this one more like a squeek. Again he flung a dagger. The next sound was like a human laugh. Again there was hesitation. A plea for help came next, in the sound of a female's voice. the dagger was again flung with no hesitation.
The last sound was unexpected. It was a baby's wail.
Athos hesitated for an instant, startled, then flung the dagger.
The lantern flared to life a moment later illuminating the room. Each of the targets had a dagger buried within their centers. All save one. The dagger had missed center on that one by a finger's breadth.
The Viper looked at Athos' handiwork. "Better. You will learn to curb your personal feelings in the future."
"I was startled," protested Athos. "I had not expected to hear that."
"Why? Infants are a common enough target. I myself have disposed of many a royal brat still in diapers."
* * *
The tallest of the
poles stood ten feet tall. The lowest stood four feet high.
One pumped up and down through the hissing lava that lay below.
Athos didn't know whether the lava was real or not, but it gave off heat. He didn't intend to find out.
"Begin," said the Viper.
The first pole was the second tallest, standing eight and one half feet over the lava.
Athos breathed calmly, finding his sense of balance.
He sprang upwards, landing lithely on his right foot atop the pole.
The next pole stood only six feet from the floor, but it stood at a sixty degree angle.
Athos made the long jump and proceeded to the next pole. This one was a fairly easy one, as it was only a few feet away. The trick was that it was too far from the next pole to make the next jump unless Athos used it as a foothold only for a moment and kept up his momentum.
He continued on to the last pole, the one that was pumping up and down furiously. He had been watching its motion and knew it would be at its lowest point when he landed.
It threw him upward into a full front flip that shot him onto the final platform.
"Good," said the assassin. "Now come back."
* * *
Hamsetis, strong arm
of Set, was a short, muscular, and dark-skinned man.
Once he had been a slave gladiator for the Red Wizards of Thay. He had never lost a fight, but he had always hated his Thayvian masters. When the priests of Set had bought him out of slavery, he had sworn allegiance, and soon proved himself the greatest warrior in their organization. After a year of studying tactics, he also became their chief general.
He paced the top room of the house he had rented.
He didn't understand why Hodkamset and Nekiset couldn't pinpoint the man they were looking for with the artifact Set had bestowed upon them, but he knew that the distance between the cult and its quarry was lessening.
Hodkamset had said they would either encounter him here in Zazesspur or in Calimport. He gave a good description of the one they were after. Hamsetis was confident the wait wouldn't be much longer.
A slight tremor shook the floor beneath him.
He cursed to himself. The basement wasn't set far enough into the ground to mask the sounds of the creatures his servants had brought into the city under cover of darkness. Construction of a subbasement was already underway, but it would be weeks before it was completed. Until then, he could only hope that those in neighboring estates wouldn't get too curious.
He smiled to himself when he thought of what the minions kept below would do to the man they were looking for.
* * *
Grimwalde was intrigued.
If what he had learned about this Viper fellow was true, the man was either violently insane or playing an intelligent game according to rules the mage could not fathom.
He hadn't enough evidence to make a determination one way or the other.
He had decided to capture this man, and study him. The mage in Calimport Gimwalde supposedly served was missing and probably dead, so he didn't need permission.
He was excited. He would have to proceed slowly and carefully - taking the full measure of the man he was to face. Trapping this man would be no small affair. It would take a brilliant plan executed with finesse to absolute perfection, and not a little luck. The mage's own life would most probably be forfeit if he made even one mistake.
* * *
Athos followed his
master down the winding stair case.
Lower and lower they went, far beyond any point Athos had been allowed to see thus far. Athos was silently counting stairs, although it was, admittedly, getting difficult. The cold marble steps were each exactly alike. The marble wall curved smoothly, with no visible change. The only thing breaking the monotony were the magical balls of light which were placed at certain intervals along the walls.
Suddenly the steps ceased, and Athos found himself on a smooth marble floor.
He noticed another set of steps leading downwards, located off to his right.
A myriad of tunnels branched off to all sides. Seemingly at random, the Viper chose one and headed down it, Athos on his heels.
There was a subtle difference between these halls and the ones further upwards. Athos could sense that these halls were less tread, and this made them darker in some unknowable way. There was no life here - no libraries, no displays. He felt a loneliness here as tangible as living flesh.
Still the Viper led him forward.
How can he stand his own life? thought Athos. How does he live it so stoically and detached?
He banished such thoughts from his mind quickly. The Viper was not a man; he was a machine. A perfect killer with no morals. How could such a one be expected to feel emotions? The notion ran contrary to common sense.
The Viper halted before a large oaken door beautifully inlaid with picturesque figures which were hard to make out clearly unless one stared at them for some time. Elven work, most likely. Such sights were common in the house of the Viper - art and beauty were seemingly appreciated by the man, even if life and goodness were not. In a way of reckoning; the Viper was himself an object of the same properties - a cold and beautiful instrument of death, such as an adamantite sword or mithril crossbow, possessing some sort of inner fire or driving force but not truly existing as a feeling entity.
"You have memorized the path we just took?"
Athos nodded that he had.
"Good. Keep to it in the future. There are worse things than death - and some of them reside in this level of my home. Some of my toys have a bite; take care not to stray from the path I have shown you."
Again Athos nodded, this time in obeisance.
The Viper turned back to the door. "Watch carefully," he instructed.
He inserted his ring into a slot in the picture and twisted to the right. With a grating sound, a handle emerged from the door. Athos immediately ingrained the placement of the ring into his memory.
The Viper gave him an identical ring. Athos turned it over in his hands - carved into its face was an engraving of two fangs dripping poison.
"On the other side," instructed the Viper, "you need only touch the ring to the wall, and the doorway will appear."
Athos had no time to ask what the Viper meant, for the assassin was already opening the door.
Beyond lay a white marble wall, which apparently the door had lain flush with when closed.
Athos started to look up to the Viper in confusion, but the wall began to glow.
Slowly it faded into a gray mist which tickled Athos' nose for a moment before fading out of existence altogether.
He had noticed the fading of the wall only peripherally. It was what was revealed beyond that caught his attention.
A great city loomed before him. It was midday, and the scene opened onto a bustling marketplace. The huge orange orb that was the sun hung over all.
Athos almost leaped backwards at the sight of it. It was real - he could feel the warmth of its rays on his face. He hadn't seen the sun for five and a half years.
He looked down into the marketplace.
People were everywhere. A small girl walked in front of the two, apparently not seeing them. She was close enough to touch, and Athos nearly reached out to do so. He stopped himself just in time. His master would not have approved.
"Welcome back to the Prime Material," said the Viper.
Athos' mind spun. The Prime Material? Did that mean he had spent his long years in training on another plane? Was it on one of the elemental planes he stood? Was it one of the outer planes, where the gods themselves dwelled?
He returned his attention to the city.
"Has it been so long?" he muttered aloud, much to the amusement of his mentor. "I don't even recognize it!"
"This is not Zazesspur," said the Viper. "This is Calimport. I maintain a permanent portal in both cities - Calimport is the more important of the two, but Zazesspur is... my hobby. I will allow access to both cities in time, but for now you have access only to the one you are ignorant of."
"Incidentally, virtually no time has passed here. Time fluctuates in the demiplane I keep my abode. Right now it very nearly matches that of the Prime, but usually it flows much more quickly here. You have barely been gone for twenty-three weeks from Zazesspur."
Again Athos' mind spun. Twenty-three weeks!
"You have two weeks leave. The way the time flow runs presently, that gives you just over eight days. You must fend for yourself during that time - a feat I'm confident you are more than capable of.
"One final note. If you try to run, I will track you down and kill you slowly."
Again Athos nodded his understanding. The thought of running had crossed his mind, but he had realized immediately the futility of such an action.
"Go now," commanded the Viper. He watched as the boy stepped through the portal, then turned away. He had business of his own to attend to.
Athos turned and looked back after stepping through.
Already the portal was fading, revealing only the stained bricks of an old and abandoned house's wall.
He looked around himself. He had no money, no weapons.
Yet he didn't mind. He was free - at least for a couple of days.
He fingered the ring the Viper had given him, then tucked it into his pocket, hiding it away. He made a mental note to do so each time he was allowed to come here. He had no idea if anyone would recognize it for what it was, but he didn't want to take the chance. Besides, he didn't like it, and the thought of wearing the Viper's symbol sent a shudder racing along his spine.