Athos was slammed into
the wall. He groaned, sinking to the floor.
"Stand," said the Viper calmly. "Pick up your weapons."
Athos stood slowly, his lungs on fire. He was covered by bruises and shallow cuts.
Panting, he leaned over painfully, retrieving his shortsword and parrying dagger. He assumed a defensive stance.
The Viper nodded once, and lunged forward again, his twin katanas whirling.
A series of ringing blows followed, and a moment later Athos was again disarmed.
Still the Viper pressed the attack, cutting and slashing.
Athos jerked himself out of the way each time, but only just barely, and another series of cuts and scratches opened up on his arms, legs, and face.
Abruptly his feet were swept from beneath him.
Relentlessly the Viper slashed downwards, holding back a killing blow only at the last moment. The tip of one katana was pressed hard into Athos' throat, drawing a bead of blood. The other hovered just above his breastbone.
"Again," barked the Viper. "On your feet."
Athos picked himself up again. "Why are you working me so hard?" he dared to ask.
The Viper smiled. "I realize you may have gotten into some fights during your stay in Calimport. These you no doubt won. This does not mean that your training here is complete - far from it. I am still your teacher. Now, pick up your weapons."
* * *
Several weeks passed
before he was allowed to visit the outside world again.
Although he was often left with long periods of time to himself, he didn't dare leave without permission. And he couldn't quite build the courage to ask.
As the time dragged on, he began to wonder if he would ever be allowed to go again.
Then one day the Viper asked him whether he'd like another 'field trip'.
"I was thinking you might like to see your home city again," the assassin said. "You can go if you like. I will show you the way."
For a moment Athos dared to hope that the Viper would allow him to visit his foster mother and the small cottage where he had been raised. Then he realized that the assassin was speaking of Zazesspur, the city where he had lived out his youth.
But he wasn't choosy. The years of confinement in the Viper's lair had left him hungry for contact with the outside world, and his recent excursion into Calimport had only sharpened his appetite. Eagerly he agreed.
Once again the Viper led him down into the 'forbidden' level of his lair, where the mazelike tunnels wound in darkness.
Again they made their way through the darkened labyrinth, the Viper leading. Athos stored the route in his mind for future reference. It was quite different then the one which led to the portal to Calimport.
When they reached their destination, however, Athos discovered that the portal was identical, as was the manner in which it was operated.
"Open it," instructed the Viper, obviously testing to make certain Athos recalled the method.
Quickly Athos did so, and the portal unfolded itself.
The Viper nodded, already turning away. "You have only one day this time," he three over his shoulder. "Make the best of it while you can."
* * *
Unlike his visit to
Calimport, Athos entered Zazesspur under cover of night.
He emerged from the portal to find himself in the center of the city, where most of the ruined buildings were. That part of the city had not changed; it was still dangerous by night.
He pulled the hood of his cloak over his head, enshrouding his face in shadows. He had lived out most of his life on these streets, and he knew many of these people. He didn't think he would be recognized by anyone - he had grown from a boy into a young man, after all - but he didn't want to take the chance. He would have to take care in looking up most of his old friends. Most of them would be members of the thieves' guild now.
He considered the dillema as he moved into the more populous regions of the city. How could he tell friend from foe?
Dondon! he thought suddenly. He would look up Dondon first. The little halfling had had no alliances with the Zazesspurian guild, and wasn't likely to have made any during the intervening years.
And, perhaps more importantly, Dondon was a friend.
* * *
It was early dawn when
Athos located his quarry.
The boy sat at the corner of Bell Street and Lantern Way, just as he always had. His small face was smeared with grime, and he held out the dingy beggar's bowl pleadingly. His legs were gone beneath the knee, and he sat squatting in the dirt. The occasional passerby, infrequent at this hour, would flip him a copper or two in pity.
Athos smiled to himself. He knew full well that the scrawny boy's legs were tucked carefully beneath him - legs which ended in rather large and hairy feet. Because this was not a human boy at all. This was Dondon. The old halfling was as much a trickster as a source of information, and Athos had always liked him. Of course that had been years past...
"Dondon," called Athos, approaching.
Dondon's head jerked up in surprise. He looked about him.
"Over here," said Athos.
"Do we know each other, sir?" asked the halfling, trying to maintain his disguise.
Athos laughed. "It's me, Dondon. Athos. You remember me?"
"Athos?" asked Dondon, peering at him suspiciously. "I don't know any Athos."
Athos pulled back his hood, stepping into the light. "I was a little younger when you knew me."
Dondon stared at his face for a moment, then shook his head in amazement. "What happened? Even humans don't grow up that quickly!"
Athos flashed a brief grin. "It's an interesting tale."
"I don't doubt it. You humans never fail to amaze me."
Dondon glanced up and down the street, making certain no-one else was near, then stood and approached. "I heard rumors - crazy talk, that you were taken by the Viper."
Athos looked at him.
Dondon was taken aback. "It's true then?"
"I thought so. I gave you up for dead when I heard that. I guess I underestimated your life span. what happened?"
Athos was silent for a moment. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Of course, of course," said the halfling, concerned. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to pry."
Athos waved his apology away. "Not your fault. Dondon, I've been ignorant of what's happened here over the last several years. I really don't know how things stand here."
"To business, then," said Dondon with a twinkle in his eye. "I should have known better than to think you might've looked me up for old times' sake!"
"Dondon," asked Athos seriously, "you haven't joined the guild, have you?"
The halfling gave a hearty chuckle. "What use would I have for them?"
Athos nodded. "What about the other members of the 'rat pack'? The last I saw of them, they were all set on joining the guild."
"They did," said Dondon, sobering. "You don't want to be seen by the guild, do you?" It wasn't really a question.
Athos nodded grimly. "I'm not sure how they would react to my reappearance. I've been with the Viper, after all, and they might take out any grievances they've had with him on me. Not that I know, really, whether they have any problems with him."
"They hate him," said Dondon. "The last I heard, the guild was training some sort of elite group specifically to search him out and destroy him."
Athos smiled grimly.
"You don't seem particularly perturbed to hear that," observed Dondon.
"It's a nice thought, but I don't think they'll be able to accomplish their goal."
Dondon thought this an odd response, but said nothing.
"The members of the 'rat pack'," mused Athos, returning to his original subject, "Where are they now?"
Dondon considered for a moment. "Let me think. Valle disappeared about the same time you did - the guild sent him off to Calimport for training under some fancy mage or other. There was a big stink about that not too long ago - they wanted him back, but the wizard refused. Said something to the effect that Valle was dead."
"Dead?" asked Athos, his hopes falling. Valle had been the one he had wanted to see most.
"Well," shrugged Dondon, "the actual story was that he was caught in the Nine Hells, but who's able to stay alive and be there at the same time?"
Athos nodded glumly. "Yes, I suppose so. What about the rest?"
"Well, Vermos got caught a month ago, stealing from a powerful noble. I believe his body still graces our lovely city walls."
Athos felt bile rising in his throat. Vermos had always been a braggart who was constantly getting himself into more trouble than he could handle. It soundled like this time the boy had bitten off more than he could chew.
"Shand and Helmus are still in the guild," the halfling continued. "I could put you in touch with either brother. They're pretty careful and relatively smart."
"What about Drake?"
The halfling shook his head. "Drake disappeared some time ago. The guild claims he was killed in an accident, but I smelled something funny when I heard about it. If Drake's dead, it wasn't any 'accident' that made him that way."
Drake had always been second best after Athos, and although a strong rivalry had existed, the two had always been close friends. If Drake truly was dead, Athos would miss him. "Both of the brothers are guildmembers, then?"
Dondon nodded. "If you decide to get in touch with them, be careful not to contact Helmus. Shand's the one you want to speak with."
Athos was puzzled. "Why?"
"Helmus is utterly loyal to the guild. He seems it as his first real family. He would probably view you as some sort of deserter."
Helmus always had been impressionable. "And Shand?"
The halfling shook his head. "Shand is walking a very dangerous line with the guild. He's been giving them trouble for some time now, and is openly scornful of them." He shook his head. "I've warned him to keep his tongue. the guild isn't very forgiving of rogue members. If he isn't careful, I suspect he's going to be having an 'accident' soon."
Athos considered. "I think I'd like to see him."
* * *
It was nearly noon
before Athos could arrange to meet with Shand. They met in a plaza
the dock district, from which could be seen the open vista of the blue-green
Sea of Swords. The plaza itself was deserted, except for a cracked
and broken fountain, so weather-worn that it was impossible to tell what
the statue at its center had once represented.
Shand appeared at the far end of the plaza, peering around uncertainly. He was almost fourteen years old now, but to Athos' eyes he seemed somewhat unchanged. He caught sight of Athos. "Who are you? What do you want?"
Athos smiled. "We knew each other as boys. Do you not remember me?"
The boy shook his head, obviously ready to bolt at any moment.
"Look at my face."
Shand stared at him for a moment, then whitened in shock. "It's not possible!" he murmured, taking a step backwards.
Athos nodded. "It is possible. I am Athos, who you thought was dead."
Shand was still shaking his head. "I don't know what you are, but you can't be Athos. Athos was my age."
"I've been somewhere far away," explained Athos. "Time runs... differently there. I am Athos."
"Keep your distance," warned Shand, backing off another step.
Athos halted, holding his palms up placatingly. "There's no need to fear me. I'm not a ghost."
Shand laughed. "I don't believe in ghosts. And I'm not certain I believe in you. If you are who you say you are, why come looking for me?"
"I thought I would look up my old friends," said Athos, a little surprised by the question. "Dondon told me that most of the rat pack was dead or vanished, and that you were the only one left it was safe to contact. The guild is still after me, I understand."
Shand shrugged. "Yes, they're still after you - officially. Unofficially most believe you are long in your grave. Still, they have been hunting you for years, though I don't know why."
Athos nodded. "I could hazard a guess. You are still a member?"
Shand spat. "In name, anyway. Joining was the worst decision I ever made - and you were the one who talked me into it. I don't need them. They just take a percentage of my profits; they don't do anything for me. But there's no 'quitting' the guild."
Athos nodded. "Dondon said as much. Won't you get into trouble for not reporting my presence and trying to delay me?"
Shand laughed. "Oh, but I am going to report you. Did you think I would not? I am not such a fool as that. As for delaying you, well, as you can see, I am a boy while you are a full grown man. How could they expect me to stop you?"
Athos smiled, but it faded quickly. "Be careful, Shand. Don't overstep yourself. I heard what happened to Vermos. The guild is dangerous. I can take care of myself."
Shand grinned. "Vermos was a fool. I am not. And I have no intentions of risking my neck for you."
Athos nodded. "Just be careful."
A moment of silence descended on the two, and Athos wondered whether it was old memories or new suspicions that danced behind the boy's eyes.
"Well," he said after a moment, realizing that he had nothing more to say, " I suppose I'd better get going. The longer we talk, the more likely someone will notice. It's been good seeing you again, Shand."
Shand said nothing.
Athos turned away.
"Athos!" called Shand suddenly.
Athos turned at the edge of the plaza. "Yes?"
"I... I was wondering. What happened to you? Were you really taken by the Viper?"
Athos considered. "Better if you know nothing. You'd be in trouble with the guild if you did."
"You're right," said Shand after a moment, trying and failing to keep a not of bitterness out of his voice. "Keep your secrets."
"I will," murmured Athos softly to himself as he left. "I always have."
* * *
Athos found he had
one more stop to make before leaving the city.
As he made his way through familiar streets, he considered how far removed he really was from his past - these people were like living memories to him now, almost unreal.
He skirted The House of the Pleasurable Cat unconsciously. Outside, ladies of the night were already plying their trade. Seeing them made him reflect on the prostitute in Calimport.
"How long has it been for you, then?" she had asked him.
How long indeed?
There had been a time when he would have been proud to say he had never given himself away, that he was saving himself for better things.
Now he wasn't so sure. What did it mean, anyway? Nothing, except that he had missed something - and what did that matter, really?
He shook his head and continued on.
He wasn't certain how long he wandered, lost in thought. But it was very near dusk when he halted.
He found himself near the east wall, gazing up at Vermos's body. It had been impaled on a twelve foot pole which jutted from the top of the wall at an angle, and the corpse's feet hung nearly level with his eyes.
Vermos, he thought. Always the headstrong one.
It was lonely here by the east wall, understandably so since this was the wall on which the remains of criminals were prominantly displayed, and the corpse's only companions were the cacophonous vultures, who scuttled over the body, picking at their grisly feast.
But it must have been crowded here when they executed him, thought Athos. There would have been throngs gathered for the grim entertainment, howling obscenities and lusting for blood. They would have spit on the condemned, hurling garbage and rotten fruit.
An ignominous death, Vermos. An ignominious death.
A few of the vultures fled at his approach, but three of the braver ones stayed, refusing to leave their grisly meal.
He pulled his shortsword out and shook it, letting out a yell.
The remaining birds took wing in panic.
He sheathed his sword. It was a temporary solution at best.
He moved closer to the body. It had been here so long that the stench was fading, although it was still nauseating to stand this close to it. Bone was showing through the flesh in some areas, and the eyes had long ago been picked out.
This is death. We are mortal.
After a time, just as twilight was settling on the city, he turned and left.
The vultures returned to their meal.
* * *
The Viper was pleased.
Athos' attitude upon was somber, almost cynical. It was the effect
he had hoped for. He had been disappointed when Athos had returned
from Calimport, but apparently the visit to Zazesspur had done the trick.
Within two days Athos was given permission to visit either of the two cities whenever he pleased, provided the Viper had nothing else planned for him. He was also given a schedule of the fluctuations of time between the Viper's lair and the Prime Material. For the next six months, the two planes would be exactly in synch with each other.
Of course, after that, there was quite a fluctuation.