The Goblin King

Here’s a story I played with a bit, and sent on submission to feel out the waters. I did a couple of things I never do here, which was play with purple prose and perspective. It didn’t find a home, but I enjoyed writing it since I had Jareth in my head after just having watched Labyrinth.

 

The Goblin King

 

The goblin king sat atop an outcrop of stone perched on a hill, his narrow blade planted point-first in the earth between his booted feet, the edge dripping crimson. Carrion birds wheeled and called above him, a cacophony of misery echoing from ribbed throats, an eyeball pierced on the end of a gore-encrusted beak, its optic nerve fluttering in the breeze with the flap of ebon wings. Arrayed around him, the remains of a once-grand army as though a whirlwind had swept through their ranks, bodies broken, severed, exsanguinated.

He held his head as one who has suffered a loss, as one who has come to the end of a long road of exhaustion, and there, found only more road. He did not weep though the ground doubled and trebled before him and the carmine drops on his blade blurred to the point of blossoming into petals.

And yet, and yet, the sound of footfalls, of a light step avoiding rigid steel and limp flesh. Of breath held to keep out the scents of offal and shit and the coppery tang of blood spilled by the liter, by the gallon, by the barrel. The rasp of breath sucked in, the stifled cry as vision met the cloudy eyes of the dead and saw only the uncertainty of an eternity not promised. Then, the end of the approach. A stillness in the air, the screaming quiet of anticipation as the visitor screwed up his courage to speak.

“Speak,” the king commanded, for command was his province, the land he had always known.

The voice atop the blackened boots, boots that had seen summers and winters in the ash of many a hearth, perhaps with quill and parchment, perhaps while tending a pot, spoke, low and hesitant, a thing from the underbrush that fears the sun.

“H… How?”

The goblin king gestured to a stone similar to the one he sat on, and the stranger settled, not comfortably, but as comfortably as one can afford when perched on granite and faced with an embodied force of nature. When he had settled, the king looked up and regarded the man. Plain face, a dusting of whiskers across a straight jaw. Thick nose, bright eyes that shone with, if not intelligence, curiosity.

“I would ask you the same,” the king replied. “How is it you’ve survived…” he gestured to the surrounding carnage. An indication. An indictment.

The man shrugged. “I wasn’t here. I saw it though. The light. Heard it. The sound.”

The goblin king nodded and shifted on his stone. “Then, let me ask – are you mad?”

“How do you mean?”

“You saw what happened here and decided to investigate?”

“I’m a curious sort. Besides, it seemed to be over.” He looked around, though not at the dead. Instead his gaze sought the abstract. The silence in the aftermath. “Was I wrong?”

The king shook his head and looked up, past the avian storm that gathered. The sun still stood high, a vast unblinking eye. He addressed the man.

“I have time.”

“For?”

“Questions. You have curiosity, no? Let me sate it.”

“And then?”

The king shrugged. “We shall see.”

The man nodded and pulled a case from his side, unrolling a sheaf of parchment, tipping free an inkpot and a quill. He looked around, and with a demeanor that practically vibrated with unease, pulled a board shield from under a dead man, the body squelching with movement. He grimaced, and then moved quicker, needing to distance himself. He stretched the parchment out and laid it across the board, then dipped the quill and glanced up at the king.

“Tell me a story.”

“What kind of story?”

“Yours.”

“Why?”

“People will want to read it. To know you. To know this.”

The king sighed and tilted his head back, trying to remember. Memory floated at the edge, vagaries, a chiaroscuro of thought. He tilted his head back, gaze rolling down his nose at the scribe like water off a hill. Quizzical, concerned. The emotions roiled and mingled, dripping from his lips.

“Do you remember your mother?”

The scribe blinked, confusion writ on his face plain as the ink on his fingertips. “Yes, a stout woman. Severe at times. Then, who wouldn’t be, with muddy boots on rushes, six children, and a gruff husband. She was a wonderful cook. Sweetbreads, stew…” he trailed off.

“Interesting. I remember nothing. Well, not nothing. Perhaps… I don’t know that she was ever there in the traditional sense. Nor that she was stern. But I have mementos of her. The scent of bog peat in the summer. The whine of gnats in heat. The green throat of bull rushes pulling toward one another, reeds rubbing, chirping a symphony to the creak and croak of toad and frog.”

The scribe frowned even as his quill nib scratched against the parchment. Scritch scritch scritch. The utterance of print, the lexicon of language, each moment measured in quarts and distance. He thought about that thought, and decided if he had tried to write something worse, he couldn’t. This was it. Purple prose shitting itself against the wall, letting the words drip down like fly-ridden effluvia. He grunted once and scribbled, letting the ink blot out the words, obliterate the ephemeral bullshit. He could do better. He began again.

His mother was a swamp.

Fuck no. Another blot. This one nearly tearing the paper. He looked up apologetically, then motioned for the king to continue.

“My father? Very well. My father. Dry. Distant. Harsh. Hot. Rough. A hundred, a thousand adjectives, all too small or too large to fit him. Too wrong, and yet almost right.”

Better, the scribe thought. Filter out the frippery. He thought back to the beginning, thinking he would need to revise. He kept writing, the quill a small blur. He raised his free hand and spun his fingers, insisting the king go on, insisting on the continuance of story, the uninterrupted flow of idea.

“My childhood?” The king harrumphed, a sound of discontent. “What of yours?”

The scribe looked up, blinked. “I spent the majority of my early days weeding plots and cutting thatch. Sometimes, when the harvest finished, grain stacked and milled, and it was too soon to hang meat to dry, I played with the farm dogs, sometimes ran to the market and spent what few coins I had on paper and charcoal. My father nearly took my head off when he found them. He’d taught us letters, but not that they were much use beyond knowing how to read the proclamations and keep our heads down. He was determined to have more thatchers, more herds, more row workers. I was not.”

The king nodded, the great white mane of his hair bobbing. “I played. In caves and trees, in stone labyrinth and mossed battlefield. It wasn’t for lack of work, but lack of guidance. It was there I learned my first scraps of sorcery – how to bleed a man from his pores, how to twist his bones so he looked like a dog when viewed in the right light. How to chase the small dragonflies when they came near, and the way their thoraxes crunched under your molars.”

He leaned closer, the hilt of his blade tipping to one side, coming to rest against his thigh. “Do you wonder, dear man, how you and I diverged so?”

The scribe shrugged. “The fae are what they are.”

The king waved it away. “A useless tautology. I assumed a man of words would know better. We diverged because we wished it so. Would you have the strength to survive in my world? A wildling even among wild things? I would have withered in your world. Survived, yes, but never lived. You make your own reality, scribe.”

“You’re suggesting I wanted to be… normal?”

The king shrugged. “I’m suggesting you survived. Whether you lived or not is of your own mind to make up.”

“Interesting.” The scribe took a breath and frowned at the words he’d written. Clearer, cleaner. The king’s words stuck with him. Had he lived? Would he have touched magic and brought it into his breast in lieu of meat or love? He shrugged, muscle playing with its own landscape, and put quill to parchment.

“How did you become king?”

“How does anyone become king? Deceit, divine right, and inbreeding.”

The scribe raised an eyebrow, giving the king a look that said perhaps you’ve shared too much. For his part, he had moved on, head tilted toward the sun, perhaps gauging the time, perhaps trying to remember something once important, but now relegated to insignificance in the face of time.

“We have little time left. You may ask me one more,” he said.

The look in his eyes was predatory, the glint of light in the pupils like that of a hawk ready to strike, anticipation a hooked talon. The scribe screwed up his face, chewed on the tip of the quill. It had to be good. Lachlan’s press would pay by the word for the account of the stranger who had laid waste to Renfen’s entire army.

The scribe looked around, at the bodies that had begun to bloat in the sun, fat toadstools of flesh putrefying, ready to spill their red and glistening spoor. His gorge rose, a thick tide of boiled oats and greasy sausage, and he choked it back, looking away. How does someone do this? He glanced again, just from the corner of his eye, the look of a man who has seen a dangerous thought, and wonders if he looks at it full, would it cut his mind? Would it hollow his thoughts and lay him out in the sun with all these others, gibbering, until the grave-diggers came and found him playing with himself in the blood-dewed grass?

His eyes flicked back to the king, to the perfectly coiffed hair, the perfect vest and leggings, the codpiece that exaggerated more than just words. The king quirked a smile at the scribe as he caught him looking, and the scribe blushed. How?

No, the voice in his head answered, that part that when looking over the words later, corrected the incorrect, no. Why?

“Why?” The scribe echoed the word, letting it tumble from his lips in place of the vomit, and the king smiled this time.

“Finally, the heart of the matter. The marrow of the bone. Why.” He sat back, and the blade slipped to the ground, unnoticed. “Because. Because I can.”

“Surely there’s more?”

“Does there have to be?”

“For a sane man, for a man who wants to make sense of the words written here, of the world he describe, yes.”

“Then write this: there was a girl. Or maybe a boy. A promise. A lie. There was a death, and vengeance. There was a love unrequited. There was a dragon, and a sorcerer, and a crone. There was a fairy and a goblin, one pure, one corrupt. There was a labyrinth and a child. There was a battle. A kingdom lost, and an empire found. I was a king. I am a king. And I will do what I gods. Damn. Well. Please.”

While he spoke, dread wormed its way into the scribe’s heart, moving deeper and deeper until it sat entrenched like a barbed arrow. His eyes darted to the goblin king’s blade, and as every dismissal dripped from his lips, he forgot to write, forgot to put down the truth he saw. These were the words of a tyrant. He leaned forward, the king seemingly forgetting him in his rant. His fingers trembled, his arm ached, and then, the sword was in his hand, the grip both cool and gritty with dried blood and sand.

He raised the blade, intending to stab it into the king’s heart, to end the coming horror. Words tumbled from his lips, a short squall in the blazing heat of the king’s conviction.

“You’re mad. Madder than any who came before. A coming terror.”

And then the king stood above him, hand outstretched, and he saw the truth. Reality is what you make it, and the king had made his own. No simple warrior stood before the scribe, but a being that encompassed all things and rejected his. Neither and both. Terrible and frightening, powerful and irresistible. The scribe trembled, and the tip of the blade faltered, dipped, dipped… and ended in the dirt. The king took the blade from him, not ungently. He knelt next to the scribe, whose eyes had filled with tears. He spoke soft, his voice honeyed mead in the scribe’s ears.

“You can call me mad, a terror. I suppose those are true things in a way. Mercy for those who need it may seem like madness from the outside to those who do not desire succor. But I have sat to the side for so, so many years while men ground others to dirt, while they subjugated others at a whim, for money, for the color of their skin, for the way they speak, or the things they worship. You have letters and fine food and the strength of conviction. You have absolute conviction that what you do in the now is right, and yet cannot see past the horizon.

And yes, I provide mercy. I feel the question trembling on your lips. I relieve you of your burdens, of your convictions. I bring you the clarity of freedom.

You can write this, then, if it eases your heart: I do this for love. Love drives us all, and even love led these men to this field. Love led you here, did it not?”

The scribe, turning the words over in his head, nodded in agreement. He loved few things as he loved words. It had led him down paths both bright and dim, from under his family’s sheltering arms, from the beds of others who would have him as his own. He wandered still, searching for a specific love, and in wandering, found it – a country where rivers of ink flowed across a vellum landscape.

He picked up the scribe’s quill and pressed it into his hand. “Love will make or break a man. Love may shatter hearts and mend souls. Love can raise a people up or cast them into the gutter. Nothing worth doing is worth doing without it. I do this because I love.”

He leaned in and kissed the scribe just behind the ear, his lips soft and warm, and his breath smelling of clover. Then he straightened and sauntered away, leaving the scribe alone. He listened to the buzz of flies on the dead, a symphony of one-string violins, and then crumpled the paper, tossing it to the side, where it came to rest in a pool of clotting blood, the parchment pulling in the red until it blossomed like carnations across the rumpled surface. He watched it bloom, and then pulled a new sheet from his case, dipped his quill, and wrote:

The goblin king sat atop an outcrop of stone perched on a hill, his heart full of love.

The Black Choir

Here’s a short that just never really found purchase with any magazine. It’s a dark fantasy piece about loss, family, hope, and what happens when that hope turns dark. Enjoy.

 

Qoth hated the sound the dead men made. He scuffled his feet in the dust and stone of the yard between buildings, the creak of the Wheel drowning out his meager noise. Frustrated, he sighed and looked up, the Wheel filling his vision. It was a massive contraption of solid oak boards, pegs running its circumference. Each of the pegs held a noose, though only one was occupied at the moment, and the boards underneath the nooses were stained deep brown and yellow, remains of the men condemned there. The man currently attached to a noose made thick gagging sounds as the Wheel turned, almost matching the pitch of the bearings that smoothed its motion. His feet kicked, the black hood billowing in and out over his mouth as he struggled to breathe.

Qoth shuddered, the sight still hard to see after so many years. He wondered which sadist cum mystic had first thought of the Wheel, the idea that dying men might, in their last desperate moments between life and death, gasp out visions from the other side. The Wheel turned another click, and the man in the noose sucked in a breath, then keened it out as his trachea was pinched, the sound like a fleshy teakettle. The boards beneath him took on a darker hue, the contents of his bowels spilling into his trousers and soaking through, and red-robed seers and the motley collection of peasants leaned in close.

This was it. This was the moment of prognostication. Or bullshite. The talkers that actually broke through on the Wheel tended to mutter incomprehensible trite, a fact that never bothered the seers as they carefully recorded each word and frenetically pored over every syllable afterwards – at least until the next poor cutter was hung. Qoth wasn’t sure what they intended to learn. The gods were mute, blind, and deaf as far as he was concerned. He knew. He had once been a priest, a man of Atiesh. At least until the pox caught his family in its black grip.

The square drew quiet and Qoth glanced at the Wheel. It had reached its apex and stopped, the man on it hanging at the noon position. A slight breeze stirred, rippling the hood over his head and then, a voice, creaking like branches in the wind, spoke.

Ashen hearts

Lost and black

Do not

Grow old

Family calls

From Winter’s halls

And swollen tongues”

The last came as a strangled whisper, hard to hear, and yet the words reached Qoth’s ears anyway. The fabric of the hood darkened as blood gouted from the cutter’s split throat. Qoth looked away even as the seers pressed in, urging their scribes to write faster. The peasants were already turning away, and Qoth joined them, heading in the general direction of the warden’s office. There, they would have a wagon and the body. There, the dead would be still, and his work could start.

*

Qoth watched a spider crawling in a corner of the room, rolling something wrapped in webbing ahead of itself. The spider rolled the ball up the wall and affixed it with a strap of web. That done, it crawled into the center of its web to wait. Qoth thought that was the envious life – eat, mate, and sleep. He wondered how things would be different if he had never met Irina, if they had never had Iliana. Would he have turned down a different path, been more like that spider, perhaps? Would he even now, be lounging in a sitte den? Would he maybe even be a predator, waiting in the alleys and warrens of the city for his next prey? He didn’t know. Because he was what he was. As he had been, because of Irina. Because of Atiesh.

The warden that approached him was short and thick, a tree stump of a man who wore the typical leather and steel of the wardens, a dagger at each hip, and a small crossbow on his back. He cleared his throat when Qoth didn’t look up right away.

“Body’s ready.”

“Thank you.” Qoth stood to go, heading toward the door in the back that would lead to the small yard and the wagon with the body.

The warden gave him a look, one eye squinted. “What do you do with ’em anyway?”

Qoth shrugged. “All things served Atiesh in their time. Perhaps they will serve his soul in the afterlife as well.”

“Better you than me.”

Despite the fracturing of his faith, Qoth knew that the proper application of a platitude, or the appearance of a man sweeping the steps of his temple kept most from questioning him, especially if he had kept that temple shuttered for some time. Some viewed him as eccentric, others necessary – handlers of the dead were rare in an age of superstition – even if everyone knew his faith had collapsed.

Qoth spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “I do what I must.”

The warden grunted, and handed Qoth a sliver of steel. It was meager payment, but it would do. Qoth slipped it into his vest and left the room as the warden busied himself at a small desk with a pile of parchment and a quill. Outside, the sun was still and hot overhead, and the yard here as dusty as it had been in the Wheel’s square. A small row of tarps lay against one side of the building in shadow, the bodies beneath waiting purification from the surgeon inside. Behind them, a wooden cart, handles long enough for a man to step between, stood with another piece of canvas covering it. Qoth approached and situated himself between the wooden poles, grasping one in each hand. With a grunt, he kicked off, and the wagon began to roll behind him. He maneuvered it into the street and down the hill, keeping to one side of the road. As he went, men and women avoided him. Death was commonplace in the city, but no one liked to be reminded of it. Heedless, he continued on.

*

His mind drifted. It was a bit of a trot to his temple, and between the weight of the cart and the sun overhead, he wanted only to occupy his thoughts with anything other than the heat and the labor.

“What do you desire?”

They were curled up in their bed, a great goose down mattress under them – a gift from the parishioners. Irina snuggled in next to him, her nose and lips against his neck, sending thrills through his chest. He shifted a bit, and looked at her, nestled in the crook of his arm.

“You.”

She smiled, and her hand traced the hair on his chest.

“And you, my succubus?”

She lowered her lids and the corners of her mouth curled up, mischief shining in her eyes. “This.” She rolled herself onto him and pushed off his chest until she was straddling him. He watched the muscles in her arms and belly, the inward pucker of her belly button. He grinned back at her and opened his mouth, thinking to quip at her. She leaned in, her hair falling around him like a curtain, and her lips found his. They were soft, and tasted of strawberry and wax. He closed his eyes, and-

“Watch it, you gobshite!”

Qoth blinked away the memory and stopped. A man was pacing away, gesturing, his fingers held up in a vee, muttering curses as he went.

“Forgive me, sir,” he muttered, then sighed, and continued on his way.

*

The body was starting to stink. The heat wasn’t helping things, but it wasn’t like winter, when you could pack the dead with ice and snow and dally for hours before the first signs of bloating appeared. Qoth stopped and walked to the back of the wagon, lifting the sheet that covered the man. He was an odd blue-yellow, the whites of his eyes shot to blood, his tongue protruding at an angle. Livid bruises surrounded his throat, and a rend in the flesh by the man’s voice box was puckered like overripe fruit that had burst. Qoth poked the naked skin of the man, and it took a moment for the dent to recover. Bloating had already set in. He’d have to hurry. He picked up the handles of the cart and began to move faster, trotting a little to set a quick pace. After a while, his mind drifted again, and he forgot the stink.

“I feel like a yak.”

“You look much better than a yak.”

Qoth curled his arm around Irina’s swollen belly and pulled her close, his lips finding her neck. She swatted him away, laughing, and stood.

“That’s how we got in this situation in the first place, you great horny goat.”

He chuckled and watched her as she tooled around the kitchen, chopping vegetables and setting a kettle over the fire.

“Will you do the meat?”

“Will you do the meat?” he asked.

She shot a look over her shoulder, and he joined her at the table, pulling a thick shank of beef from its paper, then a knife from the block. He set to work removing the fat and slicing it into thin strips for the stew. As they worked Irina began to hum. Qoth joined her.

“Miss Manner

So proper

Lift your skirt

But mind the copper

Mister Hammer

So randy

Drop your trousers

Mind your dandy”

They burst into laughter, and laughter became tears as they fed each other’s good humor. Qoth looked at his wife, smiling, her eyes wet, and his heart ached.

The shadow of the Spire fell over Qoth, and he stopped the cart for a moment, glad to be from under the sun’s thumb. He stood that way for a time, wiping sweat from his brow, letting his heart ache. Atiesh would have approved. Through grief, joy. Through joy, service.

He waited until he had his breath back, and tears no longer stung the corners of his eyes, and moved on.

*

He was close. Qoth had entered the warren where his little temple stood. Small homes and hovels stood side by side, often wall to wall, their graying stone and rough wood competing for every inch of space. Once, this had been the heart of the city. But as the city grew, the warren was left behind. As are all things, Qoth thought. He thought again of how Atiesh had abandoned him. How he had run, desperate and mad with fear, from temple to temple, begging anyone – any god – to help him, and how he had been met with silence. His faith and family had died that day. It took him a long time – a year, maybe more – it all blended in the end. Finally, he had taken up care for the dead. Someone had to do it. Someone had to let the families of the lost know their loss was not in vain.

He rounded a corner, and saw the chemist’s shop. Memory flooded in again.

“Please, I need wort for my family!”

“Seven shims.”

“I don’t – look, when your sister was ill, who brought her soup every day? Irina. You were at Iliana’s baptism – this is a community, for gods’ sake!”

The chemist looked at him. “Wort is expensive, preacher. I’ve got a family, too.”

“Then loan it to me – you know I’ll pay when alms come in!”

The chemist shook his head. “I cannot. Please go before I call the wardens.”

Qoth let out a strangled cry and turned, fleeing from the door. He ran the distance home. He’d left them alone too long. He burst into his home, but it was too late. His daughter – Iliana, who had only been two summers, who he had sang lullabies to when the moon was just growing in the sky – lay in her crib, still as a stone. Grief constricted his heart, and he managed to stagger to the bedroom he shared with Irina. He stopped in the doorway, a scream escaping his lips. Only flies moved in the room, her eyes frozen to the ceiling. He’d fallen then, on his knees, and begged for the gift of resurrection. For the ear of a god – any god – to numb him, to take him, too. No answer came. No quarter was given for the grief he felt.

In the end, he had decided if he could no longer do for the gods or the living, he would find solace in the dead. That was where his family was, that was where he should be, or at least he thought. Yet every time he held the knife to his breast, fear stayed his hand. So, he collected the dead. He studied each one. And he made use of them, for the day he would be brave enough to join his family.

Not this day. Maybe not the next. But one day, surely.

*

Qoth rounded another corner, and the temple was before him. It was a small thing, clapboard and brick, with a steepled roof and the symbol of Atiesh – an open hand – on the peak. He aimed the cart for the back of the temple. He’d kept the place because it was perfect for his work. Being a religious institution, it was somewhat secluded from the bustle of buildings shoving each other for room in the warren. It had ample room on either side, and a spacious cemetery in the back. He reached the fence surrounding the cemetary, and dragged the cart in, then shut the gate behind him. That done, he dropped the handles and made his footsore way into the rear of the temple, where his living quarters were.

It was simple inside, a small living area, a kitchen, and a bedroom. Behind the temple stood a small water closet. The church had a little money for luxuries, usually reserved for promising students, and before they had installed him as preacher here, they had enchanted a pipe above the sink. It brought him warm but clean water from the well, saving him some work pumping. He touched it and a stream started, trickling into the basin. Qoth ran his hands under the water, watching it come away muddy as the dust was stripped from his skin. Next, he splashed his face, washing away more of the silt and sweat that seemed to make up so much of the city.

He touched the pipe again and made his way to the living area. He sat on a small chair and looked around, listening to the buzz of flies and the drip of water. A slow throb in his feet signaled a sleepless night, but it would be that anyway. He had work to do. He stood again and took down his knife, a simple sturdy blade, made for this kind of work, and went to the yard. He uncovered the body, the smell strong, but not overpowering. Someone had forgotten to close the dead man’s eyes, and he stared to the heavens. Too bad there’s not much to see there, Qoth thought, and got to work.

*

He dragged the body into the chapel proper. Two hundred eyes stared at him. One hundred mouths hung open, their muscles slack. It was a side effect of the words he’d carved into their chests. Calach – speak. Menoch – see. It had taken him some time to gather the bodies, each a hanged man from the Wheel. This one he pulled to an open spot on the wall, beside Irina. Her eyes saw nothing, and her lips were still, yet he felt as if she’d approve. He hoisted the body and nailed it in place with a steady hammering – spikes through the wrists and ankles. When he was done, he sat back, sweating. The bodies formed an unbroken chain that covered the walls and ceiling of the chapel, a tapestry of flesh he had meticulously gathered.

It had been work, keeping the stink down. He’d had to use a small battalion of charms to keep the decay and stench to a minimum. There was nothing he could do about the flies, though. Qoth stepped back and surveyed his work. Each word carved on the dead connected to other words, but for one – Iliana. Qoth moved to her, and with shaking hands, raised the knife. He could hear her small laughter in his mind. He carved the final word. Yanoch – live.

Fire raced across the words, connecting each to each, until the room glowed with it. As one, the dead groaned, and a voice spoke. It filled Qoth’s ears, and its sweetness made his heart ache.

“My love. Bring them to me.” In a corner, a rat that had been gnawing at the toes of one of the dead men burst, a spray of gore painting the corpse’s ankles.

Qoth fell to his knees and wept.

*

The doors of the temple of Atiesh were unbarred. Qoth stood on the steps, passing out fliers, smiling and chatting with passer-bys as they went about their day. Curious, Tvent – chemist by trade – approached. Qoth pressed a flyer into his hand.

“Opening the temple again, Qoth?”

“Oh, aye, aye. Please come.”

“Found your faith again?”

“Never lost it, my good man. Now scurry along, and tell the others. The temple is taking new parishioners. You’ll want to hear this sermon.”

Tvent looked at the flyer in his hand and back to Qoth. The man’s excitement was palpable, and somewhat infectious. He walked away, and Qoth watched him go. When the flyers had been turned out to the last, he stepped into the temple, closing the door behind him. Candlelight glowed on a hundred bodies, and two hundred eyes watched as he approached Irina and stroked her cheek.

*

They came, one by one and two by two to the chapel. Families and friends, clutching the flyers he’d handed out, chattering of what it all meant. Inside, Qoth had hung tall white sheets he’d painted with scenes of family, portraits of Iliana and Irina. The congregation settled in the pews, and Qoth waited patiently for the last of the stragglers to arrive. Children darted between the rows and people chattered while passing around small cakes the local baker had made. It was a celebration, after all. A new leaf. A new life.

When they were all inside, Qoth closed the doors, and locked them. He carved a word into the chain of words around the jamb, closing the spell that would ensure nothing short of a giant’s axe could open them. He looked around, pleased. It seemed the entire warren had shown up. He took his time getting to the pulpit, stopping to greet Tvent – the man had brought his entire family – and the baker who had denied him bread more than once for fear his dough would be contaminated. Qoth smiled and shook their hands and asked after their businesses and extended family. Then he climbed the steps to the pulpit.

A low humming began in the room, and the congregation sat a little straighter, began to quiet. He took the rope in his hands that was tied to the sheets, and smiled beatifically.

“Welcome, friends. And goodbye.”

He pulled on the rope. The sheets fell. The screaming began. It did not end until the goddess he had made broke them all. When it was over, Qoth sat on the steps of the pulpit, the bodies stinking in their pews. A low humming filled the room, sweet to his ears. It was the lullaby Irina would sing to Iliana as dusk fell.

Here’s the moon

I’ll see you soon

In the land of dreams

Don’t you cry

I’ll be by

To see you in your dreams

So tell me that you love me

Love me so

And don’t you cry

I’ll be by

I’ll see you in your dreams

Qoth closed his eyes and listened, and for a moment, he saw the sun-dappled room and his wife and daughter, side by side in the big chair, their heads pressed together as she sang.

Kudzu in Silence

The barbarian tribes that fled from the icy northern corridors had named him when the first of the green things took their flesh and fed on it, verdant life thriving on carmine vitality. Krieg. It was a fitting name, brutish and short in their language, the glottal stop hard on throats burned with spore and bitter liquid from the trees they tapped for water. They sat around their camps and heard it in the buzz of flies in the soft decay of the greenery and other, wetter things. The vines that strangled their children in cribs fashioned from leaf and branch spelled it out in twisting sign. It was there in the sound of rain pounding the broad leaves of the canopy, KriegKriegKriegKrieg. He was the whisper and the shout, the choke and the crush. He was pervasive and insidious, and now, he was perplexed.

Behind the veil of flies, beneath a crown of wizened thorns, his brow wrinkled. He stared at the child in confusion. She was small, curly hair spiraling out from her scalp in a whirlwind, her gaze fierce. For all her size, she held herself as someone not to trifle with. She leaned back on the mat of vines she had co-opted, shooing the scuttering and slithering things away.

“Who are you?” he asked, his voice like the sound of kudzu in silence.

He had no recollection of her entering, none of her sitting. She simply seemed to be, and it was disconcerting, even for a thing like himself. She tilted her head to one side and tipped the end of the staff she held toward him. For a moment, she looked older than her few years, though he dismissed it as a trick of the light, chiaroscuro deepening lines and shading flesh until she looked a woman.

“Your end.” It was a statement, said plain and clear in the dark of that place, and not for a moment did Krieg believe it. This was flesh, pink and soft and warm. His was the cold of the night, the dark of the cave, the heat of venom. He relaxed into his throne, the black wood creaking under his weight, and smiled behind his veil. He would entertain her. It had been so long since anyone had visited. So long since the last of the beasts had bent the knee at his foot, since the green had consumed his thought and action. He thought maybe he would entertain this small pink thing, and in return, perhaps she would entertain him. He let her words hang in the air, and when he didn’t reply, she went on.

“Would you like to hear a story, Eater?”

He flinched at the name. Though he held no love for the fleshlings that had found their way to his jungle, their hatred still stung. Eater was their way of deriding him, of reducing him to a maw that only consumed. Mindless, small. He swallowed the rage that boiled up and raised a magnanimous hand in assent. The girl settled herself into the vines, thrusting her staff into the ground beside her. She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, and spoke.

“My family was the last to come over the shelf- the place where the ice meets the warmer places of the world. We were five – mother, father, sister, brother, and myself. At my birth, the ice was close, but not too close. It hovered on the edge of our village, but there was still room for us to move, to get to the caribou and rabbit and fill our larders. That year, the ice had moved a few feet closer, but it seemed a warm summer. My parents named me Elysh, ‘hope’ in the language of our people. There’s a unique cruelty in that – naming a child something that means nothing in a broken world. The ice claimed my brother that winter. He was out tracking rabbits. He didn’t come back.”

A spark of envy lit in Krieg’s chest. Death was his demesne. The right to pluck life, pink and squalling from the green and crush it. A question formed on his lips.

“Who is your god?”

She paused. “Was. Rhyn, the White. The Cold Knife.”

“Was?”

“Even the ice took him, in time.”

Satisfaction rose in Krieg’s chest, replacing the envy. Hubris was unfortunate, but necessary to survival for those who knew its signs. It was an abject lesson in the ways of men and gods—become comfortable, become complacent, and you soon found that power turning inward, eating, chewing at bone and sinew until it reached your heart and stopped it cold. He would do neither. These pink things, these scaled and green things, obeyed. They feared. They trembled on the cold fringes of night. As they should. He raised his hand again, indicating she should go on.

“When we saw the fringes of the jungle, we rejoiced. Here was shelter from the dead brown lands between the shelf and the sea. Here was life, abundant. Here was survival and warmth,” she spat, and Krieg tasted it through the vines. Salty, thick. He wondered if she would be enough to feed his vines when she finished.

“And what did you find, little one?”

“More death. Our father was next. He climbed a tree to pull at the gourds there—great yellow things with thick shells – we suspected they contained perhaps meat or water. Instead, a thousand stinging bodies emerged, piercing his flesh. He screamed as he fell, his body swelling with their venom, his eyes mercifully shut to the horror of impact.”

“My mother wept for four days, and in that time, my sister wandered to the edge of our camp. Something cold and slithering, something black of scale and sharp of tooth took her. She never screamed. After, my mother took her own life, cutting her own throat with a sharpened piece of flint.”

Krieg snorted. “This is less a story, and more a recounting of your unfortunate genealogy.”

It was Elysh’s turn to hold up a hand. “You wish to hear a story, or prattle on like an old man?”

The girl’s bravado impressed him. He thought it interesting to see someone so small embrace what would surely be a tragic legacy. “And how did you survive?”

“There is another story you must hear to understand mine.”

Layers on layers, like a wasp’s nest—despite himself, Krieg leaned forward in his chair, and even the black flies that swarmed and buzzed for his veil stilled while he listened.

“In my homeland, they tell the tale of Huska. When he was perhaps no older than myself, he joined a ship’s crew hoping to learn the sea, of feeding his family, and making some coin. He was young, but strong, and in his own way, clever. So, he found a home on a small vessel and set out among the fjords.

“It was three days they were at sea when the first of storms hit. Though the captain was good, he was also greedy, and hoped to fill his pockets before the frost came that season. The snow and wind blew in great gales, and ice seized the hull in a matter of hours, like the fist of Rhyn punishing a heretic. For a time, spirits were even—they had provisions and whale oil for a week. Everyone agreed to cut rations, to light the lanterns only when needed. For a time, they were fine, if cold.”

“They were there for four. The depredations that happened in that third week—Huska would not speak of them, but when the boat returned, he was at the helm, and a mass of burned bones lay in the ship’s furnace. He was hale and hearty.”

Krieg was enraptured. “What happened?”

“I heard my father ask him, when he was well into his cups. Huska looked up from his drink and shrugged. ‘Meat is meat,’ he said.”

Krieg looked at the girl, at her pink skin and full limbs. At her sharp eyes and white teeth. His hand trembled a little. This he understood, eating, devouring—but not family.

“Why are you here?” the question nearly rose to a shriek.

She tipped her staff again, and this time, he heard the slosh of liquid. He turned his gaze on it and noticed a gourd attached to the top, liquid spilling clear. It tasted oily to his vines, wicked and sharp. He willed them into action, but they lay still, perhaps in fear, perhaps poisoned.

“To end you,” she replied, again as matter-of-fact as stating that the sun was hot, or the wind chill.

She tipped her staff again, and he saw it was bone lashed to bone, long femurs held together with vine. Liquid poured from the gourd—a wasp home, he thought—and brought the sharp smell again.

“There are no whales here.”

Her statement took him off guard.

“You might ask why they didn’t use the lanterns to melt the ice. Whale blubber doesn’t burn that hot. It would have been a waste.”

She tipped the staff again.

“But this—what a gift. Something the wasps leave behind when they abandon the nest.”

She lay the staff down and the last of the liquid dripped and pooled at her feet. From her tunic she withdrew two stones and knelt. She struck them together, bringing a spark and the acrid smell of smoke. She looked up at him, and horror filled his heart. He struggled to escape his throne, but vines grown long and strong and old in his complacency held him in place. He fought, commanding them to free him, but they only slept. She struck the stones again, and a flame blossomed, and he gibbered. It was so bright. So hot.

As the flame touched them, the vines withered and smoked, and fire crept along their length, reaching blazing fingers toward his crown. He screamed and screamed again. Through the flames, he saw the girl, flesh melting like tallow from her bones, grinning.

[img: Jason Scheier]

Red in Thought and Deed

For those of you who follow the blog, I’ve collected a good bit of my short stories and novellas (35) from here in a new book, now available on Kindle and in paperback. It’s on Amazon now, and you can get it here. So, if you like stories about forgotten goddesses, WWI horror, dark fantasy, and a little comedy, among others, feel free to pick it up.

Mercenary

This is the pilot for my Fiction Vortex series, Kharn. Thought I’d share it here, and get some eyes on it. We’re currently building a stable of authors, and a story bible is in the works. More to come.

Mercenary

“The gods are dead, Trapper.  Ain’t naught left but devils with the faces of men.”

Bharga stirred the embers of the fire with a long stick, the end charred and chipped to a point.  Sparks swirled up into the night, and Trapper followed their ascent, burning fireflies swirling in the dark.  He watched them mix with the stars, and wondered if it were true.  If the heavens were littered with the corpses of immortals.

Bharga poked him with the stick, the heat of the tip pulling Trapper from his thoughts.

“Check the wards.” Bharga said.

For the fourth or fifth time that night, he checked the wards around the fire.  The last thing they needed was imps in the campsite.  They looked intact.  He’d etched them on stone with the tip of his dagger.  It would take some time for them to erode.  The gods may have been dead, but the gods-damned devils weren’t.

Their mounts, great beasts with the bodies of wolves and bone-covered heads, snorted in the chill air.  Bharga tossed bones to them, pieces of the rabbits they’d snared earlier.  The beasts snatched them up, growling low in their chests while they snapped the bones, the blue fire in their eyes flashing.  Trapper listened to them eat and thought the cost of the barghests was well worth the protection they offered.

“Get some rest.”  Bharga said.

Trapper crawled into his bedroll and set his blade close to hand.  He listened for a moment while Bharga rolled into his own bedding and made himself comfortable.  After a few minutes, the big man was snoring.  Before long, the excited panting of the barghests quieted to a steady drone of breath, and Trapper knew he was the only one still aware in the dark.  He rolled onto his back and slipped his hands behind his head, staring up at the stars.  His gaze fell on the black tear in the sky, a void where no stars shone.  He wondered again about the gods.

***

The job had come to them through a friend of a friend.  Not that Trapper would call Kips a friend.  He was more like blood lichen – sure, he’d latch on to you and keep the annoyances away, but there were times when he couldn’t figure the difference between a bug and the hand that fed him.  Which explained the roadmap of scars on the man’s face.  Trapper knew from experience that Bharga had even put a couple of them there for him.  At the thought, his own itched, and he resisted the urge to scratch until the feeling had passed.

Kips had come to them with a letter, sealed in wax – that alone meant money – and a simpering expression.

“Hey, boys. Got a job.”

Bharga waved a hand.  “Bullshite. You’ve got naught but an itch to take more of my coin.”

“You’re not still sore over the Harenbull job, are you, Bharga?”  Kips wheedled.

Bharga just grunted.  Kips looked at him, then back to Trapper, and thrust the parchment into his hand.

“Big payday.” he said, a little lower.  “Plenty of coin to go around.”

Trapper cracked the seal and opened the letter.  Bits of wax fell to the floor like dead petals.  Trapper shook the remains off the paper and read.  After a moment, he walked it over to Bharga, and held it up.

“Good pay.” he said.

Bharga raised another hand, this time in a buzz off pest gesture.  Trapper knew he couldn’t read, but if the other man thought Trapper was treating him like he was stupid, he’d have bigger problems than just an annoyed Capo.  He took another tack.

“Someone wants us to get Greelo.”

Bharga slammed a hand down on the table.  “Fuck Greelo. Been looking for that little gobshite for months.  Do they know where he is?”

“In the wood.”

Bharga looked up, a suspicious expression on his face.  “Who knows this?  Who’s paying?”

Trapper looked at the letter.  “Viscount Grawl.”

Bharga appeared to chew the information over.  “How much?”

“40 crowns.”

Bharga snorted.  “I’d do it for 5.  We’ll leave tomorrow.”

“Finder’s fee?”  Kips asked in a small voice.

Trapper hushed him and ushered him over the threshold.  “I’ll see what I can do.  Just don’t push him any harder, or he’ll feed you to the hounds.”

Kips nodded and thanked Trapper, who shut the door in his face before it could get embarrassing.  He walked over to Bharga, the parchment still in his hands.  After a moment, he fed it into the hearth.  The paper crackled and blackened, the edges turning in.  Trapper could see the imps playing in the flames, and ran a hand over the stones of the fireplace.  He turned to Bharga.

“We’ll start tonight.”  The big man said.  “I don’t trust the little weasel to try to beat us to the punch.”

***

They found mounts just outside the city circle.  The merchant had set up shop just outside the walls, using an abandoned stables that had been left over from fair tournaments and better days.  Bharga haggled with the man over the cost of the barghests, but in the end had paid three-fourths of the price just to have something reliable to ride.  They would have preferred horses, but the last had been lost a generation ago.

They swept out of the inner walls and through the main causeway, past throngs of dirty refugees and what appeared to be a former cleric.  The cleric was holding a painted sign on a pole that read ALL ARE DEAD ALL IS LOST.  Trapper caught the man’s eyes as they passed, hollow and haunted, and then they were out of the gates and onto the plain.

The plain was sere and stony, the few crops the people had managed to plant into the inhospitable earth straggling up on brown stalks.  Fog gathered in hollows, and here and there a small creature scuttled by, its movements furtive.  To their left, what had once been a mighty river was little more than a muddy stream that fed into the sea.  Ahead, the plain opened up, and was bracketed by strands of woods.

They turned their mounts towards the woods, the barghests loping easily over the stony soil.  As the sun sank, they could hear the occasional howl of some hungry beast, but let it worry their minds little.  Barghests were swift, and fierce fighters when cornered.  The wind picked up, sweeping the howls away, and they hunkered down in their saddles and rode on.

***

They halted at the edge of the wood.  Trapper dismounted and ran a hand over the trunk of the nearest tree.  Overhead, the bare branches clattered together.  Someone had carved wards in the wood of the trunk.  He looked to the next tree, and the next.  It was the same on both sides of the path, deep into the wood.  There was something in the forest, and someone wanted to keep the road safe.

They remounted and entered, the path wide enough for them to ride side by side.  The barghests moved slower here, cautiously, as though they could smell whatever was waiting ahead.  They rode in silence for some time.

Bharga broke the silence.  “Should bring back an ear or somethin’.  The high and mighty aint gonna believe a couple of cutters if we just show and say we did it.”

Trapper just nodded.  Something was moving just at the edge of his sight, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to see it.  He made a motion at Bharga.

“You see that?”

Bharga swiveled his head to the side, just enough to see what Trapper thought he did.  His eyes widened a bit.

“Forest daemon.” he whispered.

Trapper turned his head as well.  He saw it then, something mossy and hulking, with glowing green eyes and great antlers on its head.  It shambled along beside them in complete silence, the smell of rotting vegetation following it.  Their mounts didn’t react at all, a fact that unnerved Trapper.  They either knew what it was, or hadn’t noticed it.  Worse, they knew it, and were related somehow.  Barghests were forest and plain natives, after all.

They halted in the middle of the trail for a moment.  Trapper turned to Bharga.  “Do we turn back?”

Bharga looked up the trail, then down.  Up ahead, they could see a sqaut building between the trees.  It was weathered and worn, with moss and lichen growing in patches on the roof, and crooked windows.  He glanced over at Trapper.

“You think Greelo’s got himself wards up there?”

“Aye, probably.”

“What if he didn’t?”

Trapper thought about that.  A gap in the wards would mean the shambler could get in.  It might just do the work for them, and when it was done and gone, they could clean up after.  He drew his dagger, the small blade reassuring in his hand.

“Let’s get to work.”

They rode to the cabin cautiously.  When no shout of warning came, and no arrow tried to decorate their chests, they dismounted as quietly as possible and set to work cutting the sections of tree out where the wards had been carved.  It was hard work, since the runes had been etched deep, and the whole time they hacked away at the wood, the shambler watched from the perimeter, lurking, its eyes glowing that baleful green.

After an hour, they had a swath of the wards cut out.  They moved back to the barghests and waited.  The shambler approached the trees slowly, as though unsure.  As it drew closer, it seemed to sense the magic protecting that place was diminished, and suddenly charged through the gap.

It slammed into the cabin, shaking the building on its foundation.  From inside came a frightened shriek.  It slammed again, and the cabin trembled again, like a scared child.  There was the sound of breaking glass, and an arrow sailed from one of the windows, lodging in the shambler’s shoulder.  It roared and reared back, then hit the cabin one more time.  The wall collapsed in a cloud of dust.

For a moment, there was silence, then the thin form of Greelo emerged, clutching a longbow.  He sighted the beast, and then Bharga and Trapper.  Fury contorted his features, and he charged at them.

“Shite.” Bharga muttered.  Then, “Mount up,” as he saw that the shambler had given chase to Greelo.

They mounted as fast as they could, and before long, were charging along the forest floor, yards ahead of Greelo and the monster.  They spurred the barghests, and heard Greelo scream curses that changed into an ungodly shriek.  Trapper risked a glance over his shoulder, and saw the shambler had caught up to Greelo.  The little man was now impaled and writhing on one antler, and still the beast came.

Ahead, the trail ended, widening out into the plain again, and they put on a final burst of speed to escape the trees.  Behind them, the shambler roared in frustration as it came to the end of its domain, the sound drowning out Greelo’s whimpers of agony.  They rode a few hundred meters past the entrance to be safe, then stopped and turned.  The shambler watched them for another minute with its balefire eyes, as though memorizing them.  Then it turned, and in a few seconds, had disappeared back into the forest.

“Shite!”  Bharga cursed.  “Fuckin’ Viscount aint gonna believe this.”

Trapper nodded.  He looked up at the sky, which was a deep purple.  Stars were starting to dot the firmament.

“C’mon.”  He said.  “Let’s camp here.  Maybe we can go back in the morning.”

“Fine.”

They made camp.

***

     Memory lifted from him, and Trapper looked over at the fire.  Bharga was still dead asleep, and the embers had burnt down to almost a flicker.  He took  a breath and carefully slipped from his bedroll, slipping his dagger from its sheath.  He inched to the fire, and with a good deal of care, pulled one of the wardstones from its edge.  The flames rekindled for a moment, as if acknowledging what he was doing.

He pricked his finger and let it drop into the fire, and there was another flare.  Bharga snorted and muttered in his sleep, then rolled over, his back to Trapper.  Trapper crept over, and thought of the words on the parchment Kips had handed him.  He acted quick, his blade slipping deep into Bharga’s back.  He wrenched on it and spun it in a circle, cutting a hole in the now dead man.  He reached inside and pulled out Bharga’s heart, holding it for a moment, still fresh.  He was surprised.  He thought it would be blacker.

He dropped the heart in the fire, and the barghests growled, the scent of cooking meat exciting their senses.  It did blacken, then, and when it was fully charred, Trapper pulled it from the fire, the hot flesh searing his hand.  He shoved it back into the hole he had made in Bharga’s back, then sat and waited.

After a time, the big man rolled over and sat up, his eyes blazing orange and red and yellow.  He smiled, and it was fiery.

“Yes.” he said.

Bharga was right.  The gods may have been dead, but there were sure as hell devils left, and they paid well.

Houses of the Holy

Kant sat on the steps of the House of the Faceless, the thing in his gut echoing his discomfort. He’d been waiting for three turns already, and the Kith was getting restless. He reminded it there wouldn’t be food unless he was paid, and he wasn’t getting paid until the shitting disciples finished their ritual. For what felt like the fortieth time that day, he shifted his weight and cursed his god, Salazine, and the disciples’ god as well. If he’d never trusted that death freak Damodred, he’s never have found himself in this position, and if he’d never trusted his god, he’d probably be a few scales poorer, but without the demon in his viscera and a constant deadline.

That was the problem with faith, he reckoned. Whole bunch of idiots running around for the sake of what – eternal life? Eternal reward? Power over their enemies? And the shitting deities couldn’t even be bothered to climb off their gilded thrones and throw their lackeys a bone. That was one advantage to Salazine. He helped those who helped themselves. Usually that help was in the form of a sturdy lockpick, or a sharp blade, but you took what you could, which was the first tenet and rule of the Golden Hand. What you couldn’t take probably wasn’t worth it anyway. Or too heavy to carry. There was little distinction between the two for Kant.

But these Deathless, the disciples of the Warden – Kant would rather lop off both pinkies and jam them up his own ass than work with them. Which is why he’d been royally pissed when Damodred had drugged his cup after a couple of rounds of ale, and Kant had woke with a blinding headache, six inches of Kith writhing in his intestines, and an urge to cut the face off the man who had put it there. Turns out they needed a favor. And rather than ask, like a normal and upstanding citizen, or better yet, pay good goddamn gold, they kidnapped the first cutter they saw and shit down his throat.

The Kith writhed again, and Kant cursed.

“For the love of fucking Lakrmos, I’d shit you if I could keep my insides inside.”

In response, the Kith tightened, and a sharp pain shot through Kant’s stomach. He groaned and spat a bloody clot onto the walkway. He hated the demon. It was a timebomb in his stomach, a way of keeping him in line. If Damodred said boo, the thing would rip its way out his body in any number of unpleasant and undoubtedly messy ways. There was an advantage though. The Kith bonded with a host’s system, and in return for nutrients (and it liked its nutrients – Kant ate twice as much as he’d used to now), it shat out compounds that increased reflexes and senses. That made it less than the horrid burden it could be, but you’d never catch Kant mentioning anything of the sort. As far as he was outwardly concerned, the sooner he could squat the thing into the nearest sewer, the better.

He turned his head and stared at the door to the House. It remained stubbornly closed, and he sighed, then checked the sun. Four turns now. He checked his memory, and tried to think of where they were in the ritual. He knew it by heart – he’d read the text Damodred had sent over before the last job.

On the fourth turn of midday, after the rituals of mortification and purity, a silver spike of not less than a handbreadth shall be passed through the heart. Then shall the Deathless carve the Sigils of Naming on the lips of the anointed, and the Sigils of Sight upon the eyes, and invoke the Name of the Warden, He Who is Everlasting. Should the anointed then rise as Avatar, the Deathless shall prostrate themselves and seek his blessing, which is life everlasting, and the death of death.

It sounded like horseshit to Kant, but no one had complained so far about the wasters he picked off the street, or the screams that came from the House this time of day. He suspected half of that was because the city at large was afraid of the Deathless, and the other half too involved in their own troubles to worry. Still, if he’d had his druthers, he wouldn’t have picked this for a job, money or no, demon or no. Something was wrong with these people.

As if on cue, the screaming began. High and sharp, it rippled through the air like a sail on the wind, and despite hearing it several times now, sent gooseflesh up Kant’s arms. It wavered as it peaked, like a diva in an aria, then curdled one more time before breaking off in sudden silence. Kant looked around to see if anyone had stopped to listen, but the truth was, very few trod the avenue the House of the Faceless stood on. Instead, the cherry trees and the chestnuts stood on their own against the blue of the sky, ignorant and mute to the sudden suffering. Somewhere deeper in the plaza, a bird called to its mate.

Kant blew out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, and leaned back against the steps. A moment later, the door to the House opened, and Damodred’s shadow fell over him. He dropped a pouch beside Kant that clinked as it hit the stone.

“Another. Midnight. Same day next week. Make it clean.”

Kant picked up the pouch. It jingled merrily.

“Yes, master.”

He stood and walked away, not bothering to look at Damodred. He knew the other man would be wearing a frown. Kant didn’t know all the gifts the Warden might bestow on His disciples, but he hoped to gods the other man could hear him think, kiss my puckered arsehole. For once, the Kith didn’t punish him at the insubordination. Maybe it liked him after all.

*

Kant shoveled in the fried potatoes and sausage – it wasn’t steak and eggs, but it was cheap, and you could get a lot of it – and felt the Kith hum in pleasure. He washed the gob of food down with a swig of watered ale – the shitholes he was used to eating in didn’t really believe in serving it any other way for less than a full silver, and he wasn’t about to give up that kind of money just yet. He was doing his best to keep thoughts of his next deadline out of his head, but they insisted on creeping back in.

He needed to figure out how to end this. Maybe he needed a higher class of victim, the wasters and cripples he pulled off the street obviously not making the cut. Maybe the god of death was picky, like a man who has a choice between sausage and potatoes and shit, he picks the shit because he doesn’t like potatoes. It seemed an odd choice for a deity, but no one could really say why they made the choices they did. Ineffable and unknowable and grand poobahs that they were.

The way Kant saw it, he had two choices: one, he could go for a normal citizen, and hope no one raised the watch before he got them back to the House, or he could go for someone even more fucked up, like a leper. He didn’t think anyone other than Gruch would miss them. His skin crawled at the idea of the leper path, and he wondered if even the Warden would take one. He decided to risk the second choice and hope he didn’t end up with an overzealous guard’s blade in his fucking neck.

He sopped up the last of the grease with a crust of bread and emptied the tankard, then pushed his plate back and belched. The Kith continued to send out contentment, and he sighed, agreeing with it for once. Kant spared a glance out the window, where the shadows were growing long and sensible men and women were starting to find doorways and inns to lodge in. He judged the last of the light to be a few turns off yet. He still had time to get to the nicer districts. Then, he would see what he could see, and maybe finally get Damodred off his fucking back. He stood and dropped a quarter scale on the table, then sauntered out.

*

Kant stood outside the buildings and clean streets of the White District, and frowned. He hated this place. Too clean, too well-lit, and too well-patrolled. The shits that lived here were high on their own farts, smug bastards who kept homes and wives and children like others kept dinnerware and paintings. They kept their buildings clean and their streets free of the things that reminded them the world wasn’t all dinner parties and shining silver. It made him wonder what things they hid in their closets and under their sheets when the dark came down.

Footsteps approached, and he sank into an alley, blending with the shadows like tears in rain. A figure passed, trim in leggings and a velvet coat, the feather in his hat bobbing. Kant swallowed his gorge and crept to the edge of the too-clean alley. He waited until the man passed, then slipped from the shadows, a short prayer to Salazine on his lips. The lamps hadn’t been lit yet, and light was fading from the day, so Kant went unseen in the man’s wake. He drew a  thin blade from its sheath. The edge glistened wetly in the dusk. The poison had cost him a pretty penny, but was guaranteed to paralyze its victim without rigor, a boon he desperately needed in these instances. It was better than delivering some feckless moron with his brains smashed out to the House. He didn’t think they’d pay well for that.

He sped his pace, creeping behind the dandy, the breeze carrying the man’s rosewater scent to him. Kant flicked a glance around, and seeing no one, reached out to nick his victim with the dagger. The blade caught the light, and something in the street – a missed piece of rubbish, or maybe an impossible crack in the impossibly perfect walk – tripped him. He pitched forward, clattering against the stones. His prey caught sight, and panicked, began to run, screaming for the guards at the top of his lungs.

Kant took a moment to curse Salazine, the Warden, and even the Kith before gatehring himself and pelting back toward the entrance to the district. Somewhere nearby, he heard the pounding of running feet added to the sound of his own, and cursed a fourth time the magistrate that funded the numerous guard stations in the district.

“For fuck’s sake,” he growled, “wake up and save my ass you useless worm.”

The Kith seemed to finally take notice, shaking off its food stupor. It shot a spiteful barb of pain up Kant’s guts to let him know it wasn’t impressed with the insubordination, but already it was fading as it released the compounds in its blood. Kant’s pace quickened and his breathing came easier. He sped along for a few seconds before the twang of a bowstring send him ducking to the side. Not fast enough, though. The bolt thudded into his shoulder, the only thing stopping it from ripping out the other side the thick leather of his jerkin. He reached back and yanked it free even as the Kith released painkillers into his blood. The screaming pain of the wound died to a dull ache, and Kant tossed the bolt to the side, still running.

The sound came again as he reached the tunnel out of the district, and he was slower this time, despite the chemicals in his blood. Blood loss and stiffening muscle conspired against him, and the bolt hit him hard, ripping into his ribs, striking something vital. The Kith let out a scream in his head, and Kant ran until he was out of the district, trailing blood the whole way. He ducked into the first warren of alleys he saw, zigging and zagging until he was deep in the maze. Panting, he leaned against a wall and ripped the bolt free. Part of him said it was stupid. Part of him said it was reckless. Part of him just wanted the damned thing out. Blood gouted, and he threw the bolt away, then listened.

No footsteps sounded between the buildings. No shouts and sounds of pursuit. It seemed justice only prevailed as long as purses were full. After a turn, Kant made his way from the alley, his hand pressed to the wound. Blood seeped free, and his step was staggered, but he managed to put one foot in front of the other, the cobbles passing under. He paused every now and then, pain and blood loss making him light-headed. He wondered if the Kith had been wounded as well. He didn’t know, and at this point, didn’t care. He needed help. He paused at a building, the brick deep brown in the dark, and pulled a dagger. The last thing he needed was for some opportunistic cutter to catch him out, wounded and alone. He gathered his strength and moved on.

Turns passed, though he wasn’t sure how many. He found himself thinking of the potatoes and sausage he’d had earlier, and wondered if they were leaking out. It would be a terrible thing, only renting food. He laughed, and tripped up a set of stairs. He looked up, and found himself at the foot of the House of the Faceless. Kant opened his mouth to call for help, but only a squeak issued from his lips. He took a breath, deeper, though it shot pain in his stomach, and his fucking head was starting to ache. Had they poisoned the bolts? He didn’t know. The door opened above him, warm light spilling out. A pair of strong hands lifted him, and he heard Damodred’s voice in his ear.

“Oh, Kant. Just in time.”

The Deathless pulled him into the House and shut the door. Through slit eyes, Kant could make out a wide room, open arches marking the cardinal points, and a vaulted ceiling. An altar, marked brown by dried blood, stood in the center of the room in a slight depression. Damodred carried him over and helped him lie down. The Deathless opened Kant’s jerkin and gestured to the wings of the room. Others appeared from the shadows, bearing bowls of water and clean cloths. Kant’s vision began to fade, Damodred’s  voice a susurration of sound. Then, he knew little else as the dark crowded in.

*

He woke, naked and cold on the slab. Damodred hovered over him, a small hammer in one hand and a silver spike in the other. It glittered cold and sharp in the light. Damodred smiled and placed the spike over Kant’s heart. From somewhere inside, the Kith hummed pleasantly.

The hammer came down.