Authors: William King
COPYRIGHT © WILLIAM King 2013
MORE E-BOOKS BY WILLIAM KING
THE KORMAK SAGA
THE TERRARCH CHRONICLES
If you would like to know when his next book will be released then please sign up for the mailing list. Your details will never be shared.
THE FAT MONK ran through the garbage-strewn alleys of Vermstadt, knowing that death was at his heels. Sweat soaked Frater Ambrose’s robes. His limbs were lead and his stomach was on fire. His dinner fought its way up his throat.
He cursed himself just to keep from weeping. Why had he given in so often to so many temptations of the flesh? Why had he broken his vows? He had sworn temperance and chastity and restraint in all things. Well, it looked as if the Holy Sun had finally got round to punishing him.
He stopped for a moment and heard his hunters’ steps echo through the alleys. The noise was barely audible over his laboured breathing and the drumbeat of his heart. He wiped his brow and looked around. The full moon gleamed out of the unseasonably clear autumn sky, giving just enough light for him to see there was no place he could hide in these alleys, unless he wanted to try and burrow deep into one of those midden heaps, to crawl like a worm through a mulch of rotting vegetables, old food, ashes and excrement.
He shook his head. If he thought it might work he would have done so, but large as the trash-heaps were, they were not big enough to hide his corpulent form. He would need to find another way. He fumbled for the leather-bound leaden bludgeon he always carried to protect himself when he walked through the Maze. He knew how to use it. The slum district was the sort of place that not even a monk was safe in. It was also where many of his agents dwelled.
Or they used to. He had not been able to make contact with any of them over the last few months. One by one, they had ceased to report. Shiera, the streetwalker, had been the latest to go. After she had not been seen at her patch for three nights Ambrose had begun to investigate. He found her lying on a slab in the city morgue with her throat slit, waiting for a pauper’s burning. It was not an uncommon fate for a woman in her profession in a city like Vermstadt but coming on top of the disappearance of his other spies it had made Ambrose suspicious.
His network had been in place for years. He had spent decades building it in secret. His agents were his eyes and ears in the city, reporting back scraps of rumour, alerting him to the latest intrigues of the great patrician families and the monastic brotherhoods. They kept him abreast of the schemes of the merchant houses so that he could report in turn to his distant master on Mount Aethelas about the events in Taurea’s wealthiest city-state. He did not think it was a coincidence that his people had started to vanish as the Prelate lay on his deathbed and the two greatest merchant clans in the kingdom, the Oldbergs and the Krugmans, were dragging the city to the verge of civil war.
And he strongly suspected that there was something far worse bubbling away beneath the surface. The disappearing corpses, the seemingly unkillable enforcer the Krugmans’ had somehow acquired, the stink of sorcery rising over the city every full moon, all of those things pointed to it. Now cats had started to vanish and the city’s rat population was multiplying and there were stories of monsters in the Maze. It had set more alarms ringing in Ambrose’s mind. A concerted effort was being made to silence his agents as some sorcerous plot came to a climax.
This morning it had seemed like a blessing when Manfred had finally got back into contact, claiming to have found out something of vast importance. A cunning man, Manfred, and a thief well acquainted with the city’s underworld and its secret wars. He had managed to go to ground and avoid the fate of the other agents, or so it had seemed. The message had called for a meeting at their usual spot in the Maze, a tavern called the Dog’s Head.
Ambrose had gone there, but Manfred had not shown up. A terrible suspicion had been born in the monk’s mind then. Manfred might not be coming. He might have broken under torture and written the note. Ambrose had noticed a group of hard-looking men eying him and decided to make his escape. He ducked out to the privy and somehow managed to get his bulk over the back wall and the chase had begun.
He offered up a prayer to the Holy Sun and began to move again. A horde of rats, disturbed by his movement, scurried out of the middens, their small eyes glittering hungrily. The sight of them brought back certain horrific suspicions that had been preying on Ambrose’s mind.
He kicked out, scattering the rodents but one of them nipped at his leg, burying tiny sharp teeth in his calf. He brought his legs together, crushing the beast and lumbered on. Up ahead a large man emerged from an alley mouth, a crossbow held in his hand. Ambrose lashed out with his weighted bludgeon, connecting with the man’s head, sending him reeling back into a puddle of piss and rain-water.
He picked up the crossbow. He had no training with such a thing but at close range, as a last resort, it might prove useful. He was willing to try anything that might help him escape. If he could just get out of the Maze, he might find a Watch Patrol. He might yet be able to get away. He was not too far from Cheap Street now. If he could just run a few hundred more strides . . .
He heard more whistles from up ahead. His pursuers had already cut off that route. He consulted with the map of the Maze he had carried in his head since his first visits here as a novice more than twenty years ago. He could backtrack and take a right turn, that would put him on Blood Vennel; from there he might be able to make his way back to the Silver Lamprey. Or he could just lie down and wait for them to find him. Given the state of his body, that was becoming an increasingly attractive option.
No. Don’t give up. He clutched the crossbow tight and forced himself to move. Something clattered down in the muck ahead of him, roofing slates most likely, dislodged by observers on the roof. It seemed that there were people up there keeping pace with him. His mind raced. There were too many people involved in this hunt for all but the most powerful factions in the city. The Oldbergs could afford it as could the Krugmans.
The Prelate could too but Ambrose already discounted that. With the old man on his deathbed, his followers were too busy intriguing against each other. There was the possibility that some new Shadow cult had arisen, like the one the Guardian Kormak had removed five years ago. That would account for the tales of evil magic and monsters in the city. He offered up another prayer, promising the Holy Sun that he would fast for a month, do penance for a year if only he could reach his cell again and send a ciphered report back to the Sacred Mountain.
He turned the corner and saw what waited for him and knew his prayers were not going to be answered. The thing was all he had feared and more. Tall as a man even as it leaned forward in an obscene slouch, its eyes glowed with a hellish light. Its huge jaw distended to reveal tusk-like fangs. It was a demon of the old darkness. A horde of rats scurried around its clawed feet, chittering worshipfully.
Ambrose raised the crossbow and fired. The bolt flickered through the air and, as if guided by his desperate prayers, struck the creature clear through the heart. It stood there for a moment. Its long clawed hand reached up and pulled the missile free, its barbed head tearing muscle and skin and cloth. Flesh sucked closed behind it, leaving no sign of any wound. The demon bared its teeth in what might have been a mocking smile as it cast the bolt to one side.
Frater Ambrose dropped the crossbow and raised his Elder Sign in a gesture of defiance and tried his last gambit. “I serve the Order of the Dawn,” he said. “If you kill me, I will be avenged.”
The demon gave a soft hissing sound that might have been mocking laughter. It moved slowly towards him, surrounded by its tide of vermin, confident that he could not escape. Frater Ambrose tried to force his legs to move but they simply gave way beneath him. He tried to mutter the words of the Solar Prayer but his tongue felt swollen in his mouth,
The demon loomed over him. A taloned claw rose. A shadow came between Ambrose and the light. He did not even have time to scream.
IN THE TWILIGHT Kormak led his horse through the streets of Vermstadt. The beast whinnied a tired protest and trudged on, cold breath emerging from its nostrils in a cloud. The tall, greying swordsman picked his way with care. Beneath the snow the cobbles were slick and he had not ridden across northern Taurea just to lose his mount to a broken ankle within the city’s massive walls.
He touched the pommel of his sword, still uncomfortable with having the dwarf-forged blade strapped to his waist rather than belted over his shoulder as was proper for a member of his order. The Grand Master wished his mission carried out in secret, so it could disavow him if things went wrong. He had his reasons for wanting Kormak to go unrecognised. The last time the Guardian had been in Vermstadt he had killed five powerful men and the repercussions of that deed might still catch up with him.
Kormak suspected that there would be more killing this time. Vermstadt was the sort of city where men bartered their souls to the powers of Shadow. For a place sacred to the Sun, it was a most unholy metropolis. Something of the darkness Saint Verma had supposedly banished during her stay among mortals seemed to have clung to it down the centuries.
The tall tenements loomed menacingly out of the gloom. Snow piled up around the buildings. Fat flakes continued to fall, the cold wind driving the gusts down from the slopes of the nearby Thunderpeak Mountains. Cloaked and cowled citizens made their way home in the gloaming. A man with a hopeful air offered a cold pie half-price. Kormak shook his head. He was hungry after his long journey but he wanted to save his appetite for a real meal at an inn.
The street was wide enough for two carts to pass if the drivers were careful. The alleys leading away from it were not nearly so rich-looking or so well lit. In their mouths slatternly women, well-wrapped against the cold stood beneath red lanterns, looking to do some business even on this chilly evening. Off to the south were the great rotting slums of the Maze, where families of beggars huddled ten to a room.
Beggars extended hands for copper coins in a half-hearted attempt to get money, more for the sake of the thing than because they really expected it. A lad of about eleven fell into step beside him, looked nervously over his shoulder and said, “Looking for a tavern, sir?”
Most of the inns Kormak could see were exactly what he would have expected so close to the city gates—overpriced traps for the weary traveller fresh off the road, or drinking dens for the drovers and carters who would pass through the nearby West Gate. He wanted somewhere a bit classier and he had fond memories of one place and one woman in particular. They were the only good memories he had of this accursed city. He still had dark dreams about his last visit.
“No,” Kormak said. “I know where I am going.”
“And where would that be, sir?” The boy glanced over his shoulder again and then up at Kormak. His face was thin and nervous. He played with something on his arm. It was a scarf dyed yellow.