Ignoring the storm lashing him, hunkered down beside a leering gargoyle, Nom pulled his hood lower then raised the crossbow and aimed steadily at the open window opposite.
A torrent surged down the centre of the alley below him, roaring and foaming like a caged beast. A pair of bearers huddled miserably beside a mahogany palanquin, its silk curtains sodden and limp. The palanquin stood beside a crimson gate, banded in steel and thick rivets. The wall running around the building rose high enough to obscure the first two floors; but not the third.
Tightening his grip on the stock, Nom sighted down the length of the crossbow. The bolt of forged black steel sat in the greased slot, the tip a wicked looking barb designed to wreak devastating damage on flesh if pulled out. He focused on the target.
The window stood wide open; the rain had made the humidity stifling. Shadows came together in the gloom, twining in a liquid display of naked flesh. Finally, the man tossed his companion onto her stomach and began thrusting brutishly; he threw his head back, and his mouth hung slack in rising ecstasy.
Thunder growled. The gargoyle's cold granite body throb with borrowed life. Nom counted to himself, a childhood reflex whenever the rainy season descended on the city.
One, two, three, four...a harsh crackle and the sharp, clean stink of ozone. The world vanished in a convulsion of light that sent shadows fleeing. Startled in mid-thrust, the man opened his eyes and saw Nom. Then he saw what Nom had aimed at him.
Eyelids flicking open, Nom's finger tightened on the trigger and he felt the butt slam into his shoulder as the steel string snapped forward. The bolt leaped the gap like a loosed raptor and punched through the man's open mouth and out the back of his head in a spray of blood and brains that painted crimson the back wall of the brothel's upper chamber. The corpse shuddered in a mockery of ecstasy, then toppled forward, a puppet with its strings cut.
Calmly, Nom wiped down the crossbow with an oiled cloth. Folding the lath along the stock, he tucked the weapon into a pocket stitched into his cloak. His grey eyes passed over the bearers huddled below, their misery compounded by the rising waters swirling around their feet. Grinning humourlessly, Nom patted the gargoyle's head, then turned and ghosted across the roof, his feet sure and nimble, chased by the echoes of the whore's rising shrieks.
Approaching his home Nom saw a roiling pillar of smoke. Ash sifted down, turning the air acrid. Shouts and cries carried to him. A crowd spilled into the street. Pushing through the knot of people, Nom saw a furiously burning building further up the street.
'Witchcraft!' cried a woman shrilly. Nom’s skin crawled and he rubbed at the itching cut on his cheekbone. He jostled to the front, ignoring oaths and scowls. Once there, he raised his hood against the cinders raining into the street.
He had chosen his home with care, buying it and the two either side with the money from the Marduk kill. The buildings on either side were empty, while the middle served as his home. He had gutted the second floor, bricked up the windows and soundproofed it with thick cork imported from Marsalis, allowing him to train in privacy. His sleeping quarters occupied the top floor. A hidden trapdoor set in the roof served as his main point of entry. A shop selling odds and ends, manned by a crippled war veteran blind in one eye, sat on the bottom floor. Nom didn’t think he’d be seeing the old man again.
And now his home was all ablaze with a fire that stank of sulphur and burnt with a greenish light that sent a wave of nausea through him.
'Devilry!' someone yelled. Others took up the word until the chanting roared along the length of the street. The heavy drizzle did nothing to dampen the blaze, which now licked the second floor. Bricks burst like grapeshot. A large chunk of timber and plaster fell away in a spiral of flames and smoke, landing in an explosion of cinders that sent onlookers fleeing for their lives. Nom saw a headless mannequin, pin-cushioned with knives, tumble into the street, and a hysteric murmur ran through the crowd.
Glad of the hood masking his face, Nom turned and headed away from his burning home. An itch between his shoulder blades developed, and he sensed someone watching him, someone who had set the fire and awaited his reaction. The destruction of his home was the bait in a trap designed exclusively for him.
'I'll be damned if I play their game,' he rasped, startling one of the watchers.
Another, larger crash, followed by screaming. Nom ignored it, intent on getting free of the surging, hysterical mob. Another wave of nausea jolted him and he felt a hot trickle run down his face. He dabbed at the shaving cut and wiped the blood on his sleeve. With teeth gritted, Nom sidled passed the Watch which had finally arrived, and disappeared into an alley.
The crackle of flames lingered as Nom travelled the Thief's Road.
Clambering across roofs, leaping over twisting alleys, his circuitous route took him to the docks. His loss didn’t anger him; years of killing had stripped the sentimentality out of him. Being the hunted spurred him on. Cornered, he knew only one response; to fight and fight and fight until those who crossed him paid in the coin killers valued above all else; blood. He would tear the city apart to find those at heart of the conspiracy against him and wrench out their hearts with his bare hands.
Nom finally reached the docks. The rank stink of tar and fish grew stronger on the afternoon breeze and he distantly heard the melancholy toll of the buoys in the harbour.
Slithering down a length of corroded spouting, Nom crossed a deserted street and entered an alley. Rats scuttled ahead of him, burrowing into rubbish heaps that stank with rot and worse. He ran his hand across the bricks until he counted to the forty-third. Pushing, the brick slid part way in. A click, then a section of bricks shifted open. Ducking through, Nom eased the door closed and patiently waited for his eyes to adjust to the gloom.
Crates half-filled the warehouse’s vast space. He listened carefully and heard nothing. Nom shook his head. Since the raising of the embargo against the Empire, trade had dwindled, but he hadn't realised things were this bad. He padded silently across the warehouse floor, dotted with puddles of water shimmering like quicksilver. His target lay in the far corner; an office at the top of a set of rickety stairs.
'Where's that fat bastard?' Nom murmured to himself. Feeling his natural paranoia pitching higher, he pulled out a long bladed dagger and raced silently up the stairs. At the top, he paused, then flattened against the wall. The door stood open an inch. He breathed in, then out. Feeling his pulse ease, Nom crashed through the door. Empty. The tang of recently spilled blood filled his nostrils. He growled in suppressed rage.
Gregor lay face down on his desk. Senses taut, Nom moved carefully towards the body. Blood dripped softly onto the floor. A cursory examination of the corpse proved it hadn’t been booby trapped.
'Everyone has enemies,’ he muttered to the body of his dead factor as he pawed through the bloody paperwork scattered across the desk. ‘Which one got to you first?'
Nom ransacked the room. The locks on two polished wooden cabinets snapped easily and he examined the contents. Invoices, contracts of sale, letters of marque; the legal façade over the rotten heart of a criminal enterprise. A letter stamped with the Imperial related a promise from the legate that the trade dispute was bound to end in everyone's mutual benefit. Snorting at the obvious lie, Nom returned to the desk.
Reaching inside his shirt, Nom pulled out a leather wallet. Unfolding it, he stared at the number of gleaming tools. Selecting a pair of needle thin probes, he set to work.
He ignored the drawers; their contents, like much else in Gregor’s life, were an elaborate ruse. Within minutes, Nom had uncovered seven hidden compartments; two were traps easily disarmed. He discarded several vials of drugs, pocketed a packet of gold coins and diamonds, before smiling thinly at a large wallet containing parchments of the highest quality screwed between two thin wooden panels hidden in one of the desk’s legs.
Exposed within those parchments lay the heart of Gregor's empire; the names the pimps, whores, drug dealers and slavers he employed across Pendark. Nom discarded these along with the floor plans of a dozen counting houses. Gregor’s interests no longer intersected with his own. But what were these?
'Aah,' Nom breathed in satisfaction.
Pinching it between thumb and index finger, Nom minutely examined the single parchment. Gregor only took verbal commissions on Nom’s behalf, but habit ensured he recorded the details for future use. Here, in crabbed handwriting, were the essentials of the contract Nom had fulfilled that morning. The target's name, his movements and regular haunts, which included the brothel he frequented. And the name of his favourite whore.
Nom recalled his conversation with Jadys. For a whore, she was comely, blonde hair piled in a sloppy imitation of the fashion at the Oligarch’s Court this year. She had pouted at his request to be allowed to watch her exchanges with her clients, but had quickly acceded when he jingled a purse in front of her.
‘All you need do is open the windows. Tell your clients you can't abide the heat. Once you drop your robes, they won’t care. And neither will I,' he had finished, smiling coldly and allowing his eye to rove over her.
'Someone’s hiding their tracks,’ he said. Reading further down the page, Nom's eyes widened. While Gregor had noted the initial contact had been private, he had written the name of the person he believed ordered the kill. Even to someone as hardened as Nom, the name stunned him. Standing by the corpse, he recalled something Gregor had said when they had last met.
'The council is divided over the legate's mission. The Imperial Court thinks of Pendark and its oligarchs as upstarts, to be played, then reeled in. Kastinac resists their blandishments and Karn backs him. Others like Mistress Ilsa play a different game. We dabble in deep waters, Nom. But not so deep as to be hazardous to ourselves. With Karn dead, the balance tilts towards Imperial appeasement and with that, the resumption of trade.' He had looked across at Nom with his piggish, penetrating eyes.
'The contract serves my purposes as much as it serves whoever wants it done. Will you do it?'
Now, looking down at Gregor, Nom leaned closer and whispered in his ear.
'I'm sorry it ended this way, old friend. We were good for one another. You’d agree, of course, that it is better you were dead than me.'
Folding away the parchment, Nom ghosted down the stairs. Moving through the gloom, he reached the far wall and manipulated the mechanism, exiting into the alley.
'Suspicions aren't enough. Questions need answering.' He fingered the dagger hilt, eying a rat nosing through a pile of stinking refuse. A wave of nausea burst through him and he retched once, then again. Spots dancing across his eyes as his stomach heaved. Once the convulsions eased, Nom spit to clear his mouth and throat. Wiping his mouth, his fingers touched the burning graze on his cheekbone. He shivered, and a single, terrible thought blossomed in him.
‘Poison,’ he said wonderingly. His blood burned on his fingertips. 'Run, damn you, run.'
‘Mistress Ilsa is in her rooms.' The maid's eyes were wide. Her thick, accented voice shook with fear. Nom tightened his grip on her thin wrists. A heady scent of spices and dried herbs filled the narrow pantry. Jars of preserved fruit jammed the shelves.
Nom glowered and the woman quailed.
‘Where?’ he grated.
Her lips quivered as she looked up at his scarred, implacable face. Tears tumbled down her face and she told him everything.
Nom felt no pity. His heart thudded; the slow crawl of poison burning dully through his veins. He’d cut open his arm on a branch skirting the edge of the garden, looking for a way into the villa. The wound still burned. Blood dripped from his clenched fist, pattering onto the floor. The poison stopped the cut from scabbing over.
The maid gabbled, and Nom built an image in his head of the villa’s floor plan. Silence followed, filling the narrow space. She looked up at him, cringing. Glancing coldly at her, Nom grabbed a handful of hair and cracked her head against the wall. Stuffing her under the bottom shelf, Nom passed cautiously through the kitchen and up the back stairs.
Pausing on a narrow landing, he looked through a window onto an expanse of manicured lawns. The three-storey villa sat well back from the road behind high walls and a screen of maples. A driveway of crushed rock led to the rear gates and the stables. The estate had an understated elegance that spoke of real wealth hidden in plain sight.
On the top floor, Nom hesitated at a junction of corridors, the honey coloured floorboards glowing in the afternoon light. He heard a commotion downstairs and raised voices echoed up the stairwell.
‘Damn,' he muttered through clenched teeth. A quick calculus of odds darted through his mind, then he purposefully started down the left hand corridor, intent on the door at the end.
Placing his ear against the warm wood, he heard muffled footsteps pause, then continue. Absently, Nom flexed his bloody fingers. Wiping his hand across his vest, he slipped out a pair of brass knuckle-dusters from a pocket. He felt no compunction about using them on a woman who had had him poisoned. Jerking the door open, he rushed inside.
The thick, heady scent of lotus perfume filled the room. Drawn curtains cast a deep gloom relieved only by flickering lamps that sent shadows dancing across the papered walls. A desk thick with papers, scrolls and books dominated the room. And behind it stood a tall, broad shouldered woman, garbed in a black dress of crackling raw silk.
Snarling, Nom fell on her. He grabbed one rough fingered hand and forced it sharply behind her back. Clamping his free hand over her mouth, he pushed her into a corner.
Pressed close, he felt her heart hammer through fabric and flesh. A terrified face turned to his, frightened eyes leaking tears. Her fear puzzled him. This woman who had hired him to kill Karn, who had ordered the destruction of his home, who had had Gregor killed. Then her eyes twitched to one side and his mind screamed a warning.
He spun the woman around and felt multiple blows strike her body, two high on the chest and one in the throat. Hurling the corpse aside, Nom drew his dagger in one fluid motion and flung himself at the attacker.
Nom’s momentum took him past his attacker in a rushing blur. He lashed out with his blade and felt the impact shiver up his arm. His attacker spun silently and launched a flurry of punches to his face and chest sending him tumbling backwards across the thick carpet.
Get up get up get up his mind howled. With a wrenching effort, he rolled to his feet, staggering with the effort. Shaking his head clear, Nom saw a shadow detach itself from the gloom. A compact figure in black, his masked attacker watched him with wary eyes.
Nom felt a fierce surge of joy. Dealing death from the shadows brought him only coin, never satisfaction. Testing his skills against an equal was rare. Blade to blade, killer against killer, he relished the challenge. He beckoned with his free hand. Eyes widening, the killer twitched his arms and a blade slipped into each hand. Saluting, he surged forward and Nom raced to meet him.
Blades flew together and apart in a web of steel as they feinted and attacked. Nom dipped to one side and aimed a cut at the killer’s knee, only to see him somersault forward and turn the motion into a backhanded slash. The blade raked Nom's side in a line of fire.
Staggering, Nom frantically batted aside one of the blades and trapped the other with his foot. Using the momentary advantage, Nom repeatedly hammered his knuckleduster wrapped fist into his attacker. Blow after blow rained down, sending his struggling foe reeling across the room.
Panting, Nom swayed, feeling blood trickling into his boot. Time stretched before him in a strange paralysis. His opponent crashed against the far wall, stunned. 'Finish it,' hissed a voice in his head. Straightening, Nom closed for the killing blow.
And was met with a lashing foot square in the chest which sent him hurtling backwards over the bed into the corner of the room. Struggling to his feet, Nom deflected a blade thrust into his face as his foe threw himself at him.
Muffled shouts and a furious pounding echoed around the room. The solid oak door shuddered, but held fast. The sound distracted the killer for the briefest of moments, allowing Nom an opening. He flung the knuckle-dusters across the room with deadly accuracy, striking the killer’s throat with a dull crunch.
Dropping a dagger, his foe clutched his throat, eyes wide in agony. Merciless, Nom lurched forward. His attacker grimly defended with his remaining weapon. But Nom would not be denied. His dagger battered the weakened defence, cutting and stabbing until his foe bled from a dozen wounds. A final blow knocked the dagger from numb fingers. Hammering a fist into the killer's face, Nom caught him by the throat and flung him against a wall.
The dazed man slid to the floor. Blood flowed from his mouth and his head flopped sideways. His eyes widened as Nom fell on him.
'Tell me why.' Nom’s face was inches away
The man laughed, spraying blood.
'Why? Power. With Ilsa at its head the Red Hand will rule Pendark.'
Nom felt his guts twist.
'You rave. The Inquisition gutted the Red Hand when I was a boy. I saw their leader crucified outside the Oligarch's House.'
'But what of the daughter?' The man laughed again then cried in pain when Nom pushed his thumb into a chest wound.
‘Ilsa rebuilt the Red Hand?’
'Yes. Disguised, she hid in the crowd and watched Karn crucify her father. Her bloody vow of vengeance is our oath, binding us to her. Her father dreamed of ruling Pendark. With the Red Hand, she will.’
Nom rocked back on his heels, stunned. A thought occurred to him. He tore open the man's shirt. His eyes widened at the tattoo of a red hand. The killer laughed.
'We are everywhere. Your house ablaze, the city in ferment. Karn was the first of the Oligarchs to fall. My mistress is clever, cleverer than you could dream. Karn’s paranoia meant she could not confront him openly. What better than to hire a dupe to kill him, then lure the killer to his death? And if that failed, well, you surely feel the fire in your veins? Soon, your blood will run from the very pores of your skin like an open spiggot.'
'The poison.' Nom's voice was flat.
'Aye, the poison. Blood Fire. I see the shaving cut has opened. And I warrant not the first time today. The precautions around your home were pathetic. It was but a trifle to slip in and smear the poison on your razor blade. For one so skilful, you are remarkably clumsy about your ablutions.' The killer barked a blood clotted laugh.
'For someone about to die, you're remarkably free with your bitch mistress's plans.'
'I live to serve. Whether I succeeded here or not, you die regardless.'
'With Karn dead, there will be an emergency session tonight.' Nom glanced quickly at a window, then looked at the killer, who cringed at the wintry smile that crept across his face.
'Poison or no, Ilsa won't be the only one to taste vengeance this day. I’ll have my own measure of it 'ere the night is out.'
The man laughed, a ghastly, bubbling sound. 'You would seek to best Mistress Ilsa, whose own father trained her in the red arts? She learned darker skills in the East. You won't see sunrise, fool.'
Nom leaned in and bared his teeth in a savage grin. 'And you won't see the sun set, dog.' He plunged his dagger into the killer's heart, twisting the blade all the way in.
Hunkered in an alley, Nom's gaze swept the square. Men of the Watch stood behind wooden barricades. Their armour gleamed in the light of scattered embrasures, the snapping fires casting dancing shadows. Shouting citizens surged against the barricades, kept back by blunted pikes wielded by cold-eyed Guardsmen. Behind them, steps led to the colonnaded portico of the Oligarch's House.
Nom considered his options, while pushing aside the acid pain pulsing through his veins. The square, the hysterical citizens, the purpling clouds shot through with gold as the sun set on a crimson harbour. The buildings, the entrances, the windows, the steps, the corridors all leading to the heart of the city, the Great Chamber. All these images clicked and clicked and clicked until he found a way in.
Beside him lay an unconscious Guardsman, his dented helmet lying by his side. A livid bruise over his temple and his loosened breaches told of Nom's surprise attack as he took a piss in the alley. Swiftly, Nom stripped the body, slipping on the breastplate and swinging the black cloak around his shoulders. Securing the helmet, he grabbed the pike and edged to the alley's mouth.
A line of men marched passed. Smoothly, Nom joined the rear and followed the men up the steps towards the main entrance.
While the line wheeled left, Nom headed for the entrance, slipping into the cool interior. Inside, a knot of men held their position on the smooth, marbled floors, while black clad clerks watched, eyes boggling at the armed presence. Nom passed through unmolested.
Poised at the bottom of more steps, Nom heard the crowd roar. Looking back, he saw a dozen dense pillars of green veined smoke dotting the city. Shouted orders floated from outside and the Watch braced against the charge. It shattered on the barricades, sending bodies reeling across the cobbles.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Nom entered the building proper. The corridors were dark, the black marble shot through with grey, like turbulent clouds racing against the wind. Shouts echoed down a wide, central corridor. Nom followed them to their source; the wide, high ceilinged Great Chamber.
The two guards at the main doors waved him through; Nom saw others lining the gallery at the rear of the chamber. Three semi-circular levels stepped down into the well where a long table sat, seven seats scattered along its length. A gallery overlooked the chamber, concealed by long black drapes. The fabric shifted in the languid, humid breeze blowing through several high windows.
Around the table, six figures were engaged in a heated debate. Nom's attention fell on two; a white haired man, his hawkish face staring angrily at a woman standing at the far end of the table. She possessed a cold beauty, marred by an arrogant hauteur. A sparkling green pendant hung between generous breasts.
Nom absorbed all this in a glance. He clicked the doors shut and slid his pike through the handles. Smoothly, he pulled the crossbow out of his cloak and released the lath, restrung it and slotted a bolt in one quick motion. He swung the crossbow into the face of a Guardsman who had started forward.
'No need for heroes, friend,' Nom grated, then coughed. He tasted blood. The guard blanched and fell back, and the arguing voices trailed away.
'No one touches the doors or I begin to thin the Council’s numbers.'
'Who the devil are you?' A fat man in black robes lurched around. Nom swung the crossbow at the councilor, who went white and abruptly sat down.
'The devil indeed,' the white haired man said, staring at Nom down the broad blade of his nose. There was no fear in his eyes, only a savage pity.
'My business is with her.' Nom aimed the crossbow at the woman, who smiled bleakly.
'A madman with a weapon. How...quaint.'
‘Come Ilsa,’ the old man said mockingly. 'Even you wouldn't be so arrogant as to anger a man armed with a crossbow.' The woman glowered, but kept silent.
Nom wiped blood from his lips. He saw how avidly the woman watched him.
'I'm Karn’s killer. She hired him me.' There was a murmur of shock. 'And I'm also the man she has killed.' The woman smiled and slowly clapped, the sound rolling around the chamber.
'Such theatre. A pity Karn isn’t here. Other than his whores, he loved nothing more than a good melodrama.’
'Be silent!’ roared Nom, and something tore in his chest. Momentarily, his vision greyed and when it cleared, he found a Guardsman almost on him. Nom hammered the crossbow’s butt into his face and the man slid bonelessly to the floor.
'I feel her poison surge with every beat of my heart. 'Ere I die, though, I'll have my vengeance.'
'He raves, Kastinac. We’re held to ransom by a syphilitic madman. A hundred guineas to the man who brings me his head.' There was no movement from the Watch. White haired Kastinac, whose eyes saw everything, chuckled.
'No takers today, Ilsa.' He turned to Nom.
‘Karn had few friends in Pendark. What makes Ilsa the likeliest to want him dead?’
Smiling, Nom pulled from his shirt what looked like a flap of parchment. He cast into the well, where it slapped wetly onto the table.
Even Kastinac quailed. A tatter of bloody skin, gobbets of fat and strings of muscle still attached, quivered before the council. Etched into it was a crimson hand. The colour throbbed in the flickering light.
‘The Red Hand,’ muttered a councillor, making a warding sign.
'Killing Karn was part of a larger scheme. His role in purging the Red Hand and forcing witchcraft underground has become a byword for depravity. Anyone with a grudge, say, a councillor with links to the Red Hand, would want him dead.’ Nom turned to Ilsa.
‘I was there when Karn hammered the first nail into your father.’
There was a moment of shocked silence then the councillors broke into shouting and denunciations.
‘Silence,’ Kastinac raged. ‘Are we Pendark's leaders or a parade of fools?’ Nom met Ilsa’s gaze, which had lit with a strange light.
'Pendark's citizens hated Karn, but rough men make soft citizens feel secure. His death shifts the balance of power in the Council. The fires across the city are Ilsa's doing. That spreads fear, undermines the Council. The evidence of that is currently rioting on your doorstep. Under Ilsa, Pendark will tilt to the Empire. And with her private army, the people will flock to her.'
'Army? What army?'
The drapes flapped loudly, though the breeze had fallen. Everyone saw the armed, black clad figures lining the upper gallery. Someone pounded on the barred doors. The pike splintered and men streamed into the chamber.
Ilsa's laughter echoed; the other councillors looked aghast at her. Kastinac, however, strode resolutely toward her. Nom heard Ilsa mutter several words. He felt a tugging at his mind, then her raised hand glowed. Her arm chopped down and Kastinac flew back, the slap echoing like a crack of thunder.
Unsteadily, Nom aimed the crossbow, but his vision blurred and when it cleared, Ilsa had vanished into the shadows. A queer, ululating chant began and a chill, green light spilled across the chamber. Nom risked a glance over his shoulder and saw the black clad figures climbing down the rear wall to engage the Watch.
Gritting his teeth against the pain raging through him, Nom staggered down the steps, following the sound of the rising chant. Ilsa emerged from the shadows, her face twisted into a demonic mask, eyes glowing with a weird, otherworldly power.
'My father was executed by Karn on the orders of this council. Murderers and torturers all! But before he died, he saw to it that I was spirited away to the East with a new identity. I was taught the dark arts needed to realise his dreams of power.’ Her hands clawed the air in front of her.
‘Father! That day is now!' Tearing away the pendant, she cast it at her feet. There was a sharp crack and the marble tiles shuddered in a rolling wave that scattered furniture and flung people to the ground. A green fire billowed from the shattered gem and swallowed her whole.
A terrible, black throbbing filled the air, and everyone in the chamber felt fear crawl through their veins. Ilsa's laughter spiralled around the chamber. Something huge and dark and stinking of sulphur unfurled behind her, casting a monstrous shadow that froze the blood. The throbbing increased, a nauseating pulse that set hearts skittering.
Reeling, Nom took one look at the vague shape coalescing above Ilsa and shifted his arm. His finger caressed the trigger and the silver-chased bolt streaked through the air like a comet, disappearing into the fire with a silent, argent flash.
A terrible moaning arose. Smoke pouring from her body, Ilsa fell shrieking out of the flames. The titan shadow dwindled and a terrible weight lifted from the minds of everyone in the chamber. Her waxen face glistening with sweat, Ilsa looked up, fury twisting her features.
'You,' she snarled, and drew a blade from her belt. 'You will die for this!'
Staggering to her feet, Ilsa tore away her robes, revealing a tight black uniform stitched in red.
'Come to me and die.'
'Gladly,' Nom roared. Shouldering aside a Watchman, he raced at her.
They fell on each other in a whirling chaos of steel. Nom ducked a slash then hammered a fist into her face, breaking her nose with a crack. Her dagger flicked out and carved a line along his jaw. He flicked the blood into her eyes then followed up with a series of punches and kicks that flung her over the table, scattering frightened councillors.
Scrambling to her feet, Ilsa came at him. The traded blows with hand and foot, blades flashing in the flickering light. Around them the Red Hand and the Watch tore at each other. Though outmatched in skill, the Watch fought doggedly, and soon their weight in numbers began to tell.
Eager to finish the fight and aid her men, Ilsa overreached and found her dagger locked with Nom's. He used his greater strength to wrench it from her grasp and fling it away. Wracked with pain, Nom stabbed awkwardly at her. Ilsa retaliated with a stiffened hand into a nerve, numbing his arm and forcing the dagger from his grasp. Desperate, he pulled her into a bear hug and squeezed.
Shrieking, Ilsa struck him with fists that fell like hammers blows. Nom felt his heart falter and his grip slacken. Cold fingers tightened remorselessly around his throat. The world dimmed.
'Death is my gift, my little cat’s-paw,' she shrieked. 'Death for all of Pendark.' With a desperate effort, Nom broke her grip and hauled himself forward. Mouth gaping wide he ripped and tore at her face. Choking on her blood, he fell into darkness accompanied by her screams of agony.
When Nom woke, he saw Kastinac leaning over him. The old man sat on a stool, robes gathered around him against the chill in the narrow cell. A faint scream echoed up the corridor and the Guardsman standing in the doorway twitched, then locked his gaze on Nom. Kastinac looked at the guard and waved him away.
'He's as weak as a kitten, Halder. Step outside for a moment, if you please.' Nom saw Halder's face harden, which drew an irritable look from Kastinac.
'If you please, Halder.' It wasn't a request. Reluctantly, Halder left.
‘You’ll forgive his enthusiasm. The responsibility for the Council's safety weighs heavily on him. He took Karn’s death personally.’ Kastinac patted Nom on the shoulder.
'Well, my boy, what’s it like being alive?'
Nom shifted in the cot, groaning at the wave of pain that broke over him.
'Maybe dead is better,’ he croaked, managing a bleak smile.
'Perhaps. From the vantage point of my advanced years, I doubt it.'
Nom warily watched Kastinac. There was a glint of mischief in the old man's eyes.
‘Karn's death was unfortunate, but not without precedent. In the end, his ruthlessness caught up with him. With him gone, and Ilsa out of the way, relations within the council and with the Empire should assume a more balanced aspect.' Kastinac sighed.
'But Pendark needs protection. The Red Hand was defeated, but many escaped. I have an offer. Join with us to hunt down those who would do ill to Pendark.' Nom lifted an eyebrow.
'How is it that I am still alive? My last memory is of...'
'You've ruined Ilsa's looks with those teeth of yours, my friend.’ Kastinac’s eyes lost their friendly gleam.
‘Despite Karn’s best efforts, some knowledge of magic was saved. This is why I know the only cure for Blood Fire is to pass back the poison to the person who created it.' Again, a wet, tearing scream echoed down the corridor, followed by what sounded like a splash. Kastinac gathered his robes and stood.
‘Enjoy Ilsa's last moments while you consider my offer.' His voice was as cold as iron. Nom looked him in the eye.
'One hundred guineas a day retainer and lodgings of my choice. Agreed?'
Ragged sobbing echoed around them.
'Agreed,' Kastinac said.
There was one last bubbling rasp, then silence.
© November, 2013 Robert Mammone
Robert Mammone is a banker by day and a writer or horror and fantasy by night. He has been writing since 1989. "In the Shadow of the Gibbet" appeared in the May 2013 issue of Swords & Sorcery.