Authors: William King
The hangings had caught fire and the air was full of smoke. Kormak raced up the stairs and into a corridor lined with doors. It was difficult to see with all the smoke. His eyes watered. He coughed. Something massive smashed into him from the side, coming through an open doorway. The dwarf-forged blade was knocked from his hands.
Careless, he thought and it might cost him his life. For a moment, the smoke cleared and he saw the thing that had caught him. It was an unholy hybrid of man and rat, tall as he was, but much leaner. For all its scrawniness it was far stronger than a normal man and far faster. Its maw was open, a long pink tongue lolled mockingly from its mouth. Its clawed hands tore at his throat, seeking an artery. It leaned forward to bite with its rows of razor sharp teeth.
Kormak brought both hands forward, thumbs out, digging into the ratkin’s eyeballs, plunging them deep into the jelly. The monster let out a long inhuman shriek and let go of him. Kormak twisted around desperately seeking his blade. It was nowhere to be seen.
He glanced back at the ratkin. His blow would have permanently blinded a human but already the gel of the creature’s eyes had flowed back together. It was blinking but soon it would have its sight back. Kormak dived forward, pushing it towards the blazing hangings. The creature let out another shriek of pain as the flames licked at it. Kormak pulled the burning cloth down over the ratkin’s head and shouted, “I don’t need a blade to deal with you.”
The monster smashed out with its fist, sight-blurringly swift. Kormak was barely able to roll with the blow but even so the force of it sent him flying. Stars danced before his eyes as he impacted on the wall. The ratkin opened its mouth and hissed mockingly. Kormak saw something glittering down the corridor amid the smoke and realised it was his sword. He dived for it as the ratkin sprang.
Kormak landed near the blade and reached out, fingers grasping at the hilt for dear life. He turned at bay and saw the ratkin was looking at him, eyes fixed on his weapon.
“Now you die,” Kormak said.
The ratkin dived through the open door of one of the inn’s chambers. Kormak heard the smash of glass and when he followed it, he saw the window was thrown open and all the glass was broken. He ran to the casing and looked out. The ratkin was below him. It had reached the outer wall of the courtyard and in one bound was over it.
The flames were rising now. Behind him the building was becoming a roaring inferno. There was only one way out. Kormak checked below and saw the snow was piled high. He leapt out into the night and landed on the drift. Snow crunched beneath him. He picked himself up and ran to where the ratkin had vanished. The wall was topped with shards of broken glass and rusty metal. Even if he reached up and grabbed it, there was no easy way to follow the ratkin. He could throw his cloak over the spikes as some protection but that would leave him vulnerable if he went over the top. He shook his head and returned to the courtyard.
It was time to count the cost.
The sound of alarm bells echoed. There was a frantic, panicked sound to them, as if whoever was ringing the bell was terrified.
Sergeant Altman came into the inn’s courtyard, followed by his men. He looked at Kormak, “Busy night,” he said.
Bodies sprawled around the blazing tavern, they looked as if they had been fleeing from the fire but there was something odd about the way they lay, their limbs twisted strangely.
Karsten Oldberg stood in the snow, looking bewildered, not at all the proud and confident man that Kormak had first met. Near him were the pitiful remains of his private army, their faces soot smoked, their clothes burned and pitted and bitten. Surely this could not be all that remained after the ratkin’s attack, Kormak thought. He hoped that most of the soldiers had simply fled the burning building. It looked as if the power of the Oldbergs had been shattered in one stroke. Even with Karsten’s gold it would take weeks or months to rebuild his force, and he did not have that much time. The Krugmans would eliminate him long before then.
Altman was moving around asking questions. The survivors stood contemplating the burning building. Flames licked upwards. With a great crash, the roof collapsed. It was probably the fire that had saved them, Kormak realised. Neither the rats nor the ratkin would have wanted to be burned alive.
Kormak walked over to Karsten, “What happened?”
The merchant prince looked at him. “I was giving my speech, explaining my plan. I heard shouts and screams and then a tide of rats swept into the room and with it was that monster. Men panicked. Lamps were overturned. Fire spread. The monster went for me. I remembered what you had said about fire hurting the Silent Man so I grabbed a bit of wood.” He looked down at his burned fingers. “It seemed to work but I don’t know how much longer I could have held it off for then you showed up. Just as well you did. I owe you my life.”
His eyes narrowed and for a moment, he looked once more like the shrewd trader. “It was afraid of you. Why?”
Kormak ignored the question. He was glancing around, at the dead rats, and the dead men. The smell of burning flesh reached his nostrils. There had been people in that building. He had almost died there himself. If he had been just a little slower . . .
He had been lucky. He could not rely on that.
“I saw your sword. It was glowing.”
“It reflected the light of the fire,” Kormak said.
“That monster was going to kill me,” Karsten said. “It’s scared of you. I want you with me. I’ll pay whatever it takes.”
“Don’t worry,” said Kormak. “I’ll see that it does not trouble you much longer.”
“Good. I just need time. I need to recruit more men and more wizards. Jurgen Krugman won’t get away with this.”
He turned and saw that Altman was there and he had been listening.
“What about all these rats?” Altman asked. Altman bent down over one of the bodies. “It looks like these men were eaten alive by rats.”
“That’s exactly what happened.”
“Rats don’t attack men like that,” Sergeant Altman said.
“Not unless there was sorcery involved.”
Altman’s eyes went wide. He glanced over at Karsten Oldberg. “This was aimed at him, wasn’t it?”
“One way or another.”
“So magic has been worked here,” Sergeant Altman said. “And it has been worked on mercenaries in the employ of the Oldbergs. I suppose that means I am going to have to go and have words with the Krugmans.”
“Give me a few hours,” Kormak said. “I want to have a word with Jurgen Krugman myself.”
Altman looked at him for a moment at the burning building and the piles of corpses. He nodded. “This has got to stop,” he said.
“Indeed,” said Kormak. “I’m going to end this thing tonight. One way or another.”
After the horror and violence of the Golden Bear, the area around the Krugman Palace seemed strangely quiet, as if all the burning and bloodshed had taken place hundreds of leagues away and not just a few streets.
The building was well-guarded. Even in the middle of the night, men stood watch in wooden sentry boxes by the entrance to the main gate. With tensions running high in the city, they were taking no chances. Kormak toyed with simply banging on the door and asking to be admitted to see Jurgen, but no one in the house knew him, and it was unlikely they would let him in. Even if they did, Jurgen would be surrounded by bodyguards and he would be giving away the element of surprise.
The windows were shuttered and on the ground floor cages of metal bars covered them. A veranda ran round the middle floor of the house. Up there the windows were shuttered as well. Such things did not trouble him too much. He knew how to get past them if he had to. The difficulty was going to be getting up there in the icy cold.
There were no other houses near the Krugman establishment. It took up one whole side of the square. Getting to the roof would entail climbing the side of the building, and it was furthest from where he wanted to go anyway. It was the cellars he was interested in. If the rumours were true that was where Jurgen Krugman worked his sorcery.
Kormak moved round the edge of the square, keeping to the shadows, studying his surroundings closely. There were not too many people abroad on this cold winter night, just the sentries. In the distance he could hear the tolling of a watchman’s bell as he counted the hours of the night.
He drew his cloak closer about him and moved down the side street running out of the square down the east side of the mansion. He saw coal chutes leading downwards. They were locked and he suspected there was some sort of warding spell on them. He put his hand against the Elder Sign hanging from his neck and felt the faint warmth brought on by the eddy currents of subtle magic.
He kept walking northwards, crossing another street. A massive warehouse loomed over him, larger even than the palace, thick walled, surrounded by platforms raised above the street at exactly the height needed to unload wagons. Looking left he could see that a stone corridor connected the upper levels of the warehouse with the upper levels of the Krugman house. Doubtless this was what the merchants of the house used to cross into their warehouse without getting their feet wet or muddy.
He kept walking along the warehouses massive flank, noting the signs of the Krugman family worked on its walls and he came to the river. Barges were tied up on piers next to the warehouse. The pennants of the Krugman family fluttered on their bows. Watchmen sat awake on their decks, keeping an eye open for dockside thieves.
Kormak walked back along the side of the warehouse, turned right and into the street between it and the rear of the palace. There were more entrances here, far less impressive than those that fronted on the square. This would be where deliveries were taken and servants entered. He sprang up onto one of the platforms and moved to the corner of the building. The stone felt cold beneath his fingers.
Agile as a monkey, he clambered up the corner of the building, using gaps in the stonework and the projecting gargoyles. He had been born in mountainous Aquilea, where children learned to climb as soon as they walked but in the cold conditions it was not easy. He prayed that no guards or watchmen would come past as he was doing so.
Long minutes of effort saw him on the roof of warehouse. He leapt down from there onto the roof of the enclosed passage connecting the warehouse with the palace. What had looked like an easy jump from the ground did not look quite so straightforward from fifty feet above it, springing down onto a narrow passageway. He leapt anyway and landed atop it. The roof of the passage felt slick and cold with ice. He had been lucky not to go skidding off the edge.
His heart beat hard against his ribs. His breath came out in clouds. He got up in a half crouch and scuttled across. He could see windows on either side of the passage. They had small ledges on them. He leapt up and caught the eaves of the roof. Hanging from his fingertips, he pulled himself out along the guttering and swung his feet down onto the window ledge. He was looking in through a small glass-paned window. Holding on to the eave with one hand, he drew his dagger and sawed away at the leading along the edge of the small pane until it fell inwards. He reached in and opened the window from its snib. It swung outwards and he lowered himself into a small office of some kind. He paused to listen for any alarm but heard nothing. He touched his amulet and felt no increase in warmth.
He moved over to the door and tested it. It opened easily enough from the inside and he stepped out into a carpeted corridor. Silent as a stalking panther, he made his way through the upper floor of the house until he found a stairway leading down. He pulled his hood up, kept his hand near the hilt of his sword and made his way down into the hallway. All was quiet. No servants were abroad. He paced quietly through the hallway looking for a way down into the cellars.
He found a door and as he approached it he noticed that there were runes upon it. His amulet revealed the eddy currents of magic once more. He thought about what he had been told about the cellars. If someone was performing forbidden experiments down there then it would make sense that they would have magical wards upon this place.
He drew his blade and touched it to the door. The weapon disrupted magic. He hoped the interruption of the spell did not give him away. The runes along the blade blazed bright for a second and then sank back into obscurity. He pushed against the door and it opened. He wondered whether it had ever been physically locked. With a magical warding it might not have been necessary. A flight of stone steps led downwards. In a bracket in the wall, a torch flickered. He saw more of them below him. It seemed that even at this time of night there was someone down in the cellars. He smiled. The chances were good that it was someone he wanted to find. He took a torch, closed the door behind him and walked down the stairs.
THE STEPS WENT down further than he thought, curving round on themselves like a corkscrew boring into the depths of the earth. The air became damper and colder. Chilly water beaded the stonework. The stairs had been worn smooth by the passing of generations of feet. He heard nothing except the steady drip of water somewhere.
At last he reached a landing. Corridors ran off in different directions. The cellars below the Krugman palace were a labyrinth. He supposed they would make an excellent storehouse but he saw that the style of the stonework was different from the usual Sunlander architecture; coarser, more brutal and far more ancient looking. He remembered stories that Vermstadt had been built on the ruins of a more ancient city that dated back to the Age of Darkness when the Old Ones had ruled this land. It was entirely possible that this was a throwback to those ancient days.
More torches blazed along one corridor. That seemed the most likely way to go. As he walked he felt a faint sensation of dizziness and the amulet grew warm against his breast. This area was wound round with spells to discourage or daunt intruders. He had been taught how to resist such things. That the magic was strong enough to be felt through the protection of his amulet spoke of the fact that either this was an ancient and very potent spell or its caster was very strong. Perhaps both.