Authors: William King
“Who is going to kill me? You?”
Balthazar looked amused. “You’ve made a fundamental miscalculation, Sir Kormak, and a fatal one.”
“And what would that be?”
“You are assuming I am the beast you fought. In fact, you are assuming there is only one beast. Frater Lucian understood. The Children of Murnath always run in packs.”
The doors open and Kormak could see a dozen rat-men there. Some of them were grey-furred, some white, some brown. They wore the remnants of servants tunics. Some of them wore guards uniforms. There was blood on their claws and fangs. One of them was wearing the habit of the monk who had brought him Lucian’s final message.
When his gaze returned to Balthazar, the magician was no longer there, a massive ratkin glared at him with red, hate-filled eyes. It was taller and leaner than any Kormak had ever seen.
“By the Sun,” Karsten said, his face white with fear. “Spare me.”
“Don’t worry,” said Balthazar. His voice was deeper and more like a growl. “We shall spare your life for as long as you do what you are told. We shall rule the city from behind the curtains of your mansion. We shall see that the worship of our father is once more taken up openly and not just in secret. War is coming. The Old Kingdoms will fall into chaos. A new world will emerge and then will come Shadowfall.”
“And tomorrow the city will learn that before he died, Jurgen’s last spell killed many including, unfortunately, the heroic Sir Kormak.”
He emitted a low chittering sound. The ratkin surged forward to attack.
Kormak leapt forward, striking at Balthazar.
The ratkin leapt back with super-human speed, slamming against the wall. A bust of one of Karsten’s ancestors topped to the floor. Kormak turned at bay as the rat-men reached him. He sliced left and right, beheading one, removing the arm of another. Their flesh sizzled where the metal bit flesh. The runes on Kormak’s blade blazed.
He ducked a razor sharp claw and kicked out. The blow crunched harmlessly into furry flesh but sent the ratkin tumbling back into his fellows. Kormak stabbed down, temporarily pinning the rat-man to the floor. The monster screamed. The smell of sizzling flesh filled the room.
A rat-man sprang forward over its fallen kinsman, slashing for Kormak’s throat. The Guardian stepped to one side and slammed the hilt of his blade into the back of his target’s chest. Impelled by the force of the blow and its own momentum the skin-turner tumbled forward into the fire.
Something slammed into Kormak from the side, sending him tumbling. Even as he fell, he lashed out with his blade, splitting a rodent skull, splattering brains everywhere. He hit the ground on his side, pivoted on his hip and kicked the leg of one of the rat-men. Off-balance, the were-rat tumbled forward, impaling himself on Kormak’s sword. Kormak rolled to one side as another beast pounced on him, talons shredding Kormak’s blood-stained tunic sleeve even as the Guardian tumbled to his feet, blade at the ready.
After the failure of their initial confident rush the rat-men were more wary. The circled him now, some moving to the left, some to the right. Some intended to get behind him, others to attack him when he was distracted by the onslaught of their kin.
None of them seemed particularly anxious to lead the attack. They seemed to be waiting for someone else to take the lead. Balthazar chittered instructions in the background. The burning ratkin screamed in agony. The armless one writhed on the floor.
“Step forward and die,” Kormak said conversationally. He glanced at Balthazar and said, “I made no mistake. I can kill a dozen rats as easily as one.”
He was not nearly as confident as he sounded, but he needed to keep them hesitant, to grasp any advantage he could. The ratkin padded forward softly, cautiously. Muscles tensed tight as wire beneath their furry hides. Red bloodlust gleamed in their eyes. Yellowish fangs glittered in the torchlight.
Kormak stepped forward and struck. A ratkin head rolled to the floor. The rest of the pack sprang on him. Claws bit into his leather tunic. Jaws snapped close to his face, close enough for him to smell their curdled breath. He felt blood begin to flow down his arms. He head-butted the snout of the nearest rat-man. Its head snapped back and he drove his blade into its stomach. It fell over howling.
The remainder had him. Claws held him with inhuman strength. He twisted catching one of those holding him off-balance, sending it tumbling away holding a clawful of bloody leather. Another grappled with him, arms wrapped around his torso, claws digging into Kormak’s back. It was in too close for Kormak to stab it, and its long jaws sought his throat. He kept his chin tucked down to deny it the opportunity, pulled his sword back up, catching the ratkin’s neck and sawing. The creature squealed as its flesh burned and let go. Kormak reeled away, turned and struck, stabbing his blade upward into its brain.
The remaining ratkin scuttled away, tails lashing. One of them made for the door, clearly hell-bent on escape. Kormak stepped forward while it was still turning the handle and drove his blade into its back.
A grey-furred one stood in front of him, whiskers twitching, long pink tongue lolling out, head shifting from side to side in a panicked manner. Kormak was cut in a dozen places, covered in his own blood and slowed by pain but he knew he could not relent now. If this fight dragged on, he would not have the energy to win it.
He charged the monster and skewered it even as it tried to spring back, pivoted and slashed the head of another. The last of the original pack had raced all the way to Balthazar’s side and hid behind him. Balthazar held a struggling Jan easily and had a long extended talon at his throat. Kormak advanced, stabbing the burning rat-man and putting the armless one out of its misery.
“That’s not possible,” said Balthazar. “No one can kill so many of us so quickly.”
“It’s not so easy when your prey can fight back, is it?” said Kormak. His foes had been overconfident. They were used to being all but invulnerable when they fought, and to battling against someone not nearly so fast and strong as they were.
“Take another step and I will slash the boy’s throat,” said Balthazar. Jan looked at Kormak with desperate pleading eyes.
“If you do, you still have to get by me,” Kormak said. “It’s not going to happen.”
“I will kill him.”
“You will be dead one heartbeat later.”
He kept moving forward. Balthazar hesitated. “I mean it,” he said.
“Better one boy now than hundreds in the days to come,” Kormak said. It was the relentless logic of his life. He believed in those cold numbers. He believed that Balthazar would kill Jan whatever. And part of him was simply filled with killing lust, determined to slay Balthazar no matter what the price. He remembered Master Malan’s words. If you chase monsters long enough you become one.
“You took an oath, to protect the innocent,” Balthazar said.
“No one is innocent.” Jan was in tears now. A pool of urine was at his feet. The leg of his britches were wet.
“I will kill him,” said Balthazar. His voice sounded shaky now.
“If you do you lose any leverage you have,” Kormak said. “I will kill you immediately.”
Balthazar held Jan before him like a shield now. Kormak smiled coldly. “I will stab you through the boy’s body if I have to.”
The last remaining member of the pack was sidling off to one side, clearly hoping to get away while Kormak dealt with Balthazar. Karsten stepped forward, clutching a torch. The chief of the clan moved away, holding Jan between him and Kormak.
The rat-man screamed and there was a smell of burning. Instinctively Balthazar’s head turned to look for the new threat. Kormak sprang, blade passing over Jan’s shoulder, driving right up into Balthazar’s heart. Jan tumbled forward from his grip. Kormak turned and saw Karsten bludgeoning the final rat-man with the torch he had pulled from the wall. Kormak stepped forward and executed the last of the Children of Murnath.
“You’re a cold bastard, Guardian” said Karsten in a strained voice. Kormak surveyed the shambles of the room, the weeping boy on his knees on the floor, the bedraggled merchant prince.
“You’ll get no argument from me about that,” Kormak said.
Kormak looked in on the boy asleep on Lila’s bed in the Gilded Lion. His face was pale. Bounce the kitten lay near his pillow as if keeping guard. He looked at Kormak accusingly.
“How is he?” Kormak asked Lila.
The innkeeper looked up from where she sat beside the bed. “Jan will be fine. The physician thinks he’s just had a bit of a shock. That’s all.”
“That he did,” Kormak said.
“What exactly did happen in the Oldberg Palace?” Lila asked.
“Ask him when he wakes up.” He kept his manner formal and distant.
“You’re determined to go then?”
“There’s an empty coal barge heading down the Verm in two hours, I intend to be on it. I will not be welcome here when word of events gets out. These things have a way of getting twisted when rich men are involved. Altman already knows who I am and what I’ve done. If someone leans on him . . .”
“You sure you’re not running away from something else?” She looked a little sad.
Kormak went over and squeezed her shoulder. “I’ve got to go. I have work to do.”
“What about him?” she asked.
Kormak took out all the gold he had collected from Jurgen and Karsten and dropped it into her palm. “You can keep him until that runs out.”
She weighed it in her hands. “He can stay here until he’s as tall as you are. For half of that, if you want it back.”
“Call it an offering to Saint Verma,” he said. “Maybe you could find some work for him around the inn. He was a page to Karsten Oldberg for a while. He did not disgrace himself.”
“I will if he wants to, but a kid like that, he might just find his way back to the street.”
“That would be his choice. I just want him to have one.”
“As you wish,” she bent forward and pulled the covers over the sleeping boy. “What do I tell him?”
“Tell him what you like.” She walked over and put her arms around him.
“Will you be coming back some time?” He thought about Vermstadt and all the dark things that lurked in its shadows. “You never know,” he said then he hugged her back, adjusted his sword and headed for the door.
WILLIAM KING LIVES in Prague, Czech Republic with his lovely wife Radka and his sons Dan and William Karel. He has been a professional author and games developer for almost a quarter of a century. He is the creator of the bestselling Gotrek and Felix series for Black Library and the author of the bestselling Space Wolf books which between them have sold over three quarters of a million copies in English and been translated into 8 languages.
He has been short-listed for the David Gemmell Legend Award. His short fiction has appeared in Year’s Best SF and Best of Interzone. He has twice won the Origins Awards For Game Design. His hobbies include role-playing games and MMOs as well as travel.
His website can be found at:
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