Authors: William King
Light flooded from the broken doorway. Inside, figures struggled against each other. Most of them wore the tunics of the Oldberg family, two others wore grey robes and masks. Between the pair loomed a gigantic man wearing a leather mask. In one hand he held an enormous hammer which most men would have struggled to lift with two. Kormak had no doubt that this was the Silent Man. While others howled battle-cries, he said nothing at all.
The giant lashed out with a crunching blow that sent a man careening twenty feet through the air to crash down on a bale of silks. Another hammer stroke smashed a man’s chest, the force of the impact tearing flesh and splintering bone. Kormak had seen blows struck with similar force before but never by a human being. Was the Silent Man an Old One or one of their children, he wondered?
An Oldberg guard drove his sword between the giant’s shoulder blades. The Silent Man did not even slow down, just kept battering down the guards around him, dragging his attacker along in his wake as he tried to pull his blade free. Out of the shadows, a crossbow bolt flashed, striking the Silent Man on his chest. Kormak had seen strong warriors knocked over by the force of such an impact. The giant kept going.
Three more Oldberg guardsmen raced towards him, spreading out so they could not all be struck at once. The Silent Man picked one and lashed out. The guard tried to parry but his blade was brushed aside as if it was nothing and the full force of the giant’s blow crushed his head like jelly. The two remaining guards took advantage of the distraction. Their blades thunked into the Silent Man with a sound like an axe hitting wood. No blood was drawn.
One of the guards froze and was reduced to a broken wreck in a heartbeat. The other turned to run and the Silent Man removed his head, the sheer force of the impact tearing it clear from his shoulders.
The Silent Man stood alone surrounded by bodies. The other attackers, who had done little more than watch him fight, laughed. One of them touched the amulet around his neck nervously. Kormak saw that a similar one hung around the Silent Man’s. Was it a symbol of allegiance or did it have another purpose?
Kormak raced forward, blade clearing scabbard, and the runes along its length flared to life. One of the attackers turned to face him. Kormak slashed his throat and kept moving, striking at the second infiltrator. His blade cut the man’s leg even as he leapt to one side. The impact sent him sprawling, blood pulling around his wounded calf. There was something familiar about the man’s voice as he cursed, so Kormak did not decapitate him.
The Silent Man turned to face him. He stank like a week-old cadaver. Kormak plunged his blade into the Silent Man’s chest. His eyes glowed hellishly through the slits in his mask. The scent of burning flesh overpowered that of rotten meat and curdled blood, the smell of a long dead corpse. That, and the glowing runes on his blade, told him his opponent’s frame was suffused with magical energy.
The Silent Man appeared to feel no pain from Kormak’s attack. The great hammer flashed down. Kormak sprang back, pulling his sword free.
A whirlwind of blows rained down on him, forcing him to dance backwards. Each strike smashed the ground at his feet, breaking stone, sending chips of granite flying.
Kormak retreated out the door of the warehouse, back towards the braziers. He knew better than to try and parry those hammer strikes. He had seen what had happened to earlier efforts.
Normally he would have waited for his foe to tire. Nothing human could have kept up such a relentless onslaught. He knew the Silent Man could.
Kormak still had Rene’s flask in his free hand. He flicked the stopper off with his thumb and threw the contents over the Silent Man, narrowly avoiding a strike that would have split a cart in two. He circled towards one of the braziers, till he was standing in front of it.
The Silent Man followed him. Kormak kicked the brazier at the giant. A hammer descended, smashing into the brazier. Blazing charcoal flew everywhere and set light to the alcohol that covered the monster.
The leaping flames affected it in a way nothing else had. It began to circle in an increasingly panicked way. Kormak leapt forward and struck again. His blade buried itself in the Silent Man’s breast and where it struck flesh sizzled.
He rained down stroke after stroke, driving the Silent Man back to the edge of the quay. The giant stumbled into the water and sank in the cold depths. Kormak watched for long moments but the Silent Man did not emerge. Nothing living could have held its breath for so long.
Kormak headed back to the warehouse. The infiltrator he had wounded was still there. Kormak reached down and ripped off his mask. It was Dren.
Swiftly Kormak bound his wounded leg. “Get out of here,” he told the man. “And when you see Jurgen Krugman tell him to remember our deal. I will meet him in the Cathedral close at noon tomorrow.”
Dren’s eyes widened, but he reeled to his feet and limped away, leaving Kormak to contemplate the pile of dead bodies and wonder whether he had done the right thing. Then he went to check on the remaining Oldberg guards. Many of them were wounded, a few of them were missing presumed fled. Rene remained rallying the troops. His arm was bandaged but he seemed otherwise all right.
Kormak returned his flask. The Guard Captain took it and put it to his lips then he made a face, “Empty,” he said.
“I gave your liquor to the Silent Man,” Kormak said. “It warmed him up all right.”
Balthazar held the amulet Kormak had taken from the dead infiltrator at arm’s length. It dangled from one bony finger. He turned it so that it caught the light of from the study’s chandeliers. Their glitter made the mystical symbols obvious. He sniffed and his forehead wrinkled in distaste.
“It’s magical all right,” he said. “I’m guessing it lets the Silent Man know who’s on his side and who’s not. It is protection of sorts for his allies.”
“Very good,” said Karsten Oldberg. “Do you think you can duplicate it?”
Balthazar lifted a scented handkerchief to his nose, sniffed again then wrapped the amulet in the cloth. “Given time.”
Karsten rubbed his meaty hands together. “Excellent. Maybe the next time the thing appears we’ll have some protection against it. Other than Sir Kormak’s strong sword arm, of course.”
Kormak decided that playing ignorant was in his best interests. “You think he’ll be back then? No man could have stayed under water so long without drowning.”
“He’s survived worse. You yourself say you saw him pinned with a blade and struck with a crossbow. You burned him as well and still he kept on coming.”
“Burned him,” said Balthazar, in his high rasping voice. “That was quick thinking of you.” He stared at Kormak again. His eyes did not blink for a very long time.
“I was lucky,” Kormak said. He had not mentioned his sword, instead had concentrated on how he had burned his foe with alcohol.
“Your luck has earned you five gold solars.”
Balthazar simply stared as Karsten tossed him a pouch. It clinked heavily as Kormak pulled it from the air. The merchant prince was being generous indeed.
“What was your impression of the Silent Man?” Balthazar asked.
“He smelled. Like a corpse.”
The sorcerer nodded as if Kormak had just confirmed something he had expected.
“You are sure.”
“I’ve had plenty of experience of what corpses smell like,” Kormak said. “I am curious—how did you know he would attack tonight.”
Karsten looked at the wizard meaningfully.
“I used potent divinations.”
“He can see what is happening around the city in his crystal,” Karsten said.
“That is a useful power.”
“Less than you might think,” said Balthazar. “Such magic is not reliable. It works only when the spirits allow and the portents it shows are often cloudy.”
“I would see such wonders,” said Kormak. Balthazar gave him a suspicious smile.
“My secrets are my own,” he said. “Just as yours are your own.”
He left the words hanging in the air so that Kormak could guess at their meaning. He seemed to like doing that, to draw other people out, to imply he knew more than he was saying.
“Sir Kormak is no sorcerer,” said Karsten. “He cannot steal your secrets. Surely there can be no harm in showing him your devices.”
“Is that a command?” Balthazar asked.
“Let us say it is a request.”
“Clearly Sir Kormak is high in your favour, so I will grant it.”
“You will not find me ungrateful,” said Karsten.
“Very well.” He led them from the study and out into the corridor, eventually down the stairs into the cellars. He took a torch from the bracket in the wall at the bottom. As they progressed, Kormak smelled incense. They came to a door, triple locked. Balthazar produced the keys and they entered.
Within it looked like a mad artist’s illustration of a sorcerers’ study. The stuffed remains of a small wyvern hung from the rafters. On a workbench sat alembics and retorts. Ancient scrolls nestled in racks along the walls. Piles of leather-bound grimoires were stacked on the floor. Charts and astrological diagrams clung to the walls. In the centre of the chamber was a massive Elder Sign inscribed in multi-coloured chalk and in the centre of that was a large crystal sphere. As they entered the room, something small skittered across the floor and into the shadows. The place smelled of animal droppings and incense.
Kormak walked in cautiously and walked around the sign being careful not to touch it. Tiny feet skittered away in the shadows. Glittering eyes watched him.
“Is your curiosity satisfied?” Balthazar asked. Kormak nodded. It certainly wasn’t. The sign on the floor was like nothing he had ever seen before, and he doubted it was real. The amulet on his chest gave not the slightest sign that any magic was at work here. From what he could see here he doubted that Balthazar was any sort of sorcerer.
How then had he known that the Silent Man would attack? It was a question that would have to be answered.
“Well, it’s been a long night,” said Karsten. “I am sure we could all use some sleep.” He yawned ostentatiously. It was clear they were dismissed.
JURGEN KRUGMAN, GARBED once again as a monk of Saint Verma, looked at the small garden. It lay in the Cathedral’s giant shadow and was quite barren at the moment. The branches of all the trees were leafless and covered in snow.
“I was not sure whether to come,” said Jurgen. The voice emerging from the cowl was amiable enough. “I half expected you to try and stab me now that you have entered Karsten’s employ.”
“That would be why those men with crossbows are on the scaffolding then,” Kormak said.
“You have keen eyes.”
“I have fast hands too. If one of them so much as raises his weapon you will be without a head before he can take aim.”
Jurgen laughed. “We had both better hope that they don’t get ideas above their station then. Now would be a bad time for them to start acting independently of my orders.”
“I see Dren gave you my message.”
“Yes. He was very impressed. You quite confirmed his impression of your skill by the way you dealt with the Silent Man.”
“I was lucky.”
“You were clever and quick and you drove him off. Not many could do that.”
“He’s not dead then.”
“I would not say that.”
“He is still in your service.”
“Karsten’s pet magician Balthazar says the Silent Man is a product of sorcery.”
“Even a charlatan like Balthazar can guess right sometimes.”
“He guessed that your pet would attack the warehouse last night.”
“Did he now? Was that why you were there?”
“And why are we here now?”
“Because Balthazar thinks he can duplicate the amulets Dren and his friends were wearing, and that might make their wearers safe from the Silent Man.”
“My respect for Balthazar’s intelligence increases.”
“Karsten Oldberg gave me five solars for defeating your silent friend.”
“He is generous. I can be too.”
“I have yet to see evidence of that.” Kormak decided it was best to give proof of his venality. If the principles in this conflict believed he was motivated by simple greed they would look no further.
A purse of coins emerged from inside Jurgen’s sleeve. “There’s ten solars there. You see I knew to within a fraction of a penny what Karsten would pay you and I doubled it.”
“Or you have several purses with different quantities in coins in them on your person.”
“You are a cynic, Sir Kormak. But I can assure you that Karsten is quite predictable. It’s also quite predictable that you’re his favourite right now but that he will eventually turn on you. He’s like a child that way. He always casts his old toys aside when he finds a new one. I am sure your friend Balthazar resents you for that.”
“You don’t have a very high regard for Karsten, do you?”
“Quite the contrary, he is clever, ruthless, spoiled and very dangerous. He wants his own way and he wants it now and he will use his money and power to roll over anything that gets in his way. He is an amusing opponent.”
“This is a game to you.”
“No but I take my entertainment where I can find it.” He paused for a moment, glanced sidelong at Kormak, perhaps realising he had been too flippant. The Guardian saw something at once shifty, fearful and vulnerable in his eyes. “Do not ever doubt that this is war unto the death, Sir Kormak. I am fighting for my life here and for my children’s. I did not start this conflict but I will do whatever it takes to make sure it ends in my favour.”
“I believe you.”
“That’s very good of you,” said Jurgen, raising an eyebrow. In that moment, he reminded Kormak of Karsten. The iron hand was just more deeply hidden by its velvet glove, cloaked by ironic humour and a slight diffidence. Like Karsten, Jurgen had grown up wielding power and he was not used to being challenged.
“What will you do next?” Jurgen asked.
“What do you want me to do?”
“You could not be convinced to put a blade through Karsten’s ribs, could you?”
“It would be suicidal. In the extremely unlikely event that his guards did not get me, then the City Watch would. I would just be the criminal who murdered a prominent citizen. A bounty would be placed on my head that would follow me wherever I went. I would prefer aiding you in some more subtle manner.”