Authors: William King
“I expected as much,” said Jurgen. “I’ll give some thought to the matter and be in touch. And by the way, Dren is grateful to you. He did not expect to get out of the warehouse alive. I am grateful too. Swords are easy to find. Useful, clever men are harder to replace.” There was a moment’s silence. Jurgen appeared to have said everything he wanted to say. He eyed the pathway out of the garden.
Kormak said, “If you don’t mind, we will walk out together. I would not want any of your followers to get trigger-happy if they see me standing alone.”
“An admirable suggestion. Let us walk together into the cloisters and you can make an offering to Saint Verma. I’m assuming you have enough money now.”
“If I don’t now I soon will have.”
“You must have a lot of sins to atone for.”
“More than you can know,” said Kormak.
Karsten did not look pleased at Kormak’s report. He put down his pen on the large oak desk, steepled his fingers, looked at the painted ceiling and let out a long sigh. The rings on his fingers glittered. “I would have expected Jurgen to be more disturbed at his pet being bested.”
“He is a very self-possessed man,” Kormak said.
“If I had known you were going to meet with him, I would have had a man with a crossbow on the scaffolding myself,” said Karsten.
“And how would I have claimed my fee from a corpse” Kormak asked.
“I would have seen you were suitably reimbursed.”
“If Jurgen had suspected anything he would not have shown up. Be assured those crossbowmen were not the only watchers. Plus killing a man on sacred ground is sacrilege. I doubt that Saint Verma would grant me absolution for that no matter how large an offering I made.”
“Sir Kormak would not kill a man on sacred ground,” said Balthazar. There was an ironic note in his scratchy voice. “How very pious of him.”
Kormak stared at him and Balthazar was the first to look away. Karsten watched the exchange with considerable interest, and not a little surprise. He had not expected the magician to be the first one to give up. So much was obvious.
“I will match what Jurgen has paid you,” said Karsten, opening a drawer in the desk and counting out a stack of gold coins. “I can see you are going to do very well out of this struggle. No wonder you want to prolong it.”
“Do you have any more duties for me?”
“Balthazar has divined that the Silent Man will not return for several nights. Soon we will strike back at the Krugmans.”
“How will you do that?”
“Masked men attacked my property last night. I believe they might attack Jurgen’s soon.”
“When and where?”
“I will let you know in my own good time,” said Karsten. “Not tonight though.”
“Then I believe I will seek some entertainment in the Maze,” said Kormak. Tonight would be the full moon. If the Beast was going to be in the Maze, he wanted to be there too. Balthazar looked up at that. His nostrils dilated. He scratched at his neck with his discoloured nails.
“I thought you would be spending time with the lovely Lila,” said Karsten.
“I will be doing that too,” said Kormak. “But there are some things I need to spend this money on.”
“There’s plenty more where that came from,” said Karsten.
In the chamber deep below the ground, all was dank and cold. The light of a single lantern illuminated the gloom. The robed man bowed his head as he entered the chamber and confronted the bestial figure within. It was taller than he, covered in fur, with a head like that of a great albino rat. Its inhuman eyes glared at the newcomer full of controlled fury. If the thin man was frightened by this, he gave no sign.
“It is as I feared,” the robed man said.
“How so?” The Beast’s voice was high-pitched, the words lisped around fangs large enough to tear out a man’s throat with ease.
“This Sir Kormak is not what he seems.”
“Who ever is?” The Beast remarked. It gave vent to a strange collection of coughs that might have been laughter.
“He dealt with the Silent Man. He is not frightened of magic. I don’t like the way he smells.”
“And how is that?”
“He carries a blade that can harm the Children of Murnath as easily as it can the Silent Man.”
“He is a Guardian of the Dawn then. The fat monk’s threat is to be fulfilled.”
The robed man nodded. “I told you it was a mistake to kill their agents.”
“They were getting too close to the truth. They needed to be stopped. Murnath’s human cultists were overzealous in their sacrifices. The monk’s agents overheard their boasting. Fortunately our small kin overheard them . . .”
“And this Kormak?” The robed man asked. “He will need to be stopped too. And you know what that will lead to. Kill one of his sort and two more appear. They are like cockroaches.”
“I doubt he would be flattered by that comparison.”
“I am more worried about what his order might do if we kill him.”
The bestial figure laughed again. “We do not need to kill him.”
“You think it a good idea to let him live and hunt.”
“I said we do not need to kill him. In this city, assassins can always be found if you have the gold. Let Murnath’s human followers hunt him as they did the monk.”
“He will be in the Maze tonight. Looking for monsters no doubt.”
“Men die in the Maze all the time. Hire killers and make sure they are waiting when he comes to investigate.”
“Others have tried to kill him. He cut them down.”
“Poison and crossbow bolts are the answer to that. I shall draw him out and lead him to the slaughter.”
“Let it be done,” said the robed man. “We have come too far to be stopped now. By the time this moon passes, we will be masters of the city.”
Kormak strode into the great slum district of the Maze. All around him, decrepit buildings leaned against each other like staggering drunks supporting each other in the last stages of a spree. Some had already tumbled down into half-ruins. Most of the others looked like they would go that way if more snow piled on their roofs or a strong wind struck them.
Beggars were everywhere, in the direst extremes of hunger. They avoided him, repelled by his aura of silent menace. They assumed he was a debt collector or a bully-boy, one whose business it would be better not to get in the way of.
He saw a few youths eying him as if considering putting a knife in his back, but as soon as they saw he had noticed them, they withdrew into their doorways and alley mouths.
People were clad in layers of rags. Many had their feet bound in cloth. Folks scratched and coughed. There were few children in the street, most were indoors, huddling together for warmth, or scouring the streets of the wealthier parts of town, looking for alms, work or scraps of food.
All around Kormak sensed the scuttling of small forms, moving through the middens and trash-heaps, disappearing into tiny holes in walls. He felt as if he was being watched by scores of tiny glittering eyes. So many rats. It was not a good omen.
The day was starting to fade, the low clouds of the winter sky blocking out the Sun’s feeble light. This was the time of year when the forces of darkness were at their strongest and the Light was at its weakest. It was a time for conspiracy in darkened rooms, for wicked sorcerers to perform their rituals, for men to be about the work of the Shadow. He thought about what Sergeant Altman had said about people disappearing.
Deaths and disappearances were to be expected in a city as vast and chaotic as Vermstadt, but Altman had thought it worth mentioning. He had associated it with Jurgen Krugman. That priestly man looked an unlikely dark magician but Kormak had long ago learned that appearance counted for little in such matters. The most evil sorcerer he had ever encountered looked like everyone’s favourite uncle.
He was as concerned by the disappearance of the cats as he was by the war between the merchant houses. If evil magic was being worked here, it was a matter of far greater concern to him personally. It was the sort of work the Holy Sun had really intended him to perform. Saint Verma was supposed to have banished the Old One, Murnath the Rat King, from this place but one of his brood might have returned to work mischief. Such creatures had long memories. Or maybe it was only humans who remembered the old rites and sought to call upon the Rat King once more.
As these thoughts worked their way through his mind, his feet carried him deeper into the Maze, A familiar face gazed at him from the mouth of an alley. “Sir. I am pleased to see you,” said the boy Jan. “What brings you to the Maze? You looking for girls? Bloodroot? Or something else?”
Kormak was going to tell him it was none of his business, but thought the better of it. “What do you mean by that?” he asked quietly.
“There are merchants here who sell all sorts of stuff cheaper than you can get it elsewhere in the city.”
“Stuff that falls off the back of a cart you mean . . .”
Jan touched the side of his nose. “Weapons, armour, all sorts of things a man like yourself might be interested in. Other stuff too—good stuff, from a long way away, comes in on the boats.”
“And gets lost on the docks?”
“That’s not for me to say, sir.” It came to Kormak that someone like Jan might have their uses if he wanted to find out what was going on. And he needed a place to settle down until moonrise. Kormak said, “Let’s just say I was looking for a good meal. You think you would know where to find that?”
Jan looked at him almost contemptuously. “Of course I would, sir.”
“Lead on then,” said Kormak. The boy strode cockily along beside him, chest puffed out, pointing out interesting sights as they walked. Kormak asked him the question he really had on his mind. “Bors called you a cat-eater the other day. What did he mean by that?”
“There’s folks here as do eat cats, sir, but I ain’t one of them. Truth to tell there’s been less and less of them about this past year anyway. I heard old Pip the storyteller say they’ve all gone to the Moon for the winter but I don’t think it’s that myself.”
“What do you think it is?”
“There’s been a wave of cruelty to cats right enough. Some have been found flayed. Some have been found gnawed on, as if by beasts bigger than themselves. There’s some big, mean dogs in this city, sir, and that’s no mistake. I’ve had them set on me a few times and that’s the truth.”
“So you think it’s the dogs.”
“I do, sir. I don’t believe in monsters in the Maze, sir, no matter what some others might think.”
“You hear stories, sir, and not the sort old Pip tells if you catch my meaning.”
“Bobbi Fallows was telling me, there’s a big beast stalks the Maze at night and its best to lock your doors because of it. He says he’s heard it prowling and snuffling in the dark. He says its fur is black as the soul of the Shadow. He says he’s seen red eyes glowing. He says he’s heard screams as it dragged beggars off. Of course, I don’t believe him. Still, people keep their doors bolted, barred or wedged at night. You hear strange sounds as well sometimes. And there’s more and more rats about.”
“So you think there are monsters?”
“There’s always been tales of those, in the city, sir. In the sewers. In the Maze. In the walls. They say the city has been haunted since the time Blessed Verma killed the Rat King and drove his worshippers off. They say there are still those who make offerings to the long tailed one as well . . .”
He sounded like he really would have liked not to believe those stories but was scared by them anyway. “And Bobbi says, he’s seen the same creatures carrying off bodies but he’s wrong about that. I know for a fact.”
“Do you now?”
“I do, sir. In the winter, there’s always been folks carting off dead paupers bodies before they can be burned. They sell the corpses to the dissectionists and the wizards and the alchemists. You can get a good price for a fresh stiff.” He stopped as if he realised he had said too much. “Not that I have ever had anything to do with such things myself, sir.”
“Of course not,” said Kormak.
“Anyway, these days, the way I hear it most of the corpses are being bought by Jurgen Krugman.” The boy seemed determined to blacken Krugman’s name but that did not mean the rumour could be discounted. “They say he gets up to terrible things in the cellars below his mansion.”
“I’d heard the Oldbergs have hired a wizard too,” said Kormak.
“They don’t tell me about such things, sir, but I am guessing you are right. You’ve got to fight sorcery with sorcery cause natural swords is not going to work. There’s stories of a mage called Balthazar swearing to serve Karsten. They say he collects a lot of gold for his spells.”
“You seem to have heard a lot.”
“I keep my ears open, sir. A lad in my position needs to. And I listen to old Pip and the like too, sir. And what about yourself, sir? Are you looking for work to put your sword to? I am sure Karsten Oldberg would give you a job if you asked, sir. I heard he pays good silver. There’s a lot of knife work in the night these days.”
“I came here to ask the blessing of Saint Verma,” said Kormak. It seemed best not to spread the word that he had already had dealings with Karsten.
“And she’ll give it to you too, sir, if my prayers count for anything. I have not forgotten you saved me from Bors and his gang.”
“Good to know. You might be able to save me some trouble. If you hear anything about them or the Silent Man, let me know. There’s silver in it for you.”
“You scared of the Silent Man?”
“It seems like any sensible person would be.” Jan looked disappointed for a moment, as if he had hoped, perhaps, for a denial.
THE MAZE OF alleyways was filling with shadows. In tavern windows and inside shops, candles and lanterns guttered. Jan strode along beside the Guardian with the confident air of a bully-boy in a gang. He seemed to be enjoying himself. Kormak doubted that he got much chance to show off and he seemed determined to take advantage of the fact.
Ahead of them was a flight of steps, leading down into a large open space. Over the entrance was the sign of a dog’s head. From inside came the smell of beer and food and the muted roar of tavern talk.