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Authors: Vaughn Heppner

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Assassin of the Damned (Dark Gods)

BOOK: Assassin of the Damned (Dark Gods)
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Assassin of the Damned

(Dark Gods)

by Vaughn Heppner

Copyright © 2011 by the author.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.

-1-

I groaned in agony as the hurled spear sank into my belly. I crashed back onto the tree stump altar. The bastards had chained me to it, although I’d managed to snap a rusty link, freeing an arm. It was one of the reasons they’d taken off running. I clutched the spear and dragged it out of my belly. Fiery pain lanced through me as I struggled to sit up.

In the moonlight, the cowards fled through the reeds. Some of them were hairy, a blasphemy against nature. The wretch I hated most wore priestly garments, a lapsed cardinal from Avignon.

I almost hurled the spear after them. Instead, as I sat upon the pagan altar, as blood poured out my belly, I feebly stabbed at the confining chains.

I was in a swamp. I had a throbbing knot on the back of my head. Erasmo della Rovere, the one-time priest, had clouted me from behind earlier. We had searched for deathbane together, a deadly flower of the swamp. While I was unconscious, the treacherous cur had chained me to this wooden altar.

I shuddered as coldness blossomed from my torn stomach. My strength oozed away with my blood. The spear fell from my fingers, clattered against the altar and thumped on the ground. I slumped back onto the tree stump so my chainmail harness clinked.

It was then I realized I was dying.

“No,” I whispered. I kicked my legs, made the rusty links jangle.

What had Erasmo said before? The gloating wretch was from Perugia like me—Perugia of the mountains, in the Romagna, part of the Papal States in Italy. He’d told me he was going to….

I groaned. A terrible, numbing cold gripped my lungs. The coldness crept to my throat and turned my breathing into pitiful wheezes.

Erasmo had threatened my wife, my children, my city and my name. He said he’d discovered ancient, slumbering gods, dark deities of the past. He’d said my ancestry connected me to the evil pantheon, but I knew he lied. Erasmo was a child of the Devil.

My thoughts grew numb, and I found myself staring at the moon, at its pockmarked features. For a wild moment, I couldn’t remember who I was or why I’d trekked into this foul swamp.

“I am Gian Baglioni,” I whispered.

According to Erasmo, this hoary altar belonged to Old Father Night, one of those slumbering deities. Shaggy hangman trees with hunchbacked trunks leaned over me. They seemed like thirsty demons longing to drink my blood, to witness my death. Their branches groaned in the wind. Their thin dark leaves rustled with seeming glee. They mocked my passing, laughed at my vain oaths.

I gnashed my teeth. Damn scheming Erasmo and his twisted plots—the priest had duped me. We used to be friends. I panted in loathing at the idea of dying here on this foul altar. Erasmo had tried to sacrifice my soul!

I swallowed in a dry throat and tried to concentrate. The moonlight shined painfully bright. Moonlight…the moon…Erasmo had taunted me about it. He’d said the moon was the reason…the reason—

I licked dry lips, squinted at the ancient white orb high in the heavens. Old Father Night hated the one represented by the moon. Erasmo had boasted about it. According to him, the dark deities, the slumbering ones, had once feuded bitterly. They’d sounded like Italian princes, each jealous of his or her prerogatives. I could understand that because I was the prince of Perugia.

The moon with its craters wavered strangely, or maybe my vision was failing. The pale moon seemed to take on the form of a woman’s face, with a mocking and achingly seductive smile. I strained mightily and lifted a hand. I heard the rattle of a chain. My eyesight dimmed as I lay on the altar. Blood continued to pump out my ruined stomach.

“If you hate Erasmo,” I wheezed, speaking to the moon or the one represented by it, “aid me. If you loathe Erasmo’s master, drag me off this pagan stump.”

The moon with its silvery light watched me with callous indifference. There were no dark deities. Erasmo had simply been a madman, a dupe of the Devil.

My strength failed. My hand dropped back beside me. I no longer heard the rustling leaves, the groans of wood. The world dimmed as one by one the stars began to fade. Only the silvery glare of the moon remained, my unblinking gaze focused on it.

I mumbled words that I cannot recall. I spoke them in haste, in fear and with hate. Finally, my words ceased and even the moonlight dimmed into darkness. There seemed to be motion and faraway sounds. I struggled to understand their meaning. I refused to die, to let Erasmo win. I summoned my will, and I recall a final shout. Maybe it was my voice, I no longer know. Then there was darkness, nothingness, a cessation of thought and maybe even life.

***

Abruptly there was something, although it was faint. My thoughts sluggishly returned, or a portion of them did. It was as if I clung to a rope in a deep well. Someone high above cranked the handle that drew the rope out of a subterranean cavern. The handle turned and turned. I heard its creak. No, the creaks sounded like branches. Yes, thousands of leaves rubbed together. Wind moaned. A new sensation bloomed. It was a feathery feeling. It brought another sense: that I was. The feathery feeling—something crawled across my cheek.

My eyes snapped open. A beetle parted its shell and flew off my face. I lay on my back under the stars. Tall grass waved beside me. Stars…they appeared behind thousands of shimmering leaves. Then it came to me: I no longer lay on the altar but on the cold ground. I grinned fiercely, I know not why. The grinning moved my mouth and moved something in it. The something
clicked
against my teeth. I clamped my teeth onto the metallic thing. It was round, flat, with tiny ridges along the edge. It was a…a coin. I angrily spat it out. The coin tumbled past my cheek and thudded beside my ear on the grass.

Why had a coin been in my mouth?

Fear lanced through my chest. Peasants in backwoods regions put a coin in a corpse’s mouth so he or she could pay the ferryman. It was a pagan custom from olden times. In a moment, anger replaced the fear. That was a foul trick.

I tried to sit up, and failed. Something held me fast. I tried to move my arms. They were also stuck as if tied down by ropes. Alarmed, I turned my head. I still wore my chainmail harness, but it had horribly rusted. Many times worse, however, tall blades of grass sprouted through the individual links. Together, the many blades of grass interwoven through my mail held me down like a thousand fingers.

How long had I lain here for grass to grow up through the armor?

I tried to surge up, but the combined blades of grass held me down, although my head lifted. Grass even grew through my leggings. The tallest blades fluttered in the breeze.

I bellowed and wrenched my right arm with fierce strength. Grasses tore and roots pulled out of the ground. I yanked harder, freeing my right arm. Soon, I ripped my other arm free and clawed at my sides, tearing more grass. I began wrenching my legs. Finally, with a feeling of triumph, I surged to my feet. I beat at my mail so it clinked as I knocked lodged dirt, roots and grass. I stamped the ground with my feet. Then I stopped, horrified. The grass where I’d lain was dead white.

Terror threatened to unman me. How could I have lain there so long the grass under me had died and yet I was still alive?

“I am alive,” I said, in a hoarse voice, one that startled me.

The coin I’d spit out of my mouth glowed faintly with a silvery light. Shocked, I knelt and picked it up. It was the size of a florin, the standard coin of the merchants of Florence. The engraving on one side showed mountainous Perugia, with a prominent moon above the city.

I froze. I was Gian Baglioni, the prince of Perugia. I had an enemy, Erasmo della Rovere. He had hurled a spear into my belly. I shook my head, not wanting to think about that just yet. While I had lain dying—at least, I’d thought I’d been dying—I’d spoken to the moon.

I looked up and through the leaves saw a smattering of stars. There was no moon this night. Something about the stars troubled me. I glanced around. I saw each indentation of bark on the nearest cypress trees. I frowned. It was night. At night, you needed a torch to see this well. I stared at the bark as dread stole my ability to move. This was vile sorcery. Yes, I’d been ensorcelled, possibly enslaved to a foul sorcerer or to one of Erasmo’s dark deities.

I turned the coin. It showed an engraving of an achingly beautiful woman. She looked just like the lady in the moon I’d seen before…before passing out.

I clutched the coin. “Erasmo.” I spoke his name with hatred, with the desire to slay. This was
his
doing. We had come to the swamp….

I couldn’t remember why. I realized with a shock that I’d forgotten things.

Something tugged my hand. I frowned. It tugged again. I opened my hand. The coin…by some dark witchery it wanted me to go…to a place where I could gain help. That’s what seemed to whisper in my mind.

My lips twisted into a sneer. This was witchery indeed, dark sorcery. Although I’d been ensorcelled so I could see at night like a demon, I still had my will. I was Gian Baglioni, the rightful prince of Perugia. The grass through my armor showed me I’d lain here for some time. Erasmo had long departed, of that I was certain. I wanted this spell taken from me. Therefore, I would allow the coin to tug me. Then…a fierce desire to right these hideous wrongs broke the loathing that had locked my limbs. I would free myself of sorcery, hunt down Erasmo and kill him.

Only then did I consider the spear. It had pierced my belly. Forcing myself to it, I inspected my mailcoat around my stomach. There was a tear in the middle of my gut. Much of the rust might have been dried blood. I reached around and fingered smashed links in the small of my back. The implications—the spear had gone completely through me—I leaped up and ran in a gibbering panic, sickened at the idea that I was already dead.

-2-

Wet leaves slapped my face. Mud sucked at my boots and horror crawled up my spine. I was dead. Erasmo wielding a spear had stabbed me in the stomach so all my lifeblood had flowed out of me. The lady in the moon—this was all a lie of the Devil!

After a time, a question broke through my terror. I’d been a prince of Perugia. I’d spoken with scholars, had kept several in my court. They had taught me the art of reason. If I’d died, why wasn’t I in Heaven…or in Hell?

Another leaf slapped my cheek. I tore the leaf from its branch and crushed it. I halted, released the crumpled leaf and watched it drop in the mud. I’d never seen the dead walk. I walked. I ran. How could I suppose…suppose that I was….dead?

I studied my gut. With dread, I pushed a finger through the mail and through the hole in the padding underneath. I kept pushing—and found my solid stomach underneath. There was no hole in me.

What did this mean?

Erasmo had spoken about dark deities who had once rules the Earth in olden times. The ex-priest had tried to sacrifice me on a wooden altar in order to gain power, among other things. I laughed hoarsely. Old gods, pagan altars—it was just another name for deviltry. My stomach was whole. Someone must have healed me. Then why had they put a coin in my mouth as if I’d been a corpse?

I stared at the coin, at the beauty with the mocking smile whose portrait was stamped on it. The coin still tugged my hand. I pressed a finger against my stomach. I could not deny this marvelous healing. For that, I was grateful. Yet I’d lain in the swamp long enough for grass to grow through my armor, and I saw at night like a demon. Had I been in an enchanted sleep? Minstrels told such tales.

I stared at the woman in the coin. Her beguiling smile seemed to promise me power. For a moment, she seemed alive, as if she watched me through the coin.

I clutched the coin to block her vision. I shook my head. I refused to let spells bewitch me. A cold, hard smile stretched my lips. I needed a sword, a horse and a lance. Then I would force this sorcery from me. I would gather my soldiers and scour Italy for Erasmo. Wherever he went, I would follow. Not the Devil or Erasmo’s slumbering gods could save him from my wrath. And if he’d harmed my wife or my children—

I trudged through mud and in a rage swiped aside vines. It was time to leave this dismal swamp. Cypress trees grew thickly, and there was a large body of ooze to my left. The wind blew ripples across it. By its tug, the coin suggested I enter the ooze, the slimy water. I waded into it and my foot slid in the mucky bottom. The slime was cold and soon soaked my leggings to the knees. When the slimy mud reached my groin, a coil like an octopus’s tentacle rippled into view. The coil had scales like a lizard. I watched it transfixed.

I’d never heard of such a thing in Italy.

The vile creature or its tentacle disappeared. I longed for a sword or even a knife. This was a horrible place. Warily, I resumed my trek. It was like wading through blood pudding and soon the slime reached my ribs.

Cruel laughter rang out ahead. A scream followed and a sobbing plea.

I halted a moment and then grimly waded toward the sounds. I was sick of being alone and I wanted answers. For one, I wished to know how long I’d lain in the swamp. Maybe it was dangerous heading to these ruffians, but it was night. I was in muck, in a swamp. Who would suspect me to appear from this quarter? And I saw at night like a demon. That would give me an advantage.

They sounded like brigands, either outlaws or mercenaries. Bands of mercenaries had crossed the Alps from France. These bands practiced an evil style of warfare, looting, burning and ransoming whomever they could capture.

Another scream erupted. It was of awful pain, maybe the receiving of a death-wound.

“Now you know we’re in earnest,” a man said gruffly. He had an English accent and confirmed my suspicion that they were mercenaries.

I soon spied brightness through the leaves. A fire danced beyond a dense thicket. The thicket was on higher ground, protected by a muddy bank. As I neared, a frightened horse whinnied, sounding as if it smelled a wolf or bear, something to terrify it. I studied the thickets and their leaves. The fat leaves shivered as the wind blew toward the brigands. I glanced around, but spied nothing to frighten a horse, certainly no wolves or bears. What did the horse smell?

I pried a stone loose as I climbed up the bank. The stone was my only weapon. I crawled past weeds. Then, after a careful survey, I found space under a thicket. I crawled through dirt and pried away a twig that snagged on my chainmail. Soon I spied their fire through a screen of leaves.

The brigands wore mirror-bright breastplates and mail. Most mercenaries darkened their armor as the best means of defeating rust. I’d heard of the White Company, a vain band of Englishmen who ordered their pages to polish their armor until it reflected like mirrors. These mercenaries undoubtedly belonged to the White Company.

I counted three
lances
. Normally, a lance was a knight’s spear. In this instance, a lance was a military term for a particular number and type of soldiers. In our day, a lance was composed of a squire, a soldier or man-at-arms and a page. There were also two crossbowmen. Both cradled loaded weapons. The handful of men-at-arms had belted swords. Two wore helmets. Three circled the poor wretch at a stake. There was a second stake, with a slumped-over wretch tied to it. That one looked dead. The first man wore furs and a golden medallion.

The mercenary leader was big, had a red beard and wore iron gauntlets. He grinned at the staked man. “The only thing that matters now, signor, is whether you want to buy yourself back with one arm or two.”

Another brigand suggestively hefted an axe.

“Take my medallion,” the man at the stake sobbed. “Take it, it’s all I have. You have to believe me.”

A horse screamed, and it yanked at the reins tying it to a branch. Several nearby horses neighed wildly.

“What’s the matter with them?” the red-bearded leader shouted.

A page threw up his hands to show he had no idea.

The staked man decided he had courage after all and cackled in a strange manner. He had a forked beard. In the firelight with his sweaty features, he seemed like a devil.

The red-bearded leader turned to him with a scowl.

“This is an evil swamp,” the staked man declared. “An opening to the underworld lies near. The Forgotten Ones march out on cursed nights. The dead walk and capture the living.”

The frightened horse became shrill. Its eyes rolled and spit foamed at its mouth as it struggled to tear itself free.

“Maybe he’s right,” the brigand with the axe said nervously. “This place is bad luck.”

“Shut your mouth!” the red-bearded leader snarled. “The only bad luck will be his if he doesn’t pay his ransom.”  He jerked a thumb at the staked man. “Settle the damn horse down!” he shouted at a page.

“The dead walk here!” the staked man shouted. “They’re drawn to murder and treachery. They come for you!”

The red-bearded leader whirled around and backhanded the staked man. “Do you think you’re clever? Do you think you can frighten Englishmen with your child’s tales?”

The staked man had glazed eyes. Blood trickled from his lip and into his forked beard. Yet he smiled.

A crossbowman knelt by the fire and nervously fed it twigs. With wide eyes, he stared into the darkness.

The staked man spat blood. Then he stared where I lay hidden in the thicket. I noticed his medallion. It was a heavy circle of gold. It showed a cloaked man. He silently mouthed words, seemed to aim the words at me.

I climbed to my feet and bulled through the bush.

The horses went wild. Several neighed shrilly. One broke free. It whirled around and kicked at a page. The lad barely dodged. Then the horse screamed again and galloped away.

I hurled my stone. It clanged off the red-bearded leader’s helmet. He staggered back. The crossbowman by the fire lurched upright, fumbled his weapon and pulled the trigger. I heard the
ka-chuck
. The bolt flashed past my head. It slapped leaves and disappeared into the darkness.

“You missed,” I laughed. It was a horrible sound.

The effect on the hardened brigands startled me. They stared wide-eyed as the fire cast its lurid light. The second crossbowman deliberately lifted his weapon, aimed and fired. The bolt thrummed with power. His was an arbalest, a heavy crossbow that needed a pulley to load. The bolt slammed into my torso, rocked me, and smashed out my back.

I expected to crumple to my knees. I expected to vomit blood and curse them with my dying breath. Why had I been so foolish? By the stars, that hurt. I glanced at my torso. Something black leaked out. It was a trickle, a paint of color on several links. I’d expected a gush of blood, redder than satin.

The pain angered me. I strode at the crossbowman. He dropped his weapon and clawed for his dagger. The others watched spellbound. Maybe the staked man practiced magic that froze them—I now suspected that he was a sorcerer. The crossbowman drew his dagger, cried out and stabbed. I caught his wrist before he could stab me. Then I tore the dagger from his nerveless fingers and punched the blade through his chest-plate. He stared at me with incredulous eyes and crumpled, as I should have done earlier.

Pandemonium erupted. I thought the brigands would attack. Instead, they bolted in all directions. Some freed horses and managed to mount or drape themselves onto a horse’s back. The rest charged into the forest on foot. It happened so fast that I failed to grab one for questioning. I glanced at my torso, at the wound. A little more blackness dripped out.

Why was my blood so sluggish and black? I wondered if the staked man would know. I turned toward him.

He wrestled with his bonds. It was a violent struggle, and somehow he freed an arm.

“Who are you, signor?” I asked.

His head whipped up, and his eyes went wide with fright as he stared at me.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I said.

Horror twisted his features. There was none of his former cunning in evidence, none of his devilish features. He clawed at the rope on his left wrist, bloodying himself in his frenzy. Then he yanked the rope free and hurled it at me.

I snatched the rope out of the air.

He turned and ran.

“Wait!” I shouted, and took off after him.

His head twisted around so he glanced over his shoulder. As he spied me, he shrieked and ran like the proverbial deer. He smashed past leaves and grunted whenever heavy branches clawed him.

I used my arms to ward off the same branches. I sprinted, my rusty armor a jangle of noise, my muddy boots a thud of determination. In the open areas, I gained. In the thickets, he dodged with cunning desperation. He ran away from the swamp, away from the forest. Unfortunately for me, we entered an area heavy with brush.

I caught my last glimpse of him near dawn. Sweat drenched him and flattened his hair. He’d discarded his furs so the medallion flopped on his sweaty chest. He flung his arms into the air and screamed. It sounded like a desperate plea for me to leave him alone.

Soon, my steps grew sluggish. My thoughts blurred. Had he cast a spell? If so, why had it taken so long to harm me?

The sun peeked over the horizon. Sight of the dazzling light struck me numb. Then I was falling…and I knew no more.

BOOK: Assassin of the Damned (Dark Gods)
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