Book: Mountain of Daggers

Previous: Birth of the Black Raven
Next: The Reluctant Assassin


 

“Come on, Whazzik. Who took it?” Volker strummed the taut rope stretching from Wazzik’s tied wrists. The other end ran over a ceiling rafter to a large hanging bucket filled with bricks. A second rope connected the three-foot shopkeeper’s ankles to the base of a wooden support beam, leaving the quellen suspended between them.

“I…I don’t know,” Whazzik screamed through gritted teeth. “It was…just gone.”

Volker sighed. “Two more.”

Ahren nodded, grabbed two more brown bricks from a pile in the corner, and dropped them into the pendulous bucket. The rope creaked tighter.

“I said I don’t know!” Whazzik yelled. Beads of sweat ran off his forehead and into his hand-sized quellish ears.

Nonchalantly, Volker scratched his chin. “That’s a real shame, Whazzik. I thought you knew every cutpurse and smuggler in the city. I’m sure you can think of it. Otherwise you’re going to be a lot taller.”

“I told you,” the quellen moaned, his pained face reddened almost purple. “I got to the drop off…and it was just gone. Dolfus was already dead. I never…saw anyone.”

Volker removed his cloth cap, scratched his bald head, and gestured to Ahren. Ahren dropped another heavy brick into the bucket. A sickly pop echoed from the shopkeeper’s shoulders.

“Have mercy!” he squealed.

“Mercy?” Volker smiled. “I am. You’re lucky I’m the one asking the questions instead of my friend here. They call him the Black Raven. His methods of persuasion make mine look like fun.”

“Black Raven? Never… heard of him.” The little quellen slumped his head back in an attempt to see behind him, but Ahren side-stepped behind the support pillar.

“He’s new to the city. Big-time killer down in Rhomanny. He wanted to ask you the questions, but since you’re my friend and all, I managed to convince him otherwise.” Volker leaned close to Whazzik’s large ear and whispered, “But I’m afraid that if you won’t tell me what I need, he’ll have to ask you. And neither of us wants that, do we?”

Ahren rolled his eyes at the big man’s fantastic claims. He had never asked to do the interrogation. Torture made him queasy. He set another brick onto the already overloaded bucket and the shopkeeper cried out again.

“You can scream all you like,” Volker said. “No one can hear us down here.” He nodded up to the basement door. “Shop’s closed, and these walls are mighty thick. Even if someone came inside, they wouldn’t find this door. I remember you hiding me out down here when the guards were after me. Searched your place for half an hour before giving up, remember?”

Ahren watched the hulking thug taunt his prisoner the way a wolf might circle a deer caught in a steel trap. Volker was brilliant. He spoke several languages, could read maps, and knew more obscure history and trivia than anyone Ahren had ever met. Had he chosen another profession, he might have been a scholar or a priest, but neither could satisfy Volker’s true appetite for crime.

“I remember,” Whazzik said with a forced laugh. “We’ve had a lot of good times.”

“You’re a good man, Whazzik. I’m really going to hate losing you. Unless of course, you can think of who stole my merchandise. Only someone who knew what it was would have taken it, and everyone knows not to cross you. So who was it?”

Ahren dropped another block into the bucket, now threatening to overflow.

“The Gravins,” the shopkeeper screamed. “It had to…have been the Gravins.”

Volker shot a quick glace to Ahren as his brow rose. “Who?”

“Some new…group,” Whazzik groaned. “Just heard of them myself. Got…some hideout in the Harbor District.”

“Progress,” Volker said. “Tell me about them.”

“Don’t know much about them.” The quellen winced, futilely struggling with his bonds. “Just smalltime heists…and stuff. But word is…their leader, Dolch, has got the power of a demon. It had to be them, I swear it.”

“Demon, eh?” Volker sucked something out of his teeth. “Makes sense why they’d want the egg. A drake would make a good sacrifice…or pet.” He leaned back down and growled. “You better not be lying to me.”

Whazzik feverently shook his head. “No, no. All the…other gangs know me as a fence…and know Dolfus worked for me. They…wouldn’t risk it.” Tears streamed down his cheeks. “It had to be them.”

“I believe you. But if you’re lying…” Volker slid a thick-bladed knife from his belt and ran the tip along the quellen’s shivering throat. “Good. Now I want you to find out as much about these Gravins as you can. I need to know where to find them and everything known about this Dolch. I’ll be back in three days, and if you don’t have anything, I’ll let Black Raven do the asking.”

“I’ll find out everything,” Whazzik said quickly.

“I knew I could trust you.” Volker sliced the rope binding the shopkeeper’s hands, sending him and the heavy bucket crashing to the dirt floor. “You’re a good friend, Whazzik.” He sheathed his knife and motioned to Ahren to leave.

They ascended the rickety stairs and crouched through the short, concealed door leading to the back of the shop. Passing the furniture and art cluttering the small store, they unlocked the door and stepped out onto the streets of Lunnisburg. A thin blanket of dark smog hung over the city despite the cool, sea breeze. Fresh smoke billowed from the Old Kaisers, the twenty-five statues forming the towers of the city’s outer wall. The twelve patron Saints of Lunnisburg formed the tower walls of the Kaiser’s citadel in the city’s heart. Each figure held a constantly burning basin in their right hand. The fires served as navigation points for nighttime sailors, lit the streets in a constant glow, and consumed any trash normally found in a port city. They also covered the city in a gritty haze.

“Seemed a little extreme,” Ahren said, closing the door behind them.

Volker snorted as he headed down the narrow street. “That little rat was screaming for mercy before we even added the first weight. Quellens do that because they’re small. Truth is they can handle much more pain than you or I.”

“Then why play along with it?”

“Because he’s my friend. He just needed some encouragement in order to speak. Quellens rarely share anything unless it’s to their advantage. So in lieu of gold, the best payment was his life.”

Ahren shook his head trying to grasp the unnecessary complexity of quellens. “So what are we going to do about this gang?”

The big man shrugged. “We’ll ask around about them, but probably won’t know much until Whazzik gets back with us. He has a nose for gossip and such. By this time tomorrow, half the thieves of the city will know the Black Raven’s name.”

“And that’s a good thing? There’s probably still a price on my head down in Rhomanny.”

“So? Rhomanny is far away, and Whazzik didn’t get a good look at you even if he was stupid enough to tell anyone what you look like. The important point is people know the name, and learn to fear it.”

“That doesn’t help with the Gravins,” Ahren insisted.

“We’ll report to Fritz what we know. He’ll tell us what he wants us to do about them. No gang of thieves can ever beat the Tyenee. Just because they might not know we are their masters does not excuse their sin. No matter what Fritz decides, these Gravins will learn who they really answer to.”

“So we’re to kill them?”

“With just you and me?” Volker asked with a smile. “I’m sure it would be a good fight, but a demon cult of thieves is probably best left for someone with more men; men we can afford to lose. No, I think Fritz will call for a Porvov Switch.”

“What’s that?”

“Saint Vishtin!” Volker exclaimed as he stopped and faced Ahren. “When Fritz told me we were getting a new member, I was excited. Even more so, when I heard you were a sailor and had traveled the world. I figured you’d be able to tell me all sorts of stories about places you’d been and things you’ve seen. And here you are, the Black Raven. You dazzled Kazimir into making you a member of the greatest cabal of smugglers and assassins in the world, and you don’t even know the roots of the Tyenee. We came from Rhomanny and you can’t even speak Rhomanic!” Volker’s disappointment in Ahren had been a regular conversation since his arrival three weeks ago.

“That’s why you’re teaching me,” Ahren reminded. “And the longer you delay in telling me what the Porvov Switch is, the longer you’ll be forced to associate with an ignorant.”

The bald man’s stern grimace softened into a smile. “Good point.” He turned and continued along the cobble street toward The Mermaid’s Tail. “Come along. The sooner we report, the sooner you’ll learn.”

#

Shadows slithered along the streets and looming shop fronts under the red glow from the colossal statues surrounding the city. Most reputable businesses had already closed for the evening, but customers still filled the lanes, their faces hidden beneath hooded cloaks and wide-brimmed hats. They clustered around dark stands and alleys in search of the taboo pleasures and artifacts only available in the nighttime markets of Lunnisburg.

Ahren kept his head low as he made his way through the city. The folds of his grey cloak hid the heavy rope slung over his shoulder. Ignoring the calls from whores and vendors, he followed Volker through a crowded bazaar and into a dark street away from the Old Kaisers’ watchful lights.

The steep engraved walls of Heiligstein Basilica loomed over Saint Faiga’s Square and towered over the surrounding buildings. A pair of guards in breast plates and armed with long halberds patrolled the front of the building. Their capes were white instead of rich blue, meaning they belonged to the church and not the city.

Ahren’s soft glove-leather shoes made no sound as he hugged the shadows along the neighboring buildings and passed the basilica. Two blocks further he stopped behind a smaller, and much less elaborate, domed church, and crouched between a short tree and the low wall surrounding a cemetery behind it.

A group of drunken sailors sauntered past, arguing about where they were. Ahren kept still, watching them from his hiding place. The men stopped beside a stone well and bickered for several long minutes before taking the road toward Kaiser Adelino II. A figure moved from the alley after they left, and raced toward Ahren. The clomping of its feet across the cobblestone echoed off the buildings.

“You’re loud,” Ahren whispered as Volker scurried into the bushes beside him.

“I never claimed to be the quiet one,” the bald man hissed. “Just get me up to the top of that dome and I’ll show you what I can do.”

Ahren held back his response. He leaned out, braving a peek around the bushes. The streets were empty on either side. A lighted house window looked down on the cemetery, but appeared vacant. He drew a breath, grabbed the edge of the stone wall, swung his legs onto the other side, and dropped to the ground. Keeping low, he hurried past gravestones and urns to the rear wall of the chapel and hid behind a pillar. He watched the lit window as Volker hopped the wall and crawled over to him, then pointed at his eyes and then to the window. Volker nodded and slipped behind the neighboring pillar to avoid being seen.

Briskly rubbing his hands together, Ahren let out a deep breath and jumped, grabbing the carved awning lip above him. The heavy rope pulled him slightly to the side, but he managed to scramble up onto the narrow, slate-shingled ledge above the rear door. The smooth tiles creaked underfoot as he slipped behind a statue in a dark alcove. He scanned the streets from the shadows, and watched a lone soldier in a blue tabard walk down the quiet lane talking to himself, apparently oblivious of his surroundings. Ahren waited for several heartbeats after the guard walked out of sight before emerging from his hiding place.

He climbed up and over the heavy statue, then pulled himself up onto a narrow ledge running the perimeter of the church. The cool sea breeze from the harbor pulled at his cloak, ruffling it to the side. With his face against the rough-hewn stone wall, Ahren sidestepped along the six-inch ledge to a round window. Thick stained glass filled the opening. Breaking it silently would be impossible. He glanced over his shoulder to the empty streets. A figure moved inside the open window across the street and Ahren froze. A young woman sat at a table beside the window, deeply engrossed in her needlepoint. Ahren sighed in relief, then grasped the ornate window frame and pulled himself up. He dug the toes of his soft shoes as far as he could onto the one-inch rim of molding and reached up to the ledge marking the next level of the building.

His outstretched fingers wrapped around the rough edge of the shelf and dug in. He gave a quick jump, allowing his fingers to grip a good hold before gravity caught him. Quickly he pulled himself up and then over a low wall onto the domed roof. Sweat beaded his brow, and he caught his breath for a few moments before peering back over the wall to make sure no one had witnessed him. The streets were still empty.

Ahren wrenched the coil off his shoulder and tied it at the base of a stone globe adorning the wall. After pulling the line taut, he dropped it down to where Volker waited forty feet below. The rope straightened and shuddered as the large man pulled himself up. Ahren stood watch, waiting for his companion to join him.

“That’ll wake you up,” Volker gasped after pulling himself onto the roof.

Ahren nodded, surveying the great triple-sided dome beside them. Three small statues stood along the lip tracing the opening at the dome’s summit. Hopefully they’d be strong enough to hold them.

Volker pulled up the dangling line so no passersby would notice it. Once finished he began untying the knot holding it in place.

“What are you doing?” Ahren hissed through gritted teeth. “We’ll need that to get down.”

“We’ll need it first to get inside the chapel.”

“That’s what your rope is for.”

The large man shook his head. “Mine’s for the escape.” He gave a sly smile. “Trust me.”

Ahren shrugged, not having a choice in the matter. Until he had proven himself, Volker was in charge. Fritz had made that unquestionably clear.

Volker handed the coiled rope to Ahren and nodded to the top of the dome. Ahren pulled it over his shoulder, checked again to see if anyone was looking, and climbed up the rough dome to the top.

Pigeons cooed and fluttered from just inside the dome, giving him a momentary panic as he reached the lip. He lay on his stomach and looked down through the three-foot opening. The dark chapel appeared empty. A shallow pool surrounded by inlaid stonework rested directly below.

Ahren gripped one of the carved figures standing watch over the entrance and tried to jostle it. It felt secure. Quickly, he tied the line around the statue’s base, and dropped the end into the cavernous church. Volker crawled up beside him and began fastening his own line as Ahern grabbed his rope and carefully lowered his legs through the yawning hole.

Plump grey pigeons fluttered from the rafters away from their invader. Ahren descended the line quickly, hand over hand; careful not to shake the rope too hard in case the granite anchor might not be as sturdy as he had thought. Volker’s black, slender rope dropped down beside him, and the birds once again stirred as the large man crawled down from the roof.

Upon reaching the bottom, Ahren stretched his foot out and stepped onto the outer lip of the hallowed pool that the priests used to catch rain, the holy water of Arieth, The True God. A white, lumpy skin of pigeon droppings and feathers covered the ‘purest of waters.’

Ahren dropped to the inlaid floor, careful not to disturb the priest sleeping in the room behind the eastern door. He hurried to an arched alcove. There, inside a box of beveled glass and under a massive copper lid, a withered green thumb rested on a gold- and jewel-encrusted plaque; the sacred thumb of Saint Theobold.

Volker crept up beside him and, without saying a word, grabbed the edges of the thick graven lid. Ahren took the other side and together they lifted the heavy covering. His trembling hands strained under the weight, forcing him to lean his back into it to keep from dropping it. Slowly, they lowered the cover, careful not to make any noise. The low scrape as it touched the floor echoed through the chamber, yet didn’t even disturb the cooing birds. Ahren let out a sigh, shaking the feeling back into his curled fingers.

The bald man smiled and winked at him before slipping out of the alcove toward the altar. Ahren took another breath, reached inside the box and removed the plaque from the dusty velvet pillow. The thick gold and large jewels gave the eight-inch wide tablet considerable heft. He opened the satchel at his waist and set it inside between two layers of folded cloth. Before refastening the flap, he removed a long, black raven’s feather and placed it on the empty green pillow. He smiled, imagining the priest’s face tomorrow morning. The soft rattling of a chain pulled Ahren’s attention back to the present. Volker stood before a great marble statue of Arieth, removing a golden triangle-shaped pendulum from his hands. The holy icon was worth a fortune, but the relic inside Ahren’s pouch was priceless. The church would do anything to retrieve it, likely forgetting about the triangle.

Volker tucked the treasure inside his satchel and gave the signal he was ready. Ahren tightened the ties to his pouch, adjusted the strap digging into his shoulder, and hurried to the dangling ropes.

Despite his size, Volker hurried up the line with a spider’s grace. He had already untied and coiled his rope by the time Ahren reached the top. Ahren pulled his rope up and slung it back over his shoulder.

They scooted down the side of the high dome to the outer wall. Ahren made sure no one was watching as Volker tied his line to one of the spheres. A horse-drawn carriage rolled down the street toward them, forcing the thieves to hide in the shadows until it had passed. After the sound of hooves faded away, Volker motioned for Ahren to climb down.

Ahren took the round silk line and noticed Volker’s irregular-shaped knot holding it in place. The gnarled series of figure eights didn’t resemble any knot Ahren had ever seen. Making a note to show his mentor proper rope skills, he dropped the line down the other side and lowered himself to the cemetery below then hid behind one of the columns.

Volker zipped down the smooth rope and crouched beside the wall. Taking the end of the rope he tied a reverse version of the knot above. Once done, he pulled the rope taught and the coiled mass slid up the line to the top. He jerked the rope once more and it fell free of the wall. Ahren stared in bewildered shock.

“I spent two years with a traveling circus,” the bald man said, re-coiling the silk line. “One of their acrobats taught me this trick, but you have to use a special rope for it. Maybe one day I’ll teach it to you.” He threw the coil over his shoulder and pulled his wide cloak around to hide it. “Let’s go.”

They slipped out of the graveyard, and followed the alleys back to Fritz's tavern.

#

Alarm bells rang early the next morning. Church and city guards raided every known fence and burglar in the city. Some even ventured into the dark undercity, hassling and evicting many of the vagrants in their desperate search. Whispers of the stolen artifact quickly spread, as rumors do. A trio of armored soldiers burst into Whazzik’s shop and interrogated him for an hour after rifling through his merchandise. The six gold dreins Volker had given him ensured that they learned nothing but a mention that the Gravins might be involved.

Hammering echoed down the cobbled streets as reward posters were nailed to every post and chapel door: Eternal Salvation for the return of Saint Theobold’s remains, and one thousand dreins for the culprits. Greed fueled suspicion, and rampant accusations filled the city.

Patrols doubled that night, especially near churches and government offices. Spies infiltrated the nighttime markets trying to uncover any mention of the stolen artifact.

Near midnight, Ahren and Volker left the security of the inn and headed into the city. Ahren’s hand kept finding its way to the heavy bag hung over his shoulder. Every glance from other nighttime travelers felt like an accusation. He couldn’t wait to be rid of the relic.

Volker leisurely led them down common streets, strolling the city as if nothing troubled him. Finally, they entered the harbor district, passing long piers heavy with moored ships. Gulls squawked and circled overhead, their white bodies cast red under the Old Kaisers’ torches. The steady breeze off the sea carried low murmurs of dice games and fights. Tired whores, their tight bodices laced over crumpled dresses, stood prattling in a pack; one occasionally sauntering into an unlit alley with a customer.

The two men passed rows of blocky warehouses, each painted differently to signify its owner. Soldiers and private mercenaries patrolled the cluster of buildings like packs of stray cats in the shadows hunting for food.

A pair of burnt out warehouses sat in the back away from the rest. Fire had all but consumed one, leaving but a skeleton of charred timbers, while its blackened neighbor still held its shape. They slipped between a stack of empty crates, and watched the buildings. Whazzik had told them the Gravins’ lair was there. Hopefully, the drake egg was inside, and still intact.

Volker tapped Ahren’s hand and motioned to a lanky figure hovering near the rear wall. The man’s gray and brown striped cloak blended well with his surroundings. The Gravin guard circled the abandoned warehouse once, before taking a seat on an overturned barrel.

Volker picked up a pair of rusty nails lying beside the boxes, then pointed to a pile of rubble between the ruined buildings, gesturing Ahren to go. Keeping low, Ahren followed the line of crates past the sentry’s line of sight, and then darted across toward the heap of charred debris. Broken bottles and loose stones encircled the buildings, forcing him to move carefully to avoid making any noise. He reached the spot and crouched behind the mound of blackened brick and timber.

A sharp thud echoed in the silence followed by the cling of metal skittering off cobblestones. Ahren held his breath, listening for the man’s footsteps. Another thwack sounded against the warehouse wall and the metallic ring of Volker’s second nail.

Ahren waited.

Soft footsteps came close. Ahren slid his dagger from its leather sheath. A shadow passed over him as the oblivious guard circled past, investigating the sounds of Volker’s nails. Once the man’s back was to him, Ahren sprang from his position, clapped his hand over the sentry’s mouth and brought the dagger pommel down hard against his head. The body fell limp to the ground. He untied the man’s tattered cloak, revealing a short, thick-bladed sword at his waist, then winced, hearing Volker’s heavy boot steps racing toward him. “You’re still too loud,” he hissed as the man crouched beside him.

“Why didn’t you kill him?” Volker asked.

“I have an idea.” Ahren pulled off his own cloak and hat and put the man’s striped cloak on. It stank of smoke and fish.

“Ah.” The brute nodded. “Good idea. Take his sword, too.”

“It’ll get in the way when I’m climbing.”

“Manage,” Volker growled. “First, it helps the disguise. Second, you might need it.”

Grumbling, Ahren untied the leather cords securing the blade to the man’s leg and slid the sheath off his belt. The unconscious brigand stirred. Volker whipped out his own knife from his boot and sliced the man’s throat. Blood, black under the faint light, gurgled from the wound and pooled beneath the guard, running down through a grid of slender valleys between cobblestones. Ahren glanced away. Death wasn’t uncommon among his profession, but he preferred not to be a witness.

After hiding the body behind the debris pile, the two men circled to the main warehouse entrance. The heavy door was barred. Ahren squinted through a knot-hole in one of the planks, but a heavy cloth had been hung on the inside, covering the hole. A dim light flickered through the coarse fabric. He put his ear to the hole and held his breath. Vague murmurs came from within.

“Are they in there?” Volker whispered.

Ahren nodded. “I can’t make out what they’re saying or how many there are.”

“Let’s assume it’s all of them, and be careful.”

They hurried around to the rear of the building where the guard had sat, and there they found a smaller door. A pair of rough-cut boards straddled the entrance, discouraging beggars or vagrants from entering. Ahren studied the timbers, finding that they were only nailed to the frame. The door itself could still be opened. Footprints in the ashen dust outside the entrance verified its frequent use. He scanned the eaves above him. The flat roof angled slightly down the building from front to back and he couldn’t see how much of it was still intact.

“Give me a boost,” he whispered, motioning to the roof. “I’ll try to get inside and get the egg.”

Volker dropped to one knee and laced his fingers together. Ahren put his foot in the big man’s hands and Volker hoisted him up with a grunt. Ahren grabbed the edge of the roof and pulled himself forward, cursing the uncomfortable position of the sword that restricted his leg’s mobility.

The dreary roof sagged under its own weight. Faint light glimmered up from an ominous fissure on the opposite side. Twin valleys of drooping shingles showed a support beam running between them all the way to the dark hole. Hopefully the timber could hold his weight.

“What do you see?” Volker hissed.

“There’s an opening. I can probably get inside there and get the egg,” Ahren replied softly. “Stay out here just in case.” To his relief, the bald man nodded and took position behind one of the broken barrels beside the door. The roof wouldn’t hold Volker’s clumsy weight, and besides, Ahren preferred the thought of stealth. He crouched to his hands and knees to spread his weight and followed the straight beam to the fissure. The spongy wood creaked and bowed slightly under him. He crawled faster before it had time to give way. Stopping where the roof curled down along the edge of the opening, he leaned his head inside. A low voice crept up to meet him.

“‘Are you afraid, Dolch?’ it asked me.”

A charred narrow loft littered with debris and fallen timbers lay only a few feet below him. Ahren slithered down through the opening and dropped gently onto it. The sword brushed a loose shingle, sending it clattering down onto the ledge. He froze. Sweat beaded his brow during the heavy silence.

“But I was too afraid to answer,” the voice continued. “The little light from the basement window behind me had been eaten up by the surrounding darkness. I heard its voice again from all sides. ‘Are you frightened because you cannot see, my child?’”

Ahren wormed his way over burnt boxes, careful not to touch any loose floorboards, until he came to the loft’s edge. Several milky tallow candles and smoking oil lamps flickered near the back of the warehouse. Half a dozen men sat on slapdash benches of boards and chipped bricks. A man in a black hooded cloak stood before them. The yellow candle light seemed to dim around him.

“‘I can save you, my son. I can cure the wound slowly killing you. I can show you the darkness as no mortal has ever seen it. But for a price…’”

The men hung on the speaker’s every word. Ahren pulled his attention away from the hypnotic sermon and scanned the rest of the room. Several boxes and bolts of fabric stood along one wall. Nine moldy cots clustered in the far corner near an unsanded table. Crumbs and cards littered the tabletop amidst globs of melted wax. He peered through the slats to find a crude altar directly beneath him. Gold jewelry glinted from the ebony velvet that covered the wide pedestal. A pitted, oblong rock lay in the middle of the altar before a mirror of polished obsidian. The drake egg! Ahren’s eyes widened. The ugly stone was no larger than a child’s head, yet in another year it would be the size of a man’s and then the creature inside would break free, fully grown.

“So I pledged myself to the darkness and took it into me,” the leader hailed. “And my wounds healed and my eyes could clearly see everything in the darkness around me. In that moment, it told me its secret. A secret I can spend a lifetime sharing with you.” He held out his hand and black flame erupted in his palm. The rayless fire danced in his grasp, consuming more of the room’s already faint light. Inky drops ran between his curled fingers and fell sizzling to the floor.

Ahren stared at the accursed flame, then scooted back over the cluttered shelf and moved to an unlit corner away from the cult. The narrow ladder-like steps that had once led up from the floor had long since collapsed, but a thick wooden pillar supported the loft and the ceiling above. He wrapped his arms around the sooty column, and slid silently down to the floor.

“But the darkness demands sacrifice.”

A sense of foreboding surrounded the squat altar. Ahren knelt before it, and opened his satchel. Careful to not make any noise, he removed the golden placard and slipped it beneath the shimmering velvet blanketing the shrine where he hoped no one would find it by accident.

Volker had told him that in the early years of the Tyenee, when they first infiltrated the great Rhomanic city of Porvov, a powerful gang already ruled the streets. The Tyenee, aware they couldn’t beat them in an all-out war, staged a heist, broke into the royal palace, and stole the Czar’s coronation scepter. The search to reclaim it had been fierce and dozens of men suspected of the crime died upon the rack. Finally, an anonymous note found its way into the czar’s hand, revealing that the scepter was stolen by the other gang, and told where to find it in their hideout. After the execution of every member of their rival, the Tyenee rose and took hold of the city’s underworld.

“Who among you is ready to make the eternal pledge?” Dolch asked.

“I,” the men intoned in unison.

Ahren caught his reflection in the black mirror as he reached for the egg. The sinister image stared back at him with a knowing look—and smiled. Terrified, Ahren snatched the heavy stone egg from the table and crawled quickly away; his fiendish doppelganger watching with amused glee from inside the obsidian mirror.

“Who among you would die for it?” Dolch’s voice filled the room.

“I,” the thieves replied.

The egg was too wide for his satchel, forcing Ahren to hold it tightly under one arm as he shimmied back up the support pillar. Sweat ran down his face, and coated his palms. His slick hand slipped on the soot-coated beam, but he squeezed tighter with his knees in order not to fall. The sword handle at his waist dug painfully into his thigh, and his heart labored with fear and exertion. He struggled over the loft’s edge and crawled up onto it.

Dolch’s sermon grew to a crescendo. “Then I ask you, my children—”

A weak board cracked under Ahren’s knee. Its loud pop silenced the room.

Dolch’s eyes narrowed. “Intruder,” he screamed, hurling the ebony fire in Ahren’s direction.

Ahren ducked. The fire struck the roof behind him. Penetrating cold erupted around him, engulfing the area in shadow. He fled toward the exit in the roof, frost coating his clothes and the creaking floor.

“Stop him,” Dolch shrieked.

His fingers numb, Ahren reached the hole and jumped through it as another explosion of stygian fire narrowly missed him. The light from the Old Kaisers had never felt so inviting. He scrambled up onto the roof, the egg still tucked under his arm, and rushed to the nearest edge. His foot plunged through the weak roof and he fell, face first. The egg flew from his arms, bounced off the shingles, and vanished over the edge. He ripped his foot free and jumped to his feet as Dolch leapt from the large hole.

Dolch gave him a wicked smile. The inky flames ignited in his hand again.

Ahren jerked a dagger from its sheath and hurled it. Dolch tossed the ball of black fire. The spell collided with Ahren’s blade in the air between the men and exploded in an icy blast that hurled Ahren from the rooftop. He fell to the street and hit the hard cobbles with a thud. Groaning, he looked up as Dolch leapt off the roof with a tiger’s grace. The demon-man laughed, and lifted another handful of his cursed fire. A blurred figure rose up behind him, knocking him to the ground. Volker, clutching the drake egg, kicked the fallen gang leader, and drew his knife. Dolch swept Volker’s legs, sending the brute to the ground and the knife skittering away. He flew up to his feet like a marionette being pulled by invisible strings and jet flames erupted from his fist as he turned to face Volker.

Forcing himself to his feet, Ahren pulled the small sword from his hip, and lunged with a scream of rage.

Dolch turned in surprise as the thick blade lashed down. The iron tip sliced through his face, ripping one of his eyes and sending a fan of blood across the alley. He staggered back, clutching his bleeding face.

The cries of the thieves bursting from the warehouse warned Ahren he was out of time. He hurled the sword at his wounded enemy. The ill-weighted weapon missed the man’s chest, but skewered his arm and knocked him back to the ground. Ahren reached for Volker, grabbed his friend’s hand, and pulled him up. Volker, still clutching the egg, raced with him through the streets away from the gang’s howls and curses.

They hurried through a maze-work of cluttered alleyways until they reached a populated square, then slowed to a casual stroll, huffing and coated in sweat, past the scant crowd and wary guards. They meandered along a wide street to the other side of the market, then ducked into the alleys and doubled back toward the safety of The Mermaid’s Tail.

Later that night, a street urchin dropped a letter in the slot outside the palace gate. The ‘Rat Hole’, as it was called, allowed any and all citizens to report injustices, or denounce criminals without fear. Before sunrise, a unit of soldiers stormed a burnt-out warehouse in the Harbor District. The thumb of Saint Theobold, as well as other stolen goods, was recovered and six thieves were arrested. The body of a seventh brigand was found outside with a cut throat, but their leader was nowhere to be found. Rumors spread that an unholy altar had been discovered inside their den.

Before dying on the gallows, some days later, one of the thieves declared, “Dolch will have his revenge.” How the convict had been able to speak so clearly, without a tongue and while swinging from the noose, would be debated and argued in taverns and barracks for years.

Meanwhile, Ahren and Volker enjoyed lounging in the comforts of Fritz’s inn, and the frequent comments that Ahren needed to prove himself became nothing more than a memory. He continued his tutelage, receiving less supervision from his seniors and assuming more responsibilities, yet every night he kept a burning lamp beside his bed to chase away the darkness.

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