Ten wretched years spent fleeing daemons and debt, reduced to a vagabond with little more than the clothes on my back and a set of loaded dice. Every week brought different taverns, different faces, and none that cared if I died in a ditch. The same old scams day after day, blurring into a dreary endless mass as I kept two steps ahead of the unnatural beasts that stalked me. I was a hollow man clinging to existence for a single purpose. It was a price I was more than willing to pay.
I stared into my ale-cup and wondered what had become of my old friends, the very reason for my exile. Concentrating on Lynas’ presence in the back of my mind, I felt his comforting warmth pulsing through the Gift-bond that irrevocably linked the two of us. We were more than friends, and more than family; we were part of each other. He was still alive, though a hundred leagues between us had reduced our magical bond to a single thread of sensation that offered no further insight. The deal still held – my exile kept Lynas, Charra and their daughter Layla safe and healthy. It was all that kept me going.
As I did on every anniversary of my flight from home, the great city of Setharis, I lifted a cup in their honour. I drained dregs as sour as my mood and thumped it down on the rough table, a splinter jabbing my finger. The wood was battered and scarred, every bit as worn down as I felt. Come the morning I’d be glad to finally see the back of this dingy tavern and tedious town of Ironport. I teased the sliver of wood from my skin and sucked at the bright bead of blood, the fiery savour of magic bursting on my tongue, expanding my senses.
A hint of burning reached my nostrils: pitch, woodsmoke, and something more unpleasant that tickled the back of my throat. It wasn’t coming from the tavern’s kitchen. The docks perhaps? I squinted at the door to the street and wondered if I should step out into the night air and take a look, but then the serving girl drew my full attention, weaving towards me through a clamouring crowd of dusty and drink-starved miners just off the last shift in the iron mines.
“Here you are, m’lord,” she said, setting a steaming bowl of stew down in front of me. She flashed a coquettish smile and batted her eyelashes in what I could only assume was meant to be an alluring manner; or perhaps she had something stuck in her eye. Her gaze lingered over the ragged scars that cut from the corner of my right eye to my jaw and trailed off down my neck, intrigued by their unspoken tale – which was how it would remain. Some stories are dangerous.
“Thank you, lass,” I said, already feeling the fuzzy warmth of alcohol spreading from my belly. I was pleasantly tipsy rather than drunk, but the night was young yet and I wasn’t here for anything so insipid as pleasant – no, I was trying to drown the thought of yet another year bled out in the gutters. I slid my cup towards her. “More ale. Keep it coming.”
The high and mighty magi of the Arcanum had beaten it into us that no magus should ever get drunk, but I never had given a rat’s arse about their stupid rules. They might rule Setharis but they did not rule me. Once those arrogant bastards got their claws into a magically Gifted mind like mine they never, ever, let go, and they would be hounding me still if I hadn’t taken great pains to fake my death. A bucket of my blood, a lot of magic, and a masterwork of deception was a small price to pay to get them off my back. If only my daemons were as easy to fool.
From the other side of the tavern, old Sleazy glared at the serving girl with his one remaining eye, bald and scarred pate beading with sweat as he hefted a barrel of ruby ale into place behind the bar. She hastily collected my empty cup, favouring me with another smile before scurrying off back to the kitchen.
She wasn’t dissuaded by my scars, overlooking the ugliness because of my fine clothes and a pouch fat with coin. I was ostensibly a good catch, and she was still young and pretty enough to think herself destined for something more exciting than a life of drudgery in a grimy little mining town like Ironport. She wasn’t to know that I was a liar and a killer, or that my pouch held mostly copper bits. She couldn’t know that in Setharis the name Edrin Walker would cause folk to slam doors and trace symbols in the air to ward off evil.
I shuddered. Best avoid thinking about home, of deals, dead gods and daemons, and force myself to ponder better things. Safer things. I watched the bloodied sliver of wood burn in the flame of my table candle – it really wouldn’t do to leave any trace of my magic here. My pursuers could track me by such things, which is why I used it so rarely.
The girl hurried back with another cup of ale – a better brew than I’d paid for – before moving on to serve a table of rowdy, drunken sailors bandying rumours of missing ships and Skallgrim sea-raiders pillaging villages up and down the coast. Sailors were wont to exaggerate, and their fanciful tales devolved into wild rumours of kidnapped children and blood sacrifice, nothing I hadn’t heard a hundred times before about the tribal savages from across the Sea of Storms.
I ignored their wagging tongues and watched the girl. I wasn’t about to disabuse her of any fanciful notions on my last night in town, to ruin my only chance for a little fun; with my itinerant lifestyle it was in short supply. Sleazy turned his gimlet glare on me and I looked away. That sour bastard’s single eye held as much malice as any ten normal men could muster. The tavernkeep was not so easily fooled. He must have been pleased when a couple of overdue ships finally docked, ready to carry me away from his shitty little tavern in the morning.
I was sat in a corner of the rundown shack, eponymously titled Sleazy’s Tavern, swilling ale and chowing down on the special stew, trying to figure out what the slimy grey lumps of surprise meat actually were, when somebody kicked open the door and hurled in a lantern. It exploded against the wall, flaming oil showering drinkers and setting the rush floor-mats ablaze. People screamed, tearing at burning clothes and hair. Wood that had soaked up untold years of spilt alcohol eagerly took light, black smoke billowing through the tavern.
Coughing and spluttering, smoke stinging my eyes and burning my throat, I snatched up my pack and shoved a dirt-smeared miner out of my way as I bolted for the door. I got out a split-second before the panicked and heaving mob behind me blocked the only exit to the street in a frantic attempt to claw their way out of the inferno all at the same time. Those at the back would die choking if they were lucky, burning if not.
I sensed the attack a moment before blackened steel came swinging through the smoke towards my face. I ducked and an axe crunched through the skull of the unlucky sap behind me. A bearded Skallgrim raider in chain and furs, his shaven head tattooed with angular runes, snarled and yanked at the weapon embedded in the corpse blocking the doorway. Head still down, I charged, ramming my shoulder into his belly. He lost grip of his weapon and stumbled, falling to one knee. I wasn’t a great fighter, but even I knew that only fools gave their foes time to think. I booted his raised knee and it crunched inwards. He fell onto all fours and I stamped on his weapon-hand, grinding down. He howled in pain as small bones popped beneath my heel.
I thought he was done and tried to make my escape, but he had other ideas. He grabbed hold of my belt with his uninjured hand and hauled me closer. I tried to pull away but the press of bodies behind me made that impossible. He launched himself forward, jaw clamping down on my crotch. Shitshitshitshit – it wasn’t the first time somebody had swung an axe at my face, but nobody had tried to bite my cock off before! In drunken panic a trickle of magic squirted through my flesh, strengthening muscles. I smashed my fist into the raider’s face and his teeth lost their grip. My knee snapped up to break his nose with a crunch of bone and cartilage. He went down hard, shaved head cracking off the cobbles. The protective runes inked into his scalp didn’t seem to help much as my boot rammed into his face, once, twice, then again for good measure, leaving it a toothless cavern – that biting bastard was finished now.
I frantically checked my crotch. I was all there. Fortunately he had just eaten linen. These Skallgrim were cracked in the head – I was all for fighting dirty, but trying to bite a man’s cock off was just plain wrong.
A half-dozen people scrambled out behind me, wheezing for air and hissing in pain, their legs and backs blackened and blistered. A handful more crawled out into the muddy street, hair and clothes smouldering. The rest were dead or dying. The sulphurous reek of burnt hair was vile enough, but the fetor of burning human flesh made me gag: that sweetly putrid coppery stench is so thick and cloying that it is more like taste, and not something you ever got used to, or forgot.
The Worm of Magic had uncoiled inside my mind and was begging to be unleashed, promising to extinguish my panic. Magi had never determined if the Worm was real – the urgings of a living magic wanting to be used – or an imaginary personification invented to explain magic’s effects on the human body, but in any case the seduction to use magic was a palpable need, and the more you used it, the more holes the Worm ate through a magus’ self-control. Like a leaky bucket riddled with woodworm, sooner or later most of us gave in and let the magic flow. That was the beginning of the end – there was no patching over holes in self-control if the entire bottom of the bucket fell out. I fought down its urgings to open my Gift wide and let the sea of magic beyond flood through unchecked – when you’ve had magic-sniffing daemons snapping at your heels for ten years it tends to make you wary about advertising your presence, and I’d already been stuck in this dunghill town too long for comfort thanks to those missing ships.
Even lying low, traces of my magic lingered in bodily excretions and the shadow cats would scent it sooner or later, when they eventually got close enough. Their nose for magic was far more sensitive than any human, even the vaunted Arcanum sniffers. The daemons had been hunting me ever since I fled Setharis, were still stalking me long after everybody else thought me dead, forcing me to constantly move from place to place to ensure the damned things didn’t get close enough. By cart, boat and constant subterfuge I had mostly managed to stay two steps ahead. Now I needed to find somewhere well-lit, somewhere safe from prowling shadow cats. Despite the dangerous delay, thanks to the many streams around Ironport I should still be safe – the things couldn’t abide running water – but paranoia had kept me alive thus far.
The serving girl lay face down in the mud, sobbing, her dress burnt onto her back. I stepped over her and squinted into the night, trying to figure out what was happening, which way to run.
It was chaos. Smoke and running battles filled the street. Fire had spread from Sleazy’s Tavern to the adjoining houses but the smelters and smithies had been left intact. Screams and the clash of steel pierced the night as Ironport militia leapt from their beds to repel the raiders. In the smoke and darkness it proved impossible to tell how many were attacking the town. I’d been due to embark on the first ship out in the morning and it was bloody typical they’d chosen to attack the night before I sailed.
I looked out to sea. Ah, cockrot. By the light of the broken moon I glimpsed a dozen more Skallgrim wolf-ships pulling up onto the wide shingle beach, red crystals set into snarling, bestial prows catching the firelight and flaring bright like daemonic eyes. They disgorged bellyfuls of hairy axemen, who charged straight towards the centre of town. Towards me. They were desperate to join the battle before others claimed the best loot. They were accompanied by a shaman in an antlered deer-skull mask. I was no Arcanum sniffer but even I could sense the unfocused magic leaking from him, marking him as strongly Gifted but untrained. He was one of the halrúna, the spiritual leaders of the Skallgrim tribes that ranked above war leaders and tribal chiefs.
The shaman began wailing, harsh voice undulating as he slit his palm with a knife and shed blood in a circle across the pebbled shore, the beginnings of some vile heathen ritual. Drums beat in the night as yet more ships approached the beach, the heavy, primal booming infecting the townsfolk with fear.
Somebody limped up beside me. It was old Sleazy, an iron-bound club held in his scarred hands. He stared at the Skallgrim, jaw working but no sound emerging. Then he spat at his feet and hefted the club, looking as if he expected me to fight by his side.
“Sod that,” I said. “You’re on your own, pal.” With that limp, there was no way Sleazy would be able to escape and I wasn’t about to tangle with any Gifted heathen, however weak his magic. This town was already doomed and I wasn’t going down with it. Heroism could get a man killed.
I raced for the docks. With any luck the sailors were preparing to make a run for it. I rounded a corner and caught sight of the ships. Sailors swarmed over the rigging of a decrepit Setharii caravel and our sleek Ahramish merchantman, readying both to set sail. For once my luck had held. I was glad that I wouldn’t have to lay low in the sodden bowels of that rotting caravel, hugging the coast of Kaladon south to Setharis; me, I was heading out across the Sea of Storms to the librocracy of Ahram in the distant lands of Taranai. I loathed the sea, but any destination that wouldn’t get me killed was better than home.
Shouts and screams rose over Ironport as the raiders overwhelmed the militia and began wholesale butchery. I could sense the tiny sparks of magic that were carrion and plague spirits flocking to the town, invisible mindless mouths drawn to feed and breed on the magic released by spilt blood and death.
The greasy, rancid reek of blood magic filled the air, and with it the wince-inducing shriek of the Shroud tearing, like the metallic screech of a knife across a plate to the magically sensitive. The world cried out in pain as its protective magical skin was punctured by the power of human sacrifice. The Skallgrim’s corrupt shaman opened a portal to alien realms far from this one and ravening daemons crawled through the wound, ripped from their lairs in the Far Realms, other worlds distant and wildly different from ours but every bit as real. Most did not have a Shroud to guard their unfortunate and deadly inhabitants from abduction and domination by blood sorcery.
The burning debris of another wolf-ship floated nearby, the handiwork of an Arcanum pyromancer standing on the deck of the caravel, flames crawling up his bare arms. I grinned, glad that the magus was heading the other way – there was always a small chance the magus might know a name and face as reviled as Edrin Walker’s. Hah, I was safe.
And then the vision pierced my skull. Lynas’ terror surged in through the Gift-bond and I saw through his eyes:
“Help!” Lynas scrambles over the rain-slick cobbles, pounds on another crude door, the stench of blood and smoke all around him. “I need help!” Splinters from the rough wood prick his flesh but he ignores the pain, pounds all the harder. “Let me in, curse you!” He slams his shoulder into the door, but it barely shakes.
No answer, just a dog barking in reply. But then nobody in the slums of Docklands is going to open their door to a stranger at night, not if they know what’s good for them. He’s all too aware of that, but it’s not like he has any other choice. He keeps trying to reach his old friend Walker through the Gift-bond, to somehow warn him in case he doesn’t make it, but with his stunted Gift he knows it’s likely impossible. He’s no magus and has no way to even know if it works.
Clickclick, clickclick, clickclick…
Lynas spins, heart thudding. A daemon glitters in the moonlight, crystalline, many-eyed, scuttling towards him down the alley like a spider made of knives, its limbs all straight lines and jagged cutting edges. With just enough of the Gift to sense the otherness of the creature, Lynas can tell it’s not native to Setharis, not even to this world. And he knows it’s been sent to tear him to pieces.
They’ve found him.