Read a sample from BLOODMAGE by Stephen Aryan
Watchmen and spies, assassins and criminals will clash on the streets of a war-torn city in this magic-fuelled adventure from the author of Battlemage. Pick up this series if you like the sound of mage-on-mage battles, and you're ready to watch the fireballs fly.
A large crowd had gathered on the street by the time Byrne arrived at the murder scene.
“Guardian of the Peace, let me through,” he said, shoving people aside. “All right, fun’s over. Go home.”
He kept up the litany of platitudes, trying to get the obstinate crowd to move on even though he knew there was something to see. The people of Perizzi never passed up on a bit of street theatre.
Worried and scared faces surrounded him on all sides. People who’d spilled out of nearby taverns. A large group of fishermen on their way home after a long day at sea. A gaggle of drunk Morrin, their horned heads peeking over the crowd. A clutch of local merchants. A pair of tall Seve traders. A lesser noble flanked by two Drassi bodyguards and even a black-eyed Zecorran. He lurked on the fringe of onlookers, nervously dividing his attention between the crowd and the dead body. A few people glared but so far it had not come to anything more than dirty looks.
Just over a year had passed since the west, united under the Mad King of Zecorria, had surrendered to Seveldrom. Perizzi, the capital of Yerskania, had liberated itself in the final days, but the scars of the war still remained. In the days immediately afterwards, people went through the motions, pretending nothing had changed and that they could just go back to their old lives. Buying and selling, getting on with their jobs, drinking and gambling, loving and fighting. But it was just a sham. A shadow play where everyone knew their part.
No one had been unaffected. No one left without scars of some kind on the outside or within. After weeks and then months without a resurgence in violence the people in Perizzi finally started to relax. They stopped overreacting to small outbursts of hostility. Stopped staring at every stranger with suspicion and gradually a new rhythm started to emerge. People started paying attention to what needed rebuilding and what needed to change. When they realised another conflict wasn’t around the corner they finally started to live again.
More than a year on and only now did Byrne think life had started to get back to a semblance of normality on the streets. That also meant a return to a certain volume of crimes being reported, but he’d been expecting that too.
Trade, the life-blood of the city, continued to flow. During the war it had stalled, but now it too had returned to a familiar level. In turn it generated noise, chaos, traffic and crime. The borders were open again and Yerskania traded with people from all nations, even the savage Vorga. But many still blamed Zecorria for letting a mad King take their throne and for dragging everyone into a pointless war. People needed someone to blame for everything that had happened and the Zecorrans drew the shortest straw.
When he reached the front Byrne gave the crowd another cursory glance. His instincts told him the killer had not come back to relive the moment or gloat at the inability of the Guardians to catch him.
Stood beside the body was another Guardian, Tammy Baker, a blonde who towered over everyone on the street. She and one member of the Watch were trying to keep the crowd back, but were having some difficulty as everyone wanted a look at the dead victim. Someone had covered the body with a cloak, but a shrunken claw poked out from underneath.
Byrne sighed. He’d seen two like it before. This wasn’t a normal murder. It was something else, something messy and daring this time. The killer hadn’t even bothered to try and hide the body this time. A squad of six members of the Watch turned up and they began to force the crowd away from the victim.
“All right, time to go home,” said Byrne, facing the crowd. “Get moving. Go on.”
The Watch started to chivvy the crowd and a few people began to disperse. Byrne pulled one of the Watch aside and pointed out the nervous Zecorran.
“Find out where he lives and walk him partway there. When you’re sure no one is following, come back here.”
The majority of onlookers were refusing to leave.
“Sergeant. Encourage them to disperse.”
The Watch started turning people around, shoving them and forcing them backwards. Byrne stood with his arms crossed, doing nothing, simply watching the crowd. Eventually the onlookers realised nothing would happen while they lingered. All but the most stubborn took the hint and drifted away. Only when the majority were on their way did he turn back to the body and lift a corner of the cloak. Squatting down beside it Byrne tried to take in every detail and not think that it used to be a person. It was a lot easier to study if he made it into a thing in his head.
As far as dead bodies went, this one looked particularly unpleasant. Judging by the length of the corpse and size of the hands and feet, it had once been a man. Anything more than that was difficult to tell because of its condition. Although it had been lying on the ground for less than an hour, the body looked as if it had been decomposing for decades. All of its skin had been stretched tight over the bones. The eyes resembled two black raisins in cavernous sockets. The tongue was reduced to a shrivelled black lace. The mouth gaped open in a silent scream, but he was willing to bet no one had heard a thing.
Looking over the body Byrne saw no visible wounds or marks on the skin. No blood on the ground and the skull wasn’t crushed or mangled in any way.
“Third one in three weeks,” said Baker, clenching her jaw. Her fists were criss-crossed with old scars, the legacy of her former profession as an enforcer for one of the city’s crime Families. Her unusual height was a gift from her Seve father, and if not for her pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, people wouldn’t think her local. Byrne was constantly studying people and trying to unravel their stories. Today was no different, except he couldn’t question his subject, so he’d have to find answers in a different way.
“Same story as before?” he asked, looking at their location and the surrounding buildings. The body lay in the middle of a fairly busy side street. Three roads connected at a junction less than half a dozen paces away. People regularly used this street as a shortcut down to the docks to visit the cheap taverns and seedier brothels that lined the waterfront. It wasn’t exactly out of the way. The killer was becoming bold. Or desperate.
“No one saw or heard the murder,” said Baker, shaking her head. “I spoke to a few drinkers dockside. They saw a bright light in the sky. Described it as orange or red. They thought a building had caught fire.”
Byrne didn’t comment because they all knew what that meant. Magic.
He stared at the body, trying to absorb everything about the scene before all the evidence was taken away. The victim had a silver ring on one finger and the coin purse in his pocket was half full. But it had never been about robbery.
The sound of marching feet intruded on Byrne’s thoughts.
“What’s he doing here?” asked Baker as the Watch snapped to attention.
“Three in three weeks,” said the Khevassar, his shadow falling over Byrne.
Byrne stood up, towering over his superior. Unlike everyone else, the Khevassar’s red uniform was edged with silver instead of black and he didn’t carry any weapons. The Old Man wasn’t much to look at, slightly built with white hair and blue eyes, but he was one of the most intelligent and dangerous men in Perizzi. For as long as anyone could remember he’d used the honorary title and nothing else. Some Guardians believed him to be a distant heir to the throne who’d given up his position for a life of service. Others had more outlandish ideas, but having studied the man, Byrne knew they were nothing more than stories. There was no mystery. Whoever he’d been before wasn’t important. He defined himself by what he did, not who he’d been.
Six more members of the Watch flanked the Khevassar and a rotund surgeon trailed after them, huffing at the Old Man’s unforgiving pace.
“Same as the others?” asked the Khevassar.
“Sucked dry. Not a drop of moisture left,” said Byrne, gesturing at the corpse and then the streets. “The killer could’ve come from one of six directions. Easy to disappear down here in the warren.”
Centuries ago the city had been a fishing village, then a trading post. Over the years the ramshackle wooden buildings beside the docks had been rebuilt with stone. The village became a town as it spread, first along the mouth of the river, then further inland until it swelled and became a city. The oldest buildings were on the docks and they’d been rebuilt over and over, turning the area into a warren. Down here, no two buildings were alike, with old sat beside new as those in disrepair were torn down and rebuilt bigger and taller. There were many reasons the dealers and gangs frequented this area. You could always find a dark alley or a back door that led elsewhere if the Watch drifted too close.
“None,” said Baker.
The Khevassar pursed his lips and gestured for the two Guardians to follow him. They moved a short distance away, giving the surgeon space to inspect the body and record his findings. As per the other bodies, Byrne suspected there would be no clues to the killer’s identity, but procedure had to be followed.
“What was the mood of the crowd?” asked the Old Man when he and the Guardians were out of earshot of the others.
“Anxious, scared,” said Baker.
“No, but we know it won’t last if this continues,” she replied.
The Khevassar grunted. “We need to find this killer. Quickly and quietly.”
“I know someone who could help with this sort of thing. A specialist,” said Byrne.
“No, he’s local, but he’s not a Guardian or member of the Watch.”
The Khevassar shook his head sadly. “Specialist, eh? Is that what we’re calling them now?”
Baker shifted, clearly uncomfortable but didn’t say anything.
Byrne shrugged. “People are scared of magic, and this sort of thing doesn’t help,” he said, gesturing at the body.
“How quickly people forget. It was magic that won the war.”
“There are many people with dead relatives who would disagree,” said Byrne.
“Then their memory is short.”
Byrne didn’t argue the point. Thousands of warriors had died on the battlefield in Seveldrom, hacked to pieces with sharpened steel or torn apart by devious traps. Magic had played a big part at the end, with the death of the Warlock at the hands of Balfruss, but no one liked to talk about it. Or him. That name had become something worse than a curse. No one dared say it out loud. They were scared he might hear them and come back.
Ever since that day the few remaining Seekers had stopped visiting towns and villages looking for children born with the ability to sense the Source. Those who showed any signs of magical ability were shunned, exiled and in extreme cases murdered. Byrne had heard one story about a girl being drowned in a river by a mob from her village which included her parents. People claimed to be more civilised in the cities, but out in the countryside, where the Watch didn’t visit, anything could happen.
The Warlock had brought the world to the brink of destruction and anyone with magical ability was now seen as a threat. No one spoke about the Battlemages who’d died during the war, fighting to protect innocent lives.
Four foot of steel in the gut was deadly, but at least it was something people could understand. A sword was tangible and it had weight. Setting someone on fire just by staring at them wasn’t natural. It couldn’t be explained with logic.
“Who is this specialist?” asked the Khevassar, his mouth twisting on the last word. “Do I know them?”
The Old Man ran a hand through his thinning hair and sighed. “Can we trust them?”
Byrne hesitated, then said, “It’s Fray.”
Baker’s eyes widened and the Khevassar raised an eyebrow. “Really?”
“He’s the right man for the job.”
“I’ve no doubt about that, but you’ll have to do it officially.
Enrol him as a Guardian of the Peace. Make him a novice in training, partnered to you.”
“What about passing the entrance requirements and the paperwork?” asked Byrne.
The Khevassar waved it away. “I’ll take care of it. That’s the least of my worries. If this continues for much longer I’ll be summoned to the palace.”
“I don’t envy you.”
“I was about to say the same thing,” said the Khevassar.
Thinking of the right person to solve a magic-related murder hadn’t been difficult. Now all Byrne had to do was convince Fray to become a Guardian, the very job that had killed his father.