Read a sample from THE CITY STAINED RED by Sam Sykes
An Architect of Bone and Marrow
Right. Deep breaths. Try not to look crazy.
Lenk pulled himself out of line and began to walk past people toward the gate. Head down, eyes forward, wearing a face he hoped looked at least a little intimidating. The only way this was going to work was if this no-necked guard believed Lenk was mean enough to not be worth stopping.
“Ah.” A gloved hand went up before Lenk’s face. “Stop right there.”
Of course, he sighed inwardly.
“I didn’t specifically say ‘no mercs,’ I know.” The surly-looking guard angled his voice down condescendingly. “But I did say no unstable types, didn’t I?”
Lenk’s hand was up before either of them knew it, slapping the captain’s hand away.
“Marshal your words with greater care, friend,” he whispered threateningly, voice low and sharp like a knife in the dark. “Or I shall hasten to incite you to greater discipline.”
What the hell was that?
The guardsman blinked. Once. Slowly.
Well, don’t change now. He’ll know something’s up.
“Was I too soft in my verbiage?” Lenk asked. “Did you not feel the chill of death in my words?”
“Look,” the guard captain sighed, rubbing his eyes. “I’ll tell you what I told the tulwar: no oids, no adventurers, no…whatever the hell you are.”
The captain looked him over with a glare that Lenk recognized. Usually, he saw it only a moment before swords were drawn. But the captain’s stare was slow, methodical. He was sizing him up, wondering just how much trouble this was going to be worth.
Lenk decided to give him a hint. He slid into a tense stance, making sure to roll his shoulders enough to send the mail under his shirt clinking and show just how easily he wore the sword on his back.
“I don’t see any colors on your shirt,” the captain muttered. “I don’t see any badge at your breast. I don’t see coin at your belt. Which means you’re not someone I want in my city.”
“You’re wise to be wary,” Lenk said. “And I advise you to listen to that wariness and cut a path for me, lest I show you why my name in the old tongues means ‘bane of death.’”
The captain stared and repeated flatly, “Bane of death.”
He blinked. “You’re serious.”
Lenk cleared his throat. “I am.”
“No.” The captain clutched his head as if in pain. “Just…just no. Back to the harbor, bane of death. No room for your kind here.”
“What kind?” Lenk’s face screwed up in offense. “A person of my…uh…distinct verbotanage must not be denied righteous passage into—“
“Boy, I wouldn’t be impressed by this routine even if you weren’t as tall as my youngest.”
“Look, I don’t see what the problem is.” The bravado slipped from Lenk’s voice in a weary sigh as he rubbed his eyes. “I’ve got business in the city. In fact, my employer got in shortly before I got here. His name is Miron Evenhands. We both came off the ship Riptide. If you’ll just let me find him, he’ll—“
“Here’s the problem,” the guard interrupted. “You’ve got no colors and no affiliation, but you’ve got a sword. So you’ve got the means to kill people, but not the means to be held responsible.” He sniffed. “Parents?”
“Burned to the ground.”
“Allies? Compatriots? Friends?”
“Just the ones I find on the road. And in a tavern. And, this one time, hunched over a human corpse, but—“
“And that’s the problem. You’re an adventurer.” He spat the word. “Too cowardly to be a mercenary, too greedy to be a soldier, too dense to be a thief. Your profession is wedged neatly between whores and grave robbers in terms of respectability, your trade is death and carnage, and your main asset is that you’re completely expendable.”
He leaned down to the young man and forced the next words through his teeth.
“I keep this city clean. And you, boy, are garbage.”
The young man didn’t flinch. His eyes never waved, not to the captain’s guards reaching for their swords, not to the captain’s gauntlets clenched into fists. That blue didn’t so much as blink as the looked the captain straight in the eye, smiled through a split lip, and spoke.
The Souk was dying before Lenk even knew what was happening.
Screams choked on smoke that rose in black plumes. People cloaked in shadow slipped as black serpents among the human tide, blades in hand and blood underfoot. Flames rose in bright blossoms through merchant stalls. Everywhere, fire was rising. Everywhere, steel was flashing. Everywhere, people were running and screaming and falling.
And Lenk was left to wonder why it was that, whenever everything went straight to hell, it could never do so in a calm, orderly manner.
He wasn’t certain what was happening as the world caught ablaze around him. No more than he was what was happening as one of Ghoukha’s guards fell down before him.
Until he saw the long-bladed knife jutting from the man’s back.
Thin fingers wrapped about the hilt of the weapon, wrenching it free from the guard’s back. A man wrapped in shadow-black clothes twirled it about to reverse his grip on the blade. Above a dark veil, eyes burned narrow and bright and full of hate.
“Deshaa fasha,” he hissed, stepping over the guard’s body. “Asathu deshaa.” He broke into a charge. “KHOTH-KAPIRA!”
Through instinct and only a bit of luck did Lenk’s sword come up in time to meet the shadow-clad’s blade. The man moved with such fervent speed that anything short of snap reflexes would have left him with an opened throat. Their steel kissed in a shriek, the man trying to push Lenk’s guard forward and receiving only a boot to the belly for his efforts.
He did not so much stagger backwards as slither. In one fluid movement, he shed fervour from his stance and slid into a fighter’s poise, hands up, weapon held at the ready, eyes alight.
Lenk tightened his grip on his blade, stepping into a swing as he brought an arc of steel to bear against the man. And with that same serpentine confidence, the man slithered out of the way. Lenk followed with another cut and another, as much to test his enemy’s defences as to keep him back. And each time he was met with empty air and a frustratingly fluid foe.
He chanced another swing, fast and light. And he found flesh. But no joy to go with it.
The man recognised the strength behind the blow and caught it in his palm. Lenk found his blade trapped between trembling fingers that most impolitely refused to be hacked off, even as blood oozed between them.
‘Deshaa fasha,’ the man repeated, fighting for control of the blade as he drew closer to his foe. ‘Deshaa, nejiru.’ He snarled, lashing out with his blade and catching Lenk on the cheek, drawing a thin red line. ‘Khoth-Kap—’
It was, as it turned out, hard to wail gibberish when one’s mouth was full of blood. And it was hard to keep one’s mouth free of blood when a short man with a thick skull slammed it into the bridge of one’s nose. The man sputtered, red spattering out beneath his veil as he staggered backwards.
Lenk tore his blade free, drawing a shriek of agony.
‘I heard you the first time,’ he snarled.
The pommel of his blade came down, smashing against the man’s face and driving him to his knees. Lenk flipped his sword in his hand, angling the blade towards the man’s collarbone and thrusting.
The agony lasted for but a moment. The spasming of his corpse, even less. The hatred, though, the fury that burned in his eyes lingered long after he slumped to the stones in a leaking pool of red.
He whirled, saw another man in black sweeping up through the panicking mob. He raised his sword, saw the long scimitar in the man’s hand come flashing out silver-and-red. He gaped, saw the man spring into the air and sail over the crowd to descend upon Lenk.
But when he saw the man sent spinning awkwardly in his flight to crash upon the ground, unmoving, he merely cursed.
He looked from the dead man on the ground and the arrow quivering in his throat to the woman who had launched it. Kataria came stalking up, ire in her eyes and bow in her hands.
‘The hell were you during that last fight?’
She spared him a scowl, briefly, before gesturing over her shoulder to three more dead men lying on the stones with arrows in their corpses.
He cleared his throat. ‘Ah. Well, thanks for that.’
Kataria tore the arrow from the most recent corpse. ‘I do it all for the gratitude.’ She grunted, slipping it back into her quiver. ‘Where’s Asper?’
‘I was busy. You didn’t see her?’
‘No.’ Kataria looked over his head. ‘But I do now.’
Sure enough, Lenk thought as he followed her gaze, there the priestess was. Though she was easy enough to miss in the mayhem as she valiantly tried to fight her way through a crying tide of fleeing civilians, fleeing this way and that in a mad panic.
Ghoukha’s tent was fast disappearing, the many shirtless men hoisting it up by its platform and waddling off with it as the remainder of his guards closed in around him protectively. They vanished, swallowed up by the tide of humanity.
Asper was left, struggling and fighting and screaming to be let through.
And, like a snake from the river, another black-clad burst from the torrent of people, blade aloft and war cry on his lips.
Whatever he was about to say next trailed into wordless agony. And that, too, was drowned out by the sound of flames howling as the man was suddenly enveloped in fire. He fell back to earth, a brimstone mortal, flailing wildly. The crowd parted with instinctual fear, giving him a wide berth as he shrieked and tried vainly to bat out the blaze before he collapsed in an unmoving pyre.
Callous laughter drew their eyes upwards, to the top of a nearby stall. A man, short and fat, stood wrapped in black leathers with a sand-coloured scarf smothering his entire head. A pair of wooden goggles peered out, the only thing to escape the smothering wrap besides a gruesome, excited cackle.
He reached for the bandoleers lining his chest, pulled free a small, gourd-shaped flask. He snapped his fingers, two flint rings sending sparks to catch upon the linen rag poking out of the flask’s lid. It caught ablaze in an instant and, with an athlete’s aim and a madman’s abandon, was hurled into the streets below.
A wall of fire rose up where it fell, cackling as it coiled in a crimson spiral, sending civilians running away. Asper disappeared from sight; swallowed by flame or by crowd, Lenk had no idea.
‘We’ve got to go back for her.’ He shouted to be heard as he scanned the crowd for a gap that wasn’t there.
‘What about Gariath?’ Kataria cried in reply.
A cacophonous roar brought Lenk’s attention back to the brawl at the other end of square. Gariath clung to Kharga like a parasite, clawing at his scales, biting at his throat, while the grey hulk tried to pry him free to no avail. Neither dragonman appeared particularly bothered by the carnage going on around them.
‘He can take care of himself,’ Lenk muttered. He winced as Gariath let out a mad howl. ‘Probably. For now, we need to—’
‘Get down!’ Kataria cried, hurling herself against him.
Something shrieked overhead, biting the air where his skull had just been. A crossbow bolt struck the cobblestones and clattered off.
Lenk looked up and suddenly they were everywhere. Men and women alike, clad in black leathers with sand-coloured hoods, stood on every roof of every stall. Crossbows in hand and firing, fire-flasks flying from their fingertips, they aimed for the men in black but looked to be taking no particular care as to who got hit.
‘Bleed, scum,’ one of them cried. ‘Bleed!’
‘Cier’Djaal belongs to the Jackals!’
‘Die for your God, cultist shits! Tell ’im it was the Jackals who sent ya!’
So many death threats, so many fires, so many people; Lenk couldn’t tell what was happening, who was attacking whom, who was dying and who was killing. Kataria appeared to have a better idea, though. She hauled him to his feet.
‘We get to cover,’ she grunted. ‘Now.’
‘What about Asper and—’
‘We can’t find her if we’re dead,’ she said, shoving him forward. ‘Now, move!’