The fifth novel in an electrifying new fantasy series of assassins from bestselling author David Dalglish . . .
Kadish Fel wore a rut into the dirt floor as he paced in the center of the large warehouse. The smell of dust overwhelmed his nose, and he sneezed often. All around were giant squares of hay stacked to the ceiling, hay Kadish would sell to the outlying farms come winter. He kept his hands clasped behind his back, for it was the only way to keep himself from drawing his swords and twirling them as a nervous tic. But drawn weapons wouldn’t do, not when he needed his ambush to succeed.
“Not sure I’ve ever seen you so nervous,” said Carlisle, a squat man who helped Kadish with the more brutal affairs of his Hawk Guild. “You really think Darkhand will be that frightening in person?”
Kadish stopped his pacing, just for a moment.
“You know his reputation,” he said, running a hand through his auburn hair.
“Aye, I do,” laughed Carlisle. “But I also know people love telling tales, and that the tales get larger with the telling. This guy lives three kingdoms away, and every story making its way here probably went through many tellings before ever reaching us.”
Carlisle reached into his pocket, taking out a pinch of snuff and snorting it.
“Besides,” he continued, rubbing his eyes as they watered. “I don’t care if this guy’s the biggest shit in all of Mordeina; he’s still coming into our city. Our home. That arrogant prick dies tonight.”
Kadish looked to the rafters, to the tops of the mountains of hay. Hidden above were nearly twenty members of his Hawk Guild, every last one armed with crossbow bolts tipped with poison. On the ground were ten more, their daggers ready. In but a moment, Kadish could bring the wrath of his entire guild upon the man he was soon to meet for the first time. Yet he still felt he was the one in danger.
Muzien the Darkhand, no matter how bloated his reputation, no matter how far he was from home, was still a man to fear.
“Perhaps he won’t show,” Kadish said as the minutes crawled, midnight passing and the truly late hours arriving. “He might
have anticipated our ambush.”
Carlisle sat down on a single bundle of hay, grunting and shifting at its lack of comfort. He took another hit of snuff, then shook his head.
“Or maybe he’s abandoned coming into Veldaren altogether. That Victor fellow, how long ago was it, three weeks . . .”
“Five,” said Kadish.
“Five, right. Whatever. Victor’s men thrashed the Sun Guild, drove ’em out of the city like they were rats on a ship. Fuck, even the fabled Grayson Lightborn got his ass killed. Perhaps Muzien took one look at our city and decided he didn’t want to share his right-hand man’s fate?”
“Then why set up this meeting if he was just going to turn tail and slither back to Mordeina?”
“He’s an elf. Who says he has to make sense?”
Kadish shrugged. Well, Carlisle did have a point there. Still, the reputation the Darkhand carried . . .
“No,” Kadish said. “The Sun Guild isn’t finished with our city just yet. He’s here, in Veldaren. And he’ll be here for our meeting, even if he makes us wait a few hours.”
“What makes you so certain?”
Kadish crossed his arms and leaned against one of the nine support beams throughout the middle of the building. The wood was rough and splintered, but his long brown cloak kept him safe from its discomfort. His brow furrowed, and he let his voice drop in hopes that only Carlisle, and not the rest of his hidden men, would hear.
“Because a man with a reputation like Muzien’s doesn’t get it through accident,” he said. “He gets it by working his ass off for it and making sure nothing tarnishes it. He’s like Thren in that regard, except even better if we’re to believe the stories. By Karak, I think every child alive has heard the tale of Muzien’s Red Wine.”
“Well,” he said. “Make sure you don’t drink anything that elf offers you, then, eh?”
“Indeed. But my point is, calling us here for a meeting and then flaking . . . all it takes are a few whispers by me and everyone hears of his cowardice, his unreliability. He won’t allow it, no matter how petty. He wants us afraid, every single one of us. I have a feeling we’re not the first he’ll talk to tonight.”
“Perhaps,” said Carlisle. “But we’ll sure as shit be the last he talks to.”
“I pray we are.”
With a sudden bang, the worn door blocking the only entrance to the building smacked open. Despite the many hours of waiting, despite his fear of the unknown guildmaster of the Suns, Kadish felt relief that the time had finally come. In through the door walked two hard-looking men dressed in dark grays and tightly fitted clothing. Daggers gleamed from their belts. They wore no cloaks, instead bearing the four-pointed star sewn just above their hearts. From what Kadish had learned, the rings in their ears signified solo kills, and each man had at least a dozen hoops and studs. They strode in without pause, their eyes scanning every corner of the room. Kadish swallowed, trusting his men to be adequately hidden.
And then in stepped the Darkhand. He was tall, and despite the long dark coat he wore, it was striking how slender an elf Muzien was. That slenderness belied a smooth strength, for each step he took was carefully weighted, every twitch of his muscles like that of a feline predator. His hair was a dark umber, the front of which was hooked into two braids and tied behind his head. From his hips swayed two swords, mimicking him in length and slenderness. Upon entering the building, Muzien glanced about the place, seeing the tall stacks of hay, and smirked. That done, he brought his attention to Kadish as he moved to join his two acquaintances. The moment those cool blue eyes settled on Kadish, he felt his scrotum tighten, felt the air around him thicken. Kadish had met hard men, had spent decades among those who viewed life as something to trade and fuck and cut short without a second thought.
He’d not seen eyes quite like Muzien’s. Beneath that gaze, Kadish felt like an insect seeking an audience with the boot about to crush him beneath its heel.
“Wel . . . welcome to Veldaren,” Kadish said, gathering his senses. He expected better of himself, and he used his wounded pride to find the strength to stand a little taller, and let a bit of mockery enter his voice. “I pray you won’t be staying long?”
Muzien stood several feet opposite Kadish, with his bodyguards on either side. His long, pale fingers slowly twirled a gold band on the index finger of his left hand, which, true to his name, appeared to have been crafted out of coals instead of flesh.
“I’ll stay until my task here is done,” he said, openly staring at Kadish. Disliking the cryptic answer, Kadish felt himself snap.
“Not sure that’s wise,” he said. “Your kind ain’t wanted here, Muzien. You think your little trick with your ears fools anybody?”
Muzien tilted his head slightly to one side, as if amused. The tops of his ears, where there should have been the distinctive upturned curve of his race, were instead two mutilated scars.
“What was done to my ears was not done for you, nor the wretches who fill this city,” the elf said. His voice was deep and aged. “Nor do I care if I am unwanted. That did not stop my Sun Guild in Mordeina, and it shall not stop us here. Now please, I’ve come to hear your answer, not your pathetic attempts at insult.”
“To get an answer, you need to ask a question,” Carlisle said, earning himself a glare from Muzien. “So far, I don’t think me and my guildmaster here have heard one yet.”
“Is this toad yours?” Muzien asked. “I guess I should take comfort in knowing that mankind shows no greater patience here than it has anywhere else in our world.”
“He only speaks my mind, if a bit hastily,” Kadish said. He wasn’t happy with Carlisle’s outburst either, but he would still defend his own over the accusations of some foreign elf guildmaster. “You asked to meet me, so here I am. You said you have questions, and I’m here to answer. Ask away, and I’ll do my best to play the good host.”
Kadish put his hands behind his back and tried to look relaxed. In truth, he was preparing to dive aside the second any of the three drew their blades. The moment he shouted out, his guild would reveal its ambush, but until then he wanted to learn what he could about the Sun Guild’s intentions, just in case someone else took up Muzien’s mantle after his death.
“I have but two questions,” said Muzien. “First . . . where is Thren Felhorn?”
Kadish was honestly surprised.
“Thren?” he asked. “Why do you care?”
At Muzien’s glare, Kadish shrugged.
“Fine, then; don’t tell me,” he said. “But Thren’s gone missing ever since he disbanded his Spider Guild. Rumors on the street claim your right hand Grayson killed him, but others said he got away only to be killed by Lord Victor Kane.”
“So he is dead?” Muzien asked. “Has anyone seen his body?”
Again Kadish shrugged.
“Not that I know of.”
“Then he isn’t dead.”
It was spoken so simply, with such finality, Kadish didn’t bother to argue. What did it matter if the legendary Thren Felhorn was dead? His guild had been disbanded, his territory swallowed up by the remaining guilds. He was a nonentity now, a relic of the past in an underworld willing to move on and forget within the blink of an eye.
“Well, there’s question one,” Kadish said. “What’s your second, so we can get this over with and I can go find myself a bed and a pair of tits?”
Still Muzien twisted the ring on his finger, as if it was nothing more than a nervous tic of his own. But it seemed strange to think that . . . seemed strange to even consider a man with those cold blue eyes ever being nervous about anything. The gold of the band appeared ludicrous when contrasted against the dark flesh beneath it.
“I offer you and your guild the same chance I will offer the Wolves, the Serpents, the Ash, and all the rest,” said the elf. “Despite whatever setbacks you think I have suffered, be assured our takeover of Veldaren is inevitable. The Sun Guild rises, and all who stand against us shall fall.”
“Big words,” Kadish mumbled. “You think we’ve not heard the same a hundred times before? There’s always a new challenger on the streets.”
“You’ve not had a challenger like me. Listen well, Kadish Fel, for it is your only chance to survive this night unharmed. Toss aside your cloaks and accept the four-pointed star. There will be a place for everyone in my guild, for I will need strong hands and sharp minds to shape the future of Veldaren. You will have a station of honor, one worthy of the position you once held. All others will be given roles suited to their talents. No blood will be spilled. No wars fought between guilds. My victory is inevitable, so let us not waste the time, nor end lives unnecessarily.”
Kadish could hardly believe what he was hearing, and despite the deep pit of fear in his belly, he laughed.
“Is that so?” he asked. “Inevitable? You are truly something special, Muzien, but I fear you’ve let your pride overwhelm your common sense. Hawks, now!”
From the hay sprang his men, slipping out from behind bales, falling down from the rafters onto piles, dark sheets meant to hide them during their long wait discarded. Before the two bodyguards could draw their blades, a half dozen arrows plunged into each of their bodies, dropping them. Blood pooled at Muzien’s feet as he stood there, still twirling his ring. He’d not even blinked at the sudden ambush.
Kadish drew his own sword, took a step closer to Muzien. “Not everyone here is as cowardly as you’d believe,” he said. “Now tell me why you’ve come to Veldaren, and why now.”
“Or what?” asked Muzien. “You’ll kill me?”
“Look around you,” Kadish said. “My guild is here and ready. However many you brought with you, it doesn’t matter. My arrows have you sighted. My swords are ready to plunge into your heart and lungs. You walked right into my home, you egotistical elf, so do you really think I wouldn’t be ready for an intruder like you?”
Slowly Muzien shook his head.
“Ready with an ambush, yes,” he said. “But for you to be stupid enough to spring it? No. No, I did not.”
The door to the warehouse slammed shut with a heavy thud.
“You and your guild fail to realize how far out of your depth you really are,” Muzien said as the rest of the Hawk Guild turned to the door, unsure of what was about to transpire. “You cannot see Veldaren’s fate even though it is as clear and undeniable as the rising sun. Your whores, your drug trades of leafs and powders, your territory as you would call it, will be swept into my arms. You could have continued on under my care. You could have had your place.”
A few of Kadish’s men pushed the doors, lightly at first, then with their entire bodies flung against it. The wood rattled but would not move.
“You could have lived,” said Muzien.
Kadish turned to the archers still in place.
“Kill him!” he shouted.
The arrows flew, but Muzien never moved. His body became a blur, the sight of it somehow hurting Kadish’s head. And then the arrows thudded into the dirt, leaving Muzien standing there, not a drop bleeding from his untouched form. The pit of fear in Kadish’s stomach turned to full-blown terror. As if lost in a dream he stepped closer to the elf and raised his sword. Muzien only stared at him with an expression that was equal parts pity and condescension. Still his swords remained buckled at his sides. Taking in a deep breath, Kadish plunged his weapon forward.
It disappeared into Muzien’s stomach without a hint of resistance, all the way up to Kadish’s hand. He felt nothing, only air. When he pulled the blade back, he knew his life was over.
“Do not resist,” said Muzien. “Let the smoke take you. Your death will be more peaceful that way.”
Kadish dropped his sword as the elf ceased the turning of his ring. Muzien’s image flickered, then faded away until it was as if he’d never been there at all.
All around him he heard screams, banging at the doors, people begging to be let out. Others were swearing they would change allegiance and join the Sun Guild. Kadish glanced to the door, saw even Carlisle was one of the ones willing to turn. It should have disappointed him, but it didn’t. Kadish was willing to toss aside his own cloak now, but he knew it was beyond that. He’d seen the look in Muzien’s eye. He knew his place now, what he meant to the Darkhand. They were but vermin to be destroyed.
From the very walls came the first hints of smoke, followed by the flickering tongues of fire.
* * *
Muzien watched as the building burned, twelve members of his Sun Guild forming a perfect circle surrounding it and holding torches aloft in silent ritual. The screams from within took several minutes to stop, and it wasn’t until they did that he spoke.
“He said he doesn’t know where Thren is hiding.”
Beside him stood his new right hand, a stocky man named Ridley with a pockmarked face.
“Did he at least offer an idea to explain the absence?”
“He did. He said he believed Thren to be dead, though no proof of it has surfaced.”
Ridley took a step forward and tossed his own torch onto the burning wreckage. A large crack followed, one of the support beams having weakened so much it broke under the strain of the roof, which crumbled inward along with it.
“Of your students, who was the better, Grayson or Thren?” asked Ridley.
“Easy enough. Thren is still alive.”
Muzien cocked his head at that.
“How so?” he asked. “If the stronger and the more skilled has perished, why then should Thren have also survived?”
Ridley gave him a crooked smile.
“Because that’s the way this world works, Muzien. It’s the best of us who die before their time, the ones who the world gives cruel jokes and ignoble deaths.”
“If that is true, then why do I still live?”
“Because you’re not the best of us. You’re the worst of us, Muzien, the very worst.”
At that, the Darkhand had to smile. He looked to the sleeping city, which, despite the fire he set, would not dare come to put it out, not while so many of his guild walked the streets in all directions, ordering men and women to return to their beds should they poke their heads out their doors. The city was alive, Muzien knew, a living, breathing conglomerate of beings, and like any being, it could be made to fear, and fear him it would.
But there was still one man out there who wouldn’t fear him, who could be a great asset to his plan, or its most terrible threat.
“Where have you gone, my student?” Muzien asked with a breathless whisper that was carried away by the night wind along with the smoke, ash, and all else that remained of the Hawk Guild.