Blood of the Underworld

By: David Dalglish

Prologue


The city of Veldaren was his to protect, but more than ever, Haern felt himself losing control as he watched the body bleed at his feet. It had rained just before dark, muddying the streets and back alleys. Blood mixed with the wet ground. The dead man’s face was half-buried, mouth open in death, throat opened by blade, and both were filling with mud. In the moonlight, the green of the dead man’s cloak took on a sickly hue. Haern doubted any would shed tears for the loss, but that was beside the point. He was the King’s Watcher, enforcer of Veldaren, and such violence could not be tolerated.

Yet, despite the work of his sabers, the violence was steadily rising.

“I hope you find a better life beyond this,” Haern said, shutting the dead thief’s eye so it no longer stared up at him. “No one should die in the mud.”

He stood, pulling the hood over his face. In its shadow, he peered about the alley. Come morning, he’d alert a guard to the location of the body, but before then, he needed to investigate. If the murder was what he thought it was, there’d be a sign somewhere, a message for the Serpent Guild where the guards would overlook. On either side of him were stone buildings, their sides slick from the rain. Haern slowly checked one, then the other, until he found it. Cut into the stone was a crude squiggle representing a snake. A jagged line crossed over its head. Below it was a fresh circle with eight tiny lines.

“Spider Guild is spreading,” Haern whispered to himself as he rubbed his chin. “Or was this revenge?”

He knew of no particular bad blood between the Serpents and Spiders, but that didn’t mean much. The thief guilds were all battling for territory, a direct result of the peace Haern had bought with blood. The three wealthiest families of Neldar, known as the Trifect, paid handsomely for protection of the entire city. Yet, over the past two years, that amount had carefully shrunk, as had the size of most thief guilds. Every bit of land meant a higher payout. With the increase of killings, the number of guildless criminals had risen. They knew the risk the Watcher posed. They knew what he was capable of. But it was starting to no longer matter.

The thieves were getting desperate. They weren’t afraid of him anymore.

Haern leapt to the rooftops, determined to rekindle that fear. Every night he scoured the city, often changing his route. He watched and listened, always wrapped in his gray cloaks. For years he’d foiled wars between the guilds, disrupting their plans. But there were no more plans. The thieves were wounded animals, biting at everything they saw. Every night he found a new body, a new symbol, or a new message. He wasn’t certain where the various guilds’ territories ended anymore, and he doubted the guilds themselves knew for sure.

He ran east. Footsteps in the mud led that way from the corpse. Perhaps it was time he gave the guilds a message of his own. The steps grew fainter. Out in the wild, there were many who were better trackers, but within the confines of a city, Haern was the master. Leaping up to the rooftops, he ran along, still following the telltale signs. A knocked over barrel here. A bit of mud brushed against a wall there. After a time, he felt like he was inside the murderer’s mind, heading toward safe territory. Except that was wrong. Nowhere was safe, not from him.

Haern found the Spider talking with a fellow guildmate, the two standing before a tavern that had long since closed. One held a knife, and he gestured wildly with it while telling a story. The blood on the blade was not yet dry. Haern worked his way closer, silently crawling across the roof until he was just above them, his ear leaning toward the edge of the tavern.

“...a little bitch,” said the man with the knife.

“Course they are. What you expect from a bunch of fags loyal to that Ket bastard?”

“Still, you’d expect him to die like a man. Put a knife at my throat, you wouldn’t hear me blubbering like a child.”

Haern drew one of his sabers, a dark grin spread across his face. Was that so? Perhaps he should test that theory. Like a ghost, he fell upon them, not a sound to give them warning. His knees crashed into shoulders of the man wielding the knife. He heard a crack of bone, and the man dropped. The other stood shocked still, his eyes wide. Haern kicked, his heel crushing windpipe. As he fell, Haern turned his attention on the boaster, who lay dazed in the mud from his head hitting the ground.

“So is this how a man dies?” Haern asked as he put the tip of his saber against the thief’s throat. He shouldn’t be wasting time, he knew. He was deep in Spider territory, and they would fight him if enough gathered together. Not that he feared them. Only their guild leader gave him pause. Thren Felhorn. His father.

The thief swallowed, the movement rubbing the tip up and down against his throat.

“I didn’t do nothing,” he said. “I’ve been here all night.”

“Do you think I care?”

Haern knelt closer, his free hand grabbing the back of the man’s head and holding it still. He stared into his eyes, then flinched as if he were to thrust. The thief let out a cry. The smell of urine reached Haern’s nose. He leaned closer, his lips hovering before the man’s ear.

“I see tears in your eyes,” he whispered.

The hilt of his saber cracked down hard atop the thief’s head, knocking him out cold. Slowly rising, he drew his other saber and turned to his initial prey, the murderer. The man sat on his rear, both hands clutching his throat. He was gasping for air, the sound akin to wind blowing over the top of a chimney. Blood dripped down his wrist, to his elbow, and then to the ground.

“You slit a Serpent’s throat,” Haern said, towering over him. “Care to tell me why?”

The man coughed, crimson blobs flecking across his pants. He gasped a few times, as if to hold his breath underwater, then forced out a word.

“Trespassing.”

Haern shook his head.

“Not good enough,” he said. “Not even close.”

He shoved his sabers into the man’s chest, through his heart. Pulling them free, he kicked the body to the ground, then slashed open his neck. The death was quick, the message given. His throat dry, Haern turned back to the thief he’d left unconscious. He almost killed him. Almost. But enough blood had spilled that night, and it wouldn’t be the last. Once Thren found out, he’d retaliate against the Serpent Guild. Back and forth, always back and forth without end...

He sheathed his blades and turned to go, and that was when he heard the scream. It came from a distant alley, that of a thick-voiced male. Haern followed it, guessing which alley to turn down. The night was quiet, no one foolish enough to be out and about so deep in Spider territory. At first he thought he’d guessed wrong, but then he found the victim. He lay on his back at the farthest stretch of a dead end alley, arms splayed outward. His gray cloak signified him a member of the Spider Guild. No wounds were upon him but for the tiny arrow embedded in his throat. Haern walked over to it, his stomach turning. Another? But by who, and why?

Standing over it, Haern felt something tickling the back of his mind. Something odd. The thief had been a smaller man, wiry, probably picked for his deft hands instead of brute strength. Hardly a whisker grew on his face. His face...

His eyes were closed, as was his mouth. That was it. A lethal hit with an arrow should have left him gasping in pain, his face reflecting that upon death, but it did not. The killer had shut his eyes and mouth to create the appearance of sleep, but why? Knowing he had little choice, Haern reached down, pushed two fingers between the dead man’s teeth, and pried his jaw open. The starlight reflected off the metal immediately, and something about the sight sent a chill down Haern’s spine. Lying on his tongue were two gold coins stacked atop one another. Haern took them, trying to decide the significance. A personal vendetta? A paid hit by another guild?

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