There is a springtime in the heart of every man… even in the cold, dead heart of a killer.
So it was love that drove the rat into the depths of a small café where the rich and important of Korsham City mingled, dined, and made merry. A simple shape spell placed upon the rodent gave it the visage of a tiny white poodle, with a cute tin bell and a fluffy tail-ball. It dodged food carts, leather-clad feet, and richly embroidered gowns as it weaved through the immaculate tables and chairs, the occasional “ahh!” and “ooh!” and “how cute!” pushing it forward through the cacophony of meaningless conversation. If the patrons only knew that beneath its soft illusion lurked an agent of the assassin Nalo Thoran, the Shadow Walker, the Dark Breath- Stealer, they might have cowered in fear. Instead, they went about their business in blissful ignorance.
On the veranda overlooking the Gold River sat a woman and a friend sipping tea and sharing pleasant words. The rat paused, wiggled its nose, and caught her scent. It knew her scent instinctively, for it had sniffed a piece of cloth lifted from her apartment on Bright Street. It bounced forward, hopping gently on claws sharp, deadly and made for the dangers of the Korsham night. A little boy tried petting it, but the rat rolled away and dived under the young woman’s table.
The rat could not understand their language. It only understood the words of its master, the symbols and tempo of the language of shadows, the one used by assassins and murderers alike. Its master had given it specific instructions, and it could not disobey his dark design. Stark shapes and images roiled in its vacuous head. It squeaked and hopped up into the woman’s lap.
She chirped, jumped and pushed her chair back. But when she saw only a small dog, she smiled. The rat lifted its sharp, whiskered face and sniffed. The woman’s smells were warm, delicious.
“What a cute little dog,” she said, running her hand down its hard spine. It felt like silk. “Whom do you belong to?”
The rat didn’t answer. Instead, it circled in her lap until the small piece of paper tied to its neck was visible. It wiggled, lifted itself onto strong hind legs, chattered and sniffed the air. The woman heard barking.
“Aren’t you sweet,” she said, then noticed the note. “What’s this?”
She pulled carefully and the weak fibers holding the note tightly fell away. She rolled the note open and held it up to the waning light of dusk. She squinted closely, trying to make out the thin chalk scratches. It was an ancient language, one rarely used. But somehow she could read it. “What does it say?” her friend asked. She read it to herself…
My Lady Sharr,
Your husband is dead and for that I apologize.
I can only hope that some day you will forgive me.
I look forward to that day. Until then, know that
you have a friend in the darkness.
The woman turned dead white, dropped the paper, and screamed.
A rat jumped off her lap and slipped away through the stunned crowd.
* * * * *
Wealthy trade merchant Rubico Sharr was found dead five days past in his home on Bright Street. A ruddy red scar around his neck points to a professional hit. The details are sketchy at this time, but authorities believe that the recent trade dispute between Korsham and Toradoram may be at fault. Master Sharr handled exotic rugs and fine pelts, and had recently gained a monopoly on Isydori silk. He is survived by his wife, Monika Sharr.
“What has vexed you, assassin?” the rat asked, his little feet beating the air, making signs that only its master understood. “You aren’t yourself.”
Nalo crumpled the news report in his hand and tossed it into the gutter. “It doesn’t matter, rat. You wouldn’t understand anyway.”
What mattered was the throng of revelers in the streets, the streamers, the floats, the flute and drum players, the scantily clad ladies with bright face- and breast-paint. The noises and smells were almost too much for a night creature like himself to bear. Nalo preferred the quieter places in the city, during the deep silence of night, when only the condemned or those willing to kill (like himself ) lurked. Here at dusk, there was noise and fanfare even on a normal night. And tonight was the annual springtime festival, when all of Korsham welcomed the coming of the sun and the rain. Soon the rains would fall hard and swell the Gold River over its banks, and the sun would reach high in the sky, and then the flowers would bloom, and life would start anew. Nalo watched it all from the shadows and imagined it silently.
“You don’t think I understand the concept of love?” the rat said, hopping in front of the assassin to catch his attention. Its furious movements suggested it had been insulted.
Nalo looked down at his starved companion and huffed. “What do you know about it?”
The rat squeaked to clear its throat, then mimed, “Once, I mounted a plump white down by the Mud Flats and sired her fifteen young. It was early summer and the blue fungus had begun to spread. It spread into the nest, taking her and three of her babies, threatening the others. So you know what I did?”
Nalo shook his head.
“I ate the other twelve. Now tell me that isn’t love.”
Nalo shook his head. “Oh yeah, that’s love all right. You’re a real prince. Now get the hell out of here!” He kicked. The rat jumped, squealed, and ran away.
A long pause, then he spotted the object of his desire coming towards him through a sea of waving peacock feathers. His eyes lit up as he saw her face, marked by the flickering torch light, but still smooth, pristine, showing little sign of age or worry. Despite her recent loss, she seemed calm, collected, enjoying the festive spirit of the street. She was delightful.
By contrast, Nalo was hideous, grotesque. An agent of darkness. Skin pale white, features sharp and dry. He had aged considerably since his return to Korsham City. What right did he have in even looking at this woman? He was leagues below her station. It was an embarrassment to even be on the same street as her. This is a waste of time, he thought to himself as she walked past the alley. She didn’t even look his way, holding no concern for things deadly, repulsive. She walked by and even through air lousy with a thousand smells, he could pick out her light perfume, that delicate scent he knew from her clothing, her bed. Despite his better instincts, Nalo found his legs moving towards her. He could hear Yarian’s stern voice in his mind: “This is foolish, boy. Don’t do it.” But what did a necromancer know about love and matters of the heart? What could he possibly know about the need to be a part of something less… dark?
He stopped when his feet found cobbles. This is madness. He watched her slip further into the crowd. What would I say to her anyway? “Hi, I’m Nalo,” he mouthed silently to himself, “I’m an assassin, in service to the Dark Lord Kalloshin. I killed your husband. Care for a drink?”
He chuckled at the absurdity of it and watched her disappear. It was a nice idea, but foolish. They were from opposite worlds, different sides of the street. His best play was to forget about it. He cracked a smile, shook his head and turned away to continue his evening’s tasks.
Then he heard a scream.
He’d never heard her voice beyond mumbles through closed doors, but Nalo knew it was her. She was screaming, and the revelers all around either did not hear or did not care. But he heard her, and it was like a knife through a vein.
Where was she? There were so many buildings pressed in tightly, so many tiny nooks and spaces where a victim could be taken. He moved through the crowd quickly, his feet barely touching the ground. He ran from one side of the street to the other, looking down deep passages. Years of lurking in the shadows had given him keen sight in the darkness. He used it. He found shapes, but they weren’t her. Drunks, whores, common lazy rabble. His heart sank.
Then he heard a faint whimper, like a cat mewing for a scrap of food. He jumped a pile of rotting sacks and found her, on the cold stones, her silk blouse ripped open, her breasts bare. Above her wavered a knife, cold steel attached to a curved hilt. The hand that held it was stiff, white-knuckled, shaking. The man himself was wrapped in a simple tan homespun. It covered his shoulders and head, his bone white eyes peering through a small slit in the cloth. The man did not seem to notice Nalo, his gaze fixed on his victim’s throbbing chest. The man raised the blade high and with a maddening screech, thrust down.
Nalo caught the man’s arm and pulled it back hard, then drove a boot into his chest. The man screamed again, fell back, but did not waver. He was strong. Small in stature, frail looking, almost ghostlike beneath the loose clothing, but he was strong. And agile. He flipped backwards, regained his footing, and leaped forward.
Nalo ducked and the killer soared through the air, his foot grazing the assassin’s back. Nalo winced as the thin foot scraped his backbone, but he righted himself and braced for an attack.
The man waved his knife before him, slashing empty air. Not fair, Nalo thought as he fell backwards. I don’t have a blade.
But fairness was not a right in the assassin trade. A killer used the tools at hand, be they many or few. There were plenty of things in this alley, Nalo knew, that could be turned into weapons. A rock, a slab of wood, a discarded torch perhaps. The trick was acquiring one when your attention was needed elsewhere. One false move and your foe would cut your throat. But Nalo didn’t need a fancy prop. He had everything necessary to win this scuffle at his waist.
He pulled free a thin thong of leather and waved it in the air. At each end was a wooden knob, smooth but heavy. The man slashed again with his knife, trying to force Nalo back against the damp wall. Nalo shifted to the right, snapped his garrote forward, and caught the man square in the eye. The man reeled backwards, shook his head. Nalo struck again, swinging the garrote and hitting the man’s temple. The strike did little damage as the cloth wrapped around the foreigner’s head cushioned the blow. But he bent at the waist, giving Nalo a chance to move in and wrap the garrote around his brown neck.
He yanked the cord tightly. The leather bit deep into the man’s flesh. He flailed madly. His strength was near impossible for Nalo to handle. This man was young, aggressive, quite capable. If he had taken on a lesser assassin, it’d be that assassin’s head in the grip. But the Shape of Shadow never lost. Nalo leaped onto the man’s back and pulled the garrote tighter.
“Die!” Nalo said, riding the man like a wild boar. “Die!”
And the man did, eventually, after the strength left his arms, then legs, then chest. Nalo tore off the man’s turban, revealing thin black hair, soot-ridden cheeks, eyes bulging from the pressure at his neck. The man’s face turned purple; his tongue bulged between blue swollen lips. He gasped his last, and died.
Nalo released the garrote and fell backwards. His mind was awhirl in the Call of Kalloshin, his master and the patron saint of assassins. Over and over, he mouthed the name of his dark savior and felt that insatiable rush of power that comes with the heat of the kill. Sweat poured from his skin like bile. Gods, but he needed the taste of lemon! The sweet-sour pulp calmed his nerves, settled his raucous stomach. He sat there for several minutes, letting the red flush of his face subside. When his chest settled, he got up and rubbed his face dry, then turned toward the woman.
But she was gone.
* * * * *
He sucked a lemon wedge and stared into the sallow eyelids of the dead merchant. Did the eyes behind them move? Did they twitch? It was hard for Nalo to tell. “Can you wake him?”
The shriveled little black necromancer nodded. “I can, but remember, it was you who killed him. His injuries are quite savage and deep. His throat will never be the same.”
“He must talk,” Nalo said, “he must.”
Yarian shook his head and pinched some black powder from his bowl. “I don’t know why I let you talk me into these things. Boredom, I guess.”
The necromancer rubbed his thumb and index finger together and the powder trickled onto the dead man’s head. The body twitched.
They were in Yarian’s home, a subterranean one-room dome providing both living quarters and work space. Scores of bottles and feather fetishes lay everywhere, parchments and old dusty spell books. Tortured red and black symbols were painted along the curved walls, with lines of dried blood streaked through them to the floor. The room had an old, dead smell to it, a moldy dampness like the grave. Over the years, Nalo had gotten used to it, but there always seemed to be something new crammed into a corner or spread out on a table. There was always something fresh to look at—and to wonder about—in Yarian’s hovel.
The dead man pitched again, straining against his bindings. His head rolled back, his eyes peeked open slightly. Nalo grew excited and rushed to the man’s side. “Come on, you son of a bitch,” he said, gripping the man’s mortised arm. “Animate!”
“No need to shout,” Yarian said as he finished dousing the man with powder. “He’ll come around. Step back and watch.”
Nalo stepped away. The man continued to twitch, at first violently, then his muscles settled and smoothed against dried bones and taut ligaments. The corpse calmed, sat rigid, opened its eyes. It stared forward several minutes, then turned its head towards them, face blank.
Nalo could see the dark crimson line of his garrote around the man’s neck. It had cut deeply, too deeply. He cursed himself for his lack of care. Sometimes, as had happened in the alley, the thrill of the kill consumed him. He should have anticipated having to bring this man back. He should have been more careful. Nalo hated making mistakes. He hated paying for them later.
He stepped forward. “Rubico Sharr. Do you remember who you are?”
The animated man puzzled in place, the stiff wrinkles on his brow creasing under the strain of working a dead brain. “I…” His voice was weak, raspy, barely audible even in the silence here beneath the alley. “Y-yes. I re-member. Rubico. Rubico Sharr.” He looked up at Nalo. “Who… are you?”
“My name’s of no concern to you,” Nalo said. He knelt down and grabbed the cold, white hand of the man. “Your wife is our concern at the moment.”
“Yes. Monika Sharr. Remember her?”
Nalo found himself yelling. He hadn’t even realized his voice had risen. Anger filled his mind. He had no time for this. No time for patience. He needed answers now… before it was too late.
The man nodded. “Yes. I remember her.” Then he turned his head fitfully, as if he had suddenly realized where he was and what had happened to him. Terror glazed his eyes. “What, what’s happened to me? Where am I?”
Nalo leaned into the man’s chest and grabbed his wrinkled blue burial gown. He pulled until their faces nearly touched. “No time for that. You just answer my questions, and perhaps we’ll leave you in peace.”
Nalo felt Yarian’s hand on his shoulder. “Calm down, boy. It’s going to take time. He needs to reorient—”
“We don’t have time, Yarian!” Nalo snapped. He glared at the old necromancer. “This is my show. Back off!”
Yarian did as he was told, but Nalo could tell that he had overstepped his bounds. This was Yarian’s home, and no one, not even an infamous assassin, had the right to make demands of a man in his own home.
But he didn’t have time to apologize. Nalo turned back to the corpse, took a deep breath, then said, “Now answer me these questions, Rubico Sharr. Who wanted you dead? Who hired me to kill you? And who sent a Toradoram assassin to kill your wife?”
Horror returned to the man’s face. “Monika is dead?”
“No,” Nalo answered, “but she will be if you don’t give me answers. Torador will keep sending their knives until the job is finished. That is their way. I can hold them off for a time, but eventually, they will kill her.”
“You?” Rubico Sharr pulled his brow down sharply and squinted in confusion. “Why do you care?”
“Yes, Master Nalo,” Yarian said, “tell us all why you care so much.”
Nalo gave Yarian a nasty look, but he let the veiled challenge slide. There would be time later for argument. “Because I don’t like to be trifled with. I like my hits clean and unfettered by complications. It’s clear now that your hit was not over some trade dispute you’ve had with foreign merchants. There’s a deeper, darker matter at hand. Tell me now, dead man, and don’t lie. Tell me why assassins are coming for your wife.”
Rubico struggled to figure it out. His face turned even paler, wracked by some deep guilt. Nalo knew the look. He’d seen it many times on the faces of his victims. At the moment of death, their thoughts went to that which had put them at death’s door in the first place. The last moment of guilt; the last painful cry for forgiveness. Rubico Sharr was hiding something.
“Talk!” Nalo shouted.
“Jade,” Rubico said.
“What? Speak plain.”
“Jade… the jade…”
Rubico’s head lilted backwards, his eyes rolled up into his head. He mumbled something inaudible, over and over. He leaned against his bindings. Nalo propped him up with a swift hand to the throat, and squeezed.
“What do you mean by ‘jade’?” Nalo smacked him across the face. Rubico’s head rocked against the blow. “Tell me!”
Another smack. Then another.
Yarian’s voice brought the assassin out of his rage. The room fell silent and cold. Had it been this cold a moment ago? Nalo couldn’t remember. He couldn’t remember anything right now. All he saw in his mind was a Toradoram dagger and a woman’s bare chest.
He felt Yarian’s hand on his shoulder again. “Can I see you outside, please?”
Nalo stood, chest pounding. Cold sweat ran down his face. He followed Yarian up the stairs. They stepped through the broken door into the alley, and fresh air roused him. Nalo breathed deeply, shook his head, blinked. His mind began to clear.
Yarian turned. The nasty look on his face told Nalo that the little man was not to be trifled with. “I’m ending this interview.”
“You’ve gone too far, Nalo. It’s gotten out of hand.”
“It’s my hit, my interview, and you don’t tell me what—”
Yarian’s rebuke echoed through the alley, rousing a dog, waking a baby. This part of Korsham City was generally quiet at night, a mixture of residence and business—lightly populated, set off from the main streets—Yarian had picked well a century ago when he had come to town. The fact that he would risk being discovered with such a shout told Nalo that nothing, not even the threats of an assassin, would sway the old man. The interview was over.
“What has gotten into you, boy?”
Nalo hardly knew where to begin. He turned away, letting the breeze cool his face. He could smell rain in the air. “I love her.”
A pause, then, “Who?”
“How did this happen?”
“I don’t know,” Nalo said, turning back to his friend. “I studied them for weeks. You know how I work. She was with him a lot. They seemed very close. He was very protective of her, almost possessive. In time, I understood why. She’s like this perfect jewel, and I realized in a few short days that it wasn’t him I was watching. It was her. Her smooth face. Her black hair. Her radiant smile…
“Hah! Roll your eyes all you wish, death-monger, but when I see her, I feel the same way I did under that waterfall with Tish years ago, right before she ripped away my soul and fed me to the Assassin’s Guild. I can’t stop thinking about her. I know, it’s madness, but I must have her, and I must protect her from whoever is trying to kill her.”
Yarian considered for several minutes, rubbing his black, leathery chin with crinkled fingers. Then he said, “Yes, that’s what’s troubling me the most. There’s something missing in all this, Nalo. Torador does not send blades to kill the wife of a simple silk merchant. If they had such a problem with his business, they could easily block his trade, steal his goods, or ruin his reputation through back channels.”
“Yes, I know,” Nalo said, his impatience growing once more. “That’s why we’re doing the interview, remember? We’ve got to get back in there…” Nalo moved towards the door.
Yarian caught the sleeve of the assassin’s black shirt. He shook his head. “No. I mean it. It’s over.”
Nalo pulled away. “Don’t tell me what to do, old man. I don’t work for you.”
“No. You work for the Guild.”
“And what I do on my own time is not its concern.”
Yarian chuckled and spread his thin lips in a smile. “The Guild has a way of making everything its business, my friend. You know that.”
Nalo stopped, but ignored the comment. He rubbed his face. “He kept saying ‘jade’. Did you notice that?”
“I’m a servant of the dead, Nalo, not an idiot.”
“Well, what does it mean?”
Yarian shrugged. “I don’t know, but I find it interesting that you would refer to your—lady—as a jewel.”
“But jade isn’t a jewel. It’s a stone.”
“Yes,” Yarian said, rubbing a hole in his chin. “Yes, it is.”
“What do you suspect?”
He let the old man stand there for a long while, wrapped in some inner thought. Over the years Nalo had learned not to trouble Yarian when he was thinking. The mind of a necromancer was easily distracted; one didn’t dare to interrupt in these rare moments of deep contemplation. But time was slipping away. Somewhere out there, Monika Sharr—his jewel—was in danger. He had to protect her.
Finally, Yarian roused, shook his head, and said, “Okay, you go and do whatever it is you must do. I’ll take care of Rubico Sharr.”
Nalo’s eyes lit up. “You’ll continue the interview?”
Yarian nodded impatiently. “Yes, yes. Go now. Leave me alone.”
Nalo wanted to give the old man a pat on the shoulder. Instead, he cracked a rare smile and said, “I knew you were a good sort.”
Yarian ignored the feeble attempt at an apology. He turned and headed down the steps.
Nalo disappeared into the darkness.
* * * * *
Their relationship began with a lie.
Having been attacked once by a Toradoram assassin, Monika Sharr could hardly refuse the protection that “Maellor Brock” offered her. That was the name Nalo used on occasion to hide his identity. Many people knew of the famed Nalo Thoran; too many in fact. The name was everywhere. He couldn’t use his real name with the woman he loved. The lie was justified in the service of her safety.
So she accepted his protection after an elaborate explanation that business partners of her late husband wanted to ensure that Rubico’s “estate” would not topple because of the recent attempt on her life. The monopoly on Isydori Silk had to be maintained for the financial interests of all concerned parties. “How did you know of the attack?” she asked him in her soft, perfect voice, as he showed her his official-looking references.
Security guard Maellor Brock smiled. This wasn’t even a lie. “News travels fast on the streets of Korsham City, my lady.”
So it was that both his nights and days were spent protecting her. The psychic dispatchers from the Guild continued sending Nalo assignments; springtime was a wondrous, yet murderous, time in Korsham. He ignored what assignments he could, and reassigned others to lesser assassins and thugs: those hits that didn’t require his personal touch. The Guild grew furious with his lack of focus and dedication to their cause and the needs of their patrons, but few actively tried to make an issue of it. Such a challenge would be suicide. Who would dare face the great Shadow Walker in his prime? The Guild would be patient for now with his inactivity; but for how long? Nalo tried not to think of such things as stoking the ire of his own dark patron saint. All he cared about was Monika.
For two weeks he watched and followed her wherever she went. She was a very busy person, professionally and privately. Over the years, she and her husband had acquired many business contacts which had turned into friendships of a sort, although Nalo could see that a merchant’s idea of a friend shared more with “colleague” status than true friendship. Monika Sharr called on several of the wives of other merchants, giving them tiny gifts, and in exchange, getting gifts of her own or promises of one sort or another. In all his time beating the streets at night, Nalo never knew all the gladhanding and palm-pressing a merchant had to do to make a living, to stay afloat. It was a fascinating lifestyle and it seemed to fit Monika Sharr well.
Everything fit her well. Her clothing especially. Walking behind her, Nalo couldn’t help but revel in her comely shape, the way her hips swayed back and forth perfectly beneath her leather garments, or the way she looked bending over to pick up a box or dust off a low shelf. The way she arched her back and teetered backwards on her heels when a colleague told a funny joke, or when she yawned and stretched early in the morning to prepare for business. There was no move or expression she made that passed his observation. On a few occasions, she caught him staring at her, and Nalo would look away quickly, embarrassed. But she never said anything. She’d just smile briefly and go about her way.
Nalo looked for excuses to touch her. He would point down the street and tell her the route they would take for the day, letting his fingers accidentally graze her shoulder or arm. He would help her with a heavy box, making sure his hand would rest momentarily on hers. He would accidentally bump into her to get in front and secure a fork in the road. Once, at the end of a very tough day, he offered to massage her neck, but she politely refused. That was too bold a move, he realized, but he couldn’t help himself. It was painful watching her and not being able to touch her, to take her hand, to wrap his arms around her. Killing was easy compared to this agony.
And he had to stay sharp. He had to push these uncomfortable feelings from his mind and keep a clear eye. Twice more foreign assassins came, baring their curved daggers, hissing and mumbling their zealotry. Nalo dispatched them easily enough, but he grew weary at the end of each day. Having to ward off psychic dispatchers, keep his feelings for Monika in check, and keep killers at bay—coupled with Yarian’s painstakingly slow search for answers—was enough to drive any man insane. If things didn’t change soon and for the better…
Then the spring rains began to fall. There was never a man, or killer, so thrilled with the torrent of water that fell from the sky. It was a good excuse to get closer to her.
His lady liked to drink tea on lazy afternoons, after the drudgery of her business had ended and all other matters were resolved. Monika liked her time away from it all, to settle her nerves, to clear her mind. Maellor Brock was more than willing to assist.
One such afternoon took them to the café where he had first contacted her. She waltzed in on her marvelous legs, greeted old friends with a marvelous smile, and shared tea and stories until the sun set, the winds howled, and the rains poured. On the way home afterwards, Maellor offered to shield the lady under his broad black overcoat. She was reluctant at first, but the winds were harsh and the rain soaked her to the bone.
Under his coat, her heat made Nalo swoon.
“You’re a very thin man, Mr. Brock,” she said, as they trotted along a dark, vacant street. Nalo kept his eyes peeled on every alley they passed. “Perhaps I should feed you something.”
Tonight is the night! Nalo held her shoulder tightly as they crossed the street, the incessant rain pelting them mercilessly. “That won’t be necessary, my lady,” he said. “I’m not hungry.” Not for food, anyway.
“Well,” she said, “come in to get a warm drink at least. You’ll catch your death out here.”
They entered her apartment and Nalo shrugged off his wet coat and gathered kindling from the brass holder on the large fireplace. When she wasn’t looking, he stoked the dry embers with a small fire spell Yarian had taught him. He stepped away and waited for the flames to grow.
The Sharrs’ apartment was vast and opulent, every corner filled with goods from across the world: Torador, Brenia, Isydor, and far-reaching places like Tybus and Ceneca. Thick wire and hemp rope spanned the room, holding rich carpets and soft comforters of Isydori silk and Torador breech-cloths. They quartered off the room in little cubes, helping to direct the heat from the fire into the main living spaces. While Monika brewed hot tea, Nalo moved through the maze of finery.
Such wealth he was unaccustomed to. Any one of the items in this room could have garnered Nalo half a year’s pay. Murder was brutal, but cheap, work. He’d known that from the beginning, but sometimes the job picks the man. If he’d had a choice, perhaps he would have been a merchant as well. There were certainly plenty of them around when he was young. Then too, there had been plenty of thugs, thieves, and assassins. The assassin trade had not started with Nalo Thoran, though it was a nice idea to imagine. He knew that going in as well. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger over a bolt of fine Isydori silk. He smiled. Soft. Soft like my lady.
Her voice startled him. She had snuck up behind him, and now held out a delicate cup and saucer. It was rare to startle the ShadowWalker. He took the tea humbly and nodded. Her value increased even more in his eyes. “Thank you, my lady.”
She smiled and sipped her tea. Their eyes searched each other. Suddenly, Nalo felt embarrassed. He looked away and took a sip.
She reached out to his face, her soft fingers penetrating the quiet space between them. Then she pulled back quickly, as if suddenly realizing that her move was inappropriate. She smiled again, averting her eyes playfully. “I’m sorry, Mr. Brock. I didn’t mean to intrude. But your face… it’s so pale. Yet so smooth.”
“Please,” Nalo said, “you may call me Maellor, my lady. In my line of work,” he continued, addressing her observation, “the sun plays a minor role.”
She puzzled about that for a moment, but his soft smile made her laugh. They laughed together, then Nalo said, motioning to the fine items around them, “you have quite a collection, my lady—”
“If I’m to call you Maellor,” she interrupted, “then call me Monika.”
Nalo nodded. “Very well.” He repeated his statement.
“Yes, indeed. My husband loved to collect things. He was always looking for that unique, rare, item.”
“But I thought he was a clothier and silk merchant.”
Monika nodded. “And rugs too. But he dabbled in everything. Whenever we had an extra coin, Rubico spent it on a Brenian ruby incense bowl or a Tybus ivory flute.” They walked past a small shelf of ornately designed drinking glasses, vases, and gold-speckled ceramic fertility dolls. She ran her fingers lightly across them, and Nalo felt his pulse quicken. “He especially liked rare gems and rocks. Rubies, emeralds, opals, turquoise, and jade.”
Jade! Nalo recalled the interview with Rubico. “Jade?” he asked.
“He loved it most of all,” she said, sipping again at her tea. Nalo took a sip as well, letting the hot liquid warm his chest. “He considered it the finest element in all the world.” She giggled, took another sip, then wavered in place.
Her knees buckled, and Nalo cast aside his cup and saucer and grabbed her. She let out a gasp of air, her head lolled backwards and her eyes rolled into her skull. She dropped her cup and the warm tea splashed her leg. He held her softly and took her to the floor.
Sweat covered her face. Nalo blew gently on her cheeks, giving her air, keeping her cool in the light of the flames.
She roused, her eyes blinking wildly. Her chest heaved as air raced into her lungs. In the heat of the moment, Nalo didn’t even realize that his hand cupped her left breast.
He tried pulling away, but she reached out and held his arm tight. He kept pulling back but her strength was too great. Too great for him: Nalo Thoran. How was that possible?
Something was wrong.
She pressed his hand against her breast again. Her warm, soft flesh rose to him. He squeezed and felt her hard, dark nipple. She smiled at him as if in a dream, her lips soft, ethereal. “Come to me, sweetness,” she said. Her words swam through his dizzy mind. “Come to me.”
Nalo took her in his arms and hugged tightly. Her lips touched his. Heat spread through his body, but it wasn’t his own. Heat from her, and not the kind one feels when bare skin touches skin. It radiated from her flesh, like the heat from the fireplace behind them. He tried resisting, but the feeling was too powerful, calling to him, giving him a sense of peace and happiness.
Like the way he had felt in the arms of Tish years ago.
A tendril of grey curled out of her mouth, like a line of smoke from a pipe. She touched his face with fingers long and sharp. “Open to me, sweet one,” she said, probing his lips with determined fingers. But the voice was not hers anymore. Not the pleasant cadence he had grown to love. The deep, guttural words from her throat were man-like, ancient, sinister. Nalo tried resisting, but all he saw before him was the face of an angel, bright and pleasing, welcoming him from the shackles of darkness.
“I love you!”
He said the words without thinking. Were they sincere, he wondered, or were they coerced?
A pause, then, “I love you too.” Those were her words, in her voice.
The face before him smiled softly as grey smoke turned green. Jade green. Nalo Thoran smiled and opened his mouth.
The world fell away.
Then the world fell back into place, as fast as it had fled from his mind. A faint buzzing sound, a woman’s scream, and then Nalo’s eyes opened as Monika was blown back from an explosion in her side. For a moment, he didn’t move. His eyes refocused, and he saw her clearly, writhing on the floor, bouncing violently and grabbing at a feather dart in her side. Jade smoke poured from the wound; the room filled with her screams.
“Back!” An old, raspy voice said from the apartment doorway. “Back away, Nalo. I know what she is.”
The assassin gathered himself and rose on weak legs. His throat and chest hurt, his body shook in fever, his stomach nauseous.
“I said stand back!”
Nalo did as Yarian bade. “Wh-why are you here?” Pain ripped through his mind. He leaned over and held his head.
Yarian did not answer. Instead, the old man shuffled through the doorway. In his hand was a small staff of black mahogany, its tip a fat, twisted chunk of coal. Nalo had seen the staff before, but Yarian used it sparingly and only in times of great danger to aide in focusing his necromantic powers. He held it up and moved slowly towards Monika’s shaking form.
An arch of black light burst from the staff as Yarian uttered blasphemies, his face a prune of twisted flesh. The light swarmed around her, wrapping her in a cocoon. Monika screamed and writhed madly to break free, but Yarian’s death magic was too strong.
“What are you doing?” Nalo screamed.
“Trying to keep us alive!”
“You’re killing her!”
Yarian shook his head. “No. She’s already lost.”
But all Nalo could see was a beautiful girl—a woman— writhing in pain on the floor. A woman he had sworn to protect. A woman he loved.
He shook away the pain in his mind and jumped. Though frail and feeble, Yarian moved quickly, trying to lean out of the way, but the assassin’s shoulder grazed his back and they went flying across the floor and into a pile of silk bolts. Yarian held his staff, but the dark light twisted upward and spread across the rafters like a spider web, dissipating against the wood.
Nalo pulled himself out of the silk and looked down. Yarian was a shamble of old cloth, silent and still. He’s dead. For a moment, that thought crossed Nalo’s mind. But no. The old goat couldn’t die that easily. I should help. But Yarian’s welfare didn’t concern him at the moment. He didn’t care about anything except her. She mattered the most.
His feelings weren’t natural anymore. He realized that as he went to her, knelt down, and held her head in his hands. His feelings were deep, but foreign, as if the jade smoke that had penetrated his mouth had awakened in him a singular purpose. He wasn’t just her bodyguard anymore; he was her soul protector. And nothing, not even Yarian, not even the dark gods, not even Kalloshin, would harm her. But it was a feeling as if she were property, like an object of great value. He tried pushing the thought out of his mind, but couldn’t. Instead, he tried to lift her.
“I’m taking you away, my love,” he whispered. Yarian’s black spell had wrinkled her face. She was still beyond beauty, but older, as if her essence had been drained away. “I know a place in the North Mountains. You’ll be safe with me there.”
She struggled against him. His sweaty hands slipped and she fell hard. “No!” she yelped. “No. It is hopeless. Just hold me, my love. Just hold me.”
He held her tightly. She breathed in tiny gasps and reached for him with her last strength. Their lips touched again. Nalo found himself resisting, trying to pull away, but he could not control his body or his feelings. They kissed for a long time, until she pulled away, looked deep into his eyes, and said, “Do you love me?”
He could think of nothing else to say. “Yes.”
“Then kill me.”
His face twisted in confusion. “What?”
“Kill me.” Her grip on his neck grew tighter, vise-like. Nalo could not pull away. With her free hand, she ripped her blouse open, exposing herself in the firelight. Sweat streaked her soft skin. Nalo could not resist the desire welling in his mind. So beautiful, so perfect. If he could touch her just once…
“Rip open my chest, my love, and free me.”
“I… I don’t understand.”
“Open my chest… and take my heart.”
He stared at her in terror. What was this thing she was asking? He could not comprehend it. He could not understand.
Then something raised his arm. A force that he, Nalo Thoran, had never felt before. He no longer controlled his body. He could see what was happening, but could do nothing to stop it.
The thing that held him took his arm and began to twist it, reshape it. His fingers fused together like candle wax above a flame. His pale skin shifted red like fire, then silver, red again, until what flesh remained tapered into a steel claw, sharp and hooked.
Then the force pushed his hand downward towards her chest. “Yarian!” Nalo screamed, fighting against the force, taking his other hand and pulling with all his strength. “Yarian, help me. Please!”
But the old man did not reply.
The sharp tip of his bladed hand pushed between her breasts. Nalo screamed and fought against it, but it pushed deeper, deeper. Blood poured from the cut around his hand. He heard her ribs crack. Monika screamed, but it wasn’t a scream of pain or of fear. It was a scream of joy and relief. A smile crept across her lips as happy tears streamed down her face.
The ribs now punctured, Nalo’s hand worked up and down, cutting through flesh and bone. Tish, he screamed silently into the floor. Tish! Help me. Please stop this!
No mistress of Kalloshin answered. The slaughter continued.
The force now took his other hand and pushed it into her chest. Nalo could feel Monika’s blood, her lungs, her broken ribs, and though he had killed so many in his life and had seen so much blood, the sight of all this gore soured his stomach. He looked away as his hand reached in and grabbed her heart.
But it was a stone. Not warm, beating muscle like he expected, but hard, smooth stone. He pulled out his hand and held it before him, Monika’s blood streaming down his arm. He raised it up and stared into a glowing chunk of jade.
Nalo dropped it as the green stone seared his hand. Now he pulled away, pumping his legs and falling backwards.
The light from the stone filled the room, every corner lit like a star. Nalo covered his face as a wave of heat rolled over him.
Then it shattered, bursting into a thousand pieces, showering the room in fine green shards. Nalo waited until the shards stopped falling. Then he moved his arms and opened his eyes.
Above him floated a demon.
It was green like the stone. A dark green with swirls of crimson along its misty body. It was like a fog, thick and smoky. The length of its body spun like a waterspout, and at its top, rising high into the rafters, lay a human torso, rippled with muscle and mass. Atop that sat a beastly head, shaped like a man’s, its face flat, its mouth lined with sharp white teeth and two fangs hooked and lying against pleasant cheeks. Golden rings pierced its broad earlobes, and its long hair hung in locks of twisted gold coil.
“I’m free!” The beast’s booming voice rattled the floor and Nalo covered his ears. “Toka al-Shamool Ali is free!”
The beast swirled upwards, twisting through the rafters like a snake, squealing in glee like a child with a new toy. Nalo ignored its play, stood and walked over to Monika’s body. He stood above her and stared into her mangled chest. Then he looked at his hands. They were real again, but covered in her blood. He fell down beside her, bowed his head, and placed his hands upon her ruined chest.
“I’m sorry, my lady,” he said, fighting back the pain. “So sorry.”
“Who are you?”
Nalo looked up and into the face of the beast. It floated mere inches from his own, its glowing red eyes searching Nalo’s unfamiliar face. Nalo stood quickly, rage uncontrollably rising in his throat. “I,” he said, pushing against the beast, “am Nalo Thoran. I am the Shadow Walker, the Dark Breath-Stealer. A servant to Kalloshin, the Seething Dark Eternalness, the Master of Thorns, the Patron Saint of Assassins. And I’m going to kill you.”
The sudden move of the mortal startled the beast, and it fell back as Nalo pushed again. The assassin swung his arms but his fists swiped harmlessly through the green mist. The beast stopped moving, rose up in a burst of cloud, then brushed its hand across the assassin’s shoulder.
Nalo flew across the room.
It followed. “Well, Nalo Thoran,” it said, “I am Toka al- Shamool Ali. I’m the sun and the stars, the earth and the wind. I am the Fog of Al-Halak, and the Mist of Time Immemorial. I’m a king and a god, and I can kill you.”
Nalo tried picking himself off the floor, but the demon held him firm, its mass swirling around him, choking his breath away. He gasped for air, clawed at his throat, tried to shout. Nothing came.
A bolt of dark light crashed through the fog. The beast fell back, screaming, fighting against a wall of black smoke.
Yarian appeared through the haze, holding his little staff aloft. “I,” he said, “am Yarian Domak. Necromancer. Agent of Death. Keeper of the Rotting Brain, and an all-around nasty son of a bitch. I can’t kill you, but you will leave this place.”
The beast swirled back and forth, like a tiger waiting. It tested Yarian’s defenses, pushing, prodding, but it could find no weaknesses. “Begone!” Yarian screamed, and another burst of light roiled forth from the black coal.
The beast screeched in agony, twisted itself into ribbons of bright green, then fled towards the fireplace.
“I will return,” it said, slithering its way up the charred blocks. “Toka al-Shamool Ali will have your deaths.”
Its laughter diminished as it fled up the chimney and escaped into the Korsham night.
* * * * *
“She was a vessel,” Yarian said as they sat in front of the fireplace, watching Monika Sharr’s destroyed body glow in the firelight. “A carrier. A shell.”
Nalo’s eyes stared unblinking at her peaceful face, trying to ignore the gaping hole in her chest. With a soft piece of silk, he wiped her blood from his arm. “I don’t understand.”
Yarian cleared his throat. “Rubico Sharr’s babbling about ‘jade’ piqued my curiosity, so I dug deeper, asked different questions. In ancient times, Torador sorcerers would trap uncontrollable demons in blocks of jade, just as your Guild enslaves souls in amethyst. But with jade comes a price. Over time, it corrupts. Its core corrodes, deteriorates. With enough time, that which is trapped inside begins to sense its freedom and crave it. A demon will do anything for its freedom. But that beast was even worse. That was a Groel.”
“A demon whose powers rival that of the gods. I’m sure it’s been trapped for legions of time, and for good reason. I was trying to keep it contained in her flesh. Its ethereal qualities would have been absorbed by her blood and would have dissipated. If I had been successful, it would have ended this night.”
There was a veiled accusation in that statement, Nalo knew. But he let it pass. He had no strength to fight. “How did it get there?” Nalo asked. “How did it get inside her… body?”
“Don’t know for certain,” Yarian said, “but I suppose that through some dark mischief, Rubico had it implanted to more easily smuggle it out of Toradoram. Human flesh dampens immortal powers, as you well know.”
“What was he going to do with it?”
“The stone alone was worth a small fortune. Toradoram is very protective of its jade, and merchants like the Sharrs— despite all their obvious wealth—could not have afforded such a large piece. And with a Groel trapped inside, the price is unimaginable. In the hands of a skilled sorcerer, a beast like that could be most powerful indeed.”
“What could it do?”
“You don’t want to know.”
Nalo paused, then said, “So he had a buyer.”
Yarian nodded. “Most certainly.”
Who? It was a question without an answer. The Sharrs were dead. Perhaps Yarian could spin his magic and make Rubico’s broken throat utter the name. But in truth, Nalo did not want to know. There was no value in that knowledge. The truth could be dangerous.
“And,” Yarian said, moving slowly to stand closer to the fire, “it’s certain that someone in Toradoram wanted it back.”
“Will it come after us?”
Yarian shook his head, but Nalo could see doubt in the old man’s weathered eyes. “Not likely. Despite its threat, Toka al- Shamool Ali will have enough to do without badgering two worthless killers like us.”
Nalo allowed a smile to creep across his face. No matter the situation, Yarian always cracked a joke. A rare quality indeed for a death merchant.
“Come,” Yarian said, placing his hand on Nalo’s shoulder. “We must leave. Watchmen will arrive soon. We can’t be seen.”
Nalo nodded. “Just a moment.”
He knelt down and grabbed the hem of the thin shift of silk that lay over her legs. He paused to look at her face. Even in death she was radiant. He yearned to kiss her, one last time, but resisted. Despite their hard beauty, those lips were cold, lifeless, belonging now to whatever god she worshiped. Nor did he want to move them, for even the slightest touch would smear their perfection. He wanted to remember them like this always. Always.
Nalo smiled and whispered gently in her ear, “Goodbye, my lady. I’m so very sorry. We deserved more time. We deserved at least one chance together.” He pulled the silk over her face and stood quickly. “Let’s go.”
Together, Nalo and Yarian, assassin and necromancer, disappeared into a dark and blinding spring rain.
The first Nalo Thoran story appeared in the pages of Weird Tales, issue #332.