The fourth Kormak novel, City of Strife is off with my editor right now. I’m hoping it will be ready to publish in the not-too-distant future so now seems like a good time to run a preview. (You may also wish to download Stealer of Flesh, the first book in the series. It’s available for free from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Smashwords, Apple and Kobo.)
My apologies for any typos you may come across (I’ll update things once I get the edits back), and I hope you enjoy the sneak peek. Thanks for reading!
THE FAT MONK ran through the garbage-strewn alleys of Vermstadt, knowing that death was at his heels. Sweat soaked Frater Ambrose’s robes. His limbs were lead and his stomach was on fire. His dinner fought its way up his throat.
He cursed himself just to keep from weeping. Why had he given in so often to so many temptations of the flesh? Why had he broken his vows? He had sworn temperance and chastity and restraint in all things. Well, it looked as if the Holy Sun had finally got round to punishing him.
He stopped for a moment and heard his hunters’ steps echo through the alleys. The noise was barely audible over his laboured breathing and the drumbeat of his heart. He wiped his brow and looked around. The full moon gleamed out of the unseasonably clear autumn sky, giving just enough light for him to see there was no place he could hide in these alleys, unless he wanted to try and burrow deep into one of those midden heaps, to crawl like a worm through a mulch of rotting vegetables, old food, ashes and excrement.
He shook his head. If he thought it might work he would have done so, but large as the trash-heaps were, they were not big enough to hide his corpulent form. He would need to find another way. He fumbled for the leather-bound leaden bludgeon he always carried to protect himself when he walked through the Maze. He knew how to use it. The slum district was the sort of place that not even a monk was safe in. It was also where many of his agents dwelled.
Or they used to. He had not been able to make contact with any of them over the last few months. One by one, they had ceased to report. Shiera, the streetwalker, being the latest to go. After she had not been seen at her patch for three nights Ambrose had begun to investigate. He found her lying with her throat slit on a slab in the city morgue waiting for a pauper’s burning. It was not an uncommon fate for a woman in her profession in a city like Vermstadt but coming on top of the disappearance of his other spies it had made Ambrose suspicious.
His network had been in place for years. He had spent decades building it in secret. His agents were his eyes and ears in the city, reporting back scraps of rumour, alerting him to the latest intrigues of the great patrician families and the monastic brotherhoods. They kept him abreast of the schemes of the merchant houses so that he could report in turn to his distant master on Mount Aethelas about the events in Taurea’s wealthiest city-state. He did not think it was a coincidence that his people had started to vanish as the Prelate lay on his deathbed and the two greatest merchant clans in the kingdom, the Oldbergs and the Krugmans, were dragging the city to the verge of civil war.
And he strongly suspected that there was something far worse bubbling away beneath the surface. The disappearing corpses, the seemingly unkillable enforcer the Krugmans had somehow acquired, the stink of sorcery rising over the city every full moon, all of those things pointed to it. Now cats had started to vanish and the city’s rat population was multiplying and there were stories of monsters in the Maze. It had set more alarms ringing in Ambrose’s mind. A concerted effort was being made to silence his agents as some sorcerous plot came to a climax.
This morning it had seemed like a blessing when Manfred had finally got back into contact, claiming to have found out something of vast importance. A cunning man, Manfred, and a thief well acquainted with the city’s underworld and its secret wars. He had managed to go to ground and avoid the fate of the other agents, or so it had seemed. The message had called for a meeting at their usual spot in the Maze, a tavern called the Dog’s Head.
Ambrose had gone there, but Manfred had not shown up. A terrible suspicion had been born in the monk’s mind then. Manfred might not be coming. He might have broken under torture and written the note. Ambrose had noticed a group of hard-looking men eying him and decided to make his escape. He ducked out to the privy and somehow managed to get his bulk over the back wall and the chase had begun.
He offered up a prayer to the Holy Sun and began to move again. A horde of rats, disturbed by his movement, scurried out of the middens, their small eyes glittering hungrily. The sight of them brought back certain horrific suspicions that had been preying on Ambrose’s mind.
He kicked out, scattering the rodents but one of them nipped at his leg, burying tiny sharp teeth in his calf. He brought his legs together, crushing the beast and lumbered on. A large man emerged from an alley mouth, a crossbow held in his hand. Ambrose lashed out with his weighted bludgeon, connecting with the man’s head, sending him reeling back into a puddle of piss and rain-water.
He picked up the crossbow. He had no training with such a thing but at close range, as a last resort, it might prove useful. He was willing to try anything that might help him escape. If he could just get out of the Maze, he might find a Watch Patrol. He might yet be able to get away. He was not too far from Cheap Street now. If he could just run a few hundred more strides . . .
He heard more whistles from up ahead. His pursuers had already cut off that route. He consulted with the map of the Maze he had carried in his head since his first visits here as a novice more than twenty years ago. He could backtrack and take a right turn, that would put him on Blood Vennel; from there he might be able to make his way back to the Silver Lamprey. Or he could just lie down and wait for them to find him. Given the state of his body, that was becoming an increasingly attractive option.
No. Don’t give up. He clutched the crossbow tight and forced himself to move. Something clattered down in the muck ahead of him, roofing slates most likely, dislodged by observers on the roof. It seemed that there were people up there keeping pace with him. His mind raced. There were too many people involved in this hunt for all but the most powerful factions in the city. The Oldbergs could afford it as could the Krugmans.
The Prelate could too but Ambrose already discounted that. With the old man on his deathbed, his followers were too busy intriguing against each other. There was the possibility that some new Shadow cult had arisen, like the one the Guardian Kormak had removed five years ago. That would account for the tales of evil magic and monsters in the city. He offered up another prayer, promising the Holy Sun that he would fast for a month, do penance for a year if only he could reach his cell again and send a ciphered report back to the Sacred Mountain.
He turned the corner and saw what waited for him and knew his prayers were not going to be answered. The thing was all he had feared and more. Tall as a man even as it leaned forward in an obscene slouch, its eyes glowed with a hellish light. Its huge jaw distended to reveal tusk-like fangs. It was a demon of the old darkness. A horde of rats scurried around its clawed feet, chittering worshipfully.
Ambrose raised the crossbow and fired. The bolt flickered through the air and, as if guided by his desperate prayers, struck the creature clear through the heart. It stood there for a moment. Its long clawed hand reached up and pulled the missile free, its barbed head tearing muscle and skin and cloth. Flesh sucked closed behind it, leaving no sign of any wound. The demon bared its teeth in what might have been a mocking smile as it cast the bolt to one side.
Frater Ambrose dropped the crossbow and raised his Elder Sign in a gesture of defiance and tried his last gambit. “I serve the Order of the Dawn,” he said. “If you kill me, I will be avenged.”
The demon gave a soft hissing sound that might have been mocking laughter. It moved slowly towards him, surrounded by its tide of vermin, confident that he could not escape. Frater Ambrose tried to force his legs to move but they simply gave way beneath him. He tried to mutter the words of the Solar Prayer but his tongue felt swollen in his mouth,
The demon loomed over him. A taloned claw rose. A shadow came between Ambrose and the light. He did not even have time to scream.
IN THE TWILIGHT Kormak led his horse through the streets of Vermstadt. The beast whinnied a tired protest and trudged on, cold breath emerging from its nostrils in a cloud. The tall, greying swordsman picked his way with care. Beneath the snow the cobbles were slick and he had not ridden across northern Taurea just to lose his mount to a broken ankle within the city’s massive walls.
He touched the pommel of his sword, still uncomfortable with having the dwarf-forged blade strapped to his waist rather than belted over his shoulder as was proper for a member of his order. The Grand Master wished his mission carried out in secret, so it could disavow him if things went wrong. He had his reasons for wanting Kormak to go unrecognised. The last time the Guardian had been in Vermstadt he had killed five powerful men and the repercussions of that deed might still catch up with him.
Kormak suspected that there would be more killing this time. Vermstadt was the sort of city where men bartered their souls to the powers of Shadow. For a place sacred to the Sun, it was a most unholy metropolis. Something of the darkness Saint Verma had supposedly banished during her stay among mortals seemed to have clung to it down the centuries.
The tall tenements loomed menacingly out of the gloom. Snow piled up around the buildings. Fat flakes continued to fall, the cold wind driving the gusts down from the slopes of the nearby Thunderpeak Mountains. Cloaked and cowled citizens made their way home in the gloaming. A man with a hopeful air offered a cold pie half-price. Kormak shook his head. He was hungry after his long journey but he wanted to save his appetite for a real meal at an inn.
The street was wide enough for two carts to pass if the drivers were careful. The alleys leading away from it were not nearly so rich-looking or so well lit. In their mouths slatternly women, well-wrapped against the cold stood beneath red lanterns, looking to do some business even on this chilly evening. Off to the south were the great rotting slums of the Maze, where families of beggars huddled ten to a room.
Beggars extended hands for copper coins in a half-hearted attempt to get money, more for the sake of the thing than because they really expected it. A lad of about eleven fell into step beside him, looked nervously over his shoulder and said, “Looking for a tavern, sir?”
Most of the inns Kormak could see were exactly what he would have expected so close to the city gates—overpriced traps for the weary traveller fresh off the road, or drinking dens for the drovers and carters who would pass through the nearby West Gate. He wanted somewhere a bit classier and he had fond memories of one place and one woman in particular. They were the only good memories he had of this accursed city. He still had dark dreams about his last visit.
“No,” Kormak said. “I know where I am going.”
“And where would that be, sir?” The boy glanced over his shoulder again and then up at Kormak. His face was thin and nervous. He played with something on his arm. It was a scarf dyed yellow.
Kormak thought about footpads and their lookouts. This boy did not look like one, just starved and nervous but Kormak had led a life that left him prone to suspicion. “None of your business,” he said.
“Right you are, sir,” the boy said. He kept walking along beside Kormak. He did not say anything more.
Tall, half-timbered buildings with narrow mullioned windows loomed over the snowy road. Many of them had painted signs indicating the business of their owner.
A wheel indicated a cartwright, a barrel a cooper, an anvil a blacksmith. The warm, ruddy glow of the forge inside the shop brought back memories from Kormak’s long ago childhood, of his father’s massive figure beating out swords for the clan, back before the old man had been slaughtered along with everyone Kormak had ever known.
The boy kept walking beside him. He was tempted to tell the kid to move on but the lad looked up at him entreatingly and said, “You don’t mind if I walk with you a bit, sir. Least until we see a squad of watchmen.”
“Well, you see, sir, it’s like this. You have a sword, and there’s a bunch of lads following me as would be less likely to give me any trouble if they see me walking along with a man with a sword.” He smiled ingratiatingly and Kormak understood that this was for the benefit of anybody watching them, to make it look as if they knew each other.
Kormak glanced back over his shoulder. A large group of youths glared at him and the boy.
“What if those likely lads decide we are friends and give me some trouble as well?”
“They wouldn’t do that, sir. Bors and his lads are cowards, all the Krugman lickspittles are. They won’t trouble a man with a blade, particularly not a big scarred man like yourself who looks like he knows how to use it.”
“It seems to me that I should charge you for bodyguard work,” said Kormak.
“That is only fair, sir,” said the boy. “But there’s one problem . . . I don’t have any money to pay you. The Angels and Saints will surely smile on you though. It would be downright charitable and this here is a Cathedral town, leastwise it will be, and you’re closer to the Holy Sun’s heaven and his sight here because of it.”
He nodded and then smiled as if Kormak had said something particularly funny, still holding an imaginary conversation with an imaginary friend for the benefit of their observers. It came to Kormak then that the boy was genuinely frightened.
“What have you done to upset Bors and his boys?”
“Nothing, sir. Oh, I may have passed a few remarks about the Moon-loving Krugmans and the way Bors kisses Jurgen Krugman’s arse whenever he sees it but it was mostly in fun. They just don’t have a sense of humour and that’s the Holy Sun’s own truth, sir.”
A group of youths emerged from an alley mouth and fanned out in a half circle blocking their way. The ones that had been walking behind moved closer, cutting off any retreat. Kormak could hear their feet crunching in the snow.
The gang surrounded them. Many were just boys, little older than the one he was talking to. Some were larger and surlier and a few were hulking brutes almost as big as Kormak. One of them spoke now.
“Well, well,” he said. “If it’s not little Jan. Who is this you’re talking to, Jan? Some wandering adventurer you’ve mistaken for your father again?”
The boy took a step behind Kormak, into his shadow. Kormak moved slightly to keep him in sight, aware that all of this might be just playacting to set him up for purse-snatching.
The boy was still there. He had raised his hands in front of his body as if already warding off blows. “Piss off, Bors,” he said. There was a scared bravado in his tone.
“Come here, Jan,” said Bors. “You’ve shot your smart mouth off once too often and now we’re going to stomp you flat.”
Kormak stared at the boys. They glared back at him with feral menace. He could see they all had scarves tied around their arms although of a different colour from the one Jan was wearing. This one looked dirty white or maybe grey. It was hard to tell, the lights were dimmer here, and there were less people about. It was clear the youths had waited for an opportune moment before accosting them.
The one called Bors saw Kormak looking at him and smiled easily enough, showing the gaps caused by two missing teeth. “This is none of your business, stranger,” he said. “You can just be on your way.”
Kormak did not like the dismissive jeering tone but he could see the sense of what Bors was saying. This was none of his business. He did not know any of them, and he certainly did not owe the kid anything. And yet, he stood there. He was not used to be reckoned so lightly. His pride was hurt. And he had never liked bullies.
“There’s no need for any trouble,” he said. He kept his tone mild.
The big youth laughed and tapped the knife at his belt. “Oh there won’t be any trouble,” he said. “If you know what’s good for you.”
One or his lieutenants had drawn his dagger and was ostentatiously cleaning his nails with it. Another smirked at Kormak already certain that he would do nothing. They had the look of small-time troublemakers, of the sort who were used to intimidating peasants and small tradesmen and passing pilgrims.
He glanced around again and could not help but wonder why they were so certain they could get away with behaving like this in plain view of the citizenry on a street where the Watch were likely to pass at any time. He saw a midden, and on top of the midden a rat. It looked at him with glittering eyes and scuttled away.
“What’s the problem here anyway?” he asked. “Surely you can talk it out.”
“Surely you can talk it out,” said the youth with the drawn knife. He spoke in a mincing, effeminate echo of Kormak’s words. The others laughed.
“Are you still here?” said Bors. There was real menace in his tone now. He moved forward, crowding Kormak, so close that the onion-laden smell of his breath was obvious. Normally Kormak would not have let anybody get so close but he did not want to draw his sword. He was still trying to avoid trouble although he suspected things had already gone too far for that. “I thought I told you to go.”
Kormak slowly raised his hand, put it on the youth’s chest and pushed him away. The big lad looked at him as if he could not quite believe what he was seeing. The youths had started to crowd forward. There were knives drawn now. He saw their rusty blades glitter in the distant torchlight.
“Have you ever seen a warhorse fight?” Kormak asked. He kept his tone conversational.
“What?” Bors asked.
“Have you ever seen a warhorse fight? It takes years to train them, but once that’s done they are vicious.”
“What in the Shadow’s name are you talking about?”
“Star here is a warhorse. I’ve seen him crush men’s skulls with his hooves and rend their flesh with his teeth. The last man he bit, he pulled the cheek right off, you could see the jawbone and teeth through the hole. He made a strange sucking, whistling sound whenever he breathed.”
The youths had started to back off now. No one wanted to be quite so close to the horse any more. “All I have to do is whistle and he’ll break your skull. He’ll take pleasure in it, for he’s a vicious brute if truth be told.”
“You’re lying,” said Bors. He did not sound so sure of himself now. He glared at Kormak caught between fear, anger and losing face in front of his gang. “That nag is no warhorse.”
“Would you like to bet your life on that,” Kormak said. For a long moment, they exchanged glares.
“Sure,” said Bors. “Why not?”
I hope you enjoyed the preview. If you would like to notified when City of Strife and any future novels are released please sign up for my mailing list here.