by Rob Steiner
Karak Frost sipped his green tea loudly, prompting a look of annoyance from Echol Dyer across the eches board. Karak raised an eyebrow and said, “I’m sorry, does that bother you.”
“You know it does,” Echol growled, and then turned his attention back to the board. A fine sheen of sweat glistened on his brow and above his lip. Echol was in quite the dire situation—he was down three pieces and about to loose four hundred han.
Not to mention his life.
Six of Karak’s men sat around the table, some fingering their daggers, waiting for the order to slit Echol’s throat. But much to their credit, and to Karak’s pride in them, they controlled their fury and only stared at Echol with cool eyes. It was more than Echol deserved for his betrayal. He was lucky Karak didn’t cut off his manhood right now, but Karak was a fair man and was giving Echol the chance he did not deserve—defeat Karak in eches, and he would live. Lose, and….
Karak slurped his tea again, drawing another scowl from Echol. Karak smiled, set his cup down. “My apologies. I don’t know why I keep doing that.”
Echol looked back at the board for a few moments, and then his face brightened. He moved a piece triumphantly and said, “Mate in two, which earns me back the four hundred han I lost plus two hundred for the mate.”
Karak looked at the board, studied it for a moment. “Why you beat me, Echol. I didn’t think you had it in you.”
Karak leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers on his broad chest, affecting a look of disappointment. “Well, Echol, I’m a man of my word. You will live.”
Karak turned to his captain, a large brute of a Gahallian named Castle. “Give Mr. Dyer his two hundred han, castrate him, and then let him go.”
Echol’s eyes bulged satisfactorily. “What?”
Two of Karak’s men seized Echol in iron grips, preventing him from getting any fool notions of escape in his fool brain.
“Wait,” Karak said, “strike that. Castrate him first, then give him his two hundred, and then let him go.”
“No!” Echol screamed. “You said you’d—”
“—let you live if you beat me,” Karak said. “And that’s what I’m going to do. Believe me, Echol, you’re getting off easy here. Not only did you take a bribe from the constables and turn over one of my brothels, but you raped two of my whores. Now betrayal for money I can understand. Mercy, I’ve done it myself. But rape…well, Echol. I can’t abide rapists, even whore rapists.”
Karak said to Castle, “Tell Doc to make sure he doesn’t bleed to death.”
Castle nodded, then motioned the other two men to take the screaming, crying Echol into the back room where Dr. Huror was waiting with a dull scalpel.
As Karak began putting the eches pieces back into their ornately carved box, Primas Maed stood up from the chair in which he was sitting behind Karak and helped with the pieces.
“You let him win,” Primas said, grinning. “Even I could see the ‘mistake’ you made.”
“What is the one thing a serial rapist values more than his life?”
Primas raised an eyebrow. “Ah. Fitting.”
Echol’s muffled shrieks began from behind two doors and a thick basement wall.
Echol had cost Karak more than just the revenue from a single brothel. He had cost Karak the respect of the Klahdera Overlords, many of whom wanted Karak’s throat slit just for the fact that he was a Wilder, a man of the southern Wild Kingdoms, a mindless barbarian who did not have the brains to run the Klahdera’s operations in Calaman. Only Overlord Silek, Karak’s sponsor, had protected him thus far. Would this debacle cost Karak even Silek’s support? If it did, Karak might find himself floating face down in Lake Maximohr in much worse condition than Echol.
Though Karak’s office was in the basement of a tavern in what many considered the seedier side of Calaman, he saw no reason for the basement to look like a basement. Ornate tapestries of wondrous landscapes lined every inch of the walls. Beneath them were carved chairs and tables from the finest carpenters in Levaken. And the stone floors were lined with intricately patterned rugs from Mazumdahr (just because the Compact had enemies didn’t mean Karak had to forgo the simple pleasures in life).
Which reminded him…
“Is that Mazumdahri gentleman still waiting to see me?” Karak asked.
Primas nodded, browsing the newspaper on Karek’s desk. “I suppose so. Or at least he was the last time I was upstairs.”
Karak gave Primas the “Look,” which always seemed to move Karak’s men into action. It worked. Primus stood, heading toward the stairs leading up to the tavern. “I’ll go see if he’s still here.”
Karak set the eches box on top of one of the Levaken tables near his desk. He went to the body-length mirror beneath the one window in his office, and inspected his clothing and hair. Silek once told him that appearance was everything when it came to making business deals. If you looked like a beggar, you’d make deals like a beggar. When you looked like a lord, you made the other man make deals like a beggar. Karak’s fine blue silk coat had not a wrinkle on it, nor did his black breeches. His black boots shone like polished onyx, and his oiled blond hair and trimmed beard had a similar sheen. Whatever this Mazumdahri man wanted, Karak was prepared to make him pay for it.
Primas soon returned with the Mazumdahri gentleman. The man was tall, thin, and without the long beard traditionally worn by Mazumdahri men. His blond hair—with more gray than blond around the temples—was pulled back in a pony tail as was the Compact fashion of the day. The man wore a decent maroon coat, though not as finely woven as Karak’s. He had a weathered face that seemed timeless. Karak could not determine if it was an old face or a middle-aged one that had seen too much excitement.
The man looked more like a native of the Wild Kingdoms than a Mazumdahri. Karak supposed he wouldn’t want to go advertising who he was, especially in a country with which his native land was technically at war. Yes, this man was trying to fit in, which meant the business was illicit. More the better from Karak’s point of view—it meant larger profits.
Karak motioned to a chair in front of his large desk. “Please sit, mister…?”
“Call me Crane,” the Mazumdahri said, without a hint of an accent. Crane’s voice was deep, steady, without emotion, and his eyes held Karak’s gaze easily.
Crane sat in the chair and crossed his legs casually. Primas sat in the other chair next to Crane, while Karak sat on the ornately carved mahogany throne behind his desk. The throne was a two hundred-year-old relic from one of the Wild Kingdoms in the south. Legend said that every king who sat in this chair had to kill the king before him to attain it. Karak liked that legend. It reminded him of how things were done in the Klahdera.
“So,” Karak said, folding his arms, “you’ve been trying to meet with me for the past three days. You must have a rock solid streak of patience to wait that long to see a humble tavern owner.”
Crane smirked. “We both know you are no ‘humble tavern owner.’”
Karak looked at Primas, said to him, “What else could I be?”
At that moment, Echol screamed again. Though still muffled, the sound was louder than the noise of the crowd upstairs. Karak stared into Crane’s eyes, saw no hint of fear or shock at the sound.
A challenge, Karak thought.
Crane took the black riding gloves off his hands and casually draped them over his crossed legs. “My sources tell me, Mr. Frost, that you are a man of your word. That when you say you’re going to do something, you do it.”
Karak feigned embarrassment. “Well. I’m honored to know that I have a good reputation among your sources.”
“They also say you know how to get things done…discretely.”
“The privacy of my customers is most important to me.”
“And they say you are good at avoiding legal entanglements,” Crane said, ignoring Echol’s continuing screams.
“Damnable lies,” Karak said. “I’m a legitimate business man who runs a successful, legal tavern. Just who are these sources of yours?”
Crane reached into his coat, and Karak heard the clicking of a small revolver in Primas’s hand, the barrel pressed against Crane’s temple. Crane smiled, slowly pulled a bag out of a pocket inside his coat, then placed the bag on Karak’s desk. He leaned back in his chair, and said, “Perhaps that will ease your conscience.”
Karak made no motion to the bag. He knew from the clinking that it held many large coins, and if they were Compact coins, the bag was worth over 10,000 han. Karak stood up from his throne, walked around the desk, and leaned against it facing Crane. The older blond-haired man regarded him with cold gray eyes.
Karak nodded to Primas, who lowered the revolver, but held it on his lap pointed at Crane.
“Who are you and why are you here?” Karak asked quietly. “Enough games.”
“I have a large crate that I need to bring into the city,” Crane said. “With the war on, all incoming shipments are closely inspected. And items the size of mine will attract undue attention from the Calaman customs officers. My employer would like to avoid that. I’ve been told you are someone who could help him.”
“You didn’t answer my first question,” Karak said.
“I represent certain interests that would like to remain anonymous.”
Karak snorted. “Yes, I figured that one out on my own.”
Then Karak walked over to the potted ficus tree standing beneath a small, barred window, the only source of sunlight in Karak’s basement office. He inspected the soil and saw that it needed watering. Karak liked the tree because it did not require a lot of light to thrive. Just like him.
As Karak poked the soil with a hand rake to aerate it, he said, “You have to see this from my perspective, Mr. Crane. I don’t know you. I’ve never heard of you. You could be Shadarlak for all I know. Why should I trust you?”
Crane sighed, then closed his eyes. He kept them closed and his brow furrowed as if he was growing more angry by the moment. He began to mutter something under his breath, and Karak glanced at Primas, who shrugged.
Then Crane’s eyes fluttered open. They were completely black.
Crane turned his head to the ficus next to Karak and muttered a few words in a strange language that sounded more like grunts and whispers than words.
Karak heard a moist cracking sound come from the tree. The trunk had burst open, and black pus-like ooze flowed from the wound. The pus climbed up the trunk as if it were alive, quickly covering the branches and green leaves. The branches turned a sickly yellow, and purple veins pulsed within them. The leaves twisted into red, uneven shapes, with throbbing thorns at the edges. And they began to move.
Karak jumped away from the tree, the hand rake up and ready to defend himself. Crane laughed, and Karak saw that the man’s eyes had returned to their icy gray.
“Can a Shadarlak do that?”
Karak looked at Primas, who was still pointing his revolver at Crane, but staring wide-mouthed at the transformed tree.
“Primas,” Karak said. “Show this man out of my tavern. And don’t let him back in again.”
Primas blinked as if coming out of a dream, then pointed the revolver at Crane’s head. “You heard Mr. Frost.”
Crane smiled, and then stood. “I understand this is all difficult to take in. I will return tomorrow when you’ve had a chance to sort this out.”
Karak tried holding back his anger, but he snarled at the Mazumdahri. “Did you hear what I said? I said I don’t want to see you again.”
Crane reached into his jacket, pulled out another bag of coins and threw them on the desk next to the first bag. “Are you sure, Mr. Frost? Consider this compensation for your time…and your tree. Keep the han, but think about what I’ve told you. There is more—much more—if you decide to take my job offer.”
Karak eyed the second bag, guessing it held roughly the same as the first. Twenty thousand han just to think about a job. Karak did not like the feel of this, not at all. This strange witch-man had just turned his ficus into a writhing mass of…well, a writhing mass. And now he gave Karak twenty thousand han just to think about a job offer. This was not right at all.
But twenty thousand was more than he made in a year running this tavern. And it would more than make up for the loss of his brothel. If there was more where that came from for smuggling one crate…
“All right,” Karak said. “I’ll think on it. But on one condition.”
Crane signed. “As if twenty thousand han was not condition enough… All right, Mr. Frost, what is your condition.”
“Kill that thing.”
Crane smiled. “It’s already dead.”
Then he stood from his chair, put his gloves and hat on, and said, “I will return tomorrow at noon. Please have an answer for me by then. I will show myself out, thank you.”
Crane opened the door to Karak’s office and shut it with a quiet click. Karak looked at Primas, who stared at him wide-eyed, then Karak shouted, “Castle, get in here!”
Castle came lumbering in, wiping blood from his hands with a small rag. “My lord?”
“Come with me,” Karak growled.
He rushed through a door at the back of his office and up the outer fire escape stairs to his second-floor apartment above the tavern. He strode through the apartment, decorated in the same fashion as his basement office, and threw open the double-glass doors to the balcony above the street. The air was cool and fresh compared to the nauseating stench in the basement coming from the plant Crane had bewitched. Merchants along the narrow alley had already set up their wares for the day, shouting out deals and sales to passers-by, many of whom looked like they couldn’t afford what the merchants were selling. Karak leaned on the railing of his balcony, watching the street below him. Crane exited the tavern and turned left, walking at a leisurely pace.
“That man in the maroon suit,” Karak said to Castle. “Follow him. I want to know where he goes and what he does for the rest of the day. Move!”
For a large man, Castle could move rather quickly. He charged out of Karak’s apartment and was on the street in seconds. He slowed to the same pace Crane used, keeping to an unnoticeable distance. Karak stared after them for minutes as Crane stopped now and then to inspect some item. Castle stopped as well, picking up something from one of the street vendors and briefly haggling over the price. Karak smiled. Castle was not only the toughest of his lieutenants, but among the smartest. A useful combination in this business.
Karak walked back downstairs to his office. Primas was inspecting the writhing plant—from a safe distance—which seemed to be disintegrating into a gray puddle of pulp by the moment. After another minute or two, the tree was nothing more than ashes in a pot of dead soil.
“How did he do that?” Primas asked, still staring at the tree.
The question echoed Karak’s thoughts. But then his eye caught the bags of han still sitting on his desk. He went to them and emptied them onto his desk blotter. As he suspected, twenty thousand han glittered back at him. Just for thinking about Crane’s offer.
And what was Crane? How did he…do whatever he did to the ficus? Karak had seen and done many twisted things in his fifteen years among the Klahdera, but none compared to what he just witnessed. If he started telling people about what he saw, his enemies in the Klahdera would use this as the excuse they needed to eliminate him. He had embarrassed many of the Overlords by out-performing their groomed Gahallian protégés. They would say that Karak was a supernaturalist barbarian who could not be trusted as the Klahdera family’s “Lord of Calaman,” a highly prestigious position among the Recindia-wide Klahdera.
“We tell no one of what happened here,” Karak said to Primas. “Do you understand? No one.”
Primas nodded with an expression saying he would rather forget he ever saw Mr. Crane. Then he looked at Karak and asked, “Do you think Crane has anything to do with the rings in the sky?”
Primas’s hand went to the Ahura medallion beneath his shirt. Though Primas was Gahallian, his family had been in one of the numerous Ahura cults that sprang up every now and then in the Gahall countryside. Primas had left the cult when he was a teen and came to Calaman to earn his way. Though Primas had abandoned the cult, Karak sometimes wondered if he had abandoned its beliefs.
Karak laughed. “Primas. And here I thought you were a good Pathist.”
“Strange things have happened ever since those rings appeared,” Primas said, still staring at the dead plant. “Not just the storm, but I’ve heard rumors that people have been found in the gutters…changed. Like your tree. Strange cries and moans from dark alleys, and clawed shadows reach for the unwary. I didn’t believe any of it either. Until now.”
Karak sat down at his desk, staring at the gold.
“We need this job, Primas. After the debacle with Echol, the Overlords need one excuse to have me and you feeding the sharks in the Gebremeden. If this employer of Crane’s is willing to pay us twenty thousand han just to think about a job, imagine what he’ll pay if we take the job?”
Primas still looked uncomfortable. “My Lord, I say we forget this job. Nothing good can come of it.”
Karak sighed. “If we take this job, the money we make will strengthen Silek’s ability to support us. It will show that we can run Calaman better than one of those snot-nosed legacy Lords the Overlords have wanted to appoint ever since we took over. Mercy knows Echol’s betrayal hurt us. But if we can give the Overlords the han we earn from Crane…well, they’ll see that we’re still useful. And the only way we survive is if we are useful.”
Karak knew he did not need to persuade Primas to follow his wishes. Karak was the Klahdera Lord of Calaman, and a simple order was enough to get Primas to do anything. But Karak new that true leaders not only had the obedience of their men, but their faith.
Primas met Karak’s gaze, and declared, “I understand what’s at stake, my Lord. And I will not lie to you that I have great reservations about this. But as always, your will is my will.”
Karak stared at Primas a moment longer, gauging the man’s strength. Karak found it satisfactory, and nodded. “We will take this job that Crane has offered.”
Staring at the tree, Karak said, “But Mercy knows I don’t like it any more than you do.”