His hard-soled leather boots clicking on the wet cobblestones, he ran through labyrinthine alleys and side streets, until he turned down an alley that terminated in a high stone wall. A dead end—would it be his end? Breathless, he turned to confront his latest pursuers, three hairy men with wolf-like features. Lycanthropes, their bared fangs dripping, their claws lethal as any ten daggers.
Tamalin uttered ancient, forbidden words, the nimble fingers in his leather gloves drawing runic signs in the air. The lead lycanthrope craned his corded neck and howled, surely to give others a fix on his position. The howl was cut short, choked off in a strangled yip, as the wolf-man’s head exploded.
The other two hesitated as their leader’s headless body dropped like a marionette with its cords cut. But these were trained killers, and they knew that the best strategy for avoiding their alpha’s fate was to reach the wizard and rip out his throat before he could utter another spell. Leaping over their comrade’s fallen body, they bounded toward Tamalin.
A tall, cloaked shape dropped from the wall on Tamalin’s right flank. The cloak was whipped back to reveal a long blade that gleamed in the moonlight. The blade whistled through the thick air, and another lycanthrope lost his head in a more mundane manner.
The last lycanthrope stopped dead in his tracks, sizing up this new foe. For a moment, his canine features seemed to betray some confusion; he looked at the newcomer askance, his cold blue eyes questioning. The cloaked man raised his blade threateningly, and the lycanthrope decided not to risk sharing his pack-mates’ fate. He kept his head, turned tail and loped away.
Tamalin spun to face the newcomer, a defensive spell already forming on his lips and in his hands. He, too, was bewildered by the sudden appearance of the cloaked man, and was thinking this might be another assassin who wanted to claim the bounty for himself.
But the man was already sheathing his sword. He was bald, and built like a wrestler. A prominent scar furrowed his left cheek. There was something familiar about his steel gray eyes, but Tamalin could not place it.
“Come,” the man said. “Half the assassins in Ment City are closing in, and there is not much time.”
“Who are you?” Tamalin demanded, ready to send an ethereal knife straight into this stranger’s heart if he did not like the answer.
“Quickly. I am Kor. My motivation? I know that if I get you safely out of this, you will pay me well enough that I may do nothing but drink and carouse with wenches for a year. Right now that is all you need to know. Dog-face will be back, with reinforcements.”
Tamalin crossed his arms, defiant. “What makes you think I need your help?”
Kor rolled his eyes. “Did I mention half the assassins in Ment City? Someone very powerful obviously wants your head on a stake. Every gate and bridge out of the Tallows will be watched, and unless you can fly, only I know another way out.”
A howl came from somewhere not far off, and other howls answered, echoing down the grimy streets of the Tallows.
Tamalin nodded. “Show me your way out, and I will indeed pay you dearly.”
“We have to go underground to get to the pass.”
Tamalin raised a bushy red eyebrow. “Underground?”
“There is a whole other level of the city beneath the Tallows—surely you are aware of that, wizard?”
“Well, I have heard such rumors, though I have never had cause to venture into cellars to see for myself.”
Kor grunted. “That surprises me.” He pulled his hood back over his head and drew his cloak tight about his broad-shouldered frame. “Follow me.”
They headed back to the street, tensed for the next inevitable attack. Kor, mysterious soldier of the night, was ready to flash his sword at a moment’s notice, while the mage’s fingers worked their practiced strokes inside the folds of his dark robe, and his lips quivered with the power he could unleash thereby.
After Kor quickly scanned in both directions from the alley, they hurried down the street, steering clear of the wavering, smoky light that bled from swinging tavern doors and windows and that pooled around lanterns hung from awning or lamppost. They slipped past prostitutes and staggering drunkards, giving them wide berth because any one of them might be an assassin in disguise ready to plunge a knife.
When, with many circuitous detours, they had covered three city blocks, Kor slowed. “Don’t look back, but we are being followed,” he said to his charge without turning his head. “Do we confront him, or risk him seeing where we are about to go?”
“What are our chances of giving him the slip?”
“Slim to none—if it is who I think it is. If we don’t take care of him now, he’ll strike when we’re most vulnerable in the Underground.”
“Then our choice is obvious. But how do we not draw more unwanted attention?”
“We’ll turn down the alley ahead. He may think we’re heading for the East gate and pursue us into an ambush.”
The broken cobblestones of the alley were coated with mud and slops, and Tamalin winced at the potpourri of odors: rotten cabbage; urine, blood, and other bodily fluids; stale beer. About forty paces down the alley, Kor ducked behind a pile of broken crates.
Tamalin crouched behind him. “I can send forth a blast of fire that will put a quick end to him.”
Kor shook his head. “No good. You are being shadowed by the Red Devil. He really is a devil—your fire will feel like a spring rain.”
“A devil, is it? Then I have another way of dealing with him, but I will have to touch him.”
“I’ll engage him, then, and—here he comes.”
The two men fell silent. Tamalin feared that the creaking of his knees might be loud enough to give them away. Obsessive years of study in the dark arts had not allowed him time to keep his aging joints in shape.
The moon overhead was obscured by fog and the thick, smoky air of the Tallows. Even though Tamalin had earlier in the night quaffed a potion that sharpened his senses, the devil was within twenty paces before the mage could make out much of the assassin’s features. His skin was dark; in daylight it would undoubtedly have the reddish tint that marked his kind—half-breed of a human mother and a demonic entity. Thick horns curled on either side of his forehead, like the horns of a ram. His eyes glowed a sickly amber. He was at least as tall as Kor and as ripped with corded muscle, much of which was on display by the suit of spiked leather straps he wore. He carried a scimitar in his left hand. When he was within ten paces of their position, he stopped. The nostrils of his beaked nose twitched as he sniffed the air.
In a voice that sounded like gravel on a drum, the Red Devil said, “Kor, I don’t know what your game is, but—”
Kor answered by leaping from the shadows, his sword appearing in his hand as he whipped back his cloak. “Do not defile my ears with your twisted blasphemies, pit spawn!”
Kor covered the ten paces with speed that belied his large frame, and steel rang on steel as the Red Devil raised his scimitar and parried his blow.
“What has gotten into you?” the Red Devil hissed. “I will feast on your liver and conjure up your trapped spirit to explain yourself!”
The scimitar danced with dazzling speed, but Kor’s sword wove an impenetrable wall of steel. The Devil’s curved blade began to glow a deep blood-red; it was obviously imbued with magic, and Tamalin from his hiding spot feared Kor’s mundane blade might not endure the buffeting exchanges.
As two of the finest swordsmen in Ment City created a ringing duet, Kor slowly gave ground, beaten back by the Devil’s powerful strikes.
Intentionally, Tamalin thought. Bringing him in range.
The mage uttered a spell under his breath, pulling a dried chameleon from a pocket inside his robe. He bit into the lizard’s shriveled head. It was his last camouflaging spell, and it would not last long. He blended further into the shadows even as he began to form the words of another spell, a particularly rare and potent one that would turn more of his hairs white from the exertion. He pulled the glove off his right hand.
The devil landed a blow on the sleeve of padded leather Kor wore under his cloak. It did not draw blood, but Kor let out a pained grunt at the impact.
“You’re slowing down, old man—you do not have a devil’s endurance. Where is he? I can smell him nearby! He should know his mortal magic is useless against—”
At that moment Tamalin leapt forth, his exposed hand holding a small sphere of white light. He slapped it against the devil’s beefy left bicep.
The Red Devil swung defensively, catching Tamalin in the chest with the hilt of his scimitar. The blow sent Tamalin sprawling backward into the crates, and the mage groaned as he felt a jagged piece of wood pierce the back of his right thigh. He gulped for air, the wind knocked out of him. It would be a few minutes before he could cast another spell.
Where the light had touched the devil’s flesh, it left a glowing patch big as Tamalin’s palm.
“No!” The Red Devil shrieked, ineffectually brushing at the light emanating from his bicep. “Kor, why did you let him mark me, you trai—”
The tip of Kor’s sword sliced across the devil’s throat, releasing a spray of black blood.
The Red Devil’s scimitar clanged to the cobblestones, and he staggered back up the alley grasping his throat with both hands, trying to staunch the flow of half-human blood.
Kor grasped Tamalin’s forearm and helped him to his feet. “What did you hit him with?”
The mage, looking considerably paler and older, pulled his glove back on. “A target for celestial devil-hunters. They will hone in on it until the mark wears off.”
“No wonder you spoiled his mood.”
“If he survives your cutting his throat—unlikely, but he is half devil—he will have to go into deep hiding for many days.”
In a skeptical tone, Kor asked, “You use magic that serves celestials?”
Tamalin grinned. “Only when it serves me.”
Kor decided to keep to the alley. “This way. Quickly.”
Tamalin hobbled a few paces, then stopped. “One moment.”
He reached under his robe to the back of his thigh and uttered an incantation. “There. That will do for now.”
They trotted briskly, resuming a more measured pace on the next street, which was quieter and more sparsely lit.
A trio of young rogues loitering on the steps of a disreputable-looking hovel marked their approach with interest, alert for potential prey. But the thieves were not among the assassins looking to collect the bounty on the wizard’s head—when they saw that these were not two carousers from the North Side who’d lost their way in the mazes of the sin district, they hunched back over their game of bones.
Kor led Tamalin to a dilapidated building that had once been a candle-making establishment and still reeked of animal fat. He shouldered open a side door and slipped inside.
Tamalin hesitated, unable to make out anything of the interior.
Kor re-emerged holding a crude torch. “Can you whip up some flame, something a little less conspicuous than your fire blast? It will save us time if I don’t have to use my flint.”
Tamalin obliged, and both entered the mostly-gutted building, picking their way around broken furniture, empty bottles, and filthy blankets where vagabonds had slept.
A raspy voice came from a pile of blankets as they passed by, causing Tamalin to jump. “Going to the Underground?”
Tamalin could make out a human form now, nested in the pile. A one-armed man. What he still had of his body was barely worth having.
Kor kept walking, but he growled over his shoulder in a voice dripping with sarcasm, “No, we’re thinking of starting up a candle-making business and decided to inspect the place before we bought it.”
The man laughed, which turned into a phlegmy cough.
Blue lightning arced from Tamalin’s hand into the man’s eyes, and the old squatter’s skull was briefly visible through his flesh. A whistling sound issued from his throat and his body convulsed for a few moments after the electricity was spent. Then the man was quiet and still, and steam arose from his burnt-out eye sockets. The smell of charred flesh and singed hair was nearly overpowering.
Kor looked back in horror. “Why did you do that?”
“He would have talked.”
“Anyone who tracks us this far will have already figured out where we’re going.”
Tamalin sneered. “For a trained killer, you are awfully sentimental. He looked like he was ready to expire at any moment anyway.”
“Now I see how you could easily get on somebody’s bad side.”
Tamalin eyed him suspiciously. “I have not gotten on your bad side, have I?”
Kor lifted the torch, casting his grim-set features in stark relief. “I promised I would get you to Wellworm’s Pass at any cost, and I am a man of my word.”
They resumed their way to a back room full of empty barrels. Kor went to the far wall and began to move barrels aside. Tamalin watched, restlessly tapping a foot.
Concealed behind the barrels was a cellar door. Nailed above it were a skull and crossbones, the skull’s jaw hinged with wires. The jaw moved, and a thin, wispy voice intoned, “What is the password?”
Kor answered. “Underbelly of the underbelly.”
With a click, the iron latch unlocked. Kor grasped the handle and pulled the creaking door open.
“Careful here—I cannot vouch for the soundness of these stairs. Close the door behind you.”
When Tamalin pulled the door shut, he heard the lock click back into place. Elementary magic, but he did wonder what secrets beneath the city were so worth guarding.
The wooden stairs were indeed old and rotted in places, but they safely reached the cellar floor twelve feet below. They were assailed with the odors of must and mildew, and a lingering stench of animal flesh.
Hooks hung from beams, and there were a few vats to which dried tallow clung. Bones littered one corner of the cellar, and the rest of it was taken up by broken tools and rotted furniture. Kor strode across the room and muscled aside a large cabinet, revealing an arched passageway. Tamalin noted that once the archway was exposed, he felt the slightest caress of a draft on his cheek. A good sign—at least parts of the Underground were ventilated.
The passage was rough-hewn, and at times the ceiling dipped to six feet or less, so that Kor had to duck his head. The floor graded downward. Shaking off a slight touch of claustrophobia, Tamalin hurried along behind, anticipating the moment when they would be ascending again.
When they had walked for what would surely be two city blocks, the passage opened into a cavernous hall, the buttressed ceiling of which was at least twenty feet high. The torchlight did not even reach its extreme edges, and Tamalin caught himself gasping in surprise. There were wheel ruts and many signs of foot traffic in the dirt—people actually pulled carts or small carriages down here.
Kor paused a moment, listening. Satisfied by what he did not hear, he spoke. “So, what did you do anyway, to get someone so riled they sent the best assassins in the city after you? If it is not impertinent for me to ask.”
“You have saved my life twice tonight, so you can ask your question. An hour ago I was asking the same question myself. I put it to three of my would-be assassins before you came. Two did not survive my interrogation. One did, long enough to tell me it had something to do with a woman.”
Kor guffawed and shrugged his shoulders, but there was a pained look in his grey eyes.
“Yes, ludicrous, is it not? To spend a small fortune over a wench? Apparently one of my conquests did not sit well with a jilted lover. I cannot even tell you which woman it might have been.”
Kor began walking again. “We must go this way. A few twists and turns, sewers and side tunnels, and we will be at Wellworm’s Pass.”
“Where will that bring us out?”
“It is near the South Gate.”
They had not gone forty paces down the hall when they heard laughter, an eerie cackling that echoed off the walls and seemed to come from every direction.
Kor cast his gaze every which way in alarm, holding the torch high in his left hand and drawing his sword. “By Sylave and Koth, no! She must’ve been some fine woman.”
Tamalin blanched. He heard the rattling of bones above his head, then he saw them as they glided through the air, in and out of range of the torchlight. Human skeletons, at least five of them, each brandishing a legionnaire’s sword.
“The Merry Men!” Kor yelled, holding up both blade and torch to fend them off. “I hope you still have some magic up your sleeve, because this is beyond me.”
The Merry Men derived their name from a tavern song a wandering minstrel had composed about them. Said minstrel played his lyre with his feet; he claimed his hands had been lost to the Merry Men’s blades. Many listeners discounted this part of the minstrel’s tale, since no one else was known to have come through an encounter with the Merry Men still in possession of his head.
The Merry Men, they have no skin,
but they do have steel.
They’ll trade blows with any foe
because they do not feel.
The Merry Men, they speak no words
because they have no lungs.
Still they’re very merry men
who laugh in many tongues.
One skeleton swooped down and knocked the torch from Kor’s hand. It lay on the ground sputtering but did not go out. A second and third came in from opposite sides. Both struck at nearly the same instant. Kor’s sword clashed with the skeleton’s on his right, but all he could do to protect his left flank was raise his arm. That skeleton’s blade bit deep into his forearm. Before he could riposte, both skeletons had flown out of reach.
“This is magic I can undo.” Tamalin raised both hands above his head and swung them down as if he were beating his palms on an invisible table. Simultaneously he barked out a word that could not be translated into the common tongue. Two of the Merry Men immediately stopped cavorting through the air and fell apart. Bones rained down all around Tamalin and Kor. The wizard barely sidestepped being brained by a plummeting skull.
He lifted his hands again, but the remaining three Merry Men retreated, their laughter fading as they flew away.
Kor sheathed his sword and held up his left arm, inspecting the bleeding gash.
Tamalin picked up the torch. “I knew the wizard who made those things. Long ago—he’s nothing but bones himself now, and far less lively in his tomb.”
“Can you whip up some healing magic for this?”
Tamalin shook his head abjectly. “I used my last healing spell on my leg back in the alley.”
Kor looked askance at Tamalin, as if he could sense that the mage was lying. Which, in fact, he was. He had one healing spell left, and he was not about to waste it.
“Help me with this then.” Kor pulled a dagger from his belt and cut a length of cloth from the hem of his cloak. Then he held out his arm for Tamalin to wrap the wound. “So, why do you risk coming down to the Tallows at all?”
Tamalin grinned mischievously as he finished tying off the makeshift bandage. “I love the ladies. Oh, I can have slave girls delivered to my tower any time, but there is a special thrill that comes from the chase.”
Kor frowned. “I see.” Without another word, he resumed walking, Tamalin now carrying the torch.
At the end of the hall were three arched passages; they took the left-hand one, which soon brought them to a broad tunnel of mortared stone that ran alongside a canal of foetid water ten feet across. At one point a body floated past, facedown, naked and bloated. Rats scurried out of their way.
They veered off through a smaller tunnel that brought them to a winding corridor, and at last they entered a large room bifurcated by a row of thick stone pillars. Braziers spaced every thirty paces against the walls held jade-like, ever-burning rocks that cast an eerie green glow throughout the room.
When they were halfway across this room they heard an explosion behind them, and turned in time to see a flash of light followed by a burst of billowy purple smoke that erupted from behind the northernmost pillar. A tall figure emerged from the smoke. Two curved horns and a real sour expression: the Red Devil. A black bandanna was tied around his neck. Another bandanna was wrapped around his left bicep, but a patch of white light still emanated dimly through the cloth.
Kor swore under his breath, then he held out his hands and said in a cheerful voice that was none too convincing, “You made it, you lucky devil!”
“Devils heal fast, Kor. Wizard, putting the mark on me seemed very clever—until you came down here. Don’t you know the Underground is the most convenient place for me to hide? Now I will not have to wait before I can pay you back.”
Tamalin whispered in Kor’s ear. “This is all you now. I tapped the last of my magic unmaking the Merry Men.”
Kor muttered another curse. “All right, get out of here while I deal with him. Run till you get to the next branch. If I do not join you in the time it takes a Calmorine to drink three pints of ale, take the right branch.” He drew his sword as he spoke, for the Red Devil was slowly advancing with his scimitar.
Tamalin ran for the exit, but in the passage beyond he tarried to cast an ethereal spy. A nearly-invisible head that was the mirror shape of his own formed in the air and floated back into the room. Through it he could see and hear what transpired.
“Parley, Red.” Kor’s blade pointed to the ground and he held up his left hand palm outward.
“What are you up to, Kor?” The Red Devil’s scimitar was poised menacingly, but he did not yet strike. “What game are you playing?”
“No game, Red. No one will take their revenge this night but me. Whatever was offered you for the mage’s head, I will match.”
The Devil hesitated, his brow furrowing as if he were puzzling together the pieces of a riddle. Then he grinned, baring glaringly white fangs. “I see. But you nearly beheaded me up there. I will not forget that.”
“Remember it another day. We’ll square up then.”
“Oh, you bet we will.”
The phantom head dissipated as Kor backed toward the exit.
When Kor joined him at the branch, Tamalin said, “That only took you one pint.”
“He was not fully recovered from our earlier fight.” Kor pointed down the right branch. “The Wellworm’s Pass lies just ahead.”
This passage gradually widened. When Kor stopped, the far edge of torchlight just illuminated what looked like a drop-off, as if a sinkhole had caused part of the floor to cave in, and then the tunnel curved sharply to the right. A putrid stench wafted from the tunnel. Tamalin thought he could feel an occasional vibration through the floor.
“Just beyond there lies the Wellworm’s Pass. It’s not far down, just a drop of a few feet, then you bear right and you’re there.”
Tamalin gestured to the path ahead. “You first.”
“This is as far as I go. It’s as far as you go, too, Tamalin. This is the end of the line.”
Tamalin pretended to look shocked only for a moment, then his lips curved into a devious smile. “How foolish do you think I am? But you are a fool to think I would leave myself unprotected.”
Before Kor’s sword was halfway out of its sheathe, Tamalin had cast a spell. Kor felt invisible hands clasp his throat and grip his arms. He was pinned where he stood.
Tamalin slowly paced around him, stroking his chin. “How long you must have planned this out. And you got so close to tasting sweet revenge.”
Through his constricted throat, Kor managed to gasp, “How long did you know?”
“The whole thing smelled funny from the start, but what really gave the game up was the devil nearly calling you a traitor just before you opened up his neck. I lied too. I do remember the girl. Oh, she was a feisty one. Lithe and nimble as a cat, and just as prone to spit and claw when cornered. It took her a long time to learn the futility of fighting me.”
Kor choked his rage, his face reddening and muscles straining impotently.
“Raven black hair. Grey eyes—much like yours, in fact. Maybe not a lover after all. A brother?”
Kor’s arms slowly began to push out from his sides, and his right hand retightened its grip on the hilt.
“Oh, I know that detainment spell will soon wear off. I am glad it gave us this time to chat. But now I say goodnight, and I leave you with this.” He pulled back his robe, undid a satchel on his belt and took from it a small silver bottle. When he removed the stopper, a teal mist wafted from it, growing and taking solid form. A djinni.
Kor broke free from the spell and lunged toward the wizard, knocking the bottle from his hand. But it was too late—the djinni had materialized. Towering over Kor, it swung its arm and sent him crashing against the wall.
Tamalin retrieved the bottle. “Servant, kill this man slowly and painfully and then rejoin me on the other side of the Pass.” He was sorely tempted to stay and watch, but he was worried the Red Devil might change his mind—devils are notoriously devious—and decide to pursue. He wanted to be out of the Tallows, out of the Underground, back in the safe walls of his tower.
He sat on the edge of the drop-off and gingerly tossed the torch a few feet past the edge, then scooted himself over. A drop of only four feet, but it sent a spiking pain through his right ankle. That was okay; he still had a healing spell stored up. He picked up the torch and dashed around the corner… and into an enormous maw lined with row after row of needle-like teeth, round like the sucking mouth of a lamprey and filling nearly the whole tunnel. It shot forth like a distending worm. The torch sputtered out, and in utter blackness hundreds of needles pierced and ripped Tamalin’s flesh.
Kor was pulling himself up off the ground, his back to the wall and blood trickling from his broken nose, when the scream came from down the tunnel. The scream was cut short, and the last ambient light from the receding torch was extinguished. He could neither see nor hear his mighty opponent, so he lifted his sword and swung it blindly.
Suddenly the passage was illuminated by teal light that emanated from the djinni’s hand.
The olive-hued, otherworldly being floated a foot off the ground and just out of range, and made no move to resume the attack. It merely bowed its smooth head, cupped its hands before its chest and said, “Master.”
“Huh?” Kor wiped the back of his hand over his upper lip, wincing at the busted nose.
“My former master just died.”
“Are you sure? He is a pretty cunning wizard.”
“I felt the bond pass from him to you. Although I am curious to know how he met his fate.”
“Oh. Well, heh, Wellworm’s Pass is not a pass—it is where the Wellworm tried to pass through the Underground many years ago. It got stuck, lodged there. Underdwellers have fed it and kept it alive ever since. Handy for disposing organic garbage, and for making bodies disappear quite permanently. I planned on killing Tamalin myself, but if that didn’t work out, the Wellworm was the backup plan. Really didn’t think he’d fall for it, though.”
The djinni nodded. “On most days, he would not have. You pushed him to his wits’ end—he only ever used me as a last resort. He will make an awful meal—his soul was pitted by the corrupted misuse of magic. That creature will likely have the worst indigestion of its life.”
Kor laughed, then winced in pain. He sheathed his sword, felt his ribs to assure himself none were broken. “I thought you had to possess the bottle to master a djinni. That bottle’s going to wind up deposited where no one will ever get to it. Assuming it makes it through the worm’s gullet.”
“You are the last living person to touch the bottle. Truly, I am relieved my bottle will be secreted where it is unlikely to be recovered by another defiler of magic. But your plan—why all the subterfuge, if I may be so brazen? I have an insatiable curiosity about human behavior. Why did you not let the assassins do their work?”
“It was my own blood-duty, but there was no way I could directly challenge Tamalin and his sorcery. Setting the best assassins on him, I hoped he would have to expend his magic by the time we got to Wellworm’s Pass. Then I could avenge her…She was my daughter.”
A pained, far-away look came into Kor’s eyes, but he quickly shook it off. “Well, I’ve had my revenge. Now I will have the Red Devil to answer to. And some pissed off weres, the Merry Men, who knows what else.”
The djinni bowed his head. “I can help with that.”
Kor raised an eyebrow. “Aye, I suppose having a djinni at my command might come in handy now, at that. But, er, what about the bottle? Where am I supposed to keep you?”
“I will continue to reside in my bottle when you discharge me, and return again in a heartbeat whenever you summon me.”
Kor appeared dumbfounded. “How is that possible? Wait, no, don’t tell me. Sorcery makes my head ache. Heh. Now a Wellworm and a djinni will be dwelling at the bottom of the Underground. And I didn’t think this place could get any stranger. Before you return to your bottle, could you provide me with some light? I’m ready to get the hell out of here.”
“I can help with that, too.”
©November, 2015 Nicholas Ozment
Nicholas Ozment writes speculative fiction and poetry. He currently blogs for Black Gate. This is his first appearance in Swords & Sorcery.