Kant sat on the steps of the House of the Faceless, the thing in his gut echoing his discomfort. He’d been waiting for three turns already, and the Kith was getting restless. He reminded it there wouldn’t be food unless he was paid, and he wasn’t getting paid until the shitting disciples finished their ritual. For what felt like the fortieth time that day, he shifted his weight and cursed his god, Salazine, and the disciples’ god as well. If he’d never trusted that death freak Damodred, he’s never have found himself in this position, and if he’d never trusted his god, he’d probably be a few scales poorer, but without the demon in his viscera and a constant deadline.
That was the problem with faith, he reckoned. Whole bunch of idiots running around for the sake of what – eternal life? Eternal reward? Power over their enemies? And the shitting deities couldn’t even be bothered to climb off their gilded thrones and throw their lackeys a bone. That was one advantage to Salazine. He helped those who helped themselves. Usually that help was in the form of a sturdy lockpick, or a sharp blade, but you took what you could, which was the first tenet and rule of the Golden Hand. What you couldn’t take probably wasn’t worth it anyway. Or too heavy to carry. There was little distinction between the two for Kant.
But these Deathless, the disciples of the Warden – Kant would rather lop off both pinkies and jam them up his own ass than work with them. Which is why he’d been royally pissed when Damodred had drugged his cup after a couple of rounds of ale, and Kant had woke with a blinding headache, six inches of Kith writhing in his intestines, and an urge to cut the face off the man who had put it there. Turns out they needed a favor. And rather than ask, like a normal and upstanding citizen, or better yet, pay good goddamn gold, they kidnapped the first cutter they saw and shit down his throat.
The Kith writhed again, and Kant cursed.
“For the love of fucking Lakrmos, I’d shit you if I could keep my insides inside.”
In response, the Kith tightened, and a sharp pain shot through Kant’s stomach. He groaned and spat a bloody clot onto the walkway. He hated the demon. It was a timebomb in his stomach, a way of keeping him in line. If Damodred said boo, the thing would rip its way out his body in any number of unpleasant and undoubtedly messy ways. There was an advantage though. The Kith bonded with a host’s system, and in return for nutrients (and it liked its nutrients – Kant ate twice as much as he’d used to now), it shat out compounds that increased reflexes and senses. That made it less than the horrid burden it could be, but you’d never catch Kant mentioning anything of the sort. As far as he was outwardly concerned, the sooner he could squat the thing into the nearest sewer, the better.
He turned his head and stared at the door to the House. It remained stubbornly closed, and he sighed, then checked the sun. Four turns now. He checked his memory, and tried to think of where they were in the ritual. He knew it by heart – he’d read the text Damodred had sent over before the last job.
On the fourth turn of midday, after the rituals of mortification and purity, a silver spike of not less than a handbreadth shall be passed through the heart. Then shall the Deathless carve the Sigils of Naming on the lips of the anointed, and the Sigils of Sight upon the eyes, and invoke the Name of the Warden, He Who is Everlasting. Should the anointed then rise as Avatar, the Deathless shall prostrate themselves and seek his blessing, which is life everlasting, and the death of death.
It sounded like horseshit to Kant, but no one had complained so far about the wasters he picked off the street, or the screams that came from the House this time of day. He suspected half of that was because the city at large was afraid of the Deathless, and the other half too involved in their own troubles to worry. Still, if he’d had his druthers, he wouldn’t have picked this for a job, money or no, demon or no. Something was wrong with these people.
As if on cue, the screaming began. High and sharp, it rippled through the air like a sail on the wind, and despite hearing it several times now, sent gooseflesh up Kant’s arms. It wavered as it peaked, like a diva in an aria, then curdled one more time before breaking off in sudden silence. Kant looked around to see if anyone had stopped to listen, but the truth was, very few trod the avenue the House of the Faceless stood on. Instead, the cherry trees and the chestnuts stood on their own against the blue of the sky, ignorant and mute to the sudden suffering. Somewhere deeper in the plaza, a bird called to its mate.
Kant blew out a breath he didn’t know he was holding, and leaned back against the steps. A moment later, the door to the House opened, and Damodred’s shadow fell over him. He dropped a pouch beside Kant that clinked as it hit the stone.
“Another. Midnight. Same day next week. Make it clean.”
Kant picked up the pouch. It jingled merrily.
He stood and walked away, not bothering to look at Damodred. He knew the other man would be wearing a frown. Kant didn’t know all the gifts the Warden might bestow on His disciples, but he hoped to gods the other man could hear him think, kiss my puckered arsehole. For once, the Kith didn’t punish him at the insubordination. Maybe it liked him after all.
Kant shoveled in the fried potatoes and sausage – it wasn’t steak and eggs, but it was cheap, and you could get a lot of it – and felt the Kith hum in pleasure. He washed the gob of food down with a swig of watered ale – the shitholes he was used to eating in didn’t really believe in serving it any other way for less than a full silver, and he wasn’t about to give up that kind of money just yet. He was doing his best to keep thoughts of his next deadline out of his head, but they insisted on creeping back in.
He needed to figure out how to end this. Maybe he needed a higher class of victim, the wasters and cripples he pulled off the street obviously not making the cut. Maybe the god of death was picky, like a man who has a choice between sausage and potatoes and shit, he picks the shit because he doesn’t like potatoes. It seemed an odd choice for a deity, but no one could really say why they made the choices they did. Ineffable and unknowable and grand poobahs that they were.
The way Kant saw it, he had two choices: one, he could go for a normal citizen, and hope no one raised the watch before he got them back to the House, or he could go for someone even more fucked up, like a leper. He didn’t think anyone other than Gruch would miss them. His skin crawled at the idea of the leper path, and he wondered if even the Warden would take one. He decided to risk the second choice and hope he didn’t end up with an overzealous guard’s blade in his fucking neck.
He sopped up the last of the grease with a crust of bread and emptied the tankard, then pushed his plate back and belched. The Kith continued to send out contentment, and he sighed, agreeing with it for once. Kant spared a glance out the window, where the shadows were growing long and sensible men and women were starting to find doorways and inns to lodge in. He judged the last of the light to be a few turns off yet. He still had time to get to the nicer districts. Then, he would see what he could see, and maybe finally get Damodred off his fucking back. He stood and dropped a quarter scale on the table, then sauntered out.
Kant stood outside the buildings and clean streets of the White District, and frowned. He hated this place. Too clean, too well-lit, and too well-patrolled. The shits that lived here were high on their own farts, smug bastards who kept homes and wives and children like others kept dinnerware and paintings. They kept their buildings clean and their streets free of the things that reminded them the world wasn’t all dinner parties and shining silver. It made him wonder what things they hid in their closets and under their sheets when the dark came down.
Footsteps approached, and he sank into an alley, blending with the shadows like tears in rain. A figure passed, trim in leggings and a velvet coat, the feather in his hat bobbing. Kant swallowed his gorge and crept to the edge of the too-clean alley. He waited until the man passed, then slipped from the shadows, a short prayer to Salazine on his lips. The lamps hadn’t been lit yet, and light was fading from the day, so Kant went unseen in the man’s wake. He drew a thin blade from its sheath. The edge glistened wetly in the dusk. The poison had cost him a pretty penny, but was guaranteed to paralyze its victim without rigor, a boon he desperately needed in these instances. It was better than delivering some feckless moron with his brains smashed out to the House. He didn’t think they’d pay well for that.
He sped his pace, creeping behind the dandy, the breeze carrying the man’s rosewater scent to him. Kant flicked a glance around, and seeing no one, reached out to nick his victim with the dagger. The blade caught the light, and something in the street – a missed piece of rubbish, or maybe an impossible crack in the impossibly perfect walk – tripped him. He pitched forward, clattering against the stones. His prey caught sight, and panicked, began to run, screaming for the guards at the top of his lungs.
Kant took a moment to curse Salazine, the Warden, and even the Kith before gatehring himself and pelting back toward the entrance to the district. Somewhere nearby, he heard the pounding of running feet added to the sound of his own, and cursed a fourth time the magistrate that funded the numerous guard stations in the district.
“For fuck’s sake,” he growled, “wake up and save my ass you useless worm.”
The Kith seemed to finally take notice, shaking off its food stupor. It shot a spiteful barb of pain up Kant’s guts to let him know it wasn’t impressed with the insubordination, but already it was fading as it released the compounds in its blood. Kant’s pace quickened and his breathing came easier. He sped along for a few seconds before the twang of a bowstring send him ducking to the side. Not fast enough, though. The bolt thudded into his shoulder, the only thing stopping it from ripping out the other side the thick leather of his jerkin. He reached back and yanked it free even as the Kith released painkillers into his blood. The screaming pain of the wound died to a dull ache, and Kant tossed the bolt to the side, still running.
The sound came again as he reached the tunnel out of the district, and he was slower this time, despite the chemicals in his blood. Blood loss and stiffening muscle conspired against him, and the bolt hit him hard, ripping into his ribs, striking something vital. The Kith let out a scream in his head, and Kant ran until he was out of the district, trailing blood the whole way. He ducked into the first warren of alleys he saw, zigging and zagging until he was deep in the maze. Panting, he leaned against a wall and ripped the bolt free. Part of him said it was stupid. Part of him said it was reckless. Part of him just wanted the damned thing out. Blood gouted, and he threw the bolt away, then listened.
No footsteps sounded between the buildings. No shouts and sounds of pursuit. It seemed justice only prevailed as long as purses were full. After a turn, Kant made his way from the alley, his hand pressed to the wound. Blood seeped free, and his step was staggered, but he managed to put one foot in front of the other, the cobbles passing under. He paused every now and then, pain and blood loss making him light-headed. He wondered if the Kith had been wounded as well. He didn’t know, and at this point, didn’t care. He needed help. He paused at a building, the brick deep brown in the dark, and pulled a dagger. The last thing he needed was for some opportunistic cutter to catch him out, wounded and alone. He gathered his strength and moved on.
Turns passed, though he wasn’t sure how many. He found himself thinking of the potatoes and sausage he’d had earlier, and wondered if they were leaking out. It would be a terrible thing, only renting food. He laughed, and tripped up a set of stairs. He looked up, and found himself at the foot of the House of the Faceless. Kant opened his mouth to call for help, but only a squeak issued from his lips. He took a breath, deeper, though it shot pain in his stomach, and his fucking head was starting to ache. Had they poisoned the bolts? He didn’t know. The door opened above him, warm light spilling out. A pair of strong hands lifted him, and he heard Damodred’s voice in his ear.
“Oh, Kant. Just in time.”
The Deathless pulled him into the House and shut the door. Through slit eyes, Kant could make out a wide room, open arches marking the cardinal points, and a vaulted ceiling. An altar, marked brown by dried blood, stood in the center of the room in a slight depression. Damodred carried him over and helped him lie down. The Deathless opened Kant’s jerkin and gestured to the wings of the room. Others appeared from the shadows, bearing bowls of water and clean cloths. Kant’s vision began to fade, Damodred’s voice a susurration of sound. Then, he knew little else as the dark crowded in.
He woke, naked and cold on the slab. Damodred hovered over him, a small hammer in one hand and a silver spike in the other. It glittered cold and sharp in the light. Damodred smiled and placed the spike over Kant’s heart. From somewhere inside, the Kith hummed pleasantly.
The hammer came down.