By Julius Vagdal
I watch the bead of sweat as it rolls down the face of the lean merchant sitting across the table. It tracks its way over the edge of his jaw, and down his neck only to disappear under the collar of his stained tunic.
I’m only half listening to Reginald DeShong as he blathers on and on in a low voice. Clients can sometimes go on about the worthiness of their commission, as if it weren’t the weight and the purity of their coin that made all the difference. That is the one undeniable truth about what I do.
Now that the sun is below the rooftops, the air is cooling nicely. The city is beginning to slow around us, the individual people taking more time as they move through the press on their way home.
I enjoy the gentle breeze as it ruffles the awning overhead. I take another sip of the strong black coffee, made in the dessert fashion just the way I like it. I savor the subtle hints of chocolate and caramel across my tongue. Warmth seeps through the tiny porcelain cup into my hand.
Although the streets are still well traveled, the coffee shop’s evening rush has not yet started. For the moment we are the only ones sitting on the shop’s veranda. More out of habit than any real need, I watch the throng as it passes. No one so much as glances at us. Why would they, there is nothing remarkable about two men sitting, having a quiet conversation, and drinking coffee.
Occasionally a pretty serving girl whose company I once enjoyed, and whose name I’ve forgotten, comes by to check on us. She flashes a seductive smile from under heavily lidded eyes, and sways her hips invitingly each time she leaves. Not right now, but the evening is only beginning. Otherwise we are left alone to our conversation.
I rub a hand across the back of my neck and focus on the merchant’s voice again. I harden my face slightly and let out a loud huff, interrupting his thoughts.
“Master DeShong, while your hopes for your family are admirable, they do not concern or interest me in the least. If you would get to the point.”
His eyes widen. “Yes, yes . . . of course,” he stammers quickly. “I- uh, this is very delicate matter you understand. If this were to be generally known it would be-“
I sigh. “Anything you choose to share with me will be treated with the utmost confidence, regardless of whether I take your commission or not. You understand, a swordsman that cannot keep a secret soon finds himself unable to be hired.”
“Thank you, master Nurrs, thank you. It is good to deal with a professional who understands—discretion.” He smiles and relaxes. He surveys the empty veranda for the third time, then drops his voice even lower. “There is a prominent gentleman with a seat on the Open Council. His maneuvering and influence, though not directed at me or my family, still hinders my hopes and hard work. I would like this gentleman . . . removed from the council. Permanently. I was told, in confidence of course, that you are the swordsman to take care of this type of thing. Jorin Nurrs gets it done, is the talk.”
Word of mouth, like reputations, can be very helpful. After all, everyone has need for a swordsman, now and again.
“Does this gentleman have a name?”
“Luis de Alemán.”
A cynical snort escapes before I can stop it. Of course it would be him. Confusion crosses the merchant’s face.
“Will that be a problem?”
I pause before answering, mulling over what I know of Luis de Alemán. The head of House de Alemán, one of the Lesser Houses of the merchant nobility. A key figure in the matters of policy within the council. A man particularly known for his honor and integrity, and yet still well liked despite this. Rumor has it that House de Alemán will soon be raised to the ranks of the Great Houses. That fact alone will bring enemies to a man’s door.
Now I understand why Master DeShong came to me. For most of my career I have cultivated the reputation as a man who does not render any sort of—moral judgment on contracts. But for the last few months I have been stricken with an unusual case of conscience, striving to chart a new course. Fate, it would seem, is working against me. Lately, I have been attracting the dirtiest kind of work. And the truth of the matter is a man needs to eat, regardless of his moral inclinations.
Master DeShong is seemingly more uncomfortable by the moment and soon begins fidgeting in his seat.
He appears to take my silence as a request for more information.
“I would have been happy to take care of this more directly, but—well, de Alemán has many friends. It has proven difficult to find a swordsman with the skill and the wherewithal needed for this—assignment. My family is not yet recognized in the Roll of Houses, so I have no permanent swordsman in my own employ.”
A tickle brushes the back of my neck.
I can feel my pulse quicken. Involuntarily I stiffen and my face goes hard.
Across from me Master DeShong blanches, another bead of sweat trickles down his forehead and vanishes into a bushy eyebrow.
I gain control of myself and flash him a relaxed and charming smile. “Not at all, Master DeShong. There is no need for an explanation, I understand your difficulties. I will accept your commission, though it may take me a few days to get to it. Now if you will excuse me, I am late for another engagement.”
He relaxes and smiles back, then places a fat purse on the table. Behind him, the western sky is turning the lightest shade of pink.
I grab the purse, and leave him to pay the bill. I hurry without seeming to. I can feel an annoying tightness growing in the pit of my stomach. A Malakhim has started hunting me. I need to get home.
My thoughts drift into the past. It began half a year back, as strange dreams and sometimes voices in my sleep—disquieting things that faded away like mist just beyond memory when I woke. After a time, I began to hear those voices during my waking hours as well, whispers in the back of my mind when all was still and quiet. Those whispers brought to mind the old legends of the Malakhim. They say the Malakhim hunt only those in need of hunting, although I never quite understood what that meant. The most disconcerting thing I recall is that once they start hunting, they never stop.
It was sometime afterwards that I began to notice the others; people that I believe had been hunted and were touched by the Malakhim. Those people were—changed. They looked the same, and yet were completely different versions of who they were. Had those people always been there, was I only now noticing them for the first time?
It’s said they hunt a person’s spirit and consume the soul. That is when I began to change my habits, the kinds of contracts I would accept, to throw off the sent as it were. It did not help. If anything they have hunted me more doggedly since. Now I can feel it when there’s one on the hunt.
The uptown streets are still busy with the rich of Alatrist, nobles, and craftsmen, merchants, and artisans. My face must betray my concern, because no one gets in my way. I turn onto a broad avenue lined with magnificent brownstone townhouses.
The fourth one on the left is Mrs. Merric’s boarding house. I have been renting the rooms on the top floor for two months now—no passers-by moving up and down the stairs. No one to overhear what might be happening within.
I take the stairs two at a time. The itch on the back of my neck grows stronger with every step. I hang my sword and baldric on a wall peg before I bolt the door. Swords are no good inside. As much as I want to keep the Malakhim as far away as possible, the apartment is too closed-in to keep a sword moving.
The late afternoon sunlight streams in through the panes of the leaded glass window. Everything in the parlor is bathed in the orange-red glow. I gage my feelings; the Malakhim is not too close yet. I still have time.
I kindle a small fire in the parlor and light tapers in all of the other rooms. I sit on the divan and rub my thumbs in circular motions over my temples trying to relax.
(A hookah sits on the table, a black lump of Hashish and an unopened pouch of Madak next to it.)
Guilt for the things I’ve done settles on me like a weight. I want to reach for the pipe to steady my nerves, and still the ghosts of my past. But that prickly feeling has grown stronger, and I need to be sharp if I am to make it through the evening.
I curse, picking up the long curved Jambiya from the table, and snatch it from its sheath. The ruddy light glints off the gold inlaid into the hilt and blade of the dagger.
I have found much of the old legends told to children are true. Only the person the Malakhim has come for can see it. But interestingly even I can’t see it when I look directly at it. I have to look off to the side before it appears, like a vague specter at the edge of my vision.
When I killed the first one, more by luck than skill, it simply dissolved away. There have been two more since, and never a body left to show someone the truth.
I laugh to myself. Could it be that the Dead God and his shadowy demons the Malakhim are real? My world is upside down when things we take for legend walk with us. And yet there is no way to show or tell anyone the truth of it.
That is why when I fight one, I am inside and alone. What would happen if I were seen thrashing about on the streets? How would people treat me if I said I fought and killed a Malakhim? The gutters are full of mad men and nobody hires the insane.
I clear my thoughts and focus on getting ready. I’ve got a brace of throwing knives in my belt, like the Jambiya all sharp enough to shave with. I pull one out and heft it. A throwing knife is not the best hand-to-hand weapon, but it will do.
I can sense the Malakhim is close now. With that icy feeling cold as death across the back of my neck, eyes wide, and my heart racing in my throat, I begin moving through the apartment.
I have found random movement is the key. Not just my body, but my blades as well. My eye catches a flicker of something down the hall. I set out that way using the dance I have created. I take shuffling steps forward and sometimes back, here and there I add a round-step. Occasionally I stop, then start again. I keep my blades moving, always shifting, in constantly changing patterns—circles within circles.
The tapers cast a dim light in the hall. I glance into the den, it appears empty. To my right, a shadow shifts where there can’t be one. I round-step backward like a closing door, and flatten myself against the wall, eyes wide and staring at where the wall and ceiling join. Vague tendrils snake from the wall; I cut up with one blade and across with the other. The Malakhim’s shadowy hands block both cuts as it fades back into the wall.
I can feel my pulse throbbing in my neck as I search the far end of the apartment. I dance through the den for good measure and through to my bedroom and into the hall once more.
I see something in the small storage room.
I move in and without thinking, hurl the throwing knife. It thuds into the wall.
Then I make the cardinal mistake. I look right at the thing, and like a desert mirage it ripples and vanishes. My heart skips a beat before I can shift my eyes away again.
The shape comes together from nothing. It’s charging.
I back away and snatch another throwing knife from my belt. I make quick flailing cuts, up and down, back and forth.
The Malakhim blocks every cut and vanishes through a wall once more.
As I come out into the hall, I catch another hint of movement near the kitchen.
Cautiously I dance that way. I move into the entrance of the kitchen then quickly reverse direction and move into the sitting room.
I see a large indistinct shape by the far end of the sitting room. It’s moving into the wall separating this room from the kitchen.
Got you. Calmly now, while it is still partway in the wall, I gage the distance and throw.
I hear its anguished scream in the back of my mind. It begins to back out of the wall.
I grab the last throwing knife from my belt and loose again.
It tries to block it. Another howl wracks my mind as the indistinct form folds in on itself and goes down. For the first time I am able to focus on it, however slightly. Shadowy wings shield it as it crouches on the floor. One of my knives is buried to the hilt in its left wing. I catch a glimpse of the pommel of the other knife, its hand cradles the knife protruding from the shadows of its chest. The Malakhim tilts its head up as I approach. I see its eyes, gleaming blue lights filled with pain and sadness that shine from an indistinct face.
“You have been chosen.” The disembodied words echo in my head. “You have run from the darkness, hidden and lied to yourself. All for nothing, only smoke on the wind. You cannot hide from it because the darkness is in you.”
With inhuman speed its hand flies towards me, and grabs my leg. My vision flashes as bright as the noonday sun, then goes black.
Slowly the blackness recedes and my vision clears. The apparition coalesces in front of me, takes on form and substance and for the first time I see it clearly.
The Malakhim still looks at me, happiness now filling those same luminous blue eyes. A smile appears on its face, a face that is somewhere between handsome and beautiful.
Realization floods my consciousness. This Malakhim and the three others I thought I’d killed, are one and the same.
“You see now, what you were.” The silver bells chime in my head. The Malakhim’s knowing smile, so full of love, breaks my heart.
My hands go slack and the Jambiya clatters to the floor. I buckle under the weight of the deeds of my life as they come crashing down upon me. For the first time I see my life as it is. The pain of my choices, my treachery and twisted double-dealing wash over me.
“Why me,” I ask, as tears roll down my cheeks. “I have done . . . “
I shudder inwardly. To see, and understand things as they truly are, the immensity of it overwhelms me. The Malakhim are sent to help, not to destroy. They mean not to kill, but to call. I suddenly and instinctively comprehend the mistakes in the archaic language of the old legends. The Dead God is not the god of death but the one that has power over death.
“Because you understand what you have done, realize what you are. That is the why you were chosen.” The musical voice resounds in my mind.
I don’t know how, but I recognize the undeniable truth in its words.
My knife, the one I had thought in its chest, transfixes its hand. The Malakhim withdraws it slowly, then pulls the other from its wing. It hands me both knives. I watch as the scar, already seemingly long healed, slowly fades from the flesh of its hand.
Then it grabs me under the arms and lifts me from the floor like a child. Although I am a tall man, the Malakhim easily towers head and shoulders above me.
Words fail me, and a thousand questions rattle through my head. The Malakhim smiles, as if reading my thoughts.
“When the time is right you will know what to do. For now, you need only to listen to your heart to see your way clear.”
Those brilliant eyes fill my vision for a moment. Then spreading its golden wings the Malakhim thrusts off the floor, beats its wings once and disappears.
The sky threatens rain as dark clouds roll in overhead, and still my step is lighter than it has been in some time.
I can feel the smile spread across my face. Now I understand now why those that have been touched by the Malakhim are so different.
To say that Master DeShong will be disappointed when I return his coin would be an understatement. I may well be making an enemy for life. So be it, my days of doing other peoples’ dirty work are over.
I start humming a tune as the first drops hit my face. The crowd jostles as they hurry to get out of the rain. My heart tells me that now, for the first time, I am finally heading in the right direction.