The Coolest Fantasy Story You'll Read This WeekS

Check out this story of a super-assassin versus a magical thief with demonic powers, by up-and-coming fantasy author Django Wexler. Warning: You'll probably be hooked on Wexler's insane "flintlock fantasy" worldbuilding. Luckily, this is a prequel to Wexler's new novel The Thousand Names.

We're happy to present this exclusive prequel to Wexler's novel, which is the first in a five-book series and is already getting rave reviews. The Thousand Names is a military fantasy novel set on the outposts of the Vordanai empire, as beleaguered commander Winter Ihernglass tries to lead her troops to glory against all odds. It comes out July 2, but for now here's the prequel story:

The Penitent Damned

By Django Wexler

Duke Mallus Kengire Orlanko, Royal Minister of Information—sometimes called the Last Duke, though not in his hearing—did not look particularly dangerous. He was short, balding, and tended toward the portly, a roly-poly little man with an unfortunate taste for rich purples that gave him the look of a ripe plum.

Nevertheless, it was widely agreed that the Duke was the most dangerous man in Vordan, if not beyond. This was not simply because he was the inheritor of the most powerful fiefdom in the kingdom (though he was), or even because as Minister of Information his secret police, the all-seeing, all-knowing Concordat, had an informer in every shadow (though they did). What gave Orlanko his aura of terror was the certain knowledge that he had merely to crook a finger, and grim-faced men in long black coats would go to the home of the object of his displeasure in the middle of the night and haul the unfortunate away; and more importantly that no one would ever say a word about it, whether the prisoner was a beggar or a peer of the realm. Even the other Ministers of the Cabinet walked with care around the Last Duke.

The most unusual thing about his appearance was his spectacles, made for him specially by the Doctor-Professors of the University. They had wide, thick lenses, and from most angles they obliterated the upper half of the Duke's face into a vaguely flesh-colored blur. Every so often, though, they'd slip by chance into a perfect alignment, and the startled subject of that level glare would find the Duke's eyes bearing down on him, magnified to five times their normal size.

Currently, this unsettling stare was being directed at a thin sheaf of paper, which lacked the capacity for terror or unhappiness with its lot. In this, the Duke reflected, it had something in common with his visitor.

"The third item," Andreas said, helpfully.

The Duke tapped his finger on the paragraph in question, read it again, and sighed. He leaned back in his chair — custom made by the most cunning artisan in Hamvelt, it reclined gently under his weight with an almost subliminal whirring of gears and springs — and looked up across the vast expanse of his polished ironwood desk at his assassin.

It wasn't that Orlanko didn't like Andreas, or that he had ever given unsatisfactory service. Rather, the Duke didn't care for what Andreas represented. Not the fact he was a killer — there were plenty of killers in the service of the Concordat, though fewer than the man on the street might have assumed. But Andreas was unique. He didn't fit into the carefully-coordinated hierarchy of the Ministry of Information, standing off to one side of Orlanko's organizational charts like an awkward party guest. He, and a handful of others like him, were the Duke's concession to the messiness of the world, the fact that not every problem could be slotted into an appropriately labeled box and taken care of in the normal course of business. For all Andreas' efficiency, Orlanko hated to be reminded that he was still necessary.

Physically, there wasn't much to distinguish Andreas from any other Concordat agent. He was of medium height and medium build, with fair skin, sandy brown hair, and a face that was easy to forget. He wore the black leather greatcoat that served the secret police in place of a uniform, hands in his pockets, the fringe hanging behind him like a cape. The important differences were inside the man's skull. Andreas, Orlanko had found, thought in a different way. Not a normal way, to be sure, but there were times when the twisted path was the most effective, in the same way that a corkscrew can be the most effective tool for a job.

In this case, though, Orlanko wondered if the assassin's unusual perspective had led him astray. He frowned.

"Someone has obviously gotten desperate," the Duke said. "Desperate enough to hire a thief to try to steal from us, and I may say without false modesty that this is very desperate indeed. But what makes you think he has a chance of success? Surely ordinary procedures will be sufficient."

Orlanko loved 'ordinary procedures'. He'd written most of them himself, over the years, converting the Concordat into an organization that ticked over like a gigantic clock with human bearings.

"The problem is the thief," Andreas said. "I've included some eyewitness reports from his last job, in Hamvelt."

The Duke leaned forward, flipped the page, and read. His index finger tapped the paper again.

"Ah. You're certain this is the man we're dealing with?"

"Reasonably certain. We know he's in the city, and for him to risk venturing within our reach the job must be a sweet one. This is the only thing that qualifies."

"I see." Orlanko leaned back again. "How do you want to proceed?"

"If we can believe the reports, the thief's ... capabilities are unknown. I assume you want the identity of his backer?"

"Of course."

"In that case I would like to borrow some of your ... 'special assets'."

The Duke's expression darkened. "Matters at court are coming to a head. I may not be able to spare them for long."

"We won't have long to wait. The thief won't risk being in the city any longer than he has to. It'll be tonight, or tomorrow at the latest."

Orlanko hesitated a moment, then nodded. "As you wish. But I expect good results."

"Of course, Your Grace." Andreas bowed, coat flapping. "I will begin immediately."

***

Alex grabbed the lip of crumbling brick and hauled herself up until she could swing one leg over and lever herself up to lie flat on the narrow surface. The bricks made up a battlement-like rise perhaps a foot wide. Beyond them was the building's roof, a sloped, irregular surface of wooden shingles, but she dared not trust that with her weight. Most of the the tenements of the Newtown district still had their original hundred-year-old roofs, patched inexpertly and sporadically as they rotted and started to leak, and the ancient shingles were likely to shatter under her weight.

Instead, she rose to her feet, as smoothly as a dancer. She looked around for a moment, taking her bearings from the lights of the city, and then started to pace easily down the narrow strip of brick.

On her right hand was the roof, and on her left was a sheer drop — five stories to the street below, without even the hope of catching a convenient clothesline to slow her fall. The winding streets of Oldtown and the narrow alleys of the Docks were always thick with ropes, which could be quite useful for a second-story man — or woman, in Alex's case. Here, though, the long-dead Farus V had decreed that the boulevards be wide and straight, in accordance with the latest Rationalist principles, and though the area had gone a bit down-market since the old boy's day, the buildings were still too far apart to string washing-lines.

Alex's heart was beating fast, but it wasn't from the precariousness of her foothold or the prospect of a hundred-foot fall. Young as she was—another month would see her twentieth birthday—this sort of work had become so second-nature to her that a few inches of moldy brick might as well have been a broad highway. This, the rooftops of a great city at night, was her world, into which she'd been born and in which she'd spent her entire life. Anyone who had asked her about the possibility of a fall would have gotten only a quizzical stare in response.

Her nervousness had quite another source. This wasn't Desland, with its brightly painted shingles and sleepy constabulary, or even Hamvelt, with its terraced archways and sharp-eyed sell-mercenary guards. This was Vordan City, home to the Last Duke's Concordat, who watched from every shadow. Ever since she'd started working with the Old Man, some three years now, he'd been telling her dark stories about the city of his birth, to which he'd sworn up and down he'd never return.

Everyone knew what a thief's oath was worth, of course, and it was no surprise that enough money had made a liar out of the Old Man. They'd been at a loose end after a successful job in Hamvelt had produced more heat than they’d bargained for and sent them fleeing south and west towards the mountainous country near the border. Even still, when word had come through the Old Man's labyrinthine network of contacts that a proposition was on offer in Vordan with an almost ludicrous sum of money attached to it, he'd come close to turning up his nose at it. Alex had worked hard to convince him that they should take the deal; the fact that the job was obviously impossible only sweetened the pot.

Besides, she thought, if it's impossible, they'll let their guard down.

Alex liked impossible things. It was impossible to jump from one tenement block to the next, for example. You'd need a grappling hook and a lot of line, and even if it found purchase on the rotten shingles crossing would be a dangerously long and noisy endeavor.

She herself was impossible, after all. In this day and age, who believed in magic?

At the corner of the tenement roof, she paused, perched like a gargoyle. Twenty-five feet across the way, another hulk of a brick building loomed. A few lights flickered weakly in window frames on the upper stories, but lower down the shutters were tightly closed. It certainly wasn't impossible to climb one of these buildings from the outside—indeed, with their flaking mortar and crumbling bricks, it wasn't even a challenge. It was reasonable to assume, therefore, that the targets had taken some precautions against a stealthy approach from below. But from above?

Alex spread her arms like an orchestra conductor, raised her hands, and smiled. Liquid darkness rushed out of her cuffs, flowed over her hands like ink, and spread outward.

***

"Always try to think like the target," the Old Man had told her, that morning. "Be the target, as close as you can. Whatever you're trying to steal, hold it close to your heart, and think what you might do if you heard a bad man like me was going to come and take it from you."

He laughed, his ancient, wheezing laugh that showed off empty gums. Once upon a time he'd been a legend, the master thief Metzing, scourge of the burghers of Hamvelt and merchant houses all across the League cities. By the time Alex had met him, he was seventy years old if he was a day, and while he remained surprisingly spry his thieving days were done.

Alex had heard it all before. She was more interested in breakfast, which was steak and eggs done with some kind of runny cheese you didn't get in the League cities. Vordanai cuisine had some odd eccentricities, she'd discovered in her brief time in the city, but for the most part it was delicious. Except for the sausages. She taken a bite of one she'd bought from a street vendor and sworn off ground meat for the duration.

The Old Man glared at her, and she realized she'd forgotten to offer the proper attentive noises. Her mouth was full of egg, so all she could do was nod vigorously, to show she'd understood. He snorted and waved a dismissive hand.

"You don't listen," he said. "But you never did, so why should I be surprised?"

Alex swallowed. "I'm listening. I'm listening!"

"Fine, then you listen but you don't hear." He sighed and sank back in his chair. "We should never have come here."

"What, to this inn?"

It was quite a nice one, in fact, on the eastern end of the Island, as the Vordanai termed their most fashionable district. The Old Man always said that people expected to find thieves in low dives and cheap flophouses, so any thief who cared to avoid attention would avoid such places at all costs. Alex secretly thought that he'd simply acquired a taste for luxury during his illustrious career, but she wasn't complaining. They sat at their own table in the well-appointed common room, with leather chairs and well-dressed waiters bowing whenever Alex raised a finger. Beside them was a window made of real glass, with an excellent view of the spires of the Island and the bridges that connected it to the Exchange.

"To this city!" the Old Man said, rapping the table with his knuckles. "I swore I'd never come back. I knew it would be the death of me."

"It's only for a few days," Alex said. "And the money's good."

"Too good," the Old Man muttered.

"What do you expect? The Concordat has everyone scared stiff. I imagine the client had to up his price to attract any interest."

"So more fools we, to take an interest."

Alex sighed. "Come on. I'll do the job tonight. We'll be out of the city by morning. In two weeks we'll be back in Desland, and we can spend a year living like merchant princes if we like."

She'd dreamed of Desland, asleep in the soft feather-bed upstairs. It was the closest thing she had to a home, the place where she'd spent her formative years, and she was fond of it. It was a quiet, orderly city, building and citizenry both decked out in bright colors, framed against a bay so blue it made your eyes water to look at for too long.

More specifically, she'd dreamed of a rather nice young man who lived there, who she had allowed to kiss her on several occasions and, on the night before she'd left, to slip a hand inside her blouse for a few minutes of inexpert but enthusiastic fumbling. Thinking about him brought a flush to her cheeks, and she bent closer to her plate in case the Old Man noticed.

She needn't have worried. He was staring out the window at the tallest building in the skyline, a great ancient hunk of stone with two tall, pointed towers connected by a fragile-looking rope bridge. This was the Sworn Cathedral of Saint Ligamenti, a relic of a by-gone age that she had been mildly curious to go and visit. There were no cathedrals left in the League cities; angry mobs and self-righteous city councils, drunk on their new power, had razed them during the Schism, mostly to be replaced by allegorical statues of Truth and Freedom triumphing over Tyranny.

"It was always a bad place," the Old Man said, and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "For people like you. Not a mile from this spot, the Pontifex of the Black ripped out the tongues of heretics with hot pliers."

"That was two hundred years ago," Alex protested. "There hasn't even been a Pontifex of the Black since before the Schism. And Vordan is as much Free Church as the League, these days."

"Elysium has a long memory. And everyone knows the Last Duke is close with the Church." He jerked his head at the window and the Cathedral. "They're holding services in that great damn abattoir again, you know."

"All right, all right. I'll be sure to keep an eye out for any Black Priests while I'm out there." Alex rolled her eyes. And I'll watch for dragons and bogeymen, too. "Now, let me tell you my idea —"

***

Two globes of darkness encircled Alex's hands, flat black in the faint moonlight. She pointed one hand toward the roof of the other tenement, and extended her will. Blackness surged out in a long, thin line, like a rope made of pure shadow. She could feel it tense and quiver as though it were an extension of her own flesh, and she felt the force of impact as it hit the bricks and punched inward with a soft crunch. A hundred tiny black filaments radiated outward, scrambling for a hold.

She waited a moment, then tugged to make sure the grip was solid. Once she was sure, she took a deep breath, and stepped off into space.

For a brief, heart-stopping instant she dropped straight down, until the line of darkness jerked her arm up and turned the fall into a swing. A second later she was hurtling toward the side of the building with bone-cracking speed. She threw up her other hand, and a second black beam lanced out, this one straight into the brick wall.

The liquid darkness could be hard or soft, firm or yielding, as she required. In this case, an effort of will turned it hard and springy enough to kill the momentum she'd picked up crossing the gap. She let it evaporate, bit by bit, until she finally came to a stop with her feet against the wall, hanging from her shadow-rope, her weight supported by a few strands of braided darkness. From there it was just a matter of walking up, shortening the rope as she went, until she could throw her hands over the brick lip of the rooftop and pull herself on top.

Impossible. Alex grinned in triumph, face flushed. She wished the Old Man could see this. He had taken a long time to come to terms with Alex's strange power, but eventually its sheer usefulness had won him over. After that, he'd taught her a great deal about what could be accomplished by an athletic young girl with a rope and a head for angles.

"Elysium has a long memory." She shook her head at the memory of his disapproving frown. Maybe once upon a time, the Priests of the Black hunted people like me. There were enough stories about it, certainly. But as far as Alex could tell, there was no one else like her, not anymore, and no Priests of the Black either.

Distractions. Alex heard the Old Man tut-tutting in her ear. She got to her feet, carefully, balancing on the narrow brick pathway, and worked her way around the length of the roof. The information the Old Man had pried out of his reluctant contacts indicated that the archive occupied the northern half of the floor, and Alex glanced up at the stars to make sure she hadn't lost her bearings.

When she reached the northeast corner, she crouched, and let darkness roll out from her fingertips once again. It dripped down like molasses until it touched the flimsy, ancient shingles, then split into a hundred smaller filaments that drilled out through the wood like termites. Pieces began to fall away, just a dusting at first, then chunks the size of wood chips.

The tricky part was not letting anything drop before it had been sliced into small enough pieces that it wouldn't make a sound; the black tendrils crossed and re-crossed, and beads of sweat popped out on Alex's face with the effort. Eventually, a roughly circular section of the roof simply disintegrated into dust and splinters, falling away with a soft woof. Alex leaned over it and fired a shadow-line down, willing it solid enough to support her weight. She stepped out over the hole, balancing with both hands on the dark beam like an acrobat, and let it contract to lower her into room below as lightly as a feather.

That ought to be neat enough to please even the Old Man. As Metzing, he'd been famous not only for stealing what nobody thought could be stolen, but for making it look effortless. When they'd met, she'd only just begun her own career, and her brute-force reliance on her power to get past obstacles kept getting her into trouble. The Old Man had taught her the art of thievery.

He'd taught her a few other things, too. She'd been trying to avoid thinking about that part. But as she crouched in the corner of the darkened room, waiting for her eyes to adjust, she heard the soft tread of boots coming closer.

"Don't kill if you don't have to," the Old Man said. "Killing will make them quicker to chase and less likely to give up, and it'll be worse for you if you're caught. Besides, it isn't elegant." His lip twisted. "But if you do have to, you need to be quick, and quiet. Like this ..."

A door opened, admitting a sliver of lantern-light. Alex blinked and swore silently. She was in one corner of a long, low-ceilinged room. Heavy, padlocked cabinets lined both walls, so wide that the space between was barely more than an aisle. It seemed terribly mundane for a place with such a dread reputation: one of the bottomless archives of the Concordat, where every dark secret in Vordan eventually came to rest.

There were two doors, at the near and far ends of the room, and it was the closer one that had opened. Alex saw a figure in dark clothes outlined against the lit room beyond, but she herself was crouching in a dark corner, a shadow in a deeper shadow. That gave her a moment to act. She raised a hand and sent a shadow-line to snag the door and yank it shut, and heard a heavy lock clunk into place as it closed.

The startled man turned to look, as she'd know he would, and Alex surged forward. She crossed the space between them with noiseless, cat-like steps, cannoned into the man from behind, and threw her hand up and across his mouth to stifle his surprised cry. At the same time, she brought her other hand up, palm flat, against the base of his neck. A needle-thin wedge of darkness punched out with the force of a miner's pick, drilling through bone to open like a vicious, dark flower into a dozen sharp-edged strands inside the man's skull.

He jerked once, then subsided, and Alex caught his dead-weight and lowered him gently to the floor. Her throat was dry. This was the fifth man she'd killed in her career, and only the second who hadn't actively been trying to kill her at the time. He would have tried, though, if he'd gotten the chance. She reminded herself sternly that this wasn't some nobleman's household guard, standing watch for the look of the thing before going home to his family. He's Concordat. God knows what kind of blood is on his hands. It made her feel a little better.

Once he'd stilled, she listened in silence for a few moments, hoping no other guards were nearby. Luck was with her there; she could hear a faint murmur of conversation, but it was distant, possibly on the story below. She got to her feet and prowled along the rows of cabinets, reading the labels affixed to them by the Last Duke's meticulous clerks. She couldn’t figure out their system on a moment's notice, so she padded down one side and back up the other, checking each in turn.

Finally, she found what she was looking for. One of the cabinets was labeled with a neat list of names, and "De Farnis" was among them. That was the client’s name, and whatever was inside the cabinet was apparently so dangerous to his reputation that he was willing to pay an absurd price to have it back. Alex rolled her eyes at this typically noble sense of priorities, and extended a finger-thin sliver of darkness toward the lock. Lock-picking was not among the thief's skills she'd studied, but that rarely posed a problem. She closed her hand into a fist, concentrating on honing the edge of the narrow wedge of shadow until it was harder and sharper than any steel blade. When she brought it down on the hasp of the lock, the solid iron parted as neatly as butter, and she tugged the broken pieces apart and set them carefully aside.

De Farnis had been very insistent that she not examine the material she was recovering too closely, which only made Alex all the more curious as to what it was. She pulled the cabinet doors open, not sure what to expect. A stack of letters, perhaps. A signed confession. A skull? That was needlessly melodramatic —

The cabinet was empty. A couple of dust motes danced in the faint light filtering in through the hole in the roof. She could see where something had been, a square pattern in the dust, with streaks where it had been recently removed. Someone knew I was coming. And that meant—

The door at the far end of the room rattled and started to open. Alex didn't hesitate. She was too far from the hole in the roof to make it out that way, but all she really needed was a window. The other door was only a few steps away. She wrenched at the handle, found it locked, and tore it completely away from the door with a frantic burst of shadow. The door shuddered open, and she tumbled through, blinking in the light of several lanterns.

"That's far enough, Master Metzing," a deep voice said.

Alex froze. It wasn't the command that halted her, but the sight of two Concordat agents, in their long black leather coats, with muskets raised to their shoulders and trained on her. She was in some kind of common room, with the outer wall of the building behind her and wooden table in the center. An open doorway in the opposite wall led into a stairwell, and the two guards were standing squarely between her and a chance to run for it. She couldn't see any windows.

Behind the two black-coats was another pair of figures. One of them wore a grey habit, like a monk's, that concealed its figure and hooded its face. The other looked more like a priest, but instead of the familiar dusty white or deep burgundy, his robe seemed to be made of black velvet. There was something strange about his face, as well—he was wearing a mask that reflected the light of the lanterns as myriad fractured gleams and sparkles, as though it were made from a smashed mirror.

A third black-coat, pistol in hand, stepped back in from the archive room and added his weapon to those leveled at Alex. He had a thick, puffy-cheeked face, a black mustache, and cold, dark eyes. He walked toward Alex in measured strides, aim never wavering. She saw his eyes narrow.

Alex tensed. There would be a moment, when the black-coat stepped right beside her, when the musketeers might hesitate to fire for fear of hitting him. It was going to be the only chance she was going to get. But I only need a moment...

Her eyes kept going back to the dark-robed man in the strange mask. She heard the Old Man's voice again, warning her about the Black Priests. But that was stupid. There's no such thing as the Black Priests anymore.

She could almost see the Old Man's sour grin. "Just like there's no such thing as magic?"

The black-coat stepped in front of her, pistol trained on her forehead. He looked her up and down, and his lip quirked.

"Damn," he said. "You're a girl, aren't you?"

Alex tried not to feel hurt. She knew she looked a little androgynous, with her short hair and slim leather working gear, but still. She suppressed a sarcastic quip—it didn't seem wise, under the circumstances—and simply nodded.

"Balls of the Beast," the black-coat swore. "This isn't who we're looking for. It must be some kind of assistant, and that means he's still out there." He looked over his shoulder at the other guards. "Get someone back on the perimeter, and—"

Alex slid sideways, putting the bulk of his body between herself and the other guards. Darkness slid out of her palm, hardening into sickle-like blade as she brought her arm up. The supernatural weapon took the black-coat's arm off just in front of the elbow, slicing through coat, flesh, and bone with equal ease, and the hand still gripping the pistol fell away.

He stared at it, dumb-founded, and before he had the presence of mind to scream Alex leaned around him and pointed, extending her will across the length of the room. Dark power shot out like a spear, catching one of the musket-wielding black-coats in the chest and pinning him to the wall. The man whose arm she'd cut off started to scream, high and panicked, and she saw the other musket barrel swinging toward her. Alex turned her lean into a dive and hit the ground hard, just as the weapon emitted a flash, an almighty bang, and a plume of smoke. She didn't think she'd been hit, but she didn't spare the time to check—another spear of shadow slashed out, homing in on the muzzle flash, punched the other musketeer off his feet.

She drew the shadow line back in, rolled onto her back, and sent a third spear in the direction of the Concordat agent still staring in horror at his ruined limb. This one caught him in the side of the head and ended his troubles for good, and he crumpled on the spot. Alex lay still for a moment, fighting for breath.

That makes eight. She shook her head to dismiss the thought and looked over at the other two figures—the masked priest and his hooded companion. To her surprise, they were still standing calmly in front of the stairs, not ducking for cover or fleeing in a panic. She got to her feet, palms out and liquid darkness coiling dangerously over her fingers.

"I think the sergeant was wrong," said the priest. He had a heavy Murnskai accent, all thick Vs and rolling Rs. "The late sergeant, I should say. You are the infamous thief Metzing, I presume."

"That's right," Alex said. "Now get out of my way."

"And, unless I am very much mistaken, that was the demon called the Shadow Blade. It was once tamed, you know, but it was lost over two hundred years ago. Clerical error, I understand."

"I said move. Now." Alex gestured with her shade-gloved hand to the corpses on either side of the masked man. Her heart hammered in her chest, but she tried not to show any nerves. He's not even armed. I can kill him, if I have to.

"Do you know who I am, child?"

"You're going to be a dead man in a moment."

"Once, we were vulgarly known as the Obsidian Order." He tapped his mask, which made a click like dark glass. "Because of these, you see. There were other names as well, but we have always preferred to be called the Priests of the Black. We perform the same function as our brothers, in a different sphere. Those of the White concern themselves with matters of the next world, while the Priests of the Red manage the affairs of the Church in our mortal realm. And we attend to ... the rest.

"Once you would have known all of this from a glance at my mask, as well." He sighed. "Alas, times have changed. We are victims of our own success. But I don't imagine you care about my troubles, do you?" He smiled, his mask flexing and glittering darkly as the facets realigned. "Now. Are you going to come along quietly?"

Alex had never killed a priest before. But she'd never met a Priest of the Black before, either, and a deep, atavistic terror overcame whatever reluctance she might have mustered. She raised her hand and sent a spear of darkness right at the center of that gleaming mask, with a force that ought to have spattered his brains against wall.

Instead, the hooded figure moved. It had been standing so quietly that Alex had nearly forgotten it was there, huddled so deep in its robe that no part of it was visible. When it slipped in front of the Black Priest, it was as startling as though a statue had sprung to life. One arm came up, revealing a gray-gloved hand, fingers splayed.

Something sprang into existence between them, a wall of fizzing, dancing sparks, accompanied by a tortured whine like a knife scraping across glass. The shadow spear splashed and spattered against the barrier. Alex lowered her hand in astonishment.

"My friend here," the priest said, calmly gesturing at the silent, hooded figure, "represents the greatest heights of nobility to which the human soul can aspire. The Ignahta Sempria, the Penitent Damned. They carry demons, as you do, but they have willingly accepted the burden and thus condemned themselves to damnation in order to work for the salvation of others. Truly, we are blessed to be in the presence of such selfless glory."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Alex said. "I don't carry any demon."

"A common misconception," the priest said. "But where else could your power originate, if not from one of these monstrosities? If you come with me, we will remedy your theological education, and in time you will come to understand your plight. Who knows? In time you, too, may aspire to turn your life to higher ends."

Alex couldn't take her eyes off the gray-clad form of the ignahta. Under that hood there was someone like her, someone who shared this power that she'd never understood. If only we could talk

But with the priest looking on, that seemed unlikely. Alex eyed the door back to the archives, judging the distance. She put on a thoughtful expression, as though she were considering the priest's offer.

"I think —" she began.

She brought her left hand up, but that was only misdirection. Her other hand fired another concentrated rope of shadow, this time in a curving, whip-like path that bypassed the hooded ignahta and curled around to aim for the priest. Without waiting to see the result, Alex ran for the door to the archives.

The glass-cutter scream of magic assaulted her ears, but this time it was accompanied by a deeper rumble. She caught the ignahta's movement out of the corner of her eye, a slicing gesture at waist height, and some instinct made Alex throw herself flat. An instant later she felt a tug at her clothing as the air above her twisted in a rippling wave with a sound like splintering timbers. The wall behind her exploded outward in a wave of fragments and brick-dust, and the wind whipped in through the hole. Alex rolled onto her back and tasted fresh air, mixed with the scent of pulverized masonry.

"You see that it's fruitless to resist," the priest said, not unkindly. "Come along. You won't be harmed."

Not goddamned likely. From her perspective on the floor, Alex saw the ignahta step forward. She pushed herself into a roll, fragments of bricks embedding themselves painfully in her shoulder, and at the same time lashed out blindly with her own power. The wall of sparks sprang into being, deflecting her shadowy assault, but it bought Alex a second or two, and that was enough to make it to the impromptu window and launch herself out.

The next building was twenty-five feet away. The time it took one of her shadow-lines to reach it, normally so fast the eye couldn’t track it, felt like an eternity when she herself was falling towards the unforgiving flagstones five stories below. She felt the shadow-line bite into the brick wall, and willed it tight and springy enough to jerk her rudely into a long swing instead of a plummet, heedless of the strain on her arm and shoulder. She just had time to fire another line to keep herself from smacking headlong into the wall, but not enough to get the perfect angle; she rolled sideway, dangling, and thumped painfully against a window fitting.

At the blasted wall of the archive, now several stories up, the gray-robed ignahta appeared amid the roiling dust. One gloved hand came up, then slashed diagonally toward her, and Alex watched open-mouthed as a blade-like distortion in space rippled across the gap between buildings. It slammed into the wall above her, blowing a long line of bricks into powder and cutting cleanly through the shadow-line that was holding her up.

I didn't even know they could be cut, Alex thought inanely as she started falling again. Someone was screaming, inside the building, but she didn't have time to think about that either. She slammed a hand against the wall and willed shadow filaments to take a firm grip, bringing her body to a brutally fast halt. Something went pop inside her wrist when it took her weight, accompanied by a screaming pain. Alex fought through the silver needles grinding against one another under her skin and held on to her will, letting the shadow-line lengthen and lower her toward the ground.

Another wave of magic slammed into the building above her. Chunks of brick started to fall away, accompanied by more screams. A piece of wall the size of a cart tumbled past, bouncing and spraying fragments, and missed Alex's head by inches. The rippling blade lashed out a third time, and she felt her line snap. She clawed desperately at the wall, but before she could get a hold something punched her hard from behind, knocking the wind out of her.

The ground. She was on the ground, watching the building come apart and tumble toward her in huge, skull-crushing pieces. Alex scrambled to her feet, whimpering when she accidentally tried to brace herself on her shattered wrist, and ran for it. Around her, the street was full of the roused population of Newtown, who were doing the same thing. None of them had any idea what was happening, of course, but they were smart enough to know that they wanted no part of it. Alex slipped gratefully into the crowd, and went to work putting as many buildings as she could between herself and the grim form of the ignahta.

Her hand was agony, her legs and back ached, and she hadn't gotten what she came for. But she was alive, and her legs had gone rubbery with relief. She felt giddy.

I won't even mind letting the Old Man say 'I told you so.'

***

It took all the composure Alex could muster to walk casually along the riverfront street, rather than sprint directly to her destination. It was practically deserted, with only the occasional pedestrian hurrying about some private errand. Alex guessed that the sound of the building falling to pieces a few blocks away had sent the usual night-time pimps and purveyors scurrying back to their holes.

A good thief always had an escape route ready—that was another lesson the Old Man had taught her, and she'd never been more glad to have listened. You never knew when a job was going to go bad, although admittedly they rarely went as spectacularly bad as this one had. Nevertheless, Alex had kept her head, walking a random pattern through the grid of Newtown's streets before heading for the spot where the Old Man would be waiting. He'd procured a boat the day before, a simple flat-bottomed skiff, more than adequate to float them downstream past the water batteries and away from this hellish city.

And the next time he says it’s a bad idea to go somewhere, I'm going to take him seriously, Alex vowed, as she scanned the rows of tied-up watercraft. She found what she was looking for halfway down a lonely pier. The Old Man, huddled in his wool coat with the collar up, sat in the shadow of a larger boat tied up just beside theirs.

Alex paused, a pistol-shot away, and waved with her good hand. She squinted as her mentor waved back, an odd gesture with thumb and little finger folded in. That signaled that he was in the clear, and no Concordat thug was lurking in the shadows with a pistol trained on him. Alex couldn't help quickening her steps a little as she crossed the exposed space of the pier and vaulted into the little boat, but no shouts followed her. As best she could tell, she'd gotten away clean, but her imagination equipped every rooftop with watchers and riflemen. She wanted to be away from this city, this country, as quickly as she could.

"Go," she snapped at the Old Man, to forestall any questioning. "Let's get out on the river."

He nodded, silently, and reached for the long pole at the back of the skiff. Alex untied the rope, and kept her eyes on the pier as they pushed off. The dark water of the Vor sucked and slapped at the hull.

A trio of men had turned the corner from a side street, heading for the pier. Alex crouched as low as she could in the boat and watched as they began to inspect the remaining craft. Her breath rasped in my throat.

Not as clean as I thought. She smiled tightly. The Last Duke's boys are good, I have to admit. But not quite good enough.

"It was a trap," she said quietly, when they were a hundred yards from shore. "You were right. We never should have come here. They had"—she swallowed hard— "someone like me, someone working for the Black Priests. I barely made it out, and I think I broke something in my hand."

They were far enough from shore now that they should be invisible, a dark boat against dark water. There were enough lights burning on either shore that they wouldn't need to light a lantern until they were well downriver. Alex sat up, wincing every time she shifted her injured arm, and turned to face the Old Man—

—who was gone. He'd thrown off the heavy cloak, revealing a much younger man in dark leather. She caught the gleam of steel in his hand as he reached forward, with an almost casual gesture, and planted long, needle-like stiletto in the meat of her shoulder.

She felt the blade sink through skin and muscle with an odd detachment, but no pain, not yet. Automatically, she called on her power, raising her hands to send dark spears of shadow through what could only be another of Orlanko's minions. But her limbs didn't respond—her injured hand only fluttered weakly, and the arm he'd stabbed lay as dead as if it had been severed. Alex felt something cold spreading through her body from the wound, her muscles tightening painfully as whatever substance had coated the blade coursed through her veins. Her heart began hammering double-time, though she didn't know if it was from the poison or sheer terror.

"My name is Andreas," the young man said. "I'm afraid Metzing will not be joining us, he had an urgent appointment to keep at the bottom of the river. But he did me the favor of explaining all about you before he ... ah ... left, including your little repertoire of hand signals. Some of them are quite elegant. I may have to borrow the idea. "

Alex fell back against the edge of the boat. She couldn't speak—the poison had clamped her jaw shut, and muscles in her neck stood out like cords. It was getting hard to breathe.

"You're not going to die, if that's what you're worried. Our friends from Elysium were very particular about that. They were kind enough to provide us with this little potion, which I must say works quite marvelously. I know of quite a few ways to render a person unconscious, but none that operate this quickly without any risk of ... damage."

Alex struggled to open her mouth. She wanted to curse him, or maybe spit in his face. It didn't matter, as she couldn't summon up the strength for either.

"Don't glare at me like that," Andreas said. "You must have realized the risks when you decided to steal from us. And you should be thankful the Priests of the Black have expressed an interest. Anyone else who crossed His Grace would die for certain, at considerable length." He looked thoughtful. "Mind you, one hears stories about what goes on at Elysium. You may wish you'd been a bit less lucky, eventually..."

But no one was listening. Alex's head lolled back, and she slipped into an inky sea of darkness, as though the waves of her own power had washed over her.

***

The Duke's finger tapped slowly on the careful loops and curls of Andreas' handwritten report. He frowned as he read, and looked up.

"What have you done about the building?" he said.

Andreas inclined his head. "Construction failure. There was an attempt at refurbishment several months ago, which obviously has gone disastrously wrong. Everyone knows those old Newtown buildings are falling to pieces."

"Move against the builder," Orlanko ordered. "Negligence on that scale cannot be seen to go unpunished."

"I have taken the liberty of doing so already," Andreas said. "As it happens, the gentleman in question owns a considerable quantity of Crown debt, issued in lieu of payment on a previous project. Now that he is under arrest and his property forfeit, the question of repayment will of course not arise."

Orlanko didn't smile often, but at this the corner of his mouth at least twitched upward.

"Ah, Andreas. You are a master of killing two birds with one stone."

"I do my best, Your Grace."

"And the thief?"

"On her way north by now, with Father Volstock."

"Excellent. That will go a long way towards keeping the Pontifex happy." Orlanko leaned back in his chair. "Well done, Andreas. You may go."

"Thank you, Your Grace."

The assassin slipped out. Orlanko pushed his report aside, revealing another file, and turned to the room's other occupant. The ignahta was still swathed in gray from head to foot, but Orlanko had insisted the monk-like hood be pushed back. The Last Duke did not want his allies keeping secrets from him.

"You've done well," he said.

"Thank you, Your Grace."

"You're certain that your identity has not been compromised?"

The ignahta nodded. "Certain."

That was the best thing about these Penitent Damned, Orlanko had decided. A conventional agent would always require some tools to get the job done. No matter how carefully hidden—the pistol at the back of the waistband, the dagger strapped to the thigh, the bottle of poison disguised as perfume—there was always a chance of discovery, especially if the opposition was alert. Whereas the Black Priest's supernatural killers could be anyone, anywhere, and no one would ever be the wiser.

"Very good." He leaned back, finger tapping idly on the file. The tag, carefully attached by some meticulous clerk, read Vhalnich. "Very good. Now. I have another assignment for you ..."