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Blood of the Underworld

By´╝ÜDavid Dalglish

Prologue



The city of Veldaren was his to protect, but more than ever, Haern felt himself losing control as he watched the body bleed at his feet. It had rained just before dark, muddying the streets and back alleys. Blood mixed with the wet ground. The dead man’s face was half-buried, mouth open in death, throat opened by blade, and both were filling with mud. In the moonlight, the green of the dead man’s cloak took on a sickly hue. Haern doubted any would shed tears for the loss, but that was beside the point. He was the King’s Watcher, enforcer of Veldaren, and such violence could not be tolerated.

Yet, despite the work of his sabers, the violence was steadily rising.

“I hope you find a better life beyond this,” Haern said, shutting the dead thief’s eye so it no longer stared up at him. “No one should die in the mud.”

He stood, pulling the hood over his face. In its shadow, he peered about the alley. Come morning, he’d alert a guard to the location of the body, but before then, he needed to investigate. If the murder was what he thought it was, there’d be a sign somewhere, a message for the Serpent Guild where the guards would overlook. On either side of him were stone buildings, their sides slick from the rain. Haern slowly checked one, then the other, until he found it. Cut into the stone was a crude squiggle representing a snake. A jagged line crossed over its head. Below it was a fresh circle with eight tiny lines.

“Spider Guild is spreading,” Haern whispered to himself as he rubbed his chin. “Or was this revenge?”

He knew of no particular bad blood between the Serpents and Spiders, but that didn’t mean much. The thief guilds were all battling for territory, a direct result of the peace Haern had bought with blood. The three wealthiest families of Neldar, known as the Trifect, paid handsomely for protection of the entire city. Yet, over the past two years, that amount had carefully shrunk, as had the size of most thief guilds. Every bit of land meant a higher payout. With the increase of killings, the number of guildless criminals had risen. They knew the risk the Watcher posed. They knew what he was capable of. But it was starting to no longer matter.

The thieves were getting desperate. They weren’t afraid of him anymore.

Haern leapt to the rooftops, determined to rekindle that fear. Every night he scoured the city, often changing his route. He watched and listened, always wrapped in his gray cloaks. For years he’d foiled wars between the guilds, disrupting their plans. But there were no more plans. The thieves were wounded animals, biting at everything they saw. Every night he found a new body, a new symbol, or a new message. He wasn’t certain where the various guilds’ territories ended anymore, and he doubted the guilds themselves knew for sure.

He ran east. Footsteps in the mud led that way from the corpse. Perhaps it was time he gave the guilds a message of his own. The steps grew fainter. Out in the wild, there were many who were better trackers, but within the confines of a city, Haern was the master. Leaping up to the rooftops, he ran along, still following the telltale signs. A knocked over barrel here. A bit of mud brushed against a wall there. After a time, he felt like he was inside the murderer’s mind, heading toward safe territory. Except that was wrong. Nowhere was safe, not from him.

Haern found the Spider talking with a fellow guildmate, the two standing before a tavern that had long since closed. One held a knife, and he gestured wildly with it while telling a story. The blood on the blade was not yet dry. Haern worked his way closer, silently crawling across the roof until he was just above them, his ear leaning toward the edge of the tavern.

“...a little bitch,” said the man with the knife.

“Course they are. What you expect from a bunch of fags loyal to that Ket bastard?”

“Still, you’d expect him to die like a man. Put a knife at my throat, you wouldn’t hear me blubbering like a child.”

Haern drew one of his sabers, a dark grin spread across his face. Was that so? Perhaps he should test that theory. Like a ghost, he fell upon them, not a sound to give them warning. His knees crashed into shoulders of the man wielding the knife. He heard a crack of bone, and the man dropped. The other stood shocked still, his eyes wide. Haern kicked, his heel crushing windpipe. As he fell, Haern turned his attention on the boaster, who lay dazed in the mud from his head hitting the ground.

“So is this how a man dies?” Haern asked as he put the tip of his saber against the thief’s throat. He shouldn’t be wasting time, he knew. He was deep in Spider territory, and they would fight him if enough gathered together. Not that he feared them. Only their guild leader gave him pause. Thren Felhorn. His father.

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