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The Augurwraith by Craig Comer – Part VIII

The assassin appeared at her side. He held the crossbar meant to wedge the doors in place, but instead, he heaved the beam at the newcomers. It clattered along the floor at their feet, causing them to slow and jump out of the way.

Lucendes reached into his shirt and plucked out the totem, handing it to her. As Saja felt the cool glass, a shiver went up her arms. The last time she’d seen Tarim, he’d run a hand through her hair as they strolled through the potters bazaar. Would he remember?

“Do it now!” Lucendes said. “As Khouri instructed!”

Saja glanced up. The thugs were almost on top of them. Raising the totem, she hurled it at their feet. She found her voice and shouted, “Tarim, son of Yusri!” The totem shattered, and a flash of white light seared Saja’s eyes, blinding her.

She stumbled backward into the doors. Dark shadows grew solid as her vision returned. All but one.

“Tarim,” she whispered. He was clothed in the fine vest and shirt of one of the Kitame’s guard, with a silk sash of blue wrapped around his waist. Hanging from a belt was a curved sword.

He wasn’t the boy from Saja’s dreams. That Tarim was more solid, somehow more real. The Tarim before her was blurred, as if the details of his face—the glint of his eyes and ridge of his cheeks—weren’t fully formed. Or perhaps they were just hidden from this world.

The augurwraith studied the foyer, taking in the minions of the Horned Man, who’d stopped in horror of their new adversary. It shifted its gaze to Lucendes, and finally, to Saja. Joy swelled in her chest, then dwindled to nothingness.

No recognition showed in its features.

The creature drew its giant blade and snarled. One of the thugs dropped his stave and ran. The augurwraith turned and sprang forward, cleaving a path through the other men. Where its sword met flesh, great rents blossomed. Its movement was a drifting mist, its already blurred features seeming to dissolve and reform with each step.

A man with a short sword hacked at the creature’s back, but the steel slid through the augurwraith like a stick through a spider web, pulling tendrils of mist in its wake. The creature slashed low, and the man clutched at sundered legs as he fell.

The remaining minions bolted for the far reaches of the room, where a pair of doors and a corridor led off to other parts of the storehouse. The augurwraith pursued them, its whirling blade a dark streak of shadow.

Saja trembled, not quite comprehending what she saw. Tarim. And the creature. Existing together, yet not the same. They couldn’t be. She took in the butchery, and something steeled within her gut. No, she thought. This couldn’t be how she remembered him. With a determined step, she strode forward.

Across the foyer, the augurwraith disappeared into the corridor. Saja quickened her stride. She’d reached halfway to the edge of the room, when Lucendes grabbed her shoulders.

“Let it be,” he said. Saja tried to shrug him off, but his grip tightened.

“I have to see him,” she said, “the real Tarim. My Tarim.” She squirmed in his embrace, straining against his wiry arms. Her hand found the knife at her belt, and she drove its butt into his gut.

He shuffled back, releasing her, and they glared at one another. Lucendes’ face was a tense mask, his skin pulled tight around his eyes and lips. Saja knew if he lunged with his dagger, she would die.

But the assassin relaxed and shook his head. “It is foolish to hope such things,” was all he said.

Saja ran. Bodies lined the corridor, leaving a trail easy to follow. She rounded a corner and hurried down a flight of stairs, as a scream echoed from below. Her feet hit dirt, and she leapt toward an open door just as a stout man with graying locks burst through from the other side.

Saja grunted as they collided, and the wind was knocked from her lungs. She was thrown back and landed hard on her rump. The man cursed, staring down at where her knife stuck from his chest. His knees buckled, and he dropped.

Saja blinked, but she had no time to dwell upon what she’d done. Scrambling to her feet, she padded around the man and peered through the door. The augurwraith stood within, stalking a man who already clutched at a flayed hand. Several tables lay overturned and broken, and in the far corner, a trapdoor rested open against the wall.

But it was the form huddled against the near wall that halted Saja’s breath. Her father lay with nothing but a soiled cloth wrapped about his waist. Purple welts covered his body, and caked blood matted in his hair.

She rushed to his side, and the movement brought the creature spinning toward her, sword raised high.

“No!” she roared. “You are Tarim, son of Yusri, not this creature!” Fury burned within her chest. At her father and the guild. At Lucendes and the thieves of Kuthahaar. And at Tarim. The apprentice had wounded her deepest of all. She’d thought to tell him of how much she loved him, but now as she stood before him, she felt only the anger of betrayal.

“You could’ve run,” she said. Tears streamed down her cheeks, and her body shivered. “We could’ve hid from my father and found a life together. But you abandoned me and ripped that life away.”

The augurwraith’s face remained hard, but it lowered its blade. “You are wrong, Saja, daughter of Sukahn,” it said.

A voice gasped in wonder. “Tarim, I dared not truly believe.” Saja’s father gawked at his former apprentice, then racking sobs overtook him. “What have I done?” he cried.

“You did what you thought best,” said Tarim. He turned his gaze to Saja. “As did I, no matter how much it hurt you.” He paused, and the silence seemed to suck the air from the room. “What is done, is done. You must find a way without me.”

“Is that all?” she asked, though she knew Tarim’s words for truth. He’d tried to save her and her father the best way he could, the only way left to an apprentice bound to a penniless drunkard of a master.

The apprentice shimmered as if its shadowy form was suddenly taken by a gust of wind. “Do not seek me again. It only brings me pain.” Tarim’s face grew sorrowful, then began to fade.

As the augurwraith dissipated, Saja felt a void open within her. A great hunk of her old life ripped away, and with it went the false hope she’d tucked deep in her heart, one she’d never admitted existed, even to herself. The hope Tarim would return to her. In that void, Saja realized she would need to forge resolve and strength. He’d given his life for her future, and she meant not to squander that gift. She’d rescued her father once but would need to do so again. She loved him still and would not abandon him the way he’d abandoned her.

Across the room, the remaining minion of the Horned Man stared at Saja in bewilderment, clutching his bloodied hand. “Run, fool! To the Under!” barked Lucendes. The man jumped at the assassin’s command and scampered to the trapdoor, disappearing down a hole in the floor.

“Saja,” said her father, shoulders jerking as he continued to sob. “I ruined us. Who will trade with me now?”

“Don’t worry, papa,” she replied. She helped him to his feet, then grinned at Lucendes. “I am your new apprentice, and I believe the Tanner’s Guild will soon be sending you more work than you can handle. And at a very favorable price.”

The assassin laughed. “Perhaps,” he said. “The Blessed One does take care of his own.”

THE END

Originally published in Pulp Empire Volume IV.

© Craig Comer

The Augurwraith by Craig Comer – Part VII

Despite the sun’s absence, the day’s heat continued to infest the city as if some great hearthstone burned unseen. Saja and Lucendes strode through the alleys of the Tanner’s District, guided by the light of the moon. The streets still held a host of denizens, but the peddlers had gone home and the craft shops had closed. The only hint of commerce remaining came from the jovial chatter spilling from the district’s alehouses, and on occasion, from the moans of pleasure emanating from the shadows.

It’d taken Khouri the afternoon to prepare the summoning totem—a lock of Saja’s hair tied around a garnet-encrusted glass medallion, steeped in an unction of oils—and Lucendes had used the time to set his plan in motion. He’d returned to the augur’s house wearing a loose robe of green over his shirt and trousers. It hid the half-dozen daggers he now carried. To Saja, he’d given a small knife, and its weight at her hip felt strange, like an unwanted reminder of the bond between them.

As they crossed a star-shaped plaza at the convergence of several streets, three men in similar green robes joined them. Saja regarded the men, then peered into the shadows. “Only three?” she asked.

“Our strike needs to be fast,” said Lucendes. “Too much commotion and the Seers will send the city guard. They watch the city from above, like falcons circling, but with Magi enhanced eyes. It is how the Sultan keeps his peace.” He pulled his lips tight, not quite the grin he wore earlier in the day. “But don’t worry, we have all the strength we need.” Saja thought of the totem he’d tucked beneath his shirt, and nodded.

The assassins marched on in silence, each knowing what was expected of them. Saja’s heart battered her ribs so hard, she thought they’d shatter. For her sake, she hoped these other men were as good as Lucendes. She concentrated on taking deep breaths, trying to keep her mind from the bloodletting to come.

Thankfully, she didn’t have to wait long. Two of the assassins peeled off from the group as soon they turned down a narrow street lined with sandstone buildings. They quickly disappeared into the darkness, and when Saja stared after them, Lucendes slapped her rump.

She spun on him, raising a hand to strike him back. But he caught her wrist and wrapped his other arm around her shoulder. Laughing loudly, he leaned into her as if they were an amorous couple returning from an evening out. The remaining assassin dropped back, giving them space.

Saja fumed but went along with the ruse. Lucendes led them down the street in a slow procession, chortling and babbling nonsense. He tapped at Saja’s shoulder as they went, and at first she thought he was trying to get her attention. But then she realized: he’s counting!

They approached a storehouse flanked by a pair of taller buildings. In its center, a pair of double doors stood open, but guarded by a half-dozen men.

Lucendes stopped tapping.

“The lookouts are dead,” he said. “Now it is our turn.” He strode toward the guards, leaving Saja behind. The other assassin joined him, pulling two long knives from his robe. The men at the door started and fell into a line behind a brawny thug. Some of those in back glanced warily up and down the street, but the leader glared at Lucendes.

“The Blessed One sends his greetings,” said the assassin.

The thug spat. He raised a hand, as if to make a threatening gesture. Instead, he gurgled and dropped to his knees, a dagger sprouting from his throat.

Lucendes and his companion rushed forward, blades flashing silver in the night. The minions of the Horned Man recovered from their shock and met the assassins with cudgels and staves.

Wood cracked against stone and metal whooshed through the air. Two of the guards fell before Lucendes, as he spun and stuck with his dancer’s grace. He was not a snake, Saja thought, watching him, he was some sly cat of the desert.

He flung a dagger at another of the guards, catching the man in the thigh, then turned toward Saja. “Come!” he barked.

Saja clamped her teeth together, to keep her gut from spewing out, and hurried forward. By the time she’d reached him, he’d swung shut one of the doors and was pushing hard against the other. His companion battled against the remaining guards, slashing and hacking like a madman, forcing them into the street.

“Get inside,” said Lucendes. Saja ducked into a massive foyer lit by a pair of braziers. Footsteps clapped across the tile floor from the far side, where a score of the Horned Man’s thugs raced toward them.

Lucendes slammed the door shut behind Saja. She opened her mouth to scream, but it’d long since gone dry. “Lucendes,” was all she was able to gasp.

…to be continued

Originally published in Pulp Empire Volume IV.

© Craig Comer

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The Augurwraith by Craig Comer – Part VI

Saja took a breath to quell her panic. The thief—no assassin—was trying to negotiate with her, she realized. “Why would the Blessed One want to help my father?” she asked. “Why would you want to help me speak with Tarim?”

“Ah, now it makes sense,” said Khouri, rubbing at his jaw. “I can see a vision without need of my scrying bowl. The Blessed One moves against the Horned Man, to take control of protection for the Tanner’s Guild. It is well known to certain ears.” He turned to Saja. “Your father will be found with one or the other.”

“He is with the minions of the Horned Man,” said Lucendes. “For the debts he owes them, they will make him suffer the wrath of their god.”

Anger flared within Saja, washing away her fear. Her father had brought her trouble. Again. She stared at Lucendes, seeing a coiled snake. He’d rescued her from the tanners because he needed her. He’d wanted to use her all along, just as they had.

“You would allow me to see Tarim,” she said, “but only if you can also use him as a weapon in your fight. That is why you concern yourself with the supposed rescue of my father.”

“He needs you,” Khouri agreed. “An augurwraith is a terrible creature—a warrior of the shadows forged from the same mystical powers that birth clairvoyance and precognition, but blended with the strongest of death magic. It is not surprising the Kitame use them as personal bodyguards. Not quite human anymore, they are not quite dead.

“An augur’s wraith, yes, an omen of death. Trying to summon one not bound to you is beyond dangerous. It is something only a master augur would dare attempt. You might as well challenge the will of the Sultan!”

“Strong emotions can sway them to their old life,” said Lucendes. “It has been done before.” Khouri sighed and nodded, conceding the point, though he continued to mutter under his breath.

“And if I refuse?” asked Saja.

Lucendes turned to her, an almost apologetic look upon his face. “Then you will not see your father, nor your Tarim, again.”

Damn them all, thought Saja. Her hands knotted into fists at her waist. Spite boiled within her, and she wished for nothing more than to storm away from Lucendes and deny him his nefarious designs. But where would she storm to? The question had plagued her for days, yet she had no better answer for it.

She couldn’t meet the assassin’s eyes, so stared for a time at the intricate rugs splayed across the floor. Her mind raced, searching for better options but finding none. Finally, she nodded.

“I suppose I will not be able to refuse, either?” asked Khouri.

Lucendes picked up his dagger. “No,” he said, without bothering to veil the threat.

…to be continued

Originally published in Pulp Empire Volume IV.

© Craig Comer

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The Augurwraith by Craig Comer – Part V

She stepped inside. Movement to her left caught her attention. The robed man edged toward her, hugging the wall. His gaze swung from the grappled pair to Saja. She swallowed, unsure what to do.

“Get the door,” Lucendes gasped, as if reading her mind.

blog_treeRight, she nodded. She spun out of the entrance and grabbed the door. But as she tried to swing it closed, the robed man darted forward and caught its edge.

“Child, I would advise you to move,” he said. His voice held a note of panic in it, despite the stern warning.

Saja pulled back, and the light from outside flooded the man’s face. He squinted and tried to step through, but as he did Saja slammed the door shut again, causing the man to yelp in surprise. She lowered her shoulder and pressed, to keep him pinned, then rolled her back flat and slid her rump to the floor, wedging them in place.

The wood pinched against her skin as the man tried to shove her out of the way, but his arm was trapped at his side, and he didn’t have enough strength or leverage. Saja gritted her teeth. Determination welled within, fueled by hope.

In the center of the room, Lucendes threw himself from side to side, forcing Raj to stagger. Like a ship lurching across rough seas, the pair threatened to tip. Lucendes brought both his knees up, and the sudden weight caused Raj to lose his balance. His arms slackened, and Lucendes slipped to the ground.

The thief tumbled away and came to his feet. He knocked into the table, spilling some of the scented oils that burned within clay pots. Snatching one of the chairs, he hurled it.

Raj batted the chair aside as he stalked forward. Lucendes waited until the last moment, then tossed one of the pots. The burning oil splattered across Raj’s bare chest, and he howled in pain.

Grabbing another chair, Lucendes smashed it into the larger man. He swung again, breaking the chair across Raj’s temple. The brute blinked, wavering, then slumped to the ground. Lucendes looked up at Saja and grinned.

“Hurry,” she barked at him. Her back felt like it was on fire, from the strain of keeping the door forced shut. He strode over and grasped the plump man, pulling him into the room as Saja shifted out of the way.

“I have need of your services, Khouri,” said Lucendes.

The plump man blustered. “The last time I helped you, I had to flee the city. And you never paid!” He shook his head. “I will do nothing for you.”

Lucendes righted one of the overturned chairs and sat the plump man down. Then he held up a finger and moved to where Raj lay sprawled across the floor. Yanking the man’s belt purse free, he shook it, the coins within clinking together. “Here,” he said, tossing the bag to Khouri. “My debt is settled.”

“I should’ve guessed you’d seek me out again,” said Khouri.

The thief shrugged. “You’re an augur. You should’ve seen me coming.”

“An augur, Lucendes, not a Seer. My visions are not that precise. Though in truth, I’ve had dark dreams of late. It seems they foretold a visit from the Blessed One’s best assassin.”

Lucendes’ eyes flickered to Saja. Her own widened in shock. “An assassin of the Blessed One?” she whispered. The hope she’d felt earlier evaporated. The prophet kept an iron thumb on perhaps half the thieves in Kuthahaar. His attention was one to avoid, not covet.

“Did he not tell you?” asked Khouri, with a chuckle.

“It changes nothing,” Lucendes snapped. “We’ve come for you to divine the location of her father.”

The augur’s gaze became intent upon the thief, and his laughter increased. “Why bother? You know it already. I can see it on your face!”

Saja started. She swung her gaze between the two men, taking a step toward the door. “Was it a lie?” She shuddered. “You promised. You fooled me into believing.”

Lucendes shook his head. “I kept things from you, but the words I spoke of the other matter were the truth. You will see your father’s apprentice again. Khouri holds the power to summon an augurwraith.”

Khouri jerked. “You told her of this? It is knowledge punishable by death.”

“I know where your father is kept,” Lucendes continued, ignoring the augur. “If he still lives, I will free him from his captors.”

…to be continued

Originally published in Pulp Empire Volume IV.

© Craig Comer

12 Days of Books Giveaway!

12-days-of-books

What’s better than free reads, right? Like the covers above? Then check this out:

E. J. Wenstrom, author of the award-winning novel, Mud, invites you to enter to win a collection of 12 speculative fiction books, just in time for the holidays!

Click the link above to find out how to enter, or visit one of the participating author’s sites:

Charles Cornell | Louann Carroll | Danielle DeVor | Connor Drexler 
Jeff Elkins | M. G. Herron | Sharon Johnston | Jade Kerrion
R. Perez de Pereda | Brian Rella | Antonio Simon, Jr. | E. J. Wenstrom

And in other news:

Since I haven’t in a while, I thought I’d share a little of what I’ve been working on lately.

  • A Fey Matter has now become the series title for Effie and her adventures, with Book I entitled, The Laird of Duncairn. The book is due out in May from City Owl Press! Yay!
  • Speaking of Laird, I finished my last round of content edits with the amazing and awesome, Heather McCorkle of City Owl, and now the book is off to the copy editor for a round of polishing.
  • Book II of the series is well underway. I just crossed the 50,000 word mark. For the long-haul of a speculative fiction novel, that means I’m about halfway home! (I hope…)
  • And last of all, I’ve finished reworking my YA novel, The Weird of Danika Ruck, to the point where I’m happy with sending it out into the great hopeful-sphere that is the novel submissions process!

The Augurwraith by Craig Comer – Part IV

With a curt nod, she spun and marched away. Lucendes followed, guiding her with occasional grunts as they left the Tanner’s District and entered the Cupper’s Warren. There, the ringing of hammers filled the alleys and the smoke of stoking fires billowed in the streets, increasing the afternoon heat.

blog_treeSaja spoke of her father, of his trading caravans, and of the life that had been hers. She told him of the raiders who’d burned an entire shipment of oak bark and slain the dozen guards who accompanied it. How the loss had crushed her father and forced him into debt, and how losing a few contracts through ill luck had caused that debt to swell.

And last, she told him of Tarim. “Those my father owed forced him to sell his apprentice to the Kitame, in order to recover their losses,” she said, straining to keep her voice as flat as possible. “My father sold Tarim like he would any of the goods from his caravans.”

“He became an augurwraith, a bodyguard for one of the royal blood,” said Lucendes. “Such horrors the privileged deliver upon the poor. It is a blessing the Sultan outlaws the practice except to a certain few.”

Nodding, Saja dropped her gaze. “They came for him one day. We knew it meant his death, and still he went willingly, to become a creature of the spirit world, bound to one of the Kitame.” She blinked back the tears welling at her eyes. “One day he was as a son to my father; the next he was gone.”

Lucendes studied her. “You cared strongly for this Tarim,” he mused. Pursing his lips, his eyes flickered to the sky. Then he grinned and turned to Saja. “After you have eaten, we shall go to see a friend of mine. He may be able to help us.”

Saja started to protest, but Lucendes cut in. “Did you know it was possible to speak with an augurwraith? Even one not bound to you?”

Saja’s heart thumped. Speak with Tarim again? What would she say? What would he? The bustling of the city around her faded, and she allowed herself to be led away as if lost in a dream.

“That is,” Lucendes continued, “if you have the right kind of friends.”

#

Her belly full, Saja followed as Lucendes approached the hovel of his friends. It was perched between a slaughtering pen and a grain house, with a flat roof that buckled in its center. The thief halted at the slatted wood door, but instead of knocking, he slipped his dagger through the crack formed at its frame. The door creaked as he pushed it taut against its latch, scraping his blade up and down, searching for the release.

Saja’s gawked at the blatant thievery. She scanned the near empty street, wondering if anyone watched, when the latch suddenly clicked free, and the door swung open.

A man with shoulders as wide as a bull’s stood within. “You!” he cursed at Lucendes. He wore no shirt under his vest, and Saja could see his muscles flare.

“Me,” said Lucendes, ducking low and throwing his shoulder into the man’s gut. Both stumbled backward, spilling into a room filled with the scent of burning incense. Heavy tapestries hung on the walls, blocking the outside light, and a heap of overlapping rugs covered the earthen floor.

Another man, small and plump, sat at a table in the far corner. His robe was finely cut, something Saja’s father would’ve worn. He bolted to his feet, sucking in a tight breath and eyeing the open door, the only exit Saja could see.

The larger brute swiped at Lucendes’ head, but the thief ducked under the blow. He caught the underside of the brute’s arm and used it as leverage, slamming his knee into the man’s side.

The brute grunted. He clutched his ribs and bent over. But instead of attacking, Lucendes leapt out of the man’s reach.

“You think I’d not remember that ruse, Raj?” he asked. Raj glowered, standing upright. The pair circled, Raj in a crouch with his hands raised before him, Lucendes springing lightly upon his toes.

With a deft flick of his wrist, Lucendes sent his dagger sailing at the other man’s head. He rushed after it, chasing the toss that flew wide and clattered against one of the tapestries.

Raj didn’t flinch as the blade spun past. Instead, he stepped forward into Lucendes’ path. The thief tried to swerve, but his foot caught in one of the thick rugs. He stumbled, and Raj’s arms seemed to swallow him in a crushing embrace.

“I remember, too,” the brute said.

Lucendes squirmed, trying to loosen the larger man’s grip. His face turned red from the strain. He kicked his legs out and battered his head against Raj’s chest, but neither were effective.

Saja realized her knuckles had grown white from clutching her dress. She released her grip and glanced down the street again. She could run. What were the promises of a thief, anyway? These obviously weren’t his friends. But he’d fed her, as he said he would, and rescued her from the tanners. Thoughts of the roasted pigeon and beets caused her stomach to gurgle in contentment.

And the chance to speak with Tarim again. Even to discover the fate of her father. The boon was worth a small amount of hope.

…to be continued

Originally published in Pulp Empire Volume IV.

© Craig Comer

The Augurwraith by Craig Comer – Part III

Saja winced, but instead of a death blow, the thief stepped back and allowed the other guildsmen to regain their companion. They did so with wary eyes that never left their assailant, gathering the tanner between them, and backing away.

Once they had fled the alley, the thief turned to Saja. Run! a voice shouted within her, but her feet remained still. His face was fair, except for a scar that ran along his nose like a dividing line between his cheeks. Dark locks fell almost to his shoulders, and the black trousers he wore were for a much larger man.

He smiled at her. “I suppose asking for a kiss as reward would defeat the whole noble gesture,” he said. “But perhaps you would give me your name? Such a detail will make for a better tale, when I tell my friends of your rescue.”

Saja started. The anger she’d felt earlier welled up again. “Rescue? After what you’ve done, no guildsman will show me kindness! No proper work! No food!” She knew she sounded ridiculous and ungrateful, but she was tired of men pretending to be her savior only to leave her desperate and alone.

“They wouldn’t have helped you before. Their kind is… let’s say, less than honorable.” The thief glanced at his bloodied dagger. He quickly wiped it clean and tucked it into his boot.

“I am called Lucendes,” he said. At Saja’s reaction, he added, “I am from the southern march of Maeldon, though I’ve lived in the Immortal City for many years.”

“My father trades with the Maeldonese. He says they are desert rats of impure blood, who scurry about hoping for the Sultan’s favor.”

“Then I can see he knows them well,” said Lucendes, widening his grin. Saja huffed and turned to leave, but Lucendes fell in beside her. “A moment, Saja,” he said, placing a hand upon her arm. “I did not just chance upon you. I have come to add my blade and wits to your formidable quest.”

Blinking, Saja stammered, “You know my name?”

“You wish to save your father, but the Tanner’s Guild won’t help you. So you are caught in the winds, without friend or family.”

“You knew? But then why did you ask?”

Lucendes shrugged sheepishly. “I may have overhead some of your argument with the guildsmen. Your voice held such misery, I could not rip my ears away. It is a fault of mine, this burden of altruism.”

“I didn’t see you,” said Saja. She frowned, trying to recollect the thief’s face from earlier, then shook her head. It didn’t matter. “But you are mistaken. I have no quest, only a need for food and work.” She swiped his hand from her arm and added, “Honest work.”

This time it was Lucendes who frowned, if only for a fleeting moment. She had caught him off-guard. Good, she thought.

“But what of your father?” he asked. “Wouldn’t his freedom answer all of your problems?”

Saja shook her head. “He’s a drunk, and he owes money to many people. He could be a captive of the Sect of Raast or the Horned Man, or perhaps dead.”

“To have such debts, he must’ve been a mighty man once. And maybe not so long ago? Tell me of him, and I will find you a warm meal.”

“Why?” Saja asked.

“Perhaps I like to help people. Perhaps your father owes me money, too.” Lucendes’ knowing grin returned. “Perhaps I desire you. Does it really matter why?”

Saja stared at the thief. Of course it mattered. But she couldn’t ignore her stomach for another passing of the sun, and the thought of food for so simple a price was too tempting. She didn’t care if it meant soiling her father’s name further. He’d vanished only a few days ago, but he’d disappeared long before.

…to be continued

Originally published in Pulp Empire Volume IV.

© Craig Comer

The Augurwraith by Craig Comer – Part II

As she spoke, two other men emerged from the guildhall. They wore the simple vests of craftsmen, and the mark of the Tanner’s Guild emblazoned their arms in red ink—a scraping blade resting upon a stretched rawhide. The first tanner mumbled some rude comment, and the others laughed.

Saja seethed. She silently cursed her father again, and the Tanner’s Guild, and the Sultan, who allowed lechers to prey upon the desperate. She felt a chunk of sandstone under her palm and grasped it, eyeing the three men. She pictured the tanner clutching his nose and howling in pain, but then thought better of hurling the stone. She could perhaps outrun two, but three certainly pressed her luck. Besides, she still held a small hope the guild would take her in. Maybe if she came again later and spoke with someone else.

The tanner saw the stone as she dropped it, and his eyes went cold. Saja did her best to ignore him. Rising, she scraped off the silt and muck that clung to her dress. In the Tanner’s District, buckets were kept to collect the leavings from animal and man alike, for use in the tanning process, but the slop of refuse still soiled the ground. And in the air, baking under the noonday sun, the stench of the vats hung thick.

As Saja strode away from the guildhall, she passed a few peddlers hawking pottery and craftsmen’s tools from the backs of their carts, while wagons of fresh skins and rawhides trundled along. She dodged one of the wagons and almost collided with a beggar who shuffled by with his arms tucked into his robes, mumbling to himself. She heard giggling from a shadowed corner between two squat buildings, and spied a pair of harlots watching her. They wore sheer linen dresses, with paint caked upon their eyes and cheeks. They know, Saja thought with a shiver. They can see I will soon be one of them. The notion plunged her heart into her gut, and her eyes welled.

A year ago, she’d been in love with Tarim, her father’s apprentice. A year ago, she thought she’d never dream of another man. Her entire life lay before her, scripted like the sweet tales from a mummer’s stage. But then the winds had changed, and her father stole her future.

One of the harlots stepped forward, but the other caught her arm and flicked her gaze at something behind Saja. The first altered her step into a graceful pivot, so that her back faced the street. Saja frowned. She peered over her shoulder and gasped. The tanner and craftsmen followed her, trailing only a few dozen paces away.

For a moment, she only stared. An icy hand of fear gripped her spine and wouldn’t let go. Then, with a gasp, her knees buckled and she lurched forward. Weaving through the street, she quickened her pace, her mind racing with what the men would do to her if they reached her. When she glanced backward again, the tanner gave her a mocking grin.

She stumbled in a wagon rut and heard the two craftsmen laugh. She was only sport to them, she told herself, something to pass the afternoon. Soon they would tire of their chase. She just needed to keep moving.

But she felt them edging closer. The hot sun melded with the imagined heat of their breath upon her neck. The gentle breeze was their fingers reaching out to clutch her dress.

The street forked, and Saja darted down an alley pressed between a salting house and a dyer’s shack. The footsteps slapping the dirt behind her echoed louder, coming closer until they seemed like they were her own.

As she broke into a run, a shadow flittered across the corner of her vision. Only it was higher than it should’ve been, as if a giant hawk had suddenly swooped down beside her. A loud grunt sounded, followed by a thud.

Saja heard the tanner curse, then the shriek of another man. She stopped and spun around, shocked at what she found. A lithe man in a shirt of green silk had his back toward her, blocking the alley. He balanced on his toes like a dancer, with a dagger held in one hand. Even Saja could tell the man was dangerous.

One of the craftsmen clutched at his arm, blood weeping through his fingers. The other was crumpled upon the ground, moaning softly.

The tanner sneered and brought his hands up in fists. “This is unwise, thief,” he said. “We are guildsmen. We are protected. The Horned Man will hear of this and string you from your toes!”

The silk-shirted man shifted his dagger so it pointed toward the ground but remained silent. The tanner lunged at him. To Saja, the punch was as quick as an asp’s strike, but the thief danced to one side and brought the butt of his dagger into the man’s temple. The tanner grunted and was struck again. This time he fell to his knees.

…to be continued

Originally published in Pulp Empire Volume IV.

© Craig Comer