Killing the Dead, A Tale of the Assassin Without a Name #2

Prefer to read on your Kindle? Killing the Dead is part of The Assassin’s Blade, a compilation of the first seven Assassin Without a Name stories. The Assassin’s Blade is available for free as part of your Kindle Unlimited subscription.

“BECAUSE THIS JOB IS A bit abnormal, I am authorized to offer you double your normal rate.”

I put my wine glass down, letting the smoothness of the ‘74 Crusus Sabeler slide down my throat and settle in my stomach before responding. “Abnormal how?”

I was enjoying a bottle of the shiraz when the gent presently sitting across from me had poked his way through the wineshop’s crowd and come to a stop in front of my table. Right away, I’d noticed something different about him. He was middle-aged, with the thinning pate and speckled gray to prove it. The skin of his face was pale from lack of sun and his smooth and uncalloused hands marked him as a scrivener or scholar. Neither profession earned enough to cover my fee, so if he’d come here to discuss business, I expected our conversation would be short. But then he’d introduced himself. He said his name was Father Kem, here as a representative of a church whose name I promptly forgot. A holy man, come to see me? Abnormal indeed, especially since he’d arrived incognito, in attire more befitting any ordinary citizen than a priest. Briefly, I wondered if he’d come to absolve me of my sins. No such luck. He was here to add to them.

“We wish you to dispatch a man…who is already dead.”

Narrowing my gaze in confusion, I hoped another sip of wine might help enlighten me. It did not. “You want me to do what?”

Kem’s lips turned in a brief smile. “I understand how it sounds. But, I assure you, the request is genuine, as is the proposed payment. The man you are to, ah, kill, is—was—named Ashunde Roe. He was a bishop amongst our clergy before he met his end. That end, as you might imagine, is of considerable importance, for Bishop Roe was purged.”

That was the clergy’s way of saying he’d been burned alive. It was a fate reserved for the worst of sinners: dark witches, demon-mongers, necromancers, and probably some others I didn’t want to know about.

“Ashunde strayed from our ranks,” Kem said. “We caught him delving into the debaucheries of necromancy.”

Ah, necromancy. I spent my nights sending people to their graves. Necromancers spent theirs raising them. A vicious cycle by anyone’s measure.

“You’ll have to excuse me,” I said, “but I still don’t see why you require my services. If the man has been reduced to ashes, what more can I do to him?”

Kem took a drink of his wine. In my experience, a man’s choice of beverage told a tale all its own. Father Kem had ordered a serviceable merlot, nothing fancy, but a vintage some considered an exotic import of sorts, for it made its way to Alchester from distant lands only once every few years. The story the red told about Father Kem was of a man who sought worldliness, yet a streak of conservatism impeded that quest by keeping him close to home. In short, Father Kem liked to play it safe, which was nothing unusual as far as most of my clients went. They’d neither the means nor the will to do what I did. Fortunately for them, people like me were always willing to help, for the right price.

“If only the story ended there,” he said, “then we’d not be having this conversation at all. I assure you, though, I am not wasting your time. We have it on good authority that, tonight, when the clock strikes midnight, Ashunde will rise from the dead. When this happens, we wish you to use this to kill him, once and for all.”

He slid something long and narrow, and wrapped in vellum, across the table. Once I’d picked it up, I knew immediately by its shape and balance that it was a knife. But something about the weight didn’t feel right. I undid part of the covering. It was indeed a knife, but one made of purest silver. Not the best choice of metals for a killing weapon. I told him so.

“The blade is blessed, imbued with the power of our god. Made as it is, it is proof against the undead, and will banish Ashunde the moment he rises.”

That sounded well and fine, but I still felt like I was missing something. “If he’s ashes, why not just scatter them?” Hard to come back from that, or so I imagined.

Kem shifted in his seat. Lights in the room, already dim, seemed to grow darker, and the murmur of conversation hanging over the room melted away, as I leaned in to hear the good father’s whispered voice. “We erred when we performed the purging ceremony. Not with the procedure itself, mind you, but in doing it in the first place. You see, Ashunde secretly wanted his body reduced to ashes by holy fire so that he could be born anew as a particularly evil sort of undead: a vashu. It took us many long nights deciphering books from his private chambers before we realized we’d stepped right into his trap. We—I—came to you the moment we realized there was no time to lose.”

Normally, this far into a conversation, I’d have already arranged a transfer of funds and started planning the job in my mind. But, like Kem had said, this job was anything but normal. Which meant I’d keep asking questions until I felt comfortable with it. “Why me? Surely one of your own—a holy knight, perhaps—would be better suited?”

Kem frowned. “Knights are not so easy to find on such short notice. Others—bravados—could not be relied upon to remain discreet. As I am sure you can imagine, if word spread amongst the populace that one of our own practiced the dark art… It’s a scandal we’d just as soon avoid.”

“Then why not just go yourself?”

The suggestion set him squirming in his seat. “My particular skills… That is, my talents do not lie…” He left off, searching for words.

He was confirming what the merlot had already told me. I waved away any need for further explanation. “You were saying about why scattering the ashes wouldn’t work?”

“After the purging, we placed Ashunde’s ashes in an urn before the altar of our god, where they could bask beneath his glory. Scattering them would have been the final step in the ritual, and surely would have ended this trial then and there. But the urn and its contents were…stolen. The thief was an associate of Ashunde’s, a man named Hesul, who we discovered was one of our very own temple gardeners. It was only because he remained lurking about that we caught him at all, but by then he’d already secreted away the urn. After some convincing, he told us where he’d taken it: to an empty crypt inside the Aikon Cemetery.”

“So I only need to go to this cemetery, locate the urn, and scatter—”

“Scattering the ashes will not work.”

I tapped my fingers, waiting for an explanation.

“It seems Hesul added a bit of lime and some water to the urn. After some stirring, Ashunde’s ashes would have become a very hardened—”

“Concrete.” Clever.

“Yes. Now you see why scattering the ashes is quite impossible.”

I gestured with the vellum-wrapped knife. “Maybe you should have brought me a silver hammer?”

The priest ignored that. “The job, then, is for you to enter the cemetery, locate the crypt, then drive the blessed weapon into the risen apparition’s undead heart. Or the proximity of it, anyway. Do you accept?”

I wanted to say no. I almost did. But I needed the work, and, more importantly, the money. My last job, which had been some time ago, had not gone well. I’d exercised leniency; my reputation had suffered for it. Time heals all wounds, though, and made people forget, so I only needed to hold out for a little while longer before I was regarded as trustworthy again. This job, while not exactly what I wanted, was at least what I needed.

“Yes,” I said, “but I want triple my normal rate. Abnormal jobs require abnormal fees.”

Kem pursed his lips at that. But he thought it over and finally nodded his agreement.

“But there is one thing you should know.” Father Kem took a deep breath, and then he said without pause, “While the church has come to you in this time of need, do not misconstrue our intentions. A man such as yourself… That is, a man who makes his living taking the lives of others, will never receive absolution. It is only because this task does not involve killing per se, that my superiors allowed me to move forward with this at all. All this being said, should you choose to cancel our arrangement, then I will understand completely.”

I shrugged off his words. “Don’t trouble yourself over my soul, Father. I made peace with what I do a long time ago, and have no trouble with where I’m heading once I leave this life behind. Now, about my payment…”

We made the necessary arrangements—half now via a bank note slipped across the table and half when the job was done—before Kem gave me directions to the cemetery and, once there, the crypt. The priest was barely out the wineshop’s door when I got up to follow in his wake.

I had a dead man to kill.

* * *

I’d never been in a cemetery before. Right away, the place gave me the creeps. Cold, silent, and dark as pitch. No moon tonight. I didn’t know if that was good or bad. Not a night for witches, at least, since they did their best work under full moonlight. I hoped the same could be said for necromancers.

Kem’s directions—or, rather, Hesul’s—proved true, and so I found the crypt quickly enough. It was grey granite, with large, stone doors and gargoyles at the edges of a peaked roof. I’d barely had time to approach the place when a voice sounded behind me.

“You ain’t no priest.”

I turned to find myself facing three men. They were rough looking, unshaven, with thick arms and shoulders. All three of them carried thick sticks, labeling them more hired thugs than undertakers.

With the crypt at my back, they had me ringed in, or so they thought. If they had pressed their advantage right there, they might have had a chance. But they hesitated, no doubt because the man’s statement had been correct. While my clothing was the right shade of black for a priest, my tunic, tight-fitting pants, and hooded cloak were not the attire of a holy man.

Neither were my weapons.

I drew my long knives—each a foot and a half of curved, razor sharp steel with serrated back edges—and went for the smallest of the three. I wasn’t interested in ending him, only getting by, so I bloodied him with a cut deep enough to give him pause, but not enough to do any serious harm. He hollered in pain and moved in such a way that a gap opened before me. Before the other two could close it, I leapt through and ran.

Though I slipped into the dark almost immediately, they pursued anyway, the wounded one all the while barking a verbal litany that made it easy to gauge my progress, as I worked my way around them and back to the crypt.

The doors were heavy, but I put a shoulder to one and just managed to open a space wide enough to slip inside. I shook an alchemical glow-stick to life, seeing right away that dust on the floor was undisturbed from the entry all the way to the three sarcophagi resting inside. No one had been here in a very long time. I exited the crypt, leaving the cemetery with the thugs none the wiser.

Those men hadn’t been guarding the crypt. They were waiting in ambush. Waiting for a priest. I had a pretty good idea which one, too, as well as some theories as to why. But they were just theories, and I’d half a mind to void what obligation remained to me right then and there. Assuming Kem didn’t cancel the bank note, I already had half the money for a job that looked less and less like a killing, and more like something else. I’d been hired for the former, not the latter. But another unfinished job meant another mark against my reputation. I pretended to think about it some more, but really I’d already made up my mind. Father Kem and I were going to have another conversation about the abnormal.

* * *

Finding Father Kem’s temple proved easy enough. Getting over the short wall surrounding the gardens, even easier. But locating the priest… That was another matter entirely. The temple grounds were immense. Fortunately, the late hour allowed me to prowl about undisturbed. I found the rectory and promptly shimmied up a drainage pipe to the roof. Picking an access door’s lock, I soon padded through the dimly lit halls of the building’s interior. The sound of a conversation coming from behind a closed door gave me pause. No sooner had I drawn close enough to eavesdrop when the door opened and out came the very man I sought.

He never even glanced in my direction, but started down the hall the opposite way. I followed, keeping a discrete distance at first, but creeping closer until I was nearly on top of him. Then I grabbed him from behind. With a gloved hand covering his mouth, I put him against the wall and let him see it was me. Slowly, I withdrew my hand so that he could speak. He probably would have were my knife not at his throat. I hadn’t come to kill him, though. Only to get answers. But he didn’t need to know that just yet.

“There were no ashes in the crypt,” I said. “There was nothing, except for a trio of hired thugs waiting for a priest, though I think they would have been perfectly happy bashing my head in instead if I’d let them.”

Kem took a moment to digest what I’d said. Gradually, as he realized I wasn’t going to kill him, and as my words sank further in, the wide-eyed look of fear began to fade from his visage. “Hesul lied. It’s the only explanation.”

“Yes.” I wasn’t entirely sure Kem hadn’t set me up until that moment. Something in his voice told me he hadn’t. “The question is why.”

“I—I don’t know.”

“I think I do.” I’d worked it out on the way over. “Hesul told you about the crypt assuming you’d be the one to go after the ashes. He hired those men prior to that, telling them where and when to wait for you.”

“But…why?”

“That depends. Tell me, how did you find out about Ashunde?”

“He tried to recruit me to his cause. I’d been working beneath him for some time. I never even suspected… Perhaps something I said during one of our conversations made him think I might be sympathetic. I was not. I turned him in.”

“I see.” That explained a lot. “Hesul was acting in his stead, seeking revenge and…”

“And?”

“Those men were armed with clubs, not knives. Maybe they meant to beat you to death, or maybe they only wanted to hit you over the head and take you captive. Either way, I think we need to pay Hesul a visit. You haven’t purged him yet, have you?”

Kem flashed me a look of admonishment. “We only purge the truly evil. Hesul is alive and well. We locked him downstairs in a kitchen storeroom. In fact, I had just finished reporting to my superior and was on my way to check on him when you waylaid me.”

“Well then, by all means, allow me to delay you no longer.”

I followed Father Kem to the rectory’s kitchen, down a narrow stair, and to the storeroom. One look inside was enough to see that things were amiss, for Hesul was gone.

“Where would he have…?” Kem started to ask. “Perhaps to the cemetery?”

“No. The ashes weren’t there. You said they were stolen and that you found Hesul not long after. How long?”

Kem thought a moment. “Not very. We placed the urn before our god’s altar at three bells. It was noticed missing half a bell after that. We found Hesul lurking behind the chapel almost immediately thereafter.”

That gave him maybe forty minutes to mix the ashes into concrete and carry them somewhere before coming back to be caught. Halving the time to accommodate for the return trip and taking away some more for the mixing, how far could he have gotten in ten or fifteen minutes? Not far. Probably not even past the temple walls. I told Kem as much. The priest’s expression became one of annoyance, directed wholly at himself for believing the man’s story in the first place.

“You said Hesul was a gardener, right?”

Kem nodded.

“Is there a tool or supply shed somewhere on the grounds?” I was thinking of the lime.

Kem’s face lit up. So was he. “All of the gardening supplies are stored in the stables.”

“Then I’ll bet that’s where he took the ashes. He may even be there now.”

Kem told me where to find the stables. Immediately, I made for the stairs. The priest looked like he meant to follow, until I turned and told him to wait here. He didn’t protest. If anything, he looked relieved.

I turned back to the stairs and dashed up them. I’d a job to finish.

* * *

But for the usual horses and priestly carriages, the stables were empty. I even found the alcove where the gardening tools and supplies were kept. But there was no Hesul and no urn. Then I heard the sounds of voices coming from…beneath me? I started looking for a way down. There were no obvious stairs, but, in one of the empty stalls, I noticed enough of a disturbance in the otherwise matted hay to raise suspicions. Closer examination revealed a door set into the floor.

I tightened my gloves and took a deep breath. Then I lifted the door and, seeing the ladder I expected, slid down it with only the instep of my boots and a loose grip with my hands to slow my descent. The second I hit the floor, I drew my long knives.

“You are not Kem,” said a man who must be Hesul. Fancying himself a clergyman of sorts, he wore a nondescript habit and an expression that spoke of the harm he meant anyone who meant to interfere with whatever he was doing down here.

Hesul was not alone. I recognized the three bruisers from the cemetery. Not just thugs, after all. All four of them stood at the other side of a circle that was carved into the stone floor. Runes lined the circle’s circumference. At its center was the urn containing the hardened ashes of Ashunde.

Hesul spoke. “Our master wanted Kem as his first sacrifice, but no matter. The time of rising is nigh, and you shall do.”

I was flattered.

“Take him!”

With clubs in hand, the three bruisers, mindful of not crossing into the circle, ran around it and came at me.

I wasn’t nearly so careful. With long knives ready, I charged right into the middle of the circle and—wincing even before my soft-shoed foot had hit it—kicked the urn as hard as I could. I was hoping Hesul had lied about cementing the ashes. He had not. Kicking the urn hurt about as much as I expected it might, but it also had the intended effect.

Hesul’s eyes went wide as it clattered across the floor, end over end. Though the top fell off, nothing but a small amount of dust came out. The clanking urn distracted the other three enough that I was amongst them before they knew what happened. This time, I showed no mercy. I dropped the first one with a slash to the throat. The next, I gutted. The third had enough time to raise his club, but that was all, before I slashed his belly open. As he fell, I opened a chasm in his neck. He wasn’t dead when he hit the floor, but he didn’t last long past that.

Hesul had spent the time chasing the urn, as it bounced off a stack of dusty old crates and settled into a corner. Now, with the urn secured with both hands, he turned to face me. “You will not stop my master! It has been ordained that he shall rise this night of all nights! Nothing—not you, not the priests—will prevent that from happening! We shall be reunited! I need only invoke the ritual and he shall be born anew!”

In my experience, there are two problems with zealots. The first is they don’t know when to shut up. The second is they think they’re invincible.

Exchanging one of my long knives for one more suited for throwing, I let the knife fly. Hesul’s diatribe became a choking gurgle as blood spurted from his throat. The urn clattered to the floor. Hesul followed, twitching and choking, until, finally, he didn’t make any noise at all.

I retrieved my knife and, before leaving, kicked the urn one more time, just for good measure.

* * *

Father Kem waited outside the back door to the rectory’s kitchen. Though his face grew curious at my limp, he only asked, “It’s done, then?”

“Neither Hesul nor Ashunde will bother you again.” I told him about the hidden room beneath the barn and, after a moment’s hesitation, about the bodies. I’d killed men on holy ground, and while I couldn’t fall further from the damnation I already faced, I did find myself oddly concerned with what regard the good father might have for what I’d done.

“There was no other way?” he asked.

“None.” When it’s life or death, I put my opponents down…for good. Such a policy has yet to fail me.

Though Kem turned a shade whiter, he nodded in understanding. He and his fellow clergyman were not wholly unfamiliar with killing, after all. I remembered the silver knife, and held it out to him. If this night held any good whatsoever, it was that things hadn’t gotten so bad I’d had to use it. Kem took it without comment.

There wasn’t much more to say, and we would have parted company right then, had I not asked, “When you gave me that speech back in the wineshop about absolution, were you speaking solely for the church or for yourself? I’m only asking because you said the idea to approach me was your own.”

I’d said I didn’t care about facing damnation. What can I say? I did.

“As a holy servant of my god and church,” Father Kem said, “my word is always representative of…” He stopped, sparing me the remainder of his practiced doctrine. Then he sighed. “The church oftentimes takes a hard stance against men such as yourself. But my own thoughts… I think all men deserve a chance to make amends.”

It was enough for me.

“G’night, Father.”

I turned and walked into the dark, wondering if I’d taken one step closer to perdition this night, or one step back.

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