Killing the Dead is the second story in my "assassin without a name" series. The first is Fine Wine, available to read for free.
"I am authorized to offer you double your normal rate because this job is a bit... abnormal."
I put my wine glass down, letting the smoothness of the '74 Crusus Sabeler slide down my throat and settle in my stomach before I responded. "Abnormal... how?"
I'd been enjoying a bottle of the shiraz when I saw the man poke his way through the wineshop's front door. That he was looking for me, I'd no doubt, for after a quick scan of the room's interior he headed straight for my table, asked my permission to sit, then did so. Right away, I saw that there was something different about this gent. He was middle-aged, with the thinning pate and speckled gray to prove it. The skin of his face was white from lack of sun and he had the smooth and uncalloused hands of a scrivener or a scholar. Neither profession earned enough to cover my fee. I was about to tell him so when he 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 was right.
He'd arrived incognito, dressed in a white tailored shirt, embroidered vest, and plain trousers. Despite the lack of a cassock, I wondered for a brief moment if he was here 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."
I narrowed my gaze at that, taking another sip of my wine and hoping it would make the words replaying in my mind clearer. It did not. "You want me to do what?"
Kem's lips turned in a brief smile. "I understand you may think me cracked. But, I assure you, the request is genuine, as is the proposed fee. 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 experienced by only 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. "He was caught delving into the debaucheries of necromancy."
Ah, necromancy. I spent my time sending people to their graves. Necromancers spent their time raising them. A vicious cycle by anyone's measure.
"You'll excuse me," I said, "but I still do not see why you require my services. If the man has been reduced to ashes, what more can I do to him?"
Kem took a moment to sip from his own wine glass. In my experience, a man’s choice of drink 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 our fair city 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 and kept him close to home. In short, Father Kem was a man who played it safe.
"If only the story ended there," he said, "then we'd not be having this conversation at all. I assure you, though: I do not waste 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 a long, narrow something wrapped in vellum across the table. Picking it up with one hand, I immediately knew by its shape and balance that it was a long knife or similar weapon. But there was something about the weight... I undid part of the covering to see that 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... was I missing something? "If he's ashes, why not just scatter them?" Hard to come back from anything when you were scattered to the Four Winds, or so I imagined.
Kem shifted in his seat. Lights in the room, already dim, seemed to go darker, and the murmur of conversation hanging about 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 this, to be reduced to ashes by holy fire so that he might be born anew as a particularly evil sort of undead. A vashu, this creature is called. 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 already have 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 at that. "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 was practicing the dark art... Well, it is 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 Lord 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 then I need only 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—"
"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 a while ago now that I thought about it, had not gone well. I'd exercised leniency; my reputation had suffered for it. Time heals all wounds, though, and made people forget, too, and 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 a moment and then agreed.
"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 have absolution granted unto himself. 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 may have thought at first that the man was here to offer me absolution, but that doesn't mean I was expecting it. "Do not trouble yourself over my soul, Father. What I do... I made peace with it long ago, and have no trouble with where I'll be going when 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 to 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; 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. The one in the center held a gas lantern that he must have had hooded, else I would have seen its light sooner. All three of them carried thick sticks which labeled 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 both dagger and knife—not the silver one given to me by Father Kem but my killing blade—and went for the smallest of the three. I wasn't interested in ending him, only getting by, and 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 next nearest could close it, I leapt through and ran.
Though I slipped into the dark almost immediately, they pursued, the wounded one all the while barking a verbal litany at my back. The louder he yelled, the easier it was for me to work 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 for me to slip inside. I flicked my gas lighter 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, restored the door to the closed position, and left 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, 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 was easy enough. Getting over the short wall surrounding the gardens was even easier. But locating the priest... that was another matter entirely. The temple grounds were immense. Fortunately, it was late enough that I was able to prowl quickly and undisturbed. I found the rectory and promptly shimmied up a drainage pipe to the roof. Picking a locked access door, I was soon padding through the dimly lit halls of the building's interior. The sound of a conversation coming from behind a closed door gave me pause, and no sooner had I drawn close enough to eavesdrop when the door opened and out came the very man for which I'd been looking.
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 up 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 seek 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 outright, 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 he 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 dispose of the ashes. He hired those men prior to that, telling them where and when to wait for you."
"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..."
"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 in a storeroom downstairs. 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 gave him a half-bow to which he returned an expression only half-perturbed.
I followed Father Kem to the rectory's kitchen, down a narrow stair, and to the storeroom. One look inside was all either of us needed to see that things were amiss, for Hesul was gone.
"Where would he have...," Kem said. "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 Lord'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 having believed the man's story in the first place.
"You said Hesul was a gardener, right?"
"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, and himself."
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.
The stables were empty but for the usual horses and priestly carriages. 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 killing knife and dagger, then spun around.
"You are not Kem," said the one who must be Hesul. Fancying himself a clergyman of sorts, he wore a non-descript habit and an expression on his face that spoke of the harm he meant me… or Kem, since it was he who he'd been expecting. Clearly, Hesul gave Father Kem more credit for his daring than he deserved.
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 and rimmed with runes. At the center of the circle was an urn I felt quite confident held 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.
The three bruisers—still armed with their clubs—began moving around the summoning circle, mindful of not crossing its lines.
I wasn't nearly so careful. With my knife in one hand and my dagger in the other, I charged right into the middle of it and—wincing even before my soft-shoed foot had hit the urn—kicked it 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 was happening. This time, I showed no mercy. I dropped the first one with a slash to the throat. The next, I gutted with my dagger. The third had enough time to raise his club, but that was all. I slashed his belly open, then, as he fell, 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 which had bounced off a stack of dusty old crates and settled into a corner. Now, with the urn secured in 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 that they just don't know when to shut up. I let the idiot blather on, waiting for that last statement: Ashunde wasn't going to spontaneously rise from the dead without help from someone else. That was good to know.
The second problem with zealots is that they thought they were invincible.
I flipped my knife in my hand, then let it fly. Hesul's diatribe became a choking gurgle as blood spurted from his throat. The urn clattered to the floor. Hesul followed it there, 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 was waiting 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 be bothering 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. It was a policy that had kept me alive up to this point.
Though Kem had turned a shade whiter, he gave me a nod of understanding. He and his fellow clergyman were not wholly unfamiliar with killing after all, I reminded myself.
I remembered the silver knife, and held it out to him. If this night held any good at all, it was that I had not had to use it. Kem took it without comment.
There wasn't much more to say, and we would have parted company then had I not asked, "When you gave me that speech back in the winehouse about absolution, were you speaking solely for the church or for yourself? I only ask 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.
I turned and walked into the dark, wondering if I'd taken one step closer to perdition this night, or one step back.