Extract from Richard A. Knaak's BLACK CITY SAINT


Thanks to the generosity of the folks at Pyr, here's an extract from Richard A. Knaak's Black City Saint. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.

Here's the blurb:

For more than sixteen hundred years, Nick Medea has followed and guarded the Gate that keeps the mortal realm and that of Feirie separate, seeking in vain absolution for the fatal errors he made when he slew the dragon. All that while, he has tried and failed to keep the woman he loves from dying over and over.

Yet in the fifty years since the Night the Dragon Breathed over the city of Chicago, the Gate has not only remained fixed, but open to the trespasses of the Wyld, the darkest of the Feiriefolk. Not only does that mean an evil resurrected from Nick’s own past, but the reincarnation of his lost Cleolinda, a reincarnation destined once more to die.

Nick must turn inward to that which he distrusts the most: the Dragon, the beast he slew when he was still only Saint George. He must turn to the monster residing in him, now a part of him…but ever seeking escape.

The gang war brewing between Prohibition bootleggers may be the least of his concerns. If Nick cannot prevent an old evil from opening the way between realms…then not only might Chicago face a fate worse than the Great Fire, but so will the rest of the mortal realm.

Enjoy!
------------------------------------------

The old, black Model T touring car rumbling past the lone street lamp across from her house had seen better days, but it served the needs of the two young, gaily dressed couples heading toward the sounds of jazz in the distance. My client grumbled under her breath in German as a girl with dark, bobbed hair, obviously seeking her best to look like the actress Colleen Moore, leaned well out the back and waved our—or rather my—direction. With a glare at me, her beau snatched her back inside, and the jalopy continued on into the darkness.

“Noisy heap,” muttered a voice that fortunately the woman before me didn’t hear over the fading rattle of the Model T’s engine.

Instead, her mood already sour, my client peered down at the beast beside me, her dubious expression one that greeted Fetch often. “What is that?”

“Part greyhound, part wolf,” I answered. Not true, but with Fetch the best possible description for an impossible creature. Tongue lolling, Fetch sat. He wagged his tail, but none of his attempts set the woman at ease.

It was not exactly his fault, either. WeI—would not be here if her life had been as that of most people in Chicago. Difficult enough to deal with the trials and tribulations of dwelling in a city where the bootleggers of the North and South Sides were actively at war over territory, but to have one’s sanity questioned by neighbors . . .

Full of build, her sixty years marked by deep lines all over her face, it was easy to read in her eyes her frustration, not at the flapper and her friends, but rather at this latest intrusion into her home, which I represented. By this time, she had had at least two, likely three visitations by those claiming to be able to rid her of her “problem.” Psychics. Fortune tellers. Mediums. Charlatans who were all the rage these days. I understood full well that most, if not all, had left cheerfully, believing that they had made a good dollar off her paranoia.

But I knew better. Her distress could not have been a symptom of her imagination if she had finally seen the advertisement. No one saw the advertisement if they had not been touched by something from the shadow folk.

The woman frowned. It was clear that I did not look like her idea of the sort to solve her particular problem. My appearance was that of a clean-shaven man perhaps forty, no more and maybe something less, with short flaxen hair and a face with hints of a Mediterranean background that had initially likely raised a bit of concern I might have blood ties to Big Al’s mob. If she paid close attention to my eyes, she might see them as sea blue . . . or perhaps frost green. I chose not to let her stare at them for too long.

I was clad in a presentable suit and wore a long brown coat that well-matched the sudden turn in the late September weather. I had purposely left the coat open so that she would see I carried no weapon—or, rather, that I carried no visible weapon.

Evidently finding nothing in me that made her too uneasy, she said, “All right, Mr. Medea. You can come in, but that stays outside. My little ones won’t tolerate him.”

Fetch wagged his tail harder. He loved cats. They were his favorite meals when I did not keep him under a tight rein.

“He won’t come in with me, Mrs. Hauptmann.”

She squinted past us to the street. She was looking for a vehicle, especially one not suitable to be in front of her home, despite the fact that the neighborhood itself was clearly not what it had once been. Now the area, including Hudson Street, was becoming popular with a more flamboyant and raucous crowd, of which flappers were only the latest and in many ways least shocking members. However, there were still those like my client who held on tightly to their ways and their memories.

“As promised, discretion,” I said. It was one thing for wild youngsters to go barreling past, another for a stranger’s car to be in front of a widow’s house, even if only for business.

She pointed at the small black case in my right hand. “That all?”

“That’s all.”

“The last bunch, they toted in enough machinery to double my electric bill. Made quite a scene, too. I almost didn’t call you because of them.”

“They didn’t know what they were doing.”

Mrs. Hauptmann cocked her head to the side, the first sign that I had gained some approval. “True enough.” She stepped aside. “Please come in.”

Her tone gave some hint that I should hurry. I indicated to Fetch that he should lie down. Tongue still lolling, he obeyed like any welltrained dog, which he wasn’t.

The house looked to be well over sixty years old but renovated maybe twenty years ago, just after the turn of the century. There were a few hints of where the old gas lamps had hung, but whoever had installed the electric lines had done a good job overall. In addition, the crisp, clean interior—despite the three cats already coming to investigate the newcomer—spoke of the old German work ethic that the first settlers in this area had brought with them and that Mrs. Hauptmann vigorously maintained.

“Not allergic are you?” she asked, as two of the cats rubbed against my leg.

“No. I’ve had cats before myself.”

I went up in her estimation again. “They like you. They didn’t like the last men.”

There was a sitting room downstairs that looked as if it had not changed since the house was built. The furniture was old but wellcrafted and well-kept. The only recent addition was a wide, illuminated radio quietly set to WGN. The news announcer was about a bust at a speakeasy on the South Side. Someone had obviously not paid off enough local officials or else that wouldn’t have happened. Liquor flowed well in Chicago despite Prohibition, maybe even more so because of it.

“My Opa—my grandfather—came to this area with his family back in the Migration,” Mrs. Hauptmann informed me, as if everyone should know about the German Catholics who settled in the region in the decade or so before the Civil War. As it happened, I did know. “My father—he was Opa’s youngest—he moved us out about fortyfive years ago to a place more north, but I always wanted to come back.”

“Was this your family’s home?”

“No, that’s gone. But this one’s close enough. When things got better here for a while, I wanted to come back to the neighborhood. My husband and I bought it, then he died shortly after.”

“I’m sorry.”

She gave a slight nod. “Basement’s through that door there on the right. Kitchen’s in back. Three bedrooms on the second floor.” She paused. “Attic entrance is in the hall between them.”

Of course, the attic was the focal point. Shadows and deep corners. Places to hide from the sun, from the mortal world. The basement might have been another choice, but I’d expected the attic in this case. “I saw one window up front. Are there others?”

“One in the back. They’ve been sealed tight for years. Since before my husband passed—and don’t go telling me it’s him haunting this place. Some verrückt woman carrying around a glass ball kept insisting it was him, but what she described wasn’t my Klaus!”

I simply nodded agreement. “Will you be leaving?”

“Certainly not.” She crossed her arms tight to emphasize the fact that she would not let any stranger wander about her home without her being nearby.

I had assumed her answer already. “I must ask you to remain in one room on the first floor, then. Either the sitting room, or the kitchen, perhaps.”

“I’ll be in the sitting room, reading.” Mrs. Hauptmann gave me one last survey. “And I’ll be listening.”

She guided me upstairs, which consisted of three bedrooms and a bath. The ceiling door to the attic came into sight even before we reached the second floor. A metal cord hung from the door.

Before pulling the ladder down, I looked around my feet. The cats had stayed on the first floor.

“They won’t come up here at all lately,” Mrs. Hauptmann murmured, for the first time her stolid appearance crumbling. “I’ve come to sleeping in the sitting room more and more.”

“Tell me again what you’ve noticed.” I already knew what I now felt, and that gave me a much better understanding. Still, there might be another detail the woman had missed in our earlier conversation.

“It’s just a sensation . . . a feeling that something is creeping around, waiting, getting stronger.” Her gaze drifted off to the left and her tone grew softer. “This house was just out of the path of the Great Fire and so survived, Mr. Medea, but a lot of other things—and people—didn’t. Maybe it’s some of those lost souls. . . .”

I did not dispute her romantic notion of ghosts. It was not entirely wrong, but hardly right. Besides, what she sensed was no simple spirit. It had all the signs of something from the realm of the shadow folk . . . and that in itself was not a good sign.

That the woman could feel its presence marked her and explained why whatever it was had chosen her residence. The shadow folk were drawn to the things in this world that still had a touch of their old one. It was also the reason why she had not yet been taken by it. Through Mrs. Hauptmann, it was actually drawing strength from the other side.

Of course, before long, it would be strong enough to desire a more powerful conduit . . . and then it would deal with her.

“You lost two cats?”

Again, her facade cracked. “I even went up there and looked for them, but there was nothing.” She steeled herself. “I know those men and that woman before them thought I was some dithering old woman with too much of an imagination, but they took my money regardless! Psychics, my—” Mrs. Hauptmann caught herself, instead finishing with, “I expect better from you, Mr. Medea.”

I did not need a watch to know that it was near midnight. That had no significance for this situation save that night in general was best for what I hunted, but, like many people, Mrs. Hauptmann believed well in the witching hour, and that was to my benefit. “Then, I’d best go up there.”

“It’ll be done with tonight?” Her voice quivered suddenly.

“Either there is nothing up there or there will not be when I’m through.” A simplistic reply, but it satisfied her.

“I’ll be waiting.”

I hesitated until she had descended, then pulled down the door and the ladder. A deep darkness greeted me from above. I looked around, found the switch for the attic that someone had installed in the hallway during some more recent renovation, then flicked it. To my surprise, the room above lit up.

Case in hand, I climbed up. A musty scent greeted me, as did another, more subtle odor. The cats would have noted it and been repelled. It was the distinctive smell of death caused by the shadow folk, a mix of decay, fear, and old magic.

Eye would see . . .

The voice came as a hiss in my head, a low, insistent echo. Not yet.

A sense of resentment flowed next, but I had dealt with it so long that it barely touched my thoughts. I turned my attention back to more immediate matters. The dweller was near, even though nothing yet was visible.

I glanced behind me at the window at the front of the house, then the one at the back. I could see only the top half of the second window, dusty boxes stacked up against the wall obscuring the lower part. The single bulb high above created small shadows here and there, but nothing that gave a hint as to my quarry.

I put down the case, then pulled the ladder up. The attached door slammed shut.

The light flickered out.

My hand was already within my coat. My heart pounded faster and a sweat spread across my forehead. I could see nothing, but I sensed something . . . everywhere. It closed in around me, seeking to emotionally crush my mind and rip apart my soul.

Now at last I understood what was hiding in the attic, feeding slowly, building up its strength. But to fight it, I had to see it.

Eye can show us . . .

He was aware that I would have turned to him for this, anyway, but it was a reminder to me that while I held sway over him, I could not do without him. Having a far more imminent situation with which to deal, I simply replied Show us . . .

The world erupted into a glittering scene of emerald green.

In what had been a tiny shadow to the right of the backyard window, a thing the size of a man but more like an arachnid, with too many limbs that ended in almost human hands, perched several feet above the floor. It glared at me with three orbs pale as bone and clacked a sharp beak together in both astonishment and rage that it could be seen despite its cover of darkness.

And perhaps what set the creature off a bit more was that it in turn could see the transformation of my own eyes from those of a recognized prey to something more narrow, more reptilian, more ancient.

More the predator than even it.

The sensation of fear and despair struck me harder, but faded immediately. I knew the emotions for what they were—false emanations.

My hand slipped free of my coat, bearing in it a small blade. Blessed in Constantinople well over a thousand years ago, the silvertipped dagger had never failed me.

The shadow creature paid scant attention to the dagger, more inclined toward the case. From its mouth, strands of blackness shot forth and seized the black bag. Having no doubt observed my predecessors—and laughing at their inability to notice it in the least—the dweller assumed that anything of true value against it would be contained within.

That was as I had intended.

I dove in toward the shadow as the tendrils pulled in the case. The dagger cut into the darkness, severing it as if it were truly of the mortal world.

The arachnid hissed. Words in a tongue older than man spilled through my thoughts, a curse cast upon me. It had as much effect as the fear but for a different reason. I was already cursed in a far more terrible way.

I swung for the pale orbs, the least protected part of this shadow folk. It was not one of the Wyld, but it was still a powerful enough being, especially after having built up its energies for so long. I suspected that the cats Mrs. Hauptmann could not find had only been a part of its diet and that there was a lack of birds, mice, and other small creatures in the vicinity of the house. The dweller did not have to leave its lair to draw to it those most susceptible to its magic.

The “hands” reached for me as I neared. The dweller intended to take advantage of my drawing toward it to engulf me. It sensed that the purity of the dagger, while anathema to it, would require me to bury the weapon deep more than once if I was to kill it before it tore me apart. I knew that it also could sense no other such dangerous weapons on my person. The case had been forgotten, too, the contents radiating no blessing or magic that might harm it.

I retreated from the grasping appendages. The tendrils of darkness shot forth, but again the dagger severed them before they could touch me. The shadow dweller scuttled forward, both of us aware that not only was the ladder door too cumbersome a thing to lower before the creature could reach me, but that the one window I could reach was too narrow for me to fit through.

Neither of us awaited Mrs. Hauptmann’s frantic rush to see what all the noise was above her. No sound escaped the attic, an early precaution set in place by the dweller when it had chosen this lair. I had assumed such a spell even before arriving at the house. In the deadly world of Her Lady’s Court, even a fiend so lowly as this would have to have skill at hiding its presence if it hoped to survive and thrive there. And in the comparably magic-depleted mortal world, that was doubly true.

The dweller had noted my difference from the start and had calculated that remaining obscured would not be sufficient. The more I felt of its power, the more I was aware that it had already nearly grown strong enough, anyway. Mrs. Hauptmann probably would have “vanished” within a few more days had she not become aware of the advertisement.

And if I did not stop the shadow creature now, she still might be its final meal before it departed for a better lair. Of course, that would also be after it finished me.

I switched my grip and threw the blade. It soared past four grasping appendages and struck the middle orb exactly. As the dweller hissed in pain, a foul, greenish substance spilled from the ruined orb.

Enraged, the fiend threw itself at me.

Eye can help! the voice ever in my head bellowed. Set me free!

I ignored his demand, aware that I might never be able to regain control if I did as he bade. I had planned exactly for these circumstances, and only one thing thus far—a significant one thing—threatened to unravel all my intentions and leave me—us—to suffer a grisly fate.

From behind my foe there came the crashing of glass.

The last piece fell into place . . . and Fetch landed atop the shadow dweller.

Fetch opened his mouth and from it dropped a silver medallion. I had had it with me since Silene, since the beginning of my curse, and although it could not cut, its very creation and blessing made it burn into the fiend as a hot coal tossed upon a patch of ice.

The hiss grew shrill. The shadow dweller reared back, tossing Fetch into the stack of boxes and sending the medallion tumbling to the side. The fiend sizzled wherever the relic touched.

“Be damned!” Fetch growled, as he vanished among Mrs. Hauptmann’s forgotten possessions. The curse was followed by a whine as the boxes fell upon him.

As the creature rose above me, I drew a second weapon from beneath my coat. It glowed a sinister crimson and, as I pulled it free, it became a sword with jagged edges and stones in the gold hilt that looked as if pieces of the moon had been taken to make them.

That the sword had escaped the monster’s notice was not due to any mishap on its part. It would have taken one of the greater Wyld to sense the gift of Her Lady.

The shadow dweller’s underside was open to me. With the dagger, only the orbs presented a viable target. With the Lady’s sword, however . . . I merely had to swing.

The crimson blade sliced through the fiend without pause, stretching farther than its mere physical presence warranted.

With one last shrill hiss, the monster fell in two pieces. I immediately thrust, not for the portion where the orbs still gleamed, but rather deeper into the base end, where the mind of the shadow dweller truly existed and still survived.

The blade sank into the wiggling abyss. As it did, the blackness adhered to the edge. I turned the sword over and the blackness sank into the blade.

In barely a breath, the sword devoured the latter half of the fiend, swallowing it and briefly leaving the blade’s finish muted. Yet, even as I raised the weapon, the foul brilliance of Her Lady’s gift returned.

A growl brought my attention back to the remnants of the creature. The front end continued to grab for whatever might be before it. The orbs no longer saw and the movements were reflex only, but Fetch, who had at some point extracted himself from the boxes, now snapped at them as he tried to decide which to bite off first.

“Stop playing,” I ordered him, at the same time raising Her Lady’s gift. Fetch growled one last time, then retreated from the vicinity of the sword.

“Mind ye not swing that shiv too wide, Master Nicholas,” he rumbled, well aware that his undoing would be much akin to that of our quarry should the blade so much as scrape him.

I ignored both his warning and his growing use of current slang, the latter seeming to affect Fetch the more he lived on the streets. The sword removed the remaining evidence. I then returned it to my coat, where it vanished into that place outside of both realms until I needed it again.

Fetch circled the area where the shadow dweller had fallen, as if still seeking some sign of the fiend. I retrieved the dagger and the medallion. “Did anyone notice you out there?”

“Ye think if someone’d seen me leapin’ up the back of the house that we’d not be hearin’ sirens by now?”

I expected such an answer, but with Fetch it still paid to ask the question. He was trustworthy for what he was, but that still did not make him entirely truthful at times.

“That turned out to be duck soup,” Fetch remarked, his words readily understandable, even despite his canine maw not designed for speech. This close to me, he was slightly more than a pale reflection of his once-proud self. “Thought it’d put up more a fight . . .”

Duck soup. I fought back a frustrated glare. Fetch had done his part, but I’d been facing the front. The struggle had been short, but hardly duck soup, as he’d put it. “The dweller was not the point of our coming, though its destruction was necessary. Do you smell anything out of the ordinary?”

His nose wrinkled as he tasted the air—and other things. “No trace. Nothin’ to mark who opened the way, Master Nicholas.”

He did not have to call me as he did, but thus was Fetch’s way, even despite his recently found love for the colloquialisms of this decade. I desired mastery over no one, though fate had decreed otherwise.

The bulb abruptly flickered to life. I glanced at the window through which Fetch had arrived. It had not been by chance that he had chosen it for his entrance. Mrs. Hauptmann had been unaware that we had scouted the house before announcing our arrival—ever a necessary precaution. “Best leave now. I’ll meet you out front.”

Without preamble, he wended his way to the broken pane, then leaped outside. I waited a moment, heard nothing, and then retrieved the case I used as a decoy. At the same time, I blinked, returning my eyes to their normal appearance.

You are welcome . . . came the bitter voice within. As ever . . .

I ignored him as best as I always could. Descending from the attic, I was greeted by one of the cats, who energetically rubbed against my leg in what I suspected was gratitude for ridding its home of the menace.

True to her word, Mrs. Hauptmann was in the sitting room, reading. She’d shut off the radio at some point, probably to listen for me. I cleared my throat as I entered. “I’m finished here.”

My client jolted, then quickly recovered her composure. Her gaze narrowed. “You’ve given up?”

“No. I’ve gone over the place thoroughly. There’s nothing up there.”

She frowned. “I promise you, there is!”

“I found nothing. You owe me nothing. If you decide that you want me to try again, we’ll take it from there.”

I had often seen the expression that spread across her face at those words. “I shouldn’t be complaining, but that’s a peculiar way to run a business, Mr. Medea. Very charitable. I’m tired of being thought—what do they call it—a ‘patsy’? Just what are you up to?”

I forced a chuckle at her suspicion, even though she was right to be distrustful. “I mean what I say. However, if after a day or two you feel anything is still wrong, call me and I’ll search again.”

“You sound more like you dealt with something, not just did like the others and tried to prove I was only verrückt—crazy.”

“You’re not crazy, Mrs. Hauptmann.” As if an afterthought, I added, “Oh, some bird must have collided with the back window. I found it broken.”

Mrs. Hauptmann had naturally not heard the crash any more than she had the struggle, so had no reason not to believe my explanation. “I’ll call someone in the morning. Thank you for letting me know.”

The repairman would see that most of the glass was inside the attic. It would look very unlikely that I had anything to do with the damage.

She finally led me out front. Fetch, seeming not to have moved at all since she had last seen him, wagged his tail and looked back and forth from Mrs. Hauptmann and myself.

“Good night,” she muttered, as she closed the door. Her disappointment was obvious, but she would soon realize that her home was clear of the darkness she had felt. By then, if she sought to contact me through the advertisement to let me know, she would find neither any trace of the notice in her home nor any listing in any paper. The magic was thorough in that regard.

Fetch made a noise as if wanting to speak, but I ignored him until we were out of sight, even though the street was deserted. Mrs. Hauptmann would have been surprised to find out that no car awaited us around the corner. Not only did I not own a vehicle, but this visitation had actually taken place not far from where I both lived and worked. Not that she would be able to discover that, either.

Despite my best attempts, Fetch finally had to speak again. “Master Nicholas, I smelled nothin’ of Her Lady’s Court, but ye still act wary . . .”

“I appreciate your help tonight,” I answered instead, my mind already deep into the very subject of which he had spoken. However, for now, Fetch’s part was done. I had no desire to draw him into something far worse than a lone shadow dweller, though that creature was the very mark of how great the danger was. “You can be off now . . .”

Fetch started to move, turned back, turned away again, then turned to me once more. His desires and instincts fought with his loyalty to me, something I’d never asked from him. I was the closest thing to a friend that he had had since being cast out by Her Lady. He was now a shapeshifter who could not shift shape because he was too far removed from the realm of Feirie and could only talk here in the mortal world because of the curse on me that inadvertently returned that ability to him when he was within roughly twenty feet of me. That at least enabled him to keep remembering that he was not simply some horrendous mixed breed prowling the streets of Chicago at night for whatever warm meal—rats and other vermin, at my insistence—that he could hunt down. I’d tried to give him shelter one time, but the alleys were his preference, as was the bringing down of prey.

I feared Fetch would lose what remained of himself one day, unless somehow he earned Her Lady’s favor again.

Of course, if that happened, I might have to slay him.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” he asked. His lupine features contorted as he sought a more modern term. “Not . . . copacetic at all?”

This time I didn’t hold back a grunt of annoyance at his insistence on constantly trying out the latest word he’d heard. “It’s bad.” I saw no reason to pretend otherwise. “That kind of shadow dweller could not have entered on its own through some spell.”

Fetch growled low. “The Gate’s been breached, Master Nicholas?”

“The Gate’s been breached.”

He nodded. “I will be standin’ with ye when ye need me. Just—”

To his credit, the shapeshifter bit back another new expression, simply finishing with, “I will be standin’ with ye.”

He rushed off into the darkness, heading for wherever he chose to call home for the night. I should also have headed home, but I had one more visit to make. This time for my own sake.

2 commentaires:

Xenophon 42 said...

Interesting concept. Reminiscent of American Gods, with a splash of the comic series Mage thrown in. Looks like it has a lot of potential.

CJohnson said...

Sounds kind of.. Dresden-y