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Bruce R Cordell

City of Torment

CHAPTER ONE

Eleven Years after the Spellplague The Year of the Secret (1396 DR) Veltalar, Aglarond

The young tough thrust his dagger at Japheth's stomach.

Japheth retreated into the folds of his cloak. Shadows slapped his face like gauzy moth wings. With a second step, he was back in the abandoned brewery, a dozen yards from where the kid had tried to knife him.

He pointed. The weapon in the tough's grip flared with green fire. It clattered to the floor, trailing a spiral of emerald smoke. The kid bellowed in disbelief, clutching his scorched hand.

Japheth said, 'You didn't answer me. Which one of you is in charge?'

An assortment of youths, lounging, boozing, and dicing away the afternoon stared at him in slack-jawed surprise. A few scrambled for weapons, but most didn't move. They seemed unable to believe a single man would be foolish enough to enter their hideout uninvited.

'Word is, the Razorhides are the meanest gang on the wharf,' continued the warlock. His back brushed a wall.

He hoped it didn't conceal anyone else good with a knife. 'Now that I found you, I'd like to make a deal.'

The Razorhides recovered from their surprise. Like petals opening at dawn, blades appeared in their grubby hands.

The warlock forced a smile in order to demonstrate confidence. This was where his plan would be tested. He'd foreseen the gang's armed reaction-counted on it, even. But facing a small sea of glinting blades was different from imagining it. And the Razorhides had a reputation on the wharf. Those who crossed them ended up dead, usually with body parts strewn along the docks as a warning to merchants and freelance thieves.

'You're paying attention. Good,' said Japheth, trying to make his voice light. 'So, who's your leader? One of you? A merchant up in Old Town? Maybe a sergeant of the militia? Yes? No?'

Silence met him. Japheth girded himself for what he knew would come next.

'I'm the one you want,' said a tall young man, stepping forward. He was twenty-odd years old but scarred and tattooed with more hard living than most could claim in double that span. According to one story, this bastard had killed a whole family in their home by sealing them in and then burning the structure down. 'I'm Dherk. The Razorhides do what I say. What's it to-'

Japheth muttered a spell, one of the few he hadn't got from the Lord of Bats. An iron spear appeared in Japheth's right hand, glowing cherry red with infernal heat. The warlock hurled it. The spear transfixed Dherk's left thigh through his spiky leather armor, nailing him to the brewery's dusty plank floor.

A scream of surprise burst from Dherk. Blood trickled from his impaled leg.

'You're wrong,' Japheth yelled over Dherk's outburst and shouts from the others. UI lead the Razorhides.

Starting today. Understand?'

'Get this bloodlicking sheepstraddler!' screamed Dherk as tears of pain glistened on his cheek.

So much for bluffing, thought Japheth. He produced from his cloak a whorled nautilus shell on a hemp cord. It represented a little extra insurance he'd prepared in case the Razorhides proved defiant.

Japheth blew on the shell. In answer, something smashed at the front doors of the abandoned brewery. Several heads swung nervously to regard the entrance.

The warlock said, 'I didn't come alone. In fact, a friend of mine is at the door-'

A crossbow quarrel whistled toward him. His cloak caught the bolt and pulled it noiselessly out of the world before it found his flesh, but he dropped the nautilus amulet.

A tough charged Japheth, a dagger in each hand.

The warlock snatched up the shell, but he'd misjudged the dagger-wielder's distance. The kid was on him.

One blade drew a line of blood down Japheth's left forearm, but his cloak protected him against the thrust of the other. He snarled at the unexpected pain. Then he raised the nautilus shell and yelled, 'Come to me!' The shell sounded of its own accord in his hand.

Another crash sounded at the entrance. This time, light from the outer hall spilled in as the door came off its hinges.

A thing stood in the vestibule beyond the broken doors.

Japheth had spent the previous few days crafting a construct from driftwood and portside debris. It was simple and relatively fragile as such things went, but impressive looking. With its crown of smashed shells, body of dirt and fish teeth, and cloak of sea mist, it looked immensely threatening. Terrifying, even.

A murmur of fear swept the Razorhides. Perfect! They were primed.

The warlock swirled his cloak in the dagger wielder's face, distracting the kid so Japheth could retreat a step. A step was all he needed.

Japheth opened his mouth wide, releasing a devastating shout that cracked the stone column behind him, splintered the wood at his feet, and abraded the flesh of the advancing mass of gang members. A fiery image accompanied the blast, some sort of bat-winged, burning angel pulling itself free from a cavern lair.

The screams of fear, issuing loudest of all from the pinned Dherk, signaled to Japheth the fight was over. Many Razorhides had been pushed back by the strength of his terrible howl, a spell of mind-piercing fear he'd gleaned from his reluctant patron. Some had fallen over. One, nearest the driftwood scarecrow standing in the doorway, had fainted dead away.

'As I was explaining,' said Japheth, 'I am your new leader.' He tucked the nautilus shell away in his cloak.

Several heads nodded. He watched them for clues they were playing him. But no-he judged they were truly cowed.

'Dherk is out, and I'm in. Although… if he plays his cards right, he'll remain second in command.'

He fixed Dherk with a hard look, daring the man to order another attack. The conjured iron spear that pinned Dherk to the floor dissipated. The deposed leader remained sitting, his eyes wide.

'S-second?' stuttered Dherk.

'Yes. They'll answer to you. You answer to me. And what I want is very simple: tribute.'

'Tribute?' said Dherk. Japheth almost felt sorry for the gang leader, until he remembered the burning family.

'Yes. Tribute. Think of me as your benevolent bandit king. You're my duke, and these others… my knights. You fellows steal for your food and comforts. As your new king, you owe me a cut. Let's say, oh, how about thirty percent of your daily take in coin?'

Gasps issued from the throng. Japheth waited a moment, his head cocked, but no dissent was voiced.

'See? Already we're off to a promising start! I'll come by once a day to pick up my cut. If I find you are cheating me… Well, don't. Otherwise…' Japheth pointed to the scarecrow. 'I'm leaving my friend behind. He'll help you guard your lair. But it'll also watch you. Disappoint me, and I'll know.'

Japheth met Dherk's eyes. Dherk jerked his head down in a frightened nod.

'And while you're at it… find me a tin of traveler's dust. I'm a little light.'

*****

Japheth strolled through the wide doors of the Lorious Inn, his hands clutching a purse heavy with coin. A down payment on his tribute, courtesy of the Razorhides.

The Lorious was one of the finer establishments in Veltalar, catering to a clientele of wealthy ship captains, successful merchants, and high-stakes players who believed they won more often than they lost at various games of chance the inn featured. As such, the place was a destination of choice for those with more coin than

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