By Richard A. Knaak
This is an excerpt from Black City Demon by Richard A. Knaak, presented by Black Gate magazine. It appears with the permission of Pyr Books, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2017 Richard A. Knaak.
As I did that, I sensed Fetch pacing back and forth just beyond the wall lining the Lawrence Street edge of Saint Boniface cemetery. Being of Feirie, he couldn’t enter, but he kept as close as possible. I knew he stayed nearby out of concern for me, not that I’d ever encouraged him. There was nothing he could’ve changed, not even when she’d died. Her death had been my responsibility, as if I’d been the one whose hand had done the deed.
The mid-November moon was still full, but I didn’t need its light to see what I wanted. I’d demanded his eyes tonight, and he’d given them to me without argument. That was another reason Fetch was anxious. I generally only trusted in the dragon’s power when absolutely necessary, and even then I thought about it twice. But here I was, burning eyes fixated on the symbol of my impotence, the nighttime world a bright, sharp emerald shade. I didn’t question his quick acquiescence; he knew that I blamed him as much as I did myself for what had happened to her.
“I’m sorry,” I muttered as I knelt down beside the stone. “I’m sorry.”
I’d repeated those same two words more often than I could count, but still I felt not even the slightest easing of my conscience. In frustration, I reached forward to shove aside some loose foliage that had obscured part of the headstone.
Her name glared back, accusing me. I swallowed, but didn’t look away.
Another swipe cleared the date of my failure. October of 1871. The Night the Dragon Breathed. The night the city of Chicago burned.
That more than fifty years had passed since then hadn’t made the guilt lessen any. Up until last month, I’d not missed coming out here on a regular basis since I’d seen to her burial all those years ago.
“But she’s alive and well again, Master Nicholas!” Fetch had reminded me all the way here. “She’s alive and Oberon’s a cinder! It’s all ducky now!”
I knew that he had a point, that Claryce was a living, breathing woman, which obviously meant that Clarissa’s spirit should have moved on. Still, my guilt wouldn’t die easily, if it would ever die at all. In fact, coming here only verified that I’d done the right thing when I’d chosen to do my best to avoid Claryce entirely after the incident with Oberon. I was certain that if only I kept her at a distance, kept her away from my dangerous life, she would escape the fate of not only Clarissa, but each and every previous reincarnation.
“You dwell too much in death, Georgius. Life offers you another chance, and you run from it.”
Immediately, my eyes reverted to normal. I gritted my teeth as I rose. He’d never materialized here before, but I should’ve known the cemetery would be open to him. It was as hallowed ground as any church.
I turned to face Diocles. He was always the same. Gray-haired. Rough-hewn features with an eastern European cast akin to my own. Regal robes worthy of a Roman emperor, which made sense given that was what he’d been. If not for the fact that I could see through him, he would have looked in the prime of health.
Of course, that was the thing with ghosts. Sometimes they looked a lot better than the living.
I’d only met a handful of ghosts in my existence, with only Diocles a reoccurring frustration. I’d avoided Saint Michael’s in part because I hadn’t wanted to confront him. Too often of late, Diocles had tried to be my conscience where Claryce was concerned, an ironic choice considering his lack of conscience when he’d ordered me executed some sixteen hundred years ago.
“Go back to the church,” I ordered him. “You were smart enough not to ever follow me here before. You should’ve kept being smart.”
He frowned. Long ago, when he’d been emperor of the Roman Empire and I a lowly soldier, we’d managed a cordial friendship based on respect and trust. But then, that had been before I’d become a legend by slaying a mythic beast and before I’d become a symbol of the young religion Diocles had chosen—under another’s persistent suggestion—to persecute.
“I made no such choice, Georgius,” he responded, insisting on using my old name despite constant corrections on my part. Of course, Nick Medea, as I was known now, had been chosen by me to forever remind both of us just where I’d lost my head.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I do not know this place. I could not even sense it until a short time ago. One moment, I was drifting through Saint Michael’s . . . the next I found myself drawn here.”
He had no reason to lie, but I also had no reason to listen. Out of sheer obstinacy, I walked right through him. As I did, I heard the expected snickering in my head.
Enjoyed that, did you? I silently asked.
No less than you, my ever-present companion, the dragon, smoothly replied, sibilance stretching the second word a bit. Eye have no animosity toward this one.
You have animosity toward everything, I countered. He could not argue with that. He hated all things, me most of all.
The voice quieted. I wish I could’ve said the same for Diocles.
“I have never been able to follow you to such places before,” the ghost persisted. “Always in a house of worship. You know that, Georgius. Always a house of worship. Nowhere else.”
“‘Nick,’” I angrily reminded him. “Always ‘Nick Medea’ now. Especially to you.”
I didn’t have to look at him to know he suddenly wore a darker expression. Although Fetch and others called me “Nicholas,” it was only by “Nick” that I actually went by. For Diocles, it was always meant as a reminder of that fatal moment between us. Fatal for me, actually, as Nicomedia had been the Roman realm where my ghostly friend had so kindly had me beheaded for refusing to give up my faith.
Diocles started to mouth his usual apology, but then caught sight of the headstone. While he did not have the dragon’s eyes to help him see, apparently as a ghost the gloom of night didn’t hinder his view in the least. “So, this is where you laid her to rest.”
“Go back to Saint Michael’s, Diocles,” I growled.
The robed phantasm cocked his head as he looked at me again. “Why come here for penance when she is with you once more? Why dwell with the dead—which you do enough, Georgius—when life is still yours . . . and hers? This grave is an empty thing—”
Without thinking, I slashed at him with one hand. I don’t know who was more surprised—Diocles for my sudden anger, or me when I realized that long claws now graced my fingers, fingers which had themselves become twisted and scaled.
Take it back! I quickly ordered. I haven’t asked for this!
But you did . . . just not with words. . . .
To my relief, my hand quickly reverted to normal. I felt his presence sink deep back into my mind.
That still left Diocles, who never seemed to get the hint about leaving. His gaze had drifted back to the grave, which only served to stir my anger anew.
“‘Empty thing,’” I muttered. “You still retain your fine respect for the graves of your lessers, Emperor. . . .”
He rippled, a sign of distress on his part that I found at that moment quite satisfying. Diocles knew exactly what I meant. “I ordered that your burial be respected. You deserved that much—”
I’d deserved better than being beheaded in the first place, but that was another argument. “Your orders didn’t mean too much, did they? Especially to Galerius. His men ransacked the tomb the moment they had the chance, and even took my armor and weapons.”
That event had had more repercussions than either of us could have imagined. The very spear I’d used to slay the dragon had eventually ended up—just recently, in fact—in the hands of Oberon, the exiled king of Feirie. He’d made a good try of impaling us with it.
“I can only try to apologize over and over, Georgius. I am beyond being able to rectify my sins . . . or those of Galerius, may his bones never rest.”
Diocles’s sins went far beyond just my execution. He had let himself be influenced by the same Galerius into beginning a bloody persecution of the entire young Christian faith . . . of which I had become, without meaning to, one of its standard-bearers. Galerius might’ve been the proverbial devil whispering in the emperor’s ear, but Diocles had been the one to willingly give the decree. For that alone, he should have been cursed to forever walk as a ghost, but for reasons I could not entirely accept, it appeared that my beheading meant more where his fate was concerned. No matter where I’d followed the Gate, Diocles had always been waiting for me in the nearest church.
A chill wind rose up. I tightened the collar of my overcoat and looked around. Diocles’s presence had left me with no more desire to be here. Besides, I had an appointment farther on the North Side—a young couple called the Nilssons who continually heard footsteps on the upper floor of the old house they rented. They thought it was the ghost of the first owner, who’d hung herself after her husband perished in the Great Fire.
I knew better. It wasn’t a ghost. If they’d seen my ad, seen the offerings of Nick Medea, investigator and debunker of the supernatural, then they had a far worse problem than ghosts. They had one of the Wyld lurking around their home.
There was plenty of time to reach my clients, since the appointment was set—for more than theatrical reasons—at midnight. It wasn’t hard to convince anyone who needed my services that I needed to come at the witching hour. They’d be desperate for any help at this point, no doubt having exhausted the usual charlatans.
“There was a visitor to Saint Michael’s this evening,” Diocles muttered.
I looked back at him. Diocles seemed to think it his duty to keep me informed on all newcomers to the church. “Who?”
“A surly Celt. He had the look of—what does that mongrel of yours call them?—a ‘hood.’”
“Celt” was the term Diocles used for an Irishman. Around Chicago, it wasn’t surprising to have someone of Irish blood popping up, but not on a night when Father Jonathan, Saint Michael’s current priest, didn’t have a sermon. Diocles’s description sounded like it might be one of the North Side gang. Several of them were pretty religious despite their bootlegging ways, but this didn’t sound like someone in need of a blessing. I’d just recently had some run-ins with both Moran’s and Capone’s boys—the latter the North Side’s main rivals— but had thought that both gangs had better things to do than track down a “ghost hunter.”
Maybe I’d been wrong. “Did he talk to the Father?”
“Nay. He stepped inside, looked around, then left. Perhaps a minute, no more.”
It could’ve been nothing. It could’ve just been coincidence.
I no longer believed in coincidence. “If you ever see him again—”
I swore an oath that would have made Fetch proud. Diocles and I already had a tenuous relationship built only on the fact that we were bound to one another by our sins. For him to vanish without warning like that did nothing to help.
A slight rustling from deeper in the cemetery caught my attention . . . and made my skin instinctively crawl. My left hand went into my overcoat even as I summoned forth the dragon’s eyes again. What I suspected shouldn’t have been possible in so hallowed a place . . . but then again, in Chicago these days, it was hard to keep any place hallowed. The gangs had done a good job of tainting everything with their bloody battles for territory, which might have opened the way now for something worse.
I risked a low, brief whistle. A moment later, a short bark arose from beyond the fence. Fetch understood.
A part of me wondered whether I was just being paranoid, but after Oberon’s return, I trusted nothing. The cemetery should’ve been safe . . . but then, if someone had somehow destroyed the sanctity of this location, anything could be lurking around.
Despite all that, I was loath to draw Her Lady’s gift in the cemetery unless I had absolute reason to.
That drew a rebuking laugh from inside my head. Too little too late, Eye say . . . if one of them is already here. . . .
The dragon had no name, but because of my constant use of his vision, he had come to refer to himself by the odd title. I never argued his choice. To be truthful, I didn’t care, so long as he behaved. It was hard enough hunting the Wyld without concerning myself over his plotting. He chafed to be free, no matter what the cost to me or anyone else.
Still, he had a point. I slowly pulled my hand from my overcoat, at the same time drawing forth Her Lady’s gift. Its drawing was accompanied by a brief crimson flash. The Feirie-forged sword had a long, jagged edge that had made quick work of some of the worst of the Wyld, but much of the weapon’s true power came from within the golden hilt. There, a pattern of moon-colored stones circulated the ancient magic with which the queen of Feirie herself had imbued it.
I glared at Diocles, who abruptly stood in front of me. “Either stay or go, but get out of the way. . . .”
Again, I heard faint rustling. This time, I was certain I sensed at least a touch of Feirie nearby. I moved cautiously toward the direction. In the distance, I noted the slight patter of paws, an indication that, while he could not yet find a place where he could enter, Fetch at least tried to keep pace. With the cemetery possibly compromised, he now had an opportunity to enter.
Then I saw her.
She stood near the edge of one of the other headstones, her attention on the moon. Her face was obscured by shoulder-length hair and a small cap out of style for several years. In fact, as I studied her more, I noticed that her entire outfit was out of date by some twenty years or more.
She shimmered . . . exactly the way Diocles sometimes did.
Most of what people thought were ghosts were actually the most primal of the Wyld, creatures of the Feirie realm’s most raw energies. However, what I saw in front of me was one of those rare few true spirits like Diocles.
At that moment, my own personal ghost whispered, “What is it? What do you see?”
I frowned. “Can’t you see her?”
“I see nothing.”
I didn’t bother with him after that. Whatever the new ghost’s reason for being where she was, there still remained the question of that trace of Wyld I sensed. I crossed another grave, careful to avoid actually stepping on the departed . . . and then she turned to face me.
I stepped back in shock.
To my left, something moved.
Diocles’s warning came far too late. A force shoved me forward. I tried to keep my balance. Despite my best efforts, my foot came down on the next grave.
The ground gave way.
Holding onto Her Lady’s gift with all my might, I fell into the grave. There hadn’t been an open one near me. Instead, something had emptied out this one, then covered it over with what seemed the original sod so that no one would suspect it was hollow. I couldn’t imagine it’d been done for my sake, but that hardly mattered as I landed hard at the bottom. The force of the collision made me tumble over onto my back.
If I’d had my own eyes, I’d have not seen anything ready to drop down on me. With the dragon’s, I made out the impossibly thin stick figure falling into the grave. Even the head was nothing more than a stick. I’d found my Wyld, lucky me.
Before I could raise Her Lady’s gift, a pile of dirt blinded me. The Wyld had evidently noticed I could see in the dark, so it’d done the logical thing and removed all my view. I was reduced to swinging the sword back and forth, hoping for even a graze. It wouldn’t take much more than that for Her Lady’s gift to do its work.
There was no squeal, which meant that I’d missed. More dirt spilled over my face, into my mouth, almost choking me in the process.
A savage growl filled my ears. It was followed by a hideous hiss that had to come from the Wyld. Another growl came in response. The sounds of a violent struggle ensued.
Wiping away the dirt, I beheld the stick figure struggling with a massive beast, something like a cross between a sleek greyhound and a savage wolf. Fetch was far, far more than either, though, a once powerful servant of Feirie now reduced to skulking around the streets of Chicago when he wasn’t assisting me.
The stick figure’s left arm abruptly sharpened to a point. The creatures of Feirie were often very fluid of form, especially those spawned nearest the realm’s primal forces. The Wyld thrust its limb at Fetch with a lunge worthy of Douglas Fairbanks’s Zorro. Fetch managed to dodge the strike, then moved in again.
I jumped up. In my head, the dragon all but roared, Unleash me! Unleash me! Eye will burn it away!
I was sorely tempted, but I fought down the suggestion even as I closed on the Wyld. Unleashing the dragon might cause far more calamity than one denizen of Feirie.
The stick figure turned as I reached it. Instead of attacking, though, it leapt straight up, then landed on the outer edge of the grave. I jabbed as it moved, but missed.
Fetch did his best to climb out after the thing. Unfortunately, by the time we both made it up, there was no sign of our quarry. I surveyed the area, but couldn’t even sense a trace.
He sniffed the air. “Not a whiff, Master Nicholas! Looks like it’s taken it on the lam!”
I let Fetch’s penchant for human slang pass as I extended Her Lady’s gift as far as I could reach. Nothing.
“Shall I give chase?”
“Where?” I turned the sword around and returned it to my overcoat. It went back into that dark space Her Lady had also provided for it, enabling me to move unencumbered.
And then, I saw her again.
I didn’t know if she’d vanished and returned or just stood there all through our brief struggle with the Wyld. I vaguely wondered if there was some link between her and what had happened, but then she looked my way again and all I could do was stare at her face.
“Master Nicholas? Be ye all right? Does something ail ye?”
Instead of answering, I dared tear my gaze from her long enough to look over my shoulder. Of Diocles, there was no sign. I didn’t know if that meant anything, but once more, it paled in importance to her.
Thankfully, she still stood there, staring in my direction. I belatedly noticed the sadness in her eyes.
“Master Nicholas . . . this isn’t copacetic! What ails ye?”
“You don’t see her, either.” I waved off the reply Fetch started. With the utmost caution, I took a step toward her.
Natually, she disappeared.
Swearing in more than one of the fourteen languages I remained fluent in, I rushed toward the spot.
There were no footprints, of course, not that I’d even really been looking for them. With her gone, there was only one thing I wanted to see.
And there, on the stone, was just that. A name. Below it, a date that began only a year after the Great Fire and ended barely twenty years after that, right during the Columbian Exposition. Just long enough to verify my fears. Just long enough for the damned cycle to begin anew yet again a few years after that.
Her first name had been Claudette. Her last name really didn’t matter. It could’ve been anything. The first name was enough, a variation on a damning theme.
Cleolinda. Clarissa. Claryce. All names for the same old soul, the woman who I’d rescued from a dragon and who then had rescued my heart. There’d been others with such names, spread far apart through the centuries. I’d known each and every one of them. Lost each and every one of them save for Claryce . . . so far. They’d all had different backgrounds, different lives, but always the same face.
A face identical to that of the ghost.
Claudette had been another incarnation, one right before Claryce.
An incarnation, despite our supposedly intertwined fates, I’d never met.
Black City Demon
will be published March 14, 2017 by
All rights reserved. Available in trade paperback and digital formats.
Richard A. Knaak is the New York Times bestselling author of some three dozen novels, including The Sin War trilogy for Diablo and the Legend of Huma for Dragonlance. He has penned the War of the Ancients trilogy, Day of the Dragon and its upcoming followup, Night of the Dragon.
His other works include his own Dragonrealm series, the Minotaur Wars for Dragonlance, the Aquilonia trilogy of the Age of Conan, and the Sunwell Trilogy — the first Warcraft manga. In addition, his novels and short stories have been published worldwide in such diverse places as China, Iceland, the Czech Republic, and Brazil.