Book 2 - Scythe Meister
The Assassin Transformed
The city of Primordium was founded long before any of the great cities of myth or history. Indeed, it is according to many sources, the first city ever built. Before Troy, before Rome, before Jerusalem, there was Primordium.
Until recently it was ruled by a dynasty of Emperors, whose long tenurehad steadily produced a capacity for cruelty that would have challenged the worst excesses of Rome's corrupted Caesers. The Emperor Perfetto XI, for instance, who controlled Primordium for sixteen years until the Great Insurrection, was a man familiar with every corruption of mind and spirit. He lived in excessive luxury, in a palace he believed impregnable, caring little or nothing for the two and three quarter million people who occupied Primordium.
In the end, that was his undoing.
But we'll come to that.
First, let me tell you about Zarles Kreiger, who came from the lowest strata of the city. As a child, it was common for him to eat at the Vomitorium, where--as in ancient Rome--the rich food disgorged by the wealthy and over-fed could be purchased for a small amount of money, and consumed a second time. It was Krieger's good fortune that such a life of poverty did not kill him. By some physical paradox, experiences that would have reduced most men to shadows of their former selves, served to strengthen Zarles. By the time he was thirteen he was already larger than all his older brothers. And along with his physical prowess came something else: a curiosity about how the infinitely corrupt city in which he lived actually worked. Without understanding the trap in which he was caught, he reassured, he would never be able to escape from it.
At the age of fourteen he became a runner for a gangster in the East City called Duraf Cascarellian, and quickly elevated himself in the criminal's employ, simply because he was willing to do anything requested of him. In return, Cascarellian treated Keiger like a son; protecting him from capture by sending men out after Kreiger to clean up after one of his murders. Kreiger was a messy killer. Not for him the simple slit across the throat. He liked to use scythes, first disembowelling his victims then strangling them with their own entrails.
Now such behavious does not go unnoticed for long, even ina city as filled with excesses as Primordium. And Kreiger's reputation was increased considerably by the fact that the hits Cascarellian was having him make were political. Judges, congressmen, journalists who were critical of the Emperor: these were often Kreiger's victims. Personally, he cared not at all about the affiliation of his victims. Blood was blood as far as Krieger was concerned, and he took the same pleasure in it whether it poured from the flesh of a Republican or a Royalist.
Then he met a woman called Lucidique, and all that changed.
Lucidique was the daughter of a Senator who had been lately complaining in open forum about the fact that the city was running into a state of decadence. The Perfetto Dynasty was using the people's taxes to fund its own pleasures, the Senator argued: it had to stop.
The order quickly came down from the Emperor: rid me of this Senator. Cascarellian, not giving a damn about the philosophical issues, but happy to oblige his Emperor, sent Kreiger out to kill the political troublemaker.
Krieger went to the Senator's estate, caught him in the garden amongst his roses, gutted him and carrie dhim inside. He was in the act of arranging the Senator's body on the dinner table, when Lucidique entered. She was naked, having just come from bathing. But she was also prepared for the intruder. She carried two knives.
She circled Kreiger, as he stood amongst the blood and the innards of her father.
"If you move I'll kill you," she said.
"With two table knives?" Kreiger said, slicing the air with his scthes. "Go back to your bath and forget I was here."
"This was my father you just murdered!"
"Yes, I see the resemblance."
"I would have thought a man like you would have thought twice about taking a knife to my father's throat. He wanted to overthrow the Empire so that you and your like would not be exploited."
"Me and my like? You don't know anything about me."
"I can guess," Lucidique said. "You were born in filth, and you've lived in filth so long you don't even see what's going on right in front of you."
Kreiger's expression changed. "So perhaps you do know a little," he said his voice uneasy. The woman's confidence unnerved him. "I will leave you to mourn your father," he said, retreating from the table.
"Wait!" the woman said. "Not so quickly."
"What do you mean: wait? I could kill you in a heartbeat if I wanted to."
"But you don't want to, or you would have done it."
"What's your name?"
"So then, what do you want from me?"
"I want you to come with me, into the filthiest streets of Primordium."
"Believe me, I've seen them."
"Then you show me."
It was the strangest walk a man and a woman ever took together. Though Kreiger had washed the Senator's blood from his face, hands and arms he still stank of murder. And here he was, walking beside the daughter of the man he'd just mrdered, wrapped in dark linen.
Together, they saw the wort of Primordium: the disease, the violence, and the grinding, unrelieved poverty. And every now and then Lucidique would point to the walls and the towers off the Emperor's Winter Palace, any one room of which contained sufficient wealth to clear the slums of the city, and feed every starving child.
And for the first time in many, many years Kreiger felt some measure fo real emotion, remembering circumstances of his own up-bringing, left to sit in the open sewers of Primordium's streets while his mother sold her drug-riddled body to one of the guards of the Emperor's guards. Thee was anger in him as he walked, and it steadily grew.
"What do you want me to do?" he said, frustrated by what he felt, and his own helplessness. "I could never get to the Emperor."
"Don't be so sure."
"What do you mean?"
"You're right, the Dynasty is untouchable as long as you're just a man; a scabby little assassin hired to kill overweight Senators. But suppose you could be more than that? Then you could bring the Dynasty down."
Lucidique gave Kreiger a sideways glance. "It's nothing I can show you here. Besides, I have a father to bury. If you want to know more, then meet me tomorrow night outside the Western Gates. Come alone."
"If this is some kind of trap..." Kreiger said. "...some way to revenge your father...then before they take me I'll cut out your eyes."
Lucidique smiled. "You make such pretty love-talk," she said. "I mean it."
"I know. And I wouldn't be so stupid as to conspire against you. Quite the reverse. I believe we were meant to know one another. I was meant to walk in on you killing my father, and you were meant to hold your hand off and not kill me. There's some connection between us. You feel it, don't you?
Kreiger looked at the dirty street between them. The night had been filled with feelings he had not anticipated experiencing. And now here was another; admitting to the strange intimacy he felt for the daughter of the man he'd murdered.
"Yes," he said. "I feel it." then, after a long silence: "What time tomorrow night?"
"Sometime after one." Lucidique told him.
"I'll be there."
The following day the streets of Primordium were alive with gossip and speculation: the death of the Senator had started all kinds of rumours. Was this murder the first indication that the Emperor would put up with no more moves towards democracy in the city? Believing this to be the case many members of the Senate left Primordium hurriedly, in case they were next on the Emperor's hit list. There was a general sense of unrest, everywhere.
And in Kreiger, a profound sense of anticipation.
He had barely slept, thinking of what had happened the night before. No, not just the night before. Thinking about his life: where it had led him so far and where - if Lucidique's promise were a true one - it would go after this.
Every now and then he'd glance towards the walls of the palace (which had twice as many guards patrolling them today as yesterday) and wonder to himself what she had meant about finding a way for one man to bring down a Dynasty?
At one o'clock in the morning, a mile outside the West Gate of Primordium, he sat on a stone and he waited. At nine minutes past one, a pair of horses approached (not from the city, from which direction Kreiger had expected her to come, but from the Desert, which lay, vast and largely uncharted, out to the West and South-West of the city.)
They drew nearer, and dismounted.
"I want you to meet Agonistes."
Kreiger had heard rumours about this man Agonistes. It was the kind of story that was exchanged between assassins, more of a legend than a reality.
But here he was. As real as the woman who'd brought him.
"I hear you want to make Primordium a Republic," Agonistes said. "Single-handed."
"She persuaded me it was possible," Kreiger replied. "But... I don't believe it is."
"You should have more faith, Kreiger. I can make you the terror of Emperors, if you want it badly enough. It's up to you. Make up your mind quickly, for I have better business elsewhere tonight if you don't require my services. I can hear a hundred prayers pouring out of Primordium at this vey moment: people wanting me to give them the power to change their world."
Lucidique put her hand up to Kreiger's face. "Now the moment's here, I see you don't want it," she said. "You're afraid."
"I'm not afraid!" Kreiger said. He thought of his mother, dead of the pox, of his brothers killed in the street as children by noblemen passing on horses, of his sister, in the asylum, never to be sane again.
"Take me," he said.
"You're sure?" Agonistes asked him. "Remember, there's no way back."
"I don't want to go back. Take me. Change me."
He glanced at Lucidique. She was smiling.
"Take the horses," Agonistes told her. "We won't need the,."
So together, Kreiger and Agonistes turned round and headed into the desert.
The next day Lucidique buried her father. The rumours quietened down a little in the city, but there was still an undercurrent, subtle but pervasive: Primordium was in a very volatile state; like an explosive, which might be set off with a jolt.
Eight nights after Agonistes had taken Keiger out into thr desert, Lucidique - whose father's house lay close to the palace - woke to the sounds of screams.
She got up and went to the window. There were lights burning in al the palace windows. The gates were flung wide. Guards were running around in confusion.
She dressed, anonymously, and went down into the streets. The din had woken the city; and though the Emperor's guards were riding back and forth, attempting to enforce an on-the-spot curfew, nobody was attending to them.
Lucidique went into the palace. The screams had died down now, replaced by half-whispered prayers.
But it dodn't take her very long to discover what the creature who had one been Zarles Kreiger had wrought. There was death on every side. And his slughter had been indiscriminate: men and women, yes; but also their children, their babies; their unborn babies.
The Perfetto Empire ceased to rule Primordium that night. There were none left alive to do so. Kreiger had killed them all.
As Lucidique stood in the Great Hall of the Palace, in a pool of blood that reached to the walls, she caught a reflection. She looked up.
There he was. Kreiger, remade. THE SCYTHE-MEISTER. There was almost nothing left of the man she'd known.
Agonistes' handiwork has transformed the humble assassin into something that would haunt the nightmares, and the streets, of Primordium, for many years to come.
He approached her. She wondered if this was her last moment; if he intended to kill her as efficiently as he'd dispatched all the rest. But no. He simply leaned down and whispered in her ear:
"...you cannot imagine..."
Then he left the carnage behind him, and wandered out into the night, pausing only to wash his blades in one of the many fountains in the courtyards.