The Amateur Assassin (The McKenzie files - Book 2)

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Summary

Sequel to The Henchman. It's been four months since ex-supervillain 'Crowbar' McKenzie found himself zapped across the galaxy, conscripted into an old enemy's group of adventurers, then explosively failed to escape and get back home. Their latest task forces them into the underworld of an old imperial capital, but the curse enforcing their obedience is starting to behave oddly...

Status:
Complete
Chapters:
23
Rating:
n/a
Age Rating:
18+

Chapter 1: It's not exactly what one could call subtle, is it?

Thanks for your interest in my daft scribblings. This story is the sequel to ‘The Henchman’, which you can also find on Inkitt. What follows will make a lot more sense if you read that first, and I’m not going to lie to you, in terms of making sense this story probably needs all the help it can get.


“That does it,” Leni muttered unhappily. “I’m eating Danandra.”

“The fuck you are,” Sharinta replied.

“I second that motion,” Danandra added.

“I’m bored. It’s something to do,” Leni said.

“Just shut up, Leni,” Sharinta told her. “If you want something to do, go check the doors again.”

Leni snorted, but fell silent.

“Hard to disagree with ‘bored’, mind you,” Sharinta said. “This is why I never got married: it’s absolutely fucking stultifying waiting in while some man gets to go out and have all the fucking fun.”

“Fun? He’s infiltrating a heavily guarded pit of scum and villainy in order to assassinate an extremely powerful crimelord, whereupon he’ll have to fight his way out through hordes of murderous minions intent on avenging their deceased master,” Danandra said.

“That is his idea of fun,” Sharinta stated flatly. “The asshole.”

“You’re forgetting that the only way in is through the sewers,” Danandra added.

“Hah!” Sharinta snorted. “Like he’ll even bother.”


“Someone get me another fucking drink!” McKenzie shouted in what he assumed was the general direction of the bar.

“Me too!” Said a scantily clad girl to his left.

“And us!” Said another pair of women on his right.

McKenzie sniffed. “Right. Scratch ‘drink’, make that ‘drinks’. With an s.”

A serving girl who had somehow insinuated her way close to the gambling range nodded and insinuated her way out again.

“Awesome,” McKenzie said, grinning. “Right, that’s that sorted.”

“Sir, your throw,” said an attendant, handing him a trio of knives. “The ante is at eighty five gold.”

“I’m totally and absolutely in,” McKenzie said, disengaging his arms from around his attractive companions and taking the knives from the man: not without a certain amount of difficulty. Some of the other players laughed: others just shook their heads. The rich newcomer was out of his depth and losing big.

The main room of Aghkar’s Den of Sin, Iniquity and Dark Delight (it was really called that, there was a sign over the door and everything) was a packed, sweaty space filled with equal parts prostitutes, gamblers, guards and smoke. You got in by a) having a lot of money or b) being known to have access to a lot of money and c) being likely to lose it. McKenzie had got in by a mixture of a and b: he’d turned up dressed in flamboyant, expensive clothing toting a sizeable pouch of gold, and, for c, roaring drunk, too. The door-mage had glared at him and divined that he was genuinely drunk, and the doormen had waved him in with a smirk. An hour later, upon explaining he worked for a well-known Vyrinian bank, he’d been smilingly extended a line of credit.

McKenzie was here to dispose of Aghkar himself, who had come to the end of the life-cycle that applied to ambitious criminals in Vyrinios. They tended to start as henchmen with ideas above their station, then progressed up through the ranks, usually in bloody fashion, eventually gaining control of one of the city’s ever-changing criminal gangs. There then followed an optional stage of acquiring other territories through merger or violent acquisition, but at some point in the following five years or so, the top dogs would, in their turn, fall victim to the same process that had deposited them on top. Sometimes this was done in direct fashion, but at other times it was outsourced to another breed of criminal who operated on a different life-cycle: one of Vyrinios’ efficient and capable assassins. In this case, the role of assassin was being played by McKenzie.

He wasn’t just an assassin, obviously - this was all part of some far-reaching undercover operation the eventual goal of which he hadn’t been told and didn’t care about anyway. The Archmage of Melindron wanted him to be an assassin in Vyrinios: fine. It was turning out to be quite a lot of fun, although to be fair he hadn’t actually had to assassinate anyone yet.

They didn’t have roulette or poker in Vyrinios, although they had equivalent games in slightly calmer areas of Aghkar’s establishment. The big money changed hands over the knife ranges, though. It was a simple game: at the end of a range a few paces long there were a variety of targets (some static, some moved by clockwork at various speeds). The players stated what targets they could hit with three knives and put the money up until someone said ‘go on then’. Someone had just said it to McKenzie.

He was ordinarily rather good at throwing knives, so it was a propitious coincidence that he was utterly rat-arsed, and therefore didn’t have to put any effort into appearing bad at it. One of the knives thunked into a target, but not one of the ones he’d said he would hit, and in any case the other two landed on the floor and in someone’s drink respectively.

“Oops,” McKenzie said, squinting. “I think I may have missed.” One of McKenzie’s female hangers-on giggled, the other two, seemingly more alert, clocked the trio of heavily-built men heading towards McKenzie and melted away silently into the crowd. There would be no more free drinks from this particular source tonight.

Conversation stopped as the men approached the knife range, and an empty circle formed around McKenzie and the remaining girl, who suddenly realised her position and started to back away.

“You stay put,” one of the men said to her. She froze, and looked frightened.

“Mr. Monday,” another one said. McKenzie had been forced to think quickly with regard to a false name upon entry, and it really wasn’t his strong suit.

“That’s my name, lads, don’t wear it out ’cos I haven’t got a spare,” McKenzie replied, failing miserably to look cowed or frightened.

If the men noticed, they didn’t let on. “We would be greatly obliged, sir, if you would accompany us to the back office. We have reached the point in the evening where we must re-assess your credit arrangements.”

The polite words were delivered in a low, menacing growl.

McKenzie hurriedly quashed the ‘about fucking time’ which was on it’s way, unthinking, from his brain to his gob. He replaced it with: “Oh, very well. Lead on, my good fellows.”

Two of the men shepherded him towards the rear of the casino - the other took hold of the girl by the arm and followed, ignoring her protestations that she had nothing to do with him. He was forcefully guided up some stairs, which led up to a gantry. This ran round the entirety of the massive room - enabling Aghkar’s casino-minions to keep an eye on things. In Las Vegas this would have been done by sharp-eyed professionals and CCTV: here there was a team of seven black-robed mages keeping an unnatural eye on the activities below.

There was no need for McKenzie to use the gantry, though: directly at the top of the staircase there was a pair of sturdy double doors equipped with a spyhole: to McKenzie, they radiated magical power, but, being more than a bit drunk, he wasn’t sure how much or what for. One of the bouncers - they both overtopped him by a head and were nearly twice as broad across the shoulders - rapped on the doors. A moment later there was a deep clunking sound, and they swung smoothly inwards.

“In you go, sir.” A hefty hand propelled McKenzie inside.

“Um, er, yes,” McKenzie said in his best faux-worried tone. In truth what he was most worried about was that Aghkar was having a day off and this was all going to turn out to be a colossal waste of time.

The doors meant business - they were about a foot thick. When they were closed behind McKenzie, the girl and their escort by another pair of generously-dimensioned security (and another black-robed mage), they were secured with twin wrist-thick iron bars (and a flash of magical power from the mage). There were no windows inside - just a long, tall corridor (troll height - McKenzie knew Aghkar employed some) lined with torches and a few more slightly-less-businesslike doors.

“To the end,” one of his escorts grunted, and gave him another shove. “Mr. Aghkar wants to see you personally.”

The girl gave vent to a small yelp, then fell silent.

“Lucky for you,” the other said, with a low, ugly laugh.

“Oh really,” McKenzie replied, no longer really bothering to sound frightened.

“Mr. Aghkar is a Gentleman of Culture and Refinement,” said Shover.

“Who, as such, is known to extend other gentlemen the opportunity to retain all of their toes, fingers and other bodily extremities during the course of business,” Laughing Boy explained. Neither seemed to notice his demeanour had gone from ‘anxious’ to ‘bored’.

“This is not usually something we bother with,” Shover said.

“So: lucky for you,” Laughing Boy finished.

Whatevs, McKenzie thought.

The door at the end of the corridor was guarded by two more guards - one a human mage, the other a hulking troll sporting custom-made black leather armour, a gold-tipped club and a permanent glower. He was about the same size as Leni.

“Mr. Iyanus,” Shover nodded to the troll. “This is the gentleman from the House of Marchen who has found himself in a spot of financial trouble with regard to his losses, and the woman who was with him.”

“I’m not with him!” The girl said. “I am, in fact, categorically and completely not with him. Can’t emphasise the not-with-himness of my situation enough. He’s just a rich idiot who provided a convenient source of free drinks. He means literally nothing to me and I wish I’d never come within fifty yards of him.”

“Fuckin’ charmed, I’m sure,” McKenzie told her.

“Oh fuck off,” she said, which made Laughing Boy laugh.

McKenzie sighed. “Shit it. All this hilarity aside, lads, she really isn’t anything to do with me. Don’t even know her name. In fact - hah! - she’s just some pretty idiot who provided a convenient source of free, um, prettiness. She means literally nothing to me and I wish she’d never come within fifty yards of me, either.”

The girl drew in an offended breath and glared at him. She was pretty, McKenzie noticed, in a vapid, wide-eyed sort of way: blonde, slim, pale, very petite - she looked like a china doll next to the hulking security. Her hair was done up in one of those complicated styles that required a pair of chopstick-things to hold it in - hers were white with, he noted, a series of little owls painted along their length. She was wearing a couple of bits of tight black clothing that did a basic job of outlining what was underneath rather than effectively concealing it in any way, shape or form, and a pair of soft black slipper-type shoes.

Then it hit him: she was giving off a faint magical vibe - just the vaguest whisper, every now and again. The chopsticks. He squinted, but it didn’t make anything any clearer. His magical sixth sense didn’t take well to intensive alcoholic assault. Well, it had that in common with the other five, then.

“Drunken idiot,” she said, noting his attention.

Great, he thought. A complication. Just what I need when I’m half cut.

Iyanus didn’t deign to notice any of this, he simply sniffed and tapped on the door. A small hatch opened - there were a few words, and then, following another series of clunks, the entire door opened.

Everyone, and Iyanus, went in.

Inside was a large, plush office, done out with a lot of money and very little in the way of taste. It contained a large marble table with several ornate chairs around it, and, at the end of the room, a very large marble desk. There was a mage and two guards at the door and a further guard in each of the far corners, and a somewhat less well built man hovering by the desk.

The conference table had, for the moment, been repurposed as a stage for a pair of strippers who had already reached the end of the ‘stripping’ part of their act and were well into the phase that - possibly entirely literally - would lead up to the climax.

“Enough!” A rough voice said. “Audition over! You’re hired: well done, congratulations, etcetera. Raniks, get ’em signed on. Out you go, girls.”

The pair of women hurriedly gathered up their discarded stage clothes and bustled out past Iyanus, followed by the flunky who’d been hanging around by the desk. Iyanus, McKenzie noted, tracked their progress out of the office. He wasn’t the biggest fan of trolls, and found himself hoping that the next few minutes would include the chance for some violence towards this one.

Then all eyes were on the man behind the desk. He certainly fit the description of Aghkar - tall, broad-shouldered and fuck-ugly, too. His face was a veritable internet of connected scars. It was speculated that he was half-ogre, and he looked it.

He motioned for everyone to approach the desk, and everyone did. “Right. Want to tell me why you’ve seen fit to interrupt me just before the fucking good bit?” The man who was probably Aghkar asked McKenzie. “It had better be fucking good, too.”

“Sir, before you start, you should know that this man has got absolutely nothing to do with me. I’ve never seen him before tonight,” the girl stated.

Aghkar smiled - several of his teeth had been replaced with gold prosthetics.

“What’s you name, luv?” He asked, in a markedly gentler tone.

“Jadhara, sir,” Jadhara answered him.

“Well then Jadhara, if you open your fucking mouth again when I haven’t given you permission to, I’ll tell Iyanus here to eat you. I’m a horrible bastard, girl - I love seein’ people ’et - so fucking keep your trap shut, are we clear?” He was still smiling as he said it.

Oh, you are just so dead, McKenzie thought, glowering at the gangster.

Jadhara gulped and nodded.

“I could do with a snack, Mr. Aghkar,” Iyanus noted.

Jadhara’s eyes went very wide.

Well, that confirmed that Aghkar was definitely Aghkar: as if it had been in any particular doubt.

Aghkar let that hang for a few moments. McKenzie tensed himself.

“Hold that thought, Iyanus,” Aghkar finally said. “Let’s see what Mr. Monday’s attitude is like in our discussion.”

McKenzie, all pretence of playing the cowering fool gone, shrugged. He kind of wanted the door to be shut so he didn’t have to deal with everyone on the other side of it aswell as everyone inside the office when he decided to, well, lash out in a drunken fury and start hitting gangsters. No point glamourising it by thinking of it as ‘making his move’ or ‘springing into action’.

“You’ve got more than the usual set of balls you normally find on a banker, Monday, I’ll give you that,” Aghkar said. “You haven’t answered my question, though. I want a fucking explanation from you. I ask you again: why have you interrupted me?”

It was clearly a question designed to intimidate - everyone knew full well why McKenzie had been brought here, or at the very least thought they did: Aghkar was just putting him on the spot.

Things would be a lot easier the less people there were in the room. “Could we maybe have a little-” McKenzie was interrupted by an involuntary belch. “Shit, sorry: I’m pretty much rat-arsed here. Privacy.”

Aghkar glared.

“I’m assuming that I’m in ’ere getting the special threatening treatment because it’s filtered down - no, we’re upstairs, innit. Hmm. Can you say filtered up? Don’t sound right. Fuck it. Anyways: you’ve been told I work at Marchens. Most secure bank in Vyrinios. An inside man could be of insetibim, inestibima, inestimal - could be proper fuckin’ useful. Under said conditions,” McKenzie explained.

“You are fucking drunk, Monday,” Aghkar stated. McKenzie noted that everyone else in the room seemed to be anticipating an explosion. They didn’t know how right they were.

“You’re also right. Well done: you get to live a bit longer. Makhrup: door,” Aghkar ordered. The inside-door-mage nodded and swung the door shut. He spoke a magical word, and with a minor flare of magic it was secured by another pair of thick iron bars.

“There you go, Monday. Secure as you like. Nothing in, nothing out - including our own dulcet tones as you convince me you can be useful enough to offset the three hundred and twenty eight gold that you owe me,” Aghkar said.

It took a moment for McKenzie to realise that Aghkar had just told him that no-one outside could hear anything that went on inside.

“So what, it’s like completely soundproofed in here?” He asked.

“Indeed it is, Monday - not that that’ll be an issue for you unless you start calling me Mister Aghkar every time you speak to me, because I’ll have Iyanus rip your ears off. Now, you may enlight-”

McKenzie didn’t bother with any pre-fight pleasantries: he picked up a chair from behind him - they were heavy, hard wooden things - and swung it as hard as he could at Iyanus’ head. Even in his inebriated state, McKenzie knew that the troll was literally and figuratively the biggest threat in the room. Without him down nothing else was getting done.

The chair connected with a meaty-sounding thunk and then a splintering crack - McKenzie had swung it so hard that the stout wooden back broke off in his hands. Iyanus was caught completely by surprise. Trolls were almost inconceivably tough, but even so he was slammed to the floor in front of Aghkar’s desk: and he stayed there.

“How’s that for a fuckin’ snack?” McKenzie snarled at him.

McKenzie felt a sudden, hard pressure under his ribs: Laughing Boy had tried to stab him with something. He ignored it, and put two hands underneath Aghkar’s desk. The kingpin had pushed his chair back and was scrambling to draw a sword from where it hung behind him.

McKenzie grunted with effort as he flipped the heavy marble desk up and over on top of Aghkar. It landed on his legs and lower body, and there was a sickening sound of something going crunch. Aghkar screamed and swore.

McKenzie felt more stabs to his back and neck, and then he was pitched forward to land next to Aghkar as something hit him really hard from behind. Either Laughing Boy or Shover had copied the chair trick from him, but had missed his head and hit him across the upper back.

McKenzie stood up, rubbing his left shoulder.

“Ouch!” He said, holding back an involuntary mouthful of bile that the headlong fall had brought on. “That fucking hurt, you prick!”

Then he was rushed by two guards from behind and the original three, plus the two stationed inside the door and the mage.

Laughing Boy, Shover and his mate had large knives: the other four had swords. McKenzie cast around for a weapon, saw Aghkar’s sword still hanging on the wall, and hurriedly ripped it from it’s scabbard. He swung it wildly at the two guards approaching from the rear of the office and succeeded in cleaving one of them completely in two and slicing deep into the other. There was a tremendous amount of gore and the second guard added a bubbling shriek to the general clamour as he fell to the ground behind the desk, but the sword was stuck fast between his ribs and was pulled from McKenzie’s sweaty grasp.

“Shit,” he said, as the other five hammered and cut at him from behind. He launched a punch at the nearest one - Laughing Boy - but the man managed to dodge it.

“He’s fucking strong! Grab him before he gets another blade, for fuck’s sake!” Shover roared.

The advice was heeded. Laughing Boy grabbed at McKenzie’s left arm, Shover seized his right, and the guy that had been restraining Jadhara went for his legs. The other two hovered.

“Hold ’im while we stab ’im!” One of the sword-guards shouted.

Having a guy holding onto each arm kind of made things easy, as it turned out: McKenzie slammed his arms together very hard, which deprived his erstwhile captors of consciousness, and then very ungracefully yanked their mate from around his legs and shoved him away. This still left him with three guys to deal with, though - and once they were out of the way, the mage was waiting.

It didn’t, however, work out like that. The men, seeing their compadres variously dead or disabled, started backing away.

“Makhrup - open the door,” one of them suggested. The mage nodded and turned - to see Jadhara blocking the way.

“Awfully sorry, Makhrup, but I’m afraid I can’t let that happen,” she said in a tone markedly more posh and less frightened than before, and smiled winsomely. She looked not at all vapid and wide-eyed, now: she looked poised and dangerous.

“Eh?” The mage said, surprised - and then Makhrup was sent arcing across the room to fetch up unconscious against a wall. She had definitely moved, she had to have moved in order to have effected the relocation of Makhrup from where he had been to where he was, but it would be impossible to say in what manner exactly, as it had been way too fast.

McKenzie realised that he wasn’t the only assassin going after Aghkar. He wasn’t even the only assassin going after Aghkar tonight.

The three guards forgot McKenzie for a moment and whirled around in surprise. Jadhara reached up to her hair and withdrew the two chopsticks. With a shimmer of magic, they turned into a pair of shortswords, the blades of which were shaped like elongated leaves, slightly wider in the middle than at either end. McKenzie just about managed to notice they had the same designs picked out on hilt and blade as the chopsticks had - little golden owls.

“So that’s what they do,” McKenzie said to himself.

“Who’s first, then, gentlemen?” Jadhara asked them. “I’m perfectly willing, by the way, to simply render you safely unconscious if you’re happy to be co-operative about this, but if you choose to make a fight of it I’ll be forced to respect the fact that you are clearly very dangerous chaps and take no chances. Either way it’s the end of the road for Mr. Aghkar, I’m afraid, so you stand to gain nothing by further resistance.”

“Oi!” McKenzie, not to be outdone, picked up the remains of the chair he’d swung at Iyanus and threw it very hard at the the middle guard, which made Jadhara’s offer irrelevant to him, at least. “I’m still ’ere you know!”

Jadhara sighed in evident irritation. This time, McKenzie was fairly sure he detected a blur of movement, but in any case the last two guards ended up senseless on the floor, several yards apart.

“Okay, fair do’s, that was pretty much the coolest thing ever,” McKenzie said.

“You’re still an idiot,” Jadhara said scathingly. “I recall very specifically making it clear to the rest of the guild that this was my job.”

“Oh, sorry Little Miss Poshblades, I must have missed that memo,” McKenzie retorted sarcastically.

“New in town, are we, by any chance?” She asked him.

“Yeah, I’ve barely-” McKenzie coughed and gave vent to another belch. “-unpacked.”

Jadhara stared at him with a mixture of curiosity, amazement and contempt. “Are you actually drunk?”

McKenzie nodded. “Yeah. Bit more than I thought I was, it turns out.”

Jadhara sighed again. “An amateur. Perfect. Look, if you can’t face the thought of actually assassinating someone without first stocking up on liquid courage, then you’ve chosen the wrong profession, Mr. Monday.”

“Hey! The robe on the door is on the alert for fake-drunk. I hadda look like the real deal, didn’t I?” McKenzie defended himself. “And the name is-”

“Don’t tell me your actual name!” Jadhara cut in. “It’s unprofessional: also, I don’t care.”

“Fine, whatever. I’m not used to all this cloak and dagger bollocks, I prefer to just sort things out with a straight up fight, but fine. You’re the pro, Poshblades,” McKenzie said.

“I’ve never seen anyone render a troll unconscious with a just a chair, I’ll give you that,” Jadhara told him, eyes narrowing slightly. “In respect of that fact, I will offer the following words of advice. A competent warrior does not necessarily make a competent assassin. You seem remarkably unbothered by stab wounds to the back, so I’ll grant that there might be a tiny bit more to you than meets the eye, but be warned: ours is not a profession that tolerates idiots rocking the boat, and there are those among us who can find the chink in any armour.”

McKenzie briefly considered asking if she meant that as a threat, but found that he couldn’t really be bothered. She was right about him in one way, at least: cold-blooded murder didn’t sit well with him. He had a mental list of people he’d make an exception for, true, but in general it was a no-no for him.

“Thanks for the pro tip,” McKenzie said instead, and picked up a sword from the floor. “Well, amateur or not, since I’m here, best get this over with.”

He picked his way over to the upturned desk, avoiding puddles of blood on the carpet and the immobile troll. Jadhara followed him - but kept a couple of metres between them.

“Well, lookit that,” McKenzie said. The guard he’d half-sliced in two had fallen backward to die on top of his employer: in doing so, the protruding length of steel had cut into Aghkar’s throat. He was pale and dead in a very large puddle of blood.

“Excuse me, would you?” Jadhara asked. McKenzie stepped aside. There was a flash of gold-decorated steel and a thunk as Jadhara sliced through Aghkar’s neck with surgical precision. She wiped the blade on McKenzie’s arm - so deftly that he didn’t actually notice. The swords went back into her hairstyle and resumed their chopstick disguise.

“Nifty,” McKenzie commented.

“Thank you,” Jadhara said.

She unwrapped a single layer of black silk from around her waist that turned out to be a bag, which she held open.

“My hands are clean. Could you be an absolute dear and pop his head in here for me?” She indicated Aghkar’s head.

McKenzie shrugged, reached down, and picked up the head by the ear that was least covered in blood.

“Alas, poor Aghkar. I knew him, Horatio,” he misquoted under his breath, then retched a little bit. “A fellow of infinite jest and, ew. Ugh.”

“What did you say?” Jadhara asked him sharply, looking at him intently.

“Nothin’,” McKenzie said. “Here: don’t lose your head.” He dropped it in, and then somehow fought back the alcohol he’d been drinking all night as it made a bid for freedom.

“Thanks awfully. I hope you aren’t going to make an issue of who claims the fee for this Appointment?” Jadhara asked McKenzie.

“Appointment? We killed him, we didn’t give him a dental check up. Or if we did then there’s gonna be the mother of all malpractice suits comin’ our way.”

“‘Contract’ just sounds so lamentably pedestrian and undignified,” Jadhara replied.

“Appointment it is then.” McKenzie shrugged and shook his head. “Anyshit: no skin off my nose. My geezer didn’t ask for the head, he just asked for a dead Aghkar. Aghkar is dead, ergo I get paid. Quod erat demonstri-whatsit.”

“Demonstrandum.” Jadhara said, slinging the bag over her shoulder.

“That’s it, yeah. Thanks,” McKenzie said.

“You really are drunk, aren’t you?”

McKenzie lifted his hands up. “It’s a fair cop, guv.”

“Well, Mr. Monday, time to suffer the slings and arrows of outraged guards and mages,” Jadhara said, eyeing him carefully.

“Or take arms against the sea of thingy and whatever,” McKenzie responded, completely failing to recall anything useful from Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. He was too drunk to be overly bothered, and way too drunk to realise, right then, the full import of what she’d just said.

“Hmm,” Jadhara said. “You know, Mr. Monday, as much as this hasn’t been the most ideal form of initial meeting, it strikes me that a strong chap, remarkably resistant to physical harm and with a flexible approach to the finer points of ethics might be a useful contact for those occasions when a girl needs to employ a bit of, well, one hates to say brute force, but I hope my meaning is clear.”

McKenzie, who had been using up all available comprehension by mentally comparing the width of the conference table to the width of the door, looked up.

“Come again?”

Jadhara sighed. “Come to the sign of the Unsheathed Dagger tomorrow at seven bells. It may be that I have work for you.”

“Oh, right. Cool. Seven bells. Gotcha,” he said, then flipped the conference table over, inadvertantly crushing a comatose guard in the process with a sinewy-sounding crunch. “Oops.”

“It’s considered terribly poor form to kill more of the underlings than necessary, you know,” Jadhara informed him critically, backing away from the newly-forming pool of blood this had produced.

“Don’t leave ‘em lyin’ about the place then,” McKenzie shrugged.

The tabletop was a lot wider than the door, but underneath the table there was a solid, rectangular length of what looked like granite, which formed a support for the two carved slabs which acted as legs. McKenzie kicked them off, paused to fight down an attack of dizziness, and then hefted the heavy, battering-ram-esque piece of hard rock.

“Our key,” McKenzie explained.

“It’s not exactly what one could call subtle, is it?” Jadhara said, drawing her swords again.

McKenzie grinned. “I don’t do subtle,” he said, although the effect was somewhat ruined by the fact he was swaying from side to side.

“Evidently,” Jadhara commented.

McKenzie briefly struggled with a line about how this party was a bit dead, but became confused, and simply ended up saying. “Anyway, let’s go.”

He lined the granite slab up on the door, gritted his teeth, and then ran full tilt at it.

The magic upon the door was very powerful and well-wrought: not only had it kept any trace of the shenanigans inside from being heard by the mage outside the door, but it was more than capable of standing up to the force of McKenzie’s improvised battering ram. The surrounding wall, fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective) wasn’t.

With a tremendous crash of breaking stone, the door was punched squarely outwards and hurled - perfectly intact - down the corridor outside. ‘Perfectly intact’, however, didn’t really describe the mage who had been standing guard in front of it - it carried him with it and then landed on top of him.

McKenzie couldn’t see any reason to stop at one door, so he just kept going with the length of granite held out front like a lance. If the mage hadn’t been killed by the initial impact of the inner door, or when it subsequently fell on him, then he certainly was when McKenzie trampled across it carrying about a ton of hard rock.

The two guards at the other end of the corridor barely reacted beyond opening their mouths in surprise. The remaining mage was a bit faster, raising a finger and managing to get three syllables into a five syllable spell before the granite hit the doors.

McKenzie had lost a bit of impetus by this point, so the doors didn’t get smashed out of their fittings completely, although they did fall down squarely onto the wooden gantry behind him, which splintered and creaked alarmingly. People screamed and started running for the exits.

McKenzie dropped his battering ram, unfortunately onto his foot, causing him to swear and hop about wincing. The mage stopped his spellcasting and, like the guards, simply stared at him.

“Fucking clumsy fuckhole!” McKenzie berated himself, and then was sick.

Jadhara had ‘sheathed’ her swords again, and came running out behind McKenzie.

“Oh help, he’s gone insane,” she said in a completely flat tone to the stunned guards. “Really quite crazy indeed. Seriously, he’s killed Aghkar.” Then, with a quick look at McKenzie that said ‘your problem now, pull yourself together’ and went unnoticed by either the mage or the guards, she darted past, down the stairs, and was lost in the crowd.

“Cow,” McKenzie muttered under his breath, then wiped his mouth on a handful of the immobile mage’s robe, and stood up. He felt a bit better.

McKenzie looked up. The guards had their hands on their swords and were backing away slowly - the mage was holding his robe out from his body with an incredulous expression on his face. The gantry-mages, and some other guards, were advancing slowly as the casino emptied.

“She’s right, lads,” McKenzie said. “Aghkar’s dead, which means if you decide to take on the guy who just took out Iyanus, your boss, everyone else back there and knocked down two warlock’s-castle-grade doors for an encore using only a bit of a table, then yeah, by all means get yourselves killed, but no fucker’s gonna pay you for it. On the other fucking hand, I bet there isn’t much in the way of a redundancy bonus now that your boss is moving into the pine bungalow, so a bit of creative thieving might be in order about now. Your call. Sorry about your robe, by the way.”

“True that,” one of the guards, who had a crossbow, said. He was advancing along the gantry from the corner of the casino. “Gotta think about the next job, mind. If we just let our ex-employer’s murderer get away untou-”

McKenzie picked up the granite battering ram again and heaved it across the casino in the general direction of the speaker - it hit the gantry with a splintering crash next to him, sending a three metre section of the walkway, and the vocal guard, to the floor.

“My leg!” The man cried out in pain.

“Walk it off,” McKenzie advised him. “Anyone else care to contribute to a discussion on the future employment prospects of redundant henchmen? All viewpoints welcome, although I will, however, throw these doors at them.”

McKenzie levered the doors up off the floor - the magic in them flowed into his hands and thence into the internal reservoir of raw magic that he’d been either blessed or cursed with since being brought to this world. No-one noticed except him, and even he barely did.

“No? No more reflections on local labour market conditions? Good. I’ll be off, then, shall I? Yeah? Excellent.” McKenzie sauntered down the stairs and out of the casino, as nonchalantly as he could manage. The effect was ruined when he lurched dizzily into a card table, fell over it and had to pick himself up. No-one laughed, however, which McKenzie was heartily glad of.

He slouched out onto the street without further incident, and turned left to begin the walk back to the warehouse that served as a temporary home. He got fifty or so yards before he stopped, said ‘fuck’ under his breath, turned around and headed in the right direction. There were lots of people milling around in the wake of the evening’s violent festivities, none of whom took him for anything other than a particularly drunk punter who’d just taken a lot longer than they had to exit the building.

It was currently early spring in Vyrinios: the evening air was quite cold and sharp, and it served to sober McKenzie up by a small but important margin. He’d walked for a further five minutes or so when he stopped, his eyes widened, and he gave vent to another:

“Fuck!” He said. “Fucking daft twat!” He berated himself again.

He really had been drunk.

“Shakespeare!” He said, and shook his head. He cast a look around at the street, but Jadhara was nowhere to be seen. A few people looked back - he must have been doing a very good impression of a lost-it case.

McKenzie’s education had been unofficial, sparse and infrequent, but you couldn’t live in Britain for nearly four hundred years and not pick up some Shakespeare, at least. She’d practically hit him over the head with the Hamlet reference. He tried to recall how badly he’d mangled his response, but that was hard to estimate when you could barely remember either what it was supposed to sound like or what you’d actually said ten minutes ago.

A few dozen scenarios flitted through his head, and almost all of them involved a Way Back Home. McKenzie ruthlessly suppressed them. Assuming that this wasn’t just Lemuel fucking with him, chances were she didn’t have a revolving door in her lounge that led back to Earth. He didn’t know a single thing except that she appeared to be able to quote the Bard. Best to keep an open mind: and also best to keep quiet about it.

The return of a degree of sobriety had also brought back a degree of procedural common sense to McKenzie: he needed to take some basic steps, at least, to make sure he wasn’t followed. That meant a crowd, and it was late: Vyrinios boasted many markets, squares and public spaces that were often rammed to the gunwhales with people, and a fair few of them were crowded well into the small hours. McKenzie could think of nothing better right now than to collapse on a bed, but first, he would literally lose himself in a crowd.

About an hour later, and reasonably sure he wasn’t being followed, McKenzie knocked three times on the side door to a warehouse down in a quiet section of one of Vyrinios’ many mercantile districts. He put his head against the doorframe as he waited: he was knackered and the full force of a hangover was waiting to strike.

“Password.” It was Danandra’s voice.

McKenzie sighed. “Like you haven’t been watching me from three streets away. Open the door, Danandra.”

Surprisingly, Danandra opened the door without further argument. McKenzie staggered in. “Thanks,” he said. “Pure shattered, I am. How come you didn’t give me a hard time about the password? You seldom disappoint in the article of obstructive bloody-mindedness, Danandra. It’s one of your most reliable characteristics.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment: thank you,” she said, locking the door and securing it with a flick of her fingers. McKenzie felt the minor spike of magic as she did so. “Is it really so unbelievable that I might have simply noticed you weren’t looking particularly lively and decided to give you a break?”

McKenzie stared at her. “Yes,” he said.

Danandra sighed. “Leni’s bored and hungry. She tends not to try anything on when you’re around.”

“Ah,” McKenzie said. They walked across the darkness of the empty warehouse towards where a lantern glowed atop a table, surrounded by a few chairs.

“How did the Appointment go?” Danandra asked him.

“Fuck’s sake, not you too? How can you refer to the violent ending of a individual’s life as a bloody appointment?”

“I was doing a bit of background reading into what is known of Vyrinios’ Guild of Assassins. They customarily refer to their jobs as Appointments.”

“Yeah, so I was told,” McKenzie said.

“You met a fellow assassin?” Danandra asked, then sniffed. “You stink, by the way. Sharinta owes me a gold piece - she was certain you wouldn’t go through the sewers but would attempt some sort of amateurish disguise.”

“Thanks for that. She doesn’t, I didn’t, amateurish or not, it worked, Aghkar is deader than a sackful of dodos and yes, I met another assassin. In fact, I was so not-amateurish that I have an interview tomorrow at the Sleeveless Dagger or some bloody place or another. I might even turn up,” McKenzie info-dumped.

Danandra sniffed again. “Have you been drinking?”

McKenzie shrugged. “Yeah. Part of the disguise.”

Danandra sighed and shook her head. “You’re an idiot.”

“Sue me,” McKenzie shrugged.

“If we are to have any hope of infiltrating the Assassin’s Guild, it is imperative that you appear to be a professional, ruthless killer in every detail. Not knowing the proper terminology, turning up drunk for your first Appointment and hung over for your first official contact with the Guild is hardly the ideal start.”

“Who the fuck cares about infiltrating anything? I thought we were just here to kill some people.”

“Were you even listening to the Archmage when she briefed us on our mission?”

“Probably not,” McKenzie shrugged. They had reached the table, by which Leni was sat. McKenzie pulled a dented metal box out from under it and retrieved a very large and heavy looking pistol from inside, pointed it at Leni, and tried very hard to pull the trigger. Leni went momentarily wide-eyed.

“Bugger,” he said, putting the gun down on the table and then dropping into one of the chairs.

“You don’t have to try to kill me every time you see me, you know,” Leni told him.

“Everyone needs a hobby,” McKenzie answered.

“How would you like it if I tried to kill you at least once a day?” Leni asked.

“Not that bothered,” McKenzie answered. “Actually, I might be allowed to hit back then. Give it a go.”

Leni huffed. “You killed him then?” She asked.

“Well, technic’ly he was killed by one of his own guards: he was on the floor with his legs pinned under a fuck-off big desk when the guy fell on him with a sword stuck through him. Sliced his jugular open, I think: mind you someone else took off with his head once the festivities had come to a conclusion so it’s hard to say. But he’s dead and I was in the room being violent at the time, so let’s say yes,” McKenzie said. “I got to hit a troll in shiny black armour across the back of the head with a really heavy chair, first, too: felt pretty good to deck a troll. I’ll have to show you sometime.”

Leni huffed again. McKenzie ignored her.

Danandra settled herself primly into another of the chairs. “If you had been listening, you would know that the entire purpose of this foray into the underworld of Vyrinios is to infiltrate the Assassin’s Guild.”

“Unh-huh,” McKenzie said, reaching for the box again and getting his phone out.

“You’ve been extremely fortunate to have encountered another assassin under favourable circumstances - we expected to have to set up at least half a dozen high-profile Appointments before you were approached by a Guild member,” Danandra said.

“So it was this other assassin took Aghkar’s head away?” Leni asked.

“What? Oh, yeah,” McKenzie answered somewhat absently, logging into twitter.

“The rendezvous you gave sounds like the Unsheathed Dagger. It’s rumoured to have links with the profession,” Danandra went on.

“Righto,” McKenzie said, scrolling down through his messages. It was the usual: some spam, lots of messages congratulating him on his ‘really cool twitter project’ and amazingly realistic graphics, some of which offered work doing the same, Christine telling him to be careful, and a couple of people asking him to post photos of Sharinta with fewer - or ideally no - clothes on. He was up to 3745 followers now.

“The warehouse is on fire, run,” Danandra told him.

“No it isn’t - I’m sort of paying attention,” McKenzie answered.

“Put that bloody thing down and pay some more!” Danandra berated him.

“’Gis a sec.”

Got back. Plan worked sort of. Aghkar dead, anyway. Met interesting girl assassin. No phone no photos sorry. Must go: meeting. BORING! He tweeted, then added another: PS, D’s giving me the third bloody degree AGAIN. Apparently you’re supposed to do this sort of thing sober. Meh.

The tweets joined the few dozen he’d already posted: he’d set up mckrowbar mostly as a way to irritate Lemuel and was thoroughly surprised that anyone else was bothered enough to follow it. He had no idea whether Lemuel knew about it and, if he did, whether it had irritated him: but hope springs eternal.

McKenzie locked the phone. “Fine. I’m listening. Should we not also have Sharinta here for you to talk at too, though?”

Danandra and McKenzie looked around, then back at Leni. Leni looked guilty. Danandra and McKenzie noticed Sharinta’s boots lying on the floor behind her chair.

“Oh, Leni," Danandra said.

“I was bored," Leni said.

McKenzie exhaled in irritation. “Well, since one of the participants is only able to attend from the inside of one of the others, I’m calling that adjourned. I’ll leave you to do the zapping out, Danandra.” He picked up his gun and the crate and - to the accompaniment of a flare of Danandra’s magic and then the sound of her angry shouting - headed off in the direction of the small office he’d appropriated as a bedroom. In one corner he’d shoved some old boxes together to form a makeshift bed - it was better than the cold stone floor. McKenzie put the crate down, slid the bolt across the door and eased himself into the nest of rough blankets that served as mattress and insulation.

Meeting adjourned. L’s being a dick again and she’s eaten Shar. Fucking hate trolls. For those keeping count: #leniGunFail+1, McKenzie tweeted.

There was a knock at the door.

“I’m asleep. This is a pre-recorded ‘fuck off’ message. Please fuck off after the beep. BEEP!” McKenzie said in an irritated tone.

“It’s me.” ‘Me’, in this case, was Sharinta. “Can I stay in here with you tonight? I promise I’ll be good. It’s just, well, ew. Don’t fucking want to go through that again tonight.”

“You probably won’t have to. Danandra’s her target of choice, isn’t she?” McKenzie said.

“Danandra’s gone off in a huff,” Sharinta said.

McKenzie sighed and considered leaving her out there, then got up and unlocked the door.

“Thanks,” Sharinta slipped quickly inside. In the dim illumination of the phone’s screen, McKenzie could see she was clutching her dress and cloak around herself.

“You alright?” He asked.

Sharinta shook her head, and, he noticed, just shook. She sat down on the edge of the bed and was silent for a few moments. McKenzie dimly realised he was seeing her cry, or as close as she ever got, maybe. He sat down awkwardly next to her, but wasn’t sure if he was required to provide some level of comfort or just shut up and leave her the fuck alone.

“Yes,” she finally answered. “You get used to it, to a certain degree, anyway. Know what the worst bit is, right now, in my fucking head? The worst bit is she apologises for ripping your clothes. She’s sorry she’s torn my fucking dress while she was fucking eating me. Being eaten and spending up to several hours as a fucking undigested meal she apparently considers to be entirely fucking acceptable behaviour. Tearing someone’s clothes, though? No, that’s a big enough fucking deal to warrant an apology.”

McKenzie wasn’t sure how to answer. “Well, I do try and kill her every time I see her,” was what he came out with.

“Your efforts are greatly fucking appreciated,” Sharinta answered, then scratched at her head. “It was even fucking ickier than usual this time. I itch, for some reason. All over.”

“Hang on.” He’d finally managed to figure out how to get the LED flash on his phone to work as a torch: he switched it on now.

Sharinta, wrapped in her torn dress, was perfectly clean and dry - nothing got teleported out by Danandra’s spell apart from the person his or herself, she’d had that much practice at it - but the skin on her shoulder and arms was blotched red in places, as was her face.

“Ow. That’s really fucking bright.” Sharinta squinted against the harsh light.

“Sorry. You’re all over red, like sunburn or something. You get allergies?”

“Aller-what?” Sharinta asked.

“Never mind,” McKenzie said. “Maybe Leni ’et someone that didn’t agree with you,” McKenzie ventured.

Sharinta gave a brief smile. “Maybe.” She scratched at her leg. “This is annoying.”

“Can’t you cleric yourself and stop the itching?” McKenzie asked.

“It’s much harder to do stuff to yourself than to others, especially the minor things, for some reason. Probably to do with putting the needs of others before your own or some bullshit like that,” Sharinta answered.

McKenzie gave a snort of laughter. “Shit, you’re really not cut out for the holy life at all, are you?”

“Depends on your definition of holy,” Sharinta answered.

“Well, you’re in luck. Do whatever it is you’d do to me and I’ll zap it back at you,” McKenzie said.

“Oh yeah, I fucking forgot that,” Sharinta brightened. She took McKenzie’s hand - he felt the whisper of power, but disappointingly his hangover was unaffected. McKenzie called up the pattern of what Sharinta had just done. It was unlike the few magical patterns he’d picked up, and more akin to the headache cure he already had in his pseudomagical toolkit after seeing Sharinta perform it. He allowed some quintessence to trickle into it, and thence out through the hand Sharinta was holding.

“Thank you. Also, ouch,” she said, but she was smiling.

“You’re welcome. Why ouch? What’d I do?”

“It’s not what but how quickly. It takes a light touch. It’s subtle, in fact, and we all know that you have a tenuous relationship with subtle at the best of times,” she told him, although she squeezed his hand as she said it. “However: look.” She released McKenzie’s hand and held her arm up in the light of the phone. Although Sharinta seemed to have lost more of her tan - she was actually quite pale, now - the redness was gone.

“Job done. Cracking,” McKenzie summed it up.

“Speaking of which, how’d your job go? You stink of booze as well as blood so I’m guessing Danna owes me a gold piece,” Sharinta asked.

“She does. Aghkar’s dead though, so ner-ner-ne-ner to you. There was a lady assassin. I think she wants to see me. No jokes,” McKenzie added the last quickly.

Sharinta made an innocent face. “The thought hadn’t even occurred.”

“Aye, like fuck it hadn’t,” McKenzie said. “Anyway, there’s like an interview or summat tomorrow.” He yanked a couple of the blankets off the bed and chucked them on the floor, then stood up. “Bed’s all yours, such as it is.”

“Thanks. You’re a gentleman,” Sharinta said, burrowing into the blankets. “You wanna share? It’s cold in here. And yes, I’ll behave.”

McKenzie considered the cold floor. “Promise?” He asked. “No offence, but I am all about keeping life simple right now.” It had been four months since he’d sent Narra to safety on Earth, thus ending their relationship before it had even really begun, but he had surprised himself by avoiding or turning down any opportunities for physical encounters in the intervening time. He was still in that headspace, even though he hadn’t heard as much as a whisper from her, and neither had Christine or the others. Lemuel hadn’t forbade them to stay in touch, which was surprising, although he had ruled against any further attempts at bringing McKenzie back. He could only suppose that Lemuel found the constant reminder of what could happen to those who crossed him a useful technique for ensuring their loyalty.

“Hey. McKenzie,” Sharinta said.

“What?”

“I said I promise. Spoilsport,” Sharinta confirmed.

“Okay then. It is fuck-off freezing on that floor,” McKenzie said. He wrapped himself in his pair of blankets and laid down. Sharinta, true to her word, moved aside to make room without even so much as a grin or a raised eyebrow. He killed the phone light and put it next to his pistol on his makeshift bedside table.

A few minutes went by.

“You were thinking about your princess again, weren’t you?” Sharinta asked him.

There was no reply, though. McKenzie was already asleep.

Sharinta found herself mulling her own memories of the day Princess Anaharra had stepped through - well, been thrown through, Sharinta corrected herself - the portal leading back to McKenzie’s home world, or dimension, or whatever term was appropriate for his crazy, incomprehensible plane of existence. Earth, he called it.

Sharinta was a chaotic soul unencumbered by many of the ethics that kept most people in line with the expectations of society, but she didn’t like seeing people hurt and killed, and she liked doing the hurting and killing even less. She had been relieved beyond words when Anaharra had escaped.

Admittedly there was an element of self-interest: it had resolved what had looked to be a very nasty situation for herself, Danandra and Leni. They didn’t have to go up against the - at the time - barely sane McKenzie; with the were-witch Heska thrown into the bargain, too. On the whole, though, Sharinta was just relieved that she hadn’t had to commit another horrific act at the behest of Lord Lemuel and his curse.

Anaharra had made her escape that day, but Sharinta was still a prisoner: and now even the hope that she would one day be free seemed gone. Lord Lemuel had commanded her to swear that she would make no attempt to break the curse: not that she had even a tenth of the power required to contemplate trying. The Archmage Xixaxa - the most powerful woman in the known world - had tried, but even with McKenzie’s unpredictable power harnessed to the task, she had failed: and she too had sworn that she would not try again.

McKenzie, with infuriating ease, had refused the oath: the curse had less of a hold on him. He had power - he had power beyond the dreams of most mages - but it was wild, uncontrollable: he was able only to imperfectly copy some spells and abilities. His only other option was to simply unleash it as pure, destructive energy. He wasn’t going to be breaking the curse, and if it did lose it’s hold on him completely, then that would be great for McKenzie but not much help for Sharinta, Danandra and Leni.

So there was no way out. They were stuck with the curse and with each other. Danandra had reacted to this by becoming increasingly snappy, acerbic and intolerant of others. Leni was behaving increasingly like a wild troll, attacking Sharinta and Danandra at random - attacks the curse meant they were powerless to resist, even if it kept Leni from physically harming them.

Outwardly, Sharinta was unchanged.

Inwardly, she had become tired of life.

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