BY RIK HOSKIN
In days to come they would call him Invincible, but on this day he was simply Jakob Heimdal, Inquisitor. He held his hand aloft, warning the accompanying trio from the City Watch to silence. The four stood at the foot of a narrow stone stairwell, ill-lit by the memory of a flaming sconce three flights above. A low, wooden door riddled with woodworm blocked their path.
Heimdal listened carefully, unconsciously narrowing his eyes as he tried to make out the noises coming from the other side of the rotting door.
Voices. Possibly… no definitely, chanting.
His informant had been correct then–here in the bowels of the city, in the long shadow of the Emperor’s palace, was an illicit coven.
Heimdal rested one leather-gloved hand on the pommel of his sheathed sword, shifting its reassuring weight against his hip. “Break this door down, captain,” he instructed in a whisper.
The Captain of the Watch directed his men with a swift torrent of silent hand gestures while Heimdal unsheathed his sword with that familiar banshee wail of metal on metal.
The door crumbled after a single solid blow from the Watch, and Heimdal made the familiar announcement as it collapsed from rusted hinges: “I am Jakob Heimdal, lieutenant of the Church of the Holy Inquisition. You are to cease your activities immediately–as of this moment you are all under Holy containment.”
The first thing to hit Heimdal and the Watch was the foul stench of incense mixed with the heady odor of sacrificial blood. The second thing to hit them was an athame, a ceremonial dagger that cleaved the air before slamming into the chest of the captain, rebounding from his leather armor but staggering him all the same. The captain danced three backwards steps, collapsing beyond the broken doorframe.
Heimdal could make out six acolytes through the foggy air of the low-ceilinged hovel, devotees to foul Anarchy, dressed in long, ceremonial robes daubed with animal blood, their faces painted with the same in swirling scarlet glyphs.
The seventh member of the group stepped from his position at the blood-stained pedestal around which the others were gathered and pointed one glistening red finger at Heimdal. “Kill the others,” the Magi commanded, “but the inquisitor dies by my hand and mine alone.”
His attendants bowed their heads, wordlessly acknowledging the instruction. It always amused Heimdal the way these devotees to Anarchy could still be so ordered.
All six acolytes sprang at Heimdal and the remaining guardsmen, screaming nonsensical battle cries like rabid dogs. Heimdal met the first attacker with a swing of his broadsword, splitting his torso from shoulder to hip in a devastating swipe. He had given these worshippers of Anarchy fair warning–they had made the choice to attack and their deaths would not trouble his conscience. Already dead, the acolyte tumbled to the stone tiling, scarlet runnels pooling around the ruin of his body.
The next acolyte stepped towards the inquisitor more warily.
From the corner of his eye, Heimdal could see the other acolytes engaging with the City Watch, and he shot a silent prayer to the divine personage of the Emperor himself to watch over these brave men. Then, Heimdal shifted his full attention back to his approaching enemy. This one was tall, well over six feet, but gangly, malnourished like so many of these worshippers of perversity. They spent their lives hiding in the shadows, avoiding the attention of the authorities as they consorted with demons, travelling hidden paths between towns and villages. It was a lifestyle that left little time for the square meals and solid nights’ sleep that a man required. Anarchy demanded much of its followers and gave only corruption in return; that and abominable, distasteful mystic power of dubious validity.
The gangly acolyte kept his distance, stepping back as Heimdal raised his sword. As Heimdal shifted his balance, the acolyte reached into his capacious sleeve and tossed a handful of shimmering dust at him. The dust was colored like gold flecks, and it caught the scant light of the room like twinkling stars in the night sky. Heimdal scrunched his eyes closed, turning his head as the powder brushed across his face. The dust burned into the skin like hot ashes, flecks snagging in the dark stubble that decorated his chin. An inquisitor was expected to be clean-shaven at all times, no matter the situation, and Heimdal was not proud of how he looked today–three nights tracking this troupe, running every connection and informer that the City Watch knew, had taken its toll on his appearance. With his free hand, Heimdal brushed at the burning powder, the leather glove protecting the skin of his fingers.
When he opened his eyes again, the vision in the left was blurred and Heimdal’s opponent had used the momentary pause to pull a dirk from his robe. As the acolyte charged towards him, Heimdal thrust his heavy sword in a low, upwards arc. The acolyte’s forward momentum brought him straight into the sword, taking it in the belly and stepping in as the point continued up through him, beneath his breastbone and through his ribcage until it pierced his lungs. The acolyte felt his lungs part, alien in its uniqueness, and slumped to the flagstones as Heimdal withdrew the sword from his body. The dying man spluttered a moment, blood rushing up his gullet, gagging on it as it forced its way into his mouth to overwhelm his tongue in a treacle thick river. The inquisitor stepped over the fallen body.
At the altar, the Magi made sigils in the air with outstretched fingers. Heimdal stepped closer, ignoring the grisly scuffles all around him, and he heard the Magi muttering solemnly. Heimdal recognized these words of power, dark and obscene–he had heard them time and again in his quest to rid the Empire of the blight of Anarchy.
The inquisitor took the final stride that brought him within reach of the Magi, swinging his sword like a club. The sound of steel cleaving flesh echoed in Heimdal’s ears, a sound like biting into an apple, as his sword parted the Magi’s head from his torso. The Magi’s decapitated body staggered forward, legs buckling beneath it while the head sailed through the fetid air of the room, still speaking the last words of the hex as the final impulses flitted through his brain. The head hit a stone wall with a hollow impact, slamming down to the floor, silenced forever.
Heimdal breathed a sigh of relief as he looked over at the head. Pale blue eyes glared at him defiantly, the last sight of the dead mystic.
A shriek alerted Heimdal as one of the acolytes stumbled towards him, a dagger between his ribs. Heimdal slapped the stumbled acolyte aside. The acolyte, his face a sickly pallor, collapsed to the stone floor, struggling to take a breath. Somehow in those brief seconds, the acolyte had sunk his own knife into Heimdal’s shoulder, driving it with enough force to pierce the Holy armor. Heimdal grunted, thrusting his sword at the acolyte, hilt first, and striking the back of his head with a resounding crunch that sent him sprawling to the floor. The acolyte’s jaws clacked together as his face struck the floor. Heimdal drew the knife from his shoulder, but adrenalin seemed to hold the pain at bay.
The Watch guard motioned to mop up the last of the acolytes. “Sorry about that, inquisitor,” he said. “Bad bloody form.”
Heimdal shook his head. “No need to apologize,” he said. “Happy to help.”
It took another three minutes to fully subdue the forces of Anarchy in the claustrophobic hovel, and one of the Watchmen lost his life before the battle was over. Eventually, the last of the worshippers of perversion was stopped and the incense extinguished.
The captain kneeled down amid the dead bodies–there were no wounded, not when Inquisitor Heimdal was on a case–and plucked the identity ring from his fallen colleague. The ring would be returned to his family along with a meagre death-in-service payment.
“This area has been cleansed,” Heimdal told the captain before he departed for his church offices.
It had been a productive night.
* * *
In his office suite at the church, Inquisitor Heimdal sat at his solid oak desk, dipping his pen in the inkwell as he wrote out his report on the incident. Two joss-sticks burned on the edge of his desk, casting twirling streams of smoke into the air.
Heimdal looked up at a light rapping from the door. The on-site apothecary entered without preamble. “Good morning, Inquisitor,” the white-haired man began. “I understand you were involved in quite the skirmish last night.”
Heimdal nodded, a grim smile on his lips. “Another temple dedicated to Anarchy set up in our very midst; a half-dozen worshippers practicing there when I entered. It’s very disturbing. The site was purged with the assistance of the City Watch. I set a powerful ward on the area, affixed with sea salt before I left, to cleanse the evil that had amassed.”
The apothecary nodded thoughtfully. “You came through unscathed,” he said with mild surprise.
Unconsciously, Heimdal inclined his head towards his shoulder, where the acolyte’s blade had stabbed him, and realized that he hadn’t had the wound tended to. There was also the burning dust that had been flung at his face, but he had noticed no scarring when he had looked in the mirror that morning to shave. “I took a couple of hits, physician, nothing serious.”
“So it would seem. Would you like for me to look at them, just to confirm that you have not been infected?” the older man asked. Though phrased politely, Heimdal recognized the warning contained therein–any wound inflicted by practitioners of Anarchy had to be checked thoroughly. Often, the devotees to Anarchy left invidious extras in the seemingly simple wounds they inflicted. An inquisitor might show no signs of sickness until a week or more, then suddenly his body would be assaulted or transformed beyond recognition. Several inquisitors had been turned like that, become creatures of Anarchy as the infection raced through their bloodstream, and their stories had become notorious. These once-loyal troops to the Holy Emperor had been beheaded, the brainstem separated from the heart to end their reign of havoc. Each of the infected had been confirmed into sainthood by the serving emperor, granted complete exoneration for their final, irrational crimes, their names seared into legend. Steps were taken to ensure such infections never spread, and it was common practice that every inquisitor be checked by the parish apothecary on return from a mission. An apothecary was an inquisitor trained in the art of the Infection Exorcist.
Heimdal unbuttoned his loose white blouse, pushing it aside so that the physician could examine his shoulder. “A knife clipped me here,” he explained, “a glancing blow, nothing more.”
After a few moments the apothecary exclaimed: “Nothing. Not even a scab. Did the blade piece your skin?”
Heimdal thought back, trying to visualize what had happened in the claustrophobic temple under the city. “I thought so, but things were moving very swiftly. It may have been caught in my armor.”
“Probably,” the apothecary agreed. “Perhaps you’re made of sterner stuff than you thought, Inquisitor Heimdal,” he added with a disconcerting smile.
The inquisitor thought on this as the old physician shuffled quietly out of the office like a wraith.
* * *
Four days passed until a tip off led Heimdal to the ruins of an abandoned temple on the outskirts of the forest surrounding the capital. Expecting trouble, Heimdal enlisted the aid of a mounted battalion of the City Watch, who were always on call for church business. He stalked through the forest at the head of the group atop a piebald filly appropriated in the name of the Emperor from a nearby stable–much to the owner’s delight. The Watch urged their horses on, swords, axes and maces gripped at half mast.
A break in the tree’s gave Heimdal his first sight of the portal. It seemed to stretch from a point just above the ruined temple–itself an unimpressive smattering of broken stones–up one-hundred feet or more, pulsating like something organic. A wave of nausea ran through Heimdal as he watched an other-worldly creature nudging against the slit in the sky as if being born into his world. Its eyes were the fleshy blue-black of a newborn bird, and seemed to peer through the hole despite their apparent blindness. The creature was too large to get through the hole, and struggled an ungainly shoulder against the edges of the rift, making the skies vibrate all around with a sound like honking geese on the wing.
“Foul demon,” Heimdal muttered. He recognized the ugly creature from a diagram he had seen in one of the church’s many reference guides–all of which he had been expected to commit to memory as part of his training. It was a Voiceless, a creature of Anarchy.
Heimdal watched the creature open its pointed beak of a mouth, fleshy gums unencumbered by teeth, and unleash a jet of lava like a sentient volcano. Red hot magma blasted through half of Heimdal’s battalion, reducing men and steeds to ashes in seconds. The stench of burning flesh assaulted Heimdal’s nostrils and he watched as the trees at the edge of the temple combusted, burning like sconced torches.
Beneath him, the filly was starting to panic, head shaking left and right, up and down, unable to make sense of what was occurring all around. Two dozen robed acolytes of Anarchy emerged from the ruins, preparing to defend this sacred shrine until their sick midwifery was completed.
As he steadied his steed, calming her with firm pats of his hand, Heimdal hollered his familiar challenge: “I am Jakob Heimdal, lieutenant of the Church of the Holy Inquisition. You are to cease your activities immediately–as of this moment you are under Holy containment.”
His words were lost to the sounds of battle and the deep, thunder-like rumble of the Voiceless as it belched another spew of burning magma at the ground, incinerating members of the Watch and Anarchy’s Acolytes without distinction.
Heimdal needed to close that portal before the Voiceless broke through, or the threat would increase a hundredfold. The inquisitor dismounted his skittish steed, reached into his coat and removed a small, leather-bound book. Flicking rapidly through the well-thumbed pages as he ran, he found the set of diagrams that demonstrated how and where rune stones needed to be placed to contain such a monstrosity. On paper, it looked a simple task–placing just three marked stones at the correct junctures of the summoning altar. But Heimdal had to pass the acolytes and avoid the fiery screams of the Voiceless before he could reach that altar.
He looked up to see another stream of magma shooting towards him. Instinctively, Heimdal leapt aside.
For a moment, time seemed to crawl as the magma trail poured towards him like the contents of a tipped forge. Then the stream hit and Heimdal watched as the flesh was roasted from his horse ten feet away, the fat burning with a nova of brilliance for a fraction of a second, the smell teasing his taste buds in spite of himself. Heimdal watched as the horse’s eyes rolled in their sockets and the skeleton became visible as the flesh was stripped away. And then the eyes bubbled as they too reached boiling point, the brain behind them, liquefying and pouring from the ears of the burning steed. Where the horse had stood just two seconds earlier there was now a clump of blackened ash wafting on the breeze, lit by the burning grass all around.
Heimdal looked down at himself, amazed that the magma stream had missed him–only to realize that it hadn’t. His clothes had mostly burnt away and the tatters that remained were actively aflame. He patted at them with burning gloves, shocked to feel the very lack of feeling that accompanied quashing those flames. In his left hand, the small leather-bound book crumbled away, now nothing more than a handful of ash leaves. Heimdal watched, breathless, as the raw red flesh of his hand reformed, skin reknitting over briefly visible muscles and tendons. “In the name of the Emperor,” he muttered, “what have I become?”
Unbeckoned, an image flashed through Heimdal’s mind: two days before, a member of the lower order had been struck with a stomach virus. It was a minor irritation but it had spread a brief spate of diarrhea across many of those onsite, including the apothecary himself who was usually so meticulous. Heimdal, however, had remained staunchly immune. He had not given it a second thought. Now, however, he wondered if there might not be a greater significance to the incident.
Two pawns of Anarchy warily approached as black smoke billowed from Heimdal’s body. Through the blackened flesh of his face, his two flint grey eyes looked at them, burning into their souls as much as the unholy vomit of the Voiceless had burned into the smoldering ground all around. The bolder of the acolytes, dressed in a well-worn shift, stepped in and swung his axe at the smoking inquisitor. Heimdal stood there, felt the head of the axe clump into his flank. It stuck there and held as though Heimdal were an old tree, bark too thick to penetrate more than the width of two fingers.
The acolyte tried to pull his weapon free. Heimdal watched him briefly, amused. Finally, Heimdal shrugged and the axe slipped free leaving the inquisitor’s flesh unmarked. The acolyte gazed at his axe, jaw agape, oblivious to the fist that raced towards his jaw. Heimdal’s fist connected with a loud clap, and he was already moving towards the second acolyte, driving a ram’s head punch into his breastbone with enough force to knock the man off his feet.
Heimdal reached behind him and plucked the axe from where it had fallen, standing straight up with its handle in the air. An instant later he had used the heavy blade to lop the head from the first acolyte before moving to the second in a swift, bloody performance.
Heimdal saw the five remaining Anarchy priests–for such fiends always worked in sevens–as he entered the ruins of the temple beneath the portal. They were huddled around the stone altar that had survived the destruction of this site two centuries ago during the Holy Purges. The priests were babbling through the incantations to complete the opening of the portal. Heimdal swung the axe as he reached the nearest priest, lopping the man’s head from his shoulders.
“I am Inquisitor Jakob Heimdal of the church of his Holiness the Emperor,” he told them as they watched their colleague’s body collapse to the dirt, “and I have no tolerance for what I witness here. If any of you wish to be granted mercy in the hereafter, now is the time to make your pleas heard.”
The priests stared at Heimdal in frank astonishment, this fire-blackened, naked figure of fury that had just killed one of their own. Then one of them tentatively stepped forward and spoke, bowing humbly as he did so. “I submit myself to the mercy of his Holiness, the Emperor,” he intoned.
The other magi watched, instinctively aware that his was the most reasonable path for their continued survival, despite their success in summoning the Voiceless. Slowly, each one followed his lead, bowing before the blood-splattered, naked inquisitor as he drummed his fingers impatiently against the handle of the axe. Heimdal looked them over as, one by one, they prostrated themselves before him. Then he raised the axe and, with a furious swing, began his deforestation of their hateful cult before turning his attention to the placement of the rune stones.
And so began the legend of Inquisitor Jakob Heimdal, the Invincible.
* * *
Over the next nine months, like the birthing of a child, Heimdal’s legend grew to full term.
The toadies of Anarchy learnt to fear the unstoppable inquisitor as his rampage took him through the ranks of their hidden cells within the city and its outlying reaches. There was nowhere for Anarchy to hide, it seemed. Heimdal brought the Word of the Emperor to the seediest hovels, the dankest sewers and, occasionally, to the highest echelons of the royal court. He sought out the works of Anarchy like no inquisitor before him, and he made it plain that he cared nothing for fear or self-preservation.
While Heimdal’s one-man purge attracted cheers of admiration from his peers it drew little in the way of physical support. Most people were simply too scared, or, as one trainee inquisitor who was wise beyond his years put it, “too mortal” to work with “Judgement Jakob”. Prevailing wisdom held that Heimdal was a maniac, with a blatant disregard for the lives of others during the heat of battle.
And yet, despite his recklessness, Inquisitor Jakob Heimdal never received so much as a scratch. He was set afire, drowned, stabbed, poisoned and on one occasion stoned by the enemies he preyed upon. Nothing, it seemed, could stop him.
* * *
The apothecary watched as Heimdal paced around his church office reading the letter that had arrived by courier. The letter bore the royal seal of Emperor Michendor.
“It’s an invitation to the court,” Heimdal said. “To meet with the Holy Emperor himself.”
The apothecary nodded warily, considering his words carefully before he spoke. “An honor,” he concluded, but his tone was ominous.
Heimdal either didn’t notice or he mistook it for envy. “It seems that the Emperor has become aware of the work I do in his name,” he explained, paraphrasing the letter as he read it through a second time. “He wishes to thank me personally, over dinner tomorrow evening.”
“It has been a long time coming, and well earned, if I may say, Inquisitor,” the physician told him. The words were accompanied by a fragile smile that appeared as if it might break if the sun’s rays struck it too harshly.
The inquisitor ceased his pacing. “I have dedicated my life to upholding the Word of the Emperor,” he explained. “I ask nothing in return beyond his continued sufferance of my servitude.”
“But you will attend…” the apothecary insisted.
Heimdal stared at him, flint grey eyes boring into those of the older man. “Of course. The Emperor commands.”
* * *
The Emperor’s throne was raised slightly above the height of the other chairs at the wooden table where they ate. The table was elaborately carved with the royal seal and featured miniature knights poised as its legs, each one carved with alarmingly lifelike features as if trapped in amber.
The atmosphere was awkward. Heimdal had been instructed before entering that he was not to speak unless spoken to and that he should keep his answers concise. Furthermore, he was instructed that he should never look directly at Emperor Michendor for fear of making the other uncomfortable. This latter instruction was understandable, Heimdal reflected as he carved at the game fowl on his plate with a knife of purest silver. The Emperor’s throne incorporated a series of pipes and tubes, feeding many of his body’s needs and working to retard the inevitable aging process. Emperor Michendor had the skin of a nineteen-year-old, but his body was lethargic, his eyes ancient and rheumy. The treatments that had held off the physical onslaught of years had had a terrible effect on his inner health and he seemed only to continue from day to day purely on his indomitable will to live. He seemed, Heimdal reflected, to be living for nothing other than this continued drive to live, and his throne punctuated each minute with a clack-hiss of the machinery that regulated his heart.
Besides Heimdal and the Emperor, three advisors took up positions in the room, a step back from the table itself. One of them was the Emperor’s personal apothecary, who monitored the equipment of the throne both between and during courses. The apothecary was assisted by a nurse, youthful and utterly terrified, who stood to one side of the room trying unsuccessfully to blend into the background despite her white coveralls standing out like a beacon. The nurse was not expected to eat with the others. The other members of the dining party were the Emperor’s legal advisor, whose role had become more significant through Michendor’s latter years, making decisions in the Emperor’s stead; and Fairweather, a retired military man who had earned the title of baron in one of the western territories and who, according to court tattletales, currently had the Emperor’s ear. Two guards stood at the door at all times, and Heimdal was under no illusion that they would so much as hesitate to kill him should he threaten the Emperor in any way, even through the misuse of a carving knife at the wrong angle.
Heimdal felt Fairweather’s eyes settle on him and he looked up from his plate.
“You have made quite the reputation for yourself, Inquisitor,” the baron stated, a trace smile curving beneath his thick moustaches as he chewed.
“I seek no recognition,” Heimdal stated. “What I do I do in the name of the Emperor. Nothing more.” He bowed his head towards the head of the table, making sure not to look directly at the Emperor himself.
“As it should be,” the legal counsel stated with gravity. Heimdal devoted his energies back to his plate.
“So tell us,” Baron Fairweather continued, “how is it that an inquisitor like yourself, a normal man, is able to perform these services with such temerity?”
Heimdal got the impression that they were trying to entrap him somehow with their words, though he could not imagine why.
“I hardly think,” the weaselly voice of the counsel interrupted Heimdal’s thoughts, “that an inquisitor can be termed a ‘normal man’, Bardolph. I am led to understand that these men are taken in at birth and trained from a young age to perform their holy services. You and I can only imagine the discipline that Inquisitor Heimdal here has as the keystone to his life. Inquisitor Heimdal and his ilk,” he added with the hint of a sneer.
Baron Fairweather nodded thoughtfully, sucking loudly on a piece of meat caught between his teeth. “True, councilor. Very true,” he conceded.
In a dangerous undertone, the legal counsel added as though as an afterthought: “Of course, there have been occasions…”
Heimdal glanced to the head of the table, hoping for a signal from the Emperor. They were trying to entrap him, insinuating that any inquisitor who could wield such power was somehow a threat to the order. “I have served my Emperor,” he stated firmly, “in the only way I know. At the risk of boring the Emperor in my repetition, what I have done I have done in his name, following his holy instructions as I understand them.”
“Then, would you throw yourself on your sword?” Baron Fairweather asked, his teeth appearing like those of a feral dog beneath his moustache.
Heimdal answered without hesitation. “Were the Emperor to instruct me to fall upon my sword I would do so without question.”
The counsel smiled the grin of a reptile. “But would that make any difference, Inquisitor Heimdal? They say you are indestructible. Unkillable. Invincible.”
“I am at a loss to explain…” Heimdal began but the baron spoke over him.
“So, is it true, Inquisitor?” he asked.
The silence that followed was punctuated by the clack-hiss of the Emperor’s throne as it kept him alive. Heimdal drew a long breath, suspecting that he had said too much. He had done nothing wrong. And yet, here he was made to feel a criminal in the company of the Holy Emperor himself. Suddenly, all eyes were on him, awaiting his next utterance. The guards at the door had assumed ready stances, their hands poised on the hilts of their swords.
* * *
Heimdal paced through his office within the walls of the church, the taste of his meal with the Emperor still clinging to his breath. He had to face the reality of he situation–his ability, whatever it was, posed a serious problem. For the last nine months he had spent every waking hour of every day hunting the hordes of Anarchy, driving them from the Emperor’s lands. All the time, he had considered himself blessed, a warrior like no other, able to survive any calamity, no matter how lethal it might seem. In his quieter moments, he had prayed to the Emperor, thanking him for this blessing.
But the meal had lifted the scales from his eyes. Now, he realized that this ability was not the work of the Emperor nor his servants. This power, whatever it was, threatened them. The conclusion was obvious, though his mind shied from it in disgust. His abilities were the works of foul Anarchy. It had to be.
But how? When had Anarchy infiltrated his personage? He hadn’t always been this. Throughout childhood he had amassed the cuts and scrapes, the bruises and grazes of a growing boy. Up to a year ago he had suffered with colds and viruses, had bled when he nicked himself shaving. Yet here he was, untouchable and unstoppable, a lunacy of immortality.
Heimdal sat at his desk, toying idly with the letter opener, rubbing the blade against his palm and watching idly as the wound sealed before his eyes.
It had begun the night when he had led the City Watch to that illicit den of Anarchy. They had burst through the door, and the priest had cursed him.
“Kill the others,” the Magi had commanded, “but the inquisitor dies by my hand and mine alone.”
That had been what he had said, his continually moving hands cleaving the air with a Terpsichore of unholy sigils.
Heimdal had killed him, beheaded the priest before the transaction had been completed. His words had become a curse, a hex upon the inquisitor that only the Magi–the now-dead Magi–could break. Heimdal could only die by the hand of the Magi, a man now beheaded and buried under the sod.
Heimdal turned the letter opener in his hands, rotating it slowly until the blade faced him. With a swift jab, he rammed the letter opener, point-first, into his open right eye, felt the blade pierce the eyeball and continue to split further until it could go no deeper. The hilt of the short knife was flush against his eyeball and, as he tried unsuccessfully to blink around the obstruction, he felt the blade moving somewhere behind the eye, tickling against his brain.
There was a light tapping at the door at that moment, and a young boy entered carrying towels and bed linen. Eight years of age, the boy was a trainee inquisitor who was tasked with the menial chores of the church, just as Heimdal had been many years before. The boy looked up, struggling to peer over the pile of towels, and saw Heimdal pulling something from his face. The boy let loose a shriek before collapsing to the floor of the office in a dead faint.
For a moment, Heimdal continued to sit at his desk, pondering the blade of the letter opener. It glistened with a trace of liquids, but Heimdal himself appeared to be unscathed. He placed the blade on the desk as he rose, striding across the room to tend to the trainee. He was not a monster. Not yet.
* * *
The tavern brawl had been in full flow for at least five minutes before Inquisitor Heimdal arrived on the scene. It was almost midnight when the terrified barmaid had appeared at the gates to the monastery, pleading for assistance. As the only inquisitor in residence that evening, Heimdal had answered the call without hesitation, catching the barmaid’s story as they rushed back to the tavern on foot.
Her blouse and face were pocked with blood, none of it her own. “I don’t know how it started,” she told the inquisitor. “One minute the table was all laughter and friendly like, next it was raised voices and drawn daggers.”
Heimdal took this in as they dashed around the curve of an alleyway and ducked into the tavern via the tradesman’s entrance. Any tavern owner worth the name in this part of town should be able to quell a brawl without calling on the church, Heimdal reflected. What concerned him more, however, was the suggestion that one of the brawlers had become something other once the fight began.
“In there ‘t’is,” the barmaid breathed fearfully, pointing past grease-thick hob and unwashed glasses.
The sounds of heavy blows and cursing could be heard through the open doorway beyond, and Heimdal saw flashes of movement as people flitted past the narrow opening. He reached a hand to his sword, drawing it slowly from the scabbard. The barmaid looked at the sword with raised eyebrows and Heimdal shook his head. He didn’t plan to use it, other than as a warning.
“Stay here,” he instructed, striding into “the ring”.
The tavern floor wore blood like a skin, deep as a man’s knuckle. Several dead bodies lay against upturned tables, while tavern patrons and staff were trying without success to halt the rampage of a hulking creature in the middle of the room or to just run from it. The creature was a blur of motion as it tossed anyone who got within range aside in a crack of breaking bones.
Heimdal took a moment to watch the creature through the snatches of the crowd, trying to ascertain its size and genus. Yes, the thing was a blur, but not from speed, he realized, but as though human eyes could not register its presence fully. But its stench was plain enough, like the stink of rotten eggs. Sulphurous eyes whipped across the illusion of face, leaving trails of wispy smoke as it shifted its head back and forth, continuing its butcher’s work. It was humanoid in shape but twice the proportions of a man with hair and fur and spines across its body.
Heimdal did not recognize the specific type, but he knew a creature of Anarchy when he saw one.
“Cease in the Holy name of the Emperor,” Heimdal called, raising his voice over the cacophony of fear and anger and dread.
As one, the tavern patrons turned to face the inquisitor along with that foul spawn of Anarchy. Heimdal held the monster’s gaze with his own. The creature gave a low growl in its throat, hunkering down into itself, preparing to leap. Heimdal knitted his hands together at the base of his sword in a two-handed grip–it seemed he would need it after all. Somewhere, seemingly from far away, he heard someone whisper his name, awe in their voice.
And then the creature leapt at him while at the same second Heimdal launched himself from the ground, the soles of his boots slapping against the lake of blood before he sprung into the air, swinging his sword across his body in a silver arc. They met several feet above the red-washed floorboards. The creature’s claws lashed at Heimdal’s head, tearing thick gouts of flesh from his face while his blade bit the creature’s torso, cutting through it at its very thickest section, high on the monster’s ribcage. Heimdal ignored the pain as his face was shredded by the foul creature, ducking his head down into his body as his leap drilled him into the creature’s path.
With a scream, the Anarchy spawn slapped to the ground in two sections, cleaved clean through between second and third ribs. Breathless, Heimdal stepped out of the bloody mass that had been a living creature, for his leap had brought him straight through the ruined halves of the body, unstoppable force splitting the once-immovable object.
Standing in the tavern, his robes of office covered in hunks of gory flesh, Heimdal reached a gloved hand to his face, probing where the monster’s nails had raked. The flesh there was reknitting already, the burning pain subsiding.
Someone began to applaud, slow and deliberate, as Heimdal brushed flesh from his robes. He scanned the patrons of the tavern who gazed at him in awe and fear. The applause came not from them but from one set of hands across the far end of the room where a cloistered booth perched beside the kitchen door through which he had entered.
Heimdal strode to the booth, replacing the sword in its scabbard as he stepped through the mess of flesh layering the floor, boots squelching in the sea of blood. There, in the booth, sat Baron Fairweather, a half-full tankard of ale before him, and he brought his hands together in slow–almost mocking–applause.
“Baron,” Heimdal addressed him, dipping his head respectfully.
The baron inclined his head at the inquisitor, gesturing for him to sit. “You are formidable,” he began once Heimdal had taken a seat. “You took down that creature in seconds. I would estimate that it took you longer to replace your sword in its scabbard than it did to dispatch a beast that held thirty strong, street-fighting men at bay. Killed some too.”
Heimdal said nothing in response, wary of the baron’s machinations.
“You once agreed that you would throw yourself upon your own sword should the Emperor will it,” the baron continued. “The Emperor now requests your assistance.”
“He need only ask,” Inquisitor Heimdal confirmed. “What is it he wishes of me?”
“I set this situation to see for myself what others proclaimed you capable of,” the baron told him. “You have far exceeded even their wildest tales. You are unstoppable, indestructible. See how your facial muscles reknit, your flesh rejects the taint of Anarchy from that creature’s hand. The others in this room, at least those that touched the creature, will die within the week. They will die painful, horrible deaths, marred by its presence, its touch upon them. But you will live, inquisitor.”
“So I suspect,” Heimdal replied warily.
“The Emperor is not well. He requires your secret,” Baron Fairweather stated, his eyes never leaving Heimdal’s. A platoon of the baron’s personal guard had materialized from some hiding place, blocking the booth’s exit and standing sentry at the tavern doors. The patrons and staff were being ushered away.
Heimdal’s hand pressed against the hilt of his sword. “If I could give it, I would,” he assured the baron, “but I don’t know what the secret is. All I know is that I was cursed, and I turned that curse into a blessing in the Holy name of the Emperor.”
The baron supped his ale, wiping foam from his moustache before speaking again in a quiet, deliberate voice. “It would be preferable if you did not make a scene.”
“I could dispatch your guards,” Heimdal told him earnestly, “in the time it takes you to finish your ale. You must realize that, baron.”
“And go against the Emperor’s will?”
The inquisitor shook his head reluctantly, pressing his blade back into its elaborately tooled scabbard. “What will happen to me?”
“You will be given your own room in the palace, kept under lock and key. There, the Emperor’s finest physicians and magic users will test you until they learn your secret.”
“And if they do not learn it?” Heimdal asked.
The baron smiled, supping the last of his ale. “They will continue to test.”