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Head Games

Head Games
by Cameron Johnston

Seven corpses lined the side of the alley, heaped atop pig shit and kitchen slops. Stained blankets did little to conceal the lumps of butchered human meat beneath. A black-clad warden wearing the red sash of a captain stood in the middle of the bloody mess, his back to me, hand resting on the pommel of the sword at his waist. I pried the bent rollup from my lips and yawned tabac smoke, scratching at my chin, bristles rasping. They had hauled me out of a warm bed and sent me trudging halfway across the bloody city for this?

I tched. Seven was a quiet night for the Warrens - it was called the cess-pit of Setharis for a damn good reason. I stuck the rollup back between my teeth and picked my way forward, shards of pottery crunching underfoot, decaying tenements groaning and creaking on either side. Why had the Arcanum ordered their loathed tyrant to a murder scene? None of those oh-so-worthy magi, poncing about in silken robes, were comfortable with the idea that I could use my Gift to get into their heads. But I had to do as the Inner Circle demanded, unless I felt like being back out on the streets opening my veins for mageblood addicts to get high on a touch of magic - or worse, I could start using my Gift too much.

The warden turned, scowled. My mood plummeted. "Walker,” he spat. "Of all magi, why did they have to send you?" Captain Matthias Meldrum of the city wardens regarded me with that familiar mix of contempt and utter disgust he reserved solely for me. Considering he was in the scummiest part of Setharis and ankle-deep in a pile of human intestines and grey-green offal, I thought it a little unfair. His moustache was trimmed and waxed in the very latest fashion, but for once he wasn’t wearing his dress uniform all edged in gold thread, instead plain black tunic and trousers.

"Guess you've pissed somebody off," I said in a cloud of smoke. "Good to see you too, Meldrum.” Pompous prick.

Opposite the corpses, a hole gaped in the tenement wall. As I studied the scene Meldrum studied me, hand twitching around the hilt of his sword. Worrying, that. I peered through the crumbled hole into a flooded cellar.

A pair of ashen-faced wardens carrying wicker baskets filled with glistening organs hailed themselves up from the gloom and slopped the contents out into the alley, looking ready to empty their guts too.

"You are a waste of time, Walker," Meldrum said. "I called for a seer. What use is a sot like you?”

I grinned, pointed to his shiny new boots. "You have a kidney on your foot. You’re welcome."

He grimaced, shook it off.

"You called for a magus," I said, spreading my arms wide. "Now you have a magus."

He groaned and lifted a bloodstained glove to massage his temples, leaving streaks. Ha! Still, at least he’d deigned get his own precious hands dirty down amongst filthy peasants.

I was a Docklander and these were my folk, every last filthy, thieving, one of them. It might be my home, but I didn't really belong any more. Here or anywhere else. Still...somebody had to give a rat’s arse about them, and nobody else was going to. "What have you found?"

Meldrum sighed, moving from corpse to corpse peeling back cloth. "Seven men, butchered." He’d done his best at putting them back together, but bits were clearly missing - an arm here, a foot there, internal organs, an entire torso. However, I noted no heads had been taken.

"When were they found?”

"The doorway to this cellar collapsed a week ago. Somebody finally got around to reporting the bodies to my men last night. All I can say with certainty is that they have been in there for more than seven days."

It was a strange answer. Meldrum was precise and methodical, and far more knowledgeable about how long somebody had been rotting than the likes of me. There had to be a good reason he had asked the Arcanum to send a magus.

"What do you expect me to do about a few poxy murders?” I asked. “I’m no thief-taker.” I wasn’t allowed to rifle through people’s minds without high-level authorisation, and all I could do otherwise was produce a waft of air or a few feeble sparks of flame.

He ground his teeth. "There is no natural decay."

Ah. I blinked. He was right - the air was free of the stink of rotting flesh. The victims looked as if they'd been killed only a few moments ago: no bloated and rat-gnawed flesh or swarms of fat black flies dancing from corpse to corpse.

I swallowed, mouth gone dry, then opened up my Gift. Magic quivered like illicit orgasm through my flesh, washing away any trace of hangover, tempting me with power and pleasure. I forced myself to set aside magic’s seductions. I didn’t want to end up warped and twisted like that poor wretch of a pyromancer the Arcanum had put down last week. He had lost control of his emotions and let his magic run unchecked. By the time they got to him it was far too late: his Gift had torn and magic flooded through to warp mind and flesh. With inhuman logic it had begun moulding his body into a better host for the Worm of Magic, that fucking parasite that tempted us every time we opened ourselves up. For the Gifted, using magic was easy, but surviving was hard.

I knelt down and pressed my hand to one man's forehead, ignoring the glassy stare. The skin felt waxy and lukewarm but that didn’t bother me; any child of Docklands grew up with uncle death and auntie murder. I didn't have to touch the corpse to use my power; I just didn't want anybody to know that. I wasn't trusted as it was. I probed deeper.

Nausea roared through me. I lurched to my feet, spun to Meldrum, clutched his arm and doubled over dry-retching.

"Another late night with too much ale, magus?" Meldrum said, every ounce of personal distaste forced into one little word.

I spat gunk, then looked up, taking a deep calming breath. “Yes, as it happens," I said. "But that's not why. Meldrum, I...the victims...they're not dead."

His brow furrowed, eyes flicking between me and the dismembered bodies like I was cracked. "Of course they are.”

"The decay, man! There is none because they're not dead. Not fully.”

A horrified look stole over him. "Do they still feel? Are they aware?"

I shook my head. "No. That I’m sure of. Feels more like..." How to explain it to a mundane? "They seem to be frozen mid-death. They’re not quite dead, but bloody-well not alive either."

He shuddered, closing his eyes for a moment. "Scant mercy. What else?"

It seemed I’d been the perfect choice for this task. And here I had thought myself the last magus they would ever entrust with official Arcanum work. Ancient tales of hoary old tyrants still lurked in people's nightmares.

As the bodies were not quite dead, with a bit of luck their minds might still be readable. I crouched down and pressed a finger to the man's forehead, trying to ignore the stink of corrupt magic. I had never encountered something so foul, but I recognised the source; every magus was trained to.

"Blood sorcery," I whispered.

"Damn,” Meldrum said. “Burn it all, that is the last thing I need."

The first victim’s mind was like glass, my probes unable to find much purchase. It was usually a simple task to read mundanes, like netting fish of thoughts. I carefully felt my way in. His mind was frozen, a record of his last moments. A woman’s skin, soft under his hands. Lust. Confusion. Fear. Pain. A glimpse of her face, twisted in dark ecstasy.

The others yielded similarly rotten fruit.

I straightened up, back killing me. The two sick-looking wardens eyed me warily, as if I were a venomous snake reared to strike. I pulled a silver coin from my sleeve and flicked it out into their snatching hands. "Go get a drink, lads. Be back in half an hour." They couldn't wait to get out of this abattoir.

Meldrum waited until they were out of earshot. "How much will this hurt, Walker?"

I chewed on my lip, looked him right in the eye. “Do you want justice, or to keep your arse out of the fire?"

"So, it is like that. Nobility or Arcanum?"

"Nobility.” The lesser of two disastrous options. Not that the two weren't intertwined in some weird sexual union, each trying to shaft the other.

He broke eye contact, mulling it over while staring at the seven dismembered men. He sighed. "Justice."

I hated to admit it, but his answer didn’t surprise me. “Lady Ilea, head of High House Graske.”

He rubbed his forehead and I could almost feel his headache beginning. "Damn and blast," he said, echoing my own feelings on the matter, but with less odious bodily functions and rabid animals. He considered me gutter-scum, but knew me well enough to realise I wasn’t joking.

We stood in silent dread until the two wardens returned to keep an eye on the alley, then hastily made our way up the hill and through the gatehouse to the Old Town.

Meldrum insisted on stopping at his barracks to wash and change before daring to darken the doorways of a High House. He was right, but that didn't stop me bitching about it - Ilea had murdered seven men, so I wasn’t inclined to be polite; I would have happily trailed chunks of congealed corpse and chicken shit through their halls. Still, Meldrum had enough clout to make life difficult for me if I didn't do things his way.

I scratched at the starched collar of my borrowed shirt, feeling out of place in the pure white linen and high-necked grey warden jacket he'd foisted on me. Meldrum's formal uniform was all pressed and crisp, oiled black leather boots and brass buttons sparkling even on a dingy afternoon. I got into the right mindset for my role as official lackey: chest puffed out, deliberate movements, cold eyes and colder hearts, and not one iota of imagination. I snapped off a crisp salute. "Ready, Sir!"

He scowled, then smoothed out his moustache, checked and re-sheathed the sword at his hip. He insisted on doing this on the low-down, all quiet and subtle instead of men charging into the seat of High House and detaining everybody. I had thought Meldrum was having apoplexy when I suggested it. Instead we would first have a quiet word with the head of the house, Lady Ilea. It was almost like he didn’t entirely trust me...

We made our way west along wide streets lined with marble columns and ornate facades. As we drew closer to our destination the buildings grew older, grimmer, the ornate palaces of the merely rich giving way to the older, brooding fortresses of the High Houses. Finally we reached the immaculate gardens surrounding House Grakse.

Rumour held that beneath the ancient five-story house of black basalt secret tunnels burrowed deep into the rock. As a child I had once been trapped in the catacombs below the city. I shuddered on the inside, hoping that no trace of my fear made its way out onto my mask of official lackey. I stamped down old terrors and focused on the building ahead. Pitted gargoyles leered down from the spires and buttresses, drooling rainwater, not at all sinister.

"So what's the dirt on Graske?" I said, voice sounding surprisingly calm as we marched to great iron-bound doorway. “I know Lady Ilea recently became head of the house. Don’t know much else about her. We don’t exactly move in the same rarefied circles.”

Meldrum was fidgeting and starting to sweat. The prospect of arresting the head of High House could do that to you. "Lady Ilea is mageborn,” he said. “Some small talent with healing magics, but not Gifted enough for entry to the Arcanum. Otherwise she was the perfect child. Perhaps too perfect. There have been unpleasant whispers, but until now I had thought them to be the usual nonsense spread by circling sharks looking to marry into money and position, however diminished.” Even I knew that Graske’s power and influence had crumbled. Still, the old Houses would close ranks to crush everything that disrespected their names.

I couldn't care less for dirty politics between nobles and mages, but with the Lord of a High House dying gossip was everywhere. The simple truth was that even mages a damn sight more powerful than me could trip and break their necks falling down stairs. It was stupid and it was humbling, so of course people invented vile conspiracies. If blood sorcery hadn’t been involved I would not even have considered the official route. There were ways and means to fix such thorny problems, and I was more dangerous than the Arcanum could ever know.

Meldrum was out of his depth, treading dangerous, shark-infested waters, and he knew it. Only stubborn pride kept him moving forward. He was nervous and fearful when he needed to be focused, angry even. I was good at making people angry. "All I remember about Ilea,” I said, “is that she had a nice arse.”

He spun, stabbed a finger at me. "Do not piss me about, Walker. If you let your vile tongue run free in there, they will have your head on a spike. And I will help them. You will keep your mouth shut and follow my lead. Are we clear?"

I lifted my hands, mimicked offense. "Me? I'm the very definition of respectable. I'm shocked you would even imply such boorish behaviour." His eyes narrowed and I rolled mine. "Fine."

He shot me silent threat as we reached the door. He thumped a expensive brass door knocker that had the face of a constipated lion. I slipped in line behind him, looking all dangerous and professional-like.

A dull-eyed maidservant opened the door. She looked at us without visible emotion, body language telling me nothing, which -- after recent exertions -- made my Gift itch to crack open her mind. I didn’t like not being able to read people. But that way was a slippery slope: if now, then why not next time; why not a little mental adjustment here and there, just small first...until soon it would be difficult, maybe even impossible to stop. That way led madness, addiction, and death. Or worse.

"Captain Meldrum of the Wardens," he said. "We are here to see Lady Ilea Graske on official business."

The maidservant ushered us in to an opulent reception hall. At the far wall a swordsman in chain hauberk and fancy red cloak stood guard by a door, his back straight, eyes fixed, unmoving as any statue. The nobility lived in another world from me, all marble columns, imported Ahramish rugs, and servants arranged like furniture. Any one of the tapestries or paintings that adorned these walls could have fed an entire Docklands tenement for their whole damn lives. The maidservant shuffled through the guarded doorway.

The guard barely seemed alive he was so still. I leant in close to Meldrum. "Don't these folk seem a bit off to you?" He glared at me. I shut up. Tempting as it was to open up my Gift and search for signs of blood sorcery, this was a High House and they always had sniffers employed to sense any use of magic - better to keep that particular loaded dice up my sleeve.

Eventually Ilea herself appeared in the doorway, tall and willowy, wearing a green silk dress that complimented long glossy red hair. Her eyes had dark circles below them that powders did little to hide, and she had that sort of exhausted look common to people with tortured consciences, of people with something to hide. Much like myself. Nor did she have young children running her ragged day and night.

"My Lady Ilea," Meldum said in his best courtly voice, lacking all the harsh tones he reserved for me; not that I blamed him - it was my fault he felt that way, even though he couldn't remember why. He bowed to her. I followed suit in a clumsy attempt at etiquette.

"Captain Meldrum," she replied, a vague smile on her lips, her eyes a touch too wide and staring. "It has been too long since we last danced. Lady Barton's ball I believe. To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit?" She ignored me utterly. I was just part of the furniture.

Meldrum cleared his throat, glancing at the swordsman. "My lady, perhaps we should discuss this in private." Something flickered behind her gaze, too quick to catch. Fear? Excitement?

She led us past the silent, motionless guard, through the door and down a hallway. The building was deserted when it should have been bustling with servants. She stopped at a heavy iron-bound door and fitted a key into the lock. “I must pay my respects to my dear father and then I will do whatever you require.” Meldrum nodded stiffly.

The door swung open to reveal a room with a stone staircase in the centre spiralling down into darkness. I swallowed, not liking it one bit. She waved Meldrum through. I glared a warning at him but the idiot didn't even think twice, courtly politeness requiring him to accept her invitation. The fool definitely did not trust my words. Me, I trusted nobility about as much as feral dogs. There was no way I would risk her slamming the door behind me, locking us in hated darkness.

"After you, my lady," I said, holding back the heavy door. She lifted a flickering lantern from a wall hook and stepped past me, a beguiling floral scent in her wake. I wedged a coin between door and jamb to keep it open, and then followed her in. She led us down winding stairs. Down and down, further than I had thought, further than I had feared. The stairs finally opened out into a large cavern hewn from the black rock below Old Town. Lanterns and glow-gems on stands cast small circles of light to dull my terror. Even so, I was starting to sweat at the thought of a mountain of rock pressing down on me. My armoury of coping tactics did little to calm me.

The crypt was old and vast, hundreds of elaborate urns containing the ashes of her ancestors lining the walls. Every magus was destined to burn. Magic filled us, in flesh, blood, and bone and it could live on after death. Either that or end up sold by black traders of bone and blood. Ilea walked deeper into the darkness. An uneasiness washed through me - a hint of magic in use.

The clink of a coin tumbling down the stairwell caused me to look back - just in time to hear the echoing boom of the heavy door slamming shut. I knew it would be locked. The hairs on the back of my neck rose.

Ilea approached a high-backed wooden throne becoming visible in her lantern-light. "They have come," she said. "Just as I said they might, Father."

I shot Meldrum a glance. "Father? I thought--" His horrified expression caused my eyes to snap forward. Ilea knelt down by the side of the chair. A naked man sat there, his mismatched body covered in a patchwork of neatly stitched wounds. The limbs and torso were smooth with youth whereas the aged and stern face was framed by straggly grey hair. She stared up at him with adoring eyes. His hand lifted to stroke her cheek.

Oh. Cockrot.

Lord Graske's eyelids slid back, revealing pits of septic green light. Unbound magic churned in the empty sockets.

Meldrum gagged. "Dear gods, she must have bribed a Keeper to look away while she stole the head. They cremated a headless corpse."

She smiled. "Arranged at tremendous expense, but gold holds no lustre without my beloved father at my side."

She had used blood sorcery and dark rituals to build him a new body, but it was not her father anymore, nor was it even human; it was merely a revenant host for the Worm of Magic, a puppet on magical strings going through the motions of memory. It took all the willpower I had not to piss myself and run off screaming.

I opened my Gift wide, drawing in power. A miasma of magical corruption filled the room like a palpable entity, a rotting thing with writhing tendrils of despair. The was that it wasn't an alien thing, but darkness born of all too human loss and pain. It forcing needles of pain into my Gifted mind. The urge to vomit slid up my throat. My guts churned, body screaming danger even as the Worm of Magic whispered salvation if only I would just give in.

I struggled to focus on Ilea. “How many have you murdered for that thing?” I said, voice cracking.

She shrugged. “Their weak flesh wears out so very quickly. The servants were not enough, so I procured more in Docklands. What does it matter, nobody will miss their sort.” She looked at me, eyes feverish, smile crazed. "Father needs flesh. He says that yours should last longer.”

My mental feelers reached out. Her thoughts crawled with the corruptions of blood sorcery. Its dark influence writhed between her and the revenant along an umbilical of magic, an old connection put in place long before Lord Graske’s death.

"Such a dutiful daughter," The revenant croaked, stroking her head with a jerking hand.

"You shall not take him from me." She hissed, pulling a small knife from a hidden sheathe somewhere inside her dress. Thick milky fluid glistened along the edge. Poison.

I growled. "Beyond twisted." I gathered my power and punched into her mind. It wasn't difficult; her resistance to outside influence was already corroded away to nothing. She slumped down unconscious. Her lantern clattered to the floor, flickering fitfully, light dimming.

Meldrum drew his sword. He darted forward without hesitation, blade arcing towards the revenant’s head.

It surged upright, eyes flaring, arm lifting to block the blow. Meldrum’s blade hacked down, leaving a bloodless wound and the limb hanging by shreds of muscle and skin. It ignored the damage and leapt at him, yellowed teeth going for his throat. The revenant slammed into him, knocking him to the floor. They rolled, the revenant coming up on top. Somehow Meldrum managed to get his sword between the thing’s jaws. Teeth squealed along steel as he held it back from his face with blind panic more than skill.

I swallowed my fear and charged. The thing was patchwork mishmash, held together by little more than stitches; I hoped. My boot slammed into its head. Pain lanced through my foot. It didn’t fly off as I’d hoped, but the revenant did roll aside. Its eyes locked onto my own and a whirlpool of despair sucked me into abyssal gaze.

The dark closed in, tonnes of rock, crushing terror. My grip on magic slipped, the pillars of control cracked and beginning to crumble. I sagged, shaking with the effort of keeping my Gift from tearing open.

Gods burn it; I wasn’t a terrified child anymore! I refused to succumb to blind gibbering fear. I was piss-poor at vulgar magic. I gritted my teeth and forced my magic into tortured, unnatural forms, howling as I channelled a gust of elemental air. The lantern skidded across the floor into the thing's face. Then came elemental fire -- distilled pain -- roaring through me into the wick, as much as I could take. Fire flared up to engulf the abomination, for a second, before the strain broke my control. I staggered back clutching my head, after-effects exploding in my mind. The revenant hissed, rising to its feet, hair and stitches alight, skin charring. It fixed churning pits of mindless hate on me and leapt.

Oh sh--

Meldrum's sword flashed, crunched through vertebrae below its skull. The flaming body crumpled to the floor. The head, still horribly alive, bounced, once, twice, and came to a stop facing us, mouthing obscenities.

We paused for breath, exchanging looks in the dim light. "Be my guest," I gasped between pants of pain. The body twitched, starting to rise again.

I looked away and moments later came the crunch of sword through skull. Two dozen blows to make sure. By the time I looked back, all that was left of the late Lord Graske was smeared across the floor. The body didn't move again, but with the head gone fluids started gushing from the wounds like a burst wineskin

Meldrum cursed, words more commonly heard in Docklands taverns. I hadn't known he'd had that in him.

"The High Houses will be in an uproar," he said. "Not to mention the Arcanum." He snarled, punching Lord Graske's throne over. "They will be furious. By evening this scandal will be all over the city." He looked down at Ilea. "The trial alone will be a nightmare. But Justice has to be done."

I couldn't have that, couldn't afford to make enemies of the High Houses. While on the surface they'd back our actions, we would still have sullied their good name, and that kind of thing was not forgotten or forgiven. Normally I would be cheering him on, more than willing to see all those vaunted names dragged through shit, but Meldrum, for all his faults, wasn't a complete bastard. He didn't deserve the shitstorm coming his way. More importantly, I was too involved this time. Some of that storm would be coming my way and I was already on my last legs as far as the Arcanum was concerned. No, it was better for everybody if this situation just went away.

I reached for Meldrum's arm. He knew what I was and what I could do. He swayed out of reach and the point of his sword lifted towards my face. "What are you--"

But I didn't need to touch him. His eyes glazed over as I slipped into his mind like I was fitting on an old glove; it was far from first time I had done this after all. The first time I had been young, just getting to grips with my power, and I messed it up, left fragments behind in a cack-handed attempt to cover my trail. No wonder the sight of me roused his ire - part of his subconscious still knew that I was dangerous, and even though those memories had been altered or scrubbed out I couldn’t seem to get rid of it all.

What to do with Ilea? Five days from now she could experience an overwhelming urge to jump from the tallest window. Her mind was probably too far gone, ruined by blood sorcery. A mercy, surely.

It would have been so easy. If only she hadn’t been yet another victim, one of her father’s making. I cursed and went to work on Ilea and Meldrum: adjusting memories, weaving a new narrative, something believable and innocuous. This was exactly the sort of thing that other mages feared, and why the Arcanum watched me for any misstep. Luckily they all thought I was just a wastrel and a drunk. I appeared to be as far from those tyrants of legend as was possible. It kept me alive.

Lord Graske was dead and gone, had been since the cremation. No blood sorcery or revenants. All we were doing was returning a stolen brooch that Meldrum found on one of the corpses and had identified as Ilea's. Nothing worthy of any real examination, in fact everybody would actively avoid dwelling on it.

Meldrum didn’t pose much of a problem, but locking away Ilea’s memories of the murders and cutting away the corruption took longer than I feared. Her father's deeply ingrained and twisted compulsions proved especially tenacious. By the time it was finished I was drenched in sweat and teetering on the edge of losing control. Even with this there was no guarantee she would ever be entirely sane. I would have to keep an eye on her.

I was taking no chances with her father. I opened an old sarcophagus and tossed all the body parts in, then took a spare oil lantern from the wall and torched the lot. When the flames died away I slid the stone lid back into place. Nobody would ever find his remains.

Ilea led us out, all a-daze.

At the front door she blinked and came back to herself, smiled and held out a hand for Meldrum to kiss. "I find myself very glad that you were on duty, my good Sir," she said. “Thank you for returning my brooch.”

Meldrum kissed her hand and then we were off, heading back down into the lower city. He turned a suspicious eye on me. "I knew you'd be useless. We have not found any leads on these murders." He noticed me shaking and sweating, and turned away in disgust. "Away and crawl back into your ale-cup. Why they sent you I shall never know." He snorted and strode off.

Why indeed. A sick sense of dread oozed over me. Who would send an uncouth wastrel like me when Meldrum had asked for a seer to tease answers from the stones? I didn't think it blind chance. Somebody high up had been on to Ilea. But was that somebody also on to me? I decided to take Meldrum’s advice and head off in search of a drink. The stronger the better.

* * *

Originally published in Swords and Sorcery Magazine, March, 2015.

* * *

Cameron Johnston lives in Glasgow, Scotland with his wife and an extremely fluffy cat. He is a student of historical European martial arts, a member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers' Circle, and enjoys exploring ancient sites and camping out under the stars when Scottish weather allows.

His debut novel The Traitor God is due to be published by Angry Robot in July 2018, featuring the same character and setting as this short story, "Head Games."

What do you think is the most important aspect of a fantasy story?

The same thing that is the most important aspect of most stories - the characters. Excellent prose and plots are nothing without great characters to experience them through. Of course with fantasy as a genre characters have the opportunity to experience a whole new range of wondrous and terrifying problems that we can only dream of.