Excerpt: Richard A. Knaak’s Black City Shadows novelette

January 11, 2018
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When our man in the trenches Tom Smith let me know Richard A. Knaak was keen as mustard to get a Black City story into Grimdark Magazine, well, I nearly fell off my chair. Knaak’s name is oft spoken throughout fantasy circles with reverence (the ones I hang in, anyway) so when we nailed down this excellent story for GdM#13, I was really happy, especially once reviews started rolling in–such as the one from Tangent Online that called it, “very well crafted, engaging the reader from the beginning … a difficult one to put down before the intriguing end.”

Anyhow, with no more faffing about by me, go on, get stuck into Black City Shadows.

Black City Shadows

Richard A. Knaak

‘Haunted’ churches made me uneasy, not because I actually thought most were haunted, but for the actual reasons behind people thinking they were. Ghosts were rare, Wyld were not. If there was indeed something lurking within the walls of St. Patrick’s Church—the oldest church in Chicago—it was more likely to be an escapee from Feirie.

Not a very good gatekeeper of late, are we? his voice mocked in my head. I didn’t reply, but he had a point. I’d dealt with three Wyld in the last month, far more than average. They shouldn’t have been slipping through the Gate so easily and I doubted they were all remnants of Oberon’s following who’d been stranded here for the past fifty years. After the Great Fire—or the Night the Dragon Breathed as those who knew the truth called it—I’d done my best to make sure that none of the late king of Feirie’s minions had managed to keep hidden in the city from me. Sure, I could imagine one or two having kept out of sight all this time, but not so many as I’d come across of late.

I’d borrowed Barnaby’s Whiting Runabout to get to the address on West Adams. After saving his worthless son Joseph from both his own dark ambitions and the Wingfoot Air Express dirigible disaster he’d in great part caused three years ago, I could’ve had any number of autos from Barnaby’s service garage without any of his clients ever knowing. However, the Whiting was the vehicle I’d first learned to drive when I’d finally come to grips with the fact that horses would no longer be the normal method of transportation, not just in 1922 Chicago but everywhere.

“Do ye want me to enter with ye?” my companion in the front passenger seat asked as he pulled his head in from the window. “Or would ye prefer me to head around to the back of the building and see if I can enter?”

“Better take the back way, Fetch. Father William wasn’t happy about calling me in the first place. He might change his mind about letting me in if he sees you.”

“Not jake with dogs is he?” Fetch jested, tongue lolling. An onlooker would see a beast they might think half-wolfhound, half something out of the Brothers Grimm, which wouldn’t have been that far from the truth. Fetch was a thing of Feirie, although now an exile, having failed to slay me for his queen. He hadn’t for lack of trying, but once I’d spared his life he’d sworn himself to me. Truth be told, I found him invaluable at times.

“Just be careful no one sees you,” I reminded him.

“I was one of her Lady’s prime assassins, Master Nicholas! Stealth is as much a part of me as breathing!”

“Yeah.”

We pulled up in sight of the church, but not near enough that someone might think we had business there. Father William had emphasized the need for delicacy in regards to the situation, apparently thinking he was the first person to suggest such to me.

“Keen pictures,” Fetch commented, staring at the stained glass windows. “Very keen…”

“’Keen’?” Since becoming an exile, Fetch had taken up the habit of trying to speak like the locals. Unfortunately, his idea of which locals to mimic had not included the radio newscasters or senior orators, but rather the bootleggers and hoods. That meant a barrage of new slang that at times made him harder to understand than if he’d been speaking the Feirie tongue.

Fetch perked up. “Ab-so-lute-ly! Very keen! Very different! Very, very different!”

They were different all right, and fairly new. I’d read about them back in ‘12, when St. Patrick’s had first commissioned them. Thomas O’Shaughnessy, who’d personally designed, made, and installed the fifteen windows, had been heavily influenced by a Celtic art display at the Columbian Exposition in 1893. Of course, O’Shaugnessy had had no idea just how much those works had been influenced by Feirie. I almost patted Fetch on the head—which might’ve earned me a snap—when I realized that this might be the first clue as to how a place as holy as St. Patrick’s could have allowed a Wyld to enter it. O’Shaugnessy’s addition had pretty much given any creature of Feirie a doorway into what was otherwise holy ground.

Fetch leapt out of the Whiting and trotted toward the rear of the church. I adjusted my coat—slightly warm for the spring weather—and headed to the entrance.

Father William answered at my first knock. We sized up each other for a moment, he seeing a clean-shaven man in his late thirties with short flaxen hair and features hinting of a Mediterranean heritage. I saw a short but fit man with thinning red hair and a square face with ruddy features. We could have just as easily been a part of Papa Johnny Torrio’s gang and the North Siders, respectively.

“No one else knows you’re here, Mr. Medea,” he murmured at last. “No one knows I’ve called.”

He’d already told me on the telephone how it was going to be, but I nodded anyway. After a moment of hesitation, he let me enter. This late in the evening, everyone, especially his superiors, would be either gone or indisposed.

An image of St. Patrick welcomed me. I’d never met this church’s patron saint, but I felt a bit of kinship with him. He’d once been a man, a mortal, and not an angel—forgive me, archangel—like Michael. Even though I spent most of my prayer time in St. Michael’s in Old Town, I did so mainly because we’d shared a calling. Both the archangel and I were creatures of war, of battle. Of course, he’d started with a Heavenly advantage. I’d had to die to become a saint.

Not as Nick Medea, of course, a name I’d chosen to remind myself of the land where I’d been both betrayed and executed by the man I’d so faithfully served. Back then, I’d been Georgius, a simple Roman tribune who would become famous—or infamous—for nothing less than slaying a damned dragon. From there, things had only gotten worse.

Was not by Eye’s choice that you came and spilled my blood! snarled the voice in my head.

Quiet! I didn’t need him distracting me at a crucial moment. He’d be more than willing to trip me up like that if it might mean gaining control of our body. Even after sixteen hundred years, he chafed at being slave to my will, a once-frightening beast now reduced to little more than a foul memory.

Eye will wait. You will need me…

The dragon had had no name. After some years with me, it had chosen to start referring to itself as it did because it was its eyes I generally demanded most of all. I’d not argued with the choice. Anything to keep some peace between us.

Midway down the center aisle, I paused among the pews and turned in a circle. There was no hint of Wyld. Still, I kept my hand near the opening of my long coat. No Wyld could stand against Her Lady’s gift.

“Where is it exactly?” I finally muttered.

Father William frowned. “Can’t you tell?”

“I wouldn’t have asked if I could.”

He pointed toward the confessionals. I nodded and pretended I didn’t see the translucent robed figure now standing to the left of confessionals. He wasn’t part of the problem here; he was part of my troubles. As far as the priest was concerned, we were alone.

I didn’t want to wait any longer. “You can leave now, Father.”

“Are you certain?”

He seemed oddly deferential at that moment, as if I was someone of high stature. Then, as if realizing how he’d acted, nodded to me, and left.

I glared at the ethereal form. “Go back to St. Michaels, Diocles. I don’t need you distracting me.”

“You know I cannot always control where I stand, Georgius. Whenever you initially enter a place of worship, the curse will cast me there to be seen by you. We both know why and we both know it will not change.”

My curse had several particularly nasty tendencies, including constantly binding me to the ghost of the man who’d had me executed. The man whom I’d served faithfully until he’d demanded I swear off the one thing that meant more to me than my oath: my faith.

A slight creaking sound escaped the confessional far on the left. I squinted there, but still saw nothing.

Eye can help you see, the voice in my head whispered.

I knew what he really wanted. Each time he suggested any assistance, there lay behind that offer the hope on his part that my will would weaken enough and that he would have the chance to take over the body we shared. I didn’t have to wonder what that would entail. Only once since the Gate had come to Chicago had he attained a moment of utter mastery. The people of Feirie called it the Night the Dragon Breathed.

Humans—most of them unaware of the truth—had simply called it the Great Fire.

Granted, we’d needed his strength and flames in order to stop Oberon, but it’d taken all I could do to bring him back under control. I knew I couldn’t entirely blame him; his spirit had been trapped in me ever since I’d slain him in Silene and our blood had mixed. At that time, I hadn’t understood about his true task as guardian of the Gate between our world and Feirie nor that I’d have to take on that role because of what I’d done.

Still, there was no way I could locate any Wyld—my very presence here meaning that whatever disturbed the priest had to be one of them—without a touch of the dragon’s power to help.

With Diocles dourly watching, I allowed the dragon to grant me his vision. I didn’t need the pursing of the ghost’s lips to know that my eyes had suddenly shifted from human to reptilian. The entire scene turned an emerald green, and the shadows shrank as his unique vision burned away the darkness. And there it was.

Up above the last confessional, dangling from the ceiling, was a creature of nightmare with a head like a human skull, a torso akin to that of a black widow, and at least four visible limbs ending in human hands with dagger nails. The eyes were silver orbs without pupils and much too large for their sockets. Those eyes watched me with contempt, the Wyld not yet aware that I could see it.

Feirie folk are fluid of form and the court was filled with elves willing to mate with anything in the realm. Wyld like this tend to have some elven blood in them, which made them all that more deadly. I needed to make this quick.

Its fleshless jaws opened. The Wyld realized I’d seen it.

Read the rest of Black City Shadows by clicking on this link.