The Gallows Black
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A standalone epic fantasy novella starring Sal the Cacophony, who Pierce Brown called a "protagonist for the ages," from Sam Sykes' widely acclaimed Seven Blades in Black. To the city of Last Word, one of the last freeholds in a land rent asunder by magic, Sal the Cacophony comes with gun, a blade, and a burning need for revenge. But when the gallows threatens to deny her the satisfaction of the kill, Sal the Cacophony decides to free her query -- it's the principle of the thing. And in doing so, she sparks a war that will shake the city's fragile peace to its core. To escape with her life and her kill, she'll have to save a criminal-turned-companion: a Freemaker, versed in the forbidden arts of magic and machinery. But the weight of their secrets may be too heavy to let them escape in one piece. For more from Sam Sykes, check out: The Grave of Empires Seven Blades in Black The Affinity for Steel Trilogy Tome of the Undergates Black Halo The Skybound Sea Bring Down Heaven The City Stained Red The Mortal Tally God's Last Breath
Release date: May 28, 2019
Print pages: 139
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The Gallows Black
At least from where I was standing—big enough to loom over an already impressively tall headsman, with a jagged head whose edge was sharpened to a murderous glint. It was a blade designed to make enough of a bloody mess to satisfy the crowd, yet to kill quickly, so that the poor bastard on the other end wouldn’t be crying and begging for death and giving people the opportunity to reflect on why they had turned out in such enthusiastic numbers to see a man die.
Contrarily, the unfortunate soul didn’t look like much of a killer.
At least from where I was standing—I could barely see him over the heads of the chattering crowd ahead of me who had all turned out to see him and his friends die. He stood third in line, a meek and sober creature who looked like he hadn’t even noticed the manacles on his wrists, let alone tried escaping them. He didn’t have the killer’s remorseless stare, the outlaw’s boastful grin. Rather, he wore the weary eyes and long, somber frown of a poor dope with poor taste in friends and a poorer sense of timing.
It seemed a shame to waste such an axe on such a man.
Especially since I was going to kill him.
“Bring up the first criminal.”
A booming voice came from the gallows, loud enough to cut through the excited murmur of the crowd. Tall and gray and weary, Councilman Linnish—by all accounts a decent and reasonable man with a strong sense of family values and a deep love of his citizens—set about the work of sentencing three of them to death.
“Keevis Rathanin. You stand accused of crimes endangering the people and property of the freehold of Last Word.” The sweaty, terrified man dragged up by a pair of guards onto the gallows seemed a twitching counterpoint to Linnish’s tired monotone. “Chief among these charges: abduction, theft, murder, looting, smuggling of magical wares, practice of profane arts, disregard for laws local, Imperial, and Revolutionary, and engaging in unlawful, profane, and grotesque manufacture.”
Linnish’s face twitched, like he wanted to look away. But he forced himself to stare into the eyes of the man whose head he was about to see roll across the gallows.
“And the participation in the cruel and heinous murder of the Imperial officer Gallicus ki Ontoran.” He closed his eyes. “For these crimes, your head is to be separated from your body and…” Linnish paused, catching himself with a breath. “And displayed. As a warning to those who do not consider the consequences of their actions. Have you any last words?”
“Linnish, please, you know me,” the man whimpered. “I didn’t even know this Gallicus guy. I didn’t—”
Linnish sighed, shook his head. If left to him, it wouldn’t have been this. If left to him, it would have been done with a short rope and a quick kick of a stool, far away from prying eyes.
But this execution was not for his benefit.
“Are the aggrieved parties satisfied with the summary and sentencing? Judge Olithria?”
He looked over the square, to a balcony extending from a nearby building. Violet banners displaying a four-winged bird in flight fluttered without a breeze, kept suitably majestic by the enchantments woven into them. The Imperium did so love little spectacles like that.
Three faces, expressionless and empty and cast in bronze, stepped to the balcony—two men and one woman looming over both. Their violet uniforms clung tight, making no effort to hide the cut of their physiques, even as swords dangled off their hips as simple afterthoughts. Mages, like most people who could make a man explode into tiny chunks with a thought, had little use for things like armor or weapons.
Imperial Judges, radiating with energy as they did, even less.
“In the name of Her Imperial Majesty,” the woman, Olithria, said, her voice rendered a tinny echo by her mask, “as punishment for this heinous crime, the Imperium is satisfied.”
Linnish nodded, glanced to the other side of the square. “And you, Colonel Tatha?”
By contrast to the Judges’ subtle displays of power, the Revolution announced their presence in a loud bellow as they snapped to attention. A dozen men and women in blue coats stood tall, their gunpikes towering high, iron heads a match for their iron stares.
A middle-aged, severe-looking man, who looked to be comprised of more harsh angles than the blade at his hip, stepped forward. He fired off a stiff salute to no one in particular and cast a glower up toward the balcony.
“Ignoring the stain of corruption the decadent Imperial swine bring to this display of justice…” He looked back toward Linnish. “By the authority of the Glorious Revolution of the Fist and Flame, I declare that we are satisfied.”
Under normal circumstances, this sort of accord would be historical.
Not since they’d broken free of the Emperor’s rule had the Revolution been able to tolerate Imperial presence. In pursuit of control of its resources and its people, their armies raged across the land we called the Scar.
Armies like the ones parked outside the city walls.
Revolutionary cannons on one side, Imperial mages on the other, Last Word, a lovely little city with industrious people, had become the flash point for the Scar’s latest conflict.
Not that the people here hadn’t expected the war between them to reach their doorstep eventually. Freeholds were bastions for those who were willing to trade the safety of Imperial or Revolutionary rule for the freedom to govern themselves. But while the people of Last Word might have braved the feral beasts, outlaws, and warlords of the Scar to make their own lives, there wasn’t a freehold around that could contest the power of both the Imperium and the Revolution.
The people had already begun to flee the city, fearing more violence. To see the Revolution and Imperium abstaining from that violence, even if it was just for an execution, was nothing short of historical.
I wasn’t here for history, though. I was here for revenge.
Linnish nodded and, without looking, gestured to the headsman.
“No! NO!” The victim screamed as he was forced to kneel upon the block. He turned his head out toward the crowd, which was now roaring with cheers. “Please, you all know me! I’m not profane! I didn’t even touch the magical shit! I was just trying to earn some—”
A bloody cloud of gore sprayed from the stump of his neck. The crowd boomed. No matter who he had been, he had brought the Imperium and the Revolution to their doorstep, and they were more than happy to see one of their own die to spare their freehold the fate that would come from a war between them.
A decent trade. A reasonable trade.
At least from where I was standing.
The thunder of the crowd grew louder as the carcass was hauled away and the head was readied on a pike. The Imperial Judges, high above, applauded lightly. The Revolutionary soldiers bellowed chants and banged their gunpikes on the stands.
I tugged my hood a little lower to hide the fact that I was the only one not cheering or cursing or whatever the man in front of me thought he was accomplishing by gesturing furiously at his crotch.
Not that I begrudged the locals their sport, mind you. When you live in a place like the Scar, you take what entertainment you can. But I had seen a lot of executions before and this one wasn’t even one of the nicest.
Really, I was just here for what was to follow.
I glanced back up at the gallows as the other two victims were brought forward, my eyes drifting back to the poor bastard at the end of the line. He was flanked by guards at the moment, along with the person in front of him—too soon to kill him, had to wait until he got onto the gallows. I’d have a clean shot.
And then… I’d take what I was owed.
As if in answer to my thoughts, I felt something burning at my hip. My hand drifted unconsciously to the weapon strapped to my belt, fingers caressing his black hilt and fumbling briefly over the metal of his trigger. He begged to be drawn.
And who was I to turn down such a gentleman?
Beneath my cloak, I unsheathed him. I glanced down, studied him in the darkness. A gun of black and brass, a polished black hilt and a glistening brass chamber that seemed to glow as my eyes lingered on it. And, carved around the hole of his barrel, the visage of a grinning dragon leered back at me through metal eyes.
He did so love being admired.
Almost as much as he loved what I was about to do.
I looked back up at the man about to be killed. He was gaunter and weaker than I remembered. And if I didn’t recognize that poor, hapless why-me stare, I wouldn’t have recognized him at all.
But I still knew his name. As surely as I had when I’d written it on my list.
“Zanze,” I whispered.
I held it on my tongue, whispered it again as I reached into my pouch and felt the cold metal of the shells, fingers tracing over the spells scrawled upon their metal.
I plucked three of them out, flipped the gun’s chamber open and was greeted with three black holes. One by one, I loaded them. They each clicked home: Discordance, Hellfire, Hoarfrost. One by one, I imagined them tearing him apart, freezing the chunks of his corpse, melting them to gre. . .
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