GABRIEL DIDN’T know whether to be amused or pissed that, in the end, it was a bullet that got him. He tried to laugh, but it came out as a gurgling wheeze that left him coughing and choking on his own blood. It wouldn’t be long. He dropped his head back to rest on the wall of the building he was slumped against. The crack of his skull against the brick should have hurt, but he barely noticed. There was too much else hurting right then—his ribs, his chest. The bullets had left burning paths through him that hurt like a motherfucker. That would stop soon enough, though. He had already lost feeling in his feet.
There was a certain poetic justice to dying that way, he supposed. Like the old saying—you live by the sword, you die by the sword. He had certainly done plenty of living by a gat, though it wasn’t his weapon of choice. He preferred subtler methods, poisons particularly, and he was the best man The Outfit had with them—maybe the best in the whole city of Chicago—certainly better than anyone Moran had. Any goon could use a gun. Subtlety took skill. He was the Shadow. He could slip in and out of almost anywhere, unseen and unnoticed, like a whiff of smoke.
He was dying that way too. On the main street off the alley where he sat, dozens of people swarmed by. Someone knocked—three times, then two, then three again. A door opened and closed. There was a speakeasy two alleys over, tucked in the basement of the Italian restaurant. Piano and sax drifted out, probably from the clip joint down the street. A couple of dames walked by, laughing and talking loudly. He could still vaguely see them, but his vision was dimming.
Not a damn one of them knew or cared he was there, bleeding to death in an alley filled with rotting garbage and smelling of puke and piss. He might die alone, but he could take comfort in the knowledge that his death would be avenged. No one messed with The Outfit and got away with it. Bugsy’s goons may have gotten the drop on him, but there would be hell to pay when Capone got wind of it.
He curled his lips in a small, weak smile. His family had his back in this world and beyond. There might not be a drop of blood between them, but The Outfit was family, make no mistake. He was closer to them than he had ever been to his own blood.
He let his eyes slide closed as the numbness stole up his legs. It didn’t surprise him much when the memories flashed in the reddish black space behind his eyelids. From the tenement fire that took his ma and pop when he was barely eight to when Franco Vassallo found him living on the streets, scraping by as a pickpocket and dodging the nuns and do-gooders, and took him to the Four Deuces. Torrio and Capone had been impressed with his quick hands and uncanny ability to disappear into a crowd—a ghost even then—and hired him as a delivery boy.
He progressed fast from deliveries to other sorts of errands and learned to use guns, knives, bombs, and anything else he needed as he went along. No longer a skinny orphan, the boy grew into a man. He had his first kill when he was barely eighteen, his first hit barely a year later, and over time, he became a skilled assassin and enforcer who protected The Outfit and its interests by any means necessary. There had been so many deaths… so much blood. He saw them all again.
Then the memories shifted and changed. They became older, much older, morphed through hundreds of years and showed things centuries before his own time—things he couldn’t possibly be familiar with—and yet they were familiar and as real and intimate as the steel of the gun in his hand. They tunneled back, farther and faster, and finally converged on the moment some eight centuries earlier when he sold his soul to the devil.
Like the memories, the name was foreign yet familiar. Then the face came into focus in his memory. Oh yes. He knew that bastard.
“Moriel!” His shout choked off into a gurgling cough. He took the deepest breath he could, which at the moment really wasn’t very deep, and tried again. “Moriel!”
A small, wizened man with a deeply lined face and intricately patterned midnight-blue robes appeared out of nowhere, stood over him, and peered down on his dying form. And Gabriel remembered.
THEY SAID he was lucky. After all, he had survived the fever that killed his parents—his father only hours before his birth and his mother moments after. Being only a bairn, it was a miracle the sickness hadn’t taken him too. T’was only the Lord who could have saved him, they said. They gave him to the abbey when he was just hours old. The monks baptized him Gabriel, for surely he was to be a great messenger for God.
Gabriel snorted at the thought. He was a great messenger, all right. Great for running messages from the brothers to the blacksmith or the cobbler. Great for running messages between the brothers in the monastery. “Brother Anhelm, Brother Barnabas says would you please come and help him in the gardens?”
Great for running right into trouble. His knees still ached from spending the previous night kneeling on the frigid stone floor before the altar. Brother Fergus had caught him asleep in the gardens. As though his furious lecture on the sin of sloth wasn’t enough, he also sentenced Gabriel to a night of prayer and contemplation.
It wasn’t that Gabriel minded the night. Quite the opposite. The night was comforting. The quiet wrapped around him like a warm blanket. No one harped at him or ran him this way and that, or worse yet, punished him for something he had done wrong yet again. The steward gave him a thrashing last e’en, and that thought woke the soreness, spurring him to walk faster. The castle was still some ways off, and he had no desire to face another beating.
That year the monks had finally given up on trying to make him a scholar. He had a little Latin but no talent for manuscript illumination. No use for it either. Instead he now spent part of his days in the service of Lord Craeg, doing whatever his steward commanded. His contract had just begun, so he did not yet live in the castle, but only came for some hours during the day. The steward was still deciding whether Gabriel would be suitable for full-time service.
Gabriel rather hoped the steward would find him lacking. For though Lord Craeg was regarded as a kind and generous man, Gabriel had learned his steward was quick to anger and quicker to strike. The beating he was still feeling was proof of that. Not that he dared complain, even among the other servants. If word got back to the steward, it would only earn him another beating—if not worse. As the steward never failed to remind him, servants died all the time. No one would think twice if he fell into the fire while fetching food or met a bad end when he accompanied the steward to collect rents. There were outlaws about in the wood. Gabriel could disappear and no one would even spare a moment’s thought about him.
Suddenly the busy hum of the village on market day—horses’ hooves plodding through the muddy street, the furious honks of geese and lowing of cattle as people drove them to market, and the constant chatter of voices bartering and buying—gave way to a commotion up ahead.
Gabriel froze, and his stomach instantly turned to ice. An angry crowd could be dangerous too. A servant could all too easily be trampled or taken. No one would bother to save him. He was nothing—a foundling boy dependent on the goodness of the monks and Lord Craeg. His eyes darted around the edges of the crowded square as he searched desperately for a way around the crowd. But there was none to be found. His anxiety ratcheted a bit further, burning the back of his throat with acid, but he took a step toward the crowd in spite of it. The steward would beat him again if he were tardy, no matter the reason. If he couldn’t go around the crowd, he would just have to go through it.
He plunged forward and pushed his way through the throngs of people and got a sharp elbow to the ribs for his trouble and then a bruised toe when a rather large woman drew back from some fright he couldn’t see and tread heavily upon his foot. There was no apology. She didn’t even acknowledge his presence. He didn’t expect any different—not for a mere orphan servant, kept alive only by means of charity. He didn’t own the clothes on his back or any morsel of food he had ever put in his mouth.
As he walked away, Gabriel let out a deep sigh. He would give anything if things could be different. He burned to leave and go somewhere where no one knew him and where he could make a name for himself on his own merits, not just on the circumstances of his birth. But he’d learned long before that such dreams were foolish. He would never be anything more than what he was—a nobody and an orphan.
He should count himself lucky he could at least read and write a bit. That was more education than most people got. The monks had not only given him a roof over his head, clothes on his back, and food in his belly. They gave him the tools to make a life for himself. Maybe the most he could hope for was to be little more than a servant—a scribe or clerk—but it would keep a roof over his head and food in his mouth. That was all a man had the right to ask for anyway. Anything more was frivolous foolishness. No matter how much he wanted it.
He had passed the worst of the crowd and could finally see the source of the commotion. A strange man stood on the back of a farmer’s cart. He was dressed in robes much like those of the monks, but his were black—the color of darkest night in the chapel—and one would have to be blind or a fool to think the man a monk. His eyes were as black as his robes, and he fairly radiated power.
He was saying something about a king, about needing a new one—a king who had the people’s best interests at heart. Was he mad? That was treason. It could get him killed. It could get them all killed. If the king got wind of that, anyone thought to be in league with him would be executed. Gabriel knew he should leave and make his way to the castle where the steward was expecting him. He was probably already late, but maybe if he hurried….
Yes, Gabriel knew he should leave, but he couldn’t move. He was mesmerized by the dark stranger. He had never seen such power. It was like the man had a bolt of lightning coiled inside his robes. Nay, in his body. Maybe even in his soul.
“And who would be this new king?” asked Hugh the blacksmith, a burly bear of a man. His voice was distinctly mocking. “You?”
The dark stranger inclined his head slowly, regally. “Yes. My name is Moriel. And I am your new king.”
The man—Moriel—reached up and drew back his hood. Fascinated, Gabriel pressed forward and wormed his way through the twenty or thirty people gathered around the wagon until he emerged at the front of the group. Up that close Gabriel could see the man’s eyes weren’t black as he had initially thought, but blue like Gabriel’s own, though they were as deep and dark as Gabriel’s were light. Though his robe appeared black from a distance in the thin light of the cloudy day, it was actually blue as well—a deep, rich blue infused with intricate patterns. This was no ordinary man. Those were noble’s clothes. He would swear it. Only a wealthy man could afford such fine fabric and stitching. Gabriel had never seen the like, not even in the castle.
“How will you take the throne?” another man called out.
Moriel twisted his lips in the ghost of a smile. “I am a wizard. I cannot take the throne myself. I need fighting men. In return I will grant those men the power to do anything and have anything they desire. All they need do is help me.”
“Will you take anyone?” Gabriel asked the question before he was even aware the words had left his mouth. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry as dirt. “Even if we have no training?” Even if I’m an orphan? That was the real question. It pressed hard against the forefront of his mind, but he didn’t dare speak it aloud.
“Of course,” Moriel said. “A lack of training is easily cured, but no amount of training can replace a loyal heart and a willing spirit.”
“And what service would you require?” At that point Gabriel wasn’t sure it mattered. It was his chance. He could leave and go somewhere where no one would know him and where he could be more than just a foundling. No one would know of his birth. He could buy land, build a castle of his own, have food and clothes and shelter, and never be beholden to anyone ever again.
No, not quite. He would still owe loyalty to Moriel, but at least that would be of his choice, not some accident of birth.
Moriel unrolled a scroll before his face. Gabriel blinked at the blank parchment, but before he could draw breath to question it, Moriel flicked a wand from the folds of his sleeve and tapped the parchment with it. Writing marched across the page like neat little soldiers. Gabriel leaned forward and tried to read it. The words were mostly familiar but made little sense. The print was old and stilted like the writing on the fragile scrolls Brother Anhelm copied into manuscripts.
Gabriel went on trying to puzzle out the words, but he was extremely grateful when a man behind him called out, “What’s it say? I ain’t no priest.”
Gabriel glanced back to see the owner of the voice and had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. Red Godfrey, as he was known for both his red hair and the nearly constant red tinge to his beefy face from his love of drink, was certainly no priest. Gabriel doubted the man had ever seen the inside of the church in all the years of Gabriel’s lifetime, save maybe for a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral. Still, he knew what Godfrey meant. Like most of the people in the village, he could neither read nor write. Those skills were left to the priests, scribes, and the occasional noble.
Moriel seemed to take his meaning. “It says that you agree to enter into my service. You will help me take the throne and take revenge on the clan who threw me out. You will become the greatest killers the land has ever seen. In return you will be gifted with great power.”
Killers? Until that moment Gabriel was certain he needed to sign on. Already he was fighting the urge to reach out and mark his name on the scroll, but that one word brought him up short. Could he kill? He never had before. Living in the monastery, such a thing was unthinkable, but surely there were righteous reasons to kill as well. Even God had commanded his warriors to kill when taking the Holy Land. Everyone knew it was a different thing to kill in defense of one’s king or home or country. That wasn’t murder. That was an honorable duty. Wasn’t that just what he would be doing if he joined Moriel on his quest? Killing in defense of his king? He could do that. He could be Moriel’s loyal knight, just like the ones in the legends the traveling bards sometimes told.
He had lifted his hand to reach for the parchment when someone behind him asked, “And what would be the length of this time of service?” Gabriel let his hand drop back by his side and forced himself to wait sensibly for the answer.
Above him Moriel lifted an eyebrow. “You would wish for this to end, to lose the power I would grant you and go back to being just an ordinary man?”
Put that way, it sounded incredibly foolish. The man behind him stuttered. “Well, no, of course not, but….” People around him started to titter, amused by his humiliation.
Moriel sighed as if he found the whole ordeal incredibly tiresome. “I have no need for slaves. Just as one enters my service by his own choice, he may also leave by his own choice. It’s a simple matter, really. All he need do is forgive an enemy.”
Gabriel fought the urge to roll his eyes. Now Moriel sounded like Brother Barnabas, who was always preaching forgiveness of wrongs, as though that were the cure for everything. From what Gabriel could see, that wasn’t the cure for anything. He was always supposed to forgive the people who wronged him, but it never changed anything. It never stopped them from doing it again. Moriel clearly knew that and didn’t expect such frivolous forgiveness, if forgiving an enemy was the only way to break the bond. Gabriel might have signed up for that alone, just to be out from under that ridiculous expectation. To be free of that and to be given power—Gabriel could see no reason not to take hold of the opportunity with both hands.
But could he even enter into a contract? He was already bound to his master, a master who was probably furiously searching the castle for him. Except he hadn’t entered into that contract himself. Though he was seventeen and nearly of age, Father Michael had entered into that contract on his behalf. What wages he was paid didn’t go to him, but to the monastery in return for his upkeep and housing for all these years. No, that wasn’t a contract he was bound to. It was merely one that had been forced upon him. This one would be different. It would be one entered freely. For the first time in his life, it would be something he did of his own choice, as his own man, and not at the guidance or direction of another.
“Who will be the first brave man to step up and stand up for the good of the people?” Moriel asked, holding out the parchment and a quill.
“I will,” Gabriel said, far more boldly than he normally would, and he stepped forward and reached for the quill. When Moriel pressed it into his hand, a spark of energy arced between them and tingled over Gabriel’s skin and down his spine. The force of it was so strong, Gabriel nearly took a step back, but he made himself stand firm. He took the quill and looked around for ink. Moriel had not offered any, and though it was certainly the tool of his trade, Gabriel wasn’t allowed to carry it. The monks kept ink at the monastery, and the lord kept it in his study, but Gabriel wasn’t allowed to handle it without supervision. Ink was expensive, and he was nothing but a clumsy boy who was likely to knock it over in his folly and waste it.
Seeing his confusion, Moriel replied, “The magic requires blood. You must cut yourself.” Gabriel nodded. He had a small penknife for sharpening quills, which he kept in a pouch on his belt. He took it out, slid the cloth of his tunic off his shoulder, and made the mark without hesitation. It stung briefly where the blood welled, but Gabriel didn’t mind. The slight pain made it all the more real. That was it. He could finally be free to be his own man, a man of power, not just a lowly orphan.
With that in mind, he touched the quill to his small wound and signed his name where Moriel pointed. He couldn’t help but add a bit of a flourish, for he was proud of his ability to give a real signature, rather than make an X as most before him had.
The moment he finished writing and lifted the quill from the paper, power, the likes of which he had never known, flowed through his veins, sealed the small wound, and sang in his blood. Instinctively he stood taller, raised himself up to his full height—which put him a few inches above most men—and stared boldly back at the crowd, who watched him with varying amounts of skepticism.
Suddenly it occurred to Gabriel that such boldness might not be entirely appropriate in front of his new master. He turned toward Moriel and bowed respectfully. “My liege.”
To his utter astonishment, Moriel reached out a hand to him. “Come, lad.”
Gabriel took his hand and allowed Moriel to pull him onto the cart with more strength than a man with that many lines in his face rightly ought to possess. Once he caught his footing, he stepped a few paces behind Moriel. Power or no, what right did he have to stand shoulder to shoulder with the man who was to be his king? As the shock of his decision and that first incredible burst of power began to recede, he became aware of something else thrumming strongly in his blood—the fierce, driving urge to kill.
The steward’s sneering face flashed into his mind. The need was so strong Gabriel nearly leapt down from the cart and raced to the castle. Gaining entrance would pose little problem. Everyone would simply think he was finally arriving for his duties, and when the steward took him away to beat him for his tardiness, as he undoubtedly would, Gabriel would turn and drive the penknife between his ribs. The blade probably wouldn’t be sharp enough to kill, but it would give Gabriel the moment he needed to slip the much sharper and more dangerous knife from the steward’s belt and end his life.
Perhaps the notion should have felt foreign to him, horrific even, for what should a young man raised with men of the cloth know of killing and death? No more than an hour prior, he would have known nothing. But it didn’t seem strange at all. If anything, it felt right. That man was his enemy. He lived in a world of cruelty and lies, showing one face outside the castle and another within. That could not be allowed to continue. He must die.
So driven was Gabriel by that thought that his hand was already gripping the edge of the wagon in preparation for jumping down when Moriel laid a restraining hand on his shoulder and whispered in his ear, “Not yet, lad. The time will come, and soon, but there are things you must know first.”
It was nearly impossible to make himself stop, but Gabriel had just sworn his service to Moriel. He didn’t dare disobey. So he forced the compulsion down.
“You will get your chance,” Moriel promised.
And he had. He spent several days traveling with Moriel on winding roads, through forest and countryside in places most people didn’t dare pass for fear of being set upon by outlaws. No one bothered them. Gabriel wasn’t particularly surprised. Who, save someone beset by madness, would try to steal from the likes of Moriel? He himself might not yet be so great a man, but he was learning quickly.
Moriel spent hours in the early morning of every day instructing him in ways to end a man’s life more quietly and subtly than with a knife through the ribs. In the face of Moriel’s subtle ways with plants and poisons, Gabriel’s initial notion of using a knife seemed crude and almost childish. Why would he ever do something so obvious when there were so many other means at his disposal? An obvious weapon would do if he had no other choice, but it was dangerous to leave behind evidence of your work.
Deep in the night of the third day, he left Moriel’s camp and went back to the castle. As he expected, it was locked up tight for the night, and most of the inhabitants had gone to bed. Even so, he had no difficulty getting in, for even before his few days of training with Moriel, Gabriel was quite skilled at slipping into the shadows and going unnoticed.
It took little time or effort to make his way to the steward’s bedchamber. The man was sound asleep beneath piles of opulent coverings, mouth open and snoring loudly. Really it was almost too easy. Gabriel slipped a small vial of wolfsbane out of his pocket and uncorked it. He tipped it neatly into the man’s gaping mouth and gently rubbed a hand on his throat to encourage him to swallow. The steward didn’t even wake until the poison was already well into his system, and when he did, he was already choking and gasping for breath, unable to move, his eyes wide and helpless. He was dead within moments.
A thrill shot through Gabriel when the steward took his final breath. It was unlike anything he had ever experienced. It was true power.
Gabriel was about to slip away when Lord Craeg’s son, Lucian, a slender, blond-haired, blue-eyed version of his father in both looks and temperament, emerged from his bedchamber. “What are you doing here?”
Gabriel knew at that moment that Lucian would have to die. When they found the steward dead in the morning, the boy would remember him. Then Gabriel himself would die within hours, and likely Moriel with him. Their attempt to take the throne would be over before it ever started.
“The steward kept me here to this hour, working on accounts as punishment for my absence these last days,” Gabriel explained as he moved toward Lucian. “I’m to sleep in the barn. I apologize for disturbing your sleep.” As he spoke he carefully guided Lucian back toward his bed.
“He has been asleep for hours,” Lucian countered suspiciously.
Gabriel nodded. “He said he saw no need to lose sleep on account of my foolishness. Nor should you. Go back to sleep, young master.”
At Gabriel’s encouragement Lucian climbed back into bed and rolled onto his front. Gabriel drew the bedcovers up over him and then pressed one of the many opulent pillows over the boy’s head. Lucian struggled and tried to throw Gabriel off. The two were roughly the same size, but although Lucian was older, Gabriel was far stronger, even before his newly added surge of power, because he was expected to do physical work that was far beneath a man of Lucian’s class. It didn’t take a great deal of effort to keep Lucian’s head pressed firmly between the two pillows until his struggling stopped.
AND THEN the memory ended. Gabriel was once again about to draw his last breath in a dank and stinking alleyway. He glared up at Moriel, who stood over him with a distinctly smug expression on his face.
“Why?” Gabriel demanded. “I’ve lived many lifetimes since then and fulfilled the terms of your contract dozens of times over. Why continue this torture?” Now that the memories had returned, he knew he had lived countless lives since that day in that tiny village in northern England. Yet he had never really lived. Instead he had always lived in the shadows, forever driven by the urge to kill.
“Oh, but you haven’t,” Moriel replied in a voice so haughty that Gabriel would have punched that superior expression right off his face if he had the strength. “You haven’t forgiven your One.”
Gabriel could do nothing but stare. “Of course I have. How could I not? It’s been centuries. I’ve forgiven many people.”
“But not your One,” Moriel insisted.
Before Gabriel could draw breath to ask who the hell that fated One was supposed to be, a flicker of Lord Craeg’s son, the first man he ever killed of his own accord and not out of compulsion, flashed through his mind.
“Lucian?” he asked, shocked. “Lucian was the one who could’ve ended this?”
But Gabriel’s dying body gave out before he got the answer.