Jonno watched from the shadows next to the mansion’s back door, his nerves taut as a tripwire, as Briyan fiddled with his lock picks and Ricc cracked his meaty knuckles. Jonno inhaled slowly. There was no reason to be nervous. This was just another forced negotiation job. Sure, tonight’s mark was Mikaesh, the inventor who had revolutionized the city of Tonzimmel with his electronic devices, but he was still just a man. A man who needed to learn that one did not refuse the honor of doing business with the syndicate.
The lock clicked under Briyan’s capable fingers. As the picklock opened the door, Jonno switched on the handheld energy-dampener that the syndicate had lent him for this job. The device had originally been one of Mikaesh’s inventions: poetic justice at its finest. The assassin swept it in a slow circle, then entered the house. No alarms sounded. Jonno smiled and beckoned to his men.
It took them only four minutes to find Mikaesh’s bedroom, its door etched in gold with the inventor’s unique trademark of a salamander wreathed in fire. At the sight, Jonno drew his dagger and motioned to Briyan and Ricc to do the same. With a smile as thin and sharp as his weapon, Jonno opened the door with his left hand and slipped inside.
The room would have been dark if not for its lone window, through which glowed the ubiquitous night lights of Tonzimmel’s skyscrapers. Slipping through the room’s shadows, daggers ready, the three men approached the canopied bed at the far side of the room.
“What are you doing here?”
Jonno whirled at the calm, steely voice. It was coming from the corner nearest the door, from a large armchair that faced an empty fire grate. The chair turned slowly, revealing its occupant: a long-haired, bearded man in his lower thirties. Mikaesh. He clearly hadn’t been expecting visitors; he was clothed in a simple red dressing gown, and his folded hands were empty. His blue eyes, however, crackled with anger.
Ricc growled and tensed, prepared to rush the inventor, but Jonno held up one hand. Mikaesh was unarmed. There was no reason to proceed to bloodshed immediately. “Boss Niklis was displeased with your refusal of his contract terms,” he said. “He sent us to negotiate.” Jonno smiled and held up his dagger so that it glistened in the light from the windows.
Mikaesh’s expression darkened. Behind him, a fire roared to life in the grate. Jonno twitched in spite of himself. It was an impressive trick. Clearly, the grate ran on gas, and was lit on a timer via automatic sparker. Still, the effect was startling.
“I don’t negotiate with criminals,” the inventor said, his golden hair seeming to spark in the light of the fire. “Further, I don’t sell my inventions to criminals, I don’t invent new devices for criminals, and I certainly don’t permit criminals to threaten me in my own house.”
Jonno motioned to Ricc. The big man took a step forward.
Mikaesh flicked his fingers.
The fire in the grate roared again, louder than any engine. It coiled into twin ropes of flame that shot around the armchair and surrounded the three syndicate members in the blink of an eye. Jonno shrank back from its white heat. This was no inventor’s trick. This was impossible. Even as he thought it, his dagger began to melt in his hand. Jonno swore and dropped the weapon.
“You’ll regret this,” he stammered, nursing his burned hand and trying to cover his shock. “No one threatens the syndicate and lives. Boss Niklis is the most powerful man in Tonzimmel.”
“No,” Mikaesh said softly. “I am.” Even before he finished speaking, three separate strands of fire lashed out, each striking one of the intruders in the chest. Jonno screamed at the sudden pain and felt himself fall to his knees. Dimly, he saw his companions doing likewise.
Mikaesh moved his hand again; a ball of fire somehow appeared above his upturned palm. “According to the laws of Tonzimmel, I would be within my rights to kill you where you stand.”
Jonno watched in horror and disbelief, his mind still reeling from physical pain and from the impossibility of what he was seeing. “How…” he gasped. Then he reeled as Ricc struck him in the head with a hand the size of a plate.
“Please,” the big man gasped. “Don’t kill us. We’ll do anything.”
Mikaesh pursed his lips. For several seconds, the only sound was that of the fire crackling in midair. Then he nodded. “All right,” the inventor said. “I will permit you to carry a message to your boss. Tell him what you saw tonight. Tell him that when I say no, I mean no. And tell him that if the syndicate ever trespasses on my property again, or threatens me, or threatens any other who uses the mark of the fire salamander, I will personally burn him and his entire criminal empire to ash. Do I make myself clear?”
Jonno nodded fervently. So did Briyan and Ricc.
“Then I believe our negotiations are at an end.”
Mikaesh clapped his hands, the room suddenly shimmered with heat and smoke, and Jonno fell headlong into black oblivion.
Jonno awoke after dawn in a narrow alley. In the morning light, his recent memories of magic and fire seemed a nightmare rather than reality. Had it all just been a horrible dream? For a moment, he allowed himself to hope. But then his chest and hand began to throb. Jonno winced, and his wince turned to uncontrollable shaking as he looked at his chest, then at the prone forms of Briyan and Ricc, who lay nearby. Mikaesh had been real, and had spoken truly. Jonno and his men would indeed carry a message to the syndicate, whether they wished it or no. For each of them now bore seared on their chests the unmistakable mark of a salamander wreathed in fire.
By A.L. Phillips