Punk Fiction

The Assassins

Novgorod, 1899

“Why are we taking a train to Siberia, Arkady?” asked the big man in the dark suit. Solidly built, with big bones and harsh features, he wore a long black beard shot with gray beneath a brown bowler. He took the large, sour smelling cigar from his mouth to pose the question.

His companion, a more slightly built man with a clean-shaven face, stood close enough to link arms. Dark eyes observed closely behind the narrow spectacles of a student. His suit looked freshly laundered and pressed but the battered blue peasant cap, patched and mended, told of simple origins. He sighed now, his breath making a cloud in the frigid air. “You should pay attention at meetings, Vasily, instead of sleeping through them.”

Vasily made the end of his cigar flare. “I need my beauty sleep, comrade.” He smiled, showing gaps where teeth used to be. “Besides, I have you to listen for me. So tell me, who aboard this train is receiving the gift of our attentions?” He hefted the heavy suitcase in his other hand, packed tightly with the tools of their trade.

Arkady cupped his gloved hands around his mouth and blew on them, hoping some of the warm air would reflect back on his mouth and chin. He looked around, noting that the platform at this late hour still held large clusters of people, standing close together for warmth. Here and there in the sodium lights could be seen the fur hat and blue uniform of a policeman, and naturally anyone could have been an agent of the Okhranka, the Tsar’s secret police.

Still, few people stood within easy listening of the two men, and Arkady pitched his voice low, still behind his hands. “We received word only hours ago that a certain Prince Mierski is headed east to survey newly acquired lands, somewhere near Manchuria. We are to intercept and deal with the situation.”

The flared tip of Vasily’s cigar bobbed as he nodded. “It is cold in Sibera.”

“It’s cold here.”

“Novgorod in February is mild as summer compared to Siberia, comrade.”

“Vasily, have you ever been east?”

“No, I prefer to while away beside the fair Volga. She treats me well.”

Arkady sighed again. “Then what do you know of Siberia?”

“I’m sure it was discussed at a meeting once. Ah, here is our train.” Vasily stamped his booted feet and puffed like a chimney, hefting the suitcase in two hands, holding it before him like a shield.

Arkady watched the train rumble into the station, ice-rimed and soot blackened, belching smoke like some great iron dragon. He smiled despite himself.

The bulk of the train passed them by, engine and fuel cars, passenger cars, two dining cars, luggage cars, and three richly appointed private cars, before a long mass of cargo cars that trailed backward into the night. Arkady pointed at the third private car, the one with the shades drawn tightly and not a hint of light escaping. Vasily’s cigar bobbed.

Arkady produced their tickets and they began the laborious process of boarding the train.


In their stateroom, purchased at dear cost through the use of their organization’s meager funds, the two men collapsed almost simultaneously upon the benches. Vasily from pure indolence and Arkady from a sudden lightheadedness brought on by leaving the cold platform and entering the warm confines of the train. While Arkady struggled to loosen his muffler and peel off his gloves, Vasily lit another cigar and stared contentedly at the ceiling. Arkady realized with discomfort that, if he wished to be able to breathe, he would have to open a window. After which all the heat would be sucked from the room.

Action followed resolution and Arkady found his seat again. The cold air actually helped to revive him a little. He left his coat unbuttoned and gloves beside him. Vasily seemed not to notice, merely making smoke rings that rose lazily upward.

Arkady dug into his coat pocket and removed a notebook, which he consulted for long minutes in silence. Then he closed the book, pocketed it again, and slumped backward against his seat. He closed his eyes.

“These things are best done during the day.” Vasily’s gravelly voice echoed a little in the small stateroom.

“A luxury we cannot afford,” Arkady said, still with his eyes closed. “The gendarmes would too easily interfere.”

“Instead we must contend with the prince’s bodyguards. I do not dare to hope we have any intelligence on them?”

“Not yet.”

“So it goes.”

They returned again to silence, both men waiting, neither patiently. At last, after an interminable interval, the train began to move again. Novgorod and the Volga River receded into the distance.


An hour later there came a light tapping at their door. Vasily, like a big cat, shifted instantly from lying prone to sitting upright, his right hand slipping into his jacket to no doubt grip the butt of his revolver. Arkady rose and stepped to the door. “Who is it?”

A woman’s voice answered. “Evil dragon in the zenith glowing.”

Arkady unlocked the door and said, “Filaments of flame across the heavens throwing.”

A short, dark woman slipped into the stateroom. She wore a maid’s uniform but there was nothing subservient in the searching look she gave the two men. “You’ll do,” she said.

“I am glad we pass muster,” Vasily said, visibly relaxing.

“This is no game, hunter,” the woman said, her voice a hiss. “To beard a prince like this in his den takes skill and daring. Luck we have had already, just learning of his itinerary, in getting me aboard this train before it left Moscow. To assume our luck will hold is to invite failure.”

Arkady pursed his lips and shared a look with his companion. Turning back to the woman, he said, “What have you learned? What defenses can we expect?”

Smoothing her skirt, the woman sat down. She regarded Arkady coolly. He returned the gaze, unruffled. “The private car is locked up as tight as a bank,” she said at last. “Curtains drawn all day, no idea if they have lifted since sunset. He has two men, pale as ghosts, who move in and out according to the prince’s whims. Complaining to the conductor about the train’s speed, wondering aloud if we stayed too long in Novgorod. And so on.”

“They are armed?” Vasily asked.

“Not conventionally. No pistols, at least. They may have knives. But they have the look that suggests much worse.”

Arkady nodded. “We can handle their kind. I would prefer to know what awaits inside the car, but I don’t think we can wait long enough for them to reveal anything.”

“You must take him tonight,” the woman said. “As dangerous a prospect as that may be to you two. Surprise is our only real asset.”

“We were briefed,” Vasily said.

Ignoring him, Arkady asked, “Did you learn anything else?”

The woman nodded, but suddenly looked unsure. “I was able to watch briefly while they loaded the car, before one of the pale men chased me away. There was a large crate. I heard something… I’m not sure how to describe it. It sounded like a bellows. Or breathing. Something very large, breathing heavily.” She looked at Vasily and Arkady in turn.

“That… does not sound encouraging,” Arkady said, but Vasily waved him off. The big man stood, almost filling the little stateroom. He hefted the suitcase and set it down next to the woman, right where he had been sitting. He expertly rolled the tumblers, unlocking the hasp, and opened the case.

The woman leaned in, dark eyes raking over the contents. Six wooden bolts with fire-hardened tips. A heavy, compact crossbow. Two katar blades, each a foot long. One of the new fire projectors out of Berlin, hand held with a seemingly tiny reservoir of fuel, but which Arkady had been assured could be used like a revolver. Folded neatly under the armaments lay two mail shirts made of interlocking links as small and hard as a serpent’s scales. Even more equipment lay hidden from view, but Arkady and Vasily had selected every bit of it with care.

“Impressive,” she said, almost a whisper. She pointed at the fire projector, carved in the likeness of a cruel reptile. “Is that –?”

“Yes,” Arkady said. “Novgorod has two of them. We have been entrusted with one. You see that our cell took your information seriously.”

“I do.” She rose and looked around nervously. “I should leave, before someone misses me.” She stuck a hand out in Arkady’s direction. “Talya,” she said.

Arkady took the proffered hand and was met with a firm grip. “Arkady and Vasily,” he said. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Talya reached under the neck of her blouse and produced a small silver cross. “God be with you both tonight.”

Vasily blew smoke through his nostrils. “God turns His face from what we do.” Talya appeared about to say something, but there was a noise in the corridor and all three grew silent. Arkady reached out to turn down the light in the room. After a few quiet moments, Talya slipped into the corridor without another word.

In the dim light, Vasily began to carefully unpack the suitcase. He tut-tutted over the katars. “Why you insist on dragging along these knives, I shall never know,” he said.

Arkady doffed his cap and shrugged out of his coat. “I could say the same thing about those damn cigars.”


A half hour later, a huge gibbous moon looked down upon the Trans-Siberian train as it wound its way through the snowy countryside. Two small figures crawled crab-like upon the top of a passenger car, dark shapes almost invisible against the icy roof.

Arkady shivered and gritted his teeth. It seemed a simple enough idea, exiting the stateroom through the window and climbing onto the top of a fast moving train, coated in ice in the dead of winter and hurtling along at speeds no horse could hope to match. The spikes in the soles of his boots and the palms of his leather gloves helped he and Vasily maintain their purchase as they crawled along, but the cold wind bit savagely. They had donned the mail shirts as well as the heavy boots and gloves, and Arkady at least had covered it all up with his heavy winter coat as well, but exposed like this the winter’s chill cut deep.

The two hunters moved along the horizontal axis of the train’s roof as though they scaled a vertical wall. Spreading out their limbs, they expanded their surface area, as well as maintaining contact with the ground in at least four places. A short line of silken rope connected them, one end clipped to each belt, with the intent that should one slip the other could catch. Privately Arkady assumed that if Vasily went over the side, he would simply take the smaller man with him. The spikes helped grip, but the ice remained slippery, and here and there remained stubborn drifts of snow that could not be swept off by the wind.

They made slow but steady progress. Time passed. Arkady’s fingers, toes and face grew numb. They navigated the spans between the cars carefully, working together. Vasily dropped below first and scrambled up the other side. When the rope grew taut, Arkady followed. His frozen fingers felt like unresponsive lumps, but the spiked gloves made up the difference. When he faltered, Vasily tugged on the rope and gave Arkady a jolt.

In this way, the two men made their way across the passenger cars and the first two private cars. Beneath them the other travelers slept or ate or drank the night away. The lights from the train windows could be felt more than seen, reflecting off any frozen body of water that they passed or illuminating forested patches. The rattle of the iron wheels made Arkady’s teeth chatter.

At last they reached their target. The third private car.


The roof of the prince’s car was curiously devoid of ice, a fact which Arkady noted with only slight uncertainty. His experience with the uncanny was extensive, and this alone was not cause for alarm. But it was curious.

The spikes still served well enough, even without the ice. They moved more quickly and slipped less. Halfway across, Vasily paused and gestured for Arkady to crawl up beside him. When Arkady did, Vasily gestured at the outline of a trapdoor in the roof. The bigger man looked a question at his companion, but Arkady shook his head. Their plan called for entering the car from the rear. Vasily scowled in disagreement but continued on, arms and legs churning like a beetle.

Arkady watched him, letting the line between them spool out, and followed before it grew taut. Only a moment later, the trapdoor burst open, the edge of it grazing Arkady’s hip, and a demon out of the Dream or the Abyss surged on to the roof beside him. Roughly man-shaped, it had a triangular body without a neck, two long gorilla like arms, and a torso that faded off into smoke instead of legs. Its body looked made of shadow, a solid darkness without definition or features save for twin cold lights that served as eyes.

The demon reached down with one three-fingered hand and grasped Arkady by the ankle. Even through layers of clothing and his boots he felt the burning cold of that touch. Effortlessly, the creature lifted him up. As it did so, Arkady skinned his right glove off and wrenched free the pistol under his left arm. The winter chill bit into his exposed skin, but nonetheless three silver-jacketed .45 rounds fired off in quick succession, passing harmlessly between the demon’s eyes.

The thing raised Arkady up, dangling him upside down over the roof of the train. The line between them dragged Vasily along and he struggled to draw his own gun, little good that it would do. Arkady hung in the air between Vasily and the creature in any case, obscuring any shot.

Cold eyes bored into Arkady’s. The demon’s left hand began to grow, the digits sharpening like blades. Awkwardly, using his own left hand, still clad in the spiked glove, Arkady reached behind him, under his coat, and drew out one of his katars. He thrust forward with the punching dagger and felt a satisfying resistance. The shadowy substance of the demon’s body parted like jelly and its grip loosened. Arkady thumped hard against the train car’s roof. A sharp crack echoed in his ears, proof that Vasily had entered the fight, though the bullet went wide or without effect through the monster.

The demon twisted in agony as the hole in its belly widened. Arkady found his feet, balancing carefully, and jammed the katar between the two lights. The demon exploded into shards of shadow and the wind swept it away, scattering it across the countryside.

Beside him Vasily released the catch on the line tying them together and shuffled back to the open trapdoor on his knees. He grinned his gap toothed smile. Arkady nodded. The villains clearly knew they were there.

Vasily stood, chambered another round, and dropped through the opening into the car. Arkady paused only long enough to remove his other glove before following.

They stood back to back in a sumptuously decorated sitting room. Leather chairs, gold painted wallpaper, a coffee table and a big desk of dark wood, brass fixtures. No illumination save for the flare that Vasily just lit, casting flickering shadows around them. Arkady, wary lest more demons appear out of the darkness, kept his katar up high and his pistol low.

He almost missed the first pale man as he seemed to materialize out of the air, popping up from behind one of the chairs. Clad entirely in black, his snow white skin and pale blond hair stood in sharp contrast, but his eyes flickered redly in the light from the flare. He moved like lightning, the long Cossack knife in his hand flashing momentarily before the pale man jabbed it hard into Arkady’s side. But the mail held and the blade just skidded aside. Arkady put a bullet through the pale man’s left knee that barely slowed him and swept his own blade out, more defensively  that with any intent to harm. The punching dagger was purely a thrusting weapon.

Behind Arkady, Vasily contended with the other pale man. Vasily punched hard with a spiked glove, connecting with enough force to send his opponent staggering backwards. A normal man would have dropped to the floor. Vasily aimed carefully and shot twice, both silver bullets burying themselves in the pale man’s broad forehead. The booming reports and the smell of cordite filled the small room.

Arkady dropped his pistol and drew his other blade. The pale man darted in, only slightly favoring the wounded leg, and swept his blade high, aiming for Arkady’s unprotected face. He blocked with the left blade and punched with the right, driving with terrible force between the pale man’s ribs. Black ichor pulsed forth from the wound. The pale man staggered back.

The other bodyguard, with two holes in his head, slowly began to rise, his face twisted into a rictus grin. Vasily calmly holstered his pistol and produced the flame projector. As the pale man got his feet under him, Vasily set forth a burning stream of fire. The pale man went up like a torch. He collapsed, rolling around and moaning wordlessly as he was consumed, his thrashings setting afire the furniture and gold-flecked wallpaper.

Arkady punched a hole in the other pale man’s throat and danced back, giving Vasily a clear shot. Once more the flames spat and another torch appeared in the room. The stench of rotting flesh turning to carbon filled the small space. The flames began to spread.

Arkady and Vasily caught their breath. “Too simple, I think,” Vasily said.

“There is still the prince,” Arkady said. “And the crate.”

Vasily pointed at the two doors leading out of the sitting room. “Front or back?”

“Back,” Arkady said. He recovered his pistol and stepped over the reeking mass that used to be one of the pale men, now melting into slag as it burned.

Vasily kicked the door open, brandishing the projector. Arkady fumbled for the crossbow, which he unfolded and locked into combat position. From the quiver strapped to his left leg, he withdrew one of the wooden bolts.

A darkened hallway beckoned. Vasily threw another flare down the passage. It bounced and rolled, showing two more doors on the right. Vasily proceeded cautiously. Still holding the projector in his left hand, he drew his revolver with the right. Vasily paused at the first door. Knocking on it with the gun barrel, he said, “Housekeeping.”

The door burst off its hinges, throwing Vasily back against the far wall and pinning him against it. A massive creature stood atop the door, its weight crushing Vasily to the floor. Large as a bear and covered in black and red fur, the creature had a leonine head framed by a black mane. The face was humanoid, pale skinned with dark eyes and a massive jaw that widened, showing several rows of razor sharp teeth. The door shredded like kindling beneath the creature’s claws and they began to tear into Vasily underneath. The big man made no sound, only struggling to grab his revolver where it had fallen out of reach.

Arkady stood momentarily in shock. Never in his wildest imaginings had he ever expected to see a manticore this far north. That moment cost Vasily dearly, something that Arkady would never forgive himself for. He raised the crossbow and fired. The bolt sank into the manticore’s nearest eye, but the huge head merely shook and the beast turned its attention to Arkady. It flowed into the hallway, ignoring the mortally wounded Vasily, and stalked towards Arkady. With the rest of the body revealed, Arkady saw the back half covered in black scales edged in red and the sinuous serpent tail, decorated with venomous spikes.

Arkady fell back into the burning sitting room as the manticore charged. Its huge head thrust through the portal, but the shoulders were too wide and it was momentarily checked. Arkady scrambled to draw his pistol and aimed it shakily at the manticore’s snapping jaws. He emptied the magazine, five remaining shots, point blank into the beast’s open mouth. Simultaneously, Vasily fired from behind. Together, the two hunters proved too much for the beast.

Arkady scooped up the crossbow and scrambled over the corpse of the manticore into the hallway. His great coat, caught aflame, he cast off behind him. Fire and smoke began to flow out of the sitting room into the hallway. The car itself would be ashes soon, but Arkady had to find the prince before that happened.

He paused long enough to close Vasily’s eyes. The big man, beard flecked with blood, lay like a broken doll in the middle of the hallway, still clutching his gun.

Arkady looked for the flame projector and found it, hurled by the impact down the hall. He stepped over Vasily to recover the precious weapon but checked himself as he realized he was not alone. Seeming to coalesce out of the darkness, much like his bodyguards, the prince suddenly stood in the hallway, his slippered feet bracketing the flame projector.

A slight man, the prince wore a silk maroon dressing gown, belted loosely at the waist, and a pair of dark pants and a crisp white shirt underneath. He was pale, like his servants, but unlike them his cheeks showed a hint of ruddiness. He had dark brown hair cut in the latest style and a neat little mustache above his full red lips. His eyes reflected red in the firelight and when he smiled, he showed pronounced canines.

The prince looked at the device at his feet, fashioned in the shape of a dragon, the green tinted mail Arkady wore, and the crossbow in his hand. The smile widened. “The Order of Fafnir,” he said. “I thought you lot died out a hundred years ago.”

Arkady watched the prince closely. He balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to dodge or roll if he could. The way back was blocked by the manticore and the growing fire. He could jump through the remaining doorway into the manticore’s room, but even as he thought of it, the prince was suddenly beside him. Red eyes blazing, the prince grabbed Arkady with one hand and lifted him bodily, throwing him across the hallway towards the back of the car. The crossbow, unloaded, tumbled ineffectually from his hands.

Arkady slammed hard against the carpeted floor. The air whooshed from his lungs. In an eyeblink, the prince was upon him, looming, framed by the flames. “Did we pick you up in Novgorod?” he said lightly, conversationally. “I’ll have to make sure to root out your sect.”

Arkady gasped for breath and flopped on the floor like a fish, trying to make his body work. His eyes felt drawn to the prince’s. Hot red orbs burned into his own; seeking, compelling, commanding. With effort, Arkady wrenched his eyes closed. The prince laughed. Arkady felt hands grasp him again, the prince’s strong fingers bunching up Arkady’s mail like cloth and lifting him bodily.

Still with his eyes closed, Arkady reached back and grasped the handles of his daggers. He whipped them out and slammed them hard into the prince’s shoulders. Mierski shrieked and loosed his hold on Arkady, who dropped down onto his feet. Arkady whipped a bolt from his quiver and plunged it as hard as he could into the prince’s chest. He lacked the strength to punch through the breastbone and pierce the heart completely, but he hoped it would slow the vampire long enough.

The prince reeled, arms flapping, trying at once to reach the katars thrust inches deep into his shoulders and the bolt jammed in his chest and thus unable to do anything about either. Arkady dove for the flame projector and rolled, pulling the trigger. Jets of flame erupted across the hallway, scorching the walls and splattering against the vampire. He howled as his necrotic undead flesh burst into flame. He staggered backward, his unholy vitality keeping him upright even as he burned. Arkady aimed the projector and emptied it into the vampire. The prince melted like wax, consumed by the flames.

The hallway, before and behind, burned brightly. Arkady, blinking back tears brought on by the light and heat, made a running jump over the remains of the prince and burst out the back door of the car into the cold winter night.