The Black Mantis by Ted Thompson

“Oh don’t kill me! Please!” the old man begged on his knees while the sound of violins played in the next room. Above him stood a man with two jagged swords at his side wearing black leather. His helmet was shaped like an insect’s head and the music drowned out the man’s pleas for his life.

“Get up Judge, it’s me,” said the ominous figure before him.

“Oh my, you gave me a start. How did you get in here?” the fearful man trembled.

“Judge, I told you not to leave the theatre until the show is nearly over. It’s going to happen tonight. Your assassin is poised to strike. Don’t give her an opportunity.” The man took off his bug-like helmet to reveal a mask hiding his upper face.

“How can you be so sure? This is a dinner party in Magpie Manor, not a dive in the Precipice Quarter. The richest in all of Absalom are here tonight. They don’t keep buffoons for guardians you know.” The man got up appearing more dignified and turned to see himself in the mirror, fixating on his facial blemishes.

“They may be rich, but their bodyguards can’t stop one of these. And, it is because they are rich, your assassin has chosen to kill you before them. Stick to the plan and it won’t happen. When the show ends, get out of the theatre before the actors bow for applause. If she appears, run for your life.”

“How do you know it’s a she?”

“I saw her. It’s unmistakable.” The man put his helmet back on.

“Really? Where was she? What did she look like?” The man’s eyes looked beyond the door to where the violins played.

“If I tell you what she looks like, she’ll know something is up.” The black figure moved to a window and jumped out of the powder room.

The Judge ran to the window but the man was gone. “You better be worth the price I paid you!” He said under his breath.

The opera performance in Magpie Manor was dreadful. Leto preferred to be in court slamming his hammer down on the trespassing meek rather than to endure his wife’s wealthy amateur friends basking in their self made limelight.

“Can’t they be satisfied with just being rich?” He grumbled.

His secret protector was right. A cheering crowd fixed on a theatre stage would be an opportune moment to strike. Knowing it was a woman coming for him made them all suspect. There would be no fantasizing tonight. As the curtain fell Leto stood up as the small crowd began to cheer. His wife moved from her seat to the aisle and headed for the stage. After a few minutes the curtain started lifting again and Leto saw an exhausting number of feet being revealed under it. On queue, he moved out of his seat and down the row of people making his way to the aisle and headed to the exit doors out of the small theater. From the theatre door he continued walking down the hall as the crowd yelled out in boisterous cheers. Leto quickened his pace towards a side door that went outside to the botanical gardens.

Before heading out, he pulled out his pipe and struck a match lighting his sweet mint tobacco. With that accomplished he walked to a clearing.

“Judge Leto I presume.” A woman’s voice spoke.

“Yes?” Leto turned to see a beautiful woman in a red dress.

“Why didn’t you stay in the theatre? I had to chase you all the way out here just so I could to talk with you.” The woman’s eyes shined like jewels and Leto was enchanted by her beauty and grace.

“I am so sorry m’lady. Had I known you had an interest in me I would have…” Leto wanted to say something more but a black menacing shape began to rise from behind the woman. Leto never looked up because the woman’s eyes exerted a force on him that held him to her. A shroud of red mist clouded around the two and her red dress faded into red dyed leather. She twisted two jagged blades in a circular motion filling Leto with complete awe. Amazed by her beguiling performance, the blades moved ever closer to him. And once the blades were close enough to kiss, they suddenly stopped and the woman screaming out in horrid pain.

She turned from Leto to face the black shape that had crept in behind her. She felt her back to find a jagged dagger lodged deep within. Leto wanted to runaway, but couldn’t get the beauty of the blades out of his mind. Somehow it left him dumbfounded and he couldn’t feel desire to do anything. Fascinated above his fear, Leto watched the two engage each other.

“You!” The woman said fearfully.

“Yes, Maritha Blood. Me. And I am here for you.” The black figure spoke.

“They told me you were dead! They said your reign had ended.” The woman put one of her swords in a holster so she could reach into her pack.

“They were wrong. My reign here has only just begun.” The woman pulled a vial from the pack and started to put it towards her mouth. Immediately the man swung with his saw tooth sword shattering the vial and loping off three of her fingers. Enraged, she lunged for the man bringing the full weight of her one serrated sword down on him. The man pulled a second sword catching the blow from above and with his other sword wrenched the woman’s abdomen.

The woman hit the ground in a pile of blood. The savage blows from the black assassin were precise and quick.

“You, my dear, are going to die very horribly.” The man slammed down the blunt of his sword on the woman’s arm. Leto heard the sound of a crack much like kindling sticks.

“I am no match for you! What does this prove?” The woman pulled her arm to herself in pain.

The man smiled contemptuously. “Precedence!” His form changed, growing ebon and skeletal. The mask no longer an object of fear, had deathlike eyes and mandibles that twitched and thumbed. Where there had once been jagged swords there were now hooked limbs and claws. The creature lunged at the woman with a horrible shriek ripping at her neck until her head rolled off and rested at Leto’s feet.

The creature tore at her in a mad frenzy until dragging her off into the gardens. Leto couldn’t tell if he was under some spell or just frightened to move. The woman’s head was too gruesome to look at.

Bravely he stepped away heading back towards the manor. Reaching the door, he saw crowds heading towards him through stained glass. Relieved, he turned the door handle but suddenly felt his feet flying out. Not sure what had happened, he found himself flying backwards from the door at an incredible speed. He landed behind a tall hedgerow feeling an incredible pain in his back. Looking at his wound he saw the black arm of the insect. Its claw was embedded in his back. Leto couldn’t move and shook his head in revulsion as the hideous insect stood fully before him.

“No, you were hired to protect me!” Leto said closing his eyes in fear.

The clicking mandibles hoarsely replied, “I took no one’s money to protect you. I had to keep you alive long enough to draw her out.”

“You got her, why kill me now?”

“Judge, he who walks in blood, demands it.”

The first of the crowd out the door heard the sound of wet hacking and ripping. Curiously they headed towards the noise until finding a large pool of blood. A woman screamed as she noticed a head lying on the recently cutgrass.

Looking beyond the hedges, the crowd spotted a winged insect-like creature fluttering away in the moonlight. It seemed to be a huge praying mantis. It appeared to be heading to the Puddles but no one could say for sure.

The district guards arrived a little later to investigate. Their chief inspector was s simple man, dressed in a plain Absalom uniform. He walked the scene taking notes. Witnesses reported what they had seen. Finished with his work, the inspector made arrangements to have the two bodies taken to a mortuary. As the bodies were picked up, the inspector asked for a moment alone under the shallow covered wagon.

He went in and sat next to the torn woman’s body. And when he was sure no one was watching, he reached behind the woman’s back and withdrew the bloodied dagger, which he wiped off and concealed in his clothes.

“Sorry little girl, but I warned them. No one is allowed to assassinate someone under my watch. No one…but me.”

(Featured in Wayfinder, Vol. 3)