I take one last look at the note in my hand. It contains an invitation to visit the 26th Dorcer alley to meet an informant regarding mentors of the mystical arts. I had been looking forward to learning magic, so the letter was welcome. The problem now is quite obvious.
There is no 26th Dorcer alley.
The street is a dead end with a brick wall between a tailor shop and a writing supply store. Only the lack of ambushers convinces me that this was not a trap.
Or is it?
Two footsteps and two heartbeats come from my back. I turn around and stare at the newcomers as they make their way down the deserted path.
They do not exude danger at all. If anything, the taller one is apprehensive while the shorter one, still a head above me, struts around as if he owned the town.
The taller man is clearly the muscle here. He has the keen eyes and clean make of the mercenary rather than the common arm breaker. He checks corners and roofs with experience but no matter what, his attention invariably returns to me. When it does, he frowns and displays signs of incredulity.
The second man is queer. There is something about him… I cannot quite put my finger on it…
He has a greying beard and the air of a perfect gentleman, with an impeccably ironed dark blue vest and slack that suit him perfectly. His appearance is unfamiliar. And yet, and yet…
The man stops a few paces away from me and extends his hands disarmingly. His smile is smug beyond reason. In fact, his behavior screams amused superiority and condescending confidence in a way that I have only ever seen…
Oh no. It cannot be. I extend a trembling claw at the man and hiss in anger.
“You… You! ARG.”
“Tut tut, poppet. Manners! You are embarrassing me in front of my friend.”
“Sinead! You dare! Do you know what this town is?”
“Vampire central? Bloodston?”
“It’s the last place you should be! I swear to the Watcher if you get caught stupidly I will drink you dry before I let the others have you.”
“Oh so sweet, my precious poppet, but fret not, I took all necessary precautions to mask any hint of my presence. And we’re leaving soon anyway!”
I frown with suspicion.
“Yes, on a glorious quest to save one of my kin. He is being transported as we speak across the ocean deep. We will have to engage into a tiny bit of piracy to rescue him. You will have to kill a vampire I’m afraid.”
“I am not sure this is a good idea. Not while I finally gained some legitimacy.”
“He is a distasteful man who enjoys torturing his prey before drinking.”
“Ah, your heart truly is cold. He is also a Lancaster known for his tendency to go after his foe’s human entourage out of spite.”
On one hand, the risks.
On the other hand, the return of the Dread Pirate Ariane the Bloodthirsty, Queen of the Waves.
“Let me just make a few arrangements and summon some interesting help. We do not want to leave witnesses right?”
Sinead’s smile would make any mortal tremble.
Captain Smollett’s tale
It had been a bad year.
The night carried an unseasonably cold wind that chilled Captain Smollett to his very bones. It had been a bad year and it could still get much worse.
Frowning, the man knocked on the wood of the railing for good luck and kept an eye on the endless expanse of waves before him. A passing gust tried in vain to alter his unflappable countenance. Captain Smollett of the Blue Jay may have fallen on hard times, that was true, but he would never forfeit discipline nor manners. No sir! And not honor either.
As for tradition…
Some things had to be sacrificed.
It all started with the Compromise Tariff of 1833. Congress had passed a bill to reduce taxes on import to a more manageable level. Some businesses had flourished, mostly in the south. Some others, which heavily depended on protectionism to be viable, had collapsed. Such was the case for the Blue Jay’s main employer.
To make matters worse, one of his ship’s two masts had split right in the middle during a particularly vicious storm, forcing her into drydock so that she could be repaired.
Now his Blue Jay, his beautiful schooner, was at risk of being lost through bankruptcy.
It was all because of bad luck.
Desperation had led him to consider employment that he would have scoffed at a few months before. Now, even the notoriously underpaid sailors threatened to leave his ship. There had been no choice but to accept Simon Nead’s proposal. His letter of marque had been genuine, as far the captain could tell, but the very act of privateering was distasteful and the guests Nead had brought on board…
There were ten mercenaries trained to kill. Smollett knew that kind. They did not look at you so much as through you and it only meant one thing, that when lead would start to fly, they would lodge an inch of steel in your gut like some shove a loaf in the oven. Clinical. Uncaring. They patrolled around the ship in pairs like bloodhounds and never mixed with the rest of the crew.
Nead himself was entirely different.
The man cheated at cards, the Captain was certain. As sure as the sun rose in the East! And yet his men did not care because he did not cheat to win but to make things more interesting, more alive. Every night now, the men off watch would gather around the table on the lower deck and throw their fates and fortunes on the table, at the mercy of painted paper and bone cubes.
Spades and Hearts would mix with numbers in an unholy dance under the greedy eyes of breathless spectators. They would scream and moan and laugh until drunk with emotion. With feverish fingers and wild abandon, they would count coins and tokens and throw them with panache and far too little thought.
Princes and first sons of merchant houses could not match their flair and passion. Glittering casinos could not match the fire burning in their veins nor the madness in their eyes, while enthroned in the midst of those improvised bacchanals, Nead himself would govern like a sultan of old.
He would needle here and tease there. With one of his words, fortunes would change hands, then again in the other direction but no matter how much they lost, they could never stop. Every night the players were back and every night they would throw themselves at the game as if their life depended on it.
And then there was the woman.
On his ship.
It was a non-negotiable clause of the contract bonding Smollett to the service of the enigmatic gentleman. The strange lady would be on board and that was it.
She was a quiet one, and that worried him greatly. She would only come out at night and walk the bridge under the fascinated eye of the sailors at work. She would wear a proper dress that left nothing uncovered and yet hinted at a great figure. The others looked at her with more adoration than lust. She was unattainable, as ethereal and distant as the North star to rustic seamen unused to the fairer sex, for the only gentler contact they had were their relatives and the shore harlots, ugly things who would spread their hairy legs for a quarter a pass. She might as well have belonged to another species.
Perhaps she did.
The others would only steal glances but he did not have to. She was beautiful, of course, with hair like ripe wheat and eyes the color of the sky at summer’s height. Her skin was fair and her manners graceful and yet there was something odd, something that grated him. It was her demeanor. His men saw her and thought she was an aristo, a blue blood or some such. Smollett knew it was a lie. He had attended wealthy parties where the richest scions of the land had gathered to intrigue. He had seen them, and they had not been her match. They had lacked the predatory grace, the unnerving movements and the perfect poise. She was something else.
The woman would walk on the bridge with an incongruous tricorn sat on her pretty head, singing a queer song. It stuck to his mind like shells to a keel. She sang it with a beautiful voice, and slightly off-key. The whole thing was eerie and captivating.
“Here twelve poor men remained on a sinking frigate.
So many lives were lost to a dreadful pirate
Neither tide nor the sky gave the crew no quarter
Off the coast of Cuba they would meet their maker
Oooo, off the coast of Cuba they would meet their maker”
As she sang, she would brush the railing and look out to the sea, where Smollett knew there was nothing, and follow some phantasm with a knowing smile. She was doing this right now.
As he watched, her hand stopped on something and flicked it away with such speed that for a moment, he believed he had hallucinated the gesture. Then she resumed her stroll, humming under her breath.
Smollett stepped forward as soon as she was away. On that piece of familiar railing used to be a stuck nail. The captain had damaged the sleeve of his favorite jacket on the protruding piece of metal, months before. It was gone now, as well as a long sliver of wood. Someone had dug a ghastly furrow through the salt-encrusted oak.
Smollett closed his eyes and prayed.
The ship had been moored for a day. Smollett had barely slept. In a dream, he had spied Nead overseeing a game of poker belowdecks. In front of the players, there had been no coins, nothing but tiny pearls emitting an incredible radiance. They were souls, he knew with certainty. The maddened sailors were betting their souls on the game, spitting and screaming and frantic as they played. Then Nead looked up and his eyes were no longer brown but a pale amber, and lo, on his head grew a great pair of horns.
He had woken up in a jolt, clammy with cold sweat. Breathless. No amount of prayer nor alcohol had allowed him to catch a wink after that.
Now the Blue Jay bobbed up and down at the whim of the waves, hidden behind a low island. Nead was no longer overseeing his games. He was waiting for passing boats and each time one would, he checked his compass and shook his head. Smollett had caught a glimpse of the strange contraption and one thing was sure, it did not point North.
Smollett was sure of it now, there was vile wizardry at work. He was harboring devil worshippers! He would have liked to rally his crew and throw the disgusting heathens overboard, alas, most of them were already under the spell of Nead. Curse him! Curse that contract and curse the day he agreed to it. Rather sell the Blue Jay than work with the servants of the Enemy.
Too late now, far too late. Nead had his evil claws deep into the minds of the sailors. Smollett would have to finish his task and hope for salvation.
Then, there was the woman.
She was strolling alongside the railing, singing slightly off-key in that haunting voice of hers.
“The cap’n begged and prayed for someone to rescue
The brave crew and himself ‘fore the reefs claimed their due
Neither angels nor saints would answer his prayer
Off the coast of Cuba they would meet their maker
Ooooo, off the coast of Cuba they would meet their maker”
Their eyes met and Smollett realized she knew. About his belief. Her gaze pierced his mind and revealed the doubt and fear under, torching away the haze of alcohol and the numbness of habit to revive in his heart the freshest of terrors. She knew and did not care. Once more, her merciless stare aimed outward, to the ocean and beyond. She saw something.
Smollett could not help himself. He walked up and searched for the source of her amusement. What dark delight brought such a smile to her graceful face? There was nothing but the night.
“You feel it, don’t you? The world is holding its breath and those who pay attention have already noticed,” she said in a lovely voice. Her smile was sharp and dismissive. It angered him for some reason. The fury dug deep into his chest and lit waiting embers. They had no right to come here and steal his ship, his people, for their nefarious purposes!
“There is nothing there, nothing at all!” he yelled.
“Of course there is,” the woman replied with amusement, “do you wish to see?”
The captain froze. He wanted to say no. He knew he had to refuse, but his mouth was dry as the Sahara. It would not open to say the words and a sick curiosity needled him forward. He felt himself waver at the edge of that question like a skiff caught in a whirlpool. His sanity was sliding, slowly, but with a fateful certainty that gripped his heart and whispered sweet promises in his unwilling ears. He had to know. To find out the truth. It was the most natural thing. How could the truth be worse than whatever uncertainty and doubts were torturing his mind right now?
Smollett did not resist when the woman’s fingers gripped his shoulder. He shivered, surprised by her strength.
“Look,” she purred.
And a veil was lifted.
The sea was not empty, though he wished it were. His mouth opened though he could produce no sound. Terror. Mind-stealing, debilitating terror froze his very being. The sea was alive. It was teeming with unnatural life.
The edge of a fin, the hint of a webbed hand, the end of a scaly tails. Baleful yellow eyes reflecting the pallid light of the moon above. Sinuous movements of slimy skin and unnatural limbs left and right. Smollett wanted to scream but the Boschian vista had robbed him of his voice. Only a keening sound emerged from his choking throat, and tears of the starkest fear trailed down his cheeks.
“Welcome to your new world,” the siren’s voice by his side murmured.
The Devil had his quarry in sight.
Smollett brushed an idle hand on his filthy jacket. The reek of liquor was strong even in the open air as the Blue Jay sliced through the waves. His crew went through the motions like automatons. They licked their lips and smiled and exchanged gossip about the games, the previous ones and the others to come. They cared little about their surroundings, or they would have surrendered to madness as he had. Last night, his helmsman had met a cruel fate, thrown overboard and lost. He had been a resilient and pious man. Smollett found that he envied the departed.
Nead was at the prow, no longer holding a compass but a mirror instead. The strange artefact hurt the captain’s tender head when he stared too long. He knew what it did.
Under the Blue Jay, a perfect reflection of his beloved ship had appeared. Its light was supernaturally bright and yet its halo did not extend past the shimmering mirage. The sea around them was darker than a demon’s soul, so that Smollett could barely see the murk bubbling with the passage of the monstrous pack. It was as if all lights had been captured by some evil witchery. They were occulted by a veil of darkness.
The men aboard their prey were oblivious to their imminent demise. No cry of alarm had sounded yet even though they approached it at full speed.
The woman stood straight from leaning against the railing. She was dressed in an armor of obsidian beauty, bearing an alien sigil. Like this, she looked like a savage goddess from a heathen nation, whose warriors raided shores and left nothing behind but burned husks and beheaded monks on stained altars. A desperate laugh rose from his chest. She sang still.
“Then a voice offered him with a frightful whisper
The salvation he sought at this fateful hour
For a price, the voice said to the tempted skipper
Off the coast of Cuba you won’t meet your maker
Oooooo off the coast of Cuba you won’t meet your maker.”
They rammed the other ship.
A terrible groan of tortured wood exploded like thunder on a cloudless sky. All of the men on their victim’s deck were sent flying into the air. Some fell in the ocean. Others fell poorly, smacking into hard surfaces with ghastly crunches. Nead’s men released their holds on ropes and lifted their muskets at the door leading belowdecks while the witch jumped up and let out a terrible whistle.
Then she blurred.
Something so fast it was practically invisible wracked through the stunned crew, leaving behind only mangled corpses and severed limbs tumbling. A mist of red spread over the deck as the incomprehensible carnage continued. Soon, the horrid forms of the fishmen he had glimpsed climbed up from the abyss and joined the fray. The shriek of the dying and the roar of the coming abomination filled the air in a hellish cacophony. Then, the door opened and men trailed out led by a pale warrior decked in full plate armor.
It was at that moment Smollett knew he had gone mad.
The creature screamed in a lilting tongue he had never heard and great fangs emerged from his ruby lips. The challenge was answered in full by a terrible deflagration as Nead’s entire team fired upon the newcomer. Men died left and right, and the form blurred as well. The otherworldly scene devolved into a nightmare that even the most unhinged prophet could not have imagined. The fight reached a paroxysm of bloodlust and savagery until with a victorious roar, the witch severed the warrior’s hand. Her next strike skewered him through the chest and before Smollett could register this new development, she was on him, biting into his throat with delectation.
Around her, the abyssal horrors dismembered the last of the desperate defenders and the battle, if you could call it such, turned into a feast.
Smollett sobbed as he witnessed scenes of great gluttony. Entire cadavers would disappear down the monsters’ gullets in seconds and in the midst, the witch finished her business. The remains of her foe fell to dust until all that remained of him was a circle of black gore around her delicate lips, which she licked with gusto.
“Flawless ‘execution’, don’t you think?” Nead joked by the captain’s side, and the seaman laughed and laughed and laughed.
“Sixty men sailed to sea, only one did come back
On a ship of red hull and with sails of pure black
With the devil’s due paid he would drift forever
Off the coast of Cuba not to meet his maker
Oooooo off the coast of Cuba not to meet his maker.”
A huddled form sat singing in the center of a derelict room. The sickly man wrote frantically on a stained piece of paper under the light of a dying candle. Bottles of liquor and empty vials of opium littered the ground. He sang with a broken voice and ignored the spittle accumulating at the corner of his unshaved mouth. Finally, the man leaned back and sighed.
Tension left the nerve-wracked silhouette. His shoulders, previously taut like bowstrings, finally relaxed. His face went slack as he closed his eyes.
Peace, at last.
All was recounted. His duty was done. He could finally let go.
The man dried the paper with a pinch of sawdust, added the last page to a bundle which he carefully placed in an envelope. He inscribed an address and left next to it a small pile of money. Finally, he lifted a captain’s cap from his desk and threw it unceremoniously on the ground. He grabbed the pistol underneath with an air of angelic felicity, placed the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
In the next apartment, someone swore.
The door opened in silence. A tall man with amber eyes and hair like gold stepped in. He scrunched his nose with displeasure then walked to the desk, from whence he retrieved the sealed envelope.
He opened it with obvious excitement and quickly read through the manuscript. Each new discovery was met with appreciative ‘oh’ or disappointed ‘meh’. After an indeterminate amount of time, the man grabbed the fragile testimony and approached his unwitting host’s prostrate form.
“Not bad, not bad at all. Thank you, Mr. Smollett,” the intruder whispered in a sing-song language.
The papers were soon committed to the flame of the candle.
The bundle burnt brightly for a moment and the guest waited patiently, unmoving even as the fire licked his delicate fingers. When the work was consumed, he brushed his intact hands until nothing remained but a small pile of crushed ash.
After he was done, he left the door open and disappeared into the bowels of the city.