Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell | Chapter 13 of 19

Author: Nathan Ballingrud | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1538 Views | Add a Review

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The Butcher’s Table

1. Devils by Firelight

The Englishman stood on the beach, just beyond the reach of the surf, and stared out over the flat, dark plain of the Caribbean. A briny stink filled his nostrils. Palm trees heaved in the night wind. Overhead, a heavy layer of stars, like a crust of salt on Heaven’s hull. At his back, the small port town of Cordova gabbled excitedly to itself: fiddles and croaking voices raised in raucous song, like a chorus of crows; the calling and the crying of women and men; laughter and screams and the rumble of traded stories. It sounded like life, he supposed. No wonder it made him sick.

Martin Dunwood was very far from home.

Approaching from behind came a heavy expenditure of breath, feet shuffling in sand; he turned to see a shape lurching from town: a small man, fat and stumbling, a rag-wrapped something clutched in his left hand. The smell of rum blew from him like a wind.

“Mr. Dunwood,” said Fat Gully. “What’re you doing. . . .” His words trailed off as he caught his breath.

“I’m taking some air,” said Martin. “Please go away.”

“No you don’t,” Gully said, his words sliding together and colliding. “No you fucking don’t.”

Martin controlled his voice. “No I don’t what.

Fat Gully meant to muscle up to him with his broad chest, but he miscalculated his footing and toppled back onto his posterior, air exploding from his lungs like a cannonball. His dignity, however, remained undamaged. He gestured with whatever item he held in his left hand, which Martin noticed was caked in dark blood. “No you don’t take on no highborn airs with me, you fancy bastard. I’ll peel you standing, fat purse or fucking not.”

Martin wore his rapier, but he had seen Gully and his wicked little knife in action as recently as this afternoon, when they had been surrounded by four shipless sailors, attracted by Martin’s moneyed appearance and anxious to settle the question of his worth. Fat Gully had acted suddenly, with a grace utterly at odds to his toadlike aspect; before a breath could be drawn, two of the men were attempting to keep their innards from sliding through their fingers and onto the filthy street. Martin was not eager to test him, even in his drunken state. Instead he turned his gaze to the gory rag in Gully’s hand, leaking a thin black drizzle onto the sand. “What in God’s name do you have there?”

Gully smiled and climbed slowly to his feet. The lights of the town cast him in shadow as he extended his arm and opened his hand. He looked like an emissary from an infernal province, bearing a gift.

Martin inclined his head forward to see, raising an eyebrow. It took him a moment to make sense of it: a tongue, freshly pulled from its root, saliva still glistening in the moonlight.

“The Society told me what you’re here for,” Gully said, a dull smile moving across his face. “I brought a snack for your new friends.”

“I don’t know what you mean by showing that to me, but I assure you I have no use for it. Nor do the people I’m going to meet. Get rid of it.”

“You’ll learn not to bark orders at me, Mr. Dunwood,” Gully said, tossing his dreadful trophy onto the sand. A dull anger set in his face. If Martin hadn’t known better, he might have thought his feelings were hurt. “Oh yes you will. You’ll change your tune when we get there, I’ll wager.”

He’d met Rufus Gully at the London docks. Gully, no stranger to the cutthroat world of the Spanish Main, had been hired by the Candlelight Society to function as a bodyguard, seeing him across the Atlantic to Tortuga, where they now stood. From here they were to secure passage aboard a pirate vessel to the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, where they would rendezvous with a second ship, and the purpose of his journey. They had crossed the Atlantic in nearly complete isolation from each other; Martin had been provided a room near the captain’s quarters—not the fine appointment to which he was accustomed, but the needs of the moment demanded certain concessions—and Gully among the rats and the scum before the mast. It seemed he had emerged with fresh ideas.

“We have to get there first,” Martin said. “This Captain Toussaint is a day late, and I’m beginning to doubt that he’ll show up at all. He’s either been sunk, or he’s a coward.”

Gully smiled, his teeth a row of crooked headstones. “Never you fear, Mr. Dunwood. I’ve come with good tidings.”

For the first time in many days, Martin felt something inside himself lighten. “Butcher’s Table has arrived then, Mr. Gully?”

“It has indeed.” Gully turned about and made his tentative way back into brawling Cordova, with Martin in tow. A pistol cracked in some ill-lit alley and a cry of pain rose above the cacophony of voices like a flushed bird. Gully lurched into the heated maw of that place, his purpose steady. “Come and meet our benefactors, Mr. Dunwood. We ship with the tide.”

~ ~ ~

Gully slid into the city like an eel into a reef, steering his round body through the nooks and crannies of the crowd with a nimbleness that Martin both hated and admired. It was just another reminder that he could not allow himself to underestimate this squat little man. He was ungainly but quick, unintelligent but cunning. A sharp, murderous little villain.

Cordova was a ghastly place, alive with pitched debauchery. It was a constant maelstrom of noise and stench: roaring and howling, gunpowder and piss. Taverns spilled garish light. Women were passed around like drinking mugs from one lecherous grotesque to another, some cackling with abandon, some with the affectless expressions of dolls or corpses. He found himself surrounded by more black faces than he’d ever seen in one place, a fact that made him decidedly nervous. He understood that most were free men, though he found that hard to credit. A free black man was as alien to Martin’s experience as a crocodile or a camel, and he stared like an idiot as Gully hustled him along.

A dim glow marked the docks: fires and lanterns alight on the shore, ship windows radiant as business of one sort or another was conducted within. The masts were like pikes struck into the earth; arrayed alongside this lurching little town, they gave an odd appearance of order. Gully crossed a muddy street, shouldering aside a man nearly double his size, and made his way to a two-story wooden structure across from the docks. It was an inn, and a busy one at that. A sign hanging above the door identified it as THE RED MAST.

“Mind your manners now,” Gully said. He pushed his way into the building, and Martin followed.

The interior was close and hot. Several small round tables collaborated to make up a dining area. An arched doorway led into a kitchen, where dim forms toiled. A fire grumbled to itself in a vast, grimy hearth. The flue was insufficient to its task, and greasy smoke trickled up the wall and gathered on the ceiling like a dark omen.

Gully approached a table of three men, their backs against the far wall. His demeanor was much reduced, and when he spoke, it was with none of his usual bluster.

“I brung him, Captain Toussaint, like what I said.”

Martin knew the men immediately for what they were: pirates. They were not likely to be anything else, here in Tortuga, but the shabbiness of their bearing would have made it plain besides. The man on the right was older, his gray beard hacked short and his face a jigsaw puzzle of scars. One eye sat dully in its socket like a boiled quail’s egg, pale and yellow. The man to the left—a Chinaman, Martin thought—was slender and quite young, his gaze unfixed, his attention flitting through the crowd. Sitting between them was the man who could only be Captain Toussaint: a black man, broad-shouldered and broad-featured, his skin as dark as any Martin had ever seen. His beard was a shaggy bramble, and his hair grew in a dark shock around his head; Martin imagined the fear this imposing figure would strike into the hearts of his fellow Englishmen as he came leaping onto their decks, clutching a knife in his teeth and raging with all his barbaric energy.

They wore shabby, loose-fitting clothing, and they were armed with steel. The Chinaman held a blunderbuss between his knees, and he tapped his fingers against it, as though eager to bring it to bear.

“Oh my, look at the pretty thing,” the captain said, and the older man produced a chuckle, a sound that seemed unpracticed and awkward from him.

Martin stood straight, determined to suffer whatever insults to his person they might deliver. He knew he’d be traveling with base men, and he was prepared to acclimate himself to their lifestyle. “Captain Toussaint of the Butcher’s Table, I presume.”

“The very one. And you must be Mr. Dudley Benson of the Candlelight Society.”

“I’m afraid Mr. Benson took ill and was unable to make the trip. He sent me in his place. My name is Martin Dunwood, also of the Society.”

Captain Toussaint’s eyes flicked between Martin and Mr. Gully. “Ill? How unfortunate. I hope the old fellow will recover. He seemed a lovely chap in our correspondence. You have a signed letter from him, vouching for your identity, no doubt?”

“I do not. I did not think it would be necessary.”

“You were in error. It seems our business is concluded. How disappointing.”

Martin’s stomach dropped. All his plans, undone by such a stupid oversight! He struggled to maintain his composure. “Captain, don’t make a mistake. You cannot proceed without my participation. Only a member of the Society can contact the Order of the Black Iron, and only a monk from that order can provide the map you need.”

Toussaint seemed to consider this. After a moment he said, “There’s the small matter of payment to be addressed. You’ll be eating from our stores, after all. Only fair that you should contribute. Surely, Mr. Benson will have told you, despite his unfortunate illness.”

“Of course,” Martin said. He had no doubt this wretch was exercising a crude revenge for being caught off guard. However, he was in no position to object. “I’m quite willing to contribute coin to the endeavor.”

“Then produce it, Mr. Dunwood. Produce it, please.”

Martin withdrew his purse and placed it onto the table, taking care to keep his hand steady, fearing one of these bastards might cleave the fingers from his hand for the simple joy of it.

The older man with the bad eye spilled the coins onto the table, where they thudded dully in the dim light, and counted them. All the while the younger man kept his eyes roving about the room. The blunderbuss, of course, was not for show. Meanwhile the captain’s gaze had not wavered from Martin. When the sum of money was announced, he waved a hand idly, as though such concerns were beneath him.

“It seems I am forced to take you at your word, Mr. Dunwood, at least for the moment. The Society has a fine reputation, for a pack of diabolists, and right now that is all you have to support you. Be thankful it is enough. See that you do your job well, and we shall part as friends. Otherwise I will bury you at sea. Are we in agreement?”

Martin swallowed his pride. To be spoken to like that by this man—a thug who should be lapping water from a puddle in Newgate Prison—caused him a pain that was nearly physical in its intensity. But Alice awaited him further along this journey, and he could not afford the comforts of his own station. Not now. He would remember this wretch, however, and he would see him suffer for this display. That much he vowed.

“Yes, Captain. We are in agreement.”

Captain Toussaint clasped Martin’s hand and gave it a vigorous throttling. “You make me glad. Now Mr. Johns will show you to your berth”—he indicated the one-eyed man—“where you and Mr. Gully can nibble crumpets and giggle like ladies while I conclude the ship’s business in town. Will that be fine?”

Mr. Johns permitted himself a chuckle.

Martin pulled in a long breath and nodded his acquiescence. “That will be fine, Captain.”

“Mr. Johns, make sure Butcher’s Table is prepared to depart the moment we return. We won’t want to linger.” The captain rose and quietly departed, the young Chinaman in tow. Mr. Johns, however, made no move to rise from his chair. He reached a grubby finger into the coin purse and liberated a few shillings. “Sit your arses down,” he said. “I mean to be well and truly drunk before I take you devil worshippers aboard.”

Martin and Gully had no choice but to comply.

~ ~ ~

Captain Beverly Toussaint and his first mate, Hu Chaoxiang, pressed their way through Cordova’s crowded lanes as a cool wind blew in from the bay, carrying the sharp tang of lightning, the promise of rain and thunder. They made their way to a ramshackle warehouse, which stood a little too far from the docks to be considered of much use to anyone.

The warehouse was owned by a man called Thomas Thickett—known locally as Thomas the Bloody, due to his penchant for sudden, furious nosebleeds. A refugee from the Buried Church in the Massachusetts Colony, he’d won the building in a card game when he arrived in Tortuga several years ago. The man he’d won it from laughed as he signed over the deed, wishing him good fortune in housing cobwebs and rats. But Thickett, born in a cage and destined his whole life for the dinner plates of wealthy men, was accustomed to turning shit into gold. And there was no better place for that than a city of pirates. He capitalized on his particular knowledge of the Buried Church and its cannibal cult, making himself valuable to the men who did commerce with them. He stored their unmarked cargo for extended periods, and he provided specialized sails and timber to the quartermasters who came to him when they had to refit their vessels for unique purposes. As long as he did these things well, he was assured a livelihood in Cordova.

Captain Toussaint in particular had found him useful. He disliked dealing with the Buried Church; like the Candlelight Society, it was a pack of Satanists. But while Society members tended to be toothless storytellers in gentlemen’s clubs, congregants of the Church commanded genuine institutional power—to say nothing of their cannibalistic appetites, kept sated through their hidden farms of human cattle. As a fugitive from one of these farms, Thickett proved an invaluable source of information. So Toussaint paid him handsomely and fostered a camaraderie with the man over shared drinks and wild dreams of the future.

Tonight it was going to pay off.

The warehouse was dark. The windows were shuttered, the door closed. The door was unlocked, and they pushed their way inside. The place was densely packed with mildewed crates, rolled canvas, bags of grain. A single lantern, balanced on a wooden barrel full of God knew what, cast a shallow nimbus of orange light, throwing strange, wide-shouldered shadows against the wall. Beside it was Mr. Thickett’s closed office door.

In the quiet, Captain Toussaint could already hear the hoarse whispers, a dozen or more voices attempting speech in the strange tongue of a different world. The voices crawled over the walls like cockroaches. He felt a thrill of excitement.

A small door opened to their right, and Thomas Thickett emerged from his office, where he had been waiting in absolute darkness. He looked frail and sickly, older than his thirty-seven years—that’s what hiding from the Cannibal Priest would do to you, Toussaint assumed—but tonight there was a flush of vigor in his cheeks.

“Thomas the Bloody,” said the captain. “Bless my bones.”

Thomas nodded deferentially. “Captain. It’s fine to see you again. Yes. I have the cargo right here, sir.”

Captain Toussaint and Mr. Hu exchanged a glance. “Right to business then, is it? All right, Thomas, all right. Show it to me.”

Taking the lantern in hand, Thomas Thickett guided the two men through the maze of crates to the other side of the warehouse. There was a large door here that would swing open to admit carriages drawn by mules or oxen, but it was secured fast, shutting out the din of the town. The whispering voices were louder here; Captain Toussaint felt steeped in ghosts. An old memory crowded his thoughts, and he forced it back.

The voices emitted from a crate about waist-high, sitting in the middle of the aisle. It was segregated from the rest, like a diminished little temple.

“I’ve secured a carriage. It’ll be waiting outside,” Thickett said. “At my own expense, of course.”

“Of course, Thomas. Always reliable.” Captain Toussaint nodded at the crate. “Open it.”

“. . . Captain?”

“I want to be sure.”

Thomas glanced at Mr. Hu, as if seeking a better opinion. Finding none, he fetched a crowbar from a shelf and set to, his body sheened in an icy sweat. Nails squealed against wood. After considerable effort, the top of the crate popped off. Thomas peered inside, and the pirates came up on either side of him. Together they leaned over, studying the contents like learned judges of the damned.

Inside was what looked like a huge anemone, its wide base crumpled and folded against the confines of the crate, resting in a thin gruel of blood and gristle. Its body tapered into a stalk, which culminated in a flowering nest of glistening tongues moving like a clutch of worms. Little channels of teeth and ridges of gum wended through the cluster, as though a single mouth had been turned inside out like the rind of a mango, yielding this writhing bounty. From this mass came a chorus of whispers in a language unknown to them.

Captain Toussaint clapped Thickett on the shoulder. “Seal it, Thomas.” His demeanor was much reduced.

Thomas complied, nailing the lid back into place with trembling hands. The voices were muffled beneath the wood, though not sufficiently to suit any man present.

A lotushead. Captain Toussaint had experienced one once before, five years ago, when he was first mate to Captain Tegel aboard the ship he now commanded. They’d put it to good use: It enabled Toussaint to buy the ship, and it made Tegel a king. Or something very much like a king.

“I’ll help you haul it out to the carriage,” Thomas said, his voice elevated over the sound of his hammering. “I trust the next time I see you both, you’ll be rich men!” He laughed nervously. “And perhaps you’ll make me a rich man too.”

Captain Toussaint put away thoughts of Tegel with relief. “The next time? My dear Thomas, you won’t have to wait so long. You’re coming with us.”

Thomas paused, one long nail poised between his fingers. A dark coin of blood dropped from Thomas’s nose onto the crate’s lid.

He knew what that meant. Captain Toussaint wrestled down a sudden surge of self-loathing.

“Captain,” Thomas said. He blinked tears from his eyes. He remained facing forward. “I arranged this whole thing. I procured the lotushead. I told you about the hidden cove. This whole venture is thanks to me. I’m sorry to be blunt about it, but it’s true. Now, let’s just load this into the carriage and you men be on your way. We had a deal. Let’s just keep to it, shall we.”

“Working with the Cannibal Priest comes with certain costs. You know that better than anyone, Thomas. This time, that cost was you.”

More blood spattered onto the crate, and Thomas pressed a handkerchief to his face. The horror of the underground pens came rushing back to him: the thick stench of blood and fear, the close press of flesh, the chanting of monks. The sound of cleavers in meat.

“Who told them? How did they find me?”

“I did,” said the captain. “I needed someone from the Candlelight Society. They were the ones who put me in contact. As long as I promised to deliver you to them.”

Thickett turned to run. Perhaps he thought he could catch them off guard and make the exit before they had time to react. Perhaps he hoped they would kill him outright, and he would be spared his fate.

But Mr. Hu had anticipated this, and he swung the stock of his blunderbuss into Thomas’s temple, dropping him to the floor. Thomas moaned and made a feeble attempt to crawl away. Mr. Hu trussed him while Captain Toussaint looked on.

“I’m genuinely sorry, old friend. If it’s any comfort, I’m told they have grand plans for you.”

Once Thickett was immobilized, Captain Toussaint slapped the crate. “Let’s get it all on board, and smartly. I want to be gone before the jackals arrive.”

Outside it had finally started to rain.

~ ~ ~

Alone in the second mate’s quarters, which had been surrendered to him without a twitch of protest by the one-eyed Mr. Johns at his captain’s order, Martin Dunwood lay in the cot suspended crossways across the tiny room and tried to acclimate himself to the deep pitch and tumble of Butcher’s Table as it pushed its way across the cresting waves, bound for the open sea. Somewhere above him rain drummed over the ship. The lantern light stuttered as the ship plummeted down a steep trough. Martin snuffed it out before it could spill and light the room on fire. The sudden darkness was oppressive, as though someone had thrown a weight over him. The sounds of the water smashing into the hull mingled with the raw voices outside shouting to be heard over the storm, as the crew worked the lines and the sails with the precision—or lack of it—one might expect from a congress of pirates. Below, the carpenters worked on constructing a new set of rooms for Martin and their future guests. It seemed as though the whole ship’s complement had suddenly crowded into his cabin and began knocking things about. Martin did not care to speculate on their abilities; he felt sick enough already. Instead he entrusted his fate to Satan’s judgment and focused his attentions on better things.

Alice.

The promise of Alice pulled him across the sea, from the polluted stink of London to Tortuga and now to this criminal’s vessel; he would have let it pull him across the whole of the world, if necessary, but he was struck again by the continually surprising thought that he would see her again in a matter of days, at which point a year’s careful planning might at last come to fruition.

He remembered the first time he ever laid eyes on her: She had been standing on a corner outside a grocer’s shop. Her fine clothes and her red hair were disheveled and there was a placid beauty in her expression, her face as pale as a daylight moon. Blood matted the expensive materials of her dress, caked heavily near the lower hem and arrayed in a pattern of sprays and constellations farther up her body, as though she had just waded through some dreadful carnage.

Martin, a newly minted agent of the Candlelight Society and a virgin to London itself, stood transfixed. He didn’t know what catastrophe had befallen her, but it seemed she needed immediate help. He waited for a carriage to pass before he stepped out into the muddy thoroughfare, but immediately came up short—an older gentleman stepped out of the grocer and joined her at the corner. He too was well dressed, though his clothes were free of blood. He threw an overcoat around her shoulders and hailed a carriage. Within moments he bundled her into it, and with a flick of the driver’s wrist she was whisked away, leaving behind an ordinary corner on an ordinary street. The drabness of the image seemed to reject the possibility that she had ever been there at all.

It was not until years later that he saw her again. By that time he had solidified his position in the Candlelight Society through a series of successful missions and had graduated to a more elevated social stratum. His success precipitated his invitation to a party thrown by a fellow Satanist, one who occupied a seat in the House of Lords. As Martin lurked unhappily in a corner of the glittering room—he was acutely conscious of his humble origins, sure that they were as plain as a facial disfigurement—he saw her again.

She was standing amidst a crowd of men, young and eager for her attention. She smiled at one of them as he gestured to illustrate some point, and Martin knew at once that none of the fools had a chance with her, that she was only wearing them like jewelry. He pressed his way through the crowd until he joined her little retinue.

If she noticed him as he approached she did not show it. He stationed himself in her outer orbit and just watched her. Although she was properly demure and maintained the comportment of a young lady of her station, something set her apart from everyone around her. She seemed carved from stone.

Martin could immediately tell that these men were normal, God-fearing Londoners, unaware of their host’s secret affiliations. He was afforded a new confidence. At the first break in the conversation, he said, “Didn’t I see you once outside a small grocer’s in the East End? It would have been a long time ago.”

Her pale blue eyes settled on him. “The East End? I rather doubt it.”

“You would remember this,” he said. “You were covered in blood at the time.”

She betrayed no reaction, but even in that she revealed herself. No shock, no disgust, no laughing dismay. Just a cool appraisal, and silence.

One of the young men turned on him, his blond hair pulled back harshly from his forehead and tied into a bow. “I say, are you mad?”

“Not remotely,” said Martin.

“It’s all right, Francis,” she said. “He’s right. I do remember that day. It was quite dreadful. A horse had come up lame and had to be shot. It was done right in front of me and I think it’s the worst thing I ever saw.”

“Odd. I don’t remember a dead horse,” Martin said.

“Perhaps you weren’t paying attention,” she said. “So much occurs right under our noses.”

Within minutes she had dismissed her pretty men and Martin found himself sitting some distance from the party, talking to this remarkable woman who seemed to fit amongst these people the same way a shark fits amongst a school of mackerel.

“Why did you say that to me?” she said. “What did you think would happen?”

“I had no idea. I wanted to find out.”

“Hardly the environment for social experiments, wouldn’t you say?”

“On the contrary. I would say it’s the ideal environment.”

She offered a half smile. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Martin Dunwood. My father owns the—”

“Are you an anarchist, Martin Dunwood?”

He smiled at her, his first genuine smile of the night. “In a manner of speaking.”

In minutes they were in the banker’s bedroom, fucking with a furious, urgent silence. Thereafter they met often, and always clandestinely. She was even more contemptuous of the world than he, prone to stormy rages, and he found those rages intoxicating. They were wild and different and echoed his own sense of alienation from the world. Their illicit sex was as much an act of defiance as it was a hunger for each other. After a month of this she introduced him to the Buried Church, and he saw what she did there.

It was when he watched the blood drip from the ends of her long red hair that he knew he was in love with her, and that he would break the world to keep her.

~ ~ ~

Hours after Butcher’s Table had left, the carrion angels arrived in Cordova. There were four of them. They emerged from a lantern-smoked alleyway, building themselves out of shadows and burnt rags. Seven feet tall, their thin bodies wrapped in fluttering black cloth, they listed back and forth as they walked, their bones creaking like the rigging of ships. Their faces jutted forward in hooked, tooth-spangled beaks, their eyes burned like red cinders, trailing smoke through the rain.

They stalked the avenues of the town with deliberation, keeping to the shadows, sending those who witnessed them shrieking and scattering like frightened gulls; some stopped and fired a few wild shots before running. The carrion angels were oblivious, their bodies accepting the violence the way a corpse accepts the worm. They swung their great heads at each juncture of road and alley, lifting their snouts and huffing deep breaths as they tracked the scent of their quarry.

They followed it to a darkened warehouse. The scent of the lotushead was strong here, but a quick inspection revealed that it had gone. Thwarted, they creaked slowly out of the warehouse, emerging from the interior like dim lamps.

The trail wended down toward the docks. The town had erupted in panic. Word of the carrion angels’ presence spread fast. Narrow lanes were choked with men fleeing for their ships. Pirates and sailors careened drunkenly, lurching, stumbling, and trampling the fallen. Throughout the town, panicked men shot and stabbed at shadows, and the road to the sea was marked by the bodies of the dead and the dying. The angels came upon a fallen man lying across their path, the back of his head a smoking hole and his brains festooned across the packed earth. The stink of it made them drunk and they permitted themselves a brief respite, hunched around this glorious fountain of scent, this unexpected confection. They ate with a grateful reverence, the sound of wet meat and cracking bone rising in syncopation with the driving rain.

Most of the townsfolk stayed inside, shuttering the windows and locking the doors. Some followed the pirates to the docks, forgetting in their fear the true nature of these men, and remembering only when they were beaten back or shot as they tried to climb the gangplanks to safety.

The ships were alight with lanterns, riggings acrawl with sailors making ready for the sea. Boats were dropped from the side, towing the vessels away from port. Gun smoke hazed the air. The bloom of violence was a grace upon the town. The carrion angels walked in their slow, swaying gait through it all, like four tall priests proceeding safely through Hell, confident in their faith.

The scent ended at the docks. The lotushead had been taken to sea.

It was a small thing to sneak passage aboard a ship. The carrion angels dissolved into rags and dust, blowing like so much garbage in the wind, carrying over the water and into the rat-thronged hold of one of the several pirate ships, called Retribution. They settled amidst the refuse there, lying as still as the dead.

The captain of this ship was a hard old man named Bonny Mungo. He’d seen creatures like this once, several years ago, in a half-sunken stone church he’d stumbled across in a Florida swamp. There had only been two; they’d killed most of the men he’d been with and wore another like clothing, too small to properly fit. Catching a glimpse of them now, he was moved by an extravagant fear. Once Retribution achieved some distance from land, he ordered it to turn about, offering its broadside to the town. At his command the ship fired its full complement of guns in a devastating volley, sending cannonballs smashing through weak wooden walls and bringing whole buildings to the ground. Another ship took inspiration from this and fired as well.

Within minutes Cordova and its luckless residents were reduced to broken wood, and smoke, and blood. The pirates, satisfied by their own efficiency, rounded out to sea, disappearing into a curtain of rain.

The carrion angels slept in Retribution’s hold. The scent’s trail was a road, even over the sea. They were sure of their way.

2. The Last Meeting of the Candlelight Society

Martin had only just achieved a precarious sleep when he was awakened by the harsh voice of a bent, pinch-faced man in his nightclothes. He stood in the narrow door and held a lantern at his side, casting his own face into garish shadow. “The captain wants you,” he said. “Sharplike.”

He pulled himself unhappily out of bed and fetched his trousers from the floor, noting the slow, easy roll of the ship over the waves. He must have fallen asleep during the storm. Perhaps he would make a seaman of himself yet. Still, an unbroken sleep would have done him good.

“Who are you?” he asked brusquely, reaching for his jacket.

“I’m Grimsley, and I cook your meals for you, mister, so mind your tone. I also see to the captain’s whims. Which is you now, so be smart about it. Look at you fussing over your clothes like a proper lady. Leave off and do as you’re bid, before his mood turns.”

As it happened, Captain Toussaint’s mood was generous. His quarters were at the aft of the ship, and the windows were open, affording him a salty breeze and a king’s view. The clouds had dispersed, and although there was no moon to light the waves, the stars burned in great, glittering folds. Toussaint sat with his back to it, a shadow against the sky. He looked like an illustrated figure from the Old Testament. The table had been set up between them, with a kettle of hot water and two mugs.

“Did I interrupt your sleep, diabolist?” said the captain.

Martin took the seat opposite. He heard the steward shut the door behind him. “I know this is your ship, and you’re lord of the high seas and all that, but I will thank you to call me by my proper name.”

“I see your sensibilities are as delicate as your tender little hands.” He leaned forward and pushed the mug closer. “Perhaps some tea will soothe your English heart.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Martin poured the tea into the mug and held it under his nose, breathing it in. He sipped, and found it surprisingly good.

Captain Toussaint smiled. “Privileges of the wicked life,” he said.

“I suspect the privileges are many. Including summoning gentlemen from sleep to sit at your table upon a whim. What need do you have of me, Captain?”

“I have need of your context, Mr. Dunwood. I would like to know your business here.”

“It is the same as yours, of course. We shall goad the lotushead into speech, and we shall cross into the Dark Water. Then I shall contact the Order of the Black Iron, and we will sail to Lotus Cove, where the Cannibal Priest will have his precious Feast. You’ll fill your hold with lotusheads and I’ll get my atlas. Everyone is happy. Is this a game, Captain? Why do you ask me what you already know?”

“It is not a game, Mr. Dunwood, but you continue to treat it like one. You are hiding something from me. Tell me what it is.”

All the warmth generated by the hot tea dissipated. Martin put the mug back on the table and concentrated on maintaining his composure. The captain, damn him, watched him as carefully as he would an opponent in a duel; if that’s what this was, Martin was already being pressed into a disadvantage. “Mr. Gully has been indiscreet,” he managed to say.

“Mr. Gully has the eager tongue of a dockside whore, but I don’t need him to tell me what’s already plain. Something about you smells rotten, Mr. Dunwood. You’re a pup, and I expected a grown man. The Candlelight Society does not send children to do men’s work. I did not have time to question you before the carrion angels arrived, but now we’re at sea, and time is something I have in abundance. So allow me to ask you again. And if you avoid my question one more time I shall summon Mr. Hu into the room, and he will do the asking on my behalf. Do you understand me?”

Martin’s sense of control had evaporated. He was now simply afraid. It was a new and unwelcome emotion. “Yes, Captain, I think I do,” he said quietly. He took a breath to steady himself. “There is a woman.”

Captain Toussaint sighed, easing back in his chair. The ship crested a wave and through the great window behind the captain’s head Martin watched the sea fall away; for a moment he was staring into the starry gulf of the sky. The cups on the table between them slid a few inches. “A woman. You mean the woman, of course. Alice Cobb.”

“Yes. I do.”

“So it’s a love story then.”

“If you like.”

“All men of the sea enjoy a proper love story, Mr. Dunwood. Maybe it’s because our own always end so badly. Tell me.”

“I met her in London, some time ago. I was new to the Society. I’d had no dealings with the Buried Church; I’d only heard stories of it. I wasn’t sure I even believed. When I met her, I . . . well. We fell in love, Captain. It’s as simple as that.”

“I doubt anything about it is simple. I’m shocked the priest tolerates this. She is his daughter, after all.”

“He doesn’t know. Alice and I would very much like to keep it that way. At the Feast, he will come to understand.”

“I see. But Mr. Benson not only approves, but is so moved by your plight that he sends you upon the excursion of a lifetime in his place?”

“ ‘Approves’ would be putting it strongly. But we in the Society are storytellers, Captain, and it’s in our nature to encourage the passions of the heart. We are romantic creatures, after all.”

Captain Toussaint regarded him carefully. “So they send me an untested boy with a hidden ambition, so that he can run about my ship like some plague-addled wharf rat, with love corroding his blood like a disease. What’s more, he has a secret which, if discovered by the priest, will not only scuttle the purpose of our voyage but very likely result in blood being spilled aboard my ship. Do I understand it correctly?”

Martin said nothing. Despite the cool air blowing in, the room felt close and hot. The pitching of the ship made a tumult in his gut; that, along with the new and very real possibility that this brute might interfere with his and Alice’s plan, made it a struggle not to spew his last meal across the table between them.

“I love her, Captain. We are going to wed, there on Hell’s shore. We will do this with or without her father’s approval.”

“A wedding at the lip of Hell. You amaze me, Mr. Dunwood.”

“Love drives one to extravagant behaviors. Have you never loved anyone?”

Captain Toussaint fixed him with a searching look. “In fact I have. It too would have provoked disapproval, had it been widely known.”

Martin pressed his advantage. “And if what I’ve heard of pirates is true, you would not have let something so small deter you.”

“Not even death would deter me, Mr. Dunwood.” The captain sipped from his tea. He seemed to consider for a moment. The stars heaved in the sky behind him. Finally he said, “All right. Your story does not set me at ease, but it does rouse my sympathies. We’ll go on as planned. You may return to your bunk.”

Martin nodded. “Thank you,” he said, and rose to leave. His hand was on the door when Captain Toussaint stopped him.

“A word of caution: It’s not my discretion you should worry about. That little villain you’ve hired to do your dirty work will sell you for a tuppence. You know that, surely?”

“Fat Gully,” said Martin. “He’s a creature of brute impulse, nothing more. He’ll behave as long as he’s paid.”

Captain Toussaint smiled. “It’s my experience that we all have a secret heart. Even brutes.” He leaned back in his chair, drawing in a deep breath. “But perhaps you’re right. Let’s see what tomorrow brings us, shall we? Good night, Mr. Dunwood.”

Martin retreated to his cramped quarters. He slept fitfully, and he was plagued by dreams of the Buried Church. He watched a cleaver rise and fall, over and over again, lifting bright red arcs into the air. He saw a stunned human face pressed against the bars of a metal cage. He heard a shriek so piercing that it launched him from sleep, upright in his swinging cot at some unknowable black hour of the night, panting and listening. He heard only the sound of the waves against the hull, the groan of wood straining against the deep. He closed his eyes again, and if he dreamed further, it was only of the abyss.

~ ~ ~

Six hours earlier, aboard Retribution, Bonny Mungo stared at the creature looming over his bunk and understood that he had only moments remaining before it extinguished him from the earth. He had fallen asleep perusing charts outlining the Hispaniola coastline, and so the lantern suspended over his head still shed a dim light. The carrion angel fluttered silently in its glow, its hooked beak opening, its red eyes spilling thin smoke.

If anyone had thought to ask him about the condition of his heart, Bonny Mungo would have said that it was bountiful with love. He had answered the call of his passions, leaving behind the diminished lifestyle of his parents on their Scottish farm and turning instead to the pursuit of his desires. He lived in a hot climate now, he waged glorious war in the ocean, and he indulged in women and drink on shore. What did not come to him willingly he took by force. The world was a heavy fruit. Life was the long satisfaction of impulse, and he would be a sorry man to complain about any of it.

He tried to set himself on fire. He would prefer to burn alive than let the carrion angel take him. His lunge for the lantern was too late, and his reach too short. The angel seeped through his skin and oriented itself in his body, fitting its eyes to Bonny Mungo’s, cracking his joints and splitting his skull to accommodate itself more comfortably. Most of what made the pirate the man he was dissolved in the holy heat of the angel’s presence, but enough rags of himself remained that he appreciated the smallness of his life’s purpose until this point.

A new hunger grew in Bonny Mungo’s heart. It was like gravity, bending every thought toward it. The passions of his former life were like a child’s whims. Now he wanted only to eat.

The carrion angel guided Bonny Mungo like a clumsy puppet. He lurched from his cot on his new, broken legs, the knees snapping and bending haphazardly with each step. He maneuvered out of his cabin, the breach in his skull smoking, black rags fluttering from it like hair, his eyes sizzling like fat in a pan of oil. The angel opened its mouth to speak in its new tongue, and syllables spilled out like teeth. To hear them was to bleed. It would take some getting used to.

Down the hall, there were screams. The other angels were claiming their hosts. Following that, they’d have to spill some blood, but hopefully not much. The crew would obey. They wanted to live, after all.

The lotushead was somewhere ahead of them. The smell of it hurt Bonny Mungo in his bones. It turned his belly into a yawning hole.

~ ~ ~

Martin awoke early the following morning, roused by the commotion of work. The day was already warm. A crisp wind filled the sails, driving them west. He found Captain Toussaint standing aft, holding a spyglass to his eye. Martin squinted, but could see nothing through the glare of the early sun.

“There’s a ship back there,” said the captain, still watching. “The lookout spied it an hour ago. They’re steering from the sun, hoping to buy some time before we spot them. A standard tactic.”

“An enemy, then? How can you tell?”

“I can’t for sure. But I’ll wager it’s the carrion angels, sniffing out our cargo. Once they get a scent they’re bloody relentless.”

“But they’re beasts! Can they pilot a ship?”

The captain glanced at him. “Never seen one, have you.”

“No.”

“You will.” Captain Toussaint left him, striding back to the deck and barking orders. Some of the men scampered up the rigging and started untying sails. Canvas dropped and billowed. The man at the helm adjusted the great wheel a quarter turn to the right, and the ship surged forward, sending white foam crashing over the bowsprit.

Martin lingered at the railing, eyes locked onto the horizon. Though he still couldn’t see anything, the sense of threat soured his stomach. He’d heard of the carrion angels in Society meetings: holy cockroaches, gorging themselves on anything from Heaven or Hell that might have become lost in the mortal world. The lotushead would be a fine morsel, no doubt.

Not for the first time, Martin doubted the wisdom of this venture. The captain was right: He was too young and too inexperienced. Here he stood, sturdy as a fencepost, and still he felt a consuming fear. He wished to be home in London, with its dark libraries and lantern-lit alleys, with his pipe and his brandy, surrounded by the Society’s flickering candles and devil-haunted shadows. There he would feel safe. Out here, in this briny, sun-wracked environment, he felt exposed and bewildered. A moth lost in a delirium of light.

After nearly an hour of waiting and watching, he could still see nothing on the horizon. If this was a chase, it was the dullest one he’d ever heard of. He made his way belowdecks and found the galley, where the man who had woken him from sleep a few hours ago—Grimsley—toiled over his fire. Beside him was a small table covered in chopped vegetables, strewn with cured meat. The kitchen would be freshly stocked from the visit to Cordova, and the food was as fresh as it would be all voyage. Martin heard the clucking of chickens coming from some way off, and a barnyard stink—two pigs and a goat—mingled with the welcome smell of cooking meat and coffee.

The steward cast him a glance over his shoulder. “His Highness arises.”

“I’m hungry. Give me something to eat, Cook.”

“You’ve missed vittles, so you can make do with a biscuit and a slice of pork.” Grimsley threw the items onto a plate and pushed it toward him. “Sorry—not the type of meat you’re craving, I gather. I know some pygmy tribes in the Pacific could help you.”

“I am no cannibal.”

“Of course not, Your Highness. You just share a table with them, is all. Why should one draw conclusions?”

Martin tamped down a flash of anger. “Coffee,” he said.

Grimsley directed him to the pot with a lift of his chin, and then turned his back on him once again, resuming his chore.

“Wretch.” Martin took his meager breakfast to the mess hall next door, which was empty save for his own Mr. Gully, lounging like a lord with his back against the bulkhead, digging a nugget of food from his teeth with a fingernail. Gully winked and presented an unsightly grin.

“We’re going to have a party soon, so I hear,” he said. “Another ship stalking us like a hungry shark. Best stick close to me, if it comes to a fight, lad. I’ve got to earn my keep, you know.”

“There will be no battle. The captain is quite competent.” In fact Martin had no idea if this was true, but it made him feel better to say it.

“Did he pry your secret from you last night?”

“How did you know I spoke to him at all?”

“Why, I’m your protection, ain’t I? It’s my business to know what you’re up to, Mr. Dunwood.”

Martin passed a hand across his face. “I told him what I needed to. He gains nothing from betraying my confidence.”

“Maybe, maybe not.” Mr. Gully took another bite of his biscuit, chewing as he spoke. “He has secrets of his own, our captain does.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s got a man locked up in the hold. Weeps throughout the night.”

Martin smiled, enjoying the opportunity to display his superiority over his awful companion. “You’re like a child sometimes, Mr. Gully. It’s almost charming. That man is no secret. That man is the Feast.”

Something like thought seemed to pass across Mr. Gully’s face. “Him? But he’s nothing. He’s a nobody.”

“For once, I agree with you. Congregants of the Buried Church are an odd lot, though. They care about the nothings, or at least they claim to. For them, the Feast is the ultimate expression of love, and Satan is egalitarian in His appetites. Even a beggar may suffice.”

Mr. Gully considered this in silence.

Martin, pleased, enjoyed his coffee in peace.

~ ~ ~

The final meeting of the Candlelight Society’s London branch remained one of the signal moments of Martin’s life. Six gentlemen convened, as per usual, in the Brindle Mare Club. They retired to a private room prepared according to their specifications: the table polished to a high shine, reflecting the light of fifty candles arranged in clusters throughout the room. The curtains were tied open, and through the window one might watch the streets of London at night. Coats and wigs were hung by an employee of the club, who retreated from the room immediately, and who would not return until summoned. A decanter of brandy waited on a serving table in the corner, and Mr. Dunwood—at twenty-four years of age, the youngest member present—assumed the duty of filling each man’s snifter before addressing his own. Pipes were lit, and conversation eased into life.

The Candlelight Society met bimonthly, and at these meetings it was a selected man’s duty to relate a story to the other members, recounting what he had done to further Satan’s cause in society. Often these stories involved considerable risk to the teller of the tale; if there were occasional embellishments, well, surely they were only symptoms of enthusiasm for the cause. The atmosphere at these meetings was unfailingly collegiate and warm, and the men had forged a familial unity over the years.

Conversation was permitted to wander for a time before Mr. Benson summoned everyone’s attention with a gentle clearing of his throat.

Martin’s heartbeat increased, and as he held his snifter, he studied the level of the brandy inside to see whether he could detect a tremor in his hand. He found none.

“Gentlemen,” said Mr. Benson, “I’m afraid we shall have to forgo the stories this evening. I know it’s a disappointment.”

In fact, it wasn’t. Mr. Withers had been scheduled to speak tonight, and his stories were always a chore to sit through. The events were all well enough, but he spoke without pause or inflection, as though he were reading market reports on Turkish figs. Anything that might delay that experience was to be welcomed.

“At our last meeting Mr. Dunwood surprised us all by telling us a wonderful tale of his visit to the Buried Church. The friendship he struck with Miss Alice Cobb facilitated an exchange of letters between myself and her father, Abel Cobb. London’s own Cannibal Priest. Because of that—indeed, because of your initiative, Mr. Dunwood—the Candlelight Society is presented with its grandest opportunity since its acquisition of the Damocles Scroll, some two hundred years ago.”

“Hear, hear,” they said, and glasses were raised all around. “Greater even than that,” offered one of them, and there were murmurs of agreement.

Martin smiled humbly, raising his own glass. “Thank you, gentlemen. All I seek is to bring honor to the Burning Prince.”

“I shall speak your name to Him,” assured Mr. Benson. “This I promise you.”

Martin smiled. Mr. Greaves, a portly, middle-aged man sitting directly to his right, clapped him on the shoulder. “I know you wanted to be the one to go, Dunwood. Very good of you to understand.”

“I defer to Mr. Benson’s authority, of course, and to his many long years of service. If any man here has earned the privilege of being the first member of the Candlelight Society to tread Hell’s shore, it is he.” He waited for all the tedious affirmations to settle before he continued. “I only fear that the journey may be dangerous.”

Mr. Benson made a dismissive gesture. “Never fear. I don’t trust the Buried Church any more than I trust those southern pirates. I’ve hired a bodyguard to accompany me. I am told he’s quite capable.”

“What’s the name of this fellow?”

Mr. Benson paused, and chuckled. “Do you think you would recognize it, Mr. Dunwood? I daresay you travel in different company.”

Martin produced a laugh. It sounded sincere, even to him. How easily the lies came, these days. “Not at all. But should anything happen to you, I would like to know whom to hold responsible.”

“Risk is a natural component of our endeavors here. We all know that. Should I fall in my duties, I trust the Society will continue its business unflagged. Nevertheless, if it will please you to know it, the man is called Rufus Gully, and I am told he can be found lurking about Whitechapel or at the docks. You may deliver whatever retribution seems appropriate. Now, if that’s settled, I would like to move on to the question of Miss Alice Cobb.”

Martin compressed his lips, unable to hide his discomfort. He felt keenly the scrutiny of the others. “What do you mean?”

“I know this is uncomfortable, Martin, and I’m sorry for that.”

The sudden informality caught him off guard, and he felt a curious wash of goodwill toward Mr. Benson and all the gentlemen here. They were the best family he had ever known, and the few years he’d spent doing the Devil’s work at their side had been the proudest of his life.

“I know you feel strongly for the girl,” Benson continued, “and the Society has always honored great passion. The Burning Prince is not called such after a simple fire, after all.”

Someone said, “Hear, hear.”

Martin nodded, acknowledging this.

“I only wish to remind you of what’s at stake. Miss Cobb, enchanting as she may be, is the daughter of a Cannibal Priest, and therefore in pursuit of a different cause. We may all bend the knee to the same Lord, but we honor him in different ways. I go in place of you not only because of my position in the Society, and not only because of your youth, but because I know I will not be distracted by my heart. Do you understand?”

Martin nodded, the goodwill of a moment ago entirely evaporated. “I do.”

Mr. Benson gestured to his depleted glass. “I wish to make a toast. If you would, please.”

“Of course.” Martin rose and turned to the decanter. Behind him, Mr. Benson addressed the group.

“Multiple purposes are converging here, and if every man is honorable there will be no difficulties. The pirate wants to fill his hold with lotusheads, so he can cross into the Dark Water at will and do trade with the cities on Hell’s border. The Cannibal Priest wishes to hold a Feast there, and hopes to entice Satan Himself to the table. I admit I hope very much that he succeeds. I can imagine no greater honor than to sit at that table. And I, of course, have my own purpose.” He waited until Martin had finished replenishing the brandy snifters. Once this was accomplished, he raised his glass. All followed suit. “I shall bring to the Society an atlas of Hell,” he said. “I shall bring to us the means to study the true face of our Lord.”

“To your success, sir,” said Mr. Greaves. “And to the Candlelight Society.”

“Hear, hear,” they said, and all but Martin drank.

Mr. Benson beamed. “Hail—” His throat closed around the phrase. He brought his hand to his neck with an expression of bewilderment. The others sputtered and coughed briefly, and then a gravid silence spread over the group. Their faces turned a turbulent red. Blood flowed from their noses, their eyes. Their faces, Martin thought, looked like holy masks.

He overturned his raised glass. The brandy spattered onto the table and ran off the edge. He met Mr. Benson’s bulging eyes and held them for as long as it took for the light within them to expire.

“Hail Satan,” Martin said.

3. The Cannibal Priest

They sailed a week without incident. Martin browned in the tropical sun. He dined at the captain’s table in the evenings but kept as much to himself as was possible during the long, bright days. His only true moments of apprehension came when he observed a crewman training a spyglass behind them, reminding him of their pursuer. But Captain Toussaint surmised that that ship had laden itself with stores for a long raiding campaign, while Butcher’s Table—with only the lotushead and the unfortunate Mr. Thickett in its hold—carved a quicker path through the sea. They kept an easy distance.

So it was that the first ship Martin beheld with any clarity was not their pursuer, but a colonial schooner called the Puritan, its Union Jack fluttering crisply in the southern breeze.

Martin leaned over the railing, straining his eyes to see if he could make out anyone on the deck. He felt the proximity of Alice in his blood, and if he’d believed he could get to her more quickly by swimming, he would have jumped overboard on the instant. The thought was already half formed in his mind when a hand clasped his shoulder, startling him so much that for a moment he thought he had actually done it.

“It’ll be a few hours yet,” said Captain Toussaint. “She’ll wait for you.”

“Hours?” They appeared so close; it seemed outrageous.

“Indeed. The eye travels faster than the wind will carry us. We’ll meet with them before the sun goes down, be assured. I’m only grateful for the reinforcements.” He cast a glance behind them, where the other ship lurked on the horizon like a mote in the eye.

Martin followed his gaze. “Surely they won’t attack all of us together? They’d be mad.”

Toussaint cast him a sidelong glance. “It’s past time you became accustomed to madness, Mr. Dunwood. But don’t fear. They are far enough behind that I believe we’ll make the crossing before they catch us.”

“But the Puritan won’t be crossing with us. What of them?”

“They shall have to fend for themselves. If their captain is intelligent, they’ll be rigged for speed.”

Unsettled, Martin retreated to his cabin, hoping to pass the hours going over the particulars of his task. As much as he looked forward to seeing Alice, and as much as he anticipated the thrill of the passage into the Dark Water, he was already feeling nostalgic for the past week’s quiet journey. He’d grown used to the rolling waves and the slapping of the water against the hull as he settled in for sleep each night. He fancied himself becoming a proper man of the sea.

He opened his valise and removed a package wrapped in oilcloth, which he set beside him. He felt a nervous flutter in his breath and took a moment to compose himself. He unwrapped the cloth, exposing three tall, inelegant candles, dull yellow—more like some waxy excrescence than things designed by human hands—with long black wicks like eyelashes. He should not have them out; they were as crucial to the success of the mission as the lotushead, drowsing somewhere below him. He had taken all three from the Society’s stores, as a safeguard against accident, but even that seemed a brazenly small number.

The door opened and Martin jumped in alarm, though every man aboard knew what he carried.

Fat Gully stood framed in the door, staring with naked interest. “That’s them, isn’t it? The hellward candles.”

Martin wrapped them carefully again. It seemed somehow grotesque that Gully had seen them—as though they’d been sullied. “Yes.”

“Ugly little things.”

Martin slid the oilcloth back into his valise, which he tucked beneath the cot. “They are not meant to please the eye, Mr. Gully. What do you mean by barging in on me?”

“We’ve nearly arrived. We’re in shouting distance.”

Martin felt a pulse of excitement. Still, that did not justify the intrusion. “Thank you. I’ll be up presently. You may go.”

Mr. Gully moved fully into the room then, shutting the door behind him. The quarters were close at the best of times; with his wide and malodorous presence, they became oppressively small. “It’s time we spoke clearly, Mr. Dunwood. I was going to wait until later, but what with that other vessel coming on behind us, it seems there might not be time.”

Martin shifted uncomfortably. “Why don’t we go above and—”

“We’ll stay down here, Mr. Dunwood, where it’s nice and private, yes?” Gully leaned over him. Martin couldn’t leave without physically pushing past the man, which he did not wish to attempt.

“Very good, Mr. Gully. What’s on your mind, then?”

“It’s about your lady, sir. It’s about Miss Cobb. I want you to arrange a meeting between us.”

Martin flushed, both angry and frightened. “You have no business with Miss Cobb.”

“Oh, I do.”

What business? Is it the Society? Did they give you some instruction?”

Martin was unable to hide his frustration, and Mr. Gully made no secret that he enjoyed it. “No, it ain’t the Society, Mr. Dunwood. And even if it were, you took care of them, didn’t you? Nothing they told me matters anymore. No, it’s just me. Just dear old Gully. I got something I want to ask of your precious lady, and you’re going to make sure I get the chance.”

“You’re mad. Of course I won’t do it.”

“You will, sir.”

Martin attempted to stand, but Mr. Gully shoved him roughly back onto his cot, where he swung wildly, nearly spilling backward. As he struggled to right himself, Mr. Gully gripped his throat and dug his fingers in. Terror overwhelmed Martin; he gripped Mr. Gully’s thick forearms, but he was too weak to do anything but clasp them tightly, as if he were grasping the arms of a welcome friend.

“Now look here, dog. I’ve got you to rights, I do. I know all there is to know about you. You do what I say or I tell the Cannibal Priest about your designs on the girl. Her father’s the top man, ain’t he? Won’t he be fascinated to learn what became of the Society, and that the whelp who done it is here to fuck his daughter right under his nose. You’ll be keelhauled, Mr. Dunwood, or worse. You do what I say or I make sure you’re dead before the sun sets.”

“. . . bastard . . . you bastard . . .” Martin struggled to breathe. His face was going red.

Mr. Gully smiled. “Are you questioning my parentage, Mr. Dunwood? Why, I’ve never been so insulted. What shall I do.” He relaxed his grip just slightly, allowing Martin to haul in a ragged breath.

“You’ve crossed a line, Gully. You were paid to protect me. You have no idea what—”

Mr. Gully cut him off again with a squeeze of his hand, like a man turning a valve. “You’re nothing to me. You’ve always been nothing. The Society was just a bunch of wanking old men telling dull stories to each other because no one else would bother to listen. You’re all as threatening as a litter of kittens.” Martin felt a sharp pain near his groin; Gully had slipped the blade of his knife through his trousers and pressed its edge against the pulsing artery. “You’ll say nothing to anyone. You’ll do what the fuck I say and you’ll be quick and quiet about it. Tell me you understand.”

He loosened his grip. “Are you going to hurt—”

“Tell me you understand.”

“I understand.”

Gully released him completely this time, leaning back, and Martin slid to the floor, curling into himself and coughing. The pitch of the ocean, a soothing rhythm only moments ago, tried to wrestle the breakfast from his belly.

Before the rage had time to bubble up, Mr. Gully addressed him from the door. “I’ve no doubt you’ll be performing your little ritual after dinner tonight, so there won’t be much time. Arrange my meeting before all that happens.”

“Perhaps I’ll just have you killed before we get there,” Martin said. He regretted it immediately, but the threat gave him satisfaction.

“Aye, you might. Who would question a gentleman condemning a scoundrel like me? But let me tell you something, Mr. Dunwood. If your friends in the Candlelight Society thought there was safety aboard this ship, my contract would have expired once you were taken into Captain Toussaint’s care. But it didn’t, did it? Has it occurred to you the captain doesn’t need you at all, once you’ve performed your duties tonight?”

Martin shook his head. “We have an arrangement. I’ve even paid for passage.”

“You put a great deal of stock in your ‘arrangements,’ don’t you? As much as Mr. Benson did, do you think?”

Martin said nothing.

“Once you’ve crossed into the Dark Water, there’s nothing to stop them from dumping your carcass overboard. Nothing but me, that is. The Society knew it. That’s why Benson paid me for the whole journey. So you can turn me over if you like, Mr. Dunwood, but if you do you’ll be joining me down a shark’s gullet soon enough. Do what I tell you, though, and everything will continue as it was, pretty as you please.”

He departed, leaving Martin shivering on the floor.

~ ~ ~

Late afternoon found Butcher’s Table joined with the Puritan in the calm Gulf waters, sails furled and launch boats plying the short distance between them. Stores and personnel were ferried from the colonial vessel to the pirate ship in preparation for the crossing. Captain Toussaint stood on the aft deck, in the company of Mr. Hu, Martin, and Fat Gully, where they received Abel Cobb—the Cannibal Priest himself—accompanied by his bodyguard, a Virginian soldier called Randall Major. Abel Cobb was an older gentleman with a heavy white moustache, his round belly an indication of his wealth, his white clothing crisp and smartly tailored. One might imagine he’d just stepped out of a club, and not spent a week at sea.

Cobb grasped Captain Toussaint’s hand and shook it coolly. These were two men who, under any other circumstance, would be happy to watch the other hang. Then he turned his attention to Martin, whom he greeted with genuine warmth.

“Mr. Dunwood, it’s a pleasure to have a member of the Candlelight Society join us at the Feast. I believe it’s been more than fifty years since the last time such a thing has happened.”

“I believe it’s been that long since an invitation has been extended,” Martin countered, and the two men permitted themselves a chuckle. In truth, though they ultimately served the same master, certain doctrinal differences forced a rivalry between their organizations, to which bloodshed was not unknown.

Captain Toussaint interjected. “You do not seem surprised to see Dunwood, whereas I had been expecting old Benson. I do not like feeling shut out, Mr. Cobb.”

Abel smiled indulgently at the captain. “You have not been shut out, I can assure you. Mr. Benson sent word along to us that he had fallen ill. You, well . . . your particular business makes you rather more difficult to reach.”

“And yet here we are,” Toussaint said, but he let the matter rest. “Enough pleasantries, I think. Let’s attend to business.”

“Why the haste? We have an abundance of time.”

“Mr. Cobb, we are pursued.”

Abel Cobb peered into the horizon beyond Toussaint’s shoulder. The sea appeared empty and quiet.

“They are perhaps a day out, but they are not under a natural command. It would be a mistake to linger. Come below, and I’ll show you what we’ve rigged for you.”

The captain led Mr. Cobb away, followed by Hu and the Virginian. Martin and Gully lingered on the aft deck. The afternoon was hot, and the sun cast bright shards over the waves. They watched as Mr. Johns supervised the intake of materials, much of which seemed to be rare foodstuffs, spices, and animals, in preparation for the Feast on Hell’s shore. Finally, though, he saw what he had been waiting for. She seemed a jewel in the sunlight, the launch that carried her lifting and dipping over the gentle waves, six men laboring hard at the oars.

Interminably long minutes later, Alice Cobb was assisted aboard Butcher’s Table. Her hair was done up in a bun, and she wore a somber black dress. She navigated the crowded deck gracefully, and she seemed to Martin as out of place on this ship as a nightingale flitting through an abattoir. Not a single head turned; every man aboard this ship kept to his duty, and he wondered at the fear she instilled, that she could quiet their grosser instincts. She mounted the stairs to the aft deck and approached him, her smile radiant, her skin ruddy with the sun. Martin felt as though every inconvenience, every crime, every humiliating slight had been nothing more than prelude to this heart-filling justification.

“Alice,” he said. Every impulse in his body urged him toward her, but he resisted. Though no one would stare at this woman outright, he knew that the corner of every eye was attuned to them.

“Mr. Dunwood,” she said. With her back to the crew, she was free to give expression to her joy. “It is fine to see you again.” She looked at Mr. Gully. “And who is this?”

“This is Rufus Gully. He is my companion on the journey.”

She arched an eyebrow at the little man. “Surely not the whole journey?”

Mr. Gully stepped forward and executed a clumsy bow. “Absolutely the whole journey, Miss Cobb. Martin and I are the dearest of friends. Isn’t that so, Martin?”

Martin stiffened. “Mr. Gully was hired by the Society to serve as my protection.”

“Protection? Not from us, I’m sure!”

Martin shook his head. “Of course n—”

“From everyone,” Gully said, presenting his full, gap-toothed grin. “We don’t know what awaits in the Dark Water, after all, and you lot might get hungry.”

Alice smiled down at him. All pretense of warmth had gone. “I do like a plain speaker. If we do get hungry, I daresay there’s more meat on your bones than his, rancid though it may be.”

To Martin’s horror, Gully giggled shamelessly at this, as though she’d just performed the most outrageous flirtation.

Alice was indifferent to him. To Martin, she said, “I regret we do not have more time, but there is still much to be done before tonight. I shall see you again at dinner.” She nodded politely, letting her gaze linger with Martin’s for a delicious moment, and then turned away.

She’d gone a few steps when Mr. Gully turned to Martin and fixed him with a cold stare. “Don’t you dare test me, sir.”

Martin, face flushed, called out to her. “Miss Cobb. If you please.”

She turned and paused.

“Mr. Gully has a point of business he must discuss with you.”

“Does he now.” Her face was unreadable. “Spit it out then, little morsel.”

Gully grinned again, but this time he maintained his composure. “In private, if you please.”

“If you think I’m going to be shut into a room with you, you’re mad.”

“Right here will suffice. Give us a moment, Mr. Dunwood.”

Presented as an order. Martin felt lightheaded. He considered that if he acted quickly he might surprise the man and wrestle him overboard. If it became a struggle, perhaps others would come to his aid. But he knew there was no realistic hope of this, and that such an action would only result in his own guts spilling onto the deck, there to cook in the hot sun. Worse, the same fate might come to Alice. So he swallowed his anger and said, “Be quick.”

He walked to the railing and turned his back to them. From this vantage point, he could see the Puritan poised nearby, its own decks alive with activity. The traffic between the two ships had slowed. He peered into the southeast, but there was still no sign of the pursuing vessel. Perhaps they’d given up.

He would not have time to spend with Alice before the crossing, but he consoled himself with the promise of her company afterward. In a few days’ time, they would be married. With a little good fortune, perhaps they could even secure her father’s blessing, though they would certainly proceed without it. He did not think Abel Cobb would find cause to refuse him, even considering their natural animosities. He felt confident that the ritual following dinner tonight would put any possible objections to rest. It was all very well to call the Candlelight Society a toothless gathering of storytellers, but let him see Martin work with a hellward candle, and he would adjust his thinking.

“Come on then, Mr. Dunwood.”

Mr. Gully stood at his side. Martin turned in time to see Alice wending her way through the crowded deck and disappearing down the ladder into the interior of Butcher’s Table. She did not spare him a glance. Martin grabbed him by the shoulder and shook him once. “If you’ve threatened her in any way, I will kill you for it!”

“Take your hand away. I did no such thing. All I did was ask for a place at the table.”

Martin needed a moment to understand what he’d just heard. “A place—you mean at the dinner tonight? Preposterous.”

“Not tonight’s dinner,” Gully said. “Another one.”

Martin’s mind reeled. He meant the Feast. Even under normal circumstances, it was remorselessly exclusive; few outside the diabolist circles even knew of its existence. The notion that some miscreant from the gutter might be welcomed tableside simply by exhibiting a bit of bluster offended him on a foundational level. “You don’t even have the right clothing for it,” was all he could think of to say.

“I don’t think it’ll be a problem.” He patted his employer on the arm. “Now, let’s get below and get you ready, Mr. Dunwood. You done what I asked, and now God help anyone who crosses you while I’m about.” He considered a moment, then gave him a wink. “Well . . . God, or whoever.”

~ ~ ~

Fifty leagues to the southeast, what remained of Captain Bonny Mungo stalked the decks of the Retribution, calculating the time it would take to catch Butcher’s Table. The captain existed as a fluttering scrap of thought in a body that had once been his but was now broken and expanded to house the carrion angel that lived there. The bones in his face had unlocked and pushed outward to accommodate the angel’s presence. The flesh was swollen and bruised black; occasionally some pocket of trapped blood would find its way out and trickle down his face in an oily stream. When the captain issued orders to his crew, his Scottish burr pushed through altered vocal cords to create a sound that terrified them and left them wholly subservient.

The other three carrion angels had surrendered their hosts as soon as the crew had been tamed, and now roosted in the masts, black silhouettes fluttering against the hot sky, occasionally drifting down to feed on one of the bodies spread like a red feast on the decks. The crew had been trimmed to its barest essentials. Everyone else was provender.

Bonny Mungo retained enough of himself to remember Scotland, to remember standing atop a seaside cliff and watching the ships leave that cold rock for adventures under a foreign sun. He remembered a childhood spent thieving from the shops, waylaying passing carriages and unfettering the fops inside from the bags of coin weighing them down. The years spent in and out of gaols, escaping the hangman’s noose long enough to finally find passage aboard a ship full of bloody-minded young men like himself, brothers all. He hacked and beat and bought his way to a position of prominence among them, to a captaincy, to respect and fear and a rolling home thousands of miles from the fog-clapped cliffs of Scotland, in a part of the world where the sun hammered its devil’s eye onto hot sand and clamoring Spanish ports. Bonny Mungo retained enough of himself to remember all of that, and to provide the angelic cockroach splitting his body like a too-small jacket with the requisite knowledge to keep enough men alive to sail his ship, and to point it in the direction of its prey. After that, he and all that remained of his crew would just be gruel in the trough.

The scent of the lotushead drew them across the waves. It was getting closer, but the rag that was Bonny Mungo knew that it was not quickly enough. Because he knew it, the angel knew it too.

It spoke a word that fractured the jaw of its host, registering the pain as a curiosity. Upon hearing the word, one of the roosting angels took flight, rearing against the sun in a flare of black feathers, and plummeted into the sea, where it sank from sight like a corpse weighted with stones. The angel descended quickly, a dark-feathered ball, until it passed beyond the reach of sunlight and the water grew cold and black. It fell more deeply yet, oblivious to the atmospheres pressing against its body, its eyes pulling from the lightless fathoms darting shapes, shifting mountains of flesh.

It found a host, made a bloody gash and wriggled into it, and filled the beast with its holy spirit. Skin split in fissures along the length of its form, and it jetted forward with fresh purpose, its tentacles trailing in a tight formation behind it, its red saucer-shaped eyes incandescent with hunger.

~ ~ ~

“Tell me,” said Abel Cobb, as Captain Toussaint led him through the cramped corridors below.

Toussaint bulled his way toward the ladder that descended into the hold. He spoke over his shoulder as he walked. “I believe we’re pursued by a carrion angel. Perhaps a host of them.”

If this rattled Cobb’s resolve, he disguised it well. “I suppose it was to be expected. Tracking the lotushead, no doubt.”

“No doubt.”

The hold, lit generously with lanterns, bustled with activity as crewmen filled the larder with the meats, spices, and vegetables that would supply the Feast and afterward sustain them on the short journey back to the colonies, where all parties would go their separate ways. Beyond this, toward the aft, were the rooms the carpenters had added to house Abel and his retinue. The scent of recently cut wood filled their nostrils. Abel peered into his own room and sniffed with disdain.

“These are barely adequate.”

“Your other option is the open deck. I’ll leave that decision to you.”

Cobb turned away. “Show me the runner.”

Toussaint gestured farther down the passageway. No lantern hung there, and it ended in a swell of shadow.

Cobb hesitated.

“Don’t be nervous, now,” said Captain Toussaint. He smiled.

Cobb proceeded without a word. About twenty feet ahead the corridor ended in a closed and locked door. Sound was muted here; the loading activities behind them seemed to come from a more distant place, and the chill of the water, so near to them, shivered their blood. The captain gestured to the door. “In there, Mr. Cobb. Would you like to see him?”

Cobb only nodded, and the captain shouldered by him with a key. He couldn’t shake the unpleasant notion that he was taking orders aboard his own ship. Abel Cobb was one of those men who inhabit power the way other men do a suit of clothes.

The door pushed open and they discerned a shape on the floor, which slowly materialized into the crumpled form of Thomas Thickett, lifting his face into the meager light. He blinked and held out a hand to block it out. “Yes? Yes?”

Cobb swelled as he drew in a deep breath. “There you are at last,” he said.

Thickett froze as he recognized the voice. He scrambled back into his cell’s darkest corner. “No.”

Abel Cobb knelt at the room’s entrance. When he spoke, his voice was gentle, almost kind. “You are the most fortunate of men,” he said. “Do not flinch from this honor.”

“NO!”

Cobb backed out of the room and shut the door. Captain Toussaint locked it again, muffling the sound of Thickett’s sobs. They were an assault on his heart, and it took him a moment to harden himself against them again. He passed the key to Cobb, formally transferring custody.

“You feel sorry for him,” Cobb said.

Captain Toussaint straightened himself and walked back down the corridor, not sparing the man a glance. “He’s made his own fate. I have nothing more to do with it.”

“I’ve heard rumors that you’re a sentimental man,” said Cobb, following behind. “I just wasn’t sure I should credit them.”

“Sentiment is a dangerous quality on the sea, Mr. Cobb. So is a credulous nature. Be wary of rumors.”

“Ah, then the stories about Captain Tegel and yourself are lies, invented to destroy your character. What a relief, sir, I must tell you. So there will be no sentiment, then, to spoil the Feast.”

They arrived at the door to Cobb’s new quarters. Captain Toussaint stopped there. “I will not be dining with you at the Feast,” he said.

Cobb smiled beneath his moustache. There was no warmth in it. “I thought your kind were less discriminating. Do you tremble at the thought of tasting the human animal? He was bred for this, after all.” He flicked his eyes over Captain Toussaint’s solid form, as though sizing up a slab of beef. “I assure you, you are as different from one another as a dog is from a pig.”

Captain Toussaint felt a familiar heat rise in his chest. It had been growling like a low fire since the priest had boarded the ship. He’d expected to dislike the man and was not disappointed on that front. But he did not know how long he’d be able to keep the fire banked if Cobb insisted on making provocations. “I want nothing to do with your barbaric Feast. I am not one of your cultists.”

“ ‘Cultists,’ is it? We are an old order, sir. Older than the Candlelight Society, older than whatever groveling thing you Haitian beasts fashion your altars to. We are bound by traditions. A man like yourself may have no regard for such things, but I assure you they are the very bedrock of civilization.”

“ ‘Captain.’ ”

“I’m sorry?”

“You will address me as ‘Captain,’ sir. You’re aboard my ship. You will address me properly. You will not attempt to recruit me or any of my crew into your brutish practices. And what’s more, you will not speak the name of Josiah Tegel again. You’re not fit to. The rumors you’ve heard are true. I loved him. I still do. You may titter behind your handkerchief in private, but do it where I can see you and you’ll learn what punishment looks like to a pirate crew.”

Abel Cobb nodded absently, seeming to consider. His eyes shone in the lantern light. “Thank you for your candor. Allow me to return it. A man like you can only give orders to white men aboard a ship that has already surrendered itself to chaos. No vessel in the Royal Navy would tolerate it. Not even the colonists would endure such a thing, and they are known to fornicate with savages. I need your ship, Captain Toussaint; I don’t need you. You would be wise not to forget it.”

Captain Beverly Toussaint smiled. “And now we understand each other. Good day, Priest.” He turned his back to the man and made his way to his own quarters, where a mugful of rum would help calm his anger. That, and the knowledge that he would see sweet old Tegel again very soon. Even now he awaited Toussaint in the Dark Water, ready to enact a plan they’d agreed upon years ago.

Toussaint cast an eye over the empty space in the hold. There probably wasn’t enough; but he could always throw some Satanists overboard, and make more.

~ ~ ~

Meetings of the Candlelight Society were convivial affairs, defined as much by the sharing of good whiskey and brotherhood as the sharing of Satanic devotions. There was not a member of the Society who could not claim to be a gentleman, so Martin Dunwood felt distinctly out of his element as he sat at the captain’s table, surrounded by criminals and cannibals.

Walls had been taken down by the carpenters to make the room more spacious. The curtains were pulled back from the bay window, admitting a cooling, salty breeze. Twilight was falling over the waters; the sky was a smear of pastels. Two candelabras sat at either side of the table, filling the room with a warm light. Grimsley busied himself with taking away the plates from the meal, and replacing them with a sheaf of paper, a quill, and an inkpot.

Dinner had been intimate and quiet. Himself, Captain Toussaint, and the Cobbs. Their companions—Mr. Gully, Mr. Hu, and Mr. Major—dined in the mess with the rest of the crew. Conversation at the table had been muted; Martin detected a tension between Captain Toussaint and Mr. Cobb, though he was too preoccupied by Alice’s presence to give it much thought. Alice was formal and polite with him, nothing more. He found it difficult to restrain himself from offering the occasional illicit smile, or to touch her foot with his own underneath the table. He did none of these things.

Once Grimsley had finished and retreated from the room, all eyes fell to Martin. He pulled in a steadying breath and removed the cloth-wrapped candles from an interior pocket. He placed one into a silver candleholder as the others watched.

“It’s ghastly,” Alice said.

Now that his moment had come, Martin was nervous. But a breeze carried the scent of Alice’s perfume to him, warming him with the memory of their secret nights in London. This, along with the slow rocking of the ship and the heave of the waves through the open window, conspired to produce a feeling of pleasant intoxication, steadying his hand and calming his nerves.

“Gentlemen—Miss Cobb—I’m prepared to light the hellward candle. It is customary for a member of the Candlelight Society to tell a story before applying the match, but—”

“For pity’s sake,” Abel muttered.

“—considering that we are pressed for time, I will forgo it.” With a flourish, Martin lit the match. The smell of burning phosphorous tickled his nose. Flickering orange light lit their faces; the skin appeared to crawl over the bones of their skulls. He glanced at Alice; he could not read her expression. “While this candle diminishes, its sister in the Black Iron Monastery, on the border of Hell, will rise in counterpoint. During that time I will be in communication with one of the monks in residence there. We will arrange a meeting place. It’s crucial that I not be interrupted. Everyone must remain silent.”

The match hissed in his hand. He paused, feeling his inexperience keenly. He’d been present at the lightings of hellward candles before but had never performed the ritual himself. It occurred to him that if he botched it, the entire expedition would be undone. He would lose Alice as a certainty, and he would probably also lose his life.

Captain Toussaint leaned forward in his chair, sliding his hand across the table toward him. He did not touch Martin, but he breached the distance between them: It was a calming gesture. “We won’t interrupt you. Light the candle, lad.”

Martin touched the flame to the wick, and the candle flared to life. Martin sat. He aligned the parchment comfortably before him, and dabbed the quill into the inkpot, careful to let the excess drop back inside before positioning his hand over the paper. The hellward candle began to smoke, its acrid plume drifting out through the open window. Abel Cobb retreated a step, covering his nose with his sleeve. A trickle of melted wax began to drip down one side of the candle.

Martin closed his eyes—it was important to establish a sympathetic blindness with the monk—and spoke. “My name is Martin Dunwood, of the Candlelight Society. I request an exchange with the Order of the Black Iron, according to the protocols of the Coventry Accord.”

The effect was immediate. A trapdoor opened in his mind and Martin seemed to drop out of his own head, plummeting down a dark tunnel with terrifying speed. Though he was bodiless, the terror of impact was quite real, and he found himself reaching with arms he no longer possessed to grab for purchase on a wall that did not exist.

Horror consumed him. He suddenly believed that his worship of Satan had been a terrible mistake; that every promise offered to the Society, to the Buried Church, to any of a thousand practitioners of obeisance, had been a lie. All had been fooled, all were destined to be swallowed into this endless black gullet. His little soul was nothing more than a crumb of the great human feast for the Burning Prince. Martin wanted to scream, but there was nothing left of him to do it.

~ ~ ~

The Black Iron Monks take a vow of darkness upon entering the order. Of all the people existing on Hell’s borders, they alone cross into the final country. Upon taking the vow their heads are fitted with black iron boxes, which they wear until death. They experience no need for sustenance, no need for air. The boxes allow them to pass into Hell unaffected by its influence. Each passage into its territory is a pilgrimage; some monks go in solitude, though most go in a linked procession, guided by a native beast. The monks are the cartographers of Hell; all excursions are, in the end, illuminations.

Martin felt the closeness of the iron box around his head. He smelled the stink of flesh long unwashed, of a mouth filled with teeth left to rot. He existed as little more than a ghost in the monk’s consciousness. Whatever epiphany he experienced moments ago was forgotten in the exultation of success. He was here, in the Black Iron Monastery. What he wouldn’t give for the monk to remove his iron cage, so that Martin might see the interior: the maps and charts that he imagined must hang from the walls like illustrated curtains, the walls made of stone dug from Hell’s earth, the quality of light that came not from the sun but from Satan’s burning hide, unknown leagues away.

He felt a wordless pulse of thought: not so much a welcome as an acknowledgment of his presence. It was disorienting, and he was briefly overcome with nausea. The monk’s mind recoiled, followed by another pulse, this one a mixture of surprise and curiosity.

Of course. He had been expecting Mr. Benson. Martin could not keep the memory of what he had done out of his mind, and it spilled across the Black Iron Monk’s thoughts like flaming oil: the deception at the table, the poisoned brandy, the members of the Society expiring in puddles of their own blood.

Betrayed by his inexperience, Martin quailed. He had not meant to share that information. He feared that the monk would cast him out, dooming their expedition. But the ancient agreement between the Candlelight Society and the Black Iron Monastery superseded whatever crime he’d committed. He’d performed the ritual properly, and so the monk had no choice but to honor it.

Degrees of latitude and longitude seared into Martin’s mind like hot iron pressed into flesh. It was the place they would retrieve the monk from the Dark Water. Martin’s hand scrawled the coordinates onto the parchment, untethered from conscious thought.

And then another pulse: a demand. The price that would balance their equation. This time Martin received it as words, a sentence built by a being far removed from the use of language.

Tell me about sunlight.

The yearning in the monk’s voice filled Martin with a kind of sadness he could understand: the wanting for warmth, the ache of skin waiting for the touch of a kind hand. The need to fill a hole that only grew deeper. Martin filled the monk’s mind with a vision of sunrise over a field of barley, the air bright with drifting motes. It was summertime. Birds kept a quiet chatter. A girl was there, who smiled when she saw him. It hurt in the most beautiful way.

~ ~ ~

The hellward candle guttered out, plunging the room into darkness. Martin slumped onto the table, his fingers grasping weakly against the wood, tears gathered in his eyes. Abel Cobb took him by the shoulders and pushed him upright. “You’re all right then, Mr. Dunwood, you’re all right.”

Martin stared at the coordinates he’d written on the parchment, and then lifted his gaze to Alice. “I did it,” he said. “I did it.”

Captain Toussaint opened the door and called down the hall. “Mr. Johns! It is time.”

~ ~ ~

The sea grew increasingly restive. Butcher’s Table and the Puritan bobbed over the waves. Heavy clouds blotted out the moon and the stars, and the ships looked like floating chandeliers in all that darkness.

The crate had been brought onto the main deck. Mr. Johns and a contingent of deckhands positioned themselves around it, hooks and spikes held in defensive postures like medieval instruments, while Hu Chaoxiang and Randall Major watched from a modest distance. Mr. Hu and Mr. Johns had sailed with Captain Toussaint for years; they had served with him under Captain Tegel’s command and had previous experience with a lotushead. To the rest, it was a new experience. Fear buzzed around them like a cloud of flies.

A tattooed, shirtless man pried off the lid and leapt back, swiping the air in front of him with a hook, as though an African jungle cat had launched for his throat. In fact nothing emerged from the crate, and the others laughed cautiously at his performance. Chastened, he approached again, wedging iron into a corner and leveraging it free. Twice more and two sides fell away. The lotushead slumped like a huge dead plant on the deck. Its trunk looked like an old man’s flesh, gathered and bunched at its base. Its tapered neck sagged into itself, the glistening bundle of tongues that crowned it limp and gray. A light rain began to mist, dappling its flesh with beads that reflected gold in the lantern light.

“It’s dead,” the sailor said, looking back at Mr. Hu with something like hope.

“It ain’t,” said Mr. Johns. “Stop your ears, boys.” He removed the wax plugs from his pocket and stuffed them into his ears, while around him the others did the same. The dull roar of the ocean became a distant hiss. The light patter of rain on the deck faded away, becoming only a cold sensation on his skin. Once this was done, he addressed the man who’d opened the crate. “You’ve got to coax it, lad. Give it a poke.” He could not be heard, but he illustrated his meaning with a gesture toward the creature.

With a few shouts of encouragement, the sailor approached the lotushead again. He extended the hook slowly toward its bunched flesh; in the last moment, with a flash of courage, he lunged forward and pricked the beast’s skin with the point of the hook. He leapt back into the fold of the other men, and this time no one laughed.

Muscle rippled along the length of the creature, and with a shiver of life it inflated to its full height, nearly six feet. Its body looked like an amalgamation of plant and animal, as though the stalk of some jungle growth was comprised of thick joints and rolled meat, with no thought to structure or function. Its cluster of tongues, only moments before hanging in a sagging wreath around its apex, began to writhe. The sailors stepped well back from it, apprehension plain on their faces.

Only Mr. Johns stayed his ground. He cast a glance at Mr. Hu, who nodded his assent. “Make it sing, Mr. Johns!” he cried, and the old man moved to obey. He extended his hand, and someone placed a meat cleaver into it. He stepped closer with a nervous twinge in his blood.

The squealing sound of wood being torn and splintered filled his senses; a moment afterward came the screams, and then the bucking of the deck beneath him as the ocean surged in a mighty wave. Mr. Johns fell to the deck, his senses disoriented. The cleaver slid away from him, toward silent lotushead.

“What the devil—”

He turned to see the Puritan—barely discernible in the rainy night though not a hundred yards distant—keeling to port, its masts forty-five degrees to the ocean’s pitching surface. Something seemed caught in its rigging, as though it had flown there, and it took Mr. Johns a long moment to make sense of it in the light of swinging lanterns.

It was a squid, a deep-sea monstrosity with tentacles nearly as long as the ship itself, and it was inverted in the sky. Its arms pulled the sails from their masts, yanked yardarms free of their moorings. People slid from the deck and into the churning water. The squid hovered in the air, its skin split lengthwise, revealing the white flesh of its interior, as though something within itself did not fit. Ragged black feathers jutted from the wounds. Its tentacles splayed in the air around it, a corona of horrors. Its glaring eyes smoked in the beating rain.

“Holy mother of God,” said Mr. Johns. It was a carrion angel. Mr. Johns pissed down his own leg.

“Mr. Johns! Now! Do it now!” It was Mr. Hu, holding on to the railing. His voice carried through the screaming din, through the wax plugs in his ears, and recalled the old sailor to his duty. He found the cleaver on the deck and crawled toward it. The carrion angel was here for the lotushead; it would tear through the Puritan like a flimsy box and then move on to Butcher’s Table, where it would devour the lotushead while every soul aboard sank to the cold bottom.

Mr. Johns grabbed the cleaver and staggered toward the creature. The deck lurched beneath him and he fought to keep his footing. A hand gripped his shoulder from behind, and Randall Major shouted into his ear. “No! Not yet! We have to save them!”

Mr. Major had come from the Puritan, and he knew its people. Sentimentality drove him to madness.

“They’re dead already!” Mr. Johns shouted. He jerked his shoulder free and swung the cleaver with his full might into the lotushead’s flesh. The creature bucked, knocking Mr. Johns backward. A sound emitted from somewhere beneath the mass of tongues, staining the air like blood seeping into cloth. The creature’s tongues stirred, wriggled, flailed. In tandem they articulated the seventeen dialects of Hell, they intoned the Bleeding Harmonic, they recited the cant of the Angelic Brutalities.

Randall Major raged in protest. He threw Mr. Johns to the deck, knocking the wax plug from his right ear. Mr. Johns’s fingers scrambled to find it. His hand shook, tears filled his one good eye. He’d turned his back to a man caught in the grip of madness; he cursed himself for his beginner’s mistake. The voices filled the sky, occluding every other sound. Mr. Johns turned his face away from the milling tongues, but the language poured into his ear like boiling oil. Mr. Johns died in a paroxysm of joy, his eyes pouring out of his head in pale, heavy streams.

Around him, a quiet descended over the crew. The lotushead’s speech stuttered into silence. The sea beneath them was black and calm, the sky cloudless and spangled with red stars. Whatever grave the Puritan had sunk to existed in a place unreachable to them now. Butcher’s Table had crossed into the Dark Water.

4. The Darling of the Abattoir

Alice remembered the first time she’d taken Martin to the Buried Church beneath London. There were seven in the world, each a small series of chambers hacked from the raw earth, connected by tunnels and lit only with torches, if they were lit at all. Here they raised their human cattle—some stolen from cradles, some purchased in the smoky rooms of state power, some bred in the dark for their fates. These latter were the most desirable, with eyes and flesh unstained by sunlight. She had guided Martin through the pens, and he had been struck mute by the sight of them shivering in their cages. A few stared into the light with a terrible, manic look; but most turned away, as though from something holy.

The experience cowed him, as she’d known it would. Members of the Church had always been disdainful of the Candlelight Society, figuring them for little more than dandies playing at worship by swapping tales in front of polite fires in polite hearths. Alice always assumed they were something more than that—she was not susceptible to her father’s prejudices—but no matter how serious they were in their devotions, the brute reality of the Church practice made everyone quail.

“How can you do it?” Martin asked, kneeling beside one of the cages and staring at the boy inside, no more than fifteen years old. The boy was one of those who stared back, though he did it from the far side of his cage. His mouth moved, as though he wanted to speak but couldn’t remember how.

“Because we love them, and we love our Prince.”

Martin shook his head. “They’re people, Alice. They’re people like you and me.”

Alice knelt beside him. “Precisely so. We’re slabs of meat for Satan’s plate, waiting to be laid open by the stroke of His knife. We bleed onto His plate, ride gratefully upon the fork into His mouth. We are split between His teeth.”

Martin stared at her, the torchlight turning his eyes incandescent.

“There is no greater expression of love for our Lord than to devour the human animal. To be the one devoured is to be the vessel of that most beautiful expression.”

She could see him struggle with this. He wanted to align himself with her way of thinking. His love for her compelled him to.

“Let me tell you a secret,” she said. She retrieved a key from a chain around her neck and slid it into the cage’s lock. The boy inside watched this with rapt attention.

“What are you doing? He’ll escape!”

“Not with you here to keep him subdued, surely.”

The look of fear that passed over Martin’s face almost made her break her composure. She touched his hand. “It was a joke. Forgive me.” She opened the lock and swung the cage door wide. The boy hesitated, then approached, keeping low to the floor. Almost crawling. “The secret,” Alice said, “is that my father can barely stomach the taste. He prefers to have his portion cooked.”

Martin could not understand, of course, but that hardly mattered. What it meant was that her father’s faith was weak. He had become drunk on his position in the church, and his ambitions were about power, not service. Sometimes she dreamed of informing the congregation that the Cannibal Priest himself was a fraud, a weakling who applied fire to the meat lest his delicate palate be overwhelmed by its potency. His blasphemy both shamed and disgusted her.

The boy reached them and sat back on his haunches. He turned his eyes up to the cave’s black ceiling, and the firelight played over the angles of tendon and muscle in his neck. An artery pulsed there, bearing the heart’s red tide.

A cleaver hung from a hook beside the cage, and Alice took it down. “It’s always best when they’re willing,” she said, and then she went to work.

She’d fed Martin that day with her own hands, and though they’d eaten lightly, it was enough to confirm what she’d hoped: she could love him. He could bear the weight of it.

~ ~ ~

Martin slept. Since not all of Abel Cobb’s retinue had survived the sinking of the Puritan, the old man had allowed him to move into one of the new rooms in the hold—an improvement from his previous berth. Mr. Gully stationed himself outside. At some point early in his fitful rest, Abel Cobb pounded on the door of his quarters, enjoining him to go topside. “How can you linger down here?” shouted Cobb through the door. “We’ve arrived in the Dark Water! Come up with me, Mr. Dunwood. Let us see this new place.”

But Martin was exhausted by his ordeal. Furthermore, he was beset by a doldrum of the spirit; here, on the brink of his greatest achievement, he wished only to hide from his fellows, to bury his head beneath his pillow and slip into a dreamless abyss. Perhaps this was a common side effect of using a hellward candle. He instructed Mr. Gully to keep the Cannibal Priest away.

And so he passed some hours that way, bobbing along the surface of sleep like a cork at sea, until the door creaked open and Fat Gully’s head intruded from the hallway. “Are you awake, Mr. Dunwood?” he whispered.

“I am ill. Send him away.”

“Not this time,” Gully said, and he opened the door for his visitor. Alice stood in the darkened door frame. She looked like a ghost, her white gown limned in lantern light from down the hall, her face obscured by shadow.

“Alice!” Martin sat up, collecting his bedclothes about him. “Come in! Hurry! What if you’re seen?”

Alice stepped inside, and Gully closed the door behind her, remaining outside the room himself.

“Do you think I’m a fool?” she asked. With the door closed he could barely tease out her shape in the darkness. He felt her sit beside him on his mattress. He leaned over and lit a candle beside the bed, providing them with a little island of light.

“Of course not.”

“It’s been hours,” she said. “They’ve drunken themselves to collapse. They imagine they’ve done a great thing, and they’re celebrating.”

“Haven’t they done a great thing? Haven’t we all?” Martin was still tired, but he felt a twinge of apprehension at Alice’s choice of words.

“We’ve only crossed the border. Others have done so before. Greatness, if we’re going to find it, will be found in Lotus Cove.”

That might be true, but it made him impatient to hear it. He was the first member of the Candlelight Society in generations to cross into the Dark Water. Surely some acknowledgment had been earned.

Perhaps he would just take it for himself. He took her by her shoulder and pulled her near, for a kiss. She allowed herself to be drawn closer, but resisted the final inch by buttressing her arm against the mattress. A few loose strands of her hair tickled his cheek. The smell of perfume filled his nostrils, and with it came the memory of the last time he had seen her—her body glazed with someone else’s blood. He leaned toward her, but she stopped him with a finger to his chin.

“Not yet,” she said.

“But why? Alice, it’s been a year. Do not hurt me like this.”

“You know why. If we’re discovered, you’ll be executed. Your part in this is done. It’s only the strength of the contract that keeps you alive now.”

“You forget. I have Mr. Gully to protect me.”

She smiled at that. “Mr. Gully has his own purpose here, Martin. And it isn’t protecting you.”

Martin sat up, forgetting his desire. “What do you mean?” He recalled their secret conversation on the deck with apprehension. “What did you two talk about?”

“That is my business, and his.”

“What? How can you say that to me? We’re about to be married!”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“Well . . . you should obey your husband.” He tried to present it as a joke, but he didn’t really mean it as one, and they both knew it.

She sat upright on the bed. “You’re making some dangerous assumptions, Martin.”

He tried to sound conciliatory. “I’m not, really. Only I don’t understand why you’re being secretive. I have a right to know.”

“It has nothing to do with you,” Alice said. “I know you find that shocking.” She leaned over him and graced him with a kiss. Just a small one; she withdrew before he could open his lips.

“Very well. I trust you, Alice.”

“Do you now. We sail ever closer to Hell. It is not a place for generous inclinations.”

Emboldened by this—as though she had issued a challenge—Martin fell back on the bed again, gripping her arm and yanking her down with him. His other hand snaked into her hair, pulling it loose from its stays so that it spilled in a bright tide from her shoulders. “Stay. I want you right now. I want them to think it is Satan Himself rutting in the hold, splitting the goats apart with His lust.”

Alice pushed his head back, baring his throat. She took his chin between her teeth and bit gently. “I know what you want.” She extracted herself from his grasp and stood up. She took a moment to fix her hair as it had been. She turned to leave, paused, and gave him a small smile. “When we’re finished, there will be no more rules.” She leaned down and blew out the candle.

Martin wiped the sweat from his face, breathed deeply to slow the blood in his veins. She stood so close. A black pillar etched in the faint red light creeping in around the closed door, where Mr. Gully stood guard outside. They were surrounded by threat, by coiled violence, and by the possibility of extravagant fortune. He felt as though he rode on the crest of a towering wave. He felt like a usurper, like a new and terrible king.

“I think this is how the Burning Prince Himself must have felt,” he said. “Before His grand rebellion.”

Though he could not see her face in the darkness, he saw the shape of it change; he thought it must be a smile. Then she opened the door and disappeared down the corridor.

Mr. Gully watched her go, then leered in at him. “Everything all right then, Mr. Dunwood?”

“Shut the door,” said Martin.

Mr. Gully did so with a chuckle. Martin consoled himself with images of the little man bleeding to death at his feet.

~ ~ ~

Rufus Gully waited until he could hear the snores issuing from Martin Dunwood’s room before he crept down the hallway. He felt a twinge of apprehension; he did not like leaving Mr. Dunwood unguarded. Now that his part had been completed, the rich fool was vulnerable to the murderous whims of the others. Civility may hold them in check—even the pirate seemed beholden to it—but Gully knew thieves. They did not like to share.

And yet. Miss Cobb had instructed him, and he was no stranger to his own heart. If Mr. Dunwood must be left unguarded in the wolves’ den so that he could meet with her, then so be it.

Mr. Gully glanced into the main body of the hold. The light of a hanging lantern illuminated the stacked crates, the stores swinging in their netting, the mounds of burlap sacks. Goats and chickens were penned on the far side, and though he could not see them, their stink was overwhelming. He turned in the opposite direction and made his way down the corridor, between the new rooms built for the Cobbs. The ship pitched on a rough sea, and he lurched into a wall, barking his elbow. He cursed life on a ship, remembering fondly the London docks. If anything, life there was even more precarious, but at least the ground didn’t leap under your feet.

“Mr. Gully.” Miss Cobb’s quiet voice, somewhere ahead. “You lumber like a gorilla. Come, you’re almost here.”

He pressed on into the dark and found her, waiting patiently by the locked door at the very back of the ship. He waited until his eyes acclimated enough that he could read her face, and then he whispered a quiet greeting.

Miss Cobb unlocked the door, ushering him in ahead of her. Not until she secured the door shut did she light a match, touching it to the wick of a small candle. The light flared and there in the corner cowered Thomas Thickett, naked now, shaved hairless as a salamander. He recoiled from the light, curling into a fetal position. He wrapped his arms around his head. Goose bumps peppered his skin.

“This is the Feast,” said Miss Cobb.

Mr. Gully knelt beside the shivering man. He wanted to touch him but was afraid. He glanced up at the lady, the candlelight highlighting her pale skin and her red hair, and he felt the shudder of a complicated emotion. He became suddenly aware of his own ugliness: his squat, toadlike frame, the unappealing arrangement of his face. Alice Cobb was beautiful, as though she had just stepped out of a sonnet. Even Thickett was an expression of beauty: a vessel of Satanic love. The stink of his fear was gravy to the meat.

“Our presence here is a transgression,” she said. “He is not meant to be seen again until he is brought to the table.”

Gully did not understand. He felt he was in the presence of something holy, and his very proximity was spoiling it. “I’ve made a mistake. I’m sorry. I don’t belong here.”

Miss Cobb said, “You belong, Rufus.”

Mr. Gully started at the sound of his Christian name. He had not heard it spoken aloud, especially by a woman, in a long time. It was always Fat Gully at the docks, Mr. Gully to his employers, or coarser names than those. He became freshly conscious of his position here, crouched in folded shadows with a beautiful woman and a beautiful man, the spare golden light of a candle giving them form, and he the lone wretch. The flaw in the art. “Why, Miss Cobb?” His voice cracked. “I’m ugly. I’m stupid. Why did you bring me here? Why did you listen to me?”

“Because all your miserable life, no one has ever loved you. Because yes, you are ugly, and you’re mean, and you’re lonely. I knew you for who you were the moment I saw you. Are you a Satanist, Rufus?”

“I’ve never given religion much thought, miss.”

“You should be. Love is Hell’s breath. You crave it. Your whole soul shakes with it. You are suitable for the Prince, Rufus. Not this coward.” She looked at Thickett, shivering naked on the floor. “He runs from the honor. He’s perfectly suited to my father’s weak palate. There’s nothing left of him but fear.” She prodded him with her toe. “I’m almost sorry for you, Mr. Thickett. You won’t even get that, now. Your whole life was wasted.”

“Please.” It was Thickett, wrapping a hand around Mr. Gully’s ankle. Blood ran from his nose and dribbled down his chin.

Gully extracted his foot and knelt beside him. “What is it you want then, aye?”

Thickett’s hands continued to grasp for him, one on his knee, the other reaching for his hand. “Get me out.”

“I’ll just let you go then, shall I? And what of Miss Cobb?”

“Kill her. Kill her right now. Please.”

“That’s not very charitable.”

“You don’t know what she is.”

“No? What is she?”

Thickett swallowed. His eyes fixed on Gully in a mad, hopeful stare. Did he sense some distant possibility here? He clutched Gully’s sleeve. “She’s a monster. They’re all monsters.”

“All of them!”

“Yes!” Thickett waited for some action. When it didn’t come, he began to understand that Gully was toying with him. Watching his small hope crumble was a remarkable experience. “Don’t kill her then. Don’t kill anyone if you don’t want to. Just open the door and I’ll run. I’ll swim for shore. I’ll swim for it. I don’t care if I drown. I just don’t want this.”

Gully slapped his hand away. He grabbed Thickett’s lower jaw and squeezed, turning his head to the side. “Don’t want it? You thankless shit. You don’t deserve it.”

He slipped his knife from its sheath and pressed it against the artery in Thickett’s neck. Miss Cobb stopped him with a light hand on his shoulder.

“Not yet, Rufus.”

Gully withdrew the knife with some difficulty. The contempt he felt for this cowardly little man almost overwhelmed his better instincts. Thickett didn’t even put up a fight. He just slumped back to the floor, curling into himself again. He shivered with cold or with fear.

Miss Cobb leaned closer to Gully from behind, her lips close enough to his ear that when she spoke it tickled his hair and stopped his breath. “Love must be earned, Rufus. With restraint, and with silence. Wait until the Feast. Do it when they have no choice but to turn to you instead. And then it will be your turn, Rufus. Your turn in the light, at last.”

Gully wiped a tear from his cheek.

~ ~ ~

You’re out there somewhere, Toussaint thought. He scanned the horizon, obscured by darkness and a pitching sea. The sky and its pinwheeling stars provided no light.

Captain Toussaint, Mr. Hu, and Mr. Johns had been to the Dark Water once before. Six years ago, when he was simply Beverly Toussaint, first mate to Captain Tegel, who commanded Butcher’s Table with vicious and bloody efficiency. They had found a lotushead on an English merchant vessel they’d captured off the Carolina coast. A member of the Church of England had custody, and he was quick to surrender his secrets when Captain Tegel displayed for him all his various instruments of persuasion, glinting in the hot sun. Upon learning what he wanted, Tegel had the man flayed anyway, as a rebuke against the God he represented. “Let us see how much of your blood I have to spill before He decides to make Himself known to me.”

In fact he spilled all of it, and God remained absent.

Captain Tegel commanded Mr. Johns to hack into the lotushead’s flesh, provoking the strange cries that opened the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Dark Water. From there they sailed to Hell’s coastline, and it was there that Beverly Toussaint first laid eyes on the galleons of the Black Law, enforcers of the infernal order. It was there that he learned of the secret commerce that transpired between Hell and his own world, right under the Black Law’s nose.

Captain Tegel had found a place where he could unleash his cruelest aspect and be celebrated for it. He decided to stay behind, breaking Mr. Toussaint’s heart. Toussaint feared he would never hear of him again, but over the years word began to trickle back to him: of the captain who commanded the brigantine Angel’s Teeth, carving a cruel path through the dark sea; of the captain who left ships burning in his wake, whether pirates or vessels of the Black Law; of the captain who garlanded the rigging of his own vessel with the bones of his enemies, so that others told stories of hearing their clatter carried on the night wind, signaling his passage. Toussaint knew that his old lover was flourishing.

And unlike these men muttering stories under lamps of whale oil, he knew Tegel’s true purpose, one they had agreed to share all those years ago: smuggling the Damned out of Hell and back into the world. Toussaint because he would spit in the eye of any god or devil that tolerated the enslavement of human beings; Tegel because he wished only to usurp the order of things. Any order at all.

And now Beverly Toussaint was a captain himself, and he stood at the prow of his ship to honor the contract he’d made with the man he loved.

He heard a familiar tread approaching from behind.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Hu,” he said, without turning around. “I know you and Mr. Johns were close.”

Mr. Hu leaned onto the railing beside him. He did not speak for a long moment, watching the dark horizon instead, where lightning bellied the clouds. “Well,” he said. “It was the Virginian.”

Captain Toussaint looked at him. “What do you mean?”

“The one called Major. He got in Johns’s way, tripped him up. Wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Captain Toussaint took a moment to absorb the information. “What did you do about it?”

“Nothing. You know me better than that. We have a job to do.”

He nodded. “I’m grateful for your restraint. You’ll have your chance later.”

“With respect, Captain, I don’t need your permission for that.”

“No. I understand.” Mr. Hu and Mr. Johns had a long and complicated history, and the captain did not presume his own authority could outweigh it. Mr. Hu would handle the Virginian as he saw fit, and that was the end of it. “What about the lotushead?”

“Secured again, for the trip home.” The return trip would likely kill the creature; they were notoriously fragile.

“And our friend Mr. Dunwood?”

“He’s below, in the new accommodations. He and the priest are sleeping on soft beds tonight. Soft beds for soft men. I look forward to seeing the end of them.”

“Soon, Mr. Hu. Very soon.”

Mr. Hu shifted, and there was a hitch in his breath. Captain Toussaint observed him from the corner of his eye. “Say it,” he said.

Mr. Hu deliberated for a moment. “Has it occurred to you that he will be different?”

He was talking about Tegel. Toussaint turned to face him. “Different,” he said.

“Yes. He’s been here six years. The whole atmosphere on this ship has turned sour just by the presence of that gang of Satanists we’re carrying. What happens to a man who’s chosen to live here?”

“You pick an interesting time to voice your concern, Mr. Hu.”

Hu Chaoxiang put his hands on the railing and looked at them when he spoke. “I wouldn’t have. But Johns was apprehensive too. He didn’t want to do this. Now he’s dead, so I have to say it.”

His first mate was practical and efficient; in that way he reminded Captain Toussaint of Tegel. And he was a killer, too, but unlike their old captain he was always cool in the act. He possessed an admirable self-control, an ability to separate himself from the red moment with a thoroughness that had preserved his life many times. And so his nervousness now was almost charming.

Almost.

“Yes, Mr. Hu. It has occurred to me that he will be different.”

Mr. Hu was still. After a moment, he nodded.

“Do you still have the stomach for this?”

“Yes, Captain. Yes, I do.”

“Good.” He slapped his old friend on the shoulder. “Put some fresh eyes in the crow’s nest. We have to be sharp, now.”

Mr. Hu turned and went about his task. Captain Toussaint returned his gaze to the strange sea, still looking for a glimpse of his heart’s object, ringing with bone chimes and flying a black flag.

~ ~ ~

At the coordinates provided by the Black Iron Monk, the rounded head of a giant protruded from the pitching sea, its skin as black as an inkpot, its pale white eyes irisless and blind. The lower half of its face remained beneath the waves. Martin stood beside Captain Toussaint at the prow of the ship, the questing tendrils of an oncoming storm whipping them with wind and rain. He stared at the vast creature through the captain’s spyglass. The surge of waves made fixing the beast with the glass a difficult prospect, but it was large enough that at no time did it leave his vision. Martin’s heart thrilled at the reality of the experience. Communicating with the monk through the hellward candle was one thing, but here was a creature of Hell in the flesh, in service to the Order of the Black Iron, which was in turn—for the moment—in service to him.

 . . . I think this is how the Burning Prince Himself must have felt. . . .

Captain Toussaint said, “By God, is that him?”

Martin smiled. “No indeed. It is the vessel by which he arrives.”

That seemed to be good enough for the captain. His voice boomed: “Drop the launch! Smartly now!”

The launch boat struggled through the waves toward the giant, six men heaving at the oars to the very limits of their strength, Mr. Hu perched at its prow, a coil of rope wound about his right arm. If any of them were afraid of the great beast, Martin could not tell.

The launch boat pulled up a dozen yards short of the giant. Mr. Hu stared at the monster, rocking with each pitch of the boat with all the ease of a man standing on solid English earth. After a moment, the head lifted out of the sea, runnels of water streaming like a heavy rain. The water churned around it in a vast radius, encompassing both the launch boat and even Butcher’s Table itself, its decks thronged with spectators.

Jet-black tentacles rippled along the surface of the waters, propelling the head closer to the launch. It opened its mouth to reveal a red tongue, which it extruded toward the boat, and upon which stood the Black Iron Monk, standing as still as a pillar, his black robes fluttering about him. A black iron box encased his head: the physical manifestation of the order’s Vow of Darkness, and the device that protected them during their sojourns through Hell.

Mr. Hu had no need of his rope. The beast’s tongue touched the tip of the launch with delicacy, and the monk stepped into Mr. Hu’s grasp like a gentleman alighting from a carriage. The launch returned to the ship as the beast slipped beneath the waves again.

Once on deck, the Black Iron Monk was left to Martin’s care. He reeked of Hell: char and smoke and, underneath it, something delicately sweet. Martin guided the figure belowdecks to the first mate’s quarters, which he’d recently vacated. Since Mr. Johns had met his end, the room had been deemed unlucky, and no one had moved in to take his place.

It seemed a ridiculous setup. The monk was a figure of awe, even terror: someone who had actually passed across the border into Hell’s radiant fields and recorded what he witnessed there, in whatever way the monks could witness a place. He was practically a figure of mythology to Satanists the world over, and now Martin had brought him to a small, cramped room, where he must sit on a box or swing on a hammock like any normal fool.

“Forgive me,” Martin said, not even sure the monk could hear him from inside his iron box. “The accommodations are rough. We are ill prepared for someone of your standing.”

The monk gave no reaction. He simply stood in the center of the room, unconcerned with the furnishings. Martin had the unnerving thought that he was like a broom that had been tucked back into its closet, there to remain immobile until fetched to perform his function.

A step sounded behind him, and Martin turned to see Fat Gully standing there, his expression subdued for once, a hint of wonder in his eye.

“This is him, then, aye? The man from Hell.”

“Not from Hell. The Order of the Black Iron resides along its border. They are cartographers.”

“Does he talk?”

Martin felt a flush of shame at Gully’s performance of ignorance. “The monks communicate differently. Please stand outside, Mr. Gully. But do not go far. I must speak with you.”

“I’m never far, Mr. Dunwood.” He gave the monk another lingering glance, and retreated from the room.

Martin retrieved parchment, quill, and inkpot from a drawer. He placed them atop a box and said, “If you’ll be so kind as to produce the map. As specific as you can, please. Also, the routes of the Black Law’s patrol. We must not be discovered. I know you understand.”

When the monk neither moved nor spoke, Martin decided that he must leave him to it and simply trust that it would be done. He left the cramped room, securing the door behind him, and found Mr. Gully waiting for him there as promised.

Gully opened his mouth to speak, but Martin silenced him by grasping his bicep and ushering him farther down the tight corridor. “When we arrive at the cove, upon my order, you will sever the monk’s head from his neck. Regardless of whether the priest endorses our wedding, Miss Cobb and I will not be returning with you. The head will serve as our atlas, and we will take it together into Hell. And you will be released from your contract.”

“What, you and the lady are just going to wander off into Hell together? You’ve lost your senses.”

“Well, it is love, after all. And what would you know of that?”

~ ~ ~

When Martin revisited the monk’s quarters a short while later, the parchment he’d left behind was covered with instructions and a detailed map. Martin thanked him and carried the information to Captain Toussaint, who studied it carefully. Within the hour, he had plotted their course, wending carefully through the patrol lanes of the Black Law. He was convinced he could guide them through unnoticed.

Butcher’s Table filled its sails with wind, pushing through the rough waves and the whipping rain. Black clouds boiled overhead. Martin could no longer distinguish night from day. Alice stood by his side. She seemed happier than she was the previous night, even unconcerned that her father might notice their attachment to each other. He was curious, but he had learned long ago not to press her. She would tell him what she wanted to, when she wanted to. He was content with that.

Fat Gully hovered nearby, never out of eyesight. That his engagement with him was fast approaching its end gave Martin the will to bite back a curt dismissal. He was so tired of the little man’s grotesque appearance, his sneers and his effronteries. Leaving him behind to fend for himself would be one of the greatest joys he’d ever known.

Behind them all the crew labored in eerie silence. The white sails had been taken down and black ones raised in their place. Captain Toussaint had issued an order that no man should speak aloud, all communication to be done through hand signals. Although the constant storm made it unlikely that the sound of their passage would reach the Black Law, he took nothing for granted.

Martin peered into the white foam below, conscious of the vast creature that had delivered the monk to them only hours before. He imagined whole civilizations beneath them, cities of such monsters with heads bent in contemplation of alien philosophies, engaging in wars, creating strange art. The thought both thrilled and appalled him.

Alice touched his arm, breaking his reverie, and pointed ahead. He squinted into the spitting rain, seeing nothing but the rolling waves, the spray of water, the shifting clouds. After a moment’s patience, though, he saw it: land. A jagged coastline, like teeth from a jawbone, barely discernible in the turbulent air. Excited, he turned to alert the crew, only to discover that they all saw it. Men hung from the rigging, or paused on deck, and stared. Captain Toussaint, standing on the aft deck, held his spyglass to his eye. Mr. Hu stood at his side. Martin turned to look again, his heart leaping. Here was Hell’s coast.

He felt a kind of fear he could only describe as ecstatic.

Alice whispered into his ear: “Soon, my love.”

He took her by the waist and kissed her recklessly, heedless of the consequences for either of them. Inviting them, even. He felt that old surge of power, that kingly entitlement. This time, she did not resist him. Perhaps she was no longer afraid of her father. Perhaps she was unable to resist the magnetism he felt exuding from his bones like an elemental energy.

Let Abel Cobb come for him. Let Fat Gully, let Captain Toussaint, let them all descend upon them with knives drawn. He would christen Hell’s ocean with their blood.

~ ~ ~

They sailed several leagues down the coastline. At no time did Martin see a place they might make landing; the land was jagged stone and tall cliff, the waves breaking themselves against great, toothy rocks well before the shoreline. If he did not place so much faith in the infallibility of the Order of the Black Iron, he would have begun to despair already. He could already see the doubt kindling in the eyes of the crewmen who passed him as they performed their duties. He doubted them before he doubted the map; how long would Captain Toussaint’s influence keep them on task?

Mr. Gully seemed to share his apprehension. Always close, he now seemed fastened to his side like a barnacle, the hilt of his knife prominently displayed where it protruded from his belt. Alice, for her part, seemed completely untroubled. Whether in the company of himself or of her father, she expressed nothing but delight at their imminent success.

What they were seeing was not the landscape of Hell itself. That existed farther in, beyond a range of mountains that could not be crossed without protections and guidance. What they were seeing here was just borderland. Scrub. Martin understood there to be small settlements throughout, and somewhere in there, close to the mountains, was the Black Iron Monastery.

And yet, they caught glimpses of things on the shore that could have had no other provenance. A pinwheel of arms and hands, connecting in a knot of tissue bearing one staring blue eye, kept pace with them for hours, leaping in what appeared to be play, sometimes disappearing behind rocks for a mile or more, only to be spotted again as the landscape evened out; a small shack at the base of the cliff, with three charred black figures, paused in their construction of a wooden pyre to fix them with a red glare as they sailed past, while something small and frightened bucked beneath the pile; a great centipede, twice the length of their ship, descended from the crags and slipped into the crashing sea, where it disappeared to join whatever horrors lived in that briny abyss.

After a time even these sights became mundane. Martin turned away from the wonders unfurling alongside him, his thoughts turning inward. He found himself thinking ahead to the crossing of the border into Hell, hand in hand with Alice, with the atlas to guide them. They would take no protections from the environment, as the monks did; they would let the atmosphere work its effects on their flesh and on their minds, transfiguring them into whatever shape or condition pleased the Burning Prince. Alice assured him that the purity of the Feast would grant them favor.

A cry came down from the crow’s nest: “The cove! Lotus Cove, Captain!”

Alice rushed to the port railing, Martin following. Mr. Gully approached as well, his flat little eyes alight with wonder. Behind them, the entire crew went silent.

The rocky shore stretched on, seemingly interminable, but for a break in the line, which showed where an inlet lay hidden; Lotus Cove must be around that bend. But how, wondered Martin, could the lookout be sure? What did he see?

Alice saw his bewilderment and put her fingers on his chin, turning his head incrementally to the left. His gaze shifted, and the blood drained from his face.

Dangling over the edge of the near cliff, so large he mistook them for earthen formations, were the enormous upturned fingers of a left hand. Now that he saw them he could not fathom how he had missed them before: alabaster and smooth as stone, they might have been mistaken for a statue were it not for the damage they had taken: a pink wound, like an incision, along the meat of the thumb, from which some dark-rooted trees seemed to have sprung; and the snapped digits of the first and second fingers, the latter broken so thoroughly that splintered bone—a dingy yellow in comparison with the pale flesh—jutted into the air like cracked wood. The hand seemed luminescent against the dark flow of clouds overhead. Martin found himself short of breath. He lowered his head, closed his eyes, and concentrated on the work of his lungs.

“What is it?” said Gully, cowed with awe.

Alice said, “I daresay it is an angel’s corpse, Mr. Gully.”

Martin turned to look at the captain. Toussaint had trained his spyglass not at the cove, but back toward the sea, as if waiting for something to materialize behind them. Most likely he was only concerned about being discovered by the Black Law. Still, it seemed odd that his attention would be distracted at this moment.

Rounding the bend into Lotus Cove took the better part of an hour. Once the turn was made, though, they might as well have passed out of the Dark Sea and into the Caribbean again, or someplace stranger and more beautiful. The cove was large enough that it might have given shelter to a small fleet of ships the size of Butcher’s Table, and the water here was calm, clear, and bright blue. Schools of fish flitted beneath them, and large, eel-like shapes undulated just beyond the range of vision.

Dominating everything, though, was the angel’s corpse. It lay on its back, a luminous wreckage. Its head—as large as one of London’s great warehouses—lay shattered and half submerged in the water, a hole in its side gaping like a cavern, large enough to sail the ship into. The rest of its body stretched on a sharp incline of earth, spread out in a mangled heap on the barren plain above. Martin tried to make out some sense of order to its body, so that he might intuit what shape the creature would have had in full flight, but it was a hopeless task. It was a tangle of broken limbs, exposed meat, and a score of torn wings.

The water proved deep quite close to the shore, enabling Captain Toussaint to maneuver Butcher’s Table to within a few hundred feet of the angel’s broken skull. He ordered launch boats dropped, and within minutes the ship was disgorging its crew and materials to the shoreline, where Abel Cobb’s retinue worked quickly to assemble the banquet table. The angel’s corpse was so large that there was little room to either side of it, so the site of the Feast was to be the interior of the skull.

The skull’s contents had long ago spilled into the cove, leaving dry planes of bone covered by curtains of seaweed. Clusters of rooted plants grew in bunches where remnants of the brain survived, bearing pink, bulbous growths, which sagged like the heavy heads of kings. Chairs were ferried over, as well as a white tablecloth, and numerous sets of silver cutlery and dinnerware. Abel Cobb’s own chef, one of the first to arrive on shore, presided over the whole business, barking orders with as terrible a mien as any Caribbean tyrant.

In the meantime Captain Toussaint sent a contingent of sailors, led by Mr. Hu, on a steep climb up the side of the angel’s ruined head. By means of ropes and grapples they would achieve the creature’s upturned chin, from which point they would descend into its open mouth and down its throat. There they would dig out the lotusheads, which grew in profusion in the place where the angel formed its speech. The captain had no interest in joining the Feast; his business was the harvest. And, perhaps, something else; Martin noted that he still seemed more interested in what might be coming behind them than what lay before.

Beside him, Alice had no eyes for the preparations: She looked instead up the long slope to the vast, dry field that separated them from Hell’s true country. It would be an arduous crossing—but the monk’s guidance would make it possible.

5. The Feast

At last, the table was set.

Alice took her place at her father’s right hand. Above them, the angel’s curved skull blocked the sky. The bone was completely covered in hanging vines, moss, strange growths that pulsed with light, and suspended sacs gravid with ochre liquid. Animate life crawled through the foliage, hidden to the eye but emitting a low, constant susurrus. From this vantage point she could see the bright blue water of the cove, so unexpected in this setting, and Butcher’s Table anchored in the distance. Randall Major had taken a launch to fetch Thomas Thickett to the dinner plate and should be returning any moment.

The table was laden with food. Cobb’s chef had toiled mightily in Grimsley’s kitchen, preparing a modest but worthy repast—better, in any case, than anything they’d eaten since leaving the colonies nearly a week ago. Roast pheasant, carrots and onions, and blood pudding crowded the table, along with boats of gravy and carafes of red wine, situated in such a way that a large oval of space was left free in the middle.

Martin sat across from her, to her father’s left. Beside him, though of course he would not be dining, sat the Black Iron Monk, inscrutable in his stillness. On her right were the only two other members of the Buried Church to survive the sinking of the Puritan—typical church functionaries, as uninteresting to her as roaches haunting an alleyway. Mr. Gully sat on a rock some distance away; her father would not welcome a man like him to this table.

One seat remained empty, positioned directly opposite Abel Cobb. It was reserved for Satan Himself.

Alice watched the sea for the return of the launch. Soon enough, she saw it. Mr. Major worked the oars, bringing Thomas Thickett to the table.

~ ~ ~

Captain Toussaint watched Mr. Hu and the others descend into the angel’s open mouth, the small team provisioned with rope and leather, knives tied to their waists or clenched in their teeth. They would return with half a dozen lotusheads, and no more. The rest of the hold was reserved for the Damned.

Once they were out of sight, he turned his spyglass back out over the cove, where it opened into the ocean. A chiming carried softly over the water—the hollow music of bones knocking into each other as Angel’s Teeth heaved across the waves. Beverly Toussaint stared into the white mist beyond the cove’s lip, waiting for the ship to materialize. He felt the working of his heart in his chest, could feel it too in the pulse in his fingers, each heartbeat a jostle against the spyglass, a shuddering of the world it contained. When the ship parted the fog, he exclaimed quietly to himself. It was as he had been told: Skeletons hung from the rigging, separated bones suspended from ropes and masts, clacking into one another in the ship’s steady motion. An ornate chair, fit for an island governor, had been affixed to the bowsprit, and the skeletal remains of some fallen regent reposed there. Antlers grew from its sagging head, and seaweed draped its body like a vestment. Standing at the bow was the outline of a man. He could not discern its features with any clarity, but he knew the shape of Josiah Tegel as well as he knew his own.

He felt that old bruise in his heart.

When he barked his order, though, his voice carried all the usual power. “Prepare to receive them, boys!” he said. “Smartly! Smartly!”

Another voice came down from the crow’s nest. “A ship, Captain!”

Toussaint stared up into the rigging, trying to catch sight of the idiot. “I can see it, you damn oaf! What’s your name?”

“Not Angel’s Teeth, Captain! To larboard! Look!”

A chill washed over him. Captain Toussaint did look, his spyglass pressed to his eye again.

Another ship pushed through the mists, about a mile out. Sails and hull so dark that the eye wanted to slide right off them, as though it were only the night coming. But it wasn’t the night; it was the Black Law. They had been discovered.

~ ~ ~

Abel Cobb struck a fork against his wineglass, summoning the company’s attention. Thomas Thickett lay on the table between them, breathing shallowly, his eyes unfocused and wandering. Blood trickled from his nose: an aesthetic blemish to the proceedings, which Martin fixated upon, to his lingering discomfort. It seemed a teasing glimpse of what would shortly fill their plates, like a bead of fat perched upon a boar’s roasted carcass. Martin’s stomach rolled over sluggishly, and he wrenched his gaze away from it, fixing it onto his folded hands instead.

“My friends,” said Cobb, “whether you are members of the Buried Church or honored guests”—here he nodded once at Martin and once at the Black Iron Monk, standing a small distance away, like some terrible obelisk—“you have the privilege of sitting at the table of the most significant Feast in our history. Tonight, we dine at the lip of Hell. Tonight we honor the Burning Prince with living flesh, and invite Him to join us at the table.”

He looked at the empty chair across from his own position: carved of black wood, a single staring eye painted red at the peak of the chair back. Before this chair a table setting, cutlery polished and ready for use. Thickett’s head lay nearest this setting, in an inversion of the typical arrangement. The Cannibal Priest surrendered the honor of the skull’s sweet morsel to the true head of the table, should He arrive. It was Cobb’s hope that the Prince would be there to crack it open himself.

“At this table, we honor the rutting goat, the feasting worm, and the ache of unanswered yearning. We honor the bruise in the heart. To honor Satan is to honor love itself,” said Cobb, and he gestured to Alice. “If you would, please, Daughter.”

Martin watched the woman he loved rise from her chair and take a long, slender carving knife from the table. She placed its tip near Thomas Thickett’s left shoulder. She pressed the blade down and drew an incision to the midpoint of his chest. Thickett shrieked, and blood spilled in a sheet. Martin fought the urge to put a hand over his eyes. Alice repeated the gesture from the right shoulder. Once the two incisions met, she carved a new line from their meeting point down to his groin. Blood ran in a heavy tide, flowing onto the table and running off the edges. Thickett’s scream filled the hollow of the angel’s skull.

A gunshot cut it short. Martin’s ears rang with it. A warmth spread over his body and he looked down to see that Thickett’s brains had splashed across the table and the guests, all his red fears sliding onto the soft earth.

Mr. Gully stood some distance away, a flintlock pistol smoking in his hand. He stared at the table with an expression of dismay or wonder, like a child might wear. He said something that made no sense to Martin—“I done it, miss! I done it!”—but all his attention was focused on Thickett, who was still alive despite his fatal wound, writhing in mute agony between the dinner plates.

~ ~ ~

A wind blew in from across the plain, hot and sand-ridden. It slipped into a fissure in the angel’s corpse and through its cavities until it funneled through the angel’s throat, shivering its old vocal cords. Hu Chaoxiang and his small company, suspended on rope ladders and hacking lotusheads from their bases, froze in place as the sound of it carried over them. It passed through them like a razor, and each man wiped a trickle of blood from an ear or a nostril. The sound shaved little memories away, slivers of themselves they would never recover nor even miss.

And then the sound of a single cannon shot reached them. Captain Toussaint’s signal: The Black Law was coming.

Mr. Hu shouted orders, but they were unnecessary. The men were already hoisting themselves to the angel’s lip, leaving several lotusheads hanging by fibrous threads. They would take what they had. It would have to be enough.

~ ~ ~

A wooden plank dropped between the two ships, and the Damned began to cross from Angel’s Teeth to Butcher’s Table. They did not look like men anymore. Rather they looked like gross imitations, clay roughly shaped. Their skin was gray and soft, and it hung from their faces like wet laundry. They shuffled slowly. Captain Toussaint resisted an impulse to hurry them; they were beyond any human directive. They were cattle now, and the captain just another human trafficker. The irony was not lost on him.

But he was no cannibal, and he was no slaver.

Once on board they were directed into the hold by the crewmen. They offered no resistance, nor even acknowledgment. Toussaint hoped that they would remember their lives once they returned to the world; but perhaps they would never be more than living corpses, staring into the sun with pale, Hell-haunted eyes.

But he had more concerns than only the Damned.

Behind them stood Josiah Tegel. He still wore his old brown greatcoat, now frayed and scorched; his long beard had turned white as the moon. Whatever chaotic impulse had driven him near to madness in life served him well here. He seemed almost incandescent with power. He was a creature of the Dark Water now, and it made him magnificent.

Tegel spoke to him, and though they were separated by hundreds of feet and the clamor of the crews preparing for the Black Law’s arrival, Toussaint heard him as clearly as if he had whispered in his ear. “Come with me, Beverly.”

Perhaps he would. Perhaps, when this was finished, he would allow himself what he wanted.

Captain Toussaint turned his eye to the approaching ship. It seemed to move with an impossible speed. He swiveled his gaze to the angel, where his men were emerging from its mouth, securing what they were able to gather. They moved so slowly, and the Black Law was so fast.

“Ready the guns,” he said.

~ ~ ~

The sound of Alice’s laughter snapped Martin from his stupor. Thomas Thickett was staring at her. The bullet from Mr. Gully’s shot had passed through the top of his skull and into his brain, and now he leaked jelly onto the table. He still lived. Martin rose from his seat, suddenly conscious of the red scramble on his shirt. He brushed at it, as though he might flick it away with a napkin.

“Alice, what’s happening?” he said. She looked at him, and he saw pure delight. Whatever this was, she had orchestrated it. Why hadn’t she told him?

Mr. Gully let the pistol fall from his hand. “I’m ready, Miss Cobb.” He began to tug at the laces of his shirt.

Abel Cobb left his place at the table’s head, dazed, and started toward Mr. Gully. His arms were extended, his hands prepared to accept Gully’s throat into their possession. Alice interceded, the carving knife extending from her hand like a talon. She opened a seam beneath his great belly in a quick, confident motion. Cobb gasped, clutching her arms. “Alice,” he said. The weight of his spilling guts pulled him to his knees.

Martin reeled. He grasped the edge of the table to steady himself. Behind him, Randall Major stood transfixed where he had been stationed, either as shocked as Martin himself, or—more likely, he realized—loyal to Alice, and already privy to her intentions.

“But the Feast,” Cobb said weakly, gathering his innards into his arms as they slipped out of himself. He started to weep. “My Feast.”

“There it is, in your hands,” she said. “Eat it, or starve.”

It dawned on Martin that the greatest obstacle to their plan had just been dispatched. He looked toward the shore. In the cove, Butcher’s Table was receiving human cargo from a second ship. Smoke curled from one of its starboard guns, aimed harmlessly over the dead angel. A signal shot had been fired. As if on cue, Mr. Hu and several crewmen hustled toward it farther down the beach, hurriedly dragging a collection of bound lotusheads behind them. They made for the launch boats beached on the shore.

Randall Major, silent until this point, was goaded into action at the sight of this. “They’re leaving us! The traitors!”

Martin said, “You’d better stop them, I think.”

The Virginian needed no further incentive. He pulled his pistol from his belt and ran after them, shouting invectives. At the boats, Mr. Hu turned from his work and observed his approach. He waited patiently for his arrival, as behind him the first of the launch boats pushed out into the cove.

“Alice,” called Martin. “Now is the time. Let’s go.” He was giddy with anticipation. Everything was so close.

“The monk,” she said, climbing to her feet.

Of course. The Black Iron Monk stood by the table in terrible silence, indifferent to what transpired before it. Martin turned to Gully, who stood mutely transfixed by the proceedings.

“Mr. Gully! The monk! See to the monk!”

Gully was staring in bewilderment from Alice to Martin. He had managed to strip off his shirt—what the devil had he been thinking of?—but now he stood stunned, as if struck by a hammer. “No, you’re not leaving. She promised me.” He sounded like a little boy whose greatest hope had just been dashed.

“She promised you what?”

“It’s me. I’m to be the Feast. I’m the one. It’s supposed to be me.”

On the table, Thomas Thickett tried to crawl away, but he could get no purchase—his hands kept sliding in his own blood. By this time most of the contents had leaked from his head; there was little of him left aside from a mute recognition of agony.

“Do what I tell you!” said Martin.

Mr. Gully recovered himself. He withdrew his little knife and pointed it like a finger at Martin. “I told you you would come to regret that tongue,” he said. “Now I’ll carve it out of you.”

Martin took a step backward. “Do what I tell you, Mr. Gully.”

Gully strode toward him, the knife thrust ahead like a guiding element. Martin retreated and stumbled to the ground. For a moment all he saw was the curved arch of the angel’s skull above him, grown over with vines and hanging plants. Then Gully filled the world. He had time to scream Alice’s name before Gully stuffed his fingers into his mouth with one hand and pushed the knife in with the other. Pain spiked him in place, and his throat filled with blood.

~ ~ ~

“Rufus, no.” She said it quietly, almost casually. He could not hear her, of course, bent over his bloody work, his back to her. She approached him calmly, her knife dripping in her hand. Dimly, she heard the sound of skirmishing carrying across the water behind her, and coming from the shore where Randall Major engaged Mr. Hu and his cohort. But she focused on Gully now, working his knife into Martin’s mouth. Only Gully remained to be dealt with.

A quick glance toward the Black Iron Monk stopped her. It no longer stood by the table, where Thickett still sluggishly moved. Her stomach dropped. Without the monk’s head they would be lost. It would all be for nothing.

There it was: heading in the opposite direction of the launch boats, wading now in shallow water, meaning to leave the angel’s skull and presumably walk back to its monastery.

Very well. She was the butcher of the Buried Church. She would do this work herself. Martin’s garbled screams echoed through the skull. He would have to fend for himself. Her father grazed her leg with one bloody hand as she passed, letting his armful of viscera slide heavily to the earth. “Alice,” he said. “Is He coming?”

She caught up to the monk in the shallows. He was short but difficult work. He did not attempt to flee, had no idea what was coming for him. He was like a lamb in that way. Alice swung the knife into the soft flesh just beneath the iron box. A sheet of blood sprayed her face. The monk staggered backward, all sense of awe and mystery dissipating as it crashed into the water, hands pressed against its throat as it scrabbled for life. Alice set her foot on the box, holding it in place. She hacked at the neck, sending the monk’s fingers rolling like little pegs. Blood greased her hands and forearms. The surf turned red.

A thin, reedy noise escaped the monk: air whistling through a torn throat. The sound of it was like a small razor sliding through her brain. Her eyes started to bleed. This was the language of Hell, the language of her Prince. Love’s sweetest vocabulary. She worked furiously until the head was entirely separated. The hissing air stopped. A panel slid shut underneath the iron box, and whatever the monk said now was contained inside. She made her way back to shore, taking the box with her.

Several feet away, Gully rose from where Martin lay prone beneath him, his ghastly trophy oozing between his clenched fingers. He stepped over Martin and held it out to her, like a gift.

“Here’s a liar’s tongue,” he said. “Now I’ll take yours.”

~ ~ ~

Martin spat blood from his mouth, but more came in torrents. He curled into himself, shuddering in pain. He was obscurely aware of the others around him, satellites to his own experience, but Alice occluded them all. It was Alice to whom he extended his bloody hand. He watched Fat Gully approach her: an avatar of death. He tried to push himself to his feet but collapsed each time. He could do nothing to save her. All of this, for nothing. All of it broken at the feet of some dockyard scum.

His tongue. His speech. His means of worship. No more stories told, ever again.

He rolled onto his back. Blood backed into his lungs and he watched arcs of it leap from his mouth as it choked the life from him. Beyond it was the curve of the angel’s skull, and he found himself wondering at the brain that once resided here. What terrible dreams still haunted this place? Were they living one out now, like vessels possessed by ghosts? The thought gave him a strange comfort.

Martin closed his eyes and allowed himself to be consumed by this idea. He became separated from responsibility and consequence. He was only a figment of a dead dream, carried away by his own red current.

~ ~ ~

Gully closed on Miss Cobb, his volcanic anger already cooling. The monk’s body rolled in the surf behind her, its limbs moving slowly. In her right hand she held loosely the carving knife with which she had performed all the work of her life. Gully moved toward her in a delirium of heartache. Thomas Thickett, Abel Cobb, and Martin Dunwood lay in a bloody tableau behind him. That Thickett and Cobb still lived was an undeniable miracle, whether due to their presence in the angel’s hollow skull or their proximity to Hell’s border he could not say and did not care. What it meant was that if she had kept her promise to him, he would have lived as they feasted on his body. He would have experienced the translation of his solid flesh into an expression of love; to come so close to acceptance and to lose it was more than his mind could bear.

“Why?” he said, when he arrived beside her. The knife was ineffectual in his hand. He could not kill her. No one here could die. The gravity of his failures pulled him to his knees. “You said I could be loved.”

“I lied,” she said. She walked around him and headed toward Dunwood, carrying the head of the Black Iron Monk.

Let them have it, then. Let them love each other. That was never for him, and he accepted it now. He pulled himself to his feet and headed for the boats.

~ ~ ~

There was no time left. Captain Toussaint ordered the plank between ships to be withdrawn. They had taken about threescore of the Damned. Fewer than he’d hoped. Captain Tegel held his gaze from his own ship. Toussaint had always known they’d be hurried, had always known there would be no time for anything more. And yet he had allowed himself to hope. The sting of it hurt beyond all reason. He wanted to shout across to him that he would come back, that next time Tegel should return with him—or that next time he would accept Tegel’s offer and stay.

He turned his gaze one last time toward the beach, where the worst people he had ever known had gathered for their terrible feast. The people who came here to worship the very hook in Toussaint’s heart. Slavers, conquerors, murderers, gluttons—they gorged themselves in celebration of everything that stank, everything that was rotten in the world. It would be a pleasure to leave them all beached on Hell’s shores, but it was not enough to satisfy. He commanded the starboard guns to fire, and they did so, hurling enough iron at the feasting table and everyone around it to shatter a frigate’s hull.

~ ~ ~

The cannon fire hit the beach without warning, and Gully found himself airborne. He landed hard, half submerged in water. Through garlands of smoke he saw severed limbs, splashes of blood, splayed viscera. The table had been smashed to flinders. Spread across and beside it were human remains, still quivering with life. One hand extended skyward from a bloody morass, fingers grasping for something or someone it would never find. Miss Cobb crawled across the beach. Her legs were gone just above her knees, yet she was undeterred. She wore a terrible grin. He heard Mr. Dunwood’s wail somewhere beyond his sight; surely it was to him she crawled.

Gully surveyed his own body. Aside from superficial injuries, he seemed unharmed. A wave pushed in from the cove and submerged him, so he crawled farther up the shore. Pain flashed through his body with each movement; he felt as though his joints had been fitted with knives.

A few feet away from him lay the severed head of the Black Iron Monk, still contained in its box. Gully fought his way to his feet, gasping at the effort, and pulled the box from the sand. If Dunwood and Miss Cobb would go into Hell, they would do it without their precious atlas. It was the only revenge available to him.

He staggered toward the last of the launch boats, some distance away. Mr. Hu was attempting to push it out into the water. The Virginian floated faceup in the surf close by, a gunshot wound in his chest, his face battered and broken. His mouth opened and closed as he struggled to produce words. They were beyond him now. The tide pulled him farther out with each wave.

Gully heaved the iron box into the launch boat and put his shoulder to it; between them, he and Hu succeeded in getting it past the breakers and floating free. They climbed aboard, not a word exchanged, and put themselves to the oars. Farther out, Butcher’s Table turned toward the cove’s entrance as two other ships skirmished nearby. Gully had no idea what was going on; he only wanted back on board. He only wanted to be rid of these narcissists, these traitors, these grovelers. He wanted the familiar odor of the docks, its comprehensible confines, its knowable hierarchies. He wanted to go home.

~ ~ ~

The Black Law was almost upon them. Figures stood gathered at the rails, waiting to board. Their skin smoked, obscuring whatever features they had. They seemed composed of cinders. They wanted only to burn.

Captain Tegel maneuvered Angel’s Teeth between them; he would buy him what time he could. The crewmen herded the Damned and all the lotusheads save one belowdecks. Captain Toussaint was prepared to give the order to slash the creature and provoke the crossing back into the Gulf of Mexico, when a cry from the crow’s nest stayed his tongue.

“Captain! Mr. Hu is approaching!”

And indeed there he was, working the oars of a launch boat, Rufus Gully rowing beside him.

Behind him, Angel’s Teeth was boarded by the Black Law: The air grew heavy with the sound of clashing blades and gunshots, with the smell of burning meat. The man he loved was risking everything to buy him time to escape.

“Captain, we have to go now.”

“We’ll wait for Mr. Hu,” he said.

“But—”

“We’ll wait.”

In those short minutes, Angel’s Teeth fell. Josiah Tegel went down beneath their weight; he would not die, but there were darker fates in store for those caught here. Toussaint turned away, tears stinging his eyes. Half a dozen of the Law threw grappling hooks toward Butcher’s Table, their iron spikes hooking over the rails and digging into the wood. They were living cinders; their very proximity caused the wood and canvas to smoke.

Mr. Hu and the little wretch beside him came alongside Butcher’s Table, and men were ready with a rope ladder. Mr. Hu climbed quickly; waiting hands grasped his shirt and hoisted him aboard. Fat Gully retrieved the iron box with one hand and made an awkward attempt to scale the ladder himself.

“Cut him loose,” Toussaint said.

With a flash of knives the rope ladder was severed at the railing, and it fell in a loose tangle over Gully as he stumbled backward into the launch. “No! NO!” he screamed, but the captain had already turned his back.

“Do it now,” he said.

A hatchet sank deep into a lotushead’s trunk. Its tongues flailed to life. Butcher’s Table, once more, made the crossing, pulling Gully’s launch in its wake.

~ ~ ~

Martin opened his eyes. Alice was beside him. His chest had been cracked open like a walnut in the cannon fire. She dipped her hands into him, removed a glistening portion and fed it into her mouth. Her stare was unwavering. There was no intelligence behind it, no recognition. Nothing at all. Alice was gone. There was only brute impulse at work now. He tried to say her name and was rewarded with an overwhelming pulse of agony.

He did not want this. This was not love; it was an atrocity.

Please, he thought, let me go mad. Let me go mad. Please let me go mad.

~ ~ ~

The Black Law passed through the sinking ruin of Angel’s Teeth and poured into the open chamber of the angel’s skull, where the members of the Feast still twitched and struggled in the lowering light. Abel Cobb, Thomas Thickett, the drifting body of Randall Major, the surviving parishioners of the Buried Church, Martin and Alice: They shivered in the red mud, each sobbing plea or groan of pain a supplication to their Lord. Their bleeding bodies were His portrait, their wailing throats His opening eye.

~ ~ ~

The carrion angels waited for them in the gulf. Butcher’s Table manifested at the precise point from which it had disappeared, Rufus Gully’s launch pitching against its hull as the waves heaved beneath them. Retribution, arriving at last while they’d been gone, immediately flew canvas to bring their guns into position. Captain Toussaint was unprepared. Still reeling from Josiah Tegel’s loss, still disoriented by the crossing, he lost fatal seconds staring at the enemy ship, and at the misshapen thing that had once been Bonny Mungo perched in its rigging like a hellish vulture. Butcher’s Table received a full broadside from Retribution; masts snapped in two, sails were torn, and rigging fell like a net. A flying cannonball sheared the head from a sailor standing directly beside him.

Mr. Hu grabbed his captain and hauled him away from the side, but there was nowhere to turn. The carrion angels shed their human costumes in bloody sheets; the one still wearing the squid’s body wrapped its great arms around the belly of the ship and tore it in half. The sea filled with the wreckage, with flailing crewmen, with harvested lotusheads, and with the rescued Damned, sinking into the blue fathoms like heavy stones. The carrion angels darted after them, the water boiling in their wake.

One of them detoured to Rufus Gully’s launch, pitching and yawing in the frothing sea. It grasped the black iron box in a claw, tearing a rent in its side. A tumbling spar slammed into its body as it fell, driving it underwater. The box tumbled back into the boat. Panicked, Gully grabbed the oars and pulled away from the sinking vessel, his muscles screaming in protest.

Eventually he eased his rowing and watched as Butcher’s Table sank beneath the waves. Scattered survivors clung to floating spars or planks of wood. Their calls floated across the water. He did not answer them.

Retribution, divested of its occupying forces, drifted at the whim of the sea. What crewmen remained found themselves with no desire to exert their will upon the ship. Their brush with the divine had ruined them. There was nothing left inside but a mute passivity. Eventually a lantern slid from its place on a table and smashed into the hold. Within an hour the whole ship was ablaze. Gully watched it burn for hours. When twilight fell, he had drifted leagues away, yet still he could see it shining like a torch against the early wash of stars.

Gully did not know how to read the constellations. There was no sail on the launch. He rowed weakly for a while, then surrendered himself to fate. He closed his eyes and listened to the lapping of the water against the hull, and it was not too difficult to pretend it was the sound of the Thames lapping the posts of the London dock. He dozed somewhere in the night, and dreamed of a whispering voice. The voice spoke in a language he couldn’t understand, but it filled his brain with thoughts he recognized well enough. Red thoughts, murder thoughts. He dreamed of his mother, sitting quietly in the dark of their small flat, rocking incessantly in her chair. She told him a story of a witch who lived in the chimney, who crawled out at night, all covered in black, looking for a little boy to eat. His mother would not touch him or comfort him. He dreamed of his father, distant and harsh, driven by some nameless rage, dead of an exploded heart while still a young man.

Gully awoke to the glare of the sun. The voice whispered still. He peered into the bright air around him, his eyes gummy, the heat blistering the naked skin on his back. He called out for his parents. When he remembered himself, he went quiet. He kicked at the black iron box, rolling it over. He saw the gash the angel had rent in one side. The whisper leaked out of it. His skin had cracked and charred at the fingertips. He wiped at his eyes and saw that it was blood that made them sticky.

“What are you?” he said to the box.

Eventually he remembered what Martin had told him. The monk’s severed head was an atlas of Hell. It recited its dreadful litany, listing all the landmarks of that burning country—the Breathing Mountains, the Love Mills, the Grieving Fields. It outlined the paths of the travelers there—the Crawling Eye and the Voyeurs, the pilgrims and the priests, and all the roaches of Heaven. He understood none of the words, but he saw these places clearly. Rufus Gully listened to the atlas speak for all the time it took for the sea to push him across hot open leagues of the Gulf, to the swampy shores of New France, in a district called La Louisiane.

By the time the launch became entangled in the trees there, the voice had transformed Gully into something far different from what he used to be. Tumors and growths blossomed across his body—from inside his mouth, from beneath his eyelids, from his ears, from under his arms and around his neck. His body was burnt, both inside and out. Smoke trailed from his nostrils in an unceasing plume. Only in his mind was there life, as he soared over the landscape of Hell, exulting in its bleeding vistas.

In time the boat would decay, and the iron box sink deeply into the mud, where its voice would be silenced for generations. Before then, though, Rufus Gully lay prostrate in its bottom, his body a glorious feast for the swamp’s vermin. They ate him while he lived, and he sighed with gratitude beneath a carpet of flies.

“I love you,” he said. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

Comments

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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