The Butcher Blades had hung the Jackdaw from a rusted marlinspike through his jawbone and left him for the quayside scavengers. This was the seventeenth murdered ganger the hooded man had seen tonight.
A slow night by Bilgewater's standards.
At least since the Corsair King had fallen.
Red-fanged wharf rats had already eaten most of the hanged man's feet and were perched on stacked kreels to tear at the soft meat of his calves.
The hooded man kept on walking.
The words were wet, squeezed up through a throat clogged with blood. The hooded man spun, hands reaching towards the weapons slung on his wide belt.
Incredibly, the Jackdaw was still alive on the bone-handled spike. The Hooks stuck it deep into the wooden frame of a loading crane. No way to get the Jackdaw down without tearing his skull to splinters.
“Help. Me,” he said again.
The hooded man paused, considering the Jackdaw's request.
“What for?” he said at last. “Even if I get you down from there, you will be dead by morning.”
The Jackdaw carefully lifted his hand to a concealed pocket in his patchwork jerkin and removed a golden Kraken. Even in the dim light, the hooded man saw it was genuine.
The scavengers hissed and raised their hackles as he approached. Wharf rats weren't large, but meat as warm as this wasn't a prize to be surrendered lightly. They bared long, needle-like fangs, spitting diseased gobbets of saliva.
He kicked one rat out over the water. He crushed a second underfoot. They snapped and bit, but nimble footwork kept any from tasting his flesh, his every movement smooth and precise. He killed another three before the rest scattered to the shadows, sullen eyes glaring red in the darkness.
The hooded man stood beside the Jackdaw. His features were hidden, but the light of a rogue’s moon suggested a face that no longer smiled.
“Death is here for you,” he said. “Embrace it, safe in the knowledge I will ensure it is final.”
He reached into his coat and withdrew a glittering spike of silver. Two handspans long and engraved with curling symbols spiraling along its length, it resembled an ornate, leather-worker's awl. He placed the tip under the dying man's chin.
The man's eyes widened and his hand scrabbled at the hooded man's sleeve as he looked out over the vast expanse of ocean. The sea was a black mirror shimmering with the glow of myriad candles, quayside braziers and lamplight warped through salvaged glass from a thousand cliffside-hulks.
“You know what lurks over the horizon,” he said. “You know the horror it brings. And yet you tear at each other like rabid beasts. It makes no sense to me.”
He turned and hammered the heel of his palm against the flattened haft of the awl, driving the spike up into the man's brain. A last corpse rattle and the Jackdaw's pain ended. The gold coin fell from the dead man's fingers and rolled into the ocean with a soft splash.
The man withdrew the spike and wiped it clean on the Jackdaw's ragged shirt. He returned it to the sheath inside his coat and removed a golden needle and a length of silver thread dipped in waters drawn from an Ionian spring.
Working with the skill of one who had performed this service many times before, he sewed the man's eyes and lips shut. As he worked, he spoke words taught to him a lifetime ago, words first ill-spoken by a long dead king.
“Now the dead cannot claim you,” he said as he finished his work and replaced his implements.
“Maybe not, but we ain't leaving empty-handed, sure we ain't,” said a voice behind the hooded man.
He turned and pulled back his hood to reveal skin the color and texture of aged mahogany, cheekbones that were angular and patrician. His dark hair was bound in a long scalp-lock and eyes that had seen horror beyond measure surveyed the newcomers.
Six men. Dressed in aprons of blood-stiffened leather cut to display limbs of corded muscle wrapped with tattooed thorns. Each carried a serrated hook and wore belts hung with a variety of meat-workers’ knives. Petty thugs made bold by the fall of the tyrant who'd ruled Bilgewater with an iron fist. With him gone, the city was in chaos as rival gangs sought to carve out fresh territories.
Their approach hadn’t been stealthy. Hobnailed boots, offal-stench and muttered curses had announced their presence long before they'd revealed themselves.
“I don't mind a coin going to the Bearded Lady, sure I don't,” said the biggest of the Butchers, a man with a gut so prodigious it was a wonder he could get close enough to a carcass to gut it at all. “But one of ours killed Old Knock John there, fair and square, sure they did. So that gold serpent there was ours.”
“Do you want to die here?” asked the man.
The fat man laughed.
“You know who you're talking to?”
“No. Do you?”
“Go on then, tell me so I can carve it on the rock I'll use to sink your bones.”
“My name is Lucian,” he said, whipping back his long frock coat and drawing a pair of pistols wrought of knapped stone and burnished metals unknown to even the most reckless alchemists of Zaun. A bolt of coruscating light punched the fat Butcher from his feet with a scorched hole where his grotesquely swollen heart had been.
Lucian's second pistol was smaller, more finely crafted, and fired a searing line of yellow fire that cut another of the Butchers in half from collarbone to groin.
Like the wharf rats before, they fled, but Lucian picked them off one by one. Each burst of light was a killing shot. In the blink of an eye all six Butchers lay dead.
He sheathed his pistols and pulled the coat back around him. Others would be drawn by the sound and fury of his work, and he had no time to save these men’s souls from what was coming.
Lucian sighed. It had been a mistake to stop for the Jackdaw, but perhaps the man he had once been was not entirely lost. A memory threatened to surface and he shook his head.
“I cannot be him again,” said Lucian.
He isn't strong enough to kill the Chain Warden.
Olaf’s frostscale hauberk was covered in blood and viscera. He grunted as he swung his axe one-handed. Bone sheared and muscle parted before the weapon, its blade quenched on a bed of True Ice deep in the farthest reaches of the Freljord.
Bearing a spitting torch in one hand, he waded through the dripping innards of the Krakenwyrm, hewing deeper with every swing. It had taken him three hours to reach this far; cleaving through its enormous glistening organs and dense bones.
True, the beast was already dead, skewered a week ago after a month’s long chase down from the north. Over thirty harpoons cast by strong arms and broad backs from the deck of Winter's Kiss pierced its scaled hide, but it had been Olaf's spear that finally ended its fight.
Killing the beast in the heart of a churning storm outside Bilgewater had been exhilarating, and for one brief moment – as the ship heeled over and almost tossed him into the beast's maw – he'd thought this might be the moment he would achieve the glorious death he sought.
But then Svarfell the helmsman, curse his mighty shoulder, centered the rudder to right the ship.
And, sadly, Olaf had lived. Another day closer to the terror of dying peacefully in his bed as a greybearded ancient.
They'd berthed in Bilgewater, hoping to sell the carcass and strip it of battle trophies; vast teeth, black blood that burned like oil, and titanic rib-bones fit to roof his mother’s hall.
His fellow tribesmen, exhausted from the hunt, were sleeping aboard Winter's Kiss, but Olaf, ever impatient, could not rest. Instead, he took up his glittering axe and set to work in dismembering the colossal monster.
Finally he saw the beast’s inner maw, a ribbed gullet large enough to swallow a clan whole or crush a thirty-oar Longreaver in a single bite. Its teeth were chiseled fangs like obsidian boulders.
Olaf nodded. “Yah. Fit to ring a hearth circle of the wind-walkers and the readers of bones and ash.”
He jammed the spiked base of the torch into the meat of the Krakenwyrm’s flesh and set to work, hacking at the jawbone until a tooth came loose. Hooking the axe to his belt, Olaf lifted it clear and set it upon his shoulder, grunting at the enormous weight.
“Like a Frost Troll gathering ice for his lair,” he said, making his way out of the beast’s innards, wading knee-deep in blood and caustic digestive juices.
Eventually he emerged from the giant wound in the Krakenwyrm’s rear and drew in a lungful of slightly fresher air. Even after the innards of the beast, Bilgewater was a rank soup of smoke and sweat and dead things. Its air was heavy with the smell of too many people living packed together like swine in a midden.
He spat a rank mouthful and said, “The sooner I am in the north the better.”
The air of the Freljord was so sharp it could cut you to the bone. Every breath here tasted of rancid milk and spoiled meat.
“Hey!” shouted a voice over the water.
Olaf squinted through the gloom, seeing a lone fisherman rowing out to sea beyond a line of floating water markers hung with dead birds and bells.
“That beast just shit you out?” shouted the fisherman.
Olaf nodded and said, “I had no gold to pay passage on a ship, so I let it swallow me in the Freljord and bear me south.”
The fisherman grinned and drank from a cracked bottle of blue glass. “I’d sit and listen to that tall tale, right enough!”
“Come to the Winter’s Kiss and ask for Olaf,” he shouted. “We’ll share a keg of Gravöl and honor the beast with songs of doom.”
The air around the White Wharf usually smelled of gull-crap and rotten fish. Today it tasted of scorched meat and woodsmoke, a flavor with which Miss Fortune was coming to associate with ever more of Gangplank’s men dying. Ash darkened the sky and reeking fumes drifted westwards from burning vats of rendered leviathan blubber on the Slaughter Docks. Miss Fortune's mouth felt greasy, and she spat onto the crooked timbers of the wharf. The water below was scummed with residue expelled by the thousands of corpses sunk beneath the water over the years.
“You and your men had a busy night,” she said, nodding toward the smoke rising from the western cliffs.
“Aye, that we did,” agreed Rafen. “Plenty more of Gangplank’s men going under today.”
“How many did you get?” asked Miss Fortune.
“Another ten of his Cragside lads,” said Rafen. “And the Boneyard Scallys won’t be bothering us again.”
Miss Fortune nodded in approval and turned to look at the ornate bronze cannon laid on the quayside.
Jackknife Byrne lay inside the barrel, finally dead from the gutshot he'd taken on the day everything changed; the day the Dead Pool exploded in full view of Bilgewater.
A gunshot meant for her.
Now it was time for Byrne to go down among the dead men and she owed it to him to be there to see him go under. Around two hundred men and women had come to pay their respects; her own lieutenants, Byrne's old gang members, and strangers she thought might be former crewmen or curious gawkers hoping to see the woman who'd brought down Gangplank.
Byrne said he'd once run his own ship, a two-masted brigantine that was the terror of the Noxian coast, but she only had his word for that. Maybe that was true, maybe it wasn't, but in Bilgewater, more often than not the truth was far stranger than any tale spun by the city’s many chanty-men.
“I see you got them fighting each other out on the Slaughter Docks as well,” said Miss Fortune, brushing particles of ash from her lapels. Long red hair spilled from beneath a tricorn hat and gathered on the shoulders of her formal frock coat.
“Yeah, wasn’t hard to turn the Rat Town Dogs and Wharf Kings against each other,” said Rafen. “Ven Gallar's always had his eye on that patch. Says Travyn's boys took it from his old man a decade ago.”
“Who knows?” said Rafen. “Don’t matter, no-how. Gallar would say anything to get control of that part of the docks. I just helped him along.”
“Not much left to control over there now.”
“No,” agreed Rafen with a grin. “They pretty much killed the hell out of each other. Don't reckon we'll get trouble from either of them gangs any time soon.”
“Another week like this and there won't be any of Gangplank’s people left alive.”
Rafen gave her a strange look and Miss Fortune pretended not to notice.
“Come on, let's get Byrne sunk,” said Miss Fortune.
They walked over to the cannon, ready to roll it into the sea. A forest of wooden markers dotted the scummed surface of the water, ranging from simple wooden discs to elaborate sculptures of sea wyrms.
“Anyone want to say anything?” said Miss Fortune.
Nobody did, and she nodded to Rafen, but before they could tip the cannon into the water, a booming voice echoed over the wharf.
“I bring words for him.”
Miss Fortune turned to see a giant of a woman clad in colorful robes and acres of fabric striding down the docks towards them. A posse of tattooed menfolk accompanied her; a dozen youths armed with tooth-bladed spears, wide-mouthed pistols and hooked clubs. They swaggered like the cocksure gangers they were, standing with their priestess like they owned the docks.
“Seven hells, what's she doing here?”
“Did Illaoi know Byrne?”
“No. She knows me,” said Miss Fortune. “I heard that her and Gangplank used to...you know?”
“So the scuttlebutt goes.”
“By the Bearded Lady, no wonder Okao's men have been giving us such a hard time these last few weeks.”
Illaoi carried a heavy stone sphere that looked as if it weighed about as much as the Syren's anchor. The towering priestess carried it everywhere she went, and Miss Fortune assumed it was some kind of totem. What everyone else called the Bearded Lady, they called something virtually unpronounceable.
Illaoi produced a peeled mango from somewhere and took a bite. She noisily chewed the fruit with her mouth open and looked down the barrel of the cannon.
“A Bilgewater man deserves a blessing of Nagakabouros, yes?”
“Why not?” said Miss Fortune. “He's going down to meet the goddess, after all.”
“Nagakabouros doesn't live in the depths,” said Illaoi. “Only foolish paylangi think that. Nagakabouros is in everything we do that moves us along our path.”
“Yeah, how stupid of me,” said Miss Fortune.
Illaoi spat the fibrous mango pit into the water and swung the stone idol around like a giant cannonball, holding it up in front of Miss Fortune.
“You're not stupid, Sarah,” said Illaoi with a laugh. “But you don't even know what you are, what you've done.”
“Why are you really here, Illaoi? Is this about him?”
“Ha! Not even a little bit,” snorted Illaoi. “My life is for Nagakabouros. A god or a man? What choice is that?”
“None at all,” said Miss Fortune. “Bad luck for Gangplank.”
Illaoi grinned, exposing a mouthful of pulped mango.
“You're not wrong,” she said with a slow nod, “but you still don't hear. You let a razor-eel off the hook and you ought to stamp on its neck and walk away before it sinks its fangs into you. Then your motion will be gone forever.”
“What does that mean?”
“Come and see me when you figure it out,” said Illaoi, holding out her hand. Nestled in her palm was a pendant of pink coral arranged in a series of curves radiating from a central hub like a single, unblinking eye.
“Take it,” said Illaoi.
“What is it?”
“A token of Nagakabouros to guide you when you’re lost.”
“What is it really?”
“Nothing more than I say.”
Miss Fortune hesitated, but too many people were gathered for her to openly offend a priestess of the Bearded Lady by refusing her gift. She took the pendant and removed her tricorn to loop the leather thong around her neck.
Illaoi leaned in to whisper.
“I don’t think you're stupid,” she said. “Prove me right.”
“Why do I care what you think?” said Miss Fortune.
“Because a storm is coming,” said Illaoi, nodding at something over Miss Fortune's shoulder. “You know the one, so you best be ready to turn your prow into the waves.”
She turned and kicked Byrne's cannon from the dock. It splashed down hard and sank in a froth of bubbles before the fatty surface residue reformed, leaving only its bobbing marker cross to indicate who was below.
The priestess of the Bearded Lady marched back the way she had come, towards her temple in the cliff-crater, and Miss Fortune turned her gaze out to sea.
A storm was brewing way out in the deep ocean, but that wasn't where Illaoi had been looking.
She'd been looking towards the Shadow Isles.
Nobody ever fished Bilgewater Bay at night.
Piet knew why, of course; he’d known these waters all his life. The currents were treacherous, hull-splitting rocks lurked just below the surface, and the seabed was littered with the wrecks of ships whose captains had not accorded the sea its proper respect. But, more importantly, everyone knew the spirits of those drowned at sea were lonely and wanted others to join them.
Piet knew all this, but still needed to feed his family.
With Captain Jerimiad’s ship burned to cinders in the crossfire between Gangplank and Miss Fortune, Piet had no work and no coin to pay for food.
He’d drunk half a bottle of Scuttler’s Scrumpy just to pluck up the courage to push his boat out onto the water tonight, and the prospect of sharing a drink with the giant Freljordian helped steady his nerves.
Piet took another slug from the bottle, tugging the scruff of hair on his chin, then pouring a measure over the side to honor the Bearded Lady.
Warmed and numbed by the liquor, Piet rowed past the warning buoys and their dead birds until he came to a stretch of ocean where he’d had some luck the previous night. Jeremiad always said he had a nose for where the fish were biting, and he had a feeling they’d be gathering where the remains of the Dead Pool had drifted.
Piet pulled in the oars and stowed them before finishing off the Scrumpy. Then, making sure to leave a last mouthful in the bottle, he tossed it out to sea. With tired, drink-addled fingers he baited his hooks with grubs he’d scooped from a dead man’s eye and tied his lines to the gunwale cleats.
He closed his eyes and bent over the side of the boat, placing both hands in the water.
“Nagakabouros,” he said, hoping that using the natives’ name for the Bearded Lady might grant him a bit of luck, “I ain’t asking for much. Please help this poor fisherman and spare him a few morsels from your larder. Watch over me and keep me safe. And if I die in your embrace, keep me down among the dead men.”
Piet opened his eyes.
A pale face stared back at him, wavering just below the surface. It shimmered with cold, lifeless light.
He cried out and jerked back into his boat as, one by one, his fishing lines were pulled taut. They spun his boat around as thin coils of mist rose from the water. The mist thickened swiftly and soon the light from Bilgewater’s cliffs was lost to the darkness as coal-dark fog rolled in from the sea.
A cacophony of once-dead birds squawked from the warning markers, followed by the clamor of bells as their convulsing bodies swung the buoys back and forth.
The black mist...
Piet scrambled for his oars, fumbling in terror to fit them to the rowlocks. The mist was numbingly cold, and lines of necrotic black threaded his skin at its touch. He wept as the grave’s chill frosted his spine.
“Bearded Lady, Mother Below, Nagakabouros,” he sobbed. “Please guide me home. Please, this I beg of-”
Piet never finished his plea.
A pair of hook-headed chains erupted from his chest, droplets of vividly red blood streaming from their tips. A third hook punched through his belly, another his throat. A fifth and sixth gouged his palms and pulled them down hard, pinning Piet to his boat.
Agony surged through him and he screamed as a figure of purest malice emerged from the black mist. Emerald fire haloed its horned skull, and sockets gouged by vengeful spirits burned as they savored his pain.
The dead spirit was robed in ancient black vestments, and rusted keys scraped at its side. A chained corpse-lantern moaned and swayed with monstrous appetite from its clenched fist.
The glass of the infernal lantern opened to receive him, and Piet felt his spirit tear loose from the warmth of his flesh. The wails of tortured souls shrieked from its depths, maddened by their unending purgatory. Piet fought to keep his spirit within his body, but a spectral blade scythed and his time in the world was ended as the glass of the lantern snapped shut.
“A wretched soul you are,” said the reaper of his life, its voice like gravel on a tombstone. “But only the first to be claimed by Thresh this night.”
The black mist rippled, and the silhouettes of malefic spirits, howling wraiths and ghostly horsemen swelled within.
The darkness boiled across the sea and swept onto land.
And the lights in Bilgewater started to go out.