Plumbing the Depths of Mystery

Part Five Of A ‘Horrors By Gaslight’ Serial Novel In Sixteen Thrilling Parts!
by Roumonte Emi (竜主天 蝦)
illustrated by sairobi

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/99464.html)

illustrated by sairobi

1.
Tendrils of fog curled about the guttering gaslamps like leprous fingers; the fetid night air was heavy with salt and damp, this close to the sea. The sea! It suckled at the pilings of the docks with a sound which the uninitiated might find relaxing, but which scraped at Alexander St. Roivas’s ears like the hissing of a thousand nameless drowned things. The boards creaked underfoot, their ancient surfaces spongy with incipient rot.

Alexander squared his shoulders and set about his business, his mouth compressed into a thin line. Neither the unseen horrors of the sea nor the more commonplace horrors of the docks could stay his tread; he was a St. Roivas yet, blast the blind eyes of his family, and he would shame neither himself nor his benighted ancestors by creeping about the docks like a mouse, afraid of something so irrelevant as a drunken seaman. He wore his grandfather’s revolver openly at his hip, and carried a certain ancient blade within his waistcoat. Let them attempt to block his path. Let them merely try.

As if they could sense his resolve, they left him be. The dark shapes of others hurried past without so much as a glance in his direction. Truly it was an inauspicious night to be outside, if even these poor souls could sense it. Their drunken laughter had the edge of hysteria to it, and they came to blows easily, sometimes with tears streaming down their sun-blasted faces; a knot of forty or fifty shouting seamen occupied the wide space behind the warehouses, collected in a ring about two of their number, shirtless, bare-knuckled, and gaudily tattooed, circling each other warily. Already a trickle of blood seeped from the nose of one of the combatants. Alexander gave the crass spectacle a wide berth, repelled by the barbarism.

The Barbadian waited for him at the appointed place, in the shadow of a rotting warehouse. The man’s eyes were hollow and haunted, his once-handsome face gaunt; at his feet sat a squarish lockbox, swathed in chains clasped with a devilishly complex lock. He leapt in terror as Alexander emerged from the shadows, then nearly broke down, cringing like a dog. “Sir,” he cried, his voice cracking. “I’ve brought it, as you said–take it! I cannot stand it a moment longer!”

“Courage, man!” Alexander said severely. “This sniveling ill becomes you. If you’ve truly brought me what I asked, your debt to me is paid in full, and then some.”

“Sniveling!” the Barbadian repeated in dull astonishment. “You do not understand, sir!” He shrank away from the box at his feet, his voice dropping to a hoarse undertone. “Whatever that damnable thing is, it scratches at the box–all the way from Mongolia, months without cease, scratching, scratching–”

“Good,” said Alexander, cutting off that flight of fancy at the root. “It ought to still be fresh, in that case.” He bent down to pick up the lockbox.

The Barbadian fell back to allow him to do so. No sooner had Alexander’s hand closed about the handle than the Barbadian let out a sound that was half a moan and half a shaking laugh; a madman’s grin ripped at the corners of his mouth. “Yours, sir!” he cried, stumbling back another step. “Whatever rests in that case, it’s yours now, and none of mine!” Before Alexander could respond the Barbadian spun on his heel and fled, his footsteps quickly fading to nothing.

“Yes, yes,” Alexander said irritably. He shifted his grip on the handle. A heavy, awkward burden, this! Not for the first time Alexander regretted his reduced circumstances. He did not so much miss the stifling ancestral mansion, but such a place–such a position–would bring with it a stout escort to walk at his side with lantern and cudgel, and a pair of strong hands and an equally strong back to heft this load.

Something scrabbled inside the box, like a mouse dying in a trap. Alexander glanced down at it, startled from his momentary reverie. “Silence,” he commanded, followed by a gout of syllables in a twisted, blasphemous tongue. The thing in the box stopped scrabbling on the instant with a sibilant, anticipatory hiss.

No matter. Shifting the box into his left hand, Alexander headed back the way he’d come, determined to have an end to this night’s ugly business. An hour from now–half an hour, if he were willing to spend his scant funds on a cab–he’d be safely home, with a stout door closed against this night and a ration of good whiskey to soothe his affront. A jagged arpeggio of mad laughter split the night; his right hand flexed, a bare inch from the gun on his hip. A bad night to be out, indeed.

Inside the ring of spectators, the combatants still circled each other, now much the worse for wear. The trickle of blood from the first man’s nose had become a torrent, dyeing his lips and bared teeth a gruesome carmine; the other man was breathing heavily, his torso covered with welts, his lower lip split and swollen. Even as Alexander made his way past the circle, the first man was flung bleeding from it by an uppercut like a sledgehammer; he reeled past Alexander, leaving a trail of bloody droplets on the wood. His pupils had shrunk to pinpoints. The charnel-house scent that followed him was undercut by a familiar stench–

Alexander jerked to a halt, startled and disgusted, even as the fighter recovered and charged back into the fight with a bellow. Tang wan! Alexander would know that rotting smell anywhere! How a mere sailor had come upon one of the filthiest secrets of the Orient, Alexander had no idea. Doubtless he’d been told it was a medicine that would render him invulnerable–and invulnerable he would be, for the span of half an hour, before the foul concoction made his heart explode in his chest. The stuff was fed to broken-down pit-fighters in order to eke one last show out of them before they died. The man in front of him was already dead, having killed himself for the sake of giving himself an unfair advantage in an ordinary dock fight.

Even as these thoughts ran through Alexander’s head, the tang wan claimed its victim. A vicious jab to the face sent the bleeding man reeling backwards, and his roar of rage squeezed off–the fighter shrieked like a woman as clotted blood exploded from his every orifice. He dropped in his tracks, convulsed twice, and died, in a puddle of his own scarlet-tinged excreta.

For a moment, no one moved, least of all the hapless brute who’d struck what seemed to be the killing blow. Alexander alone knew what had happened here, and yet he hesitated for one fatal second, mindful of preserving his prize. Then it was too late–a rumble of outrage ran around the circle of onlookers as it began to tighten inexorably around the one battered fighter still standing, transforming itself from an audience into a bloodthirsty mob. They would listen to no one, now.

“I din’t kill him!” the other man shouted, holding up his bloodstained hands as if to prove his innocence and accomplishing only the opposite. “Okay, I hit him a lot, but I din’t kill him! Never saw the punch that made a man shit his pants with blood! Not right away, nohow–”

Taking a few prudent steps back, Alexander shook his head. Even if the mob could be reasoned with, a speech like that would prove a clumsy tool, at best. Better for a man like that to bludgeon his way free.

The mob closed in, all at once, like a single animal bent on slaughter. Clawed hands reached for the fighter’s tattooed arms, for his battered face, for his shaggy hair. “Stand down!” the brute shouted, swinging a ham-sized fist to clear himself a space. “Belay this stupidity, all of you! I tell you, I din’t kill him!” He swung around to threaten the crowd behind him, putting his back to Alexander, and for the second time that night Alexander was caught by surprise.

A hideous, writhing black tattoo covered every inch of skin between the base of the man’s skull and the waistband of his pants, tendrils of ink curling out to encompass his upper arms, as well. The man wore the tattoo like the skin of a panther–or perhaps the tattoo wore the man, so laden with eldritch power was the image. No matter. What did matter were the points of a star that emerged from the writhing black mass to curl over his biceps: part of Alexander’s family crest, and not the bloodless, proper coat-of-arms that the St. Roivas family presented to the world! No, this was a fragment of the true St. Roivas crest: the seven-pointed star, the seven-fingered hand dragging lightning down from heaven, the twin legends above and below: Sine scientia ars nihil est! Scire tuum nihil est, nisi te scire hoc sciat alter!

Alexander’s mind was afire on the instant. The very existence of such a tattoo was by all rights impossible–he must find out how the fellow had come by it! And therefore, as distasteful as it was, he would have to extricate the man from his current predicament. Snatching the revolver from its holster, Alexander pointed it at the sky and pulled the trigger.

The heavy weapon thundered over the heads of the crowd, a gout of flame a full two feet long erupting from the revolver’s barrel. It cut across the baying of the mob like cannon-shot cuts across Tchaikovsky (not that Alexander in any way approved of the emotional excesses of Tchaikovsky) and drew every startled eye to him. For a heartbeat of time the mob was stilled, including the victim at its heart. “That’s enough,” Alexander snapped, raising his voice to be heard over the sucking of the sea. “He is correct. He did not kill that man. Nameless gods, you are every one of you in a civilized land–cease this barbarism at once!”

For a heartbeat of time it seemed that the voice of reason would prevail–and, if not the voice of reason, then the revolver of reason, still held ready in the hand of reason. Alas, it was not to be. The mob set up a surly clamor that rapidly rose to a roar; half of them set upon the tattooed man once more, while the other half surged towards Alexander. Too many of them to shoot–“Damn you for this waste!” Alexander cried, with real pain in his voice. He swung the heavy lockbox up and over his head, bringing it down on the head of the first man to reach him.

The ancient wood splintered. The chains dissolved as if they had never been. The man crumpled at Alexander’s feet, unconscious and therefore the luckiest of them all; black smoke poured from the box and tangled with the fog, then leapt greedily into the crowd. To a man, including the fellow that Alexander meant to save, they fell back, screaming and beating at the air, their eyes focused on horrors that only they could see.

A few ebon tendrils quested towards Alexander. He stopped them with a glare, then waded into the screaming, impotent crowd, shoving shuddering bodies aside with a grimace of disturbance. All this unwashed male flesh! It was enough to make his skin creep.

In the center of the mess, the tattooed man struck at nothing, cursing fit to blue the air, wide-eyed and blinded. The black smoke flowed about him as it flowed about the others, curling intimately into his mouth and nostrils, hungry for his fear. Alexander hesitated, then caught one of the man’s wrists as his fist shot by.

The maelstrom leapt away from the tattooed man on the instant. Instinctively he struck at Alexander, only to stop dead as his vision cleared and his mind cooled–“The hell?” he said, his eyes wild. All around them the screaming melee raged on, insensible to their presence.

“Come with me,” Alexander said, tightening his grip on the man’s wrist. “Quickly, man, before the smoke loses its potency!”

“What–hey!” The other man set his feet and refused to be moved. “What’s going on?”

“I am trying to save your life, if you’d care to cooperate,” Alexander said, now thoroughly exasperated. “Come on.”

For a moment it seemed that the other man would protest further. He cast his eyes back, looking for something that Alexander could not see. Around them the crowd shrieked and struck at nothing, while black smoke eddied about them; the brute swallowed and allowed Alexander to lead him out of the madness, following as docilely as an overgrown child.

Prudently, Alexander kept hold of the other man’s wrist until the screaming faded behind them and the road loomed in front. It was like trying to wrap his hand around his own thigh; Alexander’s hand, long-fingered as it was, barely encompassed three-quarters of the other man’s treebranch-thick wrist. He would have been hard-pressed to hold on had the fellow decided to pull his hand away. “You’d best come with me,” Alexander said, in a schoolmaster’s no-nonsense tone. He thrust his free hand into the air, attempting to summon a cab before his quarry could escape.

“Where’re we going?” the other man said, bullish and confused, but not yet suspicious.

A taxi-driver spotted them and screeched to a halt. Alexander bundled his charge into the back seat. “To my home,” he said, pausing to give the driver his address.

“What? Hold on!” The other man tore his wrist out of Alexander’s grasp and grappled for the door handle. “I gotta ship out at dawn–”

Go,” Alexander told the driver, putting a whip-crack into his voice. The cab leaped out into traffic, momentarily flattening the other man back against the seat. “Oh, yes,” said Alexander, his voice dry. “I’m sure the same men that were just attempting to kill you would be happy to get you alone and out at sea.”

The other man settled warily into his seat. “Aw, they’ll forget all about it by tomorrow,” he said, although he didn’t sound like he believed it.

“In that case, I’ll have you know that the item I used to facilitate our escape was exceedingly rare and had been hand-carried to me from China,” Alexander said. “I calculate that you owe me on the order of ten thousand dollars for its replacement.”

“Ten thou–” The brute broke off there, aghast. “I ain’t got but three bucks in my wallet!”

“Then you can ill afford not to come back to my home for an hour or two,” Alexander triumphantly concluded.

Beaten, the other man subsided, if grumpily. “You a fairy?” he asked, after a moment of deep cogitation.

Alexander rolled his eyes. “Why am I not surprised that that’s the first and only explanation to which your rather limited intellect can jump?”

The other man’s thick eyebrows knotted as he painfully unraveled Alexander’s sentence. “Hey!” he finally said.

“I think you value yourself a bit too highly, perhaps,” Alexander went on, his voice tinged with acid. “Are you possessed of a face pretty enough to be worth the waste of ten thousand dollars and three months’ time? I think not, Mr. … oh, great gods, what is your name?”

“Jacob,” the other man said grumpily. “Jake, to my friends.”

“In that event, Jacob will do,” said Alexander. “For my part, I am Alexander St. Roivas. You may call me ‘Mr. St. Roivas’.”

The other man–Jacob–accepted this with a snort. “So,” he said, after another session of forehead-wrinkling introspection. “Why did you, uh, decide to use that thing?”

That, I will tell you,” Alexander said, with a meaningful glance towards the front, “when we are alone.”

Jacob considered this. “Fairy,” he finally concluded. Having convinced himself that one plus one equaled nineteen and three-quarters, he relaxed in his seat, smirking as if he’d won something.

~*~
Forty-five minutes later, Alexander sat in his tiny, cluttered kitchen and watched Jacob pace, wondering if he might not have been better off to wait until the mob had killed Jacob and then abscond with his corpse for study, instead.

No sooner had Jacob set foot in Alexander’s narrow rowhouse than he most emphatically put his back against the wall and demanded some kind of shirt. Alexander had, of course, pointed out that any shirt of his would barely cover one of Jacob’s arms, let alone the apish spread of his shoulders, but Jacob had been adamant. Now, not only did one of Alexander’s sleeveless woolen undershirts strain to cover the barrel of Jacob’s chest, but Jacob had appropriated Alexander’s second-best smoking jacket–without asking!–and squeezed himself into it like a pig might stuff itself into sausage casings. The silk strained over Jacob’s bulging shoulders and hung open in front, as it had no chance of closing over his chest.

The man’s unusual modesty thus preserved, Jacob set about verbally abusing Alexander with a will, proving his vocabulary to be colorful, if not broad. Alexander let the coarse words roll off him and studied his prize. Now that they were in the lamplight Jacob proved to be barely an inch shorter than Alexander himself, which was in itself galling, especially since Jacob also possessed about twice Alexander’s width. A mop of unruly black curls fell over his forehead, nearly obscuring his startling blue eyes, and his jaw was blue with stubble. The straining neckline of Alexander’s undershirt dipped low enough to reveal a lush and healthy thatch of fur on Jacob’s chest; his tattooed forearms and the backs of his massive hands were equally hairy. Combined with his rolling seaman’s gait and his restless energy, it was not unlike being trapped in a sitting room with a prime specimen of G. berengei berengei, the common mountain gorilla. If Jacob had only dropped to walk on his knuckles, the illusion should have been complete.

The sheer primal presence of the man was, quite frankly, unsettling. The stiff measure of neat Irish whiskey that Alexander had been anticipating had become two, and Alexander nudged the empty tumbler and longed to make it three. Perhaps he had been too hasty in his choice of soubriquets: the good name ‘Jacob’ was wasted on this Neanderthal. ‘Jake’ was altogether more fitting. Or perhaps ‘Bongo’.

“–never asked for it, neither!” Jake bellowed, then scrubbed the back of his hand over his split lip and grabbed the bottle of whiskey from the table. Biting down on the cork, he yanked it free of the bottle’s throat (over Alexander’s pained protests), spat it out, and upended the bottle, chugging off a good third of what was left and belching when he was done. “Christ, that’s the stuff,” he said, offering Alexander the spittle-smeared remains of his own bottle.

“Please,” Alexander said, “keep it.”

“Yeah? Thanks, Al, you’re a pal!” Jake’s eyes widened and he guffawed. “Hell’s bells, I’m a poet!”

Alexander put a despairing hand over his eyes. “Don’t call me that,” he said. “My name, if you must use it, is Alexander.”

“Sure, whatever, Al.” Jake carried his purloined bottle of whiskey over to the door, peering out into the main room, with its head-high stacks of books piled on every surface. “So what’s the story with all these books? You some kinda librarian?” He pronounced it li-berrian.

“In the loosest sense, yes, I am a librarian,” Alexander said, emphasizing the proper pronunciation of the word. “The St. Roivas family has striven to document and catalog the length and breadth of the realm of the occult for several hundred years–”

Jake plucked a dusty volume off the top of the nearest pile of books and studied the cover incuriously, taking another swig of whiskey. Alexander did not know which wounded him more: the casual appropriation of one of his precious books, or the casual appropriation of the bottle of whiskey that he’d intended to make last for a week. It was, however, the manhandling of the book that finally brought him up and out of his chair, to snatch the irreplaceable tome from Jake’s paw. “I’ll thank you not to touch the books,” he said, putting the Libro Ascoriam back where it belonged. “Can you even read?”

“Nope,” Jake said, shrugging. “Are we gonna get down to your sissy business or what? I gotta ship out at dawn, so if it’s buggery you’re after–”

“Your unhealthy fascination with sexual inversion is noted for the record.” Alexander took a deep, steadying breath, returning to his chair. “In point of fact, you will not be shipping out at dawn. Should you take even one step out that door without my leave, I shall have you arrested for nonpayment of debts.” Jake’s gorilla chest swelled, in preparation for another round of tiresome bellowing; Alexander held up a hand to forestall it. “I am doing you a favor,” he said sharply. “If you set foot on the docks again tonight, parts of you will be washing up on shore for weeks to come.”

Jake gestured angrily at Alexander with the bottle, whiskey slopping out of the neck of the bottle to soak into the cuff of his borrowed smoking jacket. The sight of spirits going to waste forestalled whatever idiocy Jake had been about to spout; instead he brought his wrist to his mouth and assiduously sucked the whiskey out of the fabric. The animalistic spectacle made Alexander come over quite faint. Eventually Jake spat out his mouthful of thoroughly-wetted silk and said, “It ain’t that I don’t see your point, Al!”

Alexander,” Alexander said firmly. “All right, so you understand that I’m correct. What, then, is the issue?”

“The problem is your high-handed manner! Who died and made you the boss of me, huh?”

“In point of fact, my freshly-acquired black-water lotus, just off the ship from Mongolia,” Alexander snapped. “Which was, as you’ll recall, worth an immense amount of money.”

“Yeah, well, nobody asked you and your flower to step in, Al!” Jake’s free hand flexed, for a moment forming into a fist that was quite nearly the size of Alexander’s head. “I coulda taken ’em.”

“Fifty enraged and drunken seamen,” Alexander said evenly. For the moment he decided not to protest the hateful nickname.

“Ain’t a one of ’em I haven’t whipped from here to Singapore and back,” Jake proclaimed.

“Really. All fifty at once?”

Jake subsided, but only slightly. “Hell, I coulda done it,” he muttered, sucking down another measure of whiskey and emptying the bottle.

Alexander waved this idiocy away. “I am not an unreasonable man,” he said. “I am prepared to forgive you this debt if you’ll but do me a service. A service in no way related to buggery, before you ask,” he added, hastily.

“What kinda service?” Jake said, his heavy brows drawing down again. He tilted up the bottle and found it empty; apparently unwilling to abandon his truest friend, Jake cradled the empty bottle to his chest.

“I wish to make an in-depth examination of your tattoo–” He got no farther than that.

Jake’s explosion was immediate and appalling. The empty whiskey bottle exploded into shards against the wall near Alexander’s head, and it took all of his considerable nerve not to duck, even as flying glass stung his cheek. “Never!” Jake bellowed. “That tattoo’s none of your God-damned business! Go make an in-depth examination of your ass!”

“Your fascination with my hindquarters continues to appall me,” Alexander said, reaching up to touch the wetness on his cheek. His fingers came away bloody. “Tch. Very well, then. If you will not allow me to look at your tattoo, I suppose that is your prerogative.”

“Really?” Jake calmed uncertainly. His eyes darted to Alexander’s cheek and then wandered away, now full of drunken guilt. “That’s it?”

“Of course that’s it,” Alexander said, letting his hand fall again. “Were you perchance afraid that I would next overpower you and expose your back by force?”

Jake snorted out an unwilling laugh. “Guess I owe you an apology, then. For your…” His voice trailed off and he made an awkward gesture towards his own unshaven cheek.

“It will heal,” Alexander said, manifestly uninterested. “Of course, if you will not show me the tattoo, then we must find another way for you to pay off your debt–a way, I hasten to add, that does not involve buggery.” A way that will allow me numerous opportunities to try for your tattoo again, he did not add.

“Aw, hell, here we go again,” Jake slurred, hunching his massive shoulders. The clear sound of seams ripping accompanied this little movement, as Alexander’s smoking jacket finally gave up the ghost.

Alexander affected not to notice, having already given the jacket up for lost when Jake had started suckling it like his mother’s teat. “I often have a need for a strong back in my line of work,” he said. “And a strong pair of hands. I would be willing to pay room and board, plus a stipend, for these things–and I put it to you that you have both.”

“Hell’s bells, Al, I’m plenty strong,” Jake said, brightening a bit. “So… what? You’re gonna pay me to hang around here and tote your books around?”

Alexander could not help but smile. “Oh, no,” he said, steepling his fingers in front of his face. “My vocation entails much more than just… books, Jacob.”

~*~
They shook on it like gentlemen, Alexander’s hand nearly vanishing inside Jake’s massive paw. Jake was, of course, no gentleman, but it suited Alexander to pretend for the sake of this charade–“Now, then,” he said, reclaiming his hand with alacrity, “I’ll show you where you are to sleep, and we’ll see about getting you proper clothing in the morning.”

Jake grunted in answer, trailing behind Alexander as they threaded their way through the labyrinth of books and made for the stairs. The stairs groaned under Jake’s weight, but sufficed to hold him, in the end. The door to the guest room was open, but blocked off with more stacks of books. Alexander clucked his tongue and bent to shuffle them aside. “You need me to help with those?” Jake asked, craftily waiting until most of them had already been moved.

“Thank you, I have it,” Alexander said. He relocated one last stack, straightened up, and pushed the door to the guest room the rest of the way open. “As you are being paid to help, however, you may relocate those.”

Jake stared blearily past him and into the guest room. Like every other room in the house, it was filled from wall to wall with stacks of ancient, dusty tomes; neither the desk nor the dresser nor, indeed, Jake’s prospective bed had been spared. “Anywhere in particular you want me to put ’em?” Jake asked.

“Wherever there is space,” said Alexander, feeling particularly benevolent. “Just be careful that you do not damage them. Many of them are irreplaceable, and all of them are valuable.”

“They’re just books,” Jake said, confused.

Alexander’s unaccustomed benevolence evaporated on the spot. “And every last one of them is worth more to me than you are, Jacob,” he curtly replied. “Do not damage them.”

“Okay, okay, I got it already.” Jake flipped a weary hand at Alexander and stumbled into the room. “See you in the morning, Al.”

Alexander pinched the bridge of his nose, warding off his incipient headache. “Don’t call me that, Jacob,” he said, and he shut the door on the partly-clad sailor without further ado.

2.
Alexander rose at his customary hour of eight AM and drew the drapes against the morning light. Judging from the thunderous rasp emanating from the guest room, his new manservant was either still asleep and snoring, or else performing acts of light carpentry. Either was acceptable to Alexander, who was, after all, in semi-dire need of more bookshelves.

Shrugging into his dressing gown, Alexander picked his way downstairs and ate a light breakfast (tea and toast, with a parsimonious scraping of orange marmalade) while being serenaded by Jake’s water-buffalo snortings. It was not a musical sound in the slightest, but Alexander found himself unruffled. Had he not once stopped his ears mere seconds before the siren of K’yen’eh raised its unholy shuddering voice to the sky? After that, how could he be irritated by simple snoring, in–Alexander paused, cocked his head to the side, and hummed a few notes–in a relatively pleasant low A?

Jake was still snoring when Alexander returned to the second floor and closed himself in the bath. The cut on his cheek had scabbed over during the night. Picking up his worn straight razor, Alexander frowned at the cut in the mirror, unable to decide if he approved of the raffish air which it lent him. Still, there was little enough he could do about it now, and it ought to heal cleanly. Alexander shaved his chin and his upper lip, then spent an enjoyable ten minutes carefully attending to the shape of his sideburns. They were the one vanity which he could still afford to indulge, and, truth be told, he enjoyed minutely leveling them to the perfect parity, sometimes lifting his razor to trim away a single hair. Once his aesthetic sense had been satisfied, he stropped the blade back to razor sharpness and put it back in his kit.

He washed quickly and retreated to his room to dress for the day, deep in thought. The question was how to get a proper look at that tattoo–humming to himself, Alexander lifted his chin and knotted his tie. On the other side of the wall, Jake snorted once, fell silent for a few long moments, then began to snore again, and Alexander corrected himself. The first order of business was to get the man properly outfitted. After that, a few stern words on proper deportment and grooming ought to suffice–

Alexander’s fingers paused, then moved on with renewed purpose. Above the perfect Windsor knot of his tie, Alexander smiled unpleasantly to himself. Proper grooming indeed. Quickly he finished dressing, then ran a brush through his hair and got on with things.

A quick search through his bookbinder’s tools yielded a pot of wood glue and a thin strip of wood, the perfect chock. Attending with half an ear to Jake’s constant snoring Alexander knelt in front of the open bathroom door and pressed the makeshift chock to the inner edge of the door, just below the lowest hinge. It fitted perfectly and was nearly invisible against the wood of the door itself, but–Alexander rose to his feet and swung the door to–it prevented the bathroom door from closing all the way, much like swollen wood might. Even at its narrowest, the gap between the door and its frame was nearly two inches wide. Alexander carried the pot of glue back into his room, leaving the bathroom door nearly closed, so that the pressure from the doorframe might support the wood as the glue dried.

Permitting himself a slight smile at this devilry–a good morning’s work, and here it was not even nine!–Alexander stepped through the piles of books and rapped at Jake’s door. “Good morning, Jacob,” he called.

The snoring cut off abruptly. “Fi’ more minutes, Ma,” Jake groaned.

Alexander opened his mouth to say something snide, then stopped. On second thought, he did not wish to be seen in public with Jake in Jake’s current state of dishabille. Let the man sleep. He’d need his rest.

The wall-rattling snoring resumed as Alexander trotted down the stairs and let himself out into what would pass as a glorious early fall morning, to those who did not know quite so much about the dark, hidden history of New Portsmouth.

~*~
Two hours later, Alexander returned, a leather valise in one hand. The sound was the first thing to greet him when he let himself back into the rowhouse: although it was near to eleven, Jake was still snoring upstairs. Alexander pursed his lips and carried the valise upstairs.

This time Jake awoke with a snort when Alexander knocked on his door, thrashing upright as Alexander let himself in. He’d slept in the rapidly-unraveling undershirt, more’s the pity. “Good morning, Jacob,” Alexander said, dropping the valise on the foot of Jake’s bed without ceremony. “I took the liberty of purchasing a few things for you.”

“Huh?” Jake said, his voice gravelly with sleep, his jaw black with two days’ growth of heavy beard. He screwed his massive fists into his eye sockets for a moment, then blinked blearily up at Alexander. “Oh. Morning, Al. Forgot where I was for a second.”

Alexander sighed, then swung to inspect the room. The floor was still covered in books, but Jake had shuffled the books off the bed, at least. He’d added them to the tops of the stacks around it, a little less than neatly; Alexander hissed out a breath between his teeth and set about straightening the stacks, taking care not to scrape the aging leather covers against each other. “That is not my name,” he protested, yet again, already knowing that it was futile.

“Yeah, sure,” said Jake, popping open the top of the valise and emptying it onto the bed in front of him, as gleefully as a child at Christmas. Alexander had only been able to find two shirts of a decent cloth in an approximation of Jake’s monstrous size, but at least both were clean and well-made, and underclothes had been easier to come by. Trousers were out of the question, as was a decent waistcoat, but Jake had trousers already, at least. Jake picked up the razor and whistled, then sorted through the other toiletries with rising bemusement. “Fancy,” he finally decreed, letting everything drop onto the blanket. “Thanks for the swag, Al!”

Alexander, who’d been about to dismiss the debt, changed his mind on the instant. “I’ll take it out of your first week’s salary,” he said coolly.

Jake’s good mood deflated. “Shoulda known there’d be a catch,” he grumbled, tossing the items back into the bag one at a time.

“I do hope they fit,” Alexander said, perhaps a touch snidely. “As for the rest, I expect you to present a clean and well-groomed face to the world as long as you are in my employ. The bath is across the hall; I encourage you to make extensive use of it.” He paused, schooled his voice to absence, and added, “I’m afraid the door does not close all the way, as the moisture has warped it out of true.”

Jake grunted, barely listening. The word ‘bath’ had caused the most extraordinary expression of repugnance to cross his face; the door was the least of his concerns.

Basking in his minor triumph, Alexander added, “You’d do well to wash up and shave before you put those clean things on.” Eyeing Jake with a perfect show of indifference, he added, “I’ll be in my room, attending to my correspondence. Once you are presentable, you may knock, and I will see to providing us some lunch then.”

Jake snorted. “Oh, hell, may I?” he asked, kicking off the covers and hauling himself up and out of bed. Involuntarily Alexander took a step back: even in his mismatched underthings Jake was a hulking presence, not unlike a wall of meat. A wall of hairy meat. It was, quite frankly, somewhat unsettling to have the man so close–Alexander could even smell him at this remove, all salt and male musk. Jake picked up his trousers with a grunt.

“Yes, you may,” Alexander said, forcing his voice to stay steady. “I’ll leave you to it.” Turning his back on Jake, Alexander carefully slipped past the piled-up books and let himself back out of the room.

He headed for the relative safety of his own room with alacrity, closing the door to give Jake the illusion of privacy. It was true that he had correspondence to attend to, and Alexander went so far as to lay it out in a semblance of partial completion on his desk and pick up his pen. He inked the first salutation and a few well-chosen words while he waited.

In the hallway outside the floorboards groaned under Jake’s weight–Alexander’s pen halted–and the bathroom door closed behind Jake. The chock bounced off the doorframe with a sound that Alexander could clearly hear, forcing the door to halt while still a few precious inches open.

Alexander rose from behind the desk, laying his pen across the letter he’d just begun. Best to give the man a few moments to lower his guard–Alexander paused in front of the mirror to adjust his tie and run the brush through his hair. The sink began to run in the bathroom. Alexander put his brush down.

Taking hold of the doorhandle, Alexander eased it down, a hair’s-breadth at a time. The sink continued to run, the flow of water helping to conceal any slight sounds that Alexander might make (although he was stealthier than most people would credit him for being). The door sprang silently open under Alexander’s hand and he crept out into the hallway, dropping into a crouch that would hide him behind two stacks of ancient books.

The bathroom door stood ajar, just as he had hoped. Sliding a mere inch to his right framed Jake squarely in the center of the opening, and Alexander knew a moment of triumph that he did not dare voice aloud.

Jake was leaning over the sink, his back to Alexander, carefully lathering his jaw with the shaving brush. His suspenders hung loose over his hips, and Alexander’s ruined undershirt rode up almost to his ribcage; from here Alexander could clearly see the fragments of the St. Roivas crest, as well as something that resembled reptilian scales rendered in smoke and soot, but nothing more. The man would have to remove his undershirt sooner or later. Alexander settled in to wait.

Still leaning over the sink, Jake began to scrape his jaw clean, wielding the razor with a surprisingly delicate touch even though the blade was nearly lost in his enormous mitt. His own sideburns were smaller and much less neatly kept than Alexander’s, and his chin would most likely always be slightly blue even when freshly shaved, but by the time he rinsed and dried the blade, he was almost presentable. His blunt features were square and coarse, and his nose had been broken several times and poorly reset, but he had escaped being truly ugly, if only by a handspan.

Jake put his razor back in the valise, then sucked in a breath and stripped off the sad remains of Alexander’s undershirt, revealing the scope of his tattoo for the first time amidst a symphony of ripping stitches. Alexander craned to see. At this distance the detail was sadly lost–curse the luck!–but Alexander got the gist of it clearly enough: a monstrous black serpent rising from the sea to crush a cyclopean city in its massive coils, while inhuman figures launched ships and scurried about, fighting, falling, drowning, dying. Around the edges of the city the fragmentary St. Roivas crest had been arrayed, for no reason that Alexander could determine.

Alexander clenched his fists. What he would not give to examine it more closely! This was no ordinary sailor’s tattoo: it exuded malignancy like a tumor. The serpent was as foul an asp as had ever been crushed under a man’s heel, but the city to which it lay waste exhibited an aura equally as malevolent. The tattoos lurking on Jake’s hairy forearms were of the usual sort–crude, blurry blue images of anchors and naked women–but the massive back-piece was as sharp and clear as a high-quality etching, the skin it covered completely devoid of hair. Every movement Jake made caused the serpent to writhe as if alive. It was unsettling even to a man of Alexander’s necessarily-strong constitution.

Unaware of his audience, Jake scruffed both hands through his shaggy hair, then stripped off his trousers and underpants without a second thought. Alexander, already still, become utterly motionless, forgetting even to breathe. The malign tattoo stretched down past Jake’s waist, as well, the threshing sea etched across the small of his back, the coils of the serpent coyly arching over Jake’s rump. The end of its barbed tail curled over Jake’s hipbone and down under the muscle of one buttock; the very tip vanished up into the cleft of his ass like a smirking joke, as if he’d shat the thing himself.

Jake dropped his trousers onto the bathroom floor and turned around, hiding the tattoo from Alexander’s sight and waking him from his reverie. From the front Jake was just another brawny fellow, muscular and as hairy as a satyr–his bountiful chest hair and his lush pubic thatch were connected by a strip of hair, three fingers wide, that pointed at his genitals like a sly arrow. It ought to have been repellent, but it was not; after the obscenity of his back, the very normality of it was a relief.

Alexander’s act of scholarly voyeurism went unnoticed as Jake turned to the tub and bent over it to negotiate with the taps. Unable to resist Alexander focused once again on the barbed tail, his eyes tracing out the arc of it; Jake leaned for the cold-water tap and inadvertently revealed another tantalizing half an inch of the serpent’s tail, hidden in the shadows.

Mesmerized, Alexander watched the serpent writhe until Jake climbed into the tub, then rose carefully to his feet while the muscles of his thighs complained. Sidling back into his room Alexander eased the door shut, then collapsed back against it, wholly breathless, swallowing convulsively.

That tattoo! It was magnificent–it was horrible–and he itched to study it at his leisure. Still leaning against the door, Alexander clenched his fists and solemnly vowed that he would make it happen, no matter the lengths to which he was forced to go; then he collected himself, straightened his rumpled clothing, and went to attend to his neglected correspondence, still breathing heavily.

3.
“Two, three, and four dollars,” Alexander said, ceremoniously dropping the silver dollars one at a time into Jake’s outstretched hand. They made an altogether insignificant little pile. “There you are.”

Jake eyed his first week’s pay–or what was left of it after his debts had been covered–with a jaundiced eye, prodding at one of the cartwheels with a blunt finger. It made a pleasant ringing sound as it struck its fellows. “Cripes, Al, ain’t you ever heard of greenbacks?”

“I have always preferred silver,” Alexander said shortly. Picking up his pen, he debited Jake’s salary from the balance in his ledger; it left him perilously close to penury, but he was well acquainted with the little economies that would serve to stretch his funds until the beginning of the month. Alexander blotted the inked figures, then closed his ledger. “If you are so dead set on paper, any bank in town will gladly provide it in exchange.”

Jake leaned back in his chair and stuffed the coins into his trouser pocket. “Twenty silver dollars is a hell of a weight, that’s all, Al.”

Alexander allowed himself a brief, pained smile. “Then spend it quickly,” he said. “Also, need I remind you once again that that is not my name?”

“Nope, I think I got that,” Jake said. His grin was brief and feral. “Al.”

Alexander sighed. “Thank you, Jacob. That will be all.” He picked up his pen again and got back to his correspondence–or he tried. Jake remained stubbornly planted in the chair on the other side of Alexander’s desk, his furry brows drawn down in what was either concentration or constipation. Alexander tried not to roll his eyes too obviously, putting his pen back down. “What is it, Jacob?”

“It ain’t much of anything, really,” Jake began, reaching up to scratch the back of his neck. “It’s just… well, when I took this job you told me it’d be dangerous–”

“–on occasion,” Alexander clarified.

“Yeah, but… I been here a week and all I do is tote stuff around for you, Al. When are we gonna see some action?”

Alexander’s lips tightened and he settled back in his chair, eyeing the apparition on the other side of his desk. Jake was barely more presentable than he’d been a week ago, although at least he was cleaner. He insisted on rolling up his shirt sleeves and he never bothered to button his shirt up all the way, let alone wear anything civilized, like a waistcoat; the barest mention of a tie made him guffaw. Alexander counted himself lucky that the man consented to wear shoes. “When I said this job would occasionally be dangerous, I spoke precisely,” he said. “Just because no peril has befallen you in the first week does not mean that it never will. This job will eventually expose you to horrors the like of which man was never meant to lay eyes upon, and trust me when I say that you should not look forward to it.”

“Well, yeah, but…” Jake scowled blackly. “Feels like you’re paying me to do nothing, Al, and that hurts my pride some. Free room and board plus twenty bucks a week, that’s awful generous to begin with.”

“I am paying you to be ready when I have need of you,” Alexander said, a bit more sharply than he’d intended. “Do you recall how I extricated you from your trouble on the docks?”

Jake’s lips moved as he silently repeated extricated to himself. “Yeah,” he finally admitted.

“Do you recall what it did to you?”

“Sort of?” Jake looked hunted. “It’s all kinda blurry now. It was like a nightmare but I wasn’t asleep.”

“In my line of work, that is so ordinary a threat as to barely be of notice,” Alexander concluded triumphantly. “Situations can arise in a heartbeat, Jacob. And when they do, I might well be in need of your aid. That is why I am paying you.”

Jake seemed mollified, although his scowl had not quite smoothed back out. “All right, Al, if you say so,” he said. “You’re smarter than me, anyway.”

“That I am,” Alexander said, with a wintry smile.

“I mean, all these books just give me the willies,” Jake said, gesturing vaguely at the nearest pile. “I ain’t booksmart, Al.”

“Being able to read would be a prerequisite,” Alexander noted.

“Guess so,” Jake said vaguely, trying and failing to disguise the look of utter blankness that prerequisite spawned in his eyes. “Anyway, that’s another thing I’ve been meaning to ask you about, Al.”

Sensing that he was not going to return to his correspondence any time soon, Alexander capped the bottle of ink in the inkstand. “And far be it from me to discourage the inquisitive spirit,” he said, his voice dry. “What is it, Jacob?”

“You got books pretty much everywhere, is the thing. I mean, cripes, everywhere in the place is head-high in books, so’s I can’t hardly move nowhere.” Jake’s hapless gesture took in Alexander’s room, and in a looser sense, the entire house. “I mean, sure, I get they’re important and all, Al, but why don’t you have a bigger place to keep ’em in? Or, hell, shelves, even.”

For a week now Alexander had been expecting this question, but it still rankled. (The double negative also drove nails into his soul, but he knew a lost cause when he heard one.) He shut his eyes and exhaled, steadying himself. “Would you like the long answer or the short answer, Jacob?”

“Which one is gonna make more sense?”

“I’ll give you the short answer,” Alexander decided. “The short answer is that I did not acquire these books piecemeal, but rather, all in one fell swoop, just a few years ago. As I lived alone until recently, the crowding did not bother me–indeed, I find it soothing, in a way–and I do not have a larger home for the same reason that I do not have proper bookshelves: because I cannot afford these things.”

Jake blinked, wearing his habitual expression of confusion. “But.. ain’t you rich, Al?”

“Ha!” It was not so much a laugh that Alexander let slip as it was an incredulous ejaculation. “I am not precisely in the poorhouse, Jacob, but I assure you that I am hardly rich.”

“It’s just… well, you talk so educated.” The confusion gave way to bullish stubbornness. “And you act rich. Like you’re used to people hopping when you say ‘frog’. You act like a guy with a whole lot of money, Al.”

As insights went, it was not much of a muchness, but it was still a startling display of smarts from Jake. Alexander sobered. “It is true that my family is wealthy,” he said carefully.

“Oh,” said Jake. “On the outs, huh.”

“Yes,” Alexander said, taken aback anew. “They and I disagree on… matters of policy, shall we say.”

Jake stared down at his hands, abashed. “Okay, Al. Sorry I asked. I din’t mean any harm by it.”

“Think nothing of it,” Alexander said. He glanced down at his half-written letter and noted the encroaching dimness; either he lit the lamp and wasted expensive lamp oil while finishing his letters, or…

Narrowing his eyes, Alexander considered Jake. His formidable brain, never idle, sharpened its focus. “And that will be enough for today,” he decreed, removing his half-moon spectacles. “Would you care to join me in a drink, Jacob? We’ll drink a toast to your first week, if you like.”

Jake lifted his head to stare at Alexander, the confusion and hope warring in his expression rapidly replaced by a naked, slavering thirst. The man had been wholly lit when Alexander had acquired him, but enforcedly sober ever since–“Yeah, Al,” Jake said, breathing the words like a prayer.

The key to the sideboard hung around Alexander’s neck, on a bit of ribbon. Normally this amount of scruple was entirely uncalled for, but Jake’s presence had caused Alexander to take a number of precautions, of which this was only one; he fished out the key and held it out. “You’ll find the whiskey in the topmost cabinet of the sideboard,” he said. “If you’d be so kind as to fetch me a bottle and two glasses…?”

Jake took the key and crossed to the sideboard, fumbling with the lock. He got the door open and exhaled in purest appreciation on his first look at the contents of the sideboard: there were three full bottles of Alexander’s best whiskey inside, all with seals intact, all that he had left. He’d specifically placed them there in advance of this day.

Jake was merely a seaman, a simple, primal soul, and one not averse to drunkenness. There was no need to dabble in exotic preparations in order to render him pliable–all Alexander required was spirits, in sufficient quantities. Surely three bottles of good Irish whiskey would be such a quantity, even for a behemoth like Jake! Pliable or unconscious, either would ensure that Alexander could study the man’s tattoo at his leisure.

Jake carefully picked up the nearest bottle and carried it back to the desk, cradling it like an infant. Alexander accepted the bottle, dragging the blade of his pocket-knife through the seal while Jake fetched two tumblers. Prying out the cork, Alexander put it aside and poured them both a generous measure, then put the bottle down within Jake’s reach. “A toast, then,” Alexander said, picking up his glass and tapping it lightly against Jake’s. The crystal rang. “To your first week.”

“Here’s mud in your eye,” Jake said cheerfully, and slugged back his whiskey like he thought it might escape if he left it alone for too long. Alexander took a much more prudent mouthful and settled back in his chair, brimming with anticipation.

~*~
“–and right about then’s when I punched out his horse!” Jake cried, letting loose with a loopy, drunken roundhouse punch that came perilously close to knocking a pile of books onto the stove. The mostly-empty third bottle swung from his fist.

Alexander’s head wobbled back and hit the wall behind him. He barely noticed. Instead he pressed his knuckles to his lips, his chest heaving as he choked on a great gust of silent laughter that brought tears to his eyes. Somewhere underneath the unwonted fog of whiskey his once-fine mind despaired of his resolve, but Alexander was in no condition to pay it any heed.

Alexander had counted on Jake not stopping until he ran out of whiskey; he had not counted on Jake generously refilling both glasses every time he picked up the bottle, and he certainly had not counted on Jake fixing him with a beady-eyed, bloodshot gaze and drunkenly ordering him to drink up whenever Jake noticed that Alexander’s consumption was lagging. “We’re celebratin’, right?” Jake had said.

You may be celebrating,” Alexander had replied, trying to beg off. Jake’s answer had been a meaty arm thrown over his shoulders (nearly breaking Alexander in two) and a reiteration of his demands, complete with a vague display of a raw-knuckled fist. In desperation Alexander had tried to ration his mouthfuls, but in the end it was of no avail. Jake had cozened, cajoled, threatened, and cheered most of a bottle of whiskey into him; Alexander had dared not demur, lest he be thrashed, or worse, lest Jake also stop.

The clock had struck midnight some time before they had staggered down to the kitchen, in search of a belated dinner. Jake paused in his perusal of the icebox long enough to drain off the last dregs of the final bottle, then let it drop. He swayed gently in place, gazing at Alexander with a soulful, bleary appeal in his eyes, when he could keep them open. “Aw, hell, Al, I done drunk the last,” he declared. “Oughta have–” he croaked out a hiccup “–oughta have saved you some!”

“It’s…” Alexander paused, gathered his scattered wits, and waved the apology away. The gesture was needlessly extravagant; he could not help but find it hilarious. His chest ached from all this unaccustomed laughter. “It’s all. Right,” he said, carefully enunciating each word to avoid slurring. “I have. Had. Enough. I believe.”

Something about his hitching speech struck Jake as riotously funny, and Jake bellowed out a guffaw so infectious that it set off another bout of Alexander’s silent, wheezing laughter. Abandoning his search for food (and leaving the door to the icebox a few inches ajar) Jake stumbled to the other chair and dropped into it precipitously. Its legs groaned under his sudden weight, but held. Slamming the empty bottle to the table between them, Jake kicked his legs straight out in front of him and declared, “Cripes, Al, that there is the good stuff.”

“It. Was,” Alexander said, patting at his flushed cheek in absent wonder. His face was as hot as a stove, and all he could feel of his extremities was a vague tingling. “That was. The last. Of the whiskey. For the month.”

“Now that is a God-damned shame,” Jake declared, bringing his fist down on the table and making the empty bottle jump and skitter. “I got a part of one leg ain’t full up yet!”

“You should have. Drunk. My share. As well,” Alexander said, pained. Fixing Jake with a gimlet eye, he explained, “I had. Inented–” Alexander paused, frowned, and carefully corrected himself. “In-ten-ded. I had. Intended. To get you. Very drunk. Veryvery drunk.” He paused, considering this, and added, “Veryveryvery drunk.” Another pause, which Alexander groped for the correct word, irritated that it did not spring immediately to mind as words were wont to do under other circumstances. “Extremely drunk,” Alexander finally announced, proudly. “It was. Important.”

Jake leaned forward, his eyes wide and credulous with awe. “Yeah?” Jake said, fascinated. “Why’s that, Al?”

“Not my name,” Alexander said, disgusted.

Jake lightly prodded Alexander’s shoulder with a finger as large as a sausage. “Why’s that, Al?” Jake asked again, boozily intent.

Some little part of Alexander reasserted itself, a little too late. Alexander shook his head; one finger wobbled up to press to his lips, sealing them. “Can’t tell. You. It’s a. Secret,” Alexander said, slightly muffled by his silencing finger. That didn’t seem emphatic enough, but the proper words were, once again, lost to him in the fog. “A. Big secret,” he finally said.

For a long moment Jake was silent, squinting at Alexander’s flushed face and the finger on his lips with vast and total concentration. Concentration did not suit him: it gave him a piggish look. Alexander was just about to tell him so when comprehension dawned on Jake’s face like the rising of the sun, wiping away the piggish scowl and replacing it with beaming self-satisfaction. “Ohhhhhhh,” Jake said smugly. “I get it, Al! I get it. I know what you were tryin’ to do, I bet.”

Alexander froze, his drink-crippled mind spinning its wheels as he sought for a way to protect himself. “No, you don’t,” he finally said, as clever a riposte as he could summon.

“Bet I do,” Jake said, and he lunged across the table, reaching for Alexander with both massive hands. Alexander instinctively cringed back, lifting a hand to guard against being throttled–but instead of wringing Alexander’s neck, Jake sank his fingers into Alexander’s mussed hair and dragged him halfway across the table into a fierce kiss that threatened to rip off the top of Alexander’s head.

Alexander’s eyes popped open. He made a most undignified muffled yelping sound and grabbed at Jake’s wrists, then struck at his chest. It was not unlike punching a wall, prompting another yelp. Jake paid Alexander’s struggles no mind, just snickered into the kiss. The scrape of Jake’s five o’clock shadow was like sandpaper against Alexander’s skin, and Alexander’s jaw creaked with the effort it took to keep it shut in the face of this assault–squeezing his eyes shut, gritting his teeth against the invasion, Alexander grabbed at the table to ensure it stayed safely between them (and, it must be admitted, to keep from falling over). For a moment Alexander held his ground–then Jake casually backhanded the kitchen table out of the way, as it if weighed nothing. The table skittered across the floor, collided with a stack of books, and screeched to a halt, the books spilling across its top. The empty whiskey bottle hit the floor and shattered.

His last prop torn away, Alexander staggered and fell heavily to the kitchen floor. Jake landed on top of him with sufficient force to drive the air out of his lungs, and before Alexander could lock his jaw again Jake was on him, devouring his mouth as if he intended to consume Alexander’s tongue raw, like an oyster.

Alexander found himself struggling to breathe. Jake was a substantial weight on top of him; what little air Alexander could sip was forced back out by Jake’s sheer mass. The world went gray and spun around him for a moment, and when it cleared again, Alexander was shocked to find himself responding with a singleminded will, clutching at Jake’s back and giving as good as he got, battening hungrily onto Jake’s mouth as if to make up for lost time.

Jake grunted, biting at Alexander’s lips, clumsily humping Alexander’s thigh like a dog. The man’s arousal was obvious, as was his inebriety: his fumbling hands left welts where they did not leave bruises, his mouth was sloppy on Alexander’s, and he reeked of drink. Tasted of it, as well. Alexander was less disgusted than he thought he ought to be. Indeed, his disgust only fired his sudden arousal to a higher pitch, and Alexander threw a leg about Jake’s hips, dragging him down.

“Told you,” Jake gasped, breaking the kiss long enough to lick his reddened lips. He grinned hugely, his tongue lolling out.

“This… isn’t it,” Alexander wheezed, clawing at the buttons of Jake’s shirt. His face was wet, red wherever Jake’s bristling cheeks had abraded him–“This was. Your. Idea.”

He’d managed to rip open the topmost button and was working on the second with crazed concentration when he realized that Jake had grown still atop him. Alexander risked a glance up at Jake’s face; Jake was staring down at Alexander’s clumsy hands in something like dawning horror. Before Alexander could ask Jake yanked those trespassing hands away, pinning them to the floor to either side of Alexander’s head. “You shouldn’t oughta do that, Al!” Jake said, his voice suddenly wobbling as if he were choking back maudlin tears.

Alexander screwed up his face into a frown, tugging against Jake’s grip on his wrists. It was like being manacled to the floor. “Why not?” he asked, his words choppy now through a more prosaic lack of breath. “I. Thought this. Was. Your idea.”

“Yeah, but…” Tears welled up in Jake’s eyes. “I shouldn’ta! I ain’t goin’ through that again! Ever’ time I try it ends in tears, Al, and I’m sick of it!”

Confused and groping helplessly after something to say, Alexander settled on, “It’s. All right.”

Jake’s eyebrows beetled, his scowl going black on the instant. “It ain’t all right!” he bellowed, nearly deafening Alexander. “You never listen, Al–you don’t understand nothing but what you read in your stupid books! You ain’t nothin’ but a rich boy never lived in a man’s world a day in your life!”

Alexander tried to respond to that, but before he could marshal a cogent argument, Jake shoved himself upright. In the process, he planted a knee in Alexander’s midsection. Alexander’s breath whooped out of him; his bellyful of whiskey threatened to follow, and by the time he convinced it to stay down, Jake was gone, thudding upstairs, raging incoherently at the walls.

Gasping, Alexander crawled painfully up onto his knees, then lurched to his feet. He ached all over, and would ache all the worse in the morning, and Jake had–he had–abandoning the mess where it lay, Alexander stumbled off in search of his own bed and blessed unconsciousness.

~*~

Alexander thrashed up and out of sleep at his usual hour. He was still drunk, but his drunkenness had metamorphosed into a low, lurking, sick feeling, and he barely made it into the bath before he noisily rid himself of everything left in his stomach.

Once the egress was complete, Alexander washed down two aspirin and a stomach powder with an entire pitcher of water, then crawled painfully back into his bed. On the other side of the wall Jake was once again snoring, although the now-familiar sound was thick and sodden; Alexander curled into a ball and listened, heartsick, until his stomach settled and his mind cleared.

Alexander crept back out of bed and put on his dressing gown, then set about erasing the tracks of yesterday’s debauchery with a frenetic singlemindedness. He tried not to dwell on yesterday’s fiasco as he threw out bottles and rinsed out his tumblers. What a fool he’d made of himself, he thought, setting his desk chair upright. And with Jake, to boot! It was insupportable. The man was a scoundrel, a wastrel, a drunken oaf–he would never possess enough common decency to let them put it behind them!

Finally his room was in order, Jake still snoring in the next room. Creeping downstairs, Alexander confronted the chaos of the kitchen, snatching up one of the fallen books and clutching it to his chest. None of the books were damaged, thank all the gods; Alexander put them back in their accustomed stacks, then stood the table upright once more and swept up the pieces of the broken bottle. A wet rag rid him of both the tiniest slivers of glass and the spilled whiskey, but still the room stank of it, badly enough to put Alexander off drink for months.

Once the house again looked as it should, Alexander slunk back upstairs. He closed himself in the bath as best he could and washed the reek of alcohol and Jake off his skin, shuddering all the while. He hurried through the rest of his usual toilet, content only to be presentable–he had no stomach for niceties this morning.

He put on his clothing as if he were girding his loins, retreating behind the formidable wall of his gentility. By the time his tie was tied and his waistcoat was buttoned, he was once again possessed of a cool head, although he was dreading the confrontation to come. Still, Alexander was no coward, and damned if he’d sit silently by and await his destiny; he pushed past the piles of books in the hall and rapped on Jake’s door, then let himself in without waiting for an answer.

Still fully clothed, Jake awoke with a snort and wrestled with the bedclothes for a good ten seconds before getting himself upright. He looked, if it were possible, even worse than Alexander felt. “Cripes, Al, what time is it?” Jake moaned, clutching at his head.

“Just before ten AM,” Alexander said crisply. Every movement–every noise–made his own head ache abominably, but he refused to give in to weakness. His back was ramrod straight. “There are aspirin in the medicine chest if you require them.”

“Aaaow, Al, not so loud!” Jake pressed the heels of his hands against his temples, stretching his eyes out into hellish Oriental slits. “How much did I damn well drink?”

“Most of three bottles of whiskey,” Alexander said. “Which were, I might add, the last of my stock.”

Jake hunched over, curling up into a miserable little ball. “Hell’s bells,” he said weakly. “I didn’t do anything stupid, did I, Al?” Alexander went still. Misinterpreting his silence, Jake cringed. “Aww, cripes, I did, didn’t I? I’m really sorry, Al! I don’t remember much after the second bottle–I didn’t break nothing, did I?”

“Only a bottle,” Alexander said, nearly light-headed with relief. Jake had drunk himself into an amnesiac state–the man honestly did not remember! “And I’m afraid you left me quite a mess, to boot.”

“Aww, jeez.” Jake folded his hands over his head. “I’m really sorry, Al. I’ll clean it up, I promise.”

“I’ve already taken care of it,” Alexander said. He studied Jake, who huddled at the foot of his bed as if he were trying to disappear into the earth. “You’re of no use to me in this condition,” he declared. “You may as well take the rest of the morning to recover. We’ll speak once you’re clean and presentable.”

“I’m real sorry, Al,” Jake said, from somewhere around the middle of his little ball of shame and pain. “I won’t do it again. Honest.”

Alexander sighed sharply. “See that you don’t,” he said. It came out with slightly more of an edge than he’d intended, making Jake hunch his shoulders.

4.
“I only asked what you was doing, Al,” Jake said, overflowing the chair on the opposite side of the desk. His eyes roved curiously over the scattering of bizarre occult tools on Alexander’s desk, but at least he was no longer trying to handle them, after having been spoken to sharply on two separate occasions.

“And if I had an answer for you, I assure you that I would share it,” Alexander said shortly, rubbing his temples. He had awoken this morning with the vague but very real sense that all was not right, a sense which he had learned to trust implicitly; the phantom itch buried between the twin lobes of his brain had only intensified as the day wore on. For most of the day he had been closeted in his office, attempting to pinpoint the source of his distress through the various means available to him. He had had no luck, and Jake’s wheedling tone did little to improve his sour mood.

No help for it, then. Compressing his lips with distaste Alexander fetched the rolled-up lambskin from within the cavernous reaches of his desk and unrolled it upon his desk, revealing a map of the coast etched in reddish, flaking ink. He gazed at it for a moment, hoping against hope that he might see something that would ease this infernal itch without having to resort to drastic measures; the hide was unforthcoming, damn the thing.

Alexander sighed and plucked a compass from his inkstand–an ordinary drafting tool, save for the stone pendulum hanging from the hinge on a fine chain. Unbuttoning his shirt cuff, he pushed it back, baring his left wrist. He made a fist, forcing the tracery of blue veins to the surface; catching the closed compass in his right hand Alexander stabbed both its points into the largest vein, just under where it met the heel of his hand.

Blood welled up around the twin punctures even as Jake yelped, bolting upright. “Jeez, Al!” he said, grabbing for Alexander’s wrist before thinking better of it. “What’d you go and do that for?”

“As I have doubtless told you several times, blood is the wellspring of most ordinary sorceries,” Alexander said, distracted by his task. “And I shall likely have need of my fingers later.” He held the compass points to his bleeding wrist for several seconds, then pulled them away, poising the blood-soaked compass over the hide. “If you wish to be helpful, then you might fetch me a length of bandage.”

His eyes jumping from Alexander’s bleeding wrist to the compass, Jake leaned down and blindly picked up the little first-aid kit. “Cripes, Al,” he said again, thoroughly unhappy. “Guess it don’t seem right, is all.”

Alexander could not help but laugh, a bitter sound. “Then I expect that what follows will seem even less right to you,” he said, and placed one of the compass’s bloodied points on the map, exactly on the spot that marked his home. The immediate influx of aetheric pressure threatened to batter him to his knees, and Alexander staggered a step to one side, for the moment aware of little beyond his heart hammering in his chest. The blood on the compass’s point vanished, sucked into the hide; the fading lines on the map brightened to a rich, new crimson.

Jake leapt out of his chair, the first-aid kit falling to the carpet at his feet, and caught Alexander’s shoulders in an attempt to steady him. “Al!” he cried, although Alexander could barely hear him over the roaring in his ears. “What happened, Al?”

Alexander shook his head to clear it, then irritably shrugged off Jake’s hands. “I’m fine,” he said. “The ritual takes its toll, that’s all.”

“Yeah, but…” Jake sank cautiously back into his chair, looking around as if he expected demons to burst through the walls. Possible, but unlikely, given the strength of the house’s defenses. “It just ain’t right,” Jake finally said. “You went all gray, Al…”

“And perhaps I might value your opinion on the matter, if you had the slightest idea what you were talking about,” said Alexander, spinning the compass in a slow arc about the first point, looking for the place to set the second. The hide, half-sated and eager for more, was much more forthcoming this time: the compass’s second leg pulled about as if magnetized, yearning in a northeasterly direction. Alexander allowed the compass a moment to settle, then dropped the other bloodied point to the map. The lines, already crimson, darkened to a venous shade; the pendulum suspended between the compass points began to spin lazily.

Jake watched unhappily, hunched so far over in his chair that he was nearly resting his chin on Alexander’s desk. The contents of the first-aid kit had spilled on the carpet when he leapt to his feet and now he was groping for them, paying more attention to the lambskin than to the box in his lap. “Weird,” he finally declared.

“In every sense of the word, yes, thank you, Jacob,” said Alexander, leaning the compass from side to side. The pendulum wavered, its spin degrading; eventually it came to a standstill, straining against its chain at an acute angle. Alexander leaned down to take its measure, frowning. His bleeding left hand he thrust at Jake, barely glancing in the other man’s direction.

After a moment of hesitation Jake took Alexander’s hand and bound up his bleeding wrist, tying off the bandage with a neat knot. Fumbling after Alexander’s shirt cuff he rebuttoned it, straightening it with absurd care. “What is it?” he asked.

Alexander frowned and twitched his hand free of Jake’s. “The cape? Surely not…” His voice trailed off.

“Surely not what, Al?” Jake set the little first-aid kit aside.

Straightening up, Alexander cast a glance over his shoulder at the window. The clouds outside were lowering, lit by the occasional flash of heat lightning, but not a drop of rain had fallen all day despite the constant rumbling of thunder–“Great gods,” Alexander said, his mouth going dry. He scrubbed the back of his hand over his lips. “What is the date?”

“Uh…” Jake cast about until his eyes fell on the morning’s paper, still neatly folded on the side of the desk. “It’s the twenty-second, Al. Why?”

“The twenty-second–the equinox–those fools!” Casting the compass aside Alexander yanked open a desk drawer and fetched out a long, flat wooden box, stuffing it into his battered valise. “Get the lantern!” he snapped at Jacob, snatching his grandfather’s holstered revolver off its peg and buckling on the belt. “We’ve a job to do!”

Jake rose hesitantly to his feet. “What, now, Al?” he said, looking out the window. “I mean, if we gotta, we gotta, but it’s going to pour any second–”

“No,” Alexander said, tight-lipped. “No, it’s not.” He threw a few more things into his valise, including, as an afterthought, the first-aid kit. “Why are you still standing there? The lantern! Go!”

~*~
Two minutes later Alexander charged out of the rowhouse’s back door, shrugging into his topcoat, a bemused Jake dogging his heels. The evening was gravid with humidity; sweat burst from Alexander’s skin on the instant and his hair fell damply into his eyes. Alexander swept it back and jammed his fedora on his head. “Fools,” he said again, sparing a jaundiced glance for the swollen clouds overhead.

“Who?” Jake said, juggling the unlit lantern and Alexander’s valise while he tried to shut the door behind them.

“I don’t know!” Alexander leaned past Jake and yanked the door shut, then strode across the backyard, towards the long, low garage. “There are any number of pathetic little conspiracies that could be behind this, that’s the problem! Whoever it is, they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, certainly–that’s one less doomsday cult that’ll plague this benighted world!”

“What?” Jake said piteously, trotting after Alexander. “Al, I swear, I got no clue what you’re talking about half the time–”

“What, only half? I’ve gravely underestimated you, then!” Alexander bent and hauled up the garage door. It rattled up with a shriek of tortured metal. “But by all means continue to ask questions, Jacob, it’s the only way you’ll learn. Come on, get in, hurry!”

Jake tossed the valise into the back seat of the battered black Model T, then fumbled with the door’s small handle. “I didn’t know you had a flivver, Al.”

Alexander tore open the driver’s-side door and threw himself in, stepping on the electric starter even as he leaned across the seat to open Jake’s door. The car coughed asthmatically to life. “Yes, well, it’s a luxury I can barely afford, but on occasion I have to get somewhere in a terrible hurry, such as now.”

Squeezing himself into the tiny car, Jake managed to get the door shut, with a terrible effort. Alexander threw the car into gear and they lurched out into the evening. Jake grabbed the dash with both hands. “It’s a nice car, Al,” he said, uncertainly.

“Don’t try to be diplomatic, it doesn’t suit you,” Alexander said, hauling the wheel left. The car puttered off down the alley, towards the road. “It is, in fact, a wreck, but it has one grand advantage over the general run of Model Ts, and as such I recommend that you hang on–” Baring his teeth, he goosed the gas pedal.

“What am I s’posed to hang on to awwwwCRIPES–!”

~*~
It took Jake most of five minutes to stop panicking and swearing, and by that time they had left New Portsmouth behind and were hurtling through the rocky countryside, jouncing over the rutted road at bone-shaking speeds. Alexander hunched over the wheel and drove like the very devil was after him, growling at the windscreen every time he swept past another vehicle.

Eventually, noticing that he was not yet dead, Jake pried his fingers from the dash, leaving behind sausage-like imprints in the leather. “So where we going, Al?” he asked, his voice uneven.

“To the cape,” Alexander said. “At this speed, another five minutes, if that.”

Jake nodded and swallowed. “What’re we going to do there?”

“With any luck, I intend to kill a bastard demigod that should have died untold aeons ago,” said Alexander, screeching past a farmer’s cart with a snarled imprecation. “That, or I shall be absorbed by his eldritch energies and writhe in eternal agony bound inside his amorphous shape, although I’m certainly hoping it won’t come to that.”

Jake mouthed some of the longer words to himself, the familiar bullish scowl of incomprehension wrinkling his brow. “I think I understood most of that, Al,” he finally said.

“Really? Oh, I am impressed.”

“But I really wish I hadn’t,” Jake added hopelessly.

“Ha!” Alexander’s lips twisted into a thoroughly unpleasant smile. The Model T hurtled on through the lowering night. “You’ll wish for much more than that before the night is out, I suspect!”

“Yeah, I know, Al, I also kinda wish you’d slow dowwwnAUGHJEEZAL–!” Jake grabbed for the dash again, howling in terror, as Alexander hauled them around a curve so fast that the flivver rose up onto two wheels.

The car fell back onto all fours a moment later with a great jolt. “Really, Jacob,” Alexander said, glancing over his shoulder at the road behind. “That was a rather shameful display. Do try not to wet yourself.”

“I really ain’t happy at this speed,” Jake wheezed. “I’m more of the walkin’ type.”

“This from a man who used to sail the seas!” The road was straight before them and Alexander jammed the gas pedal all the way down, the resulting burst of speed slamming them both back against the seat. “Even a modest sailing ship can travel at speeds twice this fast, Jacob.”

“Yeah, but there ain’t nothin’ out there to run into–” Jake’s protest broke off in another terrified yelp.

“And out here there’s almost no chance that we’ll drown. Get a hold of yourself.”

Jake settled, uneasily, still clutching the dash for all he was worth. “There’s one thing I don’t get, Al,” he said, after another moment of deep cogitation.

“Just one?”

“Why’s it got to be us?” Jake glanced sideways at Alexander, swallowed, and went back to squinting through the windscreen. “I mean, you said it should have died a long time ago, right? So why didn’t somebody else kill it?”

Alexander bared his teeth and glared off into the distance, his eyes, for a moment, purely mad. “Someone else should have!” he said, shouting it into the teeth of the wind. “It should have been dealt with a long time ago! My father should have done something about it, or perhaps my grandfather, or any one of my line–but no, that isn’t the St. Roivas way, is it, Father?” He was barely aware of Jake at his side any more; Alexander stared at his own dim reflection in the glass of the windscreen and cursed it bitterly, seeing in it the face of another man. “The St. Roivases have always held themselves aloof from the world–it is theirs only to document and study! Never to interfere! Never to help! To hell with that, I say: I won’t sit idly by and scribble while Rome burns, do you hear me, Father, wherever you are?!”

Abruptly Alexander realized that he was screaming and fell silent. Beside him Jake was a cowed huddle of limbs cringing against his door. “Oh,” Jake finally said.

“I apologize,” Alexander said evenly. “I’m afraid it’s something of a touchy subject.”

“Yeah, I’m kinda getting that, Al.” Jake hesitated. “That why you’re on the outs with your family?”

“Precisely.” Alexander hissed an irritated breath between his teeth. “I don’t think much of my family’s wrong-headed traditions, and they, therefore, do not think so much of me.” He meant to say more, to explain the rest, but just then the little car burst from the treeline; suddenly they were screaming along the winding road that followed the beaches, the sea glittering on their right.

The cape lay ahead of them, just barely visible. The swollen clouds over the little spit of land swirled sluggishly about themselves in a wholly unnatural maelstrom that spiraled out as far as the eye could see; Jake stared at the lightning-lit gyring clouds, jaw agape. “Oh, jeez,” he finally said. “That ain’t right, Al.”

“No. It’s not.” Alexander dragged the car around a wide curve in the road, piling Jake perilously up against the passenger-side door. “But it will be set right, before the night is over.” His smile was thin, fleeting, and cruel. “If only because my benighted ancestors turn in their graves every time that I do so!”

~*~
The cape itself was merely a small, rocky peninsula attached to the Massachusetts coast, sloping down and away from the road at a perilous decline. Above it the vortex of clouds bulged unnaturally, heavy with lightning and unshed rain.

Jake hastily exited the car the moment that Alexander brought it to a halt, gulping air. Alexander shut off the Model T and climbed out as well, pausing at the top of the decline to glare down at the tumble of rocks below. “Fetch my things from the car, Jacob,” he said. “And light the lantern.”

“Right, Al,” Jake said, leaning into the car. Alexander took the valise for long enough to allow Jake to pop a match alight under his thumbnail and get the lantern lit; its thin yellow flame did little to offset the uncanny darkness, but at least they would have enough light to guide their footsteps.

Alexander thrust the valise back into Jake’s hand the moment Jake shook out the match. “Stay behind me,” he said, making it an order. “Under no circumstances are you to attempt to act the hero. Your job is to keep the lantern lit and to hand me things from my bag as I request them. Do you understand?”

“Yeah, but, Al–”

“Do not ‘but, Al’ me, Jacob!” Alexander allowed himself a thin smile as he began picking his way down the decline with exaggerated care. “You might at least ‘but, Alexander’ me.”

“I just meant that it don’t seem like much help,” Jake said, following him.

“It will be sufficient help,” Alexander said patiently. The rocks were wet from the spray and liable to shift under his weight; he was forced to go slowly, as much as his instincts screamed at him to hurry. “Indeed, too much of your ‘help’ and I may as well shoot myself and save that thing the trouble–ah, yes, here we are.”

“Here what are–” Jake broke off there and gagged out a moan, stumbling back a step in an attempt to get away from the torn, twisted bodies that littered the hillside. They had been men, once; now their eyeless faces were wrenched into distorted grimaces of terror, their lower jaws dislocated or torn off entirely.

Alexander didn’t bother to look up from his scrutiny of the bodies, only hunkered down and plucked a scrap of black cloth off the blasted chest of the nearest. “Q’qd,” he said with disgust, dropping the emblem again. “Of course. Good riddance to the lot of them.”

“Jeez, Al, all these dead guys,” Jake moaned, clutching the valise to his chest for whatever cold comfort it offered. “Like a meat grinder got ’em–”

“What? Ah. Yes, I suppose so.” Alexander stood up and shrugged his shoulders to resettle his topcoat. “No need to fret, Jacob, they can’t hurt you now. Watch your step.”

Jake stumbled along in his wake, shrinking squeamishly away from every flayed body that they passed. “What did it to ’em, Al?” he finally asked, his voice hushed with awe. “Was it the thing we’re here for?”

“No,” said Alexander. “It was the thing that I am here for. Your presence is incidental.”

“That don’t really make me feel better, Al.”

“No? Well, it wasn’t meant to.” Alexander came to the bottom of the decline and squinted off into the darkness ahead. Despite the constant heat lightning in the clouds overhead, the end of the cape was pitch black–unnaturally so. “Stay close,” he said, glancing back over his shoulder. “Under no circumstances should you let it touch you.”

Jake shifted nervously from foot to foot, squinting out at the eldritch darkness. “Don’t worry about that, Al, I ain’t inclined to!”

Nodding curtly, Alexander set off. The rocks underfoot were sodden, the sea sucking at them to either side as if it were eager to pull the cape under. In front of them rose blackness like an impenetrable wall, but Alexander made an imperious gesture and the darkness shrank away from him. At least that ancient compact still held–he strode on, Jake clutching the lantern and nearly treading on his heels, the blackness shredding away in front of them like a rotting shroud.

He became aware first of the sound, like the low suck and slap of the sea’s waves magnified a thousandfold. Underneath the foul wet noises ran a groan like rotting pilings finally giving way, intoning blasphemies in a filthy subvocal rumble that jarred Alexander’s bones. “What is it, Al?” Jake hissed, looking wildly about him.

“The misshapen race that preceded humanity onto land worshipped it as the god of the salt waters, aeons ago,” Alexander breathed, slowing a tad. “Its very presence is anathema to fresh water–as long as it roams free, no rain will dare to fall. It’s been sealed under the cape for thousands of years: undead, insane, and probably fairly cranky.”

Jake glanced up at the swollen clouds. “Oh,” he said, in a small voice. “You wanna tell me you’re kidding, Al?”

Alexander rolled his eyes. “You’ve caught me, Jacob. It’s only the wind.”

“Really?” Jake’s voice was absurdly hopeful.

“No.”

The groaning sound grew louder as Alexander approached, impatiently flicking his fingers to dispel the shreds of darkness. Jake seemed to shrink behind him–surely only blind obedience kept him from turning tail and fleeing back up the cape. “Al,” Jake whispered tremulously, but whatever he’d been about to say, he never got to say it. Between one step and the next they burst into the foul epicenter of the vortex; the huge misshapen thing at its heart whipped about, and the ensorcelled darkness shredded away on the instant.

The name of the thing before them was unpronounceable by human tongues, not that Alexander would sully himself by the attempt in any case. It loomed before them, an amorphous mound of mutilated ocean creatures and rotting seaweed, with two oozing appendages that might be arms or simply tentacles–Alexander breathed a sigh of relief which the stink gave him cause to regret. They were not too late! The creature still wore a makeshift form!

“Jesus, Al!” Jake’s voice was throttled with panic as he gestured at the thing, the lantern swinging wildly from his hand. “Jesus!”

“No, Jacob,” Alexander said, glaring up at the thing. “I assure you, it’s not Jesus.”

The thing’s maw gaped, spraying them with blood-tinged seawater as it roared its affront. No, Alexander realized a heartbeat too late, not its affront–the filthy hex burst about them at the same instant. Alexander staggered, his head snapping to the side as if he’d been slapped. A trickle of blood leaked from his nose. Beside him Jake made a thin, terrified sound and dropped the lantern as he folded up, huddling on the rocks with his arms thrown over his head.

“Jacob!” Alexander snapped, grabbing the man’s shoulder and shaking him. “Get up–the fear isn’t real!”

There was no response from the shuddering Jake. Cursing, Alexander reached into his shirt and fished out the iron nail he wore on a chain about his neck, pressing it to Jake’s forehead; there was a snap and a whiff of burnt flesh and Jake’s eyes cleared. “What?” he said groggily, struggling up onto his elbows.

“Can’t let him do that again,” Alexander said, dropping into a crouch. “Get the wooden box at the bottom of my valise. And pick up the lantern before it goes out.”

Jake groped for the lantern’s handle with one shaking hand. “You’re bleeding, Al,” he said stupidly.

“Yes, and?” Alexander snapped his fingers at Jake to get his attention. “Focus! The box! Get the box,” he said, and he burst out of his crouch like a sprinter, pelting towards the creature.

Jake bawled something after him, but Alexander paid it no heed. The repugnant mass swung one grisly appendage at him; Alexander dodged to one side and the creature struck the rocks instead, shark’s teeth screaming as they scraped along the stone. Before it could gather itself for another strike Alexander slammed into it and sank both hands into the rotting vegetation, baring his teeth in disgust. His questing hands found two outcroppings that seemed likely to bear his weight and Alexander swarmed up the side of the mound as fast as he could go.

The thing roared and struck awkwardly at him, even that glancing blow driving him against the soggy pulp of its body with stunning force. Somehow Alexander managed to hang on, although his ears rung and his head spun. The blood in his mouth was not his own–grimly Alexander shook it off and resumed his mad scramble, cresting the summit of the roaring mound a few moments later. “Jacob!” he shouted, freeing one hand and gesticulating madly. “Throw me the athame!”

Jake gaped up at him in purest incomprehension, clear even at this remove. Before Alexander could correct himself Jake whipped the lantern at him overhand, its flame guttering as it went sailing by; Alexander ducked the missile, cursing under his breath. The lantern shattered on the rocks behind him. “No, not–not the flame, Jacob! The knife! The knife!”

“Cripes, Al, why didn’t you say so?” Jake yelled. He pawed open the box and extracted the ritual dagger, a cruel slim knife as long as Alexander’s hand; grabbing it by the blade Jake hurled it at Alexander.

It hummed as it spun through the air, a circular blur of silver, bright against the night sky. At any other time it might have been a murderous cast–lunging upwards Alexander caught the thing by its blade, flipped it over, seized it by its grip, and drove the blade deep into the top of the mass.

The thing howled in torment, shuddering fit to tear itself apart. Already half-dislodged by his lunge, Alexander scrabbled to keep hold, and succeeded until the creature convulsed and slammed itself into the rocks; Alexander’s hand slipped and the thing flung him off, the rocks of the cape rushing up to meet him.

Bellowing a curse, Jake sprang forward and caught him. Alexander hit Jake’s chest with enough force to drive him reeling back, Jake’s arms closing around him like steel bands even as Jake staggered and fell on his rump with a shout. Clutching at one of Jake’s meaty forearms Alexander pried it down. “Get down!” he shouted, over a crack of thunder that paused his heart in his chest.

“I am down!” Jake shouted back, his voice strained.

The thing behind them ululated as thunder cracked again, nearly deafening them both. Alexander braced one foot against the rocks of the cape and shoved his shoulder into Jake’s chest. The hairs on the back of his neck were rising–“Down!” he screamed. Either the command or the push got through. Still cursing Jake fell over onto his back and Alexander fell on top of him even as the vortex of clouds split open and a day’s worth of thwarted lightning blasted forth, drawn to the iron blade still jutting from the thing’s summit.

The world went white around them, every hair on Alexander’s body standing on end. Alexander slammed his forearm down across Jake’s eyes and hid his own eyes against Jake’s shoulder; a bare second later the foul mass exploded with an unearthly shriek, showering the cape with roasted gobbets of rotting fish. The fetor of blood and salt was blown away by the nose-burning snap of ozone. Somewhere in the distance, the remains of the knife hit the rocks with a ringing sound. Silence fell. For a moment, all was still.

Eventually one of the larger mounds of offal heaved and burst open; Alexander thrashed his way up and into the clean air, whooping in a breath. “That’s that, then,” he said, trying not to gag. Great clots of dead god fell from his shoulders. “Are you all right?”

Jake made a croaking sound, scraping seaweed from his face with one clawed hand. “You’re on my balls, Al…”

“Ah. Pardon me.” Alexander pushed himself off Jake and stood up, surveying the scene with disgust. He was alive and largely undamaged, but he was covered in filth from head to toe–“My laundress is going to be cross with me again,” he said. “Have you seen my hat?”

Still prone and somewhat gray, Jake flopped a hand towards the sea. “Went over there somewhere,” he wheezed.

“Hmph. I suppose I’ve lost another one, then–” A drop of rain struck Alexander’s forehead. He looked up just as the straining clouds burst open, disgorging their pent-up contents all at once with the rising roar of water striking stone; Alexander shut his eyes and let the pounding rain sluice him clean. Beside him, Jake wobbled upright and put a meaty paw on Alexander’s shoulder. Alexander gave vent to a belated sigh of relief.

~*~
By the time they picked their way back to the car, the storm had settled into a normal rhythm and Jake had, unfortunately, found his tongue. “I ain’t never seen nothing like it, Al,” he said as he tossed the sodden valise into the back of the car and set about wedging himself in. “And when you went for it like that, that was terrific, an’ it swung at you all–” Jake broke off there and smacked one of his fists against the car’s dashboard, with perhaps a bit too much enthusiasm. “–hell’s bells if that weren’t the bravest thing I ever seen…”

Too tired to protest, Alexander let him go on in this vein for several minutes while he got the car turned around and heading back towards New Portsmouth. Still, even his own vanity could only take so much, and after Jake said ‘ain’t never seen nothing like it’ for the fifth or sixth time, Alexander snapped, “Jacob, your tongue does things to the English language that ought to be illegal.”

Jake guffawed and thumped Alexander’s shoulder, making the car swerve slightly. Alexander yanked the car back onto the road, then shrugged off Jake’s hand, scowling. “And secondly, I assure you that if you stay with me, you will definitely see something like it again.”

That sobered Jake like a dash of cold water to the face. “Yeah?” he said uncertainly, glancing over his shoulder. “You see stuff like that a lot, Al?”

“All the time, Jacob.” Alexander guided the sputtering car away from the coastline, squinting against the heavy rain. “More things in hell and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, and all that.”

“I ain’t got no philosophy, Al,” Jake said, confused.

“And well I know it!” Alexander rolled his eyes and smacked the steering wheel. “Nameless gods, and you guard your tattoo as if it would make me weep like a woman, when I see things like that every time I turn around–I don’t give a damn what hellish image you think you bear, Jacob! It wouldn’t even be the worst thing I’ve seen today.”

Jake went quiet, his brow creasing in thought. It looked painful. Too cold and wet to care if he’d gone too far, Alexander bent his exhausted attention to the drive home, craving only a hot drink, a warm bath, and a dry bed, in that order.

“I see what you mean, Al,” Jake finally said, shifting uncomfortably.

“Wonderful,” Alexander said drily. “I’m so glad we understand each other. That’s a first.”

“If you really wanna see, then I guess it’s okay,” Jake said, chewing on his lower lip. “But… you can’t say I didn’t warn you, Al!”

“You’re right, Jake,” Alexander said, almost gently. “I certainly couldn’t say that.”

5.
The promise of Jake baring his tattoo did more to dispel Alexander’s exhaustion than a hot bath and a late meal combined, although through the grace of some god or another Alexander had all of these things in fairly short order. By the time he put on his dressing gown over clean, dry pajamas and sent Jake to toss their offal-smeared clothing on the rubbish heap, he felt very close to human again. He stepped into his slippers and picked his way back downstairs to his study.

The study was the only room in the house that boasted real bookshelves, and Alexander had accordingly filled them full to bursting with the real prizes of his collection: the handwritten journals of twelve generations of St. Roivases, dating back over five hundred years. (The St. Roivas line tended to be quite long-lived, for many terrible reasons.) Irreplaceable and invaluable, written on imperishable vellum worth its weight on gold–Alexander would sooner have parted with his own left eye rather than with a single volume. His own meticulous journals he added to the collection as he completed them.

It was not the journals he turned to tonight, however, not even the latest volume of his own, lying half-completed on the writing desk. Tomorrow he would document his triumph; tonight, he anticipated other pleasures. Accordingly, he roamed the perimeter of the room, lighting the lamps until the study was lit from end to end with a rich golden glow.

Jake was still upstairs, somewhere. Alexander could hear him thumping about. Hopefully he wasn’t having second thoughts; while Alexander was confident in his ability to talk Jake around again, it was more effort than he wished to expend after a day like today. Surely they were both exhausted–accordingly, Alexander set about clearing the piles of books from the sofa. He was mostly done by the time the thumping noises made their way down the stairs and along the back hallway. “Al?” Jake said uncertainly, from the doorway.

“Yes, Jacob?” Repressing a sigh, Alexander picked up the last pile of books and carefully added it to the precarious stacks already dominating the desk.

Jake sidled into the room like a sheepish bull trying to be on his best manners inside a china shop, furrowing his brow at the copious lighting. Decency demanded that he wear a shirt, but he had bothered neither with buttoning it up nor tucking it in; he clutched at his collar like a woman might clutch at her pearls. Alexander refrained from asking him if he were having the vapors. Jake swallowed. “You sure about this, Al?”

Alexander dusted off his hands. “In words of one syllable or less: yes, I am.”

“It ain’t that I mean to be contrary, Al–”

“Then try not to be.” Alexander crooked an imperious finger. “Come here.”

Woebegone, Jake shuffled towards him, staring at his feet like a guilty schoolboy in fear of a caning. “It’s just… I told you and I told you, Al! It ain’t pleasant!” Abruptly Jake looked up at Alexander, a plea naked on his hangdog face. “I ain’t had the pleasure of the company of a woman since I got it, not for too long, nohow. One look and they scream or cry or worse–”

“And, as you can plainly see, I am a woman,” Alexander said, tight-lipped.

“You gotta let me finish, Al!” Jake flapped his arms. “My own shipmates won’t look at it straight on, neither, and a tougher bunch of guys you ain’t gonna find–”

“Tough, certainly, but sailors labor under a stunning weight of superstition and fear, I’ve found.” Relenting, Alexander added, “And there is certainly something unnatural about the image, so I am hardly surprised that the superstitious would cringe from it.”

This admission dammed Jake’s protests in mid-flow. He gaped at Alexander with his mouth hanging open in a great stupid ‘O’. “Yeah?” he finally said, weakly.

“Did you think I was going to attempt to convince you that they were fools, and that it was all a figment of their imaginations?” Alexander asked, his voice dry.

“Maybe a little,” Jake admitted.

“Well, fools they may be, but the tattoo’s power is very real.” Alexander threw up his hands. “Nameless gods, Jacob, I am one of the foremost students of diabolism on this side of the Atlantic! I could sense the hand of the occult in that image at a glimpse–if there were nothing supernatural about it, then I would not have cared to preserve you long enough to ask after it.”

Jake blinked. “Oh,” he said. “That… makes sense, Al.”

“Of course it makes sense.” Folding his arms over his chest, Alexander looked Jake up and down until Jake’s eyes dropped again. “Let me assure you of this,” he said. “No matter how malign your tattoo may prove to be, there is no one alive, man or woman, who is better prepared to deal with it than I.”

“I guess you’re right, Al,” Jake said, still watching his feet.

“I’m always right, Jacob.” Alexander flicked his fingers. “Turn around and let me see it.”

Jake hesitated for a moment longer, then reluctantly shuffled around in a circle, letting his undone shirt slide off his shoulders. The tattoo came into sight a piece at a time: first the right sleeve with the shattered St. Roivas crest buried in the serpent’s coils; then the spires of the city spread across the broad expanse of Jake’s shoulders; and then, as the shirt fell away, the monstrous serpent itself, not a foot from Alexander’s eyes. Jake stared truculently off across the room, his jaw tight, his shirt still dangling from his wrists.

Alexander could not help but catch his breath. He’d seen the image before, of course, but at this remove it had a power like a sledgehammer to the forehead. “Oh, that’s foul,” he breathed, touching the falling figure just below Jake’s shoulderblade.

Jake shivered at the touch, the serpent writhing as his skin did. “You okay, Al?” he asked worriedly.

“Oh, yes,” Alexander said, his voice still faint. “It’s breathtaking. A work of malefic art.” Alexander spread his hands out across the span of Jake’s waist, taking the measure of the largest coil of the serpent. For a moment he imagined he felt cool scale under his fingertips instead of warm skin. “Whoever etched this image into your skin was an artisan of the highest order. Also, quite mad. Tell me how you came by it.”

Jake slowly freed his hands from the tangle of his shirt and dropped it onto the floor. “I don’t so much remember the details, Al–”

“What you remember, then,” Alexander said, reaching for his magnifying glass.

“You gotta understand that I was all hopped up on rum and worse stuff, so it’s all kinda foggy now,” Jake said sheepishly. “We was on shore leave in Fiji, see, and wasn’t nobody interested in setting up a bout, but a couple of the guys said they knew where there was this smoke parlor run by an old Chinaman, used to be a lascar–”

“You may as well lie down,” Alexander said, interrupting him. “The light will be better and you won’t shift about as much.” Touching Jake’s inscribed back with only the tips of his fingers (the thought of pressing his hand down against the serpent was horripilating, if seductive), Alexander nudged him towards the sofa.

“Sorry, Al,” Jake said, shuffling over to the sofa and gingerly lowering himself down onto his belly. He overflowed the seat on all sides by dint of his sheer size, but the new position displayed the tattoo to perfection, clearing away the shadows. Jake rested his forehead on one of his arms, closing his eyes.

Alexander pursed his lips, then knelt beside the sofa, catching Jake’s elbow and drawing his arm out straight. “Go on,” he prompted. “You were in an opium den in Fiji?”

“It was terrible dark and smoky,” Jake said, relaxing. “I was drunk as a lord to begin with, and then I had a couple pipes and got real comfortable, and I guess the Chinaman must’ve seen my other tats–” he flexed his fingers, making the blurry blue anchor on his forearm ripple “–’cause he said he knew a real artist, see, some guy who took it all real serious and could do some work on me if I wanted, and so I said sure, why not?”

Alexander crouched, putting his eyes were level with the plane of Jake’s back. At this angle the image should have deformed into nonsense, and indeed much of it did, but not enough–Alexander found himself staring into the eyes of the grinning serpent, a feat which ought to have been geometrically impossible. “Nameless gods, it has human eyes,” he breathed, touching his fingertips to one–did it blink as he did so, or was it merely a figment of his fevered imagination?

Jake quivered again at the brief touch. “A-anyway, Al, as I was saying, I guess the Chinaman went off to fetch the guy or something. Coulda been minutes or it coulda been hours, it was all kinda foggy, you know? Anyway, I kinda forgot all about it and I fell to talking with this old guy, had a beard down to here and crazy eyes, skin and bones, you know how them old hop-heads get.”

“Oh, yes,” said Alexander, straightening up again and frowning. Jake filled the sofa from front to back, but Alexander still needed to get closer; “I beg your pardon, but I find myself in need of a better angle,” he said, swinging one leg over the prone Jake and wedging it between Jake’s hip and the back of the sofa. Half-standing, half-kneeling over Jake’s thighs, Alexander bent to his task once more, one hand on the back of the sofa for balance.

“Whoop!” Jake said, lowering one knee to the floor in order to give Alexander a few precious inches of space on which to kneel. “That okay, Al?”

“Mm,” said Alexander. Training the magnifying glass on one of the little dying figures, he bent until his nose nearly touched the top of Jake’s spine. “Go on.”

“Oh-oh yeah.” Jake hesitated. “So anyway, this old guy starts talking. Well, I say ‘talking’, Al, but it was more like raving, all kinds of nonsense, and I nod along for a while and then nod off for a bit, you know, just sorta get lost in the pipe? And I wake up some time later and I’m on my belly just like this and some guy is digging at my back with a needle and the old hop-head is still ranting on, just jabbering a mile a minute…”

“Mm,” Alexander said again, dimly sensing that nothing further was called for. Under the absurd lines of the tattoo Jake’s skin was indeed as smooth and hairless as a baby’s, both the perfect canvas and the perfect contrast to the black-furred front of him; Alexander thoughtfully drew his fingers up along the serpent’s arching back, watching the serpent undulate as Jake’s flesh dimpled under the pressure of his fingertips.

Jake shivered, gooseflesh rising on his forearms, but not on his back. “That kinda tickles, Al.”

“I see,” Alexander said, not really listening.

“S-so, anyway, that’s where it gets weird, Al.” Jake heaved underneath Alexander like an earthquake as he ponderously shifted into a more comfortable position. “‘Cause it hurt like hell and felt like the guy was digging at me with a thousand needles all at once, and the hop-head’s raving fit to make my head throb, and yet I couldn’t move none, like I was dreaming it, and I coulda sworn all them little needles are starting to poke me in time with the words, like the tattoo guy had gone and got himself hypnotized or something…”

The first camouflaged letter leapt out at Alexander like an ambush, making him suck in his breath. The tiny symbol was barely the size of the head of a pin, curled about the digitigrade leg of a falling figure; once Alexander had seen one, the others hurried to make themselves known, littered along the knobs of Jake’s spine in rough parallel lines. What blasphemous dead tongue was this–Alexander could barely breathe for his sudden feverish excitement, his vision swimming for a moment. When he came to he was slumped over Jake, his hand splayed out on Jake’s back and his forehead nearly pressed to Jake’s shoulder. “Al? Al, you okay?” Jake demanded to know, heaving under Alexander again.

“Yes, of course,” Alexander said, his voice weak. “It’s just–Jacob, you must hold still now.”

“What is it, Al?” Obediently, Jake stilled.

“There’s a narrative of some sort, but the language is–” Training the magnifying glass on the nape of Jake’s neck, Alexander lost himself in the exaltation of the scholar. A language so obscure that even he could not read it, and yet the cryptic lines demanded to be perused; without the slightest idea of what execrations he read Alexander worked his way down along Jake’s back, unbearably aware of both the miniscule lettering and the hills and valleys of Jake’s spine that it fell across. He could not breathe–he could not hear–his world had narrowed to sight and sensation alone, and were he any weaker a man he might have whimpered.

He was panting by the time his eyes reached the small of Jake’s back, entirely unaware. Jake said something but Alexander was too far gone in his reverie to pay heed–then the waistband of Jake’s trousers hove into view, a coarse obscenity obscuring the final act of that impious narrative. Alexander snapped back to himself, crushed by disappointment and a terrible, aching need. “Jacob!” he said, unable to disguise the urgency in his tone. “I must see the rest of the image!” He hooked two fingers under the waistband of Jake’s trousers and tugged at them, as if to illustrate.

“Uh, Al, I ain’t so sure–”

“I am!” Alexander snapped. “Great gods, man, you’ve no parts I haven’t seen before!”

“It ain’t my modesty I’m concerned with, Al,” Jake said dubiously, but all the same he lifted his hips from the cushions and jammed one hand underneath himself, fumbling with the buttons of his trousers.

Too eager to wait, Alexander stripped the trousers from Jake the moment that he was able, yanking them down around the man’s thighs and abandoning them there. The rest of that foul image lay exposed beneath him, the last scattering of the symbols spilling down over Jake’s tailbone. Hunching over Jake like a gargoyle, mind and body afire, Alexander read the undulating inscription to the bitter end, barely aware of his position, or of straddling Jake’s thighs, or of how his free hand traced out the lettering like Braille in the wake of his eyes.

The last line ended with a tiny spiraling symbol that suggested a trailing off, like an ellipsis. Alexander’s breath burst out of him. Like a man in a dream he rose again, nearly swooning, propping himself up over Jake with a hand on the man’s shoulder and taking in the image all at once; now that he knew of the letters he could still see them, falling through the center of the picture like tainted snow. And the tail of the serpent curled around Jake’s buttock–barely conscious of what he did Alexander traced the serpent’s tail all the way to the bitter, barbed end, delicately parting the cleft of Jake’s ass with a single finger at the finish.

Mentally he was replete; physically he was in some distress, and he was dimly aware that he was not the only one breathing hard. The backs of Jake’s ears were afire with embarrassment. “You’ll have to excuse me,” Alexander said, barely able to hear himself.

“Huh?” said Jake, his own voice strained.

“You’ll have to excuse me,” Alexander said again, and he dropped full-length onto the broad expanse of Jake’s tattooed back, mouthing at the back of Jake’s neck with a painful urgency.

The very horror of the image under him seemed to pitch his arousal to a sickening degree. Alexander had always known himself to be a man of several sicknesses–sexual inversion being the least of these, as Jake had somehow divined–but he had never before been so sorely tried. He yearned to trace those terrible lines with his tongue, even though he knew that this act would horrify him when he regained his sanity–“Great gods, man, forgive me,” Alexander groaned, and lost himself against Jake’s back. Whatever lay under Jake’s skin, the skin itself tasted only of salt, and faintly, of soap.

Jake thrashed a little under him, although he failed to dislodge Alexander, if that were indeed his aim. “Dammit, Al!” he said, grabbing the arm of the sofa in both massive hands. “Can’t expect me to just lie here–”

You! Great gods, the things you make me do!” Alexander threw up his head, his eyes blazing. “All my life I’ve known the truth about my tastes, and yet they were so easy to cast aside, so wholly irrelevant…” The words poured from Alexander in a poisoned stream which he was wholly unable to dam. He pressed himself down against Jake and groaned aloud at the pressure of it just where he needed it most, the torrent of words unceasing even as he dropped his mouth back to Jake’s shoulder. “But you! You have such mysteries embedded in your very flesh–”

“God damn it, Al!”

“–and I’ve made it my life’s work to involve myself personally where others of my line might stand aside–”

“Let up a little!”

“–this combination of flesh and ink that draws me in so deeply, as if it were meant for me and me alone, it’s almost suspect in its perfection–”

Jake smacked the arm of the sofa in frustration. “At least take it out of your damn pants, Al!”

“What? Oh, yes…” Alexander scrabbled at the drawstring of his pajama pants, blessedly silent for the few seconds that it took to push them down and extract himself. He fell back down onto Jake immediately afterwards, transported by the glory of his skin bare against another’s. His long-neglected prick slid neatly along the divide of Jake’s ass as if it had always been meant to travel along that channel, and no sooner had Alexander discovered this than the deluge of words exploded forth again. “And this image! I know of no event either historical or fantastical that it could possibly depict, and yet it’s real, as real as the heat of your flesh and the taste of your skin–”

“You gotta stop teasing me, Al, damn it, I’ll take you dry if I gotta!”

“–and these symbols, these letters–” Alexander lifted himself up a few inches and ran an ardent hand over the sweating expanse of Jake’s tattoo. “Nameless gods, but even I cannot read them, Jacob! Whatever ancient tongue this is, it has been lost to mankind for ages, and yet it holds such power–I was helpless against it, a slave to it, forced to read it to the very end! It fascinates me so, see, I cannot stop–” With a sound that was almost a sob Alexander ground himself against Jake, squeezing his eyes shut, momentarily banishing the image in favor of pure, blind sensation.

Jake reached back and grabbed one of Alexander’s hips. “Damn it, damn it, damn it, Al, you just hold on–”

“Perhaps the inscription on your back has ensorcelled me, perhaps that’s it,” Alexander said, his voice faint with wonder. Opening his eyes he gazed down at his rutting, laboring body, as if in disbelief. “But… great gods, this rasp on my nerves, these terrible lusts–I did not know that I was capable of sinking so low! And even now the serpent stares at me with those awful human eyes, watching my loss of mastery in inhuman triumph, oh God, oh God, the rasp and the pull of it, I cannot–oh–oh–” Transported, stung, Alexander lapsed into Greek for a few seconds, unable to tear his eyes away from the malignant image or from the spectacle of himself in such a state. From Greek he slid into Latin, and from Latin into a few obscene words of Coptic, and from Coptic, abruptly, back into English. “If only I could read this primordial language, identify this lost city, classify this serpent with… with those familiar human eyes–by all the gods, Jacob, that man was my father!”

“What?” Jake gasped, struggling in earnest, but Alexander was too far gone to realize–falling full-length onto Jake’s back he clutched at Jake’s shoulders and bit at the back of his neck, and with a rising cry of “Damn your eyes!” Alexander came across the serpent’s coils on the small of Jake’s back with a stunning force which wiped his mind blank and, mercifully, finally stopped his tongue. Mindlessly he thrashed on for a few moments more, avidly questing after every last scrap of sensation before collapsing on top of Jake, utterly spent.

For a moment, all was quiet. “The old man you met in Fiji,” Alexander said, collecting himself enough to speak at last. “The one whose awful stories fueled the creation of this tattoo: did he ever speak of an Alixa?”

“Yeah, Al,” Jake said, still squirming underneath him. His voice was thick. “All the time. He kept coming back to it. What’s that?”

“My mother,” Alexander said tonelessly. “His last, greatest obsession.”

Now, finally, Jake went still. “Yeah?”

“She died of a suspicious brain fever when I was young; it unhinged him utterly.” Alexander shut his eyes, exhaustion and old anger at war within him. His lip curled in disgust. “He blamed himself, you see, as I do. Whatever malign forces caused her death, he could have opposed them, had he chosen to do so–but the St. Roivases have always preferred scholarship to honest action, and he refused to involve himself until it was too late. Indeed, he disowned me for valuing my moral obligation over the family’s negligent traditions! Well, he paid for that, certainly.”

Jake grunted; even his manifest disinterest could not stem the tide of Alexander’s confession now. “My father abandoned us to wander the world, trying to atone, and failing, as far as anyone knows. His torn body washed up on the shores of New Zealand, and it was only then that I discovered that he had left me the priceless St. Roivas collection–” wearily Alexander waved a hand at the piles of books that lined the study “–if not the library itself, nor the ancestral home. Perhaps it was his way of acknowledging that I was correct all along. I suppose that I shall never know.”

“That’s sure something, Al,” Jake said grumpily, once it dawned on him that Alexander was done speaking. “I just got one question.”

“Mm. What’s that?”

“You gonna return the favor any time soon?”

Alexander lifted his head. “Excuse me?”

One of Jake’s hands clamped around Alexander’s wrist, holding him in place while Jake turned over underneath him. The malicious tattoo vanished, replaced by the vast, black-furred expanse of Jake’s chest; the ready erection that pressed up against Alexander’s stomach was surely not as large as it felt, although it certainly claimed all of Alexander’s attention on the instant. “It ain’t polite to leave a guy hanging,” Jake explained, and he wrapped both heavy arms around Alexander’s neck and pulled him down, all the better to extort a rough kiss.

Alexander’s thoughts scattered like startled pigeons. For a moment it was all he could do to gape into the embrace, awkwardly sprawled out atop the disheveled Jake like a blanket; Jake was forced to pick up one of Alexander’s hands and bring it down to his prick before Alexander woke up enough to realize what was wanted. “Ah,” he said shakily, forcing his hand to close on it. “I… beg your pardon.”

“It ain’t your fault you got no manners, Al,” Jake said, baring his teeth in a feral grin even as he bucked up into Alexander’s hand. “You didn’t know no better.”

To be lectured on manners by a dock ape! It stung like salt in a wound–doubtless it was meant to–and Alexander rolled his eyes and stopped Jake’s mouth with another kiss, if only to keep Jake from exploiting his faux pas further. His fingers were clumsy, his strokes untutored, but Jake was in such a state that he needed little more than the presence and warmth of Alexander’s hand; he drove up into it again and again, grunting against Alexander’s mouth, until he stiffened and thrashed and flooded Alexander’s hand with a sticky warmth that made his degenerating finishing strokes slick and easy. “You see, Al?” Jake said smugly, once he was done. “That’s how guys with etiquette do it.”

“Tell me something, Jacob,” Alexander said. One of Jake’s arms still held him trapped where he was, and he was growing ever more cognizant of the mess between them. “How many times, now, have I asked you not to call me that? How many? This is an honest request for information. I truly would like to know. If the answer is more than ten, I’ll understand if it gives you some difficulty.”

Jake, still grinning, clapped Alexander on the shoulder. “Dunno, Al,” he said. “Wasn’t you listening to yourself neither?”

Exasperated, Alexander gave up. Words of more than two syllables were probably beyond Jake in any case. “Anything. Anything but Al. Alec, perhaps. I could bear Alec.”

“What, like smart-aleck?” Jake asked.

“… yes. Exactly.” Alexander tried and failed to extricate himself. “At least you have a mnemonic to help you recall.”

Jake’s brow furrowed. “A what?”

Of course. “A mnemonic,” Alexander repeated. “A mental tool, a rhyme or word, that helps you to remember something.”

The deep line between Jake’s brows did not fade. “Well, okay, Al, but what’s that got to do with my knees?”

“Your knees–” Alexander broke off there, less aghast than exhausted. “Never mind, Jacob. Just… never mind.”

“I wasn’t gonna mind anyway, Al.” Jake heaved out a satisfied breath and sat Alexander upright, then wriggled out from underneath him. The hair on his belly was matted and sticky and his softening prick fell heavily against his thigh–Alexander’s own cock twitched in weary appreciation. Alarmed, Alexander tidied himself away with alacrity; Jake unhurriedly pulled up his own pants, then picked at the mess on his stomach, not bothering with his shirt. “Hell of a day,” he said. “Hell of a day, Al.”

Alexander’s lip twitched. “In many ways, Jacob. Still, I think we’ve earned a rest–” He broke off there.

“Hell’s bells, Al, I’ll say…” Belatedly Jake noticed the expression on Alexander’s face. “Al? What’s wrong?”

“Ngh,” Alexander said, clutching at his temples. Blood started from his nose and mouth, to which he was insensible; he was cognizant only of the pain, as intangible claws ripped at his mind, seeking to send his sanity screaming away into the darkness. First there was the pain, then the sound

Jake whipped about, both hands bunching into fists. “Cripes, Al, what’s that?”

“House’s defenses falling,” Alexander managed to choke out. “Run–”

With a screech that rose rapidly to a roar, the back wall of the study crumbled and was ripped away, howling winds snatching away the back of the house and sucking the contents of the room into their vortex. The figure that hung crucified in the midst of the gale turned blind, closed eyes on them both, her dead-white hair whipping about her body, her once-modest high-necked dress in shreds–“Alexander,” she intoned in half a dozen voices. “We have come for Erasmus’s journals, Alexander! Surrender them to us and your death shall be merciful…”

“The hell,” Jake wailed over the howling of the winds, throwing up an arm to protect his eyes.

Behind him Alexander staggered to his feet, scrubbing one sleeve over his face to wipe away the blood. “Jacob, allow me to introduce you to my sister Anessa, or what is left of her,” he said, his shaking voice thin with rage. “She comes to visit on occasion, hoping to wheedle a present from her elder brother–harpy! You shall never have them! I have banished you before and, by all the gods, I shall do so again!”

TO BE CONTINUED

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