The Rat Town slaughter docks; they smell as bad as their name suggests.
And yet here I am, hidden in the shadows, breathing the blood-and-bile stink of butchered sea serpents.
I melt deeper into the darkness, pulling the brim of my hat down low over my face as heavily armed members of the Jagged Hooks stalk by.
They’ve got a reputation for savagery, these boys. In a fair fight, they might take me down, but I’m not big on playing fair, and I’m not here to fight. Not this time.
So what brings me here, to one of the foulest districts in Bilgewater?
Money. What else?
It was a gamble, taking on this job, but the payout is big enough that I couldn’t pass it up. And besides, I cased this place to stack the deck in my favor.
I don’t intend to linger. I want to be in and out as quickly and as quietly as possible. Once the job’s done, I aim to collect my payment and be gone before dawn. All goes well, I’ll be halfway to Valoran before anyone knows the damn thing’s missing.
The thugs turn the corner of the massive slaughter shed. Means I’ve got two minutes until they swing back around - plenty of time.
The silver moon slides behind a bank of clouds, covering the wharf in shadow. Crates from the day’s work are scattered across the dock. It makes for easy cover.
I see lookouts on top of the main warehouse, silhouettes standing watch, crossbows in hand. They’re gossiping loudly like fishwives. I could be wearing bells and these idiots still wouldn’t hear me.
They think no one would be fool enough to come here.
A bloated corpse hangs overhead, a warning for all to see. It spins slowly in the midnight breeze coming off the harbor. It’s an ugly sight. A huge hook, the type used to catch devilfish, holds the body aloft.
Stepping over rusted chains lying limp upon wet stone, I pass between a pair of towering cranes. They’re used to haul giant sea creatures into the slaughter sheds for butchering. It’s those looming factories that are the source of the gods-awful stench that permeates everything here. I’m gonna need to buy myself a new set of clothes once this is over.
Across the bay, past the chum-churned waters of the slaughter docks, scores of ships lie at anchor, their lanterns swaying gently. One of the vessels draws my eye; a massive, black-sailed war galleon. I know whose ship that is. Everyone in Bilgewater knows.
I take a moment to gloat. I’m about to steal from the most powerful man in town. There’s always a certain thrill that comes from spitting in death’s eye.
As expected, the main warehouse is locked up tighter than a noblewoman’s virtue. Guards posted at every entrance. Doors locked and barred. For anyone other than me, it would be impossible to break into.
I duck into a blind alley opposite the warehouse. It’s a dead end, and it’s not as dark as I’d have liked. If I’m still here when the patrol comes back, they will see me. And if they get ahold of me, the best I can hope for is a quick death. More likely, I’ll be taken to him... and that would be a far more painful, drawn out way to go.
The trick, as always, is not to get caught.
Then I hear them. The bruisers are returning early. I have seconds, at best. I snap a card from my sleeve and weave it through my fingers; it’s as natural as breathing. This is the easy part, the rest can’t be rushed.
I let my mind drift as the card starts to glow. Pressure builds around me, and I’m nearly overcome with the promise of everywhere. Half-closing my eyes, I focus, and picture where I need to be.
Then, there’s the familiar lurch in the guts as I shift. A displacement of air, and I’m inside the warehouse. Gone with barely a trace.
Damn, I’m good.
One of the Jagged Hooks outside might glance up the alley and notice a single playing card falling to the ground, but probably not.
It takes a moment for me to get my bearings. Dim light from the lanterns outside creeps in through the cracks in the walls. My eyes adjust.
The warehouse is crowded, stacked high with treasures from all over the Twelve Seas: gleaming suits of armor, exotic works of art, shining silks. All things of considerable value, but not what I’m here for.
My attention is drawn to the loading doors at the front of the warehouse, where I know I’ll find the most recent arrivals. I run my fingertips across the various cartons and crates... until I come to a small, wooden box. I can feel the power emanating from within. This is what I’m here for.
I unlatch the lid.
My prize is revealed; a knife of exquisite design, lying upon a bed of black velvet. I reach for it—
I freeze. There’s no mistaking that sound.
Before he even speaks, I know who’s standing behind me in the darkness.
“T.F.,” says Graves. “It’s been a long time.”
I’ve been here for hours. Some folks might get bored standing still this long, but I’ve got my anger to keep me company. I ain’t leaving this spot until I settle the score.
Long after midnight, the snake finally shows. He suddenly appears in the warehouse, using that same old magic trick. I prime my shotgun, ready to turn him inside out. After years spent looking for that treacherous son of a bitch here he is, dead to rights at the end of Destiny’s barrels.
“T.F.,” I say. “It’s been a long time.”
I had better words ready for this moment. Funny how they all went out the window as soon as I saw him.
But T.F.? His face shows nothing. No fear, no regret, no hint of surprise. Not even while facing down a loaded gun. Gods damn him.
“Malcolm, how long have you been standing there?” he asks, the smile in his voice enrages me.
I take aim. I can pull the trigger and leave him deader than sea scum.
Not yet, though. I need to hear him say it. “Why’d you do it?” I ask, knowing full well he’ll just come back with something clever.
“Is the gun really necessary? I thought we were friends.”
Friends. The bastard’s mocking me. Now I want to tear his smug head off – but I’ve got to keep my cool.
“You’re looking as dapper as ever,” he says.
I look down at the devilfish bites on my clothes. I had to swim to get past the guards. Ever since he got a little money, T.F.’s been a stickler for appearance. I can’t wait to mess him up. But first, I want answers.
“Tell me why you left me to take the fall, or they’ll be pickin’ bits of your pretty face out of the rafters.” This is how you’ve got to be with T.F. Give him room, and he’ll pull your strings ‘til you don’t know which end’s your ass.
His slipperiness came in handy when we were partners.
“Ten damn years in the Locker! Know what that does to a man?”
He doesn’t. For once, he’s got nothing cute to say. He knows he did me wrong.
“They did things to me that would’ve driven most men mad. All that kept me from breaking was my anger. And thinking about this moment, right here.”
Then comes the clever reply: “Sounds like I kept you alive. Maybe you should thank me.”
That one gets me. I’m so mad, I can barely see. He’s trying to goad me. Then, when I’m blind with rage, he’ll do his little disappearing act. I take a breath and leave the bait alone. He’s surprised I ain’t biting. This time, I’m getting answers.
“How much did they pay you to sell me out?” I growl.
T.F. stands there, smiling, just trying to buy some time.
'“Malcolm, I’ll be happy to have this conversation with you, but this really isn’t a good time or place.”'
Almost too late, I notice the card dancing through his fingers. I snap out of it and squeeze the trigger.
His card’s gone. Almost took his damn hand off, too.
“Idiot!” he barks. I finally made him lose his cool. “You just woke up the whole damned island! Y’know whose place this is?”
I don’t care.
I ready a second shot. I barely see his hands move, then cards explode all around me. I fire back, not sure if I want him dead or just almost dead.
Before I can find him again in the smoke, fury, and splintering wood, a door gets kicked open.
A dozen thugs come roaring in, just to add to the damn mess.
“So, do you really want to do this?” T.F. asks, ready to throw another fistful of cards at me.
I nod, and hold my gun steady on him.
It’s time to settle up.
Things get ugly. Fast.
The whole damned warehouse is crawling with Jagged Hooks, but Malcolm couldn’t care less. I’m all he’s interested in.
I sense Graves’s next shot coming and turn away. The boom of his gun is deafening. A box explodes where I’d been a fraction of a second earlier.
I do believe my old partner is trying to kill me.
Somersaulting over a stack of mammoth ivory, I whip a trio of cards in his direction. Before they hit home, I’m already ducking into cover, looking for an out. I only need a few seconds.
He curses loudly, but the cards won’t do more than slow him down. He’s always been a tough bastard. Stubborn, too. Never knows when to let things go.
“You ain’t gettin’ away, T.F,” he growls. “Not this time.”
Yep, that trait’s still riding him hard.
He’s wrong, though — as usual. I’ll be taking my leave as soon as possible. There’s no use talking to him when he’s out for blood.
Another blast, and shrapnel ricochets off a priceless suit of Demacian armor, embedding into the walls and floor. I dart left and right, weaving and feinting, sprinting from cover to cover. He sticks with me, roaring his threats and accusations, his shotgun barking in his hands. Graves moves fast for a big man. I’d almost forgotten that.
He’s not my only problem. The damned fool’s stirred up a hornet’s nest with all his shooting and hollering. The Jagged Hooks are all over us, but they’re smart enough to leave some men barring the main doors.
I have to get gone — but I’m not leaving without what I came for.
I’ve led Graves on a merry dance around the warehouse, and I arrive back where we started a moment before he does. There are Hooks between me and my prize, and more coming, but there’s no time to wait. The card in my hand glows red, and I hurl it dead center of the warehouse doors. The detonation blows them off their hinges and scatters the Hooks. I move in.
One of them recovers faster than I expect, and he swings at me with a hatchet. I sway around the blow and kick out his knee, hurling another spread of cards at his friends to keep them honest.
My path clear, I swipe the ornate dagger I’ve been hired to steal, hooking it onto my belt. After all this trouble, might as well get paid.
The gaping loading doors beckon, but there are too many damned Hooks piling in. There’s no way out there, so I make for the only quiet corner left in this madhouse.
A card is dancing in my hand as I prepare to shift, but as I start to drift away, Graves appears, stalking me like a rabid bear. Destiny bucks in his grip, and a Jagged Hook is shot to tatters.
Graves’s glare is drawn to the card glowing in my hand. He knows what it means, and swings the smoking barrels of his gun at me. I’m forced to move, interrupting my concentration.
“Can’t run forever,” he bellows after me.
For once, he’s not stupid. He’s not giving me the time I need.
He’s keeping me off my game, and the thought of being taken down by these Hooks is starting to weigh on me. Their boss is not known for his mercy.
Among the dozen other thoughts rattling around my head is the nagging feeling that I’ve been set up. I’m thrown an easy job out of nowhere, a big score just when I need it most - and surprise, there’s my old partner standing there waiting for me. Someone a lot smarter than Graves is playing me for a fool.
I’m better than this. I’d kick myself for being sloppy, but there’s a dock full of goons waiting to save me the trouble.
Right now, all that matters is getting the hell away from here. Two blasts from that damned gun of Malcolm’s send me scurrying. My back slams against a dusty wooden crate. A crossbow bolt lodges in the rotted wood behind me, just inches from my head.
“No way out, sunshine,” Graves yells.
I look around and see fire from the explosion starting to spread to the roof. He may have a point.
“We’ve been sold out, Graves,” I shout.
“You’d know all about that,” he replies.
I try reasoning with him.
“We work together, we can get out of this.”
I must be desperate.
“I’d see us both dead before I trust you again,” he snarls.
I didn’t expect anything else. Talking sense to him just makes him angrier, which is exactly what I need. The distraction buys me just enough time to shift outside the warehouse.
I can hear Graves roaring inside. No doubt he just rounded on my spot only to find me gone, a single card on the ground, taunting him.
I launch a barrage of cards through the loading doors behind me. It’s long past time for subtlety.
I feel bad for a moment about leaving Graves in a burning building - but I know it won’t kill him. He’s too stubborn for that. Besides, a fire on the docks is a serious deal in a port town. It might buy me some time.
As I search for the quickest way off the slaughter docks, the sound of an explosion makes me look over my shoulder.
Graves appears, stepping through the hole he’s just blown out the side of the warehouse. He’s got murder in his eyes.
I tip my hat to him and run. He comes after me, shotgun booming.
I have to admire the man’s determination.
Hopefully it won’t kill me tonight.
The young urchin’s eyes were wide and panicked as he was led toward the captain’s quarters.
It was the agonized screams emanating from the door at the end of the passageway that gave him second thoughts. The cries echoing through the claustrophobic decks of the enormous, black warship were heard by every crewman aboard the Dead Pool — as intended.
The first mate, his face a web of scars, rested a reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder. They came to a halt before the door. The child winced as another tortured wail issued from within.
“Steady,” said the first mate. “The captain’ll want to hear what you’ve got to say.”
With that, he rapped sharply on the door. It was opened a moment later by a hulking brute with facial tattoos and a broad, curved blade strapped across his back. The boy didn’t hear the words spoken between the two men; his gaze was locked on the heavyset figure seated with his back to him.
He was a big man, the captain, and of middling years. His neck and shoulders were thick and bullish. His sleeves were rolled up, and his forearms slick with blood. A red greatcoat hung from a peg nearby, alongside his black tricorne.
“,” breathed the urchin, his voice thick with fear and awe.
“Captain, I figured you’d want to hear this,” said the mate.
Gangplank said nothing, nor did he turn, still intent as he was on his work. The scarred sailor nudged the boy forward. He stumbled before he caught his footing and shuffled closer. The child approached the captain of the Dead Pool as he would a cliff’s edge. His breath quickened as he caught full sight of the captain’s work.
Basins of bloody water sat upon Gangplank’s desk, along with an array of knives, hooks, and gleaming surgical implements.
A man lay upon the captain’s workbench, bound tightly with leather straps. Only his head was free. He looked around in wild desperation, neck straining, his face covered with sweat.
The boy’s gaze was inexorably drawn to the man’s flayed left leg. The urchin suddenly realized he couldn’t remember what he came here to do.
Gangplank turned from his work to stare at the visitor. His eyes were as cold and dead as a shark’s. He held a slender blade in one hand, delicately poised between his fingers, like a fine paintbrush.
“It’s a dying art, scrimshaw,” said Gangplank, his attention returning to his work. “Few have the patience for carving bone these days. It takes time. See? Every cut has a purpose.”
Somehow, the man was still alive, despite the ragged wound in his leg, the skin and flesh peeled back from his thighbone. Transfixed with horror, the lad saw the intricate designs the captain had carved upon that bone; coiling tentacles and waves. It was delicate work, beautiful even. That just made it even more terrible.
Gangplank’s living canvas sobbed.
“Please...” he moaned.
Gangplank ignored the pathetic plea and set down his knife. He splashed a cup of cheap whiskey over his work, clearing it of blood. The man’s scream threatened to rip his own throat out, until he slumped into merciful unconsciousness, his eyes rolling back in his head. Gangplank grunted in disgust.
“Remember this, boy,” Gangplank said. “Sometimes, even those who are loyal forget their place. Sometimes, it’s necessary to remind them. Real power is all about how people see you. Look weak, even for a moment, and you’re done.”
The child nodded, his face now drained of color.
“Wake him,” said Gangplank, gesturing toward the unconscious crewman. “The whole crew needs to hear his song.”
As the ship’s surgeon stepped forward, Gangplank swung his gaze back to the child.
“Now,” he said. “What did you want to tell me?”
“A... a man,” said the boy, his words faltering. “A man on the Rat Town docks.”
“Go on,” Gangplank said.
“He was tryin’ not to be seen by the Hooks. But I seen him.”
“Mm-hmm,” Gangplank muttered as he began to lose interest. He turned back to his work.
“Keep goin’, lad,” the first mate urged.
“He was playing around with some fancy deck of cards. They glowed funny.”
Gangplank stood up from his chair, like a colossus rising from the depths.
“Tell me where,” he said.
The leather belt of his holster creaked in his tightening grip.
“By the warehouse, the big one near the sheds.”
Gangplank’s face flushed an angry shade of crimson as he pulled on his greatcoat and claimed his hat from its peg. His eyes glinted red in the lamplight. The child was not alone in taking a wary step back.
“Give the boy a silver serpent and a hot meal,” the captain ordered to his first mate as he strode purposefully toward the cabin door.
“And get everyone to the docks. We’ve got work to do.”