WARNING: Violence, gore, profanity, adult content
A sharp scream punctured the cold, dreary night.
Blistered, bare feet pattering on the dirty, mud-stained pathway, Tess held on to her rags tightly as she ran for her life, not daring to look back at her pursuer. Her heart felt like it was in repeated spasms as it beat wildly and relentlessly one moment from all the sprinting, before being frozen in abject terror the next in realization. Realization that this prowler could well be the psychopath murdering her friends in the Whitechapel area. No. No, she thought in panic, as she found herself staring at the dead end of an alleyway that had long been sealed up. She couldn’t think like that. Not when she had the girls of the Boudoir to return to. Milly, Florence, Christine, Julie…
“I’ll face him,” she hissed to herself, jaw clenched. “I’ll face him, dance away from his arms, slip out of his grasp, and run right past him.”
She turned around, trying not to tremble at the sight of her pursuer. “Oi, brute!” she barked, trying to rile him up. Maybe she could distract him, catch him off-balance and then weave away from him. But he didn’t react. There was something unnatural about the pursuer, his shambling form, his bizarre, limping gait… until the light of an oil streetlamp passed its countenance, and Tess let out a horrified shriek.
There were prominent, ugly stitches sewn crudely across the man’s face, and indeed the “face” didn’t look like of one man at all – half of the head seemed to be from one old male individual, while the left eye and tuft of hair above seemed to be that of a woman’s. As she got a better look, the arms looked like they weren’t grown from the same body, and the thing was limping because one leg was a full foot longer than the other.
This wasn’t a man, or a woman, a boy, or a girl. It was barely a human being.
She swore again and again, her voice breaking as her resolve faltered once more. “What the fuck are you?” she bawled, knees weak as she felt herself sinking to the filth-caked ground. “Oh, God – are you the Eviscerator?” she whimpered, on the verge of biting through her tongue so that she’d be spared the agonizing death of being torn apart by this monster. But before she had the chance to bleed into unconsciousness, a sharp, gleaming sword erupted from the chest of the shambling creature. Its divergent eyes rolled wildly, its twisted expression one of inhuman shock. It began to flail about, but in a flurry of clean and elegant cuts, the monster’s uncertain stitches burst, sending body parts careening everywhere – a piece of head spattering against the wall, legs and arms falling to the ground and rolling slightly. Blood was everywhere.
Now it was the turn of Tess’s rescuer to be illuminated by the oil lamp light, and Tess glimpsed something quite breathtaking. Rich, dark chestnut bangs and tresses. Skin as pale as moonlight, with a figure hugged in form-fitting evening dress of imperial purple. She held in one hand a deadly blade with an elegant guard masquerading as a cane handle, and its disguised sheath in the other. It was a cane-sword, often carried around by the nobility and gentry to protect themselves from unexpected danger like assassins or highwaymen. But most striking of all, those blood-red, crimson irises were haunting in their demonic beauty – somewhat frightening but unexpectedly beautiful and passionate.
Tess would have fainted had her eyes not fallen on more shambling forms behind her rescuer. “Look out!” she screeched. There were three more deformed amalgamations of human beings, and they reached for Tess’s savior, who calmly spun with the grace of a ballerina, a whirling maelstrom, hacking and slicing and lacerating past the arms that reached for her, flowing brown hair struggling to catch up with her. Ribbons of flesh, putrid cartilage, and tissue flew and bashed against the walls. Almost as one, the repulsive walking bodies crumpled before her almost frenzied swordplay, the alleyway piling up with corpses that had died a second death.
The newcomer smiled as she flicked her blade free of gore and sheathed it in her cane. “The first piece of the puzzle is already standing before me – these shuffling monstrosities, creatures too horrific for Arendellian eyes.” She grimaced. “Different body parts, sewn together in a grotesque mockery of the human form… now I’ve seen for myself the connection between the Necropolis Rail’s stolen bodies and the murders in this area.”
“Ma’am?” whispered Tess, clutching her sweat-soaked, grimy rags as she tried to stand.
“Don’t move,” commanded the slightly older woman, her shapely red high heels clacking towards Tess. “You’re exhausted from running, I can tell. And you’re filthy.” She stopped before Tess, offering a slender hand, which Tess shakily took and slowly got up. She swayed slightly, but fell into her rescuer’s arms, who despite her haughty words, didn’t flinch. She let Tess slump against her.
“Thank you for saving me, Ma’am,” whispered Tess dumbly, unable to say much more as the other wrapped her arms around her. God in Heaven, being held by someone who just wanted to help her, not screw her and hurl her aside, felt warm and good and comfortable. It was hard to ask many questions, or think clearly. “I’ll go back to the Boudoir. I can rest there.”
“You’ll do no such thing. You’re about to fall apart, like that creature I just killed.” The aristocratic-looking brunette ran her graceful fingers through Tess’s long and messy mop of matted blonde hair. She didn’t seem to care much about the dirt. “You’re coming back to Grosvenor Square with me to rest… and answer some questions I have, of course. What’s your name, girl?”
“Anything, anything for you, Ma’am,” said Tess weakly. “My name’s Tess Gaunt. I’m just a lowly fallen woman. I used to be a weaver.”
“Fallen woman? Is that what you and your friends call yourselves?” came the reply, but there was no meanness or judgment in the question, only sincere curiosity.
“Yes, Ma’am. So many of us are poor and living on the fringe, that we have to come to the East End to make ends meet. Sometimes we can leave quicker, other times we stay longer. It depends on how kind or cruel life is to us, and how much men and women alike will pay us.”
“In other words, many of you move in and out of prostitution as your family’s needs dictate,” said the rescuer, her voice devoid of disapproval despite her wildly different background. If anything, it was mildly analytical without being cold. It wasn’t hurtful at all. Tess felt utterly safe. She moved back slightly, gazing into the beautiful, mesmeric red irises of the interloper.
“Ma’am… I beg your forgiveness for my audacity, but I’m burning to know your name too, the identity of the one that saved me. Who are you?”
The supreme head of Arendelle’s oldest Viking noble family, and Queen Anna’s nemesis-turned-ally smiled.
“I’m Viola Mundilfari, countess of the Mundilfari clan and the prime minister of a kingdom far from these shores.
“No more Ma’am. Call me Vi.”