Featured image art by PURY (@puryartist)
The story so far: Countess Vi has made her move. She has recruited the assistance of Home Secretary David Fullerton and London Age editor Boyle Skinner to pass a bill that would forbid the trafficking of women under eighteen into the East End, disrupting the “supply chain” of human bodies for the Eviscerator and forcing the criminal to strike at her directly. Yet three big questions remain.
How are the Eviscerator and the Ravager, the body snatcher aboard the Necropolis Express, related?
Who is behind them?
And how are they related to the Exalted?
It had become a regular kind of thing. That was, killing demonic creatures sewn together from the body parts of commoners and the illustrious alike.
For the past few weeks, every night at the strike of twelve sharp, Vi would stand guard among the brothels and “fallen houses” of the East End, and somehow they always appeared at the same time, lurching from the shadows of back alleys or emerging from behind decrepit walls. It was the same story for these horrors every evening: slice them apart, ensuring the heads were severed from the bodies. They moved fairly slowly, so unless Vi was careless enough to get caught in their crushing grip, there was little chance they could even touch her. Ever elegant and calm, she always swung her sword stick with gusto, flair, and energy, spilling open the innards of the composite beasts and severing their deformed limbs from their bodies. She painted the streets, brick walls, and alleyways red and green with their gore, but after more than a fortnight of protecting the East End from this never-ending night army, she began to feel her own body straining from eve after eve of combat.
She staggered back home every night, muttering expletives about the Anti-Trafficking of Young Women bill that her ally, David Fullerton, was ramming through parliament (with full-throated support from the London Age’s reporters thanks to a coordinated press effort by her other friend, Boyle Skinner). They were working as fast as they can, but the British Parliament had its own rules, and legislation needed public as well as cross-party support. She couldn’t rely only on those two men alone. She was also waiting on the results from Dr. Seymour Lane, the chief surgeon, about the samples she’d collected from the shambling experimentations.
“I need you to find out everything you can about these body parts,” she’d told him a few days ago in his practice, as her butler, Mr. Grey, calmly set before Lane’s desk a large bag of putrid flesh and bones. “These hold the key to confirming the cadavers stolen by the Ravager, and the innocent women killed by the Eviscerator.”
“I’ll need some time,” Lane had said, adjusting his spectacles. He was a tall and well-cut man who wore a brown vest over a white shirt and black overalls. “Modern medicine is only starting to gain momentum, but identifying where a body was from, be they living or inanimate, is still in its rudimentary stages, Countess.”
“I understand that,” Vi had replied. “But when you have results, report back to me. I’m working in London on the authority of David Fullerton and his patron, who, dare I say, knows me quite well,” she noted, with Peony in mind. Lane, a seemingly amiable medical professional, had acquiesced.
“Hurry it up,” she groaned one night, as she walked all the way back to Grosvenor Square, which was at least an hour’s walk from the east of London to the west of the city. Sometimes she’d avoid the streets and walk along the banks of the Thames, enjoying the view of ships sailing along the river and the moonlight. “Just two more nights before Lane contacts me,” she murmured to herself, as she finally slumped against the white door of her townhouse in Grosvenor Square. She slowly meandered back into her home, sheathing her sword stick in her cane. She flung off her high heels, stretching her sore and dirty bare feet. Then she heard hurried footsteps coming down the stairs, and then a soft cry of concern. She looked up blearily into the eyes of Tess, who was in her lime green nightgown. For some reason, through her slightly blurry, exhausted vision, Vi felt that Tess looked a bit like Anna. Or perhaps she was just homesick for Arendelle.
“Oh, God, Vi,” said Tess in distress, as she grabbed Vi’s slumping, bloody, and exhausted body. “You’re a wreck.”
“Just tired. I took apart at least several dozen of those creatures tonight,” groaned Vi, as Tess dragged her towards the staircase toward the bathroom upstairs. “I can take care of myself,” she said weakly, but Tess would have none of it.
“You’ve been sheltering me in a dwelling that surpasses my most self-indulgent fantasies. The least I can do is welcome you back when you’re out saving my friends in Whitechapel from those horrors. I’m giving you a long, comfortable bath and body rub. I won’t hear another word.”
The damask curtains had been drawn close, giving Vi some privacy as she stared into the wriggling flames in the grate. She’d closed the windows to shield herself from the cold crisp wind. She was in a slender, form-hugging blue bathrobe, and feeling admittedly quite amazing as she exulted in the fresh, crisp, and cozy feeling of a long and contended soak in hot, soapy water. And admittedly, the way Tess massaged her sore back, legs, and arms… the girl was quite talented. Her long brown curls were still slightly damp, but she enjoyed the feeling, and sitting by the fireplace would keep her from catching a cold. Her red eyes glimmered, flame dancing in her pupils. Her mind fluctuated from jumping here and there, thinking endlessly about her next move, and blankness as mental and physical exhaustion would momentarily overwhelm her every now and then.
A perfect state of mind for a date with a demon.
The high ceiling loomed above her as Vi felt her heart sink. The unmistakable presence was palpable, and she clutched her sofa’s armrests. “What do you want, Mephistopheles?” she grunted tensely as a black blot began to spread from the fire, like a black cloud of ebony flame. “It’s torment enough for me to summon you in Mundilfari Keep. But to talk to you here? Can’t I treat my time in London as a holiday away from you?”
Mephisto’s voice echoed through the living room, snide and mocking. “You’ve changed. Going on a deadly hunt for Peony Sinclair’s sake? For Anna’s sake? For… ” There was a pause. “For this girl, Tess, you’d activate all your political networks in this country, and risk your own neck to protect the streets she once called home. She’s even living with you now, isn’t she? You’ve grown so soft that Northuldra’s destruction is not even a distant dream for you. Remember, you can only be free from me if you destroy Elsa and her spirit compatriots for me. Since you’ve relinquished that goal, you and any future progeny you have will remain in my debt forever.”
“I’m not anything I wasn’t before,” insisted Vi, staring into the fire as the black flame danced about, before slowly drawing near her and tickling her leg. She tried her best to ignore his unwelcome touch. “And you’re right – I’ve given up on taking the power of the five spirits for you. But it’s not because I wish to remain in servitude forever. It’s because I know Anna will help me break free from your curse.”
Mephisto’s voice was scornful. “You’re so hopeful it’s sickening. What happened to that dark noblewoman who manipulated Arendelle so well, preparing for a great war that would destroy Northuldra? What a waste.”
“She’s still right here, just with different priorities… and with people she cares about.” Vi smirked. “I enjoy the small victories over you.” She closed her eyes, unable to get Anna’s smiling face out of her mind… or Tess’s tearful visage from the night they first met, when Vi saved her from those Frankenstein-ish inspirations. Suddenly, she wanted to protect them, and she was willing to do anything to ensure her triumph, and therefore their safety. “Nevertheless, demon, I’ve been mulling over a potential peace offering. A truce, if you may.”
“You presume to offer me something when you’ve been the one desperately turning your back on me?”
“For Tess, yes. For the women of Whitechapel, yes. And for Anna… yes.” Vi bowed her head, gritting her teeth. “I must gain a lead on the Ravager and the Eviscerator. I need greater power and more knowledge to be able to force them on the back foot.”
“You have your allies.”
“Human allies. I suspect that whoever’s behind all this is deploying supernatural means. So I need to even the odds.” Vi closed her eyes wistfully. “Perhaps you’re right. I really haven’t changed. I’m still hungry for power, even if for reasons that I actually believe in.”
“Even if you’ve rebelled against me, forsaking your life’s destiny for Anna and Elsa, I’ll demand something from you one day and you won’t be able to deny me. That’s the price for the gift you wish me to impart to you tonight.” The black flame reached out, like an eerie hand, caressing Vi’s slender form as she shifted uncomfortably, touched by a force that she couldn’t touch back or flee from, let alone fight back against.
“You’re revolting,” she groaned, hating herself and hating Mephisto. But this was how it had always been, she thought to herself. This was how her feelings for the demon had been for a long time. She was seen by all, including Queen Anna herself, as a woman of great power, perhaps unsurpassed power in Arendelle. But she never felt so powerless like when she was with her master.
“Think whatever you want, because you are powerless to actually escape me.” Mephisto trailed a sharp finger along Vi’s bare, pale skin, and she winced at the slight sting of his claw on her collarbone and her cheek. “You are such a cute little plaything. How could I ever let you go?”
Vi closed her eyes, sweating slightly. “Are we doing this or not? Give me forbidden knowledge.”
“Call me master again. For the day I’ll ask you to do anything I want.”
“Do it for Tess. Do it for Anna. Do it for these people you’ve so carelessly allowed into your heart.”
Vi shut her eyes in pain, biting her lip as Mephisto surrounded her in a haze of black and red smoke. “Mephistopheles… you’re crueler than I ever could bear to be.”
“I couldn’t hear you, little one…”
Vi raised her head, staring in despair at the ceiling. For Anna, for Tess, she could do it. She could say it.
Mephisto drew closer, demonic teeth and slimy breath against Vi’s reddening ear. She gasped, her toes curling as she seized up, he red eyes widening at a sudden surge of electric power flowing through her veins. “I grant you even more resources to crush your foes, and corresponding strength and forbidden insight. And let me fast-track your quaint little investigation… ” The set of Cheshire teeth bared itself in a perverse smile.
“The Eviscerator and Ravager are two. And their master is one by the name of a cultist, Thomas Hunt. Happy stalking, my damned, infernal child.”
Vi screamed sharply as demonic light shot through her eyes and mouth, and she convulsed as the Mundilfari’s demon sealed her renewed bondage to him. In the future, he would call upon her, and she’d have to answer and obey – even though she loved Anna and her friends and hated him with every fiber of her being. The house echoed with Mephisto’s delighted laughter as he flew back into the burning fire in a mighty cacophony of hellish screams and ghostly howls. Vi was feeling giddy, retching and coughing as she stumbled off her chair and collapsed on the ground on all fours. Tess had run downstairs into the living room and sprinted to her. “Vi! Vi!” cried Tess. “Oh, my God. What’s happening?”
Vi tried to get up, but her limbs wouldn’t listen to her as newfound power and vitality surged through her muscles and she now knew who her enemy was – Thomas Hunt. Mephisto didn’t reveal anything else, but a name was an excellent start. It was a price worth paying to end Tess’s nightmare once and for all, and to return to Anna’s side.
But of course. Mephisto preyed on human desperation. Given how limitless such desperation was in the hearts of people, no wonder why Mephisto was so powerful.
After several moments of trembling, Vi managed to glance weakly up at Tess. Her calm gaze met Tess’s distressed eyes. “You’re not supposed to see me like this.”
Tess looked down at the exhausted Vi, her eyes glimmering as she scooped her up. “Ma’am Mundilfari, please just let me help you.”
“That’s the second time you’ve gathered me up tonight,” whispered Vi, who couldn’t resist slumping against Tess and leaning her head against her shoulder as Tess rushed upstairs with her, her step surprisingly strong and resolute. “Take me to the bathroom, I feel filthy again. I wish to clean myself after that meeting with Mephistopheles.”
“What did you do to yourself to end up like this?” asked Tess, horrified. “And Mephi-who?”
“Nothing too pleasant that I’d like to share with you.”
“You’re going to have to do better than that,” said Tess, as she moved into the bathroom and gently lay Vi down against the wall. She brushed loose strands of brown tresses aside with a hand, staring at the Countess. She never looked so weak, so helpless.
“I meant it when I said I could stick with you, but I was joking about seeing the world. I know my lot in life. But I wasn’t joking about how grateful I am to you, or how much I care about you.” Tess’ kind eyes twinkled. “Please let me take care of you – even if you have others who might have asked you for the same privilege. I’ve never asked you about your past in Arendelle, so the least you can do is look at the person who’s before your eyes, and recognize that you’ll need my help here in London.”
Vi put a hand on Tess’s lap and squeezed. “If you really want to help, you can start asking the women around the East End if they’ve ever heard of anyone called Thomas Hunt.”
“Read all about it! Read all about it! Parliament to pass anti-trafficking bill with comfortable majority!” cried the paperboy, as he waved about the day’s edition of the London Age. True to Skinner’s promise, his reporters had given full-throated support to the anti-trafficking bill, framing it as a must for women’s burgeoning rights and the protection of social decency and Victorian mores. Skinner had sourced plenty of stories about long-suffering women enduring the indignity of selling their bodies and labor, aimed specifically to elicit tears, anger, and outrage. Newspapers and government organs were alight with gossip and chatter about who’d be affected by this new law. Most notably, body snatchers were going to be seen with renewed suspicion, despite the fact that their work had never been outlawed and was merely inappropriate talk at the dinner table or at parties. In fact, trafficking in human flesh was the name of the game, whether for vices like prostitution or for medical reasons (after all, doctors couldn’t experiment their medicines or surgery on live victims). Of course, this only partially hindered the Ravager and Eviscerator – they weren’t exactly law-abiding citizens. But at least they’d know that someone with influence and power, namely Vi, had their eye on them.
Fullerton had cautioned Vi on the wisdom of effectively putting a target on her head. But Vi knew that time was on the criminals’ side. Without forcing them to react, the East End would simply remain infested with monstrosities.
Vi and Tess were actually in the headquarters of the London Age today. Boyle Skinner lived in a threadbare, dirty, and smelly room over a larger space that housed the printing press of the newspaper. Vi had purchased the paper and all its assets from Skinner’s previous employer, before selling everything back to him for a single pound. Skinner owed his new status as a press baron – someone who owned a newspaper and edited it – to Vi. The printing press room was stifling and noisy, and Tess watched the press spewing out tomorrow’s paper with fascination. “I need you to do some digging for me about a certain Thomas Hunt,” said Vi to Skinner. When he scratched his head perplexedly, she noted, “I know it’s not exactly a name that stands out. But search the name in London’s many private clubs and secret societies. I’ve heard from my source that he’s some kind of cultist.”
Skinner raised an eyebrow. “Which source?”
Vi just put a slender finger to her lips.
“You’ve just brought about a new era to the Whitechapel community,” said Tess joyfully. “But… ” She looked thoughtful. “For many of my friends, we’ll need more support from society if people really mean for us to have a better life and reach our full potential. Freedom is useless if we can’t navigate our way in the world. I know that better than most.”
Vi nodded. “Schooling for young women. Civil rights. These are explosive topics in Britain, but they’ll make a splash among your readers. Are you willing to take this editorial stance, Skinner? As someone who’s interested in people first and foremost, I wager that you’re a well-informed man who can look ahead and see where the political winds are blowing, not just in parliament but across your country.”
“Are you kidding, Lady Mundilfari?” cried the newspaper proprietor. “Nothing I like more than a bit of controversial conversation. You’re looking at the chap who bought a young lass just to prove the point that it was too easy for any creep to do it! Not that I’m a creep, heh. In any case, you’ll get much more out of your time here than just two nabbed sickos, I can tell you that!”
Vi nodded, smiling. “Well done, Mr. Skinner.” She turned to Tess. “Now, Tess, I need directions to the Necropolis Rail for tonight. It’s time I tracked down the Ravager and subdued him.”
Tess nodded. “It sets off from Waterloo Station and terminates at Brookwood Cemetery. Maybe the train and graveyard are where we’ll find clues to the Ravager, if not the Ravager himself.”
“We’ll?” asked Vi, raising an elegant eyebrow. “There is no we tonight, Tess. It’s too dangerous.”
Tess grabbed Vi’s arm reproachfully. “Says the lady who last night was literally barfing on the floor,” she said sarcastically.
“What?” asked Skinner curiously.
“Never you mind,” snapped Vi, before turning to look at Tess irritably. “You’re a difficult one, aren’t you?”
“When it comes to sticking by your side, yes, I’m going to give you hell,” insisted Tess.
Vi sighed. “Fine. You win. Take me to the train station tonight.
“We’ll find the Ravager together.”
DON’T MISS OUT CHAPTER FOUR AS VI AND TESS HUNT THE RAVAGER INTO A NIGHTMARISH REALM OF GRAVES AND TOMBSTONES!