The story so far: With all her political pieces in place to draw out the Eviscerator, Vi moves to confront the Ravager first, preparing to board the Necropolis Rail with Tess Gaunt in tow. She has little idea of the horror, however, that awaits her on this train, which is bound for Brookwood Cemetery, the resting place of many of London’s MPs, captains of industry, and other figures of note.
Will she finally be able to confront the Ravager, one of two criminals she’s determined to find? And will they find any clues to the mysterious figure of Thomas Hunt?
It was the dead of night at the Waterloo train terminus. The butt of Vi’s sword stick bashed once, twice, then thrice against the window to one of the carriages, rupturing the glass and sending dangerous shards tinkling all over the train floor. Despite her fragile dark purple dress, she smoothly found a foothold and, in one coordinated move, vaulted and slipped into the carriage without so much as nicking herself from any shattered pieces of glass. Her high heels landed quietly on the creaking floor. She raised her head, looking up at the train’s ornate ceiling. The entire room was suffused in eerie red light. The lacquered walls were festooned with elaborately carved heads depicting Cyclopean, horned, and demonic monstrosities. She wrinkled her nose. How utterly tasteless, typical of cultists trying to impress whatever dark god they’d sold their souls to. She could relate.
She could hear a tooting far up front, and the floor creaked. She swore quietly to herself. The Necropolis Rail was setting off to Brookwood Cemetery, where no doubt more bodies that had been loaded onto the Rail would be somehow acquired by whoever was fusing body parts and reanimating them into horrific monstrosities. Vi, Tess, and their allies in the press and parliament, Skinner and Fullerton, deduced that the Ravager was stealing the corpses of illustrious, recently deceased men and women that could afford to be buried in Brookwood. For their part, the Eviscerator was murdering young women of much less fortunate social standing and economic circumstances in the East End. The four theorized, unpalatable and sinister though it seemed, that it was increasingly likely the reanimated, misshapen lumbering creatures wandering East London were composed of the body parts from both the Ravager’s stolen bodies and the Eviscerator’s victims.
“As if that horror wasn’t enough,” Vi had surmised one night in her townhouse over a late night conversation with Fullerton and Skinner, “the creatures are very likely to have been made from a combination of body parts from Whitechapel and the Necropolis Rail.”
“What desecration are you speaking of?” cried Fullerton on Vi’s luxurious sofa, almost spitting out the hot Darjeeling tea that Tess had served him. “As a good Christian and Conservative MP, I deplore the very notion that some demented lunatic is fusing body parts from lord and whore alike and putting them together to reanimate in some grotesque parody of creation!”
“Hey, those ‘whores’ you’re talking about are my friends and sisters,” snapped Tess, who’d been standing by the door to the sitting room. She took an active role in Vi’s investigation already, but Fullerton especially incensed her this night. “And unlike your friends in coffins, my sisters weren’t dead and had no intention of dying. Their lives were brutally, wickedly cut short and all you can think about is how they somehow defile the memory of your upper class chums.” She made a face. “If our lives are of so little value to you, a public servant, then you disgust me just as much as the Eviscerator and Ravager.”
Fullerton was about to snap back at her when Skinner interrupted them both, his portly form standing by the warm and comfortable fireplace. “She’s not wrong, Home Secretary,” said the editor of the London Age, rubbing his double chin. “The nature of these connected crimes all suggest some kind of obsession with the taboo, the forbidden, and the macabre. The literal, physical fusion of body parts from dead people who’d otherwise never meet or mix in life… isn’t there something darkly poetic and subversive about that?” He turned to stare at an appalled Fullerton, before looking at Vi, who was looking outside her townhouse window. “But the scale of these crimes suggests no mere pervert or sadistic serial killer. This is methodical and grand, plunging the city into chaos and tearing into our very institutions. Dozens of disadvantaged women are dead, the families of innocent nobles and public servants bewildered and heartbroken by disappeared bodies. It’s as if someone is trying to start the very end of the world!”
“In a sense. We’re dealing with a cult-like operation with specific goals that might have to do with black magic. A dark force revealed to me that the leader of this operation is Thomas Hunt,” said Vi,
“How do you know that name?” asked Fullerton suspiciously.
Vi pursed her lips, thinking of her infernal master, who Anna had promised to help free her from. “It’s better that I don’t tell you,” she said quietly.
Tess lowered her head sadly, the only person in the present group to know Vi’s secret pact with the demon Mephistopheles. She glared at Fullerton. “What about you? The upper classes are full of creeps with weird tastes. I had to put up with several of them when they came to our pleasure houses.”
Fullerton snorted. “I wish I could give you some information on this Hunt fellow, but the only thing I ever heard about him from fellow MPs was that he was a generous philanthropist – there wasn’t much more to say about him, he seemed a very private man. He seemed to have appeared peripherally in certain powerful people’s lives, but otherwise never featured in any political setting.”
Skinner spoke up again, waddling over to the one seater beside Vi’s couch and plonking himself down. “Although it was rumoured that he was far more international than he appeared to be, with gossip going around that he had business interests in Russia, America, and China. You’d have to dig deep into the tax records of the past couple of decades, though, and trace the large sums he paid all the way to his companies. Again and again, the names of his holdings appear in those three countries.”
Vi tensed up as Skinner’s words reached her ears. “Russia? America? China?” she repeated, throat dry. She slowly turned to Skinner, and the others in the room suddenly felt a chill as they sensed her intensifying gaze and hardening voice. “Did this Hunt ever mention dealings with, say, the Jiaqing Emperor or the Daoguang Emperor of the Celestial Empire?” she said, a dreadful feeling of foreboding upon her.
“Oh, yes,” said Skinner, nodding. “In fact, he and a certain American merchant prince – Will Harrison, I think his name was – both had big contracts across the world and in the Qing dominion itself. Tea, opium, spices… ” He rubbed his belly. “Hunt might even have been involved in trade with your home country, boss. Arendelle, right? Salmon, timber, and all that?”
“The Exalted,” whispered Vi, her red eyes wide. Tess looked at the noblewoman worriedly, who turned back to stare at the dark road outside her townhouse. Her heart pounded in her chest as she put everyone’s pieces of information together, processing and digesting it all until she realized, stunned and fuming, how she was but a pawn for that damned cabal.
Russia. America. China. And yes, that other world power, Britain. Yet Peony Sinclair, despite her English heritage, was the Celestial Empire’s top agent. It was Thomas Hunt who was the true British member of the Exalted – or at least, he must have once been.
He’d obviously lost his sanity at some point, and had his entire personage erased by the Exalted’s agents throughout the British government and other sovereign bodies. Peony had sent Vi to this country to cut him off from Lord Yixin’s club. To execute him.
To remove a liability.
Vi’s crimson eyes glinted as sheathed her sword, turned around, and patiently (albeit reluctantly) helped Tess scramble up and into the carriage. She managed to haul herself in, although she had to lean heavily on Vi, and the Countess almost stumbled as her own lithe body couldn’t support Tess for too long. She stumbled back as Tess landed clumsily in front of her. “What am I even doing, allowing you to come with me?” she sighed, holding Tess as the other regained herself.
“Because I’m your informant, and I can help you,” said Tess, blinking up at her.
“You, help me?” sniffed Vi. “You can barely defend yourself.”
“I don’t need to. I have you to protect me, don’t I?” Tess shivered as she looked around. “Though to be fair… this whole train… it feels haunted,” she whispered, “and I grew up in East London, ever vigilant about my physical safety.” She looked at Vi, her eyes fearful. “I have a bad feeling, Countess. A really nasty sensation.”
Vi raised an elegant eyebrow as the red light around them flashed more intensely. She took several cautious steps forward, looking ahead into the next carriage. The whole vehicle was already moving, and their voices could barely be heard over the rumbling, the wheels passing over the rail tracks with a rhythmic shriek. Screech. Rumble, rumble. Screech. Rumble, rumble. And on went the relentless sound of the wheels screaming along the tracks as Tess looked out the window and saw only darkness. “How long till we get to Brookwood?”
“Easily several hours.” Vi drew her sword from her cane. “The Ravager will surely be on one of these carriages,” she said, a sense of eagerness sweeping over her as she quickened her pace. She slid open the oak door, the cold wind of the night blasting into her face as she found herself confronting the immediate carriage in front. “I’m going to the front of this train and scouring the entire vehicle for the Ravager if I have to,” she declared.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” cried Tess behind her, hair billowing from the howling wind, “I’m scared.”
Vi grabbed Tess’s arm and hopped over to the next carriage, pulling Tess with her and pressing close to the door as she enveloped Tess in her arms. She grabbed the knob and turned. It was unlocked, and they burst in, Vi clutching a shaking Tess tightly as their eyes fell upon coffin after coffin, laid in rows and stacked up upon each other. Tess let out a fearful squeak, and even Vi felt slightly shaken, unprepared for such a macabre sight. The entire carriage was filled with boxes for the dead, and the entire room felt claustrophobic.
Suddenly, Vi heard the nauseating sound of scraping and shuffling. Tess tensed. “What the **** was that?” she whispered, clammy hands clutching Vi’s purple dress.
“I don’t know,” said Vi calmly, raising her sword as a shadow suddenly passed over the furthermost coffins at the end of the carriage. “Someone’s here.” She clenched her jaw. “Show yourself, Ravager!” she barked. “I know you’re here. I’m Viola Mundilfari, and I’m here for your head! You won’t be taking any of these Brookwood-bound cadavers for your sick master. I know who he is! I know he’s Thomas Hunt!” she bellowed.
There was a blink of that moving shadow again, and the door at the end of the train carriage opened. It didn’t close.
“It’s him.” Vi released Tess, but Tess didn’t let go. “Stay here,” she said, “I’m going after him.”
“Stay, in a room full of coffins with corpses that are being stolen to be reanimated?” shrieked Tess, glaring up at Vi. “You must be crazy. I’d rather come with you and die in some misfortunate crossfire!”
“No,” cried Vi, “have you gone mad!?”
“Go!” screamed Tess, “or this trip will have been for nothing! Stop worrying about me, I’ll take care of myself while following you!”
“You fool!” Vi grunted and ran for the door at the far side of the carriage, high heels clacking loudly as she sprinted past the eerie corridor of coffins. She reached the door and stopped, balancing herself to leap across the chain connecting her carriage to the next –
“VI!” came Tess’s scream.
Vi barely managed to duck as a curved blade like that of a sickle’s or scythe’s swung directly for her forehead. She skirted to her left as a chain affixed to the blade’s end was withdrawn, and the steel crescent swung back to its owner – a lanky, hooded figure standing on the roof of the next carriage. Vi glared up at him, unable to make out a countenance. “You’re him,” she growled, baring her teeth, as he turned away and ran. “Get back here!” Vi jumped onto the next carriage and then up again, grabbing the edge of the roof and pulling herself up. She scrambled onto the top of the train, dress blowing and baring her soft skin to the pale moonlight. The Ravager stood a few feet away, his unseen face staring at her as she pointed her sword at him. She silently assessed her surroundings.
Moving train. Sudden jerks could throw me off-balance, but him as well, she thought. Clear weather. Tess might make me vulnerable, but she’s got good sense. She slowly advanced, cane sword gleaming. “Your body snatching spree stops here tonight,” she called.
“Shall I cut you down, or will you come quietly?” asked Vi. Her vampiric eyes flashed. “I’d prefer to beat some answers out of you and we can both be on our way. I’d very much like to get back to Arendelle.” She snarled. “Where is Thomas Hunt?”
The Ravager ran at her, and for a lanky man he was surprisingly fast. His hood and outfit seemed to have been sewn from rags, and finally two gleaming red eyes, more sinister than Vi’s peered out from under that hood. Vi clenched her teeth as she suddenly had to parry a swing from that crescent blade again, and the sheer force flung her back, with the Ravager retracting it with that damned chain again at an angle she didn’t think possible. Vi stumbled and nearly landed on her buttocks, dangerously close to the roof’s edge. The Ravager pressed the attack, his free hand drawing a long, lethal dagger with blood stains. His red eyes glowed.
“You’re the Countess from across the seas,” came a wheeze from under that hood. “You should appreciate what the Master is doing – you’ll soon understand his transformative work.”
Vi’s elegant nose wrinkled in revulsion. “What Hunt is doing? No,” she shouted, losing what little remained of her appetite for talk. She sprinted at him and lunged with her sword. He parried and was forced to back away as she entered her raging vortex of the Wolf school of Arendellian fencing, at one with her anger. The union of calm and fury allowed her to enter an almost berserker-like state of tranquil violence, which in the old days of Viking invasions would have meant casually beheading foes with little to no effort. Now, Vi channeled the malignant grace of her ancestors into her cane sword, forcing the Ravager on the defensive with his dagger, their nimble forms moving across the roof in an elegant, fatal dance. Vi’s flurry of strokes and stabs didn’t faze the Ravager, who drew back and hurled his moon-blade at Vi’s head again, the horizontal arc in danger of lopping off her head. She ducked in the nick of time, lashing out with a slender leg that swept her adversary off his feet. He crashed onto the metal of the ceiling, and Vi cried out in victory as she leaped up and aimed her sword tip at his heart.
Then, with a flick of his wrist, he hurled his dagger at her face, and Vi felt the edge of the knife dash across her right cheek. Her heart froze as she almost, in the heat of that moment, thought her head had been taken.
But not yet. Not quite yet. Her magnificently improved reflexes from Mephisto allowed her preternatural speed and agility, and for the first time she was glad she’d doubled down on her demonic bargain. Somehow she didn’t feel so bad about her renewal of her infernal pact this time. Perhaps it was because she had done it for Tess.
For all the young women that had suffered a gruesome fate at the hands of Hunt’s minion.
For Queen Anna.
Vi raised her sword and plunged it into the gurgling Ravager’s midsection, blood spurting from the fatal wound and partially spattering her bare leg. She gave her sword a clean yank and swish, flicking aside the blood of the criminal. She turned her head back slightly, saying loudly, “You can climb up now, Tess.”
The young British woman scrambled ineptly onto the roof of the train, gasping as she saw the still body of the Ravager. “You did it. You really managed to stop him,” she breathed.
“Believe me, that was the easy part,” sniffed Vi. She kneeled down and pulled back his hood, and Tess couldn’t help letting out a sharp cry of disgust. The Ravager’s appearance was like the other stitched-together monsters in the East End, with his face being particularly repulsive: his twisted expression seemed to come from both an old man and a young woman; one of his dead open eyes looked youthful while his lips were gnarly and nose bent. Yet he seemed to be much stronger than the others, having put up a good struggle against Vi. “Now we’re going to have to jump off this train and make our way back. Fortunately, I have Fullerton’s agents to coordinate our position and pick-up location. The only catch being… ” She glanced at Tess. “I’ll need an extra hand – your hand – to bring the corpse of the Ravager to Dr. Seymour Lane, the chief surgeon. He’s been studying the corpses I’ve been bringing him from Whitechapel. Now it’s the Ravager’s turn. Before long, we’ll root out this demented cult and bring Thomas Hunt to justice.”
Tess’s face fell as she balked.
NEXT: VI AND TESS CONFRONT THE EVISCERATOR, DEADLY MURDERER OF TESS’S FRIENDS!