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The largest, most central island of the Capitano islands is Grâce de Marie - Grace of Mary. It is a multicultural haven. Good people, better music, and even better food. The romantics say the sun never rises on Grace of Mary, because the parties never end - they just move somewhere else when the cock crows.
Jacqueline Moreau does not live on Grace of Mary.
Jaq is walking through the alleys of Mary Shadow, another island, a long swim away from Grace of Mary. As the name implies, Mary Shadow is the darker form of Grace of Mary. This is where the drunks, rakes, and thieves live.
Curiously, Mary Shadow is also the safest island in the region. There’s no honor among thieves, but the sheer number of dangerous people on Mary Shadow creates a rare balance. Everyone hates and loves each other in precisely the right proportion to ensure balance. A crime in the wrong direction could cause the whole island’s social structure to collapse. There would be blood in the streets.
As a rule—a literal rule, enforced by paid guards—you don’t harm anybody on Mary Shadow.
So, Jaq walks without concern. It’s midday, but the island is a dense warren of structures that cross each other on every level. Bridges, ramps, stairs, even whole buildings might be suspended above you. The human equivalent of a termite mound. The light is a mix: incandescent bulbs, fluorescent strips, neon tubes.
Jaq pushes her way through crowds of men and women dressed as television robbers - black cloaks, greasy hair, wide-brimmed hats. On an individual level these people might be fine, but as a whole, Jaq finds them intolerable. This is the tropics - black is the easiest color to see out in the daylight, and nobody has worn hats like these in decades, making them doubly easy to pick out.
Tourists, she thinks, and sighs. One fails to get out of her way, so she shoves an elbow in his side, and he moves. On another day, she might be more charitable, but it was only a few hours ago that she was running away from island-sized brain monsters.
She’s seen some strange things in the waters, but damn if those weren’t in the top ten.
Jaq spots another tourist, this one without a hat, but wearing sunglasses, feeling his way along the barely-lit hallway.
She follows a memorized path to a spot where the paths open up for a fifteen foot square before heading off again. This square is lit by pink and blue lights in the shape of flashing arrows, pointing at a small doorway. Over the doorway, neon lights are curved to form a shape:
The Club Club (also Club-squared or Clubs). Card games of all types are played at the tables, which are crowded with spectators and players alike. At the far end is a dance floor with stripper poles that no one’s used in memory.
Low music covers the silences, so entering the Club Club is akin to hearing a wall of sound. Customers chattering, waitresses flirting, dealers talking. A tobacco haze floats a few feet above the floor. The top of Jaq’s head just touches the cloud.
She makes her way to the bar. The going is easier in here, where the tables enforce a vague order to the pattern of movement.
She orders root beer. Another quirk of Mary Shadow is that there is no alcohol to be found. Nobody’s quite sure if that’s by accident or design, but the island remains popular nonetheless.
“Sorry, Jaq,” says the potato-shaped barman. “No can. Boss Bahama ran into some kind of trouble with a shipment, didn’t have enough to divvy out to all his buyers. You want some freshwater? No salt. And no tentacles.”
Jaq’s head perks up.
“How in the name of the wide-eyed sailor in the heart of the moon did you know about that?”
The barman, Kyle, smiles. “Curson told me to work them into the conversation somehow. He wants to see you.”
Jaq slides off the stool, hunching as she walks to a wooden door in the side of the room. An engraving on the door shows a man with the head of a lion, holding a viper in each hand. She puts her hand on the doorknob and waits for the telltale click. Behind the bar, Kyle shouts.
She sighs and waits. Kyle hits the button, and the door unlocks. She turns it and pushes.
Club Club is a place of thumping bass, loud people, and lights that do more to obscure than to illuminate. The owner recognizes the utility of such an atmosphere, but hates it. The manner in which Curson came to own the Club is a matter of some debate, but everyone agrees on one thing: one does not screw with Curson.
No one’s ever seen him take violent action, but still. You can smell the danger in the man.
Jaq steps into Curson’s study. It is a tall room, and narrow, but seems to be impossibly deep. The walls are stacked with books, and freestanding shelves carry more. Occasional artifacts take up space as well - a sword, a globe, an old leather pouch, a thirteen-sided bone die with arcane numerals.
While the rest of Mary Shadow is lit either by intermittent incandescence or screaming neon, Curson’s study has no visible sources of light, the place itself seeming to have its own luminance.
Jaq doesn’t see the man at first.
“Curson?” She asks fairly loudly, taking small pleasure in rupturing the quiet room.
“Back here!” comes a voice from deep in the room.
Jaq walks between the shelves, ignoring the sensation of observation. You’re always being watched on Mary Shadow, but the feeling is aggressive in Curson’s study.
“I am very tired, very hungry, and very thirsty. I have had a very long day involving lobsters and weirder things. I would appreciate this going quickly.”
Twenty feet into the room, Jaq shuts her eyes and walks five more feet without looking.
There’s a mirror on the wall there. Jaq looked in it once, and has never looked at it again.
She keeps going, looking idly at the many artifacts and books, but mostly wanting to just get to Curson.
She stops dead when Curson rounds a corner and looks at her.
She looks up at the tall figure. A slender Englishman with dark skin, Curson wears thin wire frame glasses. Behind those, his eyes are an ethereal gold color.
“I hear you met some aquatic brains.”
“You could say that.”
“I did say that. I’d love to know more.”
“I’d love to have something to drink.”
Curson nods and walks to a table with chairs, near a globe. He lifts a latch and the top of the globe opens, revealing exactly one (1) pint glass, full of water. The glass is frosted slightly from the cold. He motions to the glass, which Jaq takes and drinks heavily from.
“Anything for my favorite person named Jacqueline.”
Curson smiles and takes a seat, watching the girl.
“So what do you want to know?”
“Anything you have to tell me.”
So, she does. Tells Curson the whole story of the lobsters and the brains. She ends with, “I was gonna tell you when I got back, which I literally just did. I had to drop off Boss Bahama’s materiel first.”
“This is...distressing.” He drags out the last word, speaking more to himself than to Jaq.
“I find giant brains with beaks to be very distressing, yeah.”
“It isn’t just their presence that bothers me.”
“You shock me.”
“It’s that this is the third time they’ve attacked this year.”
This manages to catch Jaq’s interest.
“I find that hard to believe.”
“You doubt me?”
“No, but I’d expect to hear something about it.”
“That’s precisely the concern. No one seems to be hearing about the attacks, or know anything about the attackers. Including me.”
Jaq chokes on water, spills some. This is a momentous occasion. Curson is supposed to know these things. Know anything he needs or wants to know. Curson is not supposed to be surprised. There’s no security in the Club, because Curson just knows if someone is cheating, or stealing, or about to pull a gun.
“Yes, quite. My view is being shielded somehow from the actions of these things. I have some ideas, but nothing I yet dare speak aloud. So how would you like to make some money?”
Jaq takes a seat at the table. Negotiation isn’t her specialty at the best of times, but this kind of news hasn’t put her in the best of mindsets. Something capable of blocking Curson’s vision is seriously bad news.
She looks up at the man.
“What do you need?”
“Only two people have actually witnessed the...things.”
“Yes, the Whatevers. The giant underwater beaked brains. You, and a mercenary, here on Mary Shadow. I’d like to get the two of you in the same room, see if we can’t link you together and get a little more information.”
“So. I don’t mean to be rude.”
“Of course. What is it?”
“Remember when you wanted to collect all that pirate gold?”
“You neglected at the time to tell me they were also undead Nazi pirates. So forgive me for asking, but what aren’t you telling me?”
“We’ll have to go to one of the destroyed islands, to make the connection stronger. From there, we can link you and this mercenary, and perhaps that focusing of energies will allow me to pierce this infernal veil.”
“I do believe an agent of Hell may be at fault.”
“So a day that has featured lobster-men with automatic rifles, giant beaked brains, and literal demons, is now to feature a nameless mercenary.”
“Well he’s not nameless. His name is Septimus Jones.”
“Why can’t you just summon him up?”
“It...isn’t that simple.”
Jaq just waits for Curson to keep talking. She knows she’ll get it all eventually, but the man likes to draw these things out. She takes a drink of water. In the silent moment that follows, the glass refills itself.
“Septimus has gone a little bit off the deep end.”
Jaq keeps waiting.
“He’s barricaded himself in his hovel, and is threatening to kill anybody that tries to come in. He’s rather convinced the Whatevers are going to come get him.”
“Great. That’s excellent.”
“So I have to make him calm down, so I can tell him you need to see him, so we can go to a place that’s already been attacked by the things he’s afraid of. Potentially get shot by him in the process.
“Yes. How does five thousand sound?”
Jaq purses her lips, considering.
“Five it is. But I’m taking a nap first.”
Mary Shadow is not a nice place, and the Two O’Clock Hovels are the least nice part of it. So named because, viewed from the sky with the north end as ‘noon’, the hovels take up an arc from two to three.
The island is mostly dark, but the Twos lack any light source, save what you bring with you, and the place is usually empty. For all their love of shadow and subterfuge, humans don’t actually function well in an environment that’s constantly as dark as pitch.
The metal paths are framed with cloth, clothing hung to dry, sheets of canvas for makeshift walls. This is a poor place. People come to Mary Shadow because they have to. The Twos are full of people who stay because they have to.
Water drips, rats skitter, footsteps echo. But all sound is choked by the tightness of the corridors, and the muffling things on the walls.
Jaq checks her notes again, using a strong flashlight. She should be close, but it’s easy to get lost in the Twos.
She rounds a corner. A few pinpricks of light shine through holes in the wall. She must be right on the shore of Mary Shadow.
The door - uh, “door” - she’s facing is like a tomb closure. A heavy circle of metal-banded concrete sits with many spokes set in a track below. This is not the kind of door that moves unless the person on the other side wants it to.
Beside the door, a small red glow - a button.
Jaq presses it. A buzz.
After a minute, she presses it again.
After a minute, she presses it again.
After a minute, she presses it again.
This continues for nearly half an hour before there’s a response. Over the small speaker set beside the button, a tired voice responds in English.
Jaq presses the ‘talk’ button.
“Curson sent me. He wants to help you. Let me in.”
Septimus laughs into the microphone. A short gasp of forced mirth.
“Yes, I know, I’m hilarious. Look, Curson wants to help. He knows about the brains.”
“Lies. You’re with them, aren’t you? You want in. You want to come in and get me.” As he speaks, his words slip and shift. He slurs and slows, either drunk or tired.
“Come on. You’ve seen them. You know they couldn’t fit in here.”
“But they have their agents. Servants. Worshippers. You must be one. Come to take me to them.”
“Look, my name is Jaq. Smiling Jaq they call me. Ironically, I assume. I’ve seen them too, I know what they’re like.”
“Then you know there’s no stopping them.”
Septimus says no more.
Jaq pulls tools off of her belt, and secures her flashlight in the shoulder tab of her coat, then sets to work.
The thing about doors is people think they’re a criminal’s only line of attack. Surely, people think, if I lock the door, nobody can get in. So, people puts lots of effort into their doors. Which makes sense. It does! But it leaves everything else weak.
The walls here aren’t plaster - they’re metal and wood and screws and nails. You can’t just knock through them. But Jaq has plenty of time. So she sets to work on the wall next to the door.
She peels away layer after layer. Metal, wood, more metal. Eventually she gets into the materials that Septimus put up himself. Pillows, insulation. Lucite, too.
After an hour, she’s made a hole. Not a huge one, but enough for her to slip through, squeezing between the floor and a sheet of plywood.
She breaches Septimus’ hovel.
Septimus Jones stands in the middle of the room. Not moving. Not making any sound. He doesn’t even seem to be breathing.
He’s handsome, as far as she can tell. A jaw like a statue, and deep sepia skin. A well built man who could take down a long line of attackers without needing to take a breath.
But sometimes the antagonist wins.
There’s a brain attached to Septimus’ head.
Not a full one. Not one of the forty-foot ones that Jaq saw. Smaller, a bit bigger than a kickball. It’s on top of his head, sunk down over his eyes, beak aimed at the door. Tentacles hang from the brain like hair, drooped over Septimus’ shoulders, with longer, stronger ones hanging down and attached to his hands.
Jaq approaches slowly. But for all her dexterity, Jaq is not a quiet person.
She manages to kick over a bucket.
The tentacles flare to life, lifting Septimus’ arms like he’s a puppet. The brain screams the high, bird-like call of an animal in distress. The whole thing - the brain, with Septimus attached - turns to Jaq and charges, tentacles reaching for her.
Before she can act, she’s grabbed, a dozen thin tendrils of flesh stretching from the brain to grasp her head. Septimus’ arms grab her sides, holding her still. Jaq is more lithe than strong, she can’t get out of his arms.
The brain’s beak begins biting at the air, the tentacles pulling her closer to it. As she approaches, the brain begins to push off from Septimus’ head. A greenish fluid drips from the brain onto Septimus’ face.
Her arms are locked at her sides, but Jaq’s legs are still free so she plants her knee firmly between Septimus’ legs. His human mouth cries out, as does the beak, and the whole thing recoils.
Jaq pulls her gun - not the Kalashnikov she inherited from a lobster, but the pistol she inherited from her mentor decades ago - and lines up a shot. She’s trying to shoot the beak - maybe this smaller critter is easier to break than the big ones.
But Septimus’ is moving too much. He coils away from her, grabbing at his legs. In the time it takes Jaq to line up a shot, he recovers, and lunges for her again.
Realizing the small target of the beak is a bad choice, she aims for his torso.
She misses wildly, but providence takes the bullet right into the brain, just above the beak. A small black hole pops in the pink flesh.
The brain’s tentacles drop, and Septimus collapses.
Jaq follows him, hesitates, then grabs at the brain. It resists, but she pulls it off slowly, revealing Septimus’ head - scarred, bloody, covered in greenish goo.
He’s breathing, and groaning. The brain stopped the bullet before it got anywhere near Septimus’ actual head.
She looks for a bag - finds one, dumps it, shoves the brain in it and zips it up. She’s not patient enough to wait for Septimus to recover, though, so she finds the button that controls the door, and supports the grumbling man on a walk to the club.
Full disclosure: the man known as Curson Seekerbane is literally a demon. Listed in Ars Goetica as Purson, he is a King of Hell, served and obeyed by twenty-two legions of demons. Not that he can call on them, right now. A ritual by an idiot wizard some centuries ago not only summoned Curson, but bound him to human form, and stripped him of most of his abilities. Calling the wizard an idiot is not just flip: these are the words Curson would use, because the wizard’s failure to read the rituals correctly is what caused the problem.
Curson is, understandably, displeased, and the few intervening decades have done nothing to reduce his anger.
Understand, then, that when Curson tells you something is ‘infernal’, he is speaking the precise and literal truth.
Septimus Jones, on hearing all this, doesn’t say anything. He just looks at Smilin’ Jaq with a mix of confusion and revulsion. The emotions are emphasized by the network of scars that cross the top half of his face, and his shaved head.
They’re aboard Jaq’s plane, flying to Lobster Island. The whole cargo hold has been taken over by Curson, who insists on as much privacy as he can manage.
The plane is a (heavily) modified Short Sunderland, built in the fifties but still going strong. She’s named Strange Night 2, and is a near-perfect reproduction of Jaq’s first plane. She lost the old one after she was attacked by—
Well, that’s for another time.
“So…” Septimus starts, and rubs the top of his head.
Jaq waits for him to say more, but he doesn’t. This has been the pattern of the last two hours - Septimus starts to say something, but then trails off. It is unendingly frustrating.
But, then, it was only three hours ago that the man had a moderately-sized brain affixed to his skull.
“Moderately” compared to the forty-foot brains that attacked Lobster Island last time she was there.
“Is he evil?”
The deep voice surprises Jaq. She jumps - only slightly, not enough to jostle the plane. She turns to Septimus. His head is held more upright now than it was. He’s looking out the window, but his eyes are focused now, looking at the island on the horizon.
“No. No, he’s not evil.” She emphasizes the word, trying to make it seem innocuous and vital at the same time. “He does good things. Surprisingly good things, actually. But his methods do tend to be more nefarious than you might want. Lying, cheating, stealing.”
Septimus stretches his arms, then his neck, rubs at his legs, flexes. Jaq watches him without pretending not to.
“How are you feeling?”
“Alright. I guess.” The words are still coming slowly, but they are actually getting spoken now. Improvement. “I feel like I’m just waking up from the deepest sleep I’ve ever had.”
“How much do you remember?”
“I got back from to Mary Shadow, started having dreams. I went a bit crazy, I think.”
“Everybody in the hovels will tell you that with great certainty. You threatened to kill people for intruding.”
“I could see them in every corner. The...things. The Whatevers. I used to wonder what going crazy felt like, but I guess I know now.”
“It got bad. Really bad. I mean, I spent my nights with a gun pointed at my temple.”
“You would kill yourself because of them?”
“Only way out. When I met them, I was with fifty other guys. I only lived ‘cause I got back to the boat first, but I can tell you for true: guns don’t do a thing against them.”
“First? You mean you left the others behind?”
Septimus doesn’t respond to this. Only the sound of engines for a while.
“You got any water?”
Jaq tosses him a canteen. Septimus thanks her, and takes a few sips, testing it, then drinks deep.
“Anyway. I remember being in my bed, loading my gun, then there’s a whole lot of nothing. It isn’t that there’s no memory - I remember every second of it. But I remember it as an absence of anything. No thought, no sight, no sound. I perceived every second of it. Man, I’ve been chased by forty-foot brains with beaks, but that was not as bad as that nothingness.”
“Sounds like hell.”
“There’s not more effective torture than being stuck in your own head. Which is why, young miss, you were such a welcoming sight when my eyes opened. Pretty blonde French girl? Gave me whiplash going from hell to heaven so fast.”
Jaq laughs. If that was a pick-up line it was so horribly specific that it’s actually funny. Ineffective, but funny.
“You didn’t know I was French at the time.”
“I could tell.”
Jaq laughs again, smiling, looking out the window. She turns off the autopilot and takes manual control of the plane again.
“Cool your jets, friend. I don’t date people like you.”
“Handsome black mercenaries?”
Septimus laughs. It’s a friendly laugh, though, not derisive.
“Fair enough. Besides, curls, I’m gay.”
“Well. In that case.”
She lets the word sit, intended to be the end of the conversation, but Septimus isn’t letting her get out of this that easily.
“In that case?”
“In that case, I won’t kick your ass.”
The island is abandoned now, the aquatic brains nowhere to be seen. Jaq circles a few times, looking for anything that moves - but there are no people, no animals.
The island never was an island. Instead, it was a structure made of cargo containers, stolen from a cargo ship in a surprisingly effective raid by the Lobster King. It was an impressive monument to what a determined man who thinks he’s a lobster can order his servants to construct on his behalf.
Now, the “island” is wreckage. Twisted, broken, shorn containers turn the linear geometry of the structure into an organic creature more like a bomb crater than a building. Full containers have been ripped away and float in the ocean, rainbow-colored paint spots on the blue water. Others certainly gone to the bottom of the sea.
Jaq circles again, then comes around for a water landing.
Amid a wasteland of red, blue, and green intermodal containers, the three emerge onto the highest level plane they can utilize. About fifteen square feet, this section of metal is on an incline, but is not scarred or marked too badly.
“They must have been at work for hours after I left. Looking for something?”
Jaq looks at the damage. Curson looks at the horizon. Septimus looks at Curson.
Curson holds a hand out, toward Jaq. She doesn’t notice at first, but he snaps and calls attention to himself. Jaq gets the hint and pulls a black satchel off of her shoulder, passing it over to the demon.
Jaq watches Curson unzip the bag and pull out the brain that until very recently - about three and a half hours ago - was attached to Septimus’ head.
“Note that the underside of the brain is still concave,” Curson says. “It seems that this Whatever is, in fact, meant to be worn like a hat.”
“You going to?” Septimus asks.
“I am, yes. Each of you take one of the tentacles.”
“Which ones?” Jaq asks.
“Ah. Only the two longer appendages are actually tentacles. The other several are technically arms.”
Curson holds one tentacle-end out to each of them.
“Not information I ever expected to need,” Septimus says.
Septimus and Jaq both take their tentacle without excitement. Most of the fluid that covered the Whatever has dried off, but the caked-on greenish fluid still isn’t tantalizing.
“I am going to put the Whatever on my head. It is my hope that this will couple your memories with my abilities, and aid in discovering what, precisely, is driving the Whatevers to attack human settlements.”
Without waiting for response, Curson plops the brain down onto his head.
He stands perfectly still, not even breathing—demons only breathe when it suits them—and folds his arms behind his back. He stands a foot taller than Jaq, six inches taller than Septimus.
Septimus and Jaq turn to each other, then look at the tentacles in their hands, waiting for some kind of sign. There’s no glow, no twitch, nothing.
“Perhaps,” Curson says, his sudden voice scaring the sacred shit out of both of them, “you should try placing the tentacle arms to your foreheads. They may be having trouble connecting with your own brains.
“Obviously,” Jaq says.
“Why didn’t I think of that?” Septimus asks no one.
“Because aquatic brains are not your specialty,” Curson answers anyway.
Jaq laughs a small laugh, and holds the tentacle’s suckers against her forehead.
The next thing that happens is blinding pain.