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Tim Maguire

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  1. Tim Maguire

    Storied Soundtracks

    Scarred Memories “So Blake, what was that about?” Jakes asked. His manager couldn't respond, due to being pinned to the wall with Jakes' sole good arm. His weaselly face red, Blake stopped struggling, instead raising his arms in a defeated shrug. “Because I distinctly remember you promising me a nice easy fight, didn't you? Did that look like an easy fight?” Blake shook his head, his hands pawing ineffectually at the wall as his face went a bilious shade of purple. The locker room was silent beyond the two of them, the sole other occupant clearing staying well out of their conversation. He glanced over at said individual, but the Red Carnival's chief chirugeon returned the glance with naked indifference, clearly not willing to anger a prize fighter. “Because to me, that looked like me being locked in a cage with a undead amalgam, didn't it?” Jakes smiled at his manager. “One made entirely of knives for that matter.” “Excuse me sir,” the chirugeon stopped just out of arms reach, his expression politely neutral. “I do need you to sit still if you'd like that stitched up properly,” he said, pointing at the gash running up Jakes' arm. He'd never bothered learning the man's name, but he knew enough to listen to him. After all, he'd patched him up after every other fight he'd had. With a sigh, he let Blake go, the smaller man collapsing to the floor and gasping hoarsely. “Sorry,” Jakes said to the chirugeon, sitting down with his injured arm facing the healer. The cut wasn't as bad as some he'd had, barely nicking the muscle below. It was just long and ragged, thanks to the piece of rusty scrap he'd been slashed with. The chirugeon tutted and produced a threaded needle from somewhere inside his apron. “This will sting,” he warned, just before he lowered his needle for the first stitch. Jakes hissed as it slid through his skin, but by now it was a familiar pain, like the ache in his knuckles and the dull throb of his other, larger scars. Underground cage fighting wasn't exactly a safe profession after all. In a way though, it was almost welcome, a sign that he'd won yet again. “I didn't know.” Blake pushed himself up against the wall, not ready to return to his feet just yet. His scrawny neck was red, darker blushes showing where Jakes' fingers had been. His voice was raspy, his lungs laboring to force a breath down his abused throat. “It was supposed to have been a normal fight, a silurid or something squishy like that. Someone must have changed the fight card after you'd entered the cage.” “Is this a bad time?” Blake stiffened, looking up in shock as Jakes turned to their guest. Dannon was accompanied, as always, by his two bodyguards, two identical men who never seemed to speak. No one knew what their names were, but everyone called them Tweedledee and Tweedledum, though not to their faces. Given the huge pepperboxes they kept under their coats, politeness was less a virtue and more common sense. “No of course not sir,” Jakes said as Blake pulled himself to his feet, attempting to stand at something akin to attention. “It's your arena after all.” “True.” Dannon's laugh was expansive like the rest of him. His presence seemed to fill the room, dragging Jakes' eye back to him even as the chirugeon kept working, the constant nick of the needle oddly soothing. “How you feeling?” “Alive.” In a way it was true. No matter how annoyed he'd been with Blake, the truth was that he'd enjoyed the fight. Sure, when he'd seen that thing approaching, a lurching mass of rusty blades and twisted flesh straight out of a nightmare, he'd almost screamed, but once the fight had started, it'd been a different matter. There was an ease there, just kill-or-be-killed, none of the faffing around that life normally had. “Good man,” Dannon said with a nod. He reached inside his overcoat and produced a wad of scrip. “Here's your pay for the night with a little extra for the mix up. Take a week or so off, just until you're properly healed up.” “Thank you sir.” That was why Jakes liked fighting for Dannon. Sure, it was dangerous, but the boss at least had the decency to be generous with his fighters. “I'll try and put my feet up.” “Just try not to spend it all on girls,” Dannon said with a knowing laugh. ***** It took about a week for his newest scar to heal up into a red line running up his bicep and by then much of his prize money was gone. The girls at Madam Felicity's had been suitably sympathetic when he'd shown off his wound (though he might have embellished the story a little) and he'd spread his gratitude around. Still, he'd put enough aside for the important stuff, like Trevor's. “Well if it isn't everyone's favorite brawler,” Trevor said, looking up from his tools as Jakes walked in. The tattooist's shop was a tight fit, little more than an alcove with space for him and maybe two other people, if they were small. He was definitely one of those well-hidden secrets of Malifaux and not one of the ones that tried to bite your face off. “Need that arm covered up?” “Yeah.” He'd been coming to Trevor ever since he'd started the gig at Dannon's. He specialized in covering up scars and Jakes had quite a few. Not any more though. Now he just had a lot of quality ink. “I kind of got cut by a, errr, saw.” “You get in a lot of accidents, you know that?” Of course Trevor knew what he really did for a living, but fight clubs like the Red Carnival were illegal, even if no-one was going to be telling the Guild, but it wasn't like he could just admit it. There were rules about that sort of thing. “I've been told.” Jakes lowered himself into the only other chair in the room and offered up his arm. Trevor gave it a quick once-over, tracing the line of the scar with his finger before turning to the line of books on his shelves. Humming, he leafed through them, finally stopping on a slim volume. He opened it without looking, placing it on the table between them. “How's that look?” He asked, tapping a design on one of the pages. It was an exquisite rose, its petals only just beginning to open and a scroll curled around its stem. It was a cut above Trevor's usual work, the kind of thing that took pride of place on a man's arm. The girls would love it. “Looks good to me.” Jakes took a slug from the bottle he'd bought before arriving. Weirdly, he could handle the pain of fighting far more than the pain of a tattoo. A little liquid courage took the edge off and made the whole thing a lot more endurable. Trevor hummed as he began, some little ditty that Jakes only half-remembered. The pain was quick but muted by the alcohol. A soft burn, like day-old sunburn, spread across his arm as he drank, almost matching the rotgut's fire as it burned its way down his throat. Jakes focused on his bottle as Trevor worked. Every now and then the tattooist would stop and nip into the back of his shop for more ink, but Jakes' didn't pay much attention to it. Trevor wouldn't tell him how to throttle a Nephilim one-handed and he wouldn't tell Trevor how to do his job. Besides, ticking off a tattooist half-way through the job seemed like an incredibly bad idea. Like always, his attention wandered, partly due to the alcohol, but mostly due to the boredom. Trevor's shop wasn't the most interesting place in Malifaux at the best of times and he didn't really feel the need to watch what was being done. His thoughts quickly turned to how he'd arrived how he'd arrived in Malifaux, something he tried to avoid when he had the option. He'd not chosen to come to Malifaux. Like many people he'd been a convict, destined for a short life in the soulstone mines. A few scraps with the guards later and Dannon had bought him off the mine. From there life had been simple: beat a monster to death once a week and get paid for the privilege. Sure it was dangerous, but it was better than back home and the the girls at the Felicity's certainly appreciated it. Life was simple, just the way he liked it. “There.” Trevor leaned back just as Jakes finished off the last of his rotgut. By now the pain of the tattoo was little more than a soft warmth, almost undetectable compared to the fire in his belly. He stared down at it, his vision swimming for a moment. “What do you think?” “Who's Jennifer?” It took him a moment to focus on the tattoo, his eyes blurry. The name was written on the scroll wound round the rose's stem and it definitely wasn't on the design he'd been shown. “Dunno,” Trevor said with a shrug. “You asked me to add it.” “Really?” Jakes stared down at the tattoo. He must have done. Trevor wasn't the type to just add to a tattoo without asking. “I think I've had too much to drink.” “I couldn't possibly comment,” Trevor said with a laugh. “Anyway, the usual rules apply.” He produced a bandage and began wrapping it around Jakes' arm. “Keep it covered for the next couple of days. Also, try not to get cut there, would you? I don't like seeing my work getting destroyed.” “I'll do my best.” Once Trevor was finished, Jakes pulled himself from the chair with a lurch and a nod of thanks. Trevor sat back on his stool, a smile playing about his lips. “One thing,” he said as Jakes stepped into the doorway. “Next time, could you get stabbed somewhere else? I'm getting bored of arms.” ++++ Jakes wanted to kick himself as he got dressed the next morning. He'd been so busy with the fight and enjoying the money that he'd forgotten about the letter from Jennifer. She needed his help and she was going to get it. He was going to have to hurry, now that he'd wasted so much time. The throbbing pain of his head and tattoo was nothing compared to his irritation with himself. He'd never forgive himself if she got hurt. Jennifer wasn't like him. She wasn't strong like he was, but she was definitely better than he was. She could help people, not just beat them to a pulp for money. Malifaux would chew her up and spit her out if he didn't protect her. He just had to find her first. “Jakes!” His landlady's yell came the moment he stepped out of his meagre apartment, before he'd even managed to close the door. “You're overdue!” Mrs Beauchamp (and never, ever anything else) was a wizened old woman who seemed carved out of pure spite. She seemed barely able to stay on her feet, but none of her tenants ever angered her. She'd been living in Malifaux since the Breach had reopened and it showed. She genuinely wasn't afraid of anything, let alone men merely twice her size. “Sorry Mrs Beauchamp,” Jakes pulled out the roll of scrip he'd been planning to give her on his way out. Her expression barely changed as she counted it, before making disappear into one of her many petticoats. “I couldn't find you yesterday.” “Well I'm here now aren't I?” She shook her head, a few grey hairs escaping out from under her purple hat. “Honestly, I don't know why I bother. I have people queuing up for one of these apartments.” “Err, Mrs Beauchamp?” She shot him a glare but he plowed on. He only had one piece of information on Jennifer and his waspish landlady was the best source he could thing of. “Have you ever heard of a company called Ambell Seamstresses?” “What, are the whores boring you so much that you need to go chase proper women?” “No, no, nothing like that. A friend of mine's moved into town and all she told me is that she works there. You've been here since the beginning, you must have heard of it?” “One of your predecessors worked there a few years ago,” she said, glaring at him. “It was somewhere between Little Kingdom and the Quarantine Zone. If you get eaten by the dead, don't blame me.” “Thanks Mrs Beauchamp.” Jakes smiled at her for the first time they'd met. One step down. Now if only his new tattoo would just stop hurting. ***** “Could you just answer my question?” Jakes asked, for what felt like the hundredth time. He'd not been down to Little Kingdom for years now and the streets were far more twisty than he remembered. Dozens of new market stalls and shops dotted every corner and their colorful displays obscured the shape of the streets around them. He'd gotten lost a half dozen times and the locals had been even less use than the few signs he'd been able to find. On top of that, his new tattoo hurt more now than it had when he'd got it, though that was probably due to him being sober. Still, he'd eventually found Ambell's, but things weren't going well. “Does a woman called Jennifer work here?” “You can't just barge in here and demand that!” The Ambell's factor was a small man, but he he was red-faced with anger and a few of his staff were hovering around his office doorway, not quite ready to charge in yet. Given that most of them were older women armed with little more than a sharp needle each, they weren't exactly a threat. “Get out!” The pain in his arm flared alongside his anger, but Jakes forced it down. It would be oh so satisfying to beat the answer out of the shrimp, but it'd just cause trouble. Plus Jennifer would strangle him if he beat up her boss. He was going to have to do the one thing he wasn't very good at: not start a fight. “Look, we got off on the wrong foot,” Jakes said, “and I really don't want to cause any trouble. See?” He did the only thing he could think of: sitting down. Folding his legs under him, he sat cross legged in the middle of the office. Somehow, that only made his new tattoo throb more. A murmur of surprise ran through the gaggle of seamstresses behind him and he had to resist the urge to glare back at them. “Err..” The manager had to lean over his desk to look at him, surprise written all over his face. Jakes just shrugged at him. “Look, I just want to talk to her,” Jakes said, again. “She does work here, right?” “What is she too you?” It wasn't the manager who spoke but one of the women at the doorway. She was bundled up in a voluminous dress, but her eyes were sharp and clear. “She your girl?” Jakes laughed and shook his head. That was impossible, even in Malifaux. The woman stared at him, like he'd grown a new head. No doubt she wasn't used to men like him having a sense of humor. “She's got more sense,” he said, smiling up at the woman. “We're just old friends. I said I'd look her up when she got here, I've just been a little busy. That's all.” “She left a while back,” the woman said after a moment, her sharp gaze never leaving his face. “After we tried to clear the basement.” It felt like the temperature in the room dropped. Several of the woman's companions took the slightest step back and the manager audibly swallowed. Jakes knew the signs. Something had happened, something very Malifaux, and now they did their best not to think about it. No doubt the basement door was nailed up and buried behind a wall of junk, so that they didn't even have to look at it. “Any idea where she is now?” The women shook their heads, a few of them a little more pale than they had been a moment ago. “She was staying at Smythe's Boarding House,” the manager volunteered, flicking through a pile of files with a practiced eye. “I've no idea if she's there, but that's where she said she was staying when she started here.” “Thank you.” Jakes pulled himself to his feet, his arm throbbing more than before. Things were worse than he'd thought. Jennifer was in trouble, proper Malifaux-style trouble, and if he didn't hurry, she'd be dead before he could do anything to protect her. ***** It was only a little obvious that Smythe's was both a ladies' boarding house and most definitely not a whorehouse. The house sat a little back from the road and lacked the typical gaudy decorations of anything that hoped to attract customers. The parlor was equally restrained, with slightly faded wallpaper covered up by a series of cheap paintings. The distinct lack of large bouncers with blunt objects was also a bit of a hint. Also, most whorehouses didn't have little old ladies armed with colossal blunderbusses on staff either. That was definitely new. “Could you please point that somewhere else?” Jakes asked. He was slightly surprised that she could even lift the cannon, with her stick-thin arms, but it didn't waver in the slightest. His tattoo throbbed painfully, but he ignored it. It didn't hurt as much as the slice that had opened his arm up in the first place, but it was getting close. “No.” Her voice was stronger than the rest of her, as hard as steel and just as forgiving. “Okay, that's fine.” It really wasn't but he was pretty sure he could fit his head into the huge barrel, so he wasn't going to argue with her. Not getting shot had been a long-term hobby of his. “I'm looking for one of your guests, a friend of mine called Jennifer.” “Never heard of her,” the old woman said. “Now, out!” She pointedly didn't use her blunderbuss to gesture, preferring to keep it pointed directly at his head. “Look I've spoken to her employer, so I know she used to live here, so why don't you just let her know I'd like to speak to her. I'm not here to cause any trouble.” His tattoo was really beginning to get painful now, burning like he'd spilled hot water on it. “Out.” She didn't even raise her voice, but there was steel in her voice. “Look lady, my landlady once evicted a Resurrectionist with nothing but a skillet and a candle. I get that that's a big gun, but you're really not scaring me.” Jakes grinned at her. The best part of that was that it was true. Mrs Beauchamp really had evicted (though exorcised was perhaps a better word) a Resurrectionist from her building. She had the commendation fro the Guild on proud display and made sure to explain it to every tenant. There was a reason she owned one of the most peaceful boarding houses in Malifaux. “A skillet?” The old lady asked, finally lowering her blunderbuss a hair. It wasn't enough that he was going to try something, but it was a good sign. “You're one of Evie's.” “I only know my landlady as 'Mrs Beauchamp', but I don't think she'd ever tell any of us tenants her first name.” The burn of the tattoo was getting worse, coming in waves now that went from the merely painful to excruciating. He resisted the urge to rub at it as the old landlady studied him through her sights. “That sounds like Evie,” she said and she lowered the blunderbuss, one hand carefully lowering the flint into a safe position. Setting it aside, she perched on the arm of a chair. “if you're one of her tenants, you're probably okay. The old bat's a good judge of character.” “Not that she'd ever admit it.” She cackled at that, reaching into a pouch on her waist and producing a pipe and matches. Striking one on the stock of her blunderbuss, she stoked it up and took a few quick puffs. “Your friend moved out a few days after she left her job. Only reason I remember that is because she left before I could ask her how she was planning to cover her rent that month. I haven't seen her since, but one of the girls said she'd seen her down at the copyist's a while ago.” Jakes nodded. He knew the copyist, owner of one of Malifaux's few legal printing presses. He specialized in copying any book for any one. Dannon knew him for some reason and the copyist had been at a few of Jake's fights. They weren't friends, but he knew enough to find the man. He was getting closer to Jennifer, he could feel it. Now, if only his tattoo would stop hurting. ++++ “Never heard of her.” Simpkins the copyist was tall and hunched from crouching over a desk at all hours. Combined with the black robes he wore, it made him look like a vulture, waiting for the opportunity to swoop on a rotting corpse. His claw-like fingers even looked the part, gnarled and twisted from holding a pen for years on end. He barely even looked up from his work as he spoke spoke. “Her name is Jennifer. She has red hair and is really smart.” Far smarter than Jakes. She had her letters and some figures, the kind of thing you needed to make a way for yourself. She'd have been a perfect hire for Simpkins. If she'd come here, no doubt he'd have snapped her up. “Look, Jakes is it?” The copyist looked up, his eyes dark and cold. “Dannon'll be upset with me if I have one of my guards break your arms, but he'll understand. So how about you go find a whore to bother instead of me?” “I know she was here and I'm not leaving until you tell me where she is.” Jakes had to bite back a growl as his tattoo throbbed some more, actually reaching the point where it was beginning to seriously hurt. “Out.” The copyist didn't raise his voice, but he did ring a bell on his desk. The office door opened instantly and one the copyist's conspicuously large bodyguards stepped into the room, the bulk under his coat clearly belonging an augmented limb or two. He didn't do anything, but the message was plain: there'd be no answers without violence. For a moment, it was tempting to throw down with the copyist's minions no matter how many of them there were, but it was a bad idea. The pain from his tattoo made it hard to think, but Jakes held back. If he got in a fight with the copyist's bodyguards, then they'd inevitably call the Guard. No matter how good he was in a fight, he couldn't fight all the redcoats and that's where that plan ended. More importantly though, it was obvious that the copyist wasn't all he claimed to be. No normal businessman had an augmented bodyguard. There was something else going on, some other lie, probably connected to whatever was going on with Jennifer. Jakes had no idea what it was, but he did know one thing: in Malifaux, some words shouldn't be copied. ***** The only problem with spying on the copyist's all day was his tattoo getting more and more painful. It had gone from a dull fire to a raging inferno, a blinding agony so sharp it was all he could do not to scream in agony. Every couple of minutes he debated tearing off his bandage and examining the tattoo, but he trusted Trevor. For now he'd just suck it up. Unfortunately, the only thing he could find to distract from the pain was worrying about Jennifer. She was definitely in trouble and it was hard to fight the urge to chase her down. If the copyist hadn't been his only lead, he'd have been tearing the city apart looking for her. As it was, all he could do was hope she'd be okay for a few more hours. If she wasn't, well, he was very experienced at breaking bones. The copyist didn't leave 'til well past sundown, hours after all his staff had left for the day. The stack of books in his hands made it clear what he'd been doing while Jakes had been waiting. Unlike the ones in his office, the books in his arms were cheap and simply bound, little more than sheafs of paper glued together. It was a design Jakes was quite familiar with, for all he couldn't read. The copyist wasn't very good at sneaking through the city. He put too much work into it, glancing round almost constantly, but worse was that he didn't know his way through Malifaux very well. Jakes simply cut ahead of him, taking advantage of familiar alleyways to cut past the crowds the copyist had to fight his way through. The lack of street lights made the whole thing easier, with the copyist's high bald pate like a flashing light as he forged his way forwards. Malifaux's deep, slightly-off shadows made it even easier to hide, even if they were slightly colder than they should have been. It was tempting to just grab him now, but he didn't know enough yet to figure out just what the copyist was up to. He looked like he was just dropping off a delivery, but it was late and he had people for that. No this was something bigger. He wasn't hugely surprised when the copyist came to a halt outside the Red Carnival. The copyist had clearly been working for someone sketchy and it wasn't like Dannon kept his hands clean. The copyist's furtive knocking on the side door, on a night when the hall wasn't in use, only made it more obvious that he was up to no good. After all, no one went to the hall to read. Jakes grabbed Simpkins before anyone answered the door, covering his mouth so he couldn't cry out and dragging him round the corner. It wasn't even particularly hard, as the copyist seemed to be more a scarecrow than a person, little more than bones wrapped in a robe. He bit down on the hand Jakes put over his mouth, but the pain was nothing compared to the screaming agony that was coming from his tattoo. Whipping him around the corner and out of sight, Jakes slammed him up against the wall as hard as he could. The copyist squawked, the books fluttering from his hands. “You know,” Jakes said, adjusting his grip so he was holding the other man up by his neck, “I've seen these books before. They're the ones the bookies use, aren't they?” Jakes kicked one of books until it fell open. The pages were covered in closely spaced text crowded around complex diagrams that made his eyes hurt. Jakes knew what he was looking at even if he was glad he couldn't read it: Magic. “Well somebody's suicidal.” Simpkins let out a little moan of terror, going slack in Jakes' hands. “So here's the deal: you tell me what I want to know and I don't talk to the Witch Hunters.” The copyist nodded as much as he was able, so Jakes slackened his grip a little. “I didn't want to, okay?” He said with a snivel, his throat working desperately. “They forced me, Dannon and the,” his voice dropped and he glanced around furtively, “arcanists! Who knows what they'd have done if I hadn't agreed.” “I really don't care.” Jakes punctured his comment with a bone-rattling shake, making the copyist's head wave like a flag in the wind. “What I want to know is: where is Jennifer?” “What, Dannon's girl? She's got nothing to do with this.” The copyist managed to look confused despite the way his face was turning an unpleasant shade of puce. “She should be inside somewhere. Never leaves the place apparently.” “Thank you.” Jakes dropped the copyist, absently rubbing at his tattoo. It was even more painful now, every motion wince-inducing. He'd had worse, but that had been injuries from fights, not just tattoos. Once he'd found Jennifer, he and Trevor were having a little chat about that. There was just one more thing to do before then. ***** The first thing you learned in the cage was that there were no rules. It was kill or be killed and Jakes was very good at avoiding the latter. The trick was to ensure that you'd won the fight before it began. The good news was that he knew that the battle was coming and they didn't. Step one was easy. Jakes simply knocked on the door again. Tweedledee eventually answered it, scowling silently when he realized who it was. Jakes grinned at him, then punched the other man in the throat. A wet snap filled the night air as something broke in the other man's throat. Tweedledee went white with pain, a gasp rasping wetly out from his lips, but he still went for the pepperbox under his jacket. Jakes caught his gun hand, holding the big pistol out of line as he rained blows on Tweedledee's face. To his credit, the other man stayed standing for a while, swinging clumsily with his free hand, but Jakes was an expert at this. Even the hits on his aching tattoo were nothing compared to the hits he took in the ring on a regular basis. Jakes dragged Tweedledee's body out into the street and covered him with his coat. Given where they were, it was unlikely anyone would check a body before dawn and Jakes intended to be well away by then. Then he went back inside, after relieving Tweedledee of his pepperbox. He found Tweedledum with Dannon in the latter's office. Jakes emptied the stolen pepperbox into the remaining twin's chest with a tearing roar the moment he walked into the office, barely breaking stride as he killed the man. Dannon simply gawped at the explosion of violence, frozen at his desk as Jakes dashed across the room and grabbed Tweedledum's gun, turning both of them on his boss. “Jakes?” Dannon's mouth worked like a fish's, almost chewing the words as he struggled to understand what was going on. “What are you doing?” “Where's Jennifer?” A surge of pain from the tattoo made his stomach flip and it took everything he had not to make a sound. Dannon's expression flickered, fear and suspicion warring for control of his face. “How do you know that name?” He asked, his gaze flicking down to his fallen bodyguard for a moment before looking back at the guns pointed at him. He was surprisingly calm for someone being held at gunpoint, but then again, he seemed to much deeper into Malifaux's seamy side than it had seemed. No doubt he'd been in worse situations. “It doesn't matter.” Jakes kept himself on his feet with an effort. He was going to have a long conversation with Trevor once he'd rescued Jennifer. “Where is she?” “Downstairs,” Dannon said after a moment's consideration. He carefully put both hands on his desk, illustrating his lack of armament. “Show me.” ***** Dannon led him down into the depths of the Red Carnival, past the familiar corridors of the fight club and into the catacombs below. The crime boss kept his silence, neither trying to talk his way out of things nor blustering with threats. Instead he merely acted with silent grace, even being so polite as to hold the door for Jakes. It was good thing he did so as well. The pain from the tattoo was so bad now that he could barely think straight. Icy shudders ran through Jakes every few seconds, barely distracting from the burning that had spread all over his arm. It was as if the tattoo was fighting against the completion of his mission, trying to to put him down at the finish line, but it wasn't going to happen. Jennifer needed him and he couldn't let her down. Eventually, they came to a corridor of ancient stone, the walls worn smooth by time and weather. It looked like part of ancient Malifaux, one of those parts of the city that belonged to its original inhabitants, the people sensible humans didn't even think about. Wherever Dannon had locked up Jennifer, it was a long way from humanity. Dannon opened the door casually, swinging it open with a polite gesture. The room beyond was small, little more than a tiny ex-storeroom with decaying shelves. A mattress had been shoved into the corner with a bag of clothes sitting on it as though the owner was planning to leave in a moment. A single lantern hung from the wall, its flame flickering as a breeze blew through the door. Jennifer sat at a table in the middle of the room. She was a slender woman, her clothes hanging off her meagre frame. No one could call her pretty, not with her wide, moon-like face cratered with acne, but to Jakes, she looked like an angel. She was unhurt, scribbling on a piece of paper, her free hand playing with a pair of dice as she looked up. “George?” She said in surprise, only for her eyes to widen in surprise as she saw Jakes behind Dannon. She half-rose, throwing the dice into the air with a reflexive toss. They burst into purple flame and orbited her head with an angry hiss. Her pen clattered to the ground and she made a warding gesture with one hand. “Jennifer!” Jakes gasped. The pain surged in his arm again and his knees went out from under him. He fell to the ground, the pepperboxes dropping from his nerveless hands. Dannon took a step back, stooping for one of the guns as he did so. “Jennifer! You're okay!” “Who are you?” She asked, glancing to Dannon in confusing. “George, what's going on?” “Jennnni-fer!” The air seemed to shiver at the voice that came from his arm, accompanied by a fresh wave of nauseating agony. The other two took a step back as the bandage on his arm tore in an instant, a barb slicing through it like a moth escaping from a cocoon. “Jenniiiifer!” Jakes screamed as the pain surged even further, unable to even move as Dannon pointed the rescued pepperbox at him. It didn't do the Red Carnival's master any good. A barbed lash, whip-fast and covered in leaves, smashed into him and threw him into the wall. Dannon gave out a pained wheeze and crashed to the floor, blood staining his strained shirt. Jennifer shrieked and backed up into the far wall, her face going white with terror, the two dice dancing around her head as though they were feeling her fear. “I've been looking for you!” The voice from his arm took on a sing-song voice as more barbed tendrils erupted from his skin. Jakes forced his head around even as his vision blurred in agony. The tattoo had spread across his entire arm, the barbed stem rising out of his skin as though growing out of it. Worse though was the rose itself. The petals had unfurled, revealing the rasp-like teeth hidden beneath. His skin bulged impossibly as it tried to force its way free. “I found you! I found you!” “No!” Jennifer gestured, a frantic flail, and her dice's fire billowed outwards. Two purple fireballs flashed across the room, slamming into the waving tendrils as they pulled themselves from his flesh. The pain lessened for a moment, but then it flared once more as fresh branches tore themselves from his flesh. Jakes slumped to the ground as the whole tattoo tore itself clear of his arm, spraying blood in every direction. Bloody branches and petals the color of blood slithered across the room, their barbs sinking into both men as they swarmed towards the woman he'd been trying to rescue. The world went black as he heard Jennifer scream in terror. ***** Trevor played with the two dice for a moment, careful not to roll them. The tiny soulstones set into each face glittered in the dim lamplight and he could almost taste the power within. Reverently, he tucked them into their leather pouch and returned them to the hidden drawer that was their new home. Closing it, he released the breath he'd been holding and leaned back on his chair. “Not bad for a first try I suppose.” The walls of his basement rose beyond his lamp's light, yet the shelves on them were crammed with tiny bottles of ink that glittered temptingly. On each of them was a single name and he could recite the entire list from memory. The only one of them he'd managed to empty sat on the desk in front of him, an oily scum sitting at the bottom. Trevor turned in on its side and watched the last of the ink lazily slide down the side of the bottle. “One down,” he said to himself, turning back to the rows of waiting ink. In their black depths, tiny roots stirred slightly. “Now, who's next?”