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The Devil You Know

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It’s all that damned hunter’s fault.

The thought is all that replays in Otto’s mind through the long and miserable voyage, as he huddles in the dark damp hold beside the crate that holds Master’s coffin.

Master was used to attracting the attention of vampire hunters. Over the centuries, more than he could remember had stumbled into his path. He used to laugh when he told Otto how he’d swatted them like flies.

Yet the hunter who tracked him one fateful night was different. No timid villager or feeble old intellectual, this man was not armed with mere crosses and garlic and holy water: the fabled weapons whose effectiveness was no more than a myth, as Master’s past enemies all learned only too late. Instead, this new breed of hunter spoke strange words that Otto did not understand, like virus and mutation… and he carried only a small pistol that looked to be half made of glass.

Master had laughed at that insignificant toy, as well—until it struck him with something that was not a bullet.

Poison. That had to be what was carried by the dart Otto plucked from Master’s arm later on.

Although Master’s undead body should have been immune to anything of the sort, this poison somehow took hold. It made him stagger and weaken, his face filling with an astonishment that frightened Otto more than anything else in his young life—even more than Otto’s first glimpse of Master himself, on the night the vampire took him as a servant. The discovery that Master was not invulnerable was equally shocking to them both.

They escaped the hunter then, but it was all Otto could do to help Master back to the abandoned cellar that was his lair. And after that, it was all Master himself could do to whisper grave words of instruction before he crawled shakily into his coffin, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth.

No longer safe here. Put me on a ship bound for anywhere—any country far away from that sorcerer with his venom. Let me rest until we arrive there, and I will surely be recovered.

Sick with worry, Otto did as he was told. He closed and crated Master’s coffin for a journey, and took Master’s hidden cache of money to book passage on a ship. His anxious and disheveled state must have put off the captains of the first two vessels he tried; one made excuses, and the other drove him away outright. The third, however, was swayed by the small fortune Otto offered. He accepted him as a passenger, and sent two sturdy men to collect the crate that was his only cargo.

At some point the captain must have mentioned the name of the country they were bound for, but Otto was too upset to remember it.

The ocean voyage was a new level of wretchedness. Although the money Otto paid was more than enough to warrant space in a proper cabin, he insisted on staying in the hold with his mysterious crate—remaining by the side of his Master. His whispers were met only with silence, and he prayed desperately that Master was simply lying dormant, as always in their past travels. He would not need blood in that state, and perhaps the rest would allow him to heal of the poison’s effects, just as he had assured Otto.

But if not

That uncertainty drove Otto nearly mad. He wanted nothing more than to tear open the crate and see for himself that Master was alright. He wanted to know that it was still Master’s deathless body within, and not the mere pile of ash that remained when a vampire was slain. Yet he resisted that desire, because Master had ordered that he not be disturbed until they reached their destination. Even under such dire circumstances, Otto was not willing to risk incurring Master’s wrath through disobedience… or jeopardize their chances of reaching port at all, for Master was sure to be ravenously hungry when roused. It would not do for him to tear out the throats of the crew while the ship was on the open sea.

So Otto waited helplessly, not even knowing how many days and nights he passed in the dank dimness of the hold. He accepted the food that was brought to him with all the grace he could manage, but something about him still put the sailors ill at ease. His sharp ears caught them arguing over whose turn it was to see “that bleedin’ lunatic down below”, and the number of men willing to take on the task dwindled, until only one dared to fetch him his meals. This fellow was young—even younger than Otto—and he would smile and talk to their eccentric passenger, without ever asking any prying questions.

Although Otto never learned the lad’s name, he liked him very much.

Things only grew worse when the ship encountered a storm. Over the lashing of rain and wind, Otto could hear the sailors’ mutterings become shouts: voices swearing that there really was a corpse in that looney’s crate, just as many of them suspected all along, and it had brought bad luck upon them all. Best to save their lives by throwing the ruddy thing overboard, they said… and perhaps the lunatic himself for good measure.

Otto cowered against the crate and listened to the approaching men, fearful yet resolved to die himself before he let them lay a hand upon Master—but their footsteps were halted by the voice of the kind lad, just outside the hatch. In firm but reasoning tones, he chided his elders for their silly superstitions. He argued that storms were perfectly normal in the region at that season, and that the man they grumbled against was a well-paying passenger who ought to be respected as a fellow human being, even if he was somewhat odd.

The murmurs grudgingly subsided, and soon after, so did the storm. The ship sailed on, and the lad continued to bring Otto food; and perhaps even more precious, brief interludes of companionship.

Now, however, the voyage is at an end. Otto has awakened from fitful sleep to find the ship’s movement stilled, as far greater noise and activity drifts down from the deck above. Without being told, he knows they have reached port, and a surge of both joy and trepidation bounds in his heart. It is time for his Master to rise at long last…

If Master is still alright.

Otto finds a metal bar, and his hands shake as he pries the nails from the lid of the crate. When he opens it, eagerly whispering for Master to awake, there is still only silence. His trembling increases as he reaches for the ornate latches that secure the lid of the coffin itself. He is torn between haste and slowness as he unfastens them: anxious to confirm Master’s welfare, but even more afraid of what he may find.

He begins to raise the lid… and with a resonating growl like an animal, a hand shoots out to seize his left wrist.

This is not the slim, pale hand he knows so well, that has by turns delivered both punishment and mercy to him. Instead its skin is a stony gray, the veins swollen and glowing red like molten iron.

It wrenches his own hand deeper into the depths of the coffin, grasping with a viselike strength that is not so unfamiliar—but the vicious lance of pain that follows is new.

Master has bitten him for blood many times before, but this time is different.

At that moment the hinges of the hatch creak, and Otto somehow manages to tear his hand away. He slams down the lid of the coffin, quickly throwing its latches, and hides his left arm behind his body as he turns to meet the smile of the kind lad.

“I thought you should know we’ve made landfall. Hinomoto looks like a lovely place, at least so far as I’ve seen from the deck railing. The captain has granted us shore leave, and I…” The lad’s words trail off as he edges into the dim light of the hold’s single lamp. He peers at Otto with a growing expression of concern. “Oh dear—are you feeling quite alright? You look white as a sheet.”

Swallowing hard, Otto tucks his arm a little farther behind his back.

“I… do not feel well enough to leave the ship just now,” he answers in his own heavy accents, forcing his voice not to quiver. “I think it is a fever. …Do you suppose a druggist on shore would have a medicine for that?”

The lad’s expression lights with sympathetic understanding. “I’m certain they would. Don’t worry. I’ll run right along and fetch something for you now.”

“…I would be grateful,” Otto whispers.

With one last smile, the lad turns and dashes off. Otto watches him go… and then he raises his arm from behind his back, to stare down at the purpling skin shot through with glowing gold that is fast spreading from the bite wound on his hand.

The thing in the coffin that is no longer Master snarls and heaves against the lid. Otto hears wood splintering, and closes his eyes.

He has repaid his final debt as well as he could. When the monster created by the hunter’s poison bursts forth to sate its hunger, he knows he will be fated to be at its side as ever; but at least the one soul on the ship who was kind to him will not be on board. Perhaps the escape will be temporary as that poison spreads across this foreign shore, but Otto can hope that his last friend will find a way to survive.

As the coffin lid gives way with a crack, and the monster slowly rises from within, Otto slumps to the deck and focuses on each burning breath in his lungs. He focuses on that because his thoughts are slipping away, becoming too difficult to recapture.

The last awareness his mind recognizes is hunger. For one glorious instant, he realizes it is the same hunger his Master feels, and he knows his sole dream of becoming just like Master has finally come true.

Then Otto lets go, and the hunger is all that remains.

2018 Jordanna Morgan