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The Rise of the Angel of Death

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Silence rose from the river with the fog, curling around the railings and creeping across the decks. The moon hid her bright eye behind curls of clouds, unwilling to watch. The intangible pressure of it closed in until her heart seemed barely one beat short of bursting, her blood hammering painfully in her veins. Sapphire refused to die. Not before he did, at least. She’d been very cautious, allowing months to pass by until he must have felt safe from retribution. She’d practiced too - on the spineless, boot licking curs he called “friends.” Once she’d been satisfied that she had the nerve to end a life in cold blood, Sapphire had plotted out the grande finale.

Except her blood felt anything but cold right then and her hands were so slick with sweat that dropping the knife seemed a very real possibility. The darkness of the unlit hallway would have concealed the gleaming steel, but Sapphire still held the blade hidden by her skirt as she wiped her palms. In Herr Schwarz's time, the lanterns would have been lit and guests still enlivening the decks, but his son preferred to clear the crowds out early and drink in solitude. Sapphire moved forward. Who was she to complain of lost revenue when it suited her needs so perfectly?

The longcase clock in the formal dining room chimed the hour and Sapphire froze, flattening herself to the wall as she listened. It was a quarter to two in the morning. Arnold had been given more than enough time to drink himself into a stupor. He'd been doing it for weeks, just like clockwork himself. Sapphire had debated if it could be satisfying to kill someone who was unconscious, unable to feel the terror and agony she'd suffered because of him. It felt like more mercy than he deserved, but he was still larger and stronger than her. Years of gambling had taught Sapphire the value of stacking the deck.

But she didn't hear any snoring. Sapphire put her ear to the door and held her breath, but there were no sounds of life in the office. The hinges made no noise as the door swung open, thanks to all the oil she'd rubbed into them a few days earlier, and she stepped into the State Room. Herr Schwarz's office. Arnold's liquor den. The room where her life had ended and where his would too.

The reek of stale sweat, alcohol, and the smoke of cheap lamp oil made her stomach lurch violently. Once upon a time, she had loved this place. The proprietor of the Empress Lily would have welcomed her into a room flooded by sunlight. She's have been breathing in the scent of fresh polish on oak panelling and sweet cigar smoke as she was ushered to her chair, his hearty laughter encouraging her to join him. They had sat together for hours, discussing business, politics, and anything else that was at hand. On Sundays, when the dedicated Lutheran decreed that all in his floating kingdom were to be given a day of rest, they would talk of the past.

The clock, whose metallic music still echoed along the empty corridors, had been built with his own hands. Large, strong hands that had enveloped hers gently as he reminisced about the oppression he’d fled Germany to escape - the forced conscription he’d feared and the religious persecution he'd known. He’d talk of his old clock shop and the pretty girl from County Cork who had bought his best mantle clock - a clock that had mysteriously broken whenever she wanted an excuse to visit. His proposal had included a promise to fix her clocks for the rest of their lives. He’d speak of losing almost everything during the civil war and his rise to wealth. He’d lived in hope, even after his wife’s death, that he could extend the hand of equality and shared prosperity to all.

All that love and hope had reached a dead end in the good-for-nothing slumped in what had been her favorite armchair. In the murky glow of a single lamp, she could see it had been pushed back from desk at a haphazard angle. His head was slumped on his chest and she could just barely make out a half full whiskey bottle in one hand. The bottle was dripping onto his shirt and staining the red velvet cushions. She wasn’t even sure he was still breathing. Sapphire’s lip curled in disgust. This wouldn’t be murder. It was stepping on a maggot - something unclean and all the more loathsome for its pale, wriggling helplessness. Some things needed to die before they spoiled anything else.

“For the Angel of Death spread her wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as she passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew still.”

Sapphire's heart leaped painfully. The thing in the chair wasn’t a maggot at all, but a spider slowly uncurling after playing dead. Sunken, bloodshot eyes stared up at her from a face that looked more suited to a place on a barroom floor. A thrill of cold fear ran down her spine as she took in the confident smirk. The element of surprise was lost and Sapphire’s mind was already weighing the odds of success against the chance of escape. She took a step back.

“I’m not impressed by poetry.”

Unlike her hands, Sapphire’s voice didn't shake. Arnold sat up straighter, tilting his head almost coquettishly, but the look in his eyes made her freeze in place. There was something fixed and glassy in his stare, as if he were already dead and his wraith had lingered to torment her. The fine hairs on the backs of her neck and arms pickled, standing on end as terror sunk it’s claws into her soul. The clock in the foyer was counting down the hour.

“Would you prefer instead...” He paused, an actor allowing for a dramatic-beat before delivering his line, “And Darkness and Decay and the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all?

The breath she’d been holding hissed through her teeth as a red rage blurred the edges of her already limited vision. He was toying with her. Sapphire clutched blindly at the handle of her knife. After taking everything - the sanctity and sovereignty of her own body, the sight in her left eye, the future she might have had, everything - he would now make a mockery of her hatred.

Gathering her dignity, a feat of self control beyond any other effort she'd made in her life, Sapphire glared down her nose scornfully. If he wanted to show off his high priced education like an overgrown schoolboy instead of facing her like a man, she would be happy to knock his pride down a few pegs first. She was no less literate and far more intelligent. Sapphire smiled thinly as she said, “I would rather share a glass of Amontillado with you.”

The faint satisfaction of triumph curdled in her gut as he burst into laughter. Just like the child she’d deemed him, Arnold slapped his thighs and grinned for all the world as if they were friends sharing a private joke. He raised the bottle high in her direction, toasting her wit even as he dismissed her as a threat, before pouring the remainder down his throat - and his shirt front.

“Excellent! Brava!” He cheered, an obscene parody of the audiences that had once admired her talent. Another swig and his mad tittering became a deep, barking cough. Almost a sobbing sound. Almost. He dropped his face into his hands and rocked the chair from side to side, every crack of the wooden legs on the floor shuddering through her like a slap. “I can see why Father chose you. If he had only given me half a chance…”

The woman was forced to tune him out, the senseless babbling making her feel as unhinged as he seemed to be. She’d come for revenge and he was hell bent on bewailing his childhood - as if they were friends! As if she didn’t know his father had given him chance after chance, enduring public humiliation and wasting his money bailing a worthless son out of all his problems. As if she could care about his petty hurts and complaints when he’d-he’d -

Pay attention to me!

The wild scream was followed by a sharp movement of his hand and Sapphire threw herself sideways to avoid the bottle. She needn’t have bothered. It smashed against the wall far to the right of her, staining the expensive wallpaper and falling in a glittering rain of shards. The man also fell - heavily, as only the dead and the disgustingly drunk do, with no attempt to save himself. There was a crunch and a muffled howl of pain that should have been satisfactory. It wasn't. The face that was lifted up towards her had transformed into something infernal, blood rushing from a twisted nose to congeal between the bared teeth of a skeleton grin.

“You think you're clever, don't you? Special. His precious little diamond in the rough. Always looking down on me, taking the place that should have been mine! I was his son!” Malicious, meaningless words and bright red blood were spat at her feet. The thing crawled it’s way upright using the chair, clinging to the arm as it gasped for air. It should have been dead already. She needed it dead. She needed this nightmare to be over. It kept speaking anyway, rasping out filth that held a deeper malice than she could explain or forgive. She was the victim and yet it was the monster that was playing for pity. “You're no better than I am, now. Did you think I wouldn't notice? I knew you were going to come for me and I've been waiting.”

The thing calmed at that, outwardly at least. He pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve, wiping at the lurid stains on his face and pinching off the flow of blood. Sapphire’s knees were buckling. Slowly, she reached behind her, grasping at the wall and backing up until she could surreptitiously lean against it. The feeling of wallpaper on her palms made Sapphire realize her hands were empty.

“At first, I was willing to believe Charles fell overboard. He was a drunk who didn’t know his boots from a chamberpot half the time.”

She spared a glance at the man who had returned to slumping in her chair. The weapon had fallen on the fringed end of an oriental rug, only a few steps away. Her feet refused to move.

“William tripping down a staircase and breaking his neck was much more suspicious. I was certain the Angel of Death was among us when Harry died. He was an exquisite equestrian, so I had to appreciate the poetic justice of using his greatest pride to bring him down. A half broken horse with a wicked little bur under it’s saddle can hardly be blamed for murder. This has been your greatest performance of all, my dear, and I was your most attentive audience.”

He had the audacity to smile, turning back to her expectantly. As if he had the right to expect anything from her but contempt. Her silence eventually provoked him, the thin veneer of civility peeling away to expose the underlying rot. The floorboards creaked as the man stood and took a swaying step in her direction. An errant shoe caught the edge of the knife, sending it skittering even further away. He stumbled, but his bloodshot eyes never left her face.

Sapphire almost gagged at having to breathe in the stench of him as the man leaned in and said, “You know I wouldn’t need evidence against a lady of your… questionable virtue and parentage. I said nothing because I didn’t want to spoil our little game.”

Go to hell.

The words boiled up from the depths of her soul, scalding with the fire of her rage and hissing through teeth that ached from being clenched together. Sapphire trembled with the violence of it. The sneering face smoothed out and came so close that all she could see was her own reflection in a pair of eyes as dead and vacant as glass. Blue eyes, very much like her own. Suddenly she became aware of something she couldn’t see, a stirring of air and the loathsome heat of a hand moving on her blind side. It paused over her cheek and Sapphire feared she would fly into bits and pieces if it touched her. It didn’t.

“I will, but you’ll be coming with me.”

Whispered words fell into the shadows and were swallowed up. He turned and walked away, leaving Sapphire to slide down the wall in a heap of sweat damp skirts and shaking limbs. Her skin prickled, feeling filthy where he’s almost touched her. The man was staring off into the darkness. His mother’s portrait had once hung in that direction. Not even a dead woman, her lively smile captured eternally in paint, would smile for him now. Sapphire had quietly made sure of that weeks ago.

“I read an article once, pure conjecture of course, that there could be many worlds in existence. Worlds where different versions of ourselves made different choices.” He laughed, breathless and without the wild humor of before. “Do you think it could be true - could there be worlds where we never reach this point and the story has a happy ending?”

Sapphire was inching across the floor, still sitting on legs that refused to hold her. The unfairness of life and the finality of death were her beliefs. That he had gone raving mad without anyone else noticing was a cautious addition to that list. The distance to the knife was only a few feet, but she might as well have tried swimming the Mississippi. The tips of her fingers clawed the floor in slow motion, dragging her along without progress or hope. She was drowning in terror.

A badly scuffed patent leather shoe came down on her wrist, forcing it down at a painful angle until a stifled moan was forced from between her lips. The sickening crunch of breaking bone never came. Through the ringing in her ears, the desperate woman heard the demon snarling again, a low rumble that became a piercing howl.

“Oh, no. No. No you don't. He forgot about me, but you… you won't ever forget me and you will pay attention when I speak to you!”

Rough hands clamped down on her ribs and she screamed for the first time since That Night. Fireworks in ghastly reds and blinding whites filled her vision as she was lifted and thrown, her head striking the walI. The screaming went on and on, long after she'd run out of breath, echoing through her mind and chipping away at the fragile core of her very self. Pain, always pain, only pain, was what grounded her once again in reality. In falling, she'd landed on the broken shards of glass. Sapphire staggered to her feet. She didn't look at the crimson stains blossoming in the fabric over her legs. It was the knife, beautiful in it's pristine and deadly promise, that her eyes sought out in the gloom.

He was looking at it too.

“Poor little thing,” the monster cooed. His face wore a mockery of solicitude and he shook his head over her dishevelled dress and twitching hands. “Stage fright? Would you like a drink to steady your nerves? Would it help if I turned my back and looked for some Amontillado?”

He made a show of looking around, exaggerating each movement as he looked under the chair cushion and behind the desk. With each “failure” to find it, he looked back with a broad grin and a shrug, holding his hands up in a pantomime of dismay. Warmth was running down her chin. It took a moment to understand she’d bitten her lip and it was her blood. Dripping and dripping, the taste making her choke on the memory of her face slamming into an ornate little table that collapsed under her weight. Agony had exploded in her head, her eye, and then the world had gone black. Sapphire blinked away the past and the burning in the corners of her eyes.

Words welled up on her lip too, but they refused to spill over as easily as her blood. So many feelings had been festering in her heart, poisoning every beat with paranoia, spite, and self loathing. Sometimes Sapphire wished she had just d-- down came his shoe, kicking the knife in so close that every nerve in her body screamed that the time was now.

“Pick it up you mulatto whore.”

Steel bit into her palm as her hand slammed down on the knife. Sapphire blindly threw herself at the shadow looming over her, uncaring if she died as long as she had a chance to cut out the monster's lying tongue. His open arms caught her.

Crushed to his chest, lifted so that her boots could only kick helplessly at his shins, Sapphire thrashed wildly to escape. She knew this moment; remembered how she hadn't had the strength to fight him off on That Night. The weight of his body, his hoarse breath in her ear. His mouth was pressed to her ear this time too, yelling to be heard above her hysteria.

“Whose story is this?! Who is Montresor and who is Fortunato?! Tell me that! Who do you think you are!?”

Her arm was pinned between them, the knife pressed flat and harmless against his ribs. His raving tore at her, as if he was trying to force his madness into her mind too. Her body, her sight, her heart, her pride, and now her sanity. He couldn’t have it! He couldn’t take anything else! The monster’s pulse was pounding against her cheek, his sweat and skin rubbing against her; a touch so repulsive that she would have happily killed either of them to end it. But if he was too close, then so was she.

Sapphire’s teeth dug into yielding flesh and the words became a scream; a clarion call declaring her triumph and freedom as she was thrown aside. Spitting, snarling, lips peeling back from her teeth in a feral grin, she dragged herself up on all fours. Maybe they were all animals in the end. Maybe they were both mad. Maybe she didn’t care. The woman leaned back on her knees, shifting her grip on the knife and carefully watching his stumbling approach. Patience.

“How does this story end?! If you’re so much my superior then you tell me that! God damn us both to hell! We’ll go together!”

They might, a small part of her mind whispered. It didn’t care, but the distant little voice was contemptuous of his constant references to ‘them’ and ‘us.’ There was no connection between them except violence and she was going to server it once and for all. It would all be over once he was dead and she could take back her life. She licked her lips and tasted dried blood. The nightmares would end and she could feel safe. He lurched with every step, throwing his arms out wide for balance. He was getting closer, but so was she.

Time slowed, her entire focus on his chest instead of the words his mouth was still forming. The sides of his diner vest hung open, inviting her to rise up and try once more. This time, the knife cut down along his sternum, bouncing off bone before sliding between the ribs. There was resistance and she stabbed again. The monster’s arms clutched her nearer, fighting for balance, but they were falling and nothing could stop it now. Arnold’s back hit the floor and her body weight landed the handle, driving the blade in deep with a small pop she both heard and felt.

The gears of time ground to a halt.

Slowly, the woman lifted her head. Their hands were clasped together around the knife handle wedged between them, wet and heat seeping out from between their fingers. She stared at the spreading stain on the white linen shirt. They had been cut loose from time and so she had eternity to study the confusion in his eyes, the twitch at the corner of his lips, the way his fingers plucked at hers. Clumsy. Weak. He opened his mouth and some part of her expected a child’s voice to come from the monster’s lips, begging for forgiveness for breaking everything so badly and promising to be good.

Instead, a froth of brilliant red vomited up at her and time dragged them back into a world where the evil things people did could never be taken back or fixed.

Different memories came to her now; a flash of silver. She was small and afraid. A fish was flopping helplessly on a dock and her father was showing her how to gut and clean it. Drowning on dry land. Wet gurgles and bubbling and thumping around. Flopping on the boards. Gaping mouth and wide, staring eyes. Blood on her hands. Sapphire retched and scrambled away on her hands and knees, retreating into the darkness.

When the clock rang out three in the morning, it was the only sound in the world. She uncurled from the corner she’d crawled into, her body stiff and limbs numb. After a moment, she realized that her hands were still covering her ears and let them drop into her lap. They left a crust of blood in her hair. The corpse was where she’d left it, but she needed to be sure.

Trompe-l'œil. A good artist could make it seem that the empty eyes of a portrait were watching you. After staring for a long time, it would have been easy to convince herself that the dead eyes might suddenly blink or that the still chest was moving. She nudged the corpse with her foot. Nothing. No life. No peace, no sense of vindication or freedom. She nudged it again. Harder. Kicking. Kicking and kicking and digging her fists into her hair, holding back the screaming that filled the emptiness in her chest and the tears that wouldn't fall. There was a wet crunch. Breaking. She was breaking and breaking and the pain was more than she could ever endure or make sense of because nothing had stopped and it was supposed to have stopped. If it didn’t stop then what had she committed murder to gain?

Sapphire grew still and listened. The clock was ticking and time had moved forward without her.

The corpse didn’t cry over broken ribs and Sapphire didn’t cry over it. She didn’t cry at all. Retrieving her knife wasn’t too difficult. On the desk she found another bottle of whiskey, already open and ready to rinse the blood from steel and skin. She’d need water later, but it was a decent start. Folded in the front of her bodice was a letter she’d spent days practicing a different penmanship for. Considering all the people Arnold Schwarz had crossed, many of whom were known to be ruthless moneylenders, she doubted the authorities would waste much energy on investigation, but she liked to be thorough.

A blood smeared slip of paper was found on the corpse hours later, the inked declaration reading “Debt repaid.”

By the time the sun was high in the sky and an unfortunate kitchen girl had run screaming on to the main deck, Sapphire was clean and lying quietly in her own bed. Dark stockings hid the bandages on her shins and her bloody clothes had been wrapped in an oiled canvas bag. When things settled down, she’d simply put it with the rest of the garbage going into the furnace. The knife tip traced a cold pattern on her arm, thoughtful and slow.

It had been years since she’d seen her father, but his voice was more real than the light filtering through the window curtains or the ache in her body. His voice and the prick of the knife. The profound silence of an empty cathedral was in her soul, a sanctuary abandoned and defiled, and his voice echoed down the darkened corridors. His petit ange. Every demon in hell had once been an angel with the audacity to think they could usurp the power of God. He’d squeezed her tiny hands in his until it almost hurt. Vengeance was the Lord’s, he had read to her in admonishment. Life and Death were God's domain. It was hers now too. She had not been saved, but there might still be others who could.

Angel of Death or Demon, wouldn’t matter in the end. Her story would end in hell.