Malcom Graves was a tough bastard. He’d been through metaphorical hell and literal high water, and come out mostly in one piece. He was a fighter, a grifter, a survivor, and he would not jump at shadows like a skittish child.
The job had seemed simple at first glance. A black market merchant had lost a shipment to one of the smaller Bilgewater gangs, so Graves and Twisted Fate had been hired to get it back. A loud distraction at the front, a quiet infiltration in the back, and they’d have the goods in hand before you could say “Destiny”.
Yet the gang’s warehouse hideout was suspiciously quiet. No lights in the windows, no guards at the door, nothing but the sigh of the wind and the groan of half-rotted timbers settling. This part of the city had been poorly built, too low and too far out to stand properly above the waves. Many buildings had collapsed, half-sunk into the water, but there still should’ve been someone around.
T.F. seemed to agree, his shoulders easy and relaxed in the way that meant he was trying not to tense them. He flicked his cards between his fingers, glancing down at them every now and then with a slight frown.
“Don’t like it here,” the gambler muttered under his breath, “got a bad feelin’.”
The words reflected Graves’ own thoughts, but hearing them voiced stirred a perverse determination within him.
“We need this job and you know it,” Malcom said. “Money’s too tight to cut and run for just a bad feelin’.”
“You've said that before,” T.F. pointed out, which raised the gunslinger’s hackles still further.
“Well this time’ll be different,” he snapped, then paused for a moment and gritted his teeth—the words cut, but he couldn’t really deny them. He had screwed up that fateful night, and the whole damn gang had paid the price. “Listen, if it goes south, I swear I’ll run, got it? Just be ready with one of them Gates for yourself.”
“I can do that,” TF said, flashing a smirk and a blue card from between his fingers.
Graves grinned back, and hefted New Destiny onto his shoulder. The gambler faded into the shadows, hugging the side of the building until he was out of sight, ready for his partner’s signal.
That signal was Graves kicking the door down.
“Alright you mangy-” he yelled, then stopped, the breath gone from his lungs.
There was nobody in the tomb-silent building. He wondered for a moment if they’d gone to the wrong place, found some truly-abandoned warehouse, but that couldn’t be right. There were chairs and a few makeshift tables built out of crates and upturned barrels. A few of them held half-eaten meals, others were strewn with stolen baubles, and one was topped with a gun, disassembled for cleaning.
Malcom took in the scene, his night-adjusted eyes scanning the remains of the hideout. There were clear signs of battle; bullet holes, smashed barrels, a cutlass stuck in the wall. Under the omnipresent smell of brine and dead fish, there was the sulfurous tang of gunpowder and the familiar stink of blood. People had fought here, died here, yet where were the bodies?
He squared his shoulders and took a step forward. Something crunched under his boot, and when he looked down he saw a cigar, the end still smoking. It was surrounded by a pool of blood, dark and sticky-fresh, seeping into blade-scarred floorboards.
Nope, nope, absolutely not. They’d lose the money and T.F. would gloat but it wasn’t worth losing their skins. Graves backed towards the door, New Destiny cocked and ready to fire the moment he saw movement.
“T.F.,” he called, fighting to keep a quaver from his voice. “We’re leavin’!”
“Maaaaaal…coooooooom…” the voice was ragged, wheezing, and the gunslinger’s hand tightened on the stock of his weapon. A figure, tall and lanky, loomed out of the shadows, and Graves was this close to pulling the trigger.
Yet he hesitated. That voice had sounded familiar, and the body stumbling towards him was the right height and shape, and obviously limping. Whoever had done this, whatever had done this, had hurt his partner.
“T.F.?” the gunslinger asked, lowering his gun’s muzzle. “You… shit, what happened-“
“Kolt… Wallach… the Brick…” the voice wheezed, “went to hell… to save you…”
Graves’ eyes widened, hands shaking. Those were the words T.F. had spoken right before their attempted execution, a brutal, scathing reproach.
The figure lurched forward with a rattle of chains and screech of twisting metal. The voice changed, going deep and dark and harsh even as it gasped and groaned.
“Wake up… dog…” it hissed in the distorted tones of the sadistic Locker warden, “not done… with you… yet…”
The next step clanged like a cell door closing, and took the figure into a shaft of faint moonlight. Graves let out a strangled gasp as he got his first true glimpse at the horror; too many arms, a metallic maw of gnashing teeth, razor claws glinting and stained with blood. A scrap of fabric fluttered aside to show a cage, holding a tangled mass of darkness and glowing, crimson eyes.
Then the creature charged; fast, too fast to be real.
Instinct saved Malcom, his trigger-finger moving of its own accord. New Destiny bucked, and the muzzle-flash showed him far too much, but it was enough to knock the nightmare back—just not enough to kill it.
The monster rose again, pulled up like a puppet on unseen strings, glaring at Malcom with crimson eyes. The gunslinger fired off shot after shot, barely pausing to reload, the shells a defense as much as an attack. The creature made a metallic groaning sound as it lurched to the side, scuttling like a spider on too many limbs as it dodged behind a crate, then appeared behind another, too damn fast.
Malcom backed towards the doorway, half-slipping in the pool of blood. He had to get out, get away-
There was a body behind him. No, not a body, not a person. It was too tall, metal ribs digging into Malcom’s back and cloth tickling the back of his neck. There were two of them.
Graves screamed like a little girl, turning to blast the thing’s head off. It exploded in a burst of sawdust, the driftwood body collapsing to the ground.
The real creature screeched, like a rusty knife scraping at his eardrums. Graves could feel something dragging at his soul, a weakness in his body and a blur before his eyes. He could hear those claws scrabbling at the ground, and he knew running would be no use. It was too damn fast, and even though he turned to fight he couldn’t raise his gun in time. One last flash of crimson eyes and razor claws-
Then a bust of golden light.
The creature stumbled back, screeching and stunned, and Malcom felt a hand on his arm. It was tugging him up, and the gunslinger belatedly realized he’d fallen to his knees.
“Come on!” T.F. snapped, voice high and tight with unconcealed panic, “before it wears off!”
Graves scrambled to his feet, or tried to. The darkness clouding his vision, the tightness in his chest, it was making his bad knees tremble too badly to work.
“I… I can’t, it’s done somethin’-“
“Shit!” T.F. said, letting go of Graves’ shoulder and grabbing his deck, power building in the air. For a moment more terror seized the gunslinger, and he was certain his partner would pull that old trick and leave him to die.
The creature clearly thought the same thing, as it tensed to pounce and hissed out words in a voice Graves recognized as his own.
“Coward…” it gasped like a dying man. “Left me… to rot…”
“Shut up!” T.F. screamed. His hands fumbled on the cards, and the feeling of gathering power flickered like a candle in the wind.
Rage rose in Malcom Graves, enough to push aside the animal terror. How dare this bucket of bolts use his voice, his words, to tear open wounds that were just now healing? How dare it play with them like puppets on godsdamned strings?
“Take this you bastard!” Graves yelled, once more hitting the monster with both barrels. It was blown back, but the shadows were gathering, swirling around it, and there was a distant sound of crows…
Then the power around T.F. discharged like a burst of static, and the dark warehouse was thrown into sharp relief. A glowing spectral eye floated just beneath the sagging rafters, and for the first time Graves could truly see his attacker.
It wasn’t pretty—a twisted parody of humanity made from iron and driftwood, cloaked in tattered sailcloth and clutching a whaler’s flesh-hook. The roiling mass of darkness at its heart pulsed inside a ribcage of crudely-welded barrel hoops, and its claws were broken cutlasses and flensing knives.
Yet the fog in Graves’ head was parting, the strength flowing back into his limbs. T.F.’s spell had broken whatever power the monster held over him, over them both, if only for a moment.
This time Malcom’s knees were on his side, no matter how much they complained, and he was on his feet in an instant. The two men shared a single look, a wordless agreement, and lit up the warehouse with fire and shells.
Then they turned and fled into the night, shawl and duster flapping as they ran. They could hear screeching behind them, monstrous and otherworldly, and Graves knew it was faster than they were. Yet it hung back just a little, toying with them as it it wheezed in a sing-song voice.
"Through the field… Down the lane… Voices never heard again!"
“Shut your trap!” T.F. snapped, tossing another golden stun-card over his shoulder for a second’s reprieve, and provoking a snarl of rage. “We’ve got to lose this bastard!”
“You’re the guy with the exit strategies,” Graves panted back, running as fast as his short legs could carry him.
“Didn’t think I’d have to plan for a murder mannequin!” T.F. replied. His hands were still shaking but the banter seemed to steady him, even as they fled across another strangely-abandoned pier. He looked around even as he ran, seeking some kind of out, then grabbed his partner’s shoulder. “In here!”
They ducked into a boathouse, old and rickety and sagging to one side. The front of the building was open to the sea, and the water at the center of the single room was surrounded by a narrow walkway. A few sad and sorry dinghies floated there, moored to half-rotted posts, and the floorboards looked ready to buckle at any moment.
Twisted Fate had to be terrified, not just of the monster on their heels but the real possibility of a sudden fall into cold, dark water. The man must be desperate to risk his greatest fear coming true again, but a desperate T.F. was a clever T.F..
Malcom grabbed his partner’s arm, half balance and half reassurance. If they fell in, he had the strength to pull them back out, like he’d had the night of fire and blood.
“Where’s the exit?” Graves panted as they ran, tempering haste with caution as best they could. “I don’t see-“
“It’s not our exit,” T.F. said, just as they reached the far side of the walkway. “It’s his.”
Graves turned to look over his shoulder, and sure enough the monster was there. It wasn’t running anymore, but prowling towards them like a predator that knew its prey was trapped. Its mouth was open, dripping brackish black fluid that might have been blood or oil, and staring straight at Twisted Fate.
“Little… rats…” it croaked in the Sea-Witch’s gloating voice. “Already… drowned…”
TF swallowed hard, shrinking back against the wall. Graves instinctively stepped in front of his partner, raising his gun even though he knew it to be useless. This thing was clearly messing with their heads, with their fears, and now it had T.F.’s aquaphobia to play with.
“Tobias!” Graves yelled, jabbing his partner roughly with an elbow. “What’s the goddamn plan!?”
“Sh- shoo…” T.F. gasped, then seemed to grab onto some last thread of resolve. “Shoot the floorboards!”
Graves tilted his aim down and pulled the trigger, blasting the flimsy wood to splinters. The beast let out a screeching roar as it fell into dark waters, clutching for the edge of the ragged hole with a single claw. Malcom wouldn’t have that, couldn’t have it—one more shot and it had nothing to hold onto but sawdust and air, then salty seawater. It disappeared completely, leaving only a few scattered bubbles to mark its passage.
“R-reckon that killed it?” Graves stammered, lowering his shotgun.
“No,” T.F. gasped, shaking his head. “Too… too old to drown, I think.”
Graves didn’t know what that meant, but was willing to trust his partner’s mystic expertise.
“Think it’s too old to rust?” Malcom asked, looking down at the waters that held so many terrors.
“Don’t know about that,” T.F. said, straightening his dandy hat with a shaking hand. “My hope it that it’s too heavy to swim, but let’s not stay to find out.”
Graves nodded, then looked at the shattered walkway between them and the exit. It was completely destroyed, so they’d have to risk one of the leaky old dinghies moored beside them… or, given the way T.F. was playing with his cards again, Malcom would have to risk it alone while his partner took the easy route to shore.
The gunslinger sighed and shouldered New Destiny, kneeling to unmoor one of the little boats, but his partner stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“That one’s liable to sink,” he said, flashing a card that meant bad luck, “we’ll need to take the one on the left.”
“We?” Malcom asked, raising a brow.
“If it comes back, I’m not takin’ it solo,” the gambler said with a shaky grin. “I’ll risk the water to have you watching my back.”
Graves scoffed gruffly, but cracked a little smile of his own.
“So long as you watch mine, partner.”