The Monster of Elendhaven, page 1
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To all my friends who believed that I’d get here eventually even when I didn’t: thank you for everything. You had to listen to a lot of crap.
— I —
For a long time, he didn’t have a name. What he had were long white fingers that hooked into purses and a mouth that told easy lies. What he had were eyes that remembered faces, feet that knew the alleys, palms that grew calloused and soot stained from crawling through the cobblestone streets.
He got the name when he was three feet and four inches tall, kneeling on the dock with a coin in his palm, from a sailor who stank of rum and fish oil. The sailor grabbed him by the back of the neck and slammed his head into the wall—once, twice, three times—and then yanked the coin from his hand. His lip split on the dock and his mouth filled with a foul mixture of grease, salt, and blood.
“What’s your name, then?” the sailor asked, turning the coin to catch the light.
He shook his head, confused. What is a name?
The sailor laughed and kicked him in the ribs. “Why, don’t you have one, dock rat? No little Hans, little Ralf. Little wee Johann of Elendhaven? Nameless spit of a hallankind.” The sailor kicked him a second time for good measure. “Suspect I’ll find you dead on the shore any day now, beached like a rotten seal.”
He put a hand over his mouth and let the spit and blood pool hot and sticky in the center of his palm. “Little Hans,” he whispered to himself, “little Ralf.” He turned the last one again and again as he wobbled to his feet. “Little Johann, little Johann, a little thing with a little name.”
Things with names didn’t turn up cracked and ground against the rocky shoreline. Things with names survived. He would be a Thing with a name.
* * *
A creature newly named is a creature still half-animal, and Johann’s self-education made generous space for the use of tools and the vice of violence before he could learn regret. He learned lessons like this:
A man wrenching fingers in his hair. Forcing him to the ground. Forcing a lot of other things, too, all the while grunting and pressing bloody little half circles in his shoulders. When it was over Johann was left lying in a puddle of his own sweat and piss, staring at a very large, very sharp rock. Without his thinking about it, his fingers closed around the rock and he stumbled to his feet.
He found the man and kicked him in the nose, bashed his face with the sharp rock, and ground his heel into his windpipe, relishing the muted snap of cartilage and all the delightful little croaks that bubbled up and out of the man’s mouth. When the man stopped moving, Johann used the rock on his face until it wasn’t a face anymore. He stared at the blood and pressed a stained palm to his heart. He panted heavily, in time with the flutter between his ribs.
Power was sweeter than apples. It was cheaper than water, and sustained the soul twice as well. If Johann was going to be a Thing with a name, then from now on he would be a Thing with power, too.
* * *
Johann grew another three feet so fast his body could hardly keep up. His skin was pallid and thin, stretched taut over a skeleton that threatened to slice through his flesh at every knobby juncture. He walked with a deliberate slouch, arms knifing out from his body at hard angles when he placed them in his pockets. He cultivated a persona with the dedicated fervour of a character actor: a practised charm that appeared natural, a crooked smile, an easy laugh, spider-leg fingers that snapped and threaded through the air as he spoke. The role became so lived-in and claustrophobic that the effort required to peel back the skin was not worth the reveal. He never took his gloves off.
He knew of two ways to make money, and he knew that he didn’t like the first one.
He killed to get the things he wanted: a professor of literature’s pretty, smiling throat taught him how to read; a seamstress bled to death from a long, craggy gash down the center of her back once she finished the trimming of his jacket. He was careful with her, frog-stitching the overlocked seams of her spine with a boning knife, whistling to himself as he worked. A butcher showed him how to disassemble a body, and then disappeared down the drain in pieces himself. Johann liked killing. He appreciated that every part of the killing act was a function of instinct, that any thinking person is only a breath away from an animal. A half creature with no name.
He refined killing, practised it like an art. He practised like his knife was a horsehair bow being pulled over a throat stringed with catgut. As he grew skilled, he began to live life with the philosophical enthusiasm of a man eating his last meal. He showed up at parties uninvited, drank with the dock rats on holidays, sat in the square at dusk and watched how people behaved while they were worked to the bone. When the gas lamps flickered on, he lay in the shadows like an oil slick and thought of himself as a piece of the dark, a feature of the city that crept across her rooftops like a ribbon pulled through a bonnet, moving smoothly through the fabric, drawn tight to pull it shut. Elendhaven’s very own murderer, Johann of the Night.
For some reason, no one ever remembered his face.
* * *
Elendhaven was Johann’s entire world. He was a creature weaned off its oily tit.
Southerners called its harbour the Black Moon of Norden; a fetid crescent that hugged the dark waters of the polar sea. The whole city stank of industry. The air was thick with oil, salt, and smoke, which had long settled into the brick as a slick film, making the streets slippery on even the driest days. It was a foul place: foul scented, foul weathered, and plagued with foul, ugly architecture—squat warehouses peppered with snails and sea grass, mansions carved from heavy, black stone, their thick windows stained green and greasy from exposure to the sea. The tallest points in Elendhaven were the chimneys of the coal refineries. The widest street led south, rutted by the carts that dragged whale offal down from the oil refineries.
Hundreds of years ago, the North Pole had been cut open by searing magic, a horrific event that left the land puckered with craters like the one Elendhaven huddled in. For five centuries, the black waters had been poisoned with an arcane toxin that caused the skin to bubble and the mind to go soggy and loose like bread in broth. Once in a while, the fishermen would pull up an aberration from the ocean floor: something frothing and wet with its insides leaking out its eyes. “Demons and monsters,” visitors whispered, “such creatures still sleep inside the Black Moon.”
* * *
Johann learned what sort of creature he was by accident.
One day he slipped on a patch of ice. His ankle turned in the wrong direction and plunged him off a roof like a crow with a clipped wing. The ground swallowed him up, and the
“Well,” he said aloud. “That was fucked up.”
He began to experiment. Cautiously at first; a pin through the loose skin between thumb and forefinger, a slice just behind the elbow. A dive out a window, a plummet off a tower. His stomach spit out two bullets with elastic ease and he laughed like a boy, giddy and intoxicated. When the watchman took another shot, Johann accepted a round in the clavicle, whooping like a jackal as he jammed a knife into the man’s throat. He yanked the bullet out later, painless as a sloop cutting the waves. Johann watched the sun come up, spinning the bloody musket ball between two fingers while whistling a jaunty tune.
He tried to decide later what he was: Johann the Thing. Johann the Demon of Elendhaven. Devil Johann, Johann in Black, Oil-Dark Johann. Monster was the best, his favourite word. The first half was a kiss, the second a hiss. He repeated it to himself again and again: “Monster Johann. Monster, Monster, Monster.”
— II —
Herr Florian Leickenbloom was an old-money dandy. He went out to the shops with a gold-tipped cane tucked under one arm, dressed in burgundy and tarnished gold with a mess of cravat and jewel round his throat. Leickenbloom Manor was the oldest mansion in the city: four floors, twenty-six rooms, and a wrought-iron trim that made it look like an ancient prison that had been garnished by an extremely fussy knitting circle. The Leickenblooms had built Elendhaven, but Florian was the only one left. He lived alone in the manor, undisturbed by visitors or servants. It had been that way for fifteen years.
His profession was accountant, serving wealthy clientele who did not inquire into his personal life. He was a small man with delicate bone structure: high, rouged cheekbones, thin pianist’s fingers, cloaked neck-to-wrists-to-ankles to hide the meager width of his rib cage. He moved with the careful gait of someone who’d been fragile since birth.
Johann first saw Florian Leickenbloom at a cheap bar in the industrial district and was drawn to the contrast between the bar’s impoverished atmosphere and the gold thread in his coat. Johann slouched behind a lamp with his back against the wall, alert and invisible. Florian was his perfect opposite—a blazing beacon of straw-yellow hair and glass-pale eyes. He nursed his drink for an hour: vodka tonic, blackberry garnish. Johann watched him as he sighed into the glass, turned coins over in his pocket, wound the tips of his pale hair around two fingers. His expensive rings flashed in the lamplight. He was an easy read: the countenance and affected speech of a noble, the lead-lined exhaustion of someone who feels he has suffered beyond the measure of his years. His gestures were stiff, impeccable, rehearsed, appropriate for a man of his respectable comportment but undercut in subtle ways, like cracks in fine porcelain. Through those cracks, Johann could see a youthful fear trembling in his clear eyes. An easy read, but by no means an uncomplicated one. Johann thought that he looked rather as if he wanted to be robbed.
So Johann stalked him for three weeks. Elendhaven was a good city for stalking, with its black factories and blade-thin alleyways. It snowed ten and a half months a year and only stopped when the sun came out for a frantic six-week tenure surrounding the summer equinox.
Florian had a very specific routine: he left the house at seven in the morning, fetched a coffee and a jam biscuit from the tea shop nearest his home, arrived by five after eight at the office, where he clacked away at his counting tools and wrote financial reports for the six hours between coffee and business dinner. What only Johann saw was that the windows in his office fogged up when he was inside, that snow turned to steam under his feet. He had observed doors opening with no hands on them and watched Florian’s business partners do what he said even when they clearly did not agree with his basic principles. Florian Leickenbloom never paid for his coffee and biscuit in the morning, but the staff at the café did not seem to notice.
Florian Leickenbloom was a sorcerer.
* * *
“I know what you are” was the first thing Johann said to him, his palm braced against the brick and his knife tucked into the hollow of Florian’s throat as if it were made to fit there. “And I want what you have.”
Florian Leickenbloom’s response was to titter at the back of his throat and nudge—with great and delicate caution—the flat of the blade. He asked, “Is this a robbery, or a murder? If it’s the former, could we perhaps make it swift? I’ve work to do.” He seemed to have misunderstood the subtext entirely, and was staring at Johann with an uncommon confidence.
“Neither,” Johann said. “I want—”
What did he want? Florian’s eyes were the colour of light split through a glass of vodka. His wrists were so narrow that they could be snapped with one hand, the bones crushed in a strong palm as easily as the rib cage of a sparrow. But there was a scattering of embers inside his chest that burned as bright as gold trim under a lamp. A ghost nipping at his heels that no one else in all of Elendhaven had noticed. For Johann, the desire to speak to him was instinctual, almost primal. What did he want?
“—I want … you to hire me. For us to work together. You came into this alley unattended and ended up with a blade against your jugular. Don’t you think it’s unwise for a man of your stature to go out alone?”
“An unconventional résumé,” Florian replied shakily. “But I am afraid I’ll have to pass.”
“You don’t understand, Florian Leickenbloom. I’m not asking you. I’m telling you—I know what you are.”
Florian’s lips went flat. It took him a moment to respond, and when he did his voice was as brittle as dried seaweed. “How long have you been following me?”
His boldness robbed Johann of his momentum. “Well. I…”
“And how is it that you know my name?”
Johann railed: “Oh, that’s fucking obvious: your files, your clients. I looked you up in the public archives. I’ve been—”
“You’ve been what?”
“Stalking you,” Johann finished, deflating. “I’ve been watching you through the windows of your office. I follow you, when you go out.” Spoken aloud, it sounded asinine. Hardly the hunt, hardly the actions of a predator. Herr Leickenbloom raised his chin. A thin line of blood appeared beneath the blade and snaked over the metal. Johann watched it trickle all the way to the point of the knife.
“You’re not afraid,” he observed. “Why aren’t you afraid?”
“Oh. Oh no.” The air whistled through Florian’s teeth as his tone danced along the edge of shrill. “I assure you, I am terrified. You’re quite a fearsome man. But I am afraid of most everything, so I’ve found it useful to evaluate risks with a clear head in the moment and do all my screaming after the fact.”
Johann lowered the knife and eased back on his heels. It was not what he had been expecting. It was better, perhaps—this strange man who gave lip while quaking. A branch bending beneath the wind, but not snapping. A grin pulled from one end of his face to the other, slow and pleasant. “Herr Leickenbloom,” he said sweetly. “I am about to show you a brilliant trick. I guarantee that you’ve not seen anything like this before, and unless you take me up on my offer, odds are you’ll never see it again.”
He took a step back and slit his own throat in a fluid, well-practised movement. The cut flopped open, fish gutted, making his breath stutter and bubble, his vision spin out, showing where all the veins had frayed and turned the blood frothy. He let Herr Leickenbloom get a good look at the carnage before cracking his neck straight with the heel of his palm. The wound healed seamlessly, and Johann drew a gloved finger across his jugular, chuckling at how Florian had grown red and splotchy along his cheekbones. That wasn’t all that was red: he’d been sprayed across the face by Johann’s blood in a clear, brilliant arc—ear to ear, like a carn
“Y-you’re right,” he stuttered. “That is quite the trick.”
Johann’s vocal cords were still raspy from the slice. “As I was saying, Herr Leickenbloom, I have a business proposition for you.”
* * *
Leickenbloom Manor had twenty-six rooms, but Florian only lived in two of them. His bedroom—on the second floor—and an adjacent library with a desk and two chairs. He took all of his meals at restaurants and kept the curtains drawn tight. The common area was as tall and narrow as a chapel, glutted wall to wall with ghostly furniture: wooden chairs, the mantel and cabinets, the dinner table and its companion seats, even the paintings on the wall—all these things smothered in sailcloth, untouched for years. Johann assessed the space from the corner of his vision, with the tips of his fingers. There was dust inches deep gathered beneath the shadow of the fireplace and the cloth was mottled with sunbaked stains. What was the purpose of living like this? he wondered. He wondered if Florian was a man with troubled thoughts; memories that required caging, held still and quiet in the palm of the hand. It reminded Johann, comfortingly, of a morgue.
“The ability of humans to use magic is aberrant,” Florian explained, sweeping a tarp off the couch so that they could sit. It was cherrywood upholstered in chartreuse, frayed at the seams. “Magic is the element the planet needs to thrive, to produce life, much like the”—he cast about for an example—“the carbon filament in a lightbulb. It is the channel of life, the conduit between nothing and something. But of course, you shouldn’t touch it. You’d be scalded.”