In the Year of Our Lord, 1716
â€œWay I hear tell it that one’s so bad, he whups his own arse thrice a week.â€
Eyes wide, Cameron Amelia Jack burst out laughing at the unexpected comment she overheard above the raucous tavern voices and music. Until she caught sight of who it was directed toward. That sobered her quick.
Holy mother of God . . .
There was no way to miss that giant mass of human male as he swept into the crowded room like the living embodiment of some ancient hero.
No, not a hero.
A pagan god.
At least six and a half feet tall, he towered over everyone else there, and had a shoulder width so great, he was forced to turn to the side to come through the doorway and stoop down lest he decapitate himself. A feat he accomplished with a masculine grace and swagger that said he’d done it enough that it was habit from years of experience.
Which made her wonder how many times as a boy he must have whacked his head afore he learned to duck like that.
With a quick swipe of his massive hand, he removed his black tricorne hat and tucked it beneath his arm, exposing a thick mane of unbound, wavy sable hair that gleamed in the dull candlelight. He held a set of rugged features that appeared chiseled from stoneâ€” in perfect masculine proportions.
Never in her life had she beheld his equal in form, strength or grace, but it wasn’t just the unexpected sight of him. He possessed that raw, commanding presence that was unrivaled by king or commander. An air of noble refinement that was offset with an aura of bloodthirsty intolerance, cool indifference and utter ennui.
He was lethal. No doubt. Beguiling. More than that, he was an enigmatic study of warring contradictions that quickened her heart a lot more than she wanted to admit to anyone, especially herself.
In a festering den of inhospitable inequity and evil, this man reigned as its supreme emperor. And while his two companions were dressed in brightly colored brocadesâ€” like the other vain occupants of the room, he wore a somber black wool coat, and breeches with plain brass buttons and an unremarkable, dark brown waistcoat. Even his cotton shirt and neckerchief were as black as his hair and boots. The only color on his body was the blood-red hilt of barbarian-styled cutlass. And a flashing ruby signet ring on his pinky that caught in the light.
But for his fierce swagger, deadly demeanor, and the firm hand that stayed planted on the hilt of that sword, he could easily pass for a respectable man. Nobleman even.
Until one met that cold, dark, intelligent gaze that saw everything around him to the most microscopic detail.
She could literally feel him tallying the strengths of everyone in the tavern and sizing them up for their every weakness of character and physical flaw . . .
As well as their casket.
He was exactly the kind of unnerving male that caused her and Lettice to draw straws on his entrance back home in Black Swan to see which of them would be stuck for the night waiting on his table.
And Cameron always cheated to make sure she wasn’t the one left with it. Something that would bother her conscience a lot more but for the fact that it was Lettice’s father who owned the Swan, and while Nathaniel Harrison would guard his daughter’s reputation and well-being, he wasn’t nearly as circumspect with hers. Especially when placed against his need for profit. He’d sell all but his daughter for that.
Even his own mother, and probably his wife.
Not wanting to think about that, she scowled at the men flanking the newcomer. His companions were much more the typical pirate or privateer fare one would expect to find in such a sordid place. The one to his right had a mane long brown hair, he wore tied back in an impeccable queue, well-trimmed beard and eyes so light and merry a blue, they glowed in the dim light. Each of that man’s fingers held an ornate ringâ€” no doubt plunder from some unwary ship he’d raided. Still, he seemed amicable enough.
While many Caribbean pirates had a tendency to pierce their earlobes, this one had chosen to place a small gold hoop in his left eyebrow, just off its arch. His elaborate burgundy and black coat was widely cut at the waistâ€” in the latest fashion craze. And where the beguiling and dangerous captain had chosen a plain black neckerchief to wear, this pirate’s cravat was stark white silk, and trimmed in layers of decadent lace.
The man on the left was dressed in a peacock blue silk coat that covered an insanely ornate gold waistcoat. One so fine a silk that it shimmered in the light like water. He wore a small white wig that concealed his hair color, but judging from his skin tone, dark eyebrows, and the careless whiskers that dusted his well-sculpted cheeks and jaw line, she’d assume his hair was as dark as his captain’s. Yet where the captain had a set of coal black eyes, his were a deep shade of hazel blue.
While his mood and countenance wasn’t as dark and sinister as his captain’s, it was nowhere near as jovial as their companion’s, either. She’d guess him as the quartermaster.
Or a hangman.
The three of them swept past her without so much as a glance in her general direction, letting her know they saw her as no threat whatsoeverâ€” which was fine by her, while they made their way to the back of the tavern to an empty table. The large, burly guard who’d been keeping it reserved for them inclined his head, then went to fetch their drinks.
Something he returned with so quickly, that it no doubt set a speed record for the inn. From her years of working in such an establishment, she knew it said much about his fear of angering the three newcomers, and even more about their temperaments and personalities. These men did not like to be kept waiting, nor did they want to be interrupted once settled.
For the first time, Cameron’s courage faltered as she watched the men begin a private and intense whispered conversation.
What are you doing, Cam?
This was what she’d come forâ€” to speak to Captain Devyl Bane and enlist his aid.
Maybe it’s not him.
She knew better. He was just as he’d been described. Darker than sin and more dangerous than dancing with the devil’s favored handmaiden. There was no one else it could be. The witch-woman had told her to look for a captain who’d take her breath and leave no doubt in her mind that he was the bane of the devil himself.
That definitely described the man in the center of the other two.
No one could be deadlier or more sinister.
â€œGreetings, governor. You be wanting some company, like?â€
Cameron winced as an attractive prostitute plunked herself down on her lap. Because Cameron was dressed as a man and passing herself off as one so that she could travel unmolested and with ease, the prostitute had no idea she was wasting her time there.
Grinding her teeth, Cameron caught the woman’s hand before it drifted to a part of her body that would scandalize them both. Cameron shook her head sharply.
â€œWhat? You mute?â€ She reached to touch Cameron’s face and smiled wide. â€œThat’s all right, love. Don’t be needing no words for what I do best, no ways. Fact is you be getting more your money’s worth if’n we don’t be speaking, no how.â€
Cameron caught the woman’s wrist and reminded herself to toughen her voice and lower it an octave. â€œNot interested, me sweet. You’re not me type.â€ She cast her gaze meaningfully toward the three men.
The prostitute laughed. â€œAh . . . can’t says I blame you there. They each be so fine you can’t help but crave a bite of those backsides and pray for lockjaw.â€ With another winsome smile, she sighed. â€œBest of luck to you, mate. Way I hear tell it, though, you don’t got a chance with none of them.â€
And with that, she left Cameron’s lap to pursue another, more probable client.
Taking a deep breath, Cameron debated the sanity of seeing this mission through. It was obvious that the three men had no desire to be disturbed.
In fact, they appeared to be arguing.
This is all kinds of insanity . . .
But Cameron Jack was not a coward.
Maybe a little?
She shushed the voice of reason in her head that told her to run for the door before they gutted her.
Scared and breathless, she forced herself to her feet and crossed the room trying to force a confidence she definitely didn’t feel. Her legs trembled as sweat beaded on her forehead and upper lip. You can do this. Don’t you dare back out now. Patrick needs you. You’re all he has in this world . . .
The moment she neared them, they fell silent and all three pairs of eyes pierced her with a malevolent glare she was sure had turned lesser beings into stone. Or at the very least, caused them to soil their breeches.
Captain Bane took a drink of his ale before he spoke in a voice so deep, it rolled out like thunder over a dark, stormy cove. â€œCan I help you?â€
She took a nervous step forward.
The brown-haired man pulled his sword and angled it at her neck. â€œThat be close enough, lad. Declare yourself.â€
She cleared her throat and met the captain’s gaze levelly. â€œI was told that you’re Captain Bane?â€
Without confirming it, the one she was sure was he brushed his thumb over his bottom lip. â€œWhy do you seek the good captain?â€
â€œI was told that he . . . or you, rather, were part of the salvage for the Plate Fleet that went down?â€
His mate stood and, with his sword, forced her to step back. â€œWe know nothing of what you speak.â€
Too late, she realized that they probably mistook her for some of the king’s pirate hunters who’d been tasked with going after the raiders on the sunken ships and their cargos. â€œIt’s not what you’re thinking. Me brother was on one of the ships.â€
Bane reached out to force the point of his companion’s sword toward the floor. â€œAnd?â€
â€œI was told he went down with his ship.â€ She choked on her tears. â€œPlease. I have to know the truth.â€
The wigged man spoke with a degree of sympathy in his voice. â€œOnly one ship made it out.â€
â€œAye,â€ she whispered. â€œThe Griffon. He wasn’t on that one. His ship was the San Miguel. He was the captain of it . . . Patrick Jack.â€
Bane’s gaze softened. â€œSorry. The captain didn’t make it out.â€
As they began to ignore her, Cameron stepped forward again. â€œIf what you say is true, then can you explain this to me.â€ She tossed the bit of salvage that had been delivered to her door with a note from her brother.
It skidded across the table to land beneath the candle in front of Bane.
He and his companions froze for a full minute as she held her breath, waiting.
It was a worthless trinket that made no sense whatsoever. A strange bit of a charm designed in the shape of an ornate cup, with a pair of wings rising over the rim and a stake with ribbons that fell from the bottom of it. While it was pretty enough, she had no idea why her brother would have sent such to her. Why he would even bother.
Never mind anyone else. It would be all kinds of cruel were it a hoax.
The captain scowled at the necklace charm, but made no move to touch it. â€œIs this supposed to mean something to me?â€
She shrugged. â€œNo idea.â€ Slowly, she approached the table and held out the note that had been wrapped and sealed around the item. â€œThis was what he used to hold it and send it to me.â€
Bane took the crumpled parchment from her hand and read it. The letter was simple and heartbreaking. One she’d committed to memory.
Forgive me for leaving you as I have. Know that me loyalty is with you. Always. Listen not to anyone. Keep your weathered eye to the horizon and this to your bosom. Tell no one that you have it. Not even Lettice. Trust none at your back.
With a gruff countenance, Bane returned it to her. Again without touching her or the necklace charm. â€œAnd so what’s the first thing you do with this?â€ he mocked.
He was right. She’d done exactly what her brother had told her not to doâ€” she’d handed it over to someone she didn’t know. â€œTrue, but I have to find me brother.â€ She turned the letter around and pointed to the top of it. â€œNote the date. It’s months after they went down and he supposedly drowned by all accounts. Yet if he drowned, how did he send it to me?â€
A peculiar light flickered in Bane’s dark eyes. One that made them appear almost red in the candlelight. Surely an optical illusion of some kind. â€œWho told you to come here?â€
A witch-woman named Menyara. She said that you’d be able to help me find me brother.â€
He let out a fetid curse under his breath. It was so foul and guttural that it caused the man on his left to snap to his feet and step away from him, as if fearing an imminent attack of some sort from his captain.
â€œWho’s Menyara?â€ the man asked.
A tic started in Bane’s jaw. â€œDon’t ask questions you don’t want answered, Will. And pray to your God that you never meet that bitch.â€ With a dark, deadly grimace, he finally took her trinket into his hand to examine it more closely.
His expression unreadable, Bane met her gaze. â€œDid she see this?â€
â€œNay. Only the letter.â€
â€œWhy did you show it to me, then?â€
â€œI . . . I’m not sure.â€
He flipped the trinket through his fingers several times while Will slowly returned to his seat.
â€œWhat are you thinking, Captain?â€ the one in the wig asked.
â€œAll kinds of folly.â€ He paused to meet the man’s curious gaze. â€œI commend her to you, Bart. Take her to the ship.â€
â€œBeg pardon?â€ He scowled fiercely. â€œWhat she be this?â€
The captain screwed his face up at him. â€œAre you dafter than a doornail, son? Our little Cameron Jack here be a lass as sure as I be your devil’s bastard seed.â€
Both of his companions gaped at him, then her.
And she returned their slack-jawed stares without blinking or flinching. â€œHow did you know that?â€ No one could ever tell she was female whenever she disguised herself as a lad. It was a ploy she’d been using ever since her parents had orphaned them when she was a small girl. A ruse Patrick had insisted on to keep her safe from harm, and under his nose so that he could watch after her.
Bane scoffed as he reached for his ale. â€œNever try to fool the devil, love. I can see right through you. Besides, no man has an ass that fine. If he did, he’d serve to be changing my religion on things.â€ He took a deep drink, then inclined his head to his companion. â€œSee her to the ship.â€
Bart hesitated. â€œAre you sure about that?â€
â€œAye and settle her in private quarters for now. Make sure the others know to leave her in peace or face my full wrath.â€
Bart saluted him. â€œAye, sir.â€
â€œAnd Mr. Meers?â€
He paused to look back with an arched brow.
â€œI expect on my arrival to the ship to find the lass as virginal after parting your company as she is on leaving mine right now.â€
Bart let out an irritated growl. â€œI hate you, Bane. You live only to suck all the joy out of me death, don’t you?â€
He snorted. â€œPray that joy is the only thing I ever strive to divest from you, my friend. The day I seek greater entertainment than that is the day you should live in absolute terror of.â€
â€œDuly noted and me testicles have adequately shriveled back into me body so as to pose positively no threat whatsoever to the fair maiden in boy’s clothing.â€
â€œEunuch, you mean.â€
â€œAnd well you should remain lest I make that condition a permanent one.â€
â€œAye, aye, Captain.â€
Devyl sat back to watch them leave, then cut his gaze toward his quartermaster. â€œWhat?â€ he snapped at Will.
â€œAs I value me own testicles . . . not saying a single word, Captain. Just sitting here, nursing me rum.â€ He held it up pointedly before he took a swig.
Devyl snorted at him. â€œHope you find more courage than that for the task we have ahead of us.â€
â€œNo fear there. Have more than me fair share. But you forget that I’ve seen you in a fight. And I’m neither fool, nor drunk enough to think I can take you. Besides, you cheat and bite.â€
Those words pulled a rare laugh from Devyl. It was one of the reasons why he’d chosen Will as his quartermaster. Unlike the rest of his crew, Will was unflappable and bolder than he should be. He maintained his composure, good-nature, and calm rationale under even the most harrowing of events. And he did so with a biting sense of sarcasm and gallows humor.
More than that, Will was as courageous as stated. Courage mitigated only by a sound ability to reason and measure the merits of confrontation.
Aye, William Death was one of the best men Devyl had ever fought with. It would be an honor to die by his side instead of the way Devyl had been gutted before . . .
â€œPermission to speak freely, Captain?â€
Crossing his arms over his chest, he leaned back to pin a sinister glare on Will. â€œIf you’ve the backbone for it. Go on . . .â€
â€œJust wondering what mind you have to be bringing a human on board our bewitched ship.â€
â€œDid you get a look at what her brother sent her?â€
â€œThe meaningless bauble?â€
Devyl scoffed. â€œAnd you’re the one who claims to be the faithful religious man between us.â€
â€œThat bauble as you claim it, Mr. Deathâ€”â€
â€œDeeth,â€ Will corrected under his breath. It was ever his pet peeve that they pronounce his name with a long e as opposed to the way it was spelled. Though why his ancestor had chosen to be so antagonistic with either the spelling or pronunciation was anyone’s guess.
â€œDeath,â€ Devyl repeated incorrectly as he was ever a cantankerous bastard. â€œIs from the sword of St. Michael.â€
He reached to flip at the silver medallion that hung off a leather cord Will had wound about his left wrist. â€œThat winged bastard creature you believe protects and watches over you.â€
â€œI don’t understand.â€
â€œNeither do I. But until I do, I thought it prudent to put her under our guard lest something foul decide to make her its next supper.â€
â€œAnd if that something foul proves to be a member of our crew?â€
Devyl allowed his eyes to flash to their natural red state. â€œThey would have a bad day, indeed. . . . My mood, however, would be vastly improved by their act of blatant stupidity that would result in my natural retaliatory act of extreme and unholy violence.â€
And speaking of . . .
The hairs on the back of his neck rose as he felt the hand of unsavory evil prowling toward the tavern.
Scowling, Will glanced about. â€œDo you feel that?â€
â€œAye. It’s come ashore as I said it would.â€ And headed for the largest gathering of victims . . . just as Devyl had also predicted.
Meanwhile, the humans in the tavern went on, oblivious to the malignant force that was headed for them.
Devyl rose, intending to keep them in their ignorance. But he only made it halfway to the door before it opened and three plat-eyes came in, wearing the skin of regular sailors.
Will pulled up short behind him. â€œSailors from the downed fleet?â€ he whispered in Devyl’s ear.
Devyl gave a subtle nod as he debated how best to deal with the unholy bastards who were here to feast on the innocent and take their souls back to feed their mistress. Part of being a bound hellchaser was to let no one know that neither he nor Will had come to battle these demons.
Unfortunately, the plat-eyes didn’t have a Code they were tied to. They passed an evil grin to one another, then went on a vicious attack that resulted in the three humans closest to them being ripped to shreds.
Utter chaos exploded as the humans sought cover and escape.
Devyl cursed as he was forced against the wall by the tidal wave of terrified humans who were hysterical over being trapped inside by inhuman predators. With their preternatural abilities, the plat-eyes had sealed the door so that no one could flee them.
They thought to feast tonight.
Groaning and shoving at a drunken male who was trying to reach a window, Will made it back to his side. â€œWhat do we do? I can’t get near them for the crowd.â€
Devyl pulled his coat off with a flourish, then handed it to his quartermaster. â€œHave I ever said how much I detest the sound of screaming humanity?â€
â€œReally? Rumor has it, it was once your most cherished melody.â€
Hitting the release for his sling bow, Devyl passed an annoyed grimace to him. â€œNo, the sweetest music to my ears has always been the death gurgle of an enemy slain at my feet as he gasps his last breath.â€ Completely calm, he loaded the small bolt and released it straight into the skull of the nearest plat-eye.
The beast fell back and exploded into a black cloud.
Stunned, the other two turned to gape at Devyl. Then, they must have realized who and what they faced.
Their eyes widened in unison before they shifted into wolf form and ran for the door.
But Devyl’s power was greater than theirs and he held them inside.
Will grinned. â€œThat got their attention, Captain.â€
As soon as the plat-eyes realized they couldn’t escape, they shifted into their true hideous demonic bodies. And then they split apart into three more to attack.
Will cursed. â€œVulnerable spot?â€
â€œBetween the eyes. Decapitation.â€ Devyl caught the first one to reach him and twisted his head off. â€œBut it won’t kill them.â€
â€œPardon?â€ Will visibly paled.
He took out two more before he turned to face the man. â€œCreatures of vengeance and lap-dogs. These are shadow manifestations.â€ He caught a third one with his knife and drove it straight through its skull. â€œTo kill them for good, we have to find the bodies they assumed when they entered this realm and destroy them.â€
Will growled before he drew his sword and dispatched the one that came at his back. â€œI hate me job, Captain.â€
Devyl finished off the last, then quickly spread the yew, salt and ground jasper compound over the doorframe that would keep more plat-eyes from coming inside to prey here again.
Will retrieved Devyl’s coat and quickly joined him as the crowd began to realize the danger had passed. Now, they wanted answers neither of them were at liberty to give. And before the crowd could compose themselves further, Devyl and Will made a fast exit.
Outside the tavern, the moon had turned an eerie, blood-red and clouds hung thick in the sky, making it even darker.
Handing the coat to Devyl, Will grimaced. â€œSo those are not the beasts we seek either?â€
Devyl shook his head as he shrugged his coat on. â€œThey’re merely servants.â€
He winced. â€œIn our last few months together, I have seen unbelievable things that appear to have been spat out of hell itself. And I can’t help but wonder just what exactly does the Carian Gate hold back from this world, if we haven’t seen it yet?â€
Fastening his cuff, Devyl met his worried stare with a knowing smirk. â€œThe most corrupt, horrifying evil that ever gurgled up from the farting arse of the cosmos.â€
He snorted and clapped Will on the back. â€œWe should be so lucky. No, Mr. Death . . . what’s coming up from the sea makes Lucifer look like a petulant, harmless child.â€
Will crossed himself. â€œWhat exactly is it, then?â€
Devyl sobered at the memory as a wave of bitterness and fury washed over him and burned him to the core of his blackened and withered soul. â€œIn short . . . my ex-wife.â€