Tales of a Strange
        and Terrifying Universe

Listen to the first chapter of
The Black Fire Concerto

The Black Fire Concerto

By Mike Allen

Part One: The Red Empress

 

“Play now, pretty plumpkin,” said the Chef. His wide mouth twisted to favor Erzelle with a smirk. The oil on his bald head gleamed, reflecting the candlelight.

She settled in her chair on the stage, balanced the soundbox of her harp between her knees, braced its neck against her shoulder and caressed the strings. All twenty-two were in tune, and their song brought a sliver of comfort, for as long as she was allowed to play, she would live another day.

The dining hall awaited its patrons. Tables arranged four wide and six deep made an orderly procession back through the narrow, chapel-like space to the bronze dragon doors that served as main entrance. To Erzelle’s right, past the corner of the stage, a pair of swinging saloon doors led to the kitchen, where the clank of dishes and utensils had fallen silent, though warm air still exhaled into the hall, bearing with it a stench of sour meat. Every mauve-draped table had its candle in place, a severed hand sealed in wax with a wick burning at the tip of each finger.

Satisfied, the Chef turned and nodded to the black-clad men by the bronze doors. He straightened, squared his shoulders, and given his inhuman height, his massive head, his black robe that swept to the floor, his red Roman collar, and the effusion of light through the room which rendered every drape, tablecloth and plate the color of bared gums, he resembled a demon carved from onyx and crowned with a moist clay skull.

The Chef’s ushers opened the dining hall. The Family filed in, led by their roly-poly tuxedo-clad patriarch, who fixed his rheumy gaze on Erzelle as he wove between the tables toward the stage.

Erzelle wanted to fold inside her harp and disappear. Instead she plucked. Those assembling in the room would enjoy her desperate lullaby to herself, the same way ticks enjoyed warm blood.

The Family patriarch reached the Chef. Though he stood only half the black-robed man’s height, they acknowledged each other with polite nods, a greeting of equals.

“So glad you haven’t wasted her.” The old man rubbed his ample belly in exaggerated anticipation of a meal. “She’ll be your masterpiece. Just the thought gives me reason to keep on living.”

If the Chef answered, Erzelle didn’t hear his words. Her fingers alighted on string after string, exploring the limits of her three octaves, inventing melodies to bridge the scores she learned from her parents, the only parts of them she could keep.

Her notes competed with the babble of the old man’s clan, many of whom she recognized. The Family visited the Red Empress often, and stayed in the boat’s guest quarters. Here was the patriarch’s gaunt, stooped wife in a shimmering snakeskin gown. Here, their gene-ensorcelled sons and daughters and sons-and-daughters in law, the men blue-eyed and black-haired, the women icy blonde, traits shared with their teenage children. One boy and one girl both looked to be Erzelle’s age — she believed she was twelve, though she had no means to differentiate the days. The children showed no interest in her as their mother herded them to their seats.

Then came a commotion, surprised exclamations from the ushers. Erzelle looked up to see a woman whose like she’d never seen before standing at the entrance. Extraordinarily tall, with a heavy bosom and long arms thick through the biceps — physically to most women what the Chef would be to most men. And she was beautiful, with sloe eyes beneath arched brows and wavy blue-black hair that cascaded to the waist of her velvet opera coat. She towered a head taller than Rogiers, the chief usher, who was trying to take the leather case she carried. This was the cause of the row — the woman was refusing.

Erzelle faltered in her playing. The woman clutched a large mandolin case.

The Chef strode toward the door with a panther’s grace.

But he didn’t get far. The patriarch waved him off. “She’s our guest. Let her in.”

So instead the Chef aimed a glare at Rogiers, who shut up mid-sentence and bowed.

The woman joined the table nearest the patriarch’s, set her case on the floor beside the chair an usher offered. She surveyed the dining hall with efficient tilts of her head, noticed Erzelle and gave her a brief, considering look. No expression moved her eyes or lips before she turned away.

She unbuttoned her opera coat to reveal a bright blue blouse, startling against the room’s red palette.

Erzelle’s heart sank at this dismissal from a fellow musician — and a chill spread through her bones. There was only one reason the boat’s regular customers brought strangers.

She concentrated on her playing, even as the patriarch bellowed to the Chef in a voice meant for the room at large, “I’ve not yet had the pleasure of hearing Olyssa play her pipe. But clearly her skills are transcendent enough to open the heaviest purse, because when she came to us with her request to visit this boat, she even offered to pay for her place and was good for it.” He brayed in laughter. “But, good sir, I told her that such a fine meal as you provide should be offered as a gift, or not at all.”

Erzelle’s eyes widened. The woman asked to come on board the Red Empress, with all its passages painted black and its rank cargo screaming in cages?

She nearly started from her chair when Olyssa laughed in return, her voice sharp and musical. “I’ve heard so much about the food served here, that its excellence cannot be denied. I am honored to be here.”

The Chef inclined his head. “I am humbled. And I pray you find my labors worthy.” Another curt nod, and his crew began wheeling out the meal. The kitchen doors swung open as the Chef’s acolytes pushed out gurneys bearing covered dishes. The Chef remained in front of the stage, each subtle nod or finger twitch the wave of a conductor’s wand, dictating every move of the service.

Erzelle tried to ignore the deceptively benign scents and sights of fresh bread loaves and cream-covered vegetables, but she noted the moment the long carving knife slid from the Chef’s left sleeve into his hand. The writing etched along its edge began to pulse even before he raised the blade to shoulder height. When he did, his men lifted the cover over the largest dish.

She wanted to shut her eyes, but knew better. She fixed her gaze on the newcomer, hoping not to draw unwanted reaction.

Olyssa observed the proceedings stone-faced.

In keeping with tradition, the once-human creature intended for the main course had been prepared so that its head remained uncooked. Its throat and tongue removed, it grimaced as the Chef approached.

The patriarch chortled and elbowed his spouse. “Excellent choice, good sir. Remember when we brought him that one?”

His wife afforded him a smile both sly and exasperated. No one else among the patrons of the Red Empress would dare to speak while the Chef performed the grace.

“We thank you,” the Chef said, “whose life, made everlasting, shall become ours.” The etchings on the knife flared as he made the cuts required of the ritual. He partook of the first morsel before offering the next pieces to the patriarch and his wife on a small saucer. Together they spoke, “We thank you,” and then ate, nodding their satisfaction.

The rest of the dishes were unveiled, revealing spare limbs from other ghouls deemed too feeble to suit as a main course.

Everyone at the patriarch’s table watched Olyssa as the ushers brought her dinner. She showed none of the delight of the other diners, but neither did she seem repulsed. She raised her eyebrows ever so lightly as she sampled her first forkful, then continued to eat, nonchalant as if she dined on beans and bread.

Erzelle shuddered and withdrew into the rain of notes, a cascade that shut the dining hall out. She remained in that trance until she realized the Family was getting up from their meal. Olyssa, too, had risen, was approaching the stage. Approaching the Chef. Their heights made them oddly well-matched. Erzelle had never seen a woman so tall.

“I have to give you my compliments.” The newcomer touched the Chef on the arm, casual as an old friend. Her other had gripped the mandolin case. “In my own experience, ghoul meat is the most difficult of all to make delicious.”

The Chef’s eyes narrowed even as his smile widened. “You are most welcome, madame.”

Erzelle’s heart lurched in her chest. Perhaps she misread this situation entire. Perhaps this Olyssa was in no danger at all. Perhaps the Family already considered her one of their own.

She peered down at Erzelle. “You play well,” she said. “It is too bad your harp is so small.” She turned to the Chef. “Surely the Red Empress can afford to buy her a better instrument?”

“Such instruments are rare, and it is rarer still to find one intact, as you surely know. We only expect this one to stay with us a little while longer, so my investors see no need for such an extravagant expense.”

Olyssa looked Erzelle up and down. “Wise, then.”

“Mistress,” said Rogiers at Olyssa’s elbow. “Your quarters?”

“Oh, yes, please,” she said. “A meal that rich makes me just a little sleepy. I could stand to be refreshed.”

Once the usher led her out, the patriarch waddled up to the Chef, eyes gleaming. “A fine one, eh?” He actually patted the Chef on the belly, a bizarre paternal gesture. The Chef pursed his lips, staring into some far distance, looking as thoughtful as Erzelle had ever seen him.

“Indeed,” he rumbled. “Powerful. Flooded with life.”

And Erzelle knew that, fearsome as Olyssa seemed, she would not live through the night.

She continued to play, until the hall was empty. She knew better than to stop.

The Red Empress had once been a luxury paddleboat. Now it served as a floating fortress, permanently docked, admitting no one but crew, customers and those the customers brought. Erzelle was no longer certain how long she’d dwelt inside its pitch-black passageways. When she tried to remember the sky, it seemed like part of a story she’d once heard. So, sometimes, did her parents. She tried hard to keep them alive in her mind as more than memory wisps. When she curled on her pallet, she remembered her mother practicing the harp, and those notes would follow her into dream, or the drone of her father as he griped about the accounts he managed. The memories brought a lump to her throat. So often, she had tuned him out. She wished now that she’d treasured every word.

In her time inside the boat, months, maybe years, she’d found many places where a slender body could hide. So long as she was in her expected spot come mealtimes, the crew hardly cared where she was, though she didn’t dare let them catch her spying.

The doors to all the guest cabins faced into a narrow atrium that might once have been illuminated by a skylight. Now electric chandeliers dangled from a ribbed metal ceiling. Stairs at either end led from the second floor balcony to the lower deck.

The atrium was empty when Erzelle slipped inside, though muffled voices, muted laughter, seeped through the walls. She scurried down the stairs, feather-light, and across the ground level to the opposite end, heart hammering at the thought that one of the doors to either side might swing open. She made it to the stairs at the opposite end, squeezed through a gap to one side, carefully dragged her harp in after her. She scooted as far back in shadow as she could and peered through the slats.

She’d seen this tragedy played out so many times her tears had dried up long ago. But Olyssa didn’t come off as someone easily tricked or overpowered. Erzelle had to know what would happen.

Alerted by the creak of a hinge, she looked up. The Chef loomed at the entrance, chandelier light glinting from his scalp. Six crewmen filed in behind him. He set off along the balcony, his slippers reducing his footfalls to whispers, the men following. He tapped politely on a door.

Erzelle wanted to scream a warning. She dared not.

But when the door opened, she heard a greasy chuckle that made her stomach flip. The patriarch joined the men on the balcony, saggy flesh visible through the gap in his bathrobe. He intended to watch the capture.

Then a cabin door opened on the first floor, and Olyssa strode into the atrium. Everyone on the balcony except for the Chef stared with wide eyes.

Erzelle held her breath. The scene had gone off script.

Olyssa had removed her opera coat, fully revealing her riveting blue blouse and a gold-hemmed indigo skirt suited for summer dances. She’d braided her hair into a coil, held in place by a flat ivory pick that glittered at either end with bejeweled knobs. She walked to one of the mesh tables that dotted the courtyard, set down her mandolin case and opened it without even looking up at the men on the balcony.

From the case she lifted a long steel-grey tube. Etchings dimpled the surface, drew strange patterns of reflected light down its length. One end had a notch in its rim. Over that she fitted a tiny wooden object that Erzelle recognized after a moment as the mouthpiece of a hand-carved reed. Then Olyssa took what looked like a small flared bell and fitted it over grooves at the other end.

Settling on a bench, Olyssa held the bizarre instrument against her chest, put the reed to her lips and began to play. She blew across the reed while her free hand fluttered at the mouth of the bell, covering and uncovering the opening with two fingers, three, four, or her flattened palm. Notes fluttered and trilled, faster than Erzelle could ever play on her harp.

The etchings on Olyssa’s pipe began to glow soft blue. The Chef made a move toward the stairs, but the old man put a hand on his arm to stop him.

The tune soared quick and haunting, like a child’s ghost singing from the bottom of a well. Other doors opened, heads blonde and brunette appeared, blue eyes watched, enraptured. When she stopped, wistful sighs echoed in the narrow space.

She addressed the patriarch on the balcony with a coy smile. “I had thought, after that wonderful meal, that I should repay your kindness. Perhaps tomorrow, when we eat again, I could accompany your harp player. Her music, though lovely, is unrefined, but if I accompany her, I can promise you the experience will be something truly transcendent.”

Oh, how the old man’s eyes twinkled. The Chef began to speak, but stopped mid-syllable as his patron raised a hand. “My clan and I had imagined leaving in the morning,” he lied, “but what’s one more night to the likes of us? It would please me immensely to see such lovely pairs of hands create something beautiful together.”

With a slight bow of her head, Olyssa replied, “It would be my honor.”

A smirk curled across the Chef’s long jaw. “Splendid, then. It shall be so.” Then he descended the stairs and approached her table, while his men looked on unblinking. He spoke more softly as he reached her. “Madame, as one who knows of ghoul flesh you will surely understand. May I examine this fascinating instrument?”

She raised her eyebrows. “Of course.” And handed it to him.

Erzelle’s pulse pounded in her ears as the Chef’s meaty hand closed around the pipe. She knew the glowing knife would slide out of his sleeve at any moment. But instead he held the pipe up to the light and stared down its full length. As he did the blue glow reappeared. It grew brighter as he turned the tube over. Erzelle realized he was reading the symbols.

“It will always be true to its purpose,” Olyssa said. She sounded, for the first time, tense.

At last the Chef handed it back to her. “An intriguing trinket. When we’re all rested, I’d love to know more about its make.”

Olyssa smiled, showing teeth. “Perhaps.”

The Chef smirked and nodded, then gestured to his men, who followed as he left the guest quarters. Olyssa settled and began to play again — this time there was no tune, merely practice scales, though even those were breathtaking, executed at perfect pitch with incredible speed. The old man regarded her for an uncomfortably long time. Erzelle wondered if he would join her at the table, but finally he grinned, displaying long yellow teeth, and withdrew. The other doors had long since shut.

Olyssa took a breath, placed the reed to her lips, and beside Erzelle a voice whispered. “Quiet, girl.”

Erzelle gasped. The voice — Olyssa’s — continued. “I know you’re under there. Wait until I’ve gone back to my room. Wait a count of one thousand. Then come inside. My door will be unlocked.” She wasn’t looking Erzelle’s way, nor were her lips moving. She removed the reed and bell from the pipe and replaced them in the case, which she tucked under an arm, keeping the pipe in her hand. She retired, and Erzelle was once again alone.

She followed the instructions she’d been given. An eternity later, she slipped into Olyssa’s room. Its interior was opulent and plush as such a cramped, windowless space could be made, with carpeting, bedding and wallpaper all red as a womb. A mirror glinted from atop a wooden dresser, and Erzelle glimpsed herself in it, a gaunt ghost of a girl with eyes huge in their hollow sockets, her once tawny skin now moon pale, her sandy hair tangled in an unkempt nest, her mint green blouse threadbare. She averted her eyes, resisted any urge to take another glance.

Olyssa perched on the edge of the bed, looking more giantess than ever in her blue and gold, cleaning the bore of her pipe with a long, thin brush. The pipe’s case lay open, exposing custom-fitted felt-lined padding, with a long compartment carved out to hold the pipe. There were notches too for the bell and the reed. A panel gaped open in this layer of padding, revealing it to be hollow, with even more parts for the instrument contained inside.

“Who made that for you?” Erzelle asked.

Olyssa regarded her coolly. “What makes you think someone else made this?”

She sounded angry. Erzelle didn’t answer.

“I’m looking for a woman tall as I am. Her hair is long and wavy like mine, her skin brown like mine. But her eyes are like yours. Green. Have you seen anyone like that here?”

“No.”

Her mouth thinned to a grim line. “How long have you been here?”

“I think … two years? Three?”

“What’s your name?”

Erzelle told her.

Cold and business-like, “Why are you here?”

Erzelle started to cry.

A tender hand against her cheek surprised her. “I’m sorry if this is difficult,” Olyssa said. “I need to know. It’ll help us both.”

She had no reason to trust this stranger, but perhaps because of that single word, “Help,” Erzelle gave in to a treacherous surge of hope. She told her story, all of it. Her parents, her father an accountant and amateur flautist, her mother a concert harpist frequently sought after by the tenement lords who ruled what was left of the world. The invitation from the Gaults, one of the wealthiest clan in Minnepaul, far wealthier than her parents could ever dream, rich enough to employ their own militia against ghouls and other clans. Her father’s eagerness, her mother’s worry, the small jet that took them out of the walled city and down the length of the Great River. The descent through the riverboat’s vault door.

She described the crowd that had boarded, many rich clans, and the Family themselves — Erzelle didn’t know their real names — to whom all the rest kowtowed. The meal, the awful taste of that spiced and spoiled meat. How even with head reeling and stomach boiling she’d been made to play her harp at the insistence of the patriarch. How the Chef and his men came for them afterward, overpowered her father and mother and dragged them away. How the patriarch had leered as he told the Chef she wasn’t ripe enough yet, that she could enhance the meals with her talents until ready for the table herself.

“They were going to do it to you,” she said. “Take you down to the ghouls. Let them bite you. Make you change. Then bring you back, all carved up, like those ghouls you saw today, all chopped up except your head … like they did … like they did …” Erzelle no longer saw the cabin. She saw the dining hall, scene after scene that she’d fought to wall away with the notes from her harp. “Sometimes when it’s someone young, older than me but still young, they bring them out without cooking them first, snarling and howling and snapping their teeth like dogs. They’re strapped down and the Family will cut away pieces. Eat them right from the body. The old man loves to do that. With the girls. Sometimes the boys. Sometimes—”

Olyssa’s touch on her shoulder startled her, but she didn’t scream. Nor was she crying any longer. Her words came from a hollow space where tears and screams no longer mattered.

The piper’s question startled her even more. “Where do they keep the ghouls?”

Erzelle blinked, couldn’t for a few moments form an answer. “I think they’re in the below deck.”

“The cargo hold? Where is that?”

“I think … you can only get to it through the kitchen.”

“I see.” Olyssa pulled out the brush, then wiped the outside of the pipe with a cloth.

Erzelle stared at the inscriptions along its grey-blue length. She couldn’t bring herself to ask what Olyssa planned to do, so she asked, “How does your pipe work?”

“It works because of the same magic that made the Storms and ghouls. That’s all you need to know.” She put the pipe away and took Erzelle by the shoulders. “Go back to where you sleep. If anyone asks, you were with me, practicing for tomorrow.” Her grip tightened. “Don’t let anyone know what we talked about.”

Now the words burst out. “What are you going to do?”

Olyssa’s fingers dug in. “This conversation didn’t happen.”

Erzelle wrenched herself away. She wanted to shout at this insane woman that no plan she had could ever work, she had to get out, get out, get out — but Olyssa’s unblinking stare silenced her as roughly as a cloth stuffed in her mouth.

She hefted her harp and left. As soon as she stepped outside, the door shut and locked.

Hours passed before Erzelle finally slept. When she did, yet again she dreamed of thrashing on a table, the old man leaning over her, candlelight glinting off the knives clutched in both his hands.

The second dinner was unlike any Erzelle had ever witnessed in her time aboard the Red Empress. For the first time, the Family’s guest joined them alive and intact for the next day’s meal. Had events unfolded as normal, the patrons would have returned to the hall wearing ritual black and amulets that glowed the same red as the Chef’s knives. And the guest would have returned through the kitchen doors.

But here they came once again in tuxedos and gowns, Olyssa in her opera coat. As she had last night, she wore her hair up, held in place with the jeweled pick.

Exhausted, Erzelle dreaded what lay ahead, but her fingers moved without her conscious direction down the octaves of the harp. They understood what survival required.

Rogiers offered Olyssa a chair, but she surprised him and everyone else by gliding straight to the stage. As she set down the mandolin case, the patriarch chuckled at some private amusement, his belly jiggling.

The Chef, who stood at his usual post before the stage, raised an eyebrow as she passed.

“Tell your man to bring that chair here,” Olyssa said, imperious. Erzelle cringed — but the Chef did as commanded. Soon the tall woman sat beside her, back straight and proper as she assembled pipe, reed and bell.

Erzelle’s fingers faltered at the strings.

“Just play what comes to you,” Olyssa said. “I’ll follow along.”

So she plucked out yet another variation on a too-familiar melody. And Olyssa’s pipe sang, filling in the spaces between Erzelle’s notes, fluttering around and above them, washing over Erzelle as if the roof of the Red Empress had cracked to allow in cool breezes and warm sunlight. Her heartbeat sped, and her hands began to move with new energy. She altered the melody, improvised, and the pipe harmonized without pause. She created new phrases, not from fear but exhilaration, and Olyssa matched her measure for measure. Their audience appeared to share in Erzelle’s fugue, still and silent, all eyes fixed on the players.

Even the help seemed paralyzed until barked orders from the Chef sent them scurrying. He followed after his men through the saloon doors. None of the Family paid them any mind.

The runes on the pipe started to glow, shining brighter and brighter blue.

Erzelle’s fingers summoned an exquisite tempest of sound. She hardly noticed when Olyssa spun the bell off the end of the pipe and palmed it. Even then the pipe’s notes still quivered inside her head, accompanied by a whisper. “Play, Erzelle, like your blood’s on fire. Play!”

Her hands scaled the octaves fast as a waterfall, not once missing a string, while Olyssa reached inside the mandolin case. She found dual melodies, built a harmony from nothing, but broke out in sweat, because without the pipe it was abruptly hard work, the hardest thing she’d ever done. And her concentration began to slip, because from the corner of her eye she noticed Olyssa had attached a black rectangular device to the end of the pipe that had held the bell.

The piper sat up, holding an oddly shaped column of wood that she levered against the black attachment and locked into place. An instant later she clicked the open end of a thin metal box into the rectangular device.

The patriarch’s oldest son realized what Olyssa was doing and lunged from his chair.

Olyssa put the butt of the carved wooden piece against her muscular shoulder, and Erzelle’s fingers abandoned the strings as she recognized Olyssa now, impossibly, held a rifle. The runes along what was now the rifle’s barrel flared in a blaze of hungry red.

A dark pinhole appeared in the oldest son’s forehead, just below the point of his widow’s peak. Blood sprayed from the back of his head as he bulled forward, and at the table directly behind him an aunt loosed a gurgling scream as the bullet’s trajectory ended in her throat. She collapsed, dragging the tablecloth with her.

Olyssa’s voice boomed in Erzelle’s head. “BEHIND ME! DOWN!”

A shell casing bounced and clattered on the stage planks. When it came to rest, runes etched in its brass wormed matchstick orange, then extinguished.

Rogiers stood stunned at the saloon doors, a gurney stalled in front of him. He started fumbling for something, Erzelle never learned what. In one motion Olyssa stood, swiveled and twitched her finger at the trigger. Her shoulder jerked. Rogiers dropped like a sack.

The patriarch stood up, astonishingly all smiles, his hands raised to placate. “There is no need—”

And dropped to the carpet, the hole in his forehead a twin to his son’s. Another trigger pull, and his wife’s grey head snapped back, a look of surprise frozen on her craggy face.

Gasps and shrieks from the remaining Family members quickly fell quiet. Peering down the barrel, Olyssa stage-projected, her voice merry. “So much more merciful than what they deserved. See the runes that burn on the casings of those bullets, good hosts? No matter how much flesh of the ghoul you’ve consumed, take my word that this weapon will kill you. And take my word that it doesn’t miss. It is always true to its purpose.”

One of the blonde granddaughters screeched, “YOU MURDERED—”

The bullet took her in the eye.

“I’ll kill the next one that makes a sound,” Olyssa said. “Now leave.” And she smiled. “Whoever is last to the door dies.”

Silent chaos overtook the hall as the Family scrambled for the exit. Erzelle found herself fighting not to laugh, and terrified that if she began she’d never stop.

One of the granddaughter’s husbands stood his ground as the others fled behind him — someone not of the blood, a pasty fellow with a weak chin and teeth that recalled a rodent’s, his ill-fitting tux stretched by his girth. Sweat plastered his thinning hair to his pate.

The man’s gaze was affixed to the business end of Olyssa’s wickedly long gun.

“What a noble sacrifice,” the piper said. “Carrion eater.” And she delivered on her promise.

Then she apparently took complete leave of her senses, because she dashed straight for the kitchen door. She stopped beside it with back pressed against the wall, out of view of anyone on the other side.

She glanced back at Erzelle, who still lay on the stage beside her harp, gawping. And a gentle voice whispered in Erzelle’s head, “Hide yourself.”

Olyssa pivoted to dash past the gurney and through the swinging doors, and as she did, the Chef’s bulk smashed into her and sent her stumbling back. He wrenched the rifle out of her grip and flung it aside, slammed her to the floor and crouched atop her, one huge hand crushing her throat, the other raising a meat cleaver that glowed as as fierce a red as her discarded rifle.

Her rifle.

Erzelle started to crawl toward it.

The cleaver swung down.

She sprang into a run.

Olyssa blocked the blow with both hands, the bright blade suspended inches from her face, as the Chef squeezed her neck. She gasped, face reddening as he angled the blade, forcing it down, his smirk widening. She was strong but no match for his sheer mass.

They stayed that way a moment, eyes locked, as he bore down slowly and the cleaver descended to Olyssa’s throat. Then she broke from his gaze and turned her head, pushed his arm just a fraction to the side, let go of his wrist with one hand. He laughed at her maneuver, and didn’t notice as her free hand grabbed the end of her hair pick.

Then he reared back with a roar, clutching his face, a jade knob jutting half an inch out of his left eye. The pick remained in Olyssa’s hair, an empty sheath, one jeweled end now missing.

Erzelle almost forgot to pick up the rifle. Almost.

She didn’t know how to use it, but as she lifted the rifle, her enemy saw the glowing barrel and scrambled. He ran into the kitchen, howling, stiletto still protruding from his face.

Olyssa coughed and swore. “I need that knife back.” She saw Erzelle, and loosed a long sigh. “Thank you.” She held out an arm. “Give.”

Erzelle hesitated. “We can leave now.”

Olyssa’s voice grew steely. “I can’t go yet.”

“Why?” Erzelle pleaded. She hated how frightened she sounded.

Olyssa used the gurney to pull herself to her feet. She could easily have wrested the rifle away, but instead replied, “There’s no time to tell now. Give.”

Erzelle obeyed. Without another word Olyssa charged into the kitchen. The rifle discharged, then again. Three more of the kitchen crewmen dashed out and kept running, none giving Erzelle a second glance. She watched them throw open the bronze dragon doors, thought about slipping out after them, thought about the armed guards at the vault door that led to the outside world, wondered if they’d gotten word, were on the way here.

The Chef’s abandoned cleaver glinted from the floor. She picked it up. Though an ember glow still pulsed in the symbols etched along its blade, it felt no different in her hand than an ordinary knife. It was heavy, suited to its usual wielder.

She followed Olyssa.

Rogiers’ body and that of another crewman lay just inside the doorway. Another lay dead between two long steel counters, face down in the mess spewed from two overturned gurneys, colorful sprays of vegetables, broken tubs of spreads and dips, a brown pool of soup, scattered slabs and strips of grey meat. Withered arms and legs strewn among them, severed from their owners, browned and glazed. In the center of it all, an upended four-layer cake stanched the flow from bleeding wine bottles. The remains of the ghouls who’d given their limbs to the feast were arranged on a countertop in neatly severed pieces, glistening bones chopped apart and stripped of all meat. Split ribs yawned like shutters, the black muck inside mostly scooped out.

The main course was arranged on the other counter, naked, immobile except for its uncooked head. One lidless eye twitched, the other hidden beneath a droop of loose skin. A wormy remnant of tongue flapped at Erzelle as it snapped its jaws. Click, click, click.

Her shoes splashed through spilled stew as she ran past it.

She passed a steaming oven that she didn’t dare glance at, reached an opening in the far wall, darted into a narrow passage leading out of the kitchen and drew up short as a huge figure strode toward her out of the dark. She lifted the cleaver above her head, but the figure grabbed her wrist.

Olyssa’s laughter held no humor. “Is that for me? Really?”

When Erzelle shook her head, Olyssa let go. She had undone her opera coat, exposing a vest made of thick leather. She was using a handkerchief to wipe off the jeweled stiletto.

Erzelle stared. “Is he—?”

“No, alas, he pulled it out himself. That one has partaken so much of the undead even one of my bullets might not kill him.” She replaced the needle-thin blade in its sheath, still bound in her hair. “Help me. Hold this.” She handed Erzelle the stock and chamber of her rifle assembly.

A groan emanated from the darkened passage. Olyssa paid it no mind. She produced the reed and bell from a coat pocket and reattached them to the pipe. Another moan, higher pitched, sounded behind her, then another.

“What are you doing?” Erzelle demanded.

Olyssa scowled at her. Or — it wasn’t a scowl. The piper’s eyes were moist. She ground her teeth. “I have to see if my sister’s down there.” Her mouth wasn’t moving. “You asked who made this pipe for me. My sister did. She foresaw I would need it but her magic didn’t tell her why.” She took the rifle assembly back from Erzelle, tucked it in an inside coat pocket. “She ran afoul of sorcery even worse than this lot’s perversions. But it doesn’t have complete hold.” She put a hand on Erzelle’s shoulder. The words in her head sound plaintive, as if Olyssa needed to convince herself just as much as her new companion. “Because notes still play. Something remains. Enough that if I find her—” She squeezed her eyes shut. “When I find her, I’ll undo what was done to her.” She rebuttoned her opera coat, turned, and for the first time Erzelle saw the open hatch in the floor behind her. Beyond its black depths the corridor dead-ended. “And if I can’t undo it, I’ll end her suffering.”

Erzelle asked, “You think she’s there? Why?”

The top of a metal ladder protruded above the lip of the hatch. Olyssa sat with her boots over the edge. She wasn’t looking at Erzelle. “Wait here. Once I’m done, we’ll leave.”

She lowered herself onto the rungs and vanished into the pitch dark. And in that darkness, a chorus of groans and hisses, rising in volume as more and more voices joined in. Something let out a shrill giggle.

Then notes began to ascend from the hole, a sweet flutter amidst the growls and moans of the ghouls. Erzelle crept closer, peered over the edge. Deep below, blue phosphorescence glimmered as somewhere out of her view Olyssa blew across her reed.

The metal cavern of the cargo hold echoed with throat-tearing screams. Howls, shrieks, splatters of sprayed vomit, the cries of men and women and things too decayed to be called either, coming from mouths stretched inhumanly wide. Moist flesh slithered, hands pounded cage bars, or seized those bars and shook them.

Still Olyssa played, her melody fragile as butterflies. In the pitch, the pipe flared bright blue.

And the ghouls fell silent. The pipe’s glow dimmed as Olyssa moved further away from the ladder, the notes she blew repeated with such speed and complexity it sounded like the piping of three musicians, or four.

Erzelle leaned over the hatch until she feared falling, trying to see. She could count each heartbeat over the trill of the music.

She began to descend the ladder, mouse-quiet. Each time she took her foot from a rung, she imagined a slimy hand closing around her ankle, and felt no safer once she reached the slanted floor.

Then her eyes adjusted, and when she saw what was happening a kind of wonder took over.

The ladder had deposited her against one wall of the hold, which stretched further to either side than the light from Olyssa’s pipe could reach. Iron cages large enough to hold lions lined the opposite wall, each crammed full of ghouls, faces melting with rot, muscles animated by magic, soft and ravenous things that had once been living people, who’d been brought here struggling and screaming and locked in the cages. The sorcery that kept the ghouls alive compelled them to bite and pass on their terrible curse, spread the living death, keep the larder packed for the customers of the Red Empress.

The monsters pressed against the bars of their cages, watching Olyssa as she played. She walked slowly past them, so close, close enough for claws to seize, and looked each creature in the face, searching, her light revealing mouths that oozed drool, dipping to illuminate the legless ones crouched at the feet of their fellows. She stared into every suppurating eye.

Olyssa’s sister — a ghoul? As Erzelle watched, her own urgent pulse raced in her neck, her temples. She wanted to go to her rescuer but she couldn’t bring herself to move. She kept her back against the wall, its solidity providing at least an illusion of security. The darkness growing between her and the piper could have been another wall, built from terror.

No light reached into the hold’s opposite side. In that void, a red flicker, so faint Erzelle wondered if she actually saw anything.

But there it was again. An ember glow, disembodied in the darkness. A thin line of symbols, curved like the edge of a knife.

The ghouls across from her were no more than vague shapes, their wet surfaces reflecting the barest hints of the piper’s light. Something huge and black moved between them and Erzelle, striding silently toward Olyssa. She glimpsed again a cobweb-slender glow from runes etched on a blade.

Erzelle’s knees went weak. No, no, no, NO!

The first step took so much effort she might well have been bound to the wall by magic. She made herself take another, another. She floated in the dark, a mere arm’s length from the motionless ghouls in their cages, the cleaver barbell-heavy in her hand.

Then she was running.

The Chef’s black form eclipsed Olyssa’s light. He spun at the sound of Erzelle’s footfalls.

She swung wildly, struck solid flesh.

The Chef bellowed, a wounded animal. The cleaver’s handle ripped from her fingers. A mountain collapsed on her, crushed her under its brutal weight as the ghouls erupted in pandemonium.

Unable to move or breathe, she faded. She heard Olyssa’s shouts, one more voice in the chaos. And the sound of a hammer striking metal. Fading, fading, her awareness reduced to the pain swelling in her chest, building, building, threatening to burst her.

She thought the pain was the Chef’s knife stabbing in until he flopped away and air rushed into her lungs. The shrieks of the ghouls were deafening as Olyssa dragged her away from the cages.

The splotches cleared from Erzelle’s vision. Olyssa stood over her, holding the glowing pipe lengthwise in her teeth. In her hand she held the meat cleaver. That too glowed, where the blade wasn’t black with blood.

The Chef was pinned against the bars of the cage, suspended lengthwise three feet above the ground, straining against grey-green arms wrapped around his shoulders, his waist, his hips, his biceps and elbows, his legs. One ghoul tore at a long wound gaping just above his left knee. With a flip of her stomach Erzelle recognized it as the result of her cleaver swing.

Another monster gnawed at the stump of the Chef’s ankle. Erzelle stared uncomprehending until she noticed what lay in the blood pooled in the dented floor. Two slippered feet. Two hands, one still clutching the ceremonial knife.

One of the ghouls, a shriveled woman with bulging yellow eyes, extended a bone-thin arm, snatched that hand, dragged it into the cage. A moment later she stabbed the blade into the Chef’s neck and began to saw.

His mouth twisted in a snarl.

Erzelle wanted to take the cleaver from Olyssa, to aid the ghouls in their task. In her mind she sat on the stage, harp balanced between her knees, as the covers were lifted off the gurneys and the things that once had been her mother and father grimaced without tongues.

Olyssa’s voice in her head. “He won’t die, whatever they do to him. Go back up, Erzelle. Stay hidden and wait till I’m done.”

Her words brooked no argument. Erzelle turned at the ladder, foot on the first rung, to see Olyssa toss the cleaver so it fell within the ghouls’ reach.

An eternity passed, it seemed, before the music of the pipe began again and the ghouls went quiet. When the song stopped at last, the creatures in the hold remained subdued.

Olyssa emerged from the hatch. Her eyes glistened. She said only, “She’s not there.”

Without terror of the Chef to spur them on, the crew of the Red Empress proved that keeping their lives mattered more than any loyalty to their cult, though even cowering obeisance didn’t save them if they failed to follow Olyssa’s orders with sufficient speed. Olyssa’s wrath frightened Erzelle, and at the same time her heart rejoiced at every death.

When she and Olyssa reached the gangway, the black powerboat used to ferry guests to the Empress was pulling away from the wharf with a deafening roar. Figures moved in the cabin, silver ghosts above waters turned to ink by the moonlight.

Olyssa fired four shots, yanked out the magazine, took another from her opera coat, fired two more. The boat slowed, and the engine stalled.

Her voice carried clear as a chime. “Bring that boat back.”

Sounds of whispers and weeping. A high voice shrieked, “No! Start the boat—”

The rifle reported, silenced the protester mid-scream. A man called, “We’re coming back!”

“I’m watching,” Olyssa said.

A black uniformed crewman had to lean over another one slumped at the wheel in order to steer. A child’s sobs grew louder as the boat pulled alongside the dock.

Olyssa strode down the gangway, unbuttoned opera coat sweeping behind her, the barrel of her weapon trained on the boat’s occupants. She spoke in a conversational tone. “Come off of there. Bring your dead with you.”

When the remaining members of the Family hauled the last corpse off the boat — the twelve-year-old boy that Erzelle had noticed before, his twin sister wailing beside him — Olyssa addressed the clan. “You brought me here to feed me to ghouls and dine on my living corpse because you thought it would keep Old Man Death away. I think the results are fair trade.

“Do what I tell you, and when I leave, I promise, it will be the last time you ever see me.”

A dark-haired, blue-eyed youth spat, face swollen with anger and grief. “We still have business with you.” One of the others raised a staying hand, too late. “We’ll find you. There’s nowhere you can go where you’ll be out of our reach.”

Olyssa raised her eyebrows. “Is that so?”

And didn’t wait for an answer. She killed the youth who spoke, the elder who tried to shush him. Two more crewmen who groped for weapons fell. Mayhem erupted as the Family scattered into the dark, but Olyssa didn’t stop, her rifle blazing with every shot. She emptied her clip and loaded another one to shoot those who’d dived into the water.

At the end, two crewmen who’d sat petrified in the boat during the massacre were the only ones left alive. Olyssa ordered them back onto the Red Empress, to aid in the tasks she’d already set for their fellows. She had the harp and pipe case brought to the wharf, and vegetables from the kitchen stores, the best stuff, not the slop Erzelle had been forced to eat all through her captivity.

Erzelle sat on a pylon and dined over the bodies of her enemies, feeling both sick and elated.

Olyssa spoke in her mind. “Spare yourself only a little. We’ll starve later if you don’t.”

The deck of the Empress had once sported tiers of glorious windows, since paneled over with black metal. Olyssa watched the crewmen scurry there, laboring to undo moorings that had rusted in place years ago.

At last one of the men shouted, “All done! I swear!”

As if cued, the wharf shook, and the gangway creaked as the current started to push the Red Empress out of place. Wood split, and one of the banisters snapped and fell into the river.

“Swim,” Olyssa called. “You’ll regret it if you stay.” But she was disassembling her rifle again, exchanging stock and chamber for bell and reed.

“You asked me why I believed my sister could be here,” came a new whisper. “She is being used for her magic. By vermin like these. I know this in my heart, even if I don’t yet know how or where.”

She began to play.

“But one day, I will.”

Before Olyssa left the ghoul cages, she had unlocked them. Erzelle didn’t know she’d done so until she heard the noises coming from the Red Empress. As it drifted toward the middle of the river, the undead boiled from its hatch.

“Don’t worry, young one. They won’t harm us. Nor will they be of any more use to carrion eaters.”

The runes on Olyssa’s pipe shone brighter than the moon. She called to the ghouls, drew them off the floating fortress and into the water. They fell like fruit from an overturned basket, and the current tumbled them away.

Erzelle had balanced her harp between her knees even before the piper whispered, “Join me.”

Beneath the red moon, she plucked new melodies in the spaces Olyssa left for her.

So began the first of many lessons.