In the room over his London shop, Darke methodically counted the copper, silver and most especially the gold coins that had poured in during the day. The feel of the cold and beautiful metal in his long, wispy fingers was always comforting to him. The way they glistered in the flickering candlelight was calming, captivating, even mesmerizing. On more than one occasion, his associates had commented that he valued money as an end in and of itself, and not for what it could buy. Darke took this as a compliment, and prided himself upon seldom spending money on anything other than assets to earn more money. He liked his coffers kept full, and was loathed to part with his precious coins for mere frivolities. He was, without doubt, a shrewd and keen businessman, if not the best person to spend a Saturday evening with.
His preference for profits over people, however, meant that he wasn’t always the best of salesmen, in spite of his business acumen. Fortunately, he didn’t need to be.
The wares he peddled in sold themselves.
His coin counting was disturbed by a heavy, demanding knocking on the downstairs door. After-hour calls were not uncommon for an apothecary, the need for their goods often arising at sudden and unpredictable times. Darke scowled at the interruption, but continued counting, trusting his granddaughter to deal with the late customer.
Sure enough, he heard her open the door and her muffled voice speaking with what he guessed was a middle-aged man. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but his granddaughter’s normally confident and assertive tone dropped to a meek whimper after only a few words from the man. Her footsteps scurried up the stairs and she gently tapped upon his chamber door.
“Who is it, Isidora?” he asked. She opened the door a crack and poked her head in. Her face was so pale and fretful that Darke wouldn’t have been surprised if she said it was The Devil himself who was waiting downstairs.
“He, ah, he says he’s with the Inquisitor’s office, Grandsire,” she muttered.
Darke groaned and glanced down at his pile of coins, realizing that he may need to part with some of it after all.
“Nothing to worry about, my dear. He’s nothing the two of us can’t deal with,” he assured her as he rose to his full height of six and a half feet.
“I know. I know. You’re right. It’s just, I…” she trailed off, an expression of grim horror at the memory of witches and heretics being burned alive in front of her, their screams rising above the roar of the flames, the acrid smoke and stench of burnt flesh assaulting her eyes, nose, and throat.
Darke gently placed his hand on her shoulder and gave her a reassuring smile.
“We’ll get rid of him. Don’t worry,” he instructed. She nodded trustingly, and followed him down the narrow and uneven staircase.
When they reached their well-provisioned yet bleakly utilitarian storefront, the Inquisitor was still waiting by the door, just where Isidora had left him. He was well-dressed in a tailored doublet and fur cloak, and yet carried no extra weight, suggesting that whatever work he did for the Inquisition kept him fairly active. At least one scabbarded dagger hung off his belt, but the weapon that really caught Darke’s attention was the silver cross around the man’s neck; it radiated with holy vital energy, a perfect locus for the man’s unshakable faith.
This might prove harder than Darke had hoped.
“Welcome, good sir, welcome. How may we be of assistance to you this evening?” he asked with a polite bow and forced smile.
“I’m looking for the owner of this establishment,” the Inquisitor said, holding up a piece of parchment. “A Guillaume, or a Percival, or a… someone Darke.”
“I’m someone Darke,” Darke smiled, more sincerely this time, flashing his uncommonly well-preserved teeth. “And this is my Granddaughter, Isidora. Might we have your name, sir?”
“Blodwell will do,” he replied, stuffing the parchment back into his cloak.
“Ah, a fellow bearer of an ominous surname. How delightful. And why is it that Mr. Blodwell needs to speak with someone Darke at such a late hour?” Darke asked, still not completely willing to abandon the hope that Blodwell might actually be in desperate need of his services and have no difficulty in paying for them.
“I’m here to search the premises for contraband,” he declared as he set straight to work rummaging through shelves, drawers, and chests, caring nothing for any damage or inconvenience he might be causing them.
The two Darkes exchanged irritated glances with each other at the Inquisitor’s intrusion.
“Might we ask what reason you have to search our shop, good sir?” Isidora asked in a tone of poorly restrained irritation.
“You know bloody well you may not,” he replied harshly. “I am, however, obligated to give you a single chance to confess to any heresy or witchcraft before I commence interrogations. Confess and you have my word as a Christian that your lives will be spared.”
“Your word as a Christian means –” Isidora hissed, before Darke slapped his hand over her mouth.
“What my granddaughter means is that we have done nothing to warrant whatever accusations may have been levied against us,” he protested, his voice and expression the picture of bewildered innocence. “Surely you’re aware that I am the Consulting Alchemist to the Royal Family?”
Blodwell only scoffed at the appeal to a secular authority.
“And I am the servant of the Almighty God,” he reminded him. “I’m perfectly aware of your connections, Darke; they’re no doubt how you’ve managed to evade justice for so long. Unlike some of my colleagues, you’ll find that no amount of vile gold, political clout, or black magic will keep me from carrying out Our Lord’s will.”
“You forgot mercy or human decency,” Isidora mumbled, her arms folded obstinately across her chest. It was then that Blodwell stopped his search, glaring at her with utter contempt.
“I know a witch when I see one,” he snarled, taking slow, deliberate strides towards her. “Unmarried, childless, working as a healer to accumulate the knowledge and power she covets, so resentful of the place of submission God assigned her that she’d make a deal with the Devil himself to escape her rightful place.”
He was standing right in front of her now, looking down at her with gritted teeth, as if daring her to defy him further so that he could put her in her place.
She wanted to do it. The whole reason she had become a witch was so that she wouldn’t have to live in constant fear of men like Blodwell, so that she could do what she wanted and not what she was told, so that she could take vengeance on anyone who would try to control her…
But she couldn’t. The strength and purity of the vital energy radiating off of Blodwell made it clear that he was sincere in his piety, and just being so close burned her almost as badly as being sprinkled in holy water. His faith, no matter how warped or misplaced it was, protected him from her witchcraft.
She was no match for him physically either, so, shamefully, she bowed her head in obligatory reverence and stepped back as far from him as she could.
“Sir, please, I am a healer, but nothing more,” she whispered softly. “I have committed no crimes, either against The Lord or my fellow Christians. Indeed, I have eased much dis-ease and even saved lives, and could save many more lives if spared from the blaze, perhaps even a life of one dear to you.”
“Free of charge, of course,” Darke added, though it made the bile rise in his throat.
Blodwell just shook his head in disdain.
“The World is as God has willed it, and I do not seek to upend His designs,” he proclaimed. “If God ordains pestilence, violence, famine, and death, then so be it. I will have none of your foul elixirs to defy The Lord, nor will anyone else after this night.”
He turned to look over the front room once again, sighing when he saw that there was nothing he had not already been through.
“You have a backroom? Or some other place where you hoard all your blasphemous charms and potions? Show me now, or you will not live long enough to recant your heresy.”
He drew his dagger now, and held it out towards them menacingly. Its handle was of an unnaturally dark wood, and at first glance, the blade looked to have been forged of damascene steel. However, it glistened just a little too much in the dim light, and the fluid lines throughout the blade actually flowed like water.
“Sorcery!” Isidora screamed, outraged by the blatant hypocrisy, no doubt something he had pocketed from a previous victim. Blodwell backhanded her with his free hand, while raising the tip of the blade to Darke’s throat with the other before he had a chance to retaliate.
“Your hoard, now!” Blodwell ordered. Darke raised his hands up and nodded.
“There’s a hidden trapdoor to the cellar in the storage room,” he confessed. “Isidora has the keys.”
“Show me!” Blodwell spat at her. “Any trickery, and I’ll impale the devil right through his black heart!”
Isidora glanced up at her Grandsire, who nodded as much as he could with a knife at his throat. Grabbing a candlestick, she rushed to the storage room, with Blodwell pushing Darke in front of him and holding the dagger to his back whilst grabbing his collar. Isidora pulled back the Oriental rug in one swift motion, revealing a three-foot by three-foot door built directly into the floor. The lock was placed into a shallow divot that would have been imperceptible if one had been standing atop the thick rug. She unlocked the door and tossed it open, revealing a short wooden staircase going down to the cellar.
“You first, but don’t leave my sight,” Blodwell ordered. Isidora nodded and made her way down the stairs, lifting her skirt with one hand and holding the candle in the other, with Darke and Blodwell only a few steps behind.
The entirety of the cellar had been lined with stone. There was a long table and a chair at one end, but otherwise the cellar was furnished in large chests, caged bookshelves, and locked cabinets, none of which looked eager to give up their secrets.
“You have the keys for all of this as well, I take it?” Blodwell asked.
“I do,” Isidora said matter-of-factly, an inexplicable cheerfulness returning to her voice. “But I won’t be opening any of it for you, you bloodthirsty brute.”
Darke clenched his right fist, and the trap door above them slammed shut.
Blodwell spun around in a panic, racing up the steps and banging on the door, trying to force it open again.
“Thank you ever so much for coming down to our cellar,” Isidora smirked. “I don’t think we could have managed to have killed you without you making a fuss, and it would have been terribly rude to have disturbed our neighbors with the sounds of your screams at this hour. That’s why we went to the courtesy of making sure this cellar is soundproof.”
Blodwell turned and sneered at them in unabashed hatred and rage.
“You knaves think you have me beat? That an old man and a wretched girl can best a man of God with your unholy magic?”
He lunged at Darke, plunging his dagger straight into his heart, as he had promised.
Darke just smiled smugly at him, giving no sign that he was even hurt. When Blodwell removed the blade, there was no blood, only a heavy black miasma that oozed forth and slowly fell to the ground like a cold fog.
“Devil!” Blodwell cried, stumbling backwards and dropping the blade in his utter dismay. “What are you?”
“Someone… Darke,” he smiled, an aura of fluid black darkness encompassing him as he moved in on his prey.
It had indeed proved prudent that they had soundproofed that cellar, for even if Blodwell’s screams hadn’t been loud enough to wake the neighbors, Isidora’s cackling laughter surely would have been.
* * * * * *
“Bring out your dead!”
The grimly familiar cry of the body collector rang throughout the street as he pulled the ever-increasing weight of his cart down the uneven cobblestone road on his rounds.
“Yes, Ferdy, just a moment please,” Isidora called from the shop door before ducking back inside. Ferdy set his cart to rest and waited patiently for what was likely to be his best pickup of the day. The Darkes were some of his best customers, with no small number of people dying in their care and no shortage of coin to pay for his services.
They also tended to be rather chipper than the rest of his clients, which was a pleasant change of pace.
Isidora appeared again in a moment, followed by her Grandsire, with a grown man’s body slung over his shoulders.
“Darkey, you got to hire someone to do the heavy lifting for you. You’re getting too old for it,” Ferdy smirked, though not actually offering any assistance of his own. Darke just grunted and let the body fall into the cart while Isidora paid him his fee.
Ferdy eyed the body suspiciously. It didn’t look like the man had died of the plague. In fact, he looked to have been in excellent health before his passing, too healthy for the ill-fitting pauper’s garb that he was wearing. Most unsettling of all though was his face: frozen in a rictus grimace of unadulterated terror and agony.
“Ah… what happened with this one Darkey, ‘case someone asks?”
“Something beyond even our skill to heal, or even diagnose, I’m afraid,” Darke lamented. “He came seeking our aid last evening, complaining of a sudden onset of some rather vague symptoms, and within barely an hour he started having strange, epileptic fits and expired shortly thereafter. We weren’t even able to get his name.”
“Is that so?” Ferdy asked, eyeing the cold, blue face more closely. “I can’t be certain, but I think I might have seen this bloke out and about before. ‘Round Saint Paulie’s, maybe?”
Isidora shifted her gaze up at Darke, who gave her a reluctant nod, and she slipped a few more gold coins into Ferdy’s palm.
“Ah, no, trick of the light. Terrible shame that, his poor widow and little ones never knowing what happened,” he smiled, flipping the body’s face down to prevent anyone else from getting a good look at it. “Don’t you worry Darkes, I’ll see that this bugger’s in a mass grave by sundown.”
“Thank you, Ferdy,” Isidora waved him off as he resumed his morose meanderings. She looked back at her Grandsire, who still seemed not entirely satisfied with the transaction.
“It’s not that bad. We got his clothes, his silver cross, his bewitched dagger, and now there’s one less Inquisitor to pester us. What more could you have asked for?” she asked before heading back inside the shop.
Darke lingered a moment longer, staring at the retreating body cart.
“If we had tossed him to the dogs they might have finished him off by now, sparing us the disposal cost and a few days feed,” he muttered, before heading back inside as well.
Written by The Vesper's Bell