The small boat rocked in gentle sways as it crossed the long passage between the trade islands and the mainland. A dangerous area, usually traversed by larger, more stable vessels that could brace the heavy waves. The two passengers were chased out of port and did not have time to commandeer a proper ship for the journey. The storm delivered blow after blow but the boat remained afloat. The sail was shredded. The oars were thrown overboard. The men, knocked out by the swinging boom, were the lone survivors. The sky greyed to a dull blue as the dark storm moved off with the night. Morning had arrived.
Stephon woke first, groaning and twisting his body, craving more sleep, but knowing it would not come with the hard wood beneath him. How comfortable they had been back in Varana. The beds, Stephon remembered. Oh god, the beds. The softest wool and silk, more comfortable than one's own skin. They slept as kings, and woke as gods. And Ratcher ended it. His greed could slaughter armies. Every beautiful woman in the kingdom lived in Varana, and Ratcher had to have the one that not allowed to him. He could not stand the thought of not getting what he wanted, and the mayor's wife was certainly not going to give it him. So Ratcher took it, and they fled. As Stephon rung the grey sea out of his soaked shirt he contemplated the pro's and con's of suffocating Ratcher. Ratcher rolled to his back on the boat floor as if hearing Stephon's thoughts. Tucked tight against Ratcher’s body, Stephon saw a bottle full with rum. Stephon leaned over and tapped the glass. When Ratcher did not wake, Stephon deftly slid the bottle from Ratcher's grasp.
Stephon popped the cork, threw his head back, and filled his dry throat with fire. His eyes caught the ratty sail pverhead. A patchwork mess of torn clothes and bed sheets capable of catching about a third of the wind on a good day, meaning it caught about a tenth of the calm wind left behind after the storm. After another gulp of the rum, Stephon went about repairing the sail.
Stephon had to get to Bartsmith Bay before sundown, and if the sail persisted to be useless, that would not happen. Bartsmith Bay was the main trade hub of the King's City as well as the headquarters of the pirate brotherhood, The Devil's Brothers. The bay had been Stephon's destination since the day he met Ratcher 2 months before, though Ratcher was unaware of this. It lay just on the horizon, land-marked by the notorious Bart’s mountain that severed Bartsmith bay from the King's City proper.
The storm made landfall right as Stephon and Ratcher set sail, traveling them more than half the distance to Bartsmith bay. They got through the more difficult sections of the grey sea by some token of luck Stephon was not about to question. The mayor sent the entirety of Varana's military after Ratcher. Half the men stayed on shore, not wanting to test their luck in the open water and heavy waves. The other half chased Stephon and Ratcher to impress their mayor and died in the process. Only Stephon and Ratcher survived. As Stephon patched the last hole, a north wind filled the sail, heading straight for Bart’s mountain. Stephon heard movement from the back of the small boat and turned.
"You've seen better days," Ratcher said. He grunted and pushed himself against the back of the boat.
"And they're all ahead of me," Stephon said, tossing the rum to Ratcher who caught the bottle and took a long pull.
Ratcher looked around himself with ease. Stephon figured Ratcher would not remember how they got to the boat or likely why they had to leave Varana. Ratcher had a nonchalance about everything he did, so it was hard to tell for sure. He would not be concerned about being chased or about the miracle that they were still alive. Ratcher cared for one thing in life, Stephon was beginning to realize, and that was to push off the 30 year hangover that he had so far avoided. A drop of rum ran down Ratcher's thick beard as he pulled the bottle away from his mouth.
"Food?" Ratcher said.
Stephon shook his head. He placed a hand on the boom, remembering how it knocked him out the night before.
"There's food in Varana," Ratcher said. He eased his head against fishing nets at the back of the boat and braced a hand on the rudder.
"Aye,” Stephon said. “And gallows."
Ratcher barked a laugh and slugged another shot of rum.
Stephon turned to the distant shore. Bartsmith Bay would not reveal itself for another half day if the wind kept at its miserable pace. It gave Stephon plenty of time to consider his actions when on shore.
"Hell of a night, eh?" Ratcher laughed. His eyes had a glazed watery look to them Stephon could not tell if this was him remembering or fishing for the story.
"You could say that," Stephon said.
"It was bound to come to an end regardless. Might as well go out with a bang."
"And now what are we going to do?"
"Steal a better ship. Find some treasure. There's opportunity everywhere."
"Along with swords, and guns, and prisons with no light and stale air."
"If you're a pessimist about the world then you find what you are looking for. You should try being more like me. Smile." Ratcher spread his thin lips and although it carried charm, rows of crooked stained teeth lay within like a burnt hammock. He offered Stephon the bottle, who took it without hesitation.
"Your optimism will find you an early grave," Stephon drank.
"It'll be a happy grave."
"With happy worms and happy appetites."
"I prefer the fish."
"It'll be sharks."
"You're more likely to find the cell."
"A temporary grave."
"And if it's the sword?"
"A soldiers death. Honorable."
"So there is no bad way to go?"
"It's been cured."
"That's a bedtime story to help the children sleep at night."
"It's been ten years since I've seen a crawler." Stephon shivered at the memory.
"They learned to walk."
"And to drink." Stephon offered Ratcher the bottle.
"And to fuck," Ratcher laughed, snatching the bottle from Stephon.
Stephon gagged at the thought.
Stephon gathered himself. "You're a monster."
"He's sleeping right now, Stevie. He's had a busy few weeks."
Stephon threw himself to the side of the boat and emptied his stomach into the grey sea.
Ratcher laughed heartily, clutching his stomach and the rum bottle as little spurts of rum shot out.
"You're a soft one, Stevie. I thought you had more iron in you," Ratcher laughed.
"That thought is enough to melt steel." Stephon spit into the sea and pushed himself back to his seat.
"So where are you taking us sailor?"
"Mainland, where they haven't heard of Ratcher's notorious misdeeds."
"Well they've certainly heard of the misdeeds, just not of Ratcher. May have to change that one soon as well."
"How many times have you changed your name?"
"It's a wonder that is all you need to change." Stephon looked at the threadbare outfit Ratcher called his clothes. A wool jacket sewn at the arms with oiled vines. The buttons were fish hooks that tore the wool threads with each movement. His hat was a snug fitting skull cap that resembled an over stretched sock, hiding a bald head underneath. Stephon took off his own cap and scratched his nappy hair, thanking his father for the good genes.
"When every pirate and sailor look the same, there isn't much needs done," Ratcher said. "It's the stories that you tell that define the person that you see. I could tell you I was once a king who fell from grace due to a bout with the plague, but I survived, and you would see me as strong and courageous. Or I could tell you I'm a pig farmer who shagged the animals before feeding them to my customers, and you would see me as a pervert, fat, slimy, and mutated. In this world a name and a reputation shape what you see. It can be polished, and it can be stained."
Stephon was quiet. He absorbed the well rehearsed words for the 10th time. What he wanted to say he could not, for it would ruin his own plans and reveal too much. Yet for someone like Ratcher, with the tongue of a snake and the mind of a shrew, silence articulated more than words.
"But you see what you want, don't you Stephon," Ratcher said, saying Stephon's name with a pompous flare.
"I see a poor man with alcohol for blood and potatoes for brains," Stephon replied.
"If only the world were so kind."
"Then I would be deaf."
"And still the saddest man in a thousand miles. You wish despair from every corner of the world and torment from every person you meet."
"There is truth in misery."
"Lie's are more fun. They'd fit you like a tailored suit."
"Made of spider's silk."
"You paint yourself a saint."
"It's a comparative piece."
"Everyone is a saint when you talk to the devil."
"You give yourself too much credit."
"And yourself too little.”
Ratcher watched Stephon bite his tongue and look out to sea. The wind whistled through the patchwork sail. Bartsmith Bay seemed an infinite distance away. Even as the wind swelled and pushed the boat, Bart’s mountain never grew, as if with every gust the mountain was pushed away in equal distance with the boat. Stephon felt his stomach churn in sickening swirls. He thought of the fishing nets under Ratcher, but it would slow them down. He would wait. He needed to get to Bartsmith Bay before sundown.
"Did I ever tell you the story of Devina?" Ratcher said, solemnly. Stephon sighed at Ratcher's infinite desire to talk. He rattled through the hundred stories Ratcher had told him in the past weeks.
"A girl?" Stephon joked.
"Not exactly," Ratcher laughed. "Devina is an island. It's my home."
Something in Ratcher's tone changed. His boisterous charisma was gone along with the just loud enough tone that overpowered his listeners. He almost sounded, sentimental, and Stephon was immediately on guard. He turned to Ratcher for a full gauge.
"The Devil of Devina," Stephon said.
"So you have heard of it," Ratcher said softly.
"It's a myth."
"A single man birthing an entire pirate empire. The whole grey sea knows it. The man is a myth. The island is not. It exists... or at least, existed."
Stephon observed Ratcher for a moment before dismissing his thought. "Well go on then."
"Devina is an island deep to the south. It was settled by thieves shortly after Varana. It's far enough that it's out of sight from any land. Even if you did find it, it appears to be all rock, but within those rocks is a jungle, rich, beautiful, and deadly. A perfect location for a thief brotherhood. It's how the Devil's got their start.” Stephon glanced towards Bart’s mountain, as Ratcher paused. Without noticing, Ratcher continued. “When I was born, they already established a name for themselves. They were small, but feared. If you met a Devil, you knew death followed, not like the pussies you meet today. Those old Devil's were home grown. Only someone born on Devina could be part of the Devil's brotherhood. It kept the location of Devina a secret and the pirates of Devina safe. Being born on Devina did not automatically mean you were part of the brotherhood however. There was a process. There is a snake that lives on the island, no bigger than your hand, with enough venom to kill the King's city. When the child turned fifteen there was a test. The child was put in a shallow pit surrounded by low rocks. In the pit, along with the child, was the small venomous snake of Devina. All the child was meant to do was offer him or herself. There was nothing more to it. Our parents gave us small doses of the venom as kids to build a tolerance. Even so the odds were against you. One out of every four would live. Twenty five percent. Terrible odds. You couldn't kill it. It didn't matter how strong you made your body. You either died, or you didn't. A terrible thing to put a fifteen year old through.” Ratcher took a small drink of rum. He looked into the clear bottle as he spoke. “By the time we were ten we were already ready to die, we didn't care, we couldn't. If we chose not to face the snake then we were told to leave the island and to swim, or in other words, fuck off and die. A few tried. Their bodies washed up on shore the next day cut to pieces by the rocks."
"What did they do with the ones who died?" Stephon asked.
Ratcher looked up from the rum bottle and turned steady eyes to Stephon. "They never told us," Ratcher said and looked back at his bottle. "And I never found out." Ratcher drank again.
"And the ones who didn't die?"
"Trained. That was the beginning of adulthood and your initiation into the brotherhood. You became a Devil." Ratcher lifted his shirt and turned. On the bottom of his spine was a tattoo Stephon had seen before. A white coiled snake with yellow diamond skin morphed into a woman with fire hair and a four leafed blue clover in her ear. Stephon had seen this tattoo before. It was how Stephon knew the man he found 2 months ago was Ratcher. Ratcher continued. "The snake is obviously the snake of Devina. The woman is my mother. The clover," Ratcher dropped his shirt and rolled back over. "The clover is for luck, or so they tell me." Ratcher smiled with his twisted teeth.
"Are all the tattoo's the same?" Stephon said.
"The mother's change. The snake and clover stay the same."
"Where’s your mother now?” Stephon asked, thinking of his own mother.
Ratcher didn’t respond instead taking in gulps of rum. Ratcher closed his eyes as he let the rum fill him. When he opened his eyes, Stephon thought he saw the glimmer of a tear. Ratcher wiped it away and continued.
"The mothers stay on the island. When they have a child who passes the test..." Ratcher went silent, staring out into the sea. A gust picked up and filled the sail. The small boat doubled its speed, sailing of its own will towards the growing mountain behind Bartsmith bay.
"When I found out what they did to my mother I tried to kill the lot of them. I managed to get Jacob, the one who gave me the tattoo and murdered my mother, and then I fled. They've been chasing me ever since, but as you can see," Ratcher looked down at his ratty clothes and spread his arms wide, "I'm harder to catch than a greased pig."
"Explains the stench," Stephon said. For the first time in 2 months, Stephon felt sympathy for Ratcher.
Ratcher smirked. "You have to play the part, Stephon. Character immersion. Otherwise, the moment you half ass what you're pretending to be, your neck gets a pretty red smile." Ratcher traced a finger across his neck.
Stephon smiled and turned his attention back to the boom. As he wondered what to do to the sail to gain more speed when he heard a sword unsheathe behind him. Ratcher held his well polished blade between himself and Stephon.
"Do you think I didn't know, Stevie?" Ratcher asked. "Do you think yourself so clever that you could hide your little secret from me?"
Stephon laughed. "Secret, Ratcher? I have a thousand secrets from you that you'll never know, and don't think this is the first time you've threatened me."
"This is the first time I meant it, Stephon. I know where you're taking me and I know who you are."
"Of course you know where we are heading. That's Bart's mountain," Stephon pointed at the mountain behind Bartsmith Bay. "Everyone in the grey sea knows that."
"Yes, but we won't make it to the mountain, will we, Stephon? There's a ship waiting for us in that bay, and they desperately want to see what the prince brought with him."
"Shut up, you're drunk. There's a hundred ships in that bay and we'll be the hundred and first. Nobody is waiting for us and this ramshackle boat. And you really think I'm a prince.” Stephon gestured to his skinny body and raggid clothes. “The rum has made you conspiratorial."
"Is that so, Stephon? So tell me, did they rape and murder your mother as well?"
Stephon winced at the comment. His hand reached to the hidden holster on his left hip but found it empty.
"Ah, ah, ah," Ratcher said, "See what happens when you half ass your character. I threw your gun overboard when you slept. You gave yourself away on the first night. Varana is a perfect spot to watch someone give into their vices and sin, or in other words, the person behind the everyday mask. You told me everything and never said a word. You almost had me convinced you might stray when you saw the gold that captain's ship fetched, but it's not as much as they're paying you to bring me in, is it? I'm surprised they're still hungry for me. You'd think they'd just give up after a decade of failure."
"It's not gold they're paying me. I want my mother's murderer."
"Ah," Ratcher laughed, "there it is. You trade me to the brotherhood and they trade the man who murdered the Queen. How can you be so sure they'll give you the man you seek after you hand me over?”
“I have no choice.”
“You always have choices, Stephon,” Ratcher said, giving Stephon an unnerving stare.
With a steady hand holding the blade between himself and Stephon, Ratcher reached his other hand to the floor, retrieving a square box with a golden latch. On the box’s face, swirls of fire were etched into the dark smooth wood. Ratcher released the golden latch and placed his hand on the lid.
"I offer you the same option the brotherhood offered me. You can choose death,” Ratcher shook the sword, “Or you can choose the snake.” Ratcher opened the box slowly.
Stephon's eyes became transfixed on the box's contents. Dark red silk covered the box's interior. Resting on the silk, coiled in a small ball, was a small slender snake with yellow diamonds patterned against white skin. Stephon stared into the snake's black eyes. But for the tongue, the snake was motionless, making it seem fake. Stephon felt his body fill with fear.
"The wind is rising, Stephon. We'll be in Bartsmith Bay soon," Ratcher said. A gust filled the air as Ratcher spoke the words.
“And if I pass?” Stephon asked.
“Then I go quietly.”
"And if I don't?"
Ratcher was quiet.
“You trained yourself,” Stephon said. “You drank venom every day. That’s why you lived. I’ve never drank the venom at all.”
“Haven’t you?” Ratcher said. He tapped his sword on the rum bottle. “I’ve been adding to every drink you had since we met.”
“You drugged me.”
“I trained you.”
Stephon turned and looked to the bay. He could see the ships like white rocks in the bay and tiny yellow houses that dotted their way up Bart's mountain.
“At the worst, you join your mother,” Ratcher said. “At the most, you have your man.”
Stephon considered Ratcher's words and turned from the approaching bay. 1 out of 4 repeated Ratcher's words in his mind. Terrible odds, but better than the odds of the sword. So why did he fear the snake more? Was it the absoluteness of the sword, he rationalized. The certainty of death. With the snake there was hope, and somehow that tortured him more. The snake stared and waited, as did Ratcher. Stephon looked into the snake's eyes and reached a slow hand towards the ornate box.
“There's a good boy,” Ratcher said.
The snake arched it's neck as Stephon's hand approached. When the fingers breached the opening, the snake shot forward like an arrow. Fangs sunk deep into Stephon's hand. He expected pain, but there was none. His hand went numb, a feeling that spread through his body in a slow moving chill. The snake released it's grasp on Stephon's hand and coiled itself back into the center of the box. Ratcher threw a few seeds into the box and closed the lid. Stephon followed the numb chill his arm to his chest and down to his legs. His muscles began to contract and twist in agony.
"Stephon, can you hear me?" Ratcher said. His voice hissed.
Stephon fell limp on the boat.
"It is I who you seek, Stephon. It is I who murdered your mother."
Yellow diamonds appeared over Ratcher's eyes. His skin turned pure white. His tongue turned black and split down the middle. Stephon began to scream in pain and rage, unable to move.
"I am the Devil of Devina."
Stephon felt his throat constrict. His face purpled. His vision tunneled onto Ratcher. The pain coursed through his body like fire and when it became too much, Stephon's eyes rolled back in his head and he passed out. His body convulsed on the ground and he became still.
The wind carried the boat into the bay's mouth. The sun was high overhead, baking Stephon's pale skin. He woke as though he'd been asleep his whole life. He felt reborn, light, and 5 years younger. His mind felt sharp and focused. He pushed himself to a seat and looked around the boat. Ratcher was gone. The fishnets at the back of the boat still held his shape where he rested and told the story of Devina. It was him, Stephon remembered in a growing rage. Ratcher murdered my mother. It was him all along. A heavy rope landed on Stephon's head, snapping him away from his anger. He looked up.
A rope ladder hung from a large ship’s deck. Several heads looked down, waiting. Stephon climbed, feeling a new strength in his arms and legs, and a renewed passion in his hunt for his mothers murderer. On the deck of the ship stood twenty men. All wore the same black cloth wrapped tight to their body. A white sash rose over their shoulder and around their waist. A white hood covered all but their eyes. They stared at Stephon, hands braced to their sides as if ready to pull hidden guns.
“Where is he?” Stephon shouted.
“Of whom do you speak?” said a man in a calm voice. He largest of the devils and the only man not poised to strike. His hands rested clasped at his back.
“You know of whom I speak. You sent me to find him,”
“And you brought him back, yes?”
“Yes, but he escaped.”
“Show you what?”
The man pulled the cloth back from his hand. Two bites marks, as fresh and festering as Stephon's own, pierced the mans hand.
Stephon observed the men surrounding him. He did not fear any of these pirates who were clearly ready to kill him. He wanted only to live long enough to find Ratcher. He held his hand in front of him for them all to see.
The pirates relaxed their aggressive stance and returned to their duties. The leader stepped forward. He took Stephon’s hand in his own. “Welcome to the Devil's Brotherhood.”