The Violinist – Chapter 1

The Den of the Lioness

 

AS THE HULL of the Reconnaissance rocked violently beneath his feet, James Tolston struggled to swallow the lump in his throat. Horace Burns stared him dead in the eye, approaching him unsteadily with the same grimace that had darkened his face since discovering James eavesdropping.

“You see this, boy?” Burns asked, swiftly raising both hands and waving his fingers about. “The Witch does not have these like you and I. You’d think it a curse if you ever looked upon the long black knives she has in their place! She’ll jab right through your frail little rib cage and tear out your beating heart!”

Burns jabbed his fingers into the center of James’ chest, causing his necklace, a stainless steel chain with a small cross, to wriggle out from under his collar. Burns and the other men snickered.

James could hardly stand the sight of the veteran sailor, a grimy, sniveling ferret of a man whose skin was like sandpaper and eyes constantly bloodshot. A deep red scar ran down the left side of his face; a good portrait of the man’s personality by James’ count. Burns had made the young sailor’s life a living hell, starting the moment he discovered a rookie dwelling in the crew’s midst. How the man came to know such things was beyond his reckoning. All the same, James now wished he had just continued on to his own bunk instead of stopping to listen.

Of course, he hadn’t expected to be seen at all. There was just no resisting the stories of the Lioness—an evil being with a history of tearing entire ship crews to shreds— when such tales slithered past a sailor’s ears.

“Except for one,” Burns said to the others as he ran a hand through his unkempt black hair. “All sailors beware, for only one will the Lioness spare.”

In all of the recorded attacks by the Lioness, there was always a sole survivor, spared only to recount the fate of the doomed crew.

Burns flicked the metal crucifix. “This—trinket—will not save you out here, boy,”

“With God, there is nothing to fear,” James said, almost in a whimper.

“Oh, you are so wrong.” Burns’ voice shifted from sneering to sinister as he spoke. The other men in the cramped room remained silent. James felt all the blood drain from his face.

“You know why I’m out here in the middle of the ocean, Tolston? Why I chose this over working in a dirty warehouse, tilling land, or some other worthless shit?”

James shook his head.

“Your politics and religions amount to nothing when you’re surrounded by water as far as the eye can see. They can‘t control us out here. Can’t tell me what to think, what to believe. Ain’t a soul got jurisdiction on the sea. Save for that very devil—the Lioness herself.”

James couldn’t tear his gaze away from Burns’ frightening eyes, bloodshot and inflamed from too many nights without sleep and too many days without a glimpse of the sun.

“I’ve been out here for many, many years. Never have I witnessed any all-powerful being made of light, in a white robe with a long, gray beard. But pure evil is out here. It’s waiting and always watching.” Burns shook his head. “I cannot believe that goddamn fool Merlot would even allow a rookie on a voyage with such implications. With a rabbit‘s foot like you, we’re sure to see her!”

James gulped. “I—”

Burns cut him off. “Do you want to know why no one is too keen on having a rookie around, huh? Why nobody likes you? The Lioness is partial to the blood of the dirty. She’d spare an innocent shrimp such as you, no doubt, and become drunk on the blood of the rest of us.” He paused, allowing his eyes to become even wilder. “But don’t be so quick to breathe a sigh of relief. Surviving the Lioness is simply a delay to a fate already marked and measured. You’d be nothing but a raving lunatic to those academics back in Zargo. When you tell a land dweller the things you see out here, they’ll lock you right the fuck up. The straitjacket will cook you up nice and tough. Just the way she likes for when she returns to finish the job.”

“Don’t be ridiculous Burns!” came a deep, throaty voice from the doorway where James had initially been eavesdropping. He turned to see a shirtless man, built like a steam engine, complete with two white puffs of smoke for a beard. James’ bunkmate, John Crawford, the oldest and toughest member of the crew, stood with his arms crossed.

“Unless you‘re ready to admit that you speak from experience? I expect you got the dirtiest blood on the ship.” Crawford approached and pressed his meaty fingers into Burns’ chest, pushing him back out of James’ face. Burns stared directly at the old bearded man, face painted with disgust. Crawford placed his hand against James’ shoulder before guiding him out of the bunk.

“Don’t worry about that asshole; his brain is half fried anyway.”

“From what?” James asked, looking up at the old man. John Crawford said nothing and turned to go up to the deck. James continued walking to his own bunk, bewildered. It had been the first time Crawford had said more than a word to him, much less shown kindness.

Perhaps things are looking up.

James climbed over two supply barrels to hoist himself into his hammock as the ship carrying him and the others tore across the sea. Despite only containing the two barrels, two hammocks, two personal supply crates, and a large coil of rope piled in the corner, the space felt borderline claustrophobic. James wondered how close they were to finding the missing ship—the Orion, he believed they had called it. He had specifically neglected to take part in any of the wagers regarding how far off course they would find it. He only meant to keep his head down, do his job, and take the experience to his next contract, where, with any luck, he’d no longer be considered the rookie. James laid himself back into the center of his hammock, pondering the words of Horace Burns.

How is it that he knew so much about this supposed witch? Could he know firsthand, as Crawford had half pointed out?

James longed to be home again sharing a drink with his father and brother. To escape the pangs of homesickness, he went over the pre-departure briefing again in his mind. The Orion was making its return journey to Port Zargo from one of the larger islands in the northeast quadrant of the Atlantic Ocean. It never arrived, disappearing completely with three foreign diplomats and a handful of important politicians aboard. Ten days after the Orion’s anticipated arrival date with no word from the missing ship, the port authorities dispatched the Reconnaissance to investigate.

*~*~*

Not long after midnight, James’ bunkmate stirred him from a light slumber with news the Orion had been spotted. “Just on the horizon, well under five leagues from her charted course,” Crawford said gleefully. “Can’t say how much you had on it, I picked up a few notes’ worth.”

“I didn’t.” James shook the sleep from his eyes and the two made their way to the deck to join the others.

The captain of the vessel, Francis Merlot, said very little to his men. James looked on intently as the captain instructed them to be thorough but wary in their search. He admired Captain Merlot a great deal. The man embodied his title in every sense and had been far kinder to him than the others.

Throughout the voyage they had talked as friends about their home lives. James, about his ailing father and distant brother and Merlot, of his hopes to retire after completion of the contract. Merlot was everything that James looked up to and had ever aspired to become during his loftiest daydreams. From his polished boots to his long curling mustache, everything about Merlot’s powerful figure commanded respect. From the unshaven peach fuzz of his eighteen-year-old chin, to his clothing, a ratty set of discolored garments missing every other button and boots with leather already separating from the soles, James’ own appearance was stark in contrast. He grabbed one of the lanterns at Merlot’s feet, ignited it, and followed the captain and other crewmen across to the Orion to begin the search.

*~*~*

Aboard the Orion, a dark and eerie feeling permeated the air. James looked around at the large wooden deck and double masts that very much resembled the Reconnaissance. He walked cautiously with every step, nearly choking as the foul, heavy atmosphere clawed at his lungs. Before heading below deck, a strange glow caught his attention. He looked up at the main mast to see a large lantern lit and shining brightly, hanging from the top.

“Bad omens afoot,” echoed the raspy voice of Crawford from behind him. James turned. “Go down below and see for yourself. Not a soul to be found. It doesn’t feel right if you ask me.” The old man then pointed at the beacon atop the mast. “Whatever did this wanted to make sure we found it.”

Crawford turned and walked away. James sensed the same fear in his bunkmate’s voice that he felt crawling under his skin. As if under a spell, James found himself wandering down and into the mess hall. As Crawford had already stated, not a person was present but nothing else looked out of place. No overturned chairs signaling a struggle, with the table still spread with a meal which seemed to have been served just before the ship’s crisis began. Each setting held a partially eaten plate of food and a nearly full glass of wine. Bites of food, seasoned with puffs of mold, lingered on the ends of forks that were otherwise suspended in time. The stench and sight forced James’ hands over a tightened mouth and nose, pushing a chill down the length of his spine.

*~*~*

Captain Merlot found the dark aura enveloping the Orion to be deeply troubling. He watched the fear and paranoia on the faces of his men grow. Instead of pondering what calamity the ship must have come upon, he tried to think of where the men might be. The crew could have escaped and survived aboard lifeboats in the relatively calm ocean, but he’d looked and found the full complement of lifeboats still tied securely to the ship.

In the captain’s quarters, amid stacks of books and shipment manifests, Merlot discovered the only clue, the last entry made in the captain’s journal, dated the fifth day of August, 3319. Twenty-nine days past. The entry seemed to have been frantically scribbled with its author under heavy duress.

I’ve seen the thing with my own eyes… I can never hope to describe it… The creature caught the corner of my vision creeping between shadows. I saw its eyes and by God I wish I hadn’t! When I met the evil thing’s gaze… I felt I was… peering directly into Hell. I know that we will not survive this voyage. God help us and whosoever should find… At the bottom of the page, in large dark red letters of a different handwriting, the last line scratched downward, clinging to the paper with all its might… what is real?

The log sent a shudder through Merlot. After a brief hesitation, he turned to a previous entry.

The men are unwell. There have been repeated complaints of nightmares. This, by itself, would not be particularly unusual. Five men individually described the same nightmare. All of a lurid monster seeking a precious jewel of particular shape and hue, slaying any that stand in its way. I have been plagued by abhorrent dreamscapes as well. I wouldn’t burden my worst enemy with the images my own mind subjected me to. What disturbs me most is the great resemblance between the crew’s dreams and my own. I know not what to make of it. There‘s talk of a shadowy creature aboard the vessel but I have seen no such thing.

With his heart pounding in his ears, Merlot slammed the book closed, not entirely sure what to make of the logs. Such dreams and hallucinations could be attributed to seasickness or cabin fever. The last thing he wanted to do was feed the superstitious fire of men like Horace Burns. He pocketed the log, choosing not to dishearten his comrades any further with its contents.

After nearly an hour of investigation, Merlot followed his crew as they grimly made their way up to the deck of the desolate Orion. He scanned the faces of his men. Each looked back at him waiting for orders, their faces awash with anguish and fear. He placed a hand on the ship’s side railing. Strangely, the boat felt completely motionless while a stiff gust of wind could be felt and heard flapping the sails.

“I know this looks hopeless and many of you may feel as though we failed, but we are not going to give up on our brethren! Look around you. No blood has been spilt! Nothing turned asunder! The men that were aboard this vessel are alive somewhere, and we will find them and finish the job we set out to do!” Mingled shouts of superstition and fear followed the captain’s speech.

“The Lioness has come and taken them back to her den!” someone yelled.

The fearful verbiage of the captain’s logs hung in Merlot’s mind as he singled the man out. He had recognized the voice immediately as that of Horace Burns. “I know the island of which you speak, Burns.” Merlot didn’t care much for him, especially after he discovered the man to be fresh off a lessened prison sentence received in exchange for working on his ship. He knew Burns had acted as the leader of the campaign against the rookie throughout the entire voyage. He would never have allowed the troublemaker aboard in the first place but he often was given little say in the crew that the harbor issued him.

Merlot turned to his crew and glared at them with his brow furrowed and his jaw clenched tight.

“We are not far from this island now. Given its proximity to our present location, and all superstitions aside, the island is a realistic possibility. I will not forsake the men of this vessel. We will go to this island and search it top to bottom if need be!”

“But Captain, you do not understand,” Burns cried, now becoming quite the nuisance in the captain’s eyes. “The Lioness is a resident of Hell. We will not find these men! We would do well by leaving these waters with our lives!”

The crew responded to his words with a mixture of shouts and jeers. The captain raised his hands to settle everyone down.

“I will not force this crew to risk their lives without having a choice, so we will put this decision to a vote. Those of you wishing to give up here and turn back, raise a hand.”

Nearly half the crew raised their hands. The captain counted the hands in the air and then asked for a vote to push onward and continue looking for the lost crewmen. For the second vote, the same number of hands extended into the night air.

“Goddammit! Who didn’t vote?”

Merlot could hear his voice echo with the tension of the moment, angrier than he had intended. He always kept an odd number of men aboard to avoid such a predicament as this. His eyes searched the gathering of men before him until his gaze reached the far left side of the deck. James stood alone with his attention out over the sea.

“Tolston!” he barked.

“Aye Captain!” James turned to face him in a flash, red with embarrassment. “The vote is tied and with you the lone straggler. Which way will you vote, son?”

He watched James fumble with his thoughts. He felt for him, since the boy had the undivided attention of every man in the crew. After nervously looking around at the faces surrounding him, James gave his answer.

“I would choose to continue onward, sir.”

James’ vote was met with both outrage and hearty praises. The captain watched the crew carefully. “Good man,” he murmured under his breath, approving of the boy’s courage and sense of duty.

Moments later, he saw the reaction he had been expecting as an enraged Burns charged the adolescent, grabbing him by the throat. He quickly moved to stop the altercation.

“You’ve doomed us!” Burns cried. “You will be the death of every man here, you little son of a—!”

Merlot reached out with his large hands and stopped Burns short. “I believe those potatoes down in the galley are calling your name, Burns,” he growled, shoving the greasy rat away from where James stood. “James will attend to your post.”

The captain winked at his young friend before moving to lead his men back to the Reconnaissance. He continued to study their dispositions following the act of democracy; more men than not appeared stone-faced and wrought with worry. He attempted to comfort his wary crew by squeezing a shoulder or patting a back as he passed them. Once back aboard his own ship, he took his place at the helm and gave the order to raise anchor and adjust course for the small island.

*~*~*

As James had made his way across to the Reconnaissance with the rest of the crew, he worried about whether he had made the right decision. He knew if he was among the missing men, he would hope someone would make the decision to continue the search. But what if Burns was right?

At his new post tending the forward sails, a strange sound drifted past his ear in a fleeting manner, as though carried by a gust of wind and then gone. He went to the side of the boat and strained to pick up the sound again. After several seconds of silence, the sound drifted by once more. He began to fear he was losing his mind. The sound resembled the voice of a woman and bore a hauntingly beautiful, melodious quality. He glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed the odd singing. No one had broken away from their tasks or seemed to notice the distraction at all. He struggled to make out any more of the singing, hearing nothing except the crashing of the ship‘s hull through the rough ocean. Not wanting to be caught shirking his duties, he chalked it up to a spooked imagination and went back to work.

After little more than a day of sailing with full sails, the Reconnaissance approached the small island known by seafarers as the Lioness’ Den. By the time the dinghies were being made ready to sail ashore, James had already heard more than he would like about the island. He overheard crewmen other than Burns talking about the witch who came to inhabit the island from the fiery depths of Hell itself. They spoke of she who possessed a thirst for young men, quenchable only by blood. James tried with little success to dismiss the stories from his mind as utter nonsense.

“I will need my best men in case of trouble out there,” Merlot called aloud. James breathed a sigh of relief and glanced across the deck to see Burns leaning against the mast, shaking his head in disgust. “Crawford, Parker, Welding, both Baker brothers, and Tolston; you six are coming with me to search the island.”

The captain’s choices were obvious for the most part. Bill and Sol Baker, two brothers who’d served together in the navy before becoming contract sailors. James knew the Baker brothers as two of the most efficient sailors no matter what job they were given aboard the ship. He already knew Crawford, his bunkmate, was made of iron. The other two men, Phillip Parker and Archer Welding, were closer to James’ age and were the resident guardsmen of the ship. Each of them carried two pistols and several knives of varying length and purpose.

James stood frozen, unable to believe his own name had been called amidst the group of other men. When he finally approached his superior, the captain gave him a wink. “You can row with me in this boat.”

“Captain, I don‘t understand, you said your best men.”

“Indeed I did.”

“How do I fit into the same mold with these others?”

“Don’t worry about any of that, son. This is for you to learn a thing or two. Stick close to me and you’ll be fine.”

James was trembling as he climbed into the small vessel after the captain and waited to be lowered into the sea. With a pair of oars each, they rowed in silence until they were about halfway to shore, when the captain turned to look over his shoulder at James.

“Mind yourself out here. I’ve heard my fair share of stories about this place; many boats have ventured into this island’s waters and never returned. And while I do not believe in monsters, I do believe in missing men.”

James felt his stomach sink.

“Aye, sir.”

He barely managed to get the words out around the terror clogging his throat.

James turned nervously to look over his own shoulder to see the approaching mound of forbidding dark forest lurking behind a brief expanse of sand.

After gliding through an unnervingly still tide, their boat came aground on an eerily silent beach. With caution, he followed the captain onto the beach and nearly gagged when met by the same putrid air he had found aboard the Orion. He looked around to see the other men, all except for Crawford, with scarfs tied around their faces. James followed and tied his own.

“It’s too quiet,” he heard the captain murmur beside him. James stood still and noticed the same. There were neither birds cawing, nor a single breath of wind, not even a tide washing onto the beach. So quiet, in fact, he felt as though he could hear his own beating heart.

The captain set out ahead, followed by James, then the five other men who happened to have all voted in favor of searching the island.

With the exception of what appeared to be a path cut into the wood ahead of them, the monstrously dense forest appeared to have stood untouched for thousands of years. As they moved into the trees, darkness enveloped them as the forest canopy seemed to swallow the sunlight. The atmosphere grew thick and cloying, and the utter stillness that pervaded the island shrouded the wood in silence. The lanterns they lit to light their way seemed to barely penetrate the blackness that descended upon them. James struggled to breathe, his heart pounding in his ears. His throat burned and his mouth was dry as dust. He regretted his deciding vote more and more with every step into the opaque murk of the wood. The trees seemed to draw in towards the path, creating an ominous feeling of threat. A sense of dread moved across the party, their shoulders hunched over further and their pace dropping slower and slower as their feet began to drag.

As James continued his dispirited trudge, the sound of a woman singing drifted again into his ear. He stopped, whirling around to pinpoint the location of the ethereal sounds. The rest of the men stopped and watched quizzically as he frantically twisted back and forth, vainly trying to locate the source of the mysterious singing.

“What’s the matter?” Merlot asked, giving James a worried stare.

“Don’t you hear it?” James cried.

“Hear what exactly?”

“That voice! It has to be the sweetest sounding voice I’ve ever—” James’ voice cut off when the singing faded back to silence. His frustration grew as he saw the blank looks of the others.

“I don’t hear anything,” chimed one of the Baker brothers.

“Neither do I,” said the other. Merlot looked at James with piercing eyes and pursed his lips; it was clear he hadn’t heard the singing either.

“Let’s continue on and stay sharp. I’ve seen forests such as this one before, and above all else, they succeed at playing tricks on those trapped within,” the captain said with a grim tone.

James shuddered to think there could be other places in the world as terrifying as this dark island. He knew already this was as close to Hell as he had ever been and ever wanted to be.

The men walked for what felt like endless miles. Without being able to see the sun, all sense of time was lost. They might have been walking for minutes or hours. The deeper the men walked into the forest, the more oppressive the darkness became. James had never in his life craved the light of the sun as he did now. And then, as if Divine Providence had taken pity on his tormented suffering, a light began to grow in the darkness ahead. The entire group quickened their pace as the light silently beckoned them forward. A clearing opened in the trees before them with a giant bonfire raging in the center. As James stepped into the clearing, every bit of relief he felt was wiped away by a horror that his mind struggled to grasp. The men blinked in the roaring firelight, rooted to the ground in fear.

James felt his joints turn to ice, gripped by a paralysis of terror as his eyes took in the grotesque contents of the trees surrounding the brightly lit clearing. Several men were hung upside down by their ankles from thick tree branches. The men’s throats, torsos, and faces were covered in deep slashes as though meant to bleed out. His eyes finally turned to the bonfire in the middle, seeking respite from the gallery of mutilated corpses. But the fire was no better – a blazing mountain of charred skeletons. The flames leaped towards the slowly darkening sky of twilight.

James could tell the others were as transfixed by the sight as he was. A movement in the shadows drew his attention and horror turned to abject terror as he realized they were not alone. A dark figure rose from the top of the bonfire and stood, clad in a flowing robe of flame, before descending the pile of bones with twisted, jerking movements. The figure moved as a silhouette but it was not difficult to identify the characteristics of the monster that scourged the sea lanes of this world – long slimy hair, inhumanly long, black, razor-sharp claws and deep red eyes that burned with the fires of eternal torment.

“My God, it’s the Lioness—she is real!” the terrified voice of Archer Welding cried out.

“Run!” Merlot’s bellow rang out across the clearing.

James turned and ran for his life, because it was clear that was what was at stake. He heard the other men storming after him. Back in the now welcome dark of the wood, James ran blindly, swinging his arms wildly to clear branches from his way. Ringing out in the darkness, James could hear a deafening roar that seemingly came from all around them.

The roar of a lioness.

He shuddered and ran faster, throwing himself down the dim path, whimpering in fear, his breath tearing at his lungs.

Another shriek of terror echoed through the trees. James did not look back. Another scream followed, a voice he recognized as the unstoppable John Crawford’s. He looked back this time to see the dark figure huddled over the man who had seemed a force of nature, casually ripping out his throat. Tears stung James’ eyes and coursed down his cheeks as he and the remaining men sprinted for their lives.

Screams continued to pursue James as he made his way toward the beach and their boats. The Baker brothers apparently decided to stand and die together as he heard their war cries ring out, only to be replaced by howls of utter agony. It did seem to slow the monster down and the remaining men redoubled their efforts to escape the monster’s relentless pursuit.

James heard Philip urging the captain to “get the boy and get to the beach.”

He suspected the guardsmen were going to sacrifice themselves to allow the captain and James to escape. The roar of gunfire and the flare of muzzle flashes were met with an answering roar from the monster. The two men drew steel and charged forward but James was caught by the captain and shoved toward the beach. “Move, Tolston! NOW!” Momentary screams told him that the guardsmen had fared no better than the brothers.

James and the captain burst through the last of the trees and onto the beach. James’ muscles were screaming and his breath was a shriek. With his last strength, he hurled himself into the boat as the captain hastily shoved it into the water. They both rowed with all of their might and the dinghy raced back toward the ship. As he rowed, the memories of his fellow sailors dying in such grisly fashion turned his blood to ice and twisted his gut into knots.

Relief at their escape was short-lived. Something felt off. There was no further sign of the monster emerging onto the beach. James kept peering at the island as he rowed but there was no sign of movement. As they approached the Reconnaissance, more screams split the night, along with the now familiar roar.

“But, how?” James voice mirrored the bafflement written on Merlot’s face. They pulled alongside the ship and Merlot turned to James. “Tolston, stay here and wait for survivors. Do not come aboard the ship unless I tell you it is safe to do so. Do you understand me?”

“But Captain…”

“Do you understand me, sailor? That’s an order!”

“Aye captain.”

“That’s my ship and Lioness or no, she’ll not be having her.” With a wink, Merlot was out of the boat scrambling up the side. James waited, frozen in terror, trying to make no sound. Screams and angry cries continued to ring out as a battle raged on deck. Somebody began tossing things overboard as if seeking to lighten the ship’s load. Something crashed into the water close to James and with a turning of his stomach, he recognized the face of Horace Burns, who now had a slashed throat to go with the scar that adorned the left side of his face. His sightless eyes seemed to stare accusingly at James, his perpetual sneer wiped away by a look of utter terror.

As the ghastly rain of bodies subsided, James looked up to see Merlot peering over the side at him. His heart leaped as he imagined the captain emerging victorious from the battle with the hellish demon. But then he noticed the black claws blossoming from the captain’s chest like a deadly flower. The monster lifted the captain from the deck, impaled on her claws. Merlot just had time to yell “James, GO!” before the monster casually swept his head from his shoulders.

Fighting panic and disbelief, James threw himself under the blanket from under the forward seat. Before the blanket covered his eyes, his gaze caught that of the bloodthirsty abomination motionlessly staring down at him—the Lioness. The red eyes burned nightmares into not only his mind but his soul as well. Losing his hold on reality under the unrelenting gaze of purest evil, James heard again the mysterious singing so achingly beautiful that now sounded like tears, washing him away into the darkness.