Tales of the Guild in Venice
The guild in Venice was smaller than that of Rome, as I recall, but it was all the more lively – younger recruits, more ale and better songs for everyone. When I last visited there was a great bearded bear of a man who strung out joyous melodies on a viola – Jormund was his name. They had a cat, too – an ugly little thing that was missing an eye and was covered in scratches. They named it Scuff. Mierda the bar maid was well past thirty but was as gentle as a dove, red haired and big breasted. She used to smile and call me her silver sweet, of course, a few wrong words on my part had her hurling daggers at my head, and not long after I was kicked out.
I’m quite sure Jack’s visit was much nicer. It was near on dusk when Jack and Leticia had arrived at the guild, the sky often turned a wonderful lemony yellow as the sun set over Venice. The guildhall really wasn’t much to look at from the outside, just a decaying old building that used to be a tavern until some hunters touched it up. I can remember the smell, liquor and roses – Mierda loved the smell of roses, she was romantic like that. When she noticed Jack and Leticia coming she smiled, her two front teeth blatantly set too far apart. “Well look who it is,” she exclaimed, “Mr Jack Rose! My, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? I heard you were in town.”
Jack leaned his arms against the wooden bar top and removed his wide-brimmed hat. Jormund sat not too far from him, still fiddling away on his viola. Apparently his beard had shortened greatly, and was black on the ends as if it had been singed off by some tiny dragon. “It’s good to see you too, Mierda. It looks as though you haven’t aged a day!”
Mierda turned away to pour the old bear a drink, and she let out a shy cackle. “You’re too kind to me, Jack. Can I get you something? A drink perhaps? Or you here to see ol’ John and his lot about that nightmare that came through?”
“Actually,” said Jack, “the nightmare’s gone. I need to speak with your master of spells. He is still here, right?”
When I last visited this guild their master of spells was some old fool by the name of Dennis Yellowhands – he got the name from what all the potions he cooked up did to his skin. One day Dennis dabbled too much in his potions and accidently turned himself into a mouse. He became Scuff’s lunch before the day was done. It’s funny, for a man as intelligent as he was, he met his end by being gobbled up by a one eyed cat.
Anyway, I digress. Mierda was talking to Jack. “Oh, you mean Little Bon?” The new master of spells was named Bon. “Yeah, just head to the back and go down the steps. The other guild members gave him the basement after that little incident with our last master o’ spells. Scuff ain’t allowed in there anymore, but that’s another story. There wasn’t no other place for him to keep all his books, anyway. You can go see him now, if you like.”
Jack picked up his hat and broke away from the bar. “Thank you, Mierda. Perhaps I’ll come by for a drink before I leave Venice.”
“You better,” she scowled. “Last time you left without a word o’ goodbye.”
The rabble from the front of the guildhall died down pretty quickly as Jack and Leticia made their way through the hall and towards the basement. He was smiling as he walked. Leticia turned to him and spoke. “It seems you’ve made quite a name for yourself here. They almost treat you like family.”
Jack laughed at the prospect. “A lot’s changed, that’s for sure, but I can’t believe that damn cat’s still alive. I last came here with a group of other hunters from Rome, they needed help slaying a nightmare named Grogsprout The Green – a nasty piece of work. At the time you would have been back in Rome learning your history and your spells with Leon.”
They trotted down the creaky wooden steps and found the door to Little Bon’s room. Jack would have knocked if the door wasn’t already half open. When he peaked his head inside, the large room was lit by a dozen or so candles. In the centre was a large wooden desk upon which were sprawled all kinds of books and scrolls, as well as an ink pot that had toppled over and splotched half a piece of paper in black. Around all the walls were tall bookshelves, each containing hundreds of books – it was a very fine collection.
Little Bon was seated at the desk. At first glance he seemed a lot like Leon, although he could speak a great deal better. He was only a small young lad, about nineteen or twenty, with dry frizzy hair and rounded glasses. He seemed young, but well suited to be the master of spells. It was as he heard his door creak open a little more that he shouted – without raising his head from his book. “If Gendra sent you, you can tell him again that the fire-breathing elixir I sold him had the right concentration, it just wasn’t designed to be consumed by cats!” He looked and saw Jack. “Oh, my pardons. I thought you were one of the others.” And then he noticed Jack sword, silver strapped to his back. “That sword!” he exclaimed. “I know that sword. Nightslayer, one of the most prominent of the ten sacred blades by Michael… and by rights that makes you Jack Rose.” Little Bon stood up to shake Jack’s hand. “It’s an honour, sir. They call be Bon, I’m the new master of spells here… but I guess you already knew that. How can I help you?”
“I’m after a spell,” said Jack.
Little Bon let out a high laugh. “I have plenty of those! So what will it be? Surely nothing simple for a hunter as great as you. You want a binding spell, no doubt. I hear Jack Rose never took up spells too easily.”
Jack had to gesture for the boy to stop talking – he seemed to enjoy words. With a smile he said, “I need a summoning spell, there’s someone I need to speak with.”
Little Bon’s lean face grew dark and his eyes widened. “There are two categories of summoning spells; the good ones and the bad ones. Please tell me this ‘someone’ you need to talk to is a pixie.”
“Actually she’s a night hag.”
Little Bon became awfully submissive. “Oh, of course she is. Why on earth would anyone want to chat with a pixie… Okay, look, it’s not my place to tell you what is or isn’t a bad idea, but—”
“Do you have the spell or not?” Jack insisted, rather firmly I might add.
Little Bon then stammered. “Yes, and I should have all the other bits that go with it… but you seem to be forgetting that a Night Hag always requires a victim. Why, in the middle ages there were witches who’d cast Night Hags upon just about anyone who displeased them, and the Night Hag sure didn’t complain.”
Leticia stepped forward, gently and quietly. “He’s right,” she said. “Someone would have to be the victim.”
“Not just ‘someone’,” Jack explained, “me. Mr Bon, if I were to use a binding spell while the Night Hag was feeding, could I trap it and diminish its powers?”
Bon thought for a moment. “Well, yes… in theory I guess. I can’t say if it’s ever been done. But it’s more complicated than that; for a binding spell of that magnitude you’d need direct contact with the target, which means you’d have to raise your arm and touch it… and then you’d have to say the spellword. I’m sure you already understand well enough that the effect of a Night Hag attack is complete paralysis, that’s what makes them so terrifying, so as soon as she comes you’ll be helpless… unless… yes, that could work…” Little Bon flung himself from his chair and dashed over to his potion cabinet where he muttered the names aloud of every potion there until he found the one he was after – a tiny vile that was coloured a thick deep purple. “This! This should counteract the paralysis inflicted by the Night Hag attack – emphasis on should. If it doesn’t work, well don’t come haunting me over it, this was your stupid idea. Mr Rose, you have between now and a few moments from now to change your mind, because once I cast that spell the night will become your enemy.”
Jack laughed drastically at that. “It already is!”
“Alright then,” said Bon, “just give me a moment to gather my books. Essentially what I’ll be doing is casting the Night Hag upon you, just as they did in the Middle Ages, so I’m technically not summoning it.” Bon turned a book to a specific passage, read it, and then started to gather the ingredients. He tossed them all into a large wooden bowl – different herbs, an animal part or two, and a sprinkle of some powder. He used a candle to set the concoction alight – the vibrant green flames that it casted seemed to devour all other light in the room. Loudly, he chanted some spell words, and in as little as a flicker the green fire was gone, leaving naught but ash. “Give me your hand,” he said to Jack, and Jack did so. Bon touch three fingers of his right hand against Jack’s open palm and then uttered some more words – when he pulled his hand away Jack was marked there with a thick black spot. “There,” he said again, almost guiltily. “The curse has been placed. When next you sleep, Jack, it won’t be for long. Now listen to me very carefully because you do not want to screw this up. Before you rest tonight, drink this potion – it will grant you the use of your hand and your lips. When she is upon you you’ll feel as though you’re being strangled, all you have to do is touch her with your marked hand and say the spell words. Night Hags are only visible to their victims, so your friend here won’t be able to help you, but once the binding spell is cast… well, you know what to do from there.”
A long silence followed thereafter, even the candles had seemed to cease flickering. “Thank you, Mr Bon. I won’t forget your service to me.”
Bon chuckled. “After tonight, I doubt you will.”
Jack collected his potion and made to leave the room. “Goodnight Mr Bon.”
“Indeed,” Bon replied, “for me at least. For you I can’t say the same. Good luck, perhaps? Yes. Good luck.” They left Bon with his books.
Soon enough night fell. It came swiftly and all at once, like a great cloud blocking out the sun. He had been given a room at the guild, small and wooden, and eager to move on with his quest, Jack sat on his bedside and swirled the milky-purple potion in its vial. In a mouthful he gulped it down and then tried to find sleep. Unlike the night, sleep did not come quickly, no matter how hard Jack tried. He simply rested on his back, staring at the dark ceiling and praying that morning wouldn’t come. The room was silent and nearly pitch-black, save for the streaks of orange that clawed their way under his door.
Hours had passed into the long dreadful night and still sleep avoided him like a mouse avoided a cat. At first it was the potion he had drank – it made him feel sick – and then he became blissfully aware of how awake he was. When he deemed that something needed to be done he decided to get up and take a walk… only, when he tried, he found that he couldn’t. His arms and legs were as heavy as stone. He couldn’t feel them, he couldn’t move.
When did he wake? And when had he fallen asleep? Those were damn good questions, and I’m sure Jack would have loved to have known the answer. At the moment, however, he was a little preoccupied. As it turns out, when being attacked by a night hag, it becomes incredibly difficult to think. Jack had recalled forgetting all about catching the nightly creature when he discovered that his arms and legs couldn’t work. It was the sound he had said, echoing through the dark like some twisted song; a peculiar rhythm – the slow shuffling of feet against dusty wooden floorboards, getting louder and louder as they approached through the dark. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle! And then the eerie scrape of sandpaper sliding over some rough non-existent surface. Tscht, Tscht, Tscht!
He very quickly found himself suffering from an intense fear – the fear of his imminent death. He couldn’t escape. When he tried to lift his arms they just shuddered as if they were restrained by iron shackles. He found himself terribly alone, staring towards the sounds that had been sung from the dark… well, he wasn’t entirely alone, for there was something out there in the void, smiling, patiently staring back at him.
There was enough light to see, and he saw it well enough. A spectral presence, little by little moving towards him – dark and disturbing. At first it was indistinct, just a black murky shape floating through the air, but then it began to take shape. Jack wanted to scream at it, but his lips were gone. The creature stood beside his bed, drooping over his cold paralysed body – he could hear it breathing now, a long choking wispy breath, but he couldn’t see its face. Not yet at least.
Slowly but suddenly it climbed onto his body and he could feel each of its long fingers clawing into his flesh, but there was naught he could do. He felt the immense weight of the creature pressing down on his chest, and he realised just how hard it was to breathe… and then he saw its face – her face. The creature possessed the disfigured body of a woman. Thin hair fell down from her wrinkly skull and over Jack’s head, her nose was a pale twisted bulb in the middle of her face, her chin was broken and pointed, and her black lips stretched out in a wide open-mouthed smile bearing dozens of sharp teeth. She leaned forward, her wide blood-shot eyes only inches away from his face, her breath so foul that he wanted to gag… and in his ears – all he could hear now was this unbearably loud high-pitched ringing, like some raging static.
She was feeding, Jack had realised, as he felt his body grow weaker and weaker. Why was he here? That was the big question. He had to remember or else he would die. The night hag would devour every ounce of his spiritual being and he be left as nothing by a sleeping corpse. Move your arm! He recalled. I doubt he did it intentionally, but some instinct within made him remember, and suddenly his right hand was dashing out at the night hag’s wrist. He caught it, and the creature jumped with fright, followed by a high shrieking wail. Jack uttered the spell words and what followed was a powerful ray of green light that pulsed through the night hag’s body. She fell away from Jack and tumbled onto the wooden floor, rendered powerless by Little Bon’s spell.
Its screams woke the others, and moments later the door was cast open and the light flooded in. The creature cringed and hissed and cursed, but before it could stand up Jack, Leticia and Olly John had each aimed a sword at its neck, and Little Bon was standing there in the orange doorway. “Dear Lord! It actually worked!”
The creature moaned at spat at them all. “Curses! Curses to all o’ ya! Ain’t wise fa humans ta go messin’ about an honest night hag’s business!”
“Relax,” Jack had demanded, “we only want information.”
“I’ve nothin’ ta say!”
Jack edged his blade a little closer to the creature’s throat. “I believe otherwise. You followed the nightmare Sacracia The Vile here, did you not? Where is she?”
The hag quivered at the touch of his sword. “I can’t!” she begged.
“You can and you will!”
“Perhaps you ought to take off her hand,” Olly John insisted.
It was Leticia who caught the creature firmly by the wrist, raising her blade.
“Wait!” it cried. “Curses! Curse ya wretched humans! I ain’t losin’ a hand for her! If it’s Sacracia ya want, you’ll find her in London. Last I ‘eard she had some important business ta attend to.”
“Devil if I know. She mostly keeps ta ‘erself, if ya get my meanin’, don’t bother with small-folk like me.”
Leticia leaned in close behind Jack. “Scarlet Blackwell is working at the guild in London. We could send word to her, ask her to keep an eye out until we arrive.”
Jack pulled his greatsword away from the whimpering night hag and slid it into its sheath. “Very well, then that means we’re done here. John, tell Mierda I’m sorry, but I won’t be sharing that drink with her. We should leave right away.”
And so he left… or at least he was about to until John stopped him with a rather odd question. As for the night hag, they locked it up and left it at the mercy of Little Bon, who was quite excited to get started with some new experiments. It was near the bar that John asked his question. The guild was mostly asleep, save for Jormund who still held a cup between his big bear hands, and a man snoring unconscious to his left, and Scuff running about.
“I was meaning to bring this up earlier,” explained Olly John, “but at the time it had escaped me. I’m sure I’m just being cautious, but did the lad find you alright?”
To this Jack inclined his head with wonder. “Lad?” he asked. “What lad? Who?”
“A young man came by the guild here yesterday about just before noon, around the same age as Leticia, I think. He said he was from the guild in Rome, and he asked where you were so I sent him to the cathedral to find you. Nervous lad, he was, and a terrible stutter, too.”
“That’s Leon,” said Leticia.
“Yes,” Jack agreed, “but what on earth is he doing here. He never leaves the guild unless we make him.”
“Suppose something else made him. Either way, we should go back to the cathedral and track him down from there. Maybe the priest or someone else saw him and knows where he went.”
“No,” Jack stopped her. “You stay here and make sure we’re ready to leave as soon as I get back. I’ll go find Leon.”
Given the occurrence of the night hag attack and the time it would have taken for Jack to get through Venice, it must have been about three o’clock by the time he reached the cathedral. Even under the beautiful moon and the stars there was still an eerie presence to the place. Imagine the dark colours that consumed it, blacks and greys painting the walls.
Jack needed to wake the priest, but the front doors were locked, so he drew his greatsword and soon enough they were unlocked… and mostly broken. I can imagine the deja vu Jack would have felt.
To Jack’s utter surprise there was light inside, dozens of candles had been lit around the altar – a dim shadow clung to the rest of interior. In the dark, Jack bumped into the Holy Water font and spilled some onto the ground. There was so much silence, and then a very indistinct muffle of a scream. Jack ran forward to find Leon roped down to a chair behind the altar, with a rag in his mouth and a smudge of blood across his forehead. His face and eyes were ghostly white with panic as he kicked and struggled against his restraints. Jack removed the rag from Leon’s mouth and his very first words were, “the p-p-priest is a witch!” and then, “behind you!”
Jack turned, but too slow, as a bolt of lightning struck Night Slayer from afar. It was magic, no doubt, a spell designed to enhance the weight on the object upon which it was cast. As a result, Jack’s sword grew heavy… too heavy to lift.
“Mr Jack Rose,” said the priest… or witch or whatever he was. “What an honour it is to see you again, and under such splendid terms.”
“Whatever it is you want, I implore you to get away, now, else I’ll have to kill you.”
“To kill a man in the house of God,” jested the witch, “even for you that’s rich. Although it’s not so much what I want, I’m merely following orders, you see, my coven master wants that sword of yours, Jack.”
Jack proceeded to stand in front of his sword like a protective mother. “Then I’m afraid your coven master will be sorely disappointed.”
They exchanged scowls, and then Leon abruptly shouted a spell word that caused the witch to stumble, and suddenly he was drained of all his power. “What have you done?” he cursed at Leon.
“Evened the odds,” the boy answered, quite bravely too.
The next thing they knew the witch-priest was running down the aisle towards the broken remnants of the front door, and Jack was following. The witch-priest seemed to have tripped, but oh no, he fell quite deliberately, landing precisely next to the final pew. From underneath the dusty bench he drew a wicked silver blade, with which he swung and cut a red gash into Jack’s forearm. Jack retreated a little and the priest was promptly on his feet, but not for too long. He thrust his silver blade forwards, Jack stepped and disarmed him in a heartbeat, after which his features quickly filled with dread.
The witch-priest ran, again, for the door. Jack chased him down and caught him by the thin strands of hair on the back of his head. “Oh no,” Jack murmured, “I gave you a chance to run, to repent – but you are evil, my friend.”
The priest jabbed Jack in the ribs with an elbow and then tried to scurry away, but to no avail.“It’s time for you to find the Kingdom of God… here, let me help you.” Jack plunged the witch-priest’s head into the pool of holy water that he had bumped into earlier, and the witch-priest screamed and struggled. “I baptise you, in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit…” The screaming stopped. “Amen.”