North Bimini, 1717
"Welcome to Hell, Mr. Death."
"Deeth!" William corrected habitually, knowing his dark and deadly captain couldn't care less how to properly pronounce his name. Cantankerous tosslington did it apurpose, as he lived to rankle everyone around him, especially his crew.
Proof to that point came as an amused, sharp glint in the depths of Bane's demonically red eyes.
Even so, and ever reckless in the face of imminent threat, Will cocked a brow at the aptly named Devyl Bane and his screwy sense of humor as they approached a dingy yellow building in the middle of a rain-soaked street in the Bahamas. Only as they neared civilians whom they were supposed to hide their preternatural existence from did Devyl dampen the hue of his eyes from red to black.
"Interesting way to open up a conversation there, Captain. Feel like you ought to have some sort of evil laugh to punctuate it. You know? Just for affectation."
With a wicked grin to make Old Scratch proud, Bane clapped him on his shoulder. "Not really." He jerked his bearded chin toward the devil-emblazoned tavern sign over their heads. "Name of the place. Hell's Underbelly. I's merely welcoming you to it, since we should be at home here. Though this one seems a mite tame when compared to the one Thorn dredged us from."
It did, indeed. In spite of the rough drunkard who was thrown through the doors by two burly blokes to land sprawling at their feet.
Devyl didn't break his stride as he casually stepped over the battered man's prone body and entered the dark tavern.
Unsure of how he felt about the captain's disregard of the drunkard's plight, William skirted around the side of the unfortunate man and followed the captain in, where he was met by the sound of shrill revelry and foul curses.
Then he rethought his earlier assumption about the place, since it smelled about the same as the sulphuric pits they'd once called home.
Rotten, unwashed humans ...
Rotten, farting demons ...
Both disgusting in equal measure.
Only difference was killing demons, unlike humans, didn't get you damned to hell, it got you liberated out of it. Hence why they were here.
Save some humans. Kill some demons.
Same mission. Different day.
Or was it different mission, same day? Here lately, it was getting harder to tell those two apart.
Maybe they were in hell again, after all ...
It'd be just the kind of sinister trap Lucifer might concoct as punishment for them. Old Scratch was a treacherous blighter that way.
Suddenly, Will's gut was tight enough to form a lump of coal at the thought.
"What'd you do to poor Will now, Captain? He looks like you just gave him watch duty over Mr. Meer's nastiest boots."
Will stepped back as Cameron Jack joined their meager company. Dressed as a lad in a red linen coat and tan breeches, the lady held a quiet, respectful grace. Her dark chestnut hair was pulled back into a circumspect queue and hidden beneath a sharp black tricorne that accentuated her pretty, angular features. How he'd ever mistaken her for a man, he couldn't fathom nowadays.
Yet the first time they'd met, he'd definitely been fooled by her boyish garb and sharp, crisp mannerisms.
Only Devyl had known that night in the back room of a Port Royal tavern. He'd blame it on the dim lighting, but then no one got anything past their captain.
"What kept you?"
Cameron passed a small parcel to him. "Lady Belle told me to give this to you. She said the one to be bartered with will require it."
There was no missing the guilt in her eyes as she spoke those words, and none could blame her there. Their missing crewmember, Kalder Dupree, was only trapped in hell now because he'd swapped places to free her and her brother.
Since then, they'd all been desperate to get him out. Having been abandoned and betrayed by their families and the world, none of them were willing to do it to each other.
The Deadmen were their own family now. Not crew or shipmates.
Family. One and all. Brothers. Sisters. And crazy uncles they had to keep from drinking too much on holidays and special occasions. With a tighter bond than any born of the same womb could ever achieve.
And their rebirths had been no less painful.
Devyl took her parcel and tucked it into a leather pouch that dangled from his belt. "Let's see this met. It's time we brought our brother home."
William didn't speak. There was nothing to say, as he concurred with that. Yet there was a feeling in the air and in his gut that he couldn't quite shake. A sense of mistrustful unease. As if someone had walked upon his grave again.
You're being paranoid.
Perhaps. But that was a normal state for the likes of them. And given what unholy threats they faced on a routine basis, none could find fault there. Hard to relax your guard when there were devils and demons abounding. All out to steal or devour your soul and end your life.
"Head! Get some good head here! Big head. Little head. Matters naught! I've something for every budget, mates! Just tell me what's your pleasure!"
Stunned completely, William drew up short. It took him a second to realize the man yelling had a basket of shrunken heads he was peddling to the occupants, who were basically ignoring his grisly wares.
Arching his brow as the grimy man brushed rudely against them without a polite acknowledgment, Devyl swept his hand over the shrunken, leathery offerings. The instant he did so, their shriveled mouths opened.
As did their eyes.
With an echoing shriek, the man dropped the basket of heads, which began singing hymns a cappella like a bunch of Sunday Protestants, and ran for the door.
William snorted. "You're an evil bugger, Captain."
"Merely putting the fear of God into him, Mr. Death. Besides, it's what he gets for soliciting head in a public place. I'm just trying to keep the pub decent for hardworking sailors."
As if! William laughed while Cameron let out a squeak of horror at his indelicate language.
"Well, well," a deep, sultry voice said beside them. "I can see the rumors that your newly married state has mellowed you have been greatly exaggerated. You're still the same rotten beast, mon cher, you've always been."
All the humor died on Bane's face. A tic started in his jaw. "Menyara. You old sea hag. What are you doing here?"
Will blinked, then blinked again and rubbed his eyes that had to be deceiving him.
Unless Bane was drunk, and the man had never been such that Will had ever witnessed, there was nothing old or ugly about the tiny little island woman in front of them. Indeed, her caramel skin was flawless. Her braided hair intertwined with expensive beads and colorful ribbons. And though she barely reached mid-chest on him, her voluptuous body said she was certainly no girl, yet by no means was she matronly.
Fortunately, she took Bane's insult in stride. "Is that any way to greet an old friend, cher?"
"Friends? You stabbed me. Thrice."
Unabashed, she smiled as she brushed her hand over his arm in a tender gesture of affection. "Well, what did you expect? Your army was destroying mine. I had to do something to distract you before you killed every last one of my soldiers."
With a rude dismissive noise, he stepped back to make room for Cameron. "And that's why you sent an innocent young girl to me? Punishment or revenge?"
"Neither. I knew you would protect her."
"Hell of a gamble, given my proclivity for feasting on the hearts of innocents."
Menyara inclined her head to him. "Not when I knew how much you loved your sister. And I was right. You protected our Miss Cameron. As I knew you would. Thank you for not disappointing me."
Bane made a gruff "heh" sound in the back of his throat. "You still haven't
answered me question. Why are you here?" "To warn you."
He passed an annoyed do-you-see-what-I-mean glare at William. "About?" he prompted when she failed to continue her sentence.
And even then Menyara waited before she answered. "Kadar knows the truth about your missing mermaid ... and so does Shyamala."
The blood drained from his face at those ominous words. "Do they have him?"
"Not yet. But they're trying to find him, same as you."
"Who's Kadar and Shyamala?" William asked, baffled by the unfamiliar names. And he wasn't the only one. Cameron didn't appear any more familiar with them than he was.
Devyl ground his teeth. "Only the deepest, darkest evil you can imagine. They were the snake in the Garden of Eden, Mr. Death. The shiver that goes down your spine whenever you think you're being watched in the night. They are the whisper that tempts good men to the animal side of corruption. That lapse of conscience that drives humanity to do its worst."
"Oh, fun! Sounds like our kind of people."
But the grim expression on Devyl's face said that he didn't appreciate Will's sarcasm.
"Actually, they were once Du's people. He fought long and hard for their cause and killed many in their name."
That took the humor right out of William's spirit. "Beg pardon?" Menyara nodded. "Your good captain once led his army for them."
"And what did it get me? A knife in me gullet and bled out at the feet of the bitch who betrayed me to serve them, until I killed her and locked her in a special hell for it."
The same hell that was now breaking open and that they had hopefully sent Vine back to when they'd killed her for trying to murder Bane's new wife, Mara.
The Carian Gate.
His eyes flared as he stepped back. "Come, Lady Cameron and Mr. Death, let's see about our mission."
As he started away, Menyara stopped him. "Before you leave, there's something else I must tell you."
Devyl placed his hand high on his black baldric of three flintlocks. "And that is?"
Menyara turned toward William with a beautiful, dazzling smile. Beguiling and sweet. Without a word, she approached him slowly and reached for his belt.
Stunned, he didn't move. Not until she reached for his daggers. In one fluid motion, she grabbed them, kicked him back, and spun toward Devyl.
As she closed the distance between them, her entire being changed from the petite Menyara into a tall, graceful, red-headed beauty.
William gasped as he realized that this was Devyl's ex-wife they'd destroyed.
Or at least, they thought they had.
How was this possible? Even though the Carian Gate had broken open, how could she have returned to life?
Yet there was no denying that this was the very sorceress they'd fought, and she was back from her grave to take vengeance on them all for killing her.
Hissing, she rushed at Devyl. "You didn't end me, you worthless bastard! But I will see you back to hell for what you've done! And I plan to send that sniveling little Myrcian bitch there with you!"
Cameron Jack cursed as Captain Bane was forced to reveal his powers before the humans in the pub. Something strictly forbidden to them by Thorn. The Hellchasers and Deadmen were to never let a mortal know they'd been brought back to life under any circumstances. Nor were they to put their preternatural abilities on display for the public.
Never mind the laws that governed her own breed of Necrodemians, or Hell-Hunters as they were more commonly known. The Sarim Council that she and her brother answered to had an even stricter code of conduct they were required to follow.
The worst rule being that Hell-Hunters couldn't fight dirty.
For any reason.
Or endanger a human life, or reveal their powers to mundanes.
Yet had the captain failed to reveal his powers, Vine would have consumed them with her unholy fire that she launched behind the daggers.
But by unleashing his fire, the captain deflected hers with his own. The humans ran, screaming, for cover.
Wiser ones, for the door.
Sad to say, Cameron wasn't so smart. She chose to stay and fight, as was her nature. But then that was all she'd ever known. Fighting ran thick within her Celtic blood. And twice as deep in her Necrodemian bloodline. So she unsheathed her sword and made ready to cover the good captain's back with William as more of Vine's allies moved in for them.
"Well," William said to her. "Makes me so glad I volunteered for this, eh? Could have stayed onboard the ship with Bart, Kat, and Simon and the rest. But, nay. Had to stick me foot in the fodder. 'Got your back, Captain,' had to say. Aye, a fool I be for sure, and then some. Next time I speak up, Miss Jack, feel free to run me through and save these devils the trouble of it."
Laughing at his surly tone that belied the fact he was loyal to the bone and meant none of it, she parried against the first demon to reach her and twisted away from the beast. "If there is a next time, Mr. Death. Not so sure we'll make it out." She barely caught the next demon as he tried to sink his fangs into her shoulder. Luckily, she beheaded the beast before he drew her blood and turned her into who knew what.
Then, kicking up the abandoned heads the peddler had left behind, she let them sink their fangs into the wanker, who screeched mightily from the pain of their bites.
"Anyone have a good idea on how to survive this?" she asked while Captain Bane continued to fight with his ex-wife. And if they'd fought like that while married, it was easy to see how their marriage had ended in murder.
William knocked his opponent into the fire. The demon shrieked then burst into flames. Cinders rained down all over them and threatened to set fire to the pub. "I vote we join a new crew. Preferably a human one that hell itself isn't trying to kill at every turn. That should increase our chances of survival exponentially."
She snorted, knowing he was japing. "Aye, but it won't redeem your soul, now, will it?"
And unlike her and the captain, Will wasn't free to leave the Sea Witch's crew. The Deadman's mark on his wrist bound him tight to their enchanted band and prevented him from seeking new company until he'd regained his freedom from Thorn's bargain. Not that it mattered.
When it came to the Deadmen who sailed onboard the Sea Witch, they weren't about to abandon each other, no matter what. Through thick and thin, and demons galore, they were one united insane family.
At least that was her thought until the demon in front of her burst apart with a stench so foul it caused her to choke and gasp. Ugh! Never had she smelled anything more putrid, and given some of the hovels where she and her brother had taken refuge after their parents had orphaned them, that said a lot.
"You were saying, Miss Jack?" Will taunted her as he rested his sword on his shoulder. Pressing his hand to his nose, he made a face she was sure mirrored her own distaste of the stench. "I'm really not seeing much difference between here and hell lately."
Honestly? Neither was she.
And it was indeed getting harder and harder to tell the demons from the humans at times, too. Which made her wonder at their mission. Why were they bothering to save a world that seemed hell-bent on remaking itself into the very visage of what they were trying to save it from?
Don't forget, you're not fighting for the world right now....
True. Right now, she was fighting for the man who'd traded his life for hers. And that one decent, selfless act needed to be repaid in kindness, not treachery.
Kalder deserved to be rescued and not abandoned. She would not do to him what everyone else had done.
I will keep me word to you, Kalder. We will find you.
If she had to break hell itself open and battle Lucifer to bring Kalder home, she would.
And so Cameron renewed her fight against their enemies so that they could quickly behead the last three demons before they claimed another innocent human life or soul.
Or even one of their not-so-innocent ones.
Leaving only Vine to be dealt with.
Her breathing ragged, the Titian-haired demon curled her lips at them. Vine was a great beauty, Cameron would give her that. It was easy to see why the captain had been duped into marrying her.
Easier still to see how he'd been blinded enough to drop his guard long enough in their marriage that she'd been able to kill him.
But Devyl Bane was no longer under her spell, and no longer was he fooled by her charms or enchantments.
"You always favored your little water pet. And Kalder will pay dearly for your defiance here tonight, Duel. Take your comfort in that. And I'll make sure he knows who caused it for him when I feed him to the Dark Powers myself." Then she vanished with one last shrieking cry.
Captain Bane cursed as she withdrew. "Come back and face me, you worthless bitchington!"
It was too late. She was gone.
"Shall I go after her, Captain?"