Chief Justice Rupert Rupert stormed into his room, almost shaking the door out of its frame when he slammed it. Sweat beaded on his forehead and dripped from his greasy cowlick. His heart tried to pump its way out of his chest, and the blood in his brain caused his vision to swim and contort. Medicine. He needed his medicine. The judge stumbled to his desk drawer and nearly punched a hole through it trying to get the thing open. There. A small silver bottle in the back. Barely conscious, it was a miracle that Rupert got the cork off and managed to force down a trembling guzzle. Then he crawled into bed and tried to ignore the screaming in his head.
For what felt like a day, the judge was assaulted by visions of blood and fire. He dreamed of the idiot in the blue suit, of tearing out his throat and beating his face into a bloody pulp. When the man was little more than a puddle of guts, he turned to the girl and ripped her in half. Then he tore into their corpses. He kept shredding and ripping and digging until he finally found them, and tore free their shining livers. He was so hungry. He brought them to his mouth, he tried to take a bite.
When Rupert reopened his eyes, his heart had finally calmed. Everywhere hurt, especially his head. He suppressed a groan as he rolled limply out of bed, a wet impression of his body etched into his sheets in sweat. Thank the stars for laudanum, he thought, as he tucked the bottle back into its hiding place in the back of the drawer. Where once was rage was now only a pleasant numbness. He frowned. This couldn't continue. The laudanum was effective at first, but now, only two months later, he could already feel its effects begin to weaken. Under the medicine's soothing calm, he felt a seething rage. How much longer could it hold him back? How much longer until he'd have to find another solution? He was running out of solutions, and horrifyingly, the episodes were growing not only in frequency but intensity too. Back there, he hadn't had an episode that intense – not since before the execution. He shook his head. He couldn't think of such things; the apothecary had warned against it.
Instead, Rupert tried to focus on the man he'd seen earlier that day.
The Judge arrived early for boarding as he did for everything in his life. By the time most passengers were struggling aboard, he'd already unpacked what meager supplies he'd deemed necessary to bring. While people were suffering to find their rooms, Rupert lounged in the ship's observatory, whiskey in one hand and fungus cigar in the other. Papers littered the table before him. For the judge, this trip was no pleasure cruise. In two weeks, he would be presiding over the trial of the Heretical Traitor himself. It would be the crowning achievement of his short career, and he'd make sure the Traitor would hang for his crimes. He just had to hold on until then.
The glass dome of the observatory cast its gaze over everything worth seeing, from the pink clouds above and below him to the distant islands drifting in the breeze. Small settlements and farms grew on these islands, like moss on river rocks. Watching the people, rendered as small as ants by the distance, milling about their mundane and awful lives, Rupert felt a complete calm wash over him. After so much struggle and so much pain, he was here. Surrounded by more wealth and opulence than he could possibly have dreamt of in his younger days. And not only did he have wealth. He had power too. As the newly appointed King's Justice, no one was out of his reach. He could change lives with a stray word, he could crush communities on a whim. The thought itself was more than enough to electrify him.
No. It was happening again. Rupert shook his head as if to shake off the thoughts. When that didn't work, he threw down a heavy glass of whiskey and poured himself another. After setting the bottle down on the floor, though, he noticed something out the corner of his eye. Something that made his blood run cold. Something he never thought he'd see again. A face, staring back at him from across the room. When they made eye contact, the man turned away and back to his book.
Rupert knew that face. He knew those pale features and long, black hair. Even now, nine years later, he still saw that sharp nose and stared into those lifeless eyes in his nightmares. When the Bobbies found William, they found him stowed aboard a cargo ship bound for Lotusland Greens. He wet himself as they dragged him off and away to the gallows. Rupert was there when the man refused a priest, and he was part of the crowd that quietly watched when the gallows floor opened and a rope broke his fall. William died that day. But here he was. Older, yes, and fatter. But there was no mistaking it.
The year was 1737. Rupert was a rising star in the bobbies, the youngest commissioner in Greytowne history. That's why he was there when they found the first body. Lying face down in a puddle of rainwater and her own blood. She was little more than a child when they found her, though there was no way to know it at first. The damage was so severe, she hardly resembled a human. They had no way to identify her, there was nothing left of her face. The same brutal force had also decimated her body, she'd been torn open like a wrapped present. The autopsy found she was missing her liver.
That night, the dreams started.
Next day, they found another. This time it was a boy, in pretty much the same condition. He was also missing his liver. And then they found another. And another. Eighteen bodies in total by the end of the month, each slaughtered in the same way. The community was shocked and terrified, but the Bobbies had made no progress in catching the culprit. The attacks were too random, they had nothing to go off of. It was like the killer was everywhere at once. And despite the regular patrols and bobbies on every doorstep, more and more bodies were being found every day.
Coming home from another slaughtered child, Rupert would sit at the foot of his bed and try to quell the sick rising from his guts with cheap whiskey and strong barbiturates. When he finally collapsed early in the morning from exhaustion, brains blown to pieces by the drinks and drugs, the dreams would start.
The first time he dreamed, he saw the girl walking home from the old bridge. It was raining, as it so often did in Greytowne, and rivulets ran from the sides of the drab grey buildings to the drab concrete streets. She knew the way well, she'd walk this path home every day. It was the dead of night, and she knew Dad would be out by then, probably passed out in the living room. Hopefully, he'd have finally choked on his own vomit, or been murdered on the way back from the pub.
That night, the air was freezing, and the rain didn't help. She needed to get home soon. Rupert watched as she looked from the lit street she normally took to the darkened alleyway. The alleyway made her neck hairs stand on end, but it would save precious minutes of walking. She made her decision and stalked into the unlit street. Rupert followed.
At first, the dreams were contained to his sleep, but soon they began to influence the waking world. It started with the mood swings. He could be happy and calm, then suddenly fly into a blind rage. Then his friends noticed his personality change. Finally came the visions of blood and fire, the fantasies and urges to rip and tear and eat. He tried to bury his symptoms in alcohol and opium and kept vigilant in his investigation. But it seemed that with every new death, he only grew worse.
Eventually, the dreams and visions got to him. So powerful were the visions that he was no longer able to tell them apart from reality. And it broke him. There was a night that he found himself tailing a drunkard home from the pub. He looked down, startled, only to be greeted by his own reflection in the blade of his knife. The man in the mirror looked haggard and pale, with long black hair like kudzu and a nose sharp enough to cut with.
Finally, one day he'd had enough. He couldn't bear the weight of his sins any longer, whether real or imagined. As he stared down the barrel of his revolver, he imagined that he would finally end the killings.
Suddenly, there was a pounding at the door.
"Commissioner Rupert!" cried a voice on the other side, "Don't do it! We've found the killer!!"
It was about time, he thought, as he cocked and squeezed the trigger. But he'll beat them to it. He'll take care of this killer.
Suddenly, a deafening crack rang out and Rupert's door exploded inwards. As the ashes settled, it revealed the old man and the bewildered bobbies flanking him.
Rupert spun around with mouth agape as he hobbled into his office, overcoat billowing behind him. Before he could say a word, the old man twirled his cane with the dexterity of a man half his age and, moving so fast he was like a blur, swung at the barrel of Rupert's gun. On impact, the revolver withered into dust in his hand.
"Let's not jump to conclusions now, commissioner," the old man said, stroking his great, bone white moustache.