Title: Monster of Elendhaven.
Author: Jennifer Giesbrecht.
Genre: Fiction, horror, fantasy.
Publication Date: 2019.
Summary: The city of Elendhaven sulks on the edge of the ocean, racked by plague, abandoned by the South, stripped of industry, and left to die. But not everything dies so easily. A thing without a name stalks the city, a thing shaped like a man, with a dark heart and long pale fingers yearning to wrap around throats. A monster who cannot die. His frail master sends him out on errands, twisting him with magic, crafting a plan too cruel to name, while the monster's heart grows fonder and colder and more cunning. The sorcerer's work is subtle, changing mindsets and curdling hearts with barely a trace left behind. But there are signs to read for magic hunters coming up from the capital in the South. These monsters of Elendhaven will have their revenge on everyone who wronged the city, even if they have to burn the world to do it.
My rating: 6.5/10.
♥ He got the name when he was three feet and four inches tall, kneeling on the dock with a coin in his palm, from a sailor who stank of rum and fish oil. The sailor grabbed him by the back of the neck and slammed his head into the wall—once, twice, three times—and then yanked the coin from his hand. His lip split on the dock and his mouth filled with a foul mixture of grease, salt, and blood.
"What's your name, then?" the sailor asked, turning the coin to catch the light.
He shook his head, confused. What is a name?
The sailor laughed and kicked him in the ribs. "Why, don't you have one, dock rat? No little Hans, little Ralf. Little wee Johann of Elendhaven. Nameless spit of a hallankind." The sailor kicked him a second time for good measure. "Suspect I'll find you dead on the shore any day now, beached like a rotten seal."
He put a hand over his mouth and let the spit and blood pool hot and sticky in the center of his palm. "Little Hans," he whispered to himself, "little Ralf." He turned the last one again and again as he wobbled to his feet. "Little Johann, little Johann, a little thing with a little name."
Things with names didn't turn up cracked and ground against the rocky shoreline. Things with names survived. He would be a Thing with a name.
♥ Power was sweeter than apples. It was cheaper than water, and sustained the soul twice as well. If Johann was going to be a Thing with a name, then from now on he would be a Thing with power, too.
♥ He cultivated a persona with the dedicated fervour of a character actor: a practised charm that appeared natural, a crooked smile, an easy laugh, spider-leg fingers that snapped and threaded through the air as he spoke. The role became so lived-in and claustrophobic that the effort required to peel back the skin was not worth the reveal. He never took his gloves off.
♥ He killed to get the things he wanted: a professor of literature's pretty, smiling throat taught him how to read; a seamstress bled to death from a long, craggy gash down the center of her back once she finished the trimming of his jacket. He was careful with her, frog-stitching the overlocked seams of her spine with a boning knife, whistling to himself as he worked. A butcher showed him how to disassemble a body, and then disappeared down the drain in pieces himself. Johann liked killing. He appreciated that every part of the killing act was a function of instinct, that any thinking person is only a breath away from an animal. A half creature with no name.
♥ When the gas lamps flickered on, he lay in the shadows like an oil slick and thought of himself as a piece of the dark, a feature of the city that crept across her rooftops like a ribbon pulled through a bonnet, moving smoothly through the fabric, drawn right to pull it shut. Elendhaven's very own murderer, Johann of the Night.
For some reason, no one ever remembered his face.
♥ He tried to decide later what he was: Johann the Thing. Johann the Demon of Elendhaven. Devil Johann, Johann in Black, Oil-Dark Johann. Monster was the best, his favourite word. The first half was a kiss, the second a hiss. He repeated it to himself again and again: "Monster Johann. Monster, Monster, Monster.
♥ What only Johann saw was that the windows in his office fogged up when he was inside, that snow turned to steam under his feet. He had observed doors opening with no hands on them and watched Florian's business partners do what he said even when they clearly did not agree with his basic principles. Florian Leickenbloom never paid for his coffee and biscuit in the morning, but the staff at the café did not seem to notice.
Floran Leickenbloom was a sorcerer.
..Florian's eyes were the colour of light split through a glass of vodka. His wrists were so narrow that they could be snapped with one hand, the bones crushed in a strong palm as easily as the rib cage of a sparrow. But there was a scattering of embers inside his chest that burned as bright as gold trim under a lamp. A ghost nipping at his heels that no one else in all of Elendhaven had noticed.
♥ "You're not afraid," he observed. "Why aren't you afraid?"
"Oh. Oh no." The air whistled through Florian's teeth as his tone danced along the edge of shrill. "I assure you, I am terrified. You're quite a fearsome man. But I am afraid of most everything, so I've found it useful to evaluate risks with a clear head in the moment and do all my screaming after the fact."
♥ "The ability of humans to use magic is aberrant," Florian explained, sweeping a tarp off the couch so that they could sit. It was cherrywood upholstered in chartreuse, frayed at the seams. "Magic is the element the plant needs to thrive, to produce life, much like the"—he cast about for an example—"the carbon filament in a lightbulb. It is the chance of life, the conduit between nothing and something. But of course, you shouldn't touch it. You'd be scalded."
..Beneath the white fabric his skin was powdery and marred with dark rivers of bruise. The black wounds traced the path of Florian's veins, his flesh cracking and scabbed around its borders. Johann whistled and grabbed Florian's arm, running a thumb over the inside of his wrist. He could feel the texture even through his glove: coarse and mottled like fresh charcoal. Florian smiled, thin and tight.
"The difference is that I can survive a few burns."
♥ ..but sorcerers in the modern era were errant throwbacks, mistakes of birth. One had passed through Elendhaven just four years back. Johann had been lucky enough to see the aftermath of his work: a city watchman turned inside out, his guts steaming in the crisp winter air and his bones arranged like a pyre, all stumbled together, clasped skyward like a prayer. Johann had sensed something thrumming in the air that day, like the dissonance that lingers after hitting a piano key. Now that he knew what he was looking for, he could feel the magic filling up the room. Florian stank of it. It jittered out from every nerve in his body. Not for a long timer, he said. Aberrant. Johann heard it properly: Florian Leickenbloom did not think himself a creature made by mortal intent. He was like Johann, one of the Black Moon's monsters.
♥ "Magic is the energy we create by living and dying. It flows through us on its journey to somewhere else. Someone like me can crack open the cycle and shape that energy into new potential."
♥ He dreamt about all the things he would do if he owned a house with twenty-six rooms. He kept friends for longer than a night. He smiled at people he did not intend to stab between the ribs. So many possibilities; he could run a bar, open a hostel, host am orgy every full moon.
♥ They strolled through the city square, passing beneath the statue of Hallandrette, God-Queen of the northern ocean. She was wreathed in seaweed and barnacles, her skeletal hands held aloft as if she were clawing her way towards the surface. Johann didn't know any of the stories behind the statue, but he always found it strange that the Queen of the Sea should be carved to look as if she were drowning.
.."Do you know what a hallankind is?"
"Sure." Johann kicked at a speckled red shell that peered out through the sand. It crumbled to dust under his boot. "It's dock slang for lad-whores. For little boy prostitutes."
"An ancient term transformed into crude modern vernacular. Here." Florian dipped gingerly, right at the sodden border cut by the tide, and plucked out a stone: perfectly round, an inch in diameter and opalescent in sheen. He held it aloft for Johann's benefit. "The oldest stories of the North called these rocks Hallandrette's Roe. She lays her clutch along the beach, and protects them from the destructive hands of mortal beings." Florian turned on his heel and pitched the stone at the cliff-wall as hard as he could. It bounced off the slate harmlessly. "See? Hard stone. Unbreakable."
Johann frowned. "How do you crack one open, then?"
Florian smiled, secretive. "A privilege reserved for Hallandrette's chosen. When a wretched child, one wronged or wounded deep in the soul, throws what they love most in the ocean they may cast a roe against the stone and a hallankind will be born. Keep the stone in their pocket and the Queen sends to them one of her children."
"A friend for the lonely soul."
"A companion," Florian affirmed, "made from the same dark matter that coats the bottom of the Nord Sea. A hallankind will love that wretched child as a brother or sister. They will drag whoever wronged their brother-sister-friend into the sea and wring them through the spines of their mother's baleen until they are foam and sea particle, forgotten in the cradle of her belly."
..Quietly, Johann came up behind her and saw that, once again, she had a white stone in her palm.
"Throw it against the cliff, and the thing you love most will come back to you," Johann said, chin close to her shoulder.
She did not startle. "I've heard that myth somewhere," she said softly. "That these are eggs laid from the mouth of the goddess Hallandrette, that they awaken when filled with tragedy."
"They're Elendhaven's answer to death. No unjust passing goes unpunished here at the edge of the earth."
♥ Florian took him to an abandoned textile factory along the seawall: hollowed out from fire and surrounded by a mile of silence.
♥ "You've heard what they say, Herr Leickenbloom: monsters still sleep beneath the Black Moon."
"It's inside," Florian whispered.
"Monsters still sleep inside the Black Moon," he said, touching a knuckle to his chin. "Not beneath. You had the saying rather confused."
♥ Johann spared one last look towards the ocean, pulled all the way out for low tide so that the entire ragged gash of the shore could be seen. Calm now, a parent with a steady hand who punished only those children who turned their cheek. Whether he understood it or not, Florian had spoken the elemental truth of Elendhaven—the harbour was a womb, not a shroud.
♥ "Whenever I use my power I can feel... a great abyss yawning open beneath me. It's the same feeling I get standing at the edge of the ocean: staring into another world that I cam touch but would surely drown in were I to wade out too far."
♥ "Old Magic is transference," Florian said softly. He smeared the blood down the center of the page. The paper drank it up. "Not addition. Not alteration. That's the knowledge we lost.."
♥ Florian often dressed as if to cocoon himself; he burrowed beneath layers of frill and finery. As far as Johann knew he'd been in that cocoon for fifteen years, waiting to emerge as something terrible and lovely.
♥ "Those who lived through the troubles will remember—fifteen years ago the people of Elendhaven suffered through a terrible plague. The illness swept first through our gutters, then through the factory districts. Its maw was so ravenous that its teeth were at the throats of even our most privileged, sheltered citizens. My own family fell victim to the nameless plague. My parents, both my uncles, their wives, and all of their children. My..." He paused a moment before continuing, his gaze floating towards the ceiling.
"If even the Leickenblooms—who have stood in this city since time immemorial—could fall victim to this disease, they said, what hope had the rest of the city to stand against it? Indeed, all of Elendhaven would have fallen into the Nord Sea and our rotted flesh been consumed by the crustaceans, had it not been for aid from the Great Kingdoms of Mittengelt. Your people rode to our aid like the knights of old, wielding your gold and doctors. And for that, I toast you.
.."Of course," he sneered, "your aid came only when our gates were barred with corpses. Your aid came only when you feared that we would no longer be fit to deliver whale oil for your lamps or oysters for your feasts. Your aid came only when our silver mines closed because the miners were too sick to work. You came to save us only when you thought you might own us in return. And now you come running back, when it looks as if the mines may flourish once again."
♥ "I am a brother who loved," Florian said, "and I can attest that there is no brotherly lover between Elendhaven and the South, or the Old Kingdoms. For the true sons and daughters of Elendhaven, our mother is the sea and our sister is the winter. We stand alone at the edge of the world, as I stood alone atop the corpses of my family. When you go forth from this city, you will bring the same ruin to your people that you allowed to befall mine. I am Hallandrette's favourite son and I will devour your bones as surely as she does when her unloved children are cast into the ocean."
&hearts" You've never told anyone about this, have you?"
"I've whispered it to the dark," Florian insisted, "which is the only confessor I need."
♥ "My father caught the plague first, as he was always visiting the textile mills. He liked to envision himself as the sort of manager that peasants admired, that they spoke of fondly to their children: 'Ah, Herr Leickenbloom is so kind, darlings. Today he slipped a silver coin into my palm, when he saw that my knees were shaking. He smiled at me when he told me I couldn't leave work early, even when I coughed blood onto the sleeve of my tunic.'"
♥ Florian did not think that was true, but he could not argue with Flora. She was the sun and he was the moon. He receded whenever she shone bright, as sure as the passing for night into day.
♥ Johann had never fucked someone more than once, and had certainly never fucked someone slowly or ponderously, as anything but opportunistic—and often unsatisfying—curiosity. He'd never met a person who remembered he existed five minutes after turning away from him, or who cared to learn what he was called.
Johann had always thought himself an exceptional reader of people. You can learn a lot about someone's inner life if allowed to examine them the way their shadow does—close enough to breathe down their neck, but unnoticed, unremarked upon, invisible. But Florian watched back; he learned, adjusted, and could predict Johann's movements and moods now. A strange thing, to be studied like a pinned moth. Acceptable only because Florian was not quite human, either, was he? Something inside him burned brighter. A curiosity, he had called himself before, in a glass jar. If only he knew how true that was. Johann could not help but look at him with eyes coated in glass—curious and shining, refracted endlessly onto split images of light. Was this what it meant to know something else's name?
♥ She looked like she was sleeping. Florian had kissed the cold lips, just to see if she would wake up, like a maiden in a Mittengelt fairy take. Of course he knew it would not work. The middle kingdoms had forgotten the old ways. It would take a northern fairy tale to bring Flora back to him.
♥ He plugged his nose theatrically as he stepped in through the window, although there was no one to watch him. Well, wasn't that how it had been most of his life? Spinning a myth around himself even though no one wads ever watching?
♥ Fitting that there was detritus of Florian's family scattered in every corner of the city, like bone and blood when a head is blown open by pistol fire.
♥ Johann breathed it in: perfume, rot, body odor, and piss. No shit, though. Johann knew what a corpse smelt like, and what a corpse smelt like was a blood-logged ass soaking in the decayed offal matter of its last three meals.
♥ It was only fair, to dole the duties out this way: for Johann to wipe away the refuse Florian cast behind him, to keep those dainty little hands unmarred by the scars he was raking into Elendhaven raw. Johann imagined himself as the shadow of death in the man's fraying sight. No reason to be afraid, Johann thought. Death is kind. It's only life that holds suffering. With infinite kindness, he climbed onto the bed with one knee and knelt at the Ambassador's side
♥ Florian really was as fragile as a new ice, but—
—the thing about newly frozen ice is that beneath it lurk dark shadows. Florian had darkness beneath his pale eyes all week.
..For most people, a darkness behind the iris was a sign of melancholy. For Florian it bespoke pure elation. Thin ice isn't a problem for the sea; it's a problem for the blind idiot who steps out on it. The fool who breaks it gets sucked under; the ice, it mends.
Florian's eyes were full of drowned corpses as he and Johann dined once again with Ansley and his foreign business partner.
♥ "In the age of sorcerers, they say a deadly spell split the silver mountain in two. It turned a thousand men and women to ash, and that ash snowed down all along the shore for ten days. Wen the ocean rushed in to fill the crater left by the spell, the water was black." He picked up his empty tumbler and held it to his eyes, miming a spyglass. "If you stand on the cliffs outside the city, you can see the harbour is shaped like a crescent. That's how it earned its nickname—the Black Moon is the first sign of the end times in old barbarian myths."
"A rather leisurely apocalypse," Charpentier mused, "if it takes five hundred years."
Florian set his glass down. "It's only leisurely if you are tracking time on a calendar," he whispered. "The world is much, much older than we are, and the Gods older than that. The signs from the Allfather are meant to mirror an eclipse. First the Black Moon. Second is a plague that will bring a long dark. The third is a war that will burn a circle around the oldest kingdoms of man. When our monuments are reduced to rubble, the Gods will ascend from the Black Moon and begin their final battle. Hallandrette is the watcher of that gate—the Allfather's favourite daughter. Our city's guardian."
"Is that why you love Elendhaven's long nights, Herr Leickenbloom?" Eleanor ventured softly. "Because of this myth that foretells such savage daylight?"
Florian shook his head and laughed. "Of course not. I'm a rational man. I believe what I see." He gestured towards the window. "And you can see clearly that the harbour is a volcanic crater; it was formed by geological forces, not mad sorcerers. But magic and war did poison this land, once. The allure of the story is obvious when you've lived here long enough. You feel it in every stone. In the way that the horizon bends over the ocean and disappears. In a certain sense, Elendhaven truly is the end of the world. After all, it dwells at the edge of the map."
♥ "In the land where my mother was born"—Eleanor tapped the ash from her smoke into Ansley's bowl—"they believe that time is like a wheel, suspended from seven celestial chains. It's, er..." She let out a tired laugh and pretended to be abashed that all eyes were once again on her. "It's... complicated. I don't understand it all myself, but my mother told me that time is like a circle that we walk again and again. Everything that has happened has already happened, and will happen again. ..We move through cycles that grow shorter with each rotation," she said, a melodic cadence to her words. "First is creation; then we prosper; then we preserve. Then, decline. Finally, decay. The last cycle is a corrupted world, so far from the light. When this cycle collapses, the world folds in on itself. And then, we begin again."
♥ "What a thing it is, to see men hunger for the end times!"
"Heh. Little did they know that they were sitting right beside their imagined apocalypse. Snug with its harbinger, letting him suck down their shisha and paying for his drinks."
Florian reeled to a stop and his amusement turned to disgust. "That's the problem, isn't it? Unwise to dream of death in a world where someone has the power to make those dreams come true."
There he was: pale and small in the moonlight, smaller even in his fur-lined coat—precisely tailored, tucked at the waist, and bulky beneath the elbows where his mittens pushed against the cuffs. A pinprick of light in a dark winter sky, the nexus around which Elendhaven's universe revolved. How could this friable child hold the future in his horrible hands?
♥ Johann laughed into the kiss, imagined himself and Florian sinking beneath the mud so that it filled their mouths and their eyes. Such a thing would not kill Johann, but it might be nice to stay that way for a while—until the spring came to melt the top layer of frost-glaze and flowers grew from Florian's rib cage. A wedding, of sorts.
♥ Is this it? Johann wondered. The longer fall I was looking for? To know that I was summoned up from the dark ether to do a monster's deeds for Hallandrette's truest son?
And when our work is done, I will carry him to the bottom of the sea, where we both belong. Deep beneath the silt our bones will turn to salt.
♥ She was entranced by him, like a mouse taken in by a snake. Was this an effect of his aberrant nature? A siren song that rose up from his pheromones and unlocked the secret desires of humans who spent too long in his shadow? He's never really thought about it—the way people talked to themselves when looking at him. Every person he'd ever killed had thirsted for it. Every human had a desperate void churning inside them. The world wants to devour itself, Florian said.
♥ He wasn't choking her hard enough to kill, just enough that she'd be placid when he drove the spike into her eye. He choked her until her vision went wise, until he saw that animalistic, euphoric frequency reflected back at him in her shuddering sclera; the chasm that howled in the space between life and death, where creatures lost their names.
♥ A name said in a certain tone of voice. That's what makes a thing real. Skin that glows like the part of an insect under the exoskeleton. Hands that do terrible things, work that needs to be done. A hallway that you cannot take another step forward in.
♥ "I have heard of this treatment. They shove a pike up your left nostril and stir it about until they find the part of your brain that scholars say creates magic. But I know better: magic is not in the brain, miss; it is in the bones."
♥ Johann knelt at his master's side. His edges still felt light, undefined. Blurry where his eye hadn't completely healed. What to do when he was dead? Where to go? Should he crawl back into the sea? Drag Elendhaven there with him, like an anchor over his shoulder? What was Elendhaven without Florian? A foul spit of land sinking deeper into the sediment every day. What was Johann without Florian? A name that no one knew.
♥ John had to bury his face in his coat to keep from laughing. What self-absorbed idiots, he thought, so bored with their lives that they hungered for news of mutilated women. Unwise to dream of death in a world where someone has the power to make those dreams come true. You never knew when the man sitting next to you on the train was an honest-to-god monster.