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The True World

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Captain Jack Aubrey slept uneasily that night. Usually he fell asleep quickly, and deeply, waking exactly when he wanted to with no difficulty. But the cutting-out mission they would attempt (achieve, he thought feverishly, this one must succeed) worked on his nerves, and he tossed restlessly, hampered additionally by the constant pain.

In the dark of the middle watch (five bells, thought Captain Aubrey, if there were bells on shore) he fingered his weapon nervously. His right arm, still recovering from the wound it suffered on the Java, was bound tight to his chest. Any fighting he had to do would be done with his left, which did not increase his confidence in this mission.

The house looked innocent enough – could be that of a neighbour's back home in England – but there were sinister rumours of the strangest goings-on inside. Jack would prefer to be anywhere else, but something precious was being held inside, and he was desperate to retrieve it. Captain Aubrey did not trust these treacherous Americans at all. Plots lurked everywhere.

The Captain sent Bonden and his crew around to the front. Aubrey and his men were to storm the back whilst the groups out front created a diversion. But before Jack could turn the corner he heard terrifying noises and screams from the front. He ran towards them – the diversionary action must not have gone well. He came around just in time to watch the young squeaker Forshaw be swallowed whole by a snake the size of Leviathan. Jack stood frozen in horror as the massive serpent tightened its coils about Bonden, Davies, and Killick. Immune to the shots from their pistols and the stabs of their knives, the monster lifted the struggling figures to its gaping maw.

The rest of the men were fleeing, dropping their weapons in their haste. Jack wanted to roar out in rage for them to stop running like God-damned cowardly lubbers, but his throat seemed shut up tight; unable to produce the barest whisper. Then it was too late. Jack could only back away, back around the side of the house. No time to mourn little Forshaw and Bonden and the others now. He still had a mission to complete and now he was on his own.

Alone and one-armed, storming the front with its monstrous serpent was out of the question. The back was no good either – the men securing it must know how effective their front guard had proven; they would not have been drawn away as Jack had originally planned.

A side entrance then, perhaps a window. Jack circled round and round until he spotted it: a slanted door leading down to a cellar. He descended cautiously into the deep gloom. Hearing the scuttle of rats eased his mind – if there'd been snakes of any size down here, the rats would have been eaten long ago. The cellar was crowded with bins of coal, stacks of wood, bushels of apples and root vegetables, and all manner of junk. Very untidy – Jack kept stumbling, tangling his awkwardly hung sword and jolting his aching arm. Stephen would scold him for forging ahead this way, Jack knew; the doctor wanted him resting in bed still – he wasn't close to recovered; but how could he remain abed whilst such danger loomed? His friend thought he could manage all his intrigues on his own, but ever since Mahon... Jack cut off those thoughts. Tripping over yet more tools left carelessly about, he swore under his breath, afraid the noise would attract attention.

At last he reached a door leading inside the house and stepped into a musty corridor, with a curiously odd, reptilian smell. Suddenly he was nearly blinded by a wall of bright light – fire! But then a large hooded figure rose up in front of him, blocking both his way and the fire.

Two foot-long fangs glinted in the firelight and a hiss of warm noxious breath flooded Jack's face as a cold realisation dawned. He crouched down in fear, left hand frantically scrabbling for his sabre. This hooded serpent might not be as large as the monstrosity outside, but it was still larger than any snake had a right to be – much larger than Jack himself. Deadly poisonous, too, obviously – one scratch from either of its wicked sharp teeth and he'd be dead. Impossibly fast, the serpent struck, but Jack's long sabre was up just in time, hitting the roof of its open mouth and forcing it to recoil. Again and again the snake struck, from this side and that, from above and below. Each time Jack narrowly avoided its bite, wielding his sword as both shield and weapon. Yet his arm was growing heavy and slow, his head thick with weariness – the doctor was right, he needed rest – the thought of Stephen sent another jolt of panicked determination through him. Focus on the enemy in front of you. Heart hammering in his throat, Jack forced his weakened body to keep fighting, thrusting the heavy sabre again and again. The many wounds he'd dealt the evil creature were finally slowing it down, yet it would not die! Even cut in two, both ends kept twitching and lashing out at him. More slicing, crushing blows were needed to put a final end to the serpent's struggles.

The floor was flooded with blood, likely mixed with deadly venom, judging from the noisome fumes. Jack was deathly afraid of slipping in it, of getting any on his skin, where it would without doubt burn his skin, the poison entering his body. The fire beyond the serpent's corpse was no less intimidating – between the stone walls in the corridor was relatively safe, but who knew what he faced ahead in the burning house – yet Stephen was trapped in there! If the fire endangered the house, then the doctor was at risk. Jack had to push forward, regardless of the risk.

Making his way carefully down the corridor, skirting as best he could the pools of blood and venom, he peered into the room that opened ahead. The fire was huge, like the snakes in this place, but at least this hazard was properly contained in a fire pit in the centre of the room, the smoke drawn up through a huge chimney. Jack looked around for any more snakes or other menaces, but the bright light from the dominating flames made it difficult to see much else. He edged carefully around the room, until he saw against the far wall a large luxurious bed. Seemingly more fit for a harem than a stately New England home, it appeared to have only one occupant – a dark-haired woman, asleep. She stirred, and her hair slid away from her face – suddenly Jack recognised Diana Villiers.

“Cousin!” he cried in a hoarse whisper. He could not trust her entirely, but alone in this vile place he needed all the help he could get. Surely even Diana would help Stephen, after all that had passed between them? “Cousin, wake up!”

She rose, sleepily, but to his creeping horror Jack saw he'd also awoken her bed-mate, not a human as he would have expected, but another of these damn great serpents!

“Di, get away from it!” Jack roared, readying his blood-soaked sword once more.

“Jack, no!” Diana cried, clasping the thing in her arms, even as it coiled protectively around her, hissing at Jack menacingly.

“What can you mean?” cried Jack. “These creatures are deadly!”

“Not this one,” Diana replied, stroking it soothingly. “I can handle it.” She shook her loose curls back from her face. Fully awake now, she sat up straight, every inch the proud Diana Villiers Jack had known.

Responding to her caresses, the snake slithered wantonly against her. Jack looked on, disgusted, but lowered his sword. “Can you help me find Stephen? He's being held somewhere in this house.”

A hunted look came into her face. “No, I can't. But, Jack, don't worry so, Stephen's safe enough here – he won't be hurt. They just want to talk.”

Jack's lips thinned to a grim determined line. He knew where 'talks' like these led. “Cousin, I am bringing Stephen out of here. Will you help?”

“I'm sorry, Jack, truly I am,” she said, a pleading note in her voice. “But I... I can't.” She glanced at the serpent coiled about her.

“You mean it won't let you! Let me rid you of it!” Jack advanced again, sword poised to strike. Once again his heart pounded high in his chest and he felt the chill prickle of fear, so unusual for him in a fight, when all he normally felt was excitement and blood-lust. But then he usually fought against honest soldiers and sailors – men – not these slippery slimy devils lounging in the bed of a woman.

Diana gave a little shriek as the coils tightened around her. “No, Jack, it's alright. We're all safe if we just don't cause trouble. I'm alright. Stephen will be fine. Please, just leave it be.”

For a moment Jack stood still threatening. “You won't help Stephen and you won't let me help you. Very well.” Thoroughly disgusted, he turned away and stalked to the door.

“Cousin, wait!” Diana was somewhat abashed, but still held her head high, in that way Stephen found so entrancing. “Not that way. Try through there,” she said, indicating the passage leading away behind the bed.

Jack nodded, relenting, and edged his way towards the passage, giving wide berth to the snake, which slithered and hissed in return. “Hush you,” Di scolded it softly, just as Jack made his escape.

Jack followed the turnings of the passage, dark and cool after the bright heat of the bedroom. Up ahead he heard soft murmurings in an oddly grating voice. As he drew closer the words became more distinct. “Ah, honey, there you are. Yes, my dear, and you too, the beauty of the world, so you are.” The endearing words made little sense, but Jack at last recognised Stephen's lilting voice.

“Stephen!” he cried, rushing into the room. Di must have been right, the doctor couldn't be hurt, speaking like that. Jack's call was cut short, however, when he saw what his friend was doing. The room was crawling with snakes, of more natural, Earthly sizes; but still all slithering freely, coiling, licking the air with forked tongues. Surrounding Stephen, who seemed happily fascinated, examining each in turn, even as they wrapped about his arms, clung to his neck. “No, my God, Stephen, no!”

“Why, Jack,” said Stephen, smiling at him, “There you are.”

“Stephen, come away!” cried Jack, most agitated. “Come away now. Get away from them. They're evil – deadly. Come away, brother, come!” He beckoned frantically.

“Shhhh, hush, my dear, it is quite all right,” said Stephen, coming towards Jack, still carrying the snakes about him.

With wordless cries of horror Jack backed away but still Stephen came closer, soothing him. “Do not distress yourself, brother, be at peace. It is quite alright. Just a dream, my dear, just a dream.”

Jack opened bleared eyes to see Stephen sitting beside his bed, leaning over him, concern in his face and calm comfort in his voice. “A most distressing dream, to be sure, my dear. I must confess I had hoped you would sleep more deeply, restfully tonight. You will do your recovering arm a great injury, thrashing about, so you will.”

“Brother,” said Jack wearily, “Whatever you put in that dose you gave me last night – I pray you never do so again.”

“It was but – “

“Please, Stephen.”

“Oh, very well,” the doctor agreed, pouting slightly. “But now you must let me give you your usual dose, to help you sleep more restfully.

“If I must.”

“You must,” said the doctor, turning away to to get the physic.

Jack looked up as his friend turned back. His pale eyes looked oddly yellow in the candlelight, the flickers giving them a strange slit-eyed appearance. Jack felt the lingering horror of the dream creep upon him again, but resolutely thrust it away. Stephen had always a somewhat reptilian look about him; it meant nothing.

“Come, my dear, take your physic now,” urged the doctor soothingly.

Jack looked down at Stephen's hand. The dark glass was narrow, but much longer than usual, and wavered strangely. It seemed to crawl towards him as the doctor lifted his hand. Jack hesitated, the creeping fear gripping him again.

“That's right, my dear. We will soon have you restored to health, and safely with us.”

Jack put his hand over Stephen's, to steady the glass, still wavering in the flickering light. “Your hand is so cold!” It felt damp, too; clammy.

“Tcha, Jack, and have I not just come in from the falling damps, the interminable fog of this miserable city, so eternally cold as it is? And have you not been lying here abed wrapped in such warm blankets as the Asclepia has, with the fire burning so hot as it does? Of course you are warm, much too warm, and I feel cold in comparison. I am cold, and will go directly to my own bed as soon as you will have your dose. Come now, my dear; no more horrible dreams, only the true world now, so it is.”

Jack had been mesmerised by his friend's mouth as he spoke; he fancied Stephen's teeth looked longer, sharper. Just a fancy, of course, left over from the nightmare. He raised his eyes to the doctor's now, and opened his mouth for his dose.