The creature’s jaws tore open as it let out a terrible, unearthly howl that carried the sounds of a thousand drowned voices. Miron did not relent, his chant rising in volume to match the monster’s scream as he continued to advance towards the abomination. The creature’s claws clutched its skull as it backpedalled on trembling legs, shrieking in agony as it shook its head about angrily. The priest continued forth, his chant a bellowing chorus of alien phrases, his face a mask of wrath as he drew closer, his symbol raised like a shield, his voice a weapon.
Driven to the wind, the chorus disappeared from the ship, becoming clouds as they swiftly disappeared into the blue upon shrieks of terror and agony.
The foul beast itself let out one last, agonised howl and turned, breaking into an ungainly sprint as it loped towards the railing. With one immense leap, it sailed over the edge of the ship and fell into the waters below with a colossal splash.
The waves settled and Miron’s chant slowly died as he lowered his hand, his twisted face returning to normal. He took a deep breath and let out a great exhalation, his body shrinking considerably as he released all his air in one great gasp. None dared speak in his presence as he stared out over the waves, his eyes locked upon the unseen creature as it fled beneath the waters.
Men dropped their weapons and their jaws, their eyes agog and their murmurs breathless. Dreadaeleon wore a look of amazement, while Gariath’s face was carved into an expression of suspicious concern. Kataria pulled her silver-haired companion to his feet, staring out over the railing with wide eyes. Denaos looked towards Asper for an explanation, but she had none to offer, her eyes locked upon Miron in awed disbelief. From the crow’s nest, Quillian gazed out at the waters, hardly believing that the beast was truly gone, believing even less easily the way it had departed.
Sole amongst them, Lenk took a step forwards, his footsteps echoing across the waves. Miron remained unmoving, unchallenging of his employee’s approach, unspeaking as Lenk cleared his throat behind him.
‘It’s gone now, is it?’ Lenk whispered. ‘The danger’s passed?’
‘Danger?’ Miron cast a smile out from beneath his cowl.
‘I suspect you’ll soon learn the reason that word was invented. ’
‘On three, right?’ Sebast grunted.
‘Right, then . . . one . . . two . . .’
They lifted the last of the bodies. The two men had no breath to spare for heaving or grunting as they upended the dead pirate over the railing, sending him tumbling into the eager waters. Lenk grimaced, observing with macabre fascination as the headless man plunged stiffly into the brackish depths.
The sea resembled a floating graveyard, corpses of pirates bobbing at the surface like fleshy lures, their lifeless faces staring up at the darkening skies before they slowly sank in a hiss of froth. Lenk watched the dark, slender shapes of fish gliding between the descending corpses, nibbling, tasting before casually sliding over to the next body. Bigger, blacker fish would join the feast, he had been told, once they caught the scent of blood. By morning, not a scrap of flesh would be left to remember the dead.
A strange thing, the sea, Lenk mused grimly. Hours ago, the men bobbing in the water had been ferocious foes and savage opponents. Now, as they sank in a cloud of swirling dark, they were simply sustenance for creatures that knew or cared nothing for them or their exploits. In the end, for all their bravery, all their savagery, they were nothing but food.
‘That’s the last of them.’ The ship’s first mate sighed, dusting off his hands and noting unhappily that such a gesture did nothing to remove the bloodstains. ‘Rashodd has been taken below, along with our own boys.’
Lenk nodded. Rashodd had been the only one left alive. What remained of his crew had been swiftly executed and tossed overboard, leaving nothing behind but their captured black ship, a lingering stench and a bloody tarp. Sebast looked to it as his men began to roll it up.
‘Once we get some mops up here,’ he said, ‘you’ll never be able to tell we all nearly died on this ship.’ His laughter was stale and bereft of any humour. ‘Ah, I suspect after I say that a few hundred more times, I’ll start believing it, aye?’ Quietly, the sailor shoved his hands into his pockets and began to stalk towards the companionway. ‘Decent of you to help dispose of the dead, Mister Lenk. I’ve got letters to write.’
‘To wives . . . widows, anyway. Orphans, too. Unpleasant business. I wouldn’t ask you to help with those.’
Lenk remained silent; it would be an odd thing for the man to ask of him, but he wasn’t about to offer his aid, in any case. Sebast took the hint and stalked off across the deck. It was only when he was a thin, stoop-shouldered outline against the shadows of the companionway that a question occurred to Lenk.
‘What was his name?’
‘Whose?’ Sebast called over his shoulder.
‘The young man who died today.’ Realising his mistake, he corrected himself. ‘The one killed by . . . by that thing.’
Sebast hesitated, staring at the wood beneath him.
‘Moscoff, I think . . . some young breed out of Cier’Djaal. Signed on to make some silver when we last set out from that port.’ He suddenly glanced up, staring out over the evening sky. ‘I think his name was Moscoff, anyway. It might have been Mossud . . . or Suddamoff . . . Huh, you know, I can’t even remember any more.’ He smiled at a joke only he understood. ‘I can’t even remember his face ... isn’t that funny?’
Lenk did not laugh. Sebast did not, either; even his faint corpse of a smile disappeared as he turned and trudged down the steps into the ship’s hold.
It only occurred to Lenk after the first mate had departed that his declaration that their work was done had been incorrect. There were still many corpses upon the Riptide’s deck, save that these still moved and drew some mockery of breath.
The Riptide’s crew traipsed across the deck without purpose, half-heartedly pushing mops over stains that would never disappear, picking up discarded weapons.
Privately, Lenk yearned to see them crack a joke, curse at each other, even brush up against him with a hearty greeting and a full blast of their armpits’ perfume in his face. Instead, they muttered amongst themselves, they stared up at the darkened skies above and made unintelligible remarks about the weather. They did not look at each other.
There was no blaming them, he knew. Their hearts were heavy with the deaths of their comrades, their minds trembling with the strain of comprehending what they had seen. He could hardly wrap his own mind about the events as he stared at the splintered dents in the deck.
The creature should not have been. It should have stayed in drunken ramblings and ghost stories, like any other horror of the deep. But he had seen it. He had seen its dead eyes, heard its drowned voice, felt its leathery flesh. Absently, he reached for a sword that was not present as he recalled the battle; he recalled the creature, unharmed by the blows dealt to him by Gariath, himself and Moscoff.
‘Or was it Mossud?’
At once, the sailors paused in their menial duties to look towards Lenk. He saw their own lips soundlessly repeat the name before they turned back to their chores.
The moments after the creature had fled returned to him in a flood of visions. Asper had run to tend to the fallen sailor, kneeling beside his still body, looking over his slime-covered visage. He remembered her grim expression as she looked up, shaking her head.
‘He’s dead,’ she had said. ‘Drowned.’
Lenk found his knees suddenly weak, his hand groping for the railing to steady himself. Drowned on dry land, he thought, that doesn’t happen.
Where did such a creature come from? What sort of vengeful God had spawned such a fiend that shrugged off steel and drowned men without water? What sort of gracious God would permit such a creature to exist in the world?
Gods, he had found, were seldom of use besides creative swearing and occasional miracles that never actually occurred. He leaned on the railing and cast his gaze out over the sea like a net, trawling for an answer, some excuse for the horrors he had seen. He knew he would not find one.
Kataria watched from the upper deck, a deep frown on her face as she observed Lenk.
His melancholy unnerved her more than it should, as the battle had unnerved him more than it should have. Bloodshed, she knew, had been a big enough part of both of their lives that pausing and thinking about it afterwards was no longer instinct. That he now stood unmoving, barely breathing, eyes distant, caused her to do the same.
She noted the icy glow in his furrow-browed gaze. His thoughts lingered on the dead, no doubt. He did not mourn; Lenk never mourned. The young sailor’s death was not a tragedy in his mind, she knew, but a conundrum, a foul question with no decent answer.
Below deck, she knew others were in mourning, asking themselves the same questions in teary curses. Their presence was the reason she stood away from them, atop the upper deck, far removed from the humans.
Her belly muttered hungrily.
That was reason enough to be away from them.
None of them would even be able to comprehend hunger at such a time, all choked on emotion and tears they dared not share, just as she was unable to comprehend their grief. No matter how often she attempted to place herself in their position, to understand the people they had lost, the same thought returned to her.
Dozens of humans had died, of course, but only dozens of humans. The world had thousands to spare. Even those who survived the day would likely last only a few more years after. What made these few so special? What if they had been shicts?
She shook her head; they hadn’t been shicts, of course. If they were, she would likely feel otherwise. The fact that they were human, weak, close-minded, prone to death, prevented her from feeling anything else.
Once again, her gaze drifted to Lenk, also human.
The young sailor and Lenk: both human, their differences too trivial to note. Why was it, then, that one made her think of food, while she could not tear her gaze away from the other?
‘Are we so fascinating?’
Kataria turned at the voice, regarding her new company quietly. A tall, black-haired woman stood at the railing beside her, polishing a bright red apple on the chest of her toga. Quillian had discarded her armour, her flesh no more yielding than the bronze she had worn. All the skin exposed was as white as the garment she wore, save for one patch of crimson at her flank.
Oaths, Kataria noted. In bright red script, the Serrant wore her profession, the condemnation that kept her from the very priesthood she protected. Her sins, her crimes were scrawled from her armpit to her waist in angry, mocking tattoos.
Kataria averted her eyes; given the nature of the brand, she thought it would likely be considered rude to stare. Such a thing wouldn’t normally concern her, but she simply had nothing left in her to fight with.
If Quillian had noticed her stare, she didn’t reveal it. Instead, she took a bite of her fruit and, chewing noisily, produced another, offered it to the shict.
Kataria lofted a brow. ‘You think enough of me now to offer food?’
‘No.’ The Serrant didn’t bother to swallow before answering. ‘But I thought to spare these brave men the indignity of hearing your belly rumble.’ She followed the shict’s stare to the young man below. ‘You two are lovers?’
Kataria’s ears flattened against her head and her scowl raked the woman. ‘Are you stupid?’
The Serrant shrugged. ‘It would have been the first I’ve heard of such a thing. Given your mutual lack of morality, however, it wouldn’t surprise me. I know of no adventurer who looks at her boss that way.’
‘Lenk isn’t my “boss”.’
‘I thought briefly about using the term “commander”, but I thought you’d be too unaccustomed to proper terms to recognise it.’
‘He’s my friend.’
‘So you say.’
Quillian’s chewing filled the air as she stared out, dispassionate.
‘You don’t have anyone you worry about?’ Kataria asked.
‘I forsook the privilege of worry when I earned this.’ She ran a hand down her tattooed flank. ‘Those who fight alongside a Serrant can take care of themselves. From the way your “friend and leader” fought today, I’d say he can more than take care of himself, too. Even if he was an idiot when he charged that . . . thing.’
‘He’s not an idiot,’ Kataria snarled. ‘He was trying to protect everyone, you included.’
‘The only one I need protecting from,’ she narrowed her eyes upon the shict, ‘is the one right before me.’
Kataria resisted the urge to retort. There was no need for it now.
‘I’m not calling him anything more than a good killer,’ Quillian continued with a sneer. ‘He and that dragonman charged a creature that, by all rights, shouldn’t exist.’
‘Lenk is different from other humans. He doesn’t think like you.’
‘While I’m thrilled to see a shict stoop so low as to think so highly of a human, I feel compelled to ask . . . how does he think?’
Kataria shook her head; she didn’t know the answer herself. She knew the man well enough to know his patterns, as she knew those of a wolf or a stag. She knew his likes, dislikes, that he wrote in a journal, that he slept little, that he bathed only in the morning, that he made water only when at least two hundred paces from anyone else. What made him think the way he did, however, was a mystery.
All she knew was what he had told her: something had happened in his youth, his parents were no longer alive. She absently wondered what he was like before.
‘So much the better,’ Quillian grunted at the shict’s silence. ‘I’d rather not know how you degenerates think.’ She swallowed another piece of fruit. ‘Argaol, I hear, has taken Rashodd alive . . . to use the bounty to cover his losses.’
‘And the other pirates?’
‘Disposed of, not that you care.’
‘The world will make more humans.’
Quillian stared hard at her for a moment before snorting and turning about.
‘One moment,’ Kataria called to her back. ‘That phrase can’t be enough to make you irate. Tell me,’ she tilted her head curiously, ‘why is it you hate me, my people, so much?’
The Serrant paused, her back suddenly stiffening to the degree that Kataria could see every vertebra in her spine fusing together in contained fury. Then, with a great breath, her back relaxed and the woman seemed smaller, diminished. She ran a hand down her muscular flank.
‘For the same reason I wear this crimson shame,’ she replied stiffly. ‘I was there ten years ago.’
‘I was at Whitetrees,’ she muttered, ‘K’tsche Kando, as you call it.’
Kataria froze twice, once for the name and again for the woman’s utterance of the shictish tongue. Red Snow. She offered no scorn for the woman any more; she could find none within herself. Her hate was no longer misunderstood, no longer unacceptable. Quillian had stood with the humans at K’tsche Kando.
She had good reason to hate.
‘Given that, and my inability to do it myself, I dearly wish you had died today.’ She set the remaining apple upon the railing. ‘Your due, should you get hungry later. Expect nothing else from me.’
She was gone before Kataria even looked at the fruit. She glanced at it for a moment before a smirk crossed her face. Plucking up the fruit, she sprang over the railing and glided nimbly across the timbers. As she neared Lenk, she rubbed the apple against her breeches and gave it a quick toss.
Her giggle was matched by his snarl as the fruit caromed off his skull and went flying into the water below. He whirled, a blue scowl locked upon her, as he rubbed his head.
‘You’re supposed to catch it,’ she offered, smiling sweetly.
‘I’m not in the mood,’ Lenk muttered angrily.
‘To catch fruit? No wonder you got hit in the head.’
‘I’m not in the mood for your . . . shictiness.’
‘You never are.’
‘And yet,’ he sighed, ‘here you are.’
‘Call me concerned,’ she said, smiling. She cocked her head, regarding him for a moment. ‘What are you thinking about?’
‘The creature,’ he replied bluntly, scratching his chin.
‘What else?’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Worrying about things you can’t help makes your hair fall out, you know.’
‘Someone has to worry about it,’ Lenk snapped, glaring at her. ‘Someone has to find out what it was and what can kill it.’
‘And that’s your responsibility, is it?’
‘I’ve got a sword.’
‘You can put it down.’
‘I can also get my head chopped off. What’s your point?’
‘Do you really need to think about this now? The thing is gone.’
‘For the moment.’
His hand slid up unconsciously, reaching for a sword that wasn’t there. He had left it below after cleaning it, he recalled. His shoulder reacted to the pressure of his fingers, a sharp pain lancing from his neck to his flank. Asper had plucked the splinters from his flesh, though the wounds still ached beneath their makeshift bandages and salve. Still, such a pain felt minuscule against the sensation that clung to his throat like a collar.
He could still feel the creature’s claws, its digits like moist leather wrapped about his neck, tightening as it lifted him from the deck. At the thought, his legs even felt weaker, as though the thing still reached out from wherever it had retreated, seeking to finish what it had begun.
He blinked; Kataria’s question sounded odd to him, considering that she had seen him be smashed against the timbers, hoisted up and nearly strangled in a webbed claw. In fact, it sounded rather insulting. His hand clenched involuntarily into a fist. Her jaw loomed before him, suddenly so tempting.
He snorted. ‘Yeah.’
His shoulder suddenly seared with a lance of pain as she laid a hand upon it. With a snarl, he dislodged her, whirling about as though she’d just attacked him. She matched the murder in his eyes with a roll of her own, placing both hands upon his shoulders and easing him down against the railing.
‘What are you doing?’ He strained to hide the pained quaver in his voice.
‘Hold still; I’m going to check you over.’
‘Asper already did.’