“Not yet,” a voice said, deep and inhuman.
He heard terrified voices, and a man crying out in shock. In his mind he could see the faces of the prisoners from the Umatilla, and he forced himself not to match those faces to the shouts of dismay and cries for mercy.
Another growl, vibrating through the wall. “Not … yet…,” the voice said again, separate from the growl, yet so similar. “Go. Run.”
A sudden clamor of footsteps rushed past the door, and others faded in the opposite direction. The prisoners, escaping! But Jack already knew how wrong that idea was. He heard heavy thumps on the floor, smelled the stink of beasts growing even stronger, and then a low rumble that might have been an animal snarl or quiet, monstrous laughter.
This was not an escape.
The whole ship seemed to hold its breath. Distant, muffled screams shattered the moment, and then different footsteps thumped along the gangway outside the locked door, and these had claws. A howl rose up, so powerful and wild and familiar that Jack’s spine seemed to vibrate.
“No!” Jack shouted, the word bursting from him. He hammered the door. “Let them alone, damn you! They’ve done nothing!” He slammed his fists against the wood several times and then froze, chest rising and falling with ragged breath … staring at the locks.
He grabbed the latch of the heavy dead bolt and began to draw it back.
“Jack, stop!” Sabine said, clutching his shoulders and trying to pull him away.
The dead bolt unlocked, he spun on her, searching her eyes for a thousand truths that seemed to have escaped him thus far. Who was this tragic creature and what hold did Ghost have over her? Could it truly be love?
“Give me the keys to the padlocks,” he demanded.
Some strange exhilaration lit her eyes, and he thought he caught the glimmer of a smile before terror crashed in to fill her features again. “You can’t unlock the door. We’re safe in here, with all the locks on, but if you go out there—even if you just open the door—we’ll both be fair game.” She gave a quiet, brittle laugh. “Fair game.”
“They’re killing the other prisoners!”
Sabine faltered and lowered her gaze as if in shame. “You can’t stop it, Jack. You can only die with them, if that’s your choice. But if you open that door, you’ll be killing me as well.”
Paralyzed by her words, Jack racked his brain for some alternative, some tactic that would let him rescue the surviving prisoners—whose distant screams reached them even now—but he was at a loss. He could picture every one of their faces—the trapper, the woman in her torn dress, the man in the broken spectacles—but the one that haunted him most powerfully was the girl with the bow in her hair.
The horror was unfolding above and around them with each passing second, the howl of beasts overriding cries of human terror, and he had no time to plan something clever enough to save lives. He could set the ship afire and attempt to get himself, Sabine, and any other survivors to the small boats while the crew put out the flames, but he knew in his heart that there wouldn’t be enough time. He could do nothing but stand and listen to innocents die.
Jack screamed his fury and slammed his fists against the inside of the door. After several long moments, shaking with grief and rage, he slid the dead bolt he’d opened back into place.
“Sabine…,” he said. From elsewhere on the ship came another scream of terror, a cry of immeasurable agony … and then silence. “What are they?”
“You know what,” she said gently. “You’re bright enough, Jack, and the clues were all there. Don’t tell me you weren’t already thinking of them as wolves.”
OUT OF SIGHT
Jack had read that if a person was deprived of one sense, then some or all of the others would be enhanced to compensate. And sitting there with Sabine in that strange room in the ship’s hold—a safe room, built for just this purpose, constructed to keep people protected from whatever might be outside—he closed his eyes, trying not to listen to the slaughter.
It seemed to go on forever, but it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. He could easily distinguish between footsteps—the prisoners’ were panicked and shuffling, running this way and that through gangways and across a deck they did not know; the wolves’ were definite, methodical. And fast. A heavy thumping that he could feel in his bones. He followed both sets of sounds in his mind’s eye, and each would stop for a moment when another prisoner was cornered or caught.
He closed his eyes, trying not to listen to the slaughter.
Then would come the cry of terror, the scream of pain, the crunch of breaking bones.
And even in the safe room, Jack could smell the blood.
He and Sabine sat close together in the love seat, but for those few minutes they existed very far apart. Jack felt utterly alone, even though he could hear Sabine’s uneven breathing and smell her subtly perfumed scent. He thought of holding her hand, but that would feel wrong. She had known what was to come, and she had done nothing to warn him, nor to help those men and women locked away in the hold like rabbits caged in readiness for the hounds’ amusement.
Worst of all, if she truly had some second sight and she had used it to lead the Larsen to the Umatilla, then she had to share in the blame for the murders Jack bore witness to now—sightless witness, though in some ways they were worse in his imagination.
It was a surreal moment, sitting motionless while all around him were the sounds of pursuit and murder, and the ship swayed in tune with the Pacific swell. He felt like the center of things but not the focus. He was like the unmoving observer in the flow of life, a rock in a river of chaos. Sometime soon, he would have to shift.
When the running and screaming ended, the howling came again. There was more than one howl, and their tones were triumphant, some distant and some close by. The hair on Jack’s arms and neck stood on end. He opened his eyes, preferring the brash light of the room to the darkness behind his eyelids. The ship dipped and rose, and he wondered who was steering, who was watching the sails and ensuring the Larsen remained on course.
Of course, the answer was no one. The normal people—the human beings—on board were either in this room or scattered across the decks, torn to pieces, their insides being lapped up by monsters that followed the moon.
“But even we’re not normal,” he whispered.
Sabine’s hand touched his arm, a shocking contact. Jack jerked away. “Sh,” she said, holding his arm tighter.
“No,” Jack said, and he pulled away. “You’re not normal.”
“I’m not one of them!” she said, pointing at the door.
“No, I didn’t mean that. I meant…” Jack shook his head, not sure how he could verbalize what he had been thinking.
“They’re monsters,” Sabine said. “You’ve talked of the animal with Ghost, yes? He cannot stop talking of the nobility of beasts, the beautiful simplicity of wild things. But those things—those wolves—aren’t animals. They are low creatures.”
“Ghost doesn’t seem to believe that.”
Sabine scoffed. “Ghost has delusions of grandeur.”
“Why do you help them?” Jack asked. It was a question scorching in his mind and sizzling in his gut, because he so wanted the answer to make sense. Sabine was beautiful, and he had been enchanted by her beauty and sadness. But was she just a different sort of monster? “Is it Ghost? You love him?”
“Jack,” she said, and her eyes were sadder than ever. “I do hope you cannot even begin to equate me with them?”
“In your voice, then. An accusation.”
“No,” he said, pulling his arm away from her and then holding her arm. “I just need to understand.”
“The others from your ship are dead now,” she said softly. “It’s just the beginning of the night, and I don’t think they’ve all fed. They don’t, usually. Not to their heart’s content. The pack is large, the prey usually limited. So we’ve a long night ahead of us.”
“We’re safe?” Jack said.
Sabine laughed softly. “As safe as a door can make us, or a few locks.” She fell quiet, looking down at her hands.
“What is it?”
“They usually leave me alone,” she said. Jack picked up on her meaning right away.
“But now I’m in here with you,” he said, finishing for her. He looked at the door, listened, and the sea surged against the hull, boards creaking.
“I have no choice,” Sabine said. “You understand that, don’t you? If I were not useful to Ghost, I would be up there, my blood washing the deck.”
Jack said nothing, searching inside himself for something. Judgment. Justice. Reason. If it weren’t for Sabine’s gift, he would still be aboard the Umatilla and almost home, and those he’d just heard killed—torn apart by unnatural creatures, consumed by werewolves—would still be alive.
“We all have a choice,” he said.
“No!” Sabine snapped. “Sometimes choices are made for us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“But can’t you fight back?”
“Fight?” she scoffed. “I have no strength. I find things, and see maps as if they were real—as if I gazed down from the heavens. I’m no fighter.” She waved her hand vaguely at the door, at what had happened beyond. “I’m no killer.”
“Defy them,” Jack said. He was trying to fuel his own anger, but there was something so vulnerable about Sabine that he could not. There was strength in her, but it was kept down, hidden—or perhaps trapped—beneath a heavy secret. He only wished that she would tell him.
“I cannot. I have to do Ghost’s bidding.”
Jack looked away from the woman, glancing around the room. It had been appointed for comfort as well as safety, with their soft seat, oil lamps, a single cot with clean blankets, and a curtained bathroom area. It’s for one person, he thought again, smelling Sabine’s subtle scent, feeling the heat of her. “How long will we be down here?” he asked.
“They become normal people then?”
Jack glanced at her again, his heart taking a familiar jump at the sight of her. He could not blame or hate her, because her misery was plain. She was even more of a prisoner here than he. And how could he judge her, really? He had seen such violence already, even before this night when he had learned the true nature of these pirates, and he had done nothing. He had checked his own anger, amended his behavior, so that Ghost would continue to show an interest in him … and keep him alive. How was he any better than Sabine?
“Probably?” he asked.
“The full moon changes them,” she said. “One night only, they have no choice but to reveal the beast within. But other times they can control the transformation.”
Jack stared at her. “They can change whenever they wish?”
Sabine nodded. “Day or night, at will. But they rarely change without reason. Louis tells me that it hurts.”
He stood and approached the small food table, thinking back to the pirates’ boarding of the Umatilla. They had been normal men then, though possessing unnatural strength and agility. Not wolves. Not beasts. He tried to imagine the things out there now, prowling the ship or gnawing on the bones of people he had spoken to and hoped to rescue.
Jack glanced at Sabine. Her eyes were downcast, hands fisted in her lap, fingers white where she squeezed them together.
“And you?” he asked.
Sabine’s head snapped up, and he saw the anger there. “I told you, Jack. I am nothing like them.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. He picked at the cheese and fruit, nibbled some, and found it good. He took a plate to Sabine and resumed his seat. Somehow it felt safer beside her.
“When they choose to change, they retain some control. It’s still … horrible, but they keep their faculties. Senses are heightened, and their brutality increases tenfold.”
“I can hardly imagine that.”
“You don’t want to,” she said. “But at full moon their change possesses them entirely and there’s very little control. This is when they’re true animals, driven by primeval instincts to hunt and feed.”
“And that’s why they take prisoners from the ships they raid.”
“Yes. For food, and sport.”
“It’s hardly a hunt, chasing someone through a ship this small.”
“Sometimes they time arrival on an island with the full moon. If there are people living on the island, they suffer.”
“And you tell them where these islands are?”
Sabine looked at Jack, and he suddenly felt like a child beneath her woman’s regard. Her smile was surprising but welcome, and she laughed softly, sadly. “No, Jack,” she said. “Ghost has charts for that.”
Something moved outside—a scrape, a shuffle. That’s no wave against the hull, Jack thought, and then a rumbling growl sounded, so deep that it was almost inaudible.
“Tree,” Sabine breathed into his ear, and Jack jumped. He hadn’t felt her draw so close.
The growl continued, and something pressed against the door. Jack couldn’t see the door move, but he knew it was being pushed inward—bolts strained, pressure built.
“Can he…?” he asked, turning to Sabine, and they were face-to-face. Her eyes filled his vision, and this close they told whole new stories. He sensed guilt, and a multitude of other emotions he could not interpret.
“No,” she whispered. He smelled her breath. “Not alone.”
They pulled back from each other and sat in silence until the thing outside moved away. Jack could barely imagine the type of werewolf Tree would make.