- The Sea Wolves
“Jack,” a voice whispered, soft and gentle.
“Sabine.” He closed the door behind him, and the sense of this forbidden place was delicious.
She sat on a cot that hinged down from the far wall, past the table where charts lay strewn and smoothed stones held them down, safe from the ship’s movements. Her clothing was loosened, and her hair seemed wilder, as though released from clips he had not even noticed before. The room was lit by a single oil lamp, which cast soft shadows across Sabine’s sad, lovely features.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“To see you, of course. To talk.”
“He’ll kill you if he finds you here.”
“Do you really think so?” Jack didn’t. He thought Ghost would beat him mercilessly, smash him about the ship like a child bouncing a ball against the walls. But he didn’t think he would kill him.
“I…,” Sabine said. She stood from the cot, her shirt open to reveal the hollow of her throat. Shadows dwelled there, and Jack yearned to kiss them away.
“We have to talk,” Jack said. “My arrival has changed things here, upset the balance of the crew. Ghost will change me when he thinks the time is right. And I can never become one of those things.”
“No,” she said. “You are strong, but you can never be a monster.”
“The choice will not be mine, once bitten,” he replied. “And that’s what we have to avoid. The clock is ticking, Sabine. I want away from here. And I want you to come with me.”
He held a finger to his lips to shush her, and Sabine fell silent. He skirted around the small chart table, hand trailing across paper, never taking his eyes from hers. He moved close to the woman and her fold-out cot, and the intrusion into her personal space was obvious to both of them. Sabine did not blush—she was stronger than that, and less concerned with social niceties—but he did hear her slight intake of breath.
“I mean to save us both,” he said. “You’re trapped here even more surely than I am, because Ghost values your abilities, and he’ll do whatever he can to keep you here forever. Me? He welcomes my intellect, and how my nature is so contrary to his. And I strengthen him. He’ll argue with me till we’re butting heads, because we both know that neither of us can be swayed, until he is certain that he sees nothing of himself in me, that the last vestiges of his own humanity are gone. And then…” Jack shivered, really considering for the first time the practicalities of what Louis had told him.
“And then he will turn you,” Sabine said. “You have spoken with Louis.”
“Yes,” Jack whispered.
“He was a man, like you, when he led Ghost to me in San Francisco. Louis had heard of the man but did not know the monster. And it wasn’t long before Ghost started toying with him. He welcomed the stench of fear coming from Louis when he realized the predicament he was in. Relished the moment when Louis begged for his life and then did all he could to seek his own death. And then Ghost tied him to the mainmast and bit him, and the crew gathered around to witness his first transformation. The first is always the worst.” She turned away, wiping a tear from her cheek.
“The worst how?” Jack asked.
“Worse than death.”
Jack reached for Sabine, holding her arms and turning her to face him. She resisted initially, and then leaned into him, her arms encircling his neck and pulling him closer. They kissed. It consumed Jack, negating his surroundings, erasing pirates and werewolves and sinking ships from his mind, and for a moment he and Sabine were the whole world, and they existed only in that single kiss. His past was as vague as his future, and neither mattered when he had her.
Parting, he saw in her surprised eyes that she had felt the same.
“I’m so sorry, Jack,” she said.
“I…” She pressed her face to his shoulder, and he held her tight, wanting to soothe the truth from her.
“Sabine, you’ve nothing to be sorry for.”
“Huh!” She uttered a brief laugh and pointed at her cot. “I’ve so much to tell you. Sit here with me.”
“I think we should be planning how to—”
“This is planning,” Sabine said. “Sit down next to me, Jack. We might not have very long.” Jack did as she asked, and when she sat beside him on the cot, her arm touching his and her leg pressed close to his own, the terrible things she started to say felt so distant.
“Ghost isn’t his name. No one knows his true name, not even me. But he’s told me of his origins, and how he was made. And he’s revealed the nature of his nemesis, because he requires me to keep watch.”
“Ghost has a nemesis?”
Sabine was shaking. Jack felt it where their arms touched, and he thought to put his arm around her. But the conversation was about something unpleasant, and it forbade such contact.
“His brother,” Sabine said. “Death Nilsson. The original sea wolf, he was the first to form a pack, pull together the wild men, and work them as a functioning group. Before that, Ghost says, werewolves would meet only when chance drove them across each other’s paths, and when two met, only one would survive. Death changed that. He gave them drive and purpose, and he controlled the pack with vicious hand and merciless claw. His pack has been pirating the oceans for … many years. Even Ghost doesn’t know how long, but he suspects it to be over a century.”
“A hundred years!” Jack gasped. “That’s monstrous! Living so long as such a thing. How terrible that would be.”
“Terrible, indeed.” For a moment Jack sensed the direction of the conversation shifting. Then Sabine continued. “Ghost describes his brother with some sense of awe, which, considering what he did to Ghost, means that he must be even more monstrous than the man we know. Even more brutal and merciless, and more certain of his own twisted place in the world. Do you see? No matter how cruel Ghost might be, his brother is worse. Death Nilsson is truly evil.”
Jack frowned. “It’s hard to imagine a creature more soulless than Ghost.”
“Ghost says he was part of Death’s crew,” Sabine said. “An honored part, as the captain’s brother, yet still someone lower down the pack. After Death was turned—and his origin is a mystery—he returned home to take Ghost and force him to sea. They plied their trade around the Pacific rim, performing hit-and-run raids on fishing communities, attacking and sinking small ships, and using desert islands as refuges when the time came to regroup, count their winnings.
“Ghost became disillusioned with Death’s direction. He calls his brother a fool and a ‘dog,’ but I suspect the pack hierarchy soon began to frustrate Ghost. He did not like being beneath his brother’s boot, thinking himself an equal or even his brother’s superior. Ghost challenged Death and lost. Beaten down, Ghost was humiliated by Death in front of his crew. A quick death was called for—they have some code, some sense of right and wrong in the dealings of their pack—but Death wanted him to suffer.” She sounded disgusted, as though ascribing even the basest morals to these monsters left a rank taste in her mouth.
“It’s the same mistake Ghost has made with Finn,” Jack said softly.
“Death tied his brother to a mast and tortured him for a day and a night. He never slept but spent the whole time devising new methods of inflicting pain and humiliation. When Ghost told me of this… I have never seen him so troubled. And even now I’m not sure whether it was the pain or the idea that it was his brother inflicting it.”
“I can’t believe family ties mean anything here,” Jack said.
“I think they do,” Sabine said. “I think they’re important in ways we cannot understand. We should remember that.”
“So what happened?”
“Death’s crew was becoming restless, and Death announced that it was the end of his brother’s suffering. He slit Ghost’s throat with a sword, buried a silver blade in his chest, and threw him overboard.
“Ghost watched his brother’s ship sailing away, and he could see the wolves gathered at the railing, watching him sinking in their wake. Ghost fell unconscious, and when he woke, he’d been washed onto a beach.”
“How long was he out there, in the water?”
“I asked him the same question,” Sabine said. “He shrugged and said perhaps five days, perhaps seven. The sun had burned most of the skin from his face and arms, and the salt water had softened his flesh so it was almost sloughing from his bones. The knife was still in his chest, and the first thing he did upon waking was to pull it out. This was the most miraculous aspect of his survival—the days and nights floating in the ocean, the interest of sharks evident in his torn clothing and flesh, the baking sun, drowning, life leaking from his slashed throat. All these were nothing to the silver blade he’d had in his chest all that time.”
“It’s … a story,” Jack said. “Fiction. That silver will kill a werewolf.”
“And isn’t the werewolf a part of that fiction?” She turned to Jack and stared at him, and she was only inches away. He could have leaned forward and kissed her again. But this moment felt loaded, and unsuitable for such displays of affection. Our love is clean and pure, he thought, and looked away lest his eyes betray his thoughts.
“So what was the miracle?”
“The knife’s tip caught in a knot of threads and stitches in Ghost’s leather tunic. The blade itself never touched his flesh or kissed his blood, because it dragged the leather into the wound with it. It was Death’s great strength that drove the blade home, not its keenness.
“So Ghost spent a day on that beach believing himself dead. And when he stood and walked inland, he found … food.” Sabine trailed off, and Jack felt her terror.
“Who were they?” he asked softly. He put his arm around her and pulled her close, taking as much comfort from the contact as he hoped to give.
“He didn’t say. Perhaps he did not know or care. But there were a dozen of them, moored at the island with their ship. He told me…”
“It’s okay.” Jack kissed Sabine’s temple, and she pulled away, standing from the cot and leaning back against the chart table.
“He told me they fed him for eight weeks. And after he took the last of them and locked them in their ship’s hold, he managed to set sail himself. And he has spent the years since then building his crew and planning his revenge upon Death Nilsson.”
“It was the Larsen moored at that island,” Jack said.
“It was. And sometime during his stay on the island, he named himself Ghost.”
“Such a man must relish a name like that.”
Sabine actually smiled. “When I asked him why, he told me that after the first full moon, he heard them talking in their camp as he circled them. They were terrified, and one of them said, ‘What do we name a man who can best four of our own, and then do that to them?’ And Ghost whispered his new name in the darkness and spent the time between then and their horrible deaths giving them cause to fear it.”
“He believed he should have died,” Jack said, thinking about how that might affect even a man like Ghost. Rejected by his pack, tortured by his brother, going through experiences that would have killed a normal man a hundred times over…
“It’s the only time I’ve ever seen him looking even remotely vulnerable,” Sabine said. “He was quiet and contemplative when he told me this. I know Ghost better than anyone now, and I’m sure he is genuinely tortured by his memories. He said to me, ‘I am merely the ghost of what I once was.’”
“He thinks his brother stole something from him.”
“And he seeks to steal it back, and more. Because of course Death heard of his brother’s survival, and when they next meet on land or sea, one or both will die. One day Ghost will use me to locate his brother’s ship, but not until he has pronounced himself ready to face Death again.”
“Does the crew know about all this?” Jack asked.
Sabine nodded slowly. “Do they know about Death Nilsson, the wolf of the seas? They could not pirate these waters without knowing his legend. And Ghost has never hidden his past. The pack knows the story of how he and his brother last parted. But if you’re asking me whether they know they are all merely pawns, that Ghost is using them to his own ends and cares little for gold or for hunting himself … no. I do not imagine so.”
Jack pondered that a moment, wondering what the crew would do when they learned their pack had been created as little more than cannon fodder for Ghost’s eventual showdown with his brother.
“When will Ghost be ready to meet Death again?” Jack asked.
“Not until he has built a pack he feels can destroy his brother’s band of wolves. And, more importantly, not until he knows in his heart that he is a better pirate and a better wolf than Death, and that day will not come until Ghost is certain he has stripped the last remnants of human emotion from his own soul and left only the beast behind. That’s why you intrigue him so, why he studies you, and why he has not yet turned you into a wolf.
“I think he sees you as a potential asset in the future, that he admires you and believes you will be useful as a member of the pack. But for now, he uses your humanity as a measure against himself. Yes, he values your mind, the intellectual discourse you provide, but it is your empathy and humanity he studies.”
Jack shook his head. “It will never work. He can never rid himself of the last vestiges of the man he once was. I can’t call what he feels for you ‘love,’ but he feels something. He is prey to jealousy and disappointment and hurt. I’ve seen it.”