- The Sea Wolves
He went for the steps, but Kelly grabbed him from behind and threw him across the deck. Jack protected his face with his hands, but when he struck the railing, his shoulder exploded in pain, and he only hoped the crack! he heard was wood, not bone. This was the attack he’d been expecting, and it had come at the worst possible moment.
Jack rolled onto his back, drawing the knife he’d taken from the kitchen and bringing it around in a useless attempt to defend himself. Kelly was already airborne, midleap, fur bristling around his neck and across his cheeks, fingers merging into paws, and claws solidifying from his nails, and Jack hated the monster with all his heart. It was the unfairness of things that stung the most—he vowed in that instant that he would fight until he could fight no more, and that pain would fuel his fury.
But Kelly did not land. Louis struck him in the side, and the two of them rolled back against the wheelhouse. Hope leaped in Jack’s heart—he would not fight alone after all. But Vukovich was already stalking around toward Jack, and he stepped over the snarling, brutal knot of violence that Louis and Kelly had become.
They’re not changing, Jack thought, but then he saw that Vukovich had begun to change after all, the evolution subtle. He possessed the eyes of a wolf.
Jack stood, watching Vukovich, wondering how he could kill the monster, and then a massive shape appeared in front of him. Tree. But he was facing away from Jack.
“Not now,” Tree rasped.
The big man’s intervention had brought the scuffle between Louis and Kelly to an end. The two pirates rose to their feet, bristling with hatred and bloodlust. But the moment when they might have killed each other had passed, for now. The ship swayed beneath them all, waiting for the bones of those who did not survive the day.
“You’re a fool, Kelly,” Louis whispered. “This isn’t the time.”
“What better time for food?” Kelly growled.
“You think eating Ghost’s human pet will nourish you?” Tree said. His voice rumbled like far-off thunder. No one replied.
“Whose side do you think you’re on?” Vukovich said, and a light began to burn brightly in Jack’s mind, a spark of hope and the seed of an idea.
Sides. Until now it had been Ghost and the rest, but with the crew fragmenting—over him, or Sabine, or whatever else might be the cause—they were becoming weaker than ever before. They had been growing angrier and more frustrated with Ghost with every passing hour, but none of them save Finn had confronted him. The way of the pack would be to challenge Ghost to single combat, with the victor leading the pack forward. None dared to do so, knowing they could never defeat him alone. But there had been rumblings and whispers, a shared anger, and now Jack had to take advantage of that.
It was his only chance at saving Sabine. Whether Ghost loved or desired her, and no matter how much he might need her, this time she had pushed him too far. If he could not trust her, he might well go beyond torture and just kill her. Either way, the time had come to act.
“Don’t you see why he’s told us to go south?” Jack said.
“Shut up, meat!” Kelly said. He was standing along the railing away from Jack, no longer wolfish but still with hunger in his eyes.
“Let him speak,” Louis said.
“Why?” Vukovich sneered.
“Because Ghost intends him to be as much a part of this crew as you.”
There was silence at that, broken only by a haunting, hooting sound from deep within the fog. Whales singing, Jack thought, but it could have been errant spirits in mourning.
“We’re going south because he’s not running,” Jack said. “You saw the Charon. How many men does it take to man a ship like that?”
“None,” Kelly said. “Death’s pack is older than ours. He’s not like Ghost; he’d welcome no mere man aboard.”
Maurilio had appeared from the bow, listening, watching. Demetrius and Ogre were out of sight, but so were Huginn and Muninn, likely down in the cabin guarding Ghost’s door while he—
But Jack could not think about what the captain might be doing to the woman he loved, and what that scream had meant. That would inspire fear and rage, and there lay madness. He needed all his wits about him right now if he hoped to save them both.
“He plans to swing around and attack the Charon,” Jack said. “He fled into the fog to give himself time to plan, and project the impression that he was running scared. But within the hour Ghost will emerge from his cabin to give the order to sail west. Death will be searching for us. He won’t be difficult to find. And when we meet the Charon, there will be a battle, and all of you will die.”
“Don’t be so sure,” Kelly said, a growl behind his words.
“He wouldn’t do it,” Vukovich said. “It’s suicide against that ship, and that pack. And if Ghost could kill his brother, he’d have done it years ago.”
Jack shook his head, glancing from one crewman to another. “You don’t get it—any of you. He’s used you. Ghost isn’t a pirate. Not really. He cares nothing for gold and treasure, and he hunts only to feed himself and to make the lot of you better killers. All this time, he’s been working to best his brother, to make himself a better pirate and a more vicious wolf than Death Nilsson. He put this pack together to help him do that. You’re his little army, and you never knew it. And every one of you is expendable.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Vukovich sniffed. “There’s never been a pirate like Ghost.”
“You’re just not listening,” Jack said, voice low, drawing them in with his intensity. “Ghost ordered Sabine to keep track of the Charon—”
“To keep us away from Death, Jack,” Louis said.
“Yes,” Jack agreed. “But only until he was ready. That’s why he’s so furious with her. Not because she didn’t warn him Death was near, but because she let him sail into this fight before he decided he was ready. Now he’s decided—Sabine brought them face-to-face, and Ghost’s going to try to finish his brother once and for all.”
“He wouldn’t do that,” Kelly said. “He’ll be killing us all. Ghost wouldn’t sacrifice the pack for his own…”
Kelly’s words trailed off as realization struck him.
“Of course he would,” Tree said. “You know it, Kelly. We all do. He’s always expected us to be loyal to him, to follow the laws of the pack, but he’s never had any loyalty to anyone but himself.”
“Exactly,” Jack said. “So you can fight over me, and my scrawny scrap of flesh and bone, or you can fight Ghost, take control of the ship, and steer your own destinies.”
“He’s our captain,” Louis said, but his doubt and dread were clear.
“He’s mad,” Jack said, “and he’s leading you into a fight that cannot be won. You knew this moment would come one day, Louis. You all did. Now it’s here.”
The wolves stood silent, violence hanging in the air as obvious as the cool touch of fog drifting across the deck.
“The pup speaks of mutiny,” Kelly said at last. “That’s word enough to kill him right here.”
“He might speak mutiny, but haven’t we all thought it?” Louis said.
“Ghost has considered himself dead since the day his brother tried to kill him,” Jack went on. “As far as he’s concerned, he’s already a corpse. What does he care if he takes the rest of you to hell along with him? If you want to live, there’s only one answer.”
Tree grumbled what might have been agreement. Maurilio nodded. Even Vukovich seemed uncertain, his wolfish fury faded by doubt.
They’re almost there, Jack thought. The idea of the violence he was striving to unleash was shocking, but events had reached a desperate point. Everything beyond here and now would be worse than anything that had gone before. His job was to ensure that it was worse for Ghost and the crew, not for himself and the woman who had stolen his affections.
“We’d need all of us,” Louis said.
“We can’t turn against the man who made us,” Vukovich said.
“That’s exactly what we must do,” Louis replied.
“It would have to be a challenge,” Kelly said. “That’s the way of the pack.”
Tree grunted. “Doesn’t seem to me the captain’s been too concerned with the law of the pack these days.”
“The pack changes leadership by challenge,” Louis said, nodding. “But we’re at sea. And with a tyrant and a madman at the wheel, there’s only one way for sailors to take a ship from its captain.”
Jack stepped out from Tree’s vast shadow, making himself an open part of the discussion. Kelly could come at him now, or Vukovich, and they’d split him from groin to gullet before Tree or Louis had a chance to pull them away. But such risk was necessary. Hiding behind Tree’s bulk, he was a frightened victim cowering in the protection of a monster. Here in the open, he was almost one of them.
“I know you hate me for what I am,” Jack said, “but you were all men once, before Ghost changed you. Our aims might be different now, but I’ve seen the man in all of you. The will to survive, the thrill of knowing the wild, and the desire to be something more. No one wants to be at the bottom. Finn was there, and now he’s dead. And who’s taken his place?”
No one replied, and Jack realized that Finn’s death had caused an upset in the hierarchy that had yet to be settled. And he grasped this confusion and used it as his killing stroke.
“All of you,” he said. “You’re all bottom of the pack. Because Ghost is no longer your leader. He is your king.”
A current of discontent swirled the wafting fog, and Louis seemed to grow in height and stature. He grinned, and the weak light glinted from his golden tooth.
“It’ll be Huginn and Muninn first,” he said. “So are you all in, lads?”
“Yes,” Tree said.
“Yes,” Maurilio whispered.
“Aye,” someone said from behind Jack, and he turned to see Demetrius approaching them all. “I’ve spent years dreaming of revenge on that bastard. Never believed anyone other than me would seek it. Never dared to speak of it.”
Ogre emerged from the forecastle and approached the milling sea wolves, his huge mass almost seeming to move the ship itself. He glanced from one to another, and his heavy gaze finally settled on Jack.
“Been a long time comin’,” he said.
Kelly sniffed and nodded, then hooked a thumb toward Jack. “What about him?”
Louis frowned. “This is not his fight. When it’s over, we’ll decide what’s to become of him.”
Kelly and Vukovich seemed hesitant, but the rest behaved as if they had already forgotten Jack existed. They were following Louis’s lead, especially Tree, and the anticipation of bloodshed had already carried them beyond this moment. Several of them had begun to growl deep in their chests, causing Tree to glare at them.
“Quiet,” Tree grumbled. “There’s only one way to do this. One of us draws him on deck with a challenge.”
“No,” Maurilio said. “Down below, he can’t escape us.”
Louis shook his head. “Where’s he going to go? The water? No, Tree’s right. We draw him out, and when he comes on deck, we take him together. He can’t fight us all at once.”
“He’s not alone,” Vukovich growled. “He’s got the damned twins.”
“I didn’t say it would be easy,” Louis said.
Demetrius shuffled up beside Jack and nudged him. “You should stay clear now.”
Jack nodded, thoughts racing ahead. He’d been dismissed, and it felt like the opportunity he needed.
“So—who calls him out?” Demetrius asked.
Ogre laughed, an unsettling rumble. “Got to be Kelly. Won’t surprise Ghost at all if he does it.”
Kelly sneered. “It’ll be a pleasure.”
Now that they’d made their decision, all the humiliation and frustration they’d suffered at Ghost’s hands seemed to be fueling a rage that grew with each passing second. They had existed in fear of him, each one believing that the rest of the crew would never join in an uprising but unwilling to challenge Ghost on his own. With shared intent, their hatred took free rein.
Jack edged backward, letting the fog close around him.
The wind had picked up, and a light rain began to fall. He looked up to see the clouds churning overhead. While they had been focused on Ghost, the fogbank had begun to transform into a storm. The Larsen rocked underfoot, but the pirates ignored the ship. It would withstand the storm at least long enough for them to murder their captain.
Jack retreated another few steps into the fog as the rain pattered the deck all around him. He backed toward the forecastle, thinking now only of Sabine and what Ghost might have done to her, what torture or indignity she might already have suffered at his hands. He wished he could kill the bastard himself, but if he tried and failed, then Sabine would never be free. Their only chance was coalescing around him with each passing moment.
His heart was thumping, blood pulsing, when he heard the growl. Of course, he thought, but the sight that met him as he peered through the fog was still enough to freeze the blood in his veins and cause his heart to stammer in shock.
A monster stared back, rushing toward him through the fog. Dark-brown fur, pointed ears, the glimmer of blood streaking from a dozen places across its hide, the werewolf crouched on all fours in front of Jack, the pained growl continuing in its throat. As it bared its teeth, he saw the glitter of gold in one fang.
Beyond the monstrous wolf-thing that Louis had become, the others were also changing, or changed, figures shifting in the fog. Bones creaked and hides stretched, and the sounds he heard were the distillation of pain and pure wild hunger. He watched as Tree contorted, bones shifting, arms shortening. The sailor cried out in agony as the transformation twisted his limbs and stretched his flesh. Tree stripped off his clothes as fur sprouted from his dark skin, a thick coat that covered his body, rippling with the muscles underneath this new pelt. He opened his mouth in a howl, and his jaws thrust forward, teeth lengthening into fangs. Jack stared in horror and awe as Tree dropped to all fours, ears shifting, pushing up to twin points atop his wide, lupine skull, and his entire face thrust outward, becoming a snout. It took only seconds, and then the monster stood, this massive, murderous wolf, stamping and clawing at the deck of the Larsen, gnashing its jaws, glancing around with yellow, murderous eyes at its pack brothers.