Sabine could have mustered a larger storm by now, but she would hold off on the hard rain for as long as she could. Jack’s plan might be undone by a true downpour.
From within his shirt he withdrew a small canvas pouch, and from the pouch a length of fuse. He pried up the edge of the barrel’s lid with his knife, then slid the fuse down inside, making sure it was firmly in place. He wondered if the matches in his pocket would be dry enough, but this was no time for hesitation or doubt. He hoisted the barrel and—with one final glance around—ran lightly out across the foredeck. The wheelhouse loomed behind him, but there were no shouts or sounds of alarm.
Of course not, he thought. There will be no shout. All he would hear would be the click click of claws on metal, and the hungry breath, and—
He shook the thought away.
Jack took a closer look at the forward cargo hatch. It was iron, the heavy frame bolted to the deck, intended to prevent any hope of escape by prisoners the Charon might take, human or otherwise. Beside it was a smaller, open grating, too small for a man to slip through even with the bars cut away. Despite the thickness of the hatch and its heavy bolts, the savage strength of the wolves was so great that they might well have been able to break out if they could have put any pressure on it from below. But the hold was at least twenty feet deep, so it would be impossible for them to get any leverage.
“Young Jack!” a familiar voice said from down in the hold. Ghost knew his scent, and Jack was pleased at the captain’s evident surprise.
“Hush,” Jack whispered, wondering if the guards had heard Ghost speak. Not that it mattered. In moments, there would be noise enough to wake the dead.
He laid the barrel atop the hinges on one side of the hatch, then dug into his pocket for the tin box of lucifers he’d stolen from the Larsen. The match lit on first strike, and he held it to the fuse. It caught with a hiss.
Jack looked down through the grate and saw Louis staring upward. Hope flickered within him. Louis might be a beast, a member of the pack, but he had been the closest thing Jack had to a friend in Ghost’s crew.
Vukovich, Tree, and Maurilio were down there as well, bloody and bedraggled but alive. Strangely, he felt a pang of regret that Demetrius had not survived. The fat sailor had seemed fairly even-keeled.
“What are you up to, Jack?” Louis whispered.
“Stand back and cover your ears,” Jack replied, and he took his own advice, racing toward the bow and throwing himself facedown upon the deck. He clapped his hands over his ears.
The explosion shook the entire ship, roaring at the sky as if the sea had replied with thunder of its own, and thumping at the ship like a massive drum. Metal fragments ricocheted, and something wailed like a creature in pain. Metal rupturing, Jack thought, and he wondered whether the gunpowder load had been too much. When he looked into the hatch, would he see Ghost and the others pulverized down there? Crushed, spattered, taken apart by the blast?
The cargo hatch was now a smoking hole in the deck. Shouts rose from within, and Jack smiled with relief. But then a door banged open farther aft, and the two drunken pirates stumbled out.
Jack scrambled across to the ruined hatch. Ghost and his men were holding their heads and staggering to their feet as they recovered from the explosion, shaken but otherwise unharmed. With a clank and a screech, the hold door swung open and two guards rushed in, halfway through their agonized lupine transformations. Ghost howled as he changed, bones popping and skin stretching as fur sprouted all across his flesh. He leaped at the guards, and he tore out the nearest beast’s throat even before the rest of his sea wolves had finished their metamorphosis.
Jack turned away then, loath to witness any more of the slaughter.
“How the hell did you get out?” one of the drunken sailors barked, pointing at him. He looked at his companion. “Wait. Have we seen this one before?”
Jack hesitated. They thought he was a werewolf! He wondered how he could use this.
Bleary-eyed, arrogant, and exuding cruelty, the sailors approached him carefully, taking his measure. One of them sniffed the air. “Kurt,” he said, narrowing his eyes, “this little bastard is human.”
Kurt grinned, teeth elongating and sharpening to points as fur sprouted from his skin. “Beautiful.”
Jack drew his knife, wishing it were silver. He bent slightly, taking slow breaths, using the magic that Lesya had taught him—instilled within him—during his time in the Yukon. He could not only sense the presence of animals but channel their essence within himself and join it with his own innate wildness. There were fish nearby, of course, and if he extended his spirit far enough, he might find a seabird or two. But the true beasts were those standing before him—men who could turn themselves inside out, wearing their primitive rage and hunger on the outside.
The rainstorm suddenly strengthened, and Jack silently thanked Sabine.
The drunken werewolves closed in, going around the ragged hole blown in the deck. They ignored the sounds of slaughter from below. Fur matted to their huge, lupine bodies by the rain, they growled in hunger as they flanked him on either side.
Jack growled in return, baring his teeth. Knife in hand, he tapped directly into the essence of the werewolves, matching his savagery to theirs so completely that for a moment he almost lost himself in it, reveling in the sense of power and freedom. He was stronger than ever before, and if only he could harness this power and take control, release himself to the animal and become unhindered, unconfined…
But the bright, burning ember of his humanity remained within. And it always would. “Come on, you worthless dogs,” Jack snarled.
The giant wolf that had been Kurt lunged toward him, but even on four legs it swayed drunkenly. Jack dodged aside and kicked the werewolf’s leg with such force that it snapped, spilling the monster to the deck. As it thrashed and tried to stand, he stomped on its forelegs and slammed the knife into its chest, penetrating flesh and slipping past bone to impale the tough muscle of its heart. Blood pulsed from the wound, and the giant wolf screamed and writhed, slipping back to a form that was part beast, part man. The wound would not kill him, but Kurt would stay down for a while.
The other werewolf howled in rage and launched itself at Jack, who leaped over Kurt’s bloody form, mind racing. He had no real options—his only avenues of escape were over the side into the ocean or a twenty-foot drop into the cargo hold with Ghost and his ravenous crew.
In a moment of indecision, Jack caught a glimpse of movement behind the werewolf. A dark streak of fur erupted from the open hatch and barreled into the drunken beast, jaws gnashing and claws dragging furrows in flesh. Blood mingled with rain as the two werewolves clashed on the deck, tumbling over and over. They slammed into the railing, and it cracked but did not give way.
The dark-furred wolf clawed the other’s face, flaying its jaw open to the bone and taking out an eye. The booze-soaked werewolf whined and staggered back; its remaining golden eye glinted with bleary fear. Jack longed for his knife but dared not try to retrieve it from Kurt’s chest—Kurt had already transformed enough to tug the blade out of his heart.
The deck came alive with wolves as Ghost and his crew—spattered with their guards’ blood—leaped out of the hold. The werewolves steamed, growled, stalking the deck with a hunger for flesh and vengeance. Counting the dark-furred one who had just half blinded the enemy, there were five of them against two drunken, injured beasts. Death’s wolves had no chance. Ghost and what remained of his pack tore them apart.
Jack turned away from the slaughter and crossed to the starboard railing. If Ghost decided to kill him now, there would be nothing he could do to stop it, and he preferred not to watch the sea wolves taking their grisly meal.
The scrape of claws on the deck forced him to turn. He expected the hulking gray wolf that Ghost became when he revealed his true self, but instead the monster that approached was the dark-furred werewolf that had aided him. It panted and growled, but the noise seemed more greeting that threat. The werewolf began to change, its bones shifting and popping as it stood up, now half man and half beast. It threw back its head and howled, and bared its fangs in a monstrous grin.
The wolf-man had a single golden tooth.
“Hello, Louis,” Jack said.
It brayed like a hyena and then transformed further, grunting as it resumed the illusion of humanity. Louis stood naked on the Charon’s deck.
“Jack,” he said, “you are one crazy fool, but I’m happy to see you alive.”
“Happy to be alive.”
Louis started to laugh, but then his eyes narrowed and he spun to defend himself. Too late, as the huge gray werewolf, soaked in blood and rain, plowed into him. The two crashed to the deck, and for a moment Jack thought Ghost would tear out Louis’s throat. But the captain snarled and snapped, shoved Louis to one side almost dismissively, and turned his heavy head to glare at Jack.
With a cry that began as an animal’s howl and built into a human roar, Ghost transformed. Breathing hard, teeth bared, he looked more bestial and barbaric as a man than he ever had as a wolf.
“I had plans for you, Mr. London,” Ghost rasped.
“And I have plans for you. That’s why I set you free. But I make my own destiny, Ghost. Always have.”
One corner of Ghost’s mouth lifted in a knife-edge smile. “Not today you don’t.”
As the other sea wolves transformed into the familiar figures of Tree, Vukovich, and Maurilio, Ghost began to move toward Jack. Any other time, the sailors’ brash nakedness might have seemed awkward, but painted with their enemies’ blood and with rain slashing down at the deck, they only appeared more savage. Somehow they managed to be both wild and unnatural at the same time, neither man nor animal. They were things that nature would never permit, no matter what Ghost might say.
“You betrayed me,” Ghost said, moving closer, his fingers hooked into claws. “You took the witch off my ship before I could make her pay for turning on me. You could have been so much more than you are, Jack. So much more than a weak bit of bone and gristle.”
“Cruelty and an appetite don’t make you strong,” Jack said, unflinching.
Louis and the other sea wolves—no longer a crew but still part of Ghost’s pack—circled warily.
Ghost moved swiftly, wrapping one huge hand around Jack’s throat and slamming him against the railing. He shoved, bending him backward so that Jack’s upper body hung over the storm-tossed sea, the ship rolling on the strengthening waves.
“Murder makes me strong!” Ghost roared, spittle striking Jack’s face. “Taking lives, eating flesh, drinking blood! I will destroy you with my bare hands as I should have done the first moment I saw you, before I suffered the disappointment of knowing you. That makes me strong, Jack. I am your master, and I’ll hear you say it before I end your life.”
“That’s never going to happen,” Jack croaked, barely able to draw breath. “I am my own … and only … master.”
“You little bastard!” Ghost screamed. He began to change again, but only enough for his jaws to open wider and his fangs to grow longer. Then he bent forward, jaws gaping to sink his teeth into Jack’s face.
Tree’s massive fist struck Ghost so hard in the face that two of his fangs snapped off and were lost on the rain-swirled deck. With Ghost surprised by the attack and stunned from the impact, Louis and Maurilio were able to haul him back for Tree to hit him again. Vukovich grabbed a fistful of his former captain’s hair and yanked back, exposing his throat, and the four sea wolves had Ghost at their mercy.
“That’d just be bad form, Captain,” Louis said. “You can’t kill Mr. London after he came out here to free us.”
“Murder makes me strong!” Ghost roared.
Jack exhaled. He’d been prepared to die, and recovering from that required a moment to collect himself. He watched as Ghost struggled against them and then paused, nodded once, and was released.
“I’ll have you,” Ghost snarled at Jack, quieter now.
“Maybe,” Jack agreed. “But your brother will have heard the explosion. There are a dozen of them and only five of you, and they’ll be on their way back to the beach by now. I’m not afraid of you or of dying, but I’d rather avoid both if possible. And for all your talk, I suspect you’d rather not die either, Ghost. I’ve gambled on you being the lesser of two evils, on there still being a shred of honor and humanity in you, despite all your efforts to expunge them. If you want to live, we have to work together.”
“Why bother, Jack?” Vukovich said. “We’ve got the ship now. We’ll leave Death Nilsson and his crew behind. It’s a big ship, but the six of us can get it under way, I’m sure.”
“Haven’t you noticed how it’s listing?” Jack said.
“The ship’s damaged,” Louis said. “Death’s gone ashore to see if there’s anything he can use for repairs.”
“And he saw my campfire and went to investigate,” Jack replied.
“There’s no avoiding this fight,” Tree said in his deep, rumbling voice.
“The odds are not in your favor,” Jack said. “But you don’t have to face them alone.”
Ghost laughed. “You’re one man, Jack. Clever, I’ll grant you, but still near enough to being a boy that I’m sure you remember childhood all too well. What can you do to help even the odds against Death and his curs?”
Jack took a breath and let it out. Of all the risks he had taken since waking this morning, this was the one that most terrified him.
“It’s not just me. Sabine—”
“Of course the sea witch is with you,” Ghost snarled. “You fell in love. The two of you escaped together into some romantic dream. But she isn’t here, which means you left her on the island. Death will have feasted on her heart by now, you fool. And even if he hasn’t, what good is she? We know where my brother and his bootlicks are.”