Jack leaped through the rain and jabbed the gun against Ghost’s skull, hard.
“Silver!” Jack shouted against the storm. “Can you smell it, Ghost?”
“I trusted her, and she betrayed me.” Ghost gnashed his teeth at Jack.
“You fools, they’re coming!” Louis cried. Tree and Vukovich kept firing, and Louis waved his sword high. “Death is coming!”
“Let me go!” Sabine screamed.
“You kept her prisoner,” Jack said. “You tortured her!”
Ghost stared at him with such hatred that Jack held his breath, finger twitching on the trigger. The captain started to speak. Jack saw a spark of something in his eyes—shame?—and knew precisely what those words would have been. Ghost was about to declare his love for Sabine. But it went against everything he believed, and after an endless moment of conflict that Jack had never before seen in him, the captain sneered, eyes narrowing.
“I’ll eat her heart! I’ll have her power!”
“You don’t know that for sure,” Jack said. “She doesn’t even know what she is!”
“I have black curses in my heart,” Sabine said, her voice quiet in the storm yet somehow audible, as if the wind carried it to both Jack and Ghost. “And I will put them all on you if you don’t release me.”
A barrage of lightning danced down from the sky. A single bolt struck the farthest of the rowboats and it split in two, one half on fire and both halves quickly sinking. Midtransformation, two of the werewolves on board burst into flame, their flesh charred and smoking as they disappeared into the waves. The third fell into the water, pawing at the sea in a frenzy, unable to swim. Only the fourth, who had fallen out when he’d been shot in the head, seemed likely to survive. He swam toward the other two boats, unwilling to drown and eager to kill.
Jack pressed the barrel harder against Ghost’s temple. “Put her down.”
Ghost dropped Sabine to the deck and turned to the railing, where the last of his pack awaited him. They mocked Death’s pack with promises of pain and torment.
Jack took Sabine into his embrace at last, watching over her shoulder as the wounded werewolf dragged itself onto one of the two remaining boats.
“I love you,” Jack whispered.
“And I you,” she replied. “Dying would ruin everything.”
Jack did not smile but kissed her once more.
There was a momentary lull in the storm. In that instant of calm, Jack stepped away from Sabine, took aim, pulled the trigger, and put a silver bullet into the wounded werewolf’s chest. The creature screamed as it slid back into the raging sea, and for a moment all eyes—on deck, and at sea—turned to Jack. Death’s crew marked him, and he knew he had just made himself a target. The temptation to fire wildly and try to kill them all almost overwhelmed him, but he had a limited supply of bullets. Every one had to count.
The two remaining boats were close enough now for Jack to see hatred in the eyes of the crew, and the cold fury carved into Death Nilsson’s features. Ghost snapped orders to his surviving pack, but Jack barely heard him, able to focus only on the hatred bristling in the space that separated the two brothers.
Lightning struck the water around the two rowboats. One of them was grazed and began to burn, but it no longer mattered. The Charon’s crew had returned. The boats bumped alongside, and the first of the sailors leaped for the netting, scrambling toward the deck at inhuman speed.
Jack fired as the werewolves flowed over the railing. They moved so swiftly that several of his bullets hit only open air, but two of them struck home in the shoulder and abdomen of the same creature. The wolf spilled onto the deck, twitching and dying as the poison raced through him, and then Death’s pack had been reduced to eight.
Jack dropped to one knee, fishing bullets from his pocket and reloading. Sabine stood beside him, swaying as she mouthed the words to some silent song. The ship rocked beneath them and wind battered them, but her motion seemed not to be influenced by the world around her, guided instead by a storm within.
There was war on the Charon’s deck, and the bloody melee spread from starboard to port. Some of the sea wolves had completely transformed, but Ghost and his remaining crew fought in the median shape of the savage wolf-man so that they could use the weapons they had scavenged from Death’s ship. Louis swung his sword, cleaving the arm from a werewolf and forcing the monster to shift to the median form as well. Blood sprayed the deck and was washed away in the rain, all of it—the death and gore around Jack and Sabine—bleached to the gray hue of the storm.
Ghost and his brother, Death, fought back and forth across the deck. If they rolled toward another melee, those pirates would scramble aside, fear and perhaps an element of respect giving the two captains room to indulge their grudge. Tooth bit, claw slashed, and wherever they rolled or fell, they left bloody imprints of their hatred.
Jack emptied his gun for the second time, but with even worse results. With the wolves’ swiftness, and the curtain of punishing rain, only one of his bullets found its target, and this one he only managed to graze. The silver staggered the wolf, slowed it, but the poison was working slowly.
He knelt to reload again, gauging how many bullets he had left. He had to be much more precise this time. It might be his last chance.
Other gunshots cracked the air, but rifles were ineffective for hand-to-hand combat and were quickly cast aside or used as clubs. As Jack thumbed a bullet into its chamber, he glanced up to see two werewolves drag Tree down to the deck and begin to tear him apart, one ripping at his belly and the other at his throat. Tree fought hard, but then Death appeared from out of nowhere—Ghost no longer on the attack—and drove his hand straight into the big man’s chest. When Death withdrew his fist, Tree fell hard.
Ghost leaped from atop the cabin. The fight must have taken him out of sight, and now he was back at his brother again. He did not even spare a glance for his fallen crewman.
The odds were lengthening, and Jack realized that if they hoped to live, he and Sabine would have to make the difference.
“What’s wrong?” Jack asked, looking up at her. “Is your hex not working?”
Her hair was plastered to her face, clothes clinging to her curves, and she looked like the ancient sea goddess she might well be.
“It is working,” she said. “But I can do only one or two of them at a time, or it would affect all of you.”
Even as she spoke, Jack saw the hex take hold of one of Death’s pack. The wolf staggered, turned toward Maurilio, and began to lunge at empty places, snapping at raindrops. Maurilio darted away from another enemy and leaped on the hexed wolf, drawing a huge, serrated blade across its throat. He drove the wolf down onto its back and stabbed again and again, gutting it in seconds.
The fight began to turn, as Sabine’s hexes took hold and the ferocity of Ghost’s pack continued unabated.
“Jack!” Sabine shouted.
He heard the growl even as he turned and looked up to see the slavering werewolf launch itself from the top of the wheelhouse, all fur and claws hurtling down upon him. He twisted to face it and brought the gun up, but the monster struck him before he could fire. They crashed to the deck together, Jack’s skull impacting hard enough to darken his vision. In that instant he felt the gun pressed against his chest, heard the muffled bang as it fired directly into the werewolf’s throat and up into its skull, and then felt the flesh of his left shoulder punctured. Bright, searing pain roared in.
Bitten! he thought. As his heart sank, he felt the stain of savagery infecting his soul, and from the first moment he vowed to fight. If he had to be both wolf and man, he would conquer the barbarism of that unnatural beast, just as he had triumphed over the natural wildness of the human spirit.
Sabine screamed his name, and he saw her tugging at the werewolf’s corpse, even as the wolf began to return to its human self. Jack pushed as Sabine pulled, and together they toppled the dead werewolf to one side. She sank to her knees in the rain, so lovely, yet so fragile in spite of all her extraordinary magic. Naiad, sea witch, water sprite … whatever miraculous creature she might be, he was perilous company for her now. His heart shattered as he realized that he had changed forever and could never doom her by remaining with her. If he loved her, he had to forget all the wishes he had secretly made, all his fantasies of their future.
Sabine must have seen it in his eyes, for she began to shake her head. A smile touched her lips, and despite the rain, he saw that she was weeping. She laughed as if a great lightness had touched her heart.
“I see the wound,” she said. “It didn’t bite you, Jack. Those were its claws.”
He forced himself to sit up, shaking off his disorientation, and looked down at his shoulder. He shifted his shredded shirt aside for a better look. A great, uncontrollable laugh bubbled up within him, and for several seconds he felt as though he had become some kind of hysterical madman.
A howl danced upon the wind, taken up and redoubled by the storm so that it seemed to echo across the ocean.
Unsteady but alive, energized by survival, Jack picked up his fallen gun and rose to his feet. He turned to see that the deck of the Charon had become a tableau of death. Vukovich and Louis were unharmed. They stood over their dead enemies as the rain washed blood and gore from their matted fur. Maurilio had been badly wounded, but even as Jack caught sight of him, the deep gashes in his flesh were knitting together, healing over. He crouched, grunting and snarling, in front of the last survivor of Death Nilsson’s crew, a huge, copper-furred werewolf.
“Don’t be a fool,” Louis told the wolf. “Surrender.”
Death’s survivor glanced around and saw that he was beaten. He transformed, straightening up and resuming his human shape—a red-haired, thick-bearded pirate with huge, powerful hands and a strange wisdom in the cant of his head and the set of his eyes.
Which left only the brothers.
The other wolves knew better than to interfere. Ghost and Death were both in full wolf form, Ghost huge and silver-gray, his brother even larger, with fur as black as pitch. They faced each other on the foredeck, the bloody kings, the monstrous leaders. Hatred sizzled in the air around them like ball lightning.
They kept the ruined, charred hole of the cargo hatch between them, circling it, each looking for an opening in the other’s defenses, waiting for the right moment. Waiting for the kill.
With a sound that was half growl and half laugh, Death Nilsson stood on his hind legs, transforming back into a wolf-man, his golden eyes gleaming in the gray storm. His claws were wicked things, long and curved and so coated with blood that even in the rain they were red as the devil’s horns.
Ghost shifted as well, standing on two legs, half man and half monster, but he remained utterly silent. Once he had worshipped his brother, had given up his humanity to join the pack, and he had been cast aside and left for dead. Jack wondered whether Ghost still had love for his brother, and if that was what fueled his hatred. Or perhaps his heart truly was as cold and withered as he had always pretended.
“They feel us watching,” Jack whispered.
“Yes,” Sabine said. “And even now they bristle with pride.”
Without a sound, Ghost leaped for his brother, lunging across the shattered cargo hatch.
Death met him in midair.
As Ghost and Death struck each other, lightning flashed across the island’s craggy ridge, and thunder hammered so hard that the ship shook beneath their feet. Jack and Sabine had staggered back until they were pressed against the cabin, and before them the remaining wolves formed a rough half circle around the warring brothers.
A wide circle. None of them wanted to be involved in this fight. Whoever won would claim the bloody heart of the defeated, and whatever scrap of soul he might have left.
They fell, a fury of flailing limbs and hacking claws, and Jack heard the sickening sound of teeth clashing together. Landing across the hold’s blasted hatch, they seemed to be shredding each other to pieces—fur flew, blood pattered down across the wet deck, and as lightning thrashed again, Jack was sure he saw the purplish gleam of exposed muscle.
Then Death rose up, batting Ghost’s fist aside before stomping on his brother, cracking bones and forcing his victim against the ragged hole in the deck.
“They’ll both end up dead,” Sabine said.
Jack held her hand in his. “We can hope.” Her grip was strong, as though she wished never to let go again. He knew how she felt.
Death stomped one more time and then fell, sprawling face-first onto the deck, as Ghost lost his grip, falling into the hold where his brother had kept him prisoner. The other wolves moved a step or two nearer to the ruined open hatch. Louis glanced back at Jack. He looked fully human now but would never be a man again.
Death stood with a foot on either side of the hatch, and he took a moment to look at his audience. Half man, half beast, there was nothing remotely human in his eyes, and when his mouth fell open, he only growled.
Jack clasped the gun in his hand, ready to take aim and fire should the need arise. He had three silver bullets left. It would take all three to put Death Nilsson down, and maybe not even then.
“If he comes, run back along the ship and—,” Jack began, but he said no more. Death dropped down into the hold atop his battered brother.
The watching wolves glanced at one another—Vukovich, Maurilio, Louis, and the red-haired survivor from Death’s crew. There was much in the balance here, and now the fight had moved below.
Amplified by the echoing hold, the sounds of conflict raised themselves above the increasingly stormy sea and the wind and rain that continued to batter the Charon and the island. Jack glanced sidelong at Sabine, and her eyes were wide. He had an idea that she could no longer stop this storm, even if she desired to.
With screams and thuds, growls and roars, the fight went on. Jack was sure he could feel impacts through his feet, and he dreaded to imagine what pure hatred could become in that confined space. Like the echoing howls, the hate the brothers had long harbored for each other would be concentrated down there, and the violence would stir it thicker.