- The Sea Wolves
Something changed. It took Jack a moment to realize what it was, and then he recognized only one voice, not two. Another growl, an impact heavier than any that had come before, and then a howl rose up that challenged the storm, sending the wolves back several paces.
All fell quiet. The storm seemed to settle a little—a pause, and Jack thought perhaps Sabine’s own breath was held—and then Louis took several steps toward the hatch. A few feet from the opening he froze, crouched down; and the silhouette he threw changed shape, subtly but clearly. Fur bristled across his bare back.
“Jack!” Sabine said. But they could both see the hand that now clasped the edge of the torn hatch, its nails longer than a man’s but shorter than a wolf’s, and they could see how the fingers were tensed as they supported the weight of whoever hung below.
If it was Ghost and he had been victorious, Jack and Sabine would soon discover whether he would keep his word. Perhaps the monster had learned something and would honor their pact, but Jack thought not. He thought that Ghost’s honor stopped where it began—close to his own heart.
If Death emerged, then they were all faced with a very different problem.
“Jack, the gun.”
“Yes,” Jack said, but he kept the gun down by his side. However much he doubted Ghost, he would give the captain a chance.
The shape that rose from the hold might have been either of the brothers. So soaked in blood that the color of its hair was difficult to discern, its build hidden by the hole, it looked down beneath itself as it strained to haul itself up. It dragged itself onto the metal deck, panting hard and spitting blood. Then, with a growl that was so low Jack thought he could feel it vibrating the deck, the victor stood.
And Death Nilsson looked up.
“Reverend,” Death said, and his one surviving crew member looked around at the others with terror in his eyes.
“Death…,” the man muttered.
“Reverend, if you do not continue the fight, then you become a victim of it.” Death’s voice was barely human, even though he now stood there as close to a man as he could be. He looked past Louis at Jack and Sabine, and grinned. “Two of us left, and I already see how we can double the size of our crew.” Then he looked at Sabine again, and the smile dropped a little. “Or her … perhaps she will have another use.”
Jack raised the gun and pointed it at Death’s chest. One in the chest, a second in the head, and the last in his heart, once he’s down. The inhumanity in the man’s eyes reminded him so much of Ghost.
“What’s this?” Death said.
“Silver,” Jack said.
“My own stock,” Death said. “Yes, silver. You’d best make sure you pump enough into me, boy.”
“My name,” Jack said, his shaking ceasing as quickly as it had come, “is Jack London.”
“My name,” Jack said, his shaking ceasing as quickly as it had come, “is Jack London.”
“Well, Jack, you and I are going to—”
Death’s eyes went wide as he caught a scent, or a sound, and a shadow rose behind him. Arms flung around his waist, hands grasping him, and as the shadow fell back into the hole, it took Death with it.
He fought. Arms and legs stretched out, Death propped himself over the hole, using his left hand to beat back at the risen Ghost.
“Damn you, Brother, I’ll have your heart!” Death shouted. But it was not to be.
The fist punched up through Death’s chest, ribs cracking and catching the storm’s final slash of lightning. In the fist—Ghost’s fist, clenching tight—was Death Nilsson’s beating heart.
Ghost squeezed, and as the muscle ruptured, so the light went from Death’s eyes.
Louis dashed forward and hauled the corpse from above the hatch. Vukovich helped, and the man Death had called Reverend joined in as well, pulling on his dead captain’s leg and then stepping back as Ghost climbed from the hold.
He was a mess, naked and torn, but resplendent in the blood that clothed him. He was grinning through broken teeth and slashed lips. He raised his arms at the sky, and the roar was so joyous that Jack felt a shout rising in his own throat.
Sabine squeezed Jack’s left hand and held on tight.
“I’ve never seen him so wild,” she said, “not even as a wolf.”
Ghost kicked Death’s body toward the railing, then lifted it up and flung it into the sea. He followed it with a gob of bloody spittle and turned around to face them all.
“Now then, Mr. London,” Ghost said, breathing heavily. The rain did little to wash his brother’s blood from across his face and chest, and Jack thought perhaps he would be stained forever.
Jack raised the gun again and pointed it at Ghost.
“Now then, Ghost,” Jack echoed. “I hope you mean to—”
Ghost came at them, violence incarnate. Jack’s breath froze and his finger squeezed, but too slowly, too slowly, and he had maybe a second until—
Louis tripped Ghost and fell on him as he sprawled on the deck. Vukovich held down one leg, Maurilio the other, and Reverend came to help them again, falling across Ghost’s head and doing his best to avoid his teeth.
“Jack, kill him!” Louis said.
“You fool,” Maurilio said, shifting as he struggled to keep Ghost’s leg from kicking him away. “He’s weakened from the fight, the change is slow. One bullet to the heart will finish him. Now!”
“No,” Jack said again. Sabine touched his arm, and he knew he was making the right choice. It was the only choice. Kill or be killed was fine for those on the hunt, but if he shot Ghost like this, it would be murder.
“He means to do you in,” Vukovich said. “He’ll never honor the pact, and you know it.”
“You don’t understand. I must let him live,” Jack said.
“But why?” Louis asked.
“It’s the human thing to do.”
Ghost had twisted around to stare at him, and Jack thought perhaps the old werewolf now hated him as much as he had his brother.
“There must be another hold to keep him in,” Jack said. “We have much to discuss, and a ship to fix.”
The sun shone and the sea was calm the day they prepared to leave the island, and Sabine promised Jack she had nothing to do with it.
“The weather is smiling on us,” she said, and she continued pacing the deck of the Charon. It had been scrubbed down several times, the bodies of the dead werewolves buried in a mass grave on the beach. But the ship would always retain the mark of the fight. It was scratched and stained into the metal like a painful memory.
There was an air of nervousness on board. They all knew what was to come. It had been only two days, but in that time Jack had seen such a change in Ghost’s surviving crew that he could barely recognize them. Louis had displayed an intelligence Jack had never credited him with, revealing that he’d always held himself back around Ghost so that the captain would never view him as a threat.
“Weren’t you?” Jack had asked.
“Of course,” Louis had replied. “I was simply biding my time.” Jack wasn’t sure about that, and he had mixed feelings about Louis. It was because of him that Sabine had been brought to the Larsen. But if Louis had not brought her to Ghost, Jack would have never met her.
Vukovich and Maurilio held fewer surprises, but they became much more relaxed and were able to work hard at fixing the Charon with Reverend’s help. Reverend—a huge man, grizzled and rough-looking—denied that he had ever been a man of the cloth. He claimed that Death had named him because of his gentle voice and his predilection for standing at the bow and praying each night before he turned in.
“A werewolf talking to God?” Jack had asked.
“Death never knew which god,” Reverend had said. “And he never bothered to ask.” Jack did not ask either. But Reverend fit in with the others reasonably well. He’d had no love for Death Nilsson, and had no argument with them taking the Charon for their own. He even showed them the three hidden holds containing the ship’s spoils, and he and Vukovich quickly struck up a friendship.
As Jack stood at the railing and stared out at the island, Sabine joined him again.
“You’re certain about this?” she said, and it was the third time she had asked.
“Of course. Do you see any other way for us to sail this boat?”
“No,” Sabine said. She pressed close to Jack.
“I trust them,” Jack said. “They’ve been through as much as we have, and they’ll take us to San Francisco as they’ve promised.”
“And after that?” she asked. “After we leave the ship and they sail away again, they will build another pack. Louis will be captain, perhaps, and Vukovich first mate. They’ll recruit more men, turn them as they were all turned by Ghost. It might be months or even years, but sometime soon the Charon will be a hell ship again. They have their hunger. They have their needs.”
“Maybe I have a solution to that,” Jack said, and as Sabine raised her eyebrows at him, the cabin door clanged open.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Not now,” he said.
Stress hardened his shoulders, and he drew the gun from his belt as Ghost emerged from the cabin doorway. He looked up at the sun and blinked against the light, his face marked by a network of claw and fang scars. Jack thought his body could have healed them away, if he desired it. But perhaps a creature who thought himself so wronged wished to display his history upon his skin. Anyone who looked at him from this day forward would know the violence he had seen.
“Ready to sail, Mr. London?”
“Ready,” Jack said. “But you won’t be coming with us.”
Ghost snorted. “Of course not. And why would I? A ship like this, I’m afraid I’d soon turn into a coward like the rest of you.”
He stumbled forward as Vukovich prodded him onto the deck, and the rest of the sea wolves followed. Ghost might well have been able to tear them all apart, but the silver bullets in Jack’s gun kept him from trying. Though there were times when Jack wondered if it really was the silver that held Ghost at bay, or if perhaps the old wolf had simply decided that this chapter of his life had come to a close.
“You still believe your way is better,” Jack said. “That morality and principle are nothing but weakness.”
“Of course,” Ghost said, as if it was a foolish question. He looked around at everyone there to see him on his way. Sabine stood close to Jack, but as usual the others had spread out, each of them alone. To fight Ghost in case he fought back, Jack had thought initially. But he also realized that alone was all a monster could be.
“I’m sure you’ll know this one,” Ghost continued. “‘We all live in the protection of certain cowardices which we call our principles.’ You, Jack, are scared to see yourself for what you truly are.”
Jack smiled. “Twain also said, ‘Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.’”
“So you’re saying you still fear me,” Ghost said with almost childlike pleasure.
“Over the side, Ghost.”
Jack raised the gun. The air on deck thickened with potential, and beside him Jack sensed Sabine stiffening. She’d told Jack that if it came to a fight, she would do her best to touch Ghost’s mind and confuse him. But secretly, all Jack’s faith was in gunpowder and silver.
“Over the side,” Louis echoed.
Ghost looked at the wolves one last time, his expression not altering when he gazed at Reverend. Everyone was beneath him, his crew or another. He was the god of his own mind.
“Very well,” Ghost said. He turned back to Jack and Sabine. “But I will see you again.”
Then he ran at the rail and threw himself overboard, the splash as he struck the water loud and final.
A tremor of surprise stirred those on deck, but then they rushed to their stations. The ship began to vibrate as Reverend increased the steam engine’s power, and Vukovich and Maurilio raised anchor.
Jack and Sabine stood at the rail, looking down at Ghost treading water below them, only twenty feet away. He stared back up but said nothing more.
The banished wolf did not speak a word as the ship got under way, and he began to swim after them.
The Charon picked up speed as it left the island astern, and still Ghost continued following them, falling behind as they plowed through the water. He stared silently after Jack and Sabine, and though Sabine went and stood at the bow to look ahead, Jack would not entertain turning away.
At last Ghost stopped swimming, but he remained treading water until he was less than a dot on the ocean, and the island blurred across the horizon and then vanished over the curve of the earth.
It was only then that Sabine rejoined him.
“Your solution, Jack? Your idea to stop these cursed men from becoming monsters again?”
“Only an idea, for now,” he said. “I have yet to ask them. But once we’ve returned to San Francisco, and I’ve brought my small bag of gold to my mother and seen my friend Merritt, there’s a place I promised to take you.”
“The Yukon,” she said. She gazed somewhere far away, back through the centuries. “Lesya.”
“Yes,” Jack said, the wood spirit’s name causing a shiver even in the blazing sunlight. “And the way I see it, we’ll need a ship like this to get us there. And a crew.”