A loop of rope dropped around a pale neck. The screaming head attached to it didn’t seem to notice. The makeshift noose went taught. A pale, rag-clad body was yanked thrashing into the air.
Lace Webber swung down like a boom, counterbalancing the weight of the creature she’d just lassoed against her own. She crashed into another grindylow with both feet, feeling a satisfying crack and sending the clumsy creature sprawling across the deck. Another crewman quickly took advantage of the opening, bringing his club down into the creature’s skull as the pale body crashed down in front of him.
Lace landed like an acrobat, planting both feet then both hands and springing back to standing again. She took a half-second to twist the rope into her hands into a knot and slipped it around one of the line-anchor hooks attached to the mast. The grindylow hanging by its neck flailed uselessly. Its legs split into six disgusting tentacles that writhed and undulated as it tried to free itself from Lace’s noose. She moved in towards the thick of the fight as her riggers began dropping to the deck behind her, arming themselves as they landed. She drew her square-headed cane knife and moved in near Reeve. Her big, mottled kinsman gave her a nod before shouting orders to his crew. “Swabs! Man the hooks! North, the boys are yours!” he bellowed. Then he gave Lace a sharp-toothed grin.“Head and legs.”
She nodded, expecting Reeve to retreat with his swabs. He didn’t. The big man was practically covered in splattered blood and gore. She could see a half dozen wounds on him, so she knew some of it was his, but he didn’t seem to mind.
The swabs had been hard-pressed by the grindylow’s invasion. The monsters had caught defenders off guard over and over again. Painlessly ignoring wounds. Inhuman strength. Those damned tongue-spikes. The tripping, choking tendrils their legs split into. The swabs had caught the brunt of every surprise. They were shaken, tired, and very happy to have reinforcements so they could catch a breath. The swabs had not had much luck holding a line formation against the grindylow. The riggers, in contrast, didn’t bother trying to keep a formation. They were generally lighter than the swabs, faster, and better at fighting up close. The short blades they carried were excellent weapons against these strange foes. What had been one big losing battle quickly became a cluster of skirmishes, overlapping and bumping into each other. Against organized, clever opponents it would have been a disaster. Against the nearly mindless grindylows, it worked.
Lace dodged a barbed tongue and quick-stepped in, slashing her cane knife across a pale neck. The grindylow gurgled out a cry for help and lunged at her. She moved like a prizefighter, staying just out of reach, her blade intercepting one of its arms to slash at the insides of the elbows. The grindylow’s arm went limp as she severed its tendons, but it didn’t slow its assault. It swung from the shoulder, using its useless limb like a flail, catching her off guard. If it had still been able to close its hand it would have had her, but she got away with only a heavy blow to her forearm. She felt like she’d been clubbed.
With a snarl, she ducked underneath its next swing and brought her blade into its neck again with a heavy chop. The grindylow recoiled and screeched. Lace was surprised, she hadn’t actually expected a reaction. Something dark bulged inside the wound, bleeding and folding out from the gash. She’d seen gut wounds before, intestines spilling out like bloody ropes, but she’d never seen anything like that from a neck wound. Regardless, she knew she’d hurt it. She pounced, evading its flailing arms, sidestepping its barbed tongue, stepping around the eruption of tentacles that reached for her as its legs collapsed and it dropped to the deck. Every time she closed in, she slashed at its neck. The creature had no regard for its own safety, so hitting it wasn’t hard. The trick was getting past all the flailing limbs. Sometimes it didn’t react. Sometimes it did. She didn’t really understand what she was doing that hurt it, but it was the best result she’d seen so far. Blood was everywhere, but the damn thing just refused to die.
She circled like she was dancing with it, always moving. By the fourth time she’d managed to hit it, she’d done enough damage that it could no longer turn its head to the left. It had to try to twist its torso to keep her in its vision, but it couldn’t actually turn around fast enough on its slithering tentacles. She managed to slip behind it and grab it by its greasy hair. Hauling its head back, she brought her knife down in three quick chops, folding and dragging its neck back further with every cut. Cane knives were designed to make short work of fibrous stalks of sugar cane. Against meat, they were similar to a cleaver. The creature’s whole head folded back, barely supported by the flap of viscera of the backside of its neck. It writhed in agony as something inside its neck pushed upward, bleeding from where Lace’s blade had gone through the meat of the neck and into whatever was hiding inside.
It looked like the middle section of a reddish-purple eel. It clearly did not like being exposed and wounded. It was trying to pull the head up but lacked the strength. All it managed to do was wriggle and pull itself free. With a squelching gurgle, a fist-sized knot of wet flesh squirmed out of the nearly severed head. It looked like a sea anemone stuck on the end of an eel: the color and texture of fresh liver, and covered in short tendrils that waved frantically through the air. Lace’s stomach turned, but instead of retching, she brought her knife down one last time, right through the thing. The grindylow shuddered and went limp.
“What the fuck was that?” she muttered to herself, staring at what was left of the thing that had looked so much like a man at first. She decided not to think about it. Scanning the deck quickly, she spotted her next target as it grappled an unlucky rigger. She circled behind it and moved in.
“Jack!” Will burst into the captain’s quarters and right into a bloodbath. Wounded crew were everywhere, moaning and gritting their teeth against the pain. On the bed, a man was screaming as Quinn held him down and Doctor Kalfou did something to his abdomen. Jack and Bella were working together to stitch up a puncture wound in another man’s leg.
“I’m a little busy, Will!” Jack snapped without looking up. “What is it?”
“I need explosives,” Will said quickly.
Jack held the wound in her hands closed and steady and let Bella stitch, but looked up to meet Will’s eyes. A flicker of thoughts and emotions flashed behind her eyes, but a moment later all she said was “Let me finish this up.”
Once Bella had the last stitch done, Jack put a hand on the witch’s. “You going to be alright?” Bella nodded, but didn’t say anything. Jack looked worried, but gave her a reassuring smile and followed Will out the door.
“What’s the plan?” Jack asked as they headed down into the hold.
“Depth charges,” Will took the steps down two at a time.
“To blow us free of the reef? How is that going to work without blasting holes in the hull?” Jack balked.
“They aren’t for us, they’re for them,” Will said. When they got to the hold, they found Morant’s men engaged at the door Will had nailed shut. The Grindylows had managed to force the door open again and were giving Morant’s soldiers hell. The men hadn’t been on the deck, so everything about the Grindylows had caught them off guard. It looked like three of their number were already down, two others were struggling against the grip of the inhuman things, and their formation was beginning to break. Still, their swords and armor helped, and there were enough of them to effectively blockade the doorway. Their leader turned as he heard Will and Jack come down the stairs. “Help!”
“Not our orders,” Will snapped coldly. He tried to open Jack’s door, found it locked, and stood aside to let her work the key.
“We’re going to die!” the soldier yelled.
“If you live through this, I’m going to see if the captain wants to keelhaul you,” Will snarled. “Maybe if you hold the line down here, she’ll be lenient.”
“You asshole!” the soldier barked.
“Good luck,” Will waved, then he vanished into Jack’s room.
“You want to tell me what that was about?” Jack asked, kneeling down to unlock her large footlocker.
“Morant told them not to help repel boarders. They’ve been down here guarding his room instead,” Will sneered. “The only ones on the ship with actual arms and armor, and they’re hiding, letting other people die for them.”
Jack made an unhappy noise and tossed Will an empty duffel bag. “Morant sent Lynch up top. He’s helping at least.”
“I’m sure that will matter to someone who isn’t me,” Will said, shaking the bag to unfold it and open it up. He dropped it and caught the first of the cloth-wrapped charges Jack tossed him.
“You’re a lot more ruthless than you used to be,” Jack said.
“You used to tell me I wasn’t ruthless enough,” Will reminded her. “Be careful what you wish for.”
Jack’s hands paused mid-toss, almost dropping the bundle. She jolted in surprise, then looked frustrated and nodded. “Yeah. No kidding.”
Will didn’t notice. He was busy checking the bundles.“How many of these do you have?” he asked.
“Twenty,” Jack said.
As Jack pulled out bundle after bundle of cloth wrapped explosives, Will opened them up partially to look at their fuses and casings. Each cloth wrap contained a cluster of red cylinders, each one with a fuse that came out of it and wrapped together with the others. He set them into two piles: ones with broken fuses, and the ones that were ready to go. Jack did a good job with the upkeep of her equipment. Only two bundles needed to be set aside. As Will worked, Jack pulled free a large spool of fuse and started pulling and cutting lengths. As they worked, they talked, barely letting each other finish before they were responding.
“How long?” Jack asked, measuring out her cord.
“Ten to twelve seconds. Err toward twelve.”
“Gotta give them time to sink, but not to get carried away by the current.”
“How many are we making?”
“Depends on how much you have here?”
“They’re mining charges, in case we need to clear a collapse. I have twenty. Each one is seven sticks.”
“That’s a lot of boom. I think we’ll end up using about half. Waterproof fuses?”
“They have to sink. We need something heavy to put them in.”
“Pots? Tie the lids down?”
“The handles, all screw-on, right?”
“I have a pair.”
“Might need two for leverage. I’ll check the Quartermaster’s hold.”
“I’ll head to the galley.”
With a duffle full of mining charges, Will headed towards the hold. Jack was right on his heels, but he stopped. “Trade me your machete,” he said, unbuckling his belt. Jack looked at him oddly, but unclipped her blade from her wide weapon belt. Will passed her his rapier.
“I have no idea how to use this,” she said incredulously.
“Stick them with the pointy end,” Will said, belting on her heavier blade.
“How about I just shoot them?” Jack asked sarcastically.
“That works too,” Will smirked. The shouts of Morant’s men filled their ears again. Jack’s eyes hardened. Will gave her a pleading look, but he knew it was already too late. He sighed as she turned around and headed into the hold towards the fight. After a moment’s hesitation, he walked after her.
She jogged in behind the formation where two men were trying to pull a grindylow off a third soldier, who was starting to go purple from lack of air.
“Duck,” she ordered, leveling her tri-barreled gun at the struggling man’s head. His eyes went wide and he pulled himself down as tightly as he could. The gunshot was like a thundercrack right on top of them. It blasted open a fist-sized hole right between the grindylow’s collar bones.
She stepped forward, barging right into the soldier and the thrashing grindylow before either one had time to completely fall, and let loose with another blast at the monster behind the first. She caught it by the shoulder, leaving a ragged, bloody stump where its arm had been. The heavy slug continued on, slapping into the chest of the next one in line, tearing a bloody hole in it and knocking it back into the water. The flooded room beyond had four more of the pale, shrieking creatures in it, all pushing and piling towards the doorway trying to get at the soldiers beyond. The three in the lead were suddenly bloody messes, and the others wasted no time screaming and rushing to fill the gap.
They were met with a blast of flame. Jack’s underslung third barrel erupted with a cone of fire that blistered and cooked the pale exposed flesh of the writhing monsters. The armless one, and the one pushing past it both screeched and flailed as their faces melted and their eyes boiled and burst. Whatever Jack had packed into that blast sprayed the creatures with small shards of something that didn’t stop burning when it hit flesh, or water. The room erupted with steam, and the cluster of grindylows all threw themselves into the water to try to put themselves out. It didn’t help. Jack’s fire didn’t last very long, but water didn’t stop it. Only one of the pale monsters escaped unscathed. It surged forward mindlessly, ignoring the plight of its fellows.
Jack stepped back, cracking open her weapon and popping the spent shells free. The soldiers were dumbfounded, but quickly closed ranks to fend off the last Grindylow. Jack reloaded as she addressed the leader of Morant’s soldiers. “When you’re done here barricade this door and get your asses up top to repel boarders.”
“Those aren’t our-” The soldier cut himself off as Jack snapped her terrifying gun closed and he suddenly found himself staring down the still-smoking barrels.
“You were saying?” Jack asked.
“Nothing,” the soldier said.
“See you on deck,” Jack said flatly. Then she turned and headed back to the stairs.
Tonya could not get comfortable. She lay on her back in Bella’s bed, starting up at the ceiling, trying not to disturb Janie.
The idea of sharing a room had been fun at first. Tonya had been staying in one of the group rooms with six other working girls. There weren’t very many people at Merry Mary’s who had rooms to themselves. Renting personal rooms from Chance wasn’t cheap. Bella had wanted to make sure she kept her room so she had paid in advance for six months and given Tonya the key. Bella’s bed was pretty big, so sharing it wasn’t normally an issue. Right now though, it was driving Tonya mad.
Janie was already asleep. She was one of those people who looked serene and perfect when she slept and barely moved. Whatever Cerise had given her had knocked her out, so she hadn’t noticed Tonya tossing and turning yet.
It slowly dawned on Tonya that she could faintly see Janie’s sleeping face. She could see the ceiling and most of the room. That wasn’t abnormal. They usually left a tapir burning on the nightstand in case they needed to get up at night, but tonight, after all the chaos, they’d forgotten to light it. It was pitch black, or rather, it should have been.
Tonya carefully looked herself over. She’d taken the time to scrub off the sigils she’d drawn on herself. She thought she’d waited until the glow had faded, and she thought she’d gotten it all. She couldn’t see anything glowing on her body. So where was the light coming from? It was light, right? Did whatever happened let her see in the dark? She moved her hand around in the air. No, there was actual light. She could see the shadow of her hand on the ceiling. But that would mean… She moved her hand more, further away, then closer, using the shadows to find the source of the light.
It was her face. Her eyes. “What the hell?” she muttered. She waved her hand back and forth in front of her face, watching the shadows on the ceiling move.
She knew that it was possible to retain enough magical energy to cause the physical body to glow. Every living thing was a vessel for energy. When any vessel became overly saturated, the magic converted to other forms of energy. Light was usually the first and the safest. That’s why sigils and circles usually glowed during rituals. After that was sound or heat. Bella had told her that during incredibly difficult rituals, it was possible for a person to become so saturated with energy that their skin could actually begin to glow. She’d also been very clear that outside of a properly made ritual circle, gathering energy into yourself was extremely dangerous.
No one else had mentioned her eyes were glowing. It must have been very faint. If it hadn’t been completely dark, she might not have noticed herself. Now she was worried though. Magical energy usually dissipated if something wasn’t done with it. A glow meant a significant amount of it had been gathered. Why was it staying inside her?
Aside from not being able to sleep, she felt fine. Well, that wasn’t completely true. She was horny. Being interrupted before she and Caine could finish had her feeling unsatisfied. Her clients didn’t always care if she got off, so she was fairly used to feeling this way, but it never interfered with her sleep. She’d grown up on the streets. She’d learned to take sleep where she could get it. She could fall asleep anytime, anywhere. Something was definitely off.
Between Janie and the blankets, she was too warm. She stuck one of her legs out into the cool night air and fidgeted, trying to figure out if anything else was different.
Her fingers wandered idly down her stomach. Her sense of touch seemed extra sensitive. She was wide awake and every nerve was firing. The heat between her legs throbbed, wanting to be touched. Willpower and denial of her own desires had never been easy for Tonya. More than anything else, that was what held back her training with Bella. Her wants were too strong and she gave into them easily. She turned her head, looking at Janie’s sleeping face in the dim blue-tinted light. She was fast asleep.
A small shudder rippled through Tonya as soon as her fingers slipped into her wet folds. She squeezed her thighs together, enjoying the throb. Her mind wandered back to earlier. Caine. She’d always thought he was sexy in an older, gruff kind of way. It was the way he carried himself. No-nonsense and stern, but very caring in his own way. There was something very attractive about a person who was capably violent, but used it to protect rather than control. He’d always looked out for the whores at Mary’s, and never judged any of them. He was completely on their side, and they all knew it. He’d been entirely off-limits though. The idea of bedding Caine was one of those inside jokes that got bandied about the brothel like fishermen talking about the one that got away. Most of them had made passes at him at one point or another. Sometimes he even flirted back. To Tonya’s knowledge, none of them had ever actually sealed the deal with him though. She had to admit, she was pretty proud of herself.
Her fingers wandered, stroking along her sensitive inner lips, prodding lightly at her entrance, then dragging back up to gently circle her sensitive clit. Her breathing deepened and her hips ground into the mattress. She was trying not to move much, but it was hard. She was always an enthusiastic lover, even with herself. Her other hand squeezed her small breasts, kneading soft flesh and tugging at sensitive nipples. She really wished they were bigger. She had to dress in ways that over-emphasized her body just so people would notice it. Corsets. Bustles. Heels. Makeup. Without it all, she would never be noticed in a place like Mary’s. Chance had told her when she was hired that she might consider marketing herself as a lady-boy, to appeal to customers who liked that sort of thing, but she wasn’t interested. It was true that when she wore the right clothes, she could pass as a teenage boy. It sometimes came in handy. When she lived on the street, she’d done exactly that to protect herself. Now that she didn’t have to do that to survive anymore, she never wanted to do it again. She was a woman, dammit! She wanted to feel like a woman, and be treated like a woman.
She glanced over at Janie, running her eyes down the older woman’s body. She was mostly covered in blankets, but the swell of her breasts still gave her outline a sensual form. That’s what Tonya wanted. Enough curves that no one would ever mistake her for anything but a woman.
Her hands had stopped moving. They were just resting on her chest and between her legs. Her brows furrowed. That never happened. Usually, she had to try to stop the sexy thoughts from distracting her, not focus on them so they didn’t slip away. She was still turned on, in a vague, frustrated sense. She started making small circles with her fingers again.
Will. That had been the last time she’d been fully, satisfyingly fucked. Will and Bella. Those two were just… overwhelming. She bit her lip remembering the feel of Will fucking her on the table. Bella discharging her excess energy through Rocky and into her. The two of them, working together, playing her body like an instrument. A small ripple ran through her, the very beginnings of an orgasm. The pressure spike that let her know it was on the horizon. Her toes curled. She missed Bella so much. Now that the mirror was broken, it was going to be a lot harder to ignore the feelings of loneliness. She hoped Bella was alright.
She opened her mouth, like she was going to say something to herself, but the only thing that came out was a small, angry whine. She’d lost the thread of her sexy memories again. What was going on? Why couldn’t she stay focused? She had no problem getting warmed up, but it seemed like every time she reached a certain threshold, right at the beginning of her build to orgasm, her focus just slipped away. She clenched her eyes shut and kicked her feet back and forth into the mattress in frustration.
Janie squirmed a bit, starting to roll over. Tonya reached out and stopped her, keeping her laying on her side. “Hmm?” Janie muttered, half asleep.
“Cerise said you can’t sleep on your back,” Tonya said gently.
“A’right,” Janie muttered, rolling the other direction onto her stomach. Her arm stretched out and laid across Tonya’s chest. Janie gave her a small squeeze, and then was asleep again.
Tonya sighed in frustration. Her whole right side was now in contact with Janie. There was no chance of finishing what she’d started now. She laid there, staring at the ceiling by the light from her own eyes.
Caine finished sweeping up the last of the broken glass and plaster, scooping it into a bucket. Then he sat down at Bella’s table, picked up his stein, and took a long pull while he looked at the cracks in the wall.
It felt a little backwards to be cleaning the floor right before he made another mess, but the glass had to be picked up before anything else could be done. He wiped his mouth and pulled on his tool belt. Then he started picking at the plaster with a bricklayer's trowel. It wasn’t the ideal tool for the job, but it was wide, flat, and had enough of a point that he could work it under any plaster that had lifted free. Bit by bit, chunks hit the floor until all that was left on the wall was the plaster that hadn’t cracked or lifted.
The damage was extensive. The room really did look like it had been hit by a bomb. This part of the building was very old. The stones on the other side of the plaster and wooden struts were beginning to show their age, and the mortar was slowly eroding. He used his trowel to prod at the seams between the large stones, hoping they still had a while. He scraped away some grit, but the stones themselves held firm. He smiled. Even though the old temple was just the broken bones of what it had once been, it seemed the gods weren’t quite done with this place yet.
It was strange seeing the room with its makeup off. He remembered when the alcove had housed a beautiful marble statue adorned with gold and silver, an effigy of one of the gods. Which one of them had been in Bella’s room? The Lover? The Traveler? He was pretty sure the Gardener and the Harvester had been on the other side of the lounge. It had been too long, he didn’t remember.
There was something very amusing to him about a church becoming a brothel. When he’d come back to this island, that was the thing that convinced him to stay. The poetic irony of it had cracked him up. It still did when he bothered to think about it.
He tapped his trowel on the stones. “You and me, old girl. No one remembers what we were, and it’s so much better that way. We’re both way more fun these days.”
It looked like the struts supporting the stone had held fine too, so all that was left was to reapply a new coat of plaster. That could wait until tomorrow. He needed supplies. He yawned. Then his brow knitted in confusion, then he spun on his heel and left Bella’s alcove behind.
Mary’s was dark. It was just before dawn. There might be a few people still awake, but none of them were in the common areas. Caine moved through the place by memory and feel. He couldn’t see, but he didn’t need to. He’d built the place, twice. He’d repaired damn near every part of it. He’d lived there for more years than he cared to think about. He knew those halls like he knew his own hands.
Down into the basement levels, into the old priest’s cloisters. Now they were the personal rooms. A single wall sconce lit the dark hall. He walked all the way to the end of the long hall. His room. It was never locked. His door was always open.
Inside, his lantern burned dimly, casting faint shadows around the chamber. It was more of a storage shed than a bedroom. Tools and supplies lined the many shelves. A workbench was covered with half-finished projects. Next to it was a dusty shrine to the Warden. Nowhere in the room was a bed.
In the middle of the floor was a faded red and gold rug. Caine walked to the center of it, lowered himself to the ground into a cross-legged position, and took a deep breath.
Why was he tired? What had Bella and Tonya’s stupid ritual done to him? He centered himself and focused on his heartbeat. He felt himself sinking, falling, until he felt weightless. He opened his eyes and stood up, leaving his physical body behind.
He looked around in the grey, colorless swirl scanning his room. It was an old soldier’s habit. Check the perimeter first. Then he looked down. He could faintly see an outline of himself sitting on the ground. He looked translucent, but glowed faintly.
“That really took a lot out of us,” his counterpart said next to him.
Caine nodded. “That’s what it felt like. I thought we should see for ourselves.”
Two versions of Caine stood in the Ways Between, staring down at the ethereal manifestation of the physical body they shared. They looked something like twins, if one twin was made of golden light and the other was covered in brightly glowing runic tattoos. The third Caine, the physical one, unmoving and ethereal here, looked very tired.
“Something is draining us,” his glowing twin said. “It is slow and faint, but I can still feel it.”
“Me too,” Caine nodded.
“Well, that is bad. You usually don’t notice things like that until you’re falling over,” his twin smirked.
Caine grunted and looked over his arms and chest, thinking that perhaps he could see something that had changed in the flowing scripture that traced his body here in the Ways. “See anything different?” he asked.
His glowing twin leaned in for a closer look. “There. Yes. Center of your chest. That is new.”
He looked. Sure enough, there was a small interlocking trio of circles. They glowed white rather than gold. They were subtle and looked like they were just beneath his skin rather than raised ever so slightly above it. “What is it?”
“I do not know. It isn’t something I’ve seen before,” his twin said, clearly curious and impressed. “What did that little slip of a witch do to you?”
“Whatever it was, it made me yawn,” Caine said flatly.
His glowing twin burst out laughing. “How human.”
“Har har,” Caine rolled his eyes. “What should we do about it?”
“We don’t have enough information yet to do anything. In the short term, we should refill our reserves,” his twin shrugged.
“I would really rather not do that,” Caine looked pained.
“Don’t be such a child,” his twin chastised. “She’ll help.”
“But there will be a hook in it. There always is,” Caine grumbled.
“She does owe you right now,” his twin suggested. “Call in the favor.”
“I was really enjoying having a bit of leverage over her for a change,” Caine sighed. “Fine. Might as well get it over with.”
“While you’re there, talk to her about a curse-breaking service. That might be the most straightforward solution. In the meantime, I’ll see what I can figure out about what is happening to us.”
“Thanks, Greyson,” Caine said. The two shook hands, then briefly superimposed as they sat down back into the translucent form of their corporeal body. A moment later, Caine opened his eyes, back in his bedroom.
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