Gunfire and shouting roared across the The Cloven Maiden’s deck, accompanied by flashes of images that moved in and out of range, assailing me the moment we reached the deck. Someone flailed at his own innards as a shambler fell on him like a wall of flesh. Another vision peeked out from behind a barricade, firing almost blindly into the smoke where the vague form of a shambler pulled away from a dead pirate. Chaos, madness.
We moved quickly as I worked hard to focus on the eyes of my companions and nothing else, keeping low. I doubted the pirates, panicked as they were, would take the time to make sure their target was a shambler and not a living being before opening fire.
“Coalpaw had better hurry up.” Baen hissed, amazingly audible above the chaos. She made us stop, crouched at the mast. “Fotti.” She pointed, and though I pretended to look that way I could already make out the small figure aiming the barrel of her oversized rifle over the Maiden’s railing. “Laissa, get to her, update her, and make sure our exit stays secure.”
“Understood.” There was a crisp, military edge to the charr’s tone, and Baen nodded in approval.
“Kaede and I will search the officer’s quarters and check the upper deck.” She said. “If we can grab a living pirate in all this we can ask them nicely if Tatianna was ever aboard.”
“Good plan.” Laissa grunted. “Be careful.”
And then, seeing through the smoke was that piercing green vision. Ropes, rigging, then the boards of the ship’s deck and the view of our party from above. Instinctively, I grabbed Baen’s arm and slammed my shoulder as hard as I could into Laissa’s chest, carrying all three of us back. We landed in a tangled heap, but I rolled to my feet in an instant, pistol clearing its holster and up as the creature dropped from the mast and landed before us in a crouch, wisps of black drifting from it like ash from a burnt out log. It rose, skeletal tail weaving sinuously back and forth. Black muscles, exposed to the smoke, rippled with barely contained power and claws dug into the smouldering deck. The cat-skull like head swiveled to face us, black-grey bone tinged with faint green light.
There was a moment of eerie calm as Baen and Laissa came to their feet, the gunfire and crackling of the flames somehow muted as we stared at the monstrosity crouched before us on all fours, only a few metres away, and it stared right back at us. Through the eyes of my companions I could see it more clearly now, but even so it was difficult to form a description in my head. Its body was an impossible terror, as though some warped mind had taken the worst elements of a great cat and a serpent and fused them into a single monster, stripped it of any superfluous portions to leave it as nothing but a rippling mass of clawed lethality. Its shoulders, nothing but bones, extended far above its back at over six feet, gleaming through the smoke. From the base of its skull, like a cape, mane, or some dark halo, was a billowing mass of smooth hair, metre long strands of it, so black they were almost blue. I could see the jagged protrusions, like shards of broken of glass, protruding as extensions of the mandible instead of conventional teeth, illuminated by the back glow of the fell green light that shone from its throat.
Behind it, shamblers came into view. A dozen, two dozen, shuffling through the smoke, gurgling thick black seawater from what passed for mouths as they moved through smoke, marching relentlessly past the crouched monster. A second wave of the horrors, there to finish what the first had started with the pirates. Too many to fight, too many to hope to even mount a defence if we tried to stand our ground.
“We have to go.” Baen said, her words echoing my thoughts. “Now.”
“Seconded.” I said, backing away. A low, furious growl came from Laissa, but she too took a step back, her eyes fixed on the oncoming horde and the monster that led it.
The beast, however, didn’t advance. It seemed oddly uncertain, and for a moment it was as though it were going to retreat. It even took a half step back, barbed tail whipping through the air, but then its claws dug in and its eyeless gaze settled on me.
I was to be its first target then. I breathed out slowly, bracing myself as the monster crouched in preparation for its attack. My sword was out, pistol ready and hammer drawn back, my muscles tightening, knowing I would have less than instant. I knew how fast this thing was. When it came, I would have less than a second to react.
I had imagined this, even spent time theorizing on how to best deal with this situation. My pistol, even at close range, wouldn’t be enough to put it down easily. The hardened carapace sections of its body – which I guessed were something similar to bone – seemed almost impervious to bullets. A direct attack would be useless without precision and planning. Bullets would slow it, and if I could then land a solid few slashes on the actual muscles I could cripple it. Monster or not, magical or not, it couldn’t move with severed muscles. If I could survive the initial rush, with all of us here, we could beat it.
“Kaede.” Baen whispered, then taut, exposed muscles uncoiled like a striking serpent, and the monstrosity exploded into motion.
Baen was moving, Laissa was moving. I alone remained frozen as the thing came at us, a nightmare trailing black hair and ashen wisps, glowing with malignant light. Everything was moving impossibly fast and unbelievably slowly at the same time. I had what felt like hours to consider my options, to study the creature. I knew I had enough time to pull the trigger, to adjust my aim and fire for all the good it would do. But I knew it wouldn’t matter.
It hurtled past Laissa, past Baen, and its gaze seemed to linger on me for another heartbeat before the wind of its passing caught my hair in its wake and sent me staggering back a step.
With a hiss, the monster leapt onto the upper deck behind us, and through its eyes I could see the terrified faces of Levaunt’s men as it fell upon them, shrugging off hastily fired bullets, passing in and out of my range as it tore into them.
My companions whirled, only now realising what was happening. Baen’s bow was nocked and drawn, and she scanned the smoke for any sign of the beast, Laissa was staring back and forth between the minions and the smokey darkness where the monster had vanished.
“They’re all ignoring us.” The charr said. The misshapen shamblers did indeed seemed even more disinterested in us than the monster, and as we tightened our formation they moved passed us, like some foul smelling tide around an island. “What’s going on?”
“Doesn’t matter, just ignore them right back.” Baen said, though she didn’t lower her bow. “Don’t think too much, remember? We don’t have the time.”
I barely heard her. My single step back had put me in range of the pirate line, somewhere above us on the upper deck. There was too much to see, when the monster tore into Levaunt’s men whatever semblance of discipline they had shown shattered like glass. They scattered, and I was being bombarded with brief, flashing images of carnage. A sailor, his screaming audible as I watched the creature’s jaws snap shut on his face, leaving him darkness. One stared, trying frantically, uselessly, to shove the coils of his entrails back into his torn gut. Another, clearly wounded, fired uselessly into the monster’s flank as his companion dragged him away in a useless attempt to save him. There was too much blood, too many eyes going dark all at once. The carnage was brutally quick, no sooner had one pirate fallen than another was torn apart.
“Baen…” I stumbled, trying to block the images out, but as my partner dragged me along I came closer and closer to the carnage and more and more eyes came into my range. More visions of slaughter flooded my mind, now worse as the shamblers overtook us with sudden vigour, wading into the fray with jagged claws. “There’re too many.” I hissed. A charr stared in disbelief as his chest was impaled by the monsters tail. A sailor’s eyes went dark, his last sight the vision of the charr being ripped in half like dry kindling. “I can’t…”
Something erupted from beneath the deck, a pillar of red and yellow, tinged with black smoke that exploded from the hold of the crippled ship and sent Baen’s reply spinning into the night with me.