I had a short eternity, it seemed, to consider how I had come to be here. Covered in the blood of friend and foe alike, I was now surrounded by pirates – living, dead, and wounded in what passed for a manor house. A beautiful woman, my friend, bloodied and broken, lay a dozen paces from me with a norn crouched over her. He had his breeches undone and his intentions were as clear as they were unforgivable. All of this because I had been approached by a Lightbringer when I’d been just a slip of a girl.
It’d been the Order that had sent me to this cursed city, had given me the supposedly simple assignment – masquerade as a would-be smuggler, find out who The Misericorde was. Weeks later I had fought pirates, Lionguard, the mangled remains of walking corpses and the monster that seemed to lead them, and through it all I had found a strange sense of camaraderie – and perhaps the possibility of more than that – with the miscreants I was lying to.
And now my lie was being eclipsed by the revelation uncoiling itself before me.
Ingesbror was snorting at some joke one of his subordinates had made, still oblivious as to what was happening with his supposed victim when Tatianna moved. Her vision was tinted green now, the flickering candles gone from yellow to emerald in her eyes, and the glint in Ingesbror’s laughing eyes matching them as both her hands came up and slammed, palm first, into his breast.
I doubted there was an ounce of fat on the norn, and at nine feet tall and almost literally rippling with muscle, I didn’t even dare to guess as to how much he weighed. And yet, given the force he was trying to violate, I was barely surprised when he went hurtling back through the air as if he’d been struck by a battering ram.
He sailed over the heads of his crew and crashed into the wall before tumbling down to land heavily in a heap, wheezing into darkness as his crew fell into sudden, shocked silence.
Then there was a cracking sound, like the warping of branches in winter, and through a dozen eyes I saw Tatianna Aurcattio began to change.
Her arms went first, the skin peeling back to reveal the red muscle beneath and blood spurting from her hands as bones twisted and expanded to form razor-edged talons. The muscle blackened as she rolled onto her stomach, mouth open in a silent scream as her back burst open, her already shredded coat tearing away as her spine erupted from the pale skin, bone-white fading to black the moment it came into contact with the air. Her ribs expanded, her shoulder blades splitting her skin to jut out from her back, her hair exploding outwards into a mass of perpetually dancing strands, floating behind her like a cape. A soft, green light began to shine from her flesh, from her exposed bones, and her soundlessly screaming head turned to look at me. I saw the flesh slough from her face and her skull writhe into the skeletal, almost feline, visage of the monster we’d been hunting all this time.
Someone – and I belatedly realised it was a half-dazed Ingesbror – pulled a trigger, and the room erupted into madness as a dozen pistols went off at once. I found myself diving for cover without remembering having any intention to do so, instincts taking over while the more contemplative part of my brain tried to process what I had just witnessed.
The monster shrieked, but I already knew the guns weren’t going to be enough to stop it.
Her, I corrected myself. Wouldn’t be enough to stop her.
Her hind legs twitched, and she was in the midst of the pirates, landing with the odd silence of a pouncing cat, and the killing began. Bodies were cut in half with contemptuous ease, ribs shattered and skulls split open. She ignored blows from swords, thrusts from knives and even a hacking great axe that landed a cleaving a blow on her skull seemed to slow her for less than a second before she disembowelled the norn that had struck her.
The top half of a corpse sailed through the air, landing beside me as I tucked myself beside one of the overturned tables, and I saw Syman struggling to drag Laissa towards me. Numbly, I realised I should help him, and crawled on all fours to reach him. He didn’t speak, I didn’t bother to pretend I was looking at him as I helped him pull the wounded charr into cover.
“The captain… I… what are we going to do?” Syman managed when we’d reached relative safety, but I didn’t answer. I had nothing to say. Tatianna was the same creature we’d been hunting. How was that possible? Had she been working for The Misericorde all this time? How? Why hadn’t I known?
My mind went back to the moment in my room; her words to me, the feeling of her body close enough that I could feel its warmth, the tickle of her breath on my lips. It had only been an hour or so ago, I realised in numb amazement.
An hour ago I had thought of kissing her, of having her. Five minutes ago I had thought she was dead. Two minutes ago I had thought she was going to be raped while I stood by helplessly. And now?
Now she was the monster I’d been planning on killing. Now she was exactly what I’d hoped she would never become, what I’d dared to hope against all reason she could never become. In spite of my mission, in spite of all my lies and the purpose of my presence in the city, I had begun to dream that maybe, just maybe, Tatianna Aurcattio wouldn’t become my enemy.
Splinters erupting from the table as stray bullet burst through it less than a hand’s breadth from my shoulder shook me out of my daze. Syman had his hands on either side of his head, screaming, but Fotti was looking through her scope again, firing almost wildly into the dwindling crowd of pirates. Laissa was holding a shredded scrap of cloth against her wound, swearing as she risked occasional glances at the rapidly ending fray.
Not that it was much of a fight. Tatianna seemed practically impervious to damage, and nothing the pirates threw at her seemed to buy them anything more than a second more of life. Every blow was shrugged off and returned with lethal intensity and blistering speed. More and more of them were turning and fleeing the manor, and within a few moments the blood-soaked monster stood, hissing, amongst nearly two dozen mangled corpses.
Slowly, I rose to my feet, pulling Syman roughly up with me to use his eyes. The skull-like face swung around to look me. Her tail flicked in the air behind her, metre long strands of black hair waving in the air behind her as though suspended in an ethereal zephyr and bloody claws digging furrows in the gore-soaked floor as we stared in silence.
“Should’a known.” Ingesbror said, his voice a low, pained wheeze, and Tatianna turned to look at him as he pushed himself into a sitting position against the wall. “Stupid.” There was resignation in his tone – he understood now that there was no escape for him, no way of surviving this. “The Mis’ll have us all, just like Levaunt was ‘fraid of.” Tatianna turned her massive body towards him, stalking closer, jaws parting to emit a low, hungry hiss. “Go ahead, bitch.” He goaded her. “Ain’t nothin’ left fer me anyway. Crew’s dead or run, the other capt’ns’ll be ‘ere soon. Go on, send me t’Mists, ye spirit-cursed monster.” She leaned closer, barely an inch from his face now, blood dripping from her skeletal maw. “Go on, do it. Do it! Do it! Do-”
With a shriek, Tatianna distended her jaws and closed them around his face. She seemed to inhale, and suddenly Ingesbror began to scream, the sound muffled against her maw as he writhed, impotently powerful hands struggling to free himself, pounding vainly at his killer’s jaws. I watched in horror through Syman’s eyes as the norn began to shrivel up, the skin going tight against his bones and his muscled body going grey and desiccated. Dully, I realised this was what Tatianna must have done to Fiegrsson, remembering the almost-mummified corpse Baen and I had found. It was an inhuman sight, and I had to remind myself that Ingesbror deserved no better.
Abruptly, Tatianna snapped her jaws shut and crushed the norn’s heavy skull like it was egg. Dust, bone, and grey, unnameable flesh sagged limply from his neck. His body spasmed, twitched a few times, then fell still. Letting the ruin that had been his head drop from her mouth, Tatianna turned to look at me again and I looked back, pointlessly, as she took a step towards me.
“Monster!” New eyes came into my range as Coalpaw burst through the shattered doors, axe in one hand, sword in the other, and began raining blow after blow down on his transformed captain, roaring in unbridled, unfathomable fury.