“Coalpaw!” I shouted, shocked into action. “Wait! It’s-” Then Baen was there, advancing as her arrow glanced off of Tatianna’s skull.
“Dammit.” My partner cursed, tossing the bow aside and scooping a dead pirate’s heavy, two-handed sword off the ground and launching herself forward.
Tatianna, it seemed, was taken by complete surprise. She stumbled back, claws scraping as the two pressed their attack. Baen and Coalpaw moved with surprising synchronicity. The charr would hammer blows down on the monster’s head and shoulders while Baen brought her pilfered weapon around in great sweeping blows at Tatianna’s legs and back.
The blows didn’t seem to be doing any real damage, but they were taking the transformed captain off balance, and when a heavy swing from Baen caught her in the back of her left foreleg just as Coalpaw struck the side of her skull with his axe, she staggered. Baen’s follow up – a great over-arching slice that clanged against bone – sent Tatianna down onto the floorboards.
Roaring with victory, Coalpaw began hacking at her back with his axe, the blade thudding into the gleaming green-black bone with the sound of wood being chopped.
“Dammit Coalpaw, Baen, stop!” I was moving now. “Stop it! Now!”
There was a wet sound, and Tatianna shrieked, black ichor erupted from her back. Then she was up, hurling Coalpaw away like a toy and leaping back, out of Baen’s reach, coiled like a serpent at the far end of the room.
“Dammit!” I shouted, planting myself between them. Coalpaw rolled to his feet, drawing a pistol and pulling the hammer back. “Stop!”
“Kae, what are you doing?” Baen shouted back.“Get out of the way!”
“Move!” Coalpaw bellowed, his voice coming out as nothing short of a roar. “Move, Kaede, or I will go through you.”
“No!” I shouted, roaring back. “Everyone. Stop. Now!” Tatianna hissed, claws scraping on the floor as she advanced on me. My hand shot up, pointing a gloved finger at her while I still stood facing the others.“I said, now!” She stopped mid-step, claw drifting above carpet for a moment for settling quietly. She stood, tail swishing behind her just a few paces from me.
Everyone froze at that, stunned at my apparent ability to control the monster, and I let the moment sink in. Best to take every opportunity hold their attention.
“Explain.” Baen said, sword still held ready in a two-handed grip and Grapple growling at me from her side.
“Yes.” Coalpaw hissed through clenched fangs, his pistol aimed just a hair’s breadth past me to the softly glowing Tatianna. If he fired now, he was just as likely to hit me as her.
“Put it down!” I said.
“Explain, now!” He snarled back. “That monster killed my crew, destroyed my home and-”
“Tatianna!” I cut him off, and there was a moment of confused silence.
“What?” The charr asked, cocking his head.
“It’s-” Tatianna moved before I could finish, knocking me flat and pinning me to the ground. She snarled at me, Coalpaw freezing in place as a claw as long as my forearm, sharp as a razor and still wet with pirate blood, came to rest against my throat.
“Get off of her!” Baen shouted, raising her sword but keeping her distance. “Kae, don’t move. We’re going to get you out, okay?” Tatianna gave a low, warning growl. “Just stay calm, Kae, it’s going to be alright.”
“She’s not going to hurt me.” I said, trying to keep my voice calm. “Are you?” The impact of hitting the ground had hurt, but I knew that if Tatianna had wanted to do damage she could have. Effortlessly. The head swung down to look me, green-tinted vision studying my face. Fluid, thick and black, more like tar than blood, leaked over her glowing bones and black muscle, flowing down her forelimb and staining my neck, shoulders and chest in black. An acrid substance, it itched as it trickled along my skin.
“It’s over.” I said, surprised at how gentle my own tone was. “I’m sorry, but it’s over.” Her claw moved away from my throat and settled on the blood-soaked carpet beside my head, then her eyes moved up to Coalpaw and Baen, swinging around to look at the other surviving members of crew. “It’s-” She cut me off with another snarl.
“It’s the captain.” Laissa said, cutting in. Her tone was dull, as if she were still in shock. “The beast. The monster. It’s the captain.”
“What?” Baen said. “What’s that supposed to…” She trailed off then, dark eyes going wide as realisation dawned.
“What’s the captain?” Coalpaw demanded, clearly not reaching the same conclusion.
“This is the captain.” I said. “Tatianna!” She hissed, tail whipping in the air behind her. “Dammit, it’s over!” She stepped back then, moving off of me and letting me climb to my feet, soaked in ichor. “This is Tatianna.”
Coalpaw, the rage on his face shifting to confusion as he slowly lowered the gun. “Captain?”
Tatianna gave a low growl, then a shudder ran through her massive body. She crouched low, jaws scraping the floor and curled in on herself like a dying spider. Limbs closed around her torso, tail wrapping around her body and the dark strands of hair draping her like a shroud.
The glow of her bones flared once, went dark, and then it was as though her body collapsed in on itself in a sudden rush. It was as though there was a whirlpool somewhere inside her chest, sucking the monstrous flesh and black bones inwards. Limbs bent at unnatural angles, ichor and blood mingling as they erupted from tearing muscle. A scream – Tatianna’s scream – emerged from the sudden maelstrom of wet snapping and splintering sounds, and then she lay there, naked and gasping as the last of the monstrosity collapsed into dust and only the woman remained.
There was silence as Tatianna reached out with a bare arm, grabbing the tattered remains of a pirate’s coat and pulling it over her like a blanket as she turned to face us. The bloodied garment covered her to her chin, and it was suddenly difficult to place the impression she was giving me – that of a hurt and terrified child or of a feral, cornered animal.
“Captain?” Coalpaw asked again, incredulous as he stared.
“It’s me, Darrus.” Tatianna said. Her voice was taut, pained, and some corner of my mind that still clung to the rational wondered if injuries carried over between her two states. “It’s me.”
“I… I don’t understand…”
“She’s the necromancer.” Baen interjected, her tone hard. “Aren’t you?” Her eyes focused on Tatianna’s face with the intensity of a hawk’s. The pale woman refused to make eye contact, instead staring down at the bloody carpet to her left. “Aren’t you?” Baen snapped, and Tatianna flinched, then nodded without looking up.
“I… I am.”
“Right here.” Baen shook her head, starting to pace back and forth. “Right under our noses.” The sword was still held, low and ready, no strain showing in her powerful arm to suggest that its heft bothered her. “Not some elite minion, but the general herself.” She looked at me, pointedly. “I’d heard some necromancers could transform, but I never thought it’d be so dramatic.”
“I don’t care about how she did it.” Coalpaw growled, stepping past me to loom over his captain. “I want to know why.” Tatianna kept her eyes firmly glued to the floor. “Why did you do this? Why did you do this to… to us?”
“I…” Tatianna began, faltering. “I had to. It was the only way to keep you and the crew safe.”
“Safe!?” Coalpaw snarled. “Safe!? How has anything you have done made us safe? You killed your own crew, you grounded your own ship! You left us stranded! Homeless! Tell me, captain, exactly what you kept us safe from?”
“The Misericorde.” I said, the explanation piecing itself together in my head. Coalpaw turned to look at me, and Baen gave me a hard look. “That it, isn’t it?” I went on, ignoring them both. “How long have you been under his thumb, Tatianna?”
“The Mis?” Coalpaw arched an eyebrow, but his expression softened somewhat.
“Think about it – it makes sense, doesn’t it?” I went on. “The Misericorde sees a potential threat in Levaunt, so he finds a way to control one of his up and comers. Even more reason if Levaunt, as you said, lusted after her.” Coalpaw’s head swung around, back to Tatianna.
“Is that true?” He asked. “Did that bastard make you do this?”
“It makes sense.” I repeated. “She-”
“Stop, Kaede… Darrus…” Tatianna interrupted me, her voice weary. “Please, just… stop.” She looked up at me, then to Coalpaw.
“I wanted to tell you, Darrus.” She said. “From the very beginning… I wanted to tell you, I wanted you at my side.”
“At your side for what?”
“We were never going to be safe.” She went on, as her eyes going back to the ground at her feet. “I knew that even if we escaped Levaunt, even if we managed to free ourselves from that bastard there’d be another one waiting for us in every port. No such thing as a safe harbour, not for us. We’re too few, too weak.” Again, I felt that coil of ice start to form in my gut. “I had to make some place safe for us.” She shook her head. Her forced accent was slipping on and off, and she was clinging to it as best she could. Her composure, I imagine, was being given the same treatement. “No ship, even a ship like The Covenant, is a real home. Homes are safe, and she wasn’t.”
“Is that why you crippled it?” Baen, this time, stepping forward to stand beside Coalpaw. Her expression was as cold and hard as her voice. “Force your own crew onto the shore? Why? To control them? I thought they were supposed to be your family.”
“I had t’make some place safe! Don’t you understand?” Tatianna snapped, angry now. “I had to… I had give us a real home, a port that we could run t’lick our wounds ‘n rest’r feet. Some place where no-one could hurt us.” She lifted her head, vision blurry with tears as she looked at her first mate. “I wanted you at my side in that home, but I had t’fight a war to make that home a home, and I couldn’t… I didn’t want you t’ see me fight it.” She let out a long breath, eyes falling shut as thin stream of tears began to cut tracks down her ichor-stained face. “I didn’t want you to see what home would cost.” She lowered her head again. “This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen, but Levaunt had almost figured it out. The questions he asked me…” Her hair danced around her face as she shook her head. “I had no choice. I had t’protect what I was buildin’.”
“You…” Coalpaw breathed, and the frozen snake in my gut shattered jagged into pieces as the obvious struck me. “You’re the Misericorde.”
I should have seen it. The simple fact of it, rational or otherwise, struck me like a hammer against an anvil.
“Darrus, I’m sorry.” Tatianna looked up, openly weeping now. “I wanted t’ tell you, every day, but no-one could know. Anyone who knew was at risk, and I couldn’t risk you.”
“Is that why you killed half of us?” He shouted at her, his shock vanishing in a wave of fresh rage that was almost palpable. “Yanna? Wixx? Braen? All of the others? They were our family! We were supposed to protect them!”
“They’d have split the crew!” Tatianna yelled back, looking up at him. “Yanna was a rabble rouser, she’d have been a problem, Wixx too! All of them would have threatened the safety of the others and I couldn’t allow that!”
“So you killed them!?”
“I needed to save as many of you as I could, few over the many!” Coalpaw stared at her. “Keep you safe, build you a home, don’t you see that?”
“I see a captain that turned on the crew she was supposed to protect.” He said, hand tightening on his weapons. “I could forgive anything but that, Tatianna.” The charr went on, looking down on her. “You’re smarter than me, apparently you’re stronger, but you don’t believe in loyalty and that was the one thing I thought set us apart from the rest of the scum we deal with.”
“Shut up.” His voice was quiet, but his tone had an almost tangible force to it, and Tatianna flinched. “You betrayed us, betrayed everything we promised one another, and that’s why this is over.”
“Over?” Tatianna stared, eyes wide, her knuckles going white as she clutched the tattered coat to her like a blanket. Even knowing what I knew, even knowing she was responsible for the madness and the danger, even knowing she was the objective of the mission, there was a part of me that wanted to cross the distance and heal the obvious, wretched agony in her face.
“We’re done. Whatever bond tied me to you is over.” He said, his tone calm but broking no argument. Hard and cold as a glacier. “If I ever see your face again, Tatianna Aurcattio, I will put a bullet in it.” Her mouth opened, as if she were about to speak, but he turned away and looked at Baen and I. “I’m leaving.” He said simply. “Do whatever you want with her.”
“Darrus, we can help.” Baen said, putting a hand on his forearm. “We can help.”
“I won’t be abandoned.” Tatianna’s vision shifted to green, but I had no time to react.
Baen was looking up at the charr as Coalpaw was shaking his head, the other crew members were still stunned by what they had just learned. I was the only one who knew and I could do nothing about it. Too far. Too slow.
Darrus Coalpaw turned just in time to see his former captain surge to her feet, still clutching the coat to cover her nakedness while her free hand drove itself through his ribs and into his chest with a wet cracking sound.
“Not by you.” Tatianna’s whisper came out as a hiss, her eyes blazing with a fell, green light as blood ran down her arm. “Never by you.”