“This is going to be uncomfortable, Captain.”
“I know, Harrow. But here we are.”
Wainwright unfolded from the corner and paced across the bridge.
“Think of the profit, though,” he said, “not just the payoff for the quitters.”
Knell tried not to look at this teeth.
“Less the profit, Wainwright. You get to unsheathe the claws for this one,” she said. “I think you knew that, too.”
Wainwright shrugged. “I’ve overheard you talking about it. Happy coincidence,” he said, and grinned wider. “Or unhappy.”
“Sharp ears, to hear me chatting to Noster about it so…” Knell trailed off, frowned. “Sharp ears.”
“I miss ‘er too, Captain,” said Harrow. “I do hate it when people go and catch religion.”
“I don’t,” Wainwright, “Miss her, that is. Too pleased with herself.”
“You don’t usually talk this much, Wainwright,” Knell said, drumming her fingers on the arm of her chair.
He shrugged again. “I’m in a good mood. If you ever had burning questions to ask, now is the time,” he said, pacing from wall to wall.
“You didn’t seem impressed with… Stumpy,” Knell said, “so I suppose you’ve seen plenty of Crantiré before. What is the Wood like?”
Wainwright paused. Stared into space.
“Violent,” he said. A moment of pacing later, he added; “Stumpy isn’t Crantiré.”
“What?” said Knell, sitting up, craning her neck to look at him.
“Crantiré are called… tk,” he stopped, making a clicking noise. “The Gods of Oak and Ash, in our tongue. Stumpy doesn’t look like a god.”
Harrow sniggered. “What do gods look like, then?”
“They don’t,” Wainwright replied, blunt. “Look like anything. You shouldn’t ever see gods. The Crantiré never needed us to see them.”
Knell frowned. “There’s a lot of that going on.”
Wainwright cocked his head, eerie yellow eyes fixed on Knell, but he said nothing. Knell shivered and looked forward into the bleak noon sky, the curtains of rain.
“Your info is good?” Knell said, not looking away. No sign of anything out in the gray.
Wainwright continued to pace. “Yes. Took it from the courier myself.”
“You took it? Did you kill him?” said Knell.
“No,” Wainwright laughed, “No, no. Stealing from the Olimak Herald is dangerous enough, trying to kill him would be suicide.”
Knell winced, her brow furrowed, and winced again. Oh lovely, a headache is exactly what I needed now.
“He won’t follow?” she said, with a note of irritation.
“I will be most surprised.”
“What even possessed you to steal it?”
Wainwright’s expression was blank. “It was shiny,” he said, flatly.
Harrow cackled as her hands flew across the console.
“Ten minutes, Captain,” she said, “Signal’s faint, but I’ve got a proper bearing now.”
“Time to dance this dance again, then. Get to the boarding atrium, Wainwright,” Knell said.
“You’re not coming, Captain?” Wainwright said, with an air of mockery.
Knell’s trigger finger twitched. “I will. Things to do.”
When Wainwright had left, she told the pilot to keep her posted, and went to find Cerro.
He was huddled in her office chair, legs tucked himself, reading.
His eyes flicked up to as she entered, but his head didn’t move. He said nothing.
“We’re going to battle, Cerro,” she said, standing across the table from him, the dark expanse of polished wood between them.
“Hmm,” he said.
“You need to stay here, where it’s safe,” she said.
“Where else would I go?” he said.
Knell’s dark fingers tapped the handle of her gun.
“I just want you to be safe.”
“Safe. I know,” he said, without emotion.
Knell’s frustration was wordless, practically a growl.
“Why does this have to be so fucking difficult?” she said.
Cerro finally looked at her. Gaze meeting Knell’s. Silent. His face like carved wood; lined and lifeless.
The seconds yawned into a gulf, and she felt tears pricking the corners of her eyes.
“Because you would ask that question, I think,” he said, quietly.
“I brought you onto my ship, I’ve protected you-”
“I don’t believe I’ve been ungrateful. I don’t believe I’ve made this hard.”
“Oh, so it’s my fault, so conveniently.”
“There is nothing convenient about it.”
The ship rocked gently in the silence.
Knell stared at him like seeing him for the first time, eyes tracing his brow and his cheeks and shoulders. Avoiding his eyes.
She stalked from the room without a word and went to prepare with her crew.
Knell swaggered into the lower starboard boarding atrium; one of the four that held crew ready to leap onto the target deck. A capsule of a room with space for a dozen people, lined with handrails, the floor fitted with reels of strong cord and magnetic clamps. Only Knell, Wainwright, and Blades were present.
“Decided to join us after all, exalted?” Knell said, the honorific dripping with sarcasm.
“You would undo slavers. This is fine time to practice my art; in this I am like you, Captain,” she replied.
“I’ve killed, but I tend not to think of myself as a killer. Or treat it like an art,” Knell replied, hand on hip.
“You misunderstand,” the monk said with enigmatic smile, but did not elaborate.
Wainwright, meanwhile, carefully hung his clothes on a set of hooks in the back of the atrium. Knell was used to the sight, the wiry muscles shifting beneath his fur, tip of his stubby tail hairless with scar tissue.
Knell stood back, gestured for Blades to do the same, as the Elemental took his place in front of the doors.
“How much have you been told, then? You weren’t there for the briefing,” Knell said to Blades, clicking her tongue. “Poor form, that.”
“Our foes are slavers. This is enough,” she replied.
Wainwright grew a foot taller, with a sickly crack. His eyes shut tight and fur on end.
“Yes. A Spire cartel ship with minimal escort, planning to sell political dissidents into slavery. Which means either knights or stormguard, depending on the Spire, and possible even a Magus,” Knell continued.
“Immaterial. They live, they die.”
Wainwright’s claws extended another five inches, his teeth turning into saber-like fangs. The stripes of his fur stood out in gold and black, a far cry from his typical red and brown.
If Blades could see, she’d be staring, Knell thought. Her head was inclined towards the now hulking Wainwright.
“Is the blindfold magical?” she wondered aloud.
“No,” the monk replied.
“Hiding some spooky curse or blessing?”
“A secret monk technique to overcome blindness?”
Blades turned to face Knell, brows quirked above the blindfold.
“My initiation was a journey, and I did not need eyes to see where I was going.”
Knell elected to leave it at that, the uneasy silence broken only by Wainwright’s popping, cracking bones and finally, the chime of the intercom.
“Five minutes. Target in sight,” Harrow said. “Two ships in escort, one Spire barge. Orders, Captain?”
Knell hit the button.
“Listen up, crew. Wainwright goes in first, then the top-star boarders. I’ll follow, then Harrow’ll wheel us around for the port boarders. Gunners, hit weapons or engines, whichever is easier.”
She paused. “Try not to junk ‘em too hard, we might get a chance to salvage.”
The minutes passed in silence, then with the rumble of the guns. The ship shuddered with impact. Blades didn’t move as a dent burst inward from the door.
Wainwright growled, tensing a second before the klaxon blared, and Knell pulled a lever to open the doors.
The wind whipped by them, carrying torn streamers of mist. Wainwright leapt from the atrium onto the upper hull of the barge, an expanse of gunmetal and dark blue plates, and was promptly lost to sight as the ship carried on, Knell slamming the hatch again.
The hull rang with gunfire, and Knell stared at the monk for lack of anything better to do. The gun-blade swung gently against the small of her back, her pistols a comforting weight on her hips. She pulled the goggles from her head over her eyes.
On the second pass, Wainwright had torn through a maintenance hatch and was out of sight. Blades dropped through after him as Knell was checking her safety line, and followed. She hit the inner deck, past the sparking and glowing tangle of cables, in a roll. Springing to her feet as she released the line and attached the magnet to the wall. More crew followed, swinging down the lines, fixing them to walls and hull. Blades was out of sight, but Knell was backed up by five of her trusted mates. And Fisk, but Knell was warming to the girl and appreciated how comfortably she held her boarding knife.
Likewise, she preferred to keep potential enemies close.
The corridor of the ship was wider than standard, for ease of moving cargo. Eyeing the markings on the wall, resembling jagged sparks of lightning, Knell supposed it might also be part of the ship’s arcane systems (given that on some ships, red stripes really do make them faster). Convenient for her purposes.
“Rikker,” she said, “take this lot and hold the bridge. Daffyd should have the engines. Fisk, with me.”
“Where to, Captain?” she asked, her voice just barely cracking.
Knell gestured to a smear of blood trailing from the torn hatch to a ladder in an alcove.
Knell was vaguely grateful as she stepped off the ladder into the lower decks, her shadowy hand fading to let the blood slick onto the floor and the other protected by a good leather glove. She stepped left and around a corner, away from Wainwright’s victim, standing in wait for Fisk. This gangway seemed to run the length of the vessel, right near the belly. Gunfire, screams, and the clashing of blades echoed throughout the ship, rising toward a crescendo that would be nightmarishly brief. A body was clinging, broken, to the wheel on a secure door at the far end. Knell fancied that was important, and with Fisk grimly wiping her hands on her breeches, Knell walked ahead.
The room looked to be right beneath the bridge, and Knell pegged it as captain’s quarters. She kicked the corpse off the wheel-lock and gave it a spin.
The room beyond, all austere deckplates and extravagant desk, was as she expected. The teenage boy behind the desk and his armoured bodyguard were not.
The bot was no threat; Knell trained her guns on his protector – a knight in heavy plate decorated with scales, the helm shaped to resemble a dragon’s head, fully enclosed. A sapphire glowed in the cente of the breastplate, and a spear audibly hummed in their hand. Knell dropped her guns and drew the blade as the knight took a step forward, weapon raised.
“Ah ah ah,” Knell chided them, “I bet you’ve got a field to keep bullets off, but this shoots spells.” She nodded at the glowing gem. “But I’ll bet the kid’s ransom that armour doesn’t stop spells.”
“Ransom,” the knight said, dully, rolling the ‘r’ in an accent typical of Spire nobility. “That at least simplifies matters.”
“You would think so. Where’s the cargo?” Knell said.
“Rescuing a compatriot? That can be arranged if you let my charge go.”
“Never really was the sort for politics. Just doing a good deed.”
The knight inclined their head, “this is a poor time for jokes.”
“I’m sure you feel that way about most good deeds, but I’m holding the gun. Drop your spear and let’s get this over with.”
The knight remained still, then the spear hissed from their hand, the point growing in Knell’s vision with terrible certainty. She didn’t think; her own blade turning a certain death into a scar along her shoulder even as she pulled the trigger. The screaming pulse from her weapon cracked the knight’s gem and sent them tumbling to the floor. Dust puffed from the gaps in the armour.
Panting, staring, Knell made a mental note to save the Necromantic shells for emergencies. She only registered the boy taking a pistol from the desk when Fisk barrelled past her tense and paralyzed form to seize his wrist.
The breath hissed out of her, and Knell relaxed, limp armed.