Captain’s report: While docked at the main port of the Tares, a remote, Pantheon trading partner, we have the opportunity to provide shore leave to the crew. It has proven to be a welcome respite from the weeks at sea and the uncertain reception from cultures outside of the Pantheon. With a stocked ship and a refreshed crew, I’m eager to continue our voyages.
Sinclair Foran, the Phoenix’s healer, placed the doll he had chosen on the front counter of the toy store. The slight-framed red-head placed a silver denarius next to it and the clerk counted out his change in bronze assarii.
“I’m sure this will be a hit with your daughter,” the grey-furred shop owner said, dropping the silver coin in her till. Large ears stuck up from her head and her slit eyes blinked slowly. “Enjoy these years. They were sad days when my daughters lost interest in dolls and sadder days when my granddaughters moved on to other interests,” she said.
“Yes, well, it’s always important to have a gift for her when we return to our home port,” the healer lied. “It makes me feel less guilty about being away, too. Any recommendations for the best restaurants in the neighborhood? Maybe somewhere the locals like, not something for visitors?”
After listening to the various offerings within a ten-minute walk, the healer departed from the store. Behind him, the proprietress noticed a small creature inching out from behind one of the stands. About 1 foot tall and walking upright, it looked up at her lovingly. It made a cooing noise and cocked its head at her. Bringing half a sandwich out from underneath the counter and waving it at it, the woman gently coaxed the creature towards her.
“Come here girl, don’t you want a snack?” Putting the sandwich on a napkin on the overhang of the counter, she reached under the counter again.
The creature moved forward, fixated on the sandwich. Its large eyes watering, it licked its lips. A quiet gurgle could be heard from its tiny belly. As it approached within a few feet of the sandwich, a bolt from the grandmother’s small, hand-held crossbow went through the center of its body and pinned it to the floor. Clutching at its wound, the creature writhed on the bolt that was embedded in its body..
The shopkeeper picked up the sandwich, took a bite, then put it down again. Drawing a fresh bolt, she reloaded her crossbow as she chewed.
* * *
Calling from an alley, a figure who watched him come out of the toy store tried to get Sinclair Foran’s attention. “You’re shopping for a gift for a child, outlander?”
Waving him off, Sinclair looked at the restaurant signs trying to find the local eatery the toy shop owner had recommended.
“Guaranteed to be a hit!” The figure tried again, holding up a small, one-foot-high monkey-like creature. It was dressed in a tiny outfit made out of colorful rags and hugged the stranger’s forearm. Lovingly it looked towards the ship’s healer. “It’s called a sweetum. Three denarii for the best gift your child will ever receive. He’ll love you forever!”
* * *
Seated around the table, Charles Nickerson, Adam Hudson, Henry Cook, and two marines admired Foran’s new pet.
“He has some nasty claws and teeth on him,” Charles observed. His short, but muscular, frame was showing the effects of years of hard living and he’d begun to develop a gut. “Does the little bugger bite?”
“It seems to be as gentle as can be,” answered Foran. “It tucked itself inside my shirt on the way back and didn’t claw or bite at all.”
The creature gazed adoringly around the table. After Charles dangled a morsel of food then jerked it away, the creature begged piteously until Charles flicked the food into its mouth. As it snapped the food out of the air, a row of needle-sharp teeth could be seen in its mouth.
“I wouldn’t want to take a bite from it,” said Henry. His black hair had a slight curl to it and his face was smoothly shaved. “But you’re right, it does seem friendly enough.” He reached over and scratched the creature’s cheek. It rubbed its head against his hand.
“And you haggled the vendor down to two denarii?” asked Charles. “I’ll give you five for it. That’s an easy profit for you.”
“It’s a gift for my daughter back in Mytertown when we return to homeport,” Sinclair Foran lied. “Not for sale, unfortunately. Maybe you can find one for yourself the next time we’re in Tares.”
“It keeps putting away food,” said Hudson, the elementalist’s slight apprentice. “Look at the belly he’s growing and he still wants more.”
* * *
Third Captain Reeves called out orders as the marines drilled. The neatly-trimmed former pirate had an athletic build. Every thirty seconds he fired his gold-plated hand cannon into the air. He had promised the marines that drills would end when he dry fired it before it had automatically reloaded or took longer than 32 seconds between shots. Initially excited for short drills, the marines had gotten used to extended drills as Reeves’ timing improved. A silent metronome counted off the seconds behind the Third Captain’s back, operated by a deckhand.
Captain Baxtor strode onto the forecastle, heading towards the quarterdeck. Well-dressed and neatly presented, his brown, curly hair bounced around his shoulders and his full beard hid his mouth and chin. Firing a final shot into the air, Reeve dismissed the marines and hurried after the Captain.
Captain Reeves greeted Baxtor as he caught up to him.
“Third Captain,” replied Baxtor, nodding towards him.
“This would be an excellent time for us to practice your fencing,” the Third Captain suggested. “I’ve noticed a few rough edges that I think we could correct that would really improve your form.”
Stopping to give his subordinate his full attention, Captain Baxtor collected his thoughts and responded. “I appreciate your concern and understand that if I’m not capable of defending myself optimally, it places an imposition on you and your marines to dedicate extra attention to defending me, should the need arise.”
Reeves nodded his agreement to this.
“I have higher priority issues right now, but I can give you 20 minutes, before breakfast, every two days. Starting two days from now,” the Captain offered.
“I was hoping for quite a bit more time than that, at least until we have you in proper fighting form,” countered the Third Captain.
“I don’t need to be winning any tournaments,” decided the Captain. “We’ll start with my suggestion, I’ll apply myself wholeheartedly to the time we have, and we can revisit the training schedule in two weeks.” With the decision made, the men nodded to one another and left in separate directions.
* * *
Entering his cabin and closing the door behind him, Sinclair Foran’s daughter Norah rushed to embrace him, quietly exclaiming, “Daddy!” Embracing her back, the healer looked into her bright blue eyes. Rotting boils splayed across her left cheek and down her neck. Eyeing the ooze, her father asked, “Did you apply the new ointment we’re trying?”
“Yes, of course,” she quietly replied. “And I’ve been taking the pills on schedule.”
Their shared cabin had two bunks, each with a small chest and chamberpot, a small table, a couple of chairs, and a water basin. A number of books, some medical texts and adventure fiction, lay on the table. Sinclair Foran placed the plate of food he had brought on the table.
“Then you deserve two gifts, rather than one,” Foran pronounced, like a benevolent monarch bestowing largess. He took out the doll and handed it to Norah. With a quiet squeal, she examined the new toy, then placed it with the other two dolls on her bunk. Returning to her father she said, “I hope the second gift is a book. I’d love something new to read.”
“Sadly, not a book,” her father said. With a theatrical flourish, he reached under his shirt, dislodged the creature, and presented it to his daughter. After she squealed significantly louder than before, he cautioned, “Quietly sweetheart. No one can know you’re here.”
“He has such a fat little belly,” Norah observed, with a quiet giggle. Taking the creature to her bunk she began playing with it along with her three dolls.
* * *
In his cabin, the unearthly Radiance looked across at his lean apprentice, Adam Hudson. Hudson had finished enthusiastically describing Healer Foran’s new pet.
“Enough chatter, it’s time for you to demonstrate what you’ve learned.” Gesturing deliberately, Radiance summoned an air and an earth sprite. Energy began to crackle between the two.
Close by, with great effort, his apprentice summoned a fire sprite. His fire sprite created two farcasters, through which he could see an image of his master, Radiance.
“Fine,” acknowledged Radiance. “Now summon the air sprite and add sound to the connection.”
Panting, apprentice Husdon said, “I can summon a second earth sprite, but I haven’t been able to summon two different types at once.”
“A second earth sprite won’t do you any good now, will it?” responded his master sarcastically. “Strengthen your connection to the earth sprite, then set it to the side and summon the air sprite.”
“I’ve tried,” Hudson replied, sweating profusely. A whine entered his voice, “I lose the earth sprite every time I try.”
“If this is your limit, you’re useless to me,” ordered Radiance. “Summon an air sprite now or I’ll send you back to Mytertown and request an apprentice with some basic aptitude to learn!”
Through force of will, an air sprite came into existence and began an unsteady dance with the earth sprite around the farcaster. Hudson moaned quietly in pain.
“Finally,” said Radiance, the word echoing slightly as it came across the room and through the farcaster. The apprentice lost control and both sprites popped out of existence. “Go work on improving your stamina,” Radiance ordered, dismissing Hudson. “I want you to be able to maintain a farcaster for at least 10 seconds next time we meet.”
* * *
Staring in awe at the eight half-grown offspring and the creature he had given his daughter, Sinclair fed morsels of food, leftover from his daughter’s dinner, to the squalling babies. The adult creature seemed more interested in getting food for itself than taking care of her children.
“It’s incredible the speed they’ve been growing at. She must have been pregnant when I got her, but her belly has disappeared,” he said.
“Could all the food she ate have turned into the babies?” asked his daughter.
Smiling indulgently, her father responded, “Anything is possible, but that isn’t usually how it works. I’m going to take these babies and pass them out to some of the rest of the crew. We won’t get any sleep if we’re trying to take care of them all.”
Norah curled up in bed with the original creature. When her father returned from passing out the eight younger creatures, he noticed that the plates and utensils from dinner had been licked clean and that the creature sleeping next to his daughter had begun to develop another belly.
* * *
Sipping his tea, Captain Baxtor looked across the table at the remnants of their shared breakfast. “So, Healer Foran brought you one of the babies last night? That’s quite a generous gift from him!”
Henry Cook fed his foot-tall pet some leftover egg. It happily chomped on the treat. “Well, there were eight offspring, but I guess he saw how much I admired the pet he’s bringing back for his daughter in Mytertown.” Captain Baxtor eyebrows rose slightly at this.
“It looks like it’s getting a bit of a belly,” the Captain observed. “Are you overfeeding it?”
“I don’t really know. The healer said that his beastie grew a belly after he got it, then gave birth, but this one hasn’t been around any others since I got it, and it was half-grown then. Can’t see how it could be pregnant,” the engineer responded.
“Remember when we were on the Drake and that deckhand spent a month’s wages on that talking bird?” Henry asked with a grin.
Chuckling, the Captain smiled at the memory. “You would have been about seven years old at the time. I was the Drake’s boatswain. He took that bird up on deck for air and it flew off on him.”
“Come back, come back!” both men quoted to one another and broke into laughter.
* * *
William Nickerson gestured to the enclosure, usually used by the quartermaster for cock fighting, and announced to the assembled marines and deckhands, “Here we have a fight to the finish. On one side, you’ve all seen the adorable sweetums. On the other side, we have the ‘Raging Rooster’, champion of five battles. The sweetum has the size, but the cock has the hunger for victory. Place your bets gentlemen!”
The men assembled inspected the two creatures. The various healed wounds from previous fights gave the rooster a disreputable air. It angrily pecked at the cage whenever a member of the audience would get too close. In a display of bravery, the two marines who had been sitting with Nickerson the previous day scratched the sweetum’s head. When the creature reacted affectionately, a surge of sailors bet on the cock.
“You’re a sick bastard to put on a show of that thing getting ripped apart,” one of the marines said with a laugh as he bet on the rooster.
Finishing his collection and updating the board, Nickerson opened the enclosures and gave the cock and sweetum access to one another. As the rooster charged the creature, the sweetum pounced and, in a single chomp, bit off the rooster’s head. Blood spurted across the enclosure. A horrified murmur broke out among the crowd as they watched the cock’s carcass be messily devoured.
“Sadly that wasn’t much of a contest,” announced Nickerson, as he paid out the winners. “Tomorrow we’ll have a more balanced match with two hungry sweetums against one another. Don’t miss it!”
Looking at the rapidly disappearing carcass, one of the deckhands sadly said, “I guess we aren’t having chicken for dinner.”
* * *
Captain Baxtor knocked a set sequence on Second Captain Ward’s cabin door. Inside he heard a muffled answer, “Please come in, Captain.”
Entering the dark cabin, Joseph Baxtor saw that Frank Ward had risen from the table he had been sitting at in the dark. A ripe smell filled the cabin, emanating from the well-muscled, blonde man. Groggily, Frank invited him to have a seat as he located a lantern, lit it, and placed it on the table.
“You know I hate to bother you, Frank,” began the Captain, “But something seems to be going on with the ship. Healer Foran brought back some damned monkey creature from Tares.”
Frank Ward’s eyes had immediately sharpened as the Baxtor began his explanation. He nodded his understanding.
“The thing gave birth and the offspring were passed around the ship. That’s all fine and well, but I just passed a group of deckhands who each had a smaller version of the things hanging off of them. I asked them if they got them from Healer Foran and it turns out Henry’s pet has already given birth to its own litter.”
“Fast reproduction, short generations,” observed the Second Captain.
“Exactly,” the Captain agreed. “And the little buggers have an appetite on them. Their growth and reproduction seems to be tied to how much food they consume. I’d like you to make sure that everyone on the ship keeps the damned things in cages and stops feeding them so much that they’re multiplying. If a few of them starve to death, maybe we can figure out how much to feed them without getting overrun by them. I want them all off the ship at our next port.”
“Aye Captain,” acknowledged the Second Captain. “I guess Sinclair got his as a pet for Norah. She’ll be sad to lose it.”
“Maybe I should get her a more appropriate pet,” mused the Captain. “Did I ever tell you about the talking bird a deckhand had when I served on the Drake?”
“Yes, and it flew away from its owner,” responded Ward flatly.
Chuckling the Captain agreed, “It sure did. Very good, execute orders, Frank,” then departed.
* * *
Adam Hudson opened the bag and let William Nickerson look at the plump sweetum resting inside. Quartermaster Nickerson turned back to stir the soup he was cooking in the ship’s galley.
“So you’ve got a chubby sweetum there. What of it?” he asked.
“It isn’t my sweetum,” Hudson explained. “I have a variety of mystical equipment in my cabin. I found this burglar broke in and devoured everything edible! Radiance is going to kill me. I thought Second Captain Ward ordered them to be contained. Why is this one roaming loose and gobbling up my enlightenment fungi?”
“Can’t answer that,” replied the quartermaster. “My stable of ‘em are all secure. Did you know that they will fight one another if they get hungry enough? It’s easiest to get them fighting right after they’ve given birth. You can get a right vicious fight out of them if they’re hungry enough. The winners eat the losers, which is a little unsettling the first couple of times you see it.”
“Well, I’m taking this one to the Second Captain, then.” announced the apprentice. As he turned to leave, Nickerson requested, “If he wants you to dispose of it, I’ll take her.”
* * *
Tossing the writhing sack overboard, the marine returned his attention to Second Captain Ward. “I found all seven that were reported escaped, Second Captain, sir.”
Giving a tired sigh, Ward replied, “Hamilton, just Second Captain or sir will do. I don’t need both.” The Second Captain saw the fear in the marine’s eye. “Five of those creatures that were caught looked awfully small. Are they the escaped creatures or their offspring?”
“I couldn’t say, Second Captain,” Hamilton answered.
“Continue your search, men,” Ward ordered the assembled marines. “We haven’t caught them all yet.”
* * *
Radiance sat in his cabin, cross-legged, meditating in front of a farcaster. Through the farcaster eddies and currents showed the chaos of the realm of elemental fire. His eyes shone bright white, blind to the secular world, his pupils absent.
Stealthily, one of the creatures crept across his cabin, moving towards his mystical supplies. Silently, it approached the elementalist’s tiny, portable workshop.
Radiance cocked his head slightly and an earth sprite grew out of the cabin floor in front of the creature. In surprise, it looked down at the stake through its body, then slumped to the floor dead.
The elementalist resumed his meditation and returned his full attention to the farcaster he was communing with.
* * *
At daybreak the next day, William Nickerson broke onto the main deck and rushed over to the lethargic form of Frank Ward. Waving a bloody hand in front of the Second Captain, the quartermaster announced, “The critters have taken over the pantry in the galley! When I went to round them up, they all got aggressive and one of them clawed me!”
Examining the quartermaster’s bloodied hand, Ward observed, “They hadn’t attacked anyone until now.” Gesturing at a group of marines, he ordered, “You five are with me. Rapiers only, the Captain doesn’t need us chewing up his ship with hand cannons. Nickerson, wake up the Third Captain and update him on the current situation. Tell him we tossed seventeen of the creatures overboard last night, they’ve turned aggressive, and have seized the pantry. He should take a group of men and investigate the manger. Bradley, you do the same with the Captain. The rest of you, resume the patrols I put you on last night.”
* * *
Reaching to take his bathrobe off of a hook, Captain Baxtor rose from his bunk. Six creatures had been feasting on a bowl of fruit. Bits of rind and seeds were scattered around the group. As one, they looked at the Captain. Groggily he looked back at them, trying to make sense of the scene in front of him. All six hissed at him, raising their clawed hands aggressively.
With a shout, Captain Baxtor rushed across the room towards his rapier and hand cannon. All six creatures fled through his ajar cabin door, out into the corridor, past a surprised marine Bradley.
* * *
Norah woke and opened her eyes to her sweetum looming over her, claws extending and fangs bared. Behind it, seven other one-foot monstrosities approached her. Pausing briefly as her shrill scream echoed through the cabin, her pet slashed her cheek, leaving three bloody groves. The others rushed forward to join the leaders as the girl cringed as far back in her bunk as she was able to go, hopelessly attempting to escape.
A thunk distracted the vicious pack as Norah’s father embedded a bone saw deep into the head of one of the attackers. It keeled over, taking the stuck surgical instrument with it. The surviving creatures frantically glanced around, then scattered, fleeing the room.
Next to the bed, the makeshift cage that had previously held her pet was torn open from the inside.
* * *
Darkness greeted Frank Ward and his marines as they slipped into the galley. A continuous rustling noise came from the pantry, but the sun was not yet high enough in the sky to light the kitchen. Gesturing for the men to follow him in the faint light from the corridor, the Second Captain moved across the room, scanning the darkness as he went. At the rear, a marine held a lantern and provided dim light for the men to navigate the room.
Bursting into the pantry, rapier drawn, Ward saw creatures crawling over all the food supplies, gorging themselves. Some, with distended bellies, lay writing on the floor, spawning messily. The offspring, little more than fuzzy mouths, dragged themselves to the food stores, joining other young creatures working through the supplies like huge maggots.
Their attention snapping to the new arrivals, the adult creatures abandoned the food stores and rushed at the Second Captain. With a shout, he burnished his rapier and in rapid succession, stabbed three of the attacking creatures. Undeterred, the remainder poured onto the man, ripping chunks out of his flesh as they pulled themselves up his body. Other creatures rushed past him and flung themselves at the marines. The creatures giving birth ejected the last of their spawn, then joined the melee.
In the galley, the marines swiftly executed the first wave of attackers, expertly applying their rapiers as they had repeatedly been drilled. As they focused on dispatching the creatures’ vanguard, those behind it launched themselves onto the marines clawing and biting at the fighting men.
Throwing his rapier aside, Frank Ward drew two daggers. Surgically and methodically, he stabbed at the creatures, each thrust leaving a small body behind. Working his way from the creatures that had climbed onto him, he kept stabbing them, ignoring the wounds they were inflicting on him until he was finally free of them.
Moving back into the galley area, the marines were all on the floor, weapons lost, frantically trying to wrestle off the tide of claws and teeth that overwhelmed them. The lantern had been dropped and a fire was spreading from the pool of oil. Throwing his daggers at two of the nearest monsters, Ward called to them to switch to knives and fight at close quarters. In a flurry, he grabbed and threw kitchen knives from the galley, impaling creatures across the room and spreading knives among the men.
Blood puddled underneath him as the ragged strips that remained of his pants clung to the gaping wounds across his body.
* * *
Charging into the manger, Albert Reeves saw five messily eviscerated goats. Gore and entrails were spread across the floor. The cattle mooed, upset at what was happening nearby. Sweetums at every stage of life, from newborns to mothers giving birth rolled through the viscera, messily devouring the goats’ flesh and blood. Caught up in the indiscriminate feeding frenzy, many of the creatures were consuming their own offspring that happened to be too close to something they wanted to eat.
Seeing the creatures snap to attention and notice them, Reeves called for the group to halt. As the mature creatures charged them, he called for his marines to retreat to the doorway.
As the first group of creatures was impaled on their rapiers, Reeves shouted for them to fall back and let other marines take their place. He ordered the first line to extract their weapons from the carcasses.
Wave after wave of the vicious beasts attacked. Their numbers depleted, the remaining creatures hissed at the Marines, keeping their distance.
“Charge!” shouted Reeves, leading the men as they rushed into the manger. As the monsters broke and tried to flee, the marines fell on them, slaughtering those they could catch before the remainder scattered.
Approaching the pool of goat flesh, Reeves saw gnawed bones and juvenile creatures that had continued eating, ignoring the conflict. A three-inch baby, just beginning to develop stubby arms and legs looked up at him with large eyes, squeaking and waving its stubs at the Third Captain. Albert Reeves stomped his foot down, crushing it.
“Kill them all, men,” he ordered. “I don’t want a single one of these demons left alive.”
Adam Hudson came running through the door. Out of breath, he passed along the Captain’s order to bring any food or livestock above deck.
* * *
With shouts coming from the rest of the ship, Radiance walked to his door and exited his cabin. Three creatures were being pursued towards him by a small group of marines. With a flick of his wrist, earth sprite spikes formed and impaled the creatures. The marines slowed and examined the carcasses.
“Where is Captain Baxtor?” he demanded of the marines.
“Up on deck,” replied one of the men, as the others moved back to resume their patrol.
* * *
Finally rousing from a heavy sleep, Henry Cook lit a lantern and looked around his small cabin. His sweetum was in the sturdy cage he had constructed for her and was finishing giving birth to nine small offspring. Chief Engineer Cook put a large piece of bread into the cage, and the newborns started crawling towards it. After the mother charged over to take a bite, Henry lifted her out of the cage.
“There, there, Albatross,” he said, cradling her in his arms. “You can’t steal food out of your children’s mouth! Let’s get dressed and figure out what all this commotion is about.”
* * *
Quickly dressing, Healer Foran wrapped his daughter in a blanket.
“Keep quiet, darling,” he said as he opened the door to exit their cabin. Facing him, were a dozen of the creatures, sniffing and examining the hallway. Two of them were working together to open the door to Radiance’s cabin across the hall.
Hearing Sinclair open the door, all the creatures turned their attention to him. Slamming the door shut and locking it, he heard the creatures scratching on the other side, trying to get in.
* * *
Walking out onto the main deck, Radiance saw Captain Baxtor giving orders to the crew in various states of undress. As they received orders, the crew departed to execute their instructions.
Radiance walked to the chicken coop on the main deck and opened it. Inside was nothing but feathers, broken eggs, and chicken blood. He closed the coop and joined Captain Baxtor as the last of the crew around him departed on errands.
“No more eggs for the officers’ breakfast,” Radiance observed wryly.
“Clearly that’s the greatest tragedy tonight,” responded Baxtor dryly. “They’re obviously seeking out food, but why are they sometimes aggressive and other times not?”
“I believe it has to do with their numbers,” the elementalist answered. “When there’s one or a small group, they try to curry favor or run away. When they think they might be able to overcome, they’re threatening, and when they’re sure they can, they attack. Always they’re looking for food.”
“Hmm…” responded Baxtor. “I’ve given orders to bring any food or livestock up onto the deck.”
“Then I expect we’ll be getting visitors,” observed Radiance.
“Third Captain Reeves is with the livestock and they won’t be able to bring up the cattle. Tell him to take what he can and make his way above deck. Then start telling everyone to get up here and report to me anyone who’s trapped or injured,” said the captain.
Radiance began summoning a farcaster, through it Third Captain Reeves and the manger could be seen.
* * *
In the manger Reeves, Adam Hudson, and a group of marines and deckhands ringed around the cattle and other livestock protectively. All of them had wounds, some of which had been wrapped during the lulls between attacks.
Ferocious eyes glared at the defenders from the darkness. New members kept joining the attackers. Adam Hudson repeatedly summoned fire sprites that would flash in front of one of the creatures and temporarily drive it off.
“Brace yourselves. Once there are a few more of them, they’re going to attack again,” ordered Third Captain Reeves.
As if responding to his prediction, the creatures surged forward and attacked the marines from all sides. The prohibition against hand cannons long since abandoned, the men fired at the attackers, then dropped their hand cannons and focused on skewering the rabid, savage assailants.
The cows bellowed their displeasure at being in the middle of this melee and kept shifting to try to move away, occasionally knocking into a marine. Piles of carcasses, from animals that had been ripped apart and dead sweetums from the previous attacks, littered the floor, often causing the defenders to slip on the intestines and bodily fluids.
Executing the now well-practiced defense against their charge, another dozen creatures followed the dozen that had been killed by the hand cannon blasts moments before. Reeves kept calling a steady cadence, encouraging the marines to move through their forms and warning individual fighters. Johnson was slow to respond to one warning and caught a claw across his face, delivered from a creature that had climbed the wall and launched itself at him. Screaming, the marine’s left eye was gouged from its socket, along with deep ribbons of flesh from his face.
“On your feet, Johnson,” shouted Third Captain Reeves as the marine sank to one knee. Firing his gold hand cannon at one of the creatures attacking him, he moved over to try to assist his man.
“Behind you, Reeves,” shouted Hudon in warning, too late as a monster hamstrung the Third Captain after getting access to his rear. Third Captain Reeves stumbled, but remained standing and skewered the creature that had attacked him.
Screaming, a deckhand fell to the floor and was promptly set upon by three of the creatures. Blood sprayed into the air as one of them ripped out the fallen man’s throat.
Too late, apprentice Adam Hudson fired off a string of short-lived fire sprites that drove the monsters off of the dying man.
A guttural yell pierced the manger, briefly capturing everyone’s attention and one cow voiced its ongoing displeasure. Charging through the doorway, followed by another group of marines, Second Captain Ward launched himself into the fray, dancing across the battlefield stabbing creatures as he went.
Routed, the monsters fled from the now larger opposition, pursued by Ward and his marines.
Hudson and Reeves began bandaging the wounds of combatants who were unable to do so for themselves. Partway through emergency treatment, a fiery farcaster appeared, with Radiance standing in the center and the Captain visible behind him.
“Third Captain Reeves, your orders are to bring any food and animals that can be relocated onto the main deck. Are you able to make your way here or do you need assistance?” Radiance said through the farcaster.
“We should be able to manage,” replied Reeve, panting.
“Don’t let my incompetent apprentice impale himself on a rapier on the way up,” Radiance said as the farcaster blinked out of existence.
* * *
Walking down the corridor, Henry Cook heard a commotion coming from the manger. Hand cannon blasts were mixed with animal bellowing and shouting. Jogging towards the commotion, his lantern caused shadows to dance along the corridor. Out of the darkness ahead of him, a horde of screeching creatures charged at him. Pain shot into his chest and, looking down, he saw his blood soak into his shirt where his pet sweetum, Albatross, had bitten into him, removing a chunk of his flesh below the left breast.
Dropping his lantern and pounding the lump that had previously been nestled affectionately against him, Albatross dropped out of his shirt onto the corridor floor. It hissed at him, mouth dripping blood, then fled. Fire flared around him as oil from the shattered lantern ignited. Looking at the oncoming horde, he covered his face and tried to protect himself as best he could.
Engulfing him, Cook’s world exploded into pain as teeth and claws ripped into every part of his body. Falling to the ground in a ball, he tried to escape the pain that surrounded him. Screaming as he felt every part of his body torn apart until, mercifully, the attack stopped.
Frank Ward lifted the bloody engineer into his arms. He saw the young man’s body had been flayed. “After them,” he ordered his men and began running, carrying the chief engineer, towards Healer Foran’s quarters.
* * *
On deck, Captain Baxtor, Charles Nickerson, and an assortment of marines and deckhands circled the food and livestock piled on the deck. An increasing number of creatures kept coming out on the deck and taking up positions watching the group. The rising sun let those assembled see the growing number of monsters around them. The marines present kept reloading their hand cannons and picking off beasts they could target. Every time one of them was shot dead, its living companions around it began consuming the body.
“Why don’t we charge them?” demanded one of the deckhands.
“We tried that before you got here,” answered quartermaster Nickerson gruffly. “They ran away then came right back. Now be quiet and do what you’re told.”
“Healer Foran is pinned down, but the Second Captain is going to escort him up,” Radiance told Captain Baxtor. “Mr. Cook has suffered serious injuries.”
Captain Baxtor nodded. Gathering the deckhands around, he told them, “These things keep eating their own carcasses. Any food they get means more of the devils for us to deal with. I want you, as a group, to start charging at areas that have some of their dead. The living ones will run away, but as soon as they flee, throw the carcasses overboard so at least they won’t get a meal out of them.”
A shout went up as the monsters attacked the assembled men. The marines dropped the hand cannons they were in the middle of reloading and prepared their rapiers.
“Everyone without a weapon, I want you to scream and pretend to charge at them. If they think they’re outnumbered they’ll run.” Captain Baxtor ordered.
* * *
Entering the corridor leading to Healer Foran’s cabin, Frank Ward quietly and gently put Henry Cook down. “Leave me here and save yourself,” Cook whispered to the Second Captain.
“Quiet lad,” Ward replied. Looking down the hallway he saw the creatures had heard and stopped their assault on the door to Foran’s cabin. Drawing two daggers, Ward charged the group.
* * *
Under attack on all sides, Captain Baxtor’s group was taking injuries. Although they had managed to hold off the creatures, all the marines had scratches and wounds. Blood splattered the deck around the men.
A shout sounded from a staircase onto the deck as Albert Reeves saw the group under attack, ordered a charge, and ran at the attacking monsters. Breaking from the engagement, the beasts fled away on the deck. In no condition to pursue, Baxtor’s men slumped to the deck, while Reeves’ men pursued but failed to catch up with them.
* * *
With three sharp raps on Foran’s door, Ward walked through the dead creatures down the hall back to Henry Cook.
“That was incredible!” said Cook. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Lifting the young man, Ward replied, “Your job is to be quiet and keep as much of your blood inside your body as you can.” Carrying the younger man down the hall, Sinclair Foran came out into the hallways and looked over the bloody pair of men.
“You two, get into my cabin and lay down immediately,” he ordered.
“No Healer,” replied Ward. “Bring your healing supplies, anything edible, and whatever else can’t be left behind.” He gave Foran a significant look. “We’re moving up to the main deck. You can treat Mr. Cook there.”
* * *
The marines who had previously been with Second Captain Ward arrived on deck and deposited the livestock and foodstuffs they had brought onto the pile. Captain Baxtor addressed the group.
“This is a bad position to let them keep building up then attacking us. I want everyone to spread out across the deck. Deckhands: if you see one of the creatures, try your best to kill it. If it’s by itself, pretend to be friendly to get close enough to grab ahold of it. Carcasses go overboard. If you can toss a living one overboard, do so. Anyone who is unarmed should grab a knife.”
“Marines, I want you to keep your distance from the food and livestock. Let the creatures get closer to the stockpile, then come in behind them and skewer them. We’ll take them out one at a time or in small groups when they come for the food.”
“Take the injured up to the quarterdeck. Third Captain Reeves will guard them there. Everyone, execute orders.”
* * *
Frank Ward walked onto deck carrying Henry Cook, followed by Sinclair Foran, carrying his daughter wrapped in a blanket. Captain Baxtor strode across the deck to meet them.
“He’s roughed up, but he’ll survive,” Frank Ward assured the captain.
Nodding at his second captain, Baxtor said, “The wounded are waiting for you on the quarterdeck Healer Foran. Ward and Cook are relieved of duty, please see to their wounds when you have the chance. Are there any other healing supplies you need?”
Nearby the group, one of the deckhands made soothing noises and approached a solitary creature that had ventured out on deck.
“I brought what I could from my cabin, but if someone could get me a few things from the infirmary, that would be helpful,” the healer replied.
“We’ll send a group to collect them,” the captain assured him.
Picking up the creature, the deckhand suddenly flung it and it flew overboard into the sea.
* * *
“Who’s under the blanket?” asked Third Captain Reeves, looking at the fully covered body of Norah. The occasional movement let everyone know that there was something alive wrapped up. The injured men who were capable of paying attention looked on with curiosity.
“Something that doesn’t concern you,” said Second Captain Ward.
“Yes, sir,” acknowledged Reeves and resumed guard duty of the injured.
Healer Foran continued working on bandaging an unconscious Henry Cook.
* * *
As the group of three beasts approached the pile of food, a pig raised its head to look at their approach. Rushing up behind them, marines took the three by surprise, skewered them, then tossed the bodies overboard.
Wiping off their weapons, they moved away from the bait.
* * *
Mechanically shoveling oatmeal into his mouth, Frank Ward was the only officer eating much of his breakfast in the officer’s mess. His shoulders slumped and he looked exhausted as he focused on the simple food.
“Oatmeal again,” Albert Reeves observed. “My top priority is going to be guarding the chickens as soon as we replace them.”
A sweetum came out of the darkness in a corner, inching towards the group, making a cooing noise. Frank Ward’s spoon paused. He skewered the creature with a thrown dagger, then resumed eating. The serving-man collected the body and, after wiping the dagger, returned it to the second captain.
Leaning back in his seat, Third Captain Reeves said, “Captain Baxtor plans for us to be resupplying in three days and hopefully we’ll be able to replace the chickens then.” He looked around at the injured men. Henry Cook cringed each time he moved. “He also told me to spread the word that there’s a new rule on board the Phoenix: ‘No pets’.”
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