BLOOD AND SALT

 Illustration by Vextera!  Check out their website  and  follow them on Twitter ! Click the image for a bigger version!

Illustration by Vextera! Check out their website and follow them on Twitter! Click the image for a bigger version!

Jayk closed his eyes as the ocean breeze wafted over him, bringing freshness and salt.

“Ahh, this is the life.” Beneath his paw, the wood of the tiller was smooth and solid, the canvas sail cracking in the wind. “Nothin’ but the sea and the sky, and the salt in my whiskers.”

Above, the sky from one horizon to the other was scudded with clouds and the occasional hunting bird diving down to pluck a fish from beneath the waves. Below, the sea was almost a continuation, blue deepening to inky blackness beneath his boat. The otter leaned against the gunwhale and looked over his domain.

The Freedom wasn’t a large boat, by any measure; its main sail was about three times his height, the jib half that, and most of the rest of the space was taken up by his travelling pack leaning against the wooden bench that spanned its width. But it was his, and it was comfortable. “Finally back where I belong,” the otter murmured. “And it only cost me half of everything I have.” He grinned. “Worth it though.”

He stretched and sat down, lounging along the length of the hull, then reached forward to his pack to fish out a small wooden case. About the size of his paw, it hinged open to reveal the other half of his material wealth. It was a claw-sized needle of metal shot through with bands of yellowdust. Delicately he lifted it out of the case and set it down carefully on the planks. Then he dug a shallow wooden bowl out of his bag. He dipped the bowl into the sea over the side of the boat, then balanced it among the fur of his belly. With all the finesse of a magician performing some trick, he placed the needle delicately onto the surface of the seawater.

It spun crazily for a few seconds, and he twitched his whiskers. “You’d better work,” he muttered. “You did well enough in the shop. But if I’ve been cheated there’ll be blood to pay-”

He cut himself off as the needle wobbled to a stop, pointing ahead and slightly to port, towards the glimmering horizon. He looked up, calculating. “South. What’s south? Couple of islands, maybe. Not the main land…” He gave a little growl of satisfaction. “Something that isn’t bloody Johalland or Meria. No more soil for this boy.”

Carefully, he stowed the needle back into its case, threw the water over the side, and pulled a pouch of otterbrew out of the pack. He uncorked it and took a long swig, then smacked his lips. “I could get used to this,” he said, adjusting his heading towards the direction the needle had indicated.

The sun made its graceful way across the sky, painting it orange with sunset, until off to port the Johallandish coastline reappeared. Jayk watched it for a moment, but none of the boats cleaving much closer to the shore paid him any attention. Eventually the coast gave way to foothills, then cliffs and mountains, until finally even that was lost to the darkness of night.

Except it wasn’t true darkness. Above, the wide band of stars stretched into infinity, and in the wake of the Freedom phosphorescence glowed, alien but strangely comforting. As the otterbrew warmed him from within Jayk felt his eyes closing, one hand dandling gently through the water.

“Perhaps a bigger ship,” he murmured. “A crew. ‘Captain Jayk’, sounds good.”

The night air was rent by a howl, distant but piercing. His eyes snapped open and the boat rocked precipitously as he sat up.

“What the bloody hell was that?”

The horizon was dim and dark. Jayk listened, ears straining, eyes wide, but only the susurration of the waves against the side of the Freedom could be heard.

“Dreaming,” he muttered, settling back down, but the comfort of sleep would not come.

 

When dawn finally came, grey and overcast, the coastline had fallen away, reduced to a dim line in the distance. Jayk went through the motions with the needle again but it held steady directly ahead. He narrowed his eyes and peered through the haze.

“There is something out there,” he muttered. “An island? No… a ship!”

Slowly, the shape in the far distance resolved into a two-masted ship, but one flying no flags and with sails in tatters. From behind it came another ship, this one smaller and quicker, and this time there was no mistaking the call of the wolf that followed it. Jayk gripped the rail, digging small divots into the wood with his claws.

The smaller ship was flying a flag, grey with a single eye emblazoned on it.

“The Salt Wolves,” he hissed. The wind picked up, as though eager to draw him closer, and within seconds he could see the tangle of grey fur that roiled over the deck. The Salt Wolves were gathering, preparing to board, and now that he was closer he could see the damage the Wolves had done to the larger ship. One of the wolves was up in the rigging of their ship, and every time the listing motion brought him anywhere near close enough his claws flashed out, tearing the sails to ribbons. Below, huge chunks were missing from upper hull, clawed away. “But why haven’t they boarded already?” Jayk murmured. A moment later, he got his answer. There was one shape moving around on the deck, scurrying back and forth - a human keeping them at bay.

Jayk put a paw on the tiller and began to turn the boat away. The Freedom’s new course took it in a wide arc around the embattled ship, close enough to see more details, and he found himself mesmerised by the human’s defiance.

The lone figure on the ship was a man, bald and bearded with the black of tattoos or warpaint standing out starkly against his skin. For a moment it looked as though he was about to attack, holding a large crossbow in one hand, but then he dropped it and picked up another one. Beyond, the Salt Wolves’ ship was coming around slowly, occasionally near enough that the half-dozen wolves aboard could jump over. All but the one in the rigging had gathered at the rail, not even leaving anyone at the tiller; as Jayk watched, one of them, frothing in battle-rage, leapt too early and fell into the sea between the two ships. The wolf disappeared from view for a moment, then surfaced. Like a shark, it knifed through the water back towards a ladder hanging off the back of the Wolves’ ship.

Jayk grimaced as the wolves shouted abuse at the man, though there was no way he could understand any of it; to him, it would be nothing but growling and barking. The man shouted something back, lost in the gale.

Abruptly, the wind changed direction; Jayk fought against the tiller that suddenly seemed intent on driving him towards the approaching combat, teeth bared.

It was too late. As the Freedom drew close to the other ships, the Salt Wolves attacked. They boiled over the side of their own ship and onto the deck of the human’s, and battle was drawn.

“Dammit,” Jayk snarled, dipping into his pack one more time and drawing out a pair of metal claws. He slipped them over his paws, extending his claws to three times their length, and leapt onto the man’s ship.

It was chaos; the deck was littered with over two-dozen crossbows, each one loaded and cocked. They ranged from hand-sized to huge pieces designed to work with tripods, but the man was running from one to the other and lifting them with apparent ease. As soon as a wolf presented a target, he fired the bow he was holding, dropped it, and moved on to the next. The wolves, ragtag armour tied together with frayed leather straps, were circling him warily, most with crossbow bolts embedded in their flanks. One had already retreated back to its ship, whining.

Jayk roared as he charged into the back of the nearest wolf, tearing chunks from its flank, and it bucked and howled as it leapt out of the way.

“Back on your own ship, vermin,” Jayk yelled, but the eyes of the Salt Wolves were wide and mad.

“Who the hell are you?” the lead wolf shouted. She was the only one wearing anything approaching clothes, the remains of something that might have been a captain’s hat attached with string.

“Who the bloody hell are you? Get off the ship!” the man shouted, almost at the same time, but Jayk shook his head at both of them.

“A friend,” he said, signing it for the man. “For the moment, anyway,” he added under his breath. He lashed out at any wolf that came near as the man kept grabbing crossbows, firing them, and throwing them at the wolves. The wolves, for their part, were circling further away now, looking to the largest one for instructions. Jayk turned to sign again.

“We should - oof!”

A heavy weight slammed into his back as one of the wolves, taking advantage of his distraction, pushed him towards the railing. Jayk scrabbled to grab on to the wood but the wolf’s weight took them both over the side. In a frantic spasm of movement, the otter slammed one set of metal claws into the timber of the ship, but then the wolf’s momentum drew them both down. The weapon slipped off his left paw, and Jayk was in the sea.

The seawater was like a slap in the face and Jayk instinctively kicked out at the wolf in the water with him. Bubbles exploded from its mouth, and he followed it up by turning over and raking his remaining metal claws down its stomach. Blood blossomed, but the wolf was quicker; its own claws slashed down on his left paw, worrying at it for a moment, and then its iron-trap jaws closed on the paw. Jayk howled, bubbles of precious air rippling away, and brought his other blade around. He stabbed, again and again, into the wolf’s stomach until its grip loosened and the water around them was rusty with blood. His left paw was a throbbing mess, the damage impossible to ascertain, and he endured the agony of salt water in his wound just long enough to ensure that the wolf wouldn’t be rejoining the fight. Then Jayk scythed away, back legs kicking powerfully back towards the battleground.

By the time he clambered painfully back onboard, there was a grey body lying dead on the deck. The human was holding what looked like the last crossbow, unwilling to fire it.

“You’ll not take Mac Twofeet alive,” he shouted, gesturing with the bow. The wolves were wary now and the largest of them growled as she gestured to her remaining crew.

“Rugg, Gick, get below,” the wolf said. “Sink this fool’s ship. We’ll claim his cargo off the seabed if we have to.”

Two of the wolves turned and bolted down a set of stairs that led below, squeezing themselves through a door not designed for something their size.

“No!” Mac shouted, bringing the crossbow up. He fired it, narrowly missing the leader, then threw the crossbow down. He drew a mace from his belt, wickedly spiked, and slapped its haft against his free hand. “Come on then!”

“This is foolishness,” Jayk shouted at the wolves. “A third of your number are dead; go find some easier prey.”

The lead wolf shook her shaggy head, the hat flopping from one side to the other. “I bet you’ll taste as good as him,” she snarled.

“But-”

The ship lurched under their feet as something heavy slammed into the hull, once, twice. The third impact of claws and muscle came with a screaming of wood and rushing water, and the deck tilted crazily. The wolves backed off, leaping away from the ship as it began to sink.

“Run,” Mac shouted, waving his mace. “That’s it, run away!”

Jayk grabbed at the human with his good paw, lifting him up bodily, and Mac began to struggle. “Hey, what do you think you’re doing? Let me go!”

Ignoring him, Jayk took two bounding steps across the deck and leapt overboard, back towards the Freedom.

By the time the otter dragged them both back into his own ship, Mac’s ship had sunk beneath the surface with only a seething mass of bubbles to show its passage.

“You bloody stupid otter,” Mac shouted, pushing Jayk away. “Look what’s happened to my ship!”

Jayk just hissed, in too much pain to even sign a response. The wound in his paw wasn’t as deep as he had feared, but a chunk of flesh out of the central pad was missing and bleeding freely. With his good paw, he grabbed the tiller and turned them away, letting the wind take them.

On the deck of the Salt Wolves’ ship, the four surviving pirates had gathered at the railing, howling their derision, as the otter and the human fled from the battle.

 

“I know you can understand me,” Mac said, for the third time. “Take me back!” He slapped at his metal chest armour, making a dull ringing sound. “I’m ready!”

Jayk shook his head tiredly, finally starting to sign for the stocky man.

“My name is Jayk,” he said, wincing each time he twisted his injured paw. “I just saved your life.”

“Yeah?” Mac folded his arms. “And who asked you to, hm?”

“The Salt Wolves would’ve killed you!” Jayk shook his head. “Is that it? You want me to take you back there so they can finish the job? What the hell did you have in that ship that’s worth dyin’ for, anyway?”

Mac scowled. “Trade goods. Crossbows and… other things.”

Jayk twitched his whiskers, sniffing the air. “You’re lying,” he muttered, drawing his compass needle and bowl out again. As the man looked on, Jayk waited until the needle stopped spinning, then looked up. It was pointing directly at the site of the wreck, and the Salt Wolves ship that still crouched over the site.

With a frown, Mac pointed at the needle. “What’s that?”

“You were carrying yellowdust on your ship.” It wasn’t a question. “This is a compass needle designed for one thing: to find deposits of yellowdust. Big deposits, the sort that might make a small fortune. But for you t’be carrying enough to affect it… your entire hold must have been full.”

“Maybe.” Mac threw his hands up. “Ok, sure. Yes, I had a few crates-”

“A few crates! A small fortune…” Jayk scowled. “How come just one man is out on the open ocean with ‘a few crates’ of loot, and so many crossbows? What happened to the rest of the crew?”

Mac finally sat down, laying the mace he still carried across his lap. “There aren’t any more crew. We thought having more folk on board might draw attention to us. Seems like we shouldn’t have bothered.”

“Salt Wolves will attack anything they see as easy prey,” Jayk said. “You gambled wrong.”

“They probably smelled the yellowdust,” Mac said. “And the crossbows, well, they were on top of all the crates. Disguised, see? To anyone opening the crates, I’m transporting weapons. Got the paperwork to back it up and everything. Twofeet Armouries, at your service. But…” A calculating gleam entered his eye. “Look, tell you what. Help me recover the lost cargo, and I’ll pay you. One tenth of the dust.”

Jayk shook his head. “If that’s your best offer, I’ll let you off at the next port or you can jump in now.”

“A fifth.”

“Half.”

“Two fifths.”

Jayk slumped down. “The price is immaterial. Your ship is in the hands of the Salt Wolves now. They’ll dive for it. Despite appearances, they’re as dangerous in the water as out. Besides, the dust is probably ruined.”

“It’s sealed in wax, and most of it in crates far too large for even those dogs to raise,” Mac said, a grin transforming his features. “We’re apparently ignorant, but not stupid.”

Jayk tapped his claws on the gunwhale. “Go on then,” he signed at last. “Two fifths.”

Mac grinned wider. “Deal.” He pointed to the way they had come, back towards the site of the wreck. “So, turn this tub around and let’s go.”

“First off,” Jayk said, baring his teeth, “the Freedom is not some tub. Watch your mouth, human. Second, I just told you; the Salt Wolves will have already retrieved your cargo, whether you think they will have or not. Weight isn’t an issue for them in the water, they’ll just attach ropes and tow it to their base.”

“Which is where?”

“That’s the thing.” It was Jayk’s turn to grin as he pointed to the needle in the bowl of water. “We don’t have to do anything but follow this. It’ll lead us right to them.”

“So let’s go.”

“Not in daylight. They’ll see us coming.” Jayk kicked his legs up onto his pack again. “We sit here until nightfall, and then we’ll go scouting for your goods.”

Mac scowled, but undid the buckles on his breastplate. It fell to the deck with a clank, and he sat down next to the otter.

“That paw. Want me to do something with it? Bandage it, or…?”

In answer, Jayk took a rag and some padding out of his pack and passed it to the human.

Mac took them and began to tie a tight dressing over the injured paw. “Don’t suppose you’ve got any of that salve the priests use to heal?”

Jayk shook his head, unable to sign with one paw engaged.

“So… haven’t had much to do with uplifts,” Mac said as he finished tying the knot. “Not for a long time.”

“You seem to be doing ok readin’ my signs,” Jayk said. “Clearly you’ve had some experience. Thank you, by the way.”

“I had a… partner,” Mac replied, waving the thanks away. “Long time ago. Business partner, mind. He was an uplift, but they’re rare enough where I come from.”

“And where is that?”

Mac pointed north. “I trade from beyond Othor, north of Johalland, a little place called Perrin’s Point.”

Jayk shrugged. “Not heard of it. What brought you south?”

“Business.” Mac pulled a small vial out of his pocket and threw it to Jayk, who caught it two-pawed.

He held it up to the light and shook it. The vial contained an opaque liquid that glowed slightly, milky-yellow. It had the consistency of syrup, clinging to the glass.

“Right,” Jayk said, signing after he threw it back. “But what is it?”

“So.” Mac leaned back against the rail and gestured expansively. “Yellowdust. Uplifts need it - what you call a maintenance dose, I think? You need topping up every week or so. I’m reliably informed that it tastes pretty horrible if it’s just sprinkled onto whatever you eat, and when it’s mixed with water, dosage control becomes unreliable.” He patted his pocket. “What I have here is a… mixture. An emulsion, I’ve been told. A bit of fat mixed in with other bits and pieces, some spices to taste, and what you end up with is easy to marinade or coat onto food.”

Jayk stared at Mac, then threw his head back and laughed. “We’re doing all this for a cookin’ ingredient?”

Mac looked wounded. “Not just a cooking ingredient. I mean, yes, that was how it started, but we’ve weaponised it. It has other applications as well, like that needle of yours. Quench something made of metal in this stuff and you get metal infused with yellowdust, part of its very core, and that leads to weapons with some… interesting properties. It’s easier to store, move around, doesn’t blow away in the wind, can’t accidentally be breathed in.” He thumped his hand down on the rail. “Twofeet Armouries Patent Yellowdust Extract. It’ll be everywhere in a few months. If we can get the samples back,” he added, turning to look out over the sea.

Jayk shook his head and closed his eyes. The boat rocked gently in the waves, the occasional gull-cry singing out, and before long even the throbbing of his paw faded into sleep.

 

The moon rose, barely a sliver, and Jayk stretched his aching joints.

“Good of you to join us,” Mac said. He was sat on the bench next to the otter’s paws, his mace across his knees. He had a whetstone in one hand and was running it over the bladed tips.

“Did you rest?”

“No.”

Jayk paused as he got some dried beef out of his pack and considered the man again. He was wearing his armour again, and his expression was carved out of granite as he stropped the stone up and down the mace. It was as though all the jollity and battlefield anger had been replaced by steel.

“Right then.” Jayk set the needle up again. The metal gave off a faint luminescence in the near-darkness and he waited until it stopped swinging wildly to take a bearing. “Looks like we’re heading that way.”

Mac didn’t reply, and as Jayk set the sails and took hold of the tiller the human sheathed his mace and turned to look ahead.

They coasted on through the night as the moon climbed higher, the needle not wavering in its course, and Jayk began to worry. Mac didn’t move, as minutes turned to hours, until ahead the starfield was broken by a dark shape.

“There,” he said, pointing, one foot up on the prow. “An island.”

Jayk nodded, joining Mac towards the front of his small ship. “Tortel Island,” he said. “And there’s firelight there. Looks like someone’s set up camp.”

“We can’t just attack straight up,” Mac said. “It looks like the whole island is one hill, pretty much, with a few little ridges on it. Bring us around the other side of the island. We’ll beach the boat there, out of sight, and make our way on land.”

Jayk snorted, but took the tiller in paw. “Aye aye, captain,” he growled, not bothering to sign.

They came closer to the island and a fresh breeze sprang up, driving them past and around. There was an encampment surrounded by a couple of ships and what looked like two or three wrecked ships, moored at the edge of the island. A huge bonfire blazed in the centre of a circle of lounging wolves, most of them bigger and bulkier than Jayk himself. They were gone, and the light with it, as the Freedom rounded the island.

They continued on for another couple of minutes, then Jayk turned hard to starboard. The ship bucked under his paw, the shore coming up on them with alarming speed. He grabbed hold of a mooring rope in his teeth, took two leaping steps and dived into the water ahead of the boat.

Jayk kicked, powerful strokes sending him ahead of the Freedom, and even then he only made landfall just a few metres ahead of the ship. He scampered on all fours, pulling the rope taut, and as the prow of the Freedom struck the shore it rode up and over onto the sand. The momentum of the boat, and Jayk’s pulling, carried it away from the water’s edge.

Mac hopped down from where he had been crouching in the boat and pulled his mace. “Right. Let’s do this.”

Jayk dropped the rope, shook himself dry and put a paw out to stop the human. “Hold yourself. We ain’t just marching over there looking for a ruck. I counted five as we came past, and three of them have a bone to pick with us from earlier.”

“So?”

“So,” Jayk said, looming over the stolid Mac, “we will die if we try to just attack them. This is a stealth mission, trust me.”

For a moment, the otter was convinced that Mac was going to push past him, but the man backed off a little.

“That’s better. Now come on, and keep it quiet.”

Jayk turned and set off across the island, Mac in tow.

The sandy beach that lay at the edge of the small islet quickly gave way to soil, sparsely sown with grass and the occasional palm tree. There wasn’t much in the way of cover other than where the grass had grown tall enough, and as they crept to the peak of the island’s hill Jayk began to feel very exposed. When they peered down to the Salt Wolves’ camp below, though, he breathed a sigh of relief.

All of the uplifts were looking towards the bonfire, even a wolf’s night-sight surely reduced to just a few metres, and most of them were gnawing at large bones to get the last vestiges of meat from them. Jayk lay on his belly, ears pricked, as the wind blew sounds from the camp up to them.

“We ain’t gonna need to,” one of the wolves said. “Not with what’s in the hull of that thing. The only thing we’ll have to leave for is food.”

Another, one that Jayk recognised as the leader from the attack, barked out a laugh. “Damned right, Rugg. And there’s more down there. We only got half of it.”

“We going diving for it, Kira?”

“Nah.” The huge bitch tore another hunk of meat off the bone in front of her. “It’s safe enough where it is, and we took the bearing on it. Ain’t no-one else gonna find it before we do. We’ll pull it up as and when.”

“They’re eating some sort of huge animal,” Mac murmured, laying on his stomach next to Jayk.

“Best not to think about what it is,” Jayk signed back, his paws almost invisible in the darkness. “Or who it might have been.”

“There’s several of the crates down there,” Mac said. “But that’s not even half of it.”

“They think it is,” Jayk said. “They’re talking about the rest of it being in the boat or on the bottom of the sea.”

Even as he spoke, another wolf struggled into the circle of firelight. This one, older than the others by far, had several patches of fur missing on his hide and was thinner than any of the others. He had a rope lasso over his shoulders, dragging a wax-sealed crate behind him. He collapsed by the fire in a flurry of sand.

“Chok, get back up, you lazy dog,” Kira snapped. “Who said you could rest?”

“But boss,” the wolf whined. “I need to eat. It’s been over a week since my last dust, you know?” Chok sat on his haunches and scratched his ear with a back leg. “Feeling the hunger.”

Kira was on her feet in a moment, hackles raised, teeth bared. “You get fed when I say, fleabag,” she said. “Not before. Do I make myself clear?”

Chok stilled a growl building in his own body and lowered his head in submission. “Yes, boss.”

The other wolves laughed and howled as Chok left the circle of firelight, but Jayk tensed as his path led him not down towards the shoreline but up the hill.

“Down,” he signed, flattening himself to the grass.

Chok’s path wended up the hill until he was nearby, and just as Jayk was sure they had been smelled out, the wolf turned. He cocked a leg against a nearby tree and began to relieve himself.

“Not gonna let me eat,” the wolf whined. “It’s always, Chok, carry this, Chok, get food, Chok, kill that otter.”

Jayk held his breath, but the wolf gave no sign that he had any idea how close they were. With a sinking feeling, he realised where the meat had come from for the wolves’ meal.

Next to him, Mac raised himself into a crouch, pointing his mace at the wolf. “Ambush,” he mouthed.

Jayk nodded, and began to advance on the wolf.

“Stupid Kira,” Chok said, finishing up. He scuffed at the grass a bit and turned to head back to the shore.

Jayk leapt, seeing Mac move at the same moment, and clamped his paws down on the wolf’s mouth. He rolled over a couple of times as Chok began to kick, but the otter held on tightly, getting back to his feet.

Chok’s eyes were wide, white visible around the yellow pupils, and he bucked and wriggled against Jayk’s grip, but Mac was faster. He stuck the mace under Chok’s muzzle, the points just touching his chin, and finally the wolf stilled.

“Now listen,” Jayk whispered, bringing his mouth close to Chok’s ear. “I am going to take my paws away from your mouth, and if you so much as try to bring the others over I will let my friend here take your lower jaw off with his mace. He is a good shot, I promise.”

The wolf nodded and Jayk slowly released him.

“Your paws taste like salt,” Chok said, licking his jowls.

“I’m sure yours taste worse,” Jayk replied. “Now listen. Where’s the ship? The one that you and your crew sunk earlier, the one you’re offloading from.”

Chok sat down. “I won’t call for the others, but I don’t have to help you either,” he said.

“I have no idea what you two are saying to each other,” Mac growled, “but if I don’t find out where my ship is soon I’m going to start taking it out of your hide, dog.”

Chok shook his head. “I don’t know how to sign for the stupid human,” he said. “But if he hits me, the others will hear.”

Jayk moved so that he was stood partially blocking Mac’s line of sight. “Listen, there’s dust in the ship,” he said. “You want some of it?”

“Kira won’t let me have more than a tiny bit,” he said.

“With her gone, you could have it all.”

Chok shook his head. “Yeah, right; but what are you, some kind of softbrain? You and him alone can’t kill her, not with the rest of the pack down there. And no,” the old wolf continued. “No, I won’t help you like that. I’m old, not stupid.” He extended a paw, pointing to where the ships were docked near the wolf camp. “Your wreck is there, though. They’ve got it corralled between two of our own. No guards. Just old Chok.”

Jayk turned to Mac, signing. “He won’t help us, but your ship’s down there.”

Mac grunted and waved his mace at the wolf again. “Go take a walk. Somewhere else, go on, if you don’t want to get involved in what’s about to happen.”

Chok gave Jayk a long-suffering look. “Whatever you do, make sure he’s kept away from Kira. She’d have bitten his face off by now. Humans, ugh. And the smell!”

The wolf turned and ambled off towards the other end of the island, away from the campfire. After a minute or so, he plonked himself town, still facing away, and began to groom his ragged fur.

Jayk and Mac watched him go, then set off down the hill towards where the ships were moored.

Sure enough, sandwiched between the two Salt Wolves ships was Mac’s own - or what remained of it. Only the rear half of the ship had been salvaged and lashed to the other two ships, and a few crates bobbed around the stripped carcass.

“Looks like they’ve pretty much taken it to pieces,” Jayk said, but Mac ignored him. The man continued down towards the boat, wading into the water. It was about ten metres out, only held above the water by the ropes that bound it on either side, and it listed dangerously as Mac clambered on. The decks of the wolf ships weren’t close enough to easily jump onto - for him, at least.

“What are you doing?” Jayk hissed. “Look, they don’t have many crates at their camp, looks like there aren’t many left here. We can go diving for the others-”

Before he could sign anything else, Mac climbed up the slanted poop deck of his ship to where the wheel was. Next to the wheel hung a bell, and the human grabbed the clanger and started to ring it.

Jayk stared at him.

“You want to die,” he said, as behind him the sounds of howling rose up. “That’s the only explanation. You’ll draw them here, you bloody idiot!”

Mac simply grinned and leapt away from the bell, balancing on the treacherous deck with his mace outstretched.

Jayk took one look over his shoulder, but that was enough to confirm what his ears had already told him. Claws skittering over grass and sand, the Salt Wolves were charging down. He took a running start and skimmed into the water, reaching the hulk of Mac’s ship in a couple of strokes and pulling himself out. With his extra weight, the ropes holding the ship groaned and twisted.

As soon as he was on board, dripping seawater onto the deck, he grabbed Mac and spun him around. “What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?”

“You’ll see,” Mac said, the grin back on his face. He had one fist tightly clenched and slowly he uncurled his fingers.

Nestled in the palm of his hand was a sliver of metal, and Jayk flashed to anger.

“My yellowdust needle! Why, I’ll kill you myself!”

Mac pointed to the beach, to where the wolves were closing on the shoreline. Several of them stopped at the water’s edge as the leader, Kira, pushed through.

“Who let a human on the ship?” She looked around, snarling. “Wherever Chok is, he’s dead meat. I’ll eat his heart myself. Rugg, Hurk, onto the Fang. Gick, with me on the Claw.”

The wolves split. One of them stayed on shore while the other four went left and right. They charged up the gangplanks of their own ships, prowling closer to the wreck suspended between them.

“Caught ‘twixt teeth and the tempest,” Jayk muttered, baring his teeth as the wolves barked and snapped, preparing to leap across. “When they get over here, we’re done.”

He chanced a look back at Mac, but the big man was scuttling back and forth on the deck, bending down and pounding his fist into the boards. The shard of yellowdust metal in his hand went in like the boards were made of sea foam, and where he drew it out sparks of lightning flickered and blazed.

“Jump across,” Kira shouted, shoving Gick forward. The wolf looked at the distance between the two ships and whined, but Kira slashed him across the back. “I said jump! Kill them both!”

Gick leapt, all four paws splayed, and slammed into the side of Mac’s ship. The wreck tilted crazily, twisting in the ropes that held it in place as the wolf scrabbled, claws digging lines of wood out of the hull. Jayk dashed over and raked his claws over the wolf’s paws once, twice, and the wolf let go. His howl was cut off by huge splash echoing up from below.

“Everyone,” Kira screamed, the hat that still balanced precariously on her head snapping backwards. “Board them! Kill the otter!”

Jayk looked on in horror as the two wolves on the other ship got ready to jump, and the one on the beach leapt into the sea, surging forward with powerful kicks to cover the short distance.

“Done,” Mac shouted, grabbing at Jayk. “We’ve got to go!”

“Go where?” Jayk signed, but Mac wasn’t looking. The man took three running steps and gracefully dove off the back of the ship. Lightning danced across the deck in his wake, jumping from nail to fitting, up and down the wood, and as the crackling discharge grew closer to Jayk he hissed.

The lightning set his fur on end as he charged across the deck and followed Mac into the water. In a moment he had surfaced, but Mac was already several strokes away and swimming as fast as he could.

“Go,” Mac shouted, in between strokes, and Jayk looked up at the ship.

The lightning was arcing across the whole wreck now, huge loops of blinding white fury. Lances of it were flashing out into the wolves, paralysing them, and they yelped and whined as it built to a dazzling climax.

Jayk swam as fast as he could, slamming into Mac and carrying the man along with him for a few metres. He flipped over, balancing Mac on his stomach, and looked back just in time to see the detonation.

The very wood of the ship itself seemed to glow, growing in intensity until it was too bright to look directly at. With it came a high-pitched whine that went higher and higher, passing out of audible range, and then the entire ship erupted into splinters.

Every metal part blasted outwards, shredding everything in its wake - wood, fur, flesh. The wolves were blown backwards and Jayk dived under the water, taking Mac with him. Barely an instant later the surface of the water was peppered with pieces of wood and metal, several of them embedding themselves in Jayk’s hide.

When he surfaced, the wreck of Mac’s ship was gone. The water around it was covered in a thin layer of splinters, nothing bigger than a clawslength. The two wolf ships were sinking, the water foaming and bubbling as they went down with myriad holes blasted out of them. And of the wolves themselves, there was no sign.

 

When they finally dragged themselves onto the beach, Jayk lay on his back and stared up at the sky.

“You’re mad,” he murmured, not even bothering to sign for Mac. “Completely mad.”

Mac reached into his breastplate and pulled out a wineskin, uncorking it. Jayk sat bolt upright at the noise, glaring at him.

Mac just grinned and took a swig, then sighed. “That’s the stuff. Want some?”

“Of my otterbrew? That stuff’s for uplifts,” Jayk signed, snatching the wineskin out of Mac’s hand. “It’ll probably rot your guts if it doesn’t kill you first. Did you steal this out of my pack?”

Mac shrugged. “You were asleep, and I thought we’d want something to toast our success with.”

Jayk snarled, then drained the otterbrew and threw the wineskin away. “What was that, out there?”

“Remember when the wolves were attacking on the ship, the first time we met, and I wanted you off the ship?” Mac got to his feet and they started to walk back to the bonfire in the deserted Salt Wolf camp. “If you hadn’t been there, I’d have activated it then and taken them all at the same time. It’s a… security measure. I did tell you that there were other applications than cooking for that yellowdust infusion. We do make weapons, after all.”

“You knew that there was a chance that you could be attacked,” Jayk said. “So your ship was designed to destroy itself, and take them with it.”

“If I can’t have the dust and the samples, no-one can.” Mac nodded. “But, of course, now I can have both. The wolves are gone, and the rest of the gear is on the bottom of the ocean.”

“You should be happy with the bits and pieces you’ve got here,” Jayk said, pointing to the loot that the wolves had gathered. “I’m sure you can sell some of that. I can give you safe passage back to the mainland, but you’re on your own from there.”

He picked up one of the crates and began to walk back towards the Freedom.

“Ah,” Mac said, picking up one of the smaller boxes. “But that small fortune in dust and weapons is sat there, just waiting to be brought up. If only I had a partner who could swim, someone competent and trustworthy, and who wanted a share of it for himself.”

Jayk considered the man as they walked back across the tiny island, and it wasn’t until they dropped their burden into the otter’s ship that he replied.

“I’ll do it,” he signed, then snuffled and grinned. “For half.”

Mac shared the grin, and they began to haggle.