Daylight brushed across his face with the gentle softness of a mother's caress, and he responded with an agonized groan. Over the course of the night he had struggled to sleep. If he propped himself up, the sensation of falling tormented him every time he dozed off, but there wasn't much solace in the rough, grainy earth, either. Eventually, he settled on a position where he had one shoulder pushed into the corner, his chin on his chest, and the rest of his body curled up on the ground. It wasn't entirely comfortable, but he figured it beat his first two options. Or at least, that's what he had thought before he woke up.
Pain cramped his neck and he unfolded his limbs as though they were made of wafer thin paper. Every joint popped and snapped and he suppressed a whimper.
Sleeping on the ground would have been kinder.
He rubbed sand from his eyes and pushed more from his throat. If he never saw, felt, or smelled the ocean and its sandy shores ever again, it would still be too soon.
Still exhausted, he remained seated and leaned against the wall. His entire body hurt, but the cramp in his neck was the worst of it all. He rolled his head from side to side and let his mind wander to Calandra.
What could he say to her now? She needed him. She needed him as desperately as a sail needed the wind, but fear kept her sails tied to the mast. Years of discipline told her to pull that knife on him. The action was as reflexive as breathing, as natural as a tiger's snarl when faced with a threat. And he couldn't fault her. He was a threat. A threat disguised as the winds of change.
There was a part of him that wanted to bring change. She was like him, in a way. Perhaps more brutish and wild, but still trapped in a life she loved and hated all at once. If anything, he was definitely going to miss their shared kinship.
He sighed and rubbed his neck. The cramp hadn't resolved itself, but it hurt less. He got to his feet and peered through the slats. His morning guard was late by a couple of hours, judging by the amount of light in the sky. A search along the beach for another breathing body proved fruitless. He sat back down, brow furrowed.
They hadn't forgotten about him, he was sure of that, but why leave him stranded? What if he attempted escape? The shack wasn't all that sturdy to begin with. He could easily dismantle it with a few well-placed kicks.
He jumped up and pounded on the door with an open hand.
"Hey! Is someone gonna let me out? I need to piss!"
Silence answered him and he turned around and sat back in his corner. Dread sat down with him, and they stared each other in the face. His time to make nice with the enemy was over. The pirates hadn't abandoned him; they were planning their strategy for the night, and he was sure Mad Jack and the others were doing the same. Mad Jack was planning a strategy based on Abacus, and where was he? Locked up in a toothpick prison.
Panic lit a fire underneath him and he was at the door again.
"Somebody better open this damned door or I'll do it myself!"
He put his ear to the door and listened to his voice carry across the beach. If someone was out there, they had heard him, but they weren't going to acknowledge his demands. So be it, then.
He hit the door with the heel of his boot three times before a fast approaching silhouette came down the hill. He took a step back and waited for the door to open.
What greeted him was pint-sized fury and a double-barrelled gun.
"Do it again, ya mud-nosed cocksucker, and I'll blast yer brains out if ya got any ta begin with!"
She could have been ten years old for all he knew, but the way she pointed that gun said her age was the least of his worries.
"Whoa, now," he said, hands instinctively up. "I just need to take a leak, is all."
"Well, go on," she said. "Ya got yer wish, but don't think fer a sekin I won't blast ya if ya gimme any funny business."
He nodded enthusiastically and approached the door, but she made no attempt to move. He met her steel-eyed glared and wormed his way around her, his hands still high in the air. She was half his height, which placed the gun right against his groin. Even if he did know how to manipulate the gun out of her hand, he wouldn't risk it when it was pointed somewhere so sensitive.
He glanced over his shoulder while he undid his pants. "You going to point that at me the whole time?"
Her curled lip was answer enough.
"So, are you going to be here tonight, too?"
"Shut up and piss already!" she said. "Yer getting' on my damn nerve."
"Sorry, just... Is that thing even loaded?"
"Ya wanna find out? Keep talkin'."
He shut up after that and finished relieving himself in a hurry. The girl ushered him back into the shack and disappeared again. Left to his own devices, he began to pace.
Step one was getting out of the shack. As far as he could tell, the door was secured with a lift bar. There was enough room in between the slats to pop the bar up, but he needed a tool in order to do that. The problem after that was making sure his guard detail didn't interrupt.
I'll have to cross that bridge when I get to it, he mused.
The initial idea was to break off long splinters from the boards, bind them together, and pop the bar that way. Only, what he assumed were rotten, paper thin boards turned out to be stone solid. Algae and mold grew in splotchy patches all over the place, and yet, the wooden shack was anything but flimsy.
"This is impossible," he whispered.
He tested the strength of one of the boards, but the shack's architecture was solid. So much for thinking he could kick the door down. He grit his jaw and gripped the board again, this time with his foot braced against the door. He pulled, and the board groaned in protest.
"Dammit," he hissed and wrung his hands.
He had only to look outside to the Sun, so high in the sky, before he threw himself back at it. If he didn't get out soon, Mad Jack and the others would lose their advantage. Sure, they could lay waste to the pirates, but if the cargo got away all of it would have been for nothing.
After five attempts, one of the nails finally popped loose. He gasped and looked toward the sand bank. Convinced his guard was unaware, he worked on the second nail. It was even more stubborn than the first, and he was losing strength. He dropped to the ground at the exact same moment Pint-Size returned to check on him.
She glared at him through the slats and left again. He sighed, got up, and gave the board a hard tug. The second nail shifted and groaned. Rust cemented it in place, but one more pull ripped the nail free. The board cracked back, so loud, in his hands, and his eyes flew to the sand bank.
Sweat broke out all over his body. There was no way she hadn't heard that. Lack of movement quickened his blood. Open the door or put the board back? He didn't have time to sit and calm his nerves, but he wasn't ready. He propped the board in its place and backed away from the door.
This was beyond his range of talents. He didn't actually know what he was going to do once he got out. He had never incapacitated someone, which was what he was going to have to do if he wanted to get past the girl. The idea terrified him. He didn't know what to do. Why couldn't Lexus have gone in his place? Familiar nausea swam through him and he slid to the ground.
"I can't do this," he said. "I can't do this."
The words filled the shack, stifled, pushed against him. He couldn't do this. He could barely survive. A groan passed from his lips, prompted forth by the knot of pain in his abdomen. The shack started to blur in his vision until the walls shook.
"Hey, I'm talkin' ta ya!"
He lifted his gaze to meet Pint-Size's glower. "What's wrong with ya? What're ya sweatin' for?"
"Cause I'll be dead before the night is over. I have a right to sweat!"
She curled her lip at him, glanced around the rest of the shack, and trudged off to her hiding spot. He let his head hang. It was cooler in the shack, which meant it had to be darker outside, too. The temptation to stay on the ground and wait for morning was strong. Mad Jack certainly didn't know where he was. Maybe he could even stay with the pirates. Calandra was a welcome alternative to Nicole's advances in any case.
And what of Ba-Shu? Kashmir? Hera? Was everything up until this point just so you could run from your fears? Again?
His hand clenched into a fist. No. He had to stop losing his nerve all the time. He was going to do this. He was going to earn his keep and get Ba-Shu somewhere safe and return for Kashmir and rejoin Hera, wherever she was. He had to. There was no other option.
Tight muscles shook as he rose, but he used the tension as fuel for the fire. Time was not on his side. Only a few hours remained.
One last steadying breath was all he allowed himself. He pulled the board back, and reached through to push the latch out of the way. The door slid open and he stepped out. That was it. He had done it.
His heart sat high in his throat and he moved away from the shack with careful steps. The beach was quiet and still. He didn't know where he was supposed to go, but he didn't really care. That part would come later. First he had to deal with Pint-Size.
As if on cue, metal dug into his spine, and he stopped, arms going up.
"An' where d'ya think yer goin'?"
"Please, I'm just trying to get home."
"Shuddup an' git yer ass where it's s'possed ta be," she said.
He closed his eyes, but began to turn with deliberate slowness. Pint-Size followed his movement, the gun never leaving his back. He breathed in, breathed out, and opened his eyes. Getting the gun out of her hand was going to be a lot like stealing a hat off a man's head.
Quick, he snapped his attention to the beach and cried out. Pint-Size obeyed her own nerves and twisted to look at the empty sand. Abacus swung around and clamped his hand over the barrel while realization widened Pint-Size's eyes. Her face morphed from surprise to rage, but he didn't let her get past that. He pushed the barrel down, gripped it with the other hand, and shoved the butt of the shotgun into her chest.
She screamed and hit the sand, empty-handed.
"Holy shit," he breathed.
The gun shook in his hands, and the bloodless complexion on his keeper almost made him turn tail and run. But, no. He couldn't leave her conscious. He couldn't kill her, though. Could he?
Her eyes bounced from him to the gun. Him to the gun. He knew she knew he couldn't use it. Could he? Gods, above, why was this happening now? His heart slammed in his chest and he took a small step back.
"Give it back!" she shrieked.
Her movement spurred him like a cornered cat. The gun magically spun in his hands so that the twin barrels were facing their former owner. Pint-Size balked and tumbled back to the sand.
"Ya won't do it," she said. A tremble went through her. "If ya don't kill me, I'll just come after ya."
Her words were meant to rattle him, to destroy his nerve, and he almost wanted them to. This was too much. He didn't want to do this anymore.
His eyes brimmed with tears. "You're right."
Pint-Size sneered. "Gimme the gun an' I'll call it square."
"You're right," he said again. "I won't kill you."
He turned the gun around, the barrel in both hands, and swung the butt at her head. Her neck made a weird crick! noise, and she crumpled into herself.
"Oh, no. Nonononono."
He tossed the gun and dropped next to her. Please don't be dead. Please don't be dead. He put two shaking fingers to her throat, just below her jawline, and let out a choked sob. Her blood still flowed angrily through her veins.
"Okay," he whispered. "Okay."
He stayed a minute longer, just to make sure she was really breathing, and to gather his thoughts. He didn't know where the raid was taking place at, exactly, but he had an inkling of an idea.
He left Pint-Size behind and went up the sandbank. To the left, small lights marked the presence of the wharf. What he wouldn't give to head that way... No, his business was in the other direction.
He turned, and stared out across the beach, all the way out toward the silhouettes of those jagged rocks. Time to go.
He ran, doing his absolute best not to knock all his teeth out on the increasingly treacherous terrain, and crested the spiny hill. Not a second too late, a ball of flames spun out from the highest point on the stony plateau. He sensed, more than saw, a ripple of anticipation spread out, but then he did see. Pirates, all of them it seemed, shifting and twitching, lying in wait.
He hit the ground, the air whooshing from his lungs, and cursed quietly. He had nearly walked into the belly of the beast. Sweat started to bead on his forehead. What was he going to do now?
Circumstances weren't in his favor this time around. The ship breached visibility; the faint, eerie sway of the dozen or so lanterns that lined its hull revealing its size. Abacus gaped. The ship was a far cry from the puny trade ships and spice boats in the harbor, and it was coming in fast. Too fast.
It was a lot like watching a butcher slice a fish down the middle. The rocks cracked the body of the ship wide open, and he watched, stricken, while the plateau came to life.
The pirates hurtled toward the wreckage, howling and screaming, some with guns, some with curved blades. Panic slowly started to sink its teeth in and his vision tunneled on the ship. He had to go secure the cargo. That was all. If he did that, if he did just that, Mad Jack couldn't deny him.
Get up. Go secure the cargo. That's all you have to do.
He pushed himself up on weak arms and forced stony knees to bend. His body felt unnaturally heavy, but at the same time, lighter than air. Each heartbeat reverberated in his chest; the whoosh of blood deafened his ears, and yet, the ship pulled him forward, even as it swayed in and out of his vision.
He slipped, stumbled, and fell to his knees. The pain cut though him, but that was not the reason he gasped aloud. Wild-eyed sailors and treasure hungry pirates struggled in circles around him, grunting, steel ringing, gunshots going off in every direction, strangled animal wails, the wet gurgle of throats filling with blood.
He struggled to re-focus, his lungs struggled to function, his body struggled to move. The gaping wound in the ship's body was more visible, and it gave him a jolt of hope. He could see objects bobbing in the water, tossed back and forth by the waves. He scrambled to his feet, but struggle to his left, loud and frenzied, pulled his attention.
A pirate, his gun spent of its bullets, backpedaled helplessly while an enraged sailor hacked away at his arms with a machete. Even by the moon's pale light, he could see flesh splitting open to the bone on the pirate's arms.
His knees shook, but he stayed upright. Not now. He was too close to give up. He sucked in a breath and pushed forward. Brine and fear smelled the same so close to the site of damage. His heart hammered in his chest and he dropped to a half-crouch. Bodies of sailors who hadn't survived the crash littered the ground as plentiful as planks of broken wood. He glimpsed something that might have been a skull, but it just looked like bloody porridge stuck in clumps to a wet mat of hair now. A little ways away, its respective body lay twisted on the rocks, the Avalon sucking it out to sea inch by inch.
He stopped, his whole body shaking. Vomit lodged in his throat and his knees knocked so hard he had to throw an arm around the nearest rock to stay up. Sweat poured from his brow and he fell to gasping for air as the wave of nausea passed. Another mangled body not far from his feet drifted into his sight and squeezed his eyes shut with a groan. This was a bad idea. This was a bad, bad idea.
A battle howl split the air, and he opened his eyes just in time to see the same sailor with the machete careening toward him. Tiny globs of blood speckled the man's face and saliva foamed in the corner of his mouth. A spasm rocked Abacus's entire body. He slipped from the rock and collapsed to the ground. Couldn't think, couldn't think, maybe Lexus was right, oh gods, he was going to die.
A gunshot popped overhead and the sailor collapsed, mid-stride, face first to the ground, a foot away from him. The machete remained in the sailor's hand, locked in a death grip. Abacus stayed where he was and breathed. Flecks of blood and thicker stuff erupted from the back of the sailor's head, but he felt strangely at ease looking this time. The man was definitely dead.
Beside him, the weight of a body hit the ground on both feet. He started, and looked up to find Calandra. He couldn't quite determine the mix of emotions on her face, but for some reason, seeing her just as frazzled as he felt made him smile.
His voice shook: "Surprise."
"Ya can't be here."
Her words, as disbelieving as they sounded, were enough for him to realize what expression was clouding her face. Fear. It beaded on her brow, glazed her eyes, sent tiny little shivers across her lips. He swallowed hard.
"Why're ya here? Ya can't be here."
She took a step toward him, but stopped and turned toward the ship. He followed her gaze.
The weight of the mast alone had tipped the behemoth on its side and now exposed the ruined undercarriage. Hundreds of wooden boxes, most of them damaged, tipped in the water and trailed after the ship like unstrung organs. A handful of pirates were already descending on the boxes like vultures to fresh carrion. Among them, Calandra's father barked out orders.
He wondered if her resolve had returned, because when she spoke again, he could sense a touch of old fire.
"If my Pa don't kill you, what's comin' next will. If ya like yer life, leave now."
She left him like that, alone on the ground, and he stared at the spot where she had been. If only it were so easy to heed her advice...
He closed his eyes briefly, gathered whatever was left of his shredded nerves, and stood up. The raid was still in progress. He could still do something. He just really hoped the others would show up before he had to.
Measured steps brought him closer and closer still until he found himself just outside of the frenzy. He spun in awkward half-circles. Did he just go in, or wait for the others? How exactly was he supposed to secure the cargo anyway? What did that even mean?
He turned and jumped to find the captain's broad shoulders blocking his path.
"And what d'ya think yer doin'?"
Blue moonlight gleamed in the whites of the captain's eyes and turned his unblinking stare into something that rooted Abacus to the spot.
There really was no warning for how fast it happened. Abacus opened his dry mouth, his brain fumbling to come up with something he could say to diffuse the situation, and then his feet were dangling an inch off the ground as the captain choked the life out of him.
His eyes bulged in their sockets, half from surprise, and half from the pressure ballooning in his head. Tingling heat already swarmed in the tips of his fingers and toes and he scrabbled wildly at the calloused hand crushing his windpipe, but the captain's grip was as hard as stone.
"Ya shoulda stayed outta sight while I still like ya, scavenger."
He unhooked a cutlass from his belt with his free hand and the sight of it refreshed Abacus's struggling, albeit not by much. He tried to command his legs to strike out, but the hand around his throat seemed to have cut off more than his oxygen supply. Deadening cold lanced across his chest and drilled into one of his arms. His fingers slipped, useless, and his arm flopped against his side. The other arm was quick to follow, and he watched in the last few seconds of consciousness as the captain cranked his arm back for the deadly strike.
His eyelids fluttered shut and for a fleeting second, he imagined his bloated lips curving in a smile. I'm almost, disappointed.
And then it was over. He crumpled to the ground, an unstrung marionette, and gasped a desperate lungful of air. Saliva tried to follow the sharp intake of air, and he went into a coughing fit. Each cough felt like it was trying to dislodge a giant shard of glass in his throat, and he rolled to his hands and knees.
Blinking back tears, he could make out the captain's boots in front of him. The man stood tense, his face turned toward where the majority of his men still lingered. The cutlass remained at hand, but he had dropped Abacus in favor of drawing his gun. Abacus held in a cough just long enough to hear what the captain was hearing.
Gunshots punctuated the night. They weren't the erratic, back-and-forth of a fire fight gunshots, either. It sounded like someone was systematically putting bullets into skulls, and they were getting closer.
Abacus's heart flopped painfully in his chest at the quality of the shout. It was more a scream for help than a means of warning. He caught a blur of movement shoot out of the darkness and morph into the panic-stricken, graceless run of a young man. Sweat drenched his bloodless skin and he cast wide eyes over his shoulder once, but once was all it took.
He stumbled, his arms pin wheeling through the air in slow motion, but when he hit the ground, it was at full speed. He bounced, scraped across the rocks, and somehow rolled right back on his feet.
The tumble had brought him closer, and though he took a second to look himself over, Abacus could see the relief as it flooded his face. Abacus coughed out a laugh as his pulse returned to normal, and he struggled to his feet, quietly surprised at his own sense of relief.
And then the captain tensed beside him.
He lifted his gaze, curious, and felt the blood in his veins turn to ice.
Confusion couldn't replace relief fast enough for the young pirate. An arm wrapped around his neck, tilted his head back. Silver flashed under his jaw. He made a strange noise, a cross between a grunt of surprise and a whimper of realization, and threw his arm out as if there were an invisible hand reaching for him, ready to pull him from danger.
"Stop!" Abacus shouted, too late.
The young man's scream dissolved in the fountain of blood that pumped from his ripped open throat. The captain turned on his heel, already shouting orders, but Abacus remained paralyzed, his eyes fixed on the hard, blood splattered face staring back at him.
No, I'm not a zombie, but I am back from the dead. I told myself I don't get to be the person who comes back from hiatus and expect people to read my shit, but I also knew if I didn't put this out there, I would go insane and also lose this precious new motivation I had found. *sigh* And if this lasts, then I can definitely promise to get back to my old self.