of Beasts and Man

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The Woman in Red

Squall finally decided to leave the dining hall. Not because she had grown bored, nor tired, nor even curious about the banging and clawing that only grew by the hour-then-minute against the Scylla’s hull. She could have stayed, listened, even gave her two copper’s worth every so often, but she felt she had reached her end with them –at the moment, anyways. She couldn’t relate anywhere near as much as those two did, and she was quite surprised to see how deep a thinker Dervalan truly was. For as... simple as he puts himself out to be, there was quite the insightful mind in that thick, bald skull. Squall was, also, surprised with how adventurous Beatrice had –or maybe still was. There were times her frigid, meek exterior would crack, letting the lightning crackle through those piercing blue eyes before settling back to their stormy gray.

Squall had the feeling Dervalan noticed, as well, his questions aimed more towards her, curving further and further away from the two of them and more towards Beatrice, thus why Squall decided to leave. She had a feeling she would only get in the way of the gentle, yet scheming, oaf’s way. He would more than likely tell everyone when the time came, so why stick around and wait for the slip. There were plenty of other places she could go –on the ship, of course.

Cursed silver Natorei hag, Squall thought, almost on repeat, the point in the record playing in her mind that it always skipped back to when her track met an end it couldn’t work its way around. There had to be a way for her to leave, even for a touch, a moment, but that would be around the time they would return. At that point, they would most likely not bother waiting for her to come back and simply leave her up there, so the best option was just to stay put. That didn’t mean she liked that solution, nor the idea of being a prisoner to that, Cursed silver Natorei hag.

She stopped at the steps, and simply listened. The sun was gone from the sky above, replaced with dusk’s shadowy hold before the moon’s rise, and yet the town was still rife with screams, of such cheer. In fact, it seemed the dusk brought upon more revelry. More and more explosions thundered against the ship, rumbling it, shaking it to its very core as the metal buzzed with the force. They were getting so close; the festivities must have shifted to the parade line. The number of people clawing at the timbers had practically quadrupled in the last few minutes, which made Squall chew on her lip. She leaned against the wall across the steps, but couldn’t keep still.

“What if somebody did get aboard?” She mumbled, listening to the scrapes, scratching ever higher... but always falling short of the portholes. “What would we do... What were we expected to do?”

She knew the answer. It was the same answer back on the Leviathan and on every ship she skulked upon. Coming aboard a ship without permission was a grave offense, and it often only had three options for recourse: hobbling, the Cat’s Claws, or, the most merciful of them, death. Olivier didn’t follow these rules, these customs, but what he did could be considered even worse. He humiliated not one but two captains. He made one his personal goon while left the other forever branded, a reminder of the day she crossed his path.

Truthfully, though, it would have been the way old Captain Grexin would have handled it. He was never one to hobble, “why ruin potential help?”, or use the Cat. In fact, he saved execution only for the most grievous of offenders, mutineers that already shed blood of those aboard... To this day, she still felt he ordered the wrong persons’ executions.

She should have been the one killed.

She was the one to show weakness, to let morale fall, for cracks to rise and emotions boil to the surface. In that moment of weakness, that glimpse into her true, intimate self, it gave that crewman enough blood to chomp at the bait. Because of it, others rose to defend her, including her Nejrat. There was such... fire in his eyes, such anger as he brought that whip down.

“You’re supposed to be on our side!” She heard the cur wail, sobbing between gurgles, muffled by each strike. “How could you side with a shadman.”

The crew joined in, a feeding frenzy born from her own incompetence... They truly killed him, tore him to bits, and that was the line they shouldn’t have crossed. They knew that, deep down, yet gave in to their primal needs, bathed in so much blood. It was their fault. Order had to be restored, all because of her weakness.

Her stomach roiled, though she didn’t feel hunger. From that day on, she swore she would never show weakness again. She would keep a strong face, no matter what... if not for her, then for Nejrat. She never wanted him to be in that position again, nor ever see that fire in those eyes. That sort of fury and rage did not suit him, not one bit... She sighed, pushed off the wall, and climbed the steps.

To fire, and smoke.

Another explosion cascaded to the heavens, tinted by red, white, and a bright, neon blue. Squall huffed, crossing her arms as she took in its splendor and braced for its impact, slamming against her. The sails above crackled, making the entire ship groan as they tried so hard to pull them forward, as if it, too, wanted to join in the festivities.

“Huh,” Squall said, watching another colorful explosion rise to the heavens. That purple and pink bloom was far out in the city, and was barely a nudge as it reached her. “Zephyrians like to party hard, don’t they... Puts Itchyoman weddings to sham-”

Another explosion blossomed forth, just a block away, and its light illuminated the streets, revealing the horrors in the shadows. Squall’s heart dropped. The veil of mysticism was lifted, and she could hear that the screams were not of joy but despair. She rushed to the port side, looking over to see the people there. Rather, what remained of them.

“Please!” One screeched, squawking as jagged talons sunk into their blue-feathered shoulder. The Terrahn beside them shoved them back, adding them to the wall, the meaty bastion between the handful still trying to claw their way up the side of the ship.

“Help us,” the Terrahn exclaimed, all of it finally settling in for Squall. She shook her head, gritting her teeth, and spun.

“Hold on! I’ll go get a rope,” she said, taking three steps towards the deck’s storeroom.

Stopped.

The dagger warbled, stuck in the wood at her feet, thrown by a Terrahn in a bright red dress. She had another, readied, resting under her chin as she gave Squall a hard look.

“That would be most unwise,” the Terrahn said. “You would be risking my life as well as the two Faun aboard. As good as your intentions may be, I don’t feel like coming down with a bad case of death.”

“Who are you? How did you get on the ship!” She shook her head, starting towards the door again- and a different knife than the one that she had resting under her chin thunked into the wood between Squall’s left and middle toe. The cold steel wavered, grazing in between each as it wobbled and warbled, and the Terrahn clucked her tongue, waggling her finger at her.

“Again. Cannot advise it.”

“We can’t leave them to die! Not to... those... things.”

The woman cocked her head, pursing her lips.

“Such venom! It’s as if you dealt with them before.”

It was a statement, but Squall could hear the question, the accusation laced through that soft voice.

“You still haven’t answered my question,” Squall averted, leering at the Terrahn. “Who are you, and how did you get on the ship?”

“You may call me... Delilah. Yes! That’s what I want to go by this time. Such a lovely name, don’t you think? Delilah the Minstrel.”

“Who cares! That still doesn’t answer my que- we don’t have time for this! Those people need our h-”

It was barely a flicker, little more than an afterimage. The Terrahn, now known as Delilah, threw the knife she had resting under her chin, yet all Squall saw was that flicker. Her hand was still raised, her fingers now resting under her chin where that blade used to be, smirking at Squall. Blood trickled down her left cheek, but Squall was more interested in the squelch behind her. She wheeled about- and slid to the right in time to avoid the body of that shadow as it fell.

Squall heard fabric ripple, and caught the last of Delilah’s spin, settling her right foot back down onto the dark wood, ending in a wave of squelches. Shadows had climbed onto the railings of the ships, but were stopped by that roulette of knives, falling back into the ever-encroaching wave. Delilah cleared her throat, pulling Squall’s attention back to her, and she saw she had another knife in hand, twirling it in between her fingers.

“As I said. Unwise.” She flung the dagger behind, catching a shadow as it lunged at her, and spun out of the way of its fall, sliding into the one that tried to attack Squall. “So, you know my title. What may yours be?”

“Squall,” she said. She tried to sound unfazed, but it was kind of hard not to be when that Terrahn spun back to where she once stood. She released another storm of knives as she did, and knocked down a new wave of the monsters, shrieking as they plummeted to the ground. “You say you’re a minstrel? A singer?”

“This might come as a shock, but did you know that a minstrel’s main practice isn’t the arts? It’s simply another tool at our disposal... So is this the real Scylla? Saw it fly in, but you can never be too sure.”

“I suppose I don’t have much a choice, do I?”

“I’ll take that as a yes?”

Squall scoffed, glowering at the pretty little dancer. “It is.”

“But I doubt it’s only the three of you. I take it the Itchyoman that leaped roof-to-roof is with you, as well as the three Natorei with a Faun? What about that dashing Terrahn, taller side, fine clothes, keeps more daggers than sense?”

“That’s Ponitius, our current captain. We were here to find an artificer to fix the Scylla.”

“Well, they found one. They were on their way to... what the Dark Ones was her name? Twelabeth? Swalebeth-”

“Swelabeth.”

“Yes! That’s the one. After meeting The Plague, they fled towards her worksh-”

“What’s The Plague?”

“Only a rumor, a myth until today. Over the last couple months, word crept in from northern Palridian of a dark, inky creature that simply appeared, reeked havoc, then simply vanished. No one knew its origin, nor if it really existed. No bodies left behind; just empty homes and broken streets.”

“And you’re sure they got away.”

“Yeah. Funny thing, too: It just let them go. Said they would meet again when they found some bloke named Olivier.”

Squall growled, taking a step towards Delilah, teeth and claws starting to rip free.

“Leave him out of this! He is innocent.”

“What’s going on?” Beatrice said, scampering up the steps. Dervalan was close behind, pushing her back as he stood before her, glaring down the Terrahn. She gasped, spotting the dead shadows, and almost ran right back down the steps. Her top wanted to, but her legs were frozen stiff, as if nailed to the boards. “What are those!”

“Woman giving you problems, Squall?” Dervalan said, snorting.

“Of course not,” Delilah said, giving him a soft smile. “In fact, I’m saving your skins, and I would like to keep focused on that, so let’s try to save ourselves until they get here and THEN we can fight amongst ourselves. Savvy?”

“And what about those around the ship?” Squall blurted, but already knew the answer. Their screams had gone silent, while the shadows and their cursed, agonized wails rose in chorus... As much as she hated to, she had to work with this woman. For the moment, and she had the funny feeling Delilah felt the same way.

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