Chapter 12:

Chapter 12:

Jastro’s trading vessel swayed and creaked as it cut its way through the gently undulating night-black water. The big man had spent more of his life on the sea than on land, and while in his early years he had dreamed of amassing enough wealth to retire on one of the many islands he had visited, he now knew that the sea was too much a part of him ever to let it go.

Fortune had smiled on Jastro. Luck found its way to him on the wings of shrewd decisions, quick wit, and ruthless savagery, in equal measure. As dim lights winked like low-slung stars from the docks of Rockmoor, Jastro reflected on his current predicament.

I hate him. He realized grimly. I hate him, I want him dead, and I don’t even know his name. 

Long ago Jastro had smuggled his first slaves into Rockmoor. He had pangs of guilt, but he justified his actions, telling himself they were mostly being sold to wealthy magistrates in the high-walled compounds of Hillcrest. The slaves would have difficult lives, but they would stay relatively safe, and they would be fed, so long as they did their jobs faithfully.

Some were destined for darker fates, but that, Jastro reasoned, was their business. It was up to each individual to pull him or herself up to better circumstances. That is, after all, what he had done just as soon as he was bold enough to thrust that harpoon into his own master’s back, and help him overboard, sputtering and cursing, all those years ago.

But this was different. This man was evil. Jastro knew that the wretched souls he delivered to this sadist would all die terrible deaths. And yet he felt he had no choice. Two weeks earlier, Jastro had seen things he wished he could unsee: a premonition of the wrath that would soon be unleashed. He knew when to fight, when to run, and when to build an alliance. With his own hide on the line, there’d been no real decision to make.

Right on cue, he became aware of moaning below deck. This would not do. Clandestine arrivals required flawless nighttime navigation, and perfect silence. Jastro jerked his head in the direction of the secret hold and barked an order to one of his hulking Islanders, who stood alertly nearby monitoring the bay.

The enormous man nodded slowly, and removed his loose white tunic to reveal a jacked torso covered in swirling tattoos. He walked starboard to a pile of fruit-filled crates and began sliding them several feet forward. When the last crate was moved, it revealed a coin-sized hole in the deck into which he inserted a thick finger. Grunting more from habit than actual effort, he hoisted the removable trap door concealed in the deck and looked down at six huddled men and women suddenly illuminated by the moonlight.

“Quiet,” he growled, his accent so thick it sounded as if his tongue was at war with his throat.

Jastro smiled and looked serenely ahead as an orange and green glow danced on the deck behind him. A terrified gasp issued from the prisoners, but no more noises came from the hold for the rest of the voyage.

As the dock drew near, his Islanders sprang into silent action. Two of them flew through the air like acrobats and landed on the dock. Coiled ropes were thrown expertly from the ship to the waiting deck hands, and the ship was quickly moored.

Rats.

Jastro heaved his big frame onto the makeshift steps placed hastily on the dock beneath him. The rats were everywhere. But they weren’t behaving like rats. They were not foraging and they did not scatter when he stepped toward them. Jastro’s mood soured further.

“Did you have to bring them?” he hissed into the night.

“Dark times call for extra caution, Jastro,” came the low response, just a few feet from his face.

And now he saw it. A faint rippling was barely visible in space itself, like the dark water beyond had been painted perfectly on flowing fabric and suspended right in front of him, blending with scintillating perfection into the background.

Standing further away in the darkness were three figures: two small ones behind a large man Jastro knew to be an Islander formerly in his employ.

“Do you have the Atolians?” the faceless low voice rumbled, menace never far beneath the surface.

“Do sharks swim in the sea?” Jastro retorted dryly, and flicked his hand absently in the direction of his ship. Two of his Islanders melted out of the night and moved to retrieve the prisoners.

“And I will need two more of your assistants,” the voice pressed on aggressively with no hint of compromise.

Jastro was accustomed to getting his way. In most cases he approached negotiations playing the jovial and magnanimous merchant of the world. He found that laughter and generosity disarmed his targets, and made them pliable as he communicated his velvet-cloaked demands. But with time and trade came inevitable disagreements, and Jastro occasionally found utility in threats of force. Rarer still had been those few critical moments when Jastro was pushed to cruel violence by the need to establish his dominance. In those moments Jastro was capable of a white-hot fury that blinded all other judgment and enabled him to overwhelm even his fiercest adversaries.

At this unexpected demand, blind rage boiled between Jastro’s ears. Fury exploded within him at the thought of losing two more of his precious Islanders to this cretin, not to mention that poor sod Mordimer. Muscles twitching in his face and neck, it took every ounce of his self-control to stuff his anger back down along with the bile rising in his stomach.

He was saved from having to respond verbally by the appearance of the six bedraggled prisoners on the deck above. With all the efficiency of many years’ loading and unloading cargo, Jastro’s massive Islanders whisked the frightened Atolians down to the dock.

Then came the shriek.

Darting forward from the shadows bustled the two smaller men. But they were not really men. Unclothed, they were covered instead by grey fur. Black eyes glistened hatefully above open protrusions in their faces that were lined with pointy teeth of varying sizes. Their horrifying unnatural visage caused one of the prisoners to scream uncontrollably. They hastened to the sorry huddled human mass with alarming speed, silenced the noise, and began aggressively herding them away with oversized hairy hands, the fingers of which ended in curved black claws.

The rats on the dock swarmed behind them in a roiling grey wave.

The only thing left for Jastro to do was to be graceful about his defeat.

“How about these two?” he said with forced cordiality. The two members of his crew nearest him looked on coolly, betraying no emotion.“They’ll do,” was the icy response. “Don’t stray far, Jastro.”

READ CHAPTER 13

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