The snow was covered with his blood, like roses in frost. Around the corner, the din of Sharkmen with axes echoed through the misty haze. Not far ahead lay the ruins, interwoven with boulders, covered with gray snow like crisps.
As his breathing grew louder, he felt his lungs overflow with boiling blood; he pulled his dagger from the bottom of his boot, hurling it. Hearing it land on the iron staircase, Aster charged at the other side of the ruins.
He leaped over the wasteland and caught the blood dripping his lips with the hem of his gown. As he was clawing at the wall to plunge into the muddy waters of the quarry, a white shadow came darting from the right, carrying Aster straight off the remains and slammed into the undergrowth. Pain, ineffable, as Aster felt it.
The shadow must have hurt his own ankle, but rose quickly, staring at the deep red in his palms. He realized that he had done wrong and limped hurriedly toward the depths of the forest. Aster's eyes seemed to be blotted out, as he heard men screaming from the rubble above.
Instinct moved him slowly behind a parapet, ready fall in coma, when the white shadow returned. Aster clutched sand in his hands, preparing an assault to be carried out in his obfuscation. As the shadow crouched in front of him, Aster raised his bloody hand towards him for an eyewink, then conked. Beneath him, the blood ran purple and seeped into the sandy ground with black clots. On the iron staircase in front of them to the left came the sound of listless steps. The shadow quickly dragged Aster into the dirt while he himself clutched a rope behind a post.
Coming downstairs were two frowsy animals abreast, both armed with bronze spears, intermittently bumping into one another’s thick fur (it grew on their back), making their whirling sound in the gale.
They saw the shadow of the pillar in moonlight, but they never saw the man. The animals paced slowly, spears striking the ground with a harsh, nerve-racking sound, like the neighing of a moth in a burrow.
Suddenly the shadow felt the water trickling down over him, as a small band – at least six with spears – was coming; they had lingered too long in the gloom, and the cold wind was cutting the shadow's face in the damp air. But he wasn’t moving, not even the slightest bit, for the shadow of a pillar would not move. Not far away, the two furry orcs were wandering slowly backwards.
Tension was gathering, as the shadow noticed that now more than six of them were coming down the stairs, because they had smelled the cuisine, not willing to leave empty. Aster came to life, his mind slipping, as he reached out a hand from the briar corner.
The two Sharkmen slowly turned their heads, their hair erecting behind them, giving a mechanical sneer. From their neck emitted a rattling sound like unoiled gears. The shadow heard and he panicked, but went on listening intently.
He heard more of this, with more footsteps, snappish ones, crafty ones. Aster's outstretched hand slowly stagnated and the shadow finally caught sight, ducking off as the spear was thrown towards him, aimed straight at his left eye.
When the Sharkmen jumped out from behind the post, the shadow was already gone, with only the withered hand still stretching out from the woods. "Pull it out," one of them commanded impassively. His drool dripped from his mouthparts to the ground, reeking with whiffs of sulfur.
It turned out to be only a severed arm, leaving a trail of blood in the grass and disappearing in the distance. Above, the blood dripped slowly on their foreheads. The Sharkmen looked up, their eyes red. Suddenly two nooses came down through the crevice and caught a neck, while the blood dripped more seductively. The Sharkmen seemed to have ignored the nooses, sucking blood frantically until their tracheas were gradually strangled and the hairs on their backs drooped like unsatisfied sponges.
The footsteps finally tumbled down at last, which came from Aster and the shadow. "Name's F. Lauren. What a pleasant hunt." His nervous expression has been replaced by a low confidence.
"I sacrificed more." Aster didn't look up, rolling up his pants and pulling out two empty blood bags as if a vampire had just finished lunch at a snack bar. "How much you think they'll sell for?" Lauren lit a crumpled cigarette, blood still dripping, if they were talking under the eaves after a downpour.
"80 for Colbert, 130 for Ocean Circus."
"How about a middleman? How else are we going to get on their boat?"
"I think so. Find Steve. He has his connections."
Aster looked up the stairs and raised the collar of his windbreaker. "See you at the pub."
Lauren went the opposite way and dragged the bodies out the shambles. Aster picked up the severed arm and threw it to Lauren.
Steve sat slumped at his desk. Aster and Lauren would be late, later than he should be.
"You don't think they failed on their first hunt, do you?" The bartender, Colbert, handed Steve another large glass of cold dark liquid, slowly removed the bib from his stomach and threw it on the table, belching.
“They are not. Almost the last two I’ve got. Well-trained, sharp minded, full of strength, bored, what else they need?”
Steve chugged the stout down the throat and rubbed his greasy bottom lip with his cuffs. Colbert nudged Steve, still staring out of focus. The two daredevils rushed in, eyes sweeping, as snow drifted out of the collars.
When Steve turned around, he drew a circle in the air with his nimble little finger, and his blurred eyes showed some luster. The two men saw the gesture and sat down, right next to each other, opposite Steve.
"Done?” Steve tilted his head and squinted at the guests behind them, slightly tipsy, foolishly tipsy.
"Done. Where's the reward?"
"Don't worry, lads. There's enough for both." Suddenly, Steve seemed to notice something. He leaned closer and whispered, "You know the man across our table?"
One of the two stared at Steve with evil eyes. "We want the money." After a firm pause, he added, "Now."
“Huh, you want it? Here.” All of a sudden there the table shocked violently, while underneath it, Steve's musket shot the man right across him. Steve blared with his grimace of sissy rage, "Where have you sold Aster and Lauren to, you crock of shit?"
Steve fired again, focusing on the other man who was already dumbstruck. "You think Aster was telling you the truth? It was all planned, so be sorry for yourselves!” Steve roared until his hands and shirt were soaked in blood. "Colbert, take off their headgear. I’ve always wanted to having a closer look at a Sharkman’s crotch. Levi, shut the door. …Please!!"
Ten seconds later, however, Steve fell back into his chair, despaired. The air seemed to have thickened and made him suffocate. The two men had no hoods to stripped off because they were human, not animals. In an instant, the door burst open, and in the mist came husky, hairy creatures with spears. "Aster..." Steve stared. He thought quickly. There were still four bullets in the musket. Suddenly, a Sharkman thrust his spear out and nailed Steve's hand to the wooden table.
A screech followed.
The Sharkman was lying in a pool of his own blood, while the four others behind fell back, staring nervously ahead. In the fog, through the back door came another man, a bloody Aster. "Lauren..." The leader Sharkmen pointed at Aster, but seemed to have a bone stuck in his throat, unable to articulate. There were four more crackles, and as the beasts tumbled, their faces were shaped by fear, their dorsal bristles withering, and they all seemed in awe of the trap.
“Thanks for your musket, man. Here.”
Aster gently placed the musket that Steve had dropped on the ground from behind on the wooden table. "I know it was part of our plan, but still, thanks, thank god..." Steve never finished that acknowledgement. A dagger went in and out, reddening Steve's back. He said nothing more, nor moaned much, before falling straight down. Aster smiled and said to the pale Colbert, "Do me a favor, lad." As they dragged the bodies of the five Sharkmen to the wall, Colbert dropped the heads several times, making heavy noises like steamers. Just then, the well-groomed Lauren trotted through the front door.
"Hey! …Hey!" Lauren slapped Colbert's soaked back and lifted his chin. Aster looked up and suddenly noticed something unnatural in Lauren's eyes. He did not hesitate, and the agreement he had made with the demons started ringing in his ears. He dropped the body decidedly as possible, and rushed for the rear window. Colbert's back suddenly flipped open like wings, and cut through Lauren’s stomach with bare fingers.
Aster turned around on his way to escape until he was hit by the Sharkmen in face and fell to the ground. Blood oozed from everywhere. "Where is... Colbert..." This last thought flashed through his mind, before he sank into a stupor.
Colbert sat alone in the shades, his sore and swollen muscles pushing his limits. Time was elapsing, but it was meaningless. The only thing he remembered was the moment Steve entered the pub, looking grim and followed by five tall something in trench coats. He couldn't even tell whether he was still somewhere on the island, or if he was closer to some den where he would be banished by evil spirits.
Not much light, no sound, not even a sign of life, except, outside the bars of the cell, the ethereal sound of torture down at the end of the corridor, the sound of the iron whip lashing down on flash. Apart from this, silence had invaded every nook and cranny, as Colbert felt the sound in his ears growing louder and louder, a symptom of severe tinnitus.
At last he sank into the dry bloodstain beside the sewer, and the picture flashed quickly through his mind, of someone running and screaming in the snow on a moonlit night. The hallucinations got worse. He heard someone wake him up and said, “Cigarette?" And he readily accepted and smoked long enough until he realized that the cigarette was a half-finger.
On the 14th day of Colbert's half-coma, someone was sent to his cell.
Aster woke up in a nightmare, ten days after he had been bound to this shithole. He looked around, and saw that Colbert was still lying beside him. Crew members hung around outside, from time to time splashing him and him only in the face with urine and excrement.
“Wake up, Colbert, the judge is approaching.” Aster leaned a foot against Colbert's cheek, as a stream of brown juice squeezed out from Colbert's mouth.
Already caged, Aster was chained to a wooden chair. Colbert was locked with a downcomer. The ground was damp and filled with filth. Aster struggled to move his hands together, while Colbert was still unable to break through his drowsiness.
“Open it.” The judge's voice was cold and sharp. A stout man with black teeth opened the door, smiling wickedly. The judge was a man of no discernible age, with a disgusting wig strangely attached to his scalp. He looked up and down at Aster, hands behind his back, waiting for the pudgy man to untie his hands from the chair.
After his upper limbs were free from the chair, Aster squinted at the two. His hands were still cuffed together, but he tenderly smoothed his hair.
“Dunbar, show them the key.” The judge tilted his head a little bit and the stout man took a copperplate from his greasy coat pocket staring at it strangely. As if extruding juice, he seemed afraid that it would be snatched away by anyone if not him.
“Now, gentlemen.” The judge took out a bible as tattered as one that had been sea-soaked for months. He put one hand on it, like it was a tit. “If you can’t answer my following questions honestly, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, you will be punished as cruelly as men could imagine.”
But in no time before the judge could ask Aster leaped up and grabbed the bar placed beyond the prison cell with both hands. He lifted his abdomen and stuck his feet between the cracks of the bar. Hanging upside down, he concentrated all his weight on his handcuffs and released his feet. The keyhole of his handcuffs fell squarely on the key set up by the pudgy man, still staring.
“Colbert! Wake up, now!” Aster got vexed and started yelling.
Meanwhile, he twisted a chain around the judge's slender neck. The judge's shins got bent at an odd angle on the floor, his nose puffed, his mouth muttering biblical curses. As the judge struggled, Dunbar realized his mistake and pounced on Aster.
Colbert woke up just in time, pretending to be still in his coma, and when Dunbar pounced on Aster he wrapped the chain around his foot, but it wasn't tight enough, so Dunbar slammed his head into the filthy floor of the cell.
Aster breathed a sigh of relief, but the heavily armed Sharkmen were already dashing forth. Colbert knocked Dunbar over the head several times before he passed out. Aster locked the door and kicked the window open to take the judge out the other way.
But it was full of nefarious Sharkmen too, and they couldn`t seem more savage.
Money was on the line, so Sharkmen held no regard for a judge's life. Aster felt desperate, agitated as well. With a brief brace upon the judge's shoulders, he clung to the beam and kicked down several. Colbert grabbed the knocked-down’s swords and went the opposite way.
Aster took off the flint Colbert had given him from his neck, set the judge's clothes on fire, and kicked him into the corridor, confronting Sharkmen. The judge screamed shrilly, but his hands had already been cuffed by, so only he did was struggling and rolling all over. Smoke cloaked the fragrance of blood. After a few seconds, cabins caught fire. The Sharkmen had red eyes, but did not dare to chase the two. They feared flames.
At the end of the corridor was a window with iron bars. Colbert twisted a number of swords before finally intersecting them across the rebars and knocking it off, as they opened their arms and jumped down. The water was splashing and there was no sign of them for a moment.
The Sharkmen who had just arrived bent over the window to look at the sea, and for some time it seemed to freeze and no one talked. After a while, two bodies, battered and bruised by the sea, floated up. Then they left the window, mumbling, leaving the fire spreading.
Several times over the years there had been such moments of dead silence down at Ocean Circus, but there were still men bold and bored enough to break through. No one had survived since the beginning, because the billow could always swallow them up before they knew it.
Aster spat out the last mouthful of seawater, smashed a coconut and poured the cold juice all over his face. "Where are you, Colbert..." He rose feebly, seeing nothing but the coconut trees and the endless surges. Nine hours of drifting in the storm almost destroyed his remaining will to escape the island beneath his feet. He knew he would definitely be dead in a month.
In the last few seconds before he passed out, he saw Colbert crawling towards him, with the giant waves devouring his voice and face. Aster went into sleep. Surrounding them, the storm showed no sign of abating. Aster woke up thinking that Colbert may be rummaging for food and fresh water on the island, but unfortunately the island wasn't much bigger than the cage they had lived in on board, and Colbert was now apparently nowhere to be found.
Colbert paced back and forth behind the bars, thinking over. The only thing they were worried about at the moment was not the freezing and rainy weather, but time. This was strange to the two prisoners at such a level of the deck, because time was already meaningless to even the people living on the first deck on board.
“How much time before Autumn, Aster? How long have we got before the wind turns?” Colbert stared at the damp wall, watching the chalk slashes dunk away.
“A week, I bet. Probably a month,” Aster said, looking down the dark corridor beyond the bars.
“All prepared?” Colbert turned to Aster.
“Nothing else to prepare.”
“Sharks are coming, I heard them.“
“You’d better pretend to sleep again.”
Colbert mumbled, "I shouldn't have trusted Steve anyway," then lay down by the cess-pipe. Aster looked out of the cell window. "A week to go," he said to himself. "Doomsday is coming for Sharkmen.”
Meanwhile, dead ahead where Aster calmly looked, beyond the small prison window, through the cracks of the steel mesh, he could see a reddish orange rising quietly. Like the silent sea, the dawn breathed the breaths of death. The waves wrapped themselves around the red sun like the tentacles of a sea monster. "At least I had a good night hunting." He thought aloud, "All you do is wait and food comes right into your mouth.” Aster peered at the capricious horizon, at the hungry sea, at his far-off island.