Trick was in trouble. This, in itself, wasn’t news. Trick was almost always in trouble of one kind or another, but this time was different. He couldn’t get himself out of this one, and that was news. A seasoned thief, Trick never met a lock he couldn’t pick, a room he couldn’t enter, or a trap he couldn’t evade…until now.
He was locked inside a golden sphere of interlaced metal that hung suspended in mid-air. Underneath the cage was the most evil, unholy altar that Trick had ever seen…and he had seen quite a few. It was comprised of a black metal frame that held a silver-black pool inside. The pool seemed to be made of molten metal, with the faces of tortured souls rising up to the surface and screaming in silent agony before falling back again. The whole thing was stained with blood, urine, and other bodily fluids, and crusted bits of flesh rotted from savage hooks that were molded into the frame.
It radiated pure evil. The heat and smells that emanated from it nauseated him. He wasn’t exactly what you would call a “good person,” and he had never paled before evil artifacts before, but this one certainly made his stomach heave.
He had tried to change himself into every shape he could think of, both humanoid and animal. He had tried using his sword’s innate ability to teleport out, and had nearly been fried crisp from the attempt. He had tried squeezing through the bars, only to have them move together wherever he stuck his hand through, threatening to end his lockpicking abilities once and for all. He had hacked at the bars with his sword, but had not even scratched the paint. He couldn’t find a seam or break in the pattern…no weakness at all that he could exploit. Eventually, he gave up and just sat in the middle of the cage, completely devoid of ideas.
Eventually, he fell asleep. When he woke up, he was both heartened and saddened by his first sight. Kaine and the others were in the magical sphere with him. It had expanded so that they all fit, but just barely. The others were still unconscious, and looked to be heavily wounded. However, their wounds were healing quickly. He wished he had been awake to see how the sphere had opened. It might have let him plan his escape.
He leaned over, and nudged Kaine, who seemed to be the least wounded among them. Trick wasn’t surprised by that observation. Kaine had a way of shaking off damage that would kill ordinary people. That was one of the reasons he stayed with Kaine. The man had a secret, and Trick hated not knowing what it was.
“Kaine. Kaine!” Trick nudged him, and Kaine responded with a groan. He opened one eye groggily, but then snapped to full attention when he saw Trick.
“Trick! Gods it’s good to see you, man! I was starting to get a little nervous!”
“Don’t be too hasty on that just yet, Kaine. We’re in serious shit. Way over our heads.”
“At least we’re in it together, eh chum?”
“No, Kaine. Not this time. This time, I’m afraid it would be much better if we were separated. Sit up, and take a look around. We’re in a bad place, and there’s no escaping. I’ve been trying.”
Kaine did as he was told, and then fell back into a slump. “We’re screwed, aren’t we?”
“I’m afraid so. I came on board as a rat, figured nobody would notice one more among the hundreds already here. I was wrong. The captain hit me with a paralyzation spell as soon as I touched the top deck, and then threw me in here, where I’ve been since. I didn’t get a chance to scout anything, I’m sorry to report. I guess that’s the gist of it. I’m sorry to report that I have nothing to report.”
Kaine grinned at the old joke, but turned serious as he heard Sophia moan next to him. He noticed her wounds healing, and then noticed the same phenomenon on Runt and Nightshade. “What’s going on, Trick? Why heal us if they’re just going to sacrifice us?”
“My guess would be that whatever god owns that…” he gestured towards the altar below them “…prefers its meals whole.”
“Fuck me. You must be right. God damn Blood and her bitchy self! We never should have agreed to this!”
A calm voice from outside the sphere took them by surprise. “Careful, Kaine. She has eyes—and ears—everywhere, you know. T’would be a shame for your blasphemy to reach her.”
“Smedley! You old cuss! What are you doing here?”
“Glad to see you, too, Kaine. Me and some of the boys have been here for about a year now. Watching, waiting. Trying to figure this whole thing out. This captain…this ship…all bad for business. Very bad. Encroaching on our turf. Killing people in our alleys. Blood sent us here to stop it. Problem is, we have no way of doing that. The captain, the crew…all too powerful.”
“They’re termites, Smedley,” said Kaine, using the slang term for followers of Exterminis, the mad god of destruction.
“Yeah, I know. They gave us a tough choice: convert, or die.”
“Fuck, you joined them, Smedley?”
“No, dumbass. If we did, d’ you think I’d be here talking to you? We tricked ‘em. We got some magical gloves we use to keep us from touching things that don’t need touching. Come across stuff like that a lot in our profession, stuff we need to take but don’t want to touch. Anyway, to convert, you have to touch the altar with your bare hands. Turns out, the altar couldn’t tell we was wearing the gloves, and so it didn’t kill us. The captain thought we must have been converted, and once he was convinced, so was the rest of the crew.”
“Lucky gloves. I don’t suppose you have a few extra pairs, do you?”
“Yes, but I don’t know what you’re going to do about the big guy. We don’t have any that will fit those claws of his,” Smedley said.
“We’ll figure that out. In the meantime, tell me more about this ship. What keeps the crew together? Don’t termites usually start killing each other off once they get more than four or five together?”
“It’s the captain. He’s a priest, and a very high-level one at that. He’s brought all these people together. He recruited what sailors as he could find, and converted the rest. They keep sailing down to the Nahuatl Jungle, searching for something. They haven’t found it yet, whatever it is, but it must be huge. A big deal, I mean, not necessarily physically large. Could be small as a mouse for all I know. They support themselves under the cover of trafficking slaves out of the jungle, but there’s more to it than that. There must be, because they never take enough slaves to make a decent profit. They’re looking for something down there. Something awfully important.”
“There must be an artifact down there, or a temple, or something that will give them some sort of power. Some way to free Exterminis. Smedley, we have to follow this to the end. We can’t let them find whatever they’re looking for. We have to put a stop to this.”
Smedley smiled. “I’m glad to have you with us, Kaine. I think you might be the extra edge we’ve been looking for. Here’s the gloves. I’ve got to go now, but hopefully, we can talk some more before the captain comes to convert you.”
“Thanks, Smedley. You’re a true friend.”
Smedley smiled, gave a casual salute off the brim of his hat to Kaine, and left the room with a flourish. As soon as the door closed behind him, Trick spoke to Kaine.
“Runt…” said Trick.
“Yeah. Runt. I don’t know what to do about that. The rest of us should be ok…they’re humanoid tolerant. But Runt…”
“Yeah, Runt. We could let them have him, Kaine.”
“That’s a little cold, even for you.”
“Yeah, but they’re going to get him anyway. I don’t see why we can’t profit from that, at least a little. Our willingness to sacrifice him ourselves could go a long way towards making our move here seem legit.”
Kaine snapped his fingers. “Trick, you’re a freaking genius!”
“Yes. We could kill him ourselves, and then have Sophia resurrect him when we get out of this mess. If he’s already dead, then the altar can’t take him, and his soul can rest while we do the hard work. And, as you pointed out, that will give us a certain legitimacy.”
“Fuck, Kaine. You’re as bad as I am. Cold blooded motherfucker.”
“Practical is more like it. Besides, it’s a mercy killing. Better his soul gets some rest than be sacrificed to that thing down there.”
“I suppose it’s up to me to do the dirty work, then. When?”
“Well, you are an assassin. It’s in the job description. When? Now. I don’t know how much time we’ve got here, and if he wakes up, and sees what we’re trying to do, he’ll kill both of us. Sophia doesn’t need to be a part of this, either. She’ll never forgive us as it is.”
“You’re the boss. Here goes…”
Nightshade rolled over and opened one eye. “Stop. You two dumbshits are just about the dumbest dumbshits I’ve ever known.”
“How long have you been awake?” asked Kaine.
“Longer than you have, mon capitan. Were you really just about to kill Runt? I can’t figure out if you were born stupid, or if your brain simply rotted away over time. What the hell were we supposed to do without Runt?”
“I suppose you have a better idea?”
“Ideas are your speciality, Oh Fearless Leader. But I know one thing, and that’s that anything is better than killing Runt. You kill him, and Sophia will kill all of us. Whatever we do, we do it together. All of us. We’re a team, and we live and die…together. Now, since we don’t have any better ideas, I’m waking up Sophia. Maybe she can figure out a way to get us out of this mess.”