By B M Kelly
Rip Skrimgnaw spat out a mouthful of salty sea water and nearly doubled over wretching as a series of violent coughs raked up and out of his throat. He shook himself furiously from side to side, trying to cast as much brine out of his thick black fur as possible, before grasping a length of his sodden and torn mustard yellow tunic in his paws and wringing it out tightly. He could swim as well as any of Clan Skurvy worth their salt and years of plundering the length of the Tilean coast had seen him leap from the side of a ship more times than he dared try to count, but he'd never had to suffer the indignity of being thrown overboard. He cast his one good eye up and down the length of the beach, scratching absently at the metal eyepatch hammered into his skull across the other, but could see no sign of his companions, just the seemingly endless strip of golden sand, bordered by a foreboding dark tree line of the encroaching jungle on one side, and the endless cobalt ocean stretching to the horizon on the other. Good, he thought to himself, perhaps they had all drowned, the good-for-nothing flea-ridden land-squeaks. Better off without them for all the help they'd been.
He shivered despite the warmth of the sun on his back and coughed again, feeling his belly tighten with every wrack and his fur bristle and stand on end as a wave of nausea washed across him. Perhaps he had swallowed more sea water than he had originally thought. He gave a quiet thought of thanks that the Horned One had spared him and secretly he was quite impressed and proud of the little lie that had spared his life. Fools. They'd pay for their insolence and idiocy, just as soon as he could figure a way off this island and back to Spineport.
He shuddered and swallowed uncomfortably, feeling the bile rise in his stomach. The cloudless sky above pressed down on him, no skaven liked being out in the open like this alone, and his head kept twitching skyward as if he were expecting some massive avian predator to swoop at a moments notice. Just his luck to make it ashore without becoming shark-bait only to be plucked up by some worm-ridden sea roc and fed to her younglings. Filthy, vile creatures, feeding off others misfortune like that! Such base creatures compared to the glorious might of the skaven!
Before making for the tree-line he risked a look out across the choppy white-tipped waves, watching as they were tossed against the shore by the strong salty tasting wind, and there, in the distance he could make out the silhouette of the Blackfang, his ship, sailing off towards the horizon without him; its ragged black sails snapped taught as it made its way back north towards Tilea, and home to the gnawed out rat-hole of Spineport. He spat again, though this time in anger at his poor fortune and the audacity of his underlings and former crew. He slung his musket up from its holster and aimed at the distant ship with an outstretched arm. Pointless, he thought, the powder was wet and he had only one pellet, but at least the mechanism seemed intact upon quick inspection.
He ran his paw across the smooth metal of the barrel and patted the wooden stock lovingly. Soon, he promised the gun, before sliding it back under his armpit and drawing his cutlass. The curved blade was pitted and notched in numerous places along its beaten and weathered length, scars of countless scuffles and fights, as often with a mutinous crew-rat as it was some poor man-thing fool that had no concept of the laws of ownership. He never understood why they failed to accept his clear superiority, why they refused to just give up what was rightfully his and die quietly.
He felt a little more comfortable with the weight of the worn weapon in his paws. Who could dare to stand against the mighty Rip Skrimgnaw, Claw-Captain of the Blackfang and Scourge of the Southern Seas! Admittedly, he was without ship for now, but he was no less a Captain of Clan Skurvy for it, and his name would surely still strike fear into the hearts of any who got in his way. His mutinous crew had gotten lucky, that was all. Sneaky, yellow-bellied litter runts, banding together like cowards behind that upstart lickspittle Skeelik Blacktail. There was no way he'd been outsmarted by that idiotic mange-ridden halfwit. No, this whole thing made his whiskers twitch, it must have been sabotage. Someone very powerful had surely given that fool their support, slipped powder into Rips drinks to dull his quick senses and numb his exceptional fighting prowess. Conspiracy and subterfuge! Grey Seer Krikspitt would be furious when he found out that his favourite Captain had been tossed overboard whilst he slept! Who could have the power, the influence, the sheer outright audacity to dare to challenge the indomitable Rip Skrimgnaw, Claw-Captain of the Blackfang, Scourge of the-
He ducked instinctively, ending his internal monologue swiftly, throwing himself to the sand and almost dropping his cutlass as the shadows of a trio of sea birds swooped overhead. Perhaps, he mused, it would be a better idea to get those trees over his head sooner rather than later. Then he could work out where he was and figure a way back to Spineport.
"Stupid-dumb tick ridden fool-squeak!" spat Krikspitt, gnashing his yellowed teeth, running his clawed fingers down the soft ashen fur of his muzzle, scratching at his whiskers in irritation. The numbskull had one job. One simple job, and somehow he'd managed to bungle that up completely. How hard was it to organise a proper mutiny, cut that moronic halfwits throat and bring the twitching corpse back below decks to him? Simple! It should have been completely foolproof. He'd assumed that even with Skeelik's legendary brainlessness that the deal would have gone down flawlessly. Fine, perhaps not flawlessly, but it should have at least been successful! He'd expected that perhaps Skeelik may have fallen overboard too, but in fairness, that would have just have let him off having to pay the hopeless buffoon for the trouble and would be one less throat to cut when they reached port, but no, the bonehead had just complicated things completely. They were now nine crew-rats down and Krikspitt was still without his prize.
"Oh great and verminous one, take pity on poor-simple Skeelik!" the large black Stormvermin threw himself to his knees and prostrated himself before the Grey Seers feet. No Skaven liked to be on the wrong side of one of the Horned Rats favoured apostles, not if they fancied keeping their fur and vital organs on the correct sides of their skin at least. Even Skeelik knew the correct protocol of how to grovel before his betters, hollow though it may be. Krikspitt was well aware that fear of invoking the wrath of the Horned One was often all that stopped him ending up drifting ashore, like an empty rum barrel with a rusty kitchen knife in his back, but at least that reputation served as a form of protection and those platitudes served to feed his over burgeoning ego. Be that as it may, he had no time for it now. His prize may be sinking towards the bottom of the ocean, swimming off in the belly of some shark-beast, or about to meet some unknown fate if that fool Skrimgnaw was actually lucky enough to drag his sodden and sorry self ashore.
"Fool-fool!" Krikspitt hissed again, "Such a simple-easy task! All I ask is for kill-kill Rip-Captain, and you toss-throw him overboard?"
Skeelik bristled in fear and rose to his knees, clasping his paws together in a protesting beg, "But great and fearsome one! Claw-Captain say-squeak that bad luck come from kill-kill Claw-Captain! He speak-say that man-things cast overboard and leave quick-fast for sea to think-choose what to do!"
Krikspitt raised a paw and back-handed the Stormvermin across the muzzle, throwing him to his side and striding over him towards the rotten plank of wood that served as the door to his quarters. "Fetch-gather a team of your best-smartest fighters quick-quick, then we go find-kill Rip Skrimgnaw, bring-drag his body back here, understand? No touch-loot him, just bring-fetch, understand?"
Skeelik knelt up and rose to his feet hurriedly, staying hunched over so as not to dwarf the Grey Seer and nodded quickly that he understood clearly what failure meant. "Oh thank you, great and merciful one, oh mighty and malignant one! Skeelik will not fail-fail terrible and verminous great Seer Krikspitt again!" With a flick of his characteristic black tail, he was gone through the doorway and back up onto deck.
The Grey Seer exhaled slowly and produced a small bronze tin from his robes and took a pinch of warpstone snuff from it, inhaling the blackish-green powder in a single sniff. He buried the tin back in the folds of his robes and shuddered as he felt the raw magical power surge through his body, the frustration and irritation draining from his body. They had better be able to find Skrimgnaw, he thought to himself with a wrinkle of his nose, or else things were about to get truly ugly.
Though he was loath to, Rip had to admit that he was lost. The sun had dropped below the horizon not that long ago, but it meant that the only light he had was what little star and moonlight filtered through the thick canopy above to the undergrowth that he crept quietly through now. His eyesight was used to gloomy tunnels and the dark depths of the world, so the lack of light did not disturb him, it was the closeness of the air, moisture thick from the sudden and violent downpour that had suddenly drenched the jungle, only to abate as suddenly as it had arrived less than half an hour later. He had wondered, for the duration, if someone hadn't turned the world upside down then right side up again, dropping the entire ocean down on his head.
He looked down at the clawed skaven-tracks that he had been following for the past hour. These ones were fresh in the wet mud, so whoever had made them had been out during, or shortly after, that downpour. They couldn't be far ahead, and if there were skaven here, then there was an entrance to the Great Under-Empire. It was said that all tunnels lead to Skavenblight, the grand centre of the Under-Empire and seat of the dreaded Council of Thirteen that ruled over them all. He would be able to make it back to Spineport from there if there was no more direct route before then. That thought comforted him a little. All he had to do was follow these tracks until he caught up with whoever had made them, and from there he could secure his own way back to Tilea, Tobarro and home.
But what if these tracks were those of one of his companions, those weakling idiot fool-scum that had failed to keep him aboard his ship? The tracks certainly looked strangely familiar, perhaps they were of Krak Spittlebite, the dark-furred slaver who he'd seen 'fall' overboard before he himself had been held down at knife-point. Rip could have sworn that the coward had jumped rather than face the pathetic fools that had his Claw-Captain pinned. The tracks were about the same size as Rip's own footprints, which would suggest Krak over, say, the diminuative Rikkit whom Rip had thrown into the angry mob that had rushed him as if the small and meager gift might placate them. He'd definitely seen the old cook thrown into the sea, but the pathetic weakling would likely have drowned or been eaten before making it to the shore. He almost felt sorry for whatever unsuspecting sea-beast took the worm-ridden cook for a meal. Such a small amount of straggly rat-meat was little compensation for the inevitable taste, let alone the diseases and parasites that Rikkit was doubtless riddled with.
No, tracks of this size could only be of a skaven of his own stature, his own grandeur and might, his own... His own... Rip slapped a paw to his face and let out an exasperated groan, clawing at his own eyes. Of course the tracks looked familiar, they were his own. He'd been walking around in circles following his own paw-prints this whole time.
There was a rustle in the undergrowth off to his right. Instinctively, with paranoia honed speed, Rip spun drawing his cutlass and musket in one smooth motion, tracking the bushes carefully where he'd heard the noise come from. A feeling akin to terror arose within him, and he swallowed hard to not spray fear-musk. It was surely some terrible monster of tooth, claw and scale come to eat him, or worse, drag him back to its hideous young. They must have sailed further west than Rip had imagined to come to the coasts of Lustria, or perhaps further south to the unmapped Southlands. He had heard tales of the Lizardmen, great fanged beasts that stood on two legs in parody of the pure skaven, but they had scales in place of fur. They had fought with the monks of Clan Pestilens and had developed a taste for skaven-flesh from battles with the pox-ridden vermin of that cursed Clan. Good for them, he thought to himself with malice. He had never liked the Plague Monks, they smelled funny and were prone to having bits fall off them. They reminded him of the walking bones of the Zandri coast he had once made the mistake of plundering. That had been a fateful time, he remembered.
The searing heat of weeks on the open southern seas had burned away all of the crews energy, leaving the Blackfang drifting on the tides. Even the slavemasters cruelly barbed whips could only drive the oar-slaves to a sluggish motion, and the slavers themselves found their arms growing weary under heat induced ennui, so the black and ragged sails had been unfurled, but the winds themselves seemed just as bored, barely mustering a soft breeze. The ship rocked softly on the low waves, most of the crew below-decks gambling away whatever they had to offer on games of chance. Knuckle-bone dice rolled and clacked damply against rotten wood tables.
Rip could feel it in his bones as he stood on the forecastle, an old dwarfen telescope against his right eye, the other squinted closed tightly, the glass lens and brass casing glinting as he scanned the horizon. If they didn't hit land soon, didn't plunder or kill something, his crew would rise in a mass mutiny, purely out of boredom and lack of other distractions. This was Clan Skurvy, it was a foolish Claw-Captain who didn't keep an eye on his back constantly. Claw-Captains had a curious knack of falling victim to various unseemly accidents, and he'd taken it upon himself to constantly ensure that other crew-rats who became a little too comfortable fell prey to those accidents first. It was of little concern to him, they were all plotting anyway and there was never a shortage of slaves for the oars or 'willing' crew-rats to 'hire' when they returned to Spineport. It was never a case of 'if' the crew would mutiny, it was merely a case of 'when'.
Grim and grisly affairs, mutinies. It would inevitably start with one crew-rat, a stab in the back here, or an 'accidental slip overboard' there, and suddenly they thought they were Claw-Captain. Of course, this always had a way of inspiring the other crew-rats into deciding that this was the perfect opportunity for them too, and so the perfect order and running of the ship would swiftly devolve into a murderous whirlpool of violence and gore until, eventually, one would rise to the top of the pile, stake his claim and crush any who dared oppose it. The new Claw-Captain had only to hope that there were enough crew still alive to sail the damned ship home again afterwards.
There! As he turned to face over the port bow, he caught a glint just inwards from the horizon. He cast an eye skywards to the evening sun on its western descent. Starboard. Perfect, the glint was south-east, which suggested the coastline of the sandy Deadlands. He'd lost track of how long had passed since they had weighed anchor and made for a southern tack, the fog-masked and rocky waters of Tobarro fading into the distance, and the case of sea charts he'd kept in his cabin had been lost overboard during the last mutiny, along with his prized warpstone compass. He'd managed to figure out how to navigate without the compass to a certain degree, but the charts had been a valuable asset rescued from the wreck of a Sartosan vessel they'd passed.
Well, rescue was a matter of perspective. The Sartosan ship, a finely crafted and maintained vessel painted in deepest crimson with emblems of the man-thing god Man-An - and what a stupid name for a God - stitched intricately into the midnight sails, had been floating before the Blackfang had shown up and unleashed a full broadside of Warp Lightning Cannons purchased from Clan Skryre for no small amount of gold, warpstone and slaves. Rip could still taste the scent on his whiskers of searing flesh, both man-thing and skaven, the stench of woodsmoke as the cannons loosed a tempest of morbid green lightning from their brazen barrels. The Blackfang had had several close encounters with Sartosan vessels in the past, which was what had prompted Rip to upgrade from black powder cannons in the first place. He had been quite impressed and pleased with himself at a decision well made. The great arcs of unnatural electricity dancing across the wooden hull of the Sartosan vessel, leaping from body to body, indiscriminate of Sartosan of the skaven boarding party Rip had sent across, had been a glorious sight. A full ships plunder and a flawless field-test of his newly purchased weapons. Of course Rip had hand-picked the warriors for the boarding party from amongst those he trusted least - and that was saying something with his crew - or those who had shown just a little too much popularity from the other crew.
"Land-land!" He squeaked excitedly to Skeelik Blacktail, his First Mate and the only sea-rat he felt he could rely on enough to hold the position. He still didn't trust Skeelik, but Rip was comfortable enough that Skeelik was enough of a half-brained idiot that he'd notice any impending mutiny a mile away, and Krikspitt, the Grey Seer currently travelling with them, had recommended him for it.
"Tell-speak slavemasters to whip-slash the slaves! Wake up Grey Seer Krikspitt and bring-fetch him here." He called back as he scrambled across the decking for the helm to steer the ship around towards the glimpse of land he had spotted.
"Aye-aye, Claw-Captain!" Skeelik bobbed his head in obedience and ducked below-decks to pass on the command. He licked his lips, it would be good to be off the ship, but before then would be the delicious tang of blood in the air as the slaves were beaten horrifically. If he was really lucky, one of them might drop dead from exhaustion; he hadn't had a good meal in what felt like an age.
Rip smiled a toothy grin to himself as he gripped the helm-wheel in both his paws and began to swing the ship around to an eastern bearing. Soon they would be back on land, and the killing and plunder would begin; from the look of the sun, it would be just after dusk that they arrived. Perfect.
The Blackfang glided silently into the harbour under the cover of darkness. The twin moons, the greater Mannslieb and her sickly cousin the lesser Morslieb, hung in the sky, their pallid light dancing off the tips of the shallow waves. The harbour itself was spread across the delta mouth of a wide river, stone jetties spread out across the water from the shore like roots of a great tree, and hundreds of ornate dhows bobbed in their moorings. Rip had secreted his crew below decks, ready to spring out at a moments notice. Despite the Blackfang dwarfing the other boats and being of clearly foreign design, not a single sound could be heard from the city itself save for the creaking of the dhows and the hissing of waves cresting against the docks. Everything seemed normal, except for the oppressive silence. Rip felt the fur on the back of his neck stand on end. It was as if the entire city had died at once, suddenly, in one great sigh.
Silently he gestured for the anchor to be lowered to the water and winced at the grinding sound of the chain clanking noisily and the enormous splash as it slammed into the water. He cast a venomous look at the crew-rat who had been tasked with dropping the anchor 'slowly', and shot the useless flea-brain mid apologetic-gesture. The body flew back with the impact of the warpstone pellet, flipping on the gunwale and swiftly joined the anchor in the water below.
If the inhabitants hadn't noticed the ship, they probably had heard the anchor drop. If they hadn't quite heard the anchor drop, then they would certainly have heard the barking report of his musket as the boom echoed around the harbour. Oh well, he shrugged inwardly to himself, drawing his cutlass and thrusting it towards the city.
"Quick-quick, Blackfang! Kill-slay any who stand-block your way! Cut them down and steal-take what you can!"
With this came a mighty clamour, each skaven threw up his own voice into a cacophonic war-cry as they began to lower smaller boats to the water, the crew themselves spilling over the sides of the Blackfang like a verminous tide of fur, teeth and steel. Most landed in the boats and began to row their way ashore to the sandy banks just beyond the jetties, aiming for the line of palm-trees just beyond the stone waterfront. Other unfortunate souls missed the boats, plummeting full-bodied to the water below, crashing into the sea with plumes of briny spray; some swam for the shore, blades between their teeth, but others were slammed unconscious to drown in the delta as the boats dropped to the water. In more than one case, some were hurled overboard or run-through by their own crew-mates for having the audacity to be in the wrong landing boat.
As the first of the boats slid ashore, and were pulled up the sandy banks, Rip turned to the Grey Seer with a rictus grin on his face and a wild gleam in his eye.
"Great-many plunder tonight, oh malicious and abhorrent one!"
Krikspitt nodded slowly, pulling his slate coloured robes up over his head, hiding the curl of the ram-like horns protruding from his temples, "Claw-Captain Skrimgnaw should wait-wait until plunder on his boat before count-brag his rewards."
Rip did everything in his power to not roll his eyes and bit back a retort. What would the Grey Seer know? He was no Claw-Captain of Clan Skurvy! The tick-soiled flea-spit had likely never even seen a ship before coming to Spineport, and now that he had sailed in the best of the entire navy, he assumed he was a sea-rat too? If it wasn't such bad luck, such a daring display of defiance to the Horned Rat, the ominous and ever present skaven god who clawed and gnawed at the edges of reality, then Rip would have pushed the old fool overboard a few days out of port and seen then just how great 'Great Krikspitt' was with sea-beasts snapping at his tail and his worm-eaten lungs full of salt water!
He was still unsure as to why the Grey Seer had insisted on coming on this journey, but he wasn't about to press his luck by asking, and the wizard had promised him a great price upon their return. All he had wanted was a cabin aboard the Blackfang for one journey, and would depart again when they returned, with Rip all the richer. He despised the Grey Seers presence, but he had to admit he had his uses.
Krikspitt dug his hand into the folds of his robes and withdraw a little bronze tin and opened the clasp with bony clawed fingers. Inside was a vile green powder the consistency of ground salt. The Grey Seer took a pinch, held it to his nostril and inhaled sharply, sucking the entire pinch down in one. Rip watched with a mix of awe and panic as the Grey Seer's fur visibly bristled and crackled with ghoulish green sparks, his eyes glowing from within with a sickly glow like little witch candles had been lit inside his skull. There was a sudden cracking sound, the strong acrid scent of sulphur scorched his nostrils, and then Rip had to bite down hard on his tongue to not cry out as he felt his entire body burn with an intense agony for the duration of a heartbeat. He opened his eyes, and let out his breath. They were ashore.
Rip spat out a gobbet of blood where his fangs had punctured the meat of his tongue. He hadn't realised how hard he'd bitten. He shook his fur to rid himself of the feeling of static that had washed over him and left his fur standing upright. He coughed to clear his head and maintain some composure in front of the Grey Seer and his underlings.
"Onwards!" he yelled to his crew, drawing his cutlass from his side and pointing it into the city, "Plunder-fetch all you can for Rip-... for mighty Clan Skurvy!" he corrected himself, flicking a sideways glance at Krikspitt to see if the old fool had noticed. If he had, he didn't show it.
The streets of the city were as silent as the harbour they had drifted into, silent save for the frantic squeaking and yells of curses and commands as Skeelik and the other Stormvermin barked commands to the crew-rats and ship-slaves. The greater moon Mannslieb was high in the clear night sky and cast a cold, pallid light across the flat-topped white stone buildings, edged with a sickly green tinge from the second smaller moons glow. The Chaos Moon was full tonight, and Rip took that as a good omen that the Horned One was watching over them. He imagined that the misshapen baleful green orb was the great eye of his most maleficent god. The thought both comforted an unnerved him. Perhaps it was better to be inside...
Then he saw it. At the end of the street, beyond a palisade of slender ivory columns, stood a grand artifice, like a smaller version of the pyramid structures he had heard speak of. Around the lower tier of the structure, dozens of statues in the likeness of various animal headed humanoid skeletons stood silent sentry. Each stood a good three times the height of Rip or any of the other skaven. They reminded him of the Rat Ogres that Clan Moulder sold in the vast sprawling bazaars and markets of Spineport, only bigger. Their hollow eye sockets seemed to glare at him accusatorially as if they knew his intent.
Only statues, Rip reminded himself, tightening his grip on his cutlass.
"There-there!" he called out to his underlings, "Much-much looting inside there!"
Only statues, maybe, but a Claw-Captain didn't stay Claw-Captain by being the first into an unknown and possibly dangerous situation. He'd let them scout ahead first then would take what was his by right once he knew the way was clear.
The first group of ship-rats ascended the stone stairs at the front of the structure without any issue, scrambling up the steps frantically only to find themselves faced with a thick stone slab in place of the doorway. Two of the statues flanked the doorway with heads of jackal skulls and massive stone swords twice as tall as a skaven held cross-blades above the lintel. Rip had ordered up a team of slave-rats carrying brass orbs the size of cannonballs, and commanded they place the warpstone bombs - purchased from Clan Skryre for a few dozen slaves and a clawful of tokens each - at the foot of the statues. He turned to call up another slave with a wormoil torch to light them, but was thrown muzzle-first to the floor as a massive explosion rocked the streets, shaking dust off the buildings and throwing up clouds of sand as the stone slab, and the unsuspecting pack of slave-rats, disappeared in a lurid green mushroom cloud. One of the idiots clearly hadn't been careful enough with the temperamental weaponry. Good to know, Rip noted, that was one way of dealing with insubordination.
"Go-go, quick-quick!" he called, urging his crew forward into the breach before the dust had settled. The group seemed to hesitate for a moment, but a pellet from his musket through the skull of the nearest soon made their minds up for them, and a dozen crew-rats scrambled up the stairs and into the breach, "Find-find treasure!" he called after them, "Bring-show me!"
He ascended the steps slowly after the pack had disappeared, stepping delicately over the rubble of the ruined doorway and casting a cautious glance up at the statues. They were both curiously undamaged.
A series of panicked squeals and squeaks from inside the structure snapped Rip's attention back to the task at hand. He stepped across the doorway and peered down the steps inside. He could see the flickering light from the torches that the crew carried in the distance, but they were a fair distance deep inside now.
Rip spun violently in a sudden start as the Grey Seer stepped up alongside him, a jeering smirk hanging mockingly across his face.
"No-no, mighty and most horrid one." He straightened himself upright hastily.
"Good." the Grey Seer gestured a clawed hand to the steps down and into the structure, "Then we should go-see what your crew have found, no-no?"
Rip nodded, biting back another retort. Who was this upstart pip-squeak to command the mighty Rip Skrimgnaw, Claw-Captain of the Blackfang and Scourge of the-
He shook his head and swallowed. He'd deal with the Grey Seer and his audacity later. Right now his crew could be plundering all the best loot from under his nose, and though he'd shake them down later, who'd know what he could miss? What if one of them found something potent enough to challenge Rip for supremacy over the Blackfang? What if there was some vile and lethal trap that the Grey Seer could 'accidentally' stumble into? No, now was not the time for him to be irritated by that tick-ridden flea-brain Krikspitt, he needed his head clear of distractions.
He stepped down the first flight of stairs cautiously, then, realising that his head was still on his shoulders, and his fur still on his skin, he lifted his head high and strode pridefully down the tunnels towards the flickering distant light. He was a Claw-Captain of Clan Skurvy, the mightiest of the Claw-Captains, in fact! No ship could match the Blackfang. Fear simply would not do, for now at least. A good deal of fear and paranoia was appropriate and useful, it was what kept him above the rest of his crew, kept him alive, but right now he needed to put on a show both for the Grey Seer and for his underlings. A moment of apparent weakness and he'd have a knife in his back, or a blade through his heart, or one of all manner of other grisly ends.
He rounded a corner and paused briefly. Reed torches on the walls had been lit as his crew had passed, and two crew-rats in yellow tunics lay on their front, unmoving. They were dead, but there was no blood. He sniffed the air suspiciously and caught a tang of something sweet, something fruity, but it made his nose itch. Poison gas, he concluded. He'd sent down a team of a dozen or so skaven, and only two lay dead here. He had to assume that they had triggered the trap and that the gas had dispersed. After all, the rest of the crew had pressed on alive and he was far stronger and mightier than they! He swallowed his fear and tried to stop imagining what it would feel like for his lungs to melt away inside his chest as he stepped forward and over the corpses of the two rats. He scrunched his eyes closed in anticipation, only opening them slowly a moment later on the realisation that he was still breathing. He coughed nervously and continued onwards down the tunnels, the echoing clack of the Grey Seers staff and the soft scuffling of his claws against the stone floor the only sound to accompany him.
A few twisting turns later and he could make out the muffled murmuring of several skaven ahead, though the actual words were indecipherable. Rounding the corner, he paused as half a dozen skaven straightened up and then suddenly and obviously bowed their heads low.
"Oh great Claw-Captain and mighty-foul Grey Seer Krikspitt!" the closest cried, "Way ahead is block-sealed!"
Rip raised an eyebrow curiously and took a breath to speak, but stopped short when the Grey Seer stepped forwards instead.
"What is it? What block-stops our way?"
The skaven shuffled aside to the walls and Rip had to swallow hard again to avoid spraying fear-musk. Several skaven corpses lay beyond, some headless, some missing limbs, two were cut clean in half, and the tunnel was sprayed with so much dark skaven blood that it was visibly dripping from the ceiling and running down the walls. He closed his eyes briefly, taking a deep calming breath, tasting the tang of blood on the air. It made him hungry.
"What did this?" he asked, unwilling to let the Grey Seer take any more of his command, "Say-squeak quick-quick!"
"The walls are trapped!" squeaked another of the crew-rats, "Blades and saws!"
"Watch." Krikspitt said, raising a paw towards the group. Rip felt the fur on his neck stand on end and saw the Seers eyes glow gently again, then one of the crew rats was flung full bodied down the corridor. It had only travelled a few feet before two massive spinning metal discs slid from the walls horizontally, and blades as long as the corridor was tall scissored closed on the unwitting rat, neatly bisecting him and decapitating him in one gruesome, yet strangely impressive, display of violence. The remaining crew-rats whimpered and cowered as their comrades vitae showered them before the ruined parts of the corpse hit the floor with a wet squelching thud.
Rip hummed thoughtfully. This posed a quandary. On one hand, this was possibly the easiest way to be rid of the upstart Grey Seer, but on the other, there were too many witnesses and whatever was beyond the trap must be precious indeed to warrant such protection. No, he thought to himself, he may yet need the Grey Seer, as much as it pained him to admit it. The dung-brained mage-rat had his uses. Perhaps they could disarm the trap for now, then re-arm it later?
He peered down the tunnel and imagined where the unwitting skaven had been when the trap had triggered. In the air - so it wasn't a pressure switch concealed in the stonework, it was proximity based, magic or some other mechanism, and if it was magic, he would definitely need the Seer. He didn't like that thought. Rip closed his eyes and tried to imagine how else the trap might trigger.
"Well, Claw-Captain Skrimgnaw? Any idea-thoughts?" Krikspitt's voice was loaded with smug condescension, he was trying to undermine Rips authority and command in front of his crew. Oh, how Rip wished he could just throw the fool forwards and let the trap do the work for him. Surely he could do without a few crew-rats? A small price to pay to rid himself of Krikspitt.
Opening his eyes slowly, Rip turned his head to the Seer, "Can you sense-feel magic here?" he asked slowly. Krikspitt sniffed the air for a few moments, his pallid nose twitching and wrinkling, though from magic or the scent of blood on the air, Rip couldn't tell. After a few moments, the Seer shook his head.
That was both good and bad news. On one paw, it meant that Rip had no immediate use for the Seer, but on the other, it meant he had no real idea how to proceed. He was about to turn back but then he saw it. A tiny glimmer of light in the side wall. Of course! Light! It reminded him of Clan Skryre's warp-lightning cannons, and other devices he'd seen. With clever mirrors and crystals those devices had ways of directing and focusing light, and with some kind of sensor or switch on the other side that reacted to the light being broken, you had a fully functional trigger for such a trap. Now, how to deal with it?
An intruder waking past would block the beam of light, triggering the trap, that much Rip knew. If the beam remained blocked, would the trap trigger once or would it keep going continuously? That he couldn't tell, and he didn't really have enough underlings available to test the theory. He considered asking the Grey Seer to Skitterleap them beyond the trap as he had done to get ashore, but the thought of not being far enough beyond the trap and reappearing only to get a mouthful of sharp steel, or re-emerging inside the wall put pay to that idea. He began thinking back to those Clan Skryre devices, then another thought dawned on him.
"Oh malicious and wicked one, can you call-cast a spell for your most humble of servants?" the platitudes were as empty as a rat ogres brain, but he hoped they'd serve their purpose with the pompous fool of a Seer, to feed his ego.
Krikspitt regarded the Claw-Captain with a sideways glance of suspicion but otherwise seemed not to question the sudden change in his demeanour, "What is it you ask-seek of mighty and beneficent Grey Seer Krikspitt?"
Rip raised a clawed finger to where he had spied the sliver of glass in the wall, "There-there, in the wall. If we trick-fool the trap into thinking the light still shine-glows, then it will not trigger."
The Seer shifted his expression, clearly trying to hide how impressed he was beneath a veneer of cold condescension, as if Rip had suggested something the Grey Seer had been thinking all along. Rip felt smug knowing he had outsmarted the mage-rat in deciphering the trap, but did everything he could not to show it. He needed Krikspitt on his side, for now.
With a nod, Krikspitt raised a gnarled paw, holding his twisted wooden stave out in the other paw. Rip could feel the air become charged with magical energy, like static on his fur, and could almost perceive the flow of magic channeled down the stave and into the Grey Seer. All of a sudden, a violent surge of blinding lightning arced from the Seers fingers, dancing across the wall where Rip had indicated.
"Go now, fast-quick!" Rip commanded the closest crew-rat, drawing his musket and aiming it at the terrified skavens face to press home how serious he was being. The crew-rat hesitated for a moment, weighing up the possible gruesome mutilation of the trap against the certain death of a pellet through the skull, and the musket came out on top. He turned and darted down the tunnel so fast that his claws scraped the stone-work and the crew-rat nearly tumbled tail over head in panic. Rip winced in apprehension of the gruesome mess the trap would make, but it did not trigger and the skaven stopped at the end of the corridor and turned back, clearly astonished that he yet lived. Rip followed swiftly, he had considered waiting but decided it best to move as quickly as he could, certainly ahead of the Grey Seer, and he ran full pelt to the end of the corridor, turning in time to see the second crew-rat cooked alive as an errant fork of Krittspits dancing lightning wracked through his body, exploding his heart and causing blood to run freely from his eyes and nose, before the corpse hit the floor, still twitching. Then the Seer and the remaining crew-rats made their way past, the Seer edging forward slowly so as not to interrupt the casting of his spell. Upon reaching the other side, the Seer lowered his paw and the lightning storm ended. The air tasted thick with the tang of ozone and the unfortunate crew-rats scorched flesh and fur. As if to make a point, Krikspitt grabbed the nearest of the surviving crew-rats by the shoulder and flung him back down the corridor. Before the poor unsuspecting rat could even squeak in protest, three large iron spikes and a vertical saw blade sprung from the walls and floor, splitting him apart in a shower of viscera and bone.
Rip winced, wiping a trail of gore from his snout, they'd need to be careful on their way back out but at least the corpses served as an excellent marker.
They lost two more of the crew-rats before reaching what Rip assumed was the centre of to structure. One as struck in the chest with a cloud of poisoned darts, falling to the floor at the front of the group screaming as his flesh and fur sloughed from his bones in great meaty gobbets like massive gory owl pellets. The second plummeted a few short yards when a trap-door swung open beneath his feet, dropping him into a pit of black scorpion like creatures. Rip hadn't witnessed what had actually become of the poor skaven, choosing instead to leap across the hole without looking down. The screams had been enough for him.
They stood in a large square chamber, Rip, Krikspitt and the three remaining crew-rats of the expeditionary party. They had lit the torches on the wall and Rip had had to admit that he was impressed by what the light had revealed. A clever arrangement of mirrors on the walls illuminated the chamber as though it were daylight, and the sudden change from the gloom made his eyes hurt until they adjusted. Rubbing his eyes clear of the dazzle spots, he beheld a large rectangular box of stone, intricately carved and chased in golds and vivid reds and blues. The lid was moulded into the likeness of a sleeping man, his face hidden behind a beautiful death-mask of ivory, inset with rubies, sapphires and turquoise.
Beyond the strange casket a long curved sword hung on the wall, the pommel carved into an ornate gilded skull. It rested on two small wooden hooks just inside a shallow indent into the wall. Spaced around the chamber were jars filled with, as closer inspection showed, embalmed vital organs. Such a waste of good food, Rip thought to himself. Man-things were such strange creatures, taking all the best bits out, making them inedible, then storing them in jars like trinkets. It was possibly the only thing stranger than the man-things curious penchant for sacrificing themselves to protect their weaker breeders and younglings, both replaceable commodities in Rip's eyes. Besides, weren't there already enough of the pathetic man-things in the world already?
Rip set his underlings to examining the jars and piles of jewels and cattle bones for anything useful and proceeded with the task of prising open the sarcophagus. He withdrew his cutlass and pressed the tip into the small gap between the lid and the main box and used it as a lever, all the while the Grey Seer stood watching, unimpressed. The lid was heavy, unbelievably so, but with enough effort (and clambering up onto the box to bring his whole weight to bear), the lid came loose and slid to the side a couple of feet.
There was a sudden cry from the side, and Rip nearly lost his footing as he jumped almost out of his fur. Krikspitt was hissing and cursing as a strange bubbling blue-black mass writhed around his paw. It took Rip a couple of heartbeats and the Grey Seers frantic shaking to realise that the mass was a swarm of vicious beetles. Krikspitt dropped to the floor for a moment, then there was a bright green flash and the stench of ozone. When his vision returned, Rip saw the Grey Seer rolling on the floor, the burnt husks of a thousand beetles surrounding him, clutching at the bones of his left hand. The flesh had been eaten away leaving only bare bone and tendons. He had stepped up to the blade and attempted to grasp it.
Rip risked a glance inside the casket whilst the Grey Seer was distracted and the crew-rats were arguing over who would try to eat an embalmed heart first. With the small amount of light that pierced into the sarcophagus, he could make out the wrapped form of a humanoid corpse, also embalmed from the pungent smell of oils, and there on its neck was a simple golden pendant cast in the shape of a leering jackals face, with emeralds inset for eyes. It looked curiously like the face of the Horned Rat. Rip took this as a sign and, casting a sideways glance with his eyes to make sure the Grey Seers attention was elsewhere, snatched it up quickly, burying it into the folds of his mustard tunic before continuing the task of shifting the lid open.
With a firm kick the lid slid the last short distance and crashed loudly to the floor. Krikspitt started suddenly and cast his attention to the casket.
"What is it?" he hissed sharply, "What's inside it?"
Rip made an obvious shrugging gesture, "Nothing. Just a man-thing corpse."
"Nothing else?" the Grey Seer sounded suspicious, scuttling across to the casket, still clutching his bloody wrist to his chest and peering full-body over the side searchingly, "No loot-plunder?"
He cursed and kicked the side of the stone box with a thud, "Useless, pathetic man-things! Why protect-guard such a worthless thing?"
Rip cast his gaze around the chamber. There was enough wealth in the gold and gems here to buy a new ship, cast haphazardly around the room. What else was the Grey Seer expecting? Why was that alone not enough?
"Useless, pathetic man-things!" Krikspitt repeated, "Worthless flea-brained, tick-ridden, worm-food!"
Rip decided to leave the Grey Seer to his infuriation and ordered the crew-rats to gather up as much as they could into the few chests scattered around the room. After a few moments of shovelling everything they could into the chests and forcing the lids closed, they began the return journey, each of the crew-rats dragging a chest behind them. Quite the plunder, Rip mused, but it still confused him as to why the Grey Seer had reacted so. Surely Krikspitt couldn't have known about the talisman? They'd arrived here at this city by chance, hadn't they? Or if not by chance then by Rip's keen eyesight. He would have to keep an eye on the Grey Seer, he decided, and certainly be cautious about the talisman until he could ascertain what exactly it was.
The return trek was slower, weighed down by the three heavy chest-loads of gold and gemstones, but it had been uneventful. Grey Seer Krikspitt had bound his wounds tightly, and having taken a swig of a foul smelling juice from a corked clay pot, had continued on regardless. Rip had to admire the Seers tenacity.
The five skaven surfaced back onto the palisade just as light was beginning to creep onto the horizon. Rip breathed a sigh of relief. Like any skaven, he felt most at home underground in the close confines of tunnels, but the vaults of the tomb had been something altogether different. Skaven tunnels were prone to sudden collapse but the ever present threat of death and the unusual scent of the tomb had put Rip on edge more than he cared to admit, and he found himself genuinely glad to be out of the place.
His moment of relief ended as swiftly as the skaven in front of him. Two stone blades swung down across the door cutting the crew-rat clean in two, front from back, as two massive skeletal structures strode free of the walls either side of the door. Rip found himself suddenly wanting to dive back down into the tomb as he stared up at the two jackal headed statues that had flanked the doorway, and it was all he could do not to spray fear-musk as his heart began to pound like an ogre was trying to thump its way out of his head. The two surviving crew-rats dropped their chests and made an uncharacteristically brave dash for it past the two stone giants, though neither made it far. The first was skewered as one of the statues ran him through with the tip of the blade, flicking the gurgling corpse off the end as it turned for the second crew-rat. Unnecessarily, it turned out, as the second skaven had every bone in its body pulverised to dust as the other statue slammed it full body with the flat edge of its blade, tossing the whimpering skaven through the air to end as a bloody and broken smear on the side of the tomb.
Rip froze. He was not prepared to die here, not like this, not now. He was Rip Skrimgnaw, Claw-Captain of the Blackfang, Scourge of the Southern Seas, and he was not about to be beaten by some aggrandised masonry! He drew his musket and fired off a shot at the closest statues head. The shot impacted against the side of the skull and took away a good chunk in a shower of splintered stone. The statue reeled for a moment, trying to keep its balance, and Rip seized the opportunity, running like a lunatic directly for the statue, intending to dart between its legs. He turned his head sideways and saw his doom, the second statue raised its blade and swung it horizontally straight for Rip. With the momentum of his run, there was no way he could change direction or do anything other than run directly into the blade. Time seemed to slow, and his heartbeat and breathing became rhythmic in his head. He prepared himself for the end, swallowing slowly and closing his eyes as he saw the blade come right at him.
A few moments passed. Rip could still feel his legs running, could still hear his heartbeat and breathing. Most importantly, he couldn't feel the bite of the blade against his flesh. He opened his eyes suddenly aware that he was still moving and alive and found Krikspitt running alongside him.
"Idiot-fool!" the Grey Seer hissed between bruxed fangs, "Wait-wait for me to prepare spell next time!"
Rip became suddenly aware of the tingling sensation running across his fur, and the faint afterglow of magic in the Grey Seers eyes. He was alive. He was still the mighty Claw-Captain Rip Skrimgnaw of Clan Skurvy. All around him he could see crew-rats in the mustard yellow tunics of his clan rushing back towards the harbour and the Blackfang. The sounds of battle rang out around him, the clash of steel on steel, the cries and death-squeaks of skaven and the hollow clanking of sun-bleached fleshless bone. It seemed the whole city had suddenly come alive, except that 'alive' wasn't quite the word. Where once the streets had been empty, suddenly the city was filled by hordes of shambling skeletons, striding slowly, implacably forwards with their weapons drawn.
A group of skeletons rose suddenly from the sand in front of him. Krikspitt rolled to the side to avoid the swing of a shining scimitar that sang on the air as it glided over his head. Rip drew his cutlass and leapt swinging at the skeleton in front of him, the edge of his blade cutting through its bony neck, sending the bleach-white skull rolling away as another skeleton lunged for him with its spear. The point missed Rip by a few inches, but the shaft clipped his ankle as he sailed through the air. The sudden impact spun Rip upside down and he crashed, sprawled onto the sand below. He turned and swung back sand-blind with his cutlass, cutting through the shin bones of his closest assailant, but let out a squeal of pain as he felt a spear-tip pierce his left eye. He swung out madly, cursing and spitting as he rolled to his feet as he tried to blink sand out of his one remaining good eye, and blood out of the other. It took only a moment to realise that his left eye was gone, ruined, and he cried out as much in anger as pain, pulling his musket out too. He fired a shot at another of the skeletons, crushing the things skull inwards as he split the ribcage open of another. He spun and kicked another skeleton away, then paused for breath as a violent surge of warp lightning from the Grey Seer tore away the last of his attackers.
"Quick-quick! To the Blackfang!" he cried out at the top of his lungs, wiping blood from his muzzle with the back of his sword-hand, and heard a hundred other voices echoing him, "Any who fall-fall behind get left behind!"
Rip pawed at his eyepatch, his claws scraping against the metalwork, the memory made it itch somehow, as if the nerves still half-remembered the pain of the spear-tip. He'd managed to take shelter in a cave he'd found cut into the side of a rocky cliff-face only a few yards into the jungle from the beach. It wasn't much, in fact quite cramped and close, but Rip found that comforting, and a strange musky fragrance hung cloyingly around the place. He put that down to the strange silvery mushrooms that were growing out from cracks in the walls. He was famished, but he didn't dare touch the fungi. Having seen what eating the wrong mushroom could do to the Night Goblins of the tribes that occasionally poured into Spineport, he'd sworn never to touch a mushroom again.
He paused and caught his breath, feeling his heartbeat quicken. He'd heard sounds coming from the shore, the scraping of a small wooden boat being dragged up the sand and a few dull thuds of oars being dropped. He scuttled out from the cave, taking cover behind a low bush, and pressed his paws through the leafy foliage, still damp from the earlier deluge, and prised them open quietly.
Sure enough, there on the beach he saw a sight that made his heart skip with joy, Grey Seer Krikspitt was stood with one foot up on the bow of a little wooden boat, and Skeelik and three other slavers had just lept over the side onto the wet sand. He was about to dive out from the foliage when he heard the Grey Seer speak, and instead stopped dead, finding his paw resting gently on the hilt of his cutlass in anticipation.
"Go-go! Quick-quick! Find that fool-spit Skrimgnaw and bring me his body!"
Rip froze, and moved his paw silently from his side to rest on his musket, slinking slowly back into the shadows, keeping his body low to the ground.
"Yes-yes, oh mighty and malicious Krikspitt," he heard Skeelik croon, "We go-find Claw-Captain and bring him back to you! Skeelik will not fail Krikspitt again!"
"Remember, bring me him whole! Do not touch any of his belongings! I must search-check he is safe first!"
Rip raised his free paw quietly to his throat and his claws found the Zandri talisman there. Surely this was what the Grey Seer was after, and he wanted Rip dead for it. He'd been behind the mutiny all along! He shuddered to think of the scale of it all, that he was being hunted by an agent of the Horned Rat himself! No, he stopped himself, he had done nothing to displease the Horned One, Krikspitt was acting out of his own selfish greed and jealousy at Rip's fortune and cunning in finding and claiming the talisman first!
Rip waited for a good few heartbeats after Skeelik and the other skaven had gone, pausing to listen to them diving off through the undergrowth behind him then raised his musket until the muzzle was aimed directly at the Grey Seers head. Surely the Horned Rat would not be upset for Rip killing one of his favoured apostles if that Grey Seer was putting his own selfish greed ahead of the Horned Rats great and terrible agenda! He paused again, held his breath as he made certain of his aim, and then squeezed the trigger on the exhale. Time seemed to slow, and immediately Rip began to regret his decision. What if the Horned Rat was displeased? It was too late now though. The musket barked it's cracking report and the pellet, a sizeable chunk of refined warpstone, spun through the air leaving a sparkling sickly green trail behind it. Rip wanted to squeeze his eyes shut, but found himself unable to not watch as the bullet found its mark square between the Grey Seers horns, piercing the soft flesh of his forehead and sending the Grey Seer sprawling over the side of the boat and onto the wet sand.
He dashed from his cover to the boat immediately, the others surely would have heard the gunshot and even with Skeelik's legendary idiocy, they would certainly come to investigate. He grabbed all the oars and threw them into the boat, scrambling into it and sliding two of the oars into the rowlocks. With a quick leap again, he started to push the boat out into the water, casting a quick and terrified glance down to the unconscious form of Grey Seer Krikspitt. Blood streamed from the wound and into the sea, where it diluted in the water to a pale pinkish cloud, and Rip could see the eerie green glow of the warpstone pellet embedded in the Grey Seers flesh. Krikspitt was still breathing and could wake up at any time, and Skeelik and the others would soon be back. The Blackfang was still there in the distance, and with a quick glance he could see the ship was at anchor from how it swayed.
Perfect, he thought, jumping back into the boat, collapsing onto one of the benches and starting to row. He could see the four skaven stumble back from the treeline and onto the beach, and he watched their confused expressions as they saw first that the boat was gone, then the Grey Seer unconscious with the waves lapping at his feet, and finally they saw him, beyond their reach now, rowing away from them. They were stranded.
Good, he thought to himself, the good-for-nothing flea-ridden land-squeaks. Better off without them for all the help they'd been. He was the mighty Rip Skrimgnaw, Claw-Captain of the Blackfang and Scourge of the Southern Seas!