She stalked past the engineering bay of the CSS Pentalos, well ahead of her war band. Here the large holes exposed the ship to the black, riddled by salvos of bulkhead busters. Her brethren would soon be kicking about, looking for the wounded to bleed. It was custom. Allowing your victims to die slowly disgraced Barothal, one of the eldest and most sacred of the unvanquished Gods. True enemies did not deserve the honor of anguish. The old prophets had said pain was knowledge. Suffering, power. Anyone cowardly enough to escape combat would be captured and and forced to endure new methods of Vanduul divinity. Each would have the virtues of Barothal bestowed upon them, at least, until they perished from the blessing. But she was not Vanduul, not by blood anyway, and thus was freed from participation in certain rites. She looked toward the black and counted the charred clusters of bodies, severed limbs and burnt entrails. The crewman here were lucky. Corpses made poor painslaves.
Her brethren had joined her by the time she reached the cargo hold. The lights here flickered with intermittent surges. In flashes, could see that her mag boots had left prints of human blood on the metal floor. Once you were a killer, death always found a way to follow you around. For a moment, the scar on her cheek burned, and then it was gone. She caressed the sealed containers with her fingertips. Drake Interplanetary they each read. These supplies were probably meant for some nearby shipyard or construction facility. They would better server her warriors, who gone without fresh rations for several weeks. She would have to thank the corporation later for their greed. Raids on corporate transports had been instrumental in keeping her family alive.
Her crew moved when the lights extinguished, serrathas drawn. Serrated blades had drawbacks. They caused more pain, but finished tough jobs quickly. Had Zargath explained it was a necessary tradeoff. The prophets aboard her ship had reluctantly agreed. But there were no clergy here, only warriors, ready to extinguish the breathing. There were 18 Vanduul raiders in all in the hold, and several more under her command. She raised her right fist slowly, holding her own Serratha toward the sputtering flourescents above. Slowly, the raiders ceased patrols and came to kneel before her. Her Vanduul was as sharp as the jagged blade in her hand. The words were old, hardened in a dialect long buried before most of the raiders had been conceived.
“Brothers,” she said. “Today the gluttony of the Empire is just. It feeds the valant, the bold. Take these clothes, foodstuffs, medicines as if they were for your own kin. Tonight, there is no taste too sour. Tonight, we bathe in life.”
“Which was a nice reprieve from death,” she thought. The raiders scraped their serrated knives on the ground in response. The sting of metal on metal had used to grate her ears, yet she never winced. It was sweeter now. A sound of obedience.
She lowered her own weapon. “Go now, load your shares onto your scythes, crawlers and warships. And share only with those who's teeth are coated red with the blood of today's victory.”
She had not yet returned the gesture of her raiders, brining her own bladeedge to mar the ground beneath her feet, when a door in the back of the hold was thrust open. Garph emerged, holding an thin man by the neck. Behind them followed three children, each bound in crude shackles and connected by chain. Out here, stuncuffs were a delicacy. Medieval tools were the norm. Cruelty was cheaper. The Vanduul raider lead his prisoners around the far edge of the hold. He jerked the humans along and moved quickly, apparently hoping to go unnoticed amid ceremony.
“You dare interrupt a D'rathi? And one who is Talenkhai, at that?”
Talenkhai. More words that should be dead were it not for tradition. It meant Priestess of War. It meant more, coming from Zorath, who bore her strifebond. She had not even heard him enter the hold, been aware he was behind her.
Garph's brow raised like a child confused by darkness. She had seen his serratha work in combat, and knew the difference between infancy in knowledge and that in war. He had killed more men with his hands than most Vanduul had with missiles.
Her tone was laced with a purr, a cat praying for string. “What plunders do you deliver us, Garph? You discover piperats hiding in the bowels of the ship and see it just to keep them only for yourself? Bring them to me.”
“But they are mine, Dregan. I found them.”
Zorath interupted. “It would be unwise to make the D'rathi repeat herself.” He withdrew his own serratha, and let a few drops of fresh human blood drip onto his fingertips. Swirling slowly, he drew runes in the crimson on the sideedge. No smile crossed his lips. “And if you call her that again, I'll gut you myself.” Zorath looked only at his weapon. She wondered if he truly thought either of them worthy of his gaze.
Garph led the four humans before her and kicked the unchained man in the back. He whimpered and buckled at the waist, his gaze only rolling upward for a moment. She was wearing a full vacsuit and rebreather. She knew he couldn't her eyes. His were a dull violet, blunted by years of constant travel maybe. He wore the rags of a nomad and wore no weapon on his waist. His hair was shaven close to bald which made him look young, but not younger than his companions. Winding folds and wrinkles betrayed his history. Garph jerked the chain, and all three human children clustered closer to him.
She cleared her throat of the Vanduul tongue. She was well practiced but the transition still gave her some pause. The raiders all shuffled as she spoke words they could not understand.
“Speak, dog,” she said. “For you will not have such an opportunity again.” The Vanduul word for dog was harsher, meant something akin to a bloated rat who feeds on carrion. She had considered using it, but knew it's edge cut raiders deepest. She would save it for a special occasion.
He said nothing.
“I said speak.” She dropped the blade from her right hand. It landed with a clang and slid only a meter from the man's knees. He did not look at it, although she swore his right arm twitched for a second. She brought both arms up and pulled embedded levers at from her neck armor. The vacseals released with a gush of oxygen and a squeal. The staleness of clean air was replaced with the chalk of smoke. She smiled and removed her helmet, holding it just above her waist.
“Would you like to pick my weapon up?” she asked. “If you did, those loyal to me would quarter you before you got within the length of the blade.”
“You're human,” he said.
“And you're observant. Not very stealthy, though, if he was able to find you.” She met Garph's gaze directly. She imagined the fear in him from a direct look without the feintest clue of what they were discussing.
“Difficult to remain hidden with three scared children.”
“All of them yours?”
“No, only two. The smallest boy and girl. The older girl is the daughter of the captain. Was, anyway.”
“Is. I haven't found his body yet. No sense in granting him an early death. And their mother?”
“Not here. We were hopping transports to Croshaw with what money we had left. Do you have children?”
With this question, he raised his gaze. She could hear Zorath stir behind. She released her left hand from the helmet and raised it slowly, palm perpendicular to the floor.
“Please, spare them. You know what they'll do. Take me. Give me to him, this Garph. Please. I beg you. Have compassion.”
She winced. Neither the words 'please,''beg,' or 'compassion' could translate well to Vanduul. She felt her scar burn again and changed her tongue. She made a fist with her left hand. Zorath approached on her right.
“Take these prisoners to the hold in my ship. They will remain under your protection until I decide their fate. Zorath nodded. Garph shook the chain violently and all but the small girl cried out.
“Vharghesh” he spat. She couldn't decide if his insults or his spit were venomous. More old words, this one, meaning 'betrayer of one's blood.' She didn't know of an Empirian equivalent, if one even existed.
Zorath flipped his grip on his Serratha. Had she not grasped the arm of her oathbrother she was sure he would have leapt at Garph's throat. She did not want that. She had an old word of her own.
“Rokhan,” she said once, tossing her helm aside and picking up her weapon. In the Vanduul, it meant one thing. “Rite of Challenge.” And although two entered, only one ever left. One of the raiders took the chainbound children while Zorath jerked the man from his rest. He shot her a look somewhere between worry and admiration. She wondered if had the Rites allowed, he would have honored his oath.
The raiders moved stacks of sealed containers out of their way and formed the sacred circle. Only silence filled the chamber. This was not a time for words.