Jacobi hit the deck when the enemy opened fire, taking refuge behind one of the hastily constructed fortifications the company had erected along the docks. More barricades were still being erected along the coast. The first shots struck wide of their position, hammering the surrounding berg outside the base while only minimally strafing the base itself. The township suffered the brunt of the volley. It was a devastating blow. Gritting his teeth, he rued the helpless feeling that welled in his chest. Though token, the artillery that found its way to them was enough to effectively suppress their ranks, impeding if not outright stalling their efforts. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the Isoldean’s campaign, except the effectual razing of Istan, in which they were succeeding.
“Blasted, godless, bastard heathens!” He growled, biting back with words, his most effective weapon for the moment.
The mobile infantry was replete with a compliment of land-based artillery, including mortars and cannons. A number of the cannons were already positioned along the docks behind stockades, along with most of the mortars, but the rest were in storage. The ranks had grown lax during peacetime, and no one stationed at Istan ever believed the thought of invasion to be credible. Well, bully for them.
The cannons that made it to bore wore signs of disuse and a lack of maintenance. He could hardly fault the fault the men who neglected their stations, though not without difficulty, as he had flaggingly neglected his own duties more often than not. But now, their mutual complacency was coming back to bite them all in the ass.
He was looking for someone to blame when a bullet ricocheted off a nearby post, scuffing the iron bracket before striking the crate next to his head, which he had taken refuge behind. After being showered in a hail of splinters, he suddenly regretted not volunteering to evacuate the civilians after all. He hissed a curse, beset by the dreadful premonition that it would be a theme today.
In lieu of evacuation, he had been sacked with leading a ragtag group of misfits; a motley assortment of sailors that had no business being grouped together. With everyone on leave for Beltane, and the sudden departure of their sole battleship, the island base had been left with scraps from which to scavenge up a replete company. Theirs was one squad of a handful tasked with erecting a defensible blockade. He scoffed at that, as judging by the sheer numbers, no amount of preparation would be enough to hold this enemy at bay. The full might of the Atreian Royal Navy might manage it, but not them, not their handful of randoms, and certainly not with the paltry few minutes they’d had to work with to begin with. It was laughable; but he wasn’t laughing.
“What the Hell’s taking so long?” he asked, barking at his communications officer.
The munitions were dispersed, but the ammunition wasn’t, having been stored separately. They had enough shots to give away their positions, but for nothing else. Until the ordnance was distributed, they were glued to their rifles, stuck twiddling their thumbs until the enemy ran out of ammunition, which he figured might take a while after having stocked more than a few cargo bays himself.
“The powder was never unloaded from the ship.” Tonfa informed him, poring over the scroll laid out on the ground before him. Jacobi loomed over the man, struggling to read the chicken scratch the code was written in. “They’re fetching the barrels we have in reserve.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Who in the fuck’s job was it to—”
“Does it matter?” Tonfa said, snapping back at the man, annoyed at being the target of Jacobi’s ire. “You, me, them—whoever they are—could just as easily ballsed this up, and you know it.”
Jacobi sighed, sensing that he’d been leaning on his comms officer too much. He supposed a bit more tact and understanding wouldn’t be unwarranted. “I don’t need you telling me that.” He grumbled petulantly. “Okay, fine. I don’t like it, but I get it. Now, give me something I can work with.”
“Mortar shells.” Tonfa replied automatically.
“I’ll take them. So, where are they?”
“On the way. But we can’t fire them once we get them.”
“Why in the fuck not?” Jacobi’s voice rose accusatively, forgetting his earlier revelation concerning decorum.
“Permission granted.” he grit out.
After working with Tonfa for years, Jacobi had developed a special relationship with the man which some might describe as friendship. He would be hard pressed to accurately describe their association with words, but with this close pseudo-relationship came with certain perks, like a knack for dealing with the man’s unique outlook and attitude. That is to say, that while a normal communications officer might balk at tail end of a superior’s tongue lashing, Tonfa staunchly refused to do any such thing. The man hardly batted an eye. Worse, he could give as well as he received, but unlike Jacobi, Tonfa was well versed in the subtler arts of pissing a man off, which he employed with vigorous abandon when he felt it was deserved. And judging by Jacobi’s rising temper, Tonfa must be in a hell of a mood.
“And what the fuck, pray tell, is that supposed to mean?” Jacobi asked in faux civility.
“It means, Sergeant, that the captain said that anyone that fires without his permission…” Tonfa turned to read the rest of the scroll, ignoring Jacobi’s incensed look. He grimaced and clicked his tongue. “… something bad.”
“Dullahan writes like my kid…” Tonfa muttered, shaking his head. “Well, it’s nothing good, I’m sure.”
Jacobi really wanted to punch his quote-unquote friend. “Great. So, we’re just supposed to sit here while praying to Xenia that they run out of ammunition?” Xenia was the Goddess of War, and Jacobi didn’t know whether they were supposed to be worshiping or cursing the deity at this particular moment.
“It might help.” Tonfa said with a straight face. Jacobi opened his mouth to retort, but Tonfa carried on without giving him the opportunity. “But the captain wants battle stations to prepare to open fire while conserving ammunition. Here are the captain’s orders, and I quote: don’t do anything stupid, don’t waste ammo, and don’t die.”
“We’re fucking ready.” Private Demiter chimed in, echoing Jacobi’s thoughts.
“No.” Tonfa said matter-of-factly. “We’re not. We’re short on ordnance and all the hardware has yet to be distributed. The captain wants us ready to unload everything when he gives the signal.”
“What’s the signal?” Jacobi asked, piqued.
“So, what’s the plan?” Tonfa asked, looking straight at Jacobi.
“Now you want to listen to me?”
“Captain’s orders.” Tonfa shrugged. Technically, the orders came from only a single link along the chain of command, the next in a long sequence, which still happened to be several places short of the captain’s own position, who staunchly served as an anchor. Technically, the chain persisted beyond that to include generals and the monarchy, but for all intents and purposes, this was the ad hoc hierarchy which was pertinent; and orders, whoever’s orders were received, were the de facto captain’s orders. “You’re the highest-ranking officer; we have to follow you, but we don’t have to be happy about it.”
The faces behind Tonfa all displayed varying levels of assent. Jacobi was reminded that these were not his men, merely substitutes, but still found the blunt assessment bruising to his ego. Jacobi really wanted to strangle his friend sometimes…
He sighed, a deep dramatic hissing that served its purpose—to annoy Tonfa. It worked like a charm, judging by the man’s sour expression.
“Alright.” Jacobi said, breaking the artificial lull he’d created while internalizing a victorious grin at having one upped his friend. “The artillery should be in the armory.” He looked at Tonfa for confirmation. “Right?”
Tonfa shrugged. “Should be.”
His strangling hand twitched, and he fisted it to keep from lashing out. “Right. That’s not far from here. They’re probably understaffed, so we should—”
Another barrage of cannon fire erupted behind them, strafing the lowlands of the island and hitting perilously close to the base. One of their warehouses was grazed, the corner of the structure shorn off in a delugent spray. The thunderous echo of its destruction was followed by several loud cracks, each increasing the tempo set by its predecessor. A few seconds later, the entire roof collapsed in on itself. The impromptu garrison watched the crumbling building settle as the dust rose to signal its demise.
“Any chance…” Jacobi hesitated to vocalize his worries, afraid of the answer. “… that wasn’t the armory?”
“Uh… you want the truth?” Tonfa asked.
“No. I want you to lie to me.” Jacobi said flatly.
“That wasn’t the armory.”
Jacobi cursed, a sailor through and through. “I was really hoping you weren’t going to say that.” He shook his head in frustration. They were short on artillery, begging for powder, and now it looked like their contingent of runners were just killed mid-fetch. Things were going from bad to worse, and they’ve yet to even retaliate in full. Unfortunately, the only ones who seemed prepared for this war were their enemies.
Jacobi looked around at the expectant faces staring back at him, waiting for him to tell them what to do. It wasn’t fair to expect him to have all the answers, not when they were all thrown into the midst of this shitshow so unexpectedly. But that was life, he rued. It wasn’t fair, and unforgiving like a scorned woman. So he could pout about the way things stood, or pull himself up by his bootstraps and actually do something about it to change the way things were. There was an old wizardly adage which stated that choice was by far a greater influential force in the world than any amount of magic could ever be, with the ability to invoke the most change. He wasn’t sure if he believed it, but it was all he had at the moment.
He was still on the fence, contemplating their choices, when their fortification was grazed. Gods dammit.
“Okay.” Jacobi said, cementing his choices and steeling his resolve. “Here’s the plan: Dewalt, Hogar, and Batham, on me; Ivan, Iggy—”
“It’s Yggdrasil. C’mon, I was named after—”
“Whatever. You, Ivan, and Tonfa take the rear, with Tonfa acting as my second in command. If the captain wants that ordnance, then we’re going to deliver.”
“Sarge, I left my magic at home. Can I borrow some of yours?” Demiter, always the smart ass, mouthed off. “Also, you forgot to assign me a position.”
“You’re on comms.” Jacobi and Tonfa echoed.
Demiter sputtered. The self-proclaimed man of action balked at the thought of being left behind, relegated to, essentially, a desk job.
Tonfa unloaded the bulk of his scrolls on the man, glad to be unburdened. He kept only a basic field communications scroll on his person, traveling light.
“Move out.” Jacobi ordered, eager to depart before Demiter could protest his assignment. “Stay low, and try to keep up.” He flashed his squad a cocky smirk.
Peering around the hastily erected bulwark, he looked out towards sea to gauge the enemy’s position. They plagued the harbor like a school of piranha, frothing at the mouth like rabid beasts. He took a deep breath to ease his nerves, then ran out at a crouch. He was immediately beset upon by a storm of gunfire, pelted with a hail of bullets which peppered the dock’s boardwalk. Jacobi yelped, hopping from foot to foot before jumping back behind the safety of the barricade.
Tonfa put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’re all fine. We waited to see what would happen to you first before following. Good thing, too.”
Jacobi received a round of nods from his men, signaling their assent to the communications officer’s cheeky statement. His pride withered, and he wondered, not for the first time, how he had ended up in that position. How everything had gone to shit so fast.
“Pass on a message: snipers.” Jacobi said dully, adrenaline waning.
“On it.” Demiter said, oddly acquiescent to his assigned task.
A minute passed without a word spared. Even the distant cannons lulled as if subdued by their dying morale. Jacobi noted that even Demiter seemed unforthcoming for reassignment. Though, he caught Tonfa eyeing the man’s scrolls remorsefully more than once.
Jacobi was about to open his mouth, to say he had no clue what they were supposed to do next. Nobody had ever trained them for this; neither was anybody in the squad blessed. They were merely the most mortal of men in a world plagued by monsters and mages, where man and creature alike could deflect bullets and set fire to the very—Jacobi’s eyes widened. That’s it!
He pointed to a collection of crates stacked pyramidically in the loading zone. An hour ago, they had numbered almost thirty. Now, there were less than a dozen. “Is that the Gardenian’s cargo?”
“What?” Tonfa asked incredulously. “You want to go for a smoke? Now? While I do think things seem rather… bleak, I don’t think this is exactly the time for a last—”
“No, you idiot. Is that the tobacco or not?”
Tonfa looked as confused as the rest of the squad appeared to be, but appraised the cargo anyway. “Yes… it is. Why?”
Jacobi smiled, reacquiring his cocky bravado. “Because, gentlemen, that’s going to be our ticket to the armory.”
Tonfa shared a troubled look with the others. It was clear that nobody knew what their extemporary leader was thinking, their hesitation a symptom of their mutual unfamiliarity. Unflinching loyalty was born of fire, Jacobi knew. The best he could hope for was begrudging obedience, which he obtained after only a moment’s indecision. He feigned obliviousness to the squad’s mutinous exchange, supplementing their orders, and they feigned giving a damn, but followed them anyway. The squad soldiered on as a unit afterwards.
They managed to recover four of the cargo crates before the enemy got wise to what they were doing. They almost lost one of the I-twins, Ivan or Iggy, when they attempted to retrieve crates five and six. Though the men looked nothing alike and were unrelated, they possessed a similar enough bearing and namesake to make discerning one from the other enough of a challenge that most of the men simply didn’t care to attempt the feat. It was simply easier to group them both together.
“Are you sure that won’t explode?” Jacobi asked Demiter worriedly.
“Of course, not.” The words “don’t be stupid” went unsaid, though Demiter’s tone did wonders for conveying the sentiment. “Gunpowder only explodes because it’s usually confined in an enclosed space when its ignited.”
“You mean, like you’re doing?” Jacobi said, pointing out the fact that the man was in fact priming a wad of gunpowder within a bushel of tobacco.
“The leaves are too loose.” As if to undermine his own point, he firmly cinched the bushel shut even tighter. “Don’t worry. There’s still plenty of airflow left in there. This here, will just burn.” He set aside the jury-rigged package, and set to priming another with black powder, some gun oil, and a length of tallowed rope.
They had opened the crates, retrieving their contents, baled complements of tobacco; each unit roughly the size of a sack of rice, but lacking the heft, they were twined in straw cord. Their aroma hinted at their substance, which scented fresh, having only been recently harvested off the field. Each crate contained twenty bushels, half of which Demiter had already primed.
“They’re ready.” Demiter announced.
“Good job. Finish the rest while we return. We’ll need to cover our ingress. Turning, he nodded at the rest of his squad. Each man held one of Demiter’s doctored parcels. “Do it.” he ordered, voice resolute.
Each man assessed his improvised bundle, lit the rope, which served as the fuse to their contrivances, and threw them in the direction of the armory, each aiming at a slightly different degree in their gauged range. Tonfa’s mark was the closest to reach, which he was allotted as the smallest member of the group, and thus presumed the weakest, physically. His aim was true; he hit the mark after casually tossing his payload with all the grace of a dropped dinner plate. Jacobi, who as leader felt compelled to take on the most challenging role, aimed for the armory itself, falling short a considerable distance. It landed somewhere near Demiter’s assigned waypoint. Demiter, who hadn’t thrown yet, chuckled behind the sergeant and tossed his own bushel with a grunt, which landed squarely at the foot of the armory.
Demiter shieled his eyes from the sun, which happened to be burning behind him, and squinted. “Hmph. Looks like I overshot it. I’ll have to hold back even more next time.” He said smugly, making no strides to bury a cocky smirk.
Jacobi glared at the man, who in turn offered him a one-fingered salute—the middle finger.
The bushels of tobacco began burning enthusiastically, the powder catching and spreading to the neighboring leaves. As Jacobi predicated and Demiter assured, their improvised smoke bombs plumed forth large clouds of the heady substance. It clouded over the docks, obscuring a line towards the ruins of the armory. The wind was mild, allowing for good cover. A sudden pop resounded, and they crouched low. Alerted, they sought a gunman, but saw that one of the bushels had exploded. Its fulmination created a brief, but complete fumigatory obfuscation of smoke.
Jacobi looked over at Demiter accusingly. The man shrugged.
“Move out!” Jacobi ordered, eager to press their advantage.
Unlike his earlier dalliance with sniper fire, he heard a litany of bootsteps following in his wake as he crossed the boardwalk, signaling that his squad hadn’t hesitated this time. His pride soared, and he wondered if he had brokered some credit in their ledgers and when that might’ve happened. The ground quickly gave way to cobblestones underneath their feet, the joint between the two terrains an unofficial delineation separating the docks from the base. Under the cover of smoke, they were able to move freely, unincumbered or targeted by sniper fire.
“It looks like your plan’s working.” Tonfa said.
“Did you ever have any doubts?” Jacobi asked smugly. Then, thinking better of it, he moved to cut off his friend’s reply, intimately acquainted with the man’s snark and sarcasm. “Wait, don’t answer that.”
Tonfa closed his mouth with an audible snap.
Gunfire erupted to their left, hazarding their flank.
“Run!” Jacobi ordered.
They ran, abandoning their measured but concealed movements for outright speed, but soon realized that they weren’t the prey being hunted. Another platoon had thought to piggyback on their egress, but the exit route Jacobi had set forth wasn’t ideal for the newcomer’s position. The other squad, emboldened by Jacobi’s success, overreached, leaving themselves far too exposed and getting themselves decimated in the process. Seven men went down while three made it back to their starting point, carrying a wounded fourth.
Jacobi’s squad made it the rest of the way to the armory without suffering any casualties or emboldening any other platoons into action. They ducked behind a provisions supply wagon outside of the armory just as the smoke began dissipating. A few men took deep breaths to savor the last vestiges of the fine aroma. Colbatine tobacco was a fine product with a price tag reflective of its quality, which typically reserved the goods for the upper echelons of society.
The entrance to the armory was left exposed. That didn’t matter, because it was also full of rubble, blocking the exposed entrance all the way to what used to be the ceiling—by, ironically, what used to be the ceiling. They circumnavigated the building to the side entrance, only to find it similarly blocked. Batham, on scout duty, reported that the third side sported no entry, and the fourth was visible from the harbor.
Jacobi judged their position to be as good a starting point as any, possibly better in fact. Plus, it was out of the line of sight of the enemy, making it ideal.
“Okay.” Jacobi said. “Start digging.”
They formed a double line, ferrying stones down a double-sided human chain, stacking them near an abandoned pair of transport carriages that were used to ferry land-based cargo. In short order, they cleared the first few feet of the obstruction. The stones clattered on top of each other when they were tossed aside unceremoniously, sometimes vexedly.
“Sarge!” Dewalt, at the front, called out. “Look.”
They had burrowed far enough into the building to unearth a cavity of empty space. The cavernous hollow was a mottled black, dappled by stray tendrils of light. They had excavated enough material to see through, but not enough to cross the threshold.
Jacobi sidled up to the man, and they both peered inside. The roof’s trusses had more or less survived the building’s overall structural damage, even if the roof itself hadn’t. An A-beam held back a significant amount of rubble, creating a pocket of open space which they could fit within at a crouch. Near a penetrating beam of light, the joint of a steel bracket was partially illuminated, caked with the debris of the ashlar to which it had been affixed. It was clear that the earthen moiety of the joint had crumbled away under duress. The masonry seemed to have been cheaply constructed. There were more than a few tales floating around about the odd house which was ill-built falling down to crush its inhabitants. Jacobi decried the shoddy workmanship, but truthfully wasn’t very surprised. Even the civilians seemed to have grown complacent during an era of abundant peacetime. Well, that peace was now firmly over. Hopefully this building could be reconstructed as firmly.
“Good job.” Jacobi said, patting the man on the back. “Clear it. We’re going in.”
Within seconds, a man-sized hole took shape, leading into the belly of the ruined building.
The men lined up, including his second. Jacobi put his hand on Tonfa. “Not this time. Your squad stays put, in case the building collapses on top of us.”
Tonfa opened his mouth to protest, but closed it when he realized there was nothing he could say. Jacobi was right. But that left Tonfa at a loss, because for all their bickering, neither man had ever really held any animosity towards the other. It was hard to put their relationship into words, so neither had ever tried. Nonetheless, he hoped Jacobi knew that he really was as much a pain in his ass as he complained, but that he forgave him anyway, because that was what friends were for. He hoped the sentiment was conveyed wordlessly, because the words never left his mouth, which he found dry and cumbersome. Jacobi nodded, which Tonfa mirrored.
Half the squad went up to the hole. Jacobi, as leader, insisted on going in first. He peered through the threshold, staring into the abyss. An archaic rhyme flitted through his head in that moment, something about the abyss staring back. He shook the hesitation from his head, and staunchly lead his squad into the depths of the warehouse.
The interior was no as black as pitch, but that was hardly a consolation. It was pitch adjacent. Stray beams of light mottled the makeshift chamber, providing minimal lighting, enough to give an impression of how unwieldy the terrain was, but not enough to circumnavigate any potential obstacles. In fact, it was hardly enough to navigate through in the first place.
“Fuck!” Jacobi shouted.
“What happened?” Tonfa asked from outside, concern coloring his tone. A litany of queries from the others echoed his own inquiry.
“That didn’t sound like nothing.”
“I stubbed my toe.” Jacobi admitted.
“Will you please take this seriously?”
“It’s fucking dark in here.”
There was rustling, then a crack before the interior of the warehouse lit up under a dull pink glow.
“Here, Sir.” Dewalt said, handing Jacobi an illuming toy snake which had been enchanted to fluoresce lambently. “It’ll last five, maybe ten beats.”
“Uh, thanks.” Jacobi blinked, holding the incandescent toy aloft. “You know, not that I’m not grateful, but… you just carry this thing around with you, Private?”
“Uh…” Dewalt blushed to a round of snickers from his comrades. “It was a gift for my daughter, Sir, for Beltane. I have another, this one for my son.”
Jacobi sobered. Nobody was snickering anymore. Dewalt’s family was on the island. He hadn’t known that, nor would he have risked bringing him along if he had. He doubted anyone in their squad was aware, then wondered how many others in their squad boasted having families. He swallowed, suddenly uncomfortable for a number of reasons, none of which he could do a damn thing about, least of all returning their crucial light source to the girl it was intended, along with her father.
He wondered, insouciant to his growing discomfort, how many more men bore the burden of knowing their families were in danger while they were stuck on the front lines, waiting for orders they didn’t fully understand. All the while it was the civilians that were out there in harm’s way, dying for a cause they didn’t understand themselves. It was a fucked-up situation all around. Earlier, he had been conflicted, but decided now that Xenia would indeed be appalled by this cowardly display of quote-unquote warfare from Isolde.
Dewalt was looking at him, offering him his son’s toy. “Hang on to it.” He clasped the man on the shoulder and nodded, which Dewalt returned. “Double time.” Jacobi ordered. “Watch your steps.”
They sifted through the debris, circumventing the largest obstacles while cautiously overpassing those they could manage safely, passing by upended crates and even a few derelict wagons and carriages. Hogar whistled appreciatively at an armored battle chariot that was still more or less left intact. Unfortunately, it was too large to attempt to free from the warehouse’s cavernous depths.
Hogar paused at the foot of the chariot. “Can’t we just—”
“No.” Jacobi said, effectively cutting off the man’s sales pitch. “We’re on a mission. There’s no time for bullshit.”
They hoofed it until coming to a general approximation of where the cannons might’ve been house. From the outside, it wasn’t a great distance, but inside, it had felt much farther. A further search of the vicinity revealed their first clue; the cracked barrels of black powder were their first major break. One of the barrels had split, however, and the ground was now caked in the course mixture.
Jacobi looked up at the snake in his hand, which he had been holding aloft the whole time, then down at the powder. “Uh… Dewalt?”
“This thing isn’t going to…” Jacobi jutted his chin towards the gunpowder. “… you know?”
Dewalt’s eyes widened, which wasn’t very reassuring. “Uh… I don’t think so…”
Jacobi wasn’t very reassured, but there was nothing for it at this point. They needed the illumination and if the toy could spark flame, they’d likely already be dead.
“Right.” He pointed to the intact barrels. Three seemed to be in good condition. “Dewalt, Hogar, take those back to Tonfa.” He looked at Dewalt. “Tell your son I’m sorry, but we’ll be needing his snake after all.”
“Dragon, actually.” Dewalt said. “They both are.”
Jacobi blinked, looked, and saw that the serpent he held indeed had small, underdeveloped feet, replete with claws. He nodded, vaguely impressed by the craftsmanship.
“Batham, with me.” Jacobi ordered, striding further into the cavernous depths.
Dewalt lit his son’s dragon, which Jacobi noted with irritation from his position was blue instead of pink. He almost turned back to demand they switch, but figured it was bad enough he was commandeering his children’s gifts. Dewalt and Hogar got to work while he and Batham delved deeper into the chasmal chamber.
The first cannon they encountered was completely unserviceable. It had suffered a massive fissure to the fuselage, which ended short of the cascabel. There was no trace of the others.
Jacobi insisted they search. The duo did so thoroughly, but the cavernous interior was finite, with craggy blockades cropping up every so often. There were more walled surfaces than in a house of mirrors. He took care to inspect each one, cataloging dead ends and roundabouts. His irritation mounted with the passing of time, which seemed to sift through his fingers like shifting sand.
Eventually, and frustrated by the admission, he conceded that their search was in vain. Their time was even more finite, more precious, and wasting it wasn’t going to solve anything. He called off the search, recalling Batham. They double timed it back to the others, using their new familiarity with the terrain to their advantage in order to make haste.
Hogar and Dewalt were hefting the third and final barrel between them when they returned. They sought answers with their eyes that the newly returned pair didn’t have. Jacobi shook his head, and the two men visibly deflated.
“Cannons were a bust. We’re heading out.” Jacobi said. “Is this the last of it?”
“Batham, help them out.” He looked around the area. “Did either of you do a sweep of this place?”
“No time.” Hogar grunted under the weight of his load, which Batham helped ease.
“Head back. Tell Tonfa to get ready to move out.”
“Are you staying, Sir?”
“I’m going to do some quick reconnaissance.” Jacobi began circling the warehouse floor, searching for anything that might prove useful, something that would prove it was worth coming out here for and for which the other platoon laid down their lives in a failed gambit, the same something that Dewalt’s kids unknowingly sacrificed their Beltane gifts for…
He slipped, landing against a rubble wall, shoulder first. He knocked it loose, collapsing it inward. His momentum carried him into the depression it left, and he scrambled to cover his head, fearing falling debris or a larger collapse. When none came, he tentatively opened his eyes and uncurled himself from the fetal position. Standing, he dusted himself off and pretended that hadn’t just happened.
He was in another part of the armory, where the powderless munitions were housed.
“Whoa…” he said.
Gleaming racks of swords, spears, shields, and bows lined several racks, almost all of which were in a state of disarray, but effectively undamaged. But in the center of the room, almost pristine in their condition were a row of old fashioned catapults, spelled to be miniaturized. Jacobi mused that the enchantments might’ve also been responsible for their enduring condition. They were the kind nobody used anymore, despite their once famed prominence on the battlefield spanning several generations. In the age of gunpowder, a cannon was more destructive, but still… his grandpa had owned one of these. He had seen them in action more than a few times, during festivals and celebrations. They could be useful in the right hands.
Jacobi looked down at his hands. They looked dirty.
“Sergeant!” Batham came rushing up to opening, standing flush against the newly unearthed antechamber. “Are you alright?” he called from his position at the threshold.
“Batham, have Hogar and Dewalt carry on without you. Then come lend me a hand.”
They managed to exit the warehouse together with their prizes between the span a couple of cannon volleys. Getting the munitions out was the easy part. Returning with them in tow would be the trick, if the feat could be accomplished at all, which was currently—optimistically—up in the air.
“Tell me again why we’re muling these relics?” Tonfa asked, settling his end of the catapult down beside the others. There were five in total.
“Would you rather return empty handed?” Jacobi said. “Besides, they’re better than nothing, at least.”
“I’d rather have returned with that battle chariot.” Hogar said, whistling wistfully. “It’s a damn shame…”
“And how were you planning on getting that thing out on the water?” Ivan said, piping up. “Happen to know Umbriel on a personal level, do you?”
The squad laughed at that. Chariots were land transports, hardened for warfare, and it would take strong magic the likes Umbriel, the God of the Sea, wielded in order to wage a naval war with one. They only had one in storage due to their close proximity to the capital and strict royal mandates which expounded minimum inventory guidelines for combat readiness. In the extremely unlikely event that an enemy ever established a beachhead, they’d likely all be too dead to use the blasted thing. Their good cheer collectively diminished under the weight of that realization.
The platoon worked to secure the barrels and catapults for transport.
“Now. How the Hell are we going to get these things back to the docks?” Jacobi asked aloud.
“You mean you haven’t thought of that?” Tonfa asked incredulously.
Jacobi shrugged. “I had to make an executive decision. Do you think we can…” he trailed off, taking a moment to assess the logistics of their cargo, grimacing in distaste.
The barrels were heavy; two men could carry them a short distance, but no further. It would require at least three men to ferry them back to the stockade. With their limited mobility, it would be suicide in the undertaking if they had to dodge bullets at the same time. His mind conjured up a vision of the barrel’s hull being pierced by gunfire or shrapnel, and of the resultant explosion which would thin their ranks completely. Jacobi wracked his brain for a solution. Their squad consisted of only seven marines, with Demiter, who was back at the docks, serving as their eighth member. Speaking of…
“Is Dummy ready?” Jacobi asked Tonfa, using their shared nickname for the acerbic marine when he wasn’t around. The squad might be newly formed, but some people’s reputations preceded them. They’d both had the displeasure of watching their comrade from a distance earn his nickname.
“Of-fucking-course. I don’t suppose anybody ever told the dumbass that you have to keep reading the damn thing to check for changes to the script?”
“Gods dammit!” Jacobi fisted the wall he leant against in frustration, rattling the window of the transport carriage they had set up in front.
Surprised, he tactilely felt the flat surface, palming the smooth glass, then the beveled framework and the spartan trimming. He rapped his knuckles against the carriage’s hard body. It was sturdy. He backed up a few paces to get a good look at the thing. It was big. Roomy…
He leant it an appraising eye, which had Tonfa shaking his head at his friend’s blatantly obvious thoughts.
“There is no way in Hell we can move that thing.” Tonfa said, cutting down the man’s fantastical line of thinking.
“It’s got wheels.” Jacobi said.
“We have no horses to power—”
“We’ve got manpower.” He jutted his thumb out at the squad, who began protesting.
“And how do you plan on returning unnoticed?” Tonfa’s words finally gave Jacobi pause. “Dummy’s not answering.”
“That… I don’t know… yet. Just load it up for now.”
“You’re not going to help?” Tonfa arched a brow.
Jacobi shook his head. “I’ve got some thinking to do.”
“Don’t hurt yourself.” he said, prompting a shared smile.
Jacobi broke protocol in leaving the men to their own devices. He was technically AWOL during an invasion, the worst kind. But he needed a moment’s reprieve to collect himself.
Skulking off glumly, he digested the events which had transpired so far. He had gotten a squad killed with his hairbrained idea, he had left the wrong person in charge of communications, and he failed to retrieve the artillery they needed to mount their defense. It was only by sheer happenstance that some of the powder happened to be serviceable. He was no leader, unfit for the command. And he despite all the attention he’d been receiving lately, he didn’t have all the answers.
Jacobi slumped against the wall, sliding down to rest on the seat of his bottom. Dazed and feeling overwhelmed, he stared out at the burning island, which was still suffering intermittent bombardment, feeling powerless to stop it. He was just a man, not a god or a mage. He wasn’t even the best man, just the only man around for the job. It wasn’t fair to foist so much responsibility onto his shoulders. He didn’t want the burden; didn’t think he could carry it.
Rustling through his pockets, he pulled out a cigar. Each of the men had pilfered a couple from the Gardenians, a perk of the job. Sergeant Avanti had pocketed a couple himself, then decidedly looked the other way for the men under his command. Now, the Sergeant, he was a true leader. Jacobi was sergeant in name only, and he knew it. The navy needed sergeants, regardless of the stock they had to work with, thus people got promoted whether they deserved it or not. He lit up, and his aromatic whiff soon joined the ranks of the acrid smoke clinging to, and saturating, the air.
Boom! And a building toppled. Three minutes to reload. He counted, ignoring several other bombardments which occurred during that time.
“Boom…” he mouthed.
Boom! And it looked like the road between two buildings was struck. He hoped nobody had been on it just then.
Stupid bastards can’t even have the decency of hitting anything not already… Jacobi’s eyes widened in realization. “Holy shit!” he said, jumping to his feet. Blindly tossing away his cigar, he hightailed it back to the squad. The last catapult was being loaded when he arrived.
“I’m telling you, it won’t fit.” Batham argued.
“That’s what she said.” Someone said from inside the carriage, causing everybody to snicker, except the unimpressed communications officer.
“So, make it fit.” Tonfa said, devoid of humor.
“I’m telling you—”
“I’ve come up with a plan: we’re going to set ourselves on fire.” Jacobi blurted out suddenly. Naturally, everyone looked at him as if he had just told them that they were going to be setting themselves on fire, which is to say, crazy.
“Like I was saying…” Batham carried on, apparently thinking it easier to dismiss his superior’s inane ramblings. “… the damn thing just won’t give—”
“Didn’t you hear me?” Jacobi asked.
“Yeah, yeah.” Tonfa said dismissively. “But look…” he told Batham. “… if you turn it this way—”
“If I turn it sideways, it’s still not going to fit. The damn thing has a fat ass the size of my mother-in-law’s—”
“What?” Batham and Tonfa snapped, barking out in unison.
“I think some grout on the roof of the carriage will make it look like it’s burning very convincingly.” Jacobi said excitedly.
The bickering pair shared a troubled look before deciding to table their discussion for the moment. At least, in order to address their leader’s incoherent prattle, while the rest of the squad poked their heads out from the interior of the carriage to see what the commotion was about.
Batham volunteered Tonfa as liaison by dint of being the sergeant’s closest friend amongst them. He did it by jutting his chin out at Jacobi while staring at Tonfa pointedly.
Tonfa took the hint. He turned to Jacobi, opened his mouth to speak, then, seemingly thinking better of it, closed it. Looking back for support, and finding none, he tried the process again, summing up their collective thoughts as succinctly as possible.
“You… uh, what?”
“Look!” Jacobi said exasperatedly, pointing to the village proper, which lay on a hill beyond the seaport. “The parts of the town that were struck are pretty fucked. They’re burning, in fact. But the cannons are ignoring the places they’ve already hit!”
“Uh… you kinda said it, Sarge. It’s ‘cause they’re already fucked.” Batham said.
Tonfa faltered, struck by understanding like a blow to the head. It hit him like the blow he had suspected Jacobi might’ve suffered while away. Instead, the man appeared to have had a stroke of genius. But the rest of the squad clearly needed more convincing. Judging by their expressions, they weren’t seeing the bigger picture.
“So, you want us to destroy our own shit before the enemy does, so they’ll ignore us? What the fuck kind of plan is that, Sarge?” Iggy asked.
“Maybe I should just shoot myself, so the enemy can’t kill me.” Ivan snarked, prompting a round of laughter from within the carriage. Though Jacobi and Tonfa were unimpressed.
“No, you fucking idiots.” Tonfa admonished. “The plan is just to look fucked. It’s how we’re going to make it back with the cargo intact.”
Jacobi nodded. “Exactly.”
Batham understood then, while the rest of the squad began slowly twigging onto the idea. “It sounds like a sexy plan, Sarge.” he said, grinning. “I like it.”
Grout was naval jargon for black powder in the consistency of the same-named masonic material. By mixing the powder with a flammable liquid, like oil, a thick mud-like concoction could be doctored and slathered onto all manner of surfaces. It was very versatile and burned splendidly. They worked up a batch and set to work rigging the carriage.
Tonfa hung back with Jacobi, taking the opportunity to discuss the finer details of the plan with his sergeant.
“So… you’re just hoping the fire won’t spread too quickly. Right?”
“Basically.” Jacobi admitted.
Tonfa nodded. “I figured as much. Because if it does…”
“Right.” Tonfa wasn’t liking this plan, but knew they were short on time, and thus, alternatives. “And your plan for actually moving the blasted thing? Because if the carriage is going to be on fire while we’re playing pack mule… well, suffice it to say that I’m not very confident in our manpower with lungfuls of smoke or worse.”
“Well, I’ve rethought it… and everyone will need to be inside the carriage for the plan to work.”
“This plan just keeps on getting better.”
“You haven’t heard it all yet.”
“I’m afraid to.”
Jacobi fidgeted, choosing not to elaborate.
“There’s worse?” Tonfa’s tone was incredulous. It was beginning to be a theme.
“Well, about transport…”
“I don’t want to know.”
“No, seriously. Don’t tell me.” He walked off.
“I need your help to move this into position.” he said, gesturing to the catapult they had been unable to load.
“Into position?” Tonfa asked, nonplussed.
Jacobi smiled placidly, his expression giving nothing away, but after a while his eyes darted towards the carriage.
Tonfa followed his line of sight and balked. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me…” He groaned.
Tonfa had known a lot of crazy sailors in his time; none of which had lasted too long, unfortunately. Typically, after pitting their delusions against the might of the real world, reality won out. Then there those that only seemed insane, like the captain, but were secretly competent. He had pegged his friend for the first type at first, then moved him over to the second category. Now, he was wondering if he had erred, or if Jacobi could be fit into a third class altogether. The man had earned his stripes in Uzu Nurui, picking up a moniker for his undying resolve and ferocious tenacity. Had it been a misnomer this whole time? Or was the man just insane?
As Tonfa secured the last strap in place, effectively bracing the fifth catapult—which they had even less of a chance of fitting into the carriage than Batham’s mother-in-law, according to the same man—against the rear end of the carriage, he pondered on the life decisions that led him up to this moment. When had the world gotten so topsy turvy, so inverted, that he would willingly joyride in a veritable flaming wagon of death by means of catapult propulsion, all the while the city he cherished and swore to protect burned in the background.
Tonfa shook his head, and crouched into the depths of the carriage, slumping to his seat.
“You’re going to want to hold onto something.” Jacobi warned.
“Just do it.” Tonfa said monotonously.
Jacobi worried a look, but said nothing, somehow intuiting that his friend’s quota for bullshit had been filled for the day. He nodded, beginning the countdown.
Tonfa mused that in the distant jungles of Uzu Nurui, Jacobi had once been renowned as the Barracuda.
The man had put his brand of insanity to the test and emerged victorious.
And now, the experiment was primed to repeat itself.
Would the outcome be any different?