To the eyes of the enemy, the sudden appearance of a flaming carriage onshore was not a subject of import. It was as interesting as any other burning object, of which there were many; which is to say, not at all. Nobody second-guessed its appearance, nor gave it a second look. However, upon closer inspection, one might question how a horseless carriage was being propelled. Even in a world with magic, spontaneous propulsion didn’t just occur. But if one were uniquely blessed with the ears of Hespian, they might be able to hear that the carriage itself seemed to be… screaming.
“Oh, by the gods, we’re all going to die!” Tonfa shouted. Panicked, the seeds of hysteria were beginning to seep into this voice.
“Will you please stop saying that?” Jacobi said while bracing himself against the interior frame of the carriage as it jostled to and fro, rocked by the gravelly debris littering their path. He was becoming annoyed by his friend’s persistent pessimism.
Granted, the liftoff had been rough. The catapult had bucked the carriage into the air. Okay, so it was bad… But at least they gained forward momentum. At the end of their arc, they hit the ground with all the speed of a horse drawn buggy at a gallop. After that, the plan had been working stupendously. They seemed to have finally caught a break. Provided some turbulence…
Hogar yelped, high pitched and indignant. “My foot!”
“I knew he was crazy.” Iggy said, shouting to be heard over the ruckus. “He’s going to get us all killed.”
“Get offa me!” Ivan shouted at Iggy, who was clinging onto his forearm in a vicelike grip.
“You get offa me!” Iggy said, pointing out that the man had a hold on him as well.
Truthfully, neither was ready to release the other, but they let go all the same. They had appearances to carry on after all.
Jacobi’s stern expression conveyed his mounting irritation. “This is working. Isn’t it? What’s the big deal?”
Tonfa shouted at him from across the cabin. “We. Are. On. Fire!”
Jacobi coughed, realigning the handkerchief fastened around his mouth, which they all wore to mitigate the smoke inhalation. “That’s part of the plan. It’s camouflage.”
“We’ll be real camouflaged when we’re dead.” Batham said drily.
“Oh, don’t you start too.”
Batham held up a hand up in surrender, which wasn’t an easy feat considering their circumstances. Meanwhile Tonfa had begun listing the myriad of things that could go wrong, all of which ended in their untimely, and admittedly, cleverly gruesome and detailed, demise.
“… crazy! This is reality, dammit. The powder could…” Tonfa trailed off, adopting a faraway look. He took note of the thick air hovering around them, studying it astutely, for the first time. It shimmered as it swam past his vision. Indelible wafts of waspish gasses stained by a smoky veneer of acridity loomed in his peripheral. The smoke tufted and sparkled. “The powder…” Tonfa repeated dazedly, watching the light kindle and darkle through the cabin’s atmosphere.
“What?” Jacobi asked nonplussed, sensing something amiss.
Tonfa didn’t answer. Instead, quick like a shot, his neck swiveled over to the barrels of gunpowder. Maneuvering closer to the wooden casks, he inspected them for defects, scrutinizing each line of grain on the oaken rounds. He watched them jostle with the carriage. Their lids had held firm.
“What is it?” Jacobi stood, making his way over. “What’s the matter?” He demanded to know. The seriousness of his tone cut through the antics in the cabin, silencing the others who were restless and, in their restlessness, vocal with a litany of complaints.
Tonfa shook his head lazily, eager to dismiss their combined concerns as mere figments of his overactive imagination. Had he created these specters from nothing?
A tuft of smoke blew into the cabin from the cracks in the timber, at the joint where the windows joined. The ruddy air stirred the ambient atmosphere, breathing new life to the instrument of their impending demise. They had closed the windows to avoid detection. As well, they hoped to mitigate the smoke’s presence, keeping it outside rather than inside. In retrospect, it had only congested the cabin’s interior further.
Tonfa observed closely. As the smoke passed through the sun’s rays again, it sparkled. Ash? But no, it was too finely powdered, not quite a flake or a mote. The dust settled, and on the sill, he saw a singular granule alight, the color of ash. It laid atop others of its kind for a moment before being thrown back into the air by a hard bump in the road. Eyes wide, Tonfa felt his blood momentarily freeze before heat returned to his body. He had immediately recognized the substance on the sill as loose powder. He would recognize that substance anywhere. In retrospect, he cursed himself for not noticing sooner. But how?
Tonfa returned his attention to the barrels. He shook the oaken casks. They gave none at all, sealed shut. Jumping when a hand landed on his shoulder, he turned to see that he’d become the object of everyone’s attention. And for the occupants of a riderless and flaming carriage on a battlefield, that was saying something.
“Ton?” Jacobi’s expressive eyes and soft tone conveyed his concern.
“The powder is loose.” Tonfa said gravely, lowly as if the volume of his voice could trigger a spontaneous ignition.
There was a pause, a silence accentuated by the destructive locomotion ongoing outside of their peripheral. Tonfa knew he was being appraised, judged like a prized hog. After all, hadn’t he been screaming for his life only moments ago? He grit his teeth while quelling an impatient response, waiting for the verdict to return.
Jacobi hadn’t spoken, which meant a lot to Tonfa. The trust the man showed by not outright decrying his claim as lunacy was proof of their friendship. In all honesty, he wasn’t sure if he could’ve been counted on to remain as magnanimous if their positions were reversed, which they had been a few minutes previous.
Jacobi leaned over Tonfa’s shoulder, silently appraising the barrels himself. He gave them a rattle. His hand hovered over the lid of the centermost cask as if thinking of opening it, then retracted as if he’d thought better of opening a barrel of gunpowder around an open flame. “That powder looks fine to me.”
“I don’t know.” Tonfa said. He believed Jacobi spoke the truth. He had inspected the same kegs. Huffing, he shook his head in confusion. “But it’s in the air. I’m sure of it.”
“That’s smoke, you daft fool.” Someone said, earning a round of agreeances. It sounded like one of the twins.
Jacobi appraised his friend, finding that despite the man’s earlier talk of death, he believed him now, in this moment. At least, he believed that Tonfa believed what he was saying. Pulling down his mask, he took a deep whiff of the air, immediately regretting the action. The smell of burning wood was overpowering, prompting a few coughs. To Tonfa’s dismay, he shook his head in negation.
Reaffixing the facial covering, he returned to the barrels, tilting them to gauge their weight. They seemed approximate to what he would expect, and neither seemed lighter than the other. They were full, in his opinion. He shook his head again, looking at Tonfa expectantly.
Agitated and on the cusp of bristling, Tonfa pointed to the sill. “See for yourself.”
“I can see your madness plain as day from here, thanks.” Ivan said.
Jacobi ignored the taunt, as well as Iggy’s follow up and their combined laughter, which spread in the background. Leaning over a barrel to Tonfa’s side of the carriage, he inspected the spot of Tonfa’s intrigue. The sill was clear.
“I can see the barricade comin’ up.” Dewalt said.
Jacobi spun his head. “You can?”
“Yessir, I think we’re close to—”
The carriage rocked, its right wheel catching on a hollow in the earth, a pothole or crater strategically placed by the fates for their amusement. More than likely, it was a remnant of stray cannon fire they chanced upon the misfortune of crossing. The axel snapped and they lost the third wheel, coming to a crashing halt. The equipment jarred, rattling in place while knocking against everything else. The screaming resumed as the men piled on top of each other; each a victim to the wicked caprice of gravity, the cruel mistress, likely in league with the aforementioned fates.
Groaning, Jacobi righted himself with all the grace of a corpse recently animated, stiff at the joints and musculature decayed. Taking a moment to gather his bearings, he saw they had come to rest on the docks. The trip hadn’t been long, but instead pocked by eventfulness which had extended the voyage to the mind’s perception of time. He could see the harbor now, noting that the Devanagari was slowing, sails rising. It’s almost time…
Outside, flashes from the enemies’ muzzles accentuated the falling whisps of embers raining down from upon their conveyance’s rooftop. The sparks cascaded down in erratic arcs governed by the winds, which blew south, streaking pinpoints of light diagonally across both sides of the carriage. At the window’s base, he noted the sill remained free of any contaminates. What little soot had collected during their short ride, had likely been sent up into the air.
There was a gasp. “Oh, shit… Is that Demiter?” Dewalt asked.
On the left side of the carriage, outside a drizzle of flame, Demiter lay dead behind the stockade, arm hanging limply at his side and hand blown off. The man’s face was missing, replaced with a blackened mass of charred flesh over exposed red meat, yellow fat, and white sinew. The colors, where they appeared in brief patches, did so ruddily and mottled.
Jacobi looked on at the macabre scene perturbed, feeling as if bereft of the proper emotion which to emote, he was inadvertently cycling through his limited arsenal of those he already possessed, and coming up short every time. Though, this knowledge seemed to do nothing to quiet his raging confliction.
Jacobi dimly willed the man to rise, unwittingly uttering the words under his breath, for as disturbing and grotesque as the still figure appeared, it couldn’t have been Demiter, because he’d last left the man very much alive. But Jacobi had seen enough death to know that the man he was currently staring at was indeed very dead. At this revelation, he was slightly flummoxed, for hadn’t he hardened his heart against these sights already? Perhaps he’d grown laxer than he though, complacent in more ways than one, and the muscular chamber necessitated a constant upkeep to remain stout, a consistent refortification of its many walls, of which he was guiltily negligent in administering.
“Damn fool must’ve blown hisself up.” Dewalt said grimly.
Tonfa sat up groggily, having lost a fight between his head and a catapult. Even now, he still saw stars. They fell from the heavens above like shooting stars in the night sky. Pretty… he thought. He vaguely tuned into various details, accumulating situational awareness in increments. They had stopped, which was good. But Demiter was dead, which wasn’t. Worse yet, they were still on fire.
Heaving a breath, he huffed his way to his feet, orienting himself by the alignment of the interior trusswork. A moment later, his wits returned in full, and he was able to grasp the replete severity of how completely they were screwed. Well, fuck.
Spying the sparks alighting outside the carriage window, he cursed, reminding the others that he was a sailor through and through.
And then the panic set in, reigniting as he imagined the powder would at any moment.
“Oh, no. No, no, no. This is bad. This is very, very bad.” he warned.
Jacobi clasped his friend on the shoulder. “I’m sorry. Demiter must’ve meant a lot to you. I’m sorry I never got the chance to—”
“No, you fool!” At any other moment in time, Tonfa would’ve been insulted by the very insinuation, but focused instead on the more pressing matters. “Look!” He gestured to the windows. “We’re fucked. We’re so fucked.” He spun in place, taking in each side of the cabin’s interior with mounting horror. The fire had surrounded them completely.
“Ton, what’s gotten into you?”
Ugh! Not this again… “We are on fire.” he said through gritted teeth, sick and tired of the repetition.
“I see that.” Jacobi said slowly as if humoring a child. “It was part of the plan, if you recall.” He nodded. The others nodded in the background, having taken to spectating the continuance of the earlier incarnation of this very discussion.
“Didn’t you see the powder on the sill?” Tonfa asked exasperated.
“Whatever you saw wasn’t there when I looked, and if it was and I somehow missed it, well, it’s not anymore. The carriage bucked hard when we hit whatever-the-hell-we-hit, but once we get outside we can—”
“No! We aren’t going anywhere.” Tonfa said hotly. He moved to bodily shield the rear hatch from the others, which, while typically a futile gesture given his stature, proved to be a manageable feat in the cramped confines of their conveyance.
As one, the others stood in alarm, hands outstretched as if to reach out for their communication’s officer yet reeled shyly back as if fearing triggering the explosive reaction Tonfa had warned. They held their palms up in a wall of faux passivity, inching slowly forward.
In a gesture of goodwill, they tried soothing the man with words first. Barring that, it grew plainly obvious that they didn’t intend to stop there.
“Calm down, Tonfa. You’re just a bit touched by cabin fever.”
“This is all just a big misunderstanding. That’s all.”
“Now, you don’t want to do anything stupid…”
“Just relax. You need to relax, alright?”
The levee holding back the flood of outrage which had been building overran the fields of Tonfa’s patience. He exploded as violently as he’d prophesied.
“You’re too damn relaxed!” Tonfa shouted. “Can’t any of you see that we’re all going to die? Why won’t any of you fools listen? Gods damn your stupidity!” Spittle flew from his mouth. His pulse flashed from around bulging veins. Frenzied, he cursed out at them, preparing his body for the melee which was sure to commence.
For a time, Jacobi had stood apart from the others as the only outlier. He remained affixed to the head of the carriage, analyzing the situation calmly and with as much detachment as he could muster, which was considerable considering the circumstances of their high stress environment. He knew Tonfa, really knew him. The man was many things, a pain in his ass mostly, but not crazy. Comparatively, the same couldn’t be said for himself. With a sigh, Jacobi looked around, trying to spot whatever trace vestiges of anything Tonfa might’ve seen. Perhaps the man had observed something that merely looked like powder. Mayhap…
The abandoned rows drew Jacobi’s notice, garnering his scrutiny. There, on the seats, were imprints of men, one for each. The fabric where they’d been seated appeared brighter than the rest of the upholstery. Soot? Jacobi mulled the matter over.
Approaching, he wiped the nearest seat with his bare fingers, which weren’t clean to begin with. They came away dirtier than they had been. He squatted down, leaning in to inspect the upholstery, spotting soot and ash… and coarse granules of a salt and pepper substance. That isn’t soot…
Dread filled him, eliciting a hissed susurration he couldn’t contain. There was no mistaking it. That was gunpowder, fine grained and volatile. He looked out the windows, watching flames lick at the pane, spawning sparks and flecks of flak whizzing by. Closing his eyes against reality, he inhaled deeply to steel his resolve. The situation was dire enough without adding panic to the fire. Coughing against the stench of their burning conveyance, which aptly mirrored their dwindling hopes for survival, he was denied the reprieve he sought, but soldiered through.
The powder was loose, but where was it coming from? He looked over to the barrels momentarily before deciding against them. He had checked those twice over, so definitely not there. He ruled those out.
Just then, a commotion erupted behind him. He stood in alarm, rounding on the crew who were struggling to physically hold Tonfa down. “Let him go!” he bellowed.
The commotion was quick to cease, but only because everybody had taken to looking at him incredulously, even Tonfa.
“Now!” he ordered.
Begrudgingly, one by one, they released Tonfa. Unsure of their standing with one another, the enlisted men from the officers, they milled awkwardly.
“Tonfa’s right.” Jacobi said.
“Right about what?”
“You ever notice how all the officers are really fucking crazy?”
Jacobi ignored the pushback, having expected as much. Instead, he looked about, inspecting everything. Now that he knew what to look for, signs of loose powder were everything. It shimmered in the air, it hung to clothing, and clung to every surface, masking itself as soot and stain. But the sheer amount of it was flabbergasting, for, while less than a shot’s worth, it was more than a handful. It begged the question, “Where did it come from?”
Tonfa spied him casting his gaze about, and mirrored his actions, keening onto his intentions. But an idea began forming in Jacobi’s head. It wormed deeply, burrowing until taking root. It spawned a premonition; one that saw his scrutiny waning until he at last stood stock still. The smoke parted around him, wafting over his form, seeping in and around his every nook and cranny like an unwelcome fog on the moors of the highlands at winter’s dawn.
He released the fledgling question that had been brewing in his mind. “What was this carriage being used to transport?”
Something in his tone must’ve conveyed the severity of his query, because while seemingly benign, it was not immediately dismissed out of hand. Silently, the question was being seriously considered.
“Uh…” Iggy was the first to break the spell. “Does it matter?”
Jacobi ignored him, resuming his search, which prompted everybody else to do the same. They had been perhaps piqued by the seriousness of their commander, or maybe they thought it an easier exercise to diffusing the momentum of such a fruitless tangent. At least, everyone could agree that it had gone on for long enough.
Hogar was the first to keen onto something amiss. He spotted a burlap flap sticking out of one of the top compartments. A entire row of compartments adorned each side of the carriage interior, on the ceiling from corner to corner. There was writing on the canvas of the bag, largely obscured, but he recognized the partial decal immediately. He gasped, gaining everybody’s attention when he began abruptly maneuvering about. Reaching up and over, he opened the compartment door, pulling free the burlap sack. Cascading forth, gunpowder rained to the floor like a river of black sand. An entire row of mortar cartridges lined the compartment’s interior shelving.
Hogar paled. Jaw slack, he dropped the empty sack. The entire compartment was lined with loose powder, which mounded atop the shelving. and several of the bags appeared visibly loose as well. Cartridges in general weren’t known for their inadequate packages, but these seemed hastily packed.
The runners… they must’ve been ferrying these… they thought collectively.
“Oh, fuck.” Jacobi said breathlessly, succinctly adding audio to their hive mind. “I liked it better when Tonfa was crazy.”
Iggy opened and closed his mouth, at a complete loss. He turned to Ivan for support. As the butt of everyone’s jokes, they’d found a kindred solace within one another as mutual victims, a deeper comradeship that surprised them both and surpassed their bonds to anyone else. However, whatever he’d been expecting remained to be found in his friend’s troubled countenance, which seemed as stunned as his own. It drove home the grimness of their current predicament. They were likely all going to die.
It was during his assessment of the man that Iggy realized something that, in retrospect, was both blaringly obvious and which he must’ve been steadfastly ignoring, if its presence were any indication. Curiously reaching out, he wiped his bare hand, palm down, over Ivan’s uniform, leaving finger tracks in his wake.
“What?” Ivan asked, curious himself, now looking at Iggy with the same caution he had earlier reserved for their communications officer they’d believed crazed at the time.
Iggy said nothing, studiously inspecting his now upturned hand. Rubbing the grit between the tips of his fingers, his complexion darkened.
“It’s powder.” Iggy said gravely. “Mixed with ash or soot.”
Ivan paled, then looked down at himself in horror. The revelation sparked a wave of dread which manifested throughout the cabin. They all began looking around, appraising one another with mounting apprehension. They were all filthy; dirty and covered in soot. It was to be expect as they’d suffered through a hell of a day. But looking—really looking—now, and knowing what they were looking for, they keened onto the fact that they were too dirty, their clothes darker than they ought to be. Their feet, too caked with grime and grit. Even the interior of the conveyance looked as if it had been painted with the same brush of silt. They were a powder keg ready to explode.
A loud crack came from the roof. A few men jumped, spooked. They all simultaneously looked up at the ceiling. The paint was beginning to bubble and peel from the heat. Outside, sparks rained past, streaking their vision ocher. For a moment, they stared collectively at the whisps of flame flecking by, striating their view of the world beyond the windowpane. The hand of a grim specter wrapped around their beating hearts, preparing to silence them once and for all.
“When we open that door…” Batham said.
“If we open it.” Dewalt said.
“Even if we don’t,” Tonfa said, tone blighted with exasperation. “I can’t believe I have to keep fucking saying this…” he muttered. “Even if we don’t, we are on fire.” he said plainly, enunciating his words clearly so as to be heard and understood this time around. “Eventually the smoke will become too thick, and that will kill us, but even if it doesn’t, the fire will reach us, likely sooner, and when that happens…” He trailed off.
“Boom.” Hogar said, finishing the statement.
That atmosphere in the cabin sobered. A lull passed uninterrupted before anybody dared to speak again.
“Tonfa was right.” Iggy said, despondent. “We’re fucked.”
“We are so fucked.” Ivan said, echoing the sentiment.
“Well, this was a stupid idea.” Batham added sourly. “Gods, what a stupid way to die.” He slumped down to his abandoned seat morosely. He wasn’t the only one.
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.” Tonfa complained to Jacobi. In the background similar veins of dissent were being sowed more quietly, the product of hushed conversations, but in increasing increments.
“First, Demiter goes and blows hisself up. Now, we’re all going to die because—” Dewalt was interrupted.
“Everybody, shut up.” Jacobi said, barking out the order. “Nobody’s going to die.” He glared down the cabin’s occupants, daring them to challenge him, either his authority or conviction. A distant cannon fired in the background, undermining his point. “Probably. You know, we’re still in the middle of a war, so…”
“Gods, are you trying to cheer us up?” Tonfa asked incredulously.
“Well, it might’ve started out that way in my head…” Jacobi admitted bashfully, but he soldiered on, feathers now firmly ruffled and hackles raised. “Shut up.”
“It’s fine. We don’t need a pep talk. Just sit back down and look pretty while we try to figure out a way out of this mess.” Tonfa assuaged, shaking his head.
“By we, we mean not you.” Batham clarified. Everybody nodded. “You’ve done enough.”
Jacobi wanted to argue, going so far as to open his mouth with a protest on his tongue, but opted to be the bigger person, and left the words unsaid. If blaming him helped the men cope with their distress, then so be it. He was reminded that silence is often the better part of valor, so he determined to shoulder that weight mutely. Though, this doesn’t feel very valorous… he thought sardonically, brooding in his corner of the compartment.
The mental gears whirred while the atmosphere in the cabin filled with equal amounts of smoke and bleak apprehension. It was a cocktail of suspense embodying man’s plight against the inevitability of his own demise, the invalid clinging to life while awaiting the looming shadow of death. As the cogs rotated and bore upon each other, they ground fricatively until blooming smoke equal to that already inhabiting the cabin; the mental sparks in the atmosphere took on the form of those outside. In attempting to void their death, they inadvertently mirrored their own mortality, a premonition of what awaited them should they fail.
Lost in the throes of rumination, nobody spoke for a time. The time for words had ended.
The atmosphere in the cabin became thicker, and they troubled breathing freely. The temperature rose, a symptom of their current status, compounded by sharing an enclosed space for too long. Their troubles seemed unending.
Iggy broke the silence again, unhitching and uncapping a canteen. He brought it up to his lips for a drought.
“You have water?” Tonfa shouted at him from across the cabin. It seemed that incredulity was going to be a theme for the communication’s officer today.
Iggy looked at the man, then at everyone else around him. “Uh… yes? I can share it, but I don’t think there’s enough to go around for—”
“You fucking idiot.” Batham said, chastising the man while snatching the canteen away. He immediately set to work dampening his the handkerchief he wore, passing along the canteen when he was finished. The canteen was then passed around, used to dampen each of their masks.
“Nobody drink it.” Jacobi said. “It has to last us, and thirst is the least of our worries.”
By the time it got back around to Iggy, who had been voted last by unspoken and unanimous consent, it was nearly depleted. He used half of what was left, lusting after the liquid that hadn’t been used. He licked the inside of his mask instead, teasing his tongue with the tantalizing promise of a drink.
“What are you doing?” Hogar asked Dewalt, who soot cross-legged and writing on his knee.
Dewalt gave him a pitying look as if the man were a child born dimmer than the others, which Hogar resented deeply. It seemed to imply, ‘What does it look like I’m doing?’
“I’m writing a letter to my family.” Dewalt finally said.
“Won’t that just burn up when the carriage explodes?” Hogar asked matter-of-factly, bitterly abandoning tact, which he instantly regretted.
Dewalt paused, adopted a contemplative expression, then promptly scowled. Fisting the charcoal pencil, he crossed the words out in a chaotic scrawl.
“That’s it!” Jacobi said, jolting in his seat. “Don’t you have a field comms scroll?” he asked Tonfa. Urgency laced his tone.
“Yes.” he said monotonously, retrieving it from the pack around his hip. “There you go.” He tossed it to Dewalt. “Take turns writing your families.”
“No.” Jacobi said harshly, snapping in irritation. “I meant, we can use it to call for help.”
Dewalt, pencil poised, looked down at the unfurled scroll in his lap. “Uh… what should I write?” he asked.
“Give me that.” Tonfa said condescendingly while snatching it back. He dusted it off and set it down on his own lap before turning to Jacobi. “What should I write?” he asked, earning a scowl from Dewalt.
It was Jacobi’s turn to adopt the day’s theme. “How about ‘help’?”
* * *
Adrian was having a bad day. The worst imaginable.
After the invasion began, squads five, six and eight weren’t fast enough in erecting their defenses to survive the initial battery. They went the way of the Six Tribes of the North, which originally founded the realms on the continent, which is to say, extinct. Squads one and three had gotten themselves killed already while squad four had disappeared altogether on a half-assed resupply run. He had no choice but to assume them KIA. Squads nine through thirteen were currently out evacuating civilians. Everybody else was onboard the Devanagari, which left him leading squads two, three, seven, and a handful of runners, the latter of which were now chunks of meat simmering below the ruins of the armory. And his squad? Well, they were taking on the brunt of the enemy onslaught, firing off enough rounds to remain a target while lacking any utile amounts of ammunition. Son of a fucking whoring bitch was he having a bad day. Fuck!
Their orders basically boiled down to ‘target practice’, because for every bullet they detracted from the enemy, there was one less to spare which could be used against a civilian. It was as noble as it was stupid.
So far, the barricades had been holding. Theirs was fortified up the wazoo with enough layers of enchantments to stop a kraken. Though the Isoldeans seemed determined to only suppress them for the moment. He was sure that if the enemy wanted them dead, they’d be long wiped out already. But why waste the ammunition when you could inflict even more damage on major infrastructure?
In the past, the realms had learned that through the deprivation of resources, even a failed assault can turn the tide of war. Even if by some miracle they managed to repel their enemy here today, their economy would be so fucked afterwards that they might end up turning against one another in the long run. Civil wars have been sparked by less, after all. At least, it was what he figured the enemy was thinking. It was as much prophesy as it was precedent. The crafty bastards. Instead of going for the neck, they were determined to slice up the underbelly, allowing for Atreia to bleed out on itself.
“Sir, we’re being hailed!” Pentam shouted over the staccato of gunfire. “It’s squad four, they say they have the powder, but require extraction.”
“Of fucking course, they do…” Adrian groaned. As if he hadn’t enough on his plate already. “I bet they also require cover and some R&R as well.”
Pentam wisely said nothing.
“So, where are they?”
“You’re not going to believe it, Sir, but…” he trailed off, pointing towards the fourth barricade on the other side of the docks. After suffering prolonged abuse by an enemy who couldn’t see beyond its defenses, the fortification had been reduced to shambles. The view, however, was obstructed by a burning piece of debris.
“What the fuck am I supposed to be looking at?” Adrian said testily.
“They’re in there.”
Adrian looked again. Had he missed something? “In where?”
“The…” Pentam mimed an ambiguous shape, which could’ve been anything. “… it’s on fire…”
Adrian gave him an inscrutable look. It sent chills down the communication officer’s spine.
“Cut the shit out, already.” he said, raising his voice after finally running out of patience. “Where in the fuck is squad four?”
“They’re in the carriage.” Pentam said meekly.
“What carriage?” Adrian was beside himself, and on the verge of lashing out at the other man who insisted on playing games during a time of utmost crisis. He looked again, getting angrier for having his time wasted with such nonsense. “Sergeant, the only fucking carriage I see happens to be a burnt-out piece of crap not fit to…” He trailed off. Having been looking at Pentam the whole time, he balked, growing paler at the man’s nodded assurances. They weren’t what he expected or wanted to see. “You mean to tell me that…”
Pentam nodded again.
“And the powder is in…”
Pentam nodded again.
Adrian opened his mouth and closed it. “And is there a reason they can’t just walk out, Sergeant? Are they worried about being sighted? Because I highly doubt we’re going to be able to extract them anymore covertly. They played a neat trick with the tobacco earlier, but last I checked, that cargo’s on their side of the docks.”
“Well, about that…”
Adrian was wrong. He apparently, had not been having the worst day imaginable, only the second worst.
* * *
From outside, a sharp tang resounded, the impact of metal against metal ringing out. It was followed by a thud, sounding muted and muffled from within.
“They miss’d again.” Hogar said, slurring his words. His complaint soon became a hemming fit. They had all been coughing, hacking as if plagued and on their death throws.
“Thank you.” Tonfa said sarcastically, a sharpness to his tone. Breathing through the smog was becoming increasingly difficult, and everyone’s nerves were frayed.
“S’nothin’.” Hogar said.
They heard the metal sound again, and waited for the thud to signal it had overreached. When none came, the men raised their heads in unison at this new development. All except for Iggy who had passed out on top of Ivan, who appeared ready to join his friend himself. The men were groggy and suffering ill-effects from too much smoke inhalation.
“I’m swallowin’ a bucket o’ potion after this.” Batham said, referring to alchemical first aid.
“Not before me.” Jacobi said.
“She shoo.” Dewalt said, singsongingly.
“What?” Jacobi asked.
“She shoo.” Dewalt giggled before his eyes closed. A moment later, they remained closed.
Another metallic sound resounded, the second grapple landing on the roof. It was followed by a thud, having missed the mark. Apparently, the second cable failed to latch.
“We need ta open the door.” Batham said. “Take our shances.”
“’tis suicide.” Tonfa said, piping in again.
“This is suicide.” Batham said hotly, though his voice came out sounding feeble and wheezed. He soon fell into another spate of coughs.
“No. No one opens the door. We stick to the plan.” Jacobi said, speech largely unaffected, though no one had been truly left untouched by the blighting effects of the carriage’s fulmination. The man’s intoned timbre managed to convey that his words weren’t mere suggestion, but an order from a superior, without suffering a similar paroxysm himself.
“If’n we open the door, maybe we die.” Batham admitted. “But if’n we don’t, we will fer sure.”
“I said, no.”
“Don’t be a fool.”
“Listen, I’ve been thinkin’…”
“Oh, fuck.” Tonfa said, voice raspy. He was fed up with everything already, and seriously considering conceding to Batham’s point. The last thing he needed was another of Jacobi’s hairbrained ideas.
“Thisshit again…” Batham said, equally vexed.
Hogar finally passed out, reclining against Batham.
“S’not the lack of air that’s dangerous. There’s plenty. ’tis the smoke, we can’t breath through this cud.”
“Huzzah.” Batham said monotonously. “Now I can die knowin’ how and why I’m dyin’. How? ‘cause of the smoke. And why? Because of you. No offense.” Batham said, though his tone conveyed that a measure of offense should, in fact, be taken.
“None taken…” Jacobi said sarcastically, picking up on the hint. “We just need to think the air s’all.”
Tonfa giggled. “What?”
“We jus’ need to thank the air s’all.”
“Thank you, air.” Tonfa singsonged. His head lolled, bobbling from side to side.
“No, no.” Jacobi said, shaking his head to clear his thoughts. It just made things worse. “We. Need. To. Thin. The. Air.” He said slowly, enunciating each word. After succeeding, he smiled in accomplishment of the feat.
“Good idea.” Batham said, nodding his agreeance. “I’ll open a window.”
Jacobi nodded, still smiling, head lolling. Tonfa finally passed out.
Through dimming vision, Jacobi saw Batham maneuvering through the cramped cabin; first pushing Hogar away, then rising from his seat. He stumbled his way over to the opposite window, seemingly ignorant of the pane of glass haloing his head. The man tripped over Hogar’s splayed legs, falling neatly into the adjoining seat, which was occupied by Ivan’s lower half. Jacobi’s eyes closed.
When they next reopened, Batham had already righted himself, sitting on his knees in the seat he’d procured. Batham blindly felt for the window, eyes visibly glazed. When Jacobi’s eyes next closed, they remained that way.
“Purdy.” Batham slurred while looking out the window. Flecks of gray and sparking flame streaked past his vision. Palms flat against the glass, he pressed his face against it to gain a better view. Head lolling down before snapping back up again, he was jarred back into semi-awareness. Remembering himself, he reached for the latch, undoing its clasp. Prying his fingertips underneath the window’s lip, he tugged at the same moment the carriage was harshly jostled from the outside. It rocked heavily to one side, knocking its occupants asunder, and he fell away onto his back where he joined the rest of the squad in unconsciousness.
* * *
Adrian observed the men pry open the rear door to the carriage. The hatch vaulted back with audible burst of air, propelled by its own desire to expel its pressured contents, only to bang harshly against the carriage’s wooden frame after momentum arced it backward on protesting hinges. Smoke billowed out, an inky black that was acidic to the nostril. Even from his position, he felt compelled to hold a handkerchief up to his nose.
“Bring me all the potion.” he said to the squad’s medic. The man nodded, and busied himself nearby.
The interior of the cabin was obscured in a thick miasma of acrid smog that was at once familiar yet acerbic to the unprepared sinus. He and the rest of the squad hung back, a few caught in the last vestiges of a coughing fit prompted their earlier and ill-prepared exposure while prying open the compartment.
“What the hell happened here?” A member of his squad asked slowly and lowly, returning from fetching more water. His voice was tinged by incredulity.
“That’s what I’d like to know.” Adrian said, sidling up next to the man for a closer look himself.
“Holy shit, that’s the Barracuda.” Another man said. “I heard he…” the man trailed off, privatizing the rest of the conversation within a smaller group.
“So, this is squad four, huh?” Adrian asked, unimpressed by the lifeless lumps of soot-stained bodies lining the cabin. He shook his head, then singled out one of his own men. “Fafner, go see if they’re dead.”
“Yessir.” Fafner approached reluctantly, adopting a grim expression of distaste. “Could someone pass me a torch? It’s too dark inside.”
Soot stained the windows in a gross parody of the religious and festive decorative works they were used to admiring. This art was macabre in its timbre. Fafner swallowed, extending his hand backward to the soldier offering him an oil lamp.
A deep gasp, guttural and stretched, a deep roar reversed inward. It was a ghoulish sound, the moan of the reanimated dead.
“Gyah!” Fafner yelped, jumping back, only to tumble over himself and land on his bottom. The rest of his squad joined in his shock, raising their weapons, fearing squad four might’ve risen from the dead. There were rumors circulating from around the continent of… similar things… happening. The wide eyes of the group conveyed that they believed it might be happening yet again.
Adrian was tense, hand on his sidearm, but had yet to draw. Likewise, he had yet to order his men to stand down, knowing that in a world where magic existed, no rumor could be easily discounted. It was better to remain paranoid at all times. He watched as one of the grime covered bodies rose, slowly, bent forward at the midsection. It looked unnatural.
In the shadows, Jacobi’s visage was revealed. He inched forward, heading lolling, eyes closed. He drew in another deep breath, and another. He opened his red rimmed eyes, and began hacking out a deep wracking cough.
“G-gods f-fuck-ing da-mnit.” He coughed until he tasted blood, having abused his throat to injury, then continued coughing some more. “W-wate-r.”
“Stand down.” Adrian finally ordered. “And get this man some water. Hurry!”
The soldier carrying the lamp removed his canteen and trotted forward. Through blurry, crying eyes, Jacobi saw his approach, signaled by the dim glow of a yellow flame peeking through his hazy vision, and the memories of everything that had transpired beforehand came crashing back into his skull: the invasion, the warehouse, the carriage, the powder, the catch. “No!” he screamed, hands splayed out in warning.
The soldier nearly fell over himself again, taken by the suddenness and intensity of the shout. Adrian opened his mouth to ask what they were all thinking, but Jacobi spoke first.
“This is not smoke.”
“Uh…” Confused, the soldier looked back at Adrian for instruction.
“Say again?” Adrian queried a brow.
“It’s powder.” Jacobi said wearily, eyeing the flame. “So is the soot.”
Adrian’s eyes widened. He took in the interior with a fresh appraisal. He had indeed noticed the soot. It was hard not to, but upon closer inspection, it looked gritter than the soft powder ash produces. He suspected that there were fine grains of a flecked black substance lining everything in the carriage. Then he spotted the loose cartridges, and his suspicions were at once confirmed. Immediately, he understood the situation. “Fuck!”
They all quickly twigged onto the problem.
“Get that flame away!”
“Put it out!”
“Everybody, tuck your flints away!”
“Water!” Adrian called. “Buckets of water! We’ll need to douse everything.” He cursed, and at once, the men turned to follow his orders, each knowing from experience how best to handle the situation. The protocols for entering a powder room were well known to all from necessity. “What in the hell kind of fool mess have you gotten yourself into this time?” he asked Jacobi.
Jacobi chuckled as wryly an approximation as he could without breaking into another fit. “Well…”
Tonfa suddenly gasped as deeply as he had, and began to stir. Jacobi yelped in fright, but Adrian, who had borne witness to a similar awakening only a minute prior, held his ground unflinchingly.
“Oh, gods! That scared me.” Jacobi admitted timidly.
“That scared you?” Adrian accused, looking the man over, who more resembled a monster from a children’s fable than soldier.
Jacobi snarked back, not quite understanding, but feeling insulted nonetheless.
“Sir,” Pentam said, interrupting the bickering that was beginning to break out, “I’ve got news.”
At the same time, the medic returned with vials of a shimmeringly clear substance, handing one to Jacobi and another to Tonfa before regarding the other men who remained unconscious on the floor of the compartment.
“We’ve just received updated orders from the captain: the retaliation is a go; any minute now.”
The first of the water bearers came up behind the news bearer.
“Now? Shit.” Adrian looked into the carriage. “Sorry, but we don’t have time to be gentle about this.” he told Jacobi. Then, pulling the medic out by the back of the shirt, they both retreated a few steps.
Taking up the bucket from the private, Adrian flung its contents in a wide arc, spraying Jacobi and rousing a number of the others inside, each of which drew deep laborious breaths only to cough up a storm. “Get to it then.” Adrian ordered his men. “Those barrels are tallowed.” He said, gesturing to the barrels of powder in the carriage, while Jacobi sputtered about inside. “They won’t wet. Soak the inside.”
“You bastard!” Jacobi shouted, squawking indignantly from within. He and the rest of his squad were efficiently and liberally doused afterward.
A sailor’s bevy of cursed complaints soon brewed in a verbal storm of inflated proportions. A few inventive phrases managed to both impress and annoy the water flingers, whom thenceforth took greater pleasure in ensuring the cabin was thoroughly hosed down. Orders were orders, after all, but as any military man knew, some orders were better than others.
Minutes later, Jacobi was still grousing from his position on the dock alongside Adrian.
“I hate you.” Jacobi hissed out through gritted teeth, shrugging himself further into the folds of the blanket he’d been provided even more protectively.
Adrian had the audacity to smirk. “I’ve no idea why.” he said in a drawl.
“I will get back at you for this, you know.” Jacobi said emphatically.
“Neither the time nor the place, my friend.”
“I’m not your friend.”
“You’re not anybody’s friend.” Though, he did spare a moment to appraise Tonfa, who stood off to the side, glaring up a storm at the milling members of squad one while they worked on setting up the catapults, all the while snickering amongst themselves. Hair still wet, the man resembled a wet cat himself. “Last I checked.”
“Whatever.” Jacobi feigned ignorance. “I am still going to—”
“Fine.” Jacobi said, relenting. “Did you retrieve all the cartridges from the—”
“One-hundred and twenty-eight. And those barrels will provide enough cannon shot for the day, though I doubt we’ll have that kind of fortune. But still, credit due where credit is earned. That was some damn fine work.” He clapped the man on the shoulder, and instantly regretted it when his palm came away wet. Grimacing down at his hand, he wiped off the slick on his thigh.
Jacobi looked oddly triumphant, moreso at noticing Adrian’s distaste than at any amount of praise.
Noticing the smug look, Adrian rightly divined the man’s train of thought. “Don’t let it go to your head.” he said, nonetheless.
Jacobi looked out across the sea, ruminating on the events that took place in such a short span of time, but seemed somehow timeless, nevertheless. He felt the acclaim was unearned, but only because he believed himself unworthy. His leadership had gotten a squad killed, Demiter killed, and his squad nearly killed. But his men, they were worthy. Against incredible odds, they succeeded where he had proven flawed.
Those words resounded in his mind, his men.
Looking back and behind his shoulder, he appraised his impromptu squad, no longer resentful of having been sacked with leading a ragtag group of misfits. “Yeah, damn fine work.” he said wistfully.
His squad had begun helping squad one, reluctantly putting their differences and bitterness aside in order to do what needed to be done, but not without a measure of grousing and grouchiness in the doing. The motley assortment of sailors that had no business being grouped together had grown on him, and he was troubling figuring out why he had ever believed otherwise.
Adrian noticed the direction the sergeant was staring, and he subtly queried a brow. An idea formed in his head, and he tested the waters. “You might get a promotion.” he said offhandedly.
“Hmm.” Jacobi hummed.
“You might even get laid.”
Adrian smirked. The Barracuda was too easy to read.
“You like them that much, huh?”
“Yeah…” Jacobi admitted thoughtlessly. “I think I’ll keep them.” He smiled.