The Warring Surf
Brogan considered retiring, thinking that putting the life of a seadog behind him was worth weighing. “Dismantle the damn cannon, if you have to!” he shouted over the ruckus on-deck. “It does us no good pointing out at open waters.” Impatience had frayed his nerves, honing his words to a sharpened edge.
His wife would appreciate him being home more often, the kids would enjoy it too, and he could find good work laboring or apprenticing under a tradesman. He was still spry enough to be considered a good candidate for such work. Unlike these oafs—“put your godsdamn backs into it, you curs”—who didn’t seem to know their tail end from a hole in the ground.
A clunk and the cannon fell from its mounting to the cheers of the men on the deck. A stray cannonball, fired from the enemy, skipped off the ocean’s surfaced off the starboard side. It skidded off the solid waters between their ship and the Ouroboros, leaving long trenches in its wake, and gave everyone who witnessed the close shave momentary pause. A lone rifle crack echoing off the hull from a nearby ship broke the spell.
“To the bow!” Brogan was barking madly, and was answered by a chorus of ayes just as wild. “And double—no, triple—the breech ropes!” Without proper mounting, the cannons were more likely to buck haphazardly, but it couldn’t be helped. “So, you lads don’t break your necks.” he added as an afterthought, knowing that sometimes good reasoning made the difference between compliance and insubordination. Brogan turned to run along the deck over to the next turret in the series after seeing his instructions carried out.
The dreadnaught. He cursed their luck. The man was a legend and a beast.
Had their side known the man would be defending his home? He looked over at the command crew, scoffing at the oxymoron; not a single order had been issued by that lot. Jondar, who appeared a nervous wreck, clearly hadn’t possessed the foreknowledge of their encounter. Why would he? The man was a puppet. Hurom, less so. But Dosis… the man appeared to be unflappable. He stood unruffled, statuesque in his disposition. It was telling. He knew, Brogan decided. Of course, he fucking knew. The fucking dreadnaught… He scoffed. Of course, they had to have known. All the most powerful mages were constantly being tracked by one government or another. None stayed hidden for long. It was inconceivable that their intelligence could be so faulty, would leave them so blind.
So, what was the end game? That, he couldn’t fathom. Because in the meantime, they’ve pitted us against the fucking dreadnaught! He wanted to scream—so, he did. “Move your bollocks!” Shoving a dawdling young private out of the way, he rounded on the next turret and began the process anew. Fortunately, this group seemed brighter than the last and had thus already begun dismantling their rigging.
“Good man, good man.” He commended a gunner who made quick work of unspooling the ropes from the pullies on the gantry. “What are you waiting for? Get the tackle and quoin off,” he said bitingly to another, “and… there, she should be—” Thunk! The rest of his words were lost amongst a chorus of cheers.
Turret four. He committed the station to memory, because the men had already shimmied their gun loose and were hand-carrying it down the gangway in record time. A heaping mass of idle hands joined their efforts as the cannon practically levitated toward the forward rails at breakneck speeds. Brogan was decidedly impressed, and would see those men credited where credit was due. In the meantime, he would make do with taking his frustration out on the troop of gunners at turret five, who likewise did not seem to know their tail end from a hole in the ground.
The Athmos had just been downed when the Asmodeus, the next ship in line, started taking fire. The enemy was efficient, wasting no time, and seemed to, almost leisurely, focus their fire on a single target at a time. A part of him realized that they were forced to, because none of the fleet had yet broadsided, neither could they sink atop these stony waters, which meant that their ships needed to be whittled down instead of sunk. It seemed that the enemy’s grand defense was also a double-edged sword. And it was no wonder why the port side of their forces were being targeted first, as those ships were still actively firing upon the island.
The cannons on the port side of their own galleon had since joined the fray, firing on the besieged land mass while taking their rage out on the exposed island. It was their only viable target, it was something they could punish. They did so with relish, hooting and hollering up a storm in the process. Brogan had mixed feelings over such overt sport, but knew that the work had to be done.
Turret five was dismantled with minimal shouting on Brogan’s part, chiefly because his heart wasn’t truly into it. His mind was too scattered, nerves were exposed. What the Hell’s taking Mikhail so long? In his musings, he’d almost missed the direction in which the crew had been leading the loosed cannon.
“No!” he shouted. “Take that cannon over to the port side. The bow’s too cluttered as it is, and when we broadside, we’ll need everything we can throw at these bastards.”
Spying the sixth, and final, turret station along the starboard side being dismantled, he saw that his help wouldn’t be needed for the task. And no longer barreling towards his self-appointed objective of liberating and repurposing the topside cannons, Brogan’s senses expanded beyond the tunnel vision he’d developed in his erstwhile fervor. That’s when he began to hear voices coming from down below, rising up and over the side of the ship. Curiously, he peered over the railing. To his surprise, he found his friend, Oster, attempting to manhandle a sailor by hauling him out of the sea by his ankles.
“Agh!” he screamed. “Stop pulling me!” the man shouted at his would-be savior. “Just cut the damn arm off, please!”
“Don’t be stupid!” Oster said. Brogan felt that, despite not knowing the circumstances, the condescension in his friend’s voice was unwarranted. “This is just water. I. Will. Free. You.” He grunted with each heave, and each pull was punctuated with a feeble scream and plea for restraint on the trapped man’s part.
Brogan winced, knowing his friend’s brute strength was aptly founded. Oster could be brutal without meaning to, which was a fine trait to possess in combat, but proved detrimental elsewhere. Sighing, he quickly deliberated intervening, but heavily leaned towards leaving whilst pretending he hadn’t seen anything amiss. Who would know, he thought cagily. There was too much to do already without cleaning up after his friend’s messes.
“It’s not ice, fool!” The irate man shouted up at Oster. “You can’t just melt this—agh!” The pitched scream rekindled Brogan’s attention, who once again found himself wincing in sympathy. Oster had just dropped the man’s legs out from under him, whose bottom half now sprawled to join his top half on the floor—er, the water, he amended.
“That’s it!” Oster said excitedly as if suffering an epiphany. He pulled out his powder horn, and set to work ringing the circumference around the fallen man’s sunken appendage with a loose band of gunpowder.
“No, no, no!” The fallen man pleaded hysterically. “I-I’m fine, really. I actually like it down h-here. No more fighting, and whatnot… you see?” he said hopefully. “You don’t need to help me anymore, really.” His voice rose in volume and pitch, and Brogan winced at the fearful edge to it. The longer he observed, the harder it was becoming for him to simply walk away with a clear conscious. I should leave… now, while the going’s good.
The was huffing in an attempt to blow the powder away. Then, as if remembering something important, began swatting away at it with his free hand.
Oster put a stop to that, holding the man’s wrist and head within the span of his own bear-sized paw. “Stop that! I’m helping you.”
“Agh!” A muffled string of sounds that sounded oddly like no, you’re not, and something else that sounded profane, resounded from beneath Oster’s palm, which the sailor was trying—feebly—pry off his face to no avail.
Once Oster lit the gunpowder, Brogan knew he’d missed his chance to walk away with a clean conscience. Well, fuck. Too late.
“Oster! Put that out!” Brogan yelled.
Oster looked up at him and beamed cheerily in his direction, almost as if they were greeting at the pub and not on the field of battle with an entombed comrade between them. “Brogan!” he bellowed loudly.
Even from his position on-deck where sounds were being drowned out by the riotous din filling the background, the rapports of cannons and rifles being shot amidst orders and profanities being shouted, Brogan thought his friend was still too loud. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?” he questioned. “You’re going to maim that poor bastard. That is, if you don’t kill him first.”
“No, I’m not! Don’t you remember doing something like this in Callypsae?”
A fleeting memory of frozen tundra resurfaced, but he didn’t want to encourage his dimwitted friend’s actions any further by humoring him. “No. I remember ice. This is not that, Oster. You put that man out before—” Brogan’s words died on his lips. He couldn’t believe his eyes.
Below, the water bubbled, and boiled, then steamed. While the flaming powder ate away at the ocean’s surface, Brogan watched the solid ocean turn liquid. Even the mild heat mirage of gas escaping spoke of further reactions, those his eyes couldn’t or had trouble perceiving from a distance.
In his frenzy to escape Oster’s ministrations, the downed sailor thrashed to get away from the flames which began licking the man’s arm and shoulder. He jerked and wiggled while frenetically pulling his arm along with the rest of his body, imitating a lively worm. It might’ve even been funny if the man weren’t also screaming bloody murder.
Unexpectedly, the sailor’s arm pulled free with a wet squelch, and the man fell on his rear. The unexpected imbalance sent him tumbling backwards onto his back. Brogan noticed a waspish tendril of steam waft up and escape from where the sailor’s smoldering shoulder made contact with the brine.
“Well, I’ll be damned…” Brogan muttered.
Stricken with curiosity, Oster looked around for the thing that had captured his friend’s rapt attention. Then looked down at the sailor whose face he still held in his hand and, finally, at his own handiwork, and beamed. The shit-eating grin that etched itself onto Oster’s face had Brogan cursing the insufferable smugness his friend’s boasting would surely take on in the coming months.
Immediately after being freed, the sailor quickly patted himself down in an attempt to rid himself of nonexistent flames. Though, the only signs to remain were singe marks which encircled the man’s shoulder. The first thing Oster’s victim did, once certain he wasn’t actually on fire, was to take a wild swing at his savior. But the brute stood up in that moment, and the punch fell short by several feet. In missing, the man tipped forward and fell onto his burnt shoulder, howling in pain. Brogan suppressed a wince, for if the poor sod was fool enough to attack Oster, then he deserved to suffer through his injury.
“Ha, ha, ha!” Oster laughed haughtily, delighted by his success while ignorant of the baleful glare being sent his way by the man lying at his feet.
“Yeah, yeah.” Brogan said, cutting Oster off before he could start bragging. “You did good. Now, go free the others.”
Oster saluted him, and hauled the freed man up to assist in the rescue effort, who then followed after the towering giant begrudgingly.
Brogan’s mind spun with this new information. They weren’t as quagmire as he’d previously believed. This opened up new possibilities, especially if they could magic their way out of this mess. He took in the harbor, sizing up the fleet, and saw men sprawled and scurrying at the base of many ships. The crews of the scuttled vessels seemed to be fleeing the burning wreckages that were once their ships, filtering out across the solid water after having escaped mostly intact, and finding refuge among neighboring vessels. However, the first ship to have been struck, the Legothica, which was still aflame, was already showing signs of scuttling proper, the crackling wood having rekindled the sea’s momentum around the stalled vessel. Interesting, he thought pensively.
The sixth starboard cannon was being hauled his way, diverting his attention for the moment. But before he could bark out an order to steer to port, the men did so themselves, having seemingly paid attention to their surroundings. Even if they hadn’t been there to hear the orders given to their station directly, they had overheard or seen enough to reach the same conclusion. He noted that someone at that station seemed to keep a good head on their shoulders, and made a mental note to find out who that was in the future.
Job done, he left the railing and strode towards the command deck, covering his distaste for the upcoming meeting with a mask of impassivity. He was a solider, he followed orders, he reminded himself.
He approached the command crew and stood at attention at a respectable distance, unspeaking, per decorum, then waited to be addressed. The rules were foolish, in his opinion, but he was not king, so it was out of his hands, and whining about it wouldn’t change a thing, nor would insubordination.
After waiting an appropriate amount of time without being addressed, he announced his presence. “Sirs!” he shouted in-between ammunition fire. “I’ve come to report.”
Hurom looked over, and sneered. Brogan hadn’t seen the full exchange between him and Mikhail, but inferred that Hurom had been left bitter over the encounter. Apparently, the pole which had long since taken permanent residence up the man’s rectum had grown by a few inches. And, here, Brogan had been under the impression that the First-Lieutenant was of the proclivity to enjoy such things. He smirked at the man’s aggravation, eliciting a scowl of derision from his superior.
“What do you want, Sergeant? Can’t you see that we’re busy?” Hurom gestured out towards the theater of battle.
Brogan restrained himself from giving an honest reply, because no, he couldn’t see that they were busy at all. “I’ve come to report.” he repeated.
“We’re busy, Sergeant.” Hurom hissed, dismissing him by turning and showing his back.
He was always Sergeant to the lieutenant and, in a way, he recognized it as a sign of begrudging respect on the man’s part. As much as he would ever get, because no one else aboard was ever as civilly addressed, save for a handful of senior officers. Even then, not every officer had earned a place in the man’s good graces.
Before, it had been convenient to hold the man’s respect and, if not sharing in his good graces, then not outright fostering hostilities between one another would have to suffice. They were marines; this was their job, and it had to be done in tandem, together. Begrudgingly, he had gone along with many bouts of folly over the First-Lieutenant’s tenure, but nothing could dissuade him from this course of action, not this time. The stakes were too high now; lives were at stake. He cared not for holding or earning the man’s respect or civility, but for survival: his own, the crew’s, and, if necessary, his superiors’—whom he did not consider part of the crew.
“Sir, I possess important information, which—”
“Sergeant!” Hurom screeched. “I will not tolerate your insubordination.”
“Ah, Brogan!” Jondar interrupted the lieutenant’s vitriol after being roused by it. Unlike his shadow, the man seemed genuinely relieved to see his subordinate.
About time, Brogan thought, having expected, and banked on, the man’s intervention. If it were up to Hurom, they’d scuttle before the pompous man accepted anyone’s aid but his own. But Jondar was always happier when the command was out of his hands—an odd trait for a captain to have—and so he had always favored Brogan, even if the sentiment had never been returned.
For Brogan, having carte blanche of the ship’s affairs gave him an incredible amount of leeway. He practically held free reign over the men under his command, and he preferred it that way. But despite the status quo, he knew that there was a certain order to things, appearances to be maintained. So, he waited, even deferred, before speaking his piece.
“Captain.” Brogan said pointedly, ensuring that his voice carried over to Hurom, who now stared him down quite thunderously. “I’ve reassigned the starboard turrets. A search and rescue effort is underway for those who have fallen overboard. It seems the ocean around us is traversable on foot. Requesting permission to utilize comms in order to—”
“And I bring intelligence: the sea is not dead as it appears.” This brought everyone’s attention, including Dosis’s, who stared curiously. “The energy seems to have been sapped from the sea. I don’t know how we would go about breaking the spell which caused this, but it may be possible to get around it. We could broadside if we managed to somehow energize the water around the ship. So far, I’ve seen that gunpowder is able to liquify the ocean, again.”
Surprisingly, it was Dosis who carried on the conversation after weighing Brogan’s words. “Anything else?”
It wasn’t the reaction he was expecting. Brogan almost felt as if he were telling the admiral something the man already knew, but continued unperturbed. “Yes. I recommend we activate the cloak again. I’ve already—”
“Good idea!” Jondar said eagerly, interrupting their conversation after having remembered that hiding was a viable option. But his expression fell flat after turning to the admiral for support and finding the man’s visage devoid of the enthusiasm he felt.
Dosis’s gaze was calculating. It was always calculating, Brogan noted. However, he also detected a tinge of interest carefully veiled within the man’s appraisal. “And what makes you think that would be a good idea?” Dosis asked with believable nonchalance. The words were so inconsequentially spoken that it was almost as if they weren’t uttered in the midst of a warzone.
Brogan didn’t know what to make the man’s dispassion, so he didn’t try to, opting, instead, to stow his observations for the time being. “Our positions are locked. That’s true—there’s no getting around it. But they seem to be, as well. If I’m not mistaken, their anchored. It’s a weakness we can exploit.”
Jondar and Hurom’s head spun around towards the enemy faster than was healthy, and it was a miracle neither suffered injury. But their gaping faces revealed that neither had noticed the ship’s moorings.
Dosis studied Brogan, who tried not to flinch under the man’s intense scrutiny. The admiral was said to possess the greatest intellect on the continent, and it was hard not to agree with said assessment while trying not to flounder under the weight of his gaze. After a moment, the admiral’s lips upturned in a half-smile which bore a resemblance to a grimace.
“Good idea, indeed.” Dosis said slowly, and Jondar appeared to visibly sag under the relief he felt after hearing his superior’s assent. “However, it won’t be necessary to cloak the entire fleet at this time. I want you to report to the lieutenant directly and instruct him to only cloak this ship.” The casualness in which Dosis spoke of abandoning the rest of the fleet was galling. The man’s words had, finally, left Brogan floundering. Even Hurom seemed surprised for a moment, but it passed quickly.
“Splendid idea.” Jondar said, but the praise came out sounding flat and forced. Brogan wondered if the captain was only in agreement because it had been Dosis who warranted the order. Were the man’s principles really that shallow? Did station mean so much to the would-be politician that he would abandon his comrades so easily, or was that merely cowardice speaking?
Brogan found his mouth drying. He had already given a contrary order to Mikhail. Worse yet, he found that he couldn’t—in good conscience—comply with the admiral’s instruction. He swallowed thickly.
Dosis stared him down. He said nothing for a moment, then asked, “Is there a problem?”
“I…” Brogan’s mouth opened and closed. Jondar refused to make eye contact, and Hurom seemed to take great pleasure in watching him squirm. “I’m just curious, sir. What of the rest of the fleet? They require the same protection as we, and if we have the means… then surely we have an obligation to—”
“Do not concern yourself with strategy, Sergeant. You have your orders. That is all.”
Brogan understood he was dismissed, but his feet remained rooted to the ground. He ground his teeth in frustration while he deliberated speaking out of turn. It just wasn’t done in the navy.
“You’re dismissed.” Dosis said curtly, turning his back and effectively ending the conversation for good.
To speak now, could be considered mutinous.
Hurom’s perverse grin told him that the man had taken great pleasure from the exchange, and was taking more yet from his hesitance. Brogan tried catching Jondar’s eyes, willing him to belay this newest set of orders, but the man was intent on evading his gaze. In the end, decorum won out and Brogan saluted, issuing a half-hearted ‘Sirs!’ and turned to take his leave. He could feel Hurom’s lingering gaze hungrily raking his back until he left the foredeck behind.
Rage churned in his stomach, funneling into his veins. He was left disgusted by what had transpired, and shook with lividity. How dare he!
Rounding the corner, he nearly ran into the navigator, who was hurrying out of the comms room. Without prompting or preamble, the man rushed into a flurry of explanations, issuing his report to Brogan as if he were his commanding officer. The interaction wasn’t out of place on the ship, not since Jondar took command of the vessel, at least. The crew often deferred to Brogan, coming to him first and the captain second. Thankfully, a backward glance revealed that the command crew was still out of sight and, more importantly, out of hearing range.
“Slow down, man.” Brogan said, gesturing for the navigator to pause. A lean, bandanaed man by the name of Ronkin made a visible effort to calm himself. “Good.” He nodded after seeing that he had gotten through to the man. “Now, why don’t you try that again.”
“I’ve been going over the plots, and—this is going to sound weird.” Ronkin gazed back out to sea.
Brogan followed the man’s eyes, taking in the absurdity of the scene. “Today, I can do weird.”
Ronkin nodded. “I think we’re moving, sir. I mean, we are and we aren’t. No, I mean, the fleet isn’t, but the island is somehow…” Growling, he yanked his bandana off, and huffed in frustration. “Feh! It’s weird, but that’s how it is—we’re moving.” Ronkin crossed his arms challengingly, as if daring Brogan to contradict him.
Brogan refrained from querying a brow, but was unable to stop the twitch which flitted across his features. “Aye. That’s how it is… I believe you.” He said measuredly, knowing that the man had only shouted to be heard. So, he listened, because silence was often the better part of a virtue he strived to possess, and patience would serve him just as well.
Ronkin looked visibly relieved. “Thank you, sir.”
“We’re the same rank. So, stop calling me sir—that’s weird.” Brogan said offhandedly. In truth, he only feigned lightheartedness in an attempt to diffuse the man’s nerves. “But I’m no navigator, lad. Perhaps you could explain it to an old fool?” Subtlety had never been his forte, but Brogan was wise enough to know when to be humble. He looked around. The inference was written on his face, clear as day. We look pretty stuck to me…
“Well, that’s the thing.” Ronkin said animatedly, nodding his assurance that he’d seen the same scenery as Brogan. The island’s getting further away, somehow, even though we’re not moving at all. We’ll be out of cannon rage before long if it continues this way. It’s the damnedest thing, and I can’t explain it.”
“Shit.” Brogan cursed, and continued cursing internally. He was no genius, nor would he pretend that this bit of news didn’t go over his head, but tucked the information away for later dissection, nonetheless. “If it can’t be helped, table it for now and focus on what can be done. Though, the admiral might find it more useful than I.”
“Aye.” Ronkin agreed.
“Any reports from the fleet?”
The navigator hesitated before shaking his head. “Nothing we don’t already know. The sea is dead, and seems intent on taking us with her. Oh, but the Chamevat managed to confirm the identity of our foes. It’s as we feared, the Devanagari.” he said grimly.
“Anything else, then?” he asked, internally wincing when it came out sounding more impatient than he’d intended.
“I was just in the comms room.” He jutted his head back towards the threshold he had previously exited before their encounter. “I wasn’t told to inform the captain of this, you see. But you might find it worth hearing.” He shrugged. “And, well… while we’ve been in contact with the rest of the fleet, Hebul—the scribe—tells me that the information he’s been relaying so far is almost identical to the information he’s been receiving.”
“Come again?” Brogan asked quizzically.
Ronkin shrugged, again. “Apparently, everytime he goes to write something down, someone else seems to be doing the same—the same blasted thing at the same blasted time. Every time, it’s a different scribe. Sometimes he beats them to it, and sometimes he doesn’t, but you should see the scrolls…” He shook his head as if recalling something astonishing. “He didn’t say to tell the admiral or anything, but it’s been annoying him something fierce. So, if you go in there,” he gestured to the comms room, “tread lightly.”
“Hmm.” Brogan stroked his chin as another piece of esoteric information came to light. He stored that away as well. Then, as if remembering that he’d been permitted free reign of the ship’s comms, he decided to pay the room a visit. The information he’d gathered on-deck might prove invaluable, and he doubted that many would’ve chanced upon the same information in such a short amount of time.
After parting ways with Ronkin, Brogan deliberated on whether he should find Mikhail and carry out his orders or risk visiting the comms room first. He reasoned that in wartime an argument could be made against insubordination if one pleaded incompetence. Though, that was hardly a guarantee of immunity. In truth, by hesitating, he risked being labeled a traitor and the consequences which followed. The life of a tradesman was looking better and better the longer he thought about things.
Shaking the indecision from his head, he made up his mind and headed towards the comms room while preparing excuses in his mind for if and when things went wrong: sorry, sir, but I couldn’t find him in time; I was injured in the line of duty before I could reach the lieutenant; I thought Mikhail was the fat chap with the grubby hands and handlebar mustache; I delegated that order and am as disappointed as you are, sir. Yes, he mused, that might work.
He found Hebul standing over a scroll, presenting his back to the door. A large parchment roll covered a table that could easily seat half a dozen men, and dozens more scrolls littered the fringes around the room, taking up every square inch of available real estate. Counterspace was in high demand in this room. In the corners, and among shelves, lay furls and furls of scrolls. Each, with their own purpose. Some, he knew to be transcriptions of messages, having witnessed court-martial proceedings before.
Half a dozen communications officers filled the room, or scribes as they were more commonly referred. Most were reading, but a pair of them stood hunched over their own sets of scrolls, quills in hand. Their hands blurred over the parchment, and Brogan couldn’t help but feel impressed all over again. He’d seen scribes at work before, but it was always a sight to see. These men were trained to read and write even faster than the wind blows—or howls. Their hands snaked out like lightning, and he envied that speed while wishing to transfer it over to his blade.
“If you’ve come to gawk, leave.” Hebul said without looking.
None of the scribes looked up. They were trained to ignore their surroundings except for certain verbal cues, which was likely the key to their dexterous success. A tradeoff no warrior would ever consider.
Hebul’s hands were planted on the face of the parchment occupying the largest table, bearing his weight on his palms. His eyes scanned the page with an intensity that alluded to a reading speed which rivaled his dexterity.
Brogan smirked, feeling a bout of mischievousness boil up. None of them have looked up, after all…
“This is insubordination!” he screeched in an eerie rendition of Hurom’s grating voice. The effect was instantaneous. Everybody in the room startled, spines straightening and sphincters tightening. A bevy of hands paused in mid-stroke but, true to their training, not a drop of ink was spilled.
Hebul and the rest of the scribes turned to the entrance and, in the absence of the First-Lieutenant, glared balefully at Brogan, who they found standing cheerfully alone. He grinned broadly back at them, looking far too satisfied with himself, which only deepened their ornery features into outright scowls.
“Back to work.” Hebul clipped out to the others. His face soured as he continued looking Brogan over. “Why are you here?” he asked.
Brogan shrugged. “I have news.”
Hebul picked up a gold and silver quill, ornately carved and beautifully plumed with a peacock feather, and dipped it into the inkpot nearest his hand. He looked at Brogan expectantly.
The scribe’s hand blurred across the page as Brogan explained what he had seen. Throughout, the look of expectant impatience never left Hebul’s face, because the man seemed to be done writing before Brogan finished speaking—every time. Each sentence followed this pattern, no matter how quickly they were delivered. So, Brogan endeavored to deliver them quicker.
Hebul’s hand never slowed or stilled, only adopted a faster pace, eventually blurring out of sight completely. He moved so fast that the ends of his fingers became invisible to the naked eye. Yet the man’s handwriting remained perfectly preserved, nigh pristine in its neatness. Beautifully written calligraphy stained the page as Hebul’s trained hand created art faster than Brogan could blink. He couldn’t help but wonder if the parchment would catch flame from the excess friction, or if it was enchanted to withstand such abuse.
By the time he ended his apprisal, he felt winded, having sped up his tongue in a bout of sport to try and outpace the mad writer. To his chagrin, he’d lost. Now, it was Hebul’s turn to grin smugly.
Brogan scowled only long enough for the ink on the parchment to start receding. Then his face turned to astonishment as the same information Hebul had written returned, multiplied in force. Penned in different hands, colors, and of various sizes, and in self-contained stanzas across the entire length of the parchment which covered the table, dozens of scribes returned the exact same information, if somewhat paraphrased. Surprise colored his face while irritation filled Hebul’s.
“Can you believe we have to transcribe this crap? Even if it’s all the same shit, we have to.”
Brogan saw that Hebul was telling the truth. The man’s hand became a whirlwind atop a separate, smaller scroll. The other scribes he’d seen, those who weren’t already busy, helped to pen what they could. When they were finished with one scroll, they’d add it to the shelves, then grab another from a diminishing pile in the corner of the room, and begin anew.
“Well, at least you’re less likely to get your arm blown off in here, or die.”
“I wouldn’t mind getting my arm blown off right about now…” Hebul muttered darkly.
Brogan knew the man spoke out of frustration. So, he tried to be patient, and ignore the bout of petulance. “Shut up.” he said.
“Don’t I outrank you?” Hebul asked.
Brogan snorted, which set the room off into a round of soft chuckles. As if rank counts for anything on this ship…
“Aye, aye, sir.” Brogan mock saluted, and stood, looking out towards the door. “Well, I supposed I should be out there getting my arm blown off.”
“Lucky bastard.” Hebul muttered, shaking his head. “Good luck with that.” he said louder, earning a few snickers from the scribes.
Brogan slammed the door, knowing it wouldn’t hurt any, only serve to annoy Hebul, which is why he did so with gusto. He had entered during a lull, but exited to find a world of noise which stung the senses. Immediately, he felt a longing for the sound suppression wards of the room he’d just left behind.
Observing the deck, he immediately spied Mikhail hauling himself up and over the bow’s foremost railing. A cannon, bolstered on the prow, fired from its perch on the port side. The breech rope snapped, and snaked out towards the lieutenant, whose back was turned. I told them to triple those!
Brogan paled as he watched the braided line lash out. The rope passed over Mikhail’s head without his notice and, suddenly, Brogan found himself sagging against the wall in relief. He’d just met the man, but already placed tremendous value on his life. Somehow, he felt the man was someone too important to lose.
Mikhail rose and looked around for something, likely having felt a rush a wind on his nape, but seemed to ignore it after finding nothing too concerning in his search. Brogan snorted, if only he knew…
Brogan watched Mikhail activate the relic in his hands. The man’s eyes glowed while Brogan’s filled with trepidation and hesitance. This was his last chance to try and carry out the admiral’s orders. In a way, it was already too late. But he knew that if it came down to an inquiry, if he acted now, at least he’d be able to say that he’d tried. Brogan’s fists clenched as his thoughts warred against each other.
The admiral’s a strategist. He must have a plan. I need to have faith in my commanding officer. He knows what he’s doing.
But he knew about the Dreadnaught, and said nothing. Did he know what he was doing then?
Brogan cursed himself for suffering a bout of indecision now of all times. He had been in the military long enough not to be cowed over shitty orders, or so he had believed. However, before he knew it, his inaction had wrenched the decision from his hands. The time to act passed; his hourglass had run empty.
“Sergeant.” Dosis said beside him.
A chill wound its way down Brogan’s spine. And he forced himself not to react at the sound of the man’s voice. He only dared to unclench his hands, fearing the admiral might divine more from his posture than Brogan was comfortable sharing.
“Have you carried out your orders?”
On the bow, the air shimmered around Mikhail. The first stirrings of trapezoidal distortions wove themselves into existence around the lieutenant.
Mikhail appeared oblivious to Brogan’s plight, that much was certain. But what if Mikhail wasn’t? Would Brogan ask him to follow through with Dosis’s demand?
Brogan didn’t know. He swallowed, and spoke the truth, and in doing so, realized it for what it was. “I have done my duty.” he said hoarsely.
He had, hadn’t he? And in that moment, realize that no, he wouldn’t—couldn’t—ask Mikhail to follow through with Dosis’s orders. His decision was now firmly set in stone, and there would be no going back. He might even be labeled a traitor. Though he knew that not to be the case, he dared not look at the admiral to find out, opting to ignore the man’s presence, instead.
He would be labeled a traitor, Brogan concluded.
It would be better to fall in battle, he thought. His inner voice was small and meek, sounding nothing akin to its usual timbre.
But better for whom? Asked another voice, stronger than the last.
He sighed after finding himself stuck in another moral dilemma. It seemed to be a day for those, he rued.
Would it be better for his family to have a traitor as a patriarch, or an absentee hero to idolize? A romanticized figure to whom they could look up. He found that he couldn’t answer the question, but felt that his family might know the answer. He felt that they wouldn’t hesitate to tell him, whatever it was, if asked. Though, for the life of him, he couldn’t divine the response from out of thin air.
“Good.” Dosis said. “So, Mikhail knows what is expected of him?”
Brogan couldn’t find the words. He was tempted to lie.
Watching the lieutenant’s power well up and wash across the deck awed him anew. He hadn’t been lying to Mikhail when he’d told the man that many impressionable sailors had been wooed. He’d been one of them. Suddenly, he recalled Mikhail’s words, spoken to him upon their meeting. You cannot hit what you cannot see, which seemed, to him, to have been uttered a lifetime ago.
He contemplated saying nothing, but the man at his side would learn of his deception soon enough.
“Mikhail knows what has to be done.” It was a half-truth.
The admiral’s eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“Brogan—” Suddenly, Dosis snapped his head toward the bow, interrupting himself.
Brogan queried a brow at the peculiar behavior, ready to dismiss it out of hand, lest he look a gift horse in the mouth. Or he would’ve, if the admiral’s features weren’t contorting in horror.
In an instant, the sentiment of something profane ran through Brogan’s mind, merely an abstract notion of vulgarity. Because anything that could wrench that reaction from Isolde’s master strategist, a war veteran of dozens of conflicts, was nothing he, himself, wished to bear witness upon in this life.
Both curious and worried, Brogan spun his head around, following the admiral’s line of sight. The man was looking out towards the bow. There, he spied Mikhail clutching the glowing beads which he’d first used to encapsulate the armada in a kaleidoscopic cloak of invisibly. The lieutenant seemed poised to repeat the process, having taken up an identical posture as before. The magic in the air rose to palpable levels, and trapezoids overran the deck. Brogan internalized a curse.
Behind the lieutenant, the sea had erupted. It was deforming, ballooning, and cresting. It was everything a sailor had come to fear from tales of the mighty kraken, but there were none of those beasts in these waters. This was something distinctly different. Instead, the sea itself seemed to be riding on the heels of an explosion. The ocean had somehow been detonated and been blown asunder.
“Shit!” Brogan managed to yell, giving form to abstruse thought, before the sea ate them whole.