Chapter 2

The Dogs of War

A bracing wind ruffled Brogan’s auburn hair. Errant strands of decorative braids hung loosely from where they were tousled free. He gazed out upon the sea, breathing deeply the familiar tang of spices carried on the breeze, then sought past it and beyond to the deep fathoms—the countless leagues of ocean without end that he knew to exist beyond the horizon’s edge. An endless sea existed there.

Gazing out upon blue waters as endless as the sky, he could almost see it. Breathing in the salt laden air, he could almost smell it. The thought of being there, forever sailing those endless waters, enticed him. As a lad, the romance of the sea had called out to him. Later, he had answered the call by enlisting in the Royal Marines.

Loud war cries erupted on the deck of a nearby ship, shaking him from his musings. The Maccedonia, a sister ship and the closest in proximity to his own in the fleet, was creating a ruckus on deck. It attracted the attention of several curious crews. Brogan feared it meant that the war had begun. Already? But it was too soon, for ahead, the horizon was clear, and Atreia remained only a distant expectation. It existed, but his ability to perceive its existence did not. The island had been shrunken down to proportions too infinitesimal for the human eye to register by the machinations of distance and perception. He took up arms anyway, convinced he wouldn’t be caught unaware.

Cautiously, he chanced looking over the railing at the object of the men’s attention, and saw freshly spilt blood and a capsized fishing vessel. The bullet holes in the hull told the whole story. When no body broke water, he figured that the sea had already claimed the poor soul. Brogan reaffirmed that it would not claim him as well. Still, the sight bothered him for other reasons.

This isn’t why I enlisted. He frowned.

Brogan tore his gaze away. Like the island he would be invading, if he could not see yet see it, he could pretend it didn’t exist. At least, for the moment. Simple.

Simplicity had greatly streamlined his life since joining the marines. He was told what to do, and followed orders. He was given information which was useful, and ignored the rest, because if he needed to know something important, they would’ve volunteered the information. Yes, life was simpler this way. He walked away from the rail before he started questioning himself on for whom exactly was this ideology simpler, knowing better than to reopen that can of worms.

The imposing might of the foreign kingdom seemed less fathomable from this distance, less real when removed from reality. But Brogan heard the rumors, as assuredly as they’d been spoken throughout the realm in hushed whispers. Atreia was said to be in the midst of an era of prosperity that comes along only once in a thousand years. Many sources credited the Atreian king’s benevolence for the economic boom, others claimed relics were involved. Perhaps it was these tales of riches that drew King Bartholomew’s interest…

Bartholomew had once decried these rumors. Lies, he openly accused. But strange, how even the king of Isolde had come to hear these supposed lies. And now, his armada was enroute to Atreia after the fact. Brogan was no fool. He understood politics.

Staring out around the deck, he was both reassured and disheartened to see that he was not alone in his misgivings. There seemed to exist a tense atmosphere about the men, something which Brogan had attributed to the impending battle up until now, but the heady tension which soured the air had persisted up until the point where the men were physically slouched from the burden they carried. He needn’t hear their qualms voiced, for they might surely mirror his own. They had all heard the rumors.

Atreia had risen to become a mythical figure in Brogan’s eyes, due to their fabled wealth, prosperity, and formidable navy. Indeed, the eyes of many held this view. But he quelled those mutinous thoughts, for it was far too late for recrimination or self-doubt to plague his resolve. The end was nigh, his or theirs. With a deep, ragged breath, he steeled himself, refusing to let the end met this day to be his own. No, he vowed, the Atreians would not make an orphan of his children or a widow of his wife.

Brogan was jostled from his thoughts by a hulking brute of a man, Oster, his best friend since childhood, had just punched him.

“Are you even listening?” Oster said annoyed.

“No.” Brogan feigned a lack of pain, despite the wallop dealt to his bicep. It would bruise, he knew; Oster didn’t know his own strength, part and parcel of what made him such a fearsome warrior.

The brute scoffed, crossing thick arms across a barrel chest. He stared pointedly at Brogan, huffed, and redirected his gaze elsewhere.

“What is it?” Brogan asked after a moment.

“I don’t want to tell you anymore.” Oster often suffered from bouts of petulance. It was one of his least endearing qualities. Though not completely ineffective, seeing as Brogan often found himself lulled into humoring the friendly giant.

“Fine.” Brogan shrugged, not exactly feigning disinterest.

“Okay, I’ll tell you.” Oster relented. “You pulled it out of me.” He sagged. Brogan couldn’t quite tell whether it was meant in jest, theatrically, or not. Knowing his friend, helped none at all.

It works every time.

Oster’s simplemindedness was all too easily exploitable. And as long as it was Brogan that was doing the exploitation, then he needn’t mind that his friend was so easy to manipulate. But Gods help anyone else who tried the same.

Oster didn’t know the meaning of restraint, so when he spoke, his voice was booming—always. “I was telling you about the Atreians. I’ve heard rumors.”

“Aye. As have I.”

“No, listen. I heard they have a rifle, you see, that can fire many bullets.”

“Aye… we have rifles too. They can shoot bullets. A lot of bullets. As many as we have to spare, in fact.”

“No, listen. This rifle, it reloads the chamber while your shooting the bullet. It’s supposed to be enchanted in some way to make it automechanical. I hear they’re standard issue for their marines.”

Brogan had heard the same rumor. He hadn’t put much stock into it, mostly because an invention like that would revolutionize the face of warfare like the world had never seen. If anyone could pull something like that off, and he doubted anyone could, then it wouldn’t be long before it was used for its intended purpose—to kill. News would spread of lands being conquiered. So far, Brogan had only heard rumors, and no news.

“Don’t believe everything you hear Oster. Though I wouldn’t mind leveling the playing field with those mages, it would take a mage—nay a wizard—and an extremely talented one at that, to create. It simply cannot, will not happen.”

Oster seemed to deflate. He always listened to Brogan, because Brogan always looked out for him. And if Brogan said that it wasn’t true, then it wasn’t. But still, the thought of getting his hands on such a relic after killing its previous owner seemed too good to be true. In a way, it was.

Brogan palmed the man’s shoulder. “You’ll just have to kill mages the old fashioned way.” He smirked, an action Oster returned.

“Oh, wait! Let me tell you about this other weapon I heard about. You’re going to like this one, Brogan. It was a sword—echanted, of course—that shoots bullets.”

“How’s that different from a rifle?”

“Because you can still use it for a sword.”

“But if you’re holding a rifle, why would you have need for a sword?”

Oster’s thinking face was not flattering, nor was the man too handsome to begin with. “Argh. I don’t know. Keeping track of two things is harder than one thing. Isn’t that enough?”

Brogan laughed. “Well, now I can see why you’re so interested in it.”

Oster squinted at his friend, recognizing the teasing lilt to his voice.

“Less counting.” He said cheekily.

“Oi! None of that, or I’ll brain you.” He shook his fist.

Brogan wisely conceded, raising his hands in defeat while getting out his last laughs. “Anyway, are you sure they didn’t just affix a blade to the end of a rifle? I can’t see there’d be much use for that, but I suppose—”

“No! It’s a sword that shoots bullets. I’m sure of it.”

“That’s shite!” An obnoxious voice interrupted.

“Who said that?” Oster roared.

“It was that asshole.” Said asshole’s neighbor helpfully pointed him out, causing the man to shrink back from Oster’s menacing glare. “But he’s right. I heard that it was flaming bullets.” he added.

“Bullets are metal, you idiot, they can’t catch fire.” Someone added.

“Don’t be simple.”

“Your mother’s simple.”

“You can melt metal, smartass.”

“So—what—they shoot molten bullets? Pfft. This is what I think of that…” He farted, much to the men’s amusement.

Brogan sighed. “Now, do you see what you’ve started?” he asked Oster. But his friend wasn’t there anymore. He was striding towards the center of the group. Crap. Is he going to start a brawl? Brogan straightened, preparing to intervene.

“Of course you can ignite metal.” Oster said passionately.

Brogan almost collapsed in befuddlement. Of all the stupid things said so far…

But Oster continued. The man stoutly believed what he preached. “You just need to get it hot enough. Haven’t you ever seen a sword being forged? It’s on fire, isn’t it?” Oster nodded resolutely, as if nailing the discussion closed with his massive chin. The gesture added a note of finality to his words, which, while wrong, remained compelling. “Well, until it’s not, that is.” he mumbled afterward.

To Brogan’s exasperation, Oster was receiving several looks of awed reverence. He occasionally forgot that most enlisted men were the sons of rural farmers or some such ilk with hardly any schooling to their name. Still… he had to wonder how many of them might’ve suffered extensive head trauma as a child, either dropped on the head one too many times or struck by the strong kick of a domestic animal. He was half tempted to set them straight, when his ears registered a new presence arriving. His head snapped to the galley doors, recognizing the cadence of a familiar set of footsteps, ones which sounded oddly pretentious. Jondar…

Jondar, the captain of the warship Grenadier, clomped onto the deck with polished boots, his heavy steps heralding his arrival. Brogan and the nearby company snapped to attention in his presence. Dispirited calls of “Captain!” were chorused around the deck, followed by equal amounts of less-than-crisp salutes which were given with the same amount of enthusiasm. Jondar said nothing, and did not reply. As usual, he spoke to no one, looking nowhere in particular and avidly avoiding making eye contact with anybody at all. Pacing a predetermined route throughout the foredeck as was his custom.

Brogan glared after the man’s back. The captain’s role was  not for the inept or half-hearted, for he was meant to fill a crucial role, to inspire as well as motivate, to confide with as much as discipline, and to lead by example. Jondar did none of that, and exemplified none of those qualities. He had been strategically placed, a political appointee. The man was a captain by proxy, holding neither the men’s respect nor vested interests at heart. Sure he walked the paces, but he couldn’t fill the shoes.

Brogan paid him no more mind; the man was a puppet whose strings were clearly showing. Speaking of…

Hurom was another political appointee. Sadly, he was also the First-Lieutenant, and succeeded the captain always as if attached to the man’s shadow. Lesser acknowledgements of “Lieutenant.” were appended to the captain’s salute, and always as an afterthought. Such perceived disrespect earned the lieutenant’s scowl.

Hurom, unlike the captain, inherently knew that his presence would never be more than tolerated at best, and therefore saw no need to restrain from lashing out, either earned or preemptively, and usually via a wicked tongue. He appeared to take a sadistic pleasure in maintaining the status quo. The man was not well liked as a result.

Brogan’s mood turned sour. He needn’t worry about getting scurvy at this rate; not on this ship. Was this to be his legacy if he fell in battle, he wondered, to die at the behest of two men he would sooner conspire against than follow? He sighed. Like many a conflicted man in the navy, he was weighed down by a stormy heart; duty and self-preservation warred against one another, assuaged none at all by a healthy dose of self-recrimination for entertaining mutinous thoughts in the first place. 

“Look alive, you scallywags.” the Lieutenant barked. “All hands on deck in twenty minutes. Spread the word, you cockney apes.”

Brogan queried a brow at the second-lieutenant. The man didn’t often bark orders, likely too afraid to risk embarrassment when they weren’t followed. An unlikely scenario considering the high price of mutiny, but one which sounded accurate enough to Brogan for him to believe. Was it almost time for the next phase of the invasion to begin?

He looked for Jondar, knowing that the man would be in the know as captain, and saw him speaking with another man whom he recognized, but had only met once before, and knew only in name. Both men had been present at the officers meeting held in the planning room at the start of the voyage, huddled in conversation then as they were now. The man had embodied the central topic at the time, and if they were consorting again, then the next phase was like immanent.

Brogan looked away. He heard the plan explained during the meeting. It left him wanting, but not unimpressed. Yet, it was flimsy, resting largely on the element of surprise. Surprising the Atreian Navy, the shipbuilders of the world. Ha! He scoffed at the idea; internally, of course. It was too bold a plan, in his opinion, but then again, it’s not as if his opinion mattered. He was just a marine, after all. He knew better to opine, for his opinion weighed little to the likes of Jondar and his ilk.

Staring out at the waters, he couldn’t help but feel the stirrings of insipid inspiration as well. If their mage could do what they said he could, then perhaps…

He shook his head to dislodge those dangerous thoughts. He would just have to wait and see.

Brogan looked at the man who had peaked his interest, Mikhail. He was the Second-Lieutenant, currently in mid conversation with the captain. Brogan studied him this time, truly focused on sizing up and scrutinizing the man. If Brogan understood the situation correctly, then Mikhail essentially was the element of surprise. He was the pivot on which their plan hinged.

Mikhail was fair haired, pale for a sailor, tall, lanky, and held a sharply chiseled countenance. His eyes were calculating, almost beady, but nonthreatening. He looked nothing like Hurom, for whom beady was an apt description. Mikhail towered over the shorter captain, but unlike the captain, a man who seemed perpetually uncomfortable in marine whites, Mikhail looked almost entirely too comfortable in his uniform. He almost appeared regal in his officer’s regalia. The white coat billowed in the breeze with the words ‘Royal Navy’ peeking out of the folds in flashes of gold and indigo lettering. Though the lack of polished boots and a pristine uniform told Brogan little, the lieutenant earned marginal points in his book.

Alas, it was far from being enough. Brogan ground his teeth in frustration, unimpressed with what he was seeing.

Brogan was a sergeant himself, responsible for a great deal of sailors’ lives. Marines that looked to him for leadership and morale. It did not sit well with him to leave so many variables unaccounted for, and Mikhail was a walking variable in and of himself. A complete unknown, Brogan had never even heard of the man before the invasion plans were drafted, which if he thought about it, was suspect in and of itself. “Hmm.”

Jondar left, and Mikhail stood alone near the bow of the ship. He held an aura of calmness around him, a blanket which seemed impermeable to the specter of so much anxiety roiling around the deck. He appeared almost serene by contrast, as if he knew something the men didn’t. His erect posture and stalwart gaze might have lent strength to those seeking reassurance. It was the same strength that Brogan troubled finding on his own.

“You keep staring at him.” Oster pointed out the obvious. It was his way of helping. Also, he had made it a hobby. “Who is he then?”

“He’s the one I mentioned earlier.”

“The one you mentioned earlier?” Oster blinked, then it registered. “Oh.”

During the meeting, Brogan had learned that Mikhail was blessed by the God Ennui. The lieutenant was touched by the magic of invisibility. Brogan had instantly disliked the man.

Still, Brogan admitted that turning invisible had sounded downright useful at first. At least, until he learned that it also distorted the world around the caster, rendering it practically useless in most situations. In battle, it was tantamount to suicide.

Mikhail’s gift, benign as it was, had not been highly sought after by the crown. It was mere coincidence that he had enlisted at all. And due to the passive nature of his gift, it was quickly dismissed and forgotten after being labeled a useless skill. As a result, he garnered no favoritism for possessing magic. And out of necessity, the man had rightfully worked for his accolades, rightfully earning his rank, unlike those fast tracked by politics or more utile blessings.

But then Mikhail’s fate was destined for change, once Isolde procured its newest asset, an archer named Arin.

Arin Rommel was a boy, the son of a deceased hunter. At a young age, the boy had displayed a fine aptitude for archery, which later revealed itself to be located in his eyes as much as his hands. The boy was a mage, an archer blessed with the skill of the Gods. He saw clearly across the span of several leagues while able to pick out the finest detail. He boasted the best eyesight in the world, a claim which had so far gone unchallenged. Now, that was utile.

The theory had been that Arin’s eyesight might supersede Mikhail’s lesser gift of invisibility. In practice, the dynamics of clashing the two magical influences proved to be a bit more complicated. Arin’s eyes were fooled, just like the everyone else’s, but unlike the everyone else, he was able to compensate with superior vision. He could pinpoint Mikhail’s location due to the minute distortions in the air around him, and even see out from within the veil of invisibility he created by increasing the range of his eyesight to nearly 360 degrees and reforming a picture of the world around him in his mind. Arin’s mastery of his gift was truly prodigious.

Arguably, the plan was sound. Now, it was being implemented on a large scale. Quite possibly, the largest scale imaginable. It seemed ambitious, if not downright foolhardy.

Brogan had at first been skeptical about the utility of non-combatant magic in warfare, but like many, his eyes had been opened to the futility of that fallacy. Intrigued by what he had heard, he was interested in the potential ramifications of such a unique application. The subsequent murmuring which broke out afterwards, between the officers, indicated that the others were swayed as well. And soon, he would opportune to observe a practical demonstration.

Mikhail stood at the bow, leaning over the rail. Brogan eyed the man’s back while more and more sailors joined them topside. They were both waiting now.

Brogan periodically, though infrequently, tore his gaze away to soak in the approaching island. From this distance, still far enough away that the Atreian capital of Aeria was reduced to miniature replica of the sprawling metropolis, merely a floating bobble in the waters, the imposing might of the foreign kingdom seemed less fathomable, less real. It became a little easier to drum up the resolve he required for what lay ahead. Mikhail’s gaze also seemed to gravitate towards the same spot on the horizon where one could just make out the burgeoning island nation.

Hurom’s grating voice eventually blanketed the deck. “Any hands not on deck in the next thirty seconds will shore up the front lines.” Brogan grimaced, knowing the vanguard suffered the heaviest casualties.

An unfamiliar marine trotted up from the underbelly of the ship and onto the deck, carrying up a chest he had presumably procured from somewhere down below. It looked important, like a proper treasure chest, save for its size. He set it down in front of Mikhail, and the lad melted back into the ranks.

“Attention.” Jondar said. It was rare for the man to breathe a syllable, so when he did, people generally listened. “We have an admiral coming on deck. You will show your respect when he arrives.”

Brogan looked up towards the captain’s deck, expecting to see the admiral. It was known among the ranks that Isolde’s genius tactician had come aboard with the fleet, but Brogan was surprised to hear that they were serving aboard the same vessel. His excitement mounted. But it quickly turned to disappointment when he saw the man was absent. He wasn’t the only one, as murmurs soon filled the deck.

“Didn’t you hear the captain?” Mikhail said. “He gave you an order. Follow it by being quiet.”

A unique sensation that one only ever comes to know as ‘magic’ blanketed the crowd. It stilled the hungry mouths of every topside marine. When the deck fell silent, the sensation retreated.

An aft door slammed from behind the captain, and the admiral arrived to make an appearance. He was met with lofty applause. Brogan was stunned. This was Josef Friggin, the military strategist responsible for many of Isolde’s conquests over the last twenty-odd years. The man was a legend.

Josef addressed the crowd of eager sailors. He gave a brief sermon that was perhaps spoken too softly for the open deck. It was over before anyone managed to absorb more than two words. Apparently, the man was a mumbler. A crowd of doe-eyed marines lost the luster in their eyes almost simultaneously.

Josef addressed Jondar, who stepped forward again. “Mikhail. You may begin.”

Mikhail nodded, and opened the chest. From inside, he removed a sizable stone necklace which contained many rough stones strung together by thick, corded leather. He placed it over his head. The stones brightened slightly, glowing dully. Excited murmurs broke out within disparate groups as the stones seemed to grow brighter by the second.

What sort of magic is this? Brogan wondered why the stones were necessary if the magical manipulation took place within the body, as was common knowledge. He was aware of the existence of magical objects, but as he understood, they usually existed as proxies. And to his knowledge, Mikhail truly was gifted with invisibility. It was rare for a mage to pick up a relic, thinking it beneath them.

“This necklace is a powerful totem. It is one of the lost relics Ambrose, an offering to Lord Ennui.” Mikhail said. “It has been adapted by the king’s wizard, Mesmer, so that I may channel its magic. With it, I can augment my natural abilities beyond imagining. May Ennui guide my hand. Now, watch me, as I show you all—” He stared pointedly at the admiral. “exactly what I can do.”

Mikhail turned, now lit up resplendently in a brilliant azure conflagration. He outstretched his arms, and Brogan felt the air become saturated with potent magic like nothing he’d ever experienced. It was nothing like the subtle nudge he’d experienced earlier on the deck. No, this was far more potent. It was chilling, as if Ennui had reached down from the heavens himself, and clasped Brogan’s heart in his hand. He swallowed back bile, fighting to stay conscious. A few men fell to their knees, heaving to breath through the pressure.

What is he? Brogan wondered, wide-eyed.

“He’s a monster.” Oster said.

Had he asked that aloud? He turned to Oster, but his response died on his tongue.

Brogan only had the displeasure of watching fear seep into his friend’s gormless expression a few times in his life—a few times too many, in his opinion—but never had he’d seen that fear manifested towards a singular individual. He decided in that moment that he never wanted to see that expression resolve itself again. He looked away, wholly uncomfortable.

Mikhail moved. His arms swayed, the motion hypnotic, and the light around him began to curve and bend. Reality itself seemingly became influenced by Mikhail’s machinations. The air shimmered, then fractured, like shattering glass. Floating shards of refracted and redirected light were born into existence, mirroring previously unseen angles. Colors of all hues splayed resplendently. The pieces vibrated agitatedly, tilting on multiple axes. They seemed to want to naturally gravitate towards one another, as if drawn together via a magical pull or through Mikhail’s own will. The man’s hands were empty, but flexed like they weren’t, contracting and extending in fluid motions to the rhythm of what can only be described as pure energy.

Shards of light, intricate reflections of reality which were becoming more complex by the second, cropped up everywhere: in front, behind, in-between, and all around. These kaleidoscopic crystals materialized into existence fleetingly before disappearing. But the most drastic changes were occurring to the scenery beyond, where the heavens were at odds with the sea. The horizon on all sides was shattering, reassembling, and changing. The light fractured and split, disassembling into infinite possibilities. Sky met ocean in the world’s most intricate mosaic until the two were utterly indistinguishable..

With a sudden pull and push from Mikhail, the refracted matrices of light were expelled out in all directions until only the horizon remained obscured. Those shards that remained quickly began to dissipate into nothing more than the stirrings of an echo.

“Such power…” Brogan whispered, in awe of what he was witnessing. It’s beautiful. For a fleeting moment, he had seen his own reflection before it disappeared. The lieutenant had seemingly bent reality itself to his very whim. It was simultaneously the most frightening and awe-inspiring thing that Brogan had ever witnessed.

The magic settled, thinning the thick air, and Mikhail wound to a stop, ending his elaborate choreography in the position of prayer. A moment later, his arms fell at his sides. The man’s silhouette momentarily shimmered before returning to normal. He swayed slightly, nearly collapsing against the rail in exhaustion. He leaned heavily against it instead. “It’s done.” he rasped out.

Brogan was impressed with the man’s fortitude, for in those moments when he was utilizing his gift, Mikhail had borne the weight of the world on his shoulders, and had wavered not at all. Such disposition was rare. This, Brogan decided, was why Mikhail was the Second-Lieutenant. The man was a natural born leader, and had earned the title rightfully. If people like this existed, then he was not inclined to compete. Yet again, he found himself scrutinizing the enigma that was Mikhail. Though, instead of finding fault with the man once more, he found that his appreciation had increased by leaps and bounds. He realized that this was a man he could and would unflinchingly follow into the fray of battle.

The realization spread across the deck like a wildfire.