The fuse was lit, the gunpowder caught, and the chamber erupted with a deafening roar. The resulting explosion hurled out a shot of superheated iron and lead from the cannon’s fuselage, which careened outwards at absurd speed only to crash against the outer hull of the galleon Legothica. A momentary clash of spells preceded a class of might, with the cannonball’s standardized fortification and penetration enchantments writhing against the hull’s built-in defensive wards in a struggle for dominance, with the projectile’s stored kinetic energy providing the necessary push to overpower the ship’s defenses. Wood splintered, beams shattered, and men were rent asunder in an emulsion of black char, red meat, and pink mist before the shot’s momentum came to rest as it lodged itself firmly into the bottommost hull where the hardest woods were located, lending to the ship’s structural integrity. The gnarled trusswork the cannonball now inhabited was located near the keel. Now inert, it began to dissipate all of its remaining heat energy. The wood hissed, crackling a malediction as the red-hot poker charred the very bones of the ship, smoke and steam wafting up along the neighboring supports. An instant of controlled chaos transmuted to unleashed entropy, destruction at its finest. This death song was renewed, multiplied a dozen times over across the port side of the warship Devanagari, ringing out sonorously across the immobile sea.
A lull before the crescendo, then the cannons bucked again, a second barrage. Expelling their payloads at lightning speed, they sailed across the harbor to impale the Legothica until it rent unto its death throws.
As the first ship scuttled, the crew of the Devanagari, thirsting for war, next turned their sights onto the Athmos, a dagger class vessel. Too engrossed in thinning the enemy herd, they brokered no time for celebration.
“Fire!” the corporal shouted. Vehemence laced his usually placid timbre.
Another volley of superheated artillery discharged from the port cannons, showering the Isoldean battleship in a hailstorm of ignescent missiles.
In the northern lands of Hinterstan, where they practice traditions predating the reigning dynasties of the continent, a burial at sea is the preferred method of vanguarding the dead. Ships are sailed out to open waters and lit aflame, where the ashes of the dead can find their way to the gates of the underworld. After the third volley, the Asmodeus resembled one of these funerary conflagrations. A pyre at sea.
Cannonades are not exact sciences, not usually. Despite the qualitative nature of all things that can be quantified—machinery, trajectories, alchemic and chemical reactions, etc.—there remain too many exotic variables to comfortably place any degree of certainty on a preconceived outcome to occur at a predetermined point and time on the battlefield. After all, it’s often said that no plan survives first contact.
However, this cannonade was as brutal as it was efficient. It was a shooting gallery.
Without the detriments caused by shooting from a dynamic position in space across an endlessly shifting fluid surface, which was also constantly fluctuating quantifiable variables like distance and altitude, to another dynamic location, which also had the habit of firing back at the observer, there remained only the trajectory to plot. The shot was packed, the fuse was lit, the boat was hit—repeatedly.
The subsequent scuttling of the Asmodeus eased the crew’s collective nerves. They were wound tight, taught like a tiger on the prowl. A nervous laugh broke the levee, the barking sound a balm on strained nerves. The gorge flooded, and cheers erupted on deck while the crew watched the enemy ship sink into the brine and its surviving crew flee the burning wreckage.
Nappa, an old hand and cannon packer for the eighth gun crew, had been manning the eighth topside turret located near the mizzen mast, along with his long-time friend Hank and a rookie they could hardly be bothered to know by name; named Gaul. It bothered him to know the lad’s name, truly.
Gaul, by dint of being a rookie, was made to haul the cannonballs, having worked his way up from powder monkey where his career in artillery had begun. But he wasn’t a full-fledged gunner yet, not by Nappa’s standards anyway. No, he was merely the assistant of one for the moment. Now, Nappa and Hank, they were gunners; cannoneers, through and through. Nappa loaded while Hank aimed. Their gun captain was on leave, so Hank was filling that role as well. It was an improvement, in Nappa’s opinion. Gunning was an old trade, and today the trading was good.
“Another volley!” someone shouted from afar.
The idiot had his timing off. A volley every three minutes was standard engagement procedure. Any faster and you ran the risk of loading the gun improperly, thus blowing your own dick off in the process. Nappa scoffed.
“Prepare to fire!”
Nappa had half a mind set to lecture the imbecile, and the other half set to throttle. He looked and saw that it was the corporal demanding such nonsense. Nonplussed, he sought the captain out for direction, but the man appeared to be in deep concentration over the loadstone. Archuleta had made it clear that his orders were to be followed; they were absolute. The corporal’s earlier chastisement reinforced as much. However, he was also the captain’s right-hand man, and since the captain hadn’t yet voiced an objection, then it was likely that the corporal’s orders were indeed being sanctioned. Nappa cursed and redoubled his efforts. They were short on crew, and now they were short on time. Was the corporal trying to set a record or something?
He barely managed to pack the round in time, pulling his hand free from the chamber before the next volley was announced.
“This is for Istan, you sons of whores!” Hank yelled as the fuse was relit.
Nappa covertly shielded his privates.
The cannon bucked, the recoil knocking it back against the breeching lines; thick ropes secured the gun against the bulwark. Gaul yelped and dropped the cannonball he carried on top of his foot. He’d been standing too close to the cannon and got himself dinged.
Nappa didn’t need to hear the boy’s bones snap, but knew by the way Gaul was screaming bloody murder that the fool had shattered damn near every bone in his foot. It’d be a miracle if the lad ever walked straight again. Hot with the heat of battle, bereft of patience, Nappa reared on the boy, grabbing him by the scruff, and roared.
“You damn fool! You cockup! How many times? How many times do I have to tell you not to stand behind the cannon—for this fucking reason!” He shook him violently.
Gaul was whimpering now, shame-faced and sobbing.
Hank shook his head, taking the initiative to reload the cannon himself. In the past, he had worked every gunnery station, becoming intimately familiar with the routine for each role. Their station would miss the next volley, but it couldn’t be helped.
“I’m sorry.” Gaul begged. “I’m sorry.” He repeated it like a mantra.
Nappa scoffed and released him, disgust evident on his face. “You will never be a gunner, boy!”
“I’m sorry. I’m—” Gaul’s head exploded, bloody swathes of the boy’s hair still attached to the scalp flew off while his brains liquified in his skull, the sluice spilling onto the deck. He left behind a palette of red and rose colors which tinted the air and lacquered the deck.
Nappa was so shocked he hardly registered the follow up impact to his left shoulder. It might’ve been nothing. It felt hollow, like the inside of Gaul’s skull. He felt sick. The world was spinning. The sky became the floor, and the floor became his world.
Hank was as shocked as Nappa, seizing up himself. But seeing Nappa take a bullet to the back had snapped him out of his daze. He dove on top of his friend, and they both hit the deck, landing in an unceremonious heap.
“Hit the deck!”
“Keep firing!” the corporal yelled.
Segal dropped from the crow’s nest, dead. His gun clattered to the floor a second before his body thumped on top of it.
“Keep firing!” the corporal repeated.
How the fuck was a dead man supposed to keep firing?
Hank looked over towards the center deck, ready to tell the corporal off, expecting to see the young man hiding behind a barrel, curled into himself. It was what he was used to after years of service to the military: commanders in name only. And since transferring to the famed Devanagari, he’d seen naught but a lot of bureaucracy, and not much combat. None, in fact. Enforcing levies—what a joke. No one ever came to Istan but for the reprieve, and he and Nappa had been due a substantial reprieve after the cockup they suffered in Gojira. Damn Isolde for mucking up their vacation.
What Hank witnessed however, saw his words dying in his throat. The corporal, a lithe young man in his third decade, who had risen to an inexplicable station as the captain’s right hand, was standing protectively over their vulnerable commander. Feet apart, shoulders squared, and sword out, he stood vigilant over the captain’s exposed front, seemingly using his smaller body as a shield against the enemy. It was as brave as it was stupid. Archuleta, for his part, remained focused on his task, unflinchingly resolved to the corporal’s brand of symbolic guardianship.
But the corporal seemed determined. So, perhaps that was what gave Hank pause. The lad would swat the air with his sword every other second, sometimes twice. It was a useless gesture. Hank wasn’t sure what the corporal was trying to accomplish, but it was almost as embarrassing as his earlier display of flagmanship. Hank shook his head. He was on a ship of fools.
“Use the smoke for cover! Stay low, but don’t stop firing!” the corporal shouted.
Of course, Hank thought. It was simple, but smart, especially when weighed against the alternative of remaining idle until their advantage was all but lost. I guess the boy’s not all flack.
Hank crawled on all fours, lumbering below the cannon. Picking up the linstock, he used it to feel for the touch hole while trying to remember if he’d primed it before. Just before he joined the two, he remembered what had happened to Gaul. Hank was staring directly at the back of his own cannon, taking in the divotted pitting of the iron bell’s cascabel with surreal appreciation. If he lit it, it would kick like a mule. He’d seen someone die that way, and odds were that if it were to occur to him, he would likewise die a fool’s death. Swallowing, he rounded to the side of the gun, and only then did he light the fuse. It erupted magnificently, though he dared not peek to see if it actually hit anything.
Gun spent, he crawled back to Nappa’s side to check on his condition. His friend was still out of it. Frankly, for the first time since he was a recruit, he didn’t know what to do. Out of instinct, he looked for a senior officer for direction. There was the corporal again, busy swatting the air away like it was gangrenous with gnats.
Admittedly, the lad had dexterity and a quick wrist, if not much sense to write home about. Then the corporal’s sword, which had been gleaming in the sun like it was trying to send a message, sparked a sickly orange which he would recognize anywhere. It was the spark of flame, the same a linstock produced. Eyes widen in realization, Hank observed even closer than before, more intently.
Hank saw that the deck behind the corporal was littered with dozens of upturned indentations; the floorboards were riddled with bullet holes. Another swing of the sword brought sound to Hank’s vision. His hearing had been impaired earlier by the debilitating effects of a hazardous profession, the ongoing rapport of percussive instruments sounding in his eardrums; it was a handicap which persisted beyond the gunnery lines, likely for the rest of his life if precedent were any indicator. However, his ears had cleared enough to make out the telltale ringing of steel against steel. Schwing!
The edge of the corporal’s blade sparked to life just before the deck behind him and the captain splintered as two halves of a once whole projectile struck the hard wood on opposite sides, the impact sending shards and splinters up into the air in their wake. Hanks’s jaw dropped.
“What… the… fuck?” he mouthed.
“Is he… cutting bullets?” Nappa asked, finally roused from his stupor.
Hank eyed his friend, checking the man over for injury—besides the obvious gunshot wound to the back—and judged that Nappa might live if he didn’t die from something else first. “Uh…” Hank looked back to check on their impossible swordsman.
The corporal swung his sword. This time, only one side of the deck was perforated.
“Not all of them. He just moved that one.” Hank said.
“Right. I’m probably still alive then. Damn.”
“Sorry. You’re not dead yet, my friend. You’ll just have to try harder next time.”
“Gaul’s dead.” Nappa said bluntly and bleakly. There was an edge of self-recrimination to his voice.
Hank understood his friend’s inner turmoil, because the man had lashed out in anger and the boy passed having witnessed Nappa at his worst. His friend would never be able to make amends, nor take back those distempered words. Gaul’s death had robbed them both of that opportunity.
“He must’ve tried harder than you.”
“Aye. He was a damn good gunner.”
“Aye. He was.”
“Fire!” the corporal yelled.
A third of the cannons went off. Two more men were felled by the enemy in the exchange, but for their efforts, the Hosanna was successfully scuttled.
“Reload!” The corporal danced into of the path of a bullet. Schwing!
“He’s crazy.” Nappa said.
“Stay low!” Dance, thrust, schwing!
“So are we.” Nappa grinned.
“Aye. Good thing too.” Hank smirked.
They shared a mischievous glance, then sprung to their feet, crouching low so as to stay below their enemy’s line of sight. They reloaded the cannon hurriedly, experts in their craft, while wishing for once to be below deck and thus out of the line of fire. Usually cannonades were one sided affairs that didn’t factor in personal munitions, one reaching further than the other while being more devastating, therefore being more desirable as a result, but nothing was ever guaranteed on the battlefield. Nothing except the fact that cannons below deck were usually the first struck by preemptive or retaliatory cannon fire. Ironically. It was not a station they ever envied, until today.
Nappa groaned, inhibited by his injury, but managed to pack the cannon properly before the next volley was announced. Performing the tediously repetitive task helped alleviate his discomfort by providing him with an object of focus. His world minimized to revolve around the eighth turret and her artillery. Job done, the cannon discharged with a deafening roar.
“You missed!” Nappa shouted, outraged.
“You lie! I hit it fine. See?” Hank pointed to the latest capsizing vessel, the Indra, as proof of his claim.
“Codswallup! You missed. I saw it hit the water, plain as day.”
Hank had seen it too, but his pride disallowed him from admitting fault. “You slander me Nappa. Clearly, your injury is affecting your eyesight.”
“Just get it right this time.” Nappa groused. His shoulder was flaring in pain, and he needed the distraction, lest he take his misfortune out on his friend. He thought of Gaul, and determined not to repeat his mistakes.
“You don’t need to tell me.” Hank clipped out brusquely.
Nappa would’ve responded if his shoulder wasn’t on fire, perhaps mended the proverbial fence. As it was, he struggled with his task. Reaching to cover the cannonball with the topmost wadding, he was surprised to see that he had some extra laid out. Shit—did I pack that last round right? It was getting harder to concentrate while everything seemed to be picking up speed. Objects and outlines began blurring together to create new amorphous shapes. Shaking his head vigorously in an attempt to orient himself and regain his bearings, he made sure to pack the round tightly, securely, and properly this time. He decided that Hank didn’t need to know why his aim was off.
The next shot struck true, toppling the jib of the Mesentera. It was a debilitating blow. Shots from his comrades followed suit, and the damage turned crippling.
“Ha! Take that.” Hank boasted. Whether he meant to spur on the enemy, or his friend was uncertain.
“Hmph. Not bad.” Nappa admitted. “Keep shooting like that, and—”
“Target their rearguard!” the corporal shouted.
True enough, five ships managed to break formation, far enough out that they were able to escape the brunt of the Cage’s paralytic effects. Two on the north side and three on the south, they gave a wide berth to the rest fleet, clearly uncertain about where the cage’s boundaries laid. Encircling the Devanagari, they toed the line, staying just within mutual cannon firing range. Though only their prows were visible so far, their intent was clear: they meant to broadside.
“Shit.” Hank said, and began adjusting the trajectory.
Nappa cursed while packing another round, grunting through the pain. His hand slipped on the cannonball he meant to chamber and came away streaked with red. Shit.
A foreign hand covered the bloody print decorating the shell. Sergeant Janus was muttering something, eyes half lidded in concentration, while his hand glowed red with manna.
“There.” Janus said, and helped Nappa chamber the shot.
Together, they managed to pack the ball into the fuselage. Nappa pretended to be humoring the lad, nodding surreptitiously to him when he was sure Hank wasn’t looking. Hank purposefully chose not to look out of decorum, checking and rechecking his instruments instead. Janus left in short order, apparently making rounds to the turret stations.
What was that about? Hank didn’t ask, but Nappa shrugged anyway.
Hank sighted the Ryzenhimmel, a galleon class destroyer, trained the fuselage, and primed the fuse. Linstock at the ready, he waited for Nappa to give the go ahead. A succinct nod from the man, and he lit the wick.
The ejected projectile veered high, Hank’s aim off from the trajectile dynamics he’d been blissfully ignoring to date, and impacted against the densely woven fabric of the mainsail with all the impediment of a welcome invitation, piercing it with the ease of a swallow skirring through a midsummer’s breeze. It passed through two more sails before clipping the rigging and volleying out to sea, submerging in a geysering splash of brine behind the ship. The mizzen mast sails billowed freely; now loose, they fanned against the mainsails and ship’s trusswork.
The holes left behind in the wake of the cannonball’s exodus smoldered around the edges. A strong gust blew out two of the open smoldering rings, but the mainsails, protected by a blanket of mizzen sails, kindled, then flamed. A barrage of missed shots struck the water’s surface near the speedily listing vessel, sending water onto the deck and threatening to douse the burgeoning flames. The fire spread unimpeded, outward and upward in short order, enveloping the entire canopy of the main mast’s rigging before the sailors on deck could react. That they were under attack helped none at all.
The crew of the burning ship ran amok, some hurrying to put out the flames while others focused on taking retaliatory shots in a desperate gambit for duty or revenge. A few jumped ship, believing the ship lost already.
Nappa stared on in shock, then turned to Hank, who looked equally stunned.
“Okay… I’ll give you that one.”
Hank nodded, but thought about what Sergeant Janus had done earlier, and wondered if Nappa’s credit was misplaced. Though the thought didn’t last long, because the Ryzenhimmel was pitching. Main and mizzen sails down, the foresails dragged the prow to port, levering the ship onto a tilted axis. Listing, it leaned, lurching until its broadside was exposed. The duo worked overtime to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity, reloading hurriedly.
“Boom.” Nappa said.
The broadside of a ship was harder to hit at a distance, which was expounded exponentially while the ship was in motion and its crew was avidly attempting to avoid being struck. Nonetheless, Hank managed to guide his ballistic missile on a path directly intersecting the ship’s underbelly. Upon impact, secondary explosions caused a large swath of the hull to explode outward. The sea began swallowing the ruptured vessel.
“Yes!” Hank cheered. “That’s what I’m talking about!”
“Hurrah!” Nappa laughed and joined the celebration.
The duo clasped hands, grinning madly.
“That’s how you shoot.” Nappa spoke animatedly. “From now on, that’s how you shoot.”
The Ryzenhimmel was in dire straits, and like a wolverine that’s been backed into a corner, it snarled in defiance of its fate. A gun captain and his crew, one of the few remaining on the ship, sighted the Devanagari down the length of their barrel, and fired. The wolverine’s claws lashed out a rabid gambit for vengeance. It was only happenstance—a cruel twist of fate or ironic tragedy—that the cannonball impacted at the foot of the eighth portside turret, igniting the surplus powder cartridges and killing both of its gunners.
Nappa died with a smile on his face, laughing. He never realized that he’d been impaled, that his torso had been rent apart, or that trace pieces of what used to be his body—that which hadn’t been consumed by marine life, too microscopic and unrecognizable to ever be identified as having once constituted the stalwart warrior—would wash ashore in the coming days.
Hank registered a moment of artificial light coming from the initial explosion, but hadn’t the comprehension of realizing the magnitude of what was occurring before he passed into the next world. From his perspective, his friend’s joyous face seemed to brighten, then there was a blackout of sensory information as everything darkened and the world dimmed to nothingness around him an instant later.
A split second is enough time for fate to decide upon which side of the divide, between life and death, the fabric of destiny is woven. Before water turns to steam or lightning strikes the ground, the die has already been cast. Just a fraction of a moment is all it takes for everything to change. The corporal saw it happening, powerless to avoid the outcome. Quickly, as the river flows, yet slowly, like the tide ebbs.
A flash before another speck on the horizon lanced out, soaring to meet the Devanagari and its crew. He felt more than saw, intuited more than sensed. A blur became a streak, an incomprehensible flicker amongst the backdrop of his greater peripheral vision, static amongst the whole of the greater picture, then he moved. Neurons came alive as synapsis fired, electricity arcing from one nerve cluster to another, tracing a course through well-traveled pathways. A knee-jerk spasm, and his arm acted out almost of its own accord. The sword swung—a pendulum in a timeless room—and the bullet halved.
Then the Devanagari was hit, and everything went to Hell.
Wood splintered, the hull fractured, debris rained down in a hail of shrapnel, and where the eighth turret had been, stood a smoldering crater, painted red with the gore of effused blood, rent meat, and splattered bowels.
In his distraction, the corporal erred. He swung, and missed, acting too late to prevent a lone bullet from passing through his defense. It lanced towards his superior.
Archuleta meditated over the loadstone. Statuesque in his concentration, he stood resolute, unflinching of the turmoil erupting around him on deck. Immobile as if he were carved in stone, for he was the hinge upon which the plan rested.
Whether by magic or intuition, mere happenstance or fate, Archuleta’s pupil flickered up at the last possible moment, and in that instant, he saw his own death reflected back at him from the metal jacket of the smoldering slug. Too late, he dove out of the way. His shoulder took the brunt of the impact, a concussive force spinning him around. He hit the deck ignominiously, releasing his hold on the loadstone in his tumble. Somehow, he managed to blamed Avanti in the process. Didn’t the sergeant control metal?
Almost all at once, the sea reacted to the absence of the captain’s magic. Archuleta had bound the sea, taming indominable waters in a feat that likes of which few had ever known or could boast. As if snarling its displeasure against this indignity, the ocean snarled back and retaliated. Compounded layers of ocean, leagues of water folded in upon each other by a lamina of Archuleta’s own will, all of which had been sharing the same physical space before, were abruptly thrust back into the dimensions of reality from a world seemingly without physics, a microcosm of the timeless and inert, and then exploded outward with all the vehemence mother nature could summon in her wrath. The sea was wild, and did not like to be tamed.
The thunderous cacophony which followed could be heard for miles, possibly even on the continent if one were listening intently. An explosive detonation ballooned outward from the harbor, with the divide between enemy ships serving as the epicenter. It shook the world itself, right down to the bedrock, as if a league’s worth of powder had been ignited out at sea. Archuleta typically released his hold incrementally for this very reason, but that decision had been wrenched from his hands. Literally.
The Devanagari was rocked back by the sudden surge, threatening to capsize in its wake, while the Isoldean fleet was scattered haphazardly across the harbor in various straits. A few vessels, smaller, more maneuverable ketches, did capsize.
In the aftermath, silence reigned like a pregnant specter overshadowing the proclivity of the world to be noisy, seemingly challenging all who dared to permeate its sepulchral grip.
Being the first to regain his bearings after a while, Archuleta lunged for the loadstone, wits firmly about him, hands reaching, already primed with a liberal dose of manna to reinvoke the spell sequence anew. Then the stone shattered into countless pieces in front of his eyes, mere inches away from his fingertips. His eyes bulged out in disbelief while his pupils singled out individual shards to focus on until the last of them finally hit the deck.
It seemed that the loadstone’s ruination was the signal for life to begin anew, for noise to reinvigorate the world. The corporal, still recovering himself, looked up in that moment and locked eyes with the stunned captain. They were both stunned speechless.
The corporal took in the sight of Archuleta’s gunshot wound, then the shattered remains of the loadstone, and suffered a severe bout of self-recrimination. He had failed his captain, again. No, too many times. He dared not see it in his eyes.
The next shot struck Archuleta squarely in the forehead. A spout of blood jetted airborne as the captain was knocked back astern and collapsed.
“NO!” the corporal howled, eyes wide and unbelieving. His body acted of its own accord, launching him at the captain’s supine form, narrowly avoiding the hail of gunfire which tore up the deck in his wake. Sensing the danger, and coming to his wits, he twisted midstride, turning his sword against the incoming projectiles. Schwing!
Staring down his attackers, the corporal staggered in disbelief. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the first of the enemy forces had already broadsided and the rest were maneuvering into position. He looked about the deck to discern their own readiness and noticed that most of their paltry forces were still heaped on the floor or in the process of rousing their neighbors.
“We are so fucked.”
On the other side of the ship, Avanti was mid-salt. A streak on the horizon preceded the arrival of another incoming volley. It seemed the enemy recuperated faster than they had, which made more than a degree of sense, considering that they appeared to be the source of… whatever-that-was. Avanti blamed the captain, but chose not to follow that train of thought, because anything that his captain had trouble going against was not something he welcomed.
“Incoming!” he shouted from midair.
He had been nearly an arm’s length off in his estimate. Nearly, and hardly his fault, but negligible as his own arm stretched far enough. He wound back and punched the cannonball with a coiled fist. Bang!
Fuck! It hurt.
It wasn’t an easy task, knocking back magically infused, superheated iron shells that were racing through the sky at obscene velocities. But he was Avanti… the metal deformed against his hand, and there was a brief extrinsic struggle as his magic overcame the wards on the missile, then the inertia of the iron ore itself. The cannonball vibrated virulently against his own tremulous fist. Eventually, the shell yielded and flew back to its owner, falling short of reaching the Tigershark by millileagues. He had been working on his aim the whole time during the battle, having managed to knick one of the ships earlier with their own artillery. He had been rather proud of that accomplishment, but his celebration had been cut short when the sea decided to explode.
Avanti had been falling down to deck when the ocean regained its momentum and rushed back to reclaim its place in the world. The ship moved, thrust away by the surge. The jib backwinded by the influx of free air, rotated, and the support beam caught him square in the shoulders. He wasn’t the master of wood, so it hurt a skosh more than if he had been struck by a cannonball, which he would’ve preferred, but it had saved him from falling into the sea. He landed in time to see the loadstone shatter in the captain’s hands, the lost look in his eyes, and the spurt of blood that preceded his collapse.
Avanti couldn’t believe he had seen the captain felled by a mere bullet. Heck, even the corporal had been swatting those annoyances away. But he had indeed seen the captain go down, and the man so far had stayed that way. And now it was raining bullets.
“The shit just keeps on pilling.” he complained. But he had a job to do, and if he wanted even the remotest chance in Hell to do it again tomorrow, he needed to see it done today, so he ran to the corporal’s side.
Along the way, he noticed that the bullets were peppering the lad more than anywhere or anyone else on the ship, including himself, though not for lack of ammunition it seemed, judging by the high volumes of their bombardment. Isoldean intelligence must’ve rightly singled the corporal out as next in line for command. That thought almost caused Avanti to lose stride. With the captain down, the corporal and himself were next in line for the command. He also noticed that the bullets seemed to be more or less ignoring his existence altogether, as if he had commanded it so, which he was fairly sure he hadn’t, not that they would’ve listened. Metal can be obstinate once it’s reached a decision. The Isoldean’s must’ve figured out his capabilities at least, if not his identity. It seemed that there was indeed a brain working for the enemy.
He slid to a stop in front of the corporal, shielding the man with his own larger body. He grunted as a few slugs compacted against his back, but the volley lessened soon after, then stopped.
Smart, Avanti thought. Though he realized that if their enemy could think intelligently, then their own situation became that much more perilous.
“Avanti!” the corporal said. He sounded almost relieved, then seemed to collect his wits. “The captain, he’s—”
“What do we do?”
It was in that moment, while the corporal stared up at him, adorning a lost look of shattered innocence, that Avanti was confronted with just how young the man really was… He just a youth who had yet to see the world or even feel a woman’s warmth—probably. Hell, if he was being honest, he didn’t know much about the corporal. But judging by appearances, he was just a lad. Avanti spared a moment to consider the ramifications of entrusting the crew to a virgin novice, but quickly dismissed the notion when a stray slug impacted his side, reminding him that time was of the essence. He had already more or less made up his mind, and no good would come of second guessing his decisions now. Like metal, Avanti could be obstinate.
“That, I don’t know. You tell me.”
“Captain’s down. You’re next in line, kid. What’s the plan?”
“But you’re the First Mate!”
“Sure, I’ve got the most seniority, but we all know that the captain has been grooming you to take over for a while now. You just tell us what to do.” He jutted his chin out towards the crew. “They’ll listen to you.” He nodded. “Captain.”
The corporal struggled internally, a war that etched itself on his face. He was a failure. Had failed—his captain, his country, himself least of all—and now the crew was apparently looking at him for leadership when they should be blaming him for failing them all already. Why? Why him? Didn’t they know he would just fail them too? He didn’t want the responsibility. He had already killed the captain. Couldn’t they see the blood on his hands?
He looked to Avanti, beseeching him with his eyes to take back his words, to bail him out of this situation—or put him out of his misery. Was this supposed to be his punishment? It was deserved, he admitted, but by him, not the crew. “I—I can’t.” he whispered.
Fuck. Avanti thought. The corporal looked lost. Hell, Avanti was lost himself. There was no training for this situation. A part of him recognized it wasn’t fair to foist off all this responsibility on the corporal, but everything he had spoken was truth. The lad just had to see that for himself. That it was also selfish was as unintended as it was welcome.
“Corporal!” Avanti shouted to gain his attention. “Corporal!” He struggled to be heard over the wind. Clasping the young man by the shoulder, then grabbing him by the chin in order to direct his gaze and make eye contact, he enunciated to both be heard clearly and convey the seriousness the situation demanded, which he hoped to portray. “We need orders. What do you want us to do?”
Avanti’s hair was like a maelstrom caught a raging tempest, licks of flame governed by the oncoming gale’s eclecticism. Errant strands lashed out to strike at the corporal’s face, which was framed by his own similarly windswept locks. The sounds of distant cannons were being carried on the…
The corporal opened his mouth, then promptly closed it at the cusp of a realization. The wind!
“That’s it!” the corporal said animatedly, exploding into motion. He turned to address the crew. “Turn the sails starboard ninety degrees! Full tilt!”
The crew of the ship exchanged a collective look of bewilderment with each other.
What the… Avanti thought. He not-so-surreptitiously sized the corporal up, wondering if he’d lost his senses or cracked from the stress. As far as he could tell, the man hadn’t. Avanti saw a man with the fire of conviction burning in his eyes. So, shrugging, he turned to follow the captain’s orders. “You heard the man!” he shouted to the crew. “Captain’s orders! Move those sails, full tilt!” The crew responded begrudgingly, cautious of catching a stray bullet.
“Drop the forward anchors, then position yourself at the bow.”
“You want me to do what now?”
The corporal was livelier than ever. His eyes glowed with the heat of battle—or madness, Avanti thought. “After you release the Tongue.”
“Oh… ‘kay.” Decidedly, he wasn’t going to ask. If he were to die today, which was seeming more and more likely by the minute, it wouldn’t be because he foolishly hesitated in the thick of it. He had his orders, and would see them carried out. A special order of Hell awaited detractors, and besides, he trusted the corporal enough not to question the man’s burgeoning leadership. At least, that’s what he told himself.
Avanti made for the bow while his comrades, brothers in arms—brothers in all but blood, but that too they had shed together—hurried themselves in their tasks to the increasing tempo of enemy’s ballistic barrage. How many men would die before he reached the end of the ship? He paced hurriedly, purposefully, following the orders of a shell-shocked young man he had to physically pull back from the cusp of mental breakdown himself. He could almost hear the glass pane separating sanity from madness shattering in his head.
Before joining the navy, Avanti had once been a drunk. Drinking away his ambitions as well as all of life’s woes under the guise of self-medicating. He drank for recreation and pleasure. He drank to forget. He drank until he became numb to the shortcomings of the world around him, until they too bled into the gutter with his worries, past, present and future intermingled in a spiraling tableau reminiscent of the way his life had been progressing. A numbing drought for a dreamless sleep.
Archuleta had saved him from that Hell—from himself. He owed the man his life. And now the man was dead. And under so much mental strain for one day, Avanti unconsciously reverted back to familiar patterns. He snatched a flagon off a soldier’s waist on his way to the bow. He smirked. There were no shortage of drunks in the navy. If he were to die today, he decided it would not be sober. The drink was a familiar crutch which he sought to serve him well now, bolstering him in his time of need.
He upended the flagon. It contained a swig of delicious wine before it ran empty.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!” Avanti cursed his luck.
A man can’t even die drunk…
Avanti ran toward the prow with renewed haste. The air thrummed, bullets and shrapnel lacing a path through the atmosphere, striking resonate chords in the air, a stringed backdrop for a delugent staccato. He determined to carry out his orders before his conviction waned, else his feet might just carry him away to the nearest pub.
He released the Tongue, pulling the chain free with his bare hand, wrenching the metal apart, and tossed the remains into the sea. He kicked the starboard anchor off the deck; admittedly, with more force than necessary, but it was wonderfully cathartic. It broke through the railing with a resounding crash, but with the straits the ship was in now, he figured that any additional damage he caused would hardly matter. Speed was of the essence.
He placed his boot over the next anchor, a plow type, to kick off. Usually, they didn’t drop those as they tended to dig in quite well, but he shrugged and did it anyway, figuring the circumstances were extenuating enough to warrant pretty much any course of action. There, his task was done.
Only too late did he realize that by dropping anchor, fleeing would be firmly out of the question. Well, fuck. He deliberated a moment longer over loosing the anchors and turning about, but it was too late for second guessing now. He hadn’t wanted the command and didn’t seek it now. What the corporal was hoping to accomplish, he didn’t know, but the decision making had been taking determinedly out of his hands.
Avanti didn’t think about the bigger picture, of everything that was happening around him; couldn’t think of it, in fact. No, he was just a soldier, and soldier’s simply followed orders. He wasn’t a leader, never meant for the position. Surely, the kid could handle it. The captain had singled him out after all. He hadn’t singled out Avanti, save for the initial recruitment. Had the man foreseen his shortcomings?
He shook his head, wishing he had a drink while he willed his world view to dim down to the bow he inhabited, a sphere of order in a world of chaos. In a sea of turmoil, he built an island. It was said that ignorance was bliss. Yes, as Avanti could attest, life was indeed simpler this way.
He heard murmurings in the backdrop, ineffable rumblings, the corporals voice and something about… the Tail? He probably wanted that to be detached as well. Hell, the corporal was likely going to get them all killed at this rate. He laughed at that. Kept laughing while the glass pane in his head cracked, spiderwebbing out in all directions until it resembled frosted glass. For a moment, he forgot which side of the divide he was standing on—or was it a precipice—but realized that soon it wouldn’t matter. A chip fell away, followed by another.
The mizzen mast swerved, following the jib, preceding the mainsails. Every truss, every sail, all the rigging, and anything that wasn’t bolted down was uniformly rotated approximately ninety degrees. With a shudder, the mainsails creaked into position almost of their own accord, the last to maneuver. The sails inflated progressively faster until they were soon launched open a deafening pop! They held, but the canvas seemed to contain the weight of the world’s wind stores in their weft. It was as if Zephyr, the Wind Goddess herself, were blowing against the Devanagari.
The ship lurched, tilting on axis as the sails were beaten down.
Avanti cursed, physically thrown back to his senses. He clung to what was left of the railing, wishing he hadn’t destroyed so much of it in his impetuousness. Making the sign of the cross for good luck, he prayed to his matron Goddess for the umpteenth time that day.
A splinter dug itself into his palm and he fought back a laugh, fearing that he was starting to lose himself to madness. If only he hadn’t… he balked at that train of thought, which sobered him immediately. Wide eyes followed the trail of links from the anchor housing to the sea below. Too late he realized what would happen.
The hull caught up with the sails, and moved. The anchors caught, their tines digging trenches in the seabed until they buried themselves immobile. The chains went taut then, and the aft end of the ship was hurled out to sea independent of the bow, which was moored.
“Shit!” Avanti screamed, a prolonged and visceral imprecation, while the ship lurched. It rotated, gyrating in place, and repositioning itself, making a ninety degree turn on dime from where it was anchored. Now they were facing the enemy while their broadside was well and truly protected.
Avanti flopped to the deck, rising to stand on wobbly legs. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs. A ship was not meant to move that way. Ever. He shuddered. The corporal could be truly frightening. No wonder the captain had chosen that man. Surely, his mind, if nothing else, was just as monstrous.
Perhaps Avanti hadn’t been off in his initial instincts either. He decided to trust in the man for the moment.
Now, why had the corporal told him to stand on the bow? He wondered while taking in his surroundings. A bullet tore through the air and struck at his throat. Hacking up a lung, he coughed out a cocktail of saliva, a smidgeon of wine, and bile.
Avanti chuckled while wiping his mouth off with a forearm. He understood now.
That crafty son of a bitch…
Avanti smirked, feeling reinvigorated. It seemed that placing his trust in the corporal had been the right thing to do after all. Spotting the incoming hail of cannon and gunfire, and realizing that he was standing between it and the crew, he no longer minded the absence of a good drink. He was exactly where he was supposed to be, and he would need his wits about him for the task he was to undertake.
Perhaps the enemy believed the Devanagari to be backed in a corner. Admittedly, Avanti had thought as much himself. But no, unlike a wild beast when treed, the ship did not snarl in defiance of its fate. Instead, it roared a challenge, a reminder of the status quo. The ship was not stuck in the harbor with the enemy. No, they were stuck in harbor with Devanagari. The ship was more than just an amalgam with its captain and his will. The enemy had its crew to contend with.
“Bring it on, bitches!”
The crew roared, a collective assent.