Chapter 12

The Plan


Watching the sea freeze was nothing like turning round the hand on a clock and watching the seasons accelerate in tandem. It was an explosion, yet not. Implosive, yet nothing of the sort. Inertness radiated outward from the Devanagari at its epicenter, sapping the life from anything in the path of the detonation. Water welled, compacting, folding, churning inward on itself until becoming a deeper blue, a darker green, and reminiscent not of what it was but had become, a microcosm: the timeline of reality overlapped and overlayed on itself. Those paradoxical waters were the amalgam of the past, present, and future intertwining, stacked impossibly in on themselves. It was as substantial to reality as it remained abstract to the mind, both breathtaking and daunting. It stood utterly unfathomable that any human could conjure such an overwhelmingly vast feat of magic into existence, to bend reality to their whim on such an incredible scale.

“Is this the power of a god?” Adrian whispered, slack jawed and awed.

“Half of one.” Jacobi said, referring to the captain, who was a demi. “This is his doing.”

“He’s not human.”

“Half of one.” Jacobi repeated, reminding the sergeant that the man was indeed born of a human mother. And though he’d also had a human father, his patronage remained in the divine. This spectacle before them was proof of the captain’s divine husbandry.

“No.” Adrian shook his head. “He’s a monster, that one.”

A flash on the horizon prefaced the opening volley as the entire port side of the warship Devanagari opened fire simultaneously, signaling the first operational counterattack of the engagement. The spectators were reminded that they had a role to play in this war. The captain had opened up the theater to their performance. They were dutybound to perform but, more so, they relished the notion. Extracting their vengeance would be enough of a boon.

Jacobi clapped his peer on the shoulder harder than necessary. “I do believe that’s the signal.”

Adrian snapped to attention, rounding on his men, who were spread out along the western arm of the docks. “Fire at will!”

At the same time, Jacobi rallied his own men, who were spread out to the east. He shouted to be heard over the booming overture, a cannon song of orchestrated devastation. Having noticed that the squad had waited to heed his instruction before acquiescing to Adrian’s command, sent a thrill of pride his bones. The men were rabid, practically foaming at the mouth and chomping at the bit for a chance to enact retribution, and he loosed these devils unto the enemies of Atreia. “Fire everything!”

They lobbed everything.

The mortars and cannons sang sonorously, their destructive concerto carried on the wings of the wind. By the time it was heard across the harbor, it would be far too late to react. A perfect storm was brewing, and the tides had changed.

The hull of the Oratorio cracked wide open, wrenching open a jagged aperture to the belly of the ship, which the sea worked to swiftly fill. Drinking gluttonously of the brine, the boat was bogged down. The architecture strained to adjust to new imbalance of weight. Timber creaked as the ship listed, tilting on axis. A volley tore through the sails, but even though crippled and lame, the bloodthirst of its executioners could not be quelled so readily. Another salvo tore through the wreckage, followed by another. And when the shell of what used to be the Oratorio was left hollow and exposed to the elements, the hunters which had preyed upon its carapace sought another meal with hungry eyes.

The catapults were the most unconventional weapons to fire. They took neither cartridge nor powder and shot. A grout smeared piece of rubble, such random debris as masonry or steel, was lit aflame and launched to interesting effect, such as veering so far off course that a completely different ship was hit than the initial target or a masonic shot exploding midair from the heat and bulleting the target in a wide spread. After the first volleys, the men became creative in their choices for ammunition, challenging convention by finding new and destructive ways to maim and kill. The galleon Kamehamehaserved as the testing grounds for their experimentation.

As incendiary weapons, the catapults worked to wondrous effect, spreading flame to the decks of several combatant ships. Where they lacked in was power, unable to pierce past the magically fortified hulls of the fleet with their limited velocity and none of the penetrative wards common to standardized munitions. It presented an obstacle to their mission of sowing devastation. Aiming also proved to be inordinately challenging. With such odd-shaped projectiles, the wind had her say and was as capricious a nymph as ever. It helped more than some that the wind at the epicenter was deader than the ideal of peace with Isolde.

The weapons proved to be a fine addition to their munitions, supplementing their limited arsenal immensely. Where the cannons slaughtered, the catapults maimed. Squad four made a right mess of their foes, delighting in sowing the seeds of chaos and entropy. With Jacobi at the helm, Batham and Hogar manned the cannons, dealing the bulk of the damage in their squad, while Tonfa and Dewalt monopolized the catapults, insisting that only farmer’s sons knew best how to operate such obsolescent devices and, to no one’s surprise, the twins partook hungrily in volleying salvo after salvo of mortar shells at the enemy, delighted by the rapid rate of fire they were able to achieve over the other weaponry. They were a well-oiled machine, doling death in spades.

Jacobi soon enough noted the flaw emerging within their strategy. They were mistakenly using catapult shot as something like a substitute for cannon fire while the archaic weapons lacked the penetrating power of conventional artillery. It was a wasted effort when their energies could best be redirected elsewhere.

“Use the catapults to target their sails.” Jacobi ordered, challenging convention. “There’s no point in trying to do a cannon’s job with a musket.”

“I’m just trying to hit the blasted thing.” Tonfa grumbled. “Now you want me to target specific areas?”

“Yes.” Jacobi replied automatically.

“Fine.” Tonfa conceded after a moment. He reeled back the catapult while Dewalt readied the payload. “But don’t expect any miracles.” He groused.

“I won’t.” Jacobi lied. His expectations thus far had been one long string of miracles, and he feared that if they didn’t receive divine intervention, they’d all pay a lofty toll in the end. Perhaps, the ultimate toll.

With the correction made, the catapults soon proved to be wondrously destructive devices, much better suited for the purposes of sowing mayhem than reaping death. The sails of the Tartarus caught flame, and though impossible to hear, the imagined screams and frantic shouts of the crew were musically uplifting. It was a sadistic balm for the soul, which threatened to dye one’s spirit black if indulged in for too long—or perhaps, at all.

Adrian looked over at squad four, having been keeping tabs on all the men under his chain of command. He had his doubts before, both about Jacobi’s ability to lead such a motley crew and the archaic machines he’d brought to the table. At least, initially. So far, he and they had proven their salt in bones. He was happy to have been proven wrong. Now, if only someone could prove him wrong about the outcome to this engagement…

Spying Jacobi’s success, he ordered his own men to focus their fire on breeching hulls, to the neglect of anything else, which earned him more than a few queried looks before compliance took.

“It seems like you don’t need me to hold your hand anymore.” Adrian said. His blithe demeanor gave nothing away. “Go lead your squad.” He tilted his head over at them, in case Jacobi needed directions.

“And here I thought I’d been holding yours the whole time.” Jacobi said, making himself scarce before his counterpart could reply.

Adrian shook his head ruefully, fighting back the telltale curvature of an unwanted smirk. A sharp pain caught him in the chest. The discomfort prompted a coughing fit, which he covered with the crook of his arm. It came away wet, slick with blood. The sight simultaneously froze and thawed his beating heart, which was jackhammering away at an odd cadence; one he couldn’t recognize as his own. He looked down and saw a patch of red seeping down and over his front. That he couldn’t feel it, neither its dampness nor its warmth, was the most frightening detail of all. He suddenly felt breathless, as if he’d been running, but he hadn’t; he’d been standing. A moment later his neck exploded, geysering outward in a fountain red; right before his position was overrun by the renewed song of cannon fire. It was the last refrain he ever heard.

Jacobi looked back, stunned. What was he looking at? He couldn’t comprehend it… Then he felt a weight crash into him, and the last thought he had before his world went black was an incoherent jumble and the word—a name—Adrian.

A surge of noise and light resuscitated his senses. Immediately, he recognized the taste of dirt clogging his mouth, and spit in distaste. Shit, Jacobi thought. Am I dead? Opening his eyes revealed that he hadn’t been that fortunate. However, revisiting the sight of Adrian’s still bleeding corpse, lying in a pool of the man’s own blood, had him reassessing that macabre train of thought.

Grunting, he pushed Dewalt off from him, who had tackled him to the ground. Well, that answers that. It seems that I can’t catch a fucking break. He groaned, pained. “Private, not that I don’t appreciate the save, but would you please get off my privates?”

Dewalt squawked. He righted himself, apologizing profusely in the process.

“Don’t worry about it.” Jacobi said, letting him off the hook. Though, he was severely tempted to return the favor. He readjusted himself, and they both made for the nearest barricade, crouching beneath its armored confines, where they joined up with Tonfa.

The others were stationed at an adjacent fortification, in order to extend their ranks. The benefit was that by creating multiple smaller targets, it spread out the enemy’s fire, which was substantial. Plus, it created the illusion of a greater force, which couldn’t be discounted. But the downside was being separated from a larger contingent and effectively left on one’s own, which was never a good thing to be when facing down an enemy hoard.

A cannon’s round struck the ground they had just vacated. Judging by the twin trenches dug into the boardwalk, Jacobi would wager it was a chained shot.

Dewalt swallowed. “I don’t think my wife would appreciate me having done that just now.” He admitted, sounding more remorseful than Jacobi was comfortable with hearing. If it came down to it again, he’d prefer the man not hesitate to repeat the favor. Although preferably, Jacobi wished to avoid being placed in the same situation altogether.

“Well, I’m sure glad you did.” Jacobi said, clapping the man on the back. “And don’t worry. I won’t tell her.”

“I might.” Tonfa admitted. “Unless you make it worth my while…” His grin was that of a sadist.

Jacobi glared at the idiot, because judging by the horrified look on Dewalt’s face, if he was shot at again, he would be screwed.

Their fortification was hammered, signaling an end to their impromptu dialogue. Batted against by a hail of gun fire, the barricade resounded with the pitter-patter of deflected and defeated shots, which sounded a mockery, a parody of the life ending potential they carried. The accompaniment of a roaring boom, that of a cannon proper joining the fray, added copious amounts of gravitas by alluding that only death was on the horizon for those unfortunate enough to be in the crosshairs.

A standard military barricade consisted of four parts. A timber frame festooned with sigil markers, talismans which helped fortify the defense’s structural skeleton. The frame was then weighed down with sandbags for mass. Lots and lots of sand equated to equivalent parts mass which, by acting as a buffer, dampened artillery at the impact point tremendously. Finally, specialized tarps were cast across the entire structure; magically attenuated, they further helped to disperse momentum at the point of impact. By dint of their construction, fraying, burning, penetrating, or otherwise destroying any part of these fabrics wouldn’t diminish the overall gain. The rumor was, they were made by Madam Soya herself.

When a hurdling cannonball struck the tarp, it warped, displacing its inertial heft in-between the weft of the weave. Untamed, the projectile barreled forward, now a broader beast of burden imposing on half the structure like a looming specter. The sandbags compacted, and more than one burst at the seams. The timber, though stressed, held. The rest of the sandbags did as well. The cannonball, a red-hot poker steaming at the edges, hissed and screamed its displeasure as it compacted into a disfigured, oblong shape. Then it fell to the ground, inert.

While sturdy, the fortifications had their limits. For example, there was nothing they could do about the sound generated by magically enforced projectile hurtling through space only to stop in the span the length of a man’s hand. As a result, it thundered sonorously, booming in their eardrums to the point of eliciting significant pain and popping more than one set of ears. The resultant ringing, though imagined, tolled vibrantly, like a temple’s belfry on Beltane.

“Holy fucking hell that was loud!”

What? Did you say something?”

“Oh, shit. Am I talking right now?”

A moment’s confusion passed while the pelting continued uninterrupted. Another thunder drum beat against their fort, racking the structure. Sand seeped out from between overstressed seams, pouring out over the structure’s edges. Jacobi saw the sifting sand and appraised the overall structure. The bulwarks were made hastily with the purpose of being temporary. They weren’t made to last a prolonged battery. Frankly, neither did it look like it would hold much longer, not having been designed for the abuse it was taking. Jacobi was sure that if Madam Soya wasn’t as gifted as she had been, they’d already be dead. Like Adrian…

Wars weren’t anything like they were depicted in children’s stories or novels. Even the autobiographical depictions of warfare were only so accurate, time and perception having been skewed by adrenaline and fear, the deleterious effects compounded by time’s effect on memory. In reality, it was usually almost always sudden death, a quick kill. The phrase to kill or be killed was, in fact, literal. Enemies were universally slaughtered before they ever had the chance to react, or allies were on the receiving end of the same treatment.  A killing blow was often a single blow, and it was always, always a race to the finish.

Jacobi knew that they’d been lucky enough already, that they shouldn’t be alive. It wasn’t pessimism, just the grimness of reality. The enemy had them outmanned and outgunned. It wasn’t anything as convoluted as alchemic formulae, but simple math. They were going to die, and they’d be lucky if they got off another few shots before that happened. He looked over at Tonfa, who’s grim expression seemed to be mirroring his own. It looked like he understood.

Dewalt still seemed to be struggling with the math, looking for a way to make one plus one equal three.

“Return fire?” Tonfa asked, bellowing to be heard over the rapport.

Even at a shout, it was still hard for Jacobi to make out the man’s voice. Though he knew that the words, once deciphered, carried more meaning than they at first appeared. Tonfa wasn’t asking for the next step in a series, nor a plan. The man was asking for the last orders he’d ever receive. Their next move might very well be the last thing they do in this life. What Tonfa was really asking was if they should go out swinging.

Jacobi grinned, his thoughts plain as day. As if there was any other way…

Tonfa matched the grin with his own, and the two startled Dewalt by jumping to their feet. They crouched beneath the safety of the bulwark and got to work loading the two catapults in their possession. The dynamic energy they exerted spurred Dewalt into action. Perhaps he too had resolved himself to their fate. Shame welled in Jacobi’s gut, the disgrace of not being able to reunite Dewalt with the man’s family, of his son and daughter, if they managed to make it off the island alive, burying their father on Beltane instead while the realm celebrated. If only he could save just one of his men…

They worked mutely, but none of them wavered in their tasks.

Jacobi slapped grout onto a boulder Tonfa had picked out. It was jagged and heavily pitted, a perfect landscape for the destructive paste. Indignantly, he rued that there was a perfectly good cannonball lying dormant nearby, but the round surface wasn’t as conducive to the adherence of the mortarlike substance. Before it launched, he prayed to Xenia to guide it true, uttering an old prayer his father had taught him as a boy, passed on through their shared lineage, from father to son before him. The prayer was meant to call forth the divine judgement of the goddess herself, which could determine the tide of a war. His father had hoped he would never need it, but shared the prayer nonetheless. It had been many years, too many, but he vaguely remembered the words.

Xenia’s prayer was short, but poignant in meaning. Because they were in the midst of battle, he abridged it accordingly.

Lady Xenia, blessed be your name;

Hallowed on the mountain;

Blessed be my eyes,

For you are my compass;

Blessed be my hand,

For you are its wielder;

Blessed be I,

For I am your vassal;

Blessed be the flock,

For you are its shepherd;

Blessed be my enemies,

Like lambs to the slaughter.

The catapult fired. It soared a high arc into the sky. Jacobi risked his neck, peering over the side of the bulwark. Through the chaos, he spotted a dim fleck of black in the offing. It landed atop the hard water’s with a pop where it shed smaller pieces from the whole, then skipped forward a few more times while discharging smaller flecks of grout and flaming debris before digging a shallow trench into the sea which Jacobi rightly assumed would become the projectile’s ultimate grave. Xenia, you bitch… Jacobi felt disillusioned that his prayer had gone unheeded.

Devoid of a liquid surface to land in, the shot stuck out, grounded in the muck. From its place, the surface of the hardened water bubbled and frothed where it contacted the grout, nature yielding to a greater incendiary reaction. Steam spewed forth, showing that chemical and heat energy remained unaffected by the stalling of the sea’s kinetic engine. Apparently, not all energies were being nullified the same. Interesting.

Jacobi jerked, launched backwards, having been pulled by the scruff of the neck by Tonfa’s angry hand. Maybe he should’ve prayed to him, instead… He noted that the man was so incensed that even his appendages seemed to radiate ire. A moment later, Jacobi noted that his previously occupied observation point was shorn off completely by a wild or well-placed shot of ordnance.

Are you a damn blasted fool?” Tonfa roared in his face.

Jacobi shrunk back, knowing he was, but convinced that an admission of his foolishness wouldn’t appease his subordinate, neither would a denial. At any other time, he might’ve pointed out the hypocrisy, but he’d just had his life saved, so he figured the man was due his piece.

“Wait. No, don’t answer that. Of course, you are! I can’t believe it… What were you thinking? Do you even bother to think half the time?”

Jacobi counted off exactly one piece before his gratitude wore off. “Well…” he said, beginning to feel the first stirrings of emboldening irritation. “I was thinking that we need to be able to see what we’re hitting, otherwise we could shoot off our entire ordnance and hit nothing but ocean.”

“And if you’re dead, you’ll hit even less than that.” Tonfa said levelly.

Jacobi remained silent at that, knowing the man was right.

Dewalt didn’t need to pretend to be busy, he was occupied preparing the catapult for the next round. Though even if he hadn’t been, the proceeding awkwardness would’ve surely driven him to occupation, nevertheless.

Tonfa grew somber in the following silence, which was localized to the three of them, but not their surrounds. He wished it would transmute into overall silence as the enemy had yet to cease fire, reminding them of the nature of their disagreement. His mercurial mood shifted, much like the tide. He was the first to concede. “How should we adjust our aim, then? Might as well put your stupidity to good use.” He looked away, trying to appear nonchalant. “And I’d rather not take on Umbriel in addition to the Isoldean’s.” he said, attempting to infuse some levity into the situation.

Jacobi contemplated the question, but also the exaggeration, recalling that his father had as well taught him another prayer, this one for appeasing the spurned God of the Sea. A moment later, a devious smirk alit on his face. “Actually, I think that’s exactly what we should do.”

“Do what?” Dewalt asked, wiping his hands off on his trousers.

Jacobi lit up brightly, like the cat that had cornered the canary.

“Oh, no.” Tonfa said warily, backing up a step. “I know that look.”

Dewalt paled. He looked at Tonfa, and they both looked at their commander, waiting on bated breath for the orders they knew were soon coming. In the brief time they’d been thrown together, they had quickly grown adept at reading their leader’s expressions. Specifically, those that seemed to precede mayhem. That the man hadn’t the opportunity to display more than a few, save for the most damning, was not entirely their leader’s fault, but neither did it absolve the man for instigating such recklessness with .

“Can’t we just die honorably?” Tonfa asked sulkily. He grunted, glowering at Dewalt who had elbowed him in the side. Clearly, the man wanted to live, and was willing to jump on the crazy bandwagon a second time in order to get home to his family. “Uh, no offense.” he amended.

“Offense taken.” Jacobi said deadpan.

“Good. You deserved it.” Tonfa said. He sighed, knowing better than prolonging the inevitable. “So… what’s the plan?”

“Well… it’s pretty half-baked.” He admitted.

“Aren’t they all?”

“This one more so than usual.”

“Seriously?” Dewalt asked, eyebrows rising into his hairline. He had trouble imagining an even more insane brand of crazy than he was accustomed to from his superior.

“Seriously.”

Jacobi’s words dashed their hopes. For a moment, no one spoke. Then Dewalt looked over at Tonfa, who had closed himself off. The man’s eyes were closed, head bowed, and arms crossed.

“You were saying something about dying honorably?” Dewalt asked the withdrawn man.

Tonfa nodded. “In the southern lands of Reppusho, there exists an ancient tradition of ritualistic suicide that—”

“Hey!” Jacobi squawked indignantly. His plans weren’t that bad… were they? “Seriously?”

His subordinates spared him unimpressed glances. Then one after the other began to break down their facades. Tonfa grinned while Dewalt laughed. Soon they were all laughing.

“I’m serious about the plan being half-baked.” Jacobi said, collecting himself.

“We know.”

“These might be the last orders you get from me.”

The weight of that statement gave the two men pause. However, it soon became clear that the statement remained true no matter what orders they received. In the end, it didn’t matter.

“I’m open to suggestions on this one.”

Dewalt raised his hand. “Uh, I was talking to Hogar earlier, and… well, I have an idea that’s pretty stupid.”

“Oy! That’s not a goal we should aim for.” Tonfa said. “And what are you five? Put your hand down.”

“Perfect.” Jacobi smiled. “Let’s hear it.”

The load capacity of a miniaturized catapult was exceptional for its size, close to the real thing. One such device had propelled their large transport carriage a way after all. The problem lay in the area distribution, if the area you wished to distribute was larger than the catapult itself, which they had inventively gotten around before by bracing their device against the undercarriage of the transport, giving the frame itself a bolstering shove in the right direction. They lined up their catapults in a row, one alongside the other, to spread out the surface area they required for their purposes.

Tonfa supposed that should’ve been his first real clue. The red flag which waved brazenly back at him.

A few minutes ago, Jacobi had detailed his recent stroke of brilliance. Then Dewalt had served up the coup de gras by vomiting up the words that defined his own ill-begotten plan. It reeked of Hogar’s influence. Jacobi and Dewalt seemed asynchronous of one another, the family man and the rogue, yet their plans complimented each other to a fault. But everybody agreed: it was stupid and more insane than anything else they’d done so far. Somehow, Tonfa knew it would be death of him.

“Not perfect! Not perfect!” Tonfa screamed, running for his life. How the hell do I let him keep talking me into these things?

A memory of grouting the remaining powder and launching it into the sea to create a smoke screen while the chemically burning solution ate away at the brine, thus creating steam, momentarily flitted through his head. It was Jacobi’s escape route in a nutshell, throw everything at the sea and hope it’s enough. Then a flat run to the armory, where Dewalt’s plan came into play, merging with Jacobi’s either wondrously or disastrously. Knowing his luck so far, Tonfa would hedge his bets on the latter, but wager on both.

Signaling the other members of the squad proved to be more of a challenge as field communication scrolls weren’t an easy commodity to come by, not that there weren’t spades in reserve somewhere in a vault, but because they had been so unprepared for the invasion that no one had bothered to equip themselves beyond what they’d been carrying at the time. But mirrors were standard enough that everyone carried them, even in peacetime, if only to be vain.

On the return to the armory, their cover ran afoul of the wind. They saw their bulwark overrun, then the others were targeted. Batham and Hogar nearly didn’t make it out alive, but necessity demanded that they break cover and run for all their worth. They ran.

Iggy and Ivan were the furthest away and took the longest to return. In the process, they were seemingly spotted and targeted. Soon, they all were.

As the reunited squad ran in tandem, vying close enough to one another in order to retain some semblance of a haphazard formation, though dispersed just enough to be nominally shy of being called scattered, the smattering of their remaining defensive forces, namely Adria’s remaining squad, mustered whatever racket they could dish out in order to cover their escape. That those sailors hadn’t been privy to the plan meant that they had no way of knowing if they were breaking ranks by going AWOL or not. But out of trust and commitment, covered their escape nonetheless. Tonfa resolved to buy those brave bastards a flagon if they all somehow managed to survive long enough to collect on the debt.

“Serpentine!” Jacobi shouted. “Serpentine, you dogs! Faster!”

“That isn’t helping!” Tonfa shouted back.

Huffing with exertion, they wove between each other, much like they had been committed to doing in avoidance of the odd chunk of unsurmountable debris. The crags were the scars left behind by the machinations of man’s unending war against himself.

Bullets tore up the path behind them, and they ran harder to outpace the cannons they were sure would soon be trained on their backs. An explosion on their heels them saw them stumbling for balance, but nobody stopped, fell, or hesitated. The docks weren’t monolithic in their construction, instead finite and utilitarian, diminutive as a result. They were the size they needed to be for servicing the island, and no larger. But in order to reach the armory they had to traverse a minefield of burning and exploding debris, all while outrunning the hounds of hell nipping at their heels. It seemed monumental from the perspective of those in the undertaking.

A hurler was a sadistic piece of ordnance. An artificially pitted cannonball was magically spun before it was fired. The expelled projectile acquired lift somehow, by means of riding on the air currents as conveyance. A wizard had once explained it to them all at one point or the other, each from the perspective of their own unique lecturer, save for those who had heard it together, like Ivan and Iggy.  The wizard, particular to the lecture, had emphatically assured that apart from the initial launch, nothing magical remained in the shot, save for some standard warding.

Tonfa had once seen a hurler fall down to earth in an arc, as he’d expected to see from a ballistic projectile, only to be surprised when it then rose up over a bulwark and proceeded to take out the unassuming infantry lying in wait on the other side, only for the blasted thing to retake flight back into the air and strike the second floor of a siege tower in an enemy installation where it exploded beatifically. And he was supposed to believe that somehow wasn’t magic? Bullshit.

A hurler ran up the hill behind them, smack dab into the middle of Ivan’s back. He exploded in a red spray of equal parts meat and mist. It continued unimpeded, skirring up the road until it struck the broadside of a boathouse, twenty feet from the ground.

“No!” Tonfa cried.

Iggy turned around and screamed at the sight of his friend’s remains smeared across their path, but only long enough to catch a handful of bullets to the neck, chest, and stomach. He must’ve known he was dying, because relief flashed past his features, and when he died, which occurred before he hit the ground, the emotion remained plastered on his visage.

The twins were dead. The shock of the revelation reverberated throughout the cerebellums of the remaining members of squad four, and they did falter in their gait.

Hogar broke pace with Batham, veering left, towards the downed men. Batham must’ve seen the intention on his face, because he lunged for the man’s underarm and dragged him away against his will. Tonfa and Dewalt each grabbed hold of one of Jacobi’s arms, just in case he harbored any foolish thoughts of doing the same. Hogar followed Batham after an initial hesitation, which nearly cost both men their lives, if the bullets in their wake were any indication.

It was clear Ivan and Iggy were both well and truly dead. They ran purposefully afterwards, as if running away from the bodies of their dead teammates, away from the horror and gore. No one stopped running or hesitated anymore. Fear, shame, and anger welled in their eyes instead, expelled as salty tears of loss and remorse.

“I fucking hate this.” Tonfa muttered under his breath.

The armory was in sight, so they sprinted the last stretch without holding anything back. They would either make it to the armory or die in the process; either way, there was no point in rationing their energy or trying to conserve their stamina. Gluttonously eating away at their reserves, they sped by on fumes. As the end was in sight, Jacobi tripped, the fool. In a horrifying stroke of misfortune, his foot landed on an unstable piece of debris, the only of its kin that’d managed to strike a retaliatory blow against man, sliding away from him. The rest of his body followed, leaving him unbalanced. Instinctively, Tonfa immediately reached out, almost as fast as the man began going down. Then the sea exploded behind them in a wash of noise and light.

It was strange, being caught in the midst of an explosion. Though it appeared not to be the typical incendiary kind. For one, there were no flames, just a wave of intensifying pressure. But for all they knew, there very well could have been flames at the epicenter. For a moment, reality itself seemed to breath inward, vacuously inhaling, billowing outward in its gluttony, stretching and inflating, until it threated to burst at the seams. A wave of somethingspilled forth from the harbor, succeeding and overrunning the munitions which fired only milliseconds before the detonation must’ve occurred.

Rifles still used musket balls, miniaturized cannonballs which served the same purpose, but on a smaller scale. A bullet raced to shore, unimpeded by the air currents it lanced through in its wake, preceding the wave of outstretching reality in a race for dominance. It reached their unit at the same time as the explosion.

Tonfa saw his hand extend into his field of vision, outstretched so as to grab hold of their commander, and in the corner of his peripheral, he saw the bullet as it flew. From quicksilver fast, it was slowed down enough by the explosion to blink into existence, then continued slowing until it stood in midair only a few yards away. By the time it was feet away, Jacobi had seen it as well. How could he not? He stood in its path. Reality itself seemed to ripple behind it, as if the very object, a molten iron and lead ball, were the very cause of the transmutation; the horseman by which the world ends. The wave overcame them before the bullet.

A fraction of reality inched forward into the next, each one bringing them closer yet further apart. The bullet drew nearer. Jacobi inched closer to the ground. Tonfa’s hand was in reach. He pushed.

At once, the dam broke, and the waters of reality surged forth, ravenous rapids of the past rushing to catch up to the present while the future retook its mantle as the looming specter in the fore.

Tonfa and Jacobi were separated, pushed part by Tonfa’s quick thinking and more luck than should conceivably exist in this earthly world. The bullet zoomed past them, avoiding both, merely a streak in their vision. They shared a bewildered gaze in the aftermath, each lost in each other’s eyes while searching for answers neither possessed. Then reality expelled its breath all at once, and the physical shockwave caught up to the earlier dilation, throwing everyone off their feet and everything off the ground. They were caught in a tidal surge of atmosphere that buffeted them ever closer to their destination. Debris and flack scattered in front of and around them, becoming dangerous harpoons, lancing missiles of indiscriminate wrath. Each member of the team struck the wall of the armory, and not one was stopped by the brick face of the wall, slamming through the edifice and becoming lost in the ruins. The shockwave swept over them, losing steam in the offing until it was nothing more than a memory. The dust rose and the world coalesced to rights again, settling. Then too, the dust was allowed to settle.

In the silence that proceeded the aftermath, the world seemed dead. To an observer’s discerning eye, the stillness that followed intimated that the world had breathed its final breath. All things stilled and nothing skirred beneath the nonexistent winds. Even the sun’s rays seemed dampened, colder, dying… deceased.

A crack resounded, sounding louder in the preternatural stillness than it ought, then a piece of rubble fell away to reveal the soot stained insignia of the Royal Marine Corps. The broad back beneath the letters convulsed in a racking fit of coughs.

“Please gods. Let me be dead.” Batham bemoaned piteously.

“Not before me.” Tonfa said, sounding pained.

“Can one of you please kill me before you die?” Jacobi coughed the dust out of his lungs. “Please?”

“I’d kill you now you son of a bitch, but it’d be too merciful.” Tonfa rose to a sitting position, grunting at the effort it took.

“You can’t possibly be looking to blame this one on me.” Jacobi asked, exasperated at the accusation. His plans really weren’t that bad, and not everything was his fault. Not directly, at least.

“The hell I can’t.” Tonfa challenged.

“I second that.” Batham chipped in his two cents.

“Shut up, all of you.” Dewalt said, throwing away years of acquired etiquette from a lifetime of having military decorum drilled into his head. He had a splitting headache, from a head which felt as if it might’ve actually been split open, and the racket the two songbirds and the third wheel were making physically hurt his brain, if that were possible.

“Ggh-hagh-ll-ugh.” The garbled warble of an alien sounding creature alerted them, focusing their dim senses to merely dull. The finely honed point they sought eluded them; essentially, they ended up squinting into the surrounding dust cloud which clung to the air, still settling. It backdropped the armory.

Jacobi, too late, held up the hand sign for hold, which no one saw for various reasons, but mostly because they weren’t looking. Yet years of training saw them reacting measuredly, if sluggishly.

Tonfa waved a hand. Clear. Batham, then Jacobi followed. After assessing his own environment, Dewalt gave the sign. Nobody relaxed.

Dewalt had been on all fours so far, but risked rising to his knees after observing that the coast was somewhat clear. The others began doing the same.

“Glrgh-bar!” The thing shrieked from beneath the rubble.

Dewalt yelped and fell back on his ass. “Shit! What the fuck?”

He reached for his rifle, only to find himself weaponless. The others seemed similarly bereft of weaponry. The fates were determined to screw them over at every turn, it seemed. Circumstances, namely the explosion, had left them virtually unarmed.

Hogar lumbered up from beneath the pile of stones that had been crushing him, after the load had lightened considerably, perhaps even halving. He had no way of knowing that Dewalt had been resting atop his buried form and had gotten off.

“Ugh!” He spat dirt out, staining the rubble which had been liberally showered in a layer of white powder a ruddy dark color. In it, his blood stood out starkly. A bright pink glob, it was an island unto itself among the dusty film. “Which son of a bitch landed on my nuts?” He glared at Dewalt, for no other reason than he was closest, hence the likeliest candidate.

Dewalt wisely said nothing, grinning sheepishly.

“Don’t do that!” Tonfa shouted, admonishing the dust covered sailor. “You scared them.” He gestured to the others with a tilt of his head.

“Hah?” Hogar asked incredulously.

“Hey!” Jacobi wasn’t keen to be called a coward. “That’s rich coming from a hypocrite.”

“I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.” Tonfa said flatly.

“Me thinks the lady protests too much.” Batham snickered.

“While I’m sure you’re used to the sounds of protesting women, I—”

A fat wad of something wet struck a toppled stone in the middle of the group. They quieted, staring at it as if it might move. Then another fell, creating a smaller patch of dampness, wet earth this time. And another. Soon, it was raining.

Batham looked up, as they all did, and gasped. “Holy…”

A lake’s worth of brine hung suspended, dripping, falling to the ground.

“I… really wasn’t prepared for any of this today.” Dewalt admitted.

Hogar scoffed. “Who was?”

“Isolde?” Tonfa said cynically.

The statement sobered them. Isolde had well and truly schemed a masterful invasion. That they’d managed to retaliate in any form was sheer luck.

“No.” Jacobi said stonily, looking out towards the ocean. “They weren’t.”

When the others turned to him, they saw his eyes transfixed on something beyond. Behind them, in the harbor, everything had changed. The harbor itself was a clear blue, the lightest waters the harbor had ever seen, but at its edges, among the green of the deep sea, were the enemy and the Devanagari, each at opposite sides. However, it seemed as if the laws of physics had been reapplied, because the enemy was quickly correcting coarse, encircling and broadsiding the vessel, which from their perspective, looked for all the world as a lame duck in the water.

“Now what?” Batham asked dejectedly.

“Now what—what?” Dewalt asked. He was perplexed, but that had been a theme today, so it was par for the course.

“What do we do now?” Batham clarified.

“What can we do?” Hogar said. “I hate to say it, but—”

“Then don’t.” Tonfa interrupted the trio hotly. “Just shut your mouth.” he warned.

“Don’t pretend you’re not thinking it too.” Batham said.

“We’re all thinking it.” Hogar said.

“I…” Tonfa was at a loss. He lacked the will to defend a untenable position with a hope he didn’t possess, a plan they didn’t have, and plagued from the flagging fatigue of the day’s events thus far. Sullenly, looking lost himself, he turned to Jacobi for answers. It was as unfair as it was his penultimate gambit, right before throwing in the towel.

Jacobi was still staring out towards the harbor. As if sensing he was being watched, Jacobi turned around and addressed his squad. “The plan might still work…”

“The plan?” Batham asked.

“What plan?” Hogar asked.

“Oh, you’re going to love this…” Tonfa said sardonically, voice dripping with sarcasm. The oaf in front of him had directly inspired the turd their hopes had hung on, to which Jacobi insisted they cling to still. He succinctly detailed the so-called plan to the dismayed stares and unreceptive ears of his comrades.

“That… has got to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.” Batham said slowly, dryly.

“I agree.”

“It will work.” Jacobi defended.

“Don’t be stupid.” Tonfa said.

Jacobi’s visage became glacial, an impassive wall. His hard eyes shined with the fever of conviction. “We stick to the plan.” he said. It seemed he would not be deterred.

“You mean the one that’s useless now?” Dewalt point out towards the sea. “In case you haven’t noticed—"

“Just get it done.” Jacobi snapped. Steel coated his voice, indicating that he would brook no argument. “That’s an order.” The words were the final nail in the coffin, sealing shut their dialogue and effectively ending the conversation.

A pause, then a pause proceeding the pause. Hesitation borne out of a lack of understanding and a fear of the unknown bore seeds of doubt, and from those seeds the roots of sedition took hold. The men’s misgivings were palpable in the accompanying silence.

“It will work.” Jacobi repeated with conviction. In that moment, sounding so earnest and resolved, they wanted to believe him, to step off the precipice of temerity and plunge, to take a leap of faith and follow the man into the fray, no matter where it may lead them. But faltered.

Dewalt thought of his family, of what they would say. He couldn’t say for certain, but knew the others shared his reticence for suicide. Every action they took seemed suicidal. If they ran for home now, would they live? Looking way in shame, afraid of betrayed by his face and expressing such cowardly and mutinous thoughts in front of the others, Dewalt considered the coward’s route. He had family to return home to, after all.

He imagined seeing his daughter, Misha, standing before him, smiling brightly and wearing a pretty blue dress. Floral in design, it had tailored by Soya for Beltane. He thought he saw Misha fisting the folds of her dress, biting her lip in an effort to stem the tears in her eyes. “Daddy…” Misha said, the deepest sorrow painting her tone melancholy. His knowledge that she wasn’t really there did nothing to assuage his paternal desire to comfort the girl. “I don’t want to lose my daddy…” She cried. In that moment, Dewalt’s heart resolved to abandon this hopeless crusade. There was a little girl missing her father out there that was more important to him than any war or amount of ego. He’d shit and dance on his pride if that’s what it took to return home and be reunited with his loved ones.

Turning his head to apprise the others, he was met with the vision of a second Misha, which startled him. This one wearing tatters that were dyed crimson. She was still crying, but from a broken body instead of a broken a heart. Dewalt died inside at the sight, and it appeared that his daughter was on the verge of following her father’s demise. “Daddy…” Misha spoke more hauntingly, in more agony than melancholy. “Help us…” And in the backdrop beyond his daughter, he saw the rest of his family and very nearly screamed.

Cinching his eyes shut so tightly they pained him, he loosed several tears in frustration. No matter what he did, his family suffered. Palming his eyes dry, he came to accept the realization that he’d been avoiding all day, one that chilled him to his bones: he wouldn’t be returning to his family.

But he could keep them safe.

“It will work.” Dewalt said. Softly at first, then more resolved. “It will work.” he repeated with conviction. He needed it to work, desperately.

Nobody expected that… That Dewalt would be the first to sway towards the fray, was unconscionable. If anything, the man had the most to lose. It gave the rest of them pause. If a father could display such courage, against such odds, armed with not but a sliver of hope, then with what argument could they lobby against?

Dewalt’s assurances, more than Jacobi’s, turned the tide of their consensus.

“It will work.” Tonfa said, throwing in his assent. At the same time, he shook his head morosely in negation, leaving no doubt that he still harbored his share of misgivings about the efficacy of the plan. The mixed signals colored his words false, but he had made up his mind, nonetheless. His resolve held fast, shining through, if nothing else.

“It will work.” Hogar said, sounding surer of himself.

“I don’t know how, but… I suppose, it will work.” Batham smiled.

“Right.” Jacobi grinned. “So, let’s get to work.”