Chapter 17

The Shifting Tide


“What the hell was that?” Mikhail had barely spoken the words before the enemy opened fire.

A cascade of explosions rocked the harbor and, as one, the crew turned to watch the Legothica suffer a series of devastating blows. Gouges were rent open along the hull, then licked by flames, seared at the seams. It was one ship out of many, and not the closest to the enemy, but the nearest galleon.

Mikhail paled, realizing that they, the entire fleet, were sitting idle while the enemy advanced, fangs bared. The enemy was broadsided; no one else. A pillar of flame erupted from the deck of the Legothica, and he had the distinct impression that he was witnessing a premonition unfold if they could not break the sea’s hold in time.

“Man your stations!” Brogan hollered, hauling Oster up with him and running for all he was worth to the nearest turret. “Move, you dogs!”

“Hard to starboard!” Mikhail shouted, bolstered into action by Brogan’s gruff commands. He would not be outdone by the man whom he had come to respect. Unlike the others, those frenzied into activity by a frenetic energy, he did not run, but walked, sedately, if stiffly, down the length of the deck, shouting orders and managing to somehow be heard over the cacophony of activity. “Your rifles are still good this far out. Steady your aim and draw down some cover fire. I want a flagman signaling the other ships to do the same, and someone on comms to report on what the hell just happened.”

“Aye, sir!” was chorused.

Brogan had been right. A lot of impressionable men had been wooed by his performance, and his orders were being carried out unquestioningly. He held command of the deck when it should’ve been helmed by the captain. He sought the man out, and locked eyes with the first lieutenant.

Hurom flustered, and stammered out a rebuke, “W-who do you think you are?”

Mikhail paused at the center deck, looking up at the lieutenant. Hurom was redfaced and shaking, but it was impossible to discern if the quaking was borne out of anger or, more likely, fear. The man was also glaring balefully. But why that was, Mikhail had no interest in understanding or discovering. He assumed that the lieutenant’s reasoning was as mindlessly self-centered as he had shown himself solely capable.

“Who do you think you are?” Hurom shouted, louder and in more control of his faculties. His voice hardly trembled.

A few of the men stopped to spectate, but Mikhail waved them off.

“Get to stackin’!” Brogan shouted, intervening after having noticed the moment of loitering and quickly inferred the reasoning. Figured this would happen. Eventually.

In the taverns of Isolde, a drunken squalor was referred to as a stack; a squalor that involved half the establishment was referred to as a half stack, and the entire room as a full stack. So, he had ordered the men to fight without restraint. Likely, to their delight, since they ran off, hollering up a storm like drunken brawlers, which many of them were after sipping copious amounts of mead throughout the voyage.

Mikhail pinned a hard stare up at the top deck. The intensity of the gaze seemed to take the wind out of Hurom’s sails, because he faltered and went silent, at a loss for words. He gaped, mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water.

“Why aren’t we moving?” Mikhail demanded to know.

“W-what?” Hurom asked, thrown off by the unexpected line of questioning.

But it was the navigator, who had come up behind the command crew, that answered. “Sir! The ship’s dead in the water. They all are.”

“What?” Hurom spun around, surprised at the new arrival and the news that they were stalled, a dead ship. Because a stalled ship was doomed, fated for the deep fathoms.

“No, that’s not right.” He shook his head. “The ship’s fine. At least, as far as I can tell. It’s the sea itself. She’s dead. Solid, somehow. It’s the damnedest thing.”

“What nonsense are you blathering?” Hurom squealed, voice high and grating.

“What of the oars?” Mikhail asked, ignoring his counterpart.

“Aye. That’s the first thing we tried. The sea’s too hard to paddle. It’s like we’re beached on hard ground.”

“Lies!” Hurom accused. “That’s impossible!”

Mikhail nodded contemplatively. “It must be the enemy.” Some sort of magic… ”In the meantime, prepare a course and have your men double and triple check for damages. Once we’re seaworthy, we’ll need every ounce of maneuverability we can muster.”

“Aye, sir.” The navigator saluted and spun around.

“He’s not the captain!” Hurom screeched. “Don’t you dare follow that order!”

The navigator eyed him, then the captain. Jondar was studiously avoiding his gaze. The man said nothing, apparently too enraptured with the admiral, whom he was religiously studying as if he would divulge all the answers to their predicament. But the admiral was as inattentive as the captain, and quieter still. He spared a last look at Hurom, internalizing a condemnation, before walking off without another word, intent on carrying out the orders of the only levelheaded officer on the deck.

“You get back here! This is insubordination!” Hurom shouted at the departing man’s back. After stamping his foot, he sought the captain’s support, and found it lacking, which left him floundering.

Mikhail didn’t stick around to have more of his time wasted on nonsense. A commotion was brewing along the rails and, judging by the shouts coming from below, he had a good idea of its source. As he closed the distance, he began to see what he’d expected. There were men overboard, except these men weren’t swimming. They were screaming.

Mikhail looked on in horror. Below, men were sunk in the water, some by only a foot and others up to their chests. A few poor souls were already dead, completely encased in the brine.

“Help us!”

“Help me!”

“Please, gods, help!”

“By the gods…” Mikhail said, horrified.

“What do we do?” A deckhand asked.

“I…” don’t know, Mikhail thought. Then he spotted him, a man on the surface nursing a broken leg. Not all of them are trapped! “Rope!” he barked. “Lots of rope. Send it overboard. Some of those men can still be saved.”

A flurry of activity produced a knotted rope ladder and several lengths of rope, all of which were thrown overboard. Only a few of the men below stirred, those who were mobile.

“What of the rest?”

Mikhail shook his head. “Send down a few men to see what they can do, but I doubt there’s much that can be done. They’ll have to wait it out if they can’t be freed.”

“Yessir.”

“Lieutenant!” A soldier cried, running towards the rails.

Mikhail clapped the soldier he’d been conversing with on the shoulder, and they parted, the latter off to carry out the lieutenant’s orders. “Aye?”

“Sir,” the soldier said, a gunner by the looks of his soot-stained face, “a message from the sergeant: he says, hide us.

Mikhail’s eyes went wide. Of course! He needn’t ask which sergeant, for there was only one man on this ship with the gall to order a superior around so cavalierly, and with the brains to get away with it. “Aye.” he said, smirking.

The soldier ran off, likely to relay that the message had been delivered. And in that moment, Mikhail was reminded of the relic he had worn around his neck, because its weight was noticeably absent. Foolishly, his hands went up to his chest, probing, but found nothing. His eyes confirmed the relic’s absence.

Fuck! And a few more curses escaped his lips.

It must’ve come off in the tumult, he deduced, and sighed. He was a pragmatic man, and knew panicking would grant no favors, nor provide any clues. Without the relic, he could cloak himself, and maybe a few others. If he strained his manna to the brink, he might even extend his range to the ship itself for a time, if only for a pitiable amount of time, seconds most likely. No, he needed the relic.

His feet were already moving towards the prow before he was conscious of his decision to reach it. He’d been there last, and when they’d first stalled. It was likely there now.

Please, please, please, he thought. His eyes scanned the bow on his way to the railing. A part of him already knew… don’t let it be in the… the relic was overboard, in the water, sunk to a depth of about nine meters and still glowing… water.

Ennui, must you test me so…?

Below, all manner of men were splayed out on top, beneath, and in-between different stages of encapsulation by the weaponized sea. The bow had been the worst hit, it seemed. He had been there; he knew.

A bright glow ahead warned of the Legothica’s demise. She had met her end at sea, but suffered the indignity of being denied a funeral. The vessel couldn’t scuttle. It burned. The dark figures darting around at the foot of the ship gave him hope that many had been spared, though he recognized the lack of a full crew when he saw one.

The ship continued to burn, and likely would smother only once the spell had lifted. The pyre both signaled the ship’s death and laid her out to rest asea. A feeling of forboding invaded his chest in the lull between shots. Would their ship be next?

A chorus of explosions heralded the Asmodeus’s besiegement. Crack! The figurehead was shorn off, and the deck was quickly pitted.

He banged a fist against the railing. The onslaught was relentless. They weren’t able to broadside, limited to rifles when they needed cannons. They were sitting ducks and, if matters persisted, they would share in their comrades’ fates.

Gritting his teeth, he made up his mind on what he had to do. His eyes scanned for his quarry, and he spotted a runner fetching rope. “Boy!” he called out, but the lad didn’t falter in his step or look in any direction but ahead of his own two feet. “You there! Boy!” He tried again, running over to catch the young man. Another sailor perked up at hearing the lieutenant and, inferring the correct context, stopped the lad in his tracks and pointed to Mikhail.

The boy seemed to pale as Mikhail crossed the distance with a determined scowl etched on his visage. Reaching the pair, he snatched the rope away. “What are you deaf, son? You stop when I give the order.”

“Excuse him, please. Forgiveness, sir.” said the older sailor who had stalled the young man, now holding him by the shoulders. “But this here is Edwin. Indeed, he’s deaf. Too close to a cannon once as a lad. You know how it goes. It’s worse in the right ear than the left, I’m afraid. It was just a touch of bad luck he was facing the wrong way when you called him. A touch of bad luck, is all.” He smiled bitterly. He seemed to know the boy intimately.

“Aye. My mistake then.” Mikhail said haltingly, humbled by the admission, and not entirely comfortable with the awkward turn in the conversation. He much preferred being upset at the lad… In any event, he nodded to them both, gaze lingering on the youth, then turned and ran for all his salt towards the front of the bow.

He returned to the railing with the rope in hand. It was pre-knotted, which saved him the trouble of rappelling recklessly down the side. The boy must’ve been fetching for the rescue efforts. He wondered how that was going, then spied a few men below. He figured they must’ve walked in a search pattern for viable candidates, because they were passing by several men who were caught in one way or another, feet, legs, torsos, and arms, muttering halfhearted apologies to their desperate pleas.

Mikhail grimaced, knowing he would have to do the same, and tossed the rope overboard. His physique lent well to climbing, and he was able to shimmy down without much footing, only touching the knots long enough to steady his descent, so as not to jostle him too much. His feet touched the ground seconds later.

The ground? No, he was on the sea, he reminded himself. He felt the sanity of the world wane for a moment before replacing it with his own. Sometimes the ground is water, like walking atop a frozen lake. The comparison helped, and he walked steadily towards his quarry.

Unlike a frozen lake, the sea did not crunch underfoot, nor was it as solid as ice. No footsteps resounded and the plane felt indiscernibly uniform to his wandering soles. It was like nothing he’d ever tread upon, but familiar in the way that any new surface can be equally walked. With each step, he felt more like he were traipsing across the backs of living men, and he had to remind himself that his path was not littered with the fallen. He dared not look down because the horizon was equally vexing, a tableau of the strange and paradoxical when he most needed to remain grounded.

Mikhail heaved a calming breath. He had been right to believe he would be beseeched by the fallen. They cried out desperately for salvation. But he was not to be their savior, and that fact weighed heavily, made moreso difficult to bear by the lamentations of their despair. He forced himself to walk, not to stop or make eye contact, because he knew that faltering now would break his resolve. He alone was burdened to save a score of ships; someone else would have to save these men.

“Help me!”

“Save me!”

“Don’t leave me!”

Some were bloody, some were broken, and many were in tears, the last vestiges of their sanity gone with the fluidity of the sea. “I’m sorry.” he said, apologizing to every man he came across. “I can’t help you now, but help is coming. Hang on.” The relic lay ahead, which he focused on until it became the center of his world. And as the glow receded, his world expanded, and he hurried before losing sight of that which grounded him so dearly.

More than one soul turned spiteful in passing, hearts turned black in their desperation… “You bastard! You can’t leave me here to die, to rot!”

“Traitor!”

“Coward!”

“You’re killing me!”

“I’m sorry.” he said, knowing the men were scared. “I’m sorry.” he said, because he was frightened too.

“You’re making a widow of my wife—”

“—orphans of my children!”

The snow crunched underfoot as he made his way across the icy tundra. The moaning wind drowned out the sounds of forest beasts and even his own heartbeat. He placed one foot in front of the other, following the dimming firelight until it was within arm’s reach. Then, suddenly, it was below, and he wasn’t in the northern lands, scaling an ice sheet, but walking the ocean off the coast of Atreia, embroiled in a war, and he imagined that his comrades’ pitiable screams, those of veteran soldiers, were only the prelude to the sorrow this day would wrought. Looking over his shoulder to the fire blighted island, he imagined the screams that were roaming the fields, civilians roaring their misery, children, mothers, fathers…

Mikhail sunk to his knees. Looking down, perhaps in shame—even he couldn’t tell anymore—he caught a glimpse of the relic. He felt its pull. It was calling to him. The flat of his palm found the surface of the hard sea. Ennui… show me the way. Please… He pressed, but it would not give.

The relic glowed, pulsed, before it lost the remainder of its dimming light, then it remained dark. His eyes dimmed as well, darkening with a confusing blend of emotion, a cocktail which he couldn’t begin to fathom; so, he didn’t bother. His hand curled into a fist, nails clawing at the surface yet leaving no tracks. It was like butterwood, he thought, soft to the touch, yet dense, like velvet draped over steel. He struck the ground. It would not yield. He envied its resolve, believing it sturdier than his own, but neither could he afford to falter now.

Infusing his fist and arm with copious amounts of manna, he hammered away. A dent formed, then a larger one, and he pummeled away the first foot of water, but stopped when he realized that it had not cracked, nor displaced as water naturally does. It had remained behind, compacting and reinforcing the layers below, making them denser, stronger. At this rate, he would end up doing more harm than good.

Growling, he stood and unsheathed his sword. It was an officer’s saber, enchanted and of the finest craftsmanship, replete with ornate and jeweled gilding. The golden hilt came alive, moving about his closed fist to encapsulate his hand of its own accord, and he knew it would array itself to protect his appendage from damage no matter the position of his hand. He channeled manna into the hilt, feeling it spread throughout the tang, and brought the blade down to bear, slicing a wide, white arc through the air, and in its wake, the sound of the wind cut off, then resumed, for he wielded the legendary Wind Cutter.

Glinting edge met stout sea, and the waters parted around the glowing steel. Like butter, he thought, thinking his butterwood analogy to be unintendedly apt. A scored line separated two parts of the Atreian Sea. While his stroke had met with success, it had failed to meet his expectations. He drew down again, and again, crosshatching the surface to the depth of up to half the length of his blade. The surface, now scarred with checkered score marks, held firm.

“This is pointless.” he muttered, shaking his head. He sheathed his sword as another soldier ran up to him. A medic, likely on the recovery detail if the rope harness he wore were any indication.

“Sir!”

“Aye?”

“That one’s dead, Sir. There’s nothing anyone can do for the poor bastard anymore.”

Mikhail looked down, and saw a dead man’s hand wrapped around the relic. In the glowing light from before, he had failed to see the man below, like hoping to spot a firefly while staring at the sun. He must’ve been trying to invoke the magic until the very end. Until he died… The thought sobered him. He had watched this man die, had been watched by him, without ever realizing.

“Besides, I think we got damn near all of the ambulatory ones. You know they can move, because they’re all trying to get back to the ship before they can’t anymore. Before this, whatever this is, wears off or”—he shuddered—“gets worse somehow.” He muttered the last part, shifting from foot to foot as if uncomfortable treading atop these inanimate waters. Mikhail knew the feeling well.

He was young, Mikhail noted, and perhaps superstitious. “Aye…” he said slowly. “But you see that?” he pointed downward. “There, in his hand?”

“Uh…” The medic unnecessarily bent at the waist and peered straight down. “Oh, yes. That’s—” his eyes widened, recognizing the item.

“Aye, it is. Now, you see why I need it.”

“Of course! With that, you could—”

“Of course.” He said blithely.

“And without it?” the man ventured tentatively, hopefully.

“Of course, not.” Mikhail drawled, mulling over the problem in his head while sparing the lad a meager amount of his attention.

“Oh.” The medic appeared crestfallen, but stared down below determinedly.

Mikhail approved of this young man, and was hearted to see men like him and Brogan filling the navy’s ranks. “What’s your name, lad?”

The medic blinked, looking up. “Nolan, Sir. Named after my grandfather.”

Mikhail nodded. “Fill me in on the recovery efforts, then help me sort out this mess here.” He jutted his chin out; the effect was lost, since he was already staring downward, but Nolan correctly derived the proper meaning from context.

Nolan explained that so far, they seemed to be meeting with marginal success. Those men who managed to delay their falls until the water was all but solidified were the most salvageable, and the most injured. Those who had the softest landing seemed to be better for it, physically, but were also the most trapped. Excavating them was proving difficult. It seemed that the water was too tough to carve through with any manner of instrument, and pulling the men out only seemed to hurt them.

Mikhail had expected as much, but was shocked to hear that a few men had gone so far as to maim themselves or amputate trapped limbs in order to be freed. He growled upon hearing that more than one man had been making rounds, offering amputation as a first-resort solution. He would have words with those blackguards if they survived this war.

Glaring balefully, he kicked out at the ground, near a crosshatched section he had scored, and was surprised when a few particles stirred. He kicked out again. Fewer this time; definitely not dirt or scum, but something. Squatting down, he leaned forward for a closer look. Tentatively, he raked the disturbed surface with a palm. It felt like grit had come loose. But how was that possible? As far as he knew—he cut off that train of thought. This was new magic, foreign and unknowable. The only thing he could know was that he knew nothing; and proceed accordingly.

Pinching a loose piece, he wiggled and pulled it free with his fingers, holding it up to his face before his eyes. He inspected the thing in his grasp. Clear as glass, but dusted with white shavings, for lack of a better word, it glinted in the sunlight.

“What is it?” Nolan asked.

Mikhail twirled it between his fingers, feeling the distinct, flat, tapered edges. “It’s… a triangle.” He frowned.

“Uh…” While Nolan worked to ferret out the hidden meaning behind the lieutenant’s cryptic remark in the background, he tried not to let his own ignorance show in the meantime, feigning understanding instead. “Right.” He nodded.

Mikhail, oblivious, himself, to Nolan’s confusion, resumed studying the crosshatched sheet of petrified ocean at his feet. I did this, he realized, with my blade. His fist closed around the solid piece of water in his palm while noting its absence in a hollow below. So, it can be cut, he surmised.

“Hmm.” The ocean can be cut. He grinned.

Nolan’s nerves were beginning to get the better of him as the lieutenant’s visage continued to morph. “Um… Sir?”

Undistracted by the man’s words, Mikhail stood abruptly, spooking the medic into staking a step back. “Clear the way.” He ordered and drew his sword. Wisely, his subordinate scampered backward, clearing the way. Three deft strokes flashed in and out of existence before Nolan could so much as blink, cutting clean, straight lines into the surface of the sea, angled just so, as to intersect one another. Job done and forgoing technique, Mikhail stabbed his sword into the center of the newly formed triangular mass with all the grace of spearing a baked potato at dinner, and hefted it out from the newly created socket. A clear, glassy pyramid, twenty kilograms of equilaterally shaped saltwater, landed with a thump some twenty feet away.

Nolen’s eyes widened at the feat, gasping in surprise.

Content with his success, Mikhail nodded to himself in silent affirmation. “It works. Now, get to it, lad. I want you to spread the word. No more… drastic measures.”

Understanding dawned on Nolen’s visage, his countenance briefly coloring with a darker emotion before being replaced with determination. There was a reason he became a medica, after all; he was a healer, not a butcher, and could not condone the practices he’d borne witness to this day—had not. He nodded and saluted. “Yessir!” Then sprinted away.

Mikhail saw the medic hesitate when called out to for help by the first trapped man who crossed his path. With the formula for success fresh in his mind, Mikhail felt like he could read the man’s thoughts, because they likely mirrored his own. He wondered if he’d have to order Nolan to leave the man where he lay, and felt relieved when it proved unnecessary. After slowing only briefly, enough to spare a few words over his shoulder, Nolan continued running without breaking stride, and didn’t stop again until he was firmly out of sight.

Good man. Mikhail had hoped, and Nolan must’ve realized, that there were more lives to be saved, more at stake, than dawdling permitted. He would see the man commended, if they both survived.

Squaring his shoulders, Mikhail positioned himself and his blade in a practiced stance, and cut. Swiftly, he sliced long, thin striations into the surface, where they would join in an inverse pyramid below. He hacked his way through the seawater, chunking large triangular portions out of the ocean and discarded them, tossing them aside carelessly to rest where they may. A minute later, a startled yelp and angered shout of ‘Oi!’ saw him taking greater care with his aim afterwards. He made short work of the brine, excavating his quarry with ruthless expedience. The talisman lay below, coated in a thick, opaque veneer of hardened saltwater, but remained salvageable, moreso now than ever.

Grimacing, Mikhail spotted fingers still clutching onto the relic. He realized that the hand would have to be removed if he wanted to claim his prize. He did so with distaste. It was with further distaste that he was forced to use a combat knife, smaller and lither than his saber, in order to whittle the appendage away. In truth, he was unwilling and uneager to keep the body part attached if he had a say.

Mikhail hauled himself out of the pit he’d made after successfully claiming his trophy. He wished he could say it had been accomplished with pride, but there was nothing boastful about what he’d just done. However, the view that awaited him was a fine substitute. Dozens of men could be seen rappelling down the sides of the ship, all ships as far as he could see, and dozens more were already on the ground, swords drawn and arduously working to free the entombed. His chest swelled for a moment, only that long, before his senses demanded he run for the ship. Sprinting at full mast, he crossed the distance before one of the sailors he’d spied could rappel more than a quarter of the way down the hull. All the while, mutely hoping, but silently doubting, that he would be the last to have to carve body parts away this day. But it was too soon to tell, and his pragmatism bred doubts.

At the base of the ship, he saw his own ladder in use. An injured soldier was being bodily hauled upward on the back of another crewman; a rope harness held the invalid in place. Impatient and hurried, he grabbed a separate length of knotted rope and began hoisted himself up as well. It wasn’t long into his climb before he quickly outpaced the burdened sailor.

Halfway up the hull, he was startled when a cannon’s fuselage landed on top of the foremost rail with a reverberating crack. A flurry of activity proceeded it, as men readied it for firing by way of securing it with thick lengths of ropes while bracing it with timber or nearby crates while also preparing the shot. He had spied Brogan earlier, leading the repurposing effort on the starboard side, and put two and two together.

In the background, the rapid fire of the Devanagari had wound down into a sporadic hail as the enemy crew was undoubtably beginning to buckle under the pressure of their mutual exchange, finding themselves hard pressed to perform under the constant barrage of returned fire from as large a fleet as theirs. It was only through luck, misfortune, or, perhaps, though he was loathe to admit it, providence that the enemy had survived for as long as they had thus far. But their good graces would soon wear out, while their own were just beginning.

Grinning ruefully, he ascended the rest of the way with a renewed vigor. New magic or not, battling old legends or not, their armada would not be routed here. No line in the sand—or sea, in this case—that could not be crossed existed. They were sons of Isolde and would not, could not, be stopped by the likes of the Dreadnaught.

Standing back on the deck, he looked out across the harbor from his place on the bow. Clutching the relic in his hand firmly, and unminding of the lingering resin-like strata that still coated its finish, he felt his borrowed power renew. Manna churned within him with a flourish, rising, frothing, mounting and surmounting until, finally, surpassing his limits, where it continued onward, unperturbed by the natural order. He felt reinvigorated and endlessly powerful. Closing his eyes to savor the feeling, his resolve hardened as his powers coalesced into a comforting, thrumming presence.

Opening his eyes and glancing out to sea, he was intent on reminding the Dreadnaught that the man was not the only half-god in attendance. This day, the hands of Ennui and Daeva would undoubtedly clash, and the world, watching, would create a new legend in the making. Today, the Dreadnaught would fall.

A light breeze stirred, emanating from the outpouring of such quantities of effused manna, breaking the indolent pall cast over the harbor. It skirred across the fleet as his hopes, ambitions, and aspirations rode on the wings of so much focused determination. Inhaling deeply, he realized, perhaps atavistically, that these were the winds of change he scented.

He exhaled with the knowledge that the world would never be the same again.