Chapter 7

The Portcullis


The Devanagari was a cursed ship. Beautiful, graceful on the water, both fast and lithe, it was quite literally made for traversing the varied oceans of the world. Helmed by Captain Archuleta, it had seen success across a range of battlefields, from the deserts of Hinterstan to the humid jungles of Uzu Nurui, and earned a reputation across each realm for its lethal efficiency and ruthless dominance. The amalgam of man and vessel quickly amassed a reputation which came to preclude their appearance on the battlefield. They were a thundering specter which stoked fear in the enemy while boosting morale for their comrades and allies alike. For a time, the combination seemed unstoppable. But as true victims of their own success, merit quickly overwhelmed practicality as politics forcefully injected itself into unwelcome affairs, as it is oft to do in most things, leading to the duo’s premature and unexpected downfall—a retirement guised as promotion. The blossoming peak of their triumph just as well signaled the end of an era. Though their saga continued, the memory of the Devanagari and its captain quickly faded, dwindling down to a sobbing flame, a dying light fading into rumored disbelief, fated to be immortalized amongst legend and myth and other things too outlandish to be true. Alas, but as the story goes…

In more recent memory, the Devanagari was all but a grounded ship. Archuleta and his vessel were posted at the military base on the island township of Istan, enforcing levies while his comrades in arms fought, bled, and died on the distant battlefields of the world. The post was permanent, as he came to realize, a non-negotiable, mandatory relocation thrust upon him with all the coaxing and forewarning of a drunken tryst with a two coin working girl in a back alley. The admiralty had their reasons or so they claimed, but when challenged, declined to elaborate.

Though a number of other naval ships rotated in and out of Istan, in intermittent frequencies, the Devanagari remained the sole fixture on the island. Always. But due to the coming of Beltane, many sailors were already on leave, including a large percentage of the Devanagari’s crew, each eagerly anticipating the coming celebration with their families.

“Isolde’s timing is just fucking beautiful.” Archuleta bemoaned wryly.

“Captain.” The corporal said. “All battle stations are standing by at the ready.”

“Good. Now where’s the flagman I asked for?”

“He was left behind, but I found a manual with instructions on how to—"

“Thanks for volunteering, Corporal. I knew I could count on you.” He clapped the lad on the shoulder. “Now go make yourself useful and signal those fuckers to drop anchor and wait to be boarded—or hell, to simply turn around and fuck off. I’m not picky.” He waved off the corporal’s protests. “Fat fucking chance of that happening, though.” He muttered.

After a brief internal struggle which failed to articulate, the corporal made himself scarce, perusing the manual. A grimace was the only sign of his distaste.

“Sir!” Godiva, a communications officer, ran up to the captain, then saluted. “The enemy isn’t responding to any of our hailing attempts on the open scroll networks. And command is requesting a confirmation of the enemy sighting, along with logistical details: numbers, ship classifications, weapons capabilities, location, bearing, and…” he trailed off at the receiving end of the captain’s glare.

Archuleta placed his massive paw of a hand on top of Godiva’s head, and twisted it until the man was looking out in the offing at the approaching fleet. “Don’t waste my time with stupid shit! Use those sad sacks of pus you call eyeballs to report back any basic crap that even a rookie like you can figure out: classifications, numbers, location, and bearing. As for the rest, tell them—and I want you to quote me on this—'We’re being invaded! Mobilize everything!’ Do you fucking get me, Private?”

“A-ah, uh-huh.” He shook his head jerkily, knees wobbling in fright. “Y-yessir.” And ran off, not bothering to correct the captain regarding his rank.

Shaking his head while lighting some Colbatine tobacco leaves to ease his nerves, Archuleta palmed his breast pocket, feeling for the remains of his stash. He felt the outline of a single object left in reserve, long and cylindrical. His last cigar. Huffing, he rued being so shortsighted, but figured he could hardly be faulted considering the circumstances. He puffed, savoring the moment.

Watching the corporal prance about the topdeck with flags held in hand like a jackass, or a flamingo if he squinted hard enough, he ran through some mental calculations. He had ordered the dock prepared to receive before having even sounded the alarm. It would shave time in mounting a defense, but would it be enough? The enemy had appeared so suddenly. How did they do that?

The corporal jerked, pirouetted, then flapped his arms up and down in quick succession. He leapt, somersaulting, landing askew, limbs akimbo. Was that in the manual?

The enemy had come in from the east. They were bearing north and were due to intercept in a minute or so if the winds remained favorable. He grit his teeth, knowing it would be tight, down to the wire. The defense, if erected in time, would be shoddy and half-assed at best. But better than nothing. And he might just be able to half-ass his own defense as well. Hopefully he could buy enough time. For what, he wasn’t sure. A miracle?

He looked up to clear skies, looking for one. Instead, he was entertained only by the notion that it was a beautiful day to die.

Sixty seconds to intercept.

Sixty seconds before the fleet entered firing range, and any sane commander would order his vessel to turn about. He rued that the first of the Isoldean ships already had a clear line of sight to the outskirts of the island. By the time he and his crew were in position to do anything about it, more than half the enemy forces would be staring down their barrels at Istan.

The corporal shimmied, raised a flag and brought it down in an arc to point at the heel of his left boot. Butt extended, he shuffled backward while windmilling both arms. The neon colored flags were blurs. Their wielder, to Archuleta’s dismay, was not.

“Corporal! Knock that shit off already. If they weren’t our enemies before, they damn sure are now.”

“Yessir.”

“I want both chains up in thirty seconds!” he shouted to his men. “Begin raising the Tail!”

The Tail was a long thorned chain affixed to the rear of the ship. An ornate carving of a scaled fundament jutted out from the aft section where the wood joined, housing a winch which began turning at the direction of a hand crank operated by a number of brawny sailors.

“Segal!” Archuleta called out to their impromptu spotter. “Any response?”

“No sir!”

“Tsk. Figures.”

“Sir, are we erecting the Cage?” the corporal asked, running up to the captain, red-faced with exertion.

“That’s right. Go swap out with Avanti.” The corporal nodded, changing course.

Sergeant Avanti trotted over after a moment and stood at attention. “Captain!”

“It’s time.” They were now firmly within striking distance. At this range, their cannons could reach the enemy, and if they were so inclined, they could begin mounting an offensive. Only the realization of how foolhardy that would be in the face of a guaranteed retaliation prevented said course of action from materializing. There were better ways to topple dominos after all. Undeterred, the enemy advanced at full tilt, neither slowing or wavering. “Take the Tongue and ride it out from the forward winch. You know the drill. Then return ASAP. And try not to die in the process. Got it?”

“Yessir. I must say, sir, I’m touched by your concern—Captain.”

“Don’t be. I want my corporal back, is all.”

Avanti smirked. “Of course.”

Avanti walked over to where the lead anchors were housed. A crate had been set aside, adjacent to the starboard anchor wheel. From within, he removed a long spiked chain.

Fisting the conjoined links, he eyed the runework, archaic sigils which ran uniformly along its considerable length. The symbols glowed in the presence of his manna, the spells they potentiated itching to manifest. Once that happened, the spellwork would incantate and array itself, aligning itself to reality as magic manipulated the elements. Matrices would be built nigh instantaneously, multiplying the spells effects by compounding off one another and cascading outward in a torrential chain reaction. Though these runes weren’t intended to work for his particular brand of magic, he was skilled and adept enough in the arts to discern their existence. It was a beautiful tableau that was as striking as it was dangerous in its complexity. The mind that crafted these was truly monstrous.

Avanti hoisted the chain, pulling more free from the crate’s confines. The thorned protrusions spiked along the links curved away or pooled at his touch, then reformed afterwards. Hoisting it with no regard for the burdens of weight or the consciousness of self-preservation, he wound its length around himself from shoulder to hip, slung diagonally like a bandolier. When he was finished, the floor creaked beneath his boots from the immense heft of his steps. But for the man who could bend metal, this amount of steel was decidedly manageable.

Avanti stalked up to the balustraded railing, lept over it and onto the figurehead—a representation of the eight-armed Goddess of War and Wrath, Daeva—in whose mouth the winch was housed. The chains were called the Tongue and Tail, and were aptly named after Daeva’s own empennages which she could extend limitlessly. Unbreakable and impermeable, it was rumored that even the Supreme God, Lord Hessian, could not escape her bonds. Avanti hooked the free end of the chain he wore to the winch and jumped, dropping like an iron-clad boulder down and destined to meet the ocean below. The chain whirred around his torso as the spool unwound, unhampered at his touch by the banal frivolities of friction or knotting, grinding and sparking to life as his momentum carried him downward. Down, he fell. Anybody—anything—else, would've been shredded into a fine mist. As it was, Avanti merely suffered the loss of a shirt.

Nearing the bottom, he lassoed a loop of chain around his foot, took a moment to momentarily lament the loss of a perfectly good boot, braced said foot against the chain, and heaved. With a hard jerk, his momentum slowed to a crawl. The boot however was ripped apart, much like his shirt had been. The chain slid against his heel, and when he felt the cold water lap against his bare sole, he yanked even harder, arresting the last of his latent momentum until he finally came to a stop above the ocean’s surface.

He lamented that the next part was a chore.

Avanti ran.

Placing one foot on top of the chain, he channeled manna to the bottoms of his feet. The links securely locked into place. Adding a little extra manna would keep them that way, fortifying them, at least temporarily. He repeated the action with his other yet boot-clad foot, and so on, feeling stupid for the mismatch, but persevered. He’d practiced this maneuver hundreds of times over. He could perform it almost without thinking and fast enough to make it count in the heat battle. So off he went, quick like a shot.

Usually, the Devanagari was fast enough to outpace most other ships, rendering said chore unnecessary as the chains were dragged beneath the ship and fed in combination to strategic maneuvering. Usually, but not always. Sometimes he lost a boot.

Avanti ran, hurrying along the length of the chain like a tightrope, the spool buzzing and grating against his chest. He fed more of the chain out beneath his soles. To the inobservant observer, he might appear to be running on water. In fact, it’s what the enemy spotters saw, what they reported back to their commanders, and what made him a priority target of assassination for the upcoming battle.

The first shot of the new war came while Avanti was running back to the ship. It struck him squarely in the jaw. Unprepared, his head spun right with the force of the impact. That had hurt. People tended to augment their ammunition these days, those that possessed the ability or could pay for it. He turned to glare at the gunner, but it could’ve come from any of the ships. Working his jaw, he felt the compacted slug slump off. Avanti kept running.

He was more or less prepared for the second barrage as bullets started buffeting his location. They were like gnats, an annoyance, but there was also nothing he could realistically do about the situation. He grit his teeth and bore it.

“They’re firing!”

“I see that corporal. Calm your tits.”

“But sir! Avanti—”

Will be fine. They’re shooting at him because he’s exposed and they think he’s up to something. Isolde must have a damn good sniper if they think they can hit Avanti. Besides, even if they do peg him—so fucking what? He’ll just bounce back.”

“Well, why aren’t they shooting at us then? We’re clearly up to something.”

“Because they’re staring down our broadside, and we’ve got the bigger guns.” He grinned. “For the moment…” He admitted, his grin flattening. “Anyway, at this distance we’d do minimal damage and waste a lot of ammunition doing it. Same goes for them. There’s a reason we aim for the broadside, you know, and it isn’t just because that’s where the cannons are positioned. Besides, we haven’t started firing at them yet either. Why provoke a wasp before you’re good and ready to swat it? It’s to their advantage to wait until they can do to us what they did to the Gardenians.”

The captain was right, as soon as Avanti neared the ship, the shots considerably lessened. Before he had even made it back onto the deck, they ceased altogether. A runner came up to him with a towel, which he turned away. The man was remarkably dry. “What’d I miss?” And smug.

“The corporal was worried about you.”

“I was not! I mean—I was, but only because—"

“Aww. I’m touched. Two admissions in one day? It must be Beltane come early.”

“In your dreams.”

“It was merely professional courtesy.”

“Captain!” A bandana clad sailor sporting a goatee ran up to the group, waving his arms while shouting. “Captain!”

“Aw, shit. What now?”

“Sir, the Tail’s caught onto something. We got it maybe halfway, but we’re having trouble reeling her all the way in.”

“Avanti—” The captain began, but he needn’t have, for in matters of metallurgy, Avanti not just had a leg up, but an entire league. The man was already in motion, striding towards the rear winch compartment.

“I’m on it.” Avanti said while jogging towards the aft deck, keeping stride with the messenger despite his own limitation in complementing footwear. He hadn’t even reached the halfway mark before the Isoldean’s began firing on the island.

Archuleta’s cigar dropped. His mouth gaped as the drums of war beat. They sounded muffled to his ears, like the sounds of cannons being fired across a vast distance, but reverberated with his soul all the same.

The familiar beast howled within, stirred to life again. His blood ignited, a searing miasma lancing through his veins, bulging rivers straining to contain his fury. Fire begat electricity, jolting the senses to new levels of awareness whilst his perspective of the world shattered kaleidoscopically. Everything came at once, simultaneously faster and slower. The booming claps of a second volley of cannon fire righted the world again. Archuleta screamed, the roaring of a beast.

“Avanti! Get that Tail up god-fucking-dammit!”

Avanti ran like never before, leaving upended nails in his wake as he used the metal embedded in the boards to quicken his paces. He was a blur to the casual observer, leaving dumbstruck sailor’s in his wake.

The corporal came into his own rights then, wits returning. “Fire the cannons!” he bellowed. It worked, having the effect of mobilizing the men in action from stupefaction.

“Belay that order!” Archuleta countermanded. A lot of men stopped, conditioned to heed the captain’s orders—this particular captain—but most did not, either too overwhelmed or too green to know any better. He understood their rationale, considering the circumstances, but it was due to those same circumstances that he could not tolerate even an iota of insubordination on his ship—not even from the corporal. Raising a hand, palm extended, he extended his magic across the ship. It washed over the deck like a ghastly specter, exerting an oppressive malady for the spirit, and rooting the outliers in place. This time, every man stopped. “Any man that so much as touches a cannon without my express permission, will answer to me.” He glared at the corporal. “Is that clear?”

Archuleta retracted his magic to allow the stunned corporal the wherewithal to respond, and the deck breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“But Sir,” the corporal pleaded, “they’re slaughtering our people!”

“And we can’t help them if we’re dead ourselves.” Archuleta said. “Think it through.”

The corporal’s blood was on fire. He was a split second away from punching his commanding officer and ordering the retaliation himself. Perhaps it was the knowledge that punching the captain wouldn’t be nearly enough to bring the grizzly-sized man down that stopped him. Perhaps it was his earlier reaffirmation to place his trust in the same man that did the trick. Or more likely, it was the captain’s eyes, full of understanding and recrimination. But most of all, the captain’s eyes were fury incarnate, full to the brim with unbridled hatred and the promise of vengeance. The captain wasn’t staring at him though. No, the man’s hatred was reserved for the enemy which he glared at with such intensity that the corporal had no problems imagining that the Isoldeans could feel the captain’s fury like a physical presence, much like the crew had the displeasure of experiencing only a moment ago, except multiplied exponentially.

So, convinced, the corporal grit his teeth and thought it through as instructed. We haven’t erected the cage yet. So if we retaliate now… we’ll almost certainly be destroyed. Perhaps they might be able to sink a ship or two before that happened, but it would be a far cry from routing the entire armada or even buying enough time to make an iota of difference. Likely, it would change very little for the inhabitants of the island. Almost nothing at all, in fact. To say that even one life would be spared from their emotionally induced rebuke would be charmingly optimistic.

Gritting his teeth while hot tears stabbed his eyes, the corporal shook, fists clenched. He realized that there was nothing they could do for the moment, not if they wanted to make a difference. The captain was right. Again.

Archuleta placed a rough hand on top of the corporal’s head. The young man’s eyes were hidden in shadow behind a fringe of black hair. The deck below became spotted, wet with fat drops of moisture. Archuleta pretended not to notice his underling’s silent weeping while lusting after another cigar.

“I wish the rest of these bastards had balls like you, Corporal.”

“Yessir.” The corporal replied in a husky whisper. Strained with emotion, his voice came out sounding strangled as he choked back a sob.

Meanwhile, Avanti flew towards the aft winch like a hurricane. He saw no less than two dozen men trying to hoist the rear tail into position, all red-faced with exertion. The seat of one sailor’s pants were brown with the evidence of his exertion. Yet he, like the rest of them, only clamored on for more punishment in the face of the goings-on to their port side. He, like they, refused to look again after the initial shock had registered. Their world now solely revolved only a single imperative. Their mission: hoist the tail.

“Heave!” Sergeant Oars roared.

“Ho!” He was answered in stereo by the dozen. The men’s voices were painted raw, strained in equal parts with emotion and the physical toll of their efforts.

These men were navy men, burly, hairy sailors who frequently ran the length of the ship, palmed heavy cannonballs and ran back, only to pick up the anchor barehanded and heft it overboard, all as part of their physical conditioning regimen. They practiced for war, old hands at the toil, and were rewarded with corded muscles from the demands of their harsh environment, knowing that the ocean could beckon the harshest of all. Each man boasted arms thick as tree trunks, legs that could stomp through a man’s skull with ease, and a sun kissed back that was broad and strong enough to carry the weight of the world on sturdy shoulders. These men were machines, thick hide over steel skeletons. They were marines.

“Heave!”

“Ho!”

The wood under their feet creaked, groaned, and cracked under the strain of the ongoing struggle between man and sea—a cruel mistress. The winch groaned, metal deforming. Yet the Tail, thick irons chained in fat links, taut as a jaguar before it pounces, would not yield to their demands. They howled and hauled, and though any unaugmented chain would’ve snapped under the punishment of such extreme duress, the Tail, Daeva’s empennage given physical form, would not cede. It answered their cries with calm, their sweat with the tang of steel, and their rage with indifference. Armed with an indomitable resolve, they offered even more of themselves to the struggle. The Daevanagariitself dipped into the water, tilting on its axis.

Avanti was impressed. He was the Master of Metal, and was as such capable of witnessing the very moment, the exact point, when metal yielded to a greater force, which he could proudly boast did not exist very often. These men had far surpassed that point. The very air shimmered from their combined exertion and subconscious pooling and subsequent expelling of manna. Because all living beings utilized manna, physical exertion leaked it in minute amounts. An adept mage like Avanti could sense it clearly. At any other moment in time, he would beam in pride at his comrades’ cohesion while brooding over how they managed to surpass the impermeability of metal. And yet the magical augmentations to the Tail retained the structural integrity of the ores in the chain, keeping it intact. The runes glowed, lit aflame by the presence of large quantities of manna coursing through their length.

Avanti leapt over the rail separating the topdeck from the aft, a graceful saltigrade in motion. “Move!” he shouted. By modulating a minute amount of manna to his neck, which was not an easy feat in itself, he managed to douse his vocal chords in enough magic to amplify the expellant sound waves, easily eclipsing the clamorous grunts of the workers. It was as inefficient a use of manna as it was a quick and dirty way to accomplish the task of raising one’s voice. A trained wizard would be able to accomplish the same results with an obscene fraction of the same amount of manna.

As one, the sailors turned to stare at the interloper, staring him down. Their intense visages adopted dawning looks of recognition upon sighting the Sergeant who was still mid-salt. Each face morphed into a tableau of beseeching hopefulness and tacit respect. More than a few were overtly relieved.

Avanti landed in a crouch, and as one, the men slackened their holds, releasing their grips on the Tail. Taut as it was, it hardly moved, but nevertheless caught on the winch with a booming clap! that mirrored the blast of a cannon. The cracked wood surrounding the winch housing collapsed under the strain with a muffled crunch, and the ship righted on-kilter again.

The shirtless sergeant wasted no time in straddling the shattered remains of the winch housing. He gripped the chain like a single reign, and pulled. The chain wouldn’t budge.

He pulled again, harder while feeding manna through the metal and urging the ore to obey. The metal screamed back. He understood that it wanted to obey its master, to bend to his will, but was literally caught between a rock and hard place.

“Fuck.” He said through gritted teeth.

Avanti began sensing the problem shortly after his manna had circulated the length of the tail. The chain was caught on an underwater crag, an outcropping of diamond, a common but nigh unbreakable mineral. As he fed more manna through the links, he realized that it was far enough away to render his tactile control to utter shit. He wouldn’t be able to finely maneuver individual thorns or links from so far out. Either he’d have to approach closer to the obstacle, or use brute force to overcome it. Sighing, he made up his mind.

Gripping so tightly that his fingers dug deep trenches into the chain’s irons, Avanti heaved. Muscles bulged all over his body, inflating his physique to Adonic proportions. Arms veining, legs quaking, and back torquing, he roared a mighty challenge. He was Cervantes Avanti, and metal… was. His. Bitch!

“Help him!” Oars commanded. A dozen pairs of hands reach over and grabbed hold. “Heave!”

“Ho!”

The chain finally moved, only to catch again. Avanti saw his chance, and—

“Heave!”

“Ho!” he screamed.

Manna oozed outward from within coiled muscle. Avanti was born a Demi and had never possessed the innate talent needed to become a wizard. His manna usage was raw and unrefined as a result, but he—like other Demis—made up for it by possessing enormous reservoirs of manna. His very being exploded, imploded, and detonated again fueling a chain reaction of manna expulsion. The deck was saturated with the essence of the metal master. The chain finally moved.

He sensed the diamond breaking, shifting, then finally falling over and out of the way. The chain broke free. Unencumbered, it rose from the depths, righting into position, then locking securely. Avanti collapsed onto his back, along with everyone else.

“Tail’s up!” Oars shouted across the deck from his place on the floor. A chorused litany of repeated verbatims issued forth making their way down the line.

Avanti felt the captain powering up, and knew his job was done. Gingerly rising, he straddled a munitions crate, and allowed himself a moment to catch his breath. He lit one of the cigars he had pilfered earlier on in the day from the Gardenians. It was all up to the big guy now. Those Isoldeans would learn why the captain had been so feared in Hinterstan. Why he had been called the Dreadnaught in Uzu Nurui. Today, they would learn what happens when you provoke the beast.

Across the deck, Archuleta cracked a smile, teeth bared. “Hold on to your dicks, gentlemen, ‘cause it’s about to get hairy!”

Fifteen paces from the mast lay the dead center of the ship. Beneath a spelled panel array lay an item of significance which would typically be located in the lower decks, somewhere near the keel, due to its sheer importance, the loadstone of the ship. It was the magical nexus of all the enchantments embedded within and throughout the warship Devanagari. A critical blow to this manna core would render the ship dead in the water. And a dead ship was driftwood in the making, the debris flotsam wishes to be when it grows up.

On the other hand, by directly accessing this component, one could directly infuse their manna to all parts of the ship simultaneously. Doing it any other way was too unstable and introduced too many exotic variables. But for a mage like Archuleta, this architectural vulnerability quickly became an advantage—to an extent. In large part, the ship was built for a person like him. Someone with his unique capabilities.

Placing both hands atop the loadstone, Archuleta began channeling his manna. Slowly, so as not to rush in blindly. Delicate work like this was not something you wanted to fuck up by jumping the gun. Sigils lit up along the stone’s surface, then more and more in an outward spiral towards the rest of the ship. The loadstone connected every part of the ship, including the empennages, the Tongue and Tail, which lit up resplendently themselves. Unlike with anyone else before, they responded to the captain’s magic by flaring to life in a xanthous conflagration.

The magic in the air rose, bit by bit, growing, cresting, washing over the deck, and growing again, renewed. If Avanti had power, then Archuleta had finesse and power, but on another level altogether. The captain’s manna output quickly eclipsed the sergeant’s earlier showing with no signs of slowing or stopping.

It was like breathing underwater, the corporal reflected after witnessing the man’s raw power effloresce. Archuleta’s manna was as bountiful as the sea, as buoyant and material. The wind was so saturated with manna that the corporal feared he might drown in it. Amazing.

The sigils along the ship flashed white once before the manna dispersed. The air settled.

Unseen by the human eye, a wave of energy rolled over the ocean in a half-sphere which encapsulated all of the hostile fleet. The breeze died while the ocean turned to sludge. The water’s viscosity drained to the consistency of mud and further still. This was Archuleta’s magic, kinetic reduction. He had the power to redact the momentum from all forms of matter. Even the very ocean itself.

The fleet of ships, barreling forth at high knots, rode past the first few hundred meters without stopping or much impairment. As the consistency below their keels shifted from liquid, to sandy, to treacle, the ships began to lurch, the bows rising upward as they carved deep trenches in the very ocean itself. The forward ships suffered the most imbalance while those in the rear hardly noticed any at all. At least initially, until they too crossed the distance and began to careen. The contents aboard each ship took even longer in registering their quickly arresting momentum. The sea in front of each ship compounded, while the waters behind expanded, if not normally then a closer proximity to normal than their coagulated counterparts. Inertia carried them forward, then upward, cresting, rising above dunes of salt water building below their keels until their bows peaked skyward. As their momentum waned, they hung suspended for a brief moment, a coil of gathered inertness. Then they fell—simply fell—landing in the muck. The sea was now dead, brine as thick as pitch. The ships were stuck, trapped by their very means of mobility—captured. Caged.

“Corporal.” Archuleta grunted. Erecting and maintaining the Cage was taxing even to the superhuman commander. Neither would he be able to release the loadstone without terminating his connection to the ship, thus voiding his technique. He grinned up hungrily at his protégé, eyes gleaming predatorily, almost sadistically, and nodded. “Now.”

The corporal grinned devilishly himself.

“Go fuck them up.”

“Yessir.”

Perhaps if the theologies were to be believed and the goddess truly existed, Daeva would be proud of her charges. Perhaps their wolfish grins matched her own manic smirk which she was rumored to adopt in the heat of battle. As things stood, only the figurehead could boast having such an expression. It’s eyes and teeth glowed, reflective of the illuminated runemanship.

From afar, the warship Devanagari appeared nondescript. A destroyer class warship, it was built for form and function. Utility above aesthetic impediments. The figurehead of the goddess Daeva was the exception to the rule. But there was intent behind the decision. There was a message to be sent wherein practicality gave way to theatricality, that in war as well as peacetime, the goddess hungered—for war, famine, and destruction. Daeva, the goddess who bound, but who also trapped her prey by draining them of their energy. Energy of motion, spirit, and even magic, all were forfeit. It was this fearsome combination of entrapment which was said to have allowed the goddess to bind the Supreme God, Hessian. And as the Isoldean fleet approached the warship, the first thing they noticed was the figurehead: the goddess Daeva, with a long tongue reaching out of her mouth, and a tail emerging from the rear of the ship. Despite hearing of the Dreadnaught, Daeva’s right hand on earth made corporeal, the man who was born a demon, they had not put much stock into such rumors, dismissing them as unfounded hearsay. Gossip.

“Fire!” the corporal roared.

They should’ve heeded the message.