2. Soldier Take Warning

 

There’s something wrong with Nails. Probably something wrong with all of us. For one thing, we seem to be in the wrong reality.

Getting ahead of myself again. One thing at a time.

I am now the Lieutenant of the Chain of Acheron. What is going on? 24 hours ago I was a junior officer. I was happy as a junior officer. Hell, I was happy as a damned ranker. Glad to let someone else get paid to do the heavy thinking. But Red didn’t leave us much choice. His last gift to me. Thanks, Red. Piece of shit.

Not sure why Sweet choose me, I barely know the guy. Why not Judge or Nails? Sweet and Nails go back a ways. I guess it’s because of this. The Chronicle. The life of the Chain. I feel like... I dunno, it was easier to write about this stuff when I was outside it. Just watching the high-ups make decisions and putting in my two bits.

Now I am one of the high-ups. Shit, I outrank Judge. On paper, I guess. I give that guy an order all I’ll see is a smile with pointy teeth in it.

I suppose I could give someone else the Chronicle. Conk maybe. Nah. She’ll put everything in here but the truth. Be a more interesting read though. Your loss, I guess.

So for the time being, you’re stuck with me. King, Lieutenant and Chronicler of the Chain of Acheron, last of the Helltroopers. That means... hang on, that means I’m second in command. Sweet... you better not die.

Where was I?

Getting onto the Rosso Cielo turned out to be a little harder than just waving the treasury under the Captain’s nose and making promises. There was a company of Warbreed on the ship. I sorta had a feeling something was going on. The Captain of this boat, her first mate, both had this air about them. Not like “hey there’s a company of Ajax’s soldiers onboard” I just had this feeling. Like… “you don’t know what you’re getting into, stepping on this ship.”

Yeah. Yeah I was right about that.

Anyway, we got to see some fireworks. Set off some of our own. They had this big ogre did a lot of swinging, never hit anything. Seasick probably. otherwise we made short work of them. Copper sat Bigcat down on the deck and she just flayed Warbreed with her tentacles. I’m used to seeing her from a distance. Up close she is an unstoppable maelstrom of claws and teeth and death. So, a normal cat basically.

Copper spent the battle picking off their rankers, Sweet went toe to toe with their commander. Got in a couple good licks before they swarmed him. I’m not sure but I sorta wonder if Sweet was expecting Red to be behind him. Probably.

Judge pissed off a lot of orcs, and gabbled at the Ogre in his heathen lingo. For a moment, the Ogre worked for us. Nice trick. But before it could do anything, most of the orcs were dead.

I called on my ancestors and ruined a few orcs’ day. Sort of overkill. The Warbreed are some of Ajax’s best troops. Against anyone else, they’d probably come out on top. But the Chain had had a bad day and were eager to take it out on someone.

It was good, fighting the Warbreed. We needed a straight up fight after the Cathedral. But it left a lot of questions.

We kicked around the boat, found our quarters, and then it was time for dinner in the Captain’s Mess.

I haven’t known a lot of Riojans. They don’t mind asking questions and they had a lot. None of us felt like talking, but they didn’t seem to mind.

First mate gave me the lowdown on Capital. They put on a little show for us, dessert with the symbol on it. That was nice. Think if they’d started with that we all probably would have been in a better mood.

After, we talked. Captain let us have the room, and about halfway through I forgot I was an outsider. Now I was just another officer, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

We had a lot of questions about what happened at the cathedral, and no answers.

“Ajax knew we were coming,” Judge said. No one responded. “Mortum was there. We saw him at the end. But that wasn’t him at the Cathedral. Why was Ajax there?”

No one said anything. So I spoke up. “Sariel,” I said. Everyone looked at me. Gulp.

“He knew there was some kind of conspiracy against him. The whole thing was a... a plot, a ruse, to lure her out. This wasn’t about us. It was about her.”

Everyone nodded. No one called me an idiot. Is this being an senior officer? You just make a guess and everyone shrugs because they can’t think of a good reason to disagree and now that’s how it is?

“Now we have a mark against us,” Judge said. He pulled out the orc commander’s log.

“Not necessarily,” I said. “We’re just the guys caught in the middle. He didn’t seem interested in us.”

Judge was going to object, but Nails fired his namesake and took a drag. Reminded everyone of something important. “This was a secret mission,” he said. “It was supposed to be a secret mission, who knew about it? The Commander. The four of us.” He meant everyone but me.

We waited. Then he got to the point.

“Those orcs up top, they were waiting for us. They knew we were coming. They knew everything.”

“Maybe they just got word from the docks,” I said. Shrugged. “Doesn’t mean anything.”

“Who you trying to convince?” Nails said. He was right. I was presenting options I didn’t believe in.

“Excuse me,” Judge said quietly. He was holding the orc commander’s log, reading it. Everyone stopped talking “Who was... the Elf. Who was she with?” He put the book on the table, open to two pages covered in orc scrawl and looked at Sweet.

“Ah, half-orc. Baron of Bedegar. And a man. Duke of Aendrim.” Judge blinked. He was thinking. Then Sweet continued. “Used to be the Baron of Dalrath but he got a promotion.”

Judge spun the book around and pushed it across the table at Sweet. Stabbed a black, curved nail at the page. Sweet picked it up.

“Holy shit,” he said. He lowered the book and looked at us. “Those Orcs were in Dalrath a month ago. Came straight to Blackbottom.”

“Wait, the Warbreed were IN Dalrath?” Nails asked, and held out his hand for the book. Sweet gave it to him.

“Hey you gonna eat that?” Copper asked, eyeing Judge’s uneaten pudding. Judge was watching Nails. “No? Looks like no,” he reached his fork out and slid the uneaten dessert over and started devouring it. No other way to describe how that guy eats.

Nails looked up from the book. “They’ve got a traitor in their organization. Someone in Dalrath looks like.”

“Why would the Duke hire us AND be conspiring WITH Ajax?” I asked. It didn’t make any sense. I said so. “What the hell’s going on?”

Judge raised an eyebrow. “Good question,” he said.

With questions piling up and answers slipping away, we called it a night.

Next morning and the boat was acting like she wanted to jump out of the water. But one night onboard and we were getting used to it. Still, it couldn’t get much more rough than this.

Wow when I am wrong….

The Bale, the maelstrom that gives the sea her name, stretched out to the west from horizon to horizon like the edge of a flat world. We were already uncomfortably close. I said so.

“We had no charts!” Godesto explained. “You seemed in a hurry. But we have made this journey before. We shall do it…,” he paused and looked up to the quarterdeck where the Captain was, even though she was out of sight. “By the seat of our pants!” Sounded like he was quoting someone.

Whatever the crew were planning, sail around the edge until we got to Rioja? We never found out. No plan survives contact with the enemy.

“Dragonflies astern!” Someone from the poop deck called out.

“Shit,” Godesto spat. I’d never served in Khemhara, so I had no idea what that meant, and climbed up to the quarterdeck to get a look. The rest of the officer corps had a similar idea.

Three ships were bearing down on us. They were faster than us, everyone could see that. They looked like upside down beetles, their hulls were curved and polished. And hovered a few feet above the water.

We couldn’t see whoever manned those ships. But we knew who they worked for. They unfurled flags to let us know. Flags bearing Ajax’s livery.

“I think perhaps things are not going well for the Pharaoh,” Godesto said. I guessed these must be the Pharaoh's ships. Normally.

“They’re gonna catch up to us,” Sweet smiled sweetly and cracked his knuckles. He was ready for a boarding action. Seeing Ajax’s flag put him in a mood.

The captain called out for the seer, whoever that was. I was imagining a woman, probably a tall Elf maiden or something. Once again, when I’m wrong…

His name was Hrathi. He was bent and gnarled, blind and deaf. And dumb we learned. Stripped to the waist, he showed off a grid of tattoos on his back. Glyphs I didn’t recognize. As he walked past, the crew touched the glyphs. Ah, this is how they speak to him. He can feel their hands touching the symbols.

He was smiling and nodding at friends and crewmates he couldn’t see, but knew were there. He touched a piece of driftwood that had symbols notched into it. The crew watched his hands move. This was how he responded.

Godesto told us Hrathi’s story but I was distracted. Between the Dragonflies and the Bale I felt we were riding the edge of a wave that would crush us at any second. One misstep in either direction, and that would be the end of the ship, the crew, and the Chain.

Hrathi climbed up to the foc'sle and disappeared out of sight behind sails and rigging. Was he an oracle? What good would that do? The crew were preparing for some maneuver.

I looked behind, the Dragonflies were almost close enough to make out their crew.

Lady Massingham gripped the wheel, her eyes burned with concentration as she threaded a needle between the Bale and the Dragonflies. “They can fly!” She shouted. “They’ll fire arrows, harpoons. They’ll shred the sails and pull the masts down before they board. Even if you win, we’ll all be left adrift!”

Then the Captain pulled on the wheel, and the ship began to turn. Toward the maelstrom. That threw the Commander off.

“What are you doing?!” Sweet asked.

“You want to escape the Dragonflies?” Lady Massingham shouted over the growing sound of the Bale. “There is only one way.”

The hair on my neck stood up. At some point in the last few moments, the crew had become one single entity, all working like demons toward a purpose I did not know.

The ship finished turning. The maelstrom hove into view, directly in front of us. Sails were furled, rigging was stowed. Men started to lash each other to the masts, to the railings. I started to get a bad feeling.

The Captain of the Rosso Cielo pointed into the Bale. “In!” she called out.

Godesto, grinning like a madman, looked from the quarterdeck out to the crew. “Through!” he called.

The entire crew shouted as one. “BEYOND!”

And the seer began to chant.

“I’ve decided I don’t like this boat!” I shouted to Nails.

“You better tie yourself to something,” he said. “These people seem to know what they’re doing.”

A Riojan swabbie held out a line of thick rope. I nodded and, along with the rest of the Chain, I was tied to the boat like everyone else. The seer’s chanting began to ring through my bones. It was unnatural. No, it was supernatural.

I realized we were in the middle of some kind of spell. We were in for one hell of a ride.

The ship plunged into the maelstrom. I could hear people, mostly the rankers in the Chain below decks, screaming. The maelstrom was the whole world, we rode down its edge and it felt like the entire ship was going to tumble free, just fall into the black pit at the center of the thing. What was down there? How big was it? Did anything ever survive to find out?

My ears rang, my skin was lashed by biting cold seawater that felt like razors slicing into my face, my hands. Were the Dragonflies still behind us? Had they followed? Did they assume, whatever we did, they could do? I couldn’t see. I still don’t know.

From below, from the depths of the maelstrom, a massive wave surged up toward us. It looked like it was a mile high, but it was probably no more than 60 feet? 100? Certainly large enough to smash the ship into splinters and us with it.

The chanting was now loud enough to drown out the sound of the Bale. I looked into the wave before us and saw... I saw stars. A million brilliant stars behind the wave. It sounded like a thousand voices were droning in my head. Shaking my skull.

Lightning, the seer’s? Stabbed into the wave. A thousand bolts of lightning blinded me just as the wave tipped over to crush us.

Then... nothing.

Judge is calling me. To be continued.


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