Chapter 13Mature

“Soldiers! Present arms!”

The Devil's lair was firing again, but their limited field of view prevented anything more than a handful of steel pellets to touch the hull. They probably weren't expecting their hunter to be such a high class vessel. While the small staff raced about and began adjusting their heavy upper cannons, several pirates clad in bright green leather robes climbed out on the exterior scaffolding of the hull. Being downwind, they had trouble taking aim with the heavy lever-action repeaters.

“Lock sights! FIRE!” He roared, and the sound of a dozen hammers striking their firing pins chimed after.

Two barbarians exploded into a shower of scarlet beads as they slipped off into the darkness. The others scattered, taking cover in the open broadside hatches. On the top right edge of the stern was a heavy mortar groaning against rusted railings, slowly pointing in the vague direction of the Sun's Radiance. It sat sluggishly for a moment before it spat a halo of flaming shot with a deep monstrous thud. Half of the spread slammed into the ship, heavily denting the plating on the starboard bow.

“Gunners, disable their weapons! We can't have them slowing us down any; speed is the only damn thing to our advantage.” The captain ordered from the helm.

The Gunnery Sargent saluted and relayed the orders down into the cylindrical chamber. Gears gnashed as the artillery piece pivoted towards it's bulky brother and fired. The shell plowed through the open deck and detonated, killing all the occupants of the weapon and turning it into a smoldering blister on the otherwise clean exterior. A row of cannons aboard the Lair went off in retaliation.

“Captain!” Arcebus hollered, “take us in closer, they can't do anything at point blank!”

The captain complied, spinning the control wheel right with a mighty tug against the elements. They swooped across the Averidan warship, the aft swivels trading shots with the churning anti-airship flak cannons. An explosion rocked Sun's Radiance, and one of the engineers was thrown from the rigging. He fell screaming, his body crashing into the hulking mass beneath before being devoured by the maw.

Arcebus hit the deck as a surprise volley of auto-cannon fire from the pirates cut through some of the marines who were on the starboard railing. A number were dead before they hit the ground, shredded by the deadly multibarreled weapons. The Navigator cursed and reached for a fallen carbine slick with scarlet. He staggered back up and leveled his silver sights on the two men who were reloading their exterior turret. Accounting for the wind and speed, he took a shot. He assumed that it hit, as the gunner's forearm chose that moment to explode, dropping the box of sparkling copper bullets. The other man jumped back in surprise, turning to the shooter just in time to receive a bullet through his forehead.

Arcebus continued laying suppressing fire along with his remaining comrades. It wasn't much longer now. Just a little closer and then they could begin. As if to compliment that thought, the hammering of boots rang out from the hold. The boarding party had finally arrived, and looked like they were worth the wait. From the heavy blue oilcloth raincoats and scaled steel pauldrons to the break-action scatterguns propped up against their shoulders like a row of smokestacks, they looked like Hel's personal guard. Arcebus looked across their ranks, they were few, and to his understanding they hadn't ever been in a real firefight. But he would make do.

“I wonder if I can remember how to do this.” He muttered to himself, directing the soldiers to latch onto the rappelling lines that dangled from a line of pulleys tied to the rigging.

It had been at least three years since he had been called on to do a jump, and one since he had handled any weapon outside of sport. He removed the spectacles from his face and shoved them in a buttoned pocket. From the same pocket, he removed a pair of old black aviator goggles and stuck them over his head. One of the squad threw him an extra belt, which he fastened on hastily over his coat. He groped blindly above for the metal clasp, eventually snatching the dangling strap from the mess of cords.

“Soldiers, on my mark we swing for the back of the balloon”

The words had to be yelled a couple times just to get to the men at the other end of the deck. But eventually everyone had their feet braced against the top bar of the railing, making themselves lovely open targets for the pirates.

“Ready.......jump!”

For a moment, he felt free. Then for the rest of the moments, he felt sheer agony as the belt dug into his waist with whip-like force. While his weightless state was very hard to control, he did have some say in what quadrant of the ship he ended up on. He made for the aft part of the balloon, as it led right into the rear engines, which were the main powerhouse of the ship. His body felt like it was breaking as he buffeted against the wind, and soon his goggles were too foggy to discern more than the shadow of the mass he closed in on

Feet first, knees bent. Wait, shit! That's for-

He didn't get a chance to finish that thought. His body was plastered onto the hard canvas exterior of the balloon. It could have been much worse at that speed, but it certainly wasn't pleasant. His joints emitted unbearable pain in the form of a torturous burning.

“Dumbass....” He groaned, reprimanding himself for not practicing all those passed years.

He wiped the water from his goggles and checked for hostiles. A thump to his right drew his gunsights to a reeling figure. He quickly identified it as one of his own though.  It was a small man, the armor looked bulky on his small frame, and merely standing was a clunky procedure. He made a hand gesture: 'no injuries'. Arcebus signaled back with a wave: 'move out'. The pair trudged over the wiry frame, heading farther back to the end of the ship. Another soldier made himself known by shooting at Arcebus, missing only by a bit. Quickly realizing his mistake, he raised his hands. Arcebus made a fist and stuck out his thumb, 'up yours'. The recruit made his way over in awkward silence enforced by the droning of the nearby engines.

The ship lurched suddenly as it began to gain altitude. Probably to dissuade any other boarding parties from dropping in. Arcebus and his group were knocked back down, and it took a half-minute of floundering to get back up. A spray from the bow washed over them a moment later, and Arcebus found himself sliding down the slight incline that the ship created.

He tumbled downwards, the marines stumbling after him and eventually getting caught in the same predicament. The three rolled blindly for what felt like too long, eventually coming to the end of the balloon, a row of tail fins barring the end. Arcebus angled for one of them, managing to catch it by the leading edge.  One of the marines did the same, although he caught it between his legs. The other one collided with the first. Recruits always seemed to have the worst luck possible.

Arcebus sighed. The ship was beginning to level out again, and soon he was able to stand. The other two did something like standing. Suddenly, rifle shots broke through the air. Arcebus narrowed his eyes and saw a group of pirates closing in over the balloon they had just crossed. He rested up against the rudder and took aim once again. The recruits drew first blood, they took a moment to get their longer range pistols from their holsters, but once they did it became apparent that they had payed attention in training. Each shot either hit or deterred one of the individuals.

The navigator stole a look at the Sun's Radiance. It wasn't looking good. An engine looked like it had been hit, and was spilling black smoke behind it. The turret had taken a heavy beating and looked hardly functional. The balloon also looked like it had caught some damage. Any more plating and it could end up a flaming wreck.

“Damn!”

Arcebus turned back to the rear turbines and began firing wildly at the engines. It was to no avail, they were just too well protected for small arms. He thought madly, surely there was a weakness to this behemoth!

Wait. Their movement? I noticed it while I was still aboard, they were moving slowly even for monster of this size. Engine trouble? No, they don't have any issues concerning speed.

Suddenly it came to him: the rudders! The control lines had to have been damaged when they first fired. If he could jam those cables again....

“Marine! I need all pyrotechnics you have!” He yelled back, to the recruit.

He looked over for a second then switched to firing with one hand, unhooking his brandolier with the other. He threw the bundle of grenades over to his superiors waiting hands. They would be enough if he could find the right place.

He drew his officer's gunblade from his waist and began cutting at the base of the central fin. Lock one and they were close enough that they'd all lock. At least topside, and hopefully that would be enough. Digging through the system was a challenge, but the network of wires that pulled them became obvious as he traced them back to the origin stem.  He wrapped the grenade belt around one of the bigger lines and made a run for it.

The pirates were growing in numbers. One of the two marines had taken a shot to his leg, and was laying prone behind the other. Arcebus turned back for only a moment to fire.  His first shot missed, but the second was rewarded with a monumental explosion that incinerated the wood frame and a giant chuck from the fin's base.

Suddenly, an artillery round from Sun's Radiance struck the area where the pirates were converging. It sent a bunch of them sailing into the air, and left another gaping hole in the balloon's midsection.

“Ha ha! A warrior looks after his own!” The wounded marine laughed.

“By now the captain will have figured out what I've done. Get ready to make a run for it.”

The marines looked at him curiously, and he graced them with an explanation.

“I've disabled their steering.  And in not too long we'll be heading into a rough patch.  Let's see how well their armor stands up against ten-thousand tower sized teeth.”

There was something like horror on one face, and an excited smile on the other.

“You mean we're buggered if we can't get off?”

“Which is why you should run,” he nodded to the Sun's radiance, which suddenly jerked towards the Devil's Lair, “help me pick him up.”

The two men grabbed their brother by arms and made a mad dash for the starboard side. The Radiance ended up careening into the side of the Lair. The remaining crewmen clashing with pirates that tried madly to ascend their ship.

Arcebus fired his remaining shot into the back of a barbarian who was bludgeoning the corpse of one the marines in a frothing frenzy. The closer they got, the more hectic it became. The two able bodied fended off crazed swordsmen and gunslingers all while lugging a two-hundred pound bleeding lump.

A rope ladder descended from the midsection of the ship. A hasty marine tried to board it, but was shot down before he even made it half way. Arcebus left the wounded in the care of the small marine, turning and stabbing an approaching marauder. As he checcked to see the progress of his comrades climb, he felt a bullet graze his neck. The stinging was worse like a hornet's bite.  He pulled another pirate into the way of a shot meant for him, and put his sword through the neck of another.

“Get on sir! We're pulling out!” Arcebus caught over the roar of battle.

He turned back and jumped onto the ascending ropes narrowly avoiding an axe swing towards his foot. He pulled himself up using will alone to hold the doors of consciousness open. He was soon over the edge of the deck, pulled by the waiting hands of the marines he had been with.

As soon as the navigator was identified as the last man and their work had finished, the ship began to accelerate up and break away from the mess of metal between. Arcebus faded in and out of reality as he was hauled down into the waiting rows of bunks where the ships doctor frantically attempted to manage the numerous wounded. The last thing he remembered was the loud crash of something jamming against the teeth of the canyon.

                                                                                                                                                 

The light of day was in Arcebus's eyes as he awoke from the long darkness of blood loss and fatigue. He blinked, then slowly sat upright. He was unharmed save for some cuts, a sprain, and the new scar that would be on his neck.

“Feels like mjölnir struck me in the balls.” Groaned on of the men on the cot beside him, who he relalized was the marine who'd taken that nasty hit against the rudder.

He stood up and hoveled to the giant wooden ladder, at the far wall. It was missing a few pegs, which could be found scattered across the ground. It didn't pose much of a problem. He ascended through multiple layers filled with the smell of charred wood and gun powder. When he reached topside, he found the deck almost empty, manned by a few solemn faced crewmen.

“Helmsman, what's our current berring?” He asked, leaning on a wall for support.

“Sir, we've exited the canyon and have been sitting dead in air for about a half-day.”

Arcebus looked about the quarter-deck for a moment then followed up with, “is the captain resting?”

“He was badly wounded sir, I was left in charge after the first mate was.....declared dead by the doctor.”

Arcebus rubbed his eyes in silence. The ship was driting over the plain grey shelves of rocky terrain that sat between the stark black abyss snaking for miles around. It was really a desolate world outside of those devilish halls.

“Look alive! Ship inbound from the south-east!”

Arcebus sprung into action, grabbing his spyglass from it's coat pocket and extending it to max length. The ship was huge, and thankfully he recognized it. It was the Ironclad Wurm's Flame from the homeland. He released his breath and closed the glass, motioning for a deck-hand to wheel over the communication lanterns. The dot in the distance lit up in colorful yellow light, brightly flashing against the dull wispy clouds behind it.

-AMGE. ARE YOU IN NEED OF ASSISSTANCE?

Arcebus paused and postioned the light to flash back.

WE HAVE WOUNDED. CAN YOU ACCOMIDATE?

Another rest before the reply.

SUPPLIES CAN BE SPARED.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING OUT ON THE FRINGE?

FLEEING. THE SAME AS YOU WE ASSUMED.

NEGATIVE. WE ARE ON PATROL.

WHY?

“Why?” Arcebus wondered aloud.

THOSE ARE OUR ORDERS.

There was a long wait before anything else was relayed. Arcebus and the crew traded looks.

“What's going on?” He asked and the helmsman shrugged.

HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN OUT HERE?

TEN MONTHS ON THE FRINGE.

THEN YOU ARE UNAWARE THAT YOUR ORDERS ARE NULL?

EXPLAIN.

THERE IS NO MORE NAVY. ALL PERSONEL ARE RELIEVED OF THEIR DUTIES.

Scarred conversation erupted about the ship. Arcebus hushed the boys with a hiss and returned to the spyglass, hoping that his true terror was hidden beneath his calm exterior.

EXPLAIN.

THE EMPIRE HAS BEEN ANEXED.
                                                                                                                                       

VALHALLA
ONE WEEK AFTER THE SUMMER SOLSTICE
A half dead man in a tattered navy coat laid in bed, his bleary eyes stabbing into the ceiling like blunt daggers. This was what he had been reduced. A promising naval career. An incredible victory that would've seen his entire crew celebrated.
And now he was here. His ship mates returning to what once was his empire, brimming with the blood of his countrymen. He was stuck in a hotel with a small bundle of coin, and nothing he desired to spend it on. Maybe the Devil's Lair could have used him to swab decks or something.
Most of the loyalists were in hiding. Some were dropped off here, in this ancient city of chaos, and others took their chances on the barren fringe deserts. He wondered if he'd ever see Webworth again. Or the poor bastards he'd fought beside.
He looked at the small timepiece on the nightstand beside him. It was time to go out and look for work again. With a loud moan, he stood and straightened his greasy hair with his hands, then hooked his spectacles over his ears. He took off the ratted coat and observed it. The mere sight of it had gotten him into two separate fights since he'd arrived in this den of rogues.
Still. It was pretty enough. There were worse places to waste away, as he had visited a few of them.  Early morning and already he could hear shopkeepers peddling goods outside.  He looked out towards the docks and frowned.  Smoke still rose from yesterday's airship crash.

  "Damn shame.  Looked a good vessel."  He mused, fastening his sword over his pants.

                                                                                                                              

  Nothing.  No traders were hiring, and no pirates wanted a navy man (not that he much wanted to serve under their kind either).  By midday he found himself meandering the marketplace, famished and down to his last day of any good meals.  He did find that his attire meant that most small town thieves left him alone.  It was the pirates, those who'd lost friends to hunters or privateers that wanted to pick fights with him.  A group had beat him up, and it was only thanks to the sudden event of the airship crash that he had managed to flee.  His chest still was sore from where they'd kicked him.

There was a bar up ahead.  He had checked there earlier and found no work, but maybe he could at least get something cheap to eat.  Besides, a drink sounded really good right at the moment.  He pushed his way through the large ceder doors, being greeted with a wash of perfume and yeast.  It wasn't a bad smell, until the body odor of the drunks at the counter broke in.

  Eyes chased him to his seat  A couple nasty looking bald men who were courting suddenly began staring at him with a glare that suggested they weren't a fan of the military.   Nothing he hadn't seen before.  He shot them a look back, and a few seconds of prolonged eye contact sent them back to their laughable attempts at wooing.

  "Can I get you somethin' mate?"  The barkeep, a short blond girl with pigtails asked.

  "What do you have for eats?"

  "Eh.  Fish jerky, turkey if Carlo remembered to restock.  Maybe some greens?"

  "Just mix the cheapest bits in a bowl and I'll down it with something outta the tap."  He sighed, putting half his remaining money on the table.

  She swept the money into her hands and went off to prepare the mystery dish.  Arcebus rested his head in his arms and waited.  When the dish was served, he ultimately decided it was in his best interests to down the liquor before making an attempt at the salad before him.

  His meal went undisturbed, and it wasn't all that bad in the end.  He rested for a little bit before leaving his seat and heading out back into the afternoon docks to see what new ships might have arrived.  He was so busy thinking about where to start that he collided with a cloak wearing individual making their way to the bar.

  "Apologies."  He muttered, quickly fleeing the establishment before he ended up with another black eye.

  He stopped outside for moment, thinking back to the brief glimpse of a face under that hood.

  Odd.




The End

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