Stormy weather swept across the tiny island and its tinier battlements, but that was expected for autumn.  At least, it was autumn back in Merolate.  On a speck of rock known only as “Outpost East,” it was just entering the storm season.  Despite that, Guardsman Twiol was outside, his waxed raincloak doing little to keep him dry as he struggled with his two companions, Fulet and Grames, to unload the heavy, sealed packages from the ship docked behind the island, where there was some scant shelter from the raging storm.  Even so, the captain was looking around with obvious apprehension and continually urging the guardsmen to hurry with the supplies.

               “Seems like there’s more than usual, this time,” Fulet remarked, hugging another crate to his chest and staggering back down the gangplank with it.

               “Oof, and this one’s heavy,” Grames grunted, staggering after Fulet and disappearing into the structure that served as their home on the island, half cave and half fortress.  Its stone were still newly hewn, though the stormy season would change that quickly.

               Captain Dwimber shrugged.  Normally, the ships would stay a night and take a meal or two with the guardsmen before going on their way, but the storm had almost been too severe for the captain to make his landing at all.  Twiol suspected that if the supplies hadn’t already been delayed twice, the man would have tried to wave off and approach under better conditions – it was always easier to ride out a storm at sea if there were no well-secured harbors in range.  “Don’t ask me what’s in there, but I will tell you that the Guardcaptain seemed mighty excited about something.  Personally came and oversaw the loading.”

               “Huh.”  Twiol, returning for another load, peered more closely at the crate he had lifted.  “Well, maybe it’ll be enough to keep us entertained out here.  Sure won’t be swimming for a while, I figure.”

               During the summer, the area around the tiny outcropping where they lived had been a veritable paradise, with crystalline waters, warm, tranquil breezes, a reefs all around to swim over.  Those reefs were murderous to any ship approaching without a detailed map, but they were perfect for swimming.  Still, Twiol wished that he were leaving with the captain to return to Merolate.  It was alright for the other two youngsters on the island with him; they didn’t have families waiting for them back home.

               “Looks like that’s the last one,” Fulet observed, pointing to Grames lugging a crate almost as large as he was down the gangplank and into the fort.  “Thanks for the supplies, Captain.  Say hello to the folks back home for us.”

               “Yes, thank you,” Twiol agreed, clasping the captain’s weathered hand.  “And if you could see that this makes it back to my family…” he pressed a letter, sealed and waxed, into the same hand.

               A flash of lightning illuminated the captain’s wet smile.  “I’ll see it done.  Safe harbors and fair seas, boys.”

               “Travel well, Captain,” Twiol replied.  Together, the three guardsmen walked down the gangplank.  The captain’s crew withdrew the plank, and with long poles shoved their way clear of the island, nosing out into the sea.  Those poles would be used again and again to navigate them around the reefs until they reached the open waters of the Aprina Sea.  With the rain washing down like a second ocean dumping out of the sky, the ship was soon lost from sight, and the three guardsmen at Outpost East were again alone at the edge of the world.

               Fulet grumbled.  “Why are we all still standing out here in the rain?  Aren’t we drenched enough?  Come on, I’m going in and getting warm and dry.”

               “I like the rain,” Grames retorted, but he followed Fulet inside readily enough.  Twiol stayed outside for a little longer before he too retreated to the relative sanctuary of their hastily constructed fort.

               Morning brought grey, sunless light, but the storm was reduced to a light drizzle.  Awakening before the other two, Twiol stoked the hearth in what constituted their kitchen, and made himself an omelet.  Fresh food was a rare thing on their outpost, and would only last a few days even if they didn’t eat it all, so there was little point in saving it.  Once his breakfast was gone, he took himself up to the battlements with a steaming mug of tea, and looked out to the east.  In theory, there was always supposed to be at least one of them on watch, but no ship would dare approach the island in a storm like last night’s, so there had seemed no point.

               Sure enough, there were no ships sitting out in the waters on the eastern side of the island, and if any had passed by, they wouldn’t have been able to see them, anyway.  It was enough to make Twiol wonder if their presence on the easternmost extreme was worthwhile, but he dismissed the thought quickly.  That was for people like Guardcaptain Vere to decide, not him.  He would do his duty as best he could, and that would be enough.

               When he grew tired of standing in the rain, he wandered back towards the other side of the island.  A small spire, three times his height and only a little wider that him, was the highest point on the tiny island, and the top had been lopped off flat to provide a platform for a signal fire.  There were lightweight skims kept just above the waterline, too, but the guardsmen all knew their best chance of getting a warning out was the signal fire.  Heavy, waxed clothes were kept over the wood at all times, and canisters of oil, torches, and sparkers were kept ready to set the whole pile ablaze.  Either the light or the smoke, the theory went, would be seen by the next outpost or by a friendly ship, and then word passed on back to Merolate.

               After the rain, Twiol wanted to check that the wood was still dry beneath its clothes; there was a store of mostly dry fuel – as dry as anything could be on their half a rock in the middle of the ocean – kept below in the storage chambers, and if the wood was too wet to be lit easily the guardsmen would need to build a new signal fire that morning.  Twiol was relieved to find that wood was still dry, and he returned to his contemplation of the unbroken eastern horizon.

               Unbroken was no exaggeration: there was nothing out there for as far as the eye could see, even on a clear day.  Sometimes, on those clear, summer days, Twiol liked to imagine that he could see straight around the world and peer at the back of his own head, however much he knew that to be impossible.  On rainy days, it seemed there was nothing save for themselves in all the world, like Lufilna and the rest of the Aprina Basin had just drifted away and left them alone, a speck in endless nothingness.  Regardless, there was never anything to the east, though it was the east they were to watch.  What Guardcaptain Vere thought might be coming over that distant, monotonous horizon, Twiol could not imagine.  There were rumors about strange people with strange powers who had come from the far east, but Twiol had not understood all that had been said.  It seemed preposterous to him, this idea that there was a whole different continent half a world away.

               “Moping about already?” Fulet’s voice interrupted Twiol’s thoughts.  “Seems awfully early for that, if you ask me.  You don’t really think anything’s going to come over that horizon, do you?”

               Twiol shrugged.  “I guess not, but that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?  Doesn’t hurt to be careful.”

               “Personally, I’d be glad to meet these strange easterners we’re supposed to be watching for,” Fulet mused.  “I hear that they have ships that belch fire like a dragon.  That would be something to see.”

               “There’s no such thing as dragons,” Twiol retorted.  They needed a different topic.  “Come on.  Let’s go wake Grames and find out what’s in those extra crates we got with last night’s shipment.”

               In the moist daylight and the supplemental torchlight, several of the crates were clearly marked separate from the rest.  Grames dragged these over to a pile by themselves, and looked to the other two Guardsmen.  “Which one should we open first?” he asked.

               “That one,” Fulet decided before Twiol could speak, pointing to a long, thick crate.

               Taking up a lever and mallet, Grames approached the crate, and pried off the top with a few blows.  Then he dropped the tools and lifted something long and narrow out of the crate.  He turned around and held it up to Twiol and Fulet like a prize.

               “What is it?” Twiol asked.

               “Spear!” Grames replied, jabbing the air with the pointed end.  “They sent us a whole crate of giant spears!”

               “Looks more like a crossbow bolt,” Twiol countered.  “A really, really big crossbow bolt.”

               Fulet frowned.  “I think I have to agree with you, Twiol.  That’s not just a big spear.”  He pointed at the bottom, where there were four narrow, metal protrusions from the main shaft, which was itself thicker than a traditional spear.  “These look a lot like fletching on an arrow, and it looks like there’s a notch down here, too, for it to fit onto a string.  Although a notch that big suggests that ‘string’ might not be the right word.”

               “You think these other crates are full of components to build a giant crossbow?” Twiol asked.  “One that can fire a bolt that big?”

               Fulet picked up the mallet and lever, and handed them to Grames.  “One way to find out.”

               Applying himself to the next crate, Grames grumbled.  “You know what I think these giant bolts are good for?  Really big spits.  Just think of the size of the boar you could roast on something like this.  Could put a whole blummox on it.”

               The lid of the next crate thudded in the small space as it hit the stone ground, revealing a long, narrow piece of wood with a metal channel carved into it.  Ignoring Grames, Fulet peered at the component.  “Definitely looks like a piece of an oversized crossbow.  Let’s get the rest of these crates opened and figure out how to put it together.”

               There was no protest from Twiol, so Grames went around and methodically pried open all of the crates.  Tacked to one of the lids was a piece of paper, which Twiol snatched and began to read aloud.  “’As a result of some recent, and unrelated events in the Union, experiments were undertaken to develop robust weapons capable of penetrating substantial armor and affecting large objects.  The most successful and transportable of these experiments is contained, deconstructed, in the crates around you.  Instructions for the proper assembly of the weapon are included on the reverse of this scroll.  It is based upon similar principles to the crossbow, and can propel the included bolts a distance of some five hundred paces, although accuracy diminishes rapidly as the distance increases past two hundred paces.  At a distance of two hundred paces, the bolt, when launched from a fully wound assembly, can penetrate a plate of metal one thumb thick, and can be aimed with sufficient accuracy to hit a target the size of a man.  It is our hope that this weapon will improve your ability to mount a defense against whatever forces should threaten the Union.  Know that your service is of the greatest importance…’”

               “Blah blah blah,” Fulet interrupted.  “Tell me who it’s from, and then let’s get this thing put together and test it out.  I want to see if those numbers hold up under field conditions.”

               Suppressing his annoyance in favor of his own curiosity, Twiol complied.  “It’s signed by Admiral Ferl and Advisor Doil, on behalf of Prime Kiluron.”

               “Not sure if that makes it more or less legitimate,” Fulet muttered.  “Alright, so we know this must be the main channel out of which the bolt will be propelled.”  He moved to peer into several of the other creates.  “It looks like there must be more than just the one crosspiece, like there would be in a crossbow, because there are four of what could be the arms.”

               Twiol waved the instructions at him.  “I think the instructions cover what we need and which parts are which.”

               Dismissing the notion, Fulet continued his inventory.  “This funky thing must be the trigger assembly, and over here are a few cables – that’s pretty obvious.  Assorted fasteners, some big pieces that must be the base or a frame of some kind…this doesn’t seem like it will be too hard.  Let’s get started.”

               He bent down to take out one of the pieces he thought to be part of the base, but Twiol forestalled him.  “At least let’s bring the pieces outside?  I don’t think this weapon will be useful inside of our storage room, and it looks like it will be too big to get out once it’s assembled.”

               For a breath, Fulet seemed about to argue with this suggestion, but then he jerked his head in acknowledgement of Twiol’s advice, and had Grames start hauling the opened crates up to the battlements.  It was still drizzling, and the sky was as grey as the sea, so they laid the lids back across the crates to keep out the worst of the weather.

               By noon, or at least their stomachs said it was close to noon, since the sun had refused to work that day, Fulet had assembled the base, and placed the main launcher channel upon it.  That had taken the first half of the morning, and the second half had been taken up with trying various arrangements of the arms, none of which had so far been quite right.  Twiol’s occasional suggestion that they reference the instructions that had been included with the shipment were ignored.

               “Maybe they didn’t send us the right pieces,” Fulet whined, trying and failing again to affix the arms to the launcher channel.  There were little cutouts where it seemed they should fit, but he couldn’t get them in with the pegs he had selected for the task.  “I could whittle these down to the right size.”

               “I really don’t think we should go altering any piece of this weapon,” Twiol insisted.  “Please, can we try putting it together the other way, like the instructions say?”

               Fulet held up one of the launcher arms.  “That way looked ridiculous.  How could they maintain enough stability to put adequate tension into the cable?  They’d just get cranked right back into the shaft itself and be useless.”

               “Not if the winch is arranged like this,” Twiol argued, pointing at another diagram on the scroll, although it was blotchy from the rain.

               Just as Fulet was about to make another retort, Grames interrupted both of them.  “What’s that out there?”  He was staring off at the eastern horizon, holding one hand up to keep the rain out of his squinting eyes.  “Is that actually a ship?  I didn’t think we had any ships that went that far east.”

               “We don’t,” Fulet snapped.  “It’s probably just some dolphins or something.  Can we please concentrate on putting this thing together?  I really want to see it work.”

               Following Grames’ pointing, Twiol frowned.  “I don’t think that it’s just dolphins out there.  Seems like it’s moving too straight, for one thing.  And too big.”

               “Will you please stop arguing with every single thing I say?” Fulet demanded.  “It’s too far away to see anything.  If you’re that worried, go and swim out there, for all I care.  Maybe if you don’t annoy them too much, the dolphins will carry you back to this unbalanced rock.”

               Angry now, Twiol threw the instructions into one the now emptied crates.  “Fine, maybe I’ll do just that.”  He stormed down into the fortress, feeling cold, wet, lonely, and profoundly far from home.  Shaking his head to clear it, he went to their living quarters, dried himself off, and changed into drier clothes.  They wouldn’t stay dry, but at least they weren’t yet clammy on his skin.  He wrapped two waxed cloaks over himself, took a day pouch full of salted meat and a waterskin from the storage room, and headed down to where the skims were stored.

               Each of the three skims was identical; no one had even bothered to name them.  They were low, wide boats that looked barely seaworthy, small and light enough to be operated easily by one person.  The skin seemed so thin that the slightest snag would tear right through it, made of some kind of bark, and there was minimal room for the pilot, much less supplies.  Two oars in modified oarlocks served as the propulsion, with no sail and only a minimal keel.  They were designed for nothing but speed.  Very carefully, Twiol took one of them down to the water, stowed his minimal supplies, and shoved away from the island.  It probably really was just some animals out there, but at least he could get away from the island’s confines, and his fellow guardsmen, for a little while.

               Once he had navigated past the reefs and was away from the island, the waves became erratic, and Twiol was no sailor.  He found himself swinging wide, away from both the island and the sighting he was ostensibly investigating.  By the time he had closed maybe a quarter of the distance to whatever Grames had seen, he was half as far abreast.  Squinting against the salty spray that was relentlessly crusting on his eyelashes, he tried to get a better look through the waves at what was out there.  It had been cutting an oddly straight line across the sea, moving due west…

               An aberrant wave lifted him a little higher above the rest of the ocean for a moment, and he caught a clear glimpse of what was making its way west.  They were ships, or at least Twiol thought they were ships, though they looked nothing like any ship he had ever seen, and they seemed to be belching out their own clouds to join those hanging low in the sky.  Despite their bulk, they were moving with remarkable speed across the sea, and there were at least two dozen of them.

               “Blood and Balance!” Twiol swore, though he was not usually prone to cussing.  He hauled on the right oar and pushed on the left with such force that he nearly capsized the skim and strained his own shoulders, but the lightweight craft responded readily enough after a moment, and he whirled around to face west in that single stroke.  Then he set to rowing with all of his strength, though he held little hope of outpacing the ships back to his island fortress.  Soon, he was out of breath and his muscles were trembling, his skim was nearly as full of spray as his boots, and he knew he would need to stop and bail soon, but he couldn’t stop, not with those ships behind him.

               With the lead he had, he thought there might be a chance, but he’d forgotten how wide he had been borne by the waves on his way out from the island.  He was still a lot of hard rowing from the dock when he saw the ships slow down and encircle the island.  Fighting against the waves, he came to a relative stop, and watched, wondering what he could do.

               A voice, inhumanly loud, boomed across the water, and almost sent Twiol tumbling out of his boat in shock.  “Attention!  Attention!” the voice roared like the orator of a giant.  “This region is now under the protection and authority of Pifecha.  Prepare for processing.”

               There was no indication of what preparations might be necessary for this processing, though in Twiol’s mind he thought the most appropriate preparation involved a sword and whatever that new weapon was that had been shipped to them from Merolate; he only hoped that Fulet had managed to finish assembling it.  When he saw flames flare to life at the fortress’s pinnacle, he felt a flush of relief.

               Then light flared from the end of a long tube mounted on the front of one of the metal ships encircling the island, there was a peal of thunder, and the signal fire exploded, showering burning brands all over the top of the fortress and into the water.  Half a moment later, the water on the other side of the island spouted up in a great fountain and sent waves far enough to rock Twiol in his little boat.

               For a long moment, Twiol stared at the empty signal platform, before his brain began to function again.  No giant crossbow shots were forthcoming from the island, so he could only assume that Fulet and Grames had not finished assembling it.  Without that weapon, he could imagine nothing that would save them from the monstrosities now surrounding them.  Certainly no acts of courage on his part would be of any use, and besides, their training was clear.  They were not to fight – they were to provide warning.  The message had to get through, get back to Merolate.

               If Fulet and Grames followed protocol, they would already be making for their own skims, but Twiol did not think much of their chances of escaping the perimeter of ships encircling Outpost East.  He was already out at sea, and as far as he could tell, the Pifechans had not noticed him in his tiny skim.  Guilt sitting heavy upon his chest, he turned his boat away from the island, and began to row west.  He went slowly at first, so as not to leave a wake that would be visible to the Pifechans, but he knew his duty.  The message had to get through, and he might be the only one who could bring it.  If all else failed, somehow, he had to warn Merolate.  The Pifechans had come to Outpost East.

               For the second time in far too brief a span, Vere stood on the deck of a ship.  A wake foamed behind them, and the sails were taught – too taught, to hear some of the sailors talk, but Captain Pulot had just laughed and sworn they would hold.  Since Vere had ordered all possible speed, and selected this captain and this ship for that exact reason, he was willing to go along with Pulot’s recklessness.  Storm clouds loomed ominously above, but so far there was no rain.  That was good, since there was a storm’s worth of spray from the waves through which the ship was cutting.

               “Tell me again exactly what you saw and heard,” Vere ordered the bundled, greenish figure clutching the rail beside him.

               Twiol, looking even less pleased to be at sea again than Vere was, took a moment to gather his strength before he answered.  “They came out of the east, Sir, making a line straight west.  Big ships, grey like metal, moving against the wind.  No sails, but they seemed to be making their own clouds.  The surrounded Outpost East, and a giant voice said something about making us subjects of Pifecha.  When Grames and Fulet tried to light the signal fire, they cast thunder at it and scattered it into the sea.”  He gulped, and looked down.  “That’s when I turned and started rowing for Merolate.  Though if Captain Dwimber hadn’t spotted my skim, I’d never have gotten my message out.”

               Vere grunted.  “You did the right thing, Guardsman.  Now we have the chance to find out what happened.”  And, he hoped, rescue Grames and Fulet, but he didn’t tell Twiol that; it would only raise the man’s hopes.

               Outpost East was not the only outpost to have reported sightings of a Pifechan fleet approaching out of the east.  A few signals and messengers had also gotten through from other outposts along the Aprina Basin’s eastern rim, moving progressively further west faster than Vere would have believed possible.  The details varied, but were enough to leave Vere very wary.  He knew that if the fleet reached Merolate with even half the strength it now was thought to have, the outcome would not be favorable.  His concern was enough to send him on the riskiest mission he had authorized in years, based on little more than a hunch.

               As much as the reports varied, Doil had informed him that the number of Pifechan ships counted had trended down, which he surmised to indicate that some of the ships might have been left stationed at some of the outposts.  If Vere could have the opportunity to go up against one ship, it could afford him knowledge that might lead to an edge for Merolate in the battles that he was increasingly certain were inevitable.  Plus, he was unwilling to leave Grames and Fulet on a besieged island outpost while there was still a chance that he could rescue them.

               All of that lead him to be standing on the deck of a straining ship surging across the waves, fitted out with experimental weapons.  There were only two of the bolt throwers, and they appeared like misshapen, ghostly lumps beneath their waxed clothes on the deck.  Although the dragons had proven less of a threat than he had originally feared, he had convinced Kiluron to authorize continued work on the weapons they had begun to develop in response.  Of the half a dozen concepts they had explored, this was the only one that had succeeded.  Somehow, Vere had less confidence in their usefulness against Pifechan metal ships than he had in their utilities against dragon scales, but he had nothing better.  That was part of why this mission was so important that he considered it worth the risk.

               “I see the outpost!” the lookout cried from the crow’s nest.

               Even faster than Captain Pulot, Vere called back with questions.  “Any sign of occupancy?  Or of a Pifechan ship?”

               The lookout squinted against the spray and the dim light.  “Nothing so far, Sir.  It looks deserted.”

               Several murmurs of relief came from the crew; it seemed to many that the best outcome would be for this to become a wasted trip.  Part of Vere was inclined to agree, but he had not come this far to turn around without a closer investigation.  “Captain, have the rowboat prepared.  Myself, Twiol, and the other six guardsmen will dock and investigate the outpost, while you circle the island in your ship.”

               “Understood,” Captain Pulot replied.  Turning away from Vere, he began shouting orders.  In short order, though not without struggle, the sails were furled, and the ship slowed, lurching to a comparative stop.  The single rowboat was waiting on the port side: Vere, Twiol, and the other guardsmen scrambled inside, and Vere nodded that they should be lowered.  As the rowboat touched the water, he heard Pulot shouting for the giant crossbows to be readied, and nodded to himself.  It was a sensible precaution on a mission with a minimum of sense.

               Reaching the docks, Vere ordered two guardsmen to stay with the rowboat, while the other six continued into the recently constructed fortress.  Two of the three skims were still present, and appeared undisturbed – Vere did not think that was a positive sign for the fates of Grames and Fulet.

               “Swords ready,” he ordered.  The whole island seemed quiet, too quiet to his mind.  It left him uneasy in a way that even the weight of his sword in his hand did little to alleviate.

               They encountered no one, and no signs of a struggle, in the lower storage room, so he began to make his way higher up.  Then a roll of unnatural thunder rumbled to his ears, and he cursed.  “Come on!” he shouted, and leapt up the steps, dashing for the roof.

               Emerging onto the battlements, Vere was just in time to see the Pifechan ship conjure thunder a second time.  A spout of water erupted from the near side of Pulot’s ship, and an unnatural, tinny voice rang out, too faint to be intelligible to Vere’s ears.  He was pleased to see that Pulot was still moving, and he thought he saw the oversized crossbows launch their payloads, but if they had any effect on the Pifechan ship it was invisible from their distance atop the battlements.

               “Let’s get this thing assembled,” Vere ordered, noting the half-built bolt caster on the battlement.  Four of the six guardsmen who had come up to the battlements with him began working quickly, while the other two maintained a watch with Vere.

               On the water, the next roll of thunder from the Pifechan vessel destroyed the masthead and left the top portion of the ship’s prow exposed to the air.  Another roll a mere moment later tore through the stern and disabled the rudder.  Then the ship, which had been plowing forward to close the distance with the Pifechan ship, jerked sharply to the side in an unnatural motion than nearly capsized it; even Vere thought he could hear the timbers protesting the treatment.

               It was a brilliant, reckless maneuver, and exactly why Vere had selected Pulot and his ship for this mission.  Coming off whatever had enabled the acute pivot, the ship moving by its own inertia between two jagged reefs, and Vere watched the larger Pifechan ship moving to follow, now seeming to lumber by comparison.  The Pifechan ship crashed through the reefs, and the enormous wheels wrenched and snapped, shredding themselves on the submerged obstacles.  A bitter, burnt stench drifted to Vere’s nostrils.

               Now Pulot turned his ship about, bringing the giant crossbows to bear again and relying on oars to keep off of the reefs.  The Pifechan ship, aside from its wheels, appeared undamaged in the water, but it could not seem to extricate itself from the reefs.  That did not prevent it from conjuring thunder again, and this time it struck off Pulot’s mast.  Like a single tree on an open prairie struck by lightning, the base of the mast exploded outwards, and the mast seemed to be hanging in place for a long moment, before it teetered and creaked and crashed over the starboard side into the water.

               Before, the lowest of the three decks of oars had been extended to keep the ship from the reefs.  The other two decks were now extended, bristling out like spines, and Vere saw water churning as the ship made to back off, away from the Pifechan ship.  Thunder cracked, and the lower part of the prow disappeared in an explosion of splinters.  Water began rushing into the ship, and it was soon riding lower in the water.

                Two small boats separated from the Pifechan ship; they appeared to be metal as well, but they were propelled by much more familiar oars, instead of the enormous wheels.  Vere watched them moving towards Captain Pulot’s ship, and turned to his guardsmen, who had just finished assembling the giant crossbow.  “Take out those rowboats.  I don’t want anyone to have a chance to board our ship.  The rest of you, with me.”

               He ran down to the rowboat, and with four guardsmen in tow shoved away from Outpost East.  They began stroking hard and fast towards the sea battle.  As they rounded the island, Vere watched bolts arcing away from the battlements to splash into the water.  The first missed, but the second took a man through the stomach and punctured one of the Pifechan rowboats; it began taking on water, and its occupants scrambled to get back to their ship.

               Fresh thunder erupted from the Pifechan ship, and chips of stone flaked away from the battlements, accompanied by a crack that dwarfed the conjured thunder.  As if in answer, another giant crossbow bolt sprang out, this one aimed at the Pifechan ship.  Vere groaned to himself; hitting the ship had proven all but useless.  The rowboats were the vulnerable target.  If they managed to board Pulot’s ship, it would make any rescue effort even more complicated.

               “Change of plans,” Vere ordered.  “Continue to our ship, and help Captain Pulot begin evacuations to the island.  Cut the mast free, and tow it behind; you can have people float on it.  I’m going to go stop that rowboat.”

               When the requisite chorus of affirmative acknowledgements was finished, Vere slipped over the side of the rowboat and began stroking towards the remaining Pifechan rowboat.  He shed his armor as he went, dropping disconcertingly deep underwater before he was light enough to drag himself up to the surface, where he only allowed himself a brief gasp of air.  Wearing only the thin liners that went under his armor, with a knife in his teeth and his sword belt slung over his shoulder, he swam more ably now, diving down as he grew close enough that he thought the Pifechans could see him through the waves.

               Twisting his body about, he drew his sword underwater, letting his sword belt fall away, and then pushed himself as fast as he could for the surface, exploding out of the water with enough momentum to stab his knife into one of the Pifechans and take the dead man’s place in the rowboat.  Chaos erupted, as if none of these men had expected an attack like this, and Vere took advantage, striking fast and violently.  Three more of them died before the others organized themselves enough to mount a defense.  They leveled odd spears with hollow shafts at him, but he just grinned and plunged his sword and his knife directly into the boat’s hull.  The metal was thin, and his blades punched through.  Yanking them free again, he tossed himself over the side just as a half a dozen miniature cracks of thunder filled the air with noxious black smoke.

               Swimming was harder now that he had to hold onto his sword, but Vere managed to make his way to the Merolate ship.  He was pleased to see that only a few sailors were left on board, along with Captain Pulot.  Vere dragged himself out of the water and splashed onto the deck, which was now almost completely submerged.

               “Everybody off!” Captain Pulot ordered.  “Abandon ship.  If you’re still close by when she goes, she’ll pull you down with her no matter how strong a swimmer you are.  Get away, and try to stay afloat until the rowboat can come back.”

               “That means you too, Captain,” Vere growled, coming up behind the man.

               “A captain goes…” Pulot protested.

               “Not the time, Captain.  I need you alive,” Vere snapped.  “Now start swimming.  I don’t feel like having to swim and carry you.”

               For half a moment, Pulot hesitated, then he sighed, and taking a running jump, executed a perfect dive into the water beside the ship.  Vere followed, and together they stroked away from the doomed vessel.

               More than half of the crew made it to Outpost East, and many of them crowded up to the battlements with Vere and Pulot.  With one of the few dry cloaks available wrapped around himself, Vere stared out at the Pifechan vessel.  It still seemed unable to free itself from the reefs, and they had lost three of their rowboats, but it was still dangerous, and Vere had no way to get his men off of the island or get a message to Merolate.  Presumably, they both had a limited supply of food and fresh water.  Unless Vere thought of something, this battle was going to be a matter of whose reinforcements arrived first.  Considering the capabilities of the Pifechan ships, Vere was not optimistic about the odds of survival for the men he had saved on Outpost East.

               The city looked like an anthill that someone had kicked.  People scurried here and there, most of them overburdened, all of them appearing harried and frightened.  There was a chaos and a fear that hung over everything and permeated every interaction to an extent that Doil could not recall seeing.  The dangers of the Guardian, or of a plague, were natural phenomena, or at least too large and alien for people to conceive of them in anything but an abstract way.  An army, though: that was something familiar, something real and tangible.  Even if that army was armed with weapons unlike anything Merolate could muster, it was still an army, and fulfilled the same purpose.

               That terrified people.  Where the contaminant had sent people seeking shelter where they were able, now it seemed that everyone was trying to find a way to get out of the city.  Initial reports had been vague, but as the Pifechan fleet drew closer it became increasingly clear that the bulk of their forces were aimed at Merolate City.  Had it been just half a dozen ships on par with what Merolate could field, Doil would have advised that they converge their forces on Merolate and hold the city, but he had read the reports about conjured thunder, and knew how they were sweeping over outposts and outlying defenses.  He knew the Pifechans could conjure thunder with their weapons – Kiluron had started calling them ‘thundercasters,’ and the name had stuck – and he did not know what to advise.

               Not for the first time in recent days, Doil was watching the experimental weapons field.  Most of it was now dominated by crews training with the giant crossbows, but Doil had persuaded Kiluron, Admiral Ferl, and Guardcaptain Vere that they should reserve a portion of it for continued testing of other ideas.  The catapult they had modified to launch a sharpened projectile had failed miserably, but at a suggestion from Lady Fetrina some of the scholars had adapted the same technology that moved the city gates into an awkward looking launcher with an oversized arm and a huge counterweight that could fling a stone twice the weight of a man over three hundred paces.  There were other projects being tested, as well, but none so promising.

               “You’re scowling.  Do you know how many times Vere has told me not to scowl and look worried where people can see?” Kiluron asked from behind, startling Doil from his contemplations.

               When he had recovered from his start, Doil sighed.  “I’m not the Prime.  I’m just your advisor, and I think it seems proper that I appear deep in thought.”

               “Just…help me out, please?” Kiluron implored.  “It’s bad enough that Vere’s missing.  I should never have authorized that expedition.”

               Doil sighed.  “My lord, we’ve been over this.  Both Guardcaptain Vere and Admiral Ferl thought the expedition a good idea, and we needed the information it could have provided.  You couldn’t have known that it would go wrong.”  They should have received some word from Vere days ago, but had heard nothing.  Scouts dispatched overland to try to come within sight of Outpost East hadn’t been able to get close enough to see anything.

               Turning away from the fields, Kiluron started walking back towards the castle, and motioned for Doil to follow.  “I guess you’re right.”  He paused to commend one of the crews training on the giant crossbows.  “Doesn’t make me feel any better, though I suppose there’s nothing more to be done about that, now.  We need to focus on preparing a defense of Merolate.  I’ve demanded forces from all of the province governors, but if the reports are right, there’s no way they will reach us in time.”

               “Do you intend to try to hold the city?  We could consider retreating deeper into the continent, where we might find the odds more even.”  What Doil really wanted to ask was if Kiluron thought they could hold the city, but he knew better than to push the Prime when he was in this mood.

               Kiluron blew out a breath.  “I don’t know.  Admiral Ferl tells me that we can defend the city.  He’s arranged for giant crossbows and those launcher things you think are promising to be stationed at and around the docks, and he’s having the guardsmen set up roadblocks and chokepoints in the streets leading into the city.  Yet I fear that the costs will be terrible…do you think it would be worth it to try to hold the city?  Or should we evacuate now, while we have time, and choose a different place to fight?”

               “I’m not the right person to ask,” Doil protested.  “You know I’m not a military expert.”

               “I’m asking you, anyway,” Kiluron insisted.

               There wasn’t a right answer, Doil knew.  If they tried to hold the city, it would be against an enemy of unknown capabilities, and even if they prevailed, and held onto Merolate, it would likely be catastrophic to the city itself, not to mention the people.  Yet from what he understood of tactics, and Borivat had insisted he do some reading on military history and warfare, Merolate might be the best place to stage a defense against a superior force with unknown capabilities.  “I – I think we should try to hold the city, my Lord.”

               “That’s what I was thinking, too,” Kiluron admitted.  “I guess I just needed to hear it from you.”

               Sometimes, Doil wished he had as much confidence in his advice as Kiluron did.  At least the Prime seemed to be taking this latest crisis well, without as much of the self-recrimination he had dealt with during the Guardian attack and his recovery from the contaminant.  It did seem somehow unfair that they should be confronting yet another existential threat in only a year’s time, but complaining about it wouldn’t be productive.  That was just life sometimes, and all they could do was confront the challenges as they arose.

               They had almost reached the castle when a messenger intercepted them, breathing hard.  He held out a letter as he panted, which Kiluron took, thanking the man.  Doil watched Kiluron’s face intently and tried to wait patiently for his turn to read the missive.  Unless he was mistaken, he thought the seal was that of the Isle of Blood.

               When he had finished reading, Kiluron handed the letter to Doil, dismissed the messenger, and continued towards the castle.  “It’s from High Priest Yorin,” he summarized whilst Doil read.  “He’s come to the same conclusion we have, that those Pifechan ships are not friendly, and are likely to belch their clouds right into Merolate’s bay.  He’s asking permission to evacuate his priests to the mainland.”  They passed through the castle gates.  “Balance, I should have thought of that before.  Of course if those ships come into the harbor they will be a threat to the Isle before they are a threat to us.  I can’t imagine the Pfiechans would leave such a potent adversary at their backs.”

               Doil finished reading the letter, and tucked it into his pocket.  “How do you intend to reply, my Lord?”

               “I don’t trust the Blood Priests, and I know that High Priest Yorin has his own agenda.  When we wanted their help, they demanded all kinds of concessions from us, some of which I still find uncomfortable.”  He grimaced.  “But they’re also people, and I’m not prepared to leave them on their island to be slaughtered.  Whatever magic they might have, I don’t imagine it’s stronger than those thundercasters.”

               “Nor, apparently, does High Priest Yorin,” Doil agreed.  “But if it comes to a siege, we probably don’t want more mouths to feed, especially mouths that we have to watch.  At the very least, we should demand concessions from them in return.  It’s what they would do.  High Priest Yorin even seems to expect it, from his letter.”

               They had paused in a doorway, forcing people to divert around them.  Kiluron was silent for a long time before he answered.  “I – no.  It makes sense, but no.  Just because it’s what they would do, doesn’t change what the right thing to do is.  Write a reply, tell them that they may evacuate to Merolate.  Guards will meet them at the docks and escort them to the far side of the city.”

               For a moment only Doil thought about protesting, but he knew Kiluron well enough to know when the Prime was convinced of his decision.  “Yes, my Lord,” he said.  “I’ll go pen the reply immediately, unless there’s anything else?”

               Kiluron drooped slightly, now that they were inside of the castle, and shook his head.  “Only about a thousand other things, but nothing else that needs to be discussed right now.  Go ahead and write the letter.  At least that’s one problem that won’t involve much waiting.”

               Back in his own chambers, Doil finished the reply to High Priest Yorin, and looked out across the harbor.  The docks were dark and silent, as if they were watching and waiting, too.  Normally, torches and lanterns would have illuminated at least some activity, but now there was nothing.  The entire city appeared just as brooding; Admiral Ferl had ordered that only essential lights be allowed after sundown.  By moonlight, strange shapes lurked within the usual cityscape, where weapons and barriers had been prepared.  Restless sleep was all that could find Doil that night.

               Rain and fog were contesting in the darkness at the window when someone pounded upon the chamber door, relieving Doil from the effort of futile attempts at sleep.  Little more pleased at having to get out of bed, Doil shuffled to the door and opened it for the servant.

               “Advisor Doil, Pifechan ships have been spotted near the mouth of the bay,” the woman informed him, doing an impressive job of keeping her own fear in check.  “Prime Kiluron has convened a meeting in the great hall.”

               “Tell him I’ll be right there,” Doil said.  He started putting on yesterday’s clothes, then hesitated, and put on a lighter set, with chain mail over them, and his robes over the top.  Then he belted on a sword, and took up his customary stack of papers.  He might not be very skilled with a sword, but if Merolate was going to be invaded he figured he ought to be prepared.

               The great hall was already abuzz when he arrived.  The ministers were trickling in from outside with the persistent drizzle, and guardsmen milled about, checking each other’s armor.  Only a few candles had been permitted, so it was difficult to tell who was who, or even avoid the furniture.  Doil found a place at a table to set down his books in one of the few, small circles of greasy illumination, and then went to find Kiluron.

               Already dressed in his own armor, with the Prime’s sigil on his cape, Kiluron looked grim and dangerous in that light, older than Doil thought he had ever seen him.  Noting Doil’s presence, Kiluron did not break from his conversation with the man before him.

               “That’s not acceptable, Guardlieutenant,” the Prime was saying.  “I gave an order; the eve of battle is not the time for a mutiny.  You know as well as I do what’s out there, and what’s getting closer with every moment we waste here.”

               The guardlieutenant looked pained.  “Yes Sir, I know that, Sir.  But the men won’t do it.  They refused to board, said they weren’t risking their lives for some ‘unbalanced dirty virgin-sacrificing blood-suckers.’  I don’t know what else to do.”

               Doil wondered what effort of will Kiluron had to exert to resist pointing out that Vere would not have had this problem.  “Well, if they won’t follow you, maybe they’ll obey their Prime,” Kiluron growled.  He turned to Doil before his Advisor could react.  “Doil, you’re in command until I get back.  Hold the docks as long as you can; we’ll need a place to land.”

               Before Doil could reply, Kiluron stormed out into the fog, the beleaguered guardlieutenant shadowing his steps.  It took all the training Doil had to not just stare after him with an incredulous expression.  Instead, he managed to turn around, and feeling like there was someone else inhabiting his head and directing his actions, he addressed the stunned occupants of the great hall.  “Why are you all staring?” he demanded, trying to sound like Vere on the battlefield.  “The Prime has made a decision, and we have work to do.”

               Anger boiled inside Kiluron’s breast, but he fought it down and controlled it.  Anger was unproductive, it would make him unpredictable and compromise his decision-making.  He knew all of that, had been trained to internalize it, but it was all he could achieve to do it in that moment.  Pifechan ships had been spotted at the mouth of the harbor, somehow navigating the sea in the dark and the fog – the scouts claimed they were carrying their own moons for light – and now the guardsmen and sailors he had ordered to assist in the evacuation of the Isle of Blood had refused his orders.  As if things hadn’t been going badly enough.

               Part of Kiluron that was still calm and collected knew that it was terribly reckless for him to go down to the docks himself, much less go out personally to the Isle of Blood to see the evacuation completed.  It didn’t make geopolitical sense, it didn’t make leadership sense, and it didn’t make personal sense.  The only rational argument he could come up with was that the men needed to see that he was willing to risk his life alongside them and bear the consequences of his own decisions, or else they would not hold against the Pifechans any more than they were now aiding the Blood Priests.

               There was another part of him that was secretly glad for the excuse to leave Doil in charge of the big picture, that thought Doil would do a much better job than he would.  On the front lines, with a small team, and a sword in his hand, Kiluron felt like he could make a difference in this fight.  Hiding in a castle with a bunch of stuffy advisors, issuing orders from afar, seemed inadequate in the face of such a threat to the Union he had sworn to protect.

               Regardless, he thought seeing the evacuation of the Isle of Blood completed was the right thing to do, and it seemed that if he wanted it done, he would have to do it himself.  The Isle might not be part of Merolate, might even be antagonistic at times, but this threat was bigger than Merolate, and in some ways he blamed himself from bringing it down upon all of Lufilna.  If he had only somehow done better when that first Pifechan ship had been blown off course…but there was no time for recrimination.

               When Kiluron reached the docks, he found them in as much disorder as the guardlieutenant had described.  Pushing through the crowd, which eventually parted before the sight of his sigil, he reached the water’s edge, where a ship was waiting for its sailors.  Kiluron spared only a glance for it, then looked at the guardlieutenant.  “You know what to do,” he said.  Then he stepped into a rowboat bobbing beside the larger vessel, cut the line holding it to the dock, and took up the oars.  He shoved away from the dock and did not look back.

               That moment stretched on, and Kiluron itched to look back, but he could not; he had to give the guardlieutenant a chance.  Finally, the man’s voice drifted through the fog.  “Are you all going to let the Prime go see his orders done by himself, or are you going to help?”

               It wasn’t exactly what Kiluron had hoped for, but it did have the desired effect.  Within a few strokes, Kiluron saw the larger vessel pull away from the dock.  When it came alongside Kiluron’s rowboat, a ladder was cast down, and he climbed up to join a crew that refused to meet his eyes.  Something more was needed, but he knew he didn’t have the way with words of someone like Vere or Doil.

               “This is the right thing to do,” was all he could say.  “I believe that, and I am willing to risk my life to see it done.  Yes, the Isle of Blood has a terrible history, and the Blood Priests can do terrible things.”  He hesitated; everyone was watching him, and he wondered if he was getting through to them.  “But those aren’t Blood Priests out there right now.  They’re people, men and women not unlike you and me, and they’re frightened, facing the same threat as we are.  That’s why we’re going out there.  It’s the same reason that we will fight and die to defend our home.  And I will fight and die as one of you.  Because that’s what I am.”

               He couldn’t know if his words made a difference, but he thought the men and women on the ship stood a little taller, and they no longer flinched from meeting his eyes.

               In the fog, they saw an Isle of Blood ship pass them by, heading for Merolate.  All eyes followed it, until someone called out that they were approaching the Isle itself.  They pulled up and tied down to the rotting docks as a second grey-timbered ship slipped away to the north.  A crowd of red-robed priests and priestesses was still waiting near the docks.  Kiluron leapt down, and High Priest Yorin came to meet him.

               “I did not expect the Prime himself to come to our aid,” the old man remarked.

               “No time for pleasantries,” Kiluron replied.  “How many are left?  We’ll load as many as we can without sinking the ship.”

               High Priest Yorin squinted at the ship.  “I think that will be enough.  But there are some of us who cannot travel easily.”

               Kiluron had already turned aside, and was directing that a watch be set on the Isle’s far side.  “What do you mean, can’t travel easily?”

               “There are a dozen, like Priestess Marinae, who came to the Isle for healing,” Yorin answered.  “Their health is tied to the Isle; if they leave, they will begin to die, some quickly, some slowly.  We can prolong their lives, but not indefinitely.”

               “Fine, do what you need to do.  If they can get across to Merolate, we’ll worry about it there.”  Kiluron shouted for the priests to hurry onto the ship.  “They might be in danger if they leave, but they’ll be in even more danger if they don’t.”

               “You do not understand,” Yorin said.  “Some of these have asked that they not leave, but be allowed to stand and fight, to delay the enemy and cover our escape.”

               “That’s very noble of them, but if we could just hurry, no one needs to sacrifice…” Kiluron began, and was cut off as conjured moonlight cut through the fog and rendered the watch he had set irrelevant.  Everyone knew the moment that the Pifechan ships reached the Isle of Blood, and the scout reports had not exaggerated.  Huge lights swept across the island’s brooding surface, driving away the shadows in a way that even the sun could not in that dark place.

               “This region is now under the domain of the Pifechans.  Surrender, and prepare for inspection.”  The voice boomed supernaturally loud through the persistent drizzle, and Kiluron watched several guardsmen fall to their knees.

               “No!  Stand up!  Stand tall!” Kiluron shouted, running from Yorin’s side and yanking the nearest guardsman back to his feet.  “We’re not surrendering.”  He drew his sword, and waved it at the lights.  “Hear me?  We won’t surrender to you, we won’t be intimidated.  If you want to control Merolate, you’re going to have to fight for it.”

               There was no way to know if the ship’s crew had somehow heard him, but as if in response the thundercasters cried out their terrible song, and chunks of black, glassy stone were blasted from a temple wall that had stood since before the founding of the Blood Empire.  People screamed, though Kiluron could not tell who.  He whirled towards the ship, which was now heavy with Blood Priests, and more were still struggling aboard.  “How much longer?” he asked of anyone who would give him an answer.

               A grim-faced woman in red robes was at his side – Kiluron thought he recognized Priestess Marinae – and answered.  “Not long, and yet too long.  You may not have exacted a price for this evacuation, but nothing is without cost.  That is the way of Balance,” she said.  “Yet it is a price that we are prepared to pay.”

               Elsewhere, the guardlieutenant had the presence of mind to order anyone with a bow to target the source of the unnatural lights, but the bowstrings were too wet, and most of the arrows fell short.  More thunder rumbled from the Pifechan ship, and a crater formed mere paces from the rotten docks.  Two guards fell, clutching wounds torn open by shards of stone sent flying in the blast.

               “No!” Kiluron exclaimed.  “There must be another way.  I didn’t come out here to leave some of you to die.”

               “We know that.”  Marinae smiled, and patted Kiluron’s shoulder.  “And you have proven yourself today in ways that most of those you have rescued will never understand.  Now go.  We will give you time to escape.  And tell Borivat…” she hesitated, her voice grown thick.  “Tell Borivat that I never forgot him.”  She squared her shoulders, and was stern once more.  “Now go!  And do not let this sacrifice be in vain.”

               Dawn was just beginning, grey light seeping out of the eastern sea and rendering the false moons the Pifechans had attached to their ships less potent.  Unable to find words to say, Kiluron could offer Marinae only a sharp nod before he turned back to the ship.  He ducked belatedly as another roll of thunder exploded from the Pifechan ship, this one shearing off the top of a spire.  Two more ships had emerged out of the gloom and were moving to flank the island.  With a last glance back at the temple complex, High Priest Yorin strode up the gangplank, the last of the Blood Priests on the Isle, save for those who were staying behind with Marinae.  The Merolate guardsmen closed in behind, and Kiluron with them.

               As the sailors hauled in the gangplank and shoved the ship off from the dock, Kiluron looked back at the Isle of Blood.  A line of Blood Priests was standing by the docks, their black swords unsheathed and pulling in the predawn light, little fragments of night holding out against the coming day.  Some of the Blood Priests bore visible deformities, while others appeared like Priestess Marinae.  When more thunder rumbled from the Pifechan ships, craters dotted the Isle, and something stopped in the air just behind the Merolate ship.  It was round and metal, and it flattened before Kiluron’s eyes, so close he thought he could reach out and touch it.  Below, one of the Blood Priests on the Isle crumpled, and the metal disc fell with him to plunk into the water.

               The lights on the lead ship flickered, and then exploded, cascading sparks all over the deck as the Blood Priests now blazed with their own light.  That light was focused, redirected, and seared into the thundercasters on one of the flanking ships.  The metal began to glow red, and then exploded, ripping through the ship and sending screams drifting to the evacuees.  More Blood Priests fell.  With each one who fell, though, the evacuee ship slipped further and further away, towards the relative safety of Merolate.

               Only one of the Pifechan ships, though, had remained at the Isle of Blood.  Five others were belching their clouds and churning their enormous wheels, driving closer to Merolate with a speed that the desperate rowers and sailors could not match.  The captain called for more speed, but there was no more to give.

               Behind them, Kiluron thought if he squinted he could see a single Blood Priest still standing, and in his mind he thought it was Priestess Marinae.  As he watched, the figure held out her sword, pointing it towards the Pifechan ship still bombarding the Isle of Blood.  A shiver ran along the length of the blade, and then it shattered like glass.  The priestess fell along with her sword.  A concomitant shudder ran through the Pifechan ship, and the thundercasters fell silent.  For a moment, there was nothing but the fog and the burgeoning dawn.  Then the southern horizon exploded, the Pfiechan ship transforming into a fireball unlike anything Kiluron had ever witnessed, so bright he had to turn away.  It was like a second sun had been born in the south.

               As quickly as it had come, it faded away, leaving its afterimage on Kiluron’s eyes.  The Pifechan ship was gone, and the ships heading for Merolate had turned back towards the Isle, perhaps seeking the source of the threat, perhaps to look for survivors.  Bowing his head for a moment in gratitude for the sacrifice he had just witnessed, Kiluron turned away and headed for the prow of the ship.  Marinae and the others had given them the time they needed to get to the docks.  After that, the real battle would begin.

               Everyone was talking at once, and Doil struggled to filter the voices and understand what they were saying, much less to make himself heard.  He closed his eyes for a moment, and then tugged on Admiral Ferl’s sleeve.  “I need everyone who is not contributing something directly to the defense effort to clear this room,” he instructed.

               “Yes Sir,” Admiral Ferl replied.  That was good; the other ministers seemed unsure if they should still treat him like the Advisor to the Prime, or like the Prime himself.  Kiluron had not exactly been specific about matters of protocol when he had left Doil in charge in his absence.

               Soon, there was a more orderly queue of people surrounding Doil as he sat at the large table.  He wondered if he should be standing, as military leaders were usually depicted, but he was more comfortable when he could have his notes laid out before him.  It was the only way he stood a chance of keeping all of the information straight.  Messengers rotated in and out of the hall, bearing reports from scouts and sentries.  The Pifechans were moving up the bay, they were bypassing the Isle of Blood, they were trying to land troops further south for an overland assault, no, they were coming right to Merolate, no, they were already within range of Merolate, no, they had stopped at the Isle of Blood.  Every report had something different to say.

               “We need to be prepared to destroy the docks and retreat to the barriers,” Admiral Ferl was saying.  “If the Pifechan ships are allowed to dock, it will make defending the city even more difficult.”

               It was left unsaid that Kiluron had still not returned from his reckless, impulsive mercy mission to the Isle of Blood, and that if they destroyed the docks, he would not be able to unload everyone on the ship.  Both of them knew that Kiluron would not leave the ship until everyone else had gotten to safety.  Yet the decision made tactical sense.  Doil knew that, just as he knew that he should respect Admiral Ferl’s military experience, and that his real control over the situation was a frail thread.

               Another messenger burst into the room.  “The Prime’s ship has been sighted!  Coming in fast, Pifechan ships in close pursuit.”

               All eyes turned to Doil for a decision, Admiral Ferl’s advice hanging heavy in the atmosphere.  “We’ll hold the docks for Prime Kiluron,” Doil decided.

               For a brief moment, Doil thought that Admiral Ferl would countermand his instruction and take command of the defense.  The clamorous room was silent, holding its breath.  “I’ll see it done personally, Sir,” Admiral Ferl said.  He offered Doil a salute, and then hurried from the room.

               Exhaling, Doil sat at the table for another moment, staring at his notes.  Then he turned to the ministers.  “By holding the docks, it is likely that the Pifechans will be able to place significant land forces in the city as soon as they arrive.  We need to begin coordinating a mass evacuation of everyone who hasn’t already fled.”

               “Assuming the guards followed standard protocol when they were recalled to the docks, all of the gates are currently barred, and the mechanisms are unmanned,” Minister Adima observed.  “We’ll need to find someone who can open them.”

               There were two guards standing in the room.  Doil knew that Admiral Ferl had placed them there as personal guards for him.  “You two, can you work the gates?” he asked.

               Appearing startled to be addressed directly, the two guards exchanged glances.  “Uh, yes Sir.”

               “Good.  You are to open every gate this city has,” Doil ordered.  “I know many have already evacuated, but there are still a lot of people in the city, and it’s going to take some time to get everyone out.  Without Admiral Ferl here, we don’t have a good estimate for how long we might be able to hold off the Pifechans.  In truth, even if he were here, we likely know too little of their capabilities, especially in a terrestrial conflict, to generate a useful approximation; therefore, we will need to make all possible speed.”

               Borivat frowned.  “Most of those who remained are those who do not have anywhere to go or are not in a fit state to travel.  Evacuating all of them will be…nearly impossible.”

               In his mind, Doil agreed with Borivat.  Holding the docks meant giving the Pifechans an opportunity to land forces.  Evacuating the city meant transporting the old, the infirm, and the recalcitrant.  Looking around, he could tell that the other ministers were having similar thoughts, and shared Borivat’s assessment.  Sitting there, Doil wondered how Kiluron would feel, if he dismissed such cautions inside as readily as he did outside.  He took a deep breath.  “I know Prime Kiluron left me in charge in his absence, but he is still Prime, and my job is to ensure that this Union is run in a manner consistent with his desires.  I think we all know that Prime Kiluron lives in that ‘nearly.’  So, somehow, we are going to figure this out.  Understood?”

               Some hesitation, and then nods from all of the ministers, some more reluctant than others.  “Who will do the evacuating?” Borivat asked.  “All of the guards are at the docks.”

               “We’ll have to enlist citizens,” Adima mused.  “It’s the only way.  Get the fit and capable citizens to help us with those who aren’t.  We’ll start in the neighborhoods closest to the docks, and move north.”

               Doil nodded.  “Good.  We’ll need to set a rendezvous point.  I suggest Heart City.  I know that’s a risk, and no one will be comfortable with it, but it’s also a landmark that everyone knows.”

               No one had a better suggestion.  “I’ll also need a temporary control post, somewhere near the main gate.  That will be our final fallback position before…” Doil hesitated, worried somehow that by speaking the words, he would make them more likely to describe a future reality.  “If it becomes necessary, before we abandon the city.”

               That produced a stir, although no one should have been surprised.  Merolate had been designed to withstand a siege from the land, but what defenses it had to sea were inadequate against the Pifechan fleet, and a handful of experimental weapons were unlikely to alter that fact.  Even if Doil had ordered the docks destroyed, it would only be buying more time.

               “Alright, we have a plan,” Doil said.  “I’ll see the castle evacuated, and then head for the main gates.  Keep lines of communication open as long as possible, and don’t forget your own evacuations.  All of you will be needed in the days ahead, no matter what happens.”

               It wasn’t a fiery call to action, but the ministers nodded and began heading for their respective tasks.  Borivat paused in the doorway, and looked back and Doil.  “You’re doing a fine job, Doil,” he said.  Then he was gone.

               Doil looked after him, then he took a deep breath.  He collected his notes, extinguished the lanterns, and began the evacuation of the Merolate castle.

               Thunder rumbled across the bay, and Kiluron resisted again the urge to duck as waterspouts leapt up on either side of the ship, and splinters flew from the docks just ahead of them.  “All speed!” Kiluron called.  “Crash right into the docks.”

               “Aye, Sir!” came the reply from the helm.  “All hands, brace for impact!”

               The first dock gave way completely before their hull, before they ground to a halt in the second one with a jolt sufficient to throw Kiluron to his knees.  Behind, he could hear the thumping of the enormous wheels that drove the Pifechan ships over their thundercasters.  Sailors set the gangplank as best they could, and Blood Priests began streaming down, but there was only so fast they could go.

               Overhead, bolts began to fly from the giant crossbows that had been stationed on roofs near the docks, and a few heavy stones accompanied them.  If they had an effect on the Pifechan ships, it was unnoticeable.  One of the thundercasters struck the stern of the Merolate ship, blasting it out and causing it to tip backwards, dislodging the gangplank and spilling the priests then on it into the water.  Sailors leapt overboard to help them onto the docks and into the city.  Dodging his way around the mess of the deck, trying to avoid the rigging now whipping wildly about, Kiluron reached the prow.

               “That’s it!” the guardlieutenant shouted, coming up alongside Kiluron and the ship’s captain.  “We’re the only ones left aboard!”

               “Then it’s time to go,” Kiluron ordered.  Together, they left the ship, as more thundercasters smashed through its hull, until it was barely recognizable as a ship.

               On the docks, guardsmen were running about, manning defenses and attempting to clear the docks.  Kiluron found Admiral Ferl manning a command post a dozen paces back from the docks, tucked in an alleyway in which barriers had been erected.  “Good work holding the docks,” Kiluron said.  “What’s the situation?”

               Grim-faced, Admiral Ferl took a moment to reply.  “Our weapons have had minimal effect on their ships, Sir.  We estimate five vessels are attacking.  They’ve launched landing craft, but I ordered the weapons crews to target those boats, and so far they haven’t been able to land.  We’re ready to fire the docks as soon as the last of the guards are clear.”

               Kiluron nodded, as much to himself as to Admiral Ferl.  That was better than he had expected.  “Very good, Admiral.  Where’s Doil?”

               “He’s overseeing the evacuation of the city,” Ferl answered.  “We’re rallying outside Heart City in the event we have to abandon Merolate.”

               “Excellent.”  That meant that Kiluron was, for the moment, superfluous.  All of the logistics were being taken care of, by someone far better at that sort of thing than he was.  “I’ll be with the guards at the docks.”

               “Sir?”  Admiral Ferl blanched.  “It’s not safe…”

               “I know that,” Kiluron retorted.  “It’s also where I’ll be most useful.  The guards will fight harder if they know that I’m fighting with them and taking on the same risks as they are.  Besides, I want to know how these Pifechans fight.”

               With visible reluctance, Admiral Ferl resisted arguing further, and Kiluron patted the man on the pauldron before heading for the edge of the docks.  He joined the guardsmen there, who had backed up as fire licked over the aged wood, forming an inferno too hot to approach.  Unfortunately, it would only last so long, and then the way would be clear for the Pifechans to land their forces.

               Or…they wouldn’t bother to wait.  Giving up on their landing craft, the Pifechans drove their vessels straight through the flames, breaking through the burning docks and scraping their metal hulls in atrocious screeches against the stone.  Gangplanks were lowered, biting into the stone with long spikes, and men in brightly colored uniforms charged down through the smoke.  They bore odd weapons, like a spear with a club on the other end, and as soon as the first rank reached the bottom of the gangplank, they dropped to one knee, placed the club end against their shoulders, and leveled the spears at the guardsmen behind the barriers.  Cracks, smoke, and flashes of light burst from the sides of the weapons, and two guardsmen dropped with arrow-like wounds, though no missile was visible.

               “Keep down!” Kiluron roared.  Another round of cracks followed the first, but the guardsmen stayed behind their barriers, and there were no further casualties.

               Ranks further back now displaced the kneeling ranks, and upon reaching the base of the gangplank they began to charge.  Kiluron drew his sword, and glanced to either side.  “Stand firm,” he urged, and the guardsmen flanking him gripped their weapons more firmly.

               With leveled spears, the Pifechan soldiers came on, but just before they were to engage Merolate’s forces, they hesitated.  In that moment, Kiluron struck, driving his sword hard into the chest of the man in front of him, surprised to find no armor in his way.  His enemy might have hesitated, but he was still his enemy, and he was still attacking Merolate.  Kiluron felt no guilt for defending the land he had sworn to protect, his home.  On his flanks, the guardsmen responded similarly.  Whatever had caused the Pifechan soldiers to hesitate had no effect on Merolate’s forces.

               There were more colorful soldiers behind, but some of these stopped, leveling their spears and issuing cracks and smoke again.  Three more guardsmen fell, but other soldiers had chosen to continue charging.  They stabbed with their odd spears, but their thrusts were wild and without skill or force; the guardsmen easily parried and dispatched their opponents, as Pifechan soldiers further back blanched and vomited.

               Fighting was similar where two other Pifechan vessels had managed to drop their gangplanks and land troops.  Perhaps these soldiers were too reliant on whatever strange magic allowed them to kill from a distance with their peculiar spears, for they seemed poorly prepared in both skill and temperament for melee combat.  Compared to thundercasters and metal ships, it seemed a small advantage, but it was enough for Kiluron to work with; he ordered the guardsmen with him to charge.

               A few fell as more smoke and light cracked out of the Pifechan spears, but the guardsmen swept through the enemy soldiers, pushing them into the sea in a pitched attack.  One man, a slightly portly man with an elaborate mustache, pointed his sword at Kiluron in challenge.  Kiluron barreled into the man, knocked his sword out of his hand, and disemboweled him in the space of a breath.

               More thunder roared from the metal ships, and craters appeared, blasting entire groups of guardsmen to grisly pieces.  It was enough to change the momentum of the battle, and after a few more exchanges Kiluron ordered a retreat.  With some order, the guardsmen fell back behind the barriers and into the alleys, ceding the waterfront to their enemies.  Through narrowed eyes, Kiluron watched them landing more troops and forming up into neat formations.

               For the rest of the day, they fought a mobile battle, moving through streets and down alleys, hiding in buildings, and using makeshift barriers to exact every possible toll on their enemies.  In each individual encounter, it seemed to Kiluron that his forces outmatched the Pifechans, but they towed thundercasters with them, and each carried their invisible missile throwers that could penetrate the thickest armor; these were always enough, after pitched fighting, to defeat the Merolate defenders.

               “We keep fighting,” Kiluron ordered, when Admiral Ferl suggested that they could evacuate the city and save themselves further losses in street fighting.  “I want them to pay dearly for this city.  Make them think twice about their chances against the entire Union.”  He was sure he looked a terror, with his armor and clothes bloodstained and his face dark with soot and ash, and he felt just as grim.

               All through the night they kept fighting, and Kiluron could feel his strength beginning to ebb as he dragged through his second night without sleep.  There was only so far the surging excitement of battle could propel him.  As dawn was beginning to break again over to the east, he almost felt it was a relief to see the city walls rising in front of him, to know that the battle for the city was almost over, no matter how it was ending.

               Doil was waiting at the main gates, with fresh horses and provisions ready.  He caught Kiluron’s eye, and there was almost no need for words.  “It’s time?” Doil asked, and Kiluron nodded.  Most of the other guardsmen had already begun the journey to Heart City; Kiluron’s group had been among the last unaccounted for on Doil’s lists.

               It was a weary, bloodstained group that rode out of Merolate City, heading north across the farms amidst aches and pains that had been ignored for too long in the furor of battle.  Kiluron could feel himself drifting off as he rode, but he forced himself to stay awake and tall in the saddle, knowing that the guardsmen were taking their cues from him.  Soon enough, all of the evacuees from the city would be taking their cues from him, and he needed to make sure that they knew that not all had been lost.

               Pulling the reigns tight, Kiluron wheeled his horse about to look back at the city.  It was quiet now, the walls masking the signs of warfare that stained the streets.  He waited until the guards had also drawn reign and gathered around him, following his eyes to the city they had failed to defend, where they had lost so many in a battle that had proven futile.

               “My lord, we should move,” Doil murmured, coming up alongside Kiluron.  “We don’t know if they might try to pursue.”

               Kiluron nodded, but motioned for Doil to hold his peace for a moment.  He turned to the guardsmen, with the city looming behind him.  “This was a loss,” he affirmed.  There was no denying it, and no one would respect him the more for trying to put a positive spin on losing the Union’s capital city to a foreign invader.  Even so, hearing it slumped the guards, and the words were sour in Kiluron’s mouth.  He forced himself to continue.  “It was a loss, but it was not a defeat, not the end.  We will return.  These Pifechans will not defeat this Union, our people.”

               It didn’t change the facts.  It didn’t change the exhaustion, the aches and pains, the wounds, the losses.  It didn’t change anything to say a few words, but Kiluron said them anyway.  He had learned that sometimes words had effects that could not be credited to their meanings alone, and these words, for all that they didn’t change anything, gave the guardsmen brighter eyes and a gaze that focused on the horizon, not the ground beneath their horses’ hooves.  They were still weary, still aching and injured, still defeated, still grim, but now they were determined.

               “Come on,” Kiluron said, waving to Doil to ride beside him and turning his horse again to the north.  “We have a war to plan.”

The end of Blood Magic S2:E11: Pifecha, Part One. This story will be concluded in next month’s episode. Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed the story, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: the final episode in season two will go live on December 31st, 2021.

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