Two kingdoms at war.
Two leaders fighting on the same side.
One daring operation that might just break their wits.
Chapter 1: Beach Assault
Zarid hated being a soldier of his own nation.
It was only natural; with no victories ever since this war started a hundred years ago, Zankar was every bit the laughingstock of the entire continent, with Belun leading the guffaw. Every assault by the island nation was met with heavy resistance at Belun’s northern coast, repelled with minimal casualties on the defender’s side and heavy losses on the attackers, while the shame that followed every time they retreated was immeasurable.
But the brass said they were going to change things tonight. And the Belunians would finally taste their first ever defeat.
Zarid almost wished he could punch the generals who made that bold statement, if only to make them recover their wits. After all, who in their right mind would send a thousand transport boats in the middle of the night and hope that the people on the other side would not notice the attack like they always did?
“Hey, Captain! You’re spacing out again,” a young and cheerful but annoying voice said.
With a sigh, Zarid fixed the soldier with a glare, careful to shift too much in his shamefully small seat at the prow of the boat. If he did not know better, he would say that the designers of their fleet were a bunch of amateurs—the seat was barely large enough to hold his butt.
“Delrin, if you don’t shut up right now, I swear I’m gonna throw you off the side and let you swim all the way to the shore. Would you like that?” Zarid’s smile was anything but warm.
A few snickers came from the other soldiers, and Delrin shrank back in his seat with a mumble of “Yes, sir”. The young blonde—Zarid recalled he had just turned twenty last month—was skilled with the blade, but his quips and immaturity would get him killed someday. Zarid just hoped it was not going to be tonight, Delrin’s first mission outside Zankar.
Zarid shook his head and scanned the rest of the fleet with his deep set eyes, squinting in the darkness. Only a lantern at the prow illuminated the way for each boat, and he resisted the urge to simply jump overboard and save himself from all the trouble. Whoever thought of this idiotic strategy had clearly forgotten that the people of Belun had eyes much like the rest of humanity, and only a blind man would not see this large invasion force from a distance. Heck, the rest of the fleet looked like fireflies to Zarid, what with all the orange glow amid the darkness of this moonless night.
They were doomed. But then again, Zankar was doomed from the start anyway. Zarid only kept his job because the hazard pay was high, and it would keep his family alive for months.
Provided that he did not die, which was likely.
Careful not to capsize the boat, he twisted in his seat and turned his attention southwards where their target awaited them. Zarid was a veteran of this operation far too many times than he would have wanted, and he had already memorized the lay of the land even without the light of the moon. He could almost see the outline of the dark coastline in his mind, and beyond that, the grid-like arrangement of the port town, Trika, where countless Zankarians had lost their lives.
Zarid suppressed the rage burning in his chest and cast his gaze to the left, deeper into the mouth of the bay where the ugly but formidable stonework of Fort Trost loomed. Twenty-eight ships of the line would attack the fortress as a distraction— the same useless strategy they had used in past invasions.
“What’s our mission again, Captain?” Delrin asked.
“The usual,” Zarid drawled in a bored tone. “Try to take Trika. Try not to die. Try to bring glory to our Zankar.”
“For Zankar!” a soldier in the back yelled, probably Mandor. He was the only one who sounded so enthusiastic about the kingdom. The poor guy.
Shaking his head, Zarid returned to his position and surveyed the soldiers in his boat, both veterans and newly recruits. There was Delrin sulking in the middle left row next to the rowers, mumbling under his breath and occasionally fingering a talisman hanging in his neck. As if that thumb-sized piece of wood actually did anything. Next to him was Tumron, one ragged boot a blur as he tapped his foot on the floor, creating a sound like a woodpecker.
“Hey, Tum!” Zarid barked. “Cut that out or I’ll saw off that foot of yours and make you use it as a weapon. Understood?”
Tumron froze and nodded quickly. “Yes, sir!” he said in that squeaky voice of his that often made Zarid want to scratch an ear.
Zarid grunted and gazed past him. Sure enough, there was the hulking form of Mandor at the very end, cradling his spear. And though there was nearly no light, Zarid could feel his gaze boring toward the coastline behind him.
Next to Mandor were Leyfor and Treyfor, the twin mages assigned to his boat. Their heads were bowed, hands folded in their laps, and they seemed to be deep in thought. Zarid had witnessed them practicing their magic back at Gamrin Fortress, melting blocks of steel with fire and commanding wind and hail to shred the practice dummies. And he had to admit, those were some impressive displays of powers. He may have misgivings in this operation, but he had no doubt that his company would survive the beach assault because of the mages assigned to his unit.
Then the twin on the right—Zarid assumed it was Leyfor, but it was hard to tell with their identical faces—looked up with wide eyes, leaned on the side of the boat, and puked into the water.
Zarid’s hope of survival shattered like glass.
His palm slid across his face as the mage mumbled an apology, wiping his lips with the cuff of his robe. So he was a seasick idiot. Fine. That was normal. Maybe his brother was—
A loud snore came from Treyfor. And when Zarid peered, the mage slumped to his twin brother, mouth agape.
Zarid almost stood up from his seat to push the twins into the dark water, but he reined in his temper while his soldiers sighed. Great. Two of their mages were idiots.
Suppressing another exasperated sigh, Zarid frowned as he saw one of his lieutenants, Thalkin, oiling his sword. He stared at the man for a moment, and when Thalkin did not stop even after five minutes had passed, Zarid tapped him in the shoulder.
With a yelp, Thalkin looked up, clutching his chest. The sudden movement rocked the boat, and curses flew as the soldiers scrambled to re“Good heavens, Captain! Don’t scare me like that.”
Zarid rolled his eyes. “If you are scared of a single tap from the shoulder, then you should have stayed home.” He ignored another round of snickers. “Now why are you oiling that sword too much?”
The lieutenant scratched his chin. “Just habit, I guess.”
“Habit. Right.” Zarid stared at him flatly. “Fine. But stop it. We are only minutes from the shore.” He swept his gaze along the boat. This was just a tenth of his company, the rest scattered around him in nine other transports, each ferrying twenty people. They were still going slow, but as soon as the assault on Fort Trost began, he and the other captains would order the rowers to go faster.
The seconds dragged on, and the night grew chiller. A mist rolled from the east, obscuring the warships on their west flank. Huddled in their boat, Zarid and his men waited.
Then a horn blasted, long and loud, like the call of a sea dragon. When Zarid looked to his right, the blanket of mist broke and the first warship of the fleet sailed on, followed by several more. From the south, the first warning bells of Fort Trost sounded, while the town of Trika blazed with hundreds of torches.
It was time.
“All right, boys! That’s our signal.” Zarid grasped his spear and pulled his shield from where it rested at his feet, his troops mirroring the action. The light cast by the lantern reflected on their helmets and eyes, making them glow and reminding Zarid of old legends—the fire giants of the north rampaging across the southern hemisphere. And while the analogy was terrible, Zarid could not find a better one.
Standing up to his full height, the captain faced south once more. The coastline was three miles away. They were slowly turning right, following its curve toward Trika. “Faster,” he said.
The rowers grunted and paddled faster, and so did the others around them. Behind Zarid, his soldiers stayed silent; even Treyfor’s snoring had stopped. A bunch of idiots they may be, but they were a bunch of well-trained idiots.
The sound of splashing water was deafening to Zarid’s ears, but he only had eyes for the target. And as he watched the dark beach drew nearer and nearer, a ball of orange light blossomed above Trika. Another one appeared next to it, then a third, until there were hundreds of them all hovering in the black sky. At this distance, they were no larger than Zarid’s fists and seemed harmless enough. But he knew what they were: fireballs.
And as he finished that grim thought, they shot toward the fleet.
“Incoming!” roared Zarid, and he heard the same warning spread like wildfire across the fleet. “Mages, defensive barriers!”
As one, Leyfor and Treyfor raised their hands in the direction of the speeding fireballs. Zarid tracked the path of the nearest projectile, his eyes growing larger ss the fiery sphere launched toward his boat with uncanny accuracy. It was larger than a boulder!
He and the soldiers raised their shields above their heads instinctively, though Zarid knew it was useless if the mages could not protect them. So he simply closed his eyes, praying to what-knows-who that the twins were as good in defense as they were in offense.
Two seconds later, an orange glow filled Zarid’s closed eyelids, and the boat’s wooden frame rattled from a huge shockwave, pushing it back several feet into the water. Cries and yells echoed in his ears, reverberating in his steel helmet and shaking his jaws. When the glow subsided and the rocking had stopped, Zarid lowered his shield and peered into the sudden gloom.
Most of the fleet had survived—thankfully, many of the fireballs struck the water—and only a few transports became piles of smoldering wreckages and corpses in the ocean. Zarid sent a silent prayer for the soldiers’ departed souls, wishing them a good afterlife, then turned his attention back to the sky where another volley of fireballs hovered.
“Row faster!” he bellowed. “If you all want to survive, row!”
With fierce cries and yells, his men did row fast and hard, recovering the distance they had lost. A second fireball nearly struck them again, but a powerful gust of wind dissipated it into the air. When Zarid glanced past his shoulder briefly, he saw the twins’ faces locked in hard concentration.
The captain grinned behind his thick beard. Well, it looked like they were not idiots, after all.
Two more volleys rained down on the fleet, destroying more transports, but they pressed on, and soon the vanguard was near the shallows. In the distance, Zarid could hear the Zankarian fleet’s cannons pounding Fort Trost’s solid walls, and he rolled his eyes at the stupidity of it. Good luck on bringing it down, Admiral Doltar.
The sandy beach was less than a mile away now. Beyond that, torches blazed along a line of ramparts and stakes, where an army stood waiting. Zarid could not make out their composition even with the dwindling distance between them and the fleet, but he was sure they were the usual archer and mage battalions with pikemen defending them.
Five hundred meters. Almost there. Fireballs continued to pour on them in never-ending numbers, and with it a hail of arrows. Zarid kept his shield up, gritting his teeth whenever the arrows embedded themselves on the hard wood like so many angry hornets.
Finally, the lead boats broke through the shallow shoreline. A roar went up from the Zankarians, and they began to disembark in great numbers along the beach, raising their shields above their heads. But the slower ones were unfortunate, and they fell from the swarm of arrows when they could not defend fast enough.
Soon the first wave was forming a shield wall, but it was too thin and too far back to advance against Belun’s defensive line. And the projectiles never ceased to come. The men knew this, and they held their ground to buy time for the invasion force’s second wave.
Zarid’s company was part of that wave, and as soon as his boat ran aground, he leapt over the prow and landed on the sand, brandishing his spear as the rest of his company arrived and disembarked. “Form up! Shield wall!” he roared amid the chaos of battle.
“For Zankar!” Mandor yelled enthusiastically.
“For Zankar,” the rest of the company chorused in bored tones.
And thus they gathered in a solid wall, their shields held high as they advanced through exploding sands and gravel. Twenty mages led by the twins protected them from the worst of the firestorm and rain of death, but they were not invincible altogether. A couple of arrows managed to pass through a gap in their ranks, and a soldier fell with a shaft in his neck. Without breaking formation, another soldier swooped down on his fallen comrade and yanked the tiny chain bearing the dead soldier’s nameplate.
It was a slow and arduous march toward the frontline. They had no time to rest with the constant barrage, but they pressed on regardless while the main force assembled. The dead littered the beach, and the stench of death soon pervaded the air.
Zarid stepped over one of his fallen soldiers, ignoring the man’s lifeless eyes staring into the sky. The captain was no stranger to death; it would take them sooner or later, and it was best not to dwell on grief and regrets lest he lost focus and joined his late friends.
“Advance!” His voice boomed throughout the field, mixing with the others. “Keep these shields high or we’re all dead!”
“Captain! Tumron took an arrow in the eye!” Delrin wailed somewhere to Zarid’s left.
With a quick search, the captain found Tumron’s motionless body lying nearby, an arrow protruding from his right eye, his expression frozen in surprise. Zarid sent a silent prayer for the unfortunate man’s soul, then glared at a trembling Delrin. “Yes, I can see that. So get that shield of yours up or else I’ll shove my sword into your eye! Now get that up!”
“Yes, sir!” Delrin squeaked and hastily raised his shield-arm higher to cover his head.
Grunting in satisfaction, Zarid shouted for one of his lieutenants. “Roarke!”
A soldier further down the line broke from the formation and ducked, sprinting toward Zarid. “Sir!” he saluted as he approached.
“Any word from General Cadion?” Zarid asked, his eyes raking the battlefield for the familiar plate armor of their chief commander. During the briefing, he was told that Cadion would be leading the charge. But there was no sign of the silver-haired warrior, even among the corpses.
Roarke shrugged and waved a hand toward the frontline. “Somewhere out there, I guess.”
Zarid rolled his eyes. Sure, somewhere out there. Just like he and the army would be if Cadion turned out to be absent from the battle. He sighed and addressed Roarke once more. “Find him. Please. I don’t care if he is prancing in front of the enemy or stinking below the sand. Just find him and ask him what the hell is our next move!”
Bobbing his helmet quickly, Roarke saluted again and rose to his feet, kicking up sand as he sprinted toward the frontlines, dodging fireballs and arrows along the way.
Zarid watched him go for a moment. He had to admit, the lieutenant was a fast runner. Or maybe that was just pure terror fueling his legs. Probably both.
He returned his attention to his own men, and only now did he realize that they had stopped moving, and was in fact staring at him the whole time he was conversing with Roarke. “Why did you guys stop?” he demanded.
No one answered him. They glanced at one another, utterly confused, until Thalkin raised a reluctant hand. “We stopped because you stopped moving, sir.” His smile was sheepish.
Ah, how touching! His dear soldiers truly loved him. Zarid could feel the tears threatening to spill from his eyes… except they were not from happiness. Why, oh why, did he choose these men with rock for brains?
He took a deep breath, ignoring the searing heat from the fireball that exploded several meters behind him, and roared, “Get your butts moving to the vanguard or we’ll all get roasted here like a slice of mutton!”
Scrambling back to their positions, the soldiers resumed their slow march. Zarid could only groan miserably while taking his spot next to Thalkin.
This was going to be a long night.
Chapter 2: The Admiral’s Plight
Doltar was many things: admiral, father, husband, poet, warrior, and a host of other things that counting them would be a task in itself.
He had experienced countless battles and wars, and he was proud to say he had never broken under pressure in all of his missions both in and out of the battlefield. He had a winning streak of keeping cool and collected, and he strived everytime to maintain his pristine record.
However, tonight’s assault might just break that streak—along with his wits.
Sighing in frustration, Doltar stood at the deck of his flagship, the Obliterator. If only its name was as good as its firepower. But no matter how many cannons they fired at Fort Trost, the fortress’ walls still stood, and the soldiers defending them were still alive.
Hands clasped behind him, Doltar took stock of his force and the current situation. The Belunians had barely retaliated from the attack, taking a passive defensive stance, so the fleet was still intact. But they were running out of ammunition, and if they could not break this stalemate, they would have to retreat once again.
The admiral would rather shoot himself toward the fortress using one of the main cannons than suffer the shame he would bring to his kingdom and family.
Grabbing the spyglass hanging from his waist, Doltar scanned the fortress and the surrounding terrain with a frown. They had not even scratched its mighty walls, and he could see the defenders jeering in their direction, safe and sound in the battlements.
Doltar snorted. If not for that eighty feet high wall, the lot of them would have long been a bloody smear on the ground. But alas, they had the devil’s luck.
He brought his attention down to the shoreline. There was no dockyard from which they could disembark; Belun had long since removed them twenty years ago, including those in Trika. They could attempt a beach landing, but what good was it if the entrance to the fortress was facing east? His marines would be obliterated with arrows before they could reach the gates.
What a dilemma. Then again, this war was a dilemma. Whose idea was it anyway to use the same strategy that failed his predecessors?
Oh, wait. It was him.
Doltar glanced around, checking if there was anyone nearby who could see the redness dusting his cheeks. Thankfully, the gunnery crews were busy reloading the cannons for another useless volley, and most of his marines were resting belowdecks, so he sighed in relief. He did not know what he would do if the men started spreading rumors that the Admiral was blushing like a schoolgirl for no reason.
Doltar nearly jumped from his skin. He whirled around with a hand on his drumming heart, staring wide-eyed at the man who had suddenly spoken. “Don’t you know how to properly announce yourself, Captain?” he thundered.
The plume in the man’s helmet swayed violently as he bowed with an apologetic expression. “It won’t happen again, sir,” he said.
Still clutching his heart, Doltar growled, “Make sure it doesn’t. Now what do you want?”
The captain bowed again. “A report from General Cadion, sir. They have successfully landed on Trika’s coastline, but the defenses are strong. He is informing you that he may not be able to complete the mission on schedule.”
The mission. Doltar cast his gaze east, hoping to catch a glimpse of the main force, but several of his ships blocked the view.
The objective was simple: while Doltar and his fleet distracted the garrison in Trost, Cadion and his army would invade Trika, then proceed with haste toward the fortress. They were supposed to fulfill this in less than six hours before the Belunians could send a warning to the rest of their kingdom—a feat almost impossible if one considered past operations.
There was also Trost itself to consider. If its commander decided to send reinforcements for Trika, the invasion force was doomed.
Should he send a couple of ships to assist them? That would be the best course of action, and it would barely affect the overall firepower of his fleet. Perhaps the Tidehunter and the Highland would suffice. They were fast strike ships, and if he needed them back, they could return swiftly. He was glad that the Belunian navy was on the other side of the country; if they had been present in this battle, especially their fearsome dreadnaughts, he shuddered to think what would become of this operation.
“Send word to Captain Toris and Captain Lorian of the Tidehunter and Highland. I want them to provide support to Cadion’s force.”
As the captain bowed and hurried to fulfill the order, another soldier dashed along the deck. “Sir! A report came from our scout ships!”
Doltar suppressed a groan. Of course, there had to be another complication on top of the other complications this operation had brought. “What is it?”
The man’s lower lip quivered as he spoke. “Five dreadnoughts are on the way as we speak. Sir, they’ll be here within the hour!”
A terrible silence blanketed the deck like an ominous fog. Everyone had frozen on their tasks, every pair of eyes fixed on the messenger, and their gazes bore into him so much that he began to quake in his leather boots.
For a moment, the only sound Doltar heard was his own thundering heartbeat.
Five dreadnoughts! He almost fainted just from hearing that news. Each of those monstrous ships was easily thrice the size of the Obliterator, a ship with over seven thousands tons of displacement, and the largest in this fleet. Even if they fired every cannon and ballista at Belun’s dreadnoughts, it would be a miracle just to sink one of them.
He should have brought more mages! But the ones he had were just healers and bombardiers meant to disrupt Fort Trost’s defenders. Their magic prowess were not enough to sink a dreadnought.
The seconds dragged on, and the men began to switch their attention to him, waiting for his command. Command. What was he going to say again? Ah, of course. He remembered now.
Chapter 3: Decision
Sand and gravel exploded everywhere, while the dying screams of good men sent chills along Zarid’s spine. But he pressed on with his company toward the enemy’s right flank—the weakest side after the mages had torched three full battalions of Belunian defenders.
He had to thank General Cadion for lending him a reserved platoon of fire mages. Otherwise, he and his men would still be stuck in shield wall formation, getting picked off one by one by archers and enemy spellcasters.
He supposed it was too much to expect some miracle from his own mages. Only the twins were strong enough for a sustained barrage of rock and fireballs, while the rest struggled to erect protection barriers, much less powerful offensive spells. But they could not rely on Leyfor and Treyfor forever; they were starting to falter in their casting, their mana spent.
Zarid grunted as he blocked a strike from an enemy soldier with his shield, running his sword through the man’s stomach. There was nothing more reliable than a good sword in his hands; magic might fail, but a sharp blade would not.
He danced past another opponent and dispatched him swiftly with a thrust. The company roared around him as they clashed with the defenders, pushing them back a few feet at a time. The enemy mages had long since exhausted their energy, and only a few small fireballs popped every now and then. At this rate, they would finally crush this flank, then attack the enemy’s rear.
The thought of a long overdue victory made Zarid grin, and he sprang forth with renewed energy, hacking and slashing. Everything was a blur in his mind, and the only thing he could think of was to kill the next soldier while protecting himself. The stench of fresh blood invaded his nostrils. His sword’s hilt became slippery with sweat, but he tightened his grip onto it even more and kept swinging and swinging.
By the time Zarid had regained focus of his surroundings, the battle had already shifted toward the center of Belun’s main force. The right flank was completely wiped out, and Zankarian troops began to slip past, heading for Trika.
Zarid stood there for a moment and planted his sword on the blood-soaked sand, letting the blade sink by several inches. Some of his troops were mopping up the stragglers, but the rest remained in a tight formation around him.
“What’s our next order, Captain?” Thalkin asked, sitting on his haunches and watching the battle unfold before him. His lower lip was bleeding from a cut, his right eye swollen, but he looked just as excited as the rest of them. For the first time in a hundred years, Zankar had gained a foothold on Belun’s northern coast.
Zarid knelt on one knee as he pondered that question. They were ordered to hit the flank and reduce the enemy’s numbers, then to rejoin the vanguard once they had accomplished that. But General Cadion had included a second order: capture Trika once the coastline had been secured.
And it had been secured. Though the Belunians were putting up a fight outside Trika, Zankar’s invasion force had complete control of the beach and were pushing forward with the assault. It would not be long now before the Belunians retreated toward the safety of Trika.
Zarid cast his gaze to the left, where he could see the outlying buildings of the town a quarter of a mile away. So close, yet so far as well. Archers teemed along the thirty-foot wall surrounding the town, waiting for the Zankarian army to advance. Heading straight there would be suicide right now until they had dealt with the enemy forces nearby.
With a shrug, Zarid stood up and pulled his sword free from the sand, swinging it slightly to remove any granules that clung to the blade. “Gather the men. We’ll support the main force.”
Thalkin rose to his feet with a grin. “Yes, sir!”
While his lieutenant barked orders, Zarid turned his attention to the mage platoon Cadion had given him, sitting not too far away with his own mages, all of whom looked pale and exhausted. Lobbing fireballs and other elements at the enemy was apparently a taxing job, and they dropped to the sand as soon as their mana had been spent. They could have recovered some of their magic immediately with the rationed potions—three small vials for each mage—but they were under strict orders to reserve them until Trika was captured.
Zarid did not understand the logic behind it. If it were him, he would have his mage squadron drink one vial, then keep them out of the fight until the situation was dire. However, he was just a lowly captain who did not understand the intricacies of the mystic arts, or the twisting tunnels of the minds in the brass.
Tunnels that, at times, were clogged with stupidity and idiocy.
He snorted at that, then approached Corporal Jurgens, leader of the mage platoon. The sandy-haired man looked up from where he lay sprawled on the ground, squinting his eyes in the darkness as Zarid’s immense figure loomed over him. “Yes, Captain?” he asked.
“Get up. We’re moving.” Zarid gestured to the clash less than two hundred meters away. They could all hear the ringing steel blending with the fierce war cries and agonized screams of the soldiers, foes and allies alike. “You too, boys,” he addressed his mages.
Jurgens swore and pushed himself off the ground. “And here I thought I’m going to get some rest,” he grumbled, wiping the sand from his scarlet robe and echoing the sentiments of the other spellcasters.
“We don’t get rest if we are fighting for Zankar, Corporal.” Zarid sighed. Even back home where brigands and rebels were rampant, he and his company were always fighting and flushing out those scums from mountains and forests. To their credit, being a soldier of Zankar paid well, but the kingdom drove them hard to compensate for their salary.
But whatever. Money was money, and Zarid could not earn his current income by being a farmer.
“Right. So what’s the plan?” Jurgens asked.
Zarid glanced at the raging battle once more, dragging his gaze across enemy positions. Though the moon had not shown itself tonight, there were enough torches now to light the area, and he could see the outline of the battalions and the weapons they carried. Behind the main line of Belunian defenders was a company of archers taking potshots at visible Zankarian troops and entrenched with stakes and ditches. And only a series of narrow wooden planks provided access to their position.
“We’ll launch an attack there.” Zarid pointed with a gloved hand.
Jurgens stared at where he pointed. “That’s an entrenchment.”
“Yes, I know.”
“We haven’t recovered our mana yet.”
“I know that too.”
“We don’t have the strength to take that out!” Jurgens protested.
“Except you guys won’t,” Zarid assured him as the company assembled in front of them. They were bloodied and bruised, and most were wrapped hastily with bandages, but their eyes shone with eagerness.
“Everyone is here, sir,” Thalkin announced with a salute. “Well, the ones who are still alive, at least.”
“Right,” Zarid said. He waved his sword in the direction of the archer battalion, grinning to himself. “That’s our objective, boys. We eliminate them, take their bows, and attack the Belunians from behind. Easy peasy.”
An uncomfortable silence descended upon them, and Zarid’s smile quickly faded. “What?” he demanded.
The men shifted uneasily on their feet, murmuring and exchanging glances. Why did they look so uncertain? His plan was solid and safe!
Delrin stepped forward, chewing his lower lip. The guy looked like he was going to wet himself any moment. “P-Permission to speak, Captain?” he stammered.
“Speak.” Zarid’s tone was cold as ice.
The young soldier’s eyes darted around, looking at anything and anyone but Zarid. “Well, Captain. You see… that position is…” He swallowed dryly. “That position looks hard to capture.”
Zarid raised a bushy eyebrow. “Yes, it is. And that’s why we will be capturing it so our forces can advance.”
“We’ll be facing at least three hundred men, sir,” one soldier said. “Not to mention all those stakes and trenches. There’s no way we can stand a chance.”
“And what of the enemy?” Another one piped in. “If they see us heading for the archers, they will send troops after us. We’ll be trapped.”
“Please reconsider, Captain,” Thalkin said. “We already lost at least twenty men. If we attack the archers, they will shoot us dead before any of us can reach them.”
The men stared at Zarid with unflinching gazes, and he stared back in silence. They did have a point, and perhaps he had been driving them hard in his pursuit of victory. But unless they could eliminate those archers, more men would die. They needed to find an option that would keep them safe while reducing the casualties on the main force.
As he was pondering what to do, Zarid’s ears picked up the footsteps of somebody dashing across the sand. His company reacted with ingrained habit born out of training, closing ranks around the mages and their captain. With a sigh, Zarid glanced to the left where a lone soldier hurried to them.
The soldier stopped at the sight of over one hundred soldiers staring at him with drawn weapons, and quickly saluted. “Message from General Cadion for Captain Zarid!”
“What’s the message?” Zarid raised his hand, and his men parted before him.
The messenger grew stiffer as he spoke. “Doltar Fleet is going to pull out from the fight to engage five dreadnoughts approaching from the west. Every battalion is to make haste and eliminate all opposition on Trika.”
There was a collective groan from the company. Zarid briefly gave them a flat look, then returned his attention to the messenger. “Any specific order?”
The messenger nodded. “The Fifth Battalion is ordered to take all enemy defensive positions. Torak and Baltor companies are engaged on the left flank.”
There was silence this time, and Zarid gave his men another flat look. The Fifth Battalion comprised three companies, which included them. And since they were the only ones who were still idle…
“Acknowledged.” Zarid nodded, then raised his voice so that all would hear. “You heard him, boys! We’ll be taking that entrenchment. Move out!”
“Company, form up!” Thalkin shouted.
With resigned but determined expressions, Zarid’s company marched toward their objective.
Chapter 4: The Sea Dragons
There was a reason why Belun’s dreadnoughts were all Sea Dragon-class.
They were enormous, heavily armored, and possessed enough firepower to blow Fort Trost to the heavens. Putting a small scratch into their iron hulls was one thing; sinking the ships themselves would be nothing short of a miracle.
And right now, Doltar needed that kind of miracle. Facing one of them was doable. Two would be a pitched battle, but with numbers on their side, he was confident that the fleet could survive. Three was guaranteed a pyrrhic victory.
Five… was a certain bloodbath and defeat.
He could raise the white flag and save a lot of resources and crew, or order a hasty retreat back toward Gamrin Fortress, but that would mean leaving the invasion force to fend for itself. And knowing Cadion, he would rather sacrifice the army than admit a loss.
Doltar watched the five ships sail in the horizon from the crow’s nest. He did not need a spyglass to even see the dreadnoughts. Their silhouettes were enormous enough that they looked like islands from a distance, dark against the moonless night. They glided across the water silently like a pod of sea dragons from which the class got its name, and not for the first time did Doltar wanted to know what was powering them; it was impossible for a regular crew of rowers to propel the massive ships with strength alone, even with assistance from the wind.
Running away was indeed the best course of action at the moment, but the temptation of destroying the ships and learning how they worked was stronger.
Doltar’s mind raced. Everything he had ever done was for his nation, and he was proud to say that he never regretted any of his actions. His men would follow him. They always did. Even if that meant certain death.
His eyes took in the sight of his crew watching the dreadnoughts from the decks. No one was in their battle stations yet; as always, they were waiting for his command.
So many sacrifices. Doltar sighed. But such was war. His men knew it, and he had no doubt that they had already steeled their resolve to face their inevitable demise. He just hoped that if ever any of them survived, they would forgive him for this.
After one last baleful look at their approaching doom, Doltar clambered down the ladder. His fingers nearly slipped from the sweat coating his skin, and he had a brief and terrifying vision of losing his grip and falling down forty feet below on solid wood. What an embarrassing way to go.
When he reached the bottom, Doltar heaved a sigh and gathered his thoughts. They drifted to his family back home, and for a moment, his chest tightened as his survival instincts flared. But he soon pushed them away from his mind. Even if he died in this battle, they would receive pension high enough to live comfortably for the next fifty years. Not to mention the fortune they already possessed. They would be fine.
Doltar whirled around and found his men staring at him. With a mask of bravery concealing his doubts and fears, he marched down the middle and toward the upper decks, where he faced the dreadnoughts with fire in his eyes. They were less than two miles away now.
“Captain Poltek,” Doltar said in a clear tone.
“Admiral!” a voice answered somewhere behind him, sharp and swift.
His gaze still fixed on the enemy, Doltar said, “Send a message to the other captains. I want every ship to spread out and be ready for bombarding. We will be focusing our firepower to one dreadnought at a time. Target their masts and sails first. That should cripple them for a bit.”
“Understood.” There was no fear in the man’s voice. “What of the mages? I know they are supposed to assist our troops in capturing Trost’s walls, but—”
“Tell them to fire on the hulls,” Doltar cut him off.
“The hulls are five feet thick, sir.”
It was a reminder of the dreadnoughts’ nigh invulnerability, and one that Doltar knew all too well. Zankar’s top engineers still did not know how Belun could create such thick armor without the ships sinking under their immense weight, let alone float and sail in the waters.
Regardless, they had a duty to fulfill. Doltar turned to his captain and smiled. “I’m very much aware of that, Captain.”
There was nothing more that needed to be said after that. Poltek saluted sharply and addressed the soldiers, uttering a single command.
“Man battle stations!”
The men shouted as one, and the deck was soon filled with chaotic activity. As his men hurried to their positions, Doltar turned his attention back to the enemy warships.
Time to find out if they could kill five sea monsters.
Chapter 5: For The Nation’s Glory
“First Platoon, take the right flank! Mages, prepare to fire on my mark!” Zarid roared.
The battle had taken a turn for the worse as soon as they had entered Trika. No one expected a greater force inside the town, which had lain hidden within the houses until the gates had been broken, and the Zankarian vanguard had poured in. The result? A clever ambush that soon grew into a massacre.
Zarid parried an attack from his opponent, then dispatched him with a stab through his neck. Blood spurted from the wound, and Zarid pulled his sword free to slice the spear coming toward him from another direction. Terror flashed in the soldier’s eyes when he realized that his weapon was nothing more than a broken wooden pole now, and he fumbled for his sword. But Zarid was too quick; he closed the distance between them in two steps and stabbed the soldier in his chest. The man gurgled blood, and as Zarid’s sword slid out of his torso, he collapsed on the ground with a groan.
Zarid grunted. He stepped away from the two corpses, surveying the battle intently. There must be at least seven thousand Belunians still fighting for Trika—more than twice the number of Zankarian troops inside. The main force was still scaling the walls, but Zarid doubted if they could capture it in time to save the beleaguered vanguard. At this rate, the army would route.
His eyes narrowed at a tight clump of Belunian defenders assembling near the center of their formation, wielding pikes and shields, clad in heavy plate armor. At their head, a soldier held a flag aloftthat fluttered in the cold air. There was enough light now from the torches and burning houses to illuminate the area, and Zarid could clearly see the green-and-white banner.
A symbol of a shield with a crack in the middle—the Shieldbreakers.
The captain swore. If those shock troops managed to get close, they could disrupt the advance and inflict untold damages and casualties to Zankar’s vanguard.
“Treyfor!” Zarid bellowed. He retreated back to his company and found one of the twins rushing toward him.
“Sir!” Treyfor saluted. His robe was rumpled, and he had a cut on his right cheek that gushed blood, but he still seemed fit for combat.
“Where’s your brother and Jurgens?” Zarid asked. He tried looking for them amid the chaos, and yet he could not even identify his own men from the constantly shifting mass of armored bodies and visored faces.
The mage waved a hand aimlessly, shaking his head. “Somewhere out there, sir.”
“Go and find them,” Zarid hissed. “Our heads will soon be rolling somewhere out there if this battle drags on. Now go!”
“Yes, Captain!” With another salute, Treyfor went back to where his fellow mages were having a brief respite at the rear lines.
Zarid dragged his gaze back to the battle, and abruptly groaned. The left had completely collapsed by the sheer numbers coming from that direction. And now there was a hole in their lines left by the Seventh Battalion, with the panicking survivors fleeing back to the safety of the rear guard while the Belunians chased after them.
Unless that hole was plugged, the vanguard would be pushed back outside the town. They had to take Trika before reinforcements set out from Trost.
His eyes scanned the Zankarian troops until he found a burly man clad in full plate armor, shouting near the front.
“Hold your ground! Fight to the last man!”
Always the brave one, General. Zarid rolled his eyes and sprinted after the elderly warrior. While he admired Cadion’s courage and respected his authority, the general was often straight-laced and stiff. Which often resulted in disastrous victories and left every army he would command on the brink of annihilation.
If Zarid and his company wanted to survive this battle, he must not let that happen.
“General!” he bellowed, but he was too far away for Cadion’s ears to hear him. Not to mention an entire brigade surrounding the man. They blocked his path at once, leveling their spears in his direction.
A man with a green cape stepped forward, and Zarid eyed the blood-soaked sword he was holding. It seemed they had been busy as well. “I’m Colonel Ravel of the Third Guard Company. Who are you?” he demanded.
“Captain Zarid, First Company, Fifth Battalion,” Zarid quickly replied. “I need to talk with General Cadion immediately.“
The colonel’s eyes bore into him. “Unless you are blind, Captain, you must have noticed that the general is currently busy hacking at Belunians and commanding our forces. Tell me what you need to say, and I will personally deliver the message.”
“We don’t have much time!” Zarid hissed. He pointed to the left, where the Belunians were engaging another company that broke off from the frontlines to stop their advance. Behind the enemy, the Shieldbreakers were beginning to march. “If those pikemen reach us, we’ll be dead!”
The colonel took one look at the approaching group, then returned his attention back to Zarid. “The general knows about that and has already placed a contingency plan. You do not have to worry, Captain.”
“Return to your post. Dismissed.” Before Zarid could utter another word, the brigade parted in the middle. He watched as the colonel spun on his heels with a flourish of his cloak and strode along the path his men had created, sword still in hand. With practised ease, the brigade closed ranks behind their commander and followed him back to General Cadion’s side.
Rage boiled inside Zarid. Stupid green capes! Their adherence to strict protocol would be the death of them. He needed to tell the general that his company would head off to counter that offensive and create a break in the enemy lines. But with that idiot-faced colonel’s thick skull, they would be damn lucky if they could survive until the morning.
Teeth bared in a snarl, Zarid turned around and began to march back to his men in order to tell them the bad news. But no sooner had he taken three steps then he froze. A storm of emotions whirled inside him as his thoughts seemingly incapacitated his body.
There was another way: his way. And if he could save this failure of an operation, as well as the lives of his company, the punishment for insubordination seemed harmless enough compared to the inevitable fate that awaited all of them.
Zarid tightened the grip on his sword and went to look for Thalkin. He found him busy barking orders at the company, who was readying to repel the advancing Belunians.
“Thalkin!” Zarid shouted, jogging to his lieutenant’s side. He grinned when he saw all the surviving mages fully gathered behind Jurgens and the twins.
“Sir!” Thalkin saluted. “We are ready to move ou—“
“Save it,” Zarid cut him off sharply and grabbed his shoulder, much to Thalkin’s surprise. Then he beckoned for the mages with his sword. “Listen! We’ll be breaking the enemy lines by meeting their advance.”
A gasp went up from his men. “But, Sir! The Shieldbreakers are in there!” Delrin cried. “There’s no way we can take them.”
Zarid glared at him. “Shut up your stupid mouth and let me finish.” When he finally all had their attention, Zarid continued in a quiet tone, “We can take them. Jurgens! Treyfor! Has our mages recovered their magic?”
Jurgens shook his head, which was mirrored by both Treyfor and Leyfor. “A fraction. Just enough to cast another two volleys of fireballs.”
“Drink one of the mana potions you’ve got,” Zarid said. There was a stunned silence, and Jurgens’ mouth worked like a fish out of water before he found his voice.
“We’ll be punished for breaking our order!” he protested.
“Forget about stupid orders,” Zarid growled. “Do you guys want to survive or not?”
He was met with another round of utter silence. Then Jurgens sighed along with the twins, and every mage pulled a small vial of thick violet liquid from their belt. Zarid smiled once more as they poured the contents into their mouth.
“What now?” Treyfor asked after he threw away the empty vial into the sand.
Zarid grinned and pointed his sword at the Belunians on their left. “Now, we kill them.”
“Company, form up!” Thalkin yelled.
“First and Second Platoons in front. Third Platoon, protect our mages.” Zarid took his place at the head. “We move as soon as the mages have exhausted their magic.”
“Ready on my command!” Zarid shouted.
As one, the mages raised their hands, eyes shining with power. A low hum filled the air as sand swirled around them, their robes flapping in the gale. Overhead, fiery spheres ignited in the night sky, dozens of them, lighting up the battlefield with an eerie orange glow. Soldiers from both sides briefly paused in the carnage to take a look, awe and terror transforming their faces.
“Fire!” a single word rang forth, and the fireballs hurled toward the enemy.
A rain of fire poured upon the Belunians, the conflagration spreading among their ranks. Screams filled the air along with the acrid scent of burning flesh and metal. Encouraged by their wailing foes, the mages shot another volley. A great tremor shook the ground where they struck, and a blazing inferno engulfed the battlefield, washing over the buildings. A cry went up somewhere within the Belunian defenders, followed by the cheers of Zankarian troops swarming the battlements.
The walls were overrun; there would be no escape for the Belunians.
With the dancing flames reflected in his eyes and helmet like the fire giants of old, Zarid roared. “Company, charge!”
Waves lapped gently on the shores, tainted red and orange by blood and the first rays of the rising sun. Crows circled in the brightening sky, shrieking in eagerness at the scrumptious breakfast that littered the area.
Captain Zarid picked his way among the field of death and destruction, identifying every corpse he saw and grabbing their nameplate. He had already gathered another dozen in just one hour, bringing the total to fifty-eight—all of whom were part of his company.
He stopped at the last one: Tumron. His long dark bangs were plastered to his forehead with blood, and there was still that arrow stuck to his right eye. His one dark skin had long since gone gray, and a crow descended to take a peck at first meal.
Zarid shooed it away with his sword, then knelt on one knee. He reached out for the arrow, but thought better of it and stayed his hand. He did not want to desecrate the body anymore than it already was. Besides, the company in charge of the corpses would be taking care of it anyway before gathering them in the huge funeral pyre they were building.
He cast his gaze west into the sea, where he could see the tiny shapes of eight battered warships forming a loose line into the mouth of the bay. Doltar Fleet had seen better days, and he was actually surprised that the admiral who suggested this operation had managed to sink five dreadnoughts; a miraculous feat no one had done before.
Zarid shook his head and stood up, making his way back to the encampment. This was one hell of a beach landing, and he would not deny that there were times when he thought his life would end. But, whatever. He and his company were alive. That was all that mattered.
He soon found his men sitting on the ground and huddling around a small warm campfire. Most, if not all, were wrapped in bandages, their expressions subdued. Delrin was fingering his talisman again, mumbling under his breath. The twin mages were snoring on the rough sand, and even Jurgens was starting to nod, though he kept staring at the flames.
Thalkin shifted where he sat, munching on a dry bread. When Zarid stepped into their circle, he and the others looked at him with surprise.
“Captain!” Roarke tried to stand, but his injured legs buckled and he fell back on the sands with a curse. “Stupid arrow,” he growled.
“Be careful next time, Lieutenant,” Zarid chided. He took an empty space between Roarke and Thalkin, his eyes fixed on the crackling fire. It was daybreak, but they had decided to light a campfire to ward off the chill brought by the northern wind.
“Fifty-eight dead,” Zarid said abruptly, placing the bundle of name plates onto the ground where they could all see it.
“Fifty-nine,” Thalkin corrected softly. He held up another one dangling on a chain. “Mandor died during the landing. Damn fireball got him.”
Zarid grimaced. “No one noticed?”
With a shrug, Thalkin threw the plate into the bundle. “Even if we did, it’s too late.”
There was a collective sigh, and Zarid found himself growing quiet. For a moment, the only sounds were the shouting and yelling around them as the army readied for another battle. With Trika captured, Fort Trost would be their next objective.
“I got good news, bad news, and worst news for everyone,” Zarid finally managed to speak. “What do you want to hear first?”
“Worst news,” his men chorused.
“Cadion is dead.”
Zarid was surprised to hear not a single outburst, and he raised an eyebrow at their exasperated expressions. “Well? No grief for our good ol’ general?”
Thalkin rolled his eyes. “Please. All of us knew he had it coming, charging at the frontlines like that.”
“I even expected he would be the first one to die during the landing,” a soldier said. A few snickers came from his squad.
“Who’s in charge then?” asked Roarke.
“At the moment, Admiral Doltar is in charge of the entire operation. He has placed Major Tarion to lead the ground forces for now.”
There were satisfied nods among them. Tarion was a good tactician with a creative mind. They had worked under him before, and they had a better chance of surviving with him at the lead.
“And the bad news?” Delrin spoke.
Fingering the straps of his scabbard, Zarid answered in a lazy tone, “Fifth Battalion will be part of the vanguard. We will be attacking Fort Trost at sundown.”
“Eh?” Thalkin shrugged. “Could be worse.”
The company laughed, and Zarid managed a faint smile. He doubted if there was anything else they could not do after everything they had gone through today.
“So what’s the good news?” It was Treyfor, wide awake now and attentive.
For several heartbeats, Zarid was silent. His men leaned forward, staring at him expectantly. He thought of prolonging their anticipation and dropping the matter entirely, but decided that this was the only reward they could get after all the trouble they had experienced.
His smile slowly turned into a grin. “We are not going to be punished until this war is over.”
And as a deafening cheer broke among them, loud enough to attract curious stares from those within the vicinity, Zarid glanced at the rising sun.
He may hate this nation for its horrible reputation and performance in warfare, but there was one thing he could not hate.
His company, and the men fighting with him.
This short story story was born from two ideas: a map I made a few weeks ago, and a dry run for a competition that Worldsmith Youth Serving Organization has been planning to encourage more writers and authors in crafting their stories. The objective is to write whatever story we can come up with in just a week, something I’ve never done before.
Since this is a group project, I decided to take a more hands-on approach and made the cover on my own. The writing part itself is fun, though I didn’t start until seven days before the deadline.
I hope everyone will enjoy this little story I’ve written. This is just one of seven other entries from different authors, and you can all read their stories here.