Authors: Daniel Ottalini
At least I’ve got one subordinate who I can trust here
A week ago, that would have taken them half an hour just to unpack the darn things
The airship descended. Alexandros couldn’t help himself as he peered over the side like the barely graduated schoolboy that he was. The ground moved closer and closer, and Alexandros could make out distinct rocks, plants, and a few small structures on the island. He spotted the wreckage of the skimmer to the north and east of their position.
The airship was descending toward the largest flat area that was available on the island. Crewmen on either side of the bridge craned their heads over the side of the ship, signaling the pilot with flags. Deftly, the pilot positioned the airship perfectly onto the rocky ground. Wincing with anticipation, Alexandros imagined the airship crushing into the ground and buckling from the inside out. With a crunch, the wooden hull of the
touched down, leaving Alexandros pleasantly surprised
. I must be so used to things going wrong that it’s a shock when they go right
A gangplank was lowered over the side. Alexandros led his men down it, rapidly fanning out. As per his orders, half his twenty-man detachment carried repeating crossbows, while the rest were equipped similar to their captain with swords and shields. Alexandros led his men northward along the rocky peninsula. The second group of airmen manned the light field pieces and formed a protective cordon around the airship. The sounds of waves crashing against the cliff competed with the ragged footfalls of his men as they scrabbled over the rough terrain.
“Move, move, move!” Alexandros cried out as his men approached the small group of buildings at the center of the island. For a moment, he wondered if the town had been deserted, or if there really were no raiders and they were approaching innocent townsfolk. That thought evaporated when arrows arced down from the two-story tower that overlooked the cliff.
“Shields up!” he called out, and his men moved together, frantically trying to create a shield wall. The rough terrain hampered their movements, and the wall was incomplete as the arrows fell amongst them. Fortunately, the arrows were few and most missed the airmen. Only one cadet went down with an arrow through his arm, hissing and cursing at the top of his lungs.
“Get in formation! Now!” Alexandros bawled at them, and they finally moved into correct position, shields covering each other and their downed comrade. A louder twang from the tower saw a large bolt launched off the top and falling just to their right.
“If he can move, he can keep up,” Alexandros called out to the medico, a man seconded from the ship’s infirmary. The medico nodded, then hauled the bleeding man to his feet.
“Advance!” The cadets moved faster over the broken ground. “We’ll take the tower, then explore the rest of the island!” Alexandros yelled to his men. He urged them onwards, desperate to get out of the range of that artillery piece.
They approached the tower, the stone structure dwarfing the small, sunken huts that made up the rest of the village. Alexandros detailed men to explore each hut, but they found nothing.
“They must all be in the tower, sir,” an aide said.
Alexandros was forced to agree. The structure dominated the area, but its only entrance was blocked by a door and was most likely reinforced from the inside.
“Send a messenger back to Cadet Porux. Tell him I want a scorpion here on the double.”
A man ran back across the rough terrain, and in no time at all, Alexandros had his portable artillery. Using his men to shield it as they positioned the weapon, Alexandros was able to observe the tower more closely.
“They appear to have a scorpion or ballista on top of that tower. It’s probably what they used to shoot down the skimmer. It doesn’t appear that they can use it against us, as we are too close. We’ll need to knock out that door quickly, before they can move the artillery piece.”
It must not have the range to hit the ship. But I should have thought about that in advance. Otherwise, the Arcus would have been a juicy, fat target.
The scorpion crew set to work, loading a heavy arrow with a thick length of rope behind it.
“Fire at will!” Alexandros ordered.
The shot lanced out, striking the door with a meaty thud. The thick bolt bit deeply into the wood, getting lodged in the door.
“Quick! Grab the rope and pull, lads!”
Alexandros’s men pulled hard at the rope, while their comrades kept up a sprinkle of repeater fire on the battlements above the tower. A cry indicated that at least one of their shots had found its mark.
“Great shot!” Alexandros continued to encourage his men.
With a groan, the door burst open, the airmen falling to the ground as the rope went slack. Screams and shouts could be heard inside the tower, and a wave of men charged out of the building.
“Battle lines!” Alexandros shouted in panic as their attackers crossed the short distance from the tower. His repeater-armed men fired desperately into the charging group, bringing down several, trying to stem the tide.
It was no use. The roughly two scores of raiders hit the disorganized lines of the Roman airmen like a wave hitting the beach. The fighting was instantly brutal and intense. Roman swords parried thrusts from flails and short spears. Wicked daggers cut at exposed arms and legs. Alexandros’s worldview shrank to a five-foot-by-five-foot space. He slammed his shield into his opponent, stabbing blindly with his sword. The sword bit deeply into the raider, who howled as he fell.
Alexandros stopped the howl with a downward slash. He turned, managing to intersect an attack from another pirate. The man was scrawny, little more than skin and bones, but wielded his heavy club with great skill. The blast knocked Alexandros backwards, and he tripped on a rocky outcropping.
Stumbling backwards, he stabbed up with his
. His attacker easily deflected it, and a return blow glanced off Alexandros’s helm. Head ringing, Alexandros threw himself forward, pushing into the man as they grappled. His opponent suddenly sighed and collapsed. Alexandros, gasping for breath, realized another soldier had saved him.
“Thanks…” he trailed off as another pirate hacked his savior down. Screaming a wordless cry of rage, Alexandros charged. His sword was everywhere, under his opponent’s guard, cutting him over the eye, till the man bled freely in multiple places. Finally, Alexandros crushed his eye socket with the pommel of his sword, and the man collapsed.
Breathing heavily, Alexandros looked around. The pirates were being hacked down, their initial rush beaten back. The few remaining turned to flee and the Romans chased them down ruthlessly. The
sound of the scorpion firing brought his attention back to the tower. The bolts hammered into the heavy stone battlement, knocking pieces of flagstone to the ground.
“Cadet Eritris, remain with the repeaters and the scorpion. The rest of you, with me!”
Alexandros led his score of men into the tower. The dark interior rapidly expanded as his eyes grew use to the gloom. Yellow candlelight flickered on the walls. The entryway revealed a central staircase that twisted both up and down. Leaving a small party to hold the entryway, Alexandros led the rest up the stairs. They kicked open doorways and ran through sparsely furnished rooms. Finally, they crashed into the top-most level. A ladder led up to a closed trapdoor.
“What do you think the chances are they left it open, sir?”
“Depends on how panicked they are…” Alexandros looked at his men. They were tired, but the adrenaline rush had yet to subside from their systems. “Damar, you take point.”
The largest airman placed his shield on his back and climbed as high as he could on the ladder, resting his back against the trapdoor. Two more men helped hold him in place.
“Three… two… one… go!” Alexandros whispered.
Damar strained against the trapdoor. The veins on his face and neck stood out as he pushed his body against it. There was a popping sound and Damar was propelled upwards, the door’s hinges breaking. Within seconds, the sounds of fighting on the rooftop vanished. Damar stuck his head back down through the opening.
“All clear, sir. You have a flag?”
Alexandros carefully extricated the small imperial flag from under his armor, passing it up to Damar. The cadet disappeared, and a few moments later, cheering could be heard outside. The men inside the tower cheered as well.
Alexandros let them have a few moments of excitement before shushing them. “We still have to find the pilot and figure out how to get down to that cargo ship.”
The tromp of boots on the stairs signaled someone was coming. A moment later, another airman entered the room.
“Sir, we’ve heard noises from below. It sounds like there’s an exit under the tower.”
Raising his eyebrows at this news, it all seemed to click for Alexandros. “They’ve been using the hidden cove to smuggle ships and hold hostages without anyone being able to find them. It’s so well disguised, we wouldn’t have seen it without the skimmer pilot.”
Alexandros led his men down the narrow stone stairs, taking them two at a time. Their thunderous boot steps echoed against the thick stone walls. Arriving on the landing, Alexandros kept going, shield out. He slowed his pace, taking the steps one at a time and pausing at each alcove and doorway.
Most of the rooms held storage areas, some in disuse, others showing signs of recent activity. Another held several grisly skeletons in chains. As they descended the staircase, a seemingly never-ending corkscrew, the faintly discernable smells of saltwater began to overwhelm the musty odor permeating the tower.
Finally, they exited out onto a rough-hewn stone landing. Shouts of alarm and instruction came from one doorway, while another one was heavily barricaded with two thick iron bolts.
“Damar, open that. You two, stay with him. The rest of you, with me!” Alexandros ordered as he ran out onto the docks.
The rock overhang sheltered a semi-circular natural stone pier. Humans had obviously built onto this with wooden walkways and expansions. The dock had room for two ships, although only one was present at the moment. Large black letters declared her the
, their missing cargo ship. There were several men hard at work, and Alexandros could hear the sound of the ship’s steam engine slowly winding up.
“Quickly! We must take the ship before it can make full steam!” Alexandros told his men.
They sprinted along the dock, moving between the barrels and crates and small cranes. A few of the smugglers ran to fight them, but these were easily dispatched by the teamwork of the Roman airmen. They may have been novices at combat before, but their quick baptism by fire had given them a hungry, predatory edge.
With the few defenders no longer an issue, the airmen pounded up the gangplank onto the steamship. A jet of flame washed over them. His men scattered. Alexandros was forced to abandon his shield as the fire clung to the toughened wood and steel.
Damn, someone has Greek fire and they could burn this entire ship down!
“Not one more step, or I’ll roast this ship and all the crew aboard,” a man called out, his voice husky.
“Surrender to me, and I’ll ensure you have a fair trial,” Alexandros replied, giving his men the chance to slowly encircle their adversary.
Backed by two of his own men, the pirate leader stood holding an odd contraption that looked like a cross between a repeater and a canteen. A small light flickered on the front of it. The pirate leader saw Alexandros’s eyes focused on his weapon.
“Ah, I see you like my invention. I call it the ‘fire thrower.’ I’m glad you like it. Now, how’s about you get off my vessel and back onto dry land? We’re about to leave you see, and we don’t want any extra… passengers.”
“This is a ship under the protection of the Imperial Air Fleet. You are to surrender at once,” Alexandros repeated mechanically. He hoped to stall for time, to allow some member of his unit to get a shot off at the leader. The pirate laughed.
“What are you? Fresh out of the academia?” He looked more closely. “By the gods, you are! You’re a bunch of silly little boys in uniforms trying to take down me? Lykonius the Scourge?”
“Never heard of you,” Alexandros said nonchalantly, but deep down, he quivered. He
heard of Lykonius. The pirate was responsible for wiping out small seaside settlements, holding royal vessels for ransom, and even taking an imperial treasury courier and over a ton of gold in past raids.
In Jupiter’s name, why couldn’t we have gotten a different pirate?
“You will surrender yourself at once to face imperial justice.” The young captain demanded. The pirate laughed again before adjusting his weapon.
“I fear this discussion has gone on long enough. I want you off my ship. Now, attack!” the Scourge shouted.
From behind him, doors flew open and a new group of pirates charged into combat. Alexandros’s men were in formation this time, and managed to work their way up the deck. Pirates were hewn down left and right, their lack of armor telling against the more heavily armored airmen.
Even in our light gear, we’re still better equipped than these seamen,
Alexandros thought as he hacked an arm off a charging pirate. The man screamed and fell onto Alexandros, his severed arm making the deck slippery with blood. Alexandros paused to wipe it from his eyes and face.
“Hold men! Hold the line! We can beat them!” Alexandros encouraged his men, sensing their tiredness. Their motions grew slower and their movements less crisp and careful—the Romans were still in danger of being overwhelmed.
The pirate captain was a terror in combat. Wielding twin swords and his odd weapon, he struck down two airmen with ease, cutting through their flimsy shields. Grasping his
with two hands, Alexandros rushed to intercept him. The slippery deck saved his life. His foot twisted away, and Alexandros sprawled in a heap, nearly impaling himself on his own sword. The fall carried him into Lykonius, whose swords sliced through air that Alexandros had occupied mere moments earlier. His dangerous invention was knocked from his hand, clattering overboard. The two fell to the deck, and Alexandros punched the pirate leader in the groin, receiving a kick to the face in response. The man crawled toward him, face scrunched up in pain. Alexandros scrambled backwards, his
lost in the fall.
With a bump, Alexandros backed into a barrier.
“Nowhere to run now, you annoying little imperial,” Lykonious sneered, hauling himself erect and raising his sword.
Alexandros closed his eyes. There was a loud clang, then a thud. Daring to open his eyes again after realizing he was not, indeed, dead, Alexandros looked around. A girl in flying leathers and a wool cap stood over the unconscious pirate leader, holding a frying pan. Alexandros gapped in amazement.