“The Eastern Front”
Hetrachia 12, 697 ABH
Outskirts of Beiras, Rabban Imperium Industrial Megacity
Patience did not come easily to Rittermarschal Ober Valescar, especially with the wounds he suffered at Aldona Fortress gnawing at his flesh.
The aging commander now wore two suits of armor. The first was the full plate of his station, a burnished silver breastplate, taloned greaves, and heavy steel boots that always heralded his arrival with staccato claps. Mail and gambeson padding formed the next layer down, and a simple, sweat-stained tunic clung to his skin.
Skin that had itself become armor. Valescar shifted in the command chair of the Judicator, trying in vain to quell the itch spreading across his ravaged left side. Healing magic and the soothing waters of a Sarconian medical bed could only do so much. The burns—and the stench of his own cooked flesh—would never truly leave him.
Flaking scar tissue covered his body from scalp to toes, a sore reminder of the exploding airship he'd narrowly escaped. The plate he'd worn that day was seared into him, bits of charred alloy welded to his shoulder, chest, and flank. Molten drips from the patch covering his missing left eye dotted his cheek, leaving ragged gaps in the dignified grey beard he'd once cultivated. They looked a bit like tears, but not a single soldier dared to say so in his presence.
When Valescar had laid on the butcher's table, staring up at the blinding light the surgeons held over him, a mousy doctor with a hooked nose had informed him they could remove the fragments. Pockmarks—quite deep in some places—would be left behind, but their magtech researchers were making great strides in the synthesis of alchemical flesh. It would only cost Valescar a few unavoidable nerves and the men'ar vessels underneath.
He'd crushed the light with a single magnetism infused clench of his fist, brushed the doctor aside, and stormed from the facility. He was Rittermarschal Ober Valescar, commander of the seventh Sarconian airfleet, "Wall of the Empire," and staunch servant of His Majesty, Emperor Sychon Artorios. Death would claim him before he risked the power that protected the Imperial throne.
No metallic poison nor sliver of shrapnel would reach his heart—not with his magic keeping them at bay.
Which wasn't to say the wounds didn't irritate him. Valescar shifted again, his teeth set in a snarl, his eye narrowed in displeasure. Phantom flames licked at his left side, an agony made all the more aggravating by the simpering face of Lt. Colonel Stetson floating above the LDCT—Long Distance Communication Transceiver—projector in front of him.
"An' exactly what d'ya want me ta do 'bout it, Stetson?" Valescar growled, shaking his mailed fist. "This is yer mistake through and through."
The officer's cadaverous features tightened further, and his gaunt fingers twisted against each other as he spoke. "B-but sir, it was you who insisted I wait a week to pursue the girl despite the ironclad testimony I procured from the lizards. We knew where she was staying, but—"
"Need I remind ya who saved yer scrawny neck after the attempt on His Majesty's life?" Valescar half regretted that decision. One tug on Stetson's slicked-back mane would expose his weaselly throat for the executioner's axe, and his regret would be washed away. "An' even though I gave ya ample time ta cast a net ta catch 'er, ya still bungled the final stages. On top o' which ya lost a warehouse full o' supplies, a platoon o' soldiers, three panzcraft, and damaged two o' yer warships in the most inane manner possible."
Valescar slammed the armrest of his chair, warping the thin metal. "I ain't finished, Stetson! Then—after wastin' all them resources—ya had the gall ta fire on a civilian settlement. An' at their church of all places." Valescar shook his head in disbelief. "As if the Darmatians needed any more reason ta hate us. Do ya know how hard it'll be ta protect ya from His Majesty's wrath after this debacle?"
"Please, Valescar. You have to—"
"Don't screw up again." Valescar cut Stetson off before the man resorted to unsightly begging. "My patience will only last so long. End transmission."
Valescar made a dismissive gesture at his communications officer, Annell, who flipped a switch at her station. The unctuous Stetson disintegrated into millions of tiny yellow globules, which floated back down into the rounded basin of the projector from which they'd come. Ripples danced across the pool, then stilled, waiting for another image to display.
If only the real Stetson could be so easily eliminated. Pinching the puckered skin of his nose, Valescar once again questioned why he suffered the former captain of the imperial guard to live. The axe that claimed poor Lanara's life—an axe he'd wielded himself—should have meted out justice to Stetson on its second swing.
Valescar had . . . come to terms with the fate of Sylette's mother. But he'd spared Stetson for a reason. The man owed him everything, and therefore couldn't refuse a single bizarre request—like waiting an extra week to pursue a certain exiled princess.
A warm grin split his deformed lips. Ah, lass. If only I could'a seen Stetson's face when ya gave him the slip. Ya outwitted me, ya foxed the bony weasel, an' all the Empire ain't gotta clue where've ya gone. Right proud, it makes me. How much like yer mother ye've—
No, that wasn't a sentiment the Rittermarschal could indulge in right now. Not while on campaign. Not while on the bridge of the Judicator, the flagship of his seventh fleet, minutes before she entered battle.
"Gadler!" Valescar called, rising to his feet without a groan. His body ached, but the men and women under his command wouldn't see his weakness. "What's the status o' our panickin' foe? Bring 'er up on the projector."
Captain Burntis Gadler, a lean man of middling years sporting a well-maintained chevron-shaped mustache, marched up the metal gantry from the bridge's lower deck and reactivated the projector. In place of Stetson's haggard form, a detailed three-dimensional portrayal of the landscape far below the Judicator sprang into existence.
Beiras' lofty skyscrapers dominated the far side of the image. In their shadow lay the hastily constructed Rabban Imperium defense works, the lower lip of Lake Lovare, and Valescar's own armada advancing across the Lozarian central plains.
Gadler drew a lacquered wooden baton from the belt binding his pristine uniform coat and used it to tap the far side of the yellow-tinted holograph. Valescar suppressed a chuckle. The baton was a relic, one belonging to the former war room era of muddy fields, staked down tents, and static maps littered with carved tokens denoting friend and foe.
Now the Judicator's contingent of sensory mages fed that data directly into the illyrium crystal lattice that formed the projector's core. Maps, tokens, and yes, even Gadler's prized baton, had been rendered obsolete by the march of magtech. A part of Valescar wondered when he would become a fossil of war himself.
"Imperium reinforcements are still a day or two out at best," Gadler said, circling the edge of the projection with his baton. His tone was as clipped and refined as his mustache. "Our sweep through Darmatia, coordinated with a renewed offensive against Varas Fortress, have caught Rabban completely by surprise. If we engage now, all we'll have to deal with is their local forces."
"Which are?" Valescar focused his attention on the beads of ooze coalescing into hovering warships above the fake Beiras.
"A mere dozen airships—one dreadnaught, four heavy cruisers, and a smattering of smaller frigates. We can smash right through them."
Valescar nodded. With forty warships in his fleet and two army groups containing three panzcraft divisions, five infantry divisions, four mage battalions, and numerous support units on the ground, there could be no doubt of the outcome of today's battle. There would be no siege, only a slaughter.
He pitied his opposite, the Rabbanite commander who'd been ordered to stand and die for Beiras. They'd been fools to leave their Darmatian border undefended. Fools to think the Kingdom's neutral buffer could protect their soft heartlands. They would pay the price for their naiveté.
"No need fer tricks; that's precisely what we'll do," Valescar said. "Comm, signal all ahead one third ta the fleet an' let's see what their response is. Also, tell General Schutte on the ground ta hold till we've mopped up those airships."
Heels clicked together. Gadler saluted, then marched back to his post beside the ship's wheel on the level below—the second of the bridge's three tiers. Rorck, the flint-faced, burly helmsman, offered the captain control of the ship, but Gadler waved him off and began issuing orders to a group of deck officers at the stations around him.
"Ahead one-third!" Rorck shouted. One of his bulging arms, barely hidden beneath his sweat-soaked sleeve, pressed forward on the waist-high lever beside the wheel.
"Ahead one-third!" Annell echoed, directing her cheery voice into a series of bronze voice-pipes surrounding her desk. At the same time, her deft hands tapped out a series of coded clicks on a brass knocker—a short range communication to the rest of the fleet to adjust speed.
A sharp whistle came from the ceiling. Illyrium had been fed into Judicator's engines, and she was ready to accelerate. Seconds later, a deep rumble vibrated through the dreadnaught. It quickly subsided into a quiet purr as the ship reached a third of its maximum velocity, but would return if they changed course or increased speed again.
An' now comes the fun part, Valescar thought. Judicator—her crew, not the ship—could all but operate without him. Technicians and engimages hastened hither and yon with resolute purpose. Hushed murmurs and energetic clacking came from the comm station. Bright lights flashed in the crew pits to either side of the bridge's central stairway as deck officers and mages pored over the data displayed on their instruments and crystals. The grating of boots on the metal gantries hung just below all the other sounds.
Each whisper, clatter, and hiss of steam added to the Judicator's symphony—the music of competence Valescar had cultivated over decades of military service. Gadler, Annell, Rorck, Hurgan, Ketric, Elias, Irine, and so many others he knew by name. He had followed their careers, plucked them from their units, and assembled them into the best crew the Empire over. They may not be his family, but their bonds were thicker than blood.
Valescar strode toward the front of the bridge, the crimson cloak of his rank trailing behind him. On his way, he complimented Ensign Annell on how swiftly she'd relayed his orders to the fleet. A clap on Helmsman Rorck's rock-firm shoulder brought a fierce grin to the man's scar slashed lips. Lieutenant-Commander Hurgan, straight-laced as ever, jumped to attention as Valescar passed the fire-control pit. While he returned the salute, two pages of atmospheric data readings materialized in his other hand, key points highlighted with red ink. Sensor Ketric was a silent ghost, but there was no one the Rittermarschal trusted more when his ship found herself in the middle of a storm.
Ensigns Elias and Irine, twin spotters, glanced up from their bronze spyglasses at Valescar's approach. Both women clutched their fists to their chests and inclined their heads. From their tied back blonde hair, to their freckled cheeks, to the aqua crescent-moon catalysts that dangled from their left ears, they were always in sync. Valescar tapped his own breastplate, then waved them from their post.
"But sir," Elias protested. "We've only just begun our shift." Irine shook her head in agreement.
"We're aboot ta enter combat," he replied. "The front's no place for a couple of unarmored lasses"—he clicked his gauntlet against his cuirass again for emphasis—"so why don't ya head topside an' join Lieutenant Yarric in the observation blister?" Valescar let a little iron creep into his tone, just enough to let Elias know his suggestion was really an order.
"Yes, sir!" they said, snapping their heels together, then departing for the sliding doors at the bridge's rear.
Truth be told, it wasn't a matter of lass or lad, noble or commoner with Valescar. In his mind, ability was the great equalizer. No, he simply hated seeing his subordinates die, and being near the bridge's massive glass viewport when shells started flying was a quick way to go.
He shaded his eye against the glare streaming through the steel-reinforced canopy. The morning sun was catching up to them from the west, its rays setting the hulls of his 7th fleet ablaze. Intermingled with the dawn were the bright flares cast by the Sarconian host. Orange and red blossoms sprouted from their engines. Protruding illyrium power cores radiated bright yellow light. Lume barriers of all sizes shone with dazzling rainbow hues as they shimmered to life in preparation for battle.
Forty warships, roughly a seventh of the Empire's martial might. All about the Judicator they flocked, not unlike birds of prey on hunt. Though Valescar had seen this display on countless occasions, he couldn't help marveling at the grace and precision with which they soared.
Harrier skimmers and lancerjets screened for the larger vessels, flying above, before, and between them. Light cruisers paraded behind them, their sleek forms ready to plug gaps in the formation as needed. On either side of Valescar's flagship was the main line. Stalwart, with thick armor and innumerable guns, these heavy cruisers would bear the brunt of the battle. Still further back were the reserves, freighters, and carriers. While the flattops were responsible for hauling and supplying their fighter-class craft, the lumbering transports kept the fleet afloat. Without their supplies, the illyrium and synth-oil that fed them, the warships would be nothing more than grounded hulks with guns.
Valescar's forces were reinforced today by one extra dreadnaught, the Vindicator. She was the sister ship of the Judicator—both were of the same design and were launched from drydock together—and was commanded by Vice Admiral Renfrow. Normally attached to the 1st fleet, the vessel had been released into his charge by Emperor Artorios for the campaign to subjugate the western reaches of the Imperium. Delighted at the reunion, Vindicator hung close to her sister's flank.
There ain't no way Beiras can resist all o' this, Valescar thought, shifting his gaze down. The Middenlane—the great highway that stretched from one end of the continent to the other—was a thin white line at this height. North of it was the great blue-green expanse of Lake Lovare, which bordered the Empire on its far banks, and to its south were the tiny bumps and stick thin trees that dotted the expansive Lozarian central plains.
The view would have been beautiful—if not for the blackened craters, smoking ruins, and churned up fields lining the approach to Beiras. Valescar's flesh itched anew, and a growl built in his throat. Scorched earth tactics. A smart move, from a military perspective. Absolutely disastrous for the ordinary people who called this land home.
Piles of charred white brick sat beside rain-filled shell holes up and down the highway. Little villages and hamlets, their tallest buildings two or three stories high, had been leveled, and what few thatch huts remained were being devoured by flames that cast inky smog up to greet Valescar's fleet. Trees had been reduced to stumps. No grasses swayed atop the plains; only mud and clay remained. Even without looking, the Rittermarschal knew that their precious fields had been salted. No crops would grow here for decades, maybe longer.
This was the cost of war. Beiras' wall of glimmering towers, resplendent in the morning sunlight, hid a darkness in their shadow, a darkness that hugged its drab, factory-choked outskirts and pressed on toward the far horizon. Dust, Valescar realized. They're kicking up plumes o' dust as they evacuate the city.
And what then? After they made refugees of the whole population, did they plan to destroy the settlement? Set it back centuries just to deny resources to the enemy? Valescar's wounded side burned alongside the fire seething in his chest. He spun toward the helm.
"All ahead flank speed! We're endin' this now."
Captain Gadler didn't balk at the change in plans. Reaching up, he pulled on a hanging rope, setting off piercing claxons throughout the Judicator. Every one of the vessel's thousands of crew members knew that sound: code red, all hands to battle stations.
The clamor of the bridge immediately rose from a murmur to a roar. Hurgan shouted orders at the grim-faced men manning the terminals around him, who in turn relayed orders to gun emplacements throughout the dreadnaught. Snaps and clicks echoed like pistol retorts, the sound of men and women racing to strap themselves into combat crash harnesses. There was no worse way to go than getting sucked out a shell hole at twenty-five hundred meters.
Judicator leapt forward, her engines straining for all they were worth. Grunts and groans rose from the crew as they were pressed into their seats, but Valescar leaned into the pressure, magnetizing his boots and armor to hold himself in place. The nausea that churned his insides was nothing compared to his disgust at the Imperium commanders.
Clouds of yellow illyrium dust burst around the 7th fleet, their exhaust magnified by the surge to maximum speed. The world around Valescar shook and shuddered, but he held firm, his eye trained on Beiras. The lofty, twisting spires of the city grew to dominate the viewport, and the stream of refugees became distinct enough for him to pick out humongous chained dragwyrms hauling artillery pieces and cargo bins. In the foreground, the blocky images he'd viewed on the projector resolved into trench lines, bunkers, and the Rabbanite airships protecting them from above.
"All ships reduce ta half ahead," Valescar called. He spread his legs to shoulder width and clasped his forearms behind his back. "Feed energy ta gun batteries, target enemy fleet."
"Half ahead!" Rorck repeated, slowing the ship.
Annell glanced up from her spread of comcrystals and code-knockers. "All vessel's report one-hundred percent combat readiness!"
The fleet drew together in a line, bands of light rippling across their almost overlapping lumes, an angry red glare pulsing from their thousands of weapon emplacements. Hurgan ordered one final adjustment, and the great turrets forward of the bridge swung left and leveled their cannons at the dreadnaught holding the enemy's center.
"Ready, my Lord," he announced.
Valescar held up a gauntlet, palm out. "Hold fire. The codes o' war insist that we give our foe the opportunity ta surrender. Annell, open a comm channel ta that dreadnau—"
Gouts of flame from the dozen enemy vessels—and from concealed bunkers on the ground—interrupted him. It took a moment for his brain to process what was happening, as often happened when battle erupted. Vibrant explosions dimpled Judicator's lume, obscuring their vision. The sounds struck next. First, the roar of shells detonating on their shield, then—bizarrely—the blast of the Rabbanite guns firing.
Cause and effect went out the porthole the instant battle began.
"No damage to superstructure!" Ketrik cried, one hand on his ear, the other on a glowing illyrium crystal fused to the bulkhead. "Lume is operating at seventy-eight percent efficiency."
"Scum-sucking voidspawn!" Valescar cursed, watching one of his light cruisers, the Threntas, spiral out of control with a smoking wound in her side. Links of chainmail snapped as he clenched his fist hard enough to warp his gauntlet. "Fire at will! Blow them from the skies!"
Sarconian lumes lowered, and a weighty salvo flew back at the Imperium fleet. Judicator rumbled as her own cannons discharged, engines and gravpads firing in reverse to hold her steady in the sky. Bulkhead bolts rattled, the bridge trembled, and Lt. Commander Hurgan ordered their gunners to reload.
Caught by the gusting winds, the black smoke pouring from their cannons quickly dissipated. Valescar frowned. Their marksmen were good, but the opposing commander was canny. In between fusillades, he'd drawn his smaller wedge-shaped cruisers and snub-nosed frigates about his massive dreadnaught, forming a cluster of supporting lumes that allowed them to weather the Sarconian storm.
Dropping their shields, the Rabbanites fired again. At the same time, the enemy dreadnaught's engines engaged, and the entire Imperium fleet began accelerating toward them.
The Judicator quivered under the assault, and Captain Gadler swore as he stumbled into one of the four pillars supporting the bridge's roof. The Cannavor didn't take the exchange nearly as well. Her lume gave, and her front-mounted bridge was showered with shrapnel, ripping away the canopy and slicing a nasty gash down her side. She remained aloft, but began listing heavily and drifting toward the rear.
Another update came from the sensor division. "Lume at Fifty-four percent!"
"Alternate volleys!" Valescar's blood was boiling—half with fury at losing good men and ships, half with joy at facing someone competent. Loathe though he was to suffer casualties, he loved the thrill of the fight. "Battle groups one through five will fire in ten seconds. Groups six through ten in twenty seconds. We an' Renfrow's Vindicator will open up with the hammerers at twenty-five."
The 'hammerers' were the twin, side-mounted cannons the sister dreadnaughts had been built around. Running the length of each ship—a distance of several city blocks—they delivered a payload the size of panzcraft at mountain-shattering speed. In fact, one shot from the Judicator had once shattered a Lusserian invasion from the north, collapsing a winter's worth of snow on them as they attempted to forge a narrow pass.
"Orders delivered!" Annell yelled.
Valescar took a deep breath and willed his plan to work. Still closing, the enemy fleet loosed another barrage. One of his light cruisers blipped out of existence, its magazine detonating in a blast that left behind nothing but ragged, earth-bound debris. To Judicator's port, the Vindicator moved up and took half of the rounds meant for them on her lume. Vice Admiral Renfrow's provin' ta be a capable ally, Valescar thought.
Five seconds elapsed. The opposing warships continued to close with one another, their segmented decks, gun barbettes, and the colorful flags flapping proudly from their halyards resolving into view. Garish hull paints—greens, blues, even purples—clung desperately to rusted steel that had seen better days. Valescar had always hated the Rabbanite tradition of making sure their ships couldn't be hidden.
Reloading finished, the Rabbanite's lowered their lumes. Valescar smiled—a grin so wide it tugged at his scarred flesh and set his cheek to burning. I have ya now!
Half the Sarconian host blossomed with lances of flame and smoke. Their shields down and cannons loaded, the effect on the Imperium fleet was devastating. Cruisers split in two or three places, secondary blasts from their own munitions setting them ablaze as they tumbled from the sky. A carrier hanging to the enemy dreadnaught's rear took two rounds to the engine, sending its prow—and all the fighter craft lining its top-deck—plummeting toward the plains below. In the back of his mind, Valescar could almost hear the pilots' screams.
When the smoke cleared, only five Rabbanite airships remained, and even they trailed fires that leaked from flickering lumes. The dreadnaught still hunkered at their center, engines still blazing, still rushing forward.
On closer inspection, it looked as though it had just been launched from drydock. Its swept wings were full of gaps—dark holes where weapons or lume projectors should be mounted, but weren't due to lack of time. Several of her many decks were open to the rushing winds, the gestalt steel ribs connected to her arching spine laid bare for all to see. Of the engines Valescar could see, only two—one on each side—were operational. The rest leaked spouts of ebony synth-oil and wisps of unused illyrium discharge.
His left foot began to tap, his charred toes shrieking at the motion. Why? Valescar thought. Why throw 'er inta battle instead of pullin' her ta the rear?
The Rabbanites unleashed a futile, impotent salvo, then hunkered behind their faltering shields. At twenty seconds, the other half of the 7th fleet released their storm of fire and lead. Two more cruisers careened off course to explode in greasy fireballs among the trenches below, where Imperium ground forces continued to uselessly launch artillery rounds skyward. They would never reach, but perhaps doing something—anything—made their impending doom more bearable.
Three wounded warships rushed onward. Their commander, thinking the worst was past, that all the Sarconian vessels had fired, dropped their lumes to retaliate.
Valescar slashed his right arm across the viewport. "Fire the hammerers!"
"Fire!" Gadler and Hurgen echoed.
The deck beneath their feet leapt. Anyone not sitting was tossed to the metal gantry, and Valescar's teeth chattered as his brain tried to shake itself free of his skull and his eyeballs flattened into their sockets. The boom that followed would've shattered the canopy glass—and his eardrums—if not for the shock dampening techniques Sarconian engimages had used to forge the bridge.
The two remaining cruisers disappeared. Evaporated, disintegrated, the definition mattered little. The four hammerer rounds continued through their wreckage to strike the dreadnaught. It visibly jolted under the blows, seeming to halt in midair despite the immense power of its thrusters. Half a wing tore free and flipped end over end in its wake. One of the faulty engines became a shrapnel bomb that tore a quarter of the decks apart.
For a second, Valescar thought it would fall. Drop from the air to leave a crater the size of Sarconia on the fractured earth beneath them. Yet, with a gasp of black smog, fire, and yellow-red illyrium dust, it found some hidden reserve of strength and kept hurtling toward them like a vengeful missile.
Valescar's eye went wide. For a single second of chilling clarity, all the phantom embers scorching his left side froze in place.
Toward . . . me . . .
A gasp came from the comm station. Valescar whirled toward Annell, who gaped at a sparking, staticky comcrystal on her desk. "They . . . they hacked us, sir."
By way of answer, she pointed a trembling, white-gloved hand out the viewport.
A loud pop came from the crystal, followed by a garbled voice—a Rabbanite voice. ". . . sscrrkk . . . You think you've won, invaders . . . sscrrkk . . . Today? Yes, that is true . . . sscrrkk . . . . Tomorrow? That is not a fate we need concern ourselves with, for . . . sscrrkk . . . neither of us will be . . . sscrrkk . . . around to see it! . . . sscrrkk . . . Come, my brothers! WE BECOME THE WIND!"
"Fire! Fire! Fire!" Valescar roared, spittle catching on the deadened half of his mouth. It dribbled down his chin and onto the clasp of his crimson cloak. "Don't stop firin' until that fool's ship is a pile o' slag on that piss-trough o' a trench they've dug."
Gadler shoved Rorck away from the helm while shouting into the voicepipe to the engine room. "Full speed astern! Give me all you've got!"
The old officers exchanged a look. A hint of fear lay in both their eyes, but not for themselves. It was already too late. They would die, and the crew they valued above all else would die with them.
Valescar turned back to the viewport. The enemy dreadnaught was a funeral pyre. His fleet had begun to encircle it from the sides, and fire poured into it from three directions. Its spine snapped. The other wing—and one of its two working engines—broke away in a spray of sun-touched sparks and silver.
Thrust unbalanced, the warship began to spin. Yet its forward trajectory retained a weighty inevitability. The Judicator's reverse thrusters engaged, tossing the bridge crew forward, but their sudden course change wasn't enough. They would soon be engulfed by the same inferno licking at the dreadnaught's hooked beak.
Raising his hands, Valescar prepared to push back with every drop of men'ar coursing through his veins. He'd never tried to move something the size of an airship before, but he would try. By all the forgotten Veneer, he thought through gritted teeth, For my crew, let it be enough.
As the Judicator rumbled backward, a very familiar fuselage bearing a gold and crimson "1" on its flank cruised past in the opposite direction. Its three top-deck turrets—one aft, two forward—were a match for the Judicator's, as was its command tower rising to a peaked bridge amidships. The only difference was the silver-haired man standing behind its viewport, fist across his chest in salute.
Valescar's jaw went slack. Vice Admiral Renfrow? The Vindicator? What are they—
A new sound burst from the comcrystal, this time a much-beloved sailor's shanty. Renfrow's gravelly, horribly off-key voice was the loudest, but thousands of different voices chipped into the tune along with his.
Once upon a clear blue day, up I looked an' sighed,
The breeze was brisk, the sun was warm, what a day to die!
"Draw in the sails," the captain said, "Reef an' stow the lines,
A storm's a comin' with our foe, what a day to die!"
The cannons roared, the mast did snap, ol' Betsy screamed an' wept,
Our blood ran cross the tilting deck, what a day to die!
Crimson is the sea now stained, the fishies gnaw our bones,
Yet the breeze was brisk, the sun was warm, what a day to—
By the time the shanty abruptly ended, Valescar and his entire bridge crew were on their feet, saluting Vindicator's bravery and singing along with them. The collision was brilliant. Hooked beak met pointed prow. Both were staved in, and as their guts intermingled, a detonation triggered deep within. Regardless of which vessel the explosion began on, an inferno swept outwards from the middle, casting fragments of their tortured bulkheads in all directions.
Valescar chanted a single word. "For'emag'wa."
The steel rain descending toward the Judicator halted, then reversed course. An entire dreadnaught was too much for the vaunted "Wall of the Empire" to stop. But the shredded remnants of one? Even two? Valescar could manage that just fine.
Yet the price in steel, illyrium, and cannons was one he'd willingly pay. The other . . .
Meaty thuds sounded against the viewport, the bridge tower, and the Judicator's topdeck. Valescar held his revulsion in check. The stench of his own burnt flesh, real or imagined, filled his nostrils day after day. Seeing its like again wouldn't break his spirits.
The same could not be said of Annell, or Ketrik, or even the redoubtable Rorck. They fell to the deck, vomiting. Valescar couldn't blame them. No one should have to look upon the charred remnants of their fellow soldiers.
The rain—both kinds—slackened, then disappeared entirely as Judicator continued her retreat. Valescar let his arms fall at his side. Then he fell to his knees, staring out the viewport at the smoking corpses of the Rabbanite fleet and the glimmering city they'd zealously defended to the last.
Beiras was all but won, and it had only cost him two light cruisers, the Vindicator, and Vice Admiral Renfrow and her loyal crew.
“A cost too voiding high,” Valescar whispered. “A cost too voiding high . . .”