This weeks’ chapter is a little longer, but anything less felt too incomplete. Please enjoy it,
“You can’t stay forever. You get so bored just ‘walking around’, as you so eloquently put it.” Jovi played with the big man’s hair, his head resting in her lap. They relaxed near the tree line on the fringes of the monk’s camp after the excitement from their aerial visitors had died down and were damn well going to spend their last hours of the rest week…resting.
“My lady, I would venture to the depths of boredom and back ‘ere I left you to-”
BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.
The heavy thrum of a war drum shook Jovi to the bone, kicking her mind into a chaotic swirl of memories before it drug her forcefully to the present. “What’s that!?” Gib was already on his feet, hoisting her up after. Jovi caught sight of the enormous wagons on the other side of camp. One of them had been unloaded and lay on its side, one wheel wrapped in a tight leather sheath to make the drum jarring her nerves.
They never bang the war drum, she worked through a decade of memories even while converging on the drum with the rest. She glimpsed a darkening of the horizon far to the South. Ships? She thought she caught sight of a huge, shining vessel the likes of which she’d never seen before and high enough that it should’ve fallen out of the sky. It vanished almost as soon as it appeared.
Before she could wonder what she’d seen, she found herself in a growing ring of bodies surrounding the Speaker. She listened to his bellowed orders, gesturing authoritatively as the monks scrambled to obey. She and Gib glanced around nervously; maybe they should’ve been paying closer attention.
I can ‘andle it, just let them come.
Her father’s face flashed through her mind once and Jovi knew what that drum reminded her of. She looked back to the shrouded horizon.
At least a dozen heavy, steel-clad war vessels belched huge clouds of dark smoke and ash. She recognized the Thunderhead insignia and wondered what business Triad ships could possibly have this far North. Jovi’s contemplation imploded someone tapped on her nose. Hard.
“You with me, sister?” The Speaker’s eyes burned right through her.
“Wh- Uh, sorry sir. I’m here, yes, what can I do?”
“Help brothers Favorel and Albert move the last of the unrobed into the Barrier Forest. We’re going to get a head start on the mountain trek, it seems.”
Jovi grabbed Gib’s shoulder, who moved to join their assigned crew. “Beg your pardon. Can you tell me what’s happening? Are we under attack?”
The older man glared pointed into the distance. Then back to her.
“Do you mean to fight a professional garrison of warships from the ground? Are you insane? No offense, Speaker, but I’ve been a captain on the receiving end of your surface-to-air capabilities and forgive my saying so, but you need me here.”
The Speaker laughed a deep, booming laugh and clapped her on the shoulder. “Alright then, you’re with Bristol! He’s the lead gunner. And you,” he pointed to Gib, “head out with the last evacuees. You’ll be safe!”
“Nay, goodman Speaker. Only together shall we mount the insurmountable odds. Forever will our enemies quake in their boots at the thunder of our TRIUMPHANT MARCH!” Gib raised a fist at the fleet, grinning like a madman. Thunder rumbled ominously in the distance.
The Speaker laughed again. “I like it!” He ripped the dull robes off to reveal muscle upon muscle, his thick tree-trunk of a body glistening with sweat and adorned with tattoos of all kinds. Twisting, tribal tattoos crawled up and down his core and out onto his arms, though it was the stylized skulls that drew Jovi’s attention the most as she pointedly ignored his lack of clothing.
“Speaker!” She blushed.
Gib’s mouth dropped and he zoomed in on one skull in particular. A red one with 13 black teeth and three complete eyes above the empty sockets. “Would that I had known you to be a man of the eyes before the eve of our destruction, master Speaker. The times we would’ve had.” He slammed a fist against his chest. “To live is to die, to die is to live-”
“May our deaths spark life from their ashes!” The Speaker finished. The two finished with a laugh and a bear hug.
“What…What in the world?!” Jovi threw up her hands and gave up. She’d known her friend for too many years to expect this to make sense. He had a similar red skull tattoo on his back, she knew, so they were definitely in the same world of crazy at least.
“Jovi!” Teena flashed into existence inches from her face, and Jovi’s heart skipped a few beats.
“Teena you’re safe, thank goodness!” She embraced her friend. “I’d heard you’d gone off into the wilderness this week and I was so worried-”
“Oh yeah I’m totally fine,” Teena hugged her back. “I was with a band of the war brothers with Leliana learning some neat tricks and skills with Bristol. He used to be an engineer in a city on another continent you know and I said ‘that’s so cool!’ because I never knew anybody from another-”
“Hi Jovi,” Karina gave her old captain a one-armed hug while her sister recited the past week in excruciating detail.
Jovi’s mind was spinning, struggling to keep up. “Karina, Teena, hi.” Then Teena’s flashy entrance hit her and she had questions. “Teena! What is that on your legs?”
Karina sighed. “Here we go-”
“OHMYGOSH I’m so glad you asked I was just getting to that but-”
“We’ll be here until midwinter,” Karina chimed.
“I’m afraid not, Miss Debonara.”
“S-Speaker!?” Karina’s face flushed bright red. “Where are your clothes?”
“I am covering up the indecent bits, am I not?” He laughed. Then turned serious. “Miss Debonara, I’m afraid I must ask you to locate Leliana. The enemy hunts her even now, she should have the warning to defend herself.”
“Wait, we’re not committing suicide against an impossible army because of her are you?” Karina cut in. “She’s not going to like that.”
“Nay, fair lass,” was the reply. “Our freedom and our privilege we owe to our reputation and ability. Without opportunities to display our might to the world we would become outcast, and our mission would fail.” The Speaker smiled and looked around. The remnants of the elite were similarly clothed to the Speaker now, most clad in undergarments or war garb. “In this case, Miss Leliana just happened to be the catalyst.”
“I-” Karina bit her lip. Her gaze roamed from the men and women surrounding her, up to the skies, then back. “Okay, yeah. That’s probably fine. Point me to my girl and my sister and I will be on our way.”
“Me!?” Teena squee’d. “But you never let me go anywhere,” she bounced in place, ready to spring.
“I’m not letting you out of my sight, you little heart attack.”
The Speaker pointed them in the right direction, and Jovi and Gib bid their friends goodbye. Teena far outpaced her sister, jumping up and down and cheering the irritated redhead until they disappeared into the shadows.
Jovi takes stock of the situation, pleasantly surprised at how fast the half-dozen artillery pads had gone up. Little more than makeshift cannons or ballistae, each platform was manned by a group of people working in sync to prepare.
A wild shriek cut the air as a massive red-and-black-scaled raptor lighted to the ground, allowing a small woman to dismount. She donned leather gear and goggles and a rather fluffy hat, though she wasn’t quite as short as Teena. “Protector!”
The two held a quiet conversation before she took to the air, where Jovi noted another score or so of the animals aloft.
Jovi stops, overtaken by another memory. The reptiles? Vertigo whirled reality around her like a top. The ground raced away from her, sliding by like a placid lake of fire and scattered debris from the flotilla. “I can ‘andle it, just let them come.” Her father’s voice echoed hollow in her ears, ghosts of her shattered childhood home flung far and wide. The flying reptile had snatched her mid-air, saving her life.
“Jovi.” Gib’s voice pierced the morose memory, and she clutched to it like driftwood in the ocean. “Let those demons depart my friend. We have little need for them where we aim.”
She nodded, then realized she was in his arms. She wiggled free. “You’re right. Let’s go!” The incoming storm of steel and smoke cast everything in a hazy film of shadow. They took their places by the Speaker to offer advice. “Were I the captains in those ships,” she cautioned, “I would have expected you all to flee. They’re probably just realizing we’ve left a line of defenders. Next will come a warning shot, and if the admiral is competent, he’ll circle the fleet for us to cower at. If we break, he saves a lot of time and ammunition.”
“That will be an excellent opportunity for us to sow the most discord,” the Speaker grinned. The same smile which had been before reassuring and peaceful was somehow now feral, and menacing. “We are not defenders. We are retribution.” Jovi felt a thrill up her spine. “Take Gib and join Bristol at the forward-most artillery, so the gunners behind you can follow your lead.”
Shrapnel and dust rain down as a crater was blasted only fifty meters away.
Jovi nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
“With me, lass! With me!” Bristol dug huge holes into the ground, using them to hold the cannon stabilizers. The ballista bolts were laden with burlap sacks, or wrapped in a greasy linen sheet, a fuse at the end of each. A young woman Jovi was unfamiliar with was filling a small trench with cannonballs at Bristol’s feet.
Is this it then? Jovi’s mind whirled, she couldn’t concentrate. One day in my robes and already we’re going to…
Flashes of burnt ships lit the edges of her vision. The world started to darken, phantom cries of pain reaching her ears. That peculiar roar that fire made as it ate through wood falling from the sky.
The smell of gunpowder and charcoal, liquid fuel and the timber of the airships all burning and crashing together like a cocktail of destruction.
I can’t do this.
Her breaths came in heaving gasps before she realized she was losing control. It was too late. Too late for control, too late to run. She had never wanted to face another aerial assault, yet she’d gone and joined up with this one on purpose. Sky Mother’s arse, she thought to herself, I started the last one. Then Gib’s arms clamped around her, smothering in the best possible way. Jovi was swept up into a bear hug before she could protest.
“Alas that we must fight again, my lady. But we stand together, and no defeat shall overtake us with its wicked claws!” He nearly dropped her, theatrically attempting to mime clawed hands.
He always said the stupidest things.
She laughed harder than she had in months. Laughed until she couldn’t, struggling to stop even as the shadows of the first vanguard blocked the sun. She didn’t even know why she was laughing after a few minutes, and the bewildered looks she was getting were just fuel on the fire.
Finally, she managed to catch her breath.
Those troops thought of the monks as a serious threat, she knew. More than one defense force had annihilated itself in unwise assaults on the usually peaceful wanderers. Then Jovi grit her teeth, frowning.
This time would be no different.
“Alright Gib,” she punched his bicep. Then kissed it. “Let’s do some work, love.”
The Triad fleet still circled in their peacock parade when chaos erupted in the first volley.