The Last Red Shoulder
Chapter 8: The Ambush
Khyron hated being rudely awoken. More than anything in the world, he liked his peaceful sleep. Granted, being in the military for as long as he had, he'd learned to accept being called on at any hour, night or day. That didn't mean he liked it any better, though. He especially didn't like it when he was trying to get a good rest after about two weeks at sea, as part of the fleet launched from Nerinheit, sailing over to Jutes. Thus, it was rather understandable he reacted so negatively to the loud knocks on his cabin door at midnight—and frightened his caller even more than he already was.
"Damn it," growled Khyron, "Damn it! Damn it! I'm coming!" He angrily tossed his cheap blankets off of his body, got off his bed, stormed to the door and whipped it open with a snarl. "Do you have any idea what time it is? What the devil could you possibly want?"
He wouldn't get an answer immediately. "Eep!" cried his caller, stumbling back and nearly dropping the crystal ball he was holding. Thankfully, his tall, older companion kept a hand to his shoulder and steadied him—if he'd dropped the ball that would have been nothing short of catastrophic.
"Who…Serapino? Serapino?!" Khyron grew even angrier. "I knew we shouldn't have taken you along! What could possibly be worth waking me at this hour! If you don't have a good reason for this, boy, you'll be praying to the Saint for much more than forgiveness, I'll tell you that! Churchman or not, you've no right to interfere with a military—"
"Ah, milord," said Levin apologetically, "Respectfully, I'd suggest this is important. I was having quite a nice sleep myself before Serapino woke me up with quite a bit of distress. Something happened with this crystal ball and he thought you needed to know about it."
"That ball? Gosterro's ball?" Both Khyron's anger and his sleepiness began to recede. "Boy, let me see that."
Wordlessly, with his distressed expression still on his face, Serapino handed it over to the Mage General. Khyron examined it intently, and saw that it was glowing faintly. He could also see something moving in its cloudy depths. He heard a voice, not Serapino's, not Levin's not anyone very familiar, nor entirely unknown, but coming from far, far away…
Khyron…Khyron! Mage General Khyron! For the love of God, respond! Your life is at stake! Elimine, if you can grant me a single prayer for once in my life, then let Khyron hear my message!
"I'm here," he said tersely. "Who is this?"
"Archbishop Gosterro," came the equally terse reply, now audible to everyone in the area. "Khyron, your fleet is in grave danger."
"A-Archbishop Gosterro?!" Khyron fumbled, taken very much by surprise. He hadn't expected Gosterro to contact him again, honestly, especially not under these circumstances. "Your Excellency, forgive my—"
"We've no time for pleasantries! Khyron, the Red Shoulders are planning an ambush on your fleet."
"What?! Your Holiness, with all due respect, how could you possibly know that?"
"Don't question me, boy! You don't need to know where I get my information. The only thing you need to know is that I have no reason to lie to you, and every reason to see you succeed, and crush those Red Shoulder vermin. Now, listen. Your fleet is passing just over the very northern tip of Fibernia, is not?"
"Well, you can expect an attack very soon. There's a battery of Ballistae set up at the nearby coast, and your ships will be coming just within range. They've armed the artillery with oil-covered bolts, and plan to set them alight with magic once they've fired. Needless to say, they could well burn your entire fleet to ashes before you can even reach Jutes, just as Henken did to them at Aquleia. You must stop them!"
"Accepting you're being honest, we will try, Your Excellency. If I may ask, have you any suggestions as to how to do so?"
Khyron's question was honest, but Gosterro was less than pleased to hear it. "You're the Mage General here! You should—" His voice cut off suddenly, as if he was listening to someone. It was the strangest thing, but Khyron could have sworn he heard a woman's voice just under the Archbishop's. It couldn't be, though. He shook his head and dismissed the silly thought. Just as well, for Gosterro was back with him soon. "The rebels think they can ambush you. Why not ambush them? They won't be expecting an attack, and there are only about ten…no, a dozen ballistae there. They were hoping to set your fleet aflame before you noticed them."
"If you'd given us notice earlier, we might have perhaps avoided them entirely."
"I wasn't able to get this information earlier," Gosterro snapped. "Use your magic to Warp a small team over to the island. I'll guide you to the best location. Sneak up to the ballistae and use your Bolting magic to destroy them from afar."
"In this darkness? In this fog?"
"Your magic will not fail you. At least, not so long as you have my guidance. Now, stop blabbering and get ready! You are the Mage General, are you not?!"
That jab at his pride was enough to get Khyron moving. "Serapino, Levin, make yourselves useful and rouse the fleet. Wake Barim and tell him I want his six best Sages assembled with their Warp staves within ten minutes. I'll have my book and armor equipped by then!
As usual, Kain sat alone at a desk, scribbling furiously in his journal by the light of a small candle. The differences tonight were that he was in a tent near the very tip of Fibernia, and he had a distinctly worried expression on his face. That expression shifted to a combination of annoyance and relief when, as usual, his best friend interrupted his writing.
"Oy, Kain! 's almost time! Stop with th' books and start with th' plan!"
"I know, Leitner. No need to tell me twice." He promptly put down his pen and equipped his helmet, following his friend outside the tent and into the brisk night air. As the two of them headed towards their destination, Leitner offered him a friendly clap on the back. "What're ya even writin' so much for anyways? Not as if anythin' we're doin' is that interestin', right?"
"I hope not," said Kain gloomily. "At least not 'interesting' in the wrong ways."
"Well, that's what all of us hope," replied Leitner, growing more serious. "An' it looks like th' Royalists will be gettin' an 'interestin'' surprise t'night, eh? So why worry?"
Kain sighed. "Yeah, I guess you're right. I just can't get this…bad feeling out of my head. Like something's gonna go really wrong. Maybe I'm still too superstitious to be a good Red Shoulder."
"Haha! Well, y' fight well enough, so you're fine by me. Anyways, they ought to have set up the artillery by now, and the royalists'll be passin' by any minute. Let's watch the show!"
Kain nodded as they came up to the cliff on which their allies had established a small artillery battery. The rest of Squad Seven was there, accompanied by several native archers. They had set up a half-dozen ballista in this area, overlooking the ocean ahead. There was a barrel of oil next to each of those ballistae, and the archers were holding torches.
The plan was to douse the tips of each ballista bolt in oil, and then light it afire. They would then launch their burning ammunition at the Royalist ships which would be passing by the area quite soon. It was the perfect night for an ambush—there was no fog and the skies were clear and lit by the moon; the Archers would be able to see the ships clearly but the Royalists wouldn't know what hit them until it was too late. The King's dogs would not be expecting an attack, and they would be very vulnerable cooped up on those ships. A well-timed surprise could deal a lot of damage to Khyron's fleet, if not destroy it completely, turning his mighty ships into floating pyres from which there was no escape. They would never reach Jutes, which would make taking the city much easier.
Zalf would be captaining the ballista team, of course, and Kessler could do a little more damage to the ships with his Purge spells. The rest of Squad Seven would be there to deal with any surprises the Royalists had—if they had any. Kain certainly hoped they didn't…
But tonight, those hopes would be dashed.
"I think I see them," said Leitner, peering into the distance. None of them could make out any details, but they could make out the shapes of a group of large ships over the moonlit water. Those had to be the Royalist fleet, and Zalf's eyes were sharp enough that he could hit them in this darkness and at this distance. Once the first fires were set, the other ballisticians would be able to hit the rest of the fleet easily.
Zalf's sharp eyes caught something else, though. "Hm?" He looked up, piquing Kain's attention.
"What is it?"
"I thought I saw a flash of—there!" Zalf pointed upwards, and Kain saw several streaks of light falling from the sky. He might have mistaken them for a meteor shower, but the trajectory was wrong. They fell down onto the land itself, descending without a sound into the darkness some distance away. All of them recognized that—it was Warp magic.
"That's weird," mumbled Leitner contemplatively, "No-one else was s'posed to be arrivin'. I don't think those are our Red Shoulders…c'd they be the Royalists?"
"Couldn't be," said Jann calmly. "They have no idea we're here, and they should be sleeping. It has to be something else."
"Either way, let's check it out." Kain motioned to Leitner. "Get our horses ready, and Jann, Deckham, get ready to ride. Zalf, don't worry about a thing. Just start—"
He was cut off by a sudden tingling in the air around him, just before a thunderbolt slammed down upon one of the ballistae.
"Aghhh!" He stumbled back, shielding his eyes from the light and the burning debris. He heard shouts and yells all around them, but Kassa's voice carried over all of it.
"Zalf! Get away from the ballistae! Everyone, get down!"
Instinctively, he followed his friend's advice, diving to the ground and covering his head. Just in time—there was another crack in the air as another thunderbolt fell from the heavens, this time striking one of the oil barrels near a ballista. This resulted in a terrific explosion which might have deafened Kain had he not covered his ears. Many of the archers were not so lucky; he heard them screaming in pain. He could only hope Zalf was all right.
"We've gotta do something," Leitner yelled, "Th' ambush is—" He was drowned out by the sound of another falling thunderbolt, and another, and another. Seven more bolts fell before the chaos finally stopped. When it did, Kain immediately got to his feet and moved to get to his horse…but then saw flashes of light lift off of the ground in the distance, soar into the sky, then descend towards the fleet sailing over the water in front of them, entirely unmolested.
"H…How…" Kain mumbled to himself, gazing back to his friends and the "surprise" they were supposed to have waiting for the Royalists. Zalf was fine, thankfully—he was quick enough to have gotten away from the ballistae before the casks of oil blew, and was only slightly burnt. The other members of Squad Seven were also uninjured. But the ballistae themselves were completely destroyed, and several of the archers had been killed, either struck by the magic or tossed over the cliff by the power of the explosions.
"A mistake," said Jann, completely dazed. "It had to be a mistak…they couldn't have…"
"Damn it! Like hell it was a mistake," Zalf snarled, coughing as he picked himself up. "They knew we were here. They knew we were here!"
"How?" yelled Deckham. "The Royalists have been cut off for months. Where the hell would they get the information?"
"From someone on our side!" Zalf yelled back.
"Oi! Are you calling one of us a traitor?" Jann's voice was angry.
"Enough!" Kessler's voice was calm, but it rang out over everyone else's. "Zalf, don't throw out accusations like that. Those mages knew not only where we were set up but our exact location. Every one of those spells hit their mark. Not even the best Sage could do that in this darkness and from this distance. That's more than something just a traitor could provide.
"Perhaps the Royalists have some spell of scrying that allowed them to ascertain our exact locations. In any case, at this point we cannot allow ourselves to fall on each other when we need to work together the most. Instead, let's discuss what our next move should be."
They all fell quiet as Kessler moved to help the surviving Archers, brandishing his Heal staff, and looked to Kain, their leader, for guidance.
"Guess our ambush didn't work out so well, commander," Zalf growled, staring at him sullenly. "What's your great plan now?"
Kain didn't allow himself to be needled. "It's possible the Royalists were expecting an attack. If they had any familiarity with the area, they'd realize this place was a good spot for setting up artillery. It also could have been scrying, as Kessler said. Either way, this isn't the end of the world. Even with Khyron's reinforcements, they can't hold out against us. Let's get back to the main force and report this to Oldnar. Whatever trick they're using, he'll be able to see through it. Come!"
Groaning and coughing, Squad Seven and their allies fell in line behind their leader, beginning their long, sullen march back to the main Red Shoulder army camp.
Despite Kain's attempt at comforting words, they all got the feeling this would not be the first of their assumed victories to turn into defeat.
And they would be right.
Not much to say about this chapter, though I hope the next is more exciting :D