Signus has been kind to me, all things considered.
On the first, I was brutally awoken by a mad bugler at six in the morning. Jenny had the courtesy to return my clothes to me, but that kindness didn’t seem to extend to keeping quiet about the night before. What a disaster. Luckily all I did was say a few regrettable things to her, but I still needed to spend some time at the temple. Especially since I’d be missing mass that day, and all because of the harebrained, sadistic, psychotic Catilinian army. If I survive, I hope to Heaven that Father Marcellus has read my letter and taken pity on me, because this “ambassador” business is the pits.
At the temple, I prayed for strength. Given my recent failures, I was expecting to suffer a great deal in the weeks to come, and I needed all the grace I could hope to receive. I’d been sober for almost eight months—a personal best since leaving the monastery—but I hadn’t forgotten how withdrawal has affected me in the past. I had complete faith that I could endure anything with the Angel’s aid, but whether or not He was still willing to assist me was up in the air. No amount of doves some archon could conjure would convince me that I’d been forgiven so easily. I beat a man to death who was in retreat—the Hells gape for people like me. I would have to be righteous and stoic if I wanted to regain His favor. And I certainly couldn’t break any more vows.
When I met up with the rest of the group and the cavalcade of brutish military types that would be going north with us, we were introduced to a man named Specca, who detailed the route we would be taking. It was then that I found out we’d be walking for most of the journey. I assumed that the physical exertion would only enhance my suffering, but now I think it was some kind of benevolent penance. The persistent exhaustion kept my mind largely off of my other symptoms. All told, I kept most of my rations down and only lost about eight hours of sleep dry-heaving. It was a bad week, but it wasn’t my worst.
On the seventh day of travel we were given camels for the rest of the way. Three to a camel, two at a time. Corinth and Jenny graciously swapped walking duties with each other and let me ride the rest of the way. It felt so good not having to walk anymore that I hardly noticed the other stuff was getting better. Azrath’s whip was loosening from my neck once again. As St. Cedric said upon returning from the last Hell, “Praise the Sun, for though her binds may shackle me, and her lashes tear me, my faith be a key, and His Light a healing salve.”
We arrived at the place called Barazhad Bay on the 10th of Tervida. Here, Specca said, not in Leminster and not in the frozen hroggar homeland, was where we were to make our stand. It was a sprawling waste of a ruined city, but Specca insisted that it was an advantageous position to hold. Thankfully I don’t know a damn thing about war, so I kept my mouth shut.
General Pelior, who was leading this particular attack, gave us our first mission as the platoon’s “special ops” group. We were to scout a nearby tower. Racha came with us, which turned out to be helpful, since we were approached by a couple of hroggar riders. I hid behind a wall, but apparently she dealt with the two of them quite handily. Not handily enough, however, since she left their horses alive. When we returned to Pelior, he informed us that these particular horses could communicate with the hroggar, and that they had probably already informed any others about our presence.
All the prayers I knew began running through my mind. I thought I’d never be more afraid to die in my life. Then he said we’d have to infiltrate the hroggar camp without Racha, proving myself wrong. I swear even my beard must’ve turned white.
Given my previous experience with the members of this military, I’d been hesitant to talk to Pelior before, but now I spoke. I strongly objected to his orders, insisting that he look me up and down and tell me if I was suitable for infiltrating anything at all, ever, in any lifetime. Jenny took the moment to joke that I had been able to successfully infiltrate a bar, and I hope Signus was watching me then because it’s a testament to my incredible discipline that I didn’t blacken that eye of hers.
Pelior assured me that my presence would be necessary in case anyone got injured, but that otherwise I ought to hang back and hide nearby. The objectives he gave us were things I thought him daft to think us capable of, especially without Racha. Burning warships? Espionage? Taking prisoners? I was too old for this ten years ago! I had to get out of this madness somehow. As soon as we were out of earshot of Pelior, I posed to the rest of the group that we simply leave—take a sharp left on our way back to the bay and never look back. Jenny tried to comfort me, but I’d had just about enough of her shite and wasn’t hearing any of it. But, despite my objections, no one else was willing to desert the army, and we headed out to make camp near the hroggar boats they’d spotted from the tower.
Perla searched the rim of the bay, and found an underwater cave she said we could take shelter in for the night. I was nervous about having to be in the water, but the cave was deep enough I could sort of sink to the bottom and climb inside with the aid of a rope. It was indeed a big cave with a dry floor and a broad vault, just what we needed. Once Corinth turned on his lantern, however, there was a lot more of interest to see.
A set of enormous double doors—iron by the look of them—were embedded into the far wall of the cave. Surrounding the keyhole was a circle of strange markings that Jenny identified as Norna. Using a dictionary she received from Pelior she started working on translating it. Since we were staying here for the night I figured I’d get a head start on my dry ration for the evening. We’d been eating sparingly as per military protocol since we left the Imperial City, but I wasn’t quite used to it yet. I hated being hungry. Signus knows I make an effort but gluttony is such an insidious sin.
To my surprise, when I’d finished my meager portion, Corinth tossed me a second one, saying that he’d snuck out an extra just for me. I’d never felt so much love for the lad. He liked to mock me and I suspected that he was less than sincere about his faith in Signus, but I suppose he can’t be all bad. I still don’t trust him alone with Jenny, though. The lass is too naïve for her own good. I was a young man once, and I surely didn’t have all my impulses under control. But of course she thinks I don’t know what I’m talking about. I suppose I didn’t listen to my betters either, when I was a lad.
Anyway, she eventually came up with a translation of the markings on the door with the help of the dictionary. She read, “Jaegerbaad the eternal city, city of heroes, heroes of Jaegerbaad.” We speculated briefly on what that might mean, concluding that Jaegerbaad was probably the Norna name for what the archons were calling Barazhad, and that these doors were some kind of secret entrance into the city. We were told that the ruins formally belonged to the hroggar, but Corinth pointed out that the entrance was needlessly large even for a hroggar. The keyhole was about twelve feet from the ground—not even the tallest hroggar could reach that without help. I suggested that the doors might be old enough to have serviced giants in the past, since I’d heard that hroggar are half-giants, but no one seemed keen on that theory. I didn’t think anything of it at the time because I figured it wasn’t important, but more on that later.
I said my evening prayers in the dark and thanked Signus for allowing me to survive yet another day with the harebrained, sadistic, psychotic Catilinian military. And when I awoke, I prayed that I’d survive that day as well. As it turned out I did (praise Signus!), but we had more than one close call.
When we reached the beach (after some swimming difficulty on my part), the sun had not yet begun to rise, which was of course part of the plan. Perla and Corinth volunteered to do a bit of scouting to determine the best plan of attack. Corinth got back first with the news that he’d found a good place for us to plant ourselves. He lead us through the water—I bobbing near the surface thanks to the high sandbars in the shallows—and to a sliver of beach that rested against a high, rocky piece of land that cut the bay in two. On one side was the bay that was visible from Barazhad, while the other was filled with hroggar boats. Corinth said we ought to sidle up the side of the cliff for a better view of the ships, so we could nail a few of them with fire arrows. He tied us together, for the stated purpose of making sure we would all be safe if one of us fell off. The exception, he said, was me. If I fell off, we would all surely plummet to our deaths, dragged off the cliff by my immense weight. All the appreciation I’d felt for the lad last night evaporated. Thank Signus that I’ve been blessed with patience and restraint. If I were Corinth’s age…
Perla caught up to us, and after much strategizing on the part of her and Corinth, they decided to have her take jars of pitch into the ships from beneath them, so she could set a few on fire, while we rained down destruction from above. Well, Connor and Jenny would likely be doing much of the raining. I still couldn’t fathom why I was such a necessary asset to this whole stealth operation. If Corinth was to be believed, I might even have been a detriment, if something hadn’t gone horribly wrong.
Luckily not going to her death, Perla returned to the water while we made our way up the cliff face. We waited a long time for smoke to rise from the first boat Perla would hit. Jenny and I struck up a conversation to pass the time, starting with the common ground that neither of us had ever learned to swim. This would have been a pleasant break from my fear of the looming war, but as soon as I mentioned I wasn’t sleeping well she had the nerve to ask if it was because I hadn’t been drinking. It didn’t matter that her assumptions were correct, it was none of her business to ask in the first place. I don’t understand it—Connor and Perla had both seen me drink too, but neither of them were constantly pestering me about it. I might have to have a chat with Jenny about her prurient interest in my personal failures if we all survive this thing.
Anyway, something did go horribly wrong. We had just seen Perla’s first target go up in flames when we were set upon by two hroggar and their psychic mounts. Apparently Corinth’s little hiding spot wasn’t as hidden as he’d believed.
The hroggar wouldn’t have stood a chance against Jenny and Connor, but the addition of Corinth made the fight quite imbalanced. As part of my recent attempt to remain truer than ever to my vows, I stayed out of the fray and healed only when it was necessary—which wasn’t even that often. It was encouraging to see my friends land expert blows on their enemies and still manage to dodge deftly any attacks that came their way. It made me feel more comfortable with leaving them to return to the monastery, whenever I heard back from Father Marcellus. Clearly, they didn’t need me.
But all of that calm flew away from me when Corinth was launched off the cliff by a heavy blow from one of the hroggar. Before I could react to help the lad, Connor leapt after him, clutching his limp form in his arms before both of them disappeared over the edge. I froze, entirely helpless. I spent months mending Connor’s wounds and keeping him fighting every time he got knocked down, only for him to die because gravity got him? Before I could further examine this train of thought I remembered that Jenny was still fighting. Saying a quick prayer for Connor’s safety—he could land in the water, after all—I turned to keep an eye on how Jenny was faring. Somehow she had brought to his knees the hroggar that had thrown Corinth. She looked utterly livid, and was advancing on the flagging foe with a dagger drawn—I didn’t even know she owned a dagger. I could see what she was planning to do, and I wanted desperately to keep her from it: Jenny might be a thief and a hooligan, but I’m certain she’s never intentionally killed anyone. I rushed to move between her and the hroggar, invoking a power that I’m certain I shouldn’t be using on the way there. By the time I got there the hroggar had staggered to his feet and raised his weapon. Stepping in front of Jenny, I laid into him, probably breaking his jaw but putting him—alive!—on the ground. I’d have to pay my penance for perpetrating violence again so soon, but it was a small price to pay for Jenny’s innocence. Now if only I could keep her away from…
I suddenly remembered what had happened to Corinth—and Connor. I whirled around just in time to see Connor clambering back onto the side of the cliff, an unconscious Corinth in tow. Hail Signus! Praise His holy name! It couldn’t have been anything other than a miracle! Jenny sheathed her weapon and I hurried over to make sure Connor was okay—which he was, of course, bless the lad—and to attend to Corinth.
Before any of us could even take a breath, however, a massive harpoon slammed into the side of the cliff and yanked a large chunk of it away from the land—the chunk that we were all standing on. My first instinct was to panic as gravity took hold of me and massive shards of earth began to tumble around me. I saw my friends and Corinth all leap onto the chain the harpoon was attached to and, in an impressive feat of dexterity, run down the length of the thing to the ship that had fired it. Not daring to attempt something similar, I improvised, clinging desperately to the harpoon as it fell towards the churning bay.
I didn’t see what became of the others—I was gaining speed as I approached the surface of the water and took a deep breath, closing my eyes as I was about to break it. I was underwater for a few seconds when I realized that I still had the function of all of my limbs, and also that I was not dead. Praise Signus! Again! I finally felt that I’d gotten back on the Angel’s good side.
I felt the harpoon start to pull upward, so I opened my eyes to see if there was something else I could grab onto to avoid being yanked into a death frenzy of angry hroggar. Much to my surprise, I saw Perla waving at me beneath the waves. As horribly wrong as everything had gone on this “mission,” I was glad so many things were going right for me in such dire straits. Perla helped me swim over to the ship’s anchor and use it to climb up into the ship.
There were four enormous cannons on the ship that Jenny—thank Signus she’d made it okay—and Perla were struggling to operate themselves. I didn’t think about what I was doing, about all the deaths I was enabling, when I pulled two of the guns out for them to load. My only thought was for Connor, who was probably under siege above deck with Corinth. Up top I saw the damage: Corinth was hiding unharmed behind the mast, and Connor was lying in a bloody heap, spears sticking out of him at all angles.
I dropped on the deck when a spear whizzed past my own head. As I crawled across the ship to reach my fallen friend, I heard the explosions down on the beach surely caused by the cannons Jenny and Perla had commandeered. But—by the Angel—Connor was still alive, and I managed to shake the spears from his wounds with the light of Signus.
By this time only a small platoon of hroggar were left on the beach, while a handful had piled onto the ship. Corinth told us quite forcefully to get off the ship while he blew it up. Not one to argue with a man who plans to set something on fire, I agreed and followed my friends off the edge of the ship and into the water.
There was a tense moment when I feared that Corinth wouldn’t make it off the ship in time, but he dove in after us just as the ship lit up. He was pretty banged up, though, so we had to help him back to the beach and limp back into the ruins.
We couldn’t even rest there, though. We returned to find the Catilinian front under siege. Connor, ever the bravest, told the rest of us to hide under one of the crumbled buildings while he ran ahead for help. While we waited I tended to the less severe of Corinth’s wounds, and it occurred to me, in this first moment of rest, that I hadn’t yet had anything to eat that day.
Connor returned quickly, though, tailed shortly by Racha, who seemed to be wearing a suit of armor made entirely out of stone. I didn’t question it—it was the only time I’d ever been happy to see her. That earth-suit seemed to make her practically invincible, and she carved a path straight through the ruins—and any hroggar we happened to meet—back to the relative safety of General Pelior’s keep. We were all in complete awe of her power, but she deflected any compliments by insisting she was out of practice and that she wished she could have a drink. I’m ashamed to say that, in the moment at least, I sympathized with that sentiment. It had been a very long day.
Once we got ahold of Pelior, Perla unloaded all the information she had recovered while she was setting ships on fire. I was sure to mention the iron doors we’d found beneath the ruins, but he didn’t seem interested, more concerned with any news that could be had from an advisor who had arrived alongside us. I tuned out after that. I don’t know anything about war or strategy, and that’s all they seemed to want to talk about. I heard something about an axe that could cut through stone, which I put down to fantasy, like that mythical Black Axe these military types kept going on about, but they seemed genuinely worried about it. They said they feared even Racha wouldn’t be a match for it. Now, I may not have the faintest idea what they were talking about, but that scared me.
There was a loud rumbling outside the keep, and Pelior mentioned that we’d probably pushed the hroggar back for now. In my boredom and hunger my eyes wandered to the sheaf of papers that Perla had recovered from the warships. I saw some markings on one that bore a striking resemblance to those on the iron doors in the underwater grotto. I knew Pelior wasn’t concerned about that, but I pointed it out anyway, trying to be helpful. Jenny agreed that they were very similar and after consulting her dictionary translated this new set of circular words: “door locked by key, key heralded by flame, flame lights the door,” she read.
Now Pelior was interested all of a sudden. He concluded that the doors must be important if the hroggar intended to open them, and promptly ordered us to go back to where we’d come from and examine the doors. I’d had just about enough of being sent around at the harebrained, sadistic, psychotic whims of this man, and on an empty stomach, too! But I’d been shown before that my objections are meaningless in the face of my friends’ curiosity and sense of duty, so all I asked was that we eat before we headed out again. Apparently they didn’t think that was an unreasonable suggestion, so we grabbed our dry rations on our way out and—once more—headed to the beach.
Once we’d returned to our cave—minus Corinth, who’d been escorted to the infirmary—we noticed that half of the words on the iron doors were now lit up, as if my candlelight. We tried all manner of cockamamie theories to get the other half of the words to light up, most of them involving fire of some kind. Perla tried to light up the other half with her gun, Connor tried to grab the door with his fists on fire, we tried to reflect a shaft of light onto the door… After much worthless experimentation, Jenny suggested we just wait a while to see if it’s on a timer. We waited until nightfall with no results, so we spent the night—again—in the cave.
Apparently sleeping on it was the right decision, as Jenny came up with a plausible theory almost as soon as she awoke: that as signal towers, like the one we scouted the other day and of which there were four, were lit, the door slowly unlocked in quarters. We all agreed that it made plenty of sense, especially since the hroggar had been scouting the towers as well. Armed with this new knowledge, Connor voiced an uneasy question that must’ve been on everyone’s minds: what’s behind these doors that the hroggar want to open them so badly?
I don’t want to imagine an answer to that question. The miracle of everyone’s survival yesterday made me complacent about what we’re doing here. I crossed myself and prayed for a different kind of strength than I asked for in Catiline; I have a feeling keeping my vows is going to be the least of my problems while we’re fighting this war.