Vol.1, Ch.3, P.7
Dust billowed about in boundless ubiquity, content in its continued suspension. The veritable depths of an earthen sea, where teemed my foes, and I, their lone prey. I was unseen, but I could not remain so forever—I had to spring to action and quit the place soon, before the dust could settle.
Steadily did the ringing in my ears begin to fade, and in the meanwhile, I searched about for some particular necessities.
The demolition unit responsible for the Des Ailes’ undoing… they still had to be here somewhere—likely not far from the foot of the bridge itself.
I waded through the dust in that direction, soon coming upon a Nafílim group. Their gear betrayed their purpose: archers charged with firing hot arrows into the explosives that ended the Des Ailes.
Yet they were restless. Fracted and fraught.
The scope of the prior explosion must have soared beyond their expectations, and its dusty aftermath was proving too much to deal with. In fact, their chain of command might have been paralysed in the time being, for in the murky air, there appeared a Nafíl loitering alone, separated from his unit.
Visibility was already poor, but the blasting and bellowing tumult of the battle further provided the perfect mask for my footfalls. No slinking was needed to get up behind my mark. Once there, I swiftly lunged at his back.
Grounded, I curled both my legs about his arms, restraining them, and wrapped my right arm about his neck in a chokehold. With my free hand, I seized and wrung the back-left of his collar, and pressed against the side of his neck. No more blood would reach his brain at this rate.
“…kh…!? …gk… dh…!” Words, let alone sounds, were failing to leave his constricted throat.
I maintained the hold for another moment till all strength and strain left my victim’s body. Quickly then, I divested his limp person of its arrow-quiver—just what I was looking for.
But I wasn’t done yet. I peered about. It had to be here somewhere.
Next to the bridge?
“…There you are.”
These things—explosives, to be sure—tended to be overstocked in their number, and for good reason: one could scarce predict just how many would be needed to get the “job” done. They were all stacked in a pile, in the shadow of which I hid the unconscious Nafíl’s body.
I next hoisted up one of the crates to my shoulder. Quite heavy, this. A third of a passus on each of its sides, reaching up to the knee if put to the ground. Certainly not something for a man to carry all on his own. Its edge sank and bit into my shoulder, rousing incredible pain, but I could ill-afford to tarry about and complain.
Now, a horse.
Before the explosion, mounted personnel had trotted up and down the banks, their charge it was to coordinate the artillerymen in dealing with our forders. Those same commanders should still be in the area.
I strained my ears, listening through the ruckus of war for any telltale sounds.
Beyond the dusty haze.
The rhythmic thump and thud of hoof-falls.
Cautious ones, I might add. Awfully so, on account of the occluded visibility.
I waited, just long enough that a break in the dust plumes revealed my next victim’s whereabouts. Spotting him upon his horse, I crept up to his side. It was all or nothing—I sprinted across the remaining distance and threw myself upon him, crate and all.
“Aagh!?” yelped the now dismounted Nafíl.
No time to waste.
I wrangled the horse and climbed up to its saddle. Taking its reins into my free hand, I kicked the critter into a full gallop, leaving behind the barks of its former rider. With newfound speed, I shot out of the mountainous plumes of dust at last, and drave upstream along the bank.
The Des Ailes.
When the flaming arrows struck the explosives in that dreaded moment, the bridge was all but doomed. Utter defeat loomed, but the day was not yet decided—there was still one more wager to make. And it was this very wager that had compelled me to run past the explosives like I did, that I might somehow end up in the enemy’s lap and there cast the deadly dice.
But those same dice had yet to leave my hands. For that, I headed to a new destination: the tributary.
From the fraught mire of my mind emerged the map from yesternight’s war council.
The Erbelde Broadrun.
At a fork further up that river, the tributary veered off and slithered into Nafílim territory. Reaching that fork would not take long—less than three mīllia-passūs separated it from the bridge proper, a punctually closable distance if I made haste.
From what I recalled of the map, the tributary’s breadth hardly compared to that of its mother stream, but it was nonetheless well-endowed in its own right. If dammed, its diverted waters would engorge the Erbelde into a raging tide.
Why in the name of all that is good had I not noticed this sooner?
Whilst envisioning the fording operation, whilst scrutinising the strategy during the war council—not few were the times when I could have scried this one fatal detail.
What’s more, I had not even entertained the possibility that our Nafílim foes might have foreseen our willingness to cross the river afoot. If I myself could predict that the 1st would hazard such a risky operation, then surely Nafílim minds would have been capable of the same prescience. That they crafted a contingency plan to answer our foolhardy ploy was painful proof of this.
Cursing my own ignorance, I stirred the steed to its fullest speed.
Felicia. Her fellow forders withal.
Were they all yet holding on?
They must be. They have to be. This, I trusted, for there was nothing else left to trust.
Forcing the enemy into funnelling their forces onto the bridge was now all but a tactic lost in its purpose. But the explosion, the chaos of their own creation, had left the Nafílim chain of command broken along its links. Thus if the forders could just regain their footing, they may yet survive, whether they then choose to pull back or make for the enemy shores.
The tributary now came into view, and with it, the Nafílim engineers stationed in its vicinity. They were poorly defended—their strategists well-predicted the fording operation, but perhaps they were too prideful to imagine that any of our number would come up this far.
Arrows whistled past. I ducked closer to the saddle, maintaining my speed and course both. Taking it easy here would avail me nothing.
An arrow ate into my left shoulder.
Pain shrieked inside my head. My vision rattled dizzyingly. Yet I pressed on. Nevermind that my right shoulder was in no better shape, it, too, being eaten, but by the sheer weight of the wooden crate instead.
Just a little further. A little further! Upon steeling myself with those words, my steed let out a horrible neigh—an arrow had dived into its body. And just like that, the poor animal collapsed, throwing forth its own body into the midst of the Nafílim engineers, who all dispersed in every direction to avoid the downed beast.
Torn from my mount, I quickly collected myself and sprinted toward the tributary. Further pain raged through my body. The trauma of falling off the horse must have exacted its price of broken bones.
Reaching the riverside, I peered down. By my estimation, the tributary was almost three passūs wide, about the arm spans of two large men. Its waters were stilled: sacks of sand had been piled high upon it, stilling the flow.
Swords were drawn—the engineers were in fast pursuit. Bracing myself, I leapt down onto the damming mound, the crate of explosives still on my shoulder.
“Agh!” I groaned upon landing. Or perhaps “landing” is too graceful a word. I was, by that point, beaten and battered to pieces. But I dared not stop, not while in my head flashed visions of Felicia and her fellows holding fast against the fury of the river. My heart begged them, each and every one, to bear the Erbelde, if only for a while longer.
Dropping the crate of quickfire upon the mound, I drew an arrow from the stolen quiver slung about my back. Coiled about the base of the arrowhead was paper laced with flammables, while yellow phosphorus coated its striker.
Classic Nafílim weaponry.
Glad was I to have “stuck my nose” in the books before the march. Sudden friction upon the phosphorus was all that would be needed to get the thing going. Indeed, with a strike against the sole of my boots, the phosphorus gave a sharp gasp, and the arrowhead was soon wreathed in flame.
I looked to the wooden crate—how fills the explosives within it? If packed to the fullest, no doubt the thing would flash into a ruthless fireball the very instant I jammed this flaming arrow into it. But if there was some space within, I may yet be afforded a moment’s mercy.
What of the bridge explosion? Was there any time between it and the sound of the flaming arrows striking the explosives?
I wondered further, but failed to recall.
But no matter. The black powder filling the crate was to be this fire-arrow’s next meal, and nothing else was on the day’s menu.
A look up found the engineers arrived and gathered at the riverside. They were frozen with fright, their eyes fixed upon the ignited arrow in my hand.
‘Fancy some fireworks, my good fellows?’ I could have taunted, but I quickly purged the thought. Perhaps a fine line to utter if it were my foes that would be blown away, but here, I stood to be the victim instead.
No more distractions.
I jammed the arrow into the crate.
The sound of splintered wood. The arrowhead was in.
At once, I leapt from the mound and into the murk of the tributary. Right as I hit the water—
—a roar of pure fire.
The newborn shockwave, being so close, rammed through my submerged body with tremendous force. A pall of heat pounded the water’s surface, while fierce winds whipped the river’s flow into a frenzy.
Within those merciless whirls was I, taken along like some discarded rag, utterly helpless against their ferocity.
The mound, now unmade, spewed its innards into the water, filling the depths with thick plumes of sand. But now the river was freed, and its renewed flow propelled the sand forth into a veritable landslide. Like a raging bull, it charged clear into my back, throwing my body about like a leaf made to dance against a sudden gale.
Or was it my stomach that was struck?
No longer could I know.
The torrents wrung me in one instant, and threatened to tear me to pieces in the next.
What position was my body in?
Which way was I facing?
Were my limbs even there anymore?
These, too, I could not know, just as I could not breathe. Not even my eyes dared to open: all that they would have seen was a sandy gloom too incomprehensible for my brain to process.
Fiercely and fiercer still, the tributary surged with waters making their violent homecoming, and I was but a pebble kicked every which way by the stampede as we both rushed downstream.
But in those fiery flows, there was comfort.
Comfort in knowing the ploy had worked.
My sorry state attested to it.
The string that was my very life threatened to snap at any moment, but my duty was done: I had destroyed the tributary dam.
(plural: mīllia passūs) A unit of measure used by the ancient Romans; known as the “Roman mile”, it spanned 1,000 passūs in length. 1 kilometre is equal to 0.6757 of a mille-passus. A mille-passus, therefore, can be roughly equated to 1 and a half kilometres.
(plural: passūs) A unit of measure used by the ancient Romans, taken from the length of a pace (2 steps). 1 metre is equal to 0.6757 of a passus. A passus, therefore, can be roughly equated to 1 and a half metres.