Battle Report: Off The Shoulder

Posted by on May 10, 2012 in Blog | 0 comments

Battle Report: Off The Shoulder

Written by Craig Gallant | Tags:

Day 7257, Off the Shoulder of the Cauldron

Curiosity, they say, has killed many a cat, and a man or two besides. I generally scoff at such platitudes, until moments such as this. I have been aboard the Kuraga Kumpano, Hawk Cruiser, and under the command of Captain Jaroslaw Jasomir for almost a week. Where old Garrik was friendly and personable, Jasomir has been quiet and brooding. New to the Uncharted Seas, he chomps at the bit to escape Imperial rule, even Garrik’s loose interpretation of it, to join the Tepes separatists down in Lostwithial. And yet the hunger for personal glory and distinction, and the promise of sailing into battle with a Chronicler aboard to record his daring exploits, has been more than enough to keep him focused on his lawfully designated orders. Still, his gloomy, single-minded dedication to duty makes for dull dinners in the officer’s mess.

Leaving Jethosia and the collected Imperial fleet behind, we made west by south-west, stopping briefly beneath the imposing walls of the Kullorian Iron Dwarf city of El-Aron for resupply. Rumours of further incitement were running rampant along the extensive docks of the city, and we now know that settlements from almost every race and faction have been struck. The Iron Dwarves spoke of hunting packs of Thaniras Elves sweeping across the seas and sounds; we saw several before entering the area of the attacks.

The region, somewhere between Principia and Denonia, contains very little in the way of value to any intelligent seafarer. All around this empty zone there are colonies, and it is these settlements that have been the targets of the vicious attacks. It was the consensus of the Imperial tacticians, as well as the Iron Dwarves with which we spoke at El-Aron, that the attacks must be originating from somewhere within the dead zone that is now called The Cauldron of Silence.

The Iron Dwarves saw us well-provisioned – none of the hide-bound games their Old World relatives would have imposed upon us – and bade us good hunting as we sailed out through the massive sea gates and into Vemyk Sound. Their warnings of savage Orc Raiders were ringing in our ears. Luckily, we did not see any as we made our way west. The Thaniras Elves approached, paced us long enough to ascertain that we were, in fact, Imperial squadrons, and quickly moved off on their own hunting expedition.

Kuraga Kumpano was joined by her sister ship Petia’s Curse, forming a strong central squadron that would be the heavy hitters should Jasomir be forced to stand and fight. Ahead of him ranged a large squadron of Falcon Frigates, often almost lost from sight over the horizon ahead, eager for glory and vengeance. But the most fascinating squadron the intrepid Captain had brought with him were the four foul, stinking Martyr Frigates that he kept close beneath his lee at all times.

Crewed by the most desperate scum of the Naval Prisons, the Martyrs are heavily laden with bales of powder and gun cotton, barrels of pitch and unstable naphtha. I had never before seen these ships in action, although I had encountered them in port from time to time. They reek of desperation and the death of hope, and these ships sailing along beside us were no different. As I understand it, the Martyr ships will, once battle has been joined, sail straight for their targets and then detonate themselves when they are deemed close enough to do serious damage. The vast majority of their crews will be killed in this exercise, blasted to their maker or immolated in the massive fireball that will mark their passing. However, those few who survive, either through luck or bad powder, are forgiven their past crimes and sins and allowed to rejoin the fleet, ostensibly with no black marks upon their records at all. I shudder to think of the depth of despair required for a man to enter into such a bargain, but in the end there is no telling what any man will do when his back is to the wall.

Other than the Thaniras Elves a day or two back, we have encountered no other forces, and we have been in the Cauldron itself for more than a day. The winds have stayed with us and the skies have been clear, but with each passing hour I can feel the crew’s nerves fraying with unfulfilled expectations of violence. If we do not meet with an enemy soon, I fear for Jasomir’s ability to maintain discipline among his men.

Day 7258, Within the Cauldron of Silence

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

We approached the first island we have seen in three days with the giddy excitement of schoolboys given reprieve from some onerous lesson. It was some distance away when the mists cleared to reveal it, and the Falcons must have found it fascinating, for they were disappearing around the island’s shoulder even as we approached. Our focus was almost immediately pulled elsewhere, however, as we saw, emerging from the shadow of the island, two strange ships with back-swept, glistening sails. Roughly the size of Jasomir’s cruisers, the two ships were sweeping away towards the north while his frigates disappeared around the island’s southern tip. How the two squadrons had avoided each other we could not tell from this distance, but I had a strange, creeping feeling down my back.

The strange cruisers looked low in the water, their lines stubby and blunted, with those strange sails swooping back over decks crowded with scurrying crew. It was clear they had not seen us through the thinning fog, and before they could make good their evasive manoeuvres, Captain Jasomir had his signalman issue the Martyrs the order they had spent every moment since being plucked from the Naval Prisons both anticipating and dreading. The fast little ships shot out from the shadow of the cruisers and their wakes were arrow straight as they made directly for the strange ships.

“Um, Captain,” I was hesitant to interrupt a commander at the start of a battle, but “Captain, do we know if those people deserve to be blown to bits?”

Jasomir looked at me with a disdain I felt sure he would never want me to include in a chronicle, his finely-shaped mustachios twisting. In a frigid voice he said “those, sir, are Dragon Lord ships. They would fire their infernal ballistae upon us without warning.” He turned back to follow the progress of his odiferous charges in his dwarven-crafted glass. “They fully deserve what they are about to receive. Afterwards, we’ll take the survivors and find all we need about these pirates Arkos is so concerned with.”

I wanted to ask him if he thought this would forward his personal mission, but I had seen the wall of a closed mind behind his eyes and decided not to waste my breath. Besides, I was fascinated by the drama occurring upon the decks of the little ships as they race to their doom.

The larger Dragon Lord ships must have been Shadow Cruisers, although I had not sailed with the supposed lords of the New World in many years. The ships immediately began to move away from the island, trying to gain some headway on the pursuing frigates while clearing space between each other for manoeuvring and evasion. But the frigates were not trying to formulate a traditional attack plan. They were not trying to cross the larger ships’ Ts, or bring their broadsides to bear, or even bore in for a full-on boarding assault. Rather, the frigates had dispersed, each sailing in a course that would bracket the enemy ships before they could escape.

Even knowing what I was watching for, when the final moment of immolation came, it surprised me, and horrified me a little, to know that men had done that to themselves. The first Martyr Frigate to reach the Dragon Lord Cruisers did not detonate at first, but rather sailed between the two ships, their intent crews too focused even to fire upon them. The others swept in on either side, with the final ship taking up a station in the rear. The first ship then detonated, and in rapid succession two others did the same, engulfing the enemy vessels in a growing ball of white fire. The fourth frigate did not explode, whether through a lack of fortitude or a failure of their powder we will never know, as they too were swallowed by the blast. Wreckage and burning rigging sailed high into the clearing sky to rain down upon the sea for hundreds of yards in every direction. When the smoke cleared the Dragon Lord Cruisers were alone, still afloat, but their sails hung in tatters, smoke from innumerable deck fires swirled before the wind, and great holes had been rent in their hulls.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Behind the island we heard the crashes of hull on hull, muffled by distance and the intervening island. The frigates had found something on the other side and, by the sound of it, there had been a collision of some kind. It was impossible to tell what had happened, but I hoped the human crews were acquitting themselves well, as one third of our force had just expended itself upon the two cruisers before us, and to no discernible effect.

Jasomir growled to see the enemy cruisers still afloat and ordered his squadron forward. There was no reserve now, and we were committed. Our fate would largely depend upon what was happening on the other side of the island. If the Dragon Lords had a large force hidden by the land, we were too close now to escape unscathed. Obviously, the Captain had decided to make his mark here.

The Hawk Cruisers surged forward under full sail, sweeping to either side of the floundering Dragon Lords, and unleashed an unholy salvo with their broadsides. It was a daring move, as any balls that missed their targets could well connect with the Imperial hull on the other side. But it paid off, as there was no way for the enemy to escape the manoeuvre, and the iron balls flashed into the already riddled hulls of the Dragon Lord Cruisers, staggering them in their wakes. Fires erupted within the hulls of both ships and their crews were scrambling to work their ships and extinguish the fires at the same time.

Over the crashes and the screams of combat I could discern a strange sound from behind the island, as if massive springs were releasing a great weight into a solid object with a dull thud. I did not connect the sound with the massive ballistae on the opposing decks at the time, but that must have been what I was hearing.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

While I was clinging to the port side railing, trying to discern what was occurring behind the island, a savage cry rose up around me as the crew watched with rising incredulity as the two Dragon Lord captains, rather than attempt to escape, brought both their vessels sharply about, colliding with Petia’s Curse. With sickening crunches the two large ships slammed into the trapped cruiser, rigging and topmasts raining down on all three decks. The crews of the Dragon Lord ships poured onto the human cruiser, howling human Subasha for the most part, although in the smoke and fire it was hard to tell, and some seemed much larger than your average human. The battle was furious but short lived as the attackers had surprise on their side, and soon the surviving humans were diving over the side and desperately swimming to the Kuraga Kumpano for safety.

Most of the crew was fixated, with angry eyes, upon their sister ship – in enemy hands and already beginning to pole off – when a cry from the topgallant crow’s nest directed our attention far off to aft. An Imperial Frigate appeared from around the island, and a cheer went up among the crewmen able to see her. The cheer faded rapidly, however, as we saw that the small ship was not coming around the island, but rather fleeing off to the south, making no effort at all to rejoin the fleet. The Captain howled with frustration, throwing his fur hat to the deck in anger. I feared I knew what was happening, and cast a quick glance to the deck of the Petia’s Curse, where servants of the Dragon Lords were even now making ready to move off with her as a prize.

The captured ship poled off from the Dragon Lord Cruisers, moving away from the entangled mess of the ramming ships and sheltering behind them to hide from the vengeance of the Kuraga Kumpano. Captain Jasomir rattled off a string of orders intermixed with saltier language. The cruiser shed small boats as it swung round, sails snapping overhead, and plunged between the two Dragon Lord Cruisers. Both broadsides roared out at point blank range while the bow chasers barked loudly, throwing heavy balls into the stern of her fleeing sister. Planking and railings were thrown into the air like matchsticks, but the Petia’s Curse did not falter in her headlong race for open water.

Cannons opened fire from behind the island, and great plumes of smoke began to rise lazily into the clear sky. Closer to hand, the crew around me began to cheer as one of the Dragon Lord Cruisers began to show a marked list, it’s bow slowly pulling down and to starboard, dragging the ship out of the fight as it began to take on more and more water. Another of Jasomir’s frigates swept from behind the island, this time heading north, and again not stopping for the Captain’s frantic signals.

“Captain, something bad is happening on the other side of the island… I think you should—“

Jasomir spun on me with angry eyes. “Something bad is happening on THIS side of the island, you idiot!” He flung one claw-like hand in the direction of the fleeing Hawk. “Do you think Arkos will be pleased that I lost one of his ships? I—“

I pointed at the disappearing frigate to the north-west. “You’re losing more than a single ship, captain, you’re—“

It was at that moment that the remaining surviving Dragon Lords Cruiser, rather than obliging us with a stern chase, came up into our wake, crossed behind us, and released a massive broadside with its ensorcelled ballistae. The staccato thrashing of the corded bands hitting their restraining bars, the magically-enhanced whistle of the incoming bolts, and the savage detonation of the spells woven into their barbed heads erupted in brilliant green flame as they raked through the lower decks of the Kuraga Kumpano. They were enough to stop my heart. Beneath my feet the deck lurched as supports and bulkheads were blasted away, and baleful green fire erupted from the gunports all along the port side as the entire gun deck was flooded with magical flame.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

“No!” Jasomir screamed, spit flecking his lips. “Come about! Load ball and grape! I want them all dead!”

The ship heeled into the wind as the gun crews along the starboard side scrambled to load the new ordnance. The broadside stuttered and popped as each crew fired when ready, rather than in the disciplined roar that would have earned them the grudging approval of their foes. The result of the ball and grape upon the Dragon Lords Cruiser was disturbing, to say the least. The ship seemed to age as we watched, colour being washed from the hull as thousands of metal balls struck over and over. The sails rippled under the onslaught, tattering into the wind while the masts began to buckle and sag onto decks awash with the blood of willing slaves.

Unfortunately, as the crew roared their approval of the slaughter, their sister ship, under the command of a Dragon Lord prize crew, continued to sail away, widening the gap to an insurmountable distance. The crazed captain scanned jerkily in all directions looking for a target upon which he could vent his anger, and for a moment his eyes, one twitching uncontrollably, came to rest on me. He took a breath to unleash some ill-considered words at my expense when motion caught my attention over his shoulder. I looked out over the churning waves with confusion imprinted so clearly upon my face that it stopped the Captain in his tracks, and he turned to see what I was looking at.

From around the island a single Dragon Lords Frigate was limping towards us. Her sails were tattered, she was listing badly, but there could be no doubt that her bow was pointed directly amid ships to the large cruiser.

“Load again!” The Captain’s voice was hoarse with strain and emotion, but the death of the small craft was clearly written there. “I want that ship erased from the waves!”

I looked again, more closely this time, at the approaching frigate. There was something about the ship, something about the rigging, that did not seem right, but I could not quite place the issue. Then—

“Captain, I think the approaching ship is crewed by your men. Look with the glass. Is that not a white flag she flies from her mast?”

The Jasomir snapped his glass open and angrily pushed it to his eye. He grunted once, and then took the glass away to look again with his naked eye. “Well, I’ll be damned . . . “

“It seems we are not the only ones to have a ship taken this day.” I was trying to put a brave face on the events, for it was nearly certain his command would be taken away from him unless the approaching ship contained far more information than I thought it would. Alas, I should have known better.

“I’ve lost more than a ship, I think, Chronicler.” He pointed to the north, and then the south. “I’ve a feeling I’ll be bringing home two ships, and one not even my own.” The grim set of his mouth told me he completely understood the situation he found himself in. Returning to a commander that was also a political rival, even if one so innocuous as Garrik, in defeat was no easy thing to do. It would most likely mark the end of his naval career, at the very least.

“Well, maybe that frigate has some intelligence on it that might mitigate the situation.”

Captain Jasomir shook his head ruefully. “It won’t matter now. They could have the pirate Captain himself on board, and it wouldn’t save me at this stage.”

I looked at him for a moment, and almost patted him on the shoulder in sympathy. Something told me that would not be received well, however, and so, with a shake of my own head, I moved towards one of the forward stairs to gather my things and see if I could help the men below. It would occur to Jasomir sooner rather than later that he did not need to return to Garrik Arkos at all. Perhaps he would not like a chronicle to exist of this day’s events. In any case, I would need to be long gone from the torn decks of the Kuraga Kumpano.