As Aurelia’s tale concluded, Alexi finished bandaging the girl’s leg. “Th-th-thank you,” she told him, pulling her leg back toward herself and shying away.
“It’s too dangerous out there for you by yourself,” Josephine said. “Your best course of action is to depart with us when our relief arrives. In the meantime, we will try to find this Razor-Tooth and the source of this … infection.”
“Well, the thing is … further down in the cavern.”
“If you wish to hide until we’re done, I understand, but there is safety in numbers, Aurelia.”
Blegovian and Pravo left Josephine to her conversation with the girl for a moment, scouting ahead. Back in the hallway there were two double doors and another hallway mirroring the one in which they stood. The double door led to some sort of ceremonial chamber worshipping foreign gods of the Orgoth. An altar sat at the back, which was still caked with hardened and cracked viscera. Worn spots in the floor marked where many Orgoth had knelt to pray to their black gods.
The room had obviously been used for twisted Orgoth tortures and interrogation. The place still reeked of death and when silent they could almost hear the screams still echoing as the chains quietly slid against each other. Blegovian examined a grate on the floor more closely. He found it rusted and sealed in the ground with years of blood and mortar of which the former was likely used for the latter. The spy gave his burly companion a grim look, then returned to report their findings.
“Where is kavern?” Pravo asked Aurelia, sounding peeved.
The girl flinched at his tone and seemed almost to lapse into something. “Below… sir.”
“Below grate? Where? Where?” he insisted.
Josephine looked like she wanted to step in but waited for Aurelia’s response. Instead of answering, the girl shook her head and scrambled away from him and squeezed back through the bars.
“крыса,” he muttered.
“Damn it, Ostavil,” Josephine grumbled, moving to follow Aurelia. Her armor kept her from squeezing in after the girl, though.
“The dead rise like in trollkin’s wet dream, and you wish for Pravo to have soft touch?” He scoffed and turned away.
Josephine bit back her retort and instead addressed the girl. “Aurelia, please. None of us are safe here while the pirates are a threat. Help us.”
From her corner in the dark, Aurelia pointed back toward the hall. “Back the way you came sir. Back and down through the stairs.”
She spared an angry glance at Pravo as she said, “Come on, then.” She headed off in the direction Aurelia indicated. Alexi dropped his personal rations bag at the grate, then followed the sergeant.
“Luck,” the girl muttered under her breath. Pravo spared her one more dark look, then left with the others.
“I hate dungeons,” said Blegovian. “Especially Orgoth. They seem to have had a strong influence on the Cryx or something.”
“I quite agree, Specialist StautTrunk,” said Josephine. “I imagine the low ceilings do not agree with you either.”
“Obvious,” Pravo remarked, just loud enough to be heard.
Blegovian smirked. “Yeah, that too. Let’s get this mission over with.”
“It’s not that bad,” said Konstantin. “I’d rather be here than back in the barracks waiting for the next mission to come along.”
Pravo opened another locked door then stepped aside for the soldiers to blaze the trail. An ‘L’ shaped room ending in a stairwell had ruts dug into the floor as though thousands of feet had tread across it, pulling things of great weight to and from the stairs. The room seemed to be empty of anything of importance aside from a hatch at the stairs.
Blegovian followed Konstantin. “You want to try the hatch?”
“After you, Specialist,” said the Iron Fang.
The hatch opened to a rickety stairwell that tilted sharply, but was wide enough for Ivor. The stairs end on a catwalk that zig-zagged down toward frigid waters floating with clumped ice. Amid the water sat about four small skiffs buoyed around a half-sunken ship with the Khadoran banner attached to its crooked mast.
From their vantage, they could see a large crate that emitted a dim glow on the far side of the broken deck, away from the dock. A handful of pirates shambled about on the decks of the skiffs, eyes glowing green. Beside the glowing crate stands a hideous man, whole body a dim sickly green glow. He rasped unintelligible orders and the others pulled ropes and moved crates from the skiffs to the docks.
“We take the ship,” said Josephine.
“Stealth?” asked Blegovian.
“As far as we can.”
The “captain” barked garbled words in some unknown language, and the pirate zombies obeyed, garbling and grumbling as the Contingent reached the plank.
“For the Motherland!” Josephine cried.
“Time to put these shamblers to rest!” Blegovian crowed, standing aside to let the steamjack barge in.
“Ivor, smash those sailors!” Alexi ordered the ‘jack. Ivor’s mace drove the first sailor through the deck like a nail.
Josephine trained both pistols on the aft-most pirate and fired, the bullets took him in the shoulder, and she strode onto the deck. Pravo threw a knife at each of the two nearest living dead men. An involuntary shiver worked its way violently up his spine at the sight of the corpses twitching.
Blegovian moved to the central part of the exposed fore end of the ship, using his axe to sever the heads of the dead pirates. “Mind my blades, trollkin!” Pravo scolded, barely keeping his gorge down.
Garbling filled with rage, the zombie captain stalked toward the water and drew a worn pistol in its good hand. Its free hand a sickle. It took a shot at Konstantin but missed the Iron Fang. A fallen pirate got up, groaning loudly and clawing at Blegovian wildly. The zombie caught the trollkin off guard and cut into his leg, blood beginning to seep slowly.
With an upswing of its mace, Ivor splattered a pirate zombie against the cave ceiling. The zombie impaled on a stalactite and twitched a few times before falling still. Her path now unexpectedly clear, Josephine headed aft. Now that the captain is in range, she took aim at him. The hook-bearded, razor-toothed captain murphled as he takes a shot to the mouth, causing it to un-hinge and loll to the side. A triple tap took him in the forehead, and he fell against the crate. Then he righted himself, seemingly rejuvenated by its proximity.
Then Konstantin charged and jabbed his blasting pike into the zombie leader’s center mass. The pirate captain staggered back and looked down at the smoking cannon-crater hole in his chest. Then it looked back up at Konstantin, a muffled question-accented groan escaped its lips as it tilted backwards to the ground next to the crate. While the glowing creature slowly fell, the Iron Fang casually reloaded his pike.
“Is dead?!” Pravo called out across the water, moving up to retrieve his knives from the severed heads of the pirates.
Blegoviand moved towards the aft of the ship as the captain regained its feet, the hole slightly smaller but still smoking. He looked confused at the hole, then at Konstantin. “Grumfle?” it uttered, bringing its sickle hand down on the Iron Fang. The blade sank into Konstantin, and wisps of the green energy flowed into his wound, burning him with a sensation like cold fire.
“ебать!” Pravo swore. “Kill it better, komrade!”
“Stay down, damn you!” cried Josephine, unloading her pistols into the captain again. The bullets thunk-thunk-thunk into the body, jerking him left and right. It groaned almost disappointedly as it dropped to the deck again, falling still. “We have to get him away from the crate!”
Konstantin nodded, moving past the captain to the massive crate. He planting his hands and feet and strained against the weight, budging, lifting, and finally heaving the massive thing up and over the side of the ship into the makeshift harbor.
They could see its dim glow sink into the black below. At the crate’s moving, Razor-tooth lifted its hand feebly, uttering, “Grooooooo!” as it fell over the side of the ship. “Grawwwww…” was the last disappointed noise it made before its hand dropped to the deck, lifeless for real.
Konstantin tore off his armor and tried to deal with the poison in his wound. “Repparman! See to Dragov!” ordered Josephine. Alexi managed to tend to the worst of the Iron Fang’s wounds efficiently. With that handled, she went to the rail to see if she could see any trace of the crate’s glow. “I’d feel more comfortable if … whatever that was were destroyed, but I’ll take it.”
“Was that part of the mission?” asked Blegovian.
“Is now, trollkin,” said Pravo.
“What? It’s recovered and secured … right at the bottom of this bay,” said Konstantin.
“Dragov’s right,” said Josephine. “Besides, we have days to secure these things before the relief arrives.”
Blegovian shrugged. “How are we going to see what else is in the hold of this ship if it is filled with water?”
“I suggest we sweep and clear the keep to make sure all hostiles are dead, Sergeant,” said Konstantin.
“Let’s make sure the keep is secured,” said Josephine. “Then we can worry about the cargo.”
They found Aurelia still in her cell. “Y-y-y-you killed him? The captain?” she asked.
Josephine nodded. “Yes. We cut him off from the source of his power. He won’t be threatening you anymore.” She showed the girl some of the hooks from his beard as proof.
“Thank you, oh thank you! Can we go up? I’d like to see real sunlight again.”
Near the exit, Aurelia pushed ahead excitedly toward the door. She opened the door to the courtyard, took a few deliberate steps into the snow, and turned to look back at the building pausing. “It’s… so terrible and so beautiful…" She then looked at the others. “Thank y-” A gun report sounded and she staggered forward, a look of shock on her face as she looked at Josephine, then down at the red stain welling from the hole in her chest. She dropped to the cold snow, staining the white a deep melting crimson.
Josephine dropped to her knees. “Find the shooter!” she cried.
“What?!” said Alexi, hurrying over.
Pravo scanned the courtyard, noting a gunman on top of the wall … reloading. “Sniper!” he shouted, pointing and moving for cover at the same time.
Josephine readied her guns. “Repparmann, do what you can for her!”
“Yes. Yes, yes….” said Alexi, already working on her. Then, “No good, Sergeant She’s gone.”
In Llalese, the sergeant swore, “Then I will send him after her.”
Blegovian ran towards the stairwell, pulling his axe and leading the way up to the walls. The trollkin took a shot to his chest as he made the top, blood trickling down under his great coat. The sniper took a shot at Pravo as he rushed up, the hit distressing and distracting him. Josephine took advantage of the sniper’s immobility, swearing loudly in an assortment of language as she rushed him. This close, she could see that he wore a familiar set of goggles over his eyes and the same clothing they’d seen on the gunman in Ohk.
Josephine’s blade whirled. It caught in his heavy coat, and she felt metal pates in the cloth, but it didn’t completely protect him. “Acht! Bitch!” he swore in Khadoran.
Blegovian charged the sniper, smashing the axe into his chest, felling him to the ground. The sniper looked up at the trollkin and Josephine and coughed once, spitting up some blood and a tooth. “Heh. For ze Motherlandt-” He coughed. “Eh, komrade?” Then he went completely limp.
Josephine stared down at him, tightly clutching her blades in shaking hands. Blegovian shook his head. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
It took her a moment to realize that the trollkin was talking to her. “I don’t know,” she said. Then she paused and crouched down to inspect a glint from under the sniper’s coat. She unpinned two medals from his shirt. “Khadoran medal of service,” she said. “And the Khadoran medal for foreign service. Someone does not want our mission to succeed.”
Blegovian sighed. “So should we not expect our relief to arrive?”
Konstantin approached. “We were on the same side. So the question is … who is being lied to by their superior officer? Him, or us?”
“I hate to jump to conclusions, but I have offended someone higher than me in the chain of command.”
“Surprisink … No one….” Pravo managed to say. “Thinkink I have head wound, Dok Komrade.”
“Seems like a stone, but I see no signs of the bullet,” said Alexi. “I’ll wrap that in the infirmary, but you should rest it for a day or two.”
“That’s the problem with Officers,” said Konstantin. “Unless they are in the line of fire, they rarely act in the interests of the Motherland over their own. Give me a group of grunts to fight with any day and you can keep you bars and stripes.”
Josephine had no answers. “M-make sure there isn’t anyone else out here we don’t know about.”
A quick visual sweep revealed that the area was clear. Alexi provided medical services to those who required them. Not knowing whether the reinforcements were going to be friend or foe, Konstantin spent the days building defenses as best he could.
Josephine took the time to bury Aurelia. But not the sniper. Blegovian burned the man’s body in his ritualistic manner, along with the bodies of the pirate zombies.
Nothing else occurred until the Contingent’s relief arrived a couple of days later. First Lieutenant Mikhail Skarrov and his men began to set up swiftly. Josephine reported the sniper attack, showing the man’s medals to the commanding officer.
“Hrmmm….” said Skarrov, considering the report. “Well, we’ll have to look into that later. Glad you are all right. As for you, you don’t have much time, your little group did well, it seems. You have new orders. You’re going north. It would seem that the Nyss are coming out of hiding and we’re at war.”