“In conclusion, as opposed to disbanding them, I propose The Order of Apollo be assimilated into the Royal Army as there are no more evil things to hunt, and it would be dreadful to see such a fighting force go to waste.”
Sir Alvin Colby
A letter to parliament concerning The Order of Apollo, Fourth Day of Tending 3253
Pacing the floor, the Count wrinkled his brow in deep thought. Losing a soldier was never easy and Varro was no stranger to losses on the battlefield. This, however, was different. There was really no way to prepare for the loss of one soldier at the hands of another. He wanted to close the cave with every stick of explosive DeRothe had in his possession, but duty restricted such action. He’d been ordered to report his findings and eliminate evil. Collapsing the cave might help, but there was no guarantee. It was his duty to provide intelligence of his findings.
Salvo sat behind a small wobbly desk with a flat sheet of yellow paper, a vial of ink, and a quill arranged in front of him. The paper lay blank and Salvo sat ready to transcribe, quill poised between his fingertips.
“To whom shall the letter be addressed?” Salvo asked.
“Headmaster Fray and Mount Bronta are several weeks journey upon the open ocean from Adeline, even for the fastest vessel,” Varro said as he crossed his arms leaned a shoulder into the wall. “The logical choice must be someone of influence residing in the new world. The mainland was merely a few days’ voyage northwest of the Delwhick Isle. A week or so to any of the major ports along its southern coast. We could reach any of them relatively quickly.”
“Admiral Kro, then,” Salvo said. “Surely he possesses the influence and capability to send aid with such vast resources at his disposal.”
Varro nodded and waved his hand rapidly, a sign to have Salvo take down his dictation.
“Admiral James Kro,” he began with a stern voice, “I am certain word has reached your ear concerning my operations on the Isle of Delwhick. Please be assured that what we have found here should not be overlooked or belittled. We have encountered a powerful evil which has terrorized the locals for months now and will not cease unless we take further action.”
“Further action,” Salvo repeated. “That should catch his eye.”
“Many islanders have died. We have lost two of our own and fear more casualties unless something is done. I will enclose a fully detailed report of what we have witnessed since our arrival. Please do not think me mad when you read it. There are multiple witnesses who would confirm the details of each event.”
“We should reiterate urgency,” Salvo suggested.
“I respectfully request a prompt response regarding what should be done. Until I have received word from you, we will carry on our mission and round up and destroy any unchecked threat on the island.”
Salvo stopped scratching quill on paper, and lifted his head to look at Varro. The Count waved his hand, signifying he would continue.
“Know that Brenarian men and women fight and die as we eagerly await your wise guidance. Respectfully, Count Dante Varro.”
“We are to hunt these creatures? The rouge native, the undead father, and the fisherman?” Salvo asked.
“I will not stand by and allow one more civilian to die while I wait for a letter. We must at least discover what we face.”
“At our current strength, we may not be able to find them, let alone defeat them.”
“You may doubt me, Master Salvo, but please refrain from underestimating my knights in the future. You have seen what they can do on the defensive. They are much more capable on the attack.”
Watching the Marion open all her sails as she exited the bay, William Mayberry stood aft of the Albatross’s main mast. The deck was still slick underfoot from the morning dew and the sun sat low in the east. Gulls squawked and squabbled over little crabs they had pillaged from the rocks surrounded by white water and foam. The Albatross was anchored close to the towering cliffs which bordered the northern portion of the bay. Several sea birds perched in the rigging above the sailor’s head. The young man waved his arms, scaring them off.
William returned his attention to the Mighty Marion. She sailed for the mainland with urgent news, William knew, but why not send the Albatross? The Albatross was just about as fast, but the Marion was much more capable in battle. The message must be grave if Count Varro would rather send away his strongest fighting vessel then have any chance of the message being lost to the sea. Earlier, the crew of the Albatross had watched the Marion send all her marines inland. If they did meet trouble, it would be up to the Marion’s crew alone to man the cannons or repel boarders. William was certain they were up to the task but why take that risk unless the marines were needed more on the isle than on their vessel? Rumors of the previous morning’s events were spreading through the crew like an illness. All around, William could hear whispers.
“I heard—” one said under his breath trailing off to gossip heard only by his intended audience.
“Simon told me—” hissed another.
They were all speaking of the Knight of Apollo who had killed many innocent people in their sleep. William had heard of one hundred victims from a marine and two hundred from a deckhand. He did not believe either account. Neither man was there and neither man spoke to someone who was. No man, no matter how highly trained, could kill one hundred miners in their sleep without waking one, let alone two hundred. The stories grew more and more ridiculous from there. Apparently, this same knight was killed when a black bird and a horde of ants sprouted from his body. The ants possessed the corpses of the dead and fought the rest of the knights. Absurd.
William took no pleasure in spreading such lies, so he abstained. His mother had taught him to only speak truthfully, and he tried to respect her wishes. It is true that William Mayberry stretched the truth occasionally. No one was perfect, but never when the story was so plainly false. He was nearly twenty-five and had ten years before the mast. At fifteen, his mother allowed him to sail as cabin boy on his first voyage only if he continued his studies. Three of the most recent years were spent aboard the Albatross. None could show complete honesty at sea for that long.
Callused hands and a strong back were a testament to his vast experience aboard a vessel of war. He had shaped himself for the sea. He even kept his hair cut short. When he was younger, he had witnessed a deckhand lose a chunk of his scalp due to his long hair getting tangled in a line and pulled through block and tackle.
The Albatross was a fighting vessel and all her crew were ruthless combatants first and well-disciplined sailors second. They had each seen their share of combat. The Albatross was used to hunt and destroy pirate vessels along Great Brenar’s coast as well as in southern colonial waters. Her decks held no rookies to bloodshed anymore.
The sun punched through the overcast sky and began mopping up the dew with its bright rays. Squinting through them, William watched the Marion as a speck, slowly falling over the horizon. The young man stood in awe of the speed a vessel of that size could muster with the right crew. The horizon was speckled with ships that had left the colony that morning. Privateers and merchant vessels frightened off by the events of late, no doubt.
Turning to face port, William saw a longboat headed for the Albatross. He narrowed his eyes and flattened his hand over his brow to block the sun. Aman stood tall at its front wearing the gray uniform of the Knights of Apollo. His rowers also wore the gray. That must be Count Dante Varro, he thought. The Count had become a legend among the crew, though few had met him. William tried to remember how he pictured the Count before he had seen the man in the flesh. He couldn’t recall exactly, but he remembered being surprised by his appearance. Perhaps he imagined the man of legend should be a bit taller or maybe he should have grizzlier features. If that were the case, William would have heard less of Dante Varro by every woman at every tavern the Count had visited.
The first mate stepped up from below deck, ordering William and another deckhand to drop the rope ladder. The first mate shook the Count’s hand once he had helped him aboard. The rowers stayed in the boat. A blond man with facial scars, a very stern woman with a long braid, a savage with a tattooed face and dark, curly-haired man wearing a breastplate glared upward at the Albatross and whispered amongst themselves.
The Count was thinner than William had expected. He almost thought he was too skinny to live up to the talk of his keen combative style. With a clean-cut military manner, Varro asked to speak with the captain alone and was led to the forecastle immediately.
Count Varro spoke at the captain rather than with him. None heard what was said but all could tell Varro spoke plainly and concisely. The captain asked a single question with a discouraged look on his face he failed to hide well enough. Varro placed his hand on his shoulder and answered with a single word. Within moments, the Count climbed back down to his boat, and the first mate received orders from the captain.
Without question, the first mate nodded in acknowledgment and shouted orders that were relayed across the deck. Directions for the pilot, the amount of canvas for the deckhands, load types for the swivel gunners and two of the four marine squads were to go ashore to relieve a guard detail. As the anchor rose from the water, four dingeys were lowered and the marines climbed down into them.
Once the sails were set, the deckhands were sent below to collect arms. William emerged from below deck with his hands full of boarding axes, pistols, and cutlasses among several others carrying similar burdens. They distributed the weapons to the crew working the rigging as the ship turned north out of the bay.
The captain stood on the forecastle and raised a hand for the crew’s attention. He cleared his throat and spoke loudly for all to hear.
“It is our time to prove ourselves. We have yet to pull our weight out here on Delwhick. Today is that day. We are to sail to a cove up the coast and find a murderer. The locals believe he turned into some sort of monster. The wretch drowned his daughters. I believe you must be some sort of monster to begin with to do something like that.”
A shiver rolled down William’s back and his hands grew clammy. He had heard a rumor of a fisherman who killed his daughters to turn into some sort of sea creature. He told himself he didn’t believe it. I’ll soon find out, he thought.
“We will not be bothered by superstition. I detest rumors. Facts are what I value. This man must stand trial for his crimes or die resisting us. That’s a fact.”
The captain paused and let that settle on his crew. Then, he took a deep breath and shouted, “Are you ready for a hunt?”
The crew erupted into cheers in unison, waving weapons in the air above their heads. William looked ahead along the cliffs at a dark opening. The cove drew closer and closer.
Jake watched Dogwa and closely imitated his application of camouflage face paint. Brom, Jake, Dogwa, and several marines were crouched around three bowls full of green, brown, and gray face paint.
“We are tasked with hunting and capturing the brave who slaughtered his tribe: Fogwater,” Jake began his brief. “We are to kill him if necessary if he is even still out there. It has been some time since someone had spotted him, however, there is a portion of the forest none of the locals dare to enter for fear of him. We will go into that very part of the forest and so we must take every precaution available to ensure stealth. If the brave is still out there, we have to assume he is still dangerous.”
Dogwa smudged brown paint on the marine’s face over a spot he missed and the white man flinched away.
“Dogwa has been on war parties before,” Jake said with a hand on the marine’s shoulder. “He knows best how we might catch him. We must listen to what he has to say if we have any prayer of finding Fogwater.”
“Catching a red man in his native land is impossible unless you follow my instructions,” Dogwa said. “Even then, the task will prove difficult.”
Dogwa applied a single straight line of solid gray clay bordering the top of his black facial tattoo. He made it perfectly without use of the mirror the men passed around. It was his tribe’s warpaint, the symbol of his people on the battlefield. The braves with the Eyes of Long Seeing would apply a gray streak above and below the black strip over their eyes.
They had abandoned their uniforms in their rooms and had put on dull colored hunting shirts that they rolled to the elbow for added mobility. Their forearms were also painted with brown, gray, and green streaks just as their faces and necks were. They removed spurs, buttons, and buckles that may reflect light or clank. They took turns jumping up and down to listen for any rattles.
The group carried little ammunition altogether. The marines carried four paper cartridges for their muskets tucked into their belts and pockets. Their daggers also hung sheathed from their belts, but they were instructed to leave pistols, bayonets, and swords behind so that they may move swiftly, unencumbered by their usual battle load. The knights carried their rifles with only the round loaded in the chamber. A swinging powder horn and the other components for reloading would just get tangled in the thick underbrush. For this reason, they carried their bayonets and a pistol each. Dogwa carried his tomahawk as always and replaced his black boots with soft buckskin moccasins.
The men lined up for a final inspection before departure. Dogwa walked down the line, scanning each from head to toe. There was one problem with each of them, however. Their boots still shone in the sun due to the fine spit polish. A soldier took pride in the shine he could keep on his boots.
“Scuff your boots,” Dogwa said gruffly. Jake and Brom bent over and rubbed mud onto their boots. Jake was annoyed he hadn’t thought of that before. Some marines obliged as well. Two hesitated.
“We scuff our boots today and it will be extra duty tomorrow. Lieutenant Miran will see to that. They won’t reflect any light if we stick to the shadows,” a marine said.
“If you ever find yourself walking through the thick underbrush and you discover a white soldier, killed and scalped by a red man, you will also see that he wears on his feet clean boots.” Dogwa jabbed a finger at the marine’s feet. “If your boots are scuffed now, you will be less hesitant to go through the mud or climb a rocky gully. These are both places a red man would not expect to find a white soldier. Now which do you think is worse? Extra duty and a chewing or rotting in the woods without a scalp?”
The marines nodded and bent to scuff their boots.
The horses were restless, nervously tramping in place at the hitching post outside the blockhouse as the knights saddled them. Varro looked into his mount’s wide brown eyes and wondered if the horses could sense how uncertain he was. Though he tried not to show any outward sign, for his knights’ sake, Varro couldn’t help this discomposed feeling that something would go terribly wrong. He wondered if the knights of old had these feelings before facing their demons. Fieldur must have felt something his painting could not depict when he fought the lindworm. DuPonte, Phillipe, Thanic, and Lars all must have felt something. What would Varro’s painting depict? What emotion would it capture?
Count Varro, Amir, Jorn, and Brutus prepared for their hunt. Amir wore his breastplate and sword, but also brought two spears as well as several pistols to his horse. Jorn loaded two blunderbusses, four pistols, and sheathed several knives on his belt. Brutus wore his mask and brought only his axe and war hammer. Count Varro Leaned his lance against his mount and secured his sword and two pistols to his belt. He donned his dented and scratched helm and the white horsehair flowed down his back.
“Should we be taking more?” Amir asked. “I heard he is rather large.”
“We have a long day of riding ahead of us,” Varro replied. “We need the horses to be fresh when we find him.”
Without another word, they mounted and Count Varro led them off to the west, away from Adeline.
This hilly region of the island was covered in grazing pastures for cattle and sheep. It was also where cattle and sheep had been found torn to bits and eaten. The ranchers and farmers claimed to have spotted a lumbering beast running through the hills and they believe it to be the late Drake Hallock, raised from the dead.
Drake had died in the mines years ago and was buried by his wife and two children on their little farm in the foothills. That much was fact, Varro thought. Hannah Hallock had been executed on charges of witchcraft for resurrecting her father to kill her family. If this was true, the creature terrorizing these hills could be Mister Hallock. After what they had all witnessed, Varro did not doubt as much as he wished to.
As they rode from pasture to pasture, Varro led his knights in a single file column. They jumped several low stone walls and opened gates to get to the top of one particularly tall hill which overlooked the area.
The Count dismounted and pulled his spyglass from his jacket. He scanned the area for several moments in silence. The horses were catching their breath and relatively calm. Amir let his wander to a patch of tall grass to nibble on the lush blades while he blocked the sun with his hand and looked off in that direction. Brutus dismounted to give his horse’s back a rest. Jorn patted the side of his horse’s neck as it mouthed its bit.
Off in the distance, a gust of wind blowing the grass like an emerald wave headed toward them.
“This breeze is welcome,” Amir said. “This breastplate is an oven in this sun.”
When it reached them, Amir spread his arms and lifted his chin to catch it. Then, the horses erupted into a panic. Count Varro’s horse tried to run, but the Count was too quick. He grabbed its bridle and whispered soothing tones as he petted the beast’s forehead. With some effort, the other knights were able to calm their mounts as well.
“They smell something,” Jorn said.
“Something on the wind from the north,” Count Varro said.
Varro swept his spyglass back and forth, from gully to hilltop. He froze, knelt for better stability then focused hard into the brass tube. Through the glass he could barely make out a human shape, just the shoulders and head, peering over a distant ridge, watching them.
The Count swung his leg over his horse and pointed to where he’d seen the man. The four galloped down the steep hill into a ravine headed in that direction.