Chapter 22:

The Ebb Tide III - "Hibiscus Recoil"

Destiny Marine

Gunfire and the ominous sound of cultivation electric sparks flooded the docks. The majority of the Melusine's crew turned out to be cultivators hidden in disguise; they all brandished their swords, red energy flashing through their bodies. Marines either dueled with the crew with their rifles or switched to their knives and pistols for the close-quarters-combat. The marines initially looked like they would put up a good fight, but fires surged from the crewmates’ swords, engulfing the steel with raging infernos that kept the marines at bay. Screams echoed from both the ship berth as men were cut down and from the dock itself as longshoremen and workers fled the scene of battle.

About half the platoon fought down the berth alongside the ship; the other half remained where it met the dock. Isaac felt his stomach roil and body freeze from the sudden burst of chaos; Reed tackled him out of the way, the two landing in a heap behind a pile of crates. Before the tackle, Isaac had just caught a glimpse of an automatic rifle barrel pointing down from above on the ship deck; said rifle now fired downwards at the marines, catching several who failed to take cover in time.

Babs slid in next to them, a pistol in her hand. Reed did the same. Isaac hastily unveiled his, though he wasn’t sure how much good it would be. Though Stockham had armed the trio with sidearms, Isaac hadn't had a whole lot of exposure to using guns yet. And, come to think of it, Reed had her sound waves and Babs had her gusts of wind - what did Isaac have for a ranged weapon? Assuming he made it out of this alive, he’d have to work on that.

And speaking of staying alive - Lieutenant Derry fought a fierce melee battle with the first mate who had just killed two of his comrades. The flaming sword nearly sliced Derry in two, but the liieutenant evaded it and tried to counterattack with his knife. The first mate deflected this attack, knocking the knife away, but before he could finish Derry off, that drooping guitar noise from the Patuxet shack returned and sent Isaac’s teeth rattling.

The sound wave rolled off Reed’s sword, her |Typhoon of Steel| at full swing. The first mate dove out of the way; the sound wave whistled past him and blew up a stack of crates behind him. As Derry scrambled away and splinters of wood rained down upon the dock, Reed leapt forward, swinging her sword straight down. The first mate raised his own sword to deflect it, but right as the two swords made contact, another sound wave erupted out of Reed's sword. The first mate's sword only blocked a thin strip of it; the rest of the sound wave blasted him. The first mate roared and stumbled backwards - the sound wave had sliced right through one of his ears.

With his face bloodied, the first mate lunged after Reed, but she sidestepped him. As she closed the distance between them, the first mate swung his sword at her; Reed deflected it, sending flickers of flame into the air and onto the dock. With his sword at bay, his side became completely open to her, and she answered by jamming her pistol into his temple and firing. The bullet came out the other side, as did most of his brain.

The sudden defeat of the first mate rallied the remaining marines. About ten remained in fighting shape; from their cover, they fired down the dock. Derry shot his gun at the man with the automatic rifle on the ship deck above him, successfully suppressing his fire; Reed then sent up a sound wave, creating an utter cacophony when it collided with that spot of the ship. The automatic rifle no longer fired.

Isaac wiped his face and steadied his breathing as he calmed himself. All the marines who had moved down the berth ahead of them at the start of the fight were either dead or wounded from the ambush. But now that the marines could fire on them from afar, the crewmen could only try to block the bullets with their flaming swords (which actually seemed a little doable). Ultimately, the crew members ended up either getting shot or retreating up a ramp back onto the ship.

As the platoon’s medic got to work on the marines who were only mostly dead instead of totally dead, Derry gathered his men and they charged down the berth towards the ramp. Isaac and Babs fell in besides Reed.

“The first mate looked scary, but couldn’t have been more than a Circuit 1B,” she explained calmly. Derry also paid close attention to her analysis. “I’m guessing these crew members are all 1A.”

“1A?” Derry repeated incredulously. “But they had flaming swords and wiped out half a marine platoon!”

“Sure, they probably weren’t strong enough to progress past 1A,” Reed supposed. “But at 1A, you can still open a meridian and learn a Flame Art. And cultivator or no, you can teach anyone how to use a sword. But considering how rare cultivators are, for something like twelve of them to be on the ship…General Stockham is right. The ship definitely has connections to the Restorationists.”

Isaac heard her theories, sure, but kept his main focus on the bloody pistol held loosely in her hand. Reed noticed his glance and wiped the blood off on her greatcoat.

“Reed,” Isaac said, his voice a little shaky, unable to help himself. “You just killed someone. How do you…are you feeling alright?”

The group reached the ramp. Reed looked at the pistol in her hands with dull eyes. “Not sure. When I killed him, the only thing I felt was recoil.”

Reed led the way up the ramp, holding her sword over head and sending a sound wave out just as she arrived on the ship deck. The sonic blast slammed over into a trio of waiting crew members, clearing the way onto the ship. About six crewmates remained on the deck, blocking the way towards the bridge. In unison, these opponents revealed a new ability - to send out waves of flame similar to Reed’s waves of sound. After the first three attacked, the other three then attacked, the two groups going back and forth in an unceasing wall of fire. Isaac could feel the flame lick at his face as he disappeared into the labyrinth of crates on the ship’s deck. The smell of burning wood and flesh threatened to overwhelm him; some of the marines weren’t so lucky and got caught as they arrived up the ramp.

Worse still, Isaac realized he had been separated from his comrades in the maze of cargo. He could hear the wail of Reed’s sword, so he decided to head down in that direction. He walked carefully, aware that a crewmate could descend on him at any moment. Red lights exploded around him as he activated his |Eightfold Fist| - he was going to need it. Perhaps the activation alerted an enemy to his presence, since right as Isaac turned a corner, a crewmate was already swinging his sword at him. Isaac ducked below it; the sword sailed over his head, taking strands of hair with it. Isaac leapt backwards as the crewmate charged.

Turns out, all that training really did help. Even though his opponent had a flaming sword, he was still slower than Kieran, and the mechanics of the fight were similar enough. The crewmate slashed down, Isaac nimbly slid out of the way, then delivered a Rddhi-powered fist to the man’s kneecap. As the swordsman buckled, Isaac followed with an uppercut to the jaw, sending the man airborne and crashing into a crate, the sword dropping from his hands.

Another crewmate appeared about ten feet away. Isaac answered with his ranged weapon - unsteady pistol shots that hit nowhere near his opponent, but the fire at least made the man duck into another row of crates. Isaac followed after him, but the man re-emerged and sent a flame wave at him.

Remembering his fight with Alfie, Isaac raised both his fists and sent a flare of energy into them. The crewmate’s flame was the same strength as Alfie’s flamethrower, and Isaac had advanced a lot since then. The flames broke in two, streaming to either side of Isaac; flickers caught his shoulders and elbows and the fire dragged the pistol away, sending it clattering away until Isaac lost sight of it. If he had missed hitting the direct center of the flame when he blocked it, Isaac might’ve been toast. Nevertheless, Isaac broke through the flames and had closed the distance. The crewmate tried to send another flame wave, but Isaac leapt onto a nearby crate and used that to propel himself into the air. When his fist came crashing down onto the man’s temple, the sword dropped from his hands and he collapsed in a heap.

Shouts echoed through the maze and another two crewmates charged at him. As Isaac readied himself, a gust of wind came out of an adjacent row and slammed the two opponents into crates. Before they could get back up again, a rifle fired into their chests. Babs and Derry emerged out of the row and regrouped with Isaac.

Derry looked relieved that Isaac was still in one piece. “Alright, let’s go find Reed-”

The wall of crates exploded from a sound wave; rather than find their way towards them, Reed just blasted through the maze. She dragged a dead crewmate in her hand, casually tossing him away as she linked up with her comrades. Two more marines followed her, blood splatters across their uniforms.

“How few remain,” Derry realized with a shake of his head. “Let’s get these sons of bitches.”

Having eliminated so many in the maze, the way to the bridge was open. Well, mostly open - from a walkway at its top, another crewmate aimed an automatic rifle down at them. Derry fired as he sprinted, only needing one shot to create a cloud of pink dust where the man’s head once was. The group then arrived at a sealed door that led into the bridge. After a shared nod with Derry, Reed blew it open with a sound wave, taking out a hidden crewmate waiting behind it. Reed led the way inside, spinning the sword in her hand, sparks of energy flaring outwards from it. They then headed up a metal staircase to the top floor; after another sound wave, the six entered the bridge.

Having never been on a ship before, Isaac briefly took a look out through the windows, letting him see both the chaotic scene of the docks and the calm endlessness of the ocean, but a curse from Derry brought him back to his senses. The lieutenant examined several dossiers, as well as a flickering barrel fire in the corner of the room. “They must’ve started burning documents when we arrived.” As he and the other marines searched, they found a surviving group of manila folders. A rifle shot to a locked drawer gave them a treasure trove - a thick pile of papers. Derry directed the two marines to keep searching, and then he turned to the cultivators.

“All that’s left is to secure the cargo. I suspect we’ve eliminated the majority of the crew, but Panama and Jackson will most likely still be down there.” Derry cocked his rifle. “I’ll lead the way.”

Reed stepped forward. “Sir, all due respect, but the bottom of the ship is filled with tight spaces and whatnot. We’re also going up against the strongest cultivators among the crew. You’ve done your job getting us this far. Now let us do ours.”

Isaac certainly didn’t expect this out of Reed. Babs nodded in full support. Derry just wiped his face. “But…that would be cowardice. Sending recruits down there when I’m still able to fight.”

“It’s called realism,” Reed corrected. After a moment of looking over the faces of the three cultivators, Derry slumped into the captain’s chair, his face twisted in pain.

“Goddamnit…alright. I’ll keep searching up here and start getting the wounded off the ship. But don’t you die on me, you hear me!”

The three cultivators saluted, and then headed back down the stairs. The raid on the ship had produced all sorts of noise - Reed’s drooping guitar, flickering fires, screams of pain, death knells in the form of final, pained gasps - but the only sound now was the metallic echo of their footsteps going down stairs.

“I thought for sure you’d have him lead the way,” Isaac said aloud. “I thought you didn’t want to do this.”

Reed shook her head. “I don’t want to. But I don’t know. I didn’t feel anything when the ship’s crew died. But I did feel a little something when the marines died. There’s only three left and it’ll be a cramped fight below deck. I’d rather not feel that little something anymore.”

Isaac nodded. “Me too.”

“Me three!” Babs added. “This is what we came here for. Let’s finish this!”

The trio arrived back on the first floor, where a staircase to below deck awaited them. They ascended into the darkness.