Steel Crow Saga

Paul Krueger

The Marlin carved a wake across the ocean like chalk on a slate. The wooden ship bore no sails or engine, or even oars. Instead, just beneath the surface of the waves swam a massive shark-shade, pulling the ship by the thick cables spilling over the Marlin’s fore. Every so often, the creature would drift closer to the surface and its human-sized dorsal fin would stab up at the twilight sky before slipping back below the blue.

The Marlin was as sturdy a vessel as any in the Sanbuna fleet, though Sergeant Tala had more than a few misgivings about the constant creaking of its floorboards. Unlike the steel ships of Tomoda or the ironclads of Shang and Dahal, the Marlin was made in the traditional Sanbuna way: entirely of wood. The ship was a majestic sight, the kind that would have inspired Tala’s seafaring ancestors to song and verse. But the wood construction wasn’t just about piety for the history of the Sanbu Islands. It was a necessary precaution, given the ship’s cargo.

So all Tala could do was grip the wooden railing of the Marlin as she glowered at the horizon, and at the shades-forsaken isle that lay somewhere beyond it.

Tala commanded the 13-52-2: the Second Platoon, Fifty-Second Company, Thirteenth Regiment of the army of the newly liberated Republic of Sanbu, though at the moment she and her platoon were technically marines. She was a woman of twenty hard-earned years, taller than most of the women under her command and shorter than most of the men. The neat dark-green uniform she wore had become standard issue only in the last two years of the war; before, the Army of the Republic had been a piecemeal rebel militia whose “uniform” had been “as much green s— as you can find.”

Though she sometimes missed the old emerald motley she’d worn as a jungle-runner, she’d appreciated that when the time had come to take the fight to Tomoda itself, she’d landed on its beaches dressed as a real soldier. But despite the decisive victory the Garden Revolution’s forces had won against the steelhounds on their own blighted turf, and the snazzy uniform Tala had gotten out of the whole ordeal, the sergeant had left the island of Tomoda with zero desire to ever return.

Her seaward scowl deepened.

No griping, soldier, she chided herself. You volunteered.

She turned her attention back to the deck. A few of her marines were helping the Marlin’s crew struggle to re-secure a huge, heavy bamboo crate. The crate held the one car that they hadn’t had room for in the hold, so it’d been stuck topside for the whole voyage. Normally, they could’ve chained it in place, but the no-metal rule meant they’d had to make do with thick rope.

But that only accounted for four of her command. The majority of them stood in a circle, clearing a makeshift arena where Private Minip’s shade sparred with Private Kapona.

Kapona was a tall woman with a brawler’s swagger and a blacksmith’s build. She’d stripped to her waist for this fight, and the dying sunlight glistened across her bare back. Her opponent, a monkey-shade, pranced around her. Pacting had gifted it with human size, a pair of long whiplike tails, and, on the white fur of its inner thigh, a pactmark—a yellow six-pointed star. When you saw that, it was easy to figure why Private Minip had named him Sunny.

Kapona swung a fist, but Sunny easily dodged it. His tails threshed the air excitedly as he darted this way and that. All Kapona’s punches went wild, and Sunny let out a taunting whoop.

“Hoy, Kapona,” Private Minip called. “He says he’s thrown s—s that fight better than you.”

Laughter rose from the onlookers. In the privacy of the sidelines, Tala allowed herself a small smile. As their sergeant, she preferred to play the aloof superior whenever possible. But she had to be fair: For Minip, that’d been a pretty good joke.

Kapona’s hands curled into fists, but her mouth curled into a smile. “You tell him that he’s the one getting thrown next.”

Minip rolled his eyes. “Tanga. He can hear you. He’s not—”

Kapona gave up a growl and charged, an unstoppable mass of muscle and momentum. She didn’t have a shade of her own, but Tala had always assumed that if Kapona ever found the right animal to pact with, it would be a bull.

Once again, Sunny easily leapt out of the way. But this time, instead of turning around to press the attack, Kapona just kept going. Her squadmates threw themselves clear as she plowed straight into Minip, tackling him to the deck.

Safe from the eyes of her platoon, Tala chuckled softly to herself.

Kapona emerged from the tussle with Minip in a headlock. “Call it!” she said. “Call it!”

Minip’s round face turned red as he struggled futilely against Kapona. Then he groaned and extended a hand toward Sunny. The shade burst into a cloud of yellow energy, which sucked itself back into Minip’s body. Grinning, Kapona let him go, then hauled him to his feet. “You almost had me that time.” She patted him on the head.

“You cheated,” Minip said sourly.

A shrug rolled through her huge shoulders. “I won. Hoy, Sarge!” she called to Tala. “Pretty good, eh?”

Tala wiped her smile away before she looked up to respond. “Your footwork’s still s—, Private.”

Steel Crow Saga