A heavy wave crashed against the U.S.S. Bunker Hill as she dropped anchor in the purple stillness of an early dawn. It was March 7, 1847 and the ship was prowling the waters off the coast of Veracruz, Mexico at the vanguard of an American invasion fleet. A series of forts hugged the city’s coastal perimeter with their cannons nervously sighted on the flotilla. The Mexican guns were inferior to their American counterparts, but the Bunker Hill’s captain was no fool; his ship was anchored safely out of range.
The Mexicans had little cause to fear the armada directly. Veracruz was well defended from a sea-borne attack, but little more than a fifteen-foot wall protected it on land. Grasping this vulnerability, General Winfield Scott, the American commander of the invasion force, ordered ten thousand soldiers ashore south of Veracruz to storm the city.
On the bow of the Bunker Hill, an erect officer studied the Mexican coast with an old and battered telescope. He was taller than most men, with straw-colored hair draped over his gray eyes like tattered curtains. He possessed a sinewy build and his movements and posture suggested the lazy gracefulness of a scarecrow. An ancient sword decorated with runes was sheathed on one side of his belt; a Colt service revolver nicknamed Betsy was holstered on the other. A boyish grin played across Lieutenant Jedediah Faust’s features as he collapsed the telescope and handed it over his shoulder. He smiled at the cloudless dawn and calm waters. Perfect conditions, he thought, to invade a foreign country.
“Do you see ‘em, lad?” asked Sergeant Cormac McGuinness in a thick Irish brogue as he took the telescope. Compared to Faust, McGuinness was shorter, stockier, and older by several decades. A hairless pate and a bushy, fiery-red beard framed his head. Beady eyes and a crooked nose made it impossible to settle on the center of his face. An old war hatchet scarred from a lifetime of service on the battlefield was tucked into his belt.
“They’re manning that battery over there,” said Faust as McGuinness extended the telescope. “Look for the fifth cannon from the left.”
“Where? Wait … I see ‘em, I see ‘em,” warbled McGuinness with glee. “Are we going to try to take ‘em when we land?”
Faust shook his head. “The Mexican Army stands between us and our quarry. Once we land, their forces will stretch to form a ring around Veracruz. I wager that’s when our boys slip out of town and head for Mexico City to warn the Russian. We’ll follow them and take them on the road.”
“So is our mission to capture these fellas that you’re whispering about, sir?” piped up Private Benjamin Crowe who stood next to McGuinness. He was taller than McGuinness but shorter than Faust with thick black hair and a dusting of freckles on his cheeks and nose. He was no more than sixteen years old and unsure why he had been assigned to accompany this odd pair.
“Not all of them,” said Faust. “We intend to capture one or two for questioning; the rest we kill.”
Behind them, the Bunker Hill’s deck stirred to life. Sailors uncovered large, flat-bottomed rowboats and lowered them over the side of the ship. The rowboats gave a little splash as they plunked into the water.
“Sir, why, out of the entire Mexican army, are these men so important?” asked Crowe. The frustration in his voice was palpable. Neither McGuinness nor Faust had told him much since he had been reassigned to support them on their mysterious mission.
“Listen,” said Faust. “I can’t tell you everything at this point, but I need your eyes. McGuinness and I can handle just about any regular fellow in a fair fight. But I need someone with a steady aim to watch our backs. That’s where you come in. Captain Turner says you’re a pretty good shot. That true?”
“Yessir. I’d put my aim up against any man in this war, and that’s countin’ the Mexicans too.”
And it was true. Crowe wasn’t just a good shot; he was a great shot. Every man in his last company had marveled at his skill with a Sharps rifle. He owned one of the first kills of the campaign when he put down a deserter at a hundred yards at night while on guard duty. Crowe felt certain that he belonged with the regular infantry where his skills as a sniper would be most needed, not following some secretive lieutenant and his scatterbrained sergeant.
“Well, that’s the value you bring to this mission. Look—” Faust raised his hand to silence the boy before he could ask more questions. “Believe me, I don’t want to be here any more than you do, so I’ll share with you what I can. But I need you to understand that our objective requires tangling with the sort of adversaries you don’t normally find on the battlefield. You will need to keep your wits about you.”
Crowe rolled his eyes. “It’s all right, sir. I’ve seen dead bodies before and have killed plenty.” Just weeks before, while serving in General Zachary Taylor’s army, the boy had stopped counting his kills when they crested more than a dozen at the battles of Palo Alto and Buena Vista each.
“We’re not talkin’ about regular soldiers, lad,” added McGuinness. “We’re goin’ ta encounter things that yea wouldn’t believe if we told yea. Yea’ll have to see ‘em with yer own eyes and judge fer yerself if they be true.”
“Give him the telescope,” ordered Faust. “He might as well find out sooner or later, and you’re right. He’s going to have to judge for himself.”
McGuinness shook his head in protest. “The lad ain’t ready to know everything yet. Yer fadder wouldn’t normally show an outsider so much so soon.”
“Yeah well, Dad ain’t here, is he?” snapped Faust. “Instead, I’ve been ordered to come and finish what he started and couldn’t complete. If I’m being compelled to do this, we’re going to do it my way. Now, give him the telescope.”
The whole episode of his reassignment still left a bitter taste in Faust’s mouth. Three weeks ago, his old infantry company was one of several tasked with advancing on Veracruz after the cannons had silenced the city. Everyone in his outfit was expecting—even eager—to engage in some real fighting, to see some blood. That was before General Taylor received a letter from Faust’s father; a letter that caused the general to call Faust into his tent and hand him a new set of orders that would take him far away from the battlefield. One minute Faust was playing cards with the other officers in his company, the next he was packing his bags with orders to report to the Bunker Hill. The other soldiers were probably snickering behind his back, accusing him of cowardice for having his father call in a favor with General Taylor. Faust didn’t blame them. He probably would have done the same if he were in their shoes.
McGuinness handed the telescope to Crowe and went to sulk at the stern of the ship. Faust ignored him and told Crowe where to aim his view.
“Tell me what you see. But keep your voice to a whisper. We don’t need the entire fleet knowing our business.”
Crowe found the battery and focused the telescope until seven Mexican soldiers gathered around a cannon sharpened into view. They looked perfectly ordinary, except for the fact that they were on fire. A nimbus of ghostly blue flame engulfed each man as he calmly went about his business.
Crowe pulled back from the telescope wide-eyed and panting hard. He tried to describe the fiery figures but could only babble a few syllables.
“See anything interesting?” Faust took the worn telescope and handed Crowe a newer model. “Now try this one.”
Crowe trained his eye on the battery again. The men appeared the same, but their auras had disappeared.
“What … what happened to them?” sputtered Crowe. “How could they walk around like that while on fire? And where’d the fires go?”
“The first telescope I handed you is very old and imbued with special properties, you could say magical properties that reveal the presence of sorcery. This one,” Faust thumped the second telescope in Crowe’s hands, “is a modern version the Army issues to senior officers.”
“But what about those men, how could they walk around on fire like that? They should be dead.”
“That’s because they’re already dead, of course,” said Faust. “Those soldiers are possessed by the dead spirits of men who served evil while they lived. We call them tormentors. There are spells that can recall a tormentor into service from the afterlife, but they must inhabit a mortal host to do their master’s bidding. The auras that you saw are the telltale signs of a tormentor’s presence.”
Crowe turned this new information over in his mind while McGuinness walked back towards them with an Army captain at his side. The captain had flowing, blonde locks and a soft jaw. His uniform was immaculate and he carried himself with an air of accustomed deference. The contrast between the officer’s strut and McGuinness’s trollish gait could not have been more obvious.
“Don’t forget what I’ve shown you,” whispered Faust to Crowe. “But speak of it to no one else except for me and McGuinness. That’s an order.” He quickly shoved both telescopes into a bag at his feet.
“Lieutenant Jedediah Faust, I presume,” said the captain with a voice like a chirping flute while they exchanged salutes.
“Faust, this is Blancheford,” mumbled McGuinness. “He’s been looking for us.”
Blancheford pursed his lips at the curt introduction. “Captain Percival Blancheford,” he clarified with a forced smile. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance. I understand that we have some work to do together.”
“Pleasure,” said Faust, his voice straining to sound civil. The refined officer standing before him was witty, dashing, and debonair—everything that Faust wanted to be. They could have been friends under different circumstances, but Faust suspected the price of admission to that social circle was more than he could afford.
“I understand that General Taylor assigned you a delicate task; an assignment that requires your unique skills—whatever those may be—and the utmost,” Blancheford sniffed and gave a sideways glance at McGuinness who was picking his nose, “discretion. My orders are to serve as your liaison to the quartermaster. However, I require the presentation of your written orders to perform my duties.”
Faust retrieved a folded piece of paper from his shirt and gave it to Blancheford, who read it out loud.
“Lieutenant Jedediah Faust is tasked with obtaining an artifact critical to the success of U.S. military objectives in ongoing hostilities with the State of Mexico. He is authorized to obtain such provisions from the U.S. Army General Quartermaster as are necessary to fulfill his duties without gravely compromising the U.S. Army’s ability to conduct operations. Furthermore, Lieutenant Faust shall be provided a subordinate staff of commissioned and non-commissioned officers sufficient to perform his duties. Questions regarding these orders shall be directed to General Zachary Taylor or General Winfield Scott, as appropriate. Signed, General Zachary Taylor.”
Blancheford paused for a minute after reading, as if he were studying several of the passages in greater detail.
“Now that that’s over,” said Faust, “let’s talk about how fast you can get me and these men ashore.”
Twenty minutes later, Faust leapt into a rowboat from a rope ladder dangling beside the Bunker Hill. The boat rocked violently following his landing, but Faust couldn’t have cared less. Any dismount was fine with him so long as he didn’t end up getting soaked. He looked up to see Blancheford smiling at him from the Bunker Hill’s deck with a wide grin of perfect teeth.
McGuinness came next and shook the entire time he scaled down the rope ladder. When he reached the bottom, he overleapt the boat and plunged into the water with a splash. Crowe descended without incident while some sailors hauled McGuinness out of the water looking like a half-drowned cat. Blancheford came last and pranced into the boat with swan-like grace.
“While studying swordsmanship, I learned that balance should be achieved in every situation,” he explained to no one in particular. He stepped over McGuinness while the latter lay gasping for breath and took a seat.
Faust tried to ignore Blancheford and pretended to study Veracruz’s defenses. He couldn’t help but notice later that Blancheford was examining the tormentors’ battery with his own telescope extended and a puzzled look on his face.
Once everyone settled in, the sailors slid behind their oars and the rowboat glided towards shore. It was one among dozens headed towards the rendezvous point on the beach south of Veracruz. Most of the rowboats carried men, but a few others hauled horses, supplies, and the cannons that would later be used to pound the city into submission.
Faust, Crowe, and McGuinness jumped into knee-high water as soon as their boat approached the shore. McGuinness’s toe caught the lip of the boat as he hopped out, and he tumbled into the water for a second time in less than a half hour. Blancheford watched with amusement as Crowe and Faust heaved the Irishman to his feet and dragged him to dry land.
“See what our tormentor friends are up to,” Faust whispered to Crowe and McGuinness while the rest of their rowboat unloaded. “I want to know when they leave that battery.” He handed his old telescope to Crowe and turned to Blancheford. “Captain, might I have a word, please?” Blancheford nodded and gestured for Faust to lead the way.
Fifteen minutes later, Faust and Blancheford returned with three horses in tow: two were chestnut colored and the third was gray with faded white spots.
“The Mexicans are drawing up around the city,” reported Crowe as he handed the telescope back to Faust.
“Any sign of our boys?”
“That’s our lads, I think,” said McGuinness. He pointed to a dusty, solitary road meandering west through green hills away from the city. A single wagon bumped along the road like a brown beetle slowly crawling away. Through the magical lens of the telescope, the beetle’s back glowed bright blue from the tormentors’ auras.
Faust frowned and looked up at the sky. It was still morning, but he did not like the idea of the tormentors getting too big a lead on them. “We need to head out, now. It’s best if we take them before dusk.”
“Sir, it’ll be easier to take ‘em at night when we can surprise ‘em,” said Crowe.
“You let me worry about that, Private,” Faust told him.
Blancheford withdrew his own telescope again and studied the wagon. “I do not understand why those men in particular have captured your attention, Lieutenant. They look like ordinary Mexican rabble, if you ask me.”
“No one did,” muttered McGuinness.
“I’m sorry, Sergeant, did you say something?”
“Thank you for your assistance, Captain,” interjected Faust. “I believe we have all of the provisions that we need, in addition to those special uniforms that you were able to procure for us. We will leave you now to perform your other, surely more important, duties. I doubt we will need to trouble you again to raid the quartermaster’s stores.”
“Just a moment,” replied Blancheford. “You have told me nothing of your mission, or why those men are of critical consequence out of the entire Mexican Army. Are they in possession of the artifact identified in your orders? Is it a weapon of some sort, or information about Santa Anna’s battle plans, perhaps?”
“It can be a weapon of sorts, but I don’t believe those men are carrying it. My apologies, but I can speak no more on the subject.”
“Very well, but I’m coming with you. Should you require additional supplies from the quartermaster, I will be able to ride back and procure such provisions expediently by bringing to bear the full authority granted by my rank. Besides,” he said smiling at the saber at his side, “I am adept at using a sword and am an able marksman. You three are heading—quite recklessly I believe—unprepared into the enemy’s hands. You’ll need all the help that you can get.”
Faust considered Blancheford’s words for a moment and shifted his eyes up the coast. He did not want to get embroiled in an argument—especially with an officer who outranked him—and let a wagon full of tormentors slip away. McGuinness kept eyeing the beetle, looking more and more agitated as it slowly trundled west.
“All right, I see your point,” said Faust. “But we only have enough uniforms and supplies for three. You’ll also need a horse.”
“That can be easily arranged,” Blancheford told them as he began walking away. “I shall return shortly.”
“You two wait here,” instructed Faust when Blancheford was gone.
“Where yea goin’, lad?” asked McGuinness.
“I’m going to give our eager captain something to occupy his attention.”
Faust casually strode down the beach. Once he was satisfied that no one was paying him any attention, he retrieved a small stone from his pocket. It was smooth and white with a rune etched on its plain surface. He furtively whispered a command to the runestone before skipping it to a vacant spot out on the water. The pebble skidded to a halt and sank below the surface.
He half-ran back to McGuinness and Crowe. “Let’s go before the horses spook.”
As he spoke, an explosion ripped through the air and rained seawater down on the invading army. Waist-high waves surged ashore, overturning rowboats and scattering the panicked horses. Men clamored for their weapons and tried to shake some sense back into their rattled heads. Confused shouts among the soldiers claimed that the Mexicans had launched a preemptive attack.
The blast doused Blancheford, knocking him over a rowboat. He quickly regained his footing and darted his eyes up the beach. Lieutenant Faust and his companions were gone.