Colonel Farah ad-Durr Ismat ad-Din coughed in the burning haze that seemed to engulf the whole battlefield.
Her lungs felt like they had caught fire with every inhale, as embers and ashes drifted across the air like black snow. The dawn mist that once covered the land had vanished without a trace, leaving only gloom and shadows beneath a sky filled with smoke.
All around her the assembled troops coughed and gagged in the choking fumes. Farah made her way through ranks of her Mubarizun champions, before pulling aside her signal officer:
"I don't know... Sir!" The Lieutenant shouted back between coughs. "My link with command suddenly broke!"
Farah felt her stomach lurch. General Salim had established his headquarters nearly two kilopaces east of the battle line. Surely the explosion that tore the north asunder couldn't have reached him!
"Well keep trying!" She insisted. "Inform me as soon as you regain contact!"
Leaving the officer behind, Farah made her way through the smoke. Her Crimson Dervish squadron was attached to Hamid's brigade in the center. She had seen the brigadier's staff just north of her formation, before the unknown blast transformed her world.
"Brig--" She had to cough to clear her lungs. "Brigadier Hamid!"
The dismounted lancer company Farah stumbled across first were of no help. She had to echo her cry a dozen more times before a reply came:
The smoke seemed to grow denser as Farah moved in their direction. Soon, she came across a dozen black-sooted faces from the Brigade HQ.
"Sir," Farah saluted as she addressed the ashen-faced commander that she could only recognize by his stocky build. "I've lost my connection with the general. What are our orders?"
"You're not the only one," he growled back. "We've lost our communications as well, along with two of my companies to the extreme right."
Hamid swallowed, his eyes filled by not only anxiety and pain but even the shadow of fear itself.
"My men tell me that the entire area north has been reduced to a wasteland. We can't even find anyone still alive in Ardashir's brigade right now."
Farah's jaw hit the ground. That can't be possible.
She had never heard of a spell so powerful that it could annihilate an entire wing of an army at once; not since the fabled tales of the Dragon-Demon Wars, anyhow.
Yet, the results were undeniable -- from the blinding flash in the northwest, to the titanic explosion that shook the ground, to the curtain of smoke that swept across the land...
Farah had no choice but to face the likelihood that Ardashir's brigade of thousands had vanished in an instant.
"Sir, we have to withdraw!" One of the battalion commanders cried. "Our communications lie in shambles, and our forces cannot withstand spellpower of such magnitude!"
"No!" Farah glared back, her blood pounding as she breathed in the heated fumes.
The Mubarizun Colonel wasn't even sure why she felt anger. The Major who spoke had every right to be afraid, just as she ought to feel now...
"Sir! We cannot simply retreat!" she stressed beneath the veil that covered her lower face. "We must not retreat now!"
"And why is that?" the Brigadier demanded, his demoralized gaze seeing no alternative.
With a deep breath, Farah thought back to the legends of old -- heroines and tales of the greatest war which had inspired her to enter the ascetic Dervish Order at first. Her ancestors had rode into battle facing an endless tide of demons that poured from the Infinite Abyss. Blessed by the dragonlords as the first mages of mankind, their combined sorcery left such devastation that even now, the interior of the southern continent remained a wasteland.
"Because that is the spellpower made only possible by an archmage at full capacity!" Her fingers pointed towards the northwest, where the flash originated from. "Not even the mighty dragonlords could unleash such destruction without draining their ether. If we retreat now, we'd only invite them to recuperate and repeat the process!"
Despite being shorter than the other commanders present, Farah glared at each and every one of them in return. She challenged their honor, their courage, their piety to uphold the very teachings of God:
"Surely this smoke that now covers the battlefield is more detrimental to their massed archery! God has given us this opportunity as a test of our resolve! Our ancestors who drove back the demonspawn would never retreat now!"
One moment after another passed, before Hamid pursed his lips and gave a reluctant nod.
"Very well, Colonel," the Brigadier agreed. "I will try to coordinate with our left wing. In the meantime, distribute your champions among my lancers as you see fit. You will lead the first wave in before the smoke clears."
----- * * * -----
On the other side of the battlefront, the Princess of the Lotharins strode through the streets of Glywysing in just as much turmoil.
They were still in the process of evacuating the town's residents to the rear when an earth-shattering explosion rocked the ground. A fireball of immense size bloomed across the northern skies, which was immediately obscured by the tidal wave of smoke, dust, and flaming debris that poured into town. The malevolent veil incited panic among the civilians, leading to a stampede that left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. Now, groaning victims and abandoned belongings littered the streets, adding to the hellish scene of a disaster zone.
Visibility was limited to just twenty or so paces. Amidst this smoky haze her soldiers coughed and wheezed, with all but the most disciplined units breaking ranks and leaving their spots. Some of the men simply couldn't stand there and not help the innocent; others had far less honorable aims...
"Get back to your position!" Sylviane glared down a fleeing lieutenant and his men, her knuckles white as she squeezed the chain of her meteor hammer.
"B-but we can't fight in--"
His words never finished as she flung out her weapon and crushed his skull.
"Anyone who retreats without orders will be summarily executed as a traitor!" She shouted to the shocked soldiers watching. "Did I not make myself clear!?"
The two dozen troops he had been leading scurried back to where they came from. Meanwhile the ashes she breathed in forced Sylviane through a chain of coughs.
"Your Highness," she heard one of her armigers, coming just around the corner with a Captain in tow.
Sylviane couldn't believe some of the chaotic reports that were rolling in. She had to hear one of them firsthand with her own ears. Thus she had ordered Sir Cailean -- one of the armigers King Alistair left behind -- to bring back an officer from Pascal's left wing.
"What in the Holy Father's name happened out there?" Sylviane accosted the Captain.
"I don't know!" His haunted eyes quaked. "The infidels were closing in and we braced for their charge. Then... a blast came out of nowhere and just... torched them all! ...And not only that, the same beams of light also tore into the battalion on our left and ignited their men as well!"
"Where did the blast come from?"
The officer blinked once as though in a daze. Then he uttered:
"L-left. Far to the left!"
Sylviane bit her lips as she stared at the officer. His hands still trembled as his pupils shook. There was no doubt that he had just witnessed a most horrifying sight.
Her feet almost lost their balance as she swiveled around.
She had a bad feeling ever since Sir Robert said he couldn't reach Pascal. Her fiancé had anchored himself on the extreme left of the Lotharin line, and Sylviane had no doubt remaining that this destruction was caused by his experimental magic.
But based on the casualties reported from amidst the chaos, he had clearly botched the spell.
I warned you, Sylviane gritted her teeth as she felt tears pool in her eyes. Please tell me you didn't just get yourself killed!
"Robert," she called. "Go--"
She never finished the order as a shrill cry came from the distance:
"RETURN TO YOUR POSITIONS!"
Are you kidding me!? Sylviane's thoughts cried out. You're going to keep fighting in this condition?
Her teeth gritted as she stared at Robert. He wasn't her best fighter, but in addition to being a Wayfarer he also served as her medic and communication officer. There was no way she could spare him now.
But I can't just leave Pascal be either!
"Sir Cailean," she turned back to the giant of a man. "Head north to our left flank and find His Grace the Landgrave. I must know what happened!"
...And if he's still alive, she cut her personal reason out.
"Yes, Your Highness," Cailean bowed before running off into the haze.
"Sir Robert, open a channel with Duke Lionel," Sylviane added as her phoenix wings expanded and her feet left the ground. "Tell him that the enemy is assaulting the town."
...And if he doesn't get pressed, he better send troops to support me!
The Princess flew towards the stockade wall that established her main defense line. Her armigers formed up in a wedge behind her as they cast their Levitation Flight spells.
"Cyclone Blast eastwards!" She crafted her own spell from the air. "Clear the air for archers!"
A torrent of winds erupted from her outstretched palm, its pressure forcing the lingering smoke towards the enemy. But just before her spell hit its limits, she watched as a squad of Cataliyan lancers emerged into plain sight.
They couldn't be more than fifty paces out, with several officers' hands extended and ready to unleash a volley of spells...
----- * * * -----
"SONIC BLAST!" Colonel Farah shouted as soon as she saw the base of the stockade wall, her mnemonic words both triggered her internal spellcraft and served as a signal for her brave soldiers.
A deafening cone of cacophonous energy erupted from not just her hands, but over a hundred others along the front. It plowed straight into the inner town's palisade, where entire sections were instantly shredded into wooden chips. Cries could be heard as several raised platforms collapsed under their defenders' feet, just before painful wails erupted across the front as jagged splinters burst into the faces of unprepared Lotharin troops.
General Salim had guessed earlier that the town's stockade was erected only to keep out beasts. It did not have any of the long-term wards that protected military fortifications from destructive spells.
Now, with her scimitar raised into the air, Farah sprinted forward with the Tauheed battle cry:
"There is no deity but God!"
"FOR GOD. IS. GREATER!" The echoing voice of over a thousand first wave troops replied.
----- * * * -----
"--For God. Is. Greater!"
Edith heard the roar from the infidels in the town's direction. She might not understand the southern tongue, but she certainly recognized that battle cry.
Biting down on her lips, she deflected two more arrows with her kite shield.
The smoke that engulfed the Lotharin left and center had mostly dispersed by the time they reached her. It left her men with a stunning view of the alien, mushroom-shaped cloud that rose a kilopace off the ground -- white fumes that formed the background to her cyan airborne cross.
Events beyond her comprehension clearly took place on the other flank, while even the center was being pressed by massed assault. Edith wanted to help them, to aid the princess and defend the town. But unlike past battles where she roamed the center and joined combat at her will, she had been given a clear responsibility to guard the exposed Lotharin right flank this time.
The Saint and Oriflamme gritted her teeth as a loose line of Cataliyan light cavalry rode up to unleash successive javelin volleys. Her Sword of Charity glowed silver as it released more ribbons of white light, curving through the air to intercept shots that would otherwise slay her nearby comrades.
Lotharin rangers and archers replied with arrows, killing a third of the light cavalrymen before they retreated. Ranks of armored cavalry archers advanced through the woods as replacement, their compound bows beginning an archery duel with her own bowmen.
Are they screening an infantry advance? Or are they just trying to pin me here?
Edith could hardly see through the ranks of horse-archers and the forest. All she could do now was hold the line as waves of arrows swept back and forth between the two formations.
It was then, when one of her Ranger Captains from the west shouted:
"Cavalry in the western woods! Hundreds!"
"They ride north!"
Saint Estelle immediately turned to her sword sisters.
"Follow me!" she commanded as she led them down the battle line.
Landgrave Pascal had stationed her here, predicting that the Caliphate would try to flank around the Lotharin defenses. Edith wasn't sure if those armored horsemen were archers or lancers, but their goal was obvious -- to plunge a dagger into the back of the Trinitian line.
It was up to her to reposition forces and build a third line to protect the rear of the Lotharins.
----- * * * -----
"Their 'saint' is moving west..."
Sitting on top of a smooth rock, General Salim smiled as he heard Hakim's report. A series of bloody, hacking coughs followed, and Salim had to force himself to stay upright as another wave of nausea swept through his body.
Whatever happened in the north had ignited his command tent and badly burnt many of his staff officers. Salim himself had emerged unscathed, except now he felt feverish and dizzy, as though some unknown disease suddenly wracked him.
Unable to contact Brigadier Ardashir's right wing, Hakim had opened communications with the center instead. From there, he learned that Colonel Farah led a massive assault against the town. With the battle already in motion, the general could only play along and offer what assistance he could.
His first order had been to send a cavalry detachment around the Lotharin right wing. He knew this was Edith-Estellise's position given reports of her signature illumination spell. The horsemen were told to tie branches to their saddles which swept the forest ground as they rode. The dust and leaves they kicked up combined with illusory spells to make a convincing display of massive flanking force.
It lured Edith's reserves west exactly as he had hoped, just as other supporting units forded the creek and pinned down Duke Lionel's troops. The town's defenders would receive no support from the Lotharin right wing. While light cavalry from his center would harass the junction to the Lotharin left.
"Now, smash their center," Hakim declared to nobody but himself.
He had hardly finished before nausea overcame him and he vomited onto the ground.
----- * * * -----
Swiveling around the corner of a house, Sylviane smashed her meteor hammer straight into the flank of a Ghulam platoon -- which had been trying to press through a street blocked by militiamen holding a wall of spears.
Lotharin flails met Cataliyan chests as her armigers crashed into infidels, shattering their unit's cohesion on contact and giving her defending infantry a chance to counterattack.
But before the Princess could extricate her squad from the melee, another platoon of dismounted lancers had charged up the street. The smoky haze had cleared enough for visibility to climb to two hundred paces, and sporadic arrow fire peppered the attackers from upper floors and roofs. Nevertheless, only a few Ghulams fell before the rest plowed into the exposed side of the Oriflamme Armiger squad, where three lances immediately skewered one of her own.
Leaping into the air, Sylviane swept her meteor hammer around in a wide arc to buy her armigers a moment of reprieve. A scimitar slashed into her greaves from below as she turned her back. It didn't cut too deep, but Sylviane nevertheless cried out in pain at the third wound she had received.
The vicious fighting in the streets had decimated her forces. She was down to just four armigers, and everywhere the Lotharins were yielding ground. Gaps opened by the street combat had allowed the defenders to mount several counterattacks. But as a second wave of Cataliyans poured in to reinforce their first, Sylviane was rapidly running out of steady troops.
She had executed four officers already for retreating without orders, but even brutal punishments could only achieve so much. The defenders were wavering everywhere, with high casualties and battle fatigue taking its toll. Entire squads and platoons had fled towards the rear, despite threats of a traitor's death.
Distracted by the chaotic melee, Sylviane never noticed as a squad of Cataliyans bearing the red armor of the Mubarizun emerged onto a side street.
----- * * * -----
"There's their commander," Colonel Farah eyed the glowing Oriflamme with her burning-blue wings. "Take her down and the town is ours."
"That's not their 'saint' though," remarked one of her girls, sounding rather disappointed.
Farah almost snorted. She had seen the 'saint' in action from across the river at Gwilen -- that inhuman woman whose every strike pierced a man's vitals. Since then, she had come to the unpleasant realization that even her personal squad would have trouble against the Polar Cross, especially now when they were bloodied and exhausted after several frontal attacks against Lotharin strong-points.
"An Oriflamme all the same. Levitation Flight!" Farah hovered into the air as her spell took hold. Combat aerobatics wasn't their specialty, but her Dervish Order's traditional whirling dance had left them better prepared than most.
"Form up into column -- we take her in a stream attack!"
----- * * * -----
Blood splashed into the air as Sylviane watched another one of her armigers cut down.
"Your Highness!" Sir Robert shouted from just four paces away. "We have to fall back!"
"This is the main street! We must hold it at all cost!" Sylviane cried back as her meteor hammer smashed through an infidel shield and knocked its bearer down. His landing was softened by one of the dead and dying that blanketed the ground, but then a nearby militia's stabbing voulge finished him.
...Though the militiaman lasted only seconds longer, as a Ghulam's scimitar took advantage of the opening and hacked into his chest.
Such was the exchange of steel that pressed the Lotharins back from two corpse-strewn barricades. Streams of blood ran between the paving stones as the defenders on this main street were worn down.
Of the original several hundred, just thirty-eight remained. With one look at their exhausted, desperate faces, Sylviane knew that Robert was right.
Could they hold on for three more minutes? Five? There was no way it would be longer than that.
Her knuckles clenched white as they squeezed her meteor hammer's chains.
But if she retreated... it would spell total defeat. The army's fate would be sealed, and with it, both the defense of the western front and her bid for her father's throne.
Tears of anguish collected in the Princess' eyes as she bit down until she tasted blood from herself:
"We cannot retreat from here!"
"We have no choice!" Robert yelled again as a thrown lance aimed for the Princess clanged off Mari's heavy shield.
Sylviane's fiery-blue gaze shot back daggers as his hand grabbed onto her.
"My orders were specific! NO RETRE--"
In a blur of motion, Sir Robert jerked the Princess back as he pushed his own body in front of her.
A Cataliyan champion charged straight through the air at them, and as always Mari intercepted the attack with her shield. She deflected the lance that came first. However the warrior didn't slow and darted straight past, clearing the way for the single column who followed like a stream of murderous steel.
The second foe was met by Mari's flail, its spiky head crushing into the woman's lamellar chest. Nevertheless the momentum of the charge carried through, with a scimitar smashing into Mari's side just below the spaulder.
The heavy half-plate held, but the impact knocked her body back. Seizing the moment, the third charging foe leveled his heavy falchion in both hands and cleaved straight into the exposed gap between her breastplate and skirt armor.
Sylviane watched in horror as her maid and bodyguard fell to the ground. The drop of three paces seemed to last a minute as Mari spat blood into the air, her entrails flowing out from the ghastly cut that almost severed her body in half.
With shaking eyes, the Princess reflexively reached out. Her brain recognized that the wound was fatal without immediate healing. Her logic screamed that it was suicidal to even try. But none of this mattered to her as emotions surged to save her longtime companion -- to cling onto a thread of hope that her friend might yet live.
Sylviane hardly even noticed the fourth and fifth attacker, following in the wake of her maid's butcherer.
One of them smashed into Robert's shielded side, the blade deflected enough to graze only his shoulder armor. But the other immediately swooped in on his right, and the scimitar struck an already-damaged segment of his breastplate and crashed into his rib cage.
On the ground, Mari barely lifted her fingers towards Sylviane before they fell back down, motionless. Her body joining countless others that littered the street in its bloodbath.
Sir Robert was just beginning to drift down when the Princess caught his hand and pulled him up to a building's second story window sill. Her hands were shaking as she saw his open wound, where crimson blood flowed without ending.
"N-no, nono, Robert--!" Sylviane's eyes trembled as her head waved in denial.
Clenching his shattered chest as blood gurgled from his lips, Sir Robert gulped as he clearly could no longer manage breathing. Nevertheless, with pleading eyes bulging from their sockets, he mouthed a bare whisper to the Princess:
Elspeth's cry, combined with Hauteclaire's screeching warning from within, finally jolted Sylviane's attention back to the fight. Three of the Caliphate champions arced through the air before lining up for a simultaneous charge, while the fourth was locked in an aerial duel with the petite armiger.
Miraculous aid came when two arrows flew in from the church tower in the town's center. One of them penetrated the wards and pierced the chest of one foe. But the two remaining Cataliyans dashed forward through the air, scimitar and falchion poised to meet from separate directions.
Sylviane had already used Hauteclaire's one Flamebreak this battle. She had no special cards remaining.
Feinting an attack towards one, she swiveled around at the last second and threw her meteor at the other. The falchion-bearer couldn't dodge before the flying weight wreathed in blue flames crushed her right shoulder. The sudden impact disarmed the woman and sent her careening into a nearby building.
But while the meteor held the advantage in reach, it took time to retrieve it after any attack. Sylviane braced her small shield as the other soared in, scimitar aimed for a neck or chest blow.
...Then at the last second, it changed course and crashed in from the side, just above her elbow.
The Princess screamed in pain as she felt her left arm break. Her shield was now useless, and her meteor struck a wall when she lost concentration.
The female warrior stopped before her and raised her scimitar for a killing blow.
Time seemed to slow as Sylviane's life flashed before her eyes. Her memories replayed that moment when she met a teenage Robert and Mari in vivid detail, when her seven-years-old self pulled the two kneeling squires up before grinning at them.
...Finally, she would have friends who weren't her brothers. This time, she would not make the mistake of treating them as just servants.
At that moment, a bladed hook flew in from behind Sylviane's would-be-killer and snagged onto a spaulder. The trailing rope pulled taut, forcibly turning the woman around -- just in time for the Cataliyan to watch as Elspeth plunged a second blade-hook into her face.
The petite girl breathed hard, blood splattered across her body. The Summerborn were known for strength that exceeded their size; but even then it was amazing that despite a deep, bloody cut, her right arm could still deal the killing blow.
"Robert!" Sylviane wasted no time as she swung back to the window sill.
But Sir Robert was no longer there. He had fallen to the ground just a few paces away from Mari, his eyes still and unmoving as the clash in the streets pushed on past him.
"COME ON!" Elspeth pulled the Princess' good arm. "You're in no state to fight now!"
Sylviane was almost catatonic as her last remaining armiger dragged her off the battlefield. Tears streamed down both of her cheeks as her eyes stayed glued to the street where her two oldest friends fell, fulfilling the oath that they had pledged on the day they met:
With my life, I swear to protect you.
----- * * * -----
"That army is broken," the worldwalker Gwendolyn observed from her vantage point in the low clouds.
"The town's loss is just a matter of time now," her compatriot Kannon nodded solemnly from the side. "Once that happens, the Lotharin right wing will be rolled up from the center, and the Lotharin left is too disorganized from that earlier catastrophe to mount an effective defense."
Gwendolyn turned to her senior. The way Kannon summed up the situation almost felt callous, as though the butchery below were just lines drawn on a map rather than the deaths of countless. But then, it was hardly her place to say anything -- Gwendolyn had lead an army in war before; she knew exactly what it took for commanders to watch their men die while trying to stay composed with their mind focused on mission objectives.
"Now can I interfere?" the younger worldwalker -- by over a thousand years -- asked.
"Since the Ceredigion army has no intention of fighting, and the last force in defense of its people has been swept aside." Kannon's return gaze was weighed by sadness. "Yes."
"But are you sure?" She added. "Remember: you only get one chance... and Ceredigion's intact army may still take action."
"Yes, I'm certain," Gwendolyn answered as she materialized her arms and armor from extradimensional storage, including the translucent crystal blade that brought her the nickname Faerie Sword.
"Geopolitics is a game of giants," she stated. "Ceredigion's only chances lay as a responsible member of the Empire."
Gazing upon the bluish hue that was being dragged towards the town's west, Gwendolyn added with a wry smile:
"Besides... I swore an oath to Louis, and his Great-Great-Granddaughter had fought as bravely as anyone could."
----- * * * -----
"CHARGE!" Saint Estelle flew between the trees at the tip of a four hundred strong reserve.
Edith knew that she was probably too late. She had chased the infidel cavalry all the way to the rear before realizing that it was a feint. Now, when she finally came to the town's rescue with her winded infantry, the Caliphate's flag already flew over Glysywing's church tower.
She could hear the infidels pouring out of the town and onto Duke Lionel's left flank. His front no doubt began to buckle as his side and rear came under attack. Similar clashes of steel also resounded from the smoke-obscured north, where the Lotharin left wing likely found its own position compromised.
This is my fault, her inner conscience blamed. I should have been here to help!
Edith knew that the battle was already lost. No army could lose its center and still hold ground. But she had to counterattack the town with her last sliver of hope -- that she could at least extract the Princess and buy time for the army to retreat into the forest.
"Please merciful Lord, please keep Her Highness safe," her whispered prayers to the Holy Father pleaded. "Take my life in exchange, but keep her safe for the future of the Lotharins!"
It was then, when she heard a resounding chant overhead.
Halting her charge through the sparse forest just southwest of the town, Edith turned to see a figure glowing white-blue in the skies. It was no doubt the light of a phoenix. But as the feminine figure descended to an altitude of three hundred paces, Edith was certain that it also wasn't Sylviane, Vivienne, or any other Oriflamme she knew.
Azure rings of ether formed around the chanting woman, her unfamiliar words echoing an outdated accent of Brython. Magic stronger than anything Edith had ever seen coalesced around this stranger, congealing into a kaleidoscopic sphere of power beneath her feet.
It shouldn't be possible. No soul could process that much ether at once. Yet before Edith's eyes the unknown Oriflamme pulled in an entire battlefield's worth of unspent spiritual energy and sent it into the brilliant globe.
Then, as the chant finished, the sphere collapsed in on itself, releasing a pulse of energy that shot down into the forest and spread like a magical shockwave. Edith felt only pressure as the wavefront of white-blue ether washed over her, but the same could not be said for the trees as their bark glowed upon contact with this strange magic.
She watched with bulging eyes as the hibernating trees began to transform. Wooden limbs groaned as they twisted and wrapped smaller branches around themselves like rope bundles. Forks along the trunk and main branches thickened into sinewy joints. Trunk bottoms cracked and split into fours that lifted off the dirt like stretching legs, while roots erupted from the earth before wrapping themselves into powerful bundles that stood on the ground.
Both the Oriflamme and her soldiers stood frozen. They stared with a mixture of fright and awe as the trees uprooted. It wasn't even just a few plants or several dozens, but the entire forests around. Waves upon waves of trees stood up from the earth like four-legged beasts, their sinewy limbs stretching as wooden hollows groaned.
The unknown Oriflamme in the skies spoke a single, commanding word. Edith didn't have to speak the language to understand the pointed crystalline sword.
Thus began the march of an entire forest. It did not take long before horrified shouts in the southern tongue erupted across the battle front, as lumbering trees with near immunity to hand-held weapons strode up and smashed into them.
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