Volume 2 - Winter Typhoon

Chapter 1 - By the Crossroad Shores

The chamber was lavishly furnished and fit for royalty. Spacious enough to park three carriages, its wide floors were covered by intricately decorated rugs of the richest wool. Dressers and drawers built from the finest mahogany lay interspersed along the walls, while two renowned watercolor landscapes sat within gilded frames larger than shelves. Atop the nearby bedside counter sat a tray of gleaming silver, filled with breakfast pastries and sweets almost too beautiful to eat.

None of that changed the fact it was a prison, occupied by a young girl no more than seven years old.

The sun pouring in through the windows was approaching a noontime high; but the girl still laid awake in bed, curled up under the bedsheets with only her head poking out. Her light-violet eyes were bloodshot after an entire night spent weeping, with tears still staining her soft cheeks.

It was part of why she refused to come out of bed. No one must be allowed to see her like this, not even the maid who delivered the food.

To reveal her disgraceful state would be worse than embarrassment. It would humiliate the proud people of her entire nation before the eyes of their enemy.

Perhaps it was just as well, as her depressed mood certainly did not wish to partake in anything else.

The sound of scampering footsteps resounded from outside her door, which had laid silent for hours other than the occasional soft clink of armor.

"She is inside right? Open the door."

The childish voice couldn't have belonged to anyone older than a mere boy. Yet it was spoken with a pride and confidence capable of matching any crown prince.

"I'm sorry Milord, Marshal---"

The soldier's feeble retort was cut off before he could finish.

"My father has already left this morning, which leaves me lord of this castle. Perhaps you are not aware of how insolent your behavior is towards a presiding lord? The word of a mere garrison against the prodigal son of a Landgrave and Weichsel's hero. Who do you think your officer will believe when my men come to arrest you?"

Even across the wide room and through closed doors, the girl could feel the pressure of the young boy's threats.

"But the Marshal expressly forbid any---"

"Does that include the maids who deliver food? Does that include the King should he stop by? I am now the castle's lord. It is only natural that I pay homage to our guest of honor. Did my father expressly forbid me from carrying out my duties as nobility demands?"

"No Milord!" The soldier almost shouted, before clinking armor could be heard beyond the door once again.

The soft click of a door unlocking soon followed, and the girl rushed to toss the bedcovers over her head once again.

"Thank you, soldier. Carry on."

Light footsteps marched in, and the thick doors shut closed behind them.

For a minute, nothing happened. Then she heard a single word spoken near the door, voiced in Ancient Draconic -- the preferred language across Hyperion for mnemonic spellcasting.

He must be older than me then, the girl thought. She was still one year too early to learn, and few mages managed to cast any actual spells before the age of ten.

"I know you are awake. Do not worry though; that was merely a simple Silence spell on the door."

She neither moved nor answered, so the boy continued on in his self-assured tone:

"My name is Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, son of Weichsel Field Marshal Karl August von Moltewitz and heir to the Langrave of Nordkreuz. What of Your Highness?"

Still she neither shifted nor replied, and a nervous silence soon fell between the two.

One minute passed...

Five minutes passed...

Ten minutes later, she was almost wondering if he had quietly left, with the door's closing silenced by his spell.

She slowly peeped out from under the covers, only to meet eye to eye with a boy of her own age.

Pascal wore a faint grin below turquoise eyes brightened by curiosity. His golden soft curls were neatly cut and draped over both ears. His visage was well-proportioned, poised confidently atop a balanced build. Even at a mere seven years old, it was already apparent that he would grow up to become a handsome young man.

For a moment she paused, her attention captured by his gaze, before she realized her need to pull the covers back up.

"I just saw your eyes, by the way. You need not hide your tears any longer."

His calm words of sympathy only annoyed her further.

"I am NOT crying!" she declared as her hands pushed off the comforter.

"Of course not. You are a Lotharin Princess after all. Although... you are not exactly what I expected."

With eyes full of amused curiosity, Pascal's slow speech had a nature of being almost... irritating.

"What, did you expect me to wear a flower tiara as appropriate of tribal Rhin-Lotharingie!? You arrogant Weichsens are little better than Imperials!" she retorted in an almost yell.

Yet somehow, Pascal smiled:

"Not really, although I thought princesses had more... you know, attitude. Bow down before me! and all that..."

Her cheeks heated as embarrassment permeated them, followed closely by annoyance and anger.

She didn't need some petty Weichsel lord-junior to tell her that. She had already heard enough growing up. As the third and youngest child of the Geoffroi the Great, Emperor of Rhin-Lotharingie, she spent her years under the adoration of two older brothers. They were perfect noblemen, as handsome as they are talented, as capable as they are kind. Few younger sisters enjoyed the blessing of even one admirable and caring older brother, let alone two. Yet even though she loved them with all her heart, she couldn't help but feel the slow creep of inferiority every time she watched them from afar.

It certainly didn't help to hear the nobles, or even the servants' chatter from behind corners. They admired how 'princely' her brothers were while expressing that she looked less of a princess than a mere countess' daughter.

"--But of course, none of really matters," the boy named Pascal continued. "Still, there are some protocols to follow."

He then bowed down, his hands waving with the perfect gestures of a nobleman placing a request towards a lady:

"May I have the honor of hearing your name, my beautiful princess?"

The praise 'beautiful' was never one she could seriously take from another, but she nevertheless responded with composure as she sat up in her bed:

"Sylviane Etiennette de Gaetane, daughter of Emperor Geoffroi Jean de Gaetane of the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie."

Pascal then stood back up straight, a playful smile stretching across his countenance:

"That was not too hard, was it now? Although I could certainly see how one would be troubled by worries in such a stuffy room. What was father thinking!? No maps, no projectors, not even a single shelf of books, forget the bright sun and open air to let the mind flourish!"

The girl named Sylviane blinked. The boy's lines seemed almost... contradictory. His first three items listed were precisely the culprits that palace servants often accused of stuffiness. Meanwhile free sun and air were simply not comforts normally given to any prisoner of war, which she certainly was.

"So! How about it, my princess? Do you dare to brave the foreign lands of a hostile liege? Or would you rather cower inside this bedchamber, doomed to dust and mold like the expensive but nonetheless useless furnishings of a trophy room?"

Who does he think he is!?

Her temper, although not exactly matching those of royalty, were at least finally rising.

Yet oddly enough, Pascal seemed happy about it.

"Only if your bravado is capable of getting me out of this room," she retorted.

"Now that, is a challenge no knight could possibly refuse. Shall we go then?"

Pascal offered his hand, but Sylviane merely looked down at the white blouse with violet ribbons she was wearing.

"I need to get changed first."

"Sure," he turned around and left.

But rather than departing, he merely went to the nearby dressers, pulled out a long, purple dress, and walked back to her.

"Here, let me help," he offered as he laid the dress down on the bed.

"Whoever heard of any man other than her husband helping a lady dress!? Now GET OUT!" Sylviane finally snapped.

She didn't miss Pascal's humored grin as he strode away.

As Sylviane dressed herself in a purple two shades lighter than her dark-plum hair, she heard the boy toss more barely-veiled threats at the guards outside in between enticing them with bribery.

"--What use does my father have for you if your entire unit cannot even keep watch over two kids by the lakeside!? Or do you think you will be free of responsibility if father returned to find her gravely ill because she did nothing but mope inside a gloomy room all day? Would it not be better for everyone involved to breathe fresh air and stay happier while your friends earned some extra silver for bar tabs this weekend...?"

In just one meeting, Sylviane decided that she had never met a nobleman -- or noble son -- as rude, audacious, downright impertinent, and... Holy Father forbid, as interesting as Pascal.

----- * * * -----

"I still can't believe I'm sitting next to Cross Lake."

Sylviane's wisteria gaze swept across the calm waters, towards her home country beyond the opposite shores that blurred into the horizon. It was a peaceful autumn day. The soothing sound of gentle waves rolling onto the stone embankments was the essence of tranquility for the second largest lake in Northern Hyperion. Yet her eyes couldn't help but moisten as yet another surge of homesickness washed over her.

The princess suppressed it, hard. This was no place to be seen crying.

Aside from the boy Pascal, who laid back besides her against the grassy earthen motte, they were also watched by at least two dozen soldiers. Some of them were Pascal's men-at-arms and had already learned the bodyguards' art of discretion. But most were garrison guards responsible for the captive princess, and she could almost feel their sweeping glances continuously crisscrossing over her back.

Sylviane had just enough introductory martial training to realize how suicidal it would be to take on this many soldiers at once, even assuming she had a weapon. Yet just because she was helpless didn't mean she could allow them to see it.

"Let me guess -- your father wished he stood here," Pascal asked with nonchalance after a moment's thought.

She almost spoke the truth before holding herself back and deciding for a more neutral answer:

"Why do you say that?"

Pascal bolted back to sitting upright before his bright turquoise gaze caught hold of her eyes once again.

"Do you know how strategically important this Lake is?"

It wasn't a question, but a challenge.

Thinking back, Sylviane was beginning to realize that many of this seven-year-old boy's statements were precisely that: challenges, tests.

But for what? She didn't have a clue.

"I don't remember the maps well, but father once said that the Cross Lake is where the Lotharingie Rivers united before flowing towards the sea."

"Do you know what that implies?" he asked again.

Sylviane took a minute to ponder it over. Even for royalty, she was still too young to receive schooling on military or economic strategy. But it hardly required official lessons to understand the importance of rivers to transportation, and therefore every aspect of civilization.

"Ummm... that whomever holds Cross Lake controls the two largest rivers of Rhin-Lotharingie, and... through them, power across the whole Lotharin heartlands?"

It would take years before she realized how much difference this simple answer by a seven-year-old girl made in the course of her life.

"'Control' might be a tad excessive..." the boy followed up. "But definitely a strong military influence, and maybe dominance over trade. Not to mention the third river, Nordkreuz, that flows here from the northern parts of the Holy Imperium. One could definitely say that this lake is the crux, the most important strategic location in Northern Hyperion."

Pascal then shrugged before a wide grin lit up his expression from cheek to cheek:

"But good enough! Wow, a princess is a princess. You really are different from all those other noble daughters. I have met plenty twice your age, yet all they know is gossip and arts."

It was the first time Sylviane had received such conflicting words from outside the family. On one hand, his sincerity towards her worthiness as a 'princess' was so genuine she could almost taste it. On the other hand, he indirectly insulted one of her favorite interests -- one that her parents encouraged and the nobles praised.

Between shy modesty and annoyed retorts, her pride automatically seized the second:

"What's wrong with arts?" Sylviane pouted. "I like music -- especially Lotharin music. It's festive, and joyous, and easy to understand. Never fails to cheer the heart. Not like your Weichsel orchestral, all martial and stuck up on drums and trumpets."

"That is because Lotharin music source from folk songs. They are popular among the commoners even here in Weichsel. But you misunderstand, Your Highness..."

"Sylviane is fine," she cut in. "All this 'Your Highness' when you're the one actually in charge makes it feel like you're mocking me."

Truth be told, Sylviane couldn't help but feel envious of Pascal. She had always felt daunted by her royal rank, always afraid she would not live up to expectations. Yet here beside her sat a boy her own age, who spoke and acted as though he was born to command others.

"Sure, Princess Sylviane," Pascal beamed back, completely ignoring the annoyed pout she gave him. "As I was saying, I have nothing against the fine arts. But people cannot live on culture and artistry alone. What can noble art accomplish when the people starve from poor agriculture, when they wallow in destitution due to a lack of commerce? Father believe too many nobles forget this as they raise their heirs -- daughters especially -- and I fully agree."

"But mother and father said that it was still too early for me to study what my elder brothers learned," she countered with a matter-of-fact tone. "They just want me to train a properly royal demeanor for now. They said an interest in the arts would help my image."

"Royal demeanor? Attitude is easy to fake. Watch me!"

Pascal hurriedly stood up over the dike. With his back straight and chin high, he began to gesture sternly at the lake with pointed fingers while calling out in a deliberately pitched voice:

"Hmph! You better be grateful! That is a royal gift from the house of de Gaetane...!"

"Don't misunderstand. I am merely issuing you a fair reward for your accomplishments..."

"As a princess I must show kindness to loyal attendants; that is all there is to it!"

He then gracefully sat back down.

"Well, what do you think?"

Sylviane's entranced eyes were lost between astonishment and stupefaction.

"It definitely has 'attitude'. But nothing like what my tutors taught me."

"Please! What do those old men and women know about being a princess!?"

While not directed at her, Pascal's voice held nothing but disdain as he spoke of hired tutors:

"I chased away three of them before father gave it up. Not a single one of them could stand up to me in either a contest of will or knowledge, always resorting to barbaric violence instead! Of course... if your mother had advice, that would be something else entirely."

"Mother was only the daughter of a Count before father married her," she replied. "As much as we love her, mother never even grew accustomed to being empress. There's no way I would bother her for such advice!"

"A mere Count?" Pascal's brows went up. "I thought noble marriages were usually made for more political gain than that? A lone county will not offer much to help back up an Emperor's authority."

Sylviane snapped her irritated glare back onto him. Only then did she realize that his eyes held not an ounce of condescension, merely curiosity and surprise.

After taking a deep breath and donning her 'royal composure' once again, the princess started to explain:

"Father always said that political marriages are the folly of short-sighted nobles and certainly not the 'Gaetane' way. He told my elder brothers and me that because we are royalty who bear the burden of the realm, we must take extra care to marry well and create warm, caring families. Because only a good family may raise a good heir, and only a responsible child with a healthy mind may become an excellent liege..."

She paused for a moment in uncertainty before continuing:

"I'm still a child, so I don't really understand it all. But I know they're right! It's because of father and mother that my brothers became the kind, smart, and diligent young men that they are. Just the thought of father and mother disappointed and ashamed, after everything they've done for us... I don't think any of us could bear that."

Turning back towards the lake, Pascal thought it over as his golden soft curls swayed in the waterside breeze. Then, with his eyes still far away, he began with pensive words:

"I think you are probably right. My mother died before I really knew her, and father is too busy to return home often. But it does not matter how tired or how far away he is, he always makes sure to write to me, or send long messages every week through our Majordomo Karsten. He is one of the main reasons I want to learn and understand all manners of stately affairs, and magic too--!"

Pascal's tone suddenly rose in excitement:

"I simply cannot wait for the day when I can receive Farspeak calls directly from him!"

By the time he turned back around and met the amethyst eyes of the princess, Pascal's gaze held a new light even as he repeated old words:

"Like I said, a princess is a princess! You are just so much better than all those other noble girls!"

This time, Sylviane no longer had the distraction of another mood. This time, she turned away coyly as her cheeks blushed faintly.

"You're actually the first one outside my family who sincerely meant that," she admitted. "Everyone else keep whispering behind my back that I'm not graceful enough, or not beautiful enough, or lack that alluring aristocratic refinement..."

"Oh please, do not tell me you actually listen to those idiots," Pascal cut in, his hard eyes insistent if not imperative, more pressuring than any tutor she met:

"Sure, some noble girls may look nice -- beautiful as a peacock! With just as much birdbrain! I have met many of them, and most of their thought capacity barely extends beyond squealing like pigs and chirping over which set of feathers to admire tomorrow. Seriously, those 'nobles' can go jump off a cliff and the world would hardly have missed a thing."

Sylviane knew that his statement was rather excessive and mean if not outright horrible, but she nevertheless smiled and grinned as he bashed upon the same people she always held an inferiority complex towards.

With disdain rapidly draining away from his gaze, Pascal returned to his appreciative voice:

"Now being a real princess -- that requires skills and knowledges. Royal demeanor is important too, but that is easy to learn and act! The rest is what truly requires work. I cannot say that I am sufficiently learned myself to teach you, but I could certainly help you study!"

At the time, Sylviane mostly thought that Pascal was boasting. After all, even if he was smarter than the average, how much could a mere seven-year-old understand about affairs of state and governance?

It took but days before the princess realized how wrong she was.

While other children their age spent most of their time playing outside while learning language, numbers, etiquette, and equestrian skills, Pascal had already skipped ahead several stages. Instead of comparing dresses and dance steps or matching bravado with wooden swords, the young lord spent every day dragging her to study map displays and book projections:

-- Administrative sectors and the effect of synergistic coupling on managerial efficiency.

-- Trade networks and their convergence points' need for transport expansion.

-- Climate zones and the inevitable limitations of agriculture based on weather.

-- Resource maps and the optimal placement of supply-production chains.

-- Military strongholds and their potential for mutual support and coordinated defense.

The list went on...

For over a year Sylviane stayed at the von Moltewitz estate in the Landgraviate of Nordkreuz as a political hostage. Landgrave Karl August von Moltewitz never disrespected her, and even King Leopold of Weichsel treated her as the royalty she was during his cordial visit. Other than her limited freedoms and the dozen soldiers constantly tailing her, one could easily mistake her for some other noble daughter staying at the fortified estate as Pascal's study-mate.

But after many months of playing catchup, Sylviane slowly came to the realization that she had never been a foreigner in his eyes. She had held a suspicion since her first week that the entire meeting with Pascal may have been set up by the elder von Moltewitz. But in the end it hardly mattered whether or not the old Marshal plotted and schemed, for Pascal himself was truly sincere.

It had been a precious chance for Pascal to garner a new friend.

...One of his only.

Yet despite all their time spent huddled in libraries and studies, despite all their heated lakeside discussions and peacefully humored strolls, it was Pascal's words during her last day beside the shores of Cross Lake that would forever be engraved into her memories:

"Tell your father I think he should hire healers to check his court nobles for vision problems," the nine-year-old Pascal said nonchalantly as his beautiful turquoise eyes left the sunlit glittering lake and turned towards her.

Sylviane almost giggled. Saying something equivalent to 'tell the Emperor to do this' was just... such a Pascal thing to do.

"Why is that?"

"Because blindness is their only excuse for belittling the sight of the most beautiful girl I have ever met."

Completely unabashed, Pascal was positively beaming in his childish innocence.

For a second, Sylviane almost thought she misheard.

For a moment after that, she thought he was joking or perhaps teasing her again.

Then, her entire face ripened like an apple as she realized that he was absolutely serious. If embarrassment actually burned as hot as it felt, Sylviane was certain that her lightheaded mind, her overheating shoulders, her fluttering chest... her entire body would have erupted with steam.

Her light-violet eyes reflexively turned away as they fled his gaze and sought the cool blue ripples of the lake.

"D-d-don't get too ahead of yourself with flattery," her failing voice stuttered out. "I am still the Royal Princess of Rhin-Lotharingie!"

"Of course, Your Highness."

Joyous pride filled Pascal's voice as he lifted and kissed the back of her hand.

...

Sylviane never figured out if Pascal intentionally did it or if his lack of social common sense simply left him misguided. But her father certainly did not appreciate Pascal's idea of 'royal attitude' rubbing off on her. With the rest of the family now gone, Emperor Geoffroi took it upon himself in the following months to stamp almost every vestige of it out of her.

----- * * * -----

"Your Highness?"

The words of Sir Robert de Dunois, wayfarer mage and Oriflamme Armiger to the Cerulean Princess, pulled Sylviane's thoughts back to the present.

I'll see him soon enough, she thought.

"Just planning ahead, Sir Robert."

Crown Princess Sylviane lied through her royal mask of imperturbable confidence. Her shoulders felt heavy, burdened by the responsibilities that may spell victory or defeat for the entire realm. But she could not reveal an ounce of it -- not to her closest guards, not to the ministers in court, not to anyone, except maybe the two most important men in her life.

Fairy tales aside, being a royal princess had never been about an admirable and enjoyable life. It was hard, and lonely, and just outright tiring.

It was but another reason why no true heir of 'de Gaetane' ever wanted the throne.

Sylviane's gaze looked ahead, from the plaza that held Königsfeld's diplomatic teleportation beacons to the powerful Black Dragon Castle that loomed over the city. The stone-paved Drachenlanzen Royal Pathway was wide and straight, lined with the King's finest men on both sides. Their uniforms began with the black-on-burning-red of the Knights Phantom, dotting the roadside like smoky, burning braziers. But near the gate where the welcoming party stood, the entourage transitioned into the pitch-black outfits of the Black Eagles.

"The Black Dragon stands before us. Form up and show them the pride of Rhin-Lotharingie!"

"Yes, Your Highness!"

As Sylviane strode ahead, her twelve Oriflamme Armigers -- the second best knights of Rhin-Lotharingie -- fanned out behind her with perfectly coordinated steps to form the wings of an inverted-V. Each of them wore a uniform of white and aqua on bright-cerulean, draped by an enchanted cape that billowed flames of golden-white to match her burning embers.

All around them, the citizens of Weichsel watched in spellbound awe as the Oriflamme chevron of white-blue flames advanced towards the Black Dragon through its extended claws, heralding a union of sovereign supremacy.

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 2 - The Oriflamme Princess

For the first time, Kaede spent considerable time obsessing over the ruffles and wrinkles of her white pseudo-uniform. But it wasn't her appearance that she cared about. Her eyes merely needed an excuse to avoid Pascal's gaze, as reading wasn't an option when they were preparing to leave.

Recollections of last night still looped through her mind on replay, reminding her of behavior that was simply not normal for anyone in a non-romantic relationship.

There was little doubt that after the twin hammer blows of her residency and his loss, rampant emotions had carried her away.

Part of her wondered how much of that could even be attributed to the psychological and hormonal differences between genders. The rest of her was less theoretical, even if simply berating herself was no more practical.

Kaede needed the relationship between her and Pascal to stay within a safe zone. It wasn't even a matter of whether or not she wanted romance as a girl. Her life in the new world simply depended too much on the stability of their bond for her to risk anything beyond mere friendliness.

...Especially if he already had a fiancée, a royal one at that.

Kaede stole another glance at Pascal. Facing his mirrored reflection, a blank expression replaced his usual dashing smirk as he adjusted his collar and the Knight's Cross hanging below it. His countenance was still stern as he proudly saluted his own image before turning to face her.

She hurriedly glanced back to her short skirt and the longer petticoat before their eyes could meet.

"Ready to depart?"

His tone was composed, perhaps 'controlled' was a better description. It certainly lacked the self-humored arrogance he began most days with.

"Y-yeah..."

She had to will herself not to pull away as Pascal leaned in to adjust her appearance to the perfection he demanded.

"Do not worry. King Leopold is a true monarch of his troops -- an open-minded, martial ruler not given to petty formalities. Just stay behind me, be respectful, and you should manage fine..."

Kaede nodded back faintly. With everything else on her mind, the stress of an impending royal audience really did not add well to her nerves. But however daunting meeting a King may be, the prospective of facing Pascal's royal fiancée while being a girl bonded to him was... far worse.

"--Sylviane, on the other hand, is somewhat too serious and pressured by her role as a Crown Princess. Be courteous, do not speak until spoken to, and only keep to answering her for now. I am certain she will warm up to you given time, but best you tread carefully at the start."

His advice didn't make her feel any better, nor the hints of worry in his own voice. Kaede simply couldn't shake the feeling that she was like a mistress about to be introduced to the official wife.

With one finger under her chin, Pascal brought her eyes back to his focused turquoise gaze. Waving his hand and its glowing ring over her face, he cast the usual Refreshen spell to brighten her appearance.

Kaede finally realized that she was being awkward by herself.

Sure, his expressions were different, and his attitude unusual. But that was expected for any normal person who just lost their parents. The key point however, was that he treated her the exact same way as before.

Meanwhile she was trying to keep more distance, reneging upon the very words she said to him on the rooftop the night before. If Kaede kept this up, she would unintentionally harm Pascal during a time he needed support the most.

"Well... would you prefer Milord, Sir, or master then?" She forced out her words, half-jokingly as she sought familiar ground in the atmosphere between the two of them.

"Since I am your liege, 'Milord' should be fine for the formalities. It certainly overrides the 'Sir' for addressing my knighthood or as a noble head of household. And as I had told you on the first night, I am not some faux noble who need ego stroking, so please do not give me some weird reputation with the last..."

Then, Pascal finally smirked -- lightly, but nevertheless the first time his habitual arrogance manifested itself all morning:

"--Although if you wish to do so in private in the future, I would not really mind."

Kaede's right hand balled into a fist as she wrestled with the urge to hit that handsome face again.

It was the first time she found her feeling and his expression oddly reassuring.

...

"Oh hey it's the Runelord. Out for an errand this early?"

Just as they exited the dormitory keep, Kaede and Pascal met Reynald and Parzifal. The two men both wore gray cotton sweats with red lines, still panting with lingering sweat as they cooled off in the winter breeze after an early Saturday morning workout.

"Are you alright, Pascal?"

Parzifal's worried glance for his former arch-nemesis just a week ago reminded Kaede once again of how saintly the healer was.

"I am now, thank you," Pascal answered a bit stiffly. "And I must travel to Königsfeld today."

"Ah, of course. Noble duty calls," Parzifal nodded back with the understanding of a gentle smile.

"More than that actually. My fiancée is visiting to have an audience with the King. After what happened recently, it is only appropriate that I join her there."

"The Cerulean Princess is coming?" Reynald's fatigue vanished as his entire face lit up with piqued curiosity. His feet then rushed toward the door. "Give me a min to get changed. I'll give you two a ride."

"I can manage..."

At Pascal's words, Reynald instantly spun around and leaned in with a stern glare. Despite being shorter by a full head, he berated the Runelord as though a freckled kid admonishing an adult:

"Don't be an idiot. You'll need five Teleport jumps to get to Königsfeld; that'll strain even your prodigious ether reserves. Is that what you're looking for? Window of opportunity for assassins to prove your newly entitled lordliness?"

"That is why I have ether-storing gemstones," Pascal replied flatly, unflinching.

"Yes, because that's so much more efficient, the hours it takes to create those things. In case you haven't noticed, Runelord, we have wars coming up, so save your beauty accessories for when it really matters. Seriously, just wait a few. I'll get you and Muffin there in two clean jumps."

Reynald then spun his heels and ran into the keep without another word.

With an amused smile, Parzifal caught Kaede's raised eyebrows and shrugged:

"This is pretty normal for him, actually."

"Turn time back a week, and I never would have thought he could even think that far ahead..." Pascal noted as he turned to face the other two.

"What, you've never heard of 'playing the buffoon?'" Kaede asked. "It's not that rare in political circles."

"Pretending to be an idiot is valid for rulers and heirs trying to avoid attention, especially in succession struggles," Pascal replied in his official, know-it-all voice. "Reynald is the only son to an unlanded noble family that does not even own fiefs. There is no point for him to hide his potential. Unless..."

"Unless he wants arrogant nobles like you to underestimate him. Given that he kicked your sorry butt twice before you learned your lesson, I'd say he succeeded at it," Kaede crossed her arms before switching the topic: "What does he mean by two jumps versus five?"

It was Parzifal who explained this time, his expression oddly wistful:

"Standard Astral Teleport spells have a safe maximum range of ten kilopaces. Reynald has wayfarer training thanks to his affinity with teleportation spells, and he can jump at least twenty-five kilopaces while bringing along more passengers. Though Pascal: you could also get there in under an hour by Phantom Steed gallop, even if it's rather windy."

"Unless I am misreading the weather, we should expect snow sometime today. With her riding skills, I would rather not be caught in a blizzard." Pascal surveyed at the cloudy skies before turning back to Parzifal: "can you manage teleport at all? Given your problem with non-bio spells?"

It took a second for the realization to pass, but Kaede almost slammed her palm into her forehead. Instead, she settled for two fingers on her temple as annoyed thoughts rolled across her mind: darn it Pascal you're not supposed to just raise touchy subjects like this.

"No, I can't even manage a short-ranged Astral Leap, let alone long-range teleportation," Parzifal admitted with a wry grin. "But then, many mages have trouble with it, otherwise it wouldn't be considered a 'career spell'. You, Cecylia, and Reynald are among the rare ones to manage solo-teleportation. Even Ariadne still require my help to align the spell."

Pascal frowned back:

"I thought only metamages could directly influence another caster's spells, given the usual non-compatibility between different individuals' ether."

"I don't know why," Parzifal shrugged again. "But part of my knack with bio-spells has been the ability to work well with others. In fact, I can heal other mages to a degree even without the need for Samaran blood. The problem is that metamages' affinity is rare and it's not a popular specialization given its pure-support role. We simply don't have one here at the academy."

Kaede watched with an encouraging smile as Pascal took a moment to mull things over. She already knew his obsession with expertise well enough to anticipate his response:

"Allow me to tap into my family contacts in the government. The claim is that metamages usually learn their abilities by nature once their magic reaches full-bloom after the age of twenty-five, but it is never too early to start exploring and grooming a potential affinity. The ability to turn spells and unravel magic is nothing to scoff at either."

"If you don't mind, that is," Kaede nodded courteously towards Parzifal.

Perhaps it wasn't really needed. The healer's hopeful eyes seemed as though the holidays had arrived early this year:

"Of course not! I'd appreciate that quite a bit!"

----- * * * -----

Kaede hated teleportation more every time she did it. The feeling of undergoing freezing and sublimation while simultaneously being flushed down a whirlpool simply wasn't something she could ever acclimate herself to. As she confirmed all her bodyparts while their nerves reconnected, Kaede felt immensely grateful to Reynald that she only had to ride two teleportation spells instead of Pascal's originally-planned five jumps.

She was even ready to forgive all the times he had annoyingly called her 'Muffin'.

"Let me make one thing clear," Pascal said as he lead the three of them up a stone-paved street with 'sidewalks', wide enough to be considered a long plaza rather than a mere highway. "You may come along as part of my gratitude for your help, but I will not tolerate any of your disrespect towards my fiancée. She is far more sensitive than I am."

"Ha! As if your sensitivity is any comparison to speak of..."

Reynald's retort attracted a harsh glare from Pascal, and he quickly appended it:

"--Don't worry you playboy. I have no desire to put my head on a chopping block, and she's royalty -- the first Oriflamme princess too," the redhead spoke with rising awe. "This will be my first time even meeting an Oriflamme, even if she's far from the best."

Kaede filed away her question for the moment as she followed Pascal's wake on the left, her eyes transfixed upon the mighty fortress before her eyes.

Built on the shores of the North Sea, the 'Black Dragon Castle' was the seat of the Weichsel crown. As a three-layer concentric castle that formed the northern stronghold to Königsfeld's capital defenses, it was constructed entirely from ashen-black rocks on a steep, spell-terraformed hill. Mounted atop the powerful citadel keep was a sleek central tower, decorated by a massive dragon's head carving raised over twenty stories high. Combined with artistically designed 'wings' folded into the curtain walls, the redoubt really did give the rough impression of a legendary dragon watching intently from the shores in defense the capital.

It was a powerful symbol of Weichsel's strength -- the declaration of its people's defiance and vigilance against the barbarian raiders from across the sea.

Several minutes passed before Kaede finally pulled her admiring eyes away from the fortress and asked Reynald:

"I read that the Oriflamme Paladins are chosen by the twelve phoenixes of Rhin-Lotharingie to serve as the nation's guardians. What else is special about them?"

The response came back with the excitement of a starry-eyed fanboy zealously worshiping his heroes:

"Only that they're some of the best spellswords across Hyperion, both in prowess and sheer style. When duty calls, they form a union with their phoenix familiars, and look absolutely kickass in their halo of golden blue-white flames. They glide through the air on burning wings and hurl blue fire that melt through plated steel... any knight of Hyperion who claim that they aren't envious of the Oriflammes in some way is outright lying."

Kaede wondered just how much resemblance they bore to Arthur's Knights of the Round Table, or perhaps more appropriately -- the Twelve Peers of Charlemagne. The translation magic did match their name up with 'Oriflamme', the golden flame battle standard once carried by the great Kings of France.

"Not all sword-and-sorcery either," Pascal added as he continued to stride ahead. "They also make some of Rhin-Lotharingie's best commanders and mages. In fact, the latest addition to their ranks is a young bard of sorts. Furthermore, only Oriflamme Paladins -- their character proven by the phoenixes' choice -- may inherit the throne, so the phoenixes always select at least one individual from the royal line of succession. As you can imagine, Sylviane's appointment is more political than purely martial."

"How is it that you always manage to pick the most hopelessly realistic thing to say?" Reynald pouted. "Way to ruin my romantic childhood dreams of knights-in-burning-armor."

"I practice," Pascal replied sarcastically. "Romanticism has no place in my army, or any army..."

"Your army?" Reynald cut in. "Think the King might care to hear this?"

"The King is the one who kept comparing me and father when he personally knighted me. Mark my words -- I will become Marshal. It is just a matter of time..."

"Aren't you--"

Pascal then trampled over Reynald's interjection by the sheer weight of his stern voice:

"But as to the point: we already have enough necessary wars, Reynald. There is no need for unnecessary ones because some foreign idiot believes it is 'noble' for them to launch one."

"I wholeheartedly agree with that," Kaede added with a firm nod. Philosophers might disagree with how 'necessary' any war was; but as a historian, she couldn't be more proud of Pascal's attitude towards his profession.

"Yes yes, I agree too; and even if I didn't, Parzifal has lectured us aplenty. But come on, knights-in-burning-armor!"

Reynald gestured wildly as he accentuated his final words. Then, as Pascal gave no response and Kaede almost giggled, he tossed in rather hypothetically:

"Besides, I thought real generals only felt at home on the battlefield?"

"'Real' generals also do not enjoy seeing their men get killed," Pascal countered harshly. "There are other ways to simulate a battlefield, whether over a beer casket or under a projector. Kaede even introduced me to a term from her home realm -- marvelously simplistic really: they call it 'wargaming'."

By this time, they finally walked across the castle moat's lowered drawbridge and saluted the guards: a squad of garrison in partial plate and two officers in pitch-black armor.

Stepping forth, Pascal produced a tightly bound scroll from his enchanted pockets before handing it to the officer in charge:

"I am Captain Sir Pascal Kay Lennart von Moltewitz, the new Landgrave of Nordkreuz, and these two are my retainers. We are here to request an audience with the King."

The two officers were meticulous, first scanning the scroll with magic and then the three of them.

"Aura signature confirmed, no sign of overriding illusions or alchemy." The guards saluted as they passed back his scroll: "Welcome to the Black Dragon, Milord. Our condolences for the Marshal. Every soldier of Weichsel shall miss his presence."

"Thank you," Pascal nodded curtly before continuing on into the outermost castle courtyard.

"What am I, your squire?" Reynald snubbed back at Pascal once they were out of the soldiers' earshot. His voice was dripping with sarcasm: "would you like your armor polished with that, Sir?"

"After the trip here? You can be my stablehand."

"Do you two always have to be this pleasant around one another?" Kaede sighed.

The two men answered almost at once as even their voices clashed against one another:

"Blame the firestarter lord of sarcastic hill..."

"Not my fault his ass is still glued to the same old arrogant high horse."

----- * * * -----

The royal 'palace' was situated within the citadel keep and built of grayish-blue slate. But instead of an audience in the throne room, the valet brought Pascal, flanked by Kaede and Reynald, to a large side-chamber before announcing the Landgrave's entry.

Four soldiers posted outside the room hinted at the presence of royalty inside. Two of them were the King's Black Eagles, wearing pitch-black uniforms with thin midnight-blue lines and markings. In sharp contrast, bright outfits of cerulean and white adorned the other two. Through the double doors were another six of the King's finest and four junior officers, standing watch around a rectangular mahogany conference table that projected a three-dimensional terrain map above it. One last trio of men in Weichsel officer uniforms leaned over the display, while the Princess of Rhin-Lotharingie stood on the other side, flanked by two of her own.

"Pascal! You made it sooner than I anticipated."

The officer who approached Pascal first was at the prime of his adult life, which as a mage meant he was between forty and fifty years old. Handsomely well-proportioned with an abundance of lingering boyishness, his clear brown eyes and evenly-arced eyebrows gave him the countenance of a natural smile even with lips held neutral. His hair was lightly-curled and coffee-black, trimmed in a long regular men's cut that obscured the ears. Meanwhile, the clean-shaven cheeks revealed a slight plumpness to an otherwise modest one-eighty (5'11") build.

What surprised Kaede the most was that he wore an exact copy of the regular crimson-on-black officer uniform of Weichsel, including the two-starred insignias of a lieutenant general. Outside the midnight-blue cross that hanged from his collar instead of the usual black Knight's Cross, there wasn't a single extra decoration to hint at his social standing -- which Pascal's reply made abundantly clear:

"Your Majesty."

The new landgrave bent his right arm sharply, holding his fist to his chest in a knightly salute. Reynald followed with a more conventional military salute, and Kaede rushed to give an anxious curtsy.

King Leopold nodded at the two of them before stepping up to Pascal and clapping the younger man's shoulder.

"I'm sorry about your father. He was a dear friend and shall be missed."

They were sincere condolences given with sorrowful eyes, and Pascal nodded back with wordless appreciation.

The King then turned halfway around to look back to the others:

"I don't think any introductions are necessary here, are they? Wiktor? Neithard? Certainly not for Princess Sylviane."

Retainers often went unnoticed until called upon by the lord who brought them. Kaede knew that the King's wordless acknowledgment of their presence already went far beyond the usual. What bothered her more were the wary gazes of the King's men, ready to draw blades at the first sign of hostility.

"Not at all, Sire," said the oldest-looking member of the group before nodding towards Pascal: "Captain."

Even first name basis was enough for Kaede to recognize them given the importance of their positions. The one who just spoke was General Neithard Mittermeyer von Manteuffel, Duke of Polarstern, commander of Weichsel's cavalry, and leader of the powerful Manteuffel clan. At one-hundred-twenty-nine years old, he was a moderately-built senior who appeared to be in his late fifties. His graying hair was thin and flat; his mustache lay neatly trimmed from the nose to lip corners, which combined with aged winkle lines and sharp blue eyes for a meter-eight-three (6'0") elderly gentleman look.

The most surprising aspect was that he wore the black-on-burning-red outfit of a Knight Phantom. It signified him as a man who never gave up his membership in the assault companies and, to this day, still led from the front.

He must work out, thought Kaede, only to have her eyes snap wide as the other general spoke:

"Although 'Landgrave' may be more appropriate in this context. It's unfortunate that succession is never a joyful event... I'm sorry for your loss, Pascal, and I apologize for being unable to protect him better."

Wiktor von Falkenhausen was Cecylia's father, with same glossy black hair and scarlet cross in his intense, deep-red eyes. But the dhampir girl certainly wasn't kidding about the man being a 'beefcake', despite his seniority in the room at one-fifty-eight. Two centimeters (1") taller than Neithard, Wiktor had a broad-chested yet firm-waisted musculature that shone through his standard uniform. He appeared not a year older than twenty-five, with stunning good looks perfect enough to be a modern action movie star, even with the heavy-stubble beard and mustache that covered his jaws.

The thought of what laid beneath the tight-chested uniform passed through Kaede's mind for a brief second, just before her recognition rebounded in horror. It was undeniable that the General was physically attractive to the teenage hormones in her feminine self. But even assuming Kaede had sorted out her gender issues, he was still older than her grandfather, not to mention the parent of one of her friends.

No, just NO.

Kaede proceeded to kill her mental imagery with fire.

In the meantime, Pascal stepped up to firmly shake hands with his father's chief-of-staff for the past several decades:

"General, I cannot find you any more accountable than my own failure to stop him, assuming father could be stopped at all from being himself. I know he was as dear a partner to you as he was a father to me."

Even as Kaede glanced away, she still couldn't help catch the relieved, grateful smile that lit General von Falkenhausen's dashing image. But what lingering thoughts she had were soon extinguished as the Crown Princess of Rhin-Lotharingie walked around the conference table and accosted her betrothed.

Kaede's first thought was that not everything lived up to expectations.

"I do not believe a girl more beautiful than her could exist..."

Those were Pascal's exact words when Kaede first asked about his fiancée. Given that he once courted Ariadne, who epitomized the grace of noble elegance, Kaede had always imagined that the Princess would be a gorgeous beauty no less stunning.

But Sylviane seemed almost... normal.

That wasn't entirely fair. Sylviane was still pretty by any standard. She stood with confidence at a moderate height of around one-seventy (5'7"). Her voluminous, dark-plum hair draped across both sides of her narrow shoulders, stopping short of her petite chest in front and reaching just beyond her slender waist in the back. Under a pair of large, caring eyes the color of wisteria flowers, she had small peachy-pale lips and fair cheeks that were a hint pudgy. Combined with the blank expression of composure she wore, it gave her an innocent air that went oddly with the royal bearing.

In essence, she was pretty and cute in a rather ordinary way. Sylviane appeared more like the daughter of a backwater baron than the Princess of a renowned Emperor. She certainly lacked the graceful elegance and calming serenity that Ariadne radiated with each step and every smile.

Maybe that's rather unfair, Kaede thought to herself. Few nobles anywhere could match such comparison.

Crowned by a modest silvery-cerulean tiara, the Princess wore what could best be described as a 'battledress' dyed from sky-blue to violet. Soft leather in darker iris padded her shoulders and embraced her waist, marking the fitting spots for absent armor. Meanwhile a wide skirt below the belts extended outwards in sectioned fabrics.

As Pascal straightened his back from a courteous bow, he gently raised her offered hand and clasped it between his palms.

Time seemed to stand still as the two betrothed met their gaze in the emotional exchange of a long-overdue greeting.

Meanwhile, the King silently gestured his two generals back to the conference table.

"I'm sorry about what happened."

Sylviane's soft words carried a surging torrent of sympathy, so much that Kaede barely caught the touch of remorse hidden deep within.

"Thank you."

Pascal breathed out a sigh of gratitude, not just sincere but also... humble, without even a trace of the Runelord's habitual arrogance. Then, as Kaede swore that she missed something hidden in their exchange, Pascal probed with a hopeful uncertainty that was most unlike him:

"Does this mean we are back to before?"

The Princess slowly shook her head.

"I doubt that's possible at this point..."

She then sent Kaede a quick, almost inquisitive glance. It lasted no more than a mere second, but nevertheless produced a key that clicked with perfect timing in the young Samaran's mind:

They had a fallout... because Pascal summoned me...

"--However," Sylviane continued with a forgiving smile: "It was my wrong to simply pull away. We have to work this out... together."

The young landgrave was about to say something else, when the Princess stopped him with a raised finger:

"Not right now. You know the rules: official business first."

It was their last word on the subject for the time being. Pascal soon nodded in understanding as he followed Sylviane back to the conference table and its illusory projection.

Yet, to Kaede, this short exchange had reaffirmed her suspicion into a firm, doubtless realization:

Pascal truly held Sylviane as a special, irreplaceable figure in his life. His words that the Princess was the most beautiful girl in his life weren't praises or boasts, but a true expression of how his eyes viewed her every step.

But does the Princess feel likewise?

In any other circumstance, Kaede would say yes. But Sylviane wasn't just anyone: she was a politician, from a nation desperately in need of aid.

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 3 - Council of War

After rejoining the King and the generals at the conference table, Pascal anxiously awaited his opportunity to speak. But one look across the map display changed everything.

The long table projected the illusion of a three-dimensional terrain map, centered along the length of Weichsel which stretched across the North Sea's southern coast. The scale was zoomed out far enough to show all of Weichsel's immediate neighbors: the Holy Imperium's border provinces loomed in the south, the Lotharin Estuary connected Cross Lake to the sea in the west, while the east was filled by the gray void of the Dead Mountains, leaving a narrow but important coastal trading corridor to the Grand Republic of Samara.

But in addition to landscape, borders, and settlements, the illusory map also displayed every sizable military force within two-hundred kilopaces of Weichsel's borders. Fourteen of the miniature infantry figures carried the Black Dragon banner of Weichsel, either assembled at one of the major rallying points or marching eastward. Ten more held purple standards -- the Holy Imperium's Northern Legions which stood imposingly along the border. To the east was a single army of the Grand Republic, represented by an armored Samaran Battlewagon instead of a soldier; meanwhile troops of Rhin-Lotharingie mobilized for war in the west.

But the new threat which halted Pascal's prepared words rose in the northwest.

Soldiers carrying the green hydra flag, in the only continental territories still held by the heathens of the north...

The Greater Jarldom of Skagen was mobilizing for war.

Pascal wondered if the intelligence was accurate, but only for a brief second. The artifact which powered the display was one of Weichsel's greatest assets. Known as the 'Eye of the Dragon', its magical senses reached out from every synchronized border outpost to detect armed forces within range. It even labeled the model troops with numbers, accurate down to half a thousand.

The young Landgrave was still reformulating his strategic analysis when King Leopold turned to him:

"As you can see Pascal, those barbarians just outside your realm are getting uppity."

"It could be defensive and in response to ours," Pascal commented, more to buy time and information than because he believed in it.

"Unlikely. The Eagles tell me their men are rallying under the call for reconquest -- their opportunity to retake ancient lands they lost to the Imperium centuries ago..."

The Black Eagles may be known as Weichsel's royal guards, but their function was not strictly military. In fact, they were chosen more for their capacity to gather information and forge contacts than their martial qualities. Within Weichsel's military structure, they served as the intelligence and counter-espionage branch, coordinating networks of spies for the crown.

"--Besides, this timing doesn't match those of a defensive response," the King gestured towards the green figures on the map. "If they were just wary of our mobilization, they should have started gathering troops last week. A frontier lord hardly needs approval for a defensive mobilization. But these movements only began this morning. Neithard believes that the loss of our renowned Marshal has emboldened them, especially with our allies already preoccupied in the south. I daresay that he is probably right."

Pascal's brows furrowed:

"Is this timing not too perfect?"

"That is also my main concern," the elderly General von Manteuffel pitched in. "Skagen is no monarchy. It is ruled collectively by a handful of petty Jarls. The Abyss will freeze over before they can make their decision in a single day. After everything that has happened in the past few weeks in rapid, seemingly planned, succession, I fear we are merely seeing another step to an unfolding Imperial plot."

Hot breath exhaled from his nose as Pascal urgently suppressed his flaring anger. He knew perfectly well who was at fault for his father's death, but he did not need its reminder... not yet.

He then turned to meet the King's clear brown gaze:

"I take it your Majesty has already seen my report from the recent assassination attempt on me?"

"Of course," King Leopold's countenance was grim. "Both Wiktor and Neithard have seen it too. Although I hope you understand why I can neither publicly confirm the assassin's identities nor accuse the Imperials. There's no doubt that the two cases are connected, yet we can only say that the Marshal was killed by 'unknown assassins'."

Pascal's fists tightened as he heard the response that was entirely too censored by political motivations...

It wasn't just. It wasn't even fair. But while nobility respected honor and despised cowardly acts such as assassination, ethics only served politics when it met the interests of state.

He had learned that since an early age. Yet the thirst for vengeance could not be reasoned with. It was an elemental force, an instinct of being human that began to settle in, replacing the grief and sorrow that Kaede helped him suppress.

But while retaliatory action was a natural defense mentality meant to ward off future hostility, it often escalated in matters of statecraft. Escalation... was the last thing Weichsel could afford right now.

In memory of his father, the now orphaned son took a deep breath to keep his darker emotions buried. The Imperium would pay dearly for their sins, but now was not the time.

"I understand, Your Majesty. At this moment we cannot afford to offend the Pope by implying that he is playing into Emperor Gaudentius' hands, assuming this was not a joint scheme to begin with. Nor can we risk the morale of our own armies by publicly antagonizing the two largest nations of the Western World. With the Pope on his side for the time being, there is no way we can even win propaganda points against the Holy Emperor, especially not on religious grounds."

Weichsel's King flashed the briefest grin, a wry yet proud smirk, towards his foremost cavalry general:

"I told you he was good."

"As the rumors claim, Sire," Neithard von Manteuffel spoke through a dignified mask of neutrality.

"Thank you, Your Majesty," Pascal brushed it aside with an inexpressive nod before continuing. "Since the incident, Imperial intentions have been made obvious by the Caliphate's Holy War: they seek to disrupt our willingness and ability to militarily aid Rhin-Lotharingie. If Skagen's actions are indeed an Imperial machination, then they will attack us without any doubt."

"But if not, their target could also be Rhin-Lotharingie."

It was an almost throwaway comment from General Wiktor von Falkenhausen, but it also outlined the elephant in the room that everyone avoided to mention. With the Emperor of Rhin-Lotharingie excommunicated by papal disapproval during this critical moment, Weichsel was given a legitimate reason -- perhaps even a warning, as some would argue -- to stay out of the war.

...If the King so desired.

"What could they possibly gain from that?" Princess Sylviane shook her head as she pointed towards the blue figures in the display. "Rhin-Lotharingie's northern armies were mobilized late and have yet to be dispatched south. Between them and the powerful fortifications guarding the Lotharin Estuary, Skagen could hardly occupy two counties at best. If their aim was Rhin-Lotharingie, it would be better for them to wait a few more weeks before baring their fangs."

It wasn't her best argument, but persuading Weichsel to join a war when they would be attacked anyway was easier than asking the King to support a nation about to be flanked by two fronts.

Politically speaking, it was in Weichsel's favor to help their ally resist imperial advances. But at the moment, short-term worries over the military situation weighed far more on everyone's mind than long-term benefits.

After all, nobody wanted to join a lost cause.

Pascal saw this as his perfect opportunity to speak:

"As it stands, are they not the ones foolishly handing us an opportunity, Your Majesty?"

General von Manteuffel almost smirked -- a slight upward twitch of his lips that was barely noticeable. But everyone else sent back probing stares that demanded explanations.

"Our mobilization is nearly complete," Pascal pointed out on the map. "But Skagen's had just began, not to mention only half their home forces are situated on the continent. If we strike first and hit hard, we could smash apart the bulk of their armies on this side before they could rally them together. With Västergötland still reeling from their decisive defeat in the fall, Skagen alone will no longer hold the military strength for a successful invasion."

"In case you forgot, Landgrave -- it's winter right now."

Cool turquoise met crossed scarlet as Pascal leveled his eyes against General von Falkenhausen's objection. The young Captain held less qualms than most when it came to standing up against superior officers. The dhampir's seeming youth only further undermined an entire century of seniority.

"Which is why I do not propose taking on a full campaign," Pascal declared. "We leave the infantry and logistics units behind; travel light with only the aristocratic cavalry corps. Magic will shield our limited numbers against snow and winter attrition. There will be no assaults, only skirmishes and raids. With the enemy still scattered in penny packets, we will have more than sufficient firepower to engage and destroy them as our superior maneuverability allows."

"Preemptive strikes during a de-facto state of war without an official declaration -- where have I heard this before?"

A hint of mild amusement was all it took to make the King's expression break into a hopeful smile as he looked to his generals.

"Like father, like son," General von Falkenhausen shrugged before flashing a charming grin: "I'm sure the Princess remembers as well?"

"Fondly," Sylviane's response went deadpan even as she tried not to be too sarcastic.

It was almost ironic, as the Princess had met Pascal after being captured during one of those marauding raids. Now her fiancée was proposing something similar once again.

Yet despite the opportunity, Pascal's image remained solemn. Still under the spotlight and without the mood to joke, he swiftly went on to clarify:

"Except this time it will require not just the Knights Phantom, but all three cavalry branches. Investment is higher, and so are the risks. But I believe Weichsel's proud nobility will rise to the challenge and deliver Skagen a swift knockout blow."

His recommendation remained a professional one, but its motivations had already become more personal than he would ever admit. This was his chance to crush the Imperium's ambitions in the north, and there was no way he would settle for anything less.

"Neithard, what do you think?" King Leopold asked his senior cavalry commander.

"Militarily speaking, this is feasible, although primary objectives must be met before the arrival of their forces from Fimbulmark Isle, which leaves us a time window of no more than three weeks."

General von Manteuffel gazed unerringly at the map display as his experienced tactical mind quickly weaved an operational plan.

"We would have to split the cavalry corps into three echelons, based on how quickly units arrive at the Nordkreuz borders. The cavalry of Nordkreuz, Kostradan, and Altmark, reinforced by the Phantom Gale whom I sent forth two days ago, could form the first echelon by tomorrow. They would begin with a counter-clockwise sweep of the Skagen coastline from the southeast, and work inwards with the other echelons as they become available. This should presumably allow us to hit enough targets of opportunity to make the operation decisive. But..."

The elderly knight then turned towards his King as worry accentuated the countless winkles that already permeated his weathered appearance.

"Sire, only the Knights Phantom have the organization and training for something like this. Our regular cavalry units, not to mention the Noble Reiters, are neither built for independent operations nor prepared for deep operations without support. Furthermore, the Writ of Universal Conscript may grant our General Staff the de jure capacity to rearrange feudal forces at will, but we have always kept individual lords' armies in the same battlefield before -- they certainly would not be happy about this."

"Not to mention that without any contingencies, three individually launched and independently operating echelons will be hard pressed to support each other in time should anything wrong happen," Chief-of-Staff von Falkenhausen warned. "I'm sure we all hope for the flawless maneuvers the Landgrave envisions, but unforeseen circumstances could bring disaster not only to the battlefield, but also provoke a major political backlash."

A flare of annoyance spiked through Pascal from the not-too-subtle reminder of his inexperience. It was especially grating because it was completely true. Compared to either general, Pascal was a complete novice, lacking the decades of battle-hardened experience.

It was why he had been anxious to graduate and lead his own command.

But then, Wiktor von Falkenhausen was a renowned logistician, the type of commander who preferred to 'manage' an army instead of 'leading' it. To him, successful wars were carefully orchestrated maneuvers made according to timetables. He was an exhaustive planner for all possible scenarios, which undoubted included an all-out invasion of the Skagen peninsula... except not under the current circumstances.

A war during the harsh northern winter and its frequent blizzards was full of uncertainties. Pascal had no doubts that going 'by the book' would call for a defensive war until Spring, when Weichsel forces could march against a Skagen army exhausted by the winter campaign. It was far less risky, and infinitely wiser to the older military minds of the room.

...Which was exactly why he couldn't afford to back down now.

The young Landgrave took another deep breath and locked onto the King's gaze with nothing held back:

"Your Majesty, our main army is ill-suited to engage Skagen forces in a field battle before the Spring thaw. But the war in the south will not wait for us. Once they stop the Caliphate's initial momentum, Rhin-Lotharingie's mountain defenses will hold through the winter..."

Pascal never questioned IF the Lotharin forces could stop the Caliphate's advance. Such a loss of faith in their allies would imply that the Caliphate had already won, the Imperium's plans would succeed, and his father had died for nothing.

He would never accept that.

"--But when Spring arrives and the campaign season starts proper, they will need our support. I believe the Imperium's actions have made it clear that we should aid Rhin-Lotharingie in this fight. For unless we stand together now, we will surely stand alone in the future."

"I know the idiom well, Pascal," the King's clear brown eyes were patient, but it was nevertheless a gentle reprimand. "And I agree with your concerns, Wiktor. However," he turned back to von Manteuffel, "Neithard, do you believe that your chances of success are worth these risks?"

As the General scratched his gray mustache, Pascal realized that in his rush to give his proposal, he had ignored one important factor.

His father's death had left the seat of the highest military command open. While Wiktor von Falkenhausen, as the Marshal's Chief-of-Staff, was temporarily in charge, Neithard von Manteuffel had just as much prestige and seniority as a general. Ultimately, it was up to the King to formally decide who would be his next Marshal.

The coming campaign may prove the deciding factor, and Pascal had unwittingly tossed in his vote for the elder Manteuffel.

From a military perspective, this was a sound choice. Neithard von Manteuffel was a distinguished cavalry commander. Furthermore, he was a proponent of the high-mobility warfare doctrine the late von Moltewitz had advanced. If Pascal ever wanted the 'Pandemonium Doctrine' he had proposed to find acceptance within the military establishment, he would need someone like-minded in command.

However, Neithard was also the leader of the Manteuffel clan, making him a magnate with political power rivaling those of the Chancellor. If he was made Marshal, even the King would have trouble challenging his personal agenda in the future.

Since the Manteuffels were an ambitious lot, Pascal couldn't help but feel he had just proposed a pact with the devil.

"If you wish a swift and decisive war against Skagen? Yes, Sire. I believe Captain Sir von Moltewitz's proposal has the greatest potential," the general spoke. "As such, I would argue that this is more a political decision than a strictly military one."

He did not even need to point out that everything also depended on whether or not the King wished to join Rhin-Lotharingie's war.

So much weight attached to a single verdict, all piled atop the King's shoulders.

Leopold von Drachenlanzen sighed. But even though his tone soon changed for a more imperious role, his expression still held a faint smile as he firmly nodded to his generals:

"In that case, please begin moving our forces into position and exacting your plans. I will give you my decision by tonight, but clearly preparations cannot wait that long."

"As you wish, Sire."

Realizing the importance of the moment, Princess Sylviane parted her lips to speak. But King Leopold swiftly held up his hand.

"Please, Your Highness," he stated with uncharacteristic formality. "I understand your position perfectly, but at this point I need some time for myself to decide. I believe you and Pascal have not caught up for some time, so please make yourself at home. I hope to give you good news as soon as I can."

After a nod of courtesy, the King turned and began striding towards the doors, only to stop midway.

"Actually..."

The entire room froze as he effortlessly summoned everyone's attention once more.

"Pascal, I need to borrow you for one more minute. Follow me."

His words did not leave any room for debate, and Pascal gave Kaede and Reynald a quick glance to stay put before following the King out.

...

Pascal soon found himself in a much smaller sitting room, probably used for one-on-one negotiations. But King Leopold made no motions to sit down as he gestured for a Black Eagle officer to close the door behind them.

"You know, Karl was never very good at lying, which was part of why I trusted him..."

Clear brown eyes then bore down upon the young lord's gaze with royal intent.

"Pascal, you and Sylviane were betrothed since childhood, and for much of your upbringing you were expected to become the Prince-Consort of Rhin-Lotharingie. So I want to ask, without your Princess or any other lord present: where would you stand if I break this alliance?"

Pascal's eyes swelled with disbelief. He felt his mouth open before he could even help it...

He cannot be that stupid!

But before thoughts of lèse-majesté could transform into words of objection, Pascal suddenly paused in the midst of his gaping expression. There was something off about the King's looks. Rather than one of grim finality or bracing for a negative reaction, Leopold merely awaited a response with patience.

Wait... maybe this is just a test, Pascal told himself to calm back down.

His father had warned him repeatedly. Concealing information was one thing, but the family had no talent for lying, especially not against experienced statesmen.

It was why they were to become professional soldiers, not power-mongering schemers in internal politics. Pascal might never meet his father's wishes to remain humble, but he could at least be devoted and truthful.

"Your Majesty, I will not deny that such a decision will be extremely disappointing to me, and seem quite unwise in the grand scheme..."

Pascal then saluted his liege lord.

"--But I am also the son of Karl August von Moltewitz, the heir to Nordkreuz before the fiancée of the Princess Sylviane. As my father before me, my current duty serves the interests of Weichsel first and foremost."

With a certain nod, the King's faint smile returned.

Then he asked again:

"Now, for sure. What about after you marry? After you have children? Would Weichsel still be your home country then?"

Pascal's mouth opened to reply, only to freeze midway.

He had wanted to assure his liege with the truth, yet part of him knew that there was no way he could guarantee his intended words.

After a dozen seconds, all he managed to say was:

"That is unfair, Your Majesty, to seek my promise right now..."

If Leopold had been disappointed, it didn't show. Instead, the King's smile broadened with mild amusement.

"I suppose it is."

As his monarch turned to glance out the window, Pascal steeled himself to speak once more:

"All I can say is, no matter where and when, I will do my best for Weichsel."

The only response was a slow nod.

Then, a minute later, the King's nostalgic voice rebounded off the walls:

"You know, for years, I wanted your father to become a friend. Not just vassal and liege, general and ruler, but someone whom I could trust on a personal basis, and who trusted me..."

Leopold sighed as he turned back around.

"He never did open up to me. A professional to the end."

"My father always believed that some boundaries should not be crossed, Your Majesty."

"Do you?" the King's eyebrows went up as he strolled about with hands clasped behind him. "Of course, I know from your record that while you technically still respect most authority, you never cared a great deal for their rules. Isn't that right, Runelord?"

For the first time, Pascal felt abashed at his own nickname from the academy.

"I believe in duty," he declared. "But I also believe how we meet our duty is our own choice as individuals."

His monarch almost snorted.

"Kids..."

Pascal would have retorted on instinct, but the King left him no opportunity to speak before moving straight on:

"--But then, perhaps it's good you're not your father. I do hope I can succeed with you where I failed with the Marshal, Pascal. If nothing else, such bonds of trust lasts far longer than duty."

It took only a second before Pascal's eyes snapped wide.

"I would be honored, Your Majesty," he bowed deeply with all the courtesy he could muster. "And thank you."

The final verdict was by no means absolute. But Leopold Karl-Wilhelm von Drachenlanzen was a decisive King, and he still wished to pursue a long-term relationship with the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie.

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 4 - Promise to Keep, Promise Upheld

The conference was Kaede's first experience in being seen but not heard. She spent the whole time standing still and silent, feeling entirely like an extraneous decoration. All she could do was to imitate the royal guards and junior aide-de-camps in the room.

It certainly didn't help when she recognized that even Pascal's military rank made him too junior for this meeting. It was likely why General von Falkenhausen insisted on calling him 'Landgrave', since an entitled feudal lord stood more appropriate to debate strategy with generals than a mere captain.

...Sort of. Weichsel's feudalism was more administrative than military. While each lord governed a region and were required to maintain sufficient forces, command of these troops ultimately fell to the army's General Staff. Officers swore allegiance to the crown directly, and the nobility had little direct military power unless they served as commanders. Combined with extensive kingdom laws on governance and taxation, it centralized power within Weichsel for a uniformed state nearing that of absolute monarchy.

In the end, it was Pascal's audacity, plus the King's respect for his father and fiancée, not his own standing, that allowed him to contribute to the discussions.

After the King's departure, the generals called forth their staff to organize the coming campaign. Officers rushed back and forth through the side-door as they relayed orders to the neighboring command room. Many of them also took the opportunity to sneak glances at the presence of the renowned Oriflamme.

Kaede's observation was cut short as she found herself under the scrutiny of royal eyes once more. Her chest squeezed with breathless anxiety as the Princess approached in slow steps. But as she met the soft wisteria gaze, Kaede saw neither contempt nor superiority, both of which she knew well from the halls of Königsfeld Academy. Instead, there was only a shadow of uncertainty.

Maybe she's as confused about this situation as I am.

Princess Sylviane broke contact first as she turned to the young man besides Kaede. Her lips formed a gentle smile as she greeted with friendly warmth:

"You must be Reynald Lucian von Witzinger."

Still helplessly reliant upon the familiar bond's translation magic, it took until now before Kaede grew certain that Sylviane had a completely different accent from the sharp and solid words of Weichsel. The pronunciation was rougher and stressed emphasis, but the pitch flowed smoother as though up and down the crests of rolling hills.

'Imperial' was a hybrid language the pre-Holy Imperium once created to standardize its northern linguistics. But although Weichsel's predecessor embraced it as a sign of loyalty to their tributary overlord, the autonomous Rhin-Lotharingie regions merely practiced it as the language of administration and trade. After achieving its independence two centuries ago, the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie retained Imperial as merely one of three state languages recognized within its realms. Therefore while the two nations shared a common language, it was nevertheless a divergent affinity.

"I am honored Your Highness knows me by name."

Reynald bowed and kissed the back of the Princess' offered hand with such grace that it almost startled Kaede. His demeanor had flipped to the mirror opposite of his usual unruliness.

"Pascal wrote of you in the report he forwarded to me and my father," said Sylviane. "You have my gratitude for helping save the life of my betrothed."

"I would do no less for a comrade and personal friend, Your Highness."

Okay now you're just outright lying, Kaede thought to herself as she tried to keep a straight face on at Reynald's proud grin.

"It's alright, you don't have to force yourself to speak nicely of him..."

Sylviane's smile widened as she almost chuckled.

"--I have known Pascal since childhood. I know perfectly well that he can be a complete pain at times, especially to those he doesn't understand."

It was Reynald who failed to cover up his astonishment this time as his own presumptions lay shattered.

"I will not ask for you to be nice to him," the Princess went on in her gentle voice. "But if you could continue to aid him against hostile threats, especially in light of the current situation, then I shall be personally grateful."

...Though a few bruises when he deserves them are perfectly fine, Kaede added in the safety of her own mind.

Anxieties notwithstanding, Kaede couldn't help appreciate her growing impression of the Princess. Royal politician or not, there was a candid sincerity in the way Sylviane expressed herself. If nothing else, she seemed a reasonable person who could think through others' perspectives -- which was far more than Kaede could say for Pascal, or most nobles in general.

The fact their opinions of him drew parallels certainly helped.

"I shall do what I can, Your Highness," Reynald smoothly laid his right palm flat across the chest and gave another respectful bow.

"Thank you. Now, if you would excuse us," Sylviane replied with a courteous nod before turning her glance, its warmth quickly fading back to neutrality.

"Kaede, please follow me."

"Yes, Your Highness."

She had prepared those words for so long they felt like the stiffly automated response of a message box.

...

It took several minutes for Sylviane -- or more accurately, one of her knights -- to find accommodations appropriate for a personal chat. Even though they were inside the royal 'palace' section of the citadel, most of the nearby chambers were occupied by military staff. With deployment maps and organization charts covering entire roomfuls of tables and walls, Kaede had no doubt that this was the nerve center of the Weichsel military -- its general headquarters, situated right next to the throne room.

"Whereas some states possess an army, the Prussian army possess a state."

A faint smile came and went as words from her favorite philosopher Voltaire passed through her mind. Kaede didn't appreciate wandering thoughts often, but moments like these worked wonders to sooth her nerves. Yet before returning from her brief tangent, Kaede reminded herself that Weichsel actually had a good reason for its militant nature: the country was, after all, the northern border of the Trinitian faith.

Beckoned by the lady knight who attended the Princess, Kaede followed Sylviane into a family-sized sitting room. Three of the royal bodyguards stopped outside to take sentry, but the lady knight followed them in. She then closed the door and stood vigilant with her back against it, blocking the only way in and out.

Trying not to fidget in her small heels, Kaede watched as Sylviane walked over to a velvet-cushioned seat. The plum-haired princess then sat down, periwinkle gloves smoothing out her violet skirt as she went.

The act was straight and simple, yet it exemplified her behavior. Sylviane's movements held neither natural grace nor crudeness; but they were all taken with a delicate touch, as though she concentrated upon her image with every step.

Silent moments of eye contact soon followed. Yet as uncomfortable as the air grew, Kaede did not shy away from Sylviane's steady gaze. In a situation where she had nothing to be guilty about, weakness would only mislead the other's judgment to worse ends. All she could do was wait patiently for her turn to speak -- a courtesy appropriate for their rank differences, as Pascal reminded her this morning.

She isn't just some noble from the academy, Kaede reminded herself. She's Pascal's dear fiancée; someone I must get along with.

After what seemed an eternity, Sylviane finally bestowed upon Kaede the grace of a gentle smile.

"Don't worry," the Princess spoke at last. "I won't bite even if you are his kept woman."

Kaede's attempt to smile back was wry at best:

"I'm not. I'm his familiar."

"Which... is far worse, if you'll pardon the expression," Sylviane replied in calm words. "I realize that it's no fault of your own, and I am grateful that you saved his life; I gathered from his report that you were quite central to the bait-and-trap scheme. But..."

The Princess closed her eyes and sighed, almost in exasperation, before reestablishing contact.

"--Courtesans and prostitutes I can deal with. It is simply a matter of fact that few men of greatness and ambition are ever completely faithful to only one woman. Even my father, as family-oriented as Gaetane traditions go, had a second lover when he was younger. He's not proud of it, and while I don't understand what drives men to unfaithfulness, the simple fact is that powerful men often do -- a cardinal sin of their kind."

Kaede returned a bare nod. It hardly took a historian to know just how common affairs were among the nobility and the modern political elite. Media-aware scandals represented merely a tiny tip of the iceberg.

The far more interesting detail was Sylviane's willingness to share this with her, since royalty did not normally air their dirty laundry to outsiders...

"But such 'concubines' are also temporary, or at the very least, informal," Sylviane continued as her voice gradually hardened to almost a lecture. "I am willing to tolerate Pascal having one as long as he continues to hold me in the highest regard and is discrete about his affair -- which means keeping her tucked away, in some remote residence, unseen and unheard."

In other words, keep the dirty tramp out of my sight, Kaede thought; somewhat bitterly, as she was the harlot of this conversation, even if the princess avoided saying so.

Her highness then grew solemn:

"Unfortunately, you are none of those."

"I'm also not intimate with him, whereas a concubine would be," Kaede held her ground.

She then blanched a little when Sylviane's eyebrows shifted up just a hair to betray her revelation...

Seriously! Why do all nobles... even the sensible ones... always jump that conclusion!?

Of all the changes brought by Kaede's gender switch, the social view that kept seeing her as some sexual object was easily the most irritating. It was as though her femininity came before her identity as a person -- she would rather suffer her menstrual period again than deal with this every time.

Though ultimately, it hardly even mattered to Sylviane:

"Yes, but you are a girl officially attached to him -- by bonds even more permanent than the sanctity of marriage, I might add, as not even the Pope can divorce you. As a mage's familiar, it is part of your function to be present and active, as you have already proven through foiling the assassination against Pascal."

"In other words," Kaede interjected, "you would have the same problem with a sister, if Pascal had one."

Only then did Kaede realize that she just completely tore up Pascal's request of "do not speak until spoken to, and only keep to answering her.".

"Apologies, Your Highness," she hurriedly added, finally breaking eye contact to glance down. "That was inappropriate of me."

The air grew silent once more; the atmosphere became almost oppressive.

Kaede also couldn't help wonder what the penalties for disrespecting royalty were. As a crown princess, Sylviane would inherit far more dungeons than Pascal ever could. They might even come with their own secret police department, with medieval sensibilities capable of making Stalin's NKVD and gulags seem like a beach resort by comparison.

But as she snuck a glance back up, all of her imagined pressure evaporated at once.

Sylviane was still staring at her, but now with an odd, almost bittersweet smile.

"I can see why Pascal likes you already," she sighed. "Did you really come from another world?"

"Yes, Your Highness. A far more technological realm that's sent men to the moon, but with no magic at all," Kaede clarified. "I would say more socially advanced as well, but discussions with Cecylia proved that may just be bias from my perspective."

"...How could one travel through space without magic...?"

Kaede's eyebrows shot up instantly. Apparently mages could space-travel, even if such exceptional magicians numbered less than a handful.

But the Princess puzzled for merely a brief second, and her eyes soon refocused upon Kaede. Sylviane would not be side-tracked easily, a sign of mental discipline as expected from someone Pascal deeply respects.

"Never mind. It's a good thing you've talked at length with Cecylia though. I do trust her judgment very much."

With a preoccupied frown, Kaede halted her other thoughts as she realized that Sylviane and Cecylia didn't just know one another; they were on excellent terms. Since they were both Pascal's childhood friends, it was likely they met way back then and kept in touch. As Cecylia trained as an intel operative, the Princess had the best eyes and ears for monitoring Pascal during his academy days.

A brief shiver went through Kaede as she remembered her near-paralysis when the scarlet-crossed dhampir eyes came up close and personal...

Not sure if I want a reference like that.

"I admit that you're probably right, Kaede," Sylviane returned to the main topic. "Except that men don't summon sisters, however much some of them may want to."

Kaede nodded back. After her recent years in Japan, she became very familiar with that concept -- one that she found more amusing than anything else.

"But there is also a natural limit between siblings, however close they might become," the Princess went on.

Then, with a stern face fitting of a tigress marking her own grounds:

"Could you promise me that you will not develop romantic relations with my husband-to-be then?"

"Of course!" Kaede rushed to answer. I am, or was, a guy after all!

Yet even as she said that, something felt uneasy deep within. A warning of rushed, ill-considered decision-making, just as it had in times past.

But Kaede completely ignored it as she went on:

"In fact, Your Highness, there is something you should know about me. I don't know if Pascal told you, but..."

Her determination to relieve tensions between them was interrupted when two knocks rang loudly against the mahogany door.

"It is me," came Pascal's proud voice.

Sylviane nodded to her knight-in-waiting, who swiftly opened the door with the grace of an dedicated servant.

"Thank you Mari," Pascal casually nodded to the lady knight as he strode in. From a lord who hardly ever acknowledged most servants, this was a clear indication that she was not just some common escort.

"Sorry for the delay, Sylv," Pascal dropped back to informality as the door closed behind him.

Smiling sweetly, Princess Sylviane slowly stood up from her chair. She walked over to Pascal, and threw her arm out into a wide swing...

It wasn't as forceful as Ariadne's ragdoll-tossing strike, but the solid smack still left a bright imprint on the young nobleman's cheek.

"Ow," Pascal stated before he turned his head back. "I guess I deserved that. Although I thought we were working through this, not resolving it through violence?"

"We are working through it," Sylviane's smile was still sugary, although her violet eyes were glaring at him now. "But it doesn't mean you get off without punishment."

"In my defense, I just wanted a companion," Pascal added with a shrug.

"Should have tried the other gender," the Princess tossed back as her eyes gave Kaede another up-and-down sweep. They weren't exactly grumpy or unhappy, more like... conflicted.

"I do not think the Church would approve," Pascal grumbled into the air.

Sylviane's gaze immediately froze. Then, as her eyes widened and her cheeks flushed, she spun around to cast an outraged glare at Pascal:

"You know what I meant! And they don't approve of this any more than the other!"

Kaede wondered if religious conservatism actually turned girls off from fantasizing forbidden romance, or if Sylviane only rejected it because the prospect of her fiancée being gay was... so not cool.

And here I was worried about being seen as a guy, by a girl, as paired with another guy, when I'm now a girl, but was a guy... her thoughts looped about.

This is so surreal.

"I honestly believed you would like her," Pascal mumbled out again, paying triple to the concept that anything a man could say in such a situation only made it worse.

"And how far down did that rank in your original motivations for summoning a cute girl as your familiar?" Sylviane asked pointedly.

Kaede blinked a few times. Wives simply did not refer to mistresses as 'cute'. Perhaps that meant she was now past the first hurdle of being seen as a direct threat.

"Does that mean you do like her?" Pascal asked with rising hopes.

"SHE is not the problem. YOU are!" Sylviane declared as she jabbed her index finger into his chest. "A familiar does not choose the summoner, but I have no doubt that you did specify the result, Runelord!"

"I cannot deny that one," the lord himself admitted. "But, if it is any consolation, she did used to be male. I really was not looking for anything of romantic or sensual interest, honestly."

After freezing for another brief moment, Sylviane spun around on her heels. Her waist-long, dark-plum hair fluttered about in voluminous tresses as she stared straight at Kaede with shock-enlarged eyes.

"I... was about to say that, Your Highness, before he entered," Kaede's wispy voice murmured as her cheeks colored.

She felt like an exotic animal being scrutinized over. Even the knight Mari was now gawking at her from the door, all pretense of disinterest abandoned.

The rapidly growing curiosity, perhaps even fascination, in the Princess' eyes did not help. Within moments, Sylviane closed the distance and reached out to Kaede's cheeks and shoulders, gently feeling them through silken gloves as though confirming the reality of what she saw. Her hands then trailed down, brushing past the familiar girl's small chest before settling on a firm hold at the narrow waist.

"I would never have guessed..." Sylviane spoke through an almost trance-like voice, before stepping to Kaede's side and gliding one hand gently through the beige-white long hair. "It's like you were meant to be a girl. How does it feel?"

"Uh... smaller?"

Kaede honestly wasn't sure what kind response the Princess sought from her. After adapting to countless changes over the past few weeks, her entire experience was simply too overwhelming to describe -- certainly not through words alone.

"I guess I'm starting to get used to everything," Kaede shrugged as she glanced down in dejection. "Not that I have another choice -- not even Pascal has any idea how to fix this."

"Not sure if it needs..." Sylviane muttered before she caught herself. "I guess it must have been a shock, suddenly finding yourself like this."

Kaede nodded back as images of that fateful first night flashed through her mind:

"Waking up in some stranger's bed and finding myself stripped and dressed in bridal lingerie was... not exactly pleasant."

"Did you have to..."

Pascal's mental voice cut off as his fiancée slowly rotated back towards him. His entire body stiffened as her petrifying glare laid him against the chopping block.

"Well, it's true," Kaede commented, simply relieved to have the Princess' examining eyes off her again. "Besides, payback is fair."

"Uh, I would like to point out that you have done that too," Pascal stated. "Well, lingerie, at least. Your collection is just obsessive..."

"I do NOT have an obsession!"

Pascal didn't say a word after being interrupted. He simply stared at his future wife with a knowing look, arced eyebrows included. Somehow he had reversed the situation in an instant, and it was Sylviane who sported a shallow blush while trying to recover her momentum:

"A-anyways, I'm a girl. I'm allowed to play with dolls."

Kaede shivered as she felt a chill sweep across her from Sylviane's words.

"--You're a man. Get off my realm."

The Princess was adamant, but her betrothed immediately cried unfair:

"So it is acceptable for ladies to take sword and shield but we are not allowed to enjoy cuteness!? What kind of gender hypocrisy is this!"

"The practical kind, since by the grace of magic we can fight just as well as you do," she countered. "In case you forgot, the last five times you challenged me..."

"I have not forgotten a thing and you can stop rubbing salt in every chance you get," Pascal cut her off with a torrent of words, his drawling arrogance completely abandoned by this point. "Can we get back on topic please?"

He must be really desperate if he'd rather talk about...

"Sure, let us revisit how you summoned a girl, took advantage of her helplessness, stripped her bare naked, and had your way with her, when you're already engaged..."

Sylviane leaned forward, forcing herself deep into his personal space to continue her offensive without giving him a moment of respite. Even Pascal's steadfast determination to hold his ground soon began to buckle under the relentless verbal assault:

"--I have a portable projector if you would like to show us your memories. I'm sure your eagerness of the moment will be perfectly noted by your ravishing hands as they anxiously stroked every length of that porcelain skin, carefully examining a girl's most intimate parts. Or when..."

Kaede felt her cheeks ignite as Sylviane's exaggerated descriptions began conjuring vivid, uncensored images in her mind. Before she knew it, her thin arms had wrapped themselves around herself in a tight, protective embrace while her glare fixed itself on Pascal.

She felt dirty from just the visualization. Worse yet, Pascal could have done exactly that and she wouldn't even know...

With his back arced away from his fiancée, Pascal was also blushing a fiery red. He soon threw up both hands in defeat:

"I surrender! Unconditionally! I take fault for everything! Just state your demands already! And please stop making me sound like such an irredeemably lecherous pervert!"

Sylviane finally returned to standing upright. Even her breath was heated, although its shortness was mostly due to the machine-gun fire of accusations.

"Well... you did say that you honestly thought I would like her, right?"

After taking a few steps back and pivoting towards her fiancée's familiar, Sylviane sent Kaede a warm smile: the delight of a victor as she admired her prize.

Kaede had a bad feeling about where this was going...

"I will allow you to stay around him. But in exchange, I want you to obey my authority. That means if I want to borrow you this afternoon, or request that you keep your distance from him for a week, you will do so..."

Sylviane then rotated back to Pascal:

"--And you will not object or interfere in any way. Is that acceptable?"

It was an old trick in the book, especially in cultures that once practiced polygamy. When a husband of authority grew interested in another female, a shrewd wife would often seek to establish control over the new girl -- and therefore any budding relationship; although it was usually done with far more subtlety.

Still, this is quite mature for her age, Kaede had to admire.

Meanwhile, Pascal's first response was a deep frown.

"I do have obligations to take care of her after summoning her into our world."

"And I'm not unreasonable," Sylviane replied. Then, almost jokingly: "besides, if I were mean enough to desire harm upon her, I hardly require your permission to manage it."

Of course. She has plenty of guards and agents at her beckon...

Kaede sighed. Sylviane wasn't exactly subtle in reminding her of their difference in rank. Furthermore, it felt like they were negotiating a transfer of her 'ownership'.

Although she had to admit that such occurrences were common in politics, personal or national. It could be a servant, a team, or an entire vassal realm. At least she was important enough that a royal couple actually cared to argue.

"Fine," Pascal begrudgingly agreed. "But I retain my right to intervene in the interests of her well-being." His voice then grew unyielding: "I will not relinquish my obligations to her, on any grounds."

"Wouldn't have it any other way," Sylviane replied with a genuinely sweet smile. "You being responsible in personal relationships is a rare and good thing."

Probably the reason why she allowed him to court others at the academy, Kaede concluded.

Royal eyes then bore down upon Kaede in expectation of a response. Even though a hint of light within them was already admiring a newly-acquired possession.

"Of course..." Kaede answered, not that she had any other realistic choice. Then, as nonchalantly as she could: "should I address Your Highness any differently then?"

She honestly wasn't sure this time. Historical events were one thing, but details like the evolving courtesy of different time periods confused her, even if Hyperion followed similar trends to Earth.

Sylviane went back to staring at Pascal again, her eyebrows raised halfway between surprise and curiosity:

"What weird things are you making the poor girl call...?"

"NOTHING-!!!" His near-shout came on instinct before she even finished. "She just calls me Pascal!"

The Princess' grin was still humored as her sight returned to Kaede:

"'Your Highness' is still the formal way to address me. But among us and my other servants? 'Milady' will suffice adequately."

"Yes Milady," Kaede answered as she gave a slow curtsy, seeking as much elegance as she could manage. "I'm in your care."

"Don't worry, I'm a far more reasonable person than Sir Runelord here," Sylviane beamed with reassurance. "I'm certain we shall come to know each other real well. However, I will hold you to the promise you made me earlier."

That ill sense of unease in Kaede's chest only grew worse as she nodded back.

...

Kaede wasn't sure how the situation had evolved so quickly...

Before the hour was up, she was already sitting next to the Princess on the rich velvet couch, with the unusual pleasure of having her hair brushed by royal hands.

...Except that she was stiff as a board and too nervous to enjoy it.

Meanwhile, Pascal sat in a large and comfortable armchair right across from them, watching his fiancée with a peaceful smile, his turquoise gaze distant and thoughtfully preoccupied under the golden soft curls.

He had told Kaede some minutes ago to "Relax. This is normal for her." But that was far easier said than done given how out of place she felt.

Sylviane's hairbrush then vanished into an extra-dimensional pocket somewhere near her waist. With both hands on Kaede's thin shoulders, she adjusted the smaller girl's position before leaning over.

Kaede felt the pressure build on her back. The Princess' arms were soon draped over both shoulders, while soft cheeks nuzzled against the thin, straight hair behind her head.

"I take it the past month was quite stressful," Pascal finally broke the silence.

"You have no idea," Sylviane remarked before letting out a long, relaxed sigh. "It would have been nice if our diplomatic efforts actually paid off... but now... circumstances are only going to grow worse before they become any better."

The weight atop Kaede's head increased as it was turned into a royal headrest. She rather doubted that the slim-waisted Princess was heavy, but her own body was far smaller and hardly built for strength.

Apparently I'm a large teddy bear, Kaede thought as she stressed to keep her back straight against the pressure.

"Edith took Vivi south with her, so I haven't even had any chances to relax like this in the past few weeks," Sylviane complained as she crossed her hands over Kaede's chest. "And you weren't around to help either."

Kaede could almost sense the pout press into the top of her head. Compared to the poised and careful Sylviane, this was the true form of the princess letting off some steam.

"I kept calling though," Pascal kept his voice neutral as he defended himself. "You never accepted the..."

"Like I said, you weren't helping," Sylviane added firmly before going back to brushing her cheeks against silky soft hair.

Pascal took his own turn for a long sigh, as though in acceptance that he couldn't win against royal unfairness.

"I am doing what I can now."

He then opened his lips again, only to bite down as though trying to hold back anxious details.

"You have news, don't you?" Kaede asked over their private familiar link.

"Not sure," came Pascal's worried thoughts. "I do not wish to give her false hopes before the King declares his position."

Talk about a new form of 'behind someone's back', Kaede thought as the object of their conversation continued to nuzzle soft cheeks against silky hair, mere centimeters away yet blissfully unaware.

She wasn't really comfortable with this, even though it was for Sylviane's sake.

"No. Any short term relief really isn't worth the let-down. Only a few hours more anyway..."

Several taps from the windows then interrupted their conversation over telepathy.

The knight Mari, who had stood against the door with a look of complete disinterest for the past hour, swiftly crossed the floor without even waiting for the Princess' request.

Turning to the source, Kaede saw the entire window glass enshrouded by a light blue haze. The bird hovering just outside reminded her of a lean falcon, except with a magnificent, flowing tail decorated by tiny sapphire gems. Covered in cerulean feathers that progressively grew lighter towards the chest and tail, it emitted white-blue flames that sent ripples of heat through the surrounding air.

It was a Hyperion phoenix, the noblest of the magical beasts.

But rather than staring in awe, Kaede tensed up even further as the phoenix flew through the opened window and towards its master. She tried to shift away, except the Princess -- still draped over her shoulders -- pinned her firmly in place.

Kaede braced herself for the heat of scorching air so close to the flame source. Yet as the phoenix settled on Sylviane's shoulder, she felt only the envelopment of a soothing warmth, as though she laid just far enough away to enjoy a lit fireplace on this wintry day.

"Relax," Sylviane reassured. "Phoenixes are natural empaths; Hauteclaire's flames only burn those he detect hostility from."

"Was that a test then? Milady?" Kaede asked with relief, wondering how weird they must look to Pascal's amused eyes right now: bird standing regally on top of a Princess lazying over another girl.

"Not really. Although if I was wrong about you, you might start to sizzle a little right now. Be a shame though..."

There was a deadly nonchalance in her voice, and Kaede made a mental note that whatever else Princess Sylviane might be, she was not someone to be scorned. The phrase 'off with his head' would come to her as naturally as placing an order for dinner.

Perhaps it was just another way for the Princess to warn 'you really do not want to become my enemy'.

"I was surprised you did not bring him to the meeting," Pascal asked as he stretched out further in his armchair, basking in the comfort of the phoenix's extended aura. "The empathy of a phoenix is strong, and General Staff members often relax their mental shields since those rooms are compartmentalized with Sanctum Veil and other wards to protect against outside scrying. Hauteclaire may just catch a warning flag or two."

"I... hadn't considered that," Sylviane admitted. "Does feel like cheating though, not to mention inappropriate."

"The phoenix travels with the Oriflamme, and empathy is part of their nature," Pascal added. "It is a trick you can get away with using, so may as well take advantage of it. You know what they say: in diplomacy..."

"Not cheating is not trying hard enough. Yes, I know," Sylviane finished for him. "Although people often appreciate it when you relinquish an obvious advantage... Either way, the main reason was that Hauteclaire wanted a look around. If he had ever visited Königsfeld before, it would be centuries ago."

Sylviane then patted down Kaede's hair twice before rubbing cheeks against them once more.

"A little heat and they're even softer now," the Princess happily noted.

Like a blanket fresh out of the dryer, Kaede thought as she looked towards Pascal for support, but he merely shrugged with amusement:

"You do make a nice, soft pillow."

Only the phoenix Hauteclaire seemed to sympathize with his fellow familiar as he gave a low whistling chirp.

----- * * * -----

"Princess Sylviane, Pascal, welcome back."

By the time Kaede followed Pascal and Sylviane back into the conference/war room several hours later, King Leopold was smiling broadly again and looking considerably refreshed. It was a positive sign that heralded the announcement of good news. After all, politicians simply didn't grin happily as they told their allies 'sorry, you're on your own'.

"Your Majesty," the Princess replied with a light but well-practiced curtsy.

"I am pleased to inform you that my decision is now formal," Leopold began. "Neithard is making final arrangements before departing to lead the first echelon in Nordkreuz. We hope this war to be swift and decisive so that we may come to your nation's aid."

It went without saying that his precondition for joining Rhin-Lotharingie was the removal of rear threats from the north.

The two generals and their staff were still conversing over the display table. But the King had strode over to greet Sylviane with a satisfied smile.

"I am truly grateful..." Sylviane's voice wavered a hint as the weight finally left her shoulders. "Thank you, Your Majesty, both for my father and for the people of Rhin-Lotharingie."

"May our alliance hold firm in the face of Imperial treachery," Leopold declared as he extended an open hand.

Without hesitation, the Princess reached out and grasped the offer, renewing bonds between the royal dynasties of the north through solemn words of promise:

"And may the Holy Father smile upon those true and faithful."

Kaede was certain that for all its simplicity, she had just witnessed a moment that would go down in history. There was no dramatic speech, no elaborate signatures, but the physical contact between King and Princess carried with it the determination of two realms united in common purpose:

They would not bow to the ambitions of a single hegemon, nor would they tolerate a world dominated by the Inner Sea and its so-called 'Holy' Imperium.

The historian part of her had never been more excited. The ancient Chinese curse was still alive and well -- here in Hyperion, she truly lived in interesting times.

Even if the brief moment left as soon as it came...

"I apologize for interrupting the formalities, Sire," the elderly General von Manteuffel called over with his usual poker-face. "But I must get this operation going if we are to follow the set outline. Captain Sir von Moltewitz..."

"Yes Sir!" Pascal saluted as he snapped his boots together.

"Since I am dispatching my chief-of-staff and tactical officers to the second and third echelons, I want you on my staff in the first echelon. We are seriously lacking experienced officers -- even theoretical experts, as in your case -- in this type of warfare. Prepare for an overnight trip to Nordkreuz within the hour."

For a second, Pascal gave only silence.

"Is there a problem, Captain?" The General stared through weathered and stern countenance dominated by piercing-blue eyes.

"No Sir. I was simply thinking of the Reiter command the General Staff assigned me to."

Pascal really did not want to give up his first opportunity for an independent command, not even for a more prestigious position.

"Your proposal is changing structure across the charts, Captain," General von Manteuffel spoke through the deep tone of finality. "We depart from the main gates at 1800 sharp. Prepare yourself and be there."

"Yes Sir."

"General, Your Majesty," Sylviane voiced immediately after Pascal. "I would like to volunteer myself and my armigers for this operation."

As though the temperature in the room suddenly plummeted, everyone slowed down to a frozen halt at the Princess' announcement. Even General von Manteuffel couldn't keep the surprise out of his expression this time.

"Princess, I'm not sure if this is..." King Leopold began, before he trailed off in a struggle to find the right words.

"Hostilities from the north are a threat to both of our nations, Your Majesty," Sylviane declared. "We must show them a united stand of solidarity to dissuade them from opportunism and adventurous folly later in the war. The bulk of Rhin-Lotharingie's forces may be occupied and transferring south, but I believe my presence and authority will more than amply announce to the world that we continue to stand as one."

Kaede stood awed by how bold yet shrewd Sylviane's move was. By subjugating herself to Weichsel's command during the northern campaign, her presence on the battlefield would warn all enemies that the alliance still held firm. Furthermore, this made it much harder for the King to renege his promise in aiding Rhin-Lotharingie upon the campaign's conclusion.

After all, no one could predict what the winds of fate might bring by then. Failing to answer a call-to-arms after receiving such high profile military assistance would not merely be dishonor, but an act bordering on betrayal in the eyes of the world.

"Your Highness," Wiktor von Falkenhausen snuck a glance at his King before turning to face the Princess. "We do not have any structure for working together with your knights, nor..."

A soldier might have the option of remaining apolitical, but no competent general could afford to stay ignorant of political implications. The chief-of-staff took this a step further as he tried to build a case for his King to deny the offer.

"Just like half of everything else this operation," Sylviane smiled back, almost in challenge. "Besides, our role is simple once any battle begins..."

Bearing the phoenix Hauteclaire proudly upon her shoulders, the Cerulean Princess then swept her wisteria gaze across the room -- a willful display of confidence as she directly met every pair of eyes along the way.

"The Oriflamme fights at the head of an army, and nowhere else."

Kaede finally came to understand why many on Hyperion spoke of the paladins through words of complete reverence; or in Reynald's case -- undiluted idolatry.

The first to break the silence that followed was a chuckle by the King himself.

"Very well, Princess. I do agree with your reasons. Although given the immediate need for departure, it's a shame we will have to wait for another opportunity to dine together."

Leopold then turned back to his operational commander:

"Neithard, I trust that you will be able to accommodate and support her in battle as appropriate."

"Yes, Sire," General von Manteuffel answered simply.

"Then you have my blessings to proceed as planned, General Sir Neithard Mittemeyer von Manteuffel. Operation White Typhoon may begin tomorrow at 0600, and I shall join the main forces assembling at Nordkreuz in person by the week's end."

The theatrical lines were clearly a formality, for the King had already declared his intentions twice over. But traditions were important for the morale of any military establishment, and Leopold was careful to pay his officers the respect they deserved.

...And they in turn pledged their loyalty to King and country.

"Hail the Black Dragon," General von Manteuffel saluted in military fashion.

"Hail!" followed every officer in Weichsel black.

"Hail," answered the King as he returned their salute. "And Holy Father with us all."

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 5 - Late Night Confidence

Not exactly what 'Flying Armada' was meant for...

But that was exactly what it felt like to Kaede, as she crouched low enough in her saddle to hug the insubstantial 'mane'. Her Phantom Steed galloped among over a hundred other riders. Yet aside from the blue-white Oriflamme leading the formation, she could only see glowing red orbs hanging off dark silhouettes -- as though guidance lights on the wings of modern aircraft.

In addition to his own staff, bodyguards, and Princess Sylviane's armigers, General von Manteuffel also brought along three dozen other officers to organize the operation. Given the importance of the entourage, the entire Black Lancers company of the Knights Phantom rode escort in a massive Combat Box formation.

Of course, Pascal had dragged Kaede in. She had packed the black pseudo-uniform in her bag as a possible overnight change of clothes, and it came in handy for blending in amongst the officers. No one had objected so far, but she earned plenty of curious stares.

Reynald, on the other hand, had returned to the academy. The General had taken advantage of his trip and sent along orders for the battalions rallying there.

In the darkness of a cloudy night, the massive squadron dashed through bone-chilling winds and a thin flurry of snow. Were it not for the magical temperature control built into her undergarments, Kaede was certain her joints would have frozen stiff by now.

Despite its availability to Hyperien magic, Teleport was not an efficient spell for long-distance travel. Interestingly enough, its developers considered 'folding space' the easier part of the spell. Target verification and accurate projection of the wormhole over long distances built into the magic were far more complex and limited its operational range.

After all, maps were misleading; the world was round, and far from perfectly spherical. Finding oneself fifty paces above or below ground held deadly consequences.

Therefore, Phantom Steed remained the primary means of long-distance travel for most Hyperien mages. The spell had many forms, including the Overlay variants for creating shadowy barding for real mounts. But its basic version conjured a pseudo-physical 'horse' that held good weight and knew no fatigue.

Kaede's only problem had been that the mount and saddle looked insubstantial, as though she sat atop a sculpted cloud of dense black smoke. Given that the magical steeds galloped five stories above ground at over eighty kilopaces per hour, it easily summoned a mild case of acrophobia for those unused to such means of travel.

She had actually thanked the darkness for obscuring her view of the ground below.

"We are almost at Nordkreuz. I give it another half hour," Pascal sent over their private telepathy channel... or so Kaede thought.

"How can you tell?" she asked in the middle of a yawn.

They had been riding all night. She would be nodding off by this point, if she wasn't deathly afraid of falling. Although logically that was impossible; Pascal didn't trust her riding skills -- or lack thereof -- so he had cast a sticking spell that glued her butt to the saddle.

It had started to itch hours ago...

Nevertheless, she did not look forward to arrival. There was someone in Nordkreuz whom she must face, even if she had no clue what to say.

Marina.

Her thoughts had returned to the topic again and again, only to walk away blank every time. The onset of drowsiness certainly hadn't helped her focus.

"The same beacons placed in every settlement and major location to guide teleportation can also be tapped by a Pathfinder scanning spell," Pascal went on to explain. "I know exactly where every landmark within fifteen kilopaces is in reference to myself right now."

Magical GPS, no satellite installation required...

Kaede yawned again, not that anyone was watching. The night brought many blessings, and amongst them was an end to all staring, whether it be contemptuous or curious.

"You sure you want me on this?" She inquired. "It's one thing for a commander to have an aide. Staff officers are already advisers."

"Consider yourself an assistant staff officer then," Pascal replied. "I did acquire permission from the General to bring you, if you were wondering."

"When did that happen?" She glanced over to Pascal's figure, whose own smoky mount galloped across the air no more than ten paces away. "Wonder if you at least got a raised eyebrow out of that, given he's about as expressive as a rock."

"A very ambitious rock, seeing as he brought me onto his staff because he took the opportunity to station his own protégés in the optimal command positions."

Uneasiness permeated Pascal's mental voice as he went on:

"Assuming this operation is successful and the King hands out fair promotions, von Manteuffel will be able to count two-fifth of the army's upper command structure as his former direct subordinates -- their loyalties divided between him and the King."

The greatest concern for any ruler had always been the loyalty of the army. Coup d'états overthrew far more governments than peasant rebellions or foreign aggression ever could.

Yet before Kaede could speak, it was Sylviane's tired voice that rang across her mind:

"Did you tell the King about it during your private chat?"

Hearing a voice she didn't expect inside her head was not a pleasant surprise. Kaede almost jumped in her saddle, if she wasn't glued down to it.

Who else is in my head now...?

"I am not certain it is my place to say..." Pascal answered his fiancée. "Doctrinal divisions within the army is one thing, but I do not want King Leopold to see me as an element of the political factionalism."

"If the King is serious about developing a friendly relationship like you said, then it may benefit you to tell him about it," Sylviane suggested, only to append one word in emphasis: "maybe."

"More 'maybe' than normal here," Pascal replied. His tone then switched to one of wariness: "Father once said that the King should never be taken at face value. Makes me wonder just how much he wants out of a closer relationship -- other than my link to you and Emperor Geoffroi, that being the obvious one... Kaede what did you think of him?"

"I thought he was pretty laid back, for a King... though he seemed quite capable."

A brief moment of silence gave her the sinking feeling she just flunked Pascal's latest test.

"Kaede you don't deal with nobles much do you?" Sylviane asked, more curious than condescending.

"I hadn't really dealt with any nobles before Pascal summoned me, Your Highness."

"She mostly talks to history books and prays to flying pasta," Pascal commented with enough nonchalance to accompany a shrug. "And just the three of us in this, Kaede," he noted after her formal address.

"I didn't even notice you set this network up," Kaede remarked, unhappily. "Aren't Telepathy spells suppose to give a 'ring' inside the head?"

"That is because I tied our familiar bond to the Telepathy I was talking to Sylv through," Pascal explained. "Joining individual links is the basis to forming networks. I would imagine there are quite a few among this squadron at this moment. Sylv also has a channel opened with all of her armigers, for one."

No wonder it's so quiet. Everyone is chatting away on smartphones inside their heads, Kaede thought.

Then it struck her: why Pascal hadn't said anything for several hours already.

After the last few weeks with him, Kaede wasn't used to feeling like a third wheel -- which, at this late hour, instantly prickled her mood with irritation.

"Either way Kaede, I asked the General when I sent you off to change. After all, it is normal for a mage to bring their familiar along, provided that you can keep up..."

"Not exactly a normal familiar," Kaede cut in to add.

"No. Familiars do not normally fool Imperial assassins either, and he did read my report on that. I only asked so I could tell anyone who objects that 'the General allowed it'," Pascal sent back with a thorough dipping of smugness. "As for your role? Being 'eyes and ears', I would like for you to stay with a front-line unit on the flank. It will give me better battlefield vision and save an adjutant for passing orders."

"So... pretend to be a walking pair of binoculars?"

"Learn to judge battlefield deployments yourself," Pascal added, an edge of sternness working into his voice. "We have had plenty of tactical discussions during our research, so this is as good an experience for you as it is for me. If you must do something, I can enchant First Aid onto your ring and load whatever spells you need into your runes. But I want your eyes on the field as much as possible."

"Uh.... why First Aid?" Kaede grew curious. Her martial training may be completely amateur, but even that was better than not a single drop of medical background.

"Because only basic spells can be put onto a spell activation item, and because you can perform basic healing even better than Parzifal, simply due to your nature," Pascal explained.

"For being Samaran? I did read that my blood was a healing enhancer."

"More than just enhance," he emphasized. "Ever wondered how healers could work when any mage's body that refines its own ether naturally repulses foreign ether from other casters? Healing non-mages is easy. Healing mages, however, require a special focus to compensate. Samaran blood is never rejected in a transfusion. Likewise, healing spells -- and only spells that cure or calm, for whatever reason -- cast through Samaran blood gain a limited ability to bypass ether rejection. The blood also lose potency as it is used more. So effectively, your entire body full of fresh blood is a spell focus of the highest quality."

Being called a top quality trade good wasn't exactly a very flattering comment. But then, Pascal merely stated the facts 'as is'.

At least he doesn't see me as a bag of gold.

"Yeah I remember being 'medical supplies'. But I don't remember seeing Parzifal carry vials of blood around."

"Samaran blood is not cheap, part of why you should never leave secure grounds by yourself," Pascal added, completely serious. "But ask Parzifal about his bloodquartz stasis rod next time. He keeps it stored inside his right glove."

A gryphon near the head of the formation squawked, piercing the rhythmic background of beating wings. As though a roll-call, its comrades immediately responded with similar cries, expanding around the massed formation like a ring of sound.

But this was no parade. It was a collective challenge.

The Black Lancers was the oldest of the Knight Phantom units and had an uniformed tradition: out of a full company of one-sixty, its entire combat force of one-thirty-six all rode gryphons -- muscular beasts who wore plated armor over their eagle heads and lion torsos even as they flew. Unlike most Phantoms who emphasized mobility above all, these knights specialized in frontal assaults and close-quarters aggression.

What's going on?

Before Kaede focused on the telepathy to ask, Sylviane updated them from the front:

"Skywhale. An armored one."

As though on cue, a deep, soothing mew echoed across the open skies. The overhead clouds parted just enough for some illumination by pale, 'lunar' light, revealing the creature that provoked the gryphons' senses.

The sperm whale hovered in midair a good distance away, casting a shadow that obscured an entire farmhouse barn under it. The beast was even more colossal than its Earth equivalent, and would need a clearing the size of an ice hockey rink to land. It also had tentacle-like appendages extending out from their jaws like some long mustache, and the huge, block-shaped head glistened a metallic shine.

But the most interesting detail was the steel gondola strapped beneath the belly. Behind it dangled massive cargo nets, although they were mostly empty at the moment. In the shadows of the night, Kaede thought the skywhale appeared similar to fantasy concepts of a dirigible airship.

Well, it's not sentient tofu, Kaede thought. Her logic still lay bloated with incredulity, but at least it didn't require emergency resuscitation.

She had read about them after Parzifal spoke of Reynald's familiar. Wild skywhales traveled across the northern skies in tight-knit, highly-protective groups. Adults were too powerful and intelligent to tame, therefore the only skywhales that worked with humans were those summoned as a familiar during early childhood and brought up over the course of a decade. They were easily the strongest beast of burden on Hyperion, but only for the lucky few who had one for a partner.

"Whose flags?" Pascal asked.

It took nearly a minute of continued flying before Sylviane confirmed:

"Grand Republic Merchant Alliance."

"So there are Samarans on board? Kaede's interest peaked instantly.

It was weird to be a Samaran without ever having met or known one.

"Not necessarily," Sylviane replied. "Samarans are a bare majority even within the Grand Republic. Plus many skywhale merchants immigrated there since Hyperien nations tend to commandeer and draft them during wars."

Kaede could imagine. These floating leviathans could use war elephant tusks for toothpicks.

"How do they stay afloat?"

"Magic; levitation," Pascal replied as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"And what do they eat?"

"Large animals, anything from sharks to mammoths," he explained this time. "Cattle and reindeer herders treat them like a roaming natural disaster, since it takes an army -- and willingness to take massive casualties -- to take down a pod of skywhales. For that reason, commandeered skywhales are usually thrown at the enemy as shock units to break battle lines. Works splendidly, except their massive size attracts so much fire that the whales are usually maimed or killed. We reimburse their owners for the loss, of course, but..."

"--Not enough to replace something invaluable to their lives." Kaede finished for him before finally peeling her eyes away. She managed to leave the rest of her thoughts unsaid: 'just like all the other husbands and sons in the army.'

The existence of magic changed many aspects of Hyperion, but it did nothing to erase the fundamental flaws of human societies. Wars were still provoked by the ambition of statesmen, while its cost was paid for by the working masses.

Yet with Sylviane in her sight, gliding through the night sky on avian wings of burning blue, Kaede did agree that Hyperion had at least one advantage:

Some rulers truly led their men here, not just provoke wars while hiding behind untarnished white houses.

Unfortunately, 'some' was not 'all', and people like Marina still paid the price.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Situated by the lake that merged three of Northern Hyperion's most important rivers, Nordkreuz was a major trading hub built into a fortified port city. The urban districts featured wide streets, huge market plazas, and large taverns raised to three stories tall, all surrounded by thick, sloping stone walls behind outer rings of wooden fortifications and earthworks. As a strategic location, the army maintained both a large garrison and considerable infrastructure here even during peacetime. Mobilization for war then added no less than three massive camps, situated just outside the walls.

With its main streets lit by ley-line-powered magical lanterns, the city was easily visible to approaches by air. A column of torchlight and glowing lamps entering the southern gates also marked the arrival of several hundred cavalry from the Landgraviate of Kostradan.

After hours of riding across the flat coastal lands of Weichsel -- a fortified frontier with few towns lighting the darkness -- Kaede finally felt her return to civilization.

The Knights Phantom escorted the officers all the way to Nordkreuz's Keep before departing for their own encampment. The cylindrical shell keep actually extended out from the city's northern fortifications by bridge, built atop a motte raised from an artificial lakeside island. The construction was quite militaristic for a Landgrave's estate, but it did offer peace and quiet from the urban quarters, as well as an excellent scenic view of the lake and countryside.

It was also Kaede's official place of residence as a member of the Landgrave's household, even if stone keeps felt as displaced from 'home' as it went.

After touching down in a small courtyard, Pascal dismissed their mounts back into thin air and lead the entire group into his home. Arriving halfway between midnight and dawn did not stop the servants from greeting their new lord. Lined up in two neat rows with a dozen maids on one side and half as many footmen in the other, they did their best to look polished and alert despite the twilight hour.

The Majordomo was an one-meter-eight (5'11") tall senior in his late fifties with large gray eyes under salt-and-pepper hair. Square-faced with drooping red cheeks, he was plump enough to reveal an obvious pot belly. He and his footmen wore uniforms similar to Victorian-era suits -- white dress shirt tucked under black jacket and trousers. Despite what seemed a perpetual frown, his insistence on formalities at such an hour revealed a clear pride in his profession.

"Welcome home, Your Grace," the Majordomo began as he led the footmen to a simultaneous bow while the maids curtsied.

"Thank you, Karsten. Although I am still the man who left for the academy months ago."

Pascal's reply came a bit sheepish, which was most unlike his usual 'rightfully noble' self. Prodigy or not, the young man simply wasn't emotionally ready to step into his father's shoes.

"Of course, Your Grace," Karsten nodded but did not reduce the formalities by a single step. He then turned to greet the Princess Sylviane and General von Manteuffel: "Your Highness, Your Grace, welcome back to Nordkreuz."

"Pleasure as always, Karsten," Sylviane beamed back without a hint of fatigue.

The Princess had yet to break the unison link with her phoenix, and her flame-feathered wings merely transformed into a billowing cape of cinders. White-blue embers cored by traces of gold drifted off her, bathing the entire courtyard in warm luminescence as twelve armigers' torchlight capes surrounded her pillar of flame. Her usual wisteria eyes were alight in bright cerulean, while her dark-plum hair burned electric blue. Even the waist-hugging steel breastplate, skirting, and lightweight spaulders that covered her battledress emanated blue flames as though freshly hammered by a sacred blacksmith.

The entire ensemble reminded Kaede of a fire burning on pure oxygen. It formed a stark contrast between radiating presence -- which the normal Sylviane rather lacked -- and the cool gentleness of her calm, appreciating smile.

Meanwhile, General von Manteuffel's face seemed even more stony than usual as he went straight into business:

"We should finish all coordination in the last few hours before our departure at dawn. Scouting priorities still need delegating, and we must confirm that all units have packed at least one month of food, feed, and abundant ammunition."

"Colonel von Konopacki and his staff are waiting in the conference room to explain their preparations, Your Grace. Please follow me," Karsten bowed again before leading the group towards the steel gates.

Most of the officers followed, although a dozen or so went the other way -- across the covered footbridge toward the town walls.

Kaede herself, however, stayed rooted in place as she observed the sight of a familiar face.

At the far end of the maids' line stood the petite Marina, Kaede's first 'friend' at the academy. She wore the classic white and black dress of a servant. A forced smile lay plastered onto her expression as she stared back through narrowed sea-green eyes.

I don't think she's forgiven me yet, Kaede determined. But then, I don't think I would have either.

She never did arrive at an answer through her entire flight.

As though Pascal had read her thoughts, his mental voice followed in the wake of her own:

"I had asked Karsten to arrange Marina as your maid during the short stay. I would recommend that you squeeze a few hours of sleep in before dawn -- you are not exactly abundant on rest to begin with. But I presume you would want to talk to her."

"Thank you... really," Kaede replied. She began to take slow steps again, her mind a confused mix between relief and apprehension.

"Make sure she helps you pack plenty of non-perishable food into that messenger bag of yours. As you heard the general, we will be campaigning away from supply lines for at least a month."

Were it not for the existence of extra-dimensional storage, there was no way a person could carry an entire month of provisions and still be expected to travel efficiently.

"Of course. What about yours?"

Kaede hated herself as soon as she sent those words. This was no time to run away.

"The other maids will take care of it. I grew up here; they know my preferences well enough," Pascal concluded just as he passed the keep's raised portcullis.

Meanwhile, Kaede came face-to-face with Marina. With her best attempt to exert a friendly smile, she greeted the young maid that looked no older than herself:

"Hello again, Marina. Could you please take me to where I am staying?"

"Of course, Milady."

The petite maid returned an elegant curtsy, but Kaede nevertheless winced as that one word stung her ears like acid.

 

----- * * * -----

 

The room Kaede received as her own had been recently furnished. Its size was modest and comparable to modern bedrooms, but the contents were opulent beyond question. A queen-sized four-poster layered in rich fabrics took the center, its sides lined by long strips of intricate rugs. Four large bookshelves and a lounge chair stayed against the wall on one side, while a massive dressing table flanked by mahogany wardrobes occupied the other. There was also a closet in the corner that camouflaged itself as a small wardrobe, but actually hid the chamber pot that she hated to be reminded of.

The bed and window curtains all came in white, which Kaede enjoyed as one of her favorite colors. They did, however, project an extreme girlishness with the overabundance of laces, ribbons, ruffles, and even pearls.

One fact laid apparent: Pascal had arranged the details for her needs, but also took the liberty to add his own tastes.

It also wasn't a refurbished guest room, but one in the same corridor as Pascal's own -- meant only for the lord's immediate family. It certainly explained the attitude of the maids, who politely addressed Kaede as 'Milady' when they met, only to whisper quietly once she was out of ordinary earshot.

She heard the word "whore" at least once.

They were partially right though: Kaede wasn't a 'lady' by any means. She had neither the upbringing nor the refinement, and certainly not the noble blood. Besides, familiars were meant to be servants for their mage masters.

She almost wished Pascal had let her stay in the servants' quarters. But even without the appeal of materialistic comforts, she didn't want to disappoint him when he had made such a warm gesture.

His summoning had ripped Kaede from her family. In exchange, he was offering her the chance to join a new one.

Moisture gathered in her eyes when she thought of it that way.

Furthermore, after everything she promised on the roof of dormitory keep, she wasn't about to leave Pascal to occupy this long corridor by himself. Unless she missed her guess, he wouldn't even want to move into the master bedroom unless the Majordomo Karsten insisted upon it.

But in the meantime, she had another concern... one that must be tackled tonight.

"Please take a seat Marina," Kaede said as she sat onto velvet bedcovers. Then, when the maid looked hesitant, her pink eyes almost pleaded: "Please."

The petite maid sat down straight on the lounge chair, and uncomfortable silence fell upon the two once again. Although Kaede did finally notice the shade of black under Marina's reddened eyes -- the maid had been crying a lot recently.

"How are they treating you here?" Kaede asked before glancing down, her words even more wispy than usual.

Marina shrugged. Her voice wasn't hateful, but neither did it contain any other emotion:

"It's a life. Karsten judges us on a purely professional basis, so he's cordial as long as my work is done proper."

"But they're forcibly keeping you here?"

Kaede felt like a block of insensitivity. Marina's life had been tossed into the abyss, and here all she could think of was ask more questions.

...Except the punishment was even more 'cruel and unusual' to her modern senses than she realized.

"Don't even need to..."

The maid's tone stayed bland even as she pulled up one sleeve and revealed tattooed black script that spelled 'law'.

"--it's a G-geas Brand," her eyes teared as she explained in a whisper, as though her dry words might set it off had they rang any louder. "It'll activate if I violate my oath of service. So you can rest assured that I can't even take any actions intended to harm you without suffering its curse."

'Rest assured' is about the last thing I feel from that...

Kaede did wonder why Pascal trusted Marina to attend her -- because there wasn't any actual 'trust' involved.

"Can it be removed?"

"They said that while any spell can be dispelled with enough power, this will detect any attempts to and activate at max intensity. So sure, it's removable; but whether I survive the attempt or not..." Marina finished with another shrug as she covered the mark once more.

"Then... how long do they expect you to stay... an indentured servant?"

Just forcing out those two words burned Kaede's tongue. It might be common in the traditional, eye-for-an-eye system of punishment, being synonymous to slavery still gave it a barbaric edge.

"For assisting the attempted murder of a high noble? Life for a life."

Then, Marina's finally unveiled her acidic disdain:

"What did your naive little head think it was going to be? Maybe I would be quietly hanged with a sack over my face?"

Both of them visibly winced. Kaede because the words had hurt, and Marina due to her intentionally barbed tongue.

The Geas spell was quite sensitive, and a trail of tears broke loose as the maid whimpered.

"I'm sorry, Marina, but please believe me... I didn't even want anything this bad for you..."

Yet as she said that, Kaede couldn't look at Marina in the eyes. It wasn't even naivety; Kaede simply didn't think about it back then. To be fair, she had been busy worrying over how to keep Pascal alive at the time. But Marina was right -- any punishment feudal law would have handed down would be far worse than this.

Kaede took a deep breath and tried again:

"You paid loyalty to a master for raising you. I can understand that. But my own life is tied to Pascal's. So just as you saw no other choice, neither did I..."

She halted before sticking another sock in her mouth. Her head really wasn't running straight this late.

"W-why should I believe you?" Marina went back to her uncaring monotone. "I mean, why are you even being nice to me then? I could have killed you in connection to him."

"Because I know you were candid in your offer," Kaede answered as her sincere gaze held onto swollen sea-green eyes. "Because if you hadn't said anything, that assassin's arrow would have shot straight through my neck..."

"Isn't that why you got my punishment to this?" the maid interrupted, although she soon fell to a whisper -- a faint sign that behind the barbed wires of pride, there was indeed a shadow of gratitude.

"Pascal won't budge any further, but I don't think this is a fair treatment for you, not for what you did," Kaede explained. "And one more reason," she appealed through bittersweet words, "it's because I don't make friends often, Marina, so I really didn't want to let go."

"Well that's impossible now," Marina's sour retort came as a matter of fact.

A brief silence returned, followed by a deep, heartfelt sigh from Kaede:

"I know... I'm occasionally idealistic, not spontaneously idiotic."

She wondered if she would ever again see the angelic smile that once cheered her mood during her gloomy initial week in the new world.

Minutes passed as Kaede pursed her cheeks in thought. Pascal's intentions for her standing did seem quite obvious, which meant she needed a servant she could rely on.

She only wished that her 'trust' wasn't founded on a penal curse.

"But... I think I can still offer you something else," Kaede softly tested the waters. "Since Pascal will probably assign me a servant, would you be willing to become my maid? I promise I'll treat you as nicely as I can, and I welcome you to voice your objections when I do misstep."

Marina's eyes enlarged with surprise. Yet within those rounded, glassy orbs also clashed a conflict between blame and suspicion. If there were any appreciation at all, they were very faint traces.

It's going to take a lonnnng time for her to trust me again, though.

"Would it help if I let you hit me?"

The maid's eyebrows went up further. Of all things, she clearly wasn't expecting that.

"I don't know if the spell works that way," she muttered. "I'm not sure if I want to find out either."

Although one point was clear: she did want to hit Kaede, or slap her, or some other medium of venting anger and frustration.

Probably a good sign, Kaede thought. The desire for direct anger was both more honest and less extreme than the alternative. Maybe there's a slim chance after all.

"You won't always have his favor like now, you know," Marina warned as she wiped her eyes. "Especially once he gets busy with work."

It was an odd way to agree, however tentative it was. But at this point Kaede simply sagged with relief to hear an opportunity.

"Then I just have to keep up," she answered, a faint smile finally returning to her expression.

It was easier said than done. But Pascal had summoned for a companion in his long journey, and Kaede promised that she would strive her best to support him.

She also didn't forget Marina's former occupation for a second.

"Although... that does lead me to a request for you, Marina," Kaede began. "Since you were an observer for an Imperial lord before this..."

Marina blinked several times, her expression blank and lost.

"I won't ask about your former master's identity," Kaede reassured with a wave. "But could you keep a tab on as many happenings within this keep as you can? Inconspicuously? And tell me if you find anything suspicious, anything at all."

After all, there was no better counterespionage than the eyes of a former spy.

"You want me to spy on the staff and visitors for you?" the maid whispered with incredulity, as if the list of surprises would never end.

"Yes, that's precisely what I'm asking," Kaede nodded slowly in fatigue. "Heaven knows that a Landgrave has his foes. I don't think Pascal underestimates most opponents, but arrogance certainly leaves chinks in the armor. And it's part of my job to watch out for his back."

"What makes this any different from my last mission then?"

Marina struck Kaede with one last hammer for the night, but the latter made almost an immediate recovery this time:

"Because you can just leave any info with me," she smiled back with droopy eyes, "and I'll handle any reckless parts this time."


...


It wasn't until several days later when Kaede had a chance to discuss with Pascal on making Marina her maid.

He readily agreed, even though the words that followed came with a disapproving frown:

"You are being way too easy on her."

"'In war, resolution; in defeat, defiance; in victory, magnanimity'... doubly so since she did help me," Kaede stated with a faint grin. "Besides, I still like her."

Pascal looked thoughtful for a moment, then:

"Quote from some dead man in your world?"

"Great leader," she corrected him. "But also a racist, imperialistic warmongerer. Nevertheless, kindness is universal."

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 6 - War with Conviction

With javelin in one hand and partisan in the other, Kaleva tilted his skis into a sharp turn before zigzagging back into formation. It brought an opportune moment to gaze into the gentle flurry behind him, even as their column of hundreds continued their journey north.

The twenty-three year-old had left his quiet, farming hamlet two days ago, after the village seer announced the Jarl's orders. His fellows had been on the road ever since, merging together with men from several settlements along the way.

Kaleva felt uneasy about leaving his home behind, protected by only the older members of the militia. It was illogical that they should travel north to rally, only to ski back south for war. Would it not be easier to simply wait several days before meeting up with the brave army as they marched for glory?

Skied. Not marched. Only a foolish heathen of the south would march in this weather.

But watching the snowfall did alleviate his worries by a hint. After all, the wisen seer was right. The war was timely and just. With the blessing of the Stormlord, the early snow had already piled knee-deep, transforming every field of land into the smoothest highway. In this realm of heavenly white, the imperialistic Trinitians shall flounder and perish while the true descendants exacted revenge for an age of humiliation.

After centuries of encroachment and expansion into the north, the impertinent southerners were dissolving into internal turmoil once more -- brother fighting against brother like the abyss-tainted demons they were.

But this time, Skagen was not recovering from the scything death of epidemics, or preoccupied by the schemes of morally-corrupt traitors. This time, the Hyperboreans of the north shall seize the moment and recover what was rightfully theirs.

The southerners might mock them as barbaric 'Northmen' whose only occupation was to raid and pillage; but to the Hyperboreans, the North Sea and its fertile coast was their promised land. It was here, in ages past, where the blood of their ancestors shattered the most cunning abyssal offensive of the Dragon-Demon War. The divine dragonlords may have long since departed, but their legacy -- their gift to humanity -- would live on through mythic champions of yore...

Kaleva saw the signaler raise his flag before tilting it to the right with a shake. Major Kaleva of Rimpi -- the name was proud and common -- called for the entire unit to bank right into a full stop.

As over a thousand skis scratching against icy snow came to a halt, everyone's eyes and ears extended outwards to sense what the Major warily sought.

Then Kaleva heard it...

A soft but frantic rhythm, as though thousands of feet stomping down upon hard sand...

No, not feet...

Hooves, of iron and steel...

"FORM SCHILTROMS! ANTI-CAVALRY!" screamed the Major.

...But it was already too late.

Kaleva was still kicking the skis off his snowshoes when the first black rider charged over the crest of nearby hills. Dozens... no, hundreds more followed along the length of the ridge -- a swarm of hungry black that surged over white slopes like a tidal storm. The forward ranks pelted javelins and spells alike before drawing swordstaves, soon leveled into glistening rows of charging blades. The ground itself began to tremble and quake under the thunder of a thousand hooves. Even the skies rained steel from crossbow volleys, sent by endless waves of horsemen peaking hilltop crests.

The skiers never even had the time to finish reforming their ranks...

Battle cries in Imperial soon echoed from the other side, and the entire column of leather-clad ski infantry found themselves pincered in between two opposing flanks. Surrounded by the blood-curling roar of thousands, Kaleva found himself shaking against the meaning of those foul words once told by veterans:

"Holy Father with us!"

But the young Kaleva would never see the panic that ensued, or the butchering that followed which dyed an entire field of snow in crimson death.

His last memory came when the weighted tip of a heavy javelin shattered his spine, just seconds after he retrieved the round shield that could have saved his life.

----- * * * -----

Kaede had wanted to fight. It was an excellent opportunity to attune to the life that Pascal would live. She even spent every spare moment over the past day in preparation, adjusting the composition of the quicksilver bow she formed out of the 'morphic blade' Pascal gave her.

'Spring steel', actually, even if the enchanted alloy looked like mercury. Despite being a quarter short of her Yumi-Daikyu, the new bow was so strong she had to activate her runic Elemental Body just to shoot it, at least until Pascal had her gloves enchanted. His willingness to refill those spells had been begrudging at best -- he thought she was wasting her time.

He might even be right. Kaede's preference in weapons was, after all, rather obsolete.

Hyperien bows had already evolved past their medieval equivalents on Earth. Rather than a traditional recurve composite bow, Weichsel's few -- and their far more preferred steel crossbows -- were of compound design. Like the bows of modern athletes, they used a levering system of cables and pulleys. The result bent steely limbs to store greater energy, yet required less of the draw strength that took traditional longbowmen years to build.

Nevertheless, she felt compelled to wield it. With several Smiting spells in her runes, a few exacting shots to pierce the heads of leading officers could deliver devastating damage to organization and morale.

But equipment and arsenal wasn't the real problem right now.

Kaede's hands were trembling.

In fact, her entire arm -- perhaps even the entire body -- continued to quiver lightly as she watched on from a hilltop, mounted alongside two other signal officers.

The fighting across the fields was no skirmish. It wasn't even a bloody battle.

It's a massacre.

Nearly eight hundred Skagen ski infantry had been caught in the open by almost fifteen hundred cavalrymen. As though two-to-one odds weren't enough, Weichsel's forces managed to sandwich the enemy in-between, using the snow, the rolling hills, and some mirage arcana to remain unnoticed until the last minute.

The defenders' few mages had tossed runes out by the handfuls, attempting to raise pillars and walls of icy stalagmites in the wintry fields. But the Weichsen officers never gave them a chance. Swarms of Ether Seekers shot out like a missile massacre to interdict the stones, disrupting their magic through the forced injection of hostile, unstable ether.

The few obstacles that did form were not enough to break the charge. Experienced cavalrymen in black partial plate leaped over them with ease, driving wedge formations -- their triangular tips led by spell-fortified officers -- into the gaps between incomplete spear walls.

The results could not be more one-sided had a column of tanks plowed straight into a courtyard of assembling infantry.

From her vantage point and through familiar-enhanced senses, Kaede had a clear and far-too-detailed view of the grisly bloodbath. No less than five cavalry wedges had pierced into the loose column of Skagen ski infantry. Driven by momentum and muscle, the Weichsen chargers shoved through disorganized foot soldiers before trampling them underfoot. Meanwhile their riders sliced and stabbed with sabers and swordstaves, hacking limbs and severing necks even as bloody spurts dyed their armor and steeds in ghastly red.

Here and there a band of defenders rallied under the leadership of an officer, but these pockets of resistance were soon picked out by spotters. Mounted arbalesters and Reiters ringed the battlefield from higher ground. Like sickles through wheat, sudden hails of missiles quickly mowed down those brave enough to hold their ground.

Kaede had thought that this couldn't be much worse than watching the most gruesome of documentary videos. She thought that her practiced emotional detachment when observing history would suffice...

She couldn't have been more wrong.

The scent of blood permeating every breath of air...

The crack of bones as ribs shattered under thunderous hooves...

The sound of slicing metal as keen edge met flesh...

The splattering of blood as yet another sack of meat struck ground...

This... is war.

Kaede felt as thought she was stuck in a constant cringe. A faint sense of nausea rose up with every breathe. Her fingers tightened around the not-quite-longbow; but even under the firm grasp of her right hand, her left arm continued to shiver and shake.

They said that only those who experienced battle firsthand knew hell...

Pascal had warned her that the first time often left a recruit shaken. It was why soldiers were repetitively drilled to perform their task with mechanical automation. But since she acted as an observer and not participant, there would be no such distractions for her.

His follow-up words had been "you will get used to it".

Used to it... sure, once I'm properly desensitized to the killing.

She wasn't sure if that was better, or worse... far worse.

"They didn't stand a chance," remarked one of the signal officers, a young, plain-faced Junior Lieutenant with flat blond hair, slate-blue eyes, and a tall, freckled nose.

Given the wintry conditions, this should not have happened. Not even the lightest cavalry could ride unimpeded in knee-deep snow. Had it been any other country, the horsemen would have struggled to merely keep up with the cross-country skiers, let alone outmaneuver them.

But Weichsel was different. More precisely, the Weichsen professional cavalry had a higher ratio of noble-to-commoners than any other. At least one in every four soldiers of the 'Weichsel Cavalry' formations was a trained battlemage, and the Reiters plus Phantoms were almost entirely spellcasters.

This magical saturation gave them an overwhelming advantage in arcane support. Such utilities varied from Climatize buffs that kept the soldiers warm and their armor from locking up, to Snowskimmer spells that allowed horseshoes to gallop atop snow as though firm ground. Periodically recasting these effects for hours would prove a constant drain upon their ether supply, but a mage-dominated army could afford such luxuries while retaining enough reserves for combat casting.

"Not even a single siphon," commented the other officer, a pale-skinned, lanky young man of the same rank who rubbed his nose with nonchalance. "Just a gaggle of dirty peasants from backwater villages; hardly a victory worth our time."

They had introduced their noble origins earlier. But Kaede merely remembered them as Werner and Karl. It wasn't really fair to the former, who paid his respects through solemn words. But the latter was just annoying, if not callous to the point of inhumane.

"Eight hundred lives and not worth your time, is it?" Kaede spoke bitterly.

"Whose side are you on?" Karl tossed back, his tone still uncaring.

Loyalty has nothing to do with ethics!

Kaede felt her brows twitch in anger, when she spotted a change in the slaughterhouse.

"They're trying to surrender," she pointed out to a small group in the northeast, lead by an officer who raised a jury-rigged white flag stained by blood. They numbered no more than sixty... then suddenly halved as a hailstorm of already-airborne bolts, both steel and ether, cut them down in a crossfire from multiple vectors.

Kaede sent the same words to Pascal through their link, and received only a mental tap in reply.

Werner's preoccupied gaze identified that he was also communicating to the headquarters staff, except through a maintained Farspeak spell. The concentration required to hold it steady was what kept forward signal officers out of battle.

"Orders from Colonel von Konopacki," Werner turned towards Karl. "Tell Major Kempff he is in now in charge of accepting surrenders on the east flank. All officers and mages are to be executed..."

"WHAT!?" Kaede instantly went to glaring at the 'better' Lieutenant. That's a war crime! Even here!

Haunting images of Wehrmacht crimes passed through her mind, stamped into memories from the thoughtlessness of a father's hobby: showing his kid Russian Great Patriotic War (WWII) documentaries since the age of seven...

"--But disarm and release the soldiers if they kept their hands up. We have no room for prisoners."

The implications were simple: kill their commanders in front of them. If their spirit lay broken enough to attempt nothing, then let them go. Otherwise, slay them all.

"Got it. YA!" Karl urged his horse to gallop down the hill, towards wherever his commander was.

As a student of history, Kaede had to accept wars -- they were simply an inevitable act of human conflict. She would even make leeway for accidental atrocities in the heat of battle, since the aggression of warriors, once unleashed, was not easily contained.

But this is deliberate... it isn't just awful, it's outright EVIL.

"This is wrong!" Kaede almost shouted. "The Articles of War require that surrendering troops must be taken prisoner and offered a fair chance for ransom or exchange!"

"The Articles of War weren't signed by the Northmen," Werner replied, his voice now past solemn and onto frozen. "They certainly didn't adhere to it when they raided my village twelve years ago."

Staring at him in shock, Kaede could just barely make out the cold embers of hatred that burned within his callous eyes. They contained not only vengeance, but also the horrors that had desensitized a man to violent atrocities since his childhood years.

"So we're to lower ourselves to their barbaric standards?"

"My job is to pass orders, not to interpret them for debate," the officer continued to survey the fields without any change in expression, never even bothering to meet Kaede's gaze.

----- * * * -----

"WHAT!" the mental shout left a buzz in his head.

Pascal wondered if Kaede even realized that she just did that.

"Sir! That does not meet the operational guidelines of the Weichsel military!" He continued his firm intonation; his steely gaze locked onto two deep-brown orbs on a long, gaunt face stuck with a permanent frown.

"There are many things in White Typhoon that does not meet our operational guidelines, and you would know them since this was your proposal in the first place! Captain! We must continue our advance at full speed, unburdened by any prisoners of war, nor divided by the need to guard over them."

The counter was no less imperious. Its words came from Colonel Kasimir von Konopacki, once the commander of Nordkreuz forces in Marshal von Moltewitz's absence.

General von Manteuffel went ahead to personally lead the Phantom Gale company as a hunter-seeker vanguard. With Princess Sylviane's help, they roamed in advance of the main force, eliminating patrols and outposts to keep Skagen's field surveillance in the dark. In his absence, the Colonel was given command of the main body -- six companies of Weichsel Cavalry plus four more of Noble Reiters -- with precise orders of each enemy column to intercept and destroy.

Apparently not precise enough, Pascal grumbled in his thoughts.

At the moment, first echelon 'headquarters' was entirely mounted on horses, its officers watching the distant battle from a hilltop on the southwestern flank. Pascal had dispatched Kaede to the east side to observe, then overlaid her sight onto a corner of his own vision for a perfect view over the entire field.

...Except right now she was staring at a signal officer.

"Kaede quit arguing with a Lieutenant and turn your focus back to the field," he ordered.

She did, but not without complaint:

"Are you seriously agreeing to this?"

He didn't bother answering that; his focus was better spent against von Konopacki:

"Our orders are to neutralize each force..."

Pascal swung his fingers towards the slaughterhouse.

"That enemy is broken, shattered, and ruined! They pose no threat to us now, and any survivors' morale will be shot for weeks at least. Within the objectives of this operation, we gain no benefits to killing them all, except to provoke the populace into greater resistance upon any assault."

The Colonel almost snorted, as though in disbelief that such rabble could constitute any worthy 'resistance'.

"With all due respect, Sir. I quite agree with the Captain..."

The words were almost soft-spoken, yet they still contained a seeming font of conviction. They came from Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Ostergalen, a middle-aged commoner of moderate stature and, despite his large and balding forehead, a handsome yet unassuming visage. He was also the General's intelligence officer, left as the nominal second-in-command of the main body.

"--The Jarls are at fault for those we kill in battle, but news of any field executions will be blamed solely upon us -- and their sons will hate us all the more for it in the years to come. Furthermore, our policies were created to encourage our enemies to surrender, instead of fighting to the last man and causing unnecessary casualties to our own. I'm sure the General would..."

"Fine, have it your way," the Colonel relented -- more like brushed it aside. "I've got an army to run; you can take care of the petty humanisms."

Meanwhile, Pascal didn't waste a second. He began even before von Konopacki finished speaking, and all the better as he clearly felt Kaede's simmering anger:

"Get down there and tell Major Walter Kempff to spare all officers who led a surrender. We should encourage the gutless wonders who willingly gave up their commands, not warn them off."

The Lieutenant-Colonel exhaled a faint sigh of relief. He turned towards the signal officers, but Pascal stopped him short.

"I got it."

"Surrendering isn't necessarily cowardi..." Kaede's reactive backlash soon trailed off.

About time.

"Quit being emotional and use your head," Pascal reprimanded as he returned the Lieutenant-Colonel's appreciative nod. "Inform them in Lieutenant-Colonel Ostergalen's, and by extension, General von Manteuffel's name. Ostergalen happens to agree with me."

"Yes Sir," she replied. "And thank you."

Although in Pascal's opinion, the decision had never been one of morality, nor did he feel strongly for the ethics involved. It was rational, even intelligent to spare those who surrendered. The total annihilation of an enemy force might look better on paper, but such shortsightedness was undoubtedly foolish in the long term:

"Colonel von Konopacki may be a skilled tactician, but he is a political numskull and hence will never become a general. There is no purpose in igniting more anger when we could avoid it; only the Imperials would benefit from that."

----- * * * -----

"Atten-tion!"

Gerd Kessler snapped his heels together, alongside forty-six other officer cadets in black-on-burning-red uniforms. They made up two entire graduating classes of Phantoms-in-training from the Königsfeld Academy, newly arrived at Nordkreuz to be sent forth into battle.

The old man -- well, not actually as old as he looked -- who stepped up onto the podium was Colonel Sir Erwin von Hammerstein. Even with his wrinkled cheeks neatly shaved and wearing a spiffy uniform, the Colonel still looked like a bandit plucked out of the mountains: ferocious, bulging eyes that could scare a recruit by mere glance, a big mouth whose toothy grin wavered between contagious and frightening, and coarse, darkly tanned skin that belonged to a farmhand more than any aristocrat. The man was neither tall nor strongly built, but his homely face alone was more than enough to leave an impression.

He was also a legend in the Weichsel military, especially among the lower ranks. Had anyone asked for the bravest and most daring commander, every soldier would point their fingers at him.

...But it wasn't all a compliment.

Erwin von Hammerstein was known for his fearlessness, not only towards the enemy, but also to his own superiors. It was why that despite his thoroughly impressive battle record over a century of service, the man was still a mere Colonel. To him, leading a charge came as easy as whipping a subordinate or disobeying an order. If it weren't for the chestful of medals he collected, his equivalent number of demerits would have sent him to court martial long ago.

"Talk about a bunch of scrawny-ass dew-dripping sprouts..."

The lines across his brow easily tripled while his big mouth turned into a deep, downward curve.

"I'm sure you all know me -- Colonel Erwin von Hammerstein here. People call me anything in-between the 'daredevil' and the 'pillory celebrity', and chances are everything you've heard about me is true, except I don't have any extra heads or digits..."

A few cadets lost their composure and chuckled. Two of them even snorted; one of them being Reynald.

Gerd could almost see little glittering stars in his friend's eyes. The boy worshiped way too many heroes.

"I'm here today on a simple matter," von Hammerstein continued in his gruff voice. "The late Marshal, Father bless his soul, had assembled a new unit of Phantoms two years ago. Problem is, they're no knights, not even cadets... Yes son?"

A fourth year that Gerd didn't recognize lowered his upright hand and spoke out:

"By the laws of Weichsel, only the King may create a formation of Knights Phantom."

"Yes I've got your permission and paperwork right here, ye damn lawyer," the Colonel waved the stack in his hand before putting them back down. "And Holy Father forbid that you should listen; I said they ain't no knights. They're trained in the Phantom's ways, but not to your standards. Reason is a simple one: the last war showed that we could always use more Phantoms, but we don't have enough nobles to go around. So these fresh greens are all yeoman instead..."

Some of the cadets started murmuring in discontent, and Gerd could feel his blood-flow speeding up. Like any other branch of the Weichsel military, there were officers of yeoman origin -- commoners blessed by magic -- in the Knights Phantom. But they had to earn the lowest rank of nobility, a Knight's Cross at least, to be accepted for training. Gerd himself was a rare exception, 'recognized' only due to Parzifal's insistence and his own top scores.

"But our shortage in officers is even worse, hence why I'm here to ask for your support. We need platoon leaders, and I need a sidekick, all ranked straight up to Junior Lieutenants."

"Sir!" Another fourth year spoke up, rather smugly too: "we're officer cadets. We're guaranteed Junior Lieutenants or higher upon the campaign's completion, which is also the lowest ranking for any proper Knight Phantom. Why should we devalue ourselves to a lesser unit?"

"...Especially one that probably won't see any action this war," a third-year girl named Hannah von Gerd-couldn't-give-a-damn chipped in.

"All you vainglorious, ladder-climbing bastards can get out of my face," von Hammerstein growled. "I want you punks no more than cowards and deserters."

Most of the cadets paid just enough respect towards the authority of his Colonel rank to wait out his last syllable before strutting away, insulted and angry. Knowing about the man's foul mouth was one thing; experiencing its receiving end? Something else entirely.

"And this is the so-called elitest of the elite, all fracking five of you," he scanned over them like a lion observing gazelles, then snorted as he came across Ariadne. "A blood-be-damned Manteuffel too. I'd thought you'd be first to clear out."

"My pride isn't so cheap to be insulted by meager and ungrounded provocation, Sir!"

Yet there was definitely anger in her voice, buttressed by a staunch refusal to leave the battleground. It was apparent enough that even Gerd -- who Reynald often mocked as 'oblivious to barnhouses' -- could sense.

The girl might exemplify many virtues, but having rhinoceros skin certainly wasn't one of them.

"So why'd you stay? Why join up?"

"Any soldier could join a famous unit, Sir!" Ariadne stared back with unerring challenge. "It takes a true knight to forge one themselves. As green as these troopers may be, I highly doubt any unit assembled by the Marshal and drilled by yourself lacks potential!"

And then, it happened. The famous one-eighty, as Colonel von Hammerstein's mouth went from downward half-circle frown to upward half-moon grin in an instant.

"Spoken like a true man!" He lauded, despite facing someone who was anything but male.

Ariadne looked like her facial muscles had been petrified, but the Colonel already went on to his next target:

"What about you Gerd? After fighting tooth and nail to jump on the bandwagon? What would your benefactor say now?"

The young man smirked back. It was a pleasant surprise that the Colonel knew his name and background without ever meeting him. Whatever roughneck image von Hammerstein might like to cultivate, the man certainly did his homework.

But if bluntness was how the old geezer liked it, then Gerd would gladly play ball by the same rules:

"I never gave a rat's ass about prestige to begin with, Sir! I just wanted a cavalryman's opportunity to prove myself, and nothing better than to do it alongside others of my own kind!"

Colonel von Hammerstein settled for a toothy nod this time, before moving down the line:

"And you, Reynald?"

"Not to burst your bubble, Sir, but I don't frankly care for the unit," the short redhead shrugged, oddly uncaring for one whose eyes were lit by idolatry just moments prior. "I'm just joining up to watch my friends' backs."

"Good reason as any!" the Colonel boomed. "Lydia?"

Gerd had never paid attention to the petite girl before, other than knowing that she was in fourth-year and probably the smallest of the Knights Phantom cadets. At one-sixty-four (5'4") and of fragile appearance, she held a demure yet thoughtful look that was definitely his type. Her pale skin and cute nose almost resembled a plainer version of Cecylia, except with hazel-brown eyes and wavy, chocolate-brown hair, its short tips just barely draped over thin shoulders.

It was actually rather hard to find a girl with short hair in the academy, where flowing long tresses were considered both a sign of femininity and wealth. Gerd found that to be a shame. Petite and innocent, lively yet demure -- it was perfection for a girl.

He even had many heated debates with Reynald over the topic, even if his friend often chided his tastes as 'bland'.

"To learn from one of the best unit commanders in the history of Weichsel, Sir."

"Flattery isn't going to get you anywhere, but accepted!"

Ever though Colonel von Hammerstein said that, his grin still stretched from ear to ear when Lydia offered her response.

"Last up, Kayeten!"

Kayeten was one of those young men who lacked even a single impressionable feature. He was of average height, modest build, with an utterly plain face where not even faded-green eyes managed to stand out. Yet, if Gerd's memory served, the name 'Kayeten von Krupinski' consistently made the top six ranks in performance among the fourth-year class.

"I agree with both Ariadne and Lydia, Sir!"

"So long as you're agreeing with them and not skirt-chasing."

"Not a chance Sir," Kayeten answered without even a second of pause. "I already have a fiancée back at home."

Both Gerd and Reynald stared at him with gaping expressions that went "seriously?"

Stupid noble blood, Gerd thought bitterly. What does that generic man have that I don't?

"Well I hope you kids are up to the task," the Colonel continued. "Ariadne, you're promoted to full Lieutenant as my second. Gerd and Kayeten, you two are raised to full L.T. as well; take charge of second and third platoons. Lydia, you'll be Gerd's second. And Reynald, you'll lead the recon squad. Any questions?"

Gerd smiled cheerily. Rank and half of promotion; too bad for those picky highborns who left early.

Meanwhile the ladies' hands shot up, and Lydia was picked first.

"Why am I under him?"

Well, at least you didn't straight up say 'the commoner, Gerd decided to give her some credit. The fact she was cute certainly helped.

"Take it up with your meh grades," the thuggish-looking commander answered simply before pointing towards Ariadne.

"If you're lacking support officers, I'd like to request a transfer for Parzifal Sigismund von Seydlitz der Chevallerie. He's the best healer in our class and will gladly accept."

"Who is this, your lover?"

Ariadne looked like she just bit into a rock. But before she even had a chance to say anything, it was Reynald who countered:

"He's my best friend. I'd prefer that you do not insult his character and honor, Sir. Otherwise I'd be forced to challenge you to a duel."

"And you think you'll win?" Colonel von Hammerstein sent a half-derisive half-amused smirk.

Which the young man returned in kind:

"I have a perfect record."

The old commander made an odd snorting sound.

"Don't forget those words when I take you up on it. But we've got a war to win right now, son, so save it for the enemy." He then turned to Ariadne: "I take back my comment, Miss von Zimmer-Manteuffel, and I'll see what I can do."

Ariadne merely nodded back, her meadow-green eyes still burning with the fury of a prairie fire.

Well, aren't we off to just a peachy start, Gerd thought.

...

Kaede glanced at the contemplative Pascal in the 'Instant Cabin' they shared. The tiny room deployed from a cube that could fit in her... well, his palm. She didn't even complain about sharing a bed again, since it was infinitely better than any tent in this snowstorm.

"What is it?" She asked, less from curiosity and more an attempt to distract herself from brooding thoughts.

"Parzifal, Ariadne, Reynald, and Gerd all signed up under one command," Pascal turned towards her with his soup bowl in hand. "It is the new Grenadiers Phantom unit father created in secret, probably to avoid opposition from the Knights Phantom until they were ready. Colonel von Hammerstein was shrewd enough to put Ariadne as his second-in-command, which stopped any lingering doubts from General von Manteuffel over its deployment."

"Well... of course. He'd want to give Ariadne the chance to excel, being head of her clan and all."

Pascal nodded back as he took another bite of 'beef stew'; more like jerky and spiced vegetables boiled in snow.

"Yes. But von Hammerstein also requested a company name to boost morale -- that is standard for Knight Phantom companies, except they are not knightly. Command seemed hesitant to hand one down, so I am trying to think up of something for them to push."

Kaede gave it a quick thought. Given the Phantoms' modus operandi, the answer seemed quite simple:

"In my world, there was once a famous formation that advanced so quickly through enemy lines that neither friend nor foe could keep track of it. They called it the Ghost Division..." she paused briefly as dark clouds descended upon her thoughts once more. "Think this unit could live up to that name?"

"With that madman in charge? Not a single doubt," Pascal's grin stretched across his face. "Ghost Riders it is then."

She forced a wry smile back. It would take time for her to make peace with a different type of ghost -- the haunting sight of over six hundred dead and wounded strewn across snowy plains dyed a bloody red.

True to what Parzifal spoke of the Healers' Oath, the Weichsel medical squads attached to every company did their best for friend and foe alike once the battle was over. Even Kaede contributed where she could, but they were only given limited time before the army had to move on.

In the midst of winter and far from the nearest settlement, those who sustained major injuries would soon join the dead.

...The field of corpses.

"Something has been bothering you," Pascal stared with worry. "You have barely touched your dinner."

"It's nothing, don't worry about it," Kaede replied without looking.

There was no such thing as being 'underhanded' in war, for what were 'tactics' and 'strategy' but ways to cheat the system?

But 'ethics' weren't the same thing.

We can't cheat conscience.

A soldier needed not just the conviction to win, but also the will to achieve victory through correct means.

Pascal did his best today, she decided. The rest are my own problems.

Kaede knew it would be yet another long and sleepless night.

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 7 - Decisive Action

"Over the past week, we have intercepted six columns of Skagen forces above battalion size, thirty-three smaller detachments, and razed nineteen outposts and blockhouses. The 2nd Echelon also crossed into Skagen three days ago, adding one major interception to the count and mounting a successful night assault on their army encampment at Kajana. In total, we have inflicted between ten to thirteen thousand losses, including those who surrendered and were let go. This accounts for over half of the enemy's mobilized forces in the peninsula..."

The single-room 'mobile command center' had been expanded to full size from its shrunken, crate-sized form. Over thirty individuals stood packed within, ranging from twelve company commanders to a foreign princess. They all crowded around a three-dimensional topographic projection which highlighted the known movements of both friend and foe.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Ostergalen continued his operational analysis:

"--Our own casualties in the 1st Echelon amount to twenty-five percent, albeit heavily skewed towards the regular cavalry. This includes 364 dead and 77 other irrecoverable injuries..."

Given the wonders of modern healing magic, irrecoverable injuries usually meant one thing: loss of extremities to mages. Despite the availability of Regeneration spells, their high complexity made it difficult if not impossible to overcome the ether resistance of other spellcasters. Any severed appendages that were not quickly recovered and reconnected by a healer risked permanent maiming.

"--This drops our frontline cavalry strength to sixty percent. In the meantime, we have received the cadet-boosted Black Lancers as reinforcements, bringing our Phantom complement of two companies to extra-full."

The Lieutenant-Colonel might be prematurely balding with entrenched brow wrinkles, but the blue gaze he swept across the room was still full of youthful energy. His lips then widened into a broad, congratulatory smile as he formally announced:

"As of today, the first phase of Operation White Typhoon has reached a successful conclusion."

But General von Manteuffel didn't even give the assembled officers an opportunity to cheer before following up:

"However, that doesn't imply we can afford complacency. By now, our advantages in surprise and momentum have completely expired. According to intelligence from our scouts and the Black Eagles, Skagen forces have consolidated to their nearest fortified towns, with likely orders to hold out until the arrival of main forces from Fimbulmark Isle. That means no more easy victories for us in the open field."

Some of the commanders began to talk quietly among themselves. The biggest weakness of an all-cavalry army was their inability to tackle strong fortifications. Sure, the Reiters and Phantoms could bombard town walls while the rest dismounted to assault. But they had neither the ammunition endurance of proper siege artillery, nor the massed numbers of infantry for a meat grinder battle.

"Which is precisely why we're going to force them out," the General said with a faint smirk. For a man whose expressions lay as unperturbed as stone for weeks on end, it made a truly nefarious smile worthy of the name 'Manteuffel' -- the man-devil.

"Captain, please explain the plan as we have detailed."

"Yes Sir," Captain Sir Pascal von Moltewitz, Tactical Officer of the 1st Echelon, confirmed as he expanded the rod in his hand into a retractable metal stick.

"As you all know, our current forces are poorly suited to launching an urban assault. Therefore, it is imperative that we provoke our enemies into offering us battle by threatening their most strategic position..."

With a swish of his pointer, Pascal directed everyone's attention to a port town in the northwestern tip of the peninsula:

"Nordkapp is the only target we deem worthy for this effort. It is not only the primary transit link between the the peninsula and Skagen's interests on Fimbulmark Isle, but also the only fortified port of sufficient size to anchor the full strength of Skagen's North Sea Fleet. In other words, Nordkapp is the only location where their main army can disembark and still keep their ships relatively protected -- or at least, as well as they can manage against our marauding Phantoms."

A few sinister chuckles followed that comment. The King had arrived in Nordkreuz two days ago under the escort of North Wind, a Knight Phantom company that specialized in coastal patrol and naval destruction. During the fall campaign, this very unit had sunk most of the anchored Västergötland fleet.

"Therefore, we will lay siege to Nordkapp with only a portion of our forces," Pascal continued on in his resolute tone. "We will neither fully invest the fortification nor assault its walls, but simply chip away at their numbers and the defenses. We will feed them the false assumption that they face but a few hundred troops -- perhaps the remnants of 1st Echelon after sustaining much heavier casualties. With 2nd Echelon advancing north towards us, it will be apparent that unless they boost the garrison, we will assault it once our reinforcements arrive. Given the importance of Nordkapp to the Jarls of the peninsula, we anticipate they will. They may even try to seize the opportunity to recover their honor by eliminating our weakened units with a converging attack."

"Colonel von Konopacki and I will break camp after nightfall and head towards Nordkapp with the Nordkreuz 1st and 3rd cavalry companies, plus the Nordkreuz and Kostradan Reiters. We will erect besieging fortifications under the cover of darkness. By tomorrow morning, we shall begin a shootout with the town's defenders. As our Phantoms and Princess Sylviane remain unaccounted for, the enemy will have to assume that they are still independently hunting smaller units -- compelling any aid they send to be dispatched in battalion-size or greater."

"And that is when the rest of us will ride out... and crush them," the General took his mantle back with a symbolic squeeze of his large fist, granite fingers every bit as hard as his stony face.

----- * * * -----

Kaede suppressed a yawn as she raised a pair of binoculars to her eyes. The magnification wasn't up to modern standards; but from her vantage point atop the battery-tower on the rightmost flank, it was more than enough to survey the town's defenders on their fieldstone walls.

More precisely, she was watching an artillery crew load their weapon -- a swivel-mounted scorpio-like ballista on wheels. They worked atop a bulwark three hundred paces away, barely visible due to the thin mist that covered the entire area.

"Volley!" yelled the Lieutenant on her tower.

A volley of multicolored ether bolts crashed into artillery bulwark. Most were stopped short by the battlements, where they dissipated harmlessly against the ley-line-powered Guard Screen ward that stretched across the walls' exterior.

But three shots found their mark.

One struck its target just under the helmet, killing him even before his body collapsed to the ground. Another loader fell back through the firing gap and plummeted down the walls, his spine broken by a double impact of telekinetic force.

"LOOK OUT!"

Kaede swung her binoculars toward her left, its magnification automatically readjusting. The shout came from the Weichsel side this time. Two rune-inscribed catapult shots crashed hard into the second battery-tower to her left, just before the imbued sonic spells shattered them into jagged rock shrapnel.

Since alchemy was simple when transmuting similar materials, Weichsel casters built their towers overnight by altering packed snow into solid ice. The battery-tower stood tougher than any mortar-and-stone construction, but nevertheless tilted slowly as its compromised structural integrity worsened by the second. The squad of dismounted Reiters on top jumped off and glided through the air to safety, mere seconds before the cracking ice finally gave way.

The frozen tower toppled like a massive hammer, smashing a gap in the ice wall built to protect snow trenches from the defending fire. Yet along other lengths of the fieldworks, dismounted Reiters and cavalrymen continued firing spells and crossbows against the garrison.

This exchange of skirmishing fire had gone on all morning. With two full companies of Noble Reiters, Weichsel forces could overpower the spell-resistant Guard Screen ward protecting the walls and breach the fortifications. But such high powered spellcasting would also leave the mages drained. Since they lacked forces for a proper assault, Colonel von Konopacki gave strict orders to rely on sustainable magic -- low tiered spells with easily-replenished ether demands.

Protected by a misty breeze and icy walls, Weichsel's mages showed their strength again. Bolts of pure ether obeyed neither gravity nor wind, offering precision accuracy with lethal damage. Meanwhile, distance forced the defenders' artillery to make parabolic shots, which had trouble striking anything but a massed formation. Their runic fragmentation rocks could have reaped lives, had Weichsel officers not gifted their men with Legion Repulsion wards to deflected low-mass projectiles like arrows and shrapnel.

Even so... we can't win a battle of attrition, Kaede thought. If their reinforcements don't come out, then this is all for nothing.

She wished Pascal could keep her updated on news from the command network, but a second-in-command had better things to do than repeat messages. For her and other Captains who knew the battle plan but not the current situation, it was a nerve-grating experience.

All we can do is trust our comrades, both here and elsewhere...

"AHHHhhhhhhhh!"

The painful cry came from just behind her, and Kaede instantly spun around on her heels.

A javelin-sized ballista bolt had struck one of the mages on her tower. The rune-enchanted projectile punched through his wards before penetrating his chest. Its momentum then carried him off the tower's edge. Screaming and flailing, the corporal fell two stories before crashing into the snow below. The wintry ground softened the impact, but it still rocked the shaft that skewered his torso.

Everything happened so quickly that none of them even had a chance to cast an Air Cushion spell. Two nearby medics rushed to pull the corporal into a trench, but the body had already stilled into an unmoving corpse.

Kaede's mind completely froze. She slowly turned back to face the enemy, knowing that the very next bolt could rip her own life away. Her numb body continued to shake and tremble -- shocked by the sight of death right next to her.

Meanwhile, the defenders wheeled another scorpio ballista into sight; the third on the same bulwark, with a fourth following close behind...

"Kaede, order the lieutenant to take out that battery. Firemist combination spell."

Pascal's forceful voice rang through her mind, dragging her back into the present.

"L-l-lieutenant, command from HQ," she stammered out before taking another breath to steady herself. "Eliminate the ballista battery; firemist combo."

As a young nobleman who appeared to be in his late 'twenties', the lieutenant cocked a raised eyebrow before he nodded somewhat hesitantly: "understood."

He then turned towards his 'squad', an assembly of mages pulled from his platoon in the 3rd Nordkreuz cavalry company:

"Just gas them. I'll ignite."

The others nodded back before switching their aura magic stance to one more suitable for high-output, low-precision spellcasting.

"Aura Bombard!"

Since Pascal's suggestion two weeks ago, Kaede had been practicing her magic sensitivity. But she didn't even have to focus to feel the gentle push of their aura expansion.

"Firemist Condense Field!" six of them called out, their extended gloves sending arcing rays of crafted ether towards their target.

"Ignition!" The Lieutenant then followed suite.

The first six rays reached over the walls and scattered into the upwind air like the veins of leaves. They left no visible effect, except for a faint clash of ether against some shield bubble spell from a defending mage. Through the distance, Kaede's keen senses then picked up words of complaint that she didn't understand. A pitched shout soon trailed behind them -- which apparently meant 'disperse' or 'run'.

They barely had enough time for more than a few steps...

The last spell shot in, and the very air over the bulwark exploded like a petroleum reservoir, pouring flames and burning atmosphere in every direction. The force of the blast pulverized the artillery engines like twig models, hurling out pieces of men and battlements as though toy blocks thrown by a tantrum-stricken child.

By transmuting impurities in the air into dense cloud of methane and other highly flammable gases, then followed with a simple fire spell, Weichsel mages had learned to imitate the nature of a coal dust explosion. Its power was equivalent to that of a modern tactical thermobaric weapon -- the fuel-air bomb.

Even from three hundred paces away, Kaede still felt herself pushed a step back by the heat wave of the powerful blast.

----- * * * -----

"By the lords!"

All three junior -- and very green -- signal officers in the room turned to gaze at the explosion in the south. They didn't gawk this time, but only because the Weichsel army outside had already used it earlier this morning to destroy Nordkapp's most powerful siege engines.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ericsson sent his subordinates a fierce stare as hot breathe rushed through his nose in suppressed anger. He harbored no doubts that dozens of his men just died.

But this was no time to lose focus.

Nordkapp's current garrison of eleven hundred were mostly melee troops. While they outnumbered the attackers, they hadn't noticed the southerners' presence until dawn. By then, the enemy had already erected their own fortifications, designed to channel any attack into kill zones where area spells would dominate with impunity.

No. Ericsson would not condemn his men to an ill-fated charge that was unlikely to succeed. Jarl Magnus Vagnsson had already sent message that relief battalions were on their way from three directions, including one lead by him in person. Furthermore, five smaller detachments were also taking the opportunity to converge north. Even with those accursed Phantoms out there, at least two main columns should make it through.

He eagerly awaited that moment, when his warriors could finally sally out and sandwich the battered army outside against the Jarls' elites. But in the meantime, he wasn't about to simply twiddle his thumbs...

Ericsson was a veteran of multiple conflicts. He knew perfectly that Weichsel's strength laid not only in its mages, but also the prowess of its officer corps. So instead of assigning his best spellcasters to the skirmish at the walls, he pulled them aside for a separate, far more decisive task:

Weichsel had a tradition of setting up headquarters near the front lines, which not only boosted the soldiers' morale but also improved battlefield comprehension and communications. Their deployable command centers were protected by both illusions and wards, but no defense was foolproof.

"I'm certain that's it, Sir," Sigvald spoke again as he reopened his eyes.

The elderly master craftsman -- one of several in this very room -- had been scrying the siege lines using Clairvoyance spell sensors.

"How can you be sure?" the commander asked, more to confirm than because he distrusted the man. Before retirement took him away, Sigvald was even more a veteran than Ericsson was.

"There are five communication trenches converging in that place. But unlike the other two junctions we've found, that one is oddly out of place," Sigvald explained as his fingers combed through white hair. "Why would their fieldworks be so efficient everywhere else except there? That has to be an illusion covering their HQ."

Ericsson nodded back. He had confirmed the sight with a spell of his own when Sigvald first spoke of the finding. But since a surprise attack had only one chance of succeeding, there was no such thing as being too sure.

He then turned towards his signal officers and runners:

"How far out are the reinforcements?"

"Jarl Vagnson's main force will be here in another thirty minutes."

"Major Sterki is two minutes overdue for his check-in. He should still be an hour away."

They didn't bother mentioning the third force, whom they had heard nothing from for the last two hours. Major Valteri and his six hundred men had clearly been intercepted and destroyed.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ericsson could only hope that the same fate did not befall Sterki. Surely no Phantom company -- even with a blasted Oriflamme to lead their charge -- could trump a column four times their size and still retain enough physical and magical stamina to fight another?

Not that it mattered to his current plans. His lord's relief force also numbered under a thousand, but they included one company of his personal housecarls plus a platoon of the devastating siphoneers. Between such quality and the quantity of his stout warriors, those heathens outside would soon depart on a one-way trip to hell.

"Send word to all artillery between the gatehouse and tower six: enemy HQ found at four-fifty paces beyond the central wall section between towers three and four. Relocate all mobile weapons to those walls. Load the best wardbustering ammo they have. I want that HQ hammered with everything we've got when the horn blows!"

"Yes Sir!" the signal personnel declared before rushing about to pass their commander's orders.

It was considered dishonorable to target the enemy commander through anything but personal combat. But honor had never been part of any conflict with Weichsel, who had already butchered valiant warriors in the thousands using their cheap tricks.

Striding to the windows, Ericsson gazed proudly upon row after row of ski infantry outside. Hundreds of them had formed up along the town's main street, prepared to sally forth at a moment's notice. They might not be the best soldiers on Hyperion, but they were good, honest people. Furthermore, they were his people. After a decade of personally drilling them each week, he had every confidence in their courage and resolve.

"Let's see how these so-called 'civilized' Wickers fight without their head."

Ericsson might be a northern nobleman of cultural appearance. But at this moment, the savage grin peeking out from beneath his long and well-trimmed red beard was more than sufficient to frighten away a starving polar bear.

----- * * * -----

"Column ahead! Around two-fifty!" Reynald shouted as he rode across the air in his Phantom Steed to report. "And look who I found!"

Hanging behind him on the same ghostly black horse was a petite girl who could easily be mistaken for a boy. She had short-trimmed dark-chestnut hair and a pale but cute face full of joyous energy.

"Cecylia! What are you doing here!?"

Ariadne asked from atop her pegasus as Reynald banked sharply, pulling up alongside the command staff that led the formation. She almost didn't recognize her best friend, given the subtle makeup and a lack of scarlet-crosses within those dark-ruby eyes. Cecylia also wasn't dressed in her black uniform, but wearing leather and furs like a Northman with two skis on her back.

"Trailing the column you're about to hit!" the smaller girl grinned back. "We're not exactly loaded with people who can speak perfect Northern. I've been keeping command posted about this group for days while they turtled in town. Not sure why they left this morning, but based on direction they're heading towards either Kistrand or Nordkapp!"

She then turned towards the burly commander who rode at the very front:

"I would ask what you're doing this far in the 1st Echelon's zone of operations, but your reputation does precede you, Colonel von Hammerstein!"

"Ye damn right it does," the Colonel growled -- rather happily at that -- from the saddle of his armored gryphon.

He then turned about to shout back, both to his signal officers and the 1st Platoon gryphon-riders who followed:

"Prep grenades! I want a quick fly-by and I want at least two chucks from every one of you! This measly gang up ahead ain't got enough meat to entertain the likes of us! There's a big battle brewing north boys! And we're going to sink our teeth into something fat and juicy!"

"Hu-rah!" they cheered back with enthusiastic anticipation, so much that Cecylia never even suspected that these men were still inexperienced. In her opinion, Erwin von Hammerstein must be taking the place of some Phantom commander who fell ill. But why Ariadne and Reynald were here, she didn't have a clue.

----- * * * -----

Jarl Magnus Vagnsson of Nordkapp twisted his skis a full ninety degrees, kicking up a tidal wave of flurry and ice as he braked hard in the snow.

He sought to stop at the tip of the hill crest, which didn't leave him with a whole lot of room. Furthermore, the top layer of snow had hardened under the bright sun yesterday and day before.

In the end he overshot it by a little. He simply wasn't as young as he used to be.

Not surprising really, seeing as the gods had blessed Magnus with his first great-grandson just three months ago. Two of his own sons, and even the oldest of his grandsons, stood in the mass of men who followed in his wake.

Meanwhile, the scouting squad glided up the hill before kicking up several waves of their own. They were, however, careful enough not to shower their lord with it.

A handful of his housecarl bodyguards received bit of a mouthful though.

"Milord!" the scout leader called over the noise of scraping ice, "The Wickers' lines lay just two hills over. They've erected strong fortifications against the town, but lightly guarded from our approach. Only two squads hold their far right."

Magnus had hoped to keep the enemy in the dark after his men eliminated two spies found observing his keep. His veteran scouts also made short work of several Weichsel reconnaissance teams along the way. Though he wasn't certain, it really seemed like his men arrived undetected. The scouting coverage of their foes had spread too thin after penetrating deep into Skagen lands.

"The Stormlord's will. Time for our enemies to taste humiliation and bitter defeat!" The Jarl snarled into the distant mist. He then twisted around to face his foremost signal officer: "tell Ericsson we're here! He'll know what to do."

"Already done, Milord."

Magnus grunted with approval. The two hundred warriors immediately behind him were his household troops. They were individuals that he all knew by name -- manly men that any true Hyperborean would be proud to fight and die alongside. Another six hundred behind them might be mere 'militiamen' by southern standards, but the warrior culture of the north made them far braver than any heathen equal.

"Well then, you know the drill. Quadbows front, siphons second. Rest of you follow me! We'll burn and tear these Wickers a new asshole! Draw swords!"

----- * * * -----

After a week of observing battles against Skagen ski infantry, Kaede had grown very familiar with the sound of massed skis scratching against icy snow.

...Which was exactly what her familiar-enhanced senses just picked up.

Still atop the rightmost battery-tower of Weichsel's siege line, Kaede swung her binoculars towards the wintry mist that blurred anything beyond two hundred paces. With nothing in sight, her focus went to a pair of ears that tried their best to stand up.

She poked a rune on her right arm for one of Pascal's eight standard buffs. Mental Clarity served best for clearing thoughts when muddled by fatigue, pain, and fear; but it also boosted her already capable senses just a stretch further...

Then, she heard it. The muffled voice of masculine authority, ending with a phrase of absolute command.

As though on cue, the rumble of a low-pitched horn resounded through the town, drawing check marks across all her suspicions. The Skagen relief force they had hoped for did indeed come. Except instead of being intercepted out in the open, they made it all the way to town.

What are Manteuffel's men doing!?

Exclamations shot through Kaede's mind as she rushed to send this information up immediately:

"Pascal hostile force approaching from the..."

She never finished. A fusillade of sonic blasts tore through the air behind her. Obscured by the weather, she couldn't see what had happened. But Pascal's sudden "AHHH!" confirmed what she thought had occurred.

The defenders had just struck their command center with a full artillery volley.

"Pascal...? Pascal!?"

Kaede felt as though someone just stabbed a dagger into her chest. Her mind completely blanked out for a split second as she threw everything aside in a desperate bid to reach him.

"PASCAL!"

But the line remained silent. Completely empty. Not even white noise could be heard from the other side.

Please-please-please be okay...

Kaede shut her eyes for a quick prayer to whatever gods in this world who would listen. Even as her chest continue to contract, even as the beating of her life accelerated...

Her heart...

It wasn't physical pain. No. She wasn't keeling over. And despite overflowing torrents of fear plus anxiety, her timely spell kept her thoughts clear and open.

She simply needed to use her head.

I'm still alive, aren't I? Then Pascal has to be as well.

She wasn't sure how alive though. Injured? Crippled? Unconscious? Bleeding to death this very second?

But one thing was apparent. If she didn't do something and fast, he really would end up dead before the hour was up.

Enemy reinforcements were coming from the far right. From such a perpendicular flanking angle, they could easily smash in and topple the entire siege line like a stack of dominoes. Combined with a sally from the city, it would rout the entire Weichsen detachment.

No time. Have to do this myself.

With a kick at the dirt-transmuted clay floor, Kaede jumped off the battery-tower and fell halfway down before pressing her Air Glide rune. All the while she shouted:

"Captain! Swivel all men to face the right! Hostile relief force incoming!"

Captain Karen von Lichnowsky of the Nordkreuz 3rd cavalry company was in her late 'twenties'. Moderate of build and on the plain side of cute, she was most noticeable from the back due to her long, wavy red hair. Standing adjacent to her signal officers with a swordstaff in hand, she turned towards Kaede almost immediately. But the dark-green eyes above her freckled, fair cheeks continued to gaze with uncertainty.

"Command from HQ!" Kaede affirmed with an utter lie, hoping her serious expression and battle anxiety might bury any obvious signs. "Swivel all men and face right to refuse the line! Their relief force will be upon us within the minute!"

"We just lost contact with..." a signal lieutenant began.

"I'm Captain von Moltewitz's familiar! Do I look dead to you!? We must refuse the line or they'll smash through us!"

She channeled some of her own uneasiness into impatience for good measure.

Captain von Lichnowsky held a look of clear disapproval at Kaede's tone, but she didn't waste another second before bellowing out orders:

"SWIVEL RIGHT! REFUSE THE LINE! REFORM RANKS CENTERED ON ME! MOVE!"

'Refusing the line' was a classical tactical maneuver where troops formed new ranks at a perpendicular angle to the main battle line in order to repel flanking attacks. Well-drilled in mobile formations, Weichsel soldiers in black partial-plate ran through the trenches before climbing up. Those near Kaede's old tower pulled back, while others on the company's left rushed up to fill the gaps.

Within half a minute, a new line anchored at the second-to-rightmost battery-tower began to take shape. They stood just behind a wide communication trench that stretched from the tower all the way to the rear, where the horses were still kept.

They didn't have a moment to spare...

The first skiers soon broke through the misty veil, gliding down the nearest hill with speed. They crouched down during the descent, lowering their center of mass as they leveled heavy quad-bolt crossbows to take aim.

"Legion Resistance!" the Captain shouted out her team-buff spell, doubled as an order for other mages to follow her lead.

Kaede took that as a cue to activate the rest of her defensive spell set.

The enemy's 'volley' came scattered. But each crossbowmen in the front unleashed four rune-inscribed stone bolts -- two rows of two in quick succession. Accuracy wasn't a concern for these weapons. Instead, the bolts buried deep into the snow before triggering their magic...

Fire and lightning thundered all around the Weichsel line. Explosions tore across the field as though a howitzer strike just hit the defensive front. The Legion Resistance spells offered decent protection against the elemental magic bombardment, but many troops were still left bleeding and dazed.

Rune magic's greatest weakness was also its greatest strength. Unlike 'Aura Magic', which could cast spontaneously and shoot across open airways, runic spells required both preparation and a medium of delivery. But once inscribed, magical stones could be activated in an instant and utilized by any commoner. The only limitation was that each stone required an upkeep in ether, which drained away if they left the caster's possession for too long.

"REFORM RANKS! AIM FOR THE SIPHONEERS!" Captain von Lichnowsky shouted to her troops.

Some of them did right away. Most of them took a moment or two. The defensive line now twisted and turned around mud-bottomed snow craters. But they still made two ranks -- one kneeling and one standing, with spells readied and arbalests raised.

Sure enough, in the wake of the quadbows came the 'Rimefire Siphoneers' Kaede heard so much about. Wearing crimson armor made from the thick hides of volcanic drakes, these elite troops carried a weapon that looked like two enclosed steel pipes glued together. At its back, the bottom pipe held a hand-pump while two tubes connected the top to the backpack.

Flamethrowers...

With many gaps along the line, Kaede drew her bow and stepped up to fill one near the Captain. She then pressed a bodkin arrowhead into the rearmost rune on her left forearm, and the Smiting spell within transferred into her weapon for discharge upon contact.

As the ski-crossbowmen decelerated to stow away their shooters and draw blades, forty siphoneers rushed ahead to lead the attack. A horde of feudal housecarls followed some distance behind, clad in woolly, chainmail-reinforced hides and holding massive zweihander swords that seemed capable of cleaving a man in half.

Kaede forced her gaze away from their deadly steel before nailing her sight to a siphoneer. With the aid of Mental Clarity, she transfixed all focus onto her target to become one with the arrow.

She hardly even noticed as the Northmen began yelling their frenzied battle cries, which veterans had translated as: "Burn them down! Hack them ground!"

"Scorch-Ether Catalyst Dispel!" the Captain began, echoed by every spellcaster along the line.

In that same moment, Kaede's fingers loosened, releasing her arrow into flight...

The volley of ether blasts soared out to meet the siphoneers, making contact to shatter layered wards with cascading failures. Steam poured off several as their own volatile ether began to cook them alive...

Meanwhile, Kaede traced her glowing arrow through the air. The same spell imbued into her shot triggered as soon as her target's Repulsion Field ward attempted to deflect the attack. The Scorch-Ether Catalyst Dispel then ripped through multiple magical defenses with increasing strength, clearing a path for the razor-sharp bodkin arrowhead... which plunged straight into the victim's upper thigh.

She took a deep breath before imbuing another arrow with her second and last dispel rune. Fresh confidence also arrived as her target lost his balance and crashed violently. The siphoneer spun at least twice before landing headfirst into the snow; his right ski shattering to hurl back a jagged piece of ironwood.

"Volley!" Captain von Lichnowsky added, and dozens of crossbowmen emptied their steel into the oncoming foes. Many of those on their knees even held repeating arbalests with shoulder-braced stocks. They continued to pump bolt after bolt through their levers as others discarded their weapons for swordstaves and javelins.

Given the charge speed of ski infantry, there was simply no time to reload.

Eighteen more siphoneers went down, some taking half a dozen hits.

But it was nowhere near enough.

Among the problems was that Karen von Lichnowsky's company were dismounted cavalrymen. Their usual tactic involved either counter-charging or galloping away, and few of them knew any spells to break another charge. As verbal commands in mnemonic spellcasting were mere trigger words for practices instilled into muscle memory, the others could not simply imitate the three who transfigured snow into rows of icy stakes.

They did manage to impale two foes, before the rest banked to circle around.

The Captain then lead a second volley of Dispels, but many of the javelins didn't follow fast enough. Meanwhile siphoneers caracoled in a wide arc upon entering twenty-paces range, their steel pipes pumping deadly jets of liquid fire like strafing water guns...

Kaede released her second arrow at the same time.

The siphoneer targeting the Captain hardly squirted before the arrow nailed him in the chest -- just below the throat and near the center of the sniper's triangle. The crimson warrior then crashed into the snow, stumbling forward as he went before sliding to a stop just five paces in front of Kaede, lifeless.

But one score was nowhere sufficient to change the course of the battle...

Soldiers all around screeched with agony as viscous flames sprayed over them. The liquid fire stuck to armor and skin alike, melting flesh even as more flowed between gaps in steel plating to burn what lay beneath. Troopers dropped to ground and rolled through the snow to no avail, as melted water seemed to feed the very flames into ever greater strength.

Water-intensified napalm... Kaede thought as she watched a scene that could only come from hell itself. Who the devil gave Nordic Berserkers Greek Fire?

It was even worse than that, as rimefire apparently ate through ether like fuel. Wards such as Resistance which normally offered protection against fire did less than nothing, as they combusted like paper to feed the flames. Dying mages with the wailing of banshees ran through the snow like burning torches as fire seeped across their very body.

Then, when Kaede thought things could not grow any worse, hell's herald arrived in the form of a creaking groan. The noise came from far behind, in the direction of the town's gatehouse, followed immediately by the echoing roar of hundreds.

The town garrison was sallying out to attack.

At that moment, a voice Kaede had long awaited finally rang through her mind. Unfortunately, its tone was anything but pleasant reassurance:

"Order von Lichnowsky to hold at all costs! Do you hear me, Kaede? Fight to the last! If she crumbles this entire army will be annihilated!"

That's impossible, Kaede thought even as she heard Pascal's stern voice. Their line already lay tattered, no more than sixty at most. Their center had been destroyed by rimefire, with only her, the Captain, and six others left to plug a massive hole. Their morale was wavering at best, utterly shaken by the screams of burning, living corpses. Even with almost all siphoneers downed, they now looked upon a massed charge by hundreds of Skagen ski infantry -- a unstoppable avalanche of death rumbling across the snow, lead by bear-like men holding overgrown foe-chopping swords...

But what other choice do we have? Run? We'll be butchered... all of us.

In that instant, Kaede felt as though a cage slammed down over her emotions. She didn't even bother replying to Pascal -- he could hear her words anyway. She simply turned to the redhead Captain and voiced through hollowed tones completely devoid of humanity:

"Our orders are to fight to the last."

Captain von Lichnowsky blanched as she turned about. But she nevertheless nodded back, as though in grim acceptance that she... neither of them, would live to see past this day.

Recognition and respect passed between the two of them in an instant, before they turned away from each other.

The Captain readied her swordstaff with both hands as her steady voice shouted desperately to rally her men:

"WE ARE SOLDIERS OF WEICHSEL! WE WILL STAND AND FIGHT! HOLD FAST TO YOUR BROTHERS AND DO WHAT IS RIGHT!"

Meanwhile, the girl from another world puzzled over a steel 'water gun' just a few paces out. It laid on the other side of a trench where burning rimefire continued to float on pooled water; on the wrong side of her only protection against a wavefront of barbarian tide mere seconds away.

Kaede felt like an infantrymen eying an abandoned heavy machine gun. It was the only medium that offered her a fighting chance. Twenty paces of fire in both directions would form a sweeping curtain of flames, plugging the hole in their line as surely as any fresh platoon.

What's the worst that could happen? Die?

Her decision came within the blink of an eye as she leaped over to pry the weapon off its dead owner.

With all her focus on the siphon, Kaede never even noticed as the lead skier raised his zweihander sword like a looming executioner.

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 8 - Baptized in Fire

"PASCAL!"

The frantic shout resounded within the confines of his empty mind. He didn't recognize it, but he felt the desperation -- an utmost need from someone he instinctively knew and held dear.

Pascal stirred with a splitting headache and a steady, continuous ringing in his ears. His eyes opened to the blurry sight of a mostly-collapsed room, and he tried to wipe away the tears still clouding his vision...

"Gahhh!"

Hot pain shot up his shoulders when his right arm attempted to move. His breath quickened to a labored pant as his left hand reflexively reached up towards the injury. It came across a chilled iron shaft. A ballista bolt the size of a javelin had apparently pierced through his right shoulder and anchored him into the ground.

Perhaps even worse, Pascal couldn't hear his own painful cry. Outside the ringing in his ears, everything else in the world was a deathly silence.

Gritting his teeth against the pain, he reached his fingers around the pole before muttering "Disintegrate". The javelin handle instantly vanished into specks of dust, leaving only a bleeding hole the width of two fingers.

His arm moved this time, painfully. It jerked upwards briefly before flopping back down, neither of which were intended.

That was bad news, really bad. The hit must have shattered his right shoulder joint. He would need a real healer to fix that, which meant no curative spells until then.

"Blood Stasis."

Suspending the blood flow to his right arm wasn't much better, but it bought him at least some time. Healing magic could always restore dying cells deprived of oxygen, as long as he didn't bleed out first.

A quick check proved that his ears were indeed bleeding, probably ruptured from the sonic blast that came with the rune-inscribed boulders. Rummaging through an extra-dimensional belt pouch, Pascal soon pulled out a set of Metabolic Restoration runes and glued them to his ears with a sticking spell. These two spellwords formed one of the most powerful healing spells he knew, capable of automatically repairing any tissue or organ that hadn't been ripped asunder.

He then pushed himself back to sitting upright, finally clearing his eyes for a situational assessment of the disaster:

The former command center was a bunker of welded steel construction. But right now an entire facing of the ceiling and walls -- what remained of them anyway -- had buckled inwards. The first wave of runestone-tipped ballista bolts had destroyed wards and steel alike with a combination of Dispels and Disintegrates, leaving gaping holes and severed support beams. The catapult rocks that followed then turned the HQ into a death trap of flying shrapnel.

Three of the officers had been cut beyond recognition by jagged rock fragments. Two more died with chests nailed into the ground by bolts. Commanding officer Colonel von Konopacki lay among the dead, his eyes unmoving and hollow after a steel girder severed by Disintegration rammed through his torso.

The only reason Pascal survived was because most of his defensive wards were active. It hadn't been that long since his last trip to the frontline trenches to observe. Although the sheer amount of damage had eaten through several spells, leaving his clothes tattered and bloody from shallow cuts.

Nevertheless, he needed to get out of there. The defenders could be preparing another barrage this very second.

Pascal stood up to a half-crouch and began making his way through the rubble and wreckage. He soon found himself face-to-face with a medic -- a commoner girl who braved the danger to wrap blood-stopping bandages around the leg stump of a signal lieutenant.

Her lips parted to call out, but he heard only silence.

"We need to get him out of here!" Pascal spoke back, ears still unable to confirm his own words.

But it must have been right. The medic nodded, and each of them took an arm of the half-conscious, clearly-sedated officer. Pushing aside fallen beams, they made their way out and into the nearest communication trench.

Meanwhile, Pascal tapped the sensory link to Kaede for a front line update with his own eyes. He faintly remembered her reporting something just before he was knocked out. The connection then opened in the middle of a spell-bolt barrage, with blasted snow and expanding fireballs everywhere in sight. Beyond that were the quadbow skiers that initiated any housecarl attack, although a sparse line of siphoneers soon overtook them.

Oddly enough, while Pascal couldn't hear a thing himself, he registered every thunder and explosion that Kaede heard.

Situation critical. Right flank under massive assault, he concluded.

The presence of elite siphoneers always raised a warning flag. Packed with firepower, those flamethrower troops could afford to attack in a dispersed, agile formation, which made them far harder to hit. The defenders had no choice but to stop the deadly siphons. But in doing so, they lost their best chance to deliver volley fire against the massed charge that followed behind.

The only blessing was that the Northmen's coordination was off. In their feverish haste to engage, the siphoneers' charge had opened a gap between them and the main force. It would take no more than twenty, thirty seconds at most, for the housecarls behind them to catch up. But for the defenders, every extra second they had to repel the vanguard before the tidal wave struck was a godsend.

Pascal shrunk the vision overlay into the upper-right corner of his own sight. Another signal lieutenant sat further down the trench, miraculously uninjured except for a dozen bleeding scratches. Two medics soon rushed past that man, one carrying a small lemur on his shoulders.

"Where's your healer?" Pascal barked as he helped lay down the crippled officer. Then, raising his left hand to tap the glowing rock stuck to his ear: "Get me your healer now! I have a battle to coordinate!"

Due to their persistent shortage, most medical squads had only one healer, plus maybe a trainee or two. The rest were just medics -- commoners trained to treat injuries but couldn't actually cast spells.

To his momentary surprise, it was the lemur who responded. The furry little primate jumped onto Pascal's left shoulder and pulled the rocks off with magical ease. Then, after loosely wrapping its legs around his neck to leverage against his chest, it inserted one tiny finger into each ear canal.

A healer's familiar...

Wherever its master was, he or she was clearly using the familiar as a proxy to channel spells. The carefully-controlled, focused Restoration spell proved exponentially more effective than his own. Within moments, Pascal was beginning to hear for himself again. The voices were still muffled and fuzzy, but it was enough for him to communicate properly.

He grabbed one of the medics right away. They might have a life on their hands, but he had hundreds to worry about:

"Run over to the Kostradan Reiters and tell Captain von Gottschall that he is to personally pull two platoons plus recon to reinforce the far right! Colonel's orders!"

Pascal never even hesitated to lie about it. If news went out that Colonel von Konopacki had been killed, command of the detachment would pass to Major Bergfalk's seniority. The yeoman officer was competent enough, but he was also a traditional cavalry leader, and there was nothing conventional about the situation right now. Furthermore, Major Bergfalk was stationed on the far left of the siege line, with the least idea of what was happening on the far right.

"Sir I'm just a medic..."

"You see anyone better around!? Now off to it or we will all be a head shorter by sunset!"

The tall and lanky medic's eyes grew wide as saucers when he finally realized the severity of the situation. He then spun around and dashed off without another word.

"Lieutenant!" Pascal rushed over to the barely-injured one, although the young man's emerald eyes were still shaking -- a clear sign of lingering shock from the barrage that had nearly taken their lives.

"Lieutenant, do you hear me!? Is your Farspeak link with Major Bergfalk's 1st Nordkreuz cavalry still active!?"

The blond young man nodded back slowly, still half-dazed.

Pascal slapped the lieutenant without a moment's hesitance. He instinctively tried to move his right arm first, and bit down in pain as the injured limb jerked uselessly. His left palm went next, straight across the cheek. Even Kaede, a complete civilian by all measures, had joined the front lines to repel a siphoneer charge. There was no excuse for such disgrace as an officer of Weichsel.

"PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER, Lieutenant!" he shouted in the signal officer's face. "I need an order passed to Bergfalk and I needed it done two minutes ago!"

It took another moment before the blond lieutenant finally began to snap out of it.

"Ye-y-yes Sir?"

Battle of Nordkapp: Pascal redeploys to Vagnsson's attack

Battle of Nordkapp: Pascal redeploys to Vagnsson's attack

"Order Major Bergfalk to get his entire company mounted!" Pascal demanded sternly, locking eyes while his left hand firmly grasped his junior's shoulder. "Enemy relief battalion is assaulting our right flank. I need him to ride around our rear and smash into those attackers!"

The signal officer concentrated to pass the message. Then:

"M-Major Bergfalk acknowledges. He requests the status of HQ command."

"Tell him those are the Colonel's orders! And do not bother trying to circle around the enemy for a full outflank. Our far right cannot hold for long -- he is to plow straight into the enemy's wing at first opportunity!"

The Lieutenant then glanced towards the destroyed command center, clearly doubting Pascal's words as orders from the Colonel.

"Listen. We cannot afford for the situation to devolve any further Lieutenant," Pascal declared with every ounce of severity he could muster. "I have the best grasp of the overall battle, so if you want to stay alive until tonight you will do as I say! I swear to the Holy Father that I will take full responsibility!"

Reply came back in the form of a slow, hesitant nod, but a nod nevertheless. The Lieutenant soon crossed his eyes again in concentration.

...Just as distant, groaning sounds could be heard coming from the Nordkapp gatehouse, followed immediately by the echoing roar of hundreds.

In the current situation, this could only mean one thing: the garrison was sallying out to attack. Given the timing of the headquarters strike and arrival of reinforcements, they must have assembled and prepared for it in advance.

Pascal quickly sorted that into a lower priority. Against the hostile force flanking their line, an attack from the city itself was minor by comparison. Their sally would be bottlenecked by both the gate and the fieldworks outside, plus they faced well-fortified positions held by Captain Horn's Nordkreuz Reiters and one platoon left behind by von Gottschall.

Perhaps he would even call this an opportunity... assuming he had the resources to deal with it.

A glance through Kaede's sight warned that the oncoming charge was rapidly approaching their right wing defense line.

Pascal shut his eyes, hating himself for what he was about to do. It was a dangerous gamble, but he couldn't see any other choice. This entire detachment numbered over five hundred soldiers. Since he was now in command, he had no right not to risk everything he had for the sake of their safety. Everything, including the life of his own familiar -- Kaede herself.

It was his obligation as a commander.

He gritted his teeth and sent what was akin to a death warrant:

"Order von Lichnowsky to hold at all costs! Do you hear me, Kaede? Fight to the last! If she crumbles this entire army will be annihilated!"

He could feel her rising despair -- even denial -- as he uttered those callous words.

"Mental Clarity Surge"

Ether coursed into his left palm before he shut it with a squeeze, sending the magic through the familiar link and to Kaede. As a Surge spell which maximized strength at the cost of duration, Mental Clarity effectively became an emotional whiteout. Pascal had faith in Kaede's resourcefulness and insight, but the girl was still too green. She worried too much, and he needed her in action now.

He could only hope that reinforcements would get there before her position was overrun.

"Captain von Moltewitz!"

Pascal hardly even noticed as the lemur leaped off his back. His ears weren't back to full capacity yet, but they would suffice for now. The healer -- still not here in person -- clearly decided the other Lieutenant's severed leg was more important.

He focused on Kaede's senses just long enough to verify that Captain von Lichnowsky accepted her duty, before turning to face his visitor:

"Lieutenant."

"Captain Horn sent me to check on headquarters, Sir!"

"Command is intact, but we have lost too much communications," Pascal replied solemnly, not even considering it a lie anymore. "Tell your Captain to hold back the sallying force. Keep them bottled up, then launch a creeping barrage into their gate and down their main street with firemist combination spells. Those are not assault troops pouring through. Those are meat fodder assembled to offer us an opportunity to crush the garrison!"

"Yes Sir!" the junior officer saluted with an inspired, predatory grin before running off.

If that cocky bastard thinks destroying my HQ is going to ruin us for easy picking, then he is in for a painful lesson, Pascal thought.

The frontal clash would be his win, he was sure of it. But the battle itself would be decided where Kaede stood. This meant everything depended on whether Captain von Lichnowsky could hold long enough for von Gottschall's mages and Bergfalk's cavalry to arrive. Then after that -- whether their combined strength could fight off greater numbers until outside reinforcements came.

"Aura Burst."

Leaning heavily against the packed-snow trench wall, Pascal switched his casting mode to that of the fastest spell acceleration. Perhaps the numbness of overwhelmed conduit nerves could actually lessen the pain that still plagued his disabled right shoulder.

"Farspeak, initiate... He muttered, beginning the minute-long process of opening a stable communication link. His masculine ego might not want to admit it, but he was in desperate need for his gallant princess to come save his first command.

"To: Sylviane Etiennette de Gaetane."

----- * * * -----

Sylviane was hovering in midair as she surveyed what had been a battlefield mere minutes ago.

The Knights Phantom were still disarming those who surrendered, with charred corpses littering the muddy slopes. After two volleys of expanding-barrel grenades and one scorching charge by Oriflamme and Phantoms alike, the entire hill lay drenched in melted snow... and now, blood.

The need to interdict and destroy two separate relief columns had made General von Manteuffel split his forces further. As the faster group, Sylviane led the two Knight Phantom companies --Black Lancers and Phantom Gale -- over to the farther intercept. The six-hundred-plus defenders outnumbered her two-to-one, but her forces' superior training and equipment easily tipped the scales.

Nevertheless, the Northmen had been prepared this time. Their warriors fought on like madmen, especially the housecarls who refused to break even after one hundred and seventy armored gryphons smashed into their battered line. Several dozen knights fell in the ensuing melee, and while their numbers seemed few against the Northmen losses, these were elites with years if not decades of training whom Weichsel would struggle to replace.

Sylviane sighed through a deep exhale, although her solemn expression never faltered.

I lead a charge in too early... didn't I?

She wasn't sure.

But the Colonel agreed with the timing... or was he just going along?

She was never sure.

Royalty must always be assured, confident -- not a week had gone by during childhood when she wasn't reminded of that. Her father Geoffroi and her fiancé Pascal were both such pillars of dignity and decisiveness, convinced of their divine destiny to rule and lead. They were true paragons of authority, born to their stations without a trace of falsehood.

...And she admired them every bit as much as she envied them.

Sylviane had acquired that royal authority for herself over the years. Her serene composure, her regal demeanor -- they imposed her will upon others with but a sweeping glance. What charisma she lacked in aura and presence, she would make up through incisive words and intrepid actions. She had learned to inspire and convince, just as her role demanded her to.

But it wasn't the same. It was just an act.

One stumble against a hurdle and everything would come crashing down. She would then second-guess herself at every opportunity: Did I make a wrong decision? Do others agree with my approach?

Yet even as she looked upon others for counsel and approval, only advisors with the truest integrity would voice their honest thoughts. After all, she was royalty -- someone far easier to flatter and praise than to correct.

Acclaims must be doubted, while criticisms embraced and examined. Such was the life of a wise ruler, or in her case -- crown heir.

It wasn't fair. She was supposed to be the third child. The Holy Father had given her two older brothers, both far more qualified than she could ever be. She would gladly be the charitable patron of music and education after two ideal princes, never forced to wear a mantle of such burden and responsibility.

But one fateful encounter with Imperial assassins had changed all that.

Deep in thought, Sylviane hadn't noticed the pinging sensation in the back of her head -- the incoming knock of a Farspeak spell.

No communication sorcery could breach a mage's mental sanctum deep enough to guarantee attention. Otherwise, they would be intrusive magic capable of offensive means, and thus repelled by domestic ether with ever greater force.

By the time she finally grew aware, a precious minute had passed.

Why is Pascal himself contacting me?

Armies had signal officers for a reason: so commanders could focus on tactics and leadership rather than spending their time relaying orders.

"What is it?" she asked after mentally accepting the link with a visualized handshake.

"We are under attack by Skagen reinforcements. Entire force on brink of annihilation. I need help immediately!"

Despite its content, there was no panic in Pascal's tone. But Sylviane didn't doubt it for a second -- she had never heard such urgency stressed in his usual steady if not drawling speech.

"Regroup!" She called to her armigers. Then: "I'm on my way. But how could this happen? We've intercepted both major relief columns, and the smaller ones are still farther out"

"Well three was clearly the magic number. Look to my right flank. Pascal out!"

Did our scout coverage fail? Or... Sylviane felt a shiver run down her spine. Did von Manteuffel intentionally ignore reports of a third force?

She could only suspect. Based on Pascal's knowledge, the General was certainly ambitious and ruthless enough to sacrifice a detachment of hundreds just to eliminate a future rival. But while von Manteuffel was no lover of Rhin-Lotharingie, he was a pragmatist who recognized the need to counterbalance the Imperium.

Would he really do it at such a critical time?

"Your Highness?"

Like always, Sir Robert de Dunois was the first to arrive. Mari didn't count; she was the Lady's Maid to the Princess. But the handsome young man with boyishly cute face was definitely a model of eagerness and optimism. He was a tad short for a Lotharin male, but his figure was lean and athletic, his eyes a vivid green, and the chocolate-brown hair framing smooth cheeks was just elegant enough without being too feminine. In Sylviane's opinion, he was the epitome of a polite and caring knight, always ready to shine a sunlit smile on her day.

He also hovered in midair a good thirty paces off the ground. Levitation Flight spells were mediocre in complexity, but they were particularly hard to control and master. As the human mind was naturally wired for two-dimensional motion, few people ever picked up the affinity for aerial combat maneuvers. The Oriflamme Paladins might have their phoenix familiars to help coordinate, but their armigers had to learn it the hard way.

"I need rapid teleportation to outside the gates of Nordkapp, just beyond the wards and chained as quickly as you can manage!" Sylviane ordered, fully aware that Pascal's life was now at stake.

"Of course, Your Highness. Two jumps will suffice."

Robert's laid-back smile was as calming as ever. Contagious even, as Sylviane couldn't help but grin back a little as she nodded in response.

"Start casting. Activate on my mark. Rest of you -- prepare for battle!"

They would all need that optimism in another minute.

In the meantime, she needed to contact Colonel von Bittenfeld, commanding officer of the Black Lancers. He would take charge upon her departure, tasked to lead the Knights Phantom into battle at best speed.

Even then, it would take at least thirty minutes.

Time that a princess had to help buy...

----- * * * -----

"You stupid girl!"

Kaede was still trying to extract the siphon from its dead owner when she heard the Captain's voice. With a reflexive glance, she saw Karen von Lichnowsky use her swordstaff to pole-vault over trench and snow alike, rotating her body around the shaft as she went through the air.

"Flourish, Animated Assault!"

In the middle of her spin, the Captain's wavy red hair gained a life of its own as it shot forward with thousands of tendrils. Growing like wildfire even as they flew through the air, they wrapped themselves around the translucent arcane armor of the housecarl leader that was about to cleave Kaede in two.

The massive zweihander blade came within a finger's reach of its target...

The instant Karen landed, her carpet-length hair pulled its grapple foe aside like the bent arm of a giant. Braking skis made for poor footing as the large man was thrown to his side, hurling across the snow before slamming into another. A wardbreaker rune inscribed into his sword then discharged itself as its tip pierced into the face of the unfortunate comrade.

Two men rushing up from behind braked in parallel, kicking up a massive wave of flurry and ice to blind the red-haired Captain. But she used her momentum to swing the swordstaff around in a wide arc, over the kneeling Kaede before slicing deep into the oncoming wave.

"Negation Surge."

Karen imbued her weapon with the ward-penetration aid, just before her sweeping blade met the ankles of a skier. The cut was blind and shallow, but nevertheless enough to send its victim into an uncontrolled crash that would break his leg.

"Cyclone Blast," yelled a sergeant of Weichsel as he stepped up beside Kaede. Aiming towards the ground at a low angle, he blew the wintry wave back towards the attackers while intensifying it with freshly loosened snow.

...Right before his stomach was sliced open when a housecarl erupted from the concealing vortex, banking hard while leveling an outstretched sword.

But the blinded killer didn't turn fast enough and fell into the trench, where lingering rimefire soon set him alight in screams.

Got it!

Kaede raised her head as she finally yanked the siphon off a death grip. At least the effort had shown her exactly where the trigger was. Better yet, the rune-inscribed handle of the lower-barrel pump pushed in and out on automatic -- probably the remnants of an Animate spell.

It couldn't have been a moment too soon. Zweihander ski infantry now poured into their position, claiming the lives of two more soldiers who had followed their Captain across the trench. But they did not go alone. As Karen pulled her swordstaff blade out of yet another northerner, he fell to become the sixth enemy corpse that cluttered the nearby ground.

The Captain now stood alone between Kaede and the barbarian horde.

The housecarl leader -- a Skagen nobleman based on the polished shine of his chainmail-on-hide armor -- rushed back up to rejoin the fight. After crushing a runestone and tossing it aside, his figure began to expand mid-charge while a sheet of ice layered over skin and armor alike. His massive sword then pinned Karen's blocking shaft down into a contest of strength, one that she would quickly lose.

Yet even then, her prehensile hair continued to trip incoming foes and keep the smaller girl safe.

With limited precision involved in a flamethrower, Kaede simply aimed it towards the enemy and pressed the trigger against the lower barrel. Her first victims were two skiers charging in from the right; their faces melted away in grotesque sight as the jet of rimefire sprayed into them.

Keep shooting. Keep shooting! she repeated to herself, trying hard not to stare at the gruesome fate of those she just killed.

Strafing the siphon without releasing its trigger, Kaede swept the field with its curtain of flames. Over a dozen foes soon ignited into human torches under her fire, their piercing shrieks overwhelming even the sound of battle. A crashed but merely injured siphoneer knelt up in an attempt to return fire, but Kaede noticed his movement first and sent him to a fiery grave.

Pausing briefly to adjust her aim, she then tapped a burst at the giant overwhelming her guardian.

At just a few paces of range, Kaede nailed the shot on the nobleman's left shoulder. But some of the liquid fire splashed off, landing on the Captain's right forearm and wrist...

"aaaAAHHH!"

Karen von Lichnowsky immediately lost her right grip on the swordstaff. As though trying to escape the burning pain, she half-leaped, half-fell toward her left.

Even after receiving enough rimefire to engulfed his shoulder, the huge northerner continued to press in like it was just a flesh wound. His zweihander easily brushed aside the swordstaff before hacking into the Captain's upper arm. The massive sword cleaved its way through the lower edge of a steel-plated spaulder, then skin, muscle, and bone alike, before severing the entire right arm off in a geyser of blood.

Ohmygod what have I done...

Kaede stood frozen with horror as the Captain wailed with pain on the snowy ground. Her arms holding the siphon felt paralyzed by shock even as they trembled without end.

Meanwhile the Skagen nobleman, dripping flames with his entire torso ablaze, took a heavy step towards Kaede.

Taller than any bear and covered in frozen furs and chained steel, the enemy seemed an unstoppable ice devil wreathed in hellfire. His deep growling felt more like the haunted voice of an anguished soul than the pained weakness of a dying man.

But before he could finish taking another, the one-handed Captain stabbed her swordstaff -- its shaft supported by wraps of wavy red hair -- straight into his groin.

"KEEP... FIRING!" She cried out even as blood continued to flow from her arm stump.

Snapping out of it, Kaede adjusted the siphon with shaking fingers before sending a burst straight into the devil's smoke-concealed face.

Not even a giant could survive that.

Kaede swept leftward on reflex, incinerating a squad of spearmen who almost reached her from the side. The curtain of flames then swung back right in a wide arc, forcing the next wave to bank hard and steer away from her blazing arm of death.

Although it didn't stop them from hurling a volley of shortspears.

Most of them either missed or deflected off her wards. But one managed to penetrate and plunge straight into her upper thigh.

Crying out in pain, Kaede fell down onto one knee.

But she never released the trigger.

Within a massed charge of ski infantry, there wasn't much room to maneuver without intruding upon another's lane. Crashes already littered the area as evading skiers rammed into those less accomplished, which only increased the obstacle count for those behind them.

But despite her efforts, Kaede stood certain that the defense was broken. She couldn't afford the time to assess her surroundings, but her peripheral vision could already see Skagen troops crossing the trench en masse atop frozen ramps...

There was only so much a few people could do.

Just then, the biggest explosion she had ever heard rang out from the distant rear, accompanied by a mist-clearing fireball large enough to engulf a small village.

It was as though the mother of all bombs had just detonated at the town gates.

----- * * * -----

Captain von Gottschall couldn't believe his eyes.

Some of his men might be gawking at the colossal blast, or the cottage-sized chunk of the stone gatehouse that was thrown high into the air.

But he found the sight before him to be far more astounding.

The entire 'line' was reduced to three holdouts and just a dozen men, yet its center was still held by a lone girl small and injured.

She wasn't wearing any steel armor, or even a proper Weichsel uniform.

But with a fiery reach of twenty paces, her jet of flames continued to sweep back and forth without end, breaking the charge like a boulder in rapids.

Blazing corpses, burning pools, and the disentangling limbs of crashed ski infantry scattered across the ravaged fields around her.

It was a scene to inspire, a sight to behold.

"Company! Halt! Fire storm over the trench! Avoid friendlies!"

Under his orders, over two platoons of dismounted Reiters stopped to reach out with casting gloves. Nearly a hundred chromatic ether blasts soon lashed out, hurling into and beyond the trench line before detonating in a cacophony of thunderous fire.

Assuming the enemy had standard wards, such a basic elemental barrage of fireballs would kill and disable few. But battles were also a contest of morale. The chain of explosive shockwaves knocked countless foes off their feet, buying his forces valuable time.

Better yet: there were now plenty of foes prone in pools of icy slush.

The Northmen usually entered battle with frost runes on their skis to ensure clear lanes of advance, but that wouldn't help those knocked off their feet.

"Company! Razor Field!"

A second barrage of ether lashed out, arcing over the air before striking wet ground. The wintry mix froze solid in an instant as icy transmutation spread, pinning fallen men to frozen sheets. Spears of icy stalagmites then reached upward, piercing flesh and forming rows of teeth to slow those still advancing.

The charge was soon stopped by a field of frozen icicles.

Here and there a Skagen officer would halt the transmutation with bursts of heat or antimagic. But against cohesive spellcasting sent in successive volleys of nearly a hundred, simultaneously covering massive sections of the battlefield, the efforts of individuals simply weren't enough.

Time for the finisher, von Gottschall thought as he thanked the prior decision to conserve his mages' ether. Reiters lacked the endurance training of true battlemages. Many were already breathing hard, and this third volley would drain them low -- limiting them to only basic bolts afterwards.

But it was so worth it.

"Company! Firemist and Advance! Shoot at will!"

Captain von Lichnowsky had done her duty. It was now his turn.

The quake of the massive explosion that followed could be felt tens of kilopaces out.

----- * * * -----

Sylviane lost her footing the instant her squad emerged from teleportation.

The earthquake, the thunderclap, the heat wave...

Perhaps Weichsel should rename their beloved Firemist Ignition combo as the 'Hammer of God'.

Not that the Holy Father needed mundane articles like hammers to smite.

Sir de Dunois' second teleport had landed them just behind the original Weichsel siege line. They arrived safely beyond the reach of the town's Lockdown ward, merely several hundred paces away from the Northmen advance.

The Princess then brought herself back to standing upright... flying upright, anyhow.

"Should probably charge in before they recover... maybe," she muttered to nobody in particular.

"I believe Your Highness already knows the answer to that," Mari answered without ever turning her eyes.

When then, if not now?

Sylviane delayed not a second further before launching into a charge across the air, followed wordlessly by her twelve guardian aces.

"Blaze Ignition!" She called out. Not a spell, but the keywords to spread her aura expansion, and consequently that of her merged phoenix Hauteclaire.

Blue-white flames poured off her hair and wings as her armigers formed up into a chevron. Their enchanted capes were woven with embedded phoenix feathers, acting as focus and intensifier in unison.

The entire formation became a pair of scything inferno wings, soaring in as they lowered toward the ground.

Do not doubt. Hold nothing back!

"Break their middle! Charge through!" Sylviane yelled, pointing forth two spiked rods protruding from the lower end of her phoenix-crest shield. Meanwhile her right hand continued to spin her weapon of choice: a chain six paces long anchored to her left wrist, ending with the knobby cylinder of a single-headed meteor hammer.

Wreathed in a thick corona of flames, the chained fireball with a core of steel revolved around her hand like a meteor, tipping their chevron of blue-white fury.

"For the Oriflamme!" Her armigers roared with swinging flails they sliced into the enemy horde like a hot knife through butter.

----- * * * -----

With the sun at its peak, the morning mist finally cleared away into the afternoon air.

Ch8_Battle_of_Nordkapp_Strate

"There they are!" Reynald called out to Colonel von Hammerstein, except he wasn't all that far away.

Cecylia had deduced that the column they intercepted was heading for either Kistrand or Nordkapp. Given Skagen's recently established turtle strategy, von Hammerstein determined that of the two towns, Nordkapp was far more worthy of a decisive battle.

They had been proven right some minutes ago when one massive explosion resounded across the rolling hills. Then another followed less than a minute later.

Rings of low clouds could still be seen in the skies above, leaving no doubts about the blast waves that cleared the local weather.

The detonations had also signaled that the battle had reached its climax. Whoever was in command had already brought out the heavy artillery, and von Hammerstein couldn't wait to join in.

"Swerve right! We'll gut their belly and take the bacon! Three volleys fly-by! Then caracole and charge!"

"Grenades at the ready!" Ariadne's voice followed up.

They approached the Skagen army from behind, if it could still be called an army. With its center pierced by a blazing scalpel and its front devastated by spells, it had devolved into something closer to an oversized mob.

But a mob of Northmen warriors was still dangerous, as the Reiters on the far side evidently found out. Skagen's remaining vanguard had forced their way into melee, something the Reiters -- fancy name for conscripted nobles -- were poorly suited for.

Closer help for them would arrive from the northwest, where a hundred Weichsel horsemen galloped forth in a charge against the Skagen left wing. Waves of Ether Seeker missiles raced ahead, trying to interdict every rune or spell that attempted to break their advance. But reinforcements from the horde rushed in to harden the defensive line of spears faster than javelins and crossbows could batter them.

Those cavalry were in for a bloody fight...

Reynald and his reconnaissance squad then followed their orders to turn right. Rising up to an altitude of thirty paces, they would gallop over the rear end of the enemy's right wing.

They encountered only sparse resistance in the form of javelins. Shooting upwards at high speed mounts, these projectiles would claim very few hits.

The return fire, however, seemed an avalanche by comparison.

Knight Phantoms were dedicated noble cavalry with expensive equipment, and the Ghost Riders had matching gear which Nordkreuz spent a fortune to subsidize. Among each set was a heavily-warded extra-dimensional belt pouch dedicated to grenades -- shrunken barrels filled with either pitch and tar, or even black powder.

Reynald and hundred-thirty-plus combatants chucked them out as fast as they could. The grenades were followed by area Dispels, ripping away shrinking spells to reveal full-sized kegs.

Then came the Ignition rays.

Four hundred crashing barrels of flaming pitch, burning tar, and exploding powder turned the Skagen right wing into hell incarnate.

Organized by platoon, the Ghost Riders then banked away from the enemy. Those who breathed a sigh of relief soon realized their error as the phantoms caracoled around in wide loops before charging down from the skies.

Battle of Nordkapp: Alliance Counterattacks

Battle of Nordkapp: Alliance Counterattacks

"Holy Father with us! Phantom Charge!"

Be it entire steeds or shadowy barding covering beastly mounts, the final words of the battle cry tore away all lingering ether. They formed a stampede of spectral horses that caught ablaze as they charged ahead, ramming soldiers and trampling men before detonating deep within hostile formations.

A flank protected by housecarls might withstand such punishment, but these were merely average warriors of the north. Morale collapsed like a house of cards as they broke and routed even before the first swordstaff struck.

Reynald actually felt saddened by that. Flying down on an Air Glide spell, he belonged with two-thirds of the company who fought as dragoons. They rode steeds for mobility but dismounted into melee as infantry. Other than the Black Lancers, most phantom companies included only one platoon of armored gryphons for its best riders; and unlike Ariadne and Gerd, Reynald had no familiar mount of his own... not yet.

He began another Phantom Steed conjuration even before he landed. It took under fifteen seconds for a proper Knight Phantom to summon a steed -- less than a quarter of the time it took for most mages. But fifteen seconds still left him quite far behind his friends.

----- * * * -----

The battle was decided the instant Skagen forces found themselves under two pincer attacks. But while Bergfalk's 1st Nordkreuz cavalry suffered bloody casualties for only limited success in piercing the Northmen's line of spears, von Hammerstein's Ghost Riders managed to punch straight through the enemy's weak underbelly.

Combined with the loss of their leadership, the beating they already took, and the chaos in their center from Sylviane's strike, Jarl Vagnsson's forces soon collapsed into total rout.

The Princess left Weichsel's cavalrymen to mop up. With her eleven remaining armigers, she flew northward to meet up with Pascal.

She found him sitting in a ditch, exhausted, while an old healer tended to his right shoulder.

Unlike his fiancée who was stained by the lives of others, Pascal's uniform was soaked in his own blood.

Sylviane wanted to pat him on the other shoulder, to congratulate him for the successful command he always wanted, or even just to greet each other again.

But the moment she met his turquoise gaze, he stopped her with a raised hand before she could even utter a word.

"Take your armigers and assault the gates, Sylv," he voiced through the stern mask of leadership. "Captain Horn's bombardment had destroyed their attempt to sally, and their relief force had been annihilated in plain sight of the walls. If we strike now and seize the gateway, maybe the garrison will accept an offer for their surrender."

The air did reek of burnt human flesh. Sylviane wondered just how many hundreds had died at the narrow gates to spread the smell so far and wide.

"They'll capitulate to just twelve of us?" she asked with raised eyebrows. "Surely you aren't about to send Horn's Reiters into an urban melee."

Pascal replied by pointing his left hand at the southern skies.

The Phantom company had reformed and rode up towards them. Their commander officer was clearly not interested in riding down the fleeing remnants of an army.

"Smart man, whomever is in charge over there," Pascal declared firmly. "Battle is not concluded as long as opportunities remain. This is our best chance to take Nordkapp with minimum bloodshed, now go!"

The Princess nodded back with a somewhat dry smile before taking off into the air once more.

Always business first... would it hurt to say one nice word?

...

Although Sylviane never heard the brief exchange with Pascal after she left:

"First you send her off to fight other men, then you sulk about it?" the gray-haired healer in her 'fifties' asked.

"I feel almost like some peasant housewife who just sent the husband off to war," Pascal muttered in barely more than a whisper. "She is leaving to risk her life again, and I am just sitting here uselessly watching."

"Says someone who probably just earned a star for his Knight's Cross? Men..." she remarked with a tone to accompany rolling eyes. "Now quit-yer-belly-aching and heal faster."

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 9 - Irrational Facade

Fire.

It was everywhere, scattered across the snowy landscape like pyres of the underworld, consuming men both alive and dead.

...Flames that pumped endlessly from her own hands.

Before her charged in three corpses. With rimefire dripping from melting faces and sizzling flesh, they rushed towards her with hands outstretched like frenzied zombies. Their lips had already burnt away, exposing jawbones that wailed more terribly than any banshee.

"S-stay away!" her own voice trembled.

With merciless steel in her hands, she unleashed a torrent of liquid fire. But even through the smoke, she could tell that it did nothing to stop the zombies' advance.

...Until a bloody swordstaff cut through all three, disintegrating them into the air.

"KEEP...FIRING!" her savior cried out, even as a giant zombie rose up from the ground to smash a massive blade into her staff.

Flames reached out almost reflexively, scorching everything in its path -- both friend and foe alike. With a painful yell, her guardian lost an arm to the crashing blade. But instead of simply falling, the burning limb flew through the air and extended its fingers.

...Right into her face.

"AHHhhh!"

Kaede scrambled upright as her eyes opened to the darkness.

She was in Pascal's expandable cabin, although only she occupied its bed right now. Her lungs panted breathlessly. Her hands still shook, and she could feel the icy perspiration rolling down her sensitive skin.

It's only a nightmare... only a nightmare, she repeated to herself.

"Is everything alright?" came Pascal's worried voice.

"Y-yeah. Only... only a nightmare, Kaede answered over the link.

"You just experienced your first real battle and your first... well, couple dozen kills. That reaction is natural and nothing to feel ashamed about," he reassured. "Try to go back to sleep. Healing magic might close wounds quickly, but it still takes time for muscle tissues to properly recover."

Memories began to return as Pascal spoke. Kaede had been knocked out by a massive explosion, and woke up after the battle on Parzifal's tamed tofu for the second time. She had only a few brief words with Pascal and others before Parzifal had sent her off to rest and sleep.

Flipping the thick comforter off her, Kaede stretched her stockinged legs off the fleece bedsheet. Her left thigh still ached a little, but walking wouldn't be a problem.

"You were injured as well. Shouldn't you be back here asleep also?"

"I need to finish these action reports while they are still fresh on my mind, Pascal replied.

"Well... okay," Kaede felt rather disappointed. "I'm going to take a walk. I don't think I can sleep after that."

"Remember to turn your garments' heat up."

Kaede wondered if a normal girl would ask for some company and a long, warm embrace on moments like these. But while she couldn't claim to having a ton of masculinity even before coming to Hyperion, she had nevertheless been raised to be emotionally strong and independent.

Always trying to appear steady and in control, she sighed as her small hands, clad in long charmeuse gloves that radiated a gentle warmth, pulled on the black pseudo-uniform around her thin shoulders.

It was on moments like these when Kaede questioned that if girls really did have an easier life. Culturally speaking, people judged the masculinity of men by their successes, while femininity appealed through a girl's weakness. Though an accomplished woman had her charms, society considered it not only acceptable but even attractive for females to show vulnerability. It was expected for girls confide their troubles among close friends and family. But males? The social expectation for any fall was to walk away with apparent pride.

That went doubly so for Pascal, who was exceedingly judgmental and took every opportunity to test others' intellect and resolve.

...Although, since she was a girl now, maybe he wouldn't look down upon her for requesting some comfort. He certainly offered her free hugs when she broke down after receiving her residency.

Kaede mulled it over as she opened the door to the freezing winds outside.

No, she firmly told herself. This body is one thing; reality can't be denied. But I refused to lose my ways -- my personality, my real self.

Reply came as a nagging echo from the depth of her mind:

...I may already have.

----- * * * -----

The large and sturdy cabin being used as a mess hall had a rather thick door. Kaede felt her weakness once again as she exerted to push it open.

She received a few curious glances, but most of the inhabitants were too busy celebrating to notice.

"Hey cutestuff! Care to join us?" One of the soldiers called out.

Like many of those surrounding him, he was wearing the black-on-burning-red uniform of a Knight Phantom. His face was just as red, and he happily waved a stein of sloshing beer in midair.

That instantly drew her more attention than she ever wanted.

"We're the Ghosts who saved the day!" said a buddy next to him, with an even redder face. "You should offer (hic) us a drink!"

"Pay some respect boys," came a familiar voice. "She's a friend of mine. And without her sending a hundred Northmen to early graves, we'd never have arrived in time to save anything."

Kaede sent an irritated glare to the speaker on reflex. He wasn't hard to pinpoint either, since Gerd Kessler's imposing musculature easily stood out from the crowd.

"Of course L.T."

The men around Gerd answered instantly, like pups obeying a recognized alpha wolf. It was the exact opposite of how the academy treated him.

Although it still didn't stop some of them from ogling her.

"I did not kill a hundred," Kaede tried to snarl back, as soft as her voice was.

"That's what Captain von Gottschall had been saying," Gerd answered with a wide open grin, completely misreading her expression. "And you are a hero, even if not everyone thinks that way."

"I sure don't feel like one... nor do I want to," she grumbled back, images from the recent nightmare still drifting across her head. "Mind if I have a seat?"

The long wooden table Gerd sat at had only a pair of women to twenty-odd males, which included Reynald right next to him. There was also a smaller table with five women on the far side of the room, but Kaede didn't know anyone there.

"Sure thing," Gerd said cheerily as he and Reynald shifted to make room.

Kaede had never seen him smile so naturally back at the academy. It was contagious, in a rustic sort of way, with his chiseled jaw opened to reveal rows of uneven teeth.

"Hey L.T.! I thought you only had eyes for one! Don't tell me you're bedding other wenches already!"

The comments that followed were good-natured enough, but Kaede still colored a little.

She had forgotten how crude soldiers could be.

"She's my friend! Next person I hear being disrespectful of the lady gets to play with my steel," Gerd declared to the whole table with a chuckle.

"Well damn. No thanks L.T. After seeing you send three men flying with one swipe, I ain't touching that swordstaff of yours," spoke a nearby sergeant with a rather toothy smile. "Although I hope you won't mind me telling the little miss that she's cute as a button. Samaran I'm guessing?"

"Yeah... you've met one before?" Kaede replied, just before giving Reynald a jab in the ribs. She wasn't sure a finger or two had enough strength, so she used all four.

"Ow!" the short redhead yelped, immediately pulling back the hand that was almost on her butt.

"You just don't learn do you?"

Amusement danced within Gerd's ash-blue eyes as he looked over at his friend.

"But the fire! It's so warm and tempting! Please, more!" Reynald extended his creepy, wriggling fingers toward her skirt.

Nonono stay back!

A shiver went up Kaede's spine as she inched away while giving him another jab. At the same time, Gerd reached over her to handchop his friend's red head.

Reynald leaned back to dodge the bigger hand. But sitting on a bench drastically limited his evasive options, and he moved straight into her low stab. Stopped hard by pain in his ribs, he took Gerd's hand right across his nose.

It would have broke right there, had the angle not been so shallow.

"OWWwww! Okay okay that's really starting to hurt," Reynald complained as blood dripped down from both nostrils.

He wiped it off with one hand while the other pinched the bridge to cast First Aid.

So he's not actually a masochist, Kaede thought with relief. Good to know: just keep hitting him until he stops.

"Where's Ariadne and Parzifal anyway?" she changed the topic to bring back some semblance of normality.

"Something about beauty sleep and... well, Parzifal is just tired," said Reynald, still rubbing his ribs.

"They wrung him dry today. One of the conditions for the town's surrender that the Princess negotiated was immediate medical assistance," explained Gerd. Then, with an oddly longing tone: "Although, I'd be asleep too if I had Putty, all soft and smooth and white and cute..."

Reynald snorted into his beer mug mid-drink, and Kaede had to wipe a bit of spray off her cheek.

"You sure you're thinking white pudding still and not imagining Cecylia's thighs?" Reynald voiced rather loudly, facing his friend with a gleeful grin and a faint beer mustache. "I'd say breasts, but she's bit lacking in that."

His comment brought quite a few friendly laughs around the table.

Gerd, however, gave him a scowling retort:

"I don't undress women with my eyes, you shameless scoundrel..." Then, with a faint blush completely unsuited to his macho appearance: "Although I'm sure she could give a great lap pillow, once we were at a stage for it to be appropriate."

Reynald kept up his grin even as he shook his head:

"Give it up, bro. Pretty clear that she isn't interested."

"She's just testing my perseverance," Gerd waved it off. "Even after the rejections, I still catch her sneaking glances my way. She's clearly interested!"

That's because even through the uniform you look buff as heck.

Kaede was tempted to tell him, although it really wasn't her place to say, not when Cecylia had voiced her opinions in the confidence of her friends. Furthermore, she was a bit flustered herself:

...Why did I just think of that right away?

"You'd have better luck asking the new girl," Reynald sent back a knowing look. "And don't lie, I saw the way you looked at her!"

"I admit: Lydia is cute; definitely my type," Gerd replied. "But I will not try to court two women at once. It's cheap -- cheapens my efforts and cheapens them, just disgraceful altogether."

"L.T's the romantic type isn't he?" one of his troopers called out while another cried "virgin", before everyone broke out into boisterous laughter.

"Possessive is more like it," Reynald interjected. "Just ask Cecylia once more and be done with it. Life isn't long enough to keep waiting, magic or not."

Kaede wasn't sure if it was the alcohol, the embarrassment, or rising temper, but Gerd's glaring face was a bright, glowing red. His gaze soon met Reynald's with a stony glare.

Ah... barfight warning.

She hastened to head him off just as he was about to retort:

"So, why do you like Cecylia that much?"

It drew his eyes back down to his beer stein in an instant, focused again.

"Well... she's pretty, cute, energetic. She's daring and determined, yet still the type I'd need to protect. She's smart and can talk for hours about life in the world, unlike those sheltered girls who squeal over pairs of shoes, yet she never argues. Plus she's a dhampir, and they're as devoted as a wife could be."

"So the L.T. just wants to go home for a smile, a kiss, and the smell of freshly made dinner!" a corporal from across the table announced.

"Plus firm and tender thighs!" added another before they burst into laughter again.

Unfortunately, dinner is exactly what Cecylia won't do.

Kaede actually felt rather sorry for him.

"Yeah yeah I know it's cliché," Gerd answered proudly. "But it's my dream and it's half of what a wife is for!"

"Can't say no to that," a soldier agreed. "Who doesn't want a caring family to welcome them home?"

"Other than that none of us are gonna brave a general's daughter. We'll cheer you on just for that!"

"To the L.T.!" his men called out, before two groups of them clamored their steins together, splashing golden-brown beer all around.

The comfort Gerd's men already shared with their commanding officer rather astonished Kaede. After all, he only took charge six days ago.

"It is okay for them to drink this much?" she asked Reynald.

"Fight hard, play hard, that's what Colonel von Hammerstein told us anyway," the redhead grinned back. "Besides, command gave everyone except the companies on watch tomorrow off for rest. So don't ruin the topic!"

Kaede smiled a little herself. It was indeed nice to have a pleasant conversation free of battles:

"Face it though, he's smitten."

"I'll work on that," Reynald's smirk could not be any more lopsided.

"Go work on your own girl!" growled the big guy from Kaede's other side.

"Don't worry bro, it's in your best interests," the short redhead reassured. "By the time you realize what's happening, you won't even complain!"

Gerd began to scowl again, but his men soon pulled him back into yet another rowdy cheer:

"Come on L.T., here's another!"

"Although you're oddly comfortable with discussing this," Reynald eyed Kaede with an unusual look.

"Why shouldn't I?" She shrugged, thinking back to a complaint she once had heard from a female friend. "It's not like Gerd is ranking the girls, or judging them based solely on physical attractiveness."

Besides, Cecylia did rate him in a similar manner.

"I don't know," Reynald gave a half-hearted shrug of his own. "Gerd's attitude offended plenty of ladies at the academy before he stopped talking about it. Even Ariadne lost her patience once at how commoners only see women as some household commodity... I bet none of them would feel comfortable sitting here."

Wait wait... Nobles!? As the more liberal, progressive, forward-thinking social class!?

Kaede's eyebrows shot straight up. The thought was just absurd.

"Okay, please do explain. Why do the commoners have that cultural view while nobles often don't?"

"Well..." the redhead crossed his eyes as he grasped for an answer in unfamiliar ground. "For one, women of noble birth are subject to the Writ of Universal Conscription. So... when both sides are equally called upon for the most dangerous job of them all, it's pretty darn hard for men to uphold the belief that you girls are somehow weaker or need us for protection by being kept at home."

A social equality that began with the equal chance of being killed, she mused.

Historical truths did agree that patriarchal societies also saw men as the 'expendable' gender. After all, assuming an abundance of food, one men and ten women could potentially reproduce as fast as ten and ten. So while cowardice was often seen as cute and attractive in girls, it grew to become the most intolerable sin for men, as they were the ones called upon to fight wars and oppose disasters.

In traditional governments where state power rested with the military, this meant it was the men who would seek 'special privileges' for their sacrifices. Furthermore, significant losses of men which resulted in skewed gender ratios would even prompt society to give them preferential treatment.

Kaede's motherland was actually a good example of this. Despite accepting women into its combat units, the Soviet Union lost nearly three males for every female in the Great Patriotic War. The postwar gender imbalance was so great that there were widespread calls for the legalization of polygamy. It was rejected, but the need to replenish the population nevertheless encouraged the men to sleep around, while their obligations as fathers were met by social programs of the state.

Needless to say, this was disastrous for the gender equality cause. Countless Russian men grew pampered and irresponsible, expecting women to treat them like kings while chain smoking and binge drinking themselves to an early demise.

"I'm guessing this attitude in shared responsibility between genders runs down to other aristocratic roles as well?" she asked next, to which Reynald nodded vigorously:

"Oh definitely! Every noble man or woman who doesn't have a respectable occupation means wasted magical resources for the nation, whether that's in military power, industrial productivity, or administrative efficiency. It is the call of Noblesse Oblige that we must harness our magical gifts for the country -- or at least here in Weichsel! No self-respecting woman of noble birth would only stay home to raise kids! Only commoners do that!"

"And even apart from how valuable casters are to the economy and military, mages live long enough and have the financial resources to juggle both a career and family," a rough voice emerged from behind. "The commoners' short lives and lower incomes restrict their options quite a bit. Many of my own childhood friends are already married and with kids. So of course the wives, being better caretakers but less suited for labor-heavy jobs, are expected to housekeep and raise them. For a yeoman like myself or the Lieutenant, it all depends on the community we grew up in."

Kaede and Reynald both turned about on the wooden bench. They found themselves facing a tall, broad-shouldered young man in 'late twenties' with a full mustache and gray eyes.

"Sorry, I couldn't help overhearing," he said before offering an open hand. "Sergeant Eckhart Steinmetz, Nordkreuz 3rd Cavalry, 1st Platoon, 2nd Squad leader. It's a pleasure to meet the hero of our company."

Kaede grasped it as firmly as she could, feeling as though she was shaking hands with a giant.

"Kaede Suvorsky. I'm... not really military, just Captain von Moltewitz's familiar," she spoke back carefully. "And it's Captain von Lichnowsky who is the real hero, not me. Without her, I'd be dead."

"That's what soldiers are: we watch out for one another, and you became part of the family the moment you stood by us against that ghastly charge," Eckhart solemnly declared as he offered Kaede an extra large stein of beer.

She couldn't well refuse, even if her only experience with alcohol was her father offering a sip of vodka at age six.

...She still remembered that unpleasant burning on her tongue.

But among true soldiers, her gender hardly mattered. He clearly expected her to drink it like a man.

Several deep gulps proved that this beer didn't burn, although it was very strong and bitter. Kaede coughed a few times afterwards, and Eckhart gave her two pats that felt more like rubber mallet blows.

"I always heard that Nordkreuz had some of the best troopers," Reynald said admiringly. "They say that not a single man ran from the 3rd company, not to mention how bravely the 1st fought. You guys are good, and your attitude proves it all the more."

"Colonel von Hammerstein is one hell of a trainer, and the Captain is a good woman herself," Eckhart nodded as he shook Reynald's offered hand. "I just hope they don't disband us. Even including the Captain and those who will be retiring, only nineteen of us survived this battle."

Retire, Kaede thought as she gulped down more liquor. What a nice way to say that she's too crippled to fight anymore.

She didn't know if drunkenness really could drown all worries. But right now, she really wanted the stupor that supposedly came along.

...

In the end, Reynald and Eckhart ended up trading stories.

Kaede was rather surprised to learn that unlike the stern Captain she only knew from the battlefield, Karen von Lichnowsky was quite a humored commander. She apparently had excellent timing for comebacks toward acts of comedic stupidity, using her long hair much like a slapstick tool.

The last good moment of the night came when Gerd, curious over tales of Kaede shooting down a siphoneer, asked to see her morphic blade:

"Weeell 'arn, could buy dozen o' mine 'ordsaff for this!"

"Wha' di'ye expect? 'Er master's a rich 'astard," Reynald slurred back.

Then, one thud after another, both of them passed out.

Reynald's tolerance was average, he just kept his pace in check. But Gerd? Judging by the mountain of mugs, his men must have fed him a whole keg.

With no one remaining to distract her, the images and screams soon returned to haunt...

----- * * * -----

The first one who walked in next morning was Parzifal, followed closely by Cecylia in her black uniform with the long wide skirt.

Eying the roomful of passed out drunks, the healer gave a very audible sigh even before he emerged from the doorway.

"Kaede, what're you doing here?"

The girl replied with a depressed sigh of her own.

"Apparently on Hyperion, Russians really can drink vodka like water... I had hoped to fall asleep if I got drunk enough, but since I'm Samaran and alcohol is a slow poison..."

Parzifal exchanged a worried glance with Cecylia.

"Kaede, if you want to talk about it, I'm always willing to listen," he began in a warm and understanding voice. "Killing another person is never easy for good people, and you're certainly a good girl."

"What does a healer know about murdering people?" she retorted irritably.

"Pascal or Reynald can tell you what I did to an assassin, Kaede. It wasn't pretty, and I could barely sleep afterwards. I had to pray for hours and confess my sins the next day -- which, if you prefer, I also know a good chaplain here with the army."

Parzifal kept his calm and patience, but Kaede still felt the regret buried deep underneath.

"Sorry," she muttered. But I don't think a priest can help me any...

"Besides Kaede, it's not murder -- you only did what you had to," Cecylia added firmly. "If they had broken through, it was you, Pascal, and hundreds of our men who would have died. You didn't have a choice."

Yes... no choice but to torch men's faces and melt the Captain's hand...

Thankfully, she managed to hold that in.

Kaede then shook her head and forced a wry smile back to her lips:

"Thanks... Don't worry about it. I'm sure I'll be okay, soon enough."

Neither of others looked convinced by the slightest margin.

Although Cecylia still tried to raise the mood back up with a cheerful declaration:

"Come on Kaede. I'm meeting up with Sylviane outside and you're joining us. Loads better than this dank place reeking of alcohol. Besides, Parzifal could use the room to cleanse the hangovers like he promised the boys."

"They'll be pretty rowdy when they get up," the healer admitted. "Complain more than a bunch of elders with arthritis."

Kaede almost chuckled at that as she slowly stood up from her seat.

"Sure, sure."

She apparently wasn't fast enough; Cecylia ended up dragging her off the moment one leg stepped around the bench.

...

As it turned out, they emerged from the cabin the moment Sylviane stepped around the corner.

The Princess wore her sky-blue-to-violet battledress with armor plates off, while her knight Mari followed just a step behind.

But Sylviane's reaction towards Kaede's presence was very different from the others:

"Are you stupid? Spending a night drinking with men? Even your appearance is a terrible disgrace. Pascal should have hauled you off."

"Sorry, Your Highness," Kaede looked down from the Princess' harsh gaze. Even within her own thoughts, she didn't have the energy to argue back. "I... actually haven't heard from Pascal since waking up shortly after midnight."

"And you're supposed to be taking care of your master," Sylviane reprimanded. "Where was he then?"

"He was finishing action reports, probably in the command center."

Sylviane didn't hesitate for a moment before turning her heels.

...

The trek through the snow was mostly uneventful. The skies were barely lit in the early morning fog, and most soldiers were still asleep.

The four girls did encounter one odd event when a column of men ran by, chanting some army song as they went.

They were also shirtless... in the dead of winter.

"Blessed be the Holy Father for granting us magic..." Cecylia whispered as she stopped in her tracks. Her head swiveled about to follow them, eyes nailed until they were out of sight.

Kaede did some staring as well, even nodding along before she realized what she was doing.

Darn it, not again! I hate you, hormones!

"Who was that leading?" Sylviane asked, both impressed and curious.

"Colonel Sir Dietrich Gottfried von Falkenrath of the Phantom Gale," answered Cecylia. "He's a dhampir like me, but about thrice my age. Delicious looking, isn't he?"

"Well, he's certainly not a fruit," Kaede muttered back, still trying to fan the image of dashing-good looks with perfect abs out of her mind.

"Dhampirs seem to liken everything appealing to food, even their own kind," Sylviane then waved them to continue crunching through the snow.

The thought came a bit disconcerting to Kaede:

"Isn't that slightly... cannibalistic?"

"Before the Church took us in, some dhampirs did nibble among themselves," Cecylia voiced with complete nonchalance.

"That's disturbing," the Princess interjected immediately.

"Yes... I rather agree," the dhampir nodded. "But then, everything can seem disturbing until it's adopted by culture. I mean when you think about it from a different angle, even the most religiously approved act of fornication isn't all that different from spitting down each others' throats."

"Ew. I guess that's why males are the more promiscuous gender?" Sylviane asked, her volume dropping to a shy whisper as she continued: "Since they're the ones doing the... uh, spitting."

Not sure I'll ever forget that analogy.

Kaede rather wished she hadn't heard this exchange.

Then it grew worse as Cecylia began to explain:

"Not really. The real reason is quite simple: the mother of a child is always clear and must take responsibility. But a man does so only through marriage. Fathers also couldn't be certain that the child was theirs before they created the Bloodline Trace spell, which lead to widespread cultural expectations for bridal chastity and all that even before the religious faiths preached them."

"Right, since we're the ones who get pregnant," Sylviane added.

Just as Kaede's thoughts reached the same conclusion and instantly derailed into a cataclysmic train wreck.

Since coming to Hyperion, Kaede had avoided thinking about gender issues unless it was immediately relevant or necessary. The thought I could become pregnant had never even crossed her mind...

Until now, as copies of the same message exploded across an already cluttered mind. Combined with a tangled mess of emotions, it formed a mental state that could only be described as utter chaos.

The only component of her normally organized mind that did not fail was the emergency shutdown. It soon triggered as the tidal surge of turmoil overwhelmed her exhausted brain nerves in a cascading power grid failure.

To the other three, it seemed like Samaran girl tripped, plunged face-first into the foot-compacted snow, and passed out.

...

Sylviane's guess about Pascal proved right within another minute.

They found him asleep on a large desk in the still-empty building, using the last parchment he had written on as a pillow. The action report appeared mostly smudge-free as they pulled him off, although his cheeks now had ink stamped onto them.

"Huhhh?" Pascal stirred through half-opened eyes.

"You're sleeping in the wrong place," Sylviane noted softly as she pulled his right arm over her shoulders, while her knight Mari silently stepped up to help.

"No, I can manage..." the Princess interrupted. Then, as she struggled somewhat to pull him off the chair: "Nevermind. He's heavier than he looks."

"That's a good thing," Cecylia grinned, her hand still supporting a spaced-out Kaede. "Must be pretty beefy under that uniform."

"Remember: my fiancé," Sylviane replied with a trace smile.

She was mostly joking, although a hinted warning still laid within.

Then, with Pascal's other arm around Mari's shoulders, the Princess and her knight began to carry him off.

Meanwhile, Cecylia held the door open with her one available arm.

"Seriously, what is it with these two?" the Princess wondered aloud.

"Stress? Injury? Overwork? Sleep deprivation?" Cecylia offered one explanation after another before shrugging. "Kaede it can't be your period again could it? That would be wayyy too irregular of a cycle."

The dazed Samaran girl faintly shook her head but never answered.

Had Cecylia tried to scan her thoughts, the response would've been overwhelming:

I can't take this anymore.

----- * * * -----

"Well this is a new one," King Leopold of Weichsel was amused as he leaned back against a large, comfortable work chair. "Ever heard of a familiar being recommended for the Knight's Cross?"

"No Sire. But this is also the first time an officer is campaigning with such a familiar."

The reply came from Lisbeth Adele von Lanckoroński, Chancellor of Weichsel and a Cardinal of the Trinitian Church of Holy Arcadia.

Upon her elderly ages at hundred-twenty years old, Lisbeth still looked a remarkably stunning woman. Standing proudly before the huge mahogany desk, the lady held a gold-trimmed leather binder lined with jewels. The intricate red-and-white choir dress of a cardinal completely covered her frail figure, but also brought out the intensity and depth of two bright-red eyes under her deep-red hair.

Next to her stood Colonel Hannes von Falkenberg, Commanding Officer of the Black Eagles, which effectively made him Weichsel's Spymaster. With a pleasant and polite smile, the beautiful Colonel stepped up to pass another parchment into the King's hands. Thin shouldered with delicate arms and neck, Hannes had straight, light-blond hair draped to just above his shoulders to further the androgynous look. But the ocean-blue eyes that sparkled with curiosity revealed his lineage: the sapphire-blue crosses of a dhampir.

There were many who claimed that he was actually a woman pretending to be a man. He certainly spent plenty of his career crossdressing, one way or another.

"The preliminary Farspeak report from Captain von Gottschall also agrees with von Lichnowsky on the recommendation," Hannes explained with a soft, soothing voice fit for a bard.

"And I'm guessing Pascal recommended his own familiar as well?" the King asked as he glanced through the second report.

"Of course, Sire."

That elicited a chuckle from King Leopold.

"That kid knows no shame. But he is definitely his father's son."

He then put both parchments down and looked back at Lisbeth:

"So... I'm guessing my Chancellor didn't rush to Nordkreuz in person over two military reports?"

"Sire, word arrived last night that the Duchess Karoline of Mitterfels was killed by a Northmen raid while returning from a trip to Neueoder. With no direct heirs, her successor is the scion of the von Seydlitz family -- Parzifal Sigismund. Whom, according to my sources, coincidentally requested permission from the von Zimmer-Manteuffel family of Saale-Holzland to marry their daughter, Ariadne Charlotte, just a week ago. The condition was that the marriage be bilineal and incorporate the von Manteuffel name, which Parzifal apparently agreed to."

The King's eyes narrowed as he grew wary:

"Could this have been done by someone else?"

"The von Zimmer-Manteuffels are staunch allies of the General," the Cardinal replied with a solemn shake of her head. "I cannot envision a plot of this magnitude carried out without von Manteuffel knowing."

"And of the direct beneficiaries, the young Parzifal himself is a healer, deployed alongside his not-yet-fiancée in Skagen," confirmed the Spymaster Colonel. "I have a source placed close to them who assures me that it's impossible for them to be involved. From what she describes, it's completely unthinkable for Parzifal's character, and Ariadne still doesn't know about it yet. Furthermore, the relationship between them seems to be one of genuine youthful romance."

"How reliable is your source?" the King questioned again.

"The info comes from Cecylia Renata von Falkenhausen, the daughter of General von Falkenhausen."

Leopold nodded quietly. Few people knew the truth, but the dhampirs of the Falken-clans were utterly reliable not only because of their proven record for devotion and loyalty. The Blood Oath they swore when Weichsel first gave them refuge made them incapable of betraying the von Drachenlanzen dynasty. Any attempt to do so would be met with a swift and painful death.

"I knew the boy's -- Parzifal's parents, both heroes from the last war," the King began grimly. "His father died leading a charge that saved the day at Leuthenberg, and his mother lost both legs and an arm in that same bloody fight..."

Leopold paused briefly before continuing:

"I have no objections to him inheriting Mitterfels. Holy Father knows that his family sacrificed enough to deserve it. However..."

The King shoved back his chair and strode over to the projection map of Weichsel covering the wall. Since he was staying in the Nordkreuz Keep, it was natural that he also took the best office on the von Moltewitz estate. The map belonged to his late Marshal, including personalized notes enchanted into the illusory projector.

"Neithard is getting out of hand," the King growled as he tapped the map. "He already has Polarstern, and his branch families control Altmark and Saale-Holzland. And now... Mitterfels."

Seizing the opportunity, the Chancellor continued on to fan the King's flames:

"He has indeed created very nice sack against the North Sea, with the Capital set to fall straight in."

By the time the King turned back around, his clear-brown eyes were fuming with outrage.

"Does he think me stupid or just blind? Outside Altsteier, he's trying to completely cut off my own lands from the rest of the country!"

"Perhaps he's too important to the coming wars for Your Majesty to relieve," Colonel von Falkenberg shrugged. "After all, he just reshuffled all of his commanders, and Your Majesty didn't lift a finger to stop him."

The King instantly sent a smoldering glare towards his spymaster, but to no effect. The Colonel continued to tilt his weight onto one leg, relaxed enough to start whistling.

It wasn't really surprising, seeing as this was the person who once handed in a list of conspirators with his own name on top.

The King had to warn him that it wasn't a very funny joke.

"Regardless of what von Manteuffel believes, it's apparent that the death of Duchess Karoline is no coincidence," the Cardinal declared. "Unfortunately, we do not have any evidence of this. The raiding party seemed to have vanished back into the sea."

"Adventurers, most likely," the Colonel chipped in again.

The term seemed innocuous enough. Except in the north, it meant marauding sellswords operating from so-called 'Adventurer Guilds' in the Kingdom of Västergötland -- men whose occupation was hack and slash, violence and plunder.

"You are implying that the General leading our war effort is conspiring with those whom we are currently at war with?" the King highlighted.

"Not directly. There are those who broker such deals with mercenary elements," the Colonel clarified. "Quickly too; certainly within a week."

Leopold exhaled deeply, as though taking deep breath to calm himself down.

"Neithard needs to be removed. I don't care how good of a General he is. By the time he achieves victory over Skagen, his control over the army will be enough to gamble on a coup!"

"Already enough to chance it," Colonel von Falkenberg interjected. "Just not a good one."

The King ignored him this time, glancing back to his Chancellor instead with a congratulatory smile:

"What you've always wanted, isn't it Lisbeth? Without Neithard throwing his influence around, the only easy way up in the administration is to bribe you..."

"Sire I..."

Leopold swiftly cut her off with a raised hand.

"I know your greed, Lisbeth. Everyone knows your greed. Even the children in the streets can sing a tune about it," he stared at her with royal prerogative. "But you're also the best Chancellor we've seen in two centuries, most of your appointments are at least halfway decent, and you know how to invest and multiply. So long as you stay loyal to me and keep the nation afloat, I'll let you shower yourself in gold. But be careful not to overstep, or you will certainly drown in your own wealth."

The warning at the end was almost dismissive. But Cardinal von Lanckoroński took it in with a slow, mindful nod:

"I will watch my steps, Sire."

"Good! I like keeping my councilors."

King Leopold's clear brown gaze then swept across both of them:

"Hannes, Lisbeth, I want the two of you working together on this, and only your most trustworthy men. I want the investigation into Karl's death to point a finger at von Manteuffel," he spoke of the Marshal's assassination. "It doesn't have to be serious, perhaps he simply allowed a gap in the security arrangements. But I want it to look purposeful."

The Colonel smiled, or perhaps more of an eerie smirk:

"You want his reputation destroyed amongst the troops when you arrest him."

"Precisely!" The King accentuated as he walked around the desk to sit back down, on the chair that once belonged to the Marshal himself. "Whom better to stage the act than convincing the wronged son himself to take revenge for his father? Dra-matic! They'll be writing plays about it for decades!"

Even the way he said it was theatrical, with an upward twist of his head as he voiced the key word.

"I guess Weichsel now has its first familiar wearing the Knight's Cross," Leopold confirmed as he looked back down onto the reports. "Single star and promotion to Major to Pascal also. With any luck, maybe he'll be my new cavalry general someday."

"We can certainly hope he turns out as good as his father," the Cardinal agreed. "The people would enjoy the confidence, the security."

"The economy would, you mean?" The King half-joked. "Also, Lisbeth, see what lands are available to create a new Barony. I want von Lichnowsky... Karen, is it? To be given a proper place to retire. The troops should see that such sacrifice to their King is properly rewarded."

"Yes Sire. What about the Manteuffels?"

"Ah yes, of course, can't leave a tumor to keep growing," Leopold nodded. "Send message to both Parzifal and the Zimmer-Manteuffels that a bilineal arrangement is not acceptable. That I wish the von Seydlitz name to remain whole as a tribute to his parents."

"Should I draft an appropriate warning for General von Manteuffel as well?" the Colonel asked with another charming smile.

The King puzzled for a clueless moment before he realized why:

"Right, if I only scold the Zimmer-Manteuffels by themselves, the General would get suspicious. Go ahead and alleviate Neithard's doubts, Hannes. It's certainly a cheap way to buy some time."

After all, a direct punishment, even as light as a reprimand, usually marked an end to the incident. A superior who scolds and warns his subordinate typically sought improvement, instead of plotting the vassal's elimination.

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 10 - Shifting Winds

"....The entire hill was a sea of fire at that point. So I figured it was time to lead in a charge. One hundred and seventy armored gryphons straight into their ranks! And their center hardly even buckled!"

Kaede listened to Sylviane's incredulous tone as she sat next to Cecylia on the Princess' spacious bed, in the broad but otherwise austere 'royal cabin'. Meanwhile her hands nursed a steaming mug of hot chocolate, which Cecylia had introduced as a Skagen product when she made it.

It was surprising, since cocoa was not a plant that grew in the frozen north. Given that most other produces paralleled those of Earth, there was likely more to the Northmen nation than meets the eye.

"They're housecarls -- and their name for being household troops isn't just for show either..."

With patient words that were almost unlike her, Cecylia explained in a soft soprano that felt soothing just to hear. Her hands gently stroked the largest Ania as all nine bodies of the matryoshka cat laid comfortably around her, purring in turn as though a chorus of relaxation. They all basked in the warm glow of the phoenix Hauteclaire, who continued to stand regally next to the Princess while chirping playfully to the smaller kittens.

"--The housecarls live in their lord's castle. They feast at the same tables, train on the same grounds alongside noble sons and daughters, even address each other like brothers regardless of rank..."

Not even Cecylia could keep the rising admiration out of her voice.

"Men like that have a bond stronger than any oath. They will fight to their dying breath for their liege, protecting the safety of his life and the sanctity of his corpse. The Jarl's personal force might have struck the detachment, but I'll bet that the heir was among those you defeated, Sylv."

"We don't have any units like that," Sylviane murmured.

"The Knight Phantoms, the Lotharin Armigers, the Imperial Scholares, not even the Cataliyan Ghulams could compare to the élan of the Northmen elite."

Cecylia's broad grin then returned in full:

"It's brotherhood at its finest."

"Of course you're a fan of them," Sylviane chuckled back as she twirled her dark-plum hair, periodically brushing them past her cheeks and lips. "Sweaty shirtless men wrestling each other in the halls before drinking themselves to a stupor." Then, curious: "but I thought they also killed over mere arguments?"

Cecylia tilted her head as she frowned with mild distaste, but not towards the Princess:

"It's true that in the north all disagreements could be decided by single combat. But usually it isn't to the death; certainly not among brothers -- that's just outsiders exaggerating what they don't understand by chalking it up to 'barbarism'. Though you have to admit: it does save all the political wrangling and plotting, just smash your wine cup at them and draw swords!"

"Sometimes I wish we had that tradition," Sylviane sighed wistfully. "Then I can just knock out all those bickering lords and save me the headaches!"

Kaede could almost imagine: the new United Nations Assembly, where they resolved national disputes by putting world leaders in a ring and having them fight it out.

There was a certain refreshing allure to it... definitely cleaner, at any rate.

"Once upon a time hehe," Cecylia grinned again, her scarlet-crossed eyes almost twinkling. "A lot of Lotharin cultural aspects survived the Imperial subjugation, but that's not one of them..."

The petite dhampir shrugged.

"...It does have its downsides though: like how all judicial cases may be overthrown through trial by single combat -- no representative champions allowed either. So among the Northmen, if you're weak, you're nothing. Can't even get a bride, since a man is expected to literally beat off the other suitors and then take his bride-to-be in a staff duel."

"Sounds like a painful wedding," Sylviane frowned back.

"If he wants her to look good and perform well on their first night, then he better be good enough to beat her without much bruising! It's part of the incentive!"

In response, the Princess crossed her arms and raising her head high. With her eyes closed, she began in a faked, haughty voice:

"No, Pascal. I cannot marry you. Go back and train for another century."

Sylviane peeked one eye open and met her friend's gaze once more, before her composure fell away and both of them began to laugh.

Even Kaede couldn't help but grin at the mental image -- Pascal's frozen shock as he faded to dust after being told that he simply wasn't good enough.

"Well, having Hauteclaire is rather unfair," Cecylia countered half a minute later when the giggling finally died away. "Not that Pascal will ever say that. He's no sore loser and talks plenty about combat realism. A loss is a loss, and Oriflammes certainly don't hold back on a real battlefield."

The Princess nodded as she proudly declared:

"It's a manly trait, and not one of those fake macho ones either."

With Pascal's rooftop apology to Ariadne and Parzifal only two weeks old in memory, Kaede had to agree with that as well. Bowing one's head might seem to undermine the image of alpha masculinity, but it also took true courage that embodied strength and integrity beyond any cheap facade of confidence.

Perhaps I really should talk to someone about my own issues, she concluded.

Though speaking of Ariadne, Kaede had been curious about one thing. Sipping away the last of her hot chocolate, she put the mug aside before finally cutting in:

"Wouldn't such a culture imply that Northern women are martial as well? I didn't see any of them fighting though; neither the attack force nor on the walls."

"Only the men leave their settlements on campaigns," Cecylia clarified. "Northern women only take up arms to defend their homes, so they're enlisted in all-female garrison units, lead by the professional shield-maidens. The men are also very protective of them; the units stationed on the walls were probably all male."

Then, it was Sylviane who answered with a solemn deadpan as she reached down to cradle a meowing kitten:

"There were hundreds of women killed and wounded at the gates. I had to bloody them some more before they would talk... and I thought we Lotharin girls were tough..."

The Princess trailed off as a somber silence fell upon the room.

"Sorry," Kaede looked down. I shouldn't have brought it up now.

She soon felt an all-encompassing hug from the back. A comforting embrace she had wanted since last night, yet couldn't ask.

Cecylia felt warmer than most people too; more touchy-feely than she was used to, at any rate...

...Just before hot breath blew into the sensitive back of her left ear as the dhampir girl leaned in and softly bit her earlobe.

"EEK!"

Kaede yelped. She almost jumped on the bed, if it wasn't for the other holding her down.

"She's having trouble dealing with her first battle," Cecylia informed Sylviane through a catlike grin. "Clearly we should help her forget it."

The Princess smiled back but shook her head:

"It doesn't work that way."

But as her wisteria eyes met Kaede's, it was with the softest look she offered the familiar girl yet.

"Come over here Kaede. My hair is just not as soft as yours."

Kaede paused and looked back with reluctance, while the Princess reinforced her imposing smile:

"What did you promise in exchange for my permission to stay besides my fiancé again?"

The smaller girl almost groaned aloud.

Teddy Bear time again...

After Cecylia let go and Kaede shifted across the soft comforter, she once again found Sylviane draped over her shoulders and rubbing cheeks against the back of her head.

"She's super-huggable isn't she?" Cecylia grinned.

"Yep," Sylviane agreed happily, her voice slightly muffled as she continued her snuggling. "And since she's my fiancé's familiar, she belongs to me as well."

I'm not a belonging! Kaede almost cried out.

Not that it would have done her any good. But for some reason, despite Pascal's more oppressive aura and Sylviane's lack thereof, Kaede found it a lot harder to go against the Princess than against him.

"Hehe you're possessive as ever," jested Cecylia as she stood up from the bed.

She strode over to the simple table to make tea, using a kettle without any fire and a can of leaves that appeared from her pockets.

"Holy Father forbid a ruler who isn't possessive," Sylviane countered. "They might start losing pieces of their realm."

Turning to face Kaede from over the smaller girl's right shoulder, Sylviane finally decided to talk to her depressed doll:

"Kaede, to tell you what my father once told me -- in war, your enemies are here for the same reason you are: to serve their allegiance, to protect their view of the world. Once battle begins, you win or you lose. You kill or be killed. It's either your life, your friends, your country... or theirs. And until you're willing to surrender everything you hold dear or they offer the same to you, there is no middle ground..."

Even as the Princess spoke, her delicate fingers continued to gently brush back the fine, silky strands of beige-white hair that pooled around Kaede.

"--Respect your foes, for they are the same as you. But never hesitate to kill them where they stand, so long as they hold steel."

Meanwhile, Cecylia nodded along with a thoughtful smile.

"I... I know all that," Kaede agreed as well. "But it's just..."

Knowing it and doing it are still two entirely different things.

But that wasn't something any amount of reasoning from others could fix.

Kaede once read that women recovered far easier from the psychological effects of killing than men, so long as they recognized their own families as 'endangered' in some way. Hence the Soviet Union discovered that women made excellent snipers -- a grisly job that watched the faces of every life they plucked, something even most men couldn't stomach.

It was a scary extension of the maternal instinct that both iron ladies before her had in abundance.

Something I need more of for my life in this world...

Kaede could only sigh her envy away:

"...I just wish we could have won without destroying so many lives."

"Everyone believes they're just, everyone wants to win," Sylviane spoke quietly. "But to achieve that with little or no bloodshed is a rare accomplishment... one that required the highest caliber of military command."

"Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting," Cecylia added sagely as she brushed a nonexistent long beard.

Her first cup of tea went to the Knight Mari, who continued to guard the door, seemingly disinterested in their conversations.

"Who was that from again?" the Princess asked, mirroring Kaede's exact thoughts.

She could have sworn she read those very words in The Art of War. But that would be far too much to be mere coincidence...

"The 1st Sun General of the Dawn Imperium," Cecylia answered, referring to the superpower in the eastern continent of Eos.

Two millenniums ago, it was the Inner Sea Imperium and the Dawn Imperium that signed the accord "Two Realms Under Heaven", splitting the world into two respective spheres of influence that still shaped geopolitical and cultural boundaries today.

"Unfortunately, Pascal isn't that good yet," Sylviane spoke Kaede's mind once more.

"Neither was its originator when he first started," Cecylia noted from the table. "It took him a lifetime to perfect his ways of war. They say that by the end, he wrote those lines because he grew absolutely sick of spilling blood."

"So... the only way to avoid bloodshed in war is to get better, and the only way to get better... is by bloodying more foes."

Talk about a catch twenty-two, Kaede summed up her own words.

"I don't want to sound callous," the Princess began. "But you're his familiar, Kaede. This is the path you'll have to help him along, so it's best you become acquainted with it."

I wasn't the one who picked this life...

"Easy for you to say," Kaede retorted irritably.

She regretted it almost immediately. Sylviane was the last person she could afford to throw temper at.

But as she turned towards Sylviane with a "sorry", what she met instead was a dry smile filled with melancholy.

"No, you're right. It is easy for me to say..."

The Princess replied before exhaling deeply. But her firm gaze never broke contact, only to reveal an icy disappointment:

"--Perhaps one day you'll figure out just what it means for me to wear this tiara of a crown... But in the meantime, just what should I do with you?"

I really shouldn't have done that...

Kaede had barely a second to fear and ponder, before Sylviane reached both hands over her shoulders.

"Cecil says your skin is as beautiful as your hair, so let's have some fun and take a look."

'Fun' was the last thing on her mind as Sylviane began to strip her swiftly and... almost forcefully.

Caught completely off-guard, Kaede's half-hearted attempts to stop the Princess were easily overpowered by stronger and faster hands.

"Wait... I'm really sorry... please..."

Within half a minute, Kaede was down to only her charmeuse undergarments, as pure and white as the freshly fallen snow. They were warm and soothing to the touch, but she nevertheless felt cold and vulnerable as her hands huddled around the halter top covering her small chest.

"Please stop... Your Highness," her wispy voice cried out. Isn't this enough as your 'punishment'?

It was all Kaede could do to ask. Against someone with years of martial training, her left hand had easily been caught in a vice-like grip that proved she was nowhere close in strength or reflexes. Not to mention Sylviane still leaned over Kaede's shoulders with both arms, leaving the smaller girl able to neither move nor defend herself.

...And I can't hit her either; she's not just a Princess but also Pascal's fiancée!

With her word against someone of diplomatic eloquence, not even Pascal would stand by her side. Moreover, striking royalty was among the highest offenses. Sylviane didn't even tolerate rudeness; for hitting her, Kaede might literally have to dig her own grave.

"You promised to obey me, remember?" Sylviane whispered with a sensual edge, her breath hot against the back of Kaede's ear.

Across from them, Cecylia sat back down while nursing a mug of hot tea, content to observe in expressionless silence as her scarlet-crosses met Kaede's pleading eyes.

There was no point even looking at Mari. As the Princess' constant bodyguard, she would do whatever her master commanded.

"Haaa!"

Kaede gasped aloud as she felt a hand placed on her upper thighs, just touching the exposed, sensitive flesh above her thighhigh stockings.

"P-please..." she whimpered as she cringed her eyes closed, shivering in trepidation even as tears pooled into her eyes.

Please don't... I really don't want... not like this...

She had never felt so helpless and vulnerable, not even on her first night in Hyperion when Pascal had pinned her onto the floor.

Then, she heard the air exhaling from Sylviane's nose, almost as though a sigh.

The fingers on her thighs lifted away as Kaede felt the Princess hugged her from behind.

"Shhhh. It's over... It's alright... I won't do anything else."

Sylviane placated in a motherly voice as she rhythmically stroked the small girl's hair from behind.

Cautiously, Kaede reopened her tear-stained eyes and turned. As she met a soft gaze warmed by an almost adoring tenderness, she finally believed the sincerity of those words.

Ever since yesterday, her emotions had been raised high and slammed low, strung up to be pulled down again and again. Fear, anxiety, depression, grievance... there was only so much stress she could take. With many sleepless nights before and the haze of exhaustion covering her mind, Kaede collapsed a second time as her small, trembling body curled up and began to sob in the Princess' arms.

"It's alright..."

Sylviane continued her strokes while repeating the same calming words for minutes, dozens of minutes, until the smaller girl relaxed once again.

Even at its end, when Kaede left the cabin feeling indescribably confused, she still couldn't figure out just what exactly Sylviane was trying to do.

Was she merely punishing me for impudence? Or was she just asserting dominance again?

But if either of those was the case, Sylviane had hardly needed to spend much effort comforting her. Not to mention there was something else in the Princess' gaze -- something she couldn't figure out at the time.

The only thing apparent was that Kaede had to be careful when joining Sylviane in the future, especially when Pascal wasn't around.

...

Later that night, Cecylia decided she had to pay Sylviane another visit, complete with her reflection at the day's events:

"You sure toed the line today with that sadistic habi--"

"I am not sadistic!"

The frowning rebuttal came immediately, prompting Cecylia to give her friend a tilted, knowing look:

"You enjoy making cute girls cry."

The Princess almost rolled her eyes with a "whatever" expression.

However this time, Cecylia didn't just back off. She had stayed neutral earlier. In hindsight, it could have resulted in disaster.

"You know I don't usually involve myself in other people's affairs, Sylv," she began. "But... be careful with that habit of yours. The poor girl is already having a rough time; Pascal won't overlook it if you bully her maliciously, you know?"

Reluctantly, Sylviane returned her gaze.

Then, she sighed as she fell back onto her bed.

"I know... and you're right..."

Her deflated expression continued to gather gloom as her voice dropped to a mutter:

"It's not fair. He's my fiancé, yet she's the girl who spends every hour closer to him."

Cecylia couldn't help but break a smile. It was nice to remember at times that as tough as Sylviane often seemed, she was still just a girl.

In a way, Emperor Geoffroi was a genius to arrange such a political marriage -- one that actually left his daughter smitten and... unfortunately, jealous.

But that was also its one downside: jealousy was dangerous, especially in the hands of those used to wielding power. Worse yet, Sylviane was no stranger to moodiness brought by envy -- which Cecylia had found apparent since their first meeting.

It was something Cecylia had to moderate, not only for the Princess but also for her own sake. After all, she was a childhood friend of Pascal's. It only took one misunderstanding to fall on the wrong end of royal malice.

"Hate to break it to you Sylv, but you'll be a ruler, and he'll be a general," she calmly noted in her soothing soprano. "Your time together will always be limited... and like all men pressed into stressful situations, he'll be lonely from time to time; certainly on those long, difficult campaigns..."

"B-but that's high treason! To cheat on his sovereign! I could have his head for that!"

Sylviane returned a scandalized look, which only made Cecylia's smile soften more. The Princess was often terrible at being honest with herself. Cecylia could hardly imagine Sylviane ever bringing herself to seriously harm Pascal in any way. Besides...

"Yes, you could. But would you? Brilliant commanders don't come easily to begin with, especially one that you can politically trust beyond any doubt."

Cecylia then moved over to take up the Princess' hands in her own. There was a certain art to voicing disagreement -- the trick was to leave no doubts that one was on their side.

"I'm not saying Pascal will be unfaithful to you. But he is a man. From that perspective, wouldn't it be better to leave him in the care of a mistress you can control and trust, than risk some possible outsider whom you can't even predict?"

"That's what I'm working on, as you suggested. I was just... carried away," Sylviane fell to a mumble.

"Sure," Cecylia agreed. "You need to take it a lot slower -- come to know her better, give her some deserving compliments, develop a stronger bond before you work her into this kind of thing. Had you crossed the line today, not only would you be committing a grave sin, but she might never be able to trust you."

With another exhale, the Princess slowly nodded.

It wasn't rare for Sylviane to fall depressed. In fact, it was her most earnest way of expressing "I screwed up".

"She's definitely a submissive though," the dhampir smiled again after a few seconds' pause, trying to cheer her friend back up. "It was even more glaringly obvious than my time with her."

"...That tearful look when she couldn't stop shivering was so cute..."

Sylviane smirked a little in response, before their eyes met again:

"Thanks for the tips from before."

"What are friends for?" Cecylia rhymed back, before the two of them started giggling again like normal girls their age.

----- * * * -----

Gabriel Gautier de Gaetane, Duke of Auxerre and brother of the Rhin-Lotharingie Emperor -- which made him Sylviane's uncle -- still knelt in prayer before the Cross of Holy Hyperion when the gates to the stone chapel opened. Through it one could see the dozens of banners flying outside, where an entire army encamped in the fields surrounding the rural Lotharin town.

In walked three figures hooded and cloaked. Their footsteps clinked with the telltale sounds of heavy plate underneath, interrupted only by the sound of oak doors slamming shut behind them.

With his 'trusted allies' already assembled within the chapel, the Duke had instructed his armigers to keep all disturbances out... all except his anticipated guests.

Time to kiss up to my 'benefactors', he scoffed in silence.

Everyone had a natural talent, and playing to people's favor was Gabriel's. In the north, his people loved him; his vassals loved him. The only ones who didn't was the phoenix he hoped to summon and the wife he married...

Thankfully for his image, she was a diligent actress herself. Gabriel was certain she knew the truth since their wedding night, but she tried so hard to pretend -- in front of him, the family, the world.

She was a faithful woman who stayed true to the scriptures. But the Holy Father... the Father had abandoned her, alongside with him.

"Your armies are quite a sight, Your Grace," said the leading knight before taking off his hood, revealing a square-faced man just beyond his prime with blond hair, full mustache, and a well-trimmed beard.

Meanwhile, Gabriel slowly turned around as he stood up to his modest height.

"Fifty thousand strong," he replied through a handsome smile and confidence worthy of a true zealot. "But they are not mine -- it is the Holy Father's will they follow! And among us stand many other lords who share our just and righteous cause."

So righteous, in fact, that we're plotting to murder my own brother, the Emperor they all swore before Holy Father to obey... his thoughts ran with biting sarcasm.

Dozens of bowed heads nodded along respectfully from both sides of the room. Here within the sanctity of the chapel, they paid their homage in silence to the authority of the Holy Church.

The knight scanned through them with approval before declaring in a much heavier monotone:

"But you speak for them. Just as you spoke to them. It was you who brought them from this godless realm, back to the grace of the Holy Father."

Gabriel wondered if the knight commander merely upheld the formalities or if he was actually this stiff all the time. Maybe it was part of the Inquisition's arsenal -- to slowly bore their victims to a screaming frenzy.

Sad part is that I have to play along; at least until...

With open arms the Duke bowed deeply, enough for his torso to form a right angle to his long legs:

"I am the Holy Father's humble servant first and foremost. It is our solemn duty as true believers to bring his love back to the people."

Love enough to start a civil war while being invaded; love to send thousands to their graves...

The irony of his own words was not lost on him. The fact he could speak such blasphemy before the sanctity of the altar only reinforced his cynicism that the Holy Father cared not at all.

Only the clinking echo of steel interrupted the silence that followed as the knight strode forth.

Then, just three paces away, he stopped. Meeting Gabriel in a leveled gaze, his eyes revealed a thin halo of gold surrounding the cerulean iris -- the blessing of a Knight Templar, sworn in service to the Holy Church.

More precisely, they were the paramilitary arm of the Papal Inquisition. Except the 'Papal' name was becoming questionable: they had grown powerful enough that even the Holy See often had trouble commanding them.

"In the name of His Holiness the Pope, please kneel, Your Grace," the templar beckoned.

Duke Gabriel gracefully lowered himself onto one knee without a moment of hesitance. Before the messenger of the Trinitian Church, he could not afford to show even the slightest doubt... for otherwise his piety would prove insufficient to be the Holy Father's chosen, the savior of the realm.

...Or so he would like them to think.

He bowed his head in reverence as the knight opened the cloak to pull out a glistening sword.

"By the powers invested in me by His Holiness Pope Vigilius..."

Gabriel felt the cold, deadly steel lay flat against the back of his exposed neck. Only by prostrating one's life before the mercy of the Holy Father could true devotion be proven.

"--I, Preceptor Caelestis of the Monastic Knightly Order of the Temples, hereby recognize Gabriel Gautier de Gaetane, Duke of Auxerre and Prince of Rhin-Lotharingie, as Defender of the Faith and, by the grace of the Holy Father, the rightful liege to the Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie."

Withdrawing the blade from his neck, Caelestis then tapped the Duke's shoulders one after the other:

"May you deliver the realm from the apostasy of the false Emperor, Prince Gabriel."

How dare that heretic improve our laws, network our roads, and expand our borders...!

"In the name of the Holy Father, Noblesse Oblige," Gabriel answered the calling of his faith.

After sheathing his sword, Preceptor Caelestis pulled the entire scabbard from its straps. Then, he carefully laid it in the Duke's open palms.

It was a beautiful arming sword of untarnished white and gold. Straight and elegant, with two crosses on each side laid into a hilt of metallic feathers, stretching outwards like a pair of angelic wings.

The Sword of Fortitude -- one of the seven holy swords of virtue that belonged to the Trinitian Church of Holy Arcadia.

The excommunicated Emperor Geoffroi might still believe that his brother was marching south with fifty thousand reinforcements. But on this day, in this moment, Gabriel had baptized himself for a new life -- one armed with the sword of the 'just' and dedicated to a path of no return.

Forgive me, brother. But this is clearly the 'best' course for our nation, our people...

Gabriel prayed in silence as he stood back up to face the Preceptor. Drawing the sword from its sheath, he raised the cross before his eyes in a symbolic gesture of loyalty.

--And it is the Holy Father's will... apparently.

Maybe by the time this was over, the Church would canonize him as a Saint. He could be the patron of hypocrisy, defending the faith even onto death.

Sometimes Gabriel wondered if it would be better that he went to hell. Surely the Devil, as a rebel against the Holy Father, would be better company than the tyrannical hypocrite who lorded over them all.

...

Ultimately, Gabriel's pious seriousness lasted only as long as the audience remained.

"Is there a 'Flail of Fortitude' I could use instead?" he asked casually after the lords departed, flourishing the sword in his hands as he tested its balance.

"No."

"How about a 'Mace of Fortitude'? Or better yet -- a Morphic Blade of..."

"The virtues of our faith are not to be altered at will."

Caelestis' steep frown clearly took offense to Gabriel's carefree and playful emphasis. But the Duke paid no heed as he continued on:

"Yeah but don't you think the Holy Father is a little biased towards the Inner Sea folks? I mean does it have to be a sword? It's just a bit too... ornate."

"Swords are the embodiment of knightly grace and chivalric virtues."

"Yeah, just like a rose... enemies of the faith, feel my thorns!"

Gabriel swashed it with embellished waves before spinning around and bowing, as though presenting a flower to the knight commander.

"Great for the ladies, I'm sure," he flashed a perfect smile. "But we Lotharin nobles prefer something with a little more substance; a trusty flail for instance -- flanks shields and bashes steel."

He stopped just short of mentioning that the Lotharins also adopted their shield-and-flail style to rebel against Imperial legionaries, who relied upon their steel mail and towering shields.

Judging by the twitching brows, Gabriel was certain that the Preceptor already regretted naming him Defender of the Faith.

Thought I'd be an obedient puppet of your holy worshipfulness? Too bad... and too late.

----- * * * -----

Jarl Asgeirr Vintersvend scratched his gray beard as his icy-blue gaze stared unblinking through the glass windows.

Shaped from a single rock column and reinforced by steel, the Air Docking Tower laid at the corner of a V-shaped cliff that rose twenty-stories from the shores below. From its control room at the top, Asgeirr should have been able to see the waves for kilopaces around...

Instead he could barely make out Polarlys' bulwark-like head in the dense icy fog.

His skywhale 'flagship' was moored below, tethered to the tower alongside three others. They were also asleep -- their first rest in three days' time. Meanwhile, the dockhands took this opportunity to move one wheelbarrow after another of supplies on-board; at least, that was what they should be doing.

"Welcome back to civilization, Asgeirr."

The aging man with a perpetual frown never bothered to turn around. Even after ten years, he still recognized the gruff voice of his older half-brother and one-time liege: Jarl Eyvindur Sigmundsen of Kattegen.

Asgeirr soon felt the hard muscles of a powerful arm reach around his bony shoulders. They wasted no time before pulling him into a warm, familial embrace.

"Cold as ever," Eyvindur chuckled before releasing his brother. He then turned about to gaze out the same window, though his arm continued to hang around the other's shoulders.

"Still upholding your name as our Admiral Winter?"

"They call me Admiral Winter because winter comes with me, not for my interest in meaningless banter," Asgeirr corrected him. "It's stupid how the southerners consider us 'uncivilized barbarians', then we turn right around and call the frontier tribesmen that."

Yet despite his sour words, his older brother's grin soon lit up like the sun. Asgeirr didn't even have to face him to feel its radiating warmth.

"Isn't that why we call it the 'frontier'?"

"And the frontier is where we belong," said the younger. "Settling wildlands and recovering realms the dragonlords once held, not back here squabbling over strips of dirt."

The Hyperboreans of Skagen excelled at seamanship above all other peoples. Here boys learned to swim before they could even walk, to knot a rope before they could truly talk. Saltwater was the grass of their prairie, with trimaran hulls in place of saddles and steeds.

...Except for those who rode in the skies, of course.

Not that the difference was huge: the storms rocked the same, just replaced waves with clouds.

"Hey, I didn't vote for this war," Eyvindur countered. "In fact, we never voted at all. Those idiots in the south decided to mobilize on their own, and before we could force an edict on them the Wickers struck first. What were we suppose to do? Drink and cheer while those heathens trod over the last of our people on the continent?"

Asgeirr didn't bother answering, and Eyvindur took a moment's silence to calm back down.

"Hyperboreans never abandon their brothers, no matter what. You know that better than anyone. Out in the frontier, our ways are all you can depend on," Eyvindur reasoned. "Västergötland took a thrashing and lost their fleet during their fall campaign, yet they didn't hesitate for even a half-day before issuing a call to arms when the Wickers invaded."

"Their fault in the first place," Asgeirr retorted with contempt. "Were it not for their marauders and adventurer scum, we'd have hammered out a treaty with Weichsel centuries ago!"

It wasn't entirely fair. The southerners' own prejudices were also to blame; they often neglected to even bother differentiating between the Hyperboreans.

"And were it not for their warriors, the Imps would have kicked us off the continent even longer ago."

The burly Eyvindur then slowly shook his head:

"Pointless 'what ifs' better left to historians. We are what we are -- different, but united by our honor, the dragons' honor. Those Trinitians can call us barbaric all they like, but if that's what it takes to not degenerate into a bunch of scheming, backstabbing, morally-depraved mongrels, then I'll gladly remain a 'barbarian'."

"Hmph."

Asgeirr grunted as he eyed the silhouette of a volcanic drake in the fog. The armored beast belonged to the lead rider of Polarlys' on-duty 'combat air patrol'. Except given the need to hide the skywhales' presence, they were kept on reserve atop Polarlys' blocky head instead.

"We'll see who the barbarians are when we rain fire and ice upon them."

"Don't forget the acid," chuckled his companion in good humor. "Fire is in our hearts and ice is in our blood. But acid rain, that's your trademark! Should of named you Admiral Vinegar instead. Cool and sour!"

Asgeirr exhaled sharply. It was as close to a snort as he would get.

It was better to be 'sour' than bitter. Growing up, Eyvindur was the Jarldom's mighty heir, full of confident masculinity, while Asgeirr was the scholarly bastard mage. People flocked to see Eyvindur in action, while nobody even noticed him -- until he made a name for himself circumnavigating the world, single-handedly.

He had broken his brother's heart before departure, yet Eyvindur welcomed him back with open arms and a grand feast to spread his fame. Since then, Asgeirr vowed to himself that he would never betray blood again. So long as Eyvindur remained the leader of Skagen's confederate forces, he would fight alongside with the wrath of the Stormlord himself.

"Just make sure they don't notice," Asgeirr replied after a long pause. "Keeping the Frontier Fleet fogged up the entire way back already killed my men's mood. Hate to see it go to waste."

"Don't worry," the jolly Jarl reassured while patting Asgeirr's shoulder. "I handpicked every man in this tower right now. There's not a single one of them that I wouldn't trust with my life."

The Admiral simply nodded back.

"Two days till we meet up with the surface fleet. Then... where to?"

"You're asking me because you already have a goal, right?" the older brother noted warmly. "We're family. Out with it already."

Asgeirr took a deep breath. He had thought long and deep about this on the way back.

For over a millennium the Southerners kept encroaching upon the north. His people fought back with the tenacity of stone. But against the wealth of the Trinitian heathens, it was like a mountain watching the sea grow.

But even the ocean was not unstoppable. It needed surface to consume. Without that, without a coastline, its waters would plunge straight into the Abyss.

"Get me and my whales to the Nordkreuz ley-line junction. I will scorch the earth into a wasteland where nothing will ever grow again to threaten our south!"

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 11 - Vacant Choice

Pascal smiled stiffly at the mirror as he adjusted the Knight's Cross he wore below the collar, now set atop a four-pointed starburst in white gold. Brand new rank insignia also adorned the crimson padding on his shoulders -- a silver star laid between two stripes, identifying him as a Major in the Weichsel army.

Staring at his own reflection, he raised his hand in a solemn military salute.

Father if only you could see me now...

Pascal twisted his lips as his hand came back down. Honors and promotions simply didn't feel as meaningful as before, not even when von Manteuffel -- stone-faced as always -- had pinned it onto him in front of over a thousand men. In fact, Pascal had stood through the entire evening ceremony feeling somewhat apathetic, as though something was just... missing.

It was as though a hole in space had drained the colors away, and not even Sylviane's proud smile could patch it up.

Staring at his image, Pascal began undoing the buttons on his uniform shirt as he prepared for bed.

His eyes then fell upon a small box. Kaede had passed out from fatigue by the time of the evening ceremony, so Pascal had received its contents in her stead. After everything that happened, he didn't have the heart to drag her to an event that she so strongly resented.

Which was kind of a shame...

Down to his trunks, Pascal draped his uniform neatly over a chair before doing the same to Kaede's. The girl had a tendency to just leave her clothing strewn over the bedcovers. Thankfully her undergarments were self-cleaning, otherwise he'd probably have to remove them from his pillow on a daily basis.

Why am I doing servants' work...?

But any desire to sigh was immediately forgotten as Kaede muttered in her sleep:

"No... don't..."

Her wispy words were trembling. The small girl was curled up under the comforter with only her face exposed. Meanwhile Pascal could see the faint perspiration rolling down her pale forehead as she turned about in her sleep with hastened breaths.

Another nightmare... he thought in sympathy.

Pulling back the comforter, Pascal laid down next to her in the double bed. He then draped one arm over her side as he gently stroked the silky hair at the back of her head.

"It is just a dream, you are safe here..." he whispered slowly, again and again.

It took only three strokes before her faint shivering stopped.

After another minute, and her breath calmed back to a tranquil waft as well.

Her expression grew peaceful again, except for the worsening shadow under her eyes.

It really has been hard on you... Pascal exhaled as he gestured the lights off.

He kept stroking her hair until he fell asleep. For a mere history student he had forced into military life, helping sooth her sleep was the least he could do.

...

"Uhnnnnng..."

Kaede groaned as she turned in the bedcovers, away from the rays of light pouring through the small window. That was the best she had slept all week, through the whole night no less. Why couldn't the sun be a little more understanding?

Enveloped by a fuzzy warmth, she snuggled against the bed in a stubborn attempt to retain her happiness.

...Except her small nose came across something smooth but firm -- certainly not a pillow.

Her hand crept upwards under the covers, feeling the extra weight over her shoulder but ignoring it, until she found the surface of what seemed like a rough palm.

Huh--

Kaede's eyes snapped open. Sure enough, Pascal's left hand was right in front of her face, palm down and thumbnail just under her nose.

...Which meant the weight on her shoulders was the rest of his arm, and that comforting warmth behind her...

Why did... you said you wouldn't touch me without asking!

She wasn't really alarmed, just... startled. His hand was wayyyy too close for comfort, even putting aside the conservative nature of her Russian and Japanese cultural upbringing. Sure, Pascal had done this once before, but that was one time and he had asked with special circumstances!

Kaede shifted back reflexively, right into the rest of Pascal's body.

That only made it worse, far worse. She was certain he was now spooning her, judging from the contact on her back. But that wasn't even the part that shocked her eyes wide open...

...Something hard had pressed into her butt. More like jabbed, since it felt more like a stiff baton.

Kaede froze on the spot as her breath halted. She could feel her cheeks catching on fire.

Unlike proper girls who at least had some naivety to shield them from the surprise, she knew exactly what that was.

Getoffitgetoffitgetoffitgetoffit...

She rolled back the other way and flipped his arm off of her at the same time.

"Wake up!" she cried out as soon as Pascal's golden soft curls came into sight.

The lazy eyes that lifted were rather grumpy. Meanwhile Pascal flexed his left arm and shrugged its stiff joints before focusing upon her.

"What did I do to deserve abuse this early in the day?"

"W-what were you doing in my sleep!?" Kaede cried back.

Pascal paused for several moments to think back, but his stare never left her gaze.

"You were having a nightmare," he stated simply.

"That doesn't--!" her incensed momentum carried on a bit further before deflating into the air like a runaway balloon. "...Oh..."

Kaede's cheeks were glowing red as her eyes shifted away towards the ceiling.

I didn't ask for that...

It was so embarrassing to think about. But at the same time... it was true that she slept unusually well last night.

Nonono. I was just really darn tired. Nothing to do with...

Kaede sighed. Ignoring what she didn't want to think about was one thing. But being fallacious towards herself when she did ponder over it? Not her forte at all.

Okay he did help with the nightmare, probably...

She snuck a peek at Pascal's lazy turquoise eyes before glancing away again, her face still burning.

"T-thank you... I guess," she muttered. "You might want to do something about that down there."

"Kind of hard when you are in my bed. Taking care of it hardly seems appropriate," Pascal sighed as he began to sit up, dragging a tiny tent across the bedcovers as he did.

Kaede almost snorted back. Her countenance was still flushed, but she couldn't resist the temptation to return a little cheek this time:

"So... you haven't masturbated at all since I came here?"

She actually felt really sorry for him. It was one of those common urges that she welcomed not having a ton of in her current body; not yet, at any rate.

Back in the other world, he had always felt bad after getting it out of the way. It supposedly had something to do with the decrease in testosterone levels... or was it the social stigma?

Either way, Kaede suspected that as a subspecies, Samarans had far less of a sex drive than average humans. It would certainly explain their low population growth over the centuries, despite their innate healthcare and a policy of staying out of foreign wars. Furthermore, as devotees of the reincarnation cycle, abandoning pleasures of the flesh was a necessary step on the path to enlightenment.

...Assuming their faith paralleled Earth equivalents anyway. Kaede had yet to confirm any details, since 'sacrilegious' evangelical writings were banned from Weichsel by the Heresy Laws.

Meanwhile, Pascal raised one eyebrow in mild surprise as he turned towards her:

"Sometimes I forget that you were male once also..." Then, with a faint smirk: "do you want me to do it while watching your cute little sleeping face? Or perhaps you would like to help? You do have the equipment now."

The first question sent an uneasy shiver back up her spine, while the second reignited her embarrassment altogether into a wildfire.

Kaede pulled up the bedcovers and buried her entire face under it this time, all the while retorting:

"You pedophile! Total pervert!"

"Only two years between us," came the matter-of-fact answer. "And if you were a boy once, you know exactly how our urges work."

Kaede was thinking more of the twenty-eight centimeters (11") height difference between them and the fact she looked barely sixteen. Meanwhile Pascal was almost twenty and appeared even older with his mature expressions and ever-composed demeanor.

Thank heavens for his self-control though, she thought. Somewhat impressed even, if she was frank about it, since he had been sleeping with a girl in the same bed for weeks and never once touched her inappropriately.

"Have you ever done it? As a man?" she heard him ask nonchalantly, as though talking about the weather.

"W-what? Uh... no?" she peeked back out from the comforter.

"Have you ever courted a girl then?" Pascal turned towards her with an amused, lopsided smile.

What kind of weird pillow talk is this? Kaede thought.

Was he trying to discuss as though between two men? Despite the body she inhabited now and the fact he still had a hard on while sharing the same bed? The conversation was beyond awkward by any normal measure, but Pascal himself hardly even seemed to care.

"Once," she replied. It wasn't an experience she really wanted to talk about. "What about you? Have you ever done it?"

She mostly just wanted to change the topic, but part of her was curious.

"Father made sure I had a chance when I hit puberty," Pascal half-chuckled. "He just came back with a courtesan one day and said that if I did not experience it early, youthful fantasies would just blow it out of proportions. Then, being a highborn, I would be in danger of far worse sins than sex without matrimony..."

Wouldn't be the first noble brat to force a maidservant down...

"--He also taught me how to cast a contraception spell around then, just so you know," his eyebrows shot up suggestively, "if you ever felt the need badly enough."

"Get-on-with-it before I hit you," Kaede retorted sharply while her cheeks continued to glow.

For a moment Pascal looked like he was about to snicker. Then:

"What can I say? It was not as hyped up to be..." he shrugged. "The act itself was pleasurable, sure. But the woman was dumb as a cow. Felt like my brain cells were dying just by laying next to her."

By itself, sexual activity satisfied only a physical urge. The endorphins it produced did help emotional needs, but that really needed an established relationship for it to be more than short-lived. However, for Pascal who coveted an intellectual companion he could respect above all else, mere acts of lust weren't even close to enough. Unfortunately, the girls whom he could respect were also the ones his attitude annoyed most.

Your father knew you too well.

Kaede was quite impressed. Not many parents knew how to deal with their kids' puberty. In fact, most of them lost touch with their own past and began idealizing... as though youth and hormones had anything to do with wisdom and logic.

"So not a big fan huh? Most guys your age would disagree on that." Then she hurriedly added: "as far as social trends go."

She did not need Pascal to group her under that category.

"Most males my age also behave with hardly any more intelligence than beasts," Pascal commented without care. "If the defining goal of their youth is to lust after girls through a physical urge to mate, then how does that make them any better than animals in heat?"

Kaede couldn't help but let off a half-snort chuckle. Even without an acidic intonation, his choice of words made his disdain clear. Yet at the same time... this was the man whose summoning spell had turned her into a girl.

News flash: hypocrisy still omnipresent as ever.

"--But just so you know, it does not mean that I have no interest at all," he continued with an odd glint in his eyes that made her a little nervous. "Though I can certainly wait for a proper relationship, like being married. Until then, dealing with bodily urges is a matter of mere maintenance -- no different from eating or using the chamber pot. I have no need for hormone-induced drama to derail my life."

"Though you came pretty close when you summoned me..."

Pascal's gaze narrowed immediately, which made Kaede grin a little before nodding lightly and continuing:

"--But I can agree with that."

She certainly did not need her life on Hyperion any more awkward than it already was.

"Speaking of life interests..."

Pascal turned to stand up from the bed. His trunks were mostly flat at this point, although his shirtless, muscular chest still proved quite a distraction. He then walked over to his work desk before fetching a black velvet box.

"Here is your Knight's Cross from the King."

He opened the container to display the gleaming black-and-white medal, with two rank insignias also pinned against the lid.

"He also gave you an Honorary Junior Lieutenant rank, since the Knight's Cross is meant to be a military medal," Pascal explained as he leaned back against the desk, smiling with pride and approval.

Meanwhile Kaede had the exact opposite reaction, as images of just what she did to earn that honor flew through her head once more.

"I'm not sure I really want a military rank," she frowned. "I mean... helping you is one thing. But this army work... I'm really not cut out for it."

Pascal's lips went flat in an instant. As displeasure and disappointment ran through his narrowed eyes, Kaede looked back down and braced herself for a tirade.

But as the moments passed, all he gave was a heavy sigh.

"We would have a problem if most people enjoyed war and blood," Pascal reasoned. "It is a duty and a obligation, as the Holy Father gave us our skills and backgrounds for a purpose. The commoners might fantasize about silly notions of individual freedom, but if everyone simply acted as they desired... where do you think our world would be?"

Kaede generally agreed with that view. As someone who grew up in Trans-Ural Siberia and later Japan, she adhered to the socially conservative Eastern philosophy far more than its liberal, Western counterpart. The freedom of choice might have a nice ring that appealed to the masses, but 'duty' should always take the highest spot of consideration when assessing that 'choice'.

After all, every person had an obligation to protect their family, to uphold order in society, and to maintain the prosperity of the human race itself. Because without civil stability, the happiness of individuals was merely an illusion, one that could vanish into thin air at any time.

The Dissolution of the Soviet Union and its aftermath had taught all Russians a hard lesson. Western calls for freedom and reforms were cheap; the price paid -- when economies collapsed and paychecks vanished and families starved -- was often far too heavy.

But even then, there are limits to what can be expected of individuals. Besides...

"Weichsel isn't my home country." she ended up retorting first.

"You are living here, are you not? If Weichsel falls to chaos and ruin, would you not be affected?" Pascal sternly asked. Then, before she could interject: "I know -- it is my fault that you are here, and I certainly will not force you to take this role if you tell me you would rather stay back at the estate."

Though you will patronize me like some disappointed parent, she thought, which was exactly what his downcast eyes were already doing.

"I didn't say that I wouldn't stay." Kaede muttered before conviction recharged her voice: "I promised that I would be your familiar and your family, remember? But following you into combat and being part of Weichsel's army are two different things."

Pascal sighed once more. There was even some relief in it this time.

"It is just an honorary rank. It does not mean you are actually an officer of the army -- that would be far too generous of a promotion. It only means you are to be recognized and respected as one. You still have neither authority nor responsibilities, not that it stopped you from ordering a Captain around during battle," he smiled again at last.

Kaede nodded back with pursed lips before stretching out her fingers and accepting the box from him. Pragmatically, she knew it was the right decision. It would certainly help her standing by tons.

But... that didn't make her conscience feel any better.

"Have you spoken to Captain von Lichnowsky since the battle?" Pascal asked.

"Not yet," she mumbled back. Not that easy when I'm the one at fault for her getting crippled.

"You really should," he suggested as he began putting on his shirt. "She could probably help you with your troubles. More than I can, at any rate."

Pascal then turned back towards her with a curious gaze:

"I am surprised this is bothering you even more than being a girl."

"Have I broken three of your ribs and knocked out two of your teeth over this?"

"No," his head bobbled slightly in consideration. "But it feels like you are complaining about it a great deal more."

"I didn't have a choice over what my body is. I 'sort of' have a choice over this," Kaede grumbled back.

"I did not choose to be a man, or born into a military family as the son of a hero, or be betrothed for marriage into another country," Pascal shrugged as he looked back to the mirror. "Well, look where I am today."


...


By the time they had finally stopped chatting and finished dressing, Sylviane had arrived to drag Pascal out of his cabin:

"You've been doing nothing but paperwork, mapwork, and mouthwork the past few days. Stop staying in one place or you'll get fat."

"Does Your Highness not have anything better to do than pestering me first thing in the morning?" he grumbled aloud.

"I am neither in charge of this army nor working with the ministers in Alis Avern," the Princess noted the Rhin-Lotharingie Capital. "There's only so much for me to do while we are camped here. Besides, since you're my fiancé, it's part of your job to walk around with me and show the world how close we are."

She was correct enough that Pascal couldn't argue against it, so he simply stood against the mirror to fix his image.

"One hour then," he declared. "I have new intelligence reports to dig through," Then, with a grin: "meanwhile, Kaede could amuse us with her courtship experiences in the other world."

The familiar girl, who had been carefully eying the Princess while avoiding her gaze until now, suddenly turned towards Pascal with an outraged glare.

"What? I told you my stories, did I not?" he smirked back. "Fair trade is fair."


...


"So she asked you first?"

Pascal's response was slightly surprised. A bit impressed even, if Kaede wasn't mistaken about the tone.

"Yes," she nodded back as the trio stepped out of his cabin. "It's not as common as the other way around in my culture either, but it happens."

Under the clear winter skies, they began a casual stroll around the fortified encampment outside the city -- extending right up to Nordkapp's shattered gate. The day was still early enough that most troopers not on duty were just starting to emerge from their cabins.

After all, 1st Echelon was still on rest and recuperation time after a week-long offensive and one bloody battle. Although they'd been strictly banned from entering the city without permission -- to keep any outbreak of violence from harming either side.

"It's actually not that rare in our world, at least for the nobility," Sylviane commented neutrally from Pascal's other side, always sure to make eye contact when she spoke. "But when a lady is the initiator of the courtship, she tends to be very picky about the qualities of the man."

Kaede's mouth felt dry as it formed a faint scowl. If Sylviane was trying to offer a mild compliment, it had the exact opposite effect.

"Did you agree?" Pascal asked.

"Eh... I didn't really know her well. But I figured since I was in high school and a romantic relationship was lauded as like -- the ideal school life -- why not?"

She had to take a moment and explain what modern standardized education was to the Princess. For a brief moment, Kaede thought Sylviane's fascinated look might change the topic, which would have suited her just fine.

Unfortunately, the Princess suppressed the urge and returned to her attentive smile:

"How did the courtship go?"

"We dated for about two weeks before she dumped me," Kaede shrugged.

"Well that was fast," Pascal piped in.

A stare from his familiar then made Pascal look back innocently:

"I never said most girls in teen years are any less retarded than most boys. That goes doubly so for commoners."

Are you trying to console me or insult me? Kaede thought as her gaze hardened into an outright glare. "You're not even twenty yet yourself."

"I do not belong under 'most teens'," Pascal countered as his drawling haughtiness returned in full, which then fell aside as he hurriedly added: "nor did I say you do."

Your compliments suck.

"Did she explain why?"

It was the Princess who finally derailed them back towards some semblance of maturity.

"Apparently I'm not manly enough," Kaede shrugged, trying to keep the bitterness out of her voice. "She said since I studied martial arts, had excellent grades -- academics, good friends, and knew what I wanted to do for life while still in school, I seemed like a pretty mature guy. Then she accuses me of being uncompetitive, unambitious, indecisive and introverted..."

As her thoughts grew more and more agitated, the acidity slowly crept into her tone and words.

"--Basically she had the delusional fantasy in her head that I was some kind of alpha male figure when I'm not. Reality is such a disappointment."

"You do fit a girl pretty well though," Pascal commented in a matter-of-fact tone.

"Geez, how nice of you!" Kaede's fake gratitude rose another pitch, only to make her sound even more girlish. "Now can we please get off the topic before I reward your kindness with a fresh stabbing?"

On the other side, Sylviane giggled silently in response. But as rose quartz met wisteria eyes, the Princess gave her a gentle smile:

"The best traits of men are courage, vision, and leadership. I would say that your recent actions prove two of those qualities just fine."

Kaede blinked several times as she ran those words through her mind a second time. For Sylviane to acknowledge her with such directness... she almost wondered if her senses had gone delusional.

"I... uh... thanks," she stammered back. "It was a pretty desperate situation, so I kind of jumped in..."

"That is what courage is -- decisiveness in the face of absolute necessity," Pascal interjected, albeit rather neutrally. "Had you done that any other time, it would have been purely imbecilic..."

He almost snorted the air out of his nose before continuing:

"The only difference between a hero and a fool is that the hero was lucky enough to succeed. Only morons would gamble on that in anything but utter desperation. I do hope my familiar will not do so unnecessarily in the future."

"Do I look like a moron to you?" Kaede glared back. "I certainly don't plan on jumping in front of oversized swords again anytime soon."

"Good."

Pascal's single response was almost cheerful as he sped up his pace, and it took Kaede a moment before she could figured it out:

Can't you just say you were worried about me?

----- * * * -----

"It's beautiful!"

Ariadne grinned proudly as Cecylia admired the engagement ring on her finger. The size of the gem itself was quite modest, with her birthstone -- a sapphire -- held inside a magically grown diamond. The two tiny pegasus wings in platinum that hovered around the centerpiece had also been intricately detailed, not to mention the layers of protective enchantments...

"I'm a bit surprised he proposed now, though -- middle of a campaign and all," the dhampir girl wondered aloud.

Standing at the edge of the encampment, Ariadne was supposed to be overlooking the Ghost Riders as Colonel von Hammerstein put them through a chaotic mock melee exercise.

Except when Cecylia demanded someone's attention, she usually received it.

"Parzifal said he had wanted to propose before we marched off to war, except Operation White Typhoon sped everything up," Ariadne smiled sweetly. "He ended up proposing in front of the entire company last night, just after we left the ceremony."

"With the customizations on this ring, he had certainly been preparing for a while," Cecylia commented as she looked back up. She then whispered in a cat-like grin: "Sooo... have you two done it yet?"

The look Ariadne sent back was a mix of a scandalized 'really?' and a scowling 'you-should-know-better'.

"What? You're properly engaged now. It's technically considered acceptable."

"Would you like to ask Parzifal on how well that 'technically' holds up against the Holy Scriptures?" Ariadne asked in her angelic voice, totally unfazed.

"Pass," the smaller girl waved it off. "Too early in the day for a sermon. Although..." her eyes quickly spun around with a fresh idea, "might be worth it just to see his cheeks glow."

At that moment, Ariadne spotted Pascal coming around the corner, flanked by Sylviane and Kaede. With the addition of a new medal and insignia, the familiar girl's outfit became even harder to discern from Weichsel military uniforms at a distance. Only a lack of crimson shoulder padding and the solid black stockings under her non-standard short skirt gave it away.

Reacting even more swiftly, Cecylia pulled Ariadne's left hand up and waved it backwards towards the newcomers, almost bouncing up and down as she called out:

"Hey Pascal! Check it out!"

The excitement had apparently reduced Cecylia's refined aristocratic poise -- at least in public -- to the mannerisms of an adolescent maiden.

Her lively cry even caught the attention of quite a few soldiers in the combat drill, many of whom soon took a beating from their better focused opponents.

"I actually heard the news last night," Pascal grinned as he steadily walked up. "Congratulations are in order, Ariadne."

Had Ariadne lacked a disciplined mask of perfection, her eyes would have narrowed as she took a moment to assess the Runelord's sincerity. It was hard to tell at times, since he always seemed to shadow any smile with a smirk.

But this time, there was neither sarcasm nor contempt. The insufferable prat had truly meant it for once.

"Thank you," Ariadne replied with gracious serenity, followed swiftly by a deep curtsy towards the Princess of Rhin-Lotharingie.

She didn't say anything though. Proper nobles did not talk directly to royalty without an introduction, even if she was the daughter of a Margrave, which in Weichsel meant a Duke in charge of a militarized coastal frontier.

But if nothing else, the Runelord at least knew basic manners:

"Sylviane, may I introduce Lady Ariadne Charlotte von Zimmer-Manteuffel, daughter to the Margrave of Saale-Holzland. She is General von Manteuffel's second cousin, once removed."

"It is a pleasure to meet you," nodded the Princess. "I have heard many things about you, Milady, and I'm grateful for your help in keeping my fiancé alive."

Sylviane was smiling, except it was somewhat cold and forced. She tried to hide its imperfections, but to someone with Ariadne's social expertise, the emotions behind them were quite readily apparent.

Grateful or not, the Princess clearly did not like her one bit.

No doubt because of that self-centered prick, Ariadne swiftly concluded.

"There is no need, Your Highness. As an officer of Weichsel, it is my duty to uphold the safety of our countries' alliance," she replied with her most courteous smile and a light bow.

It might take her longer thanks to that prick of an obstacle, but there was more than one way to earn someone's respect. Ariadne always believed that impeccable professionalism was every bit as potent as individual charm.

But for now, Sylviane merely nodded back coolly.

"My congratulations on your engagement as well."

Her Highness' words were soon mirrored by Kaede's, except with far more apparent enthusiasm.

"Thank you."

Ariadne replied warmly to each of them, but Sylviane didn't wait a second longer to break eye contact as she turned towards Pascal with a frown:

"How come I never received an engagement ring from you?"

"Because your father was the one who proposed our betrothal, not me," Pascal stated simply.

Ariadne had to stop herself from grinning as the Princess sighed softly.

To tell your fiancé like that... you're every bit the prick you were two years ago.

"You were so much cuter as a kid," Sylviane complained aloud before turning away.

For a second, Pascal looked like he was about to retort, only to close his opened mouth as he sent Kaede a brief glance.

The familiar girl had apparently told her master to shut up, before his foot went any further into his mouth.

"I thought the Ghost Riders already spent most of yesterday drilling?" Pascal went on to change the topic. "Your company was supposed to get some rest before returning to combat duty this afternoon."

"Tell the Colonel that," Ariadne shrugged as she turned back towards the exercise. "A few troopers actually complained about it this morning. Colonel von Hammerstein asked them if they'd rather be a little bruised and tired, or dead in the next major battle."

"That's putting it kindly," commented Cecylia. "If I overheard correctly, I believe his opening words were... you think this is kinderparty!? one tussle and you veggies think you're vets already?"

It was shocking how smoothly Cecylia transitioned from her natural, soothing soprano into a perfect imitation of von Hammerstein's loud, gruff voice. Even Ariadne, who knew of Cecylia's expertise with illusion magic quite well, found herself more than a bit startled.

"Good man," Pascal nodded approvingly once his own astonishment wore off. "It would not do a unit any good to praise them after just one success, not if they are to become elites."

Guess it takes a prick to know a prick.

But of course, Ariadne kept thoughts like that to herself.

To be fair, Sir Erwin von Hammerstein was an excellent commander. Ariadne admitted it; she even learned to follow his example. The men might complain every once a while, but she also knew perfectly well that few commanders were as lionized as the Colonel.

She just couldn't forgive how he had called her a man at their first meeting.

"Hey Major brat!" Colonel von Hammerstein then hollered from the other side. "Quit yer harem-building and let my second get back to work!"

This time, Ariadne wasn't the only girl who sent a glare back.

----- * * * -----

Kaede took another deep breathe as she held her knuckles up to the wooden door.

I've put this off for far too long already, she childed herself.

At first it was 'still morning' and the Captain could still be asleep. After that was lunchtime and not the best moment...

By the time she finally knocked on the cabin door, it was already halfway through the afternoon.

"Come in. It's unlocked," a lighthearted voice replied from deep inside the room.

Without further excuse for delay, Kaede pushed open the thick wooden door, stepped inside, and closed it behind her.

The room looked similar to Pascal's, except only half as large and its furnishings even more basic -- a simple bed, small writing desk, and a wooden chair.

Within the bed sat Captain Karen von Lichnowsky, her face paler than Kaede remembered despite the dim lighting inside the room. She wore only a simple white blouse. Her long, wavy red hair pooled to one side atop the bedsheets, partially obscuring the shoulder stump that was the only remainder of her right arm.

"Captain von Lichnowsky," Kaede nodded with a smile that was wry at best.

She tried not to stare, but her eyes kept sneaking glances at the missing arm with every blink.

"Kaede... Suvoro... Suvorsky, right? Feel free to take a seat."

Kaede nodded before pulling up the chair, while Karen grinned back:

"I only knew you as Captain von Moltewitz's familiar until after the battle. Eckhart, Sergeant Steinmetz was the one who first told me your name. You could've said something before the fight, seeing as that was the third time HQ attached you to our unit."

"I didn't have a formal military rank," Kaede shrugged. "So I didn't... uh, want to give the wrong impressions."

"Afraid we were going to think you were a camp whore following some privileged brat?"

Kaede colored a little as she glanced away.

"Yeah... pretty much," she exhaled out.

She had received enough stares of that particular variety during her few weeks at the Königsfeld Academy to last her a lifetime. But unfortunately for her, they hadn't ended there.

"I actually thought that myself," Karen admitted with a slight nod. "It didn't help that you didn't care to talk to any of us. Just come and go, straight back to your boy noble." Then, with an amused grin: "that impression lasted right up to when you jumped off the tower and started shouting orders at me."

"Yeah, sorry about that," Kaede looked down in embarrassment as she smiled a little herself this time.

"Don't be. Your Captain... Major now, I guess, came by to apologize for your fake orders himself. Well, that and the 'fight to the last' order he passed through you. But fake or not, it saved my men's lives."

"What's left of the company, anyway," Kaede muttered. Though a part of her was wondering: how come Pascal never said sorry to me for that?

Meanwhile, Captain von Lichnowsky sighed as her expression grew solemn:

"Eighteen others survived. I'll take that over a complete loss any day. And make no mistake; had we not pivoted to face them, they'd have plowed right through our position..."

Putting down the book she held in one hand, Karen pushed herself up a little further. Her long hair then reached out towards the nearby table and poured a cup of water. After bringing it over and passing it to her remaining hand, Karen took a deep gulp before continuing on:

"Those Reiters behind us may have a ton of firepower, but they're not trained soldiers. If they were charged before von Gottschall had the time to organize them, they would have collapsed right there, and the entire line with them. The Northmen aren't exactly in the habit of taking prisoners."

Kaede had heard about that from Cecylia. To the northerners, a warrior who lived in defeat forfeited their dignity as a human and therefore no longer deserved mercy. It was an honor, not an obligation, to spare a fallen foe. But few Northmen believed that honor extended to the southerners.

"I understand, and that's why I did it, and would do it again," Kaede declared firmly. "However, that doesn't excuse when I..."

She began to falter as a lump formed in her throat.

"--You saved my life... and I... I gave the enemy an opening to take off your arm."

She could still remember that moment perfectly, when the rimefire she aimed at the enemy splashed onto the Captain's forearm and wrist. Karen had lost her grip, and her opponent seized the opportunity to cleave off her entire arm from just below the shoulders.

Yet the next thing Kaede felt was her head being patted by something unusually soft. As she looked back up and met Karen's dark-green eyes, she found the Captain smiling while her long, red hair awkwardly patted her head.

It was a grim smile, but it nevertheless carried the serenity of acceptance.

"I never thought I'd ever see someone so stupid, just leaping over the only defensive obstacle we had and exposing her neck to Housecarl Zweihanders like that. Those things could have cut your skinny butt in half even without you helping!"

The smaller girl did managed to look abashed. It was the only thing I could think of that would actually help.

"But you gave us the warning. You helped us stop the charge. And you never looked back, not even when you passed along that death sentence of an order," the Captain went on. "I've always told my troops that only family will stand by and face death together."

"So whether 3rd company stays together or not, you're family to us now," Karen acknowledged her junior with a firm nod.

With a lopsided grin, she then repeated Kaede's own words:

"And that's why I did it, and would do it again."

"But..." Kaede tried to interject, almost desperate to claim some blame for herself.

"Don't tell me you have your master's ego and think half the world revolves around you," Karen half-joked with a chuckle. But her sternness soon returned: "You, are not responsible for my arm. A Northman took away my arm, because I couldn't fight him and win."

Those words left Kaede speechless.

It wasn't fair, how the Captain had put it. Karen couldn't be faulted for that. She had fought off so many others, and she could have stalemated that giant of a man too if not for Kaede's incompetent 'assist'.

"Besides..." von Lichnowsky continued, as though reading Kaede's mind. "My swordstaff was on the verge of breaking even before I lost my hold. If you hadn't been there, he'd have finished the job. Telling me sorry? I should be thanking you instead!"

Kaede returned another wry smile, feeling humbled by the woman before her. There was no way she herself could have taken the loss of a limb so well. She would have found someone to blame, someone to lash out at.

Yet here she was... the very person responsible, and Karen von Lichnowsky was trying to make her feel better.

So this... this is what a true Captain of men is like.

Nevertheless, there was no way anyone could simply shrug away the loss of an arm, to accept being crippled for the rest of their life without bitter tears. The Captain was a strong person, but Kaede could only guess at the lonely times when Karen wept silently to herself.

For a long minute, Kaede couldn't think of anything to say, and silence dragged on between them.

In the end, it was Karen who grinned with good humor and went on:

"Well, if you feel like you owe me something, you could ask your master to lend me some money to set up my new estate. Nordkreuz's wealth is pretty famous, being the trade junction of the north and all."

It was mostly a joke. But Kaede took it completely serious:

"I'll certainly do my best, Milady. And congratulations on your new Barony. I can't think of anyone who deserves it more."


...


By the time Kaede left the cabin, over three hours had passed. The Captain had been an excellent conversationalist, and kept Kaede quite entertained with stories of all the horseplay she had seen in daily military life. It was only the need for her to finish preparing that brought an end to their chat.

With a dragoon battalion arriving at dusk to take over the Nordkapp garrison, the 1st echelon planned to move out in the morning. After several days of recuperation, those crippled by combat would be teleported back to Weichsel through a string of jumps by the battalion's logistics Captain -- an experienced Wayfarer.

Karen was in the first group, scheduled to leave later tonight.

So Kaede had wasted no time before asking Pascal about funding for her savior.

Though to her surprise, he had agreed instantly:

"I will take care of it."

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 12 - Storm Front

"You can't cast? At all?" Kaede remarked in astonishment. The spoonful of soup she raised before her mouth lay forgotten as she stared at the balding, late-forties intelligence officer sitting across the table.

Three days had passed since they broke camp from Nordkapp. But once again she sat in an expandable wooden dining hall of the exact same construction, chatting over yet more vegetable and meat jerky soup.

"Believe me I've tried; even pretended I could, back in my younger days," Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Ostergalen chuckled at himself. "But no, not even a spark. Just made me look silly."

"I did tell you that the Lieutenant-Colonel was a commoner, not a yeoman," Pascal commented from her left before taking another mouthful of his own dinner. He then nudged her over telepathy: "and you are being rude."

"Sorry..." Kaede broke off her stare and looked back down. "I didn't mean..."

"That's quite alright," Hans grinned back with a natural smile that foretold his future life as a jolly old grandpa. "I've met plenty of other commoners who were as surprised. It's certainly very unusual for an officer without any magical ability to advance beyond Captain."

"You must have worked really hard to get here," Kaede looked back up in admiration.

"I won't deny that I've always been envious of the yeomen," he admitted with a shrug. "Commanding officers from platoon to battalion level are all expected to fight alongside frontline troops and raise defensive wards. I can't cast any, so I've had to climb the ladder without a single command experience, which is not easy, believe me!"

Kaede nodded back firmly after swallowing another mouthful. Career building in the military expected a range of experiences in different roles, with combat leadership being the most important. To rise through the ranks without ever being a frontline commander was like... trying to run a marathon in crutches.

"It also doesn't help that I can only stay in the military for fifty years at most, while the mages have well over a century before they reach retirement age," Hans added, with a gradual sigh that exposed the lingering bitterness underneath his begrudging acceptance. "Still, complaining about it isn't going to change my birth. So I got over what I don't have and focused on what I do."

"Then you've got to be one of Weichsel's best analysts if you rose this high on staff experience alone," Kaede thought aloud, to which the Lieutenant-Colonel simply shrugged again.

Pascal slowly shook his head as he continued to casually stir his soup.

"Every time we get an important report he deduces more possibilities than the rest of us staff combined..."

The young Major then looked back up and firmly met his senior eye-to-eye, as though issuing a challenge:

"--Nevertheless, Sir, I would be just as good had I three decades of experience, or even just one."

"As an analyst? You'll need more than just a few years," Hans smirked back as he tilted his head and casually propped it up with his left arm, his own bowl already miraculously emptied. "Remember, my biggest lacking also gives me an advantage of sorts: unlike you, I don't have to spend thousands of hours learning to cast spells and maintaining that expertise."

"And that's a lot of time you can focus on studying Weichsel's enemies," Kaede realized, prompting a pleased, almost-smug nod from the Lieutenant-Colonel.

What's that line again? She tried to remember. Know your enemy and know yourself, and you shall not fear a hundred battles...

"For an analyst, it's important to keep up to date with news from around the world, and not just the big headlines either," Hans explained. "It often helps to understand people, especially leaders, from their more... everyday dealings; much better hints towards their preferences and values than just their spotlight image. However, scouring through that much news also takes a lot of time."

In other words, he's been info-stalking everyone that's important and building profiles on them for years...

"So do you know what makes Pascal tick then?" Kaede joked with a beaming smile.

"Talk to me afterwards," Hans whispered back openly with a playful wink.

"Sir, I must admit: conspiring against me with my familiar is not a good way of acquiring my support," Pascal grinned a little himself. "Though I am surprised that you did not request a vice brigadier position for this campaign. Brigade command hardly cares about one's capacity in spellcraft."

"This campaign will make or break the General's candidacy for Marshal," Hans replied, finally lifting his head off his propped hand and sitting back upright. "I owe General von Manteuffel everything I am today. I'm not about to abandon him in his hour of need."

Kaede found herself a bit astonished. It was hard to imagine the stone-faced General being a gracious superior. But then, he must have some virtues to gain the staunch loyalty of his subordinates -- enough to make Pascal worried about his growing influence within the army.

"And of course, if he manages that, you would have a good chance of achieving generalship yourself," Pascal noted warmly.

The flattery was most unusual for Pascal. The Lieutenant-Colonel noticed it immediately as a shade of caution crept back into his brown eyes.

"I doubt I'm ready for that even if the Holy Father finds me worthy," he replied modestly. Then, with a shrug: "I'm not anywhere near as capable as Hermann von Mittermeyer; and I certainly lack the connections."

The name was renowned enough for Kaede to recognize. Hermann Mittermeyer began his career as a mere stable boy to the young Ferdinand I von Drachenlanzen, the founding King of Weichsel. After saving the King's life in an ambush, he became one of Ferdinand's aides, where his tactical insight would propel him through the ranks to eventually become a general and marshal -- the only commoner to do so in Hyperion history.

His legacy also cemented the nation's meritocratic military traditions. Furthermore, he established a precedence for being the first non-yeoman commoner to be given a hereditary rank of nobility, though only after he married a noblewoman to ensure that his descendants had magical affinity.

"How much does it help to be able to specialize solely on one discipline?" Kaede asked.

The aphorism 'jack of all trades, master of none' could easily describe most Weichsel officers. Their training standards split a person's limited time, energy, and focus between learning martial arts, spellcraft, horsemanship, leadership, tactics, and more -- many of which were simply unnecessary in positions of high-level command. But the conundrum was that without experience as a spellsword who led from the front, those who focused the most on generalship skills also found it the hardest to actually become a general.

It was one of the greatest shortcomings for any pre-firearm military. Guns were easy to learn and use; swords and bows took years to master. Magic simply made it worse.

"You already know what it takes to train in the martial arts, especially with multiple types of weapons," Pascal began. "Learning how to cast spells is even more repetitive."

Placing his spoon back down, Pascal extended his right arm over the table, fingers extended as though about to cast a spell.

"Remember what I told you about refinement and spellcrafting?"

"Yeah," Kaede nodded, recognizing this as another one of Pascal's tests. "Mana is the free spiritual power adrift in our surroundings, produced and scattered by all living beings. Mages absorb mana through magically conductive nerves, then transmit it to the soul to be refined into ether. Ether is malleable spiritual power, which serves as the fuel for spellcrafting..."

Basically, if ether was the gasoline required to power the internal combustion engine of spells and magic items, then mana was its natural, unrefined form -- crude oil.

"Casters must use their nerve system as conduits to form an internalized spell array by channeling ether through to shape the spell," she continued on. "Ether also slowly dissipates back into mana once released into open air, hence Aura Magic uses a casting focus to condense the magical output for a hardened 'shell'."

"Correct," Pascal acknowledged before continuing on to explain. "Trying to control the flow of ether through the nerve system is no simple affair. Human biology simply was not designed for such finesse. The only way to manage is to purposefully send the ether to different parts of the body, often many locations at once. The nerves tingle as the ether courses through them, which gives the caster some sense of timing. This is important as more complicated spell arrays will often require path rerouting..."

Of course, this all means that mages could feel and somehow direct the flow of ether within their bodies.

"--Doing any of this requires great concentration and internal focus, which is hardly possible in tense situations like combat," Pascal went on. "Spell arrays must be mastered to form them swiftly and easily. Such mastery can only be accomplished through repetition. It takes thousands of times -- hours and days spent crafting the same array over and over -- for the process to be familiarized enough so that creating it becomes embedded into muscle memory."

Kaede nodded back. Motor learning was a widely adapted concept, utilized by humans on everything from vibrating vocal cords for speech to reflexive evasion while piloting a jet aircraft.

"Reminds me of how, back as a kid, I thought magic erupted from just shouting some mystical words while making dramatic gestures," the Lieutenant-Colonel chuckled to himself. "Which is just silly, when anyone actually sits down to think about it."

"The Ancient Draconic spellwords we use exist solely as mnemonics to help expedite the memorization process and to act as a trigger word," Pascal clarified. "Furthermore, mastered spellwords must be used periodically in order to retain that familiarity."

"...And then these spellwords are used together, drawing arrays one after another to form more complex spell effects that fit the needs of the situation, right?" Kaede asked.

"Precisely," said Pascal as his raised hand went back down to his dinner. "The Dawn Imperium first invented the system of Adaptive Spell Construction, which gave them an absolute advantage in magical superiority for about a century before the rest of the world followed suit. The concept is that each spellword is a mnemonic for one pattern of ether manipulation that would produce a single supernatural 'effect'. Multiple effects can be grouped together, in order of chronology and priority, to construct a single spell. 'Form' words like Field, Beam, or Sanctum then define the structure of that effect. Meanwhile 'meta' words like Catalyst and Phalanx modify the behavior of the spellcasting or spell effects."

"And with that, even an average mage with only three dozen or so spellwords mastered has thousands of permutations to choose from in how they use them," the Lieutenant-Colonel finished.

"Then what about spellwords they haven't mastered?"

Pascal's left hand then reached into an extradimensional pocket and pulled out a thick book in response to Kaede's question.

"We can still cast them, assuming the process is not too difficult for the mage's level of expertise. It just takes a lot more effort, time, and concentration."

Taking the offered book and flipping to a random page, Kaede came across a human physical diagram. Within the figure were color-coded arrow lines, drawn to trace the flow of ether when constructing the spell array. A paragraph-long description of the effect preceded it, while complicated written instructions followed the diagram. Lastly, two lists presented preferable methods on how to transition this spell array to another, as well as suggested spellwords to combine with.

"Phantasm - Tier 3 Advanced Enchantment spell," Kaede read to herself. Projects all sensory information of a non-existent, interactive physical entity into a creature's mind. The entity may be seen, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted as the caster wills, but only by the target...

"That one's quite popular with young folks, as well as red light district salons," Hans chuckled amusedly, making Kaede's cheeks darken a shade as images of virtual sex against transparent air came to mind.

Yet another tenant of man held firm: anything that could be adapted for sexual purposes was used for such.

So... this is Pascal's erotic pictures stash in his work documents folder?

Kaede raised her eyebrows as she turned to stare at him with a tiny grin... though her own cheeks were still completely flushed.

"To be clear: I am not keeping it for that."

But it doesn't preclude you from using it for that...

Pascal hurriedly cleared his throat before moving on:

"Anyway, modern spellcasting is divided into six tiers and six disciplines. The tiers are just a rough guideline of the spellword's difficulty. The disciplines -- sometimes called 'schools' -- are: alchemy and enchantment, which manipulates either physical entities or mental states, very powerful but repelled by ether resistance; conjuration and evocation, which creates physical or magical phenomenons; plus divination and illusion, which discerns or hides information about reality."

"So you can see, just learning to cast spells is like a profession on its own, let alone all the other skills a yeoman or noble cadet needs," Hans finished.

Although his eyes were no longer on Kaede or Pascal, but directed across the room where a tense, almost-distraught signal lieutenant reported in to General von Manteuffel.

Pascal noticed the same occurrence before he reached over to take back his spellbook.

"Kaede go to the HQ and fetch me the maps and reports that are on my table there," Pascal ordered firmly. "Make it quick."

Ignoring all Western dining etiquette, Kaede took her bowl with both hands and slurped down what remained of her soup in large gulps before standing up.

Back to work then.

She completely missed the glare Pascal sent her as she turned towards the door with bulging cheeks.

...

It wasn't until after Kaede left when the Lieutenant-Colonel leaned in with an amused whisper:

"Think her presence at the meeting might help your ideas?"

"Maybe. Maybe not," Pascal quietly replied. "But I have certainly learned not to underestimate her knowledge. It may be premature, but simply the experience of following tactical discussions will do her good."

He then turned back around to face his astonished senior with a slight grin:

"Father once taught me that nurturing talent is just as important to leadership as using it."

----- * * * -----

"Where are these maps you spoke of?"

Kaede glanced at the two signal officers in the room before looking back to the mostly empty writing desk. There was a stack of reports in the corner, pinned under a metal clip attached to the desk itself. But none of them had even a hand-scribbled map.

"Just pretend you are busy retrieving something for me until I get there."

"Huh? why did you send me if you're going to... oh..."

It took her thoughts a moment to catch up. Kaede's hands soon began shifting through the stack of papers and parchments, as though looking for something.

Since she was neither a company commander nor HQ staff, Pascal lacked an excuse to bring Kaede to any tactical meeting. However, if she was already present when the meeting began, then General von Manteuffel could hardly ask her to leave without sounding as though the familiar, and her master by extension, was untrustworthy. That would have been extremely rude in terms of noble propriety.

It took only a minute before the cabin door slammed open. Kaede hastily pulled a few sheets out of the stack as an incensed General von Manteuffel strode into the room.

"What was Colonel Brykalski thinking!?" his deep growl resounded in the room like rumbling thunderclouds. "His orders were to scout and impede any landing operation, not decisively engage the entire Skagen main force with just a single company!"

"That's not exactly fair, Sir," Lieutenant-Colonel Ostergalen followed the General in, alongside with Colonel Dietrich von Falkenrath of the Phantom Gale.

The youthful-looking, fifty-seven-years-old dhampir was one of von Manteuffel's most able and loyal protégés. At over one-eighty-six (6'1"), Dietrich von Falkenrath stood lean and tall, with sepia brown hair, deep emerald eyes under sharply turned eyebrows, and a short-trimmed walrus mustache that would have been fashionable during World War I. His expressions were almost always neutral; but unlike his mentor there was a constant, brooding intensity within his gaze, accentuated by two blood-red crosses.

Meanwhile, the intelligence chief was reading the sheet of paper -- a full transcript of the Farspeak message received by the signal officer earlier.

"Based on the full report, Colonel Brykalski attacked the invasion fleet vanguard, hoping to light enough ships on fire to spread confusion and disrupt their landing," Hans began to explain as his eyes scanned through the report with remarkable speed. "However the low cloud cover and mist -- the very same that hid his own approach -- also concealed the enemy's air forces until it was too late to avoid engagement. Over a hundred drake-riders dived into his formation just as he climbed out of an attack run, resulting in a chaotic melee with his North Wind Phantoms."

"Skagen's volcanic drakes can outfight several of our Phantoms in any close encounter, especially once their attack penetrates our formation and disrupts our superior cohesion. The report also states, and I quote 'we attempted repeatedly to break off, but regardless of which direction we turned, a strong gale always blew against us while lifting the wings of our foes'..."

The Lieutenant-Colonel then stared back with alarm as his fingers tapped the stiff paper:

"Sir, this is the most important piece of information that the Colonel died to bring us. Between those winds, the skywhale they saw emerging from the clouds, the advancing blizzard covering that fleet, and this unusual cold front that just came down from the North Sea -- it can't be all a coincidence, Sir."

Just as the General's cold blue eyes sent Kaede a 'what-are-you-doing-here' glare, Pascal strode in after Colonel von Bittenfeld of the Black Lancers. Kaede immediately rushed up and handed him the parchments she carried, before retreating to a nearby wall to remain seen but not heard.

"I take back what I said then," breathed General von Manteuffel as he looked back to his senior analyst. "You think it's him?"

"It doesn't have all the signs, Sir, but I am fairly... eighty-percent certain that this is the work of Admiral Winter and his Frontier Fleet -- the very same who destroyed the Caliphate's entire New World Expedition thirty years ago."

"Over a hundred drakes..." Colonel von Falkenrath puzzled aloud. "That's at least two, more likely three air groups."

"Four, if I had my guess," Hans replied. "That's how many fully-matured skywhales the Skagen forces have, based on the Eagles intel. I for one will bet on Admiral Winter using all of them as drake-carriers."

Kaede remembered drakes as one of the more fascinating creatures from her reading. They were miniature dragons -- "miniature" as in elephant-sized, instead of beings so massive they could use sport stadiums as landing pads and wrestle science-fiction starships. The dragonlords had created the drakes in their image to serve as grunt 'infantry' during the Dragon-Demon War. This made the drakes' mere existence a testament to the godly powers wielded by the dragons of Hyperion's past.

When the dragonlords departed from Hyperion, they left most of the drakes behind. Lacking intelligence and without purpose, many drake clans died out. But some, mostly those tamed by humans, remained. The volcanic drakes from Skagen's Reykjanes Islands were by far one of the most dangerous breeds.

"He's also the leading proponent of what they call the 'Massive Strike' doctrine, using concentrated aerial superiority to deliver overwhelming base strikes before his foes are even ready to engage him in decisive battle," the Lieutenant-Colonel added.

"How did he even concentrate that much under one command, given Skagen's loose structure?" a Major in the room asked.

"Admiral Vintersvend and his half-brother, Jarl Sigmundsen had used the threat of the Caliphate's New World Expedition to push this idea through decades ago. It's their sole nationalized force and supposedly takes orders only through their Jarls' Assembly... at least on parchment," the intelligence officer noted. "Many Jarls do resent the admiral for having this much power under his control."

"Which means when we defeat them, Skagen would not be able to form another battlegroup like this for who knows how long," Pascal scoffed.

There was never any doubt in his words: not if, but when.

"I thought you said that this Admiral Winter also believes in making peace with Weichsel, since in his opinion -- warring us is a waste of time and resources?" Colonel von Falkenrath inquired next.

By this point, the General began to examine the large, three-dimensional illusory map projection table in the center of the room for his options.

"He does, but he's only one of many Jarls in Skagen," Hans replied. "In fact, I'd say this makes him even more dangerous. He will likely seek a decisive and crushing victory against us in order to secure a favorable peace. That way, he'll be able to go back and focus on his own interests on the other continent, undisturbed by Hyperion politics."

Great, so we're facing a magical Yamamoto, Kaede thought.

The intelligence chief's analysis reminded her of the famous Japanese World War II Admiral. Isoroku Yamamoto also advocated naval aviation and was unflinchingly opposed to war with the Allies. Yet, after he was politically overruled, he planned and lead the devastating Attack on Pearl Harbor in the misguided hope of a swift victory against the United States.

...But Weichsel didn't have the nigh-infinite resources of the US. Nor could Isoroku Yamamoto call down a Kamikaze -- the Divine Wind that seemed to always blow in the Skagen admiral's favor.

"So..." Colonel von Falkenrath went on, "Since he landed near the border to Weichsel but still outside it, his goal must have been to reduce preemptive detection time by the 'Eye of the Dragon'. That means his target would be..."

"Nordkreuz," the General finished for him with a single word enveloped in deathly cold.

Pascal nodded in agreement:

"He is cutting our way back to Weichsel and going straight for our home base -- the center from which we launch our invasions."

"It's worse than that," Hans followed up, his voice growing more grim by the second. "Nordkreuz is one of the most powerful ley-line junctions in Northern Hyperion, and Vintersvend is a geomancer in addition to being a stormcaller. If an archmage of his caliber gains control of the junction and buys enough time to tap its magical power, he'll be able to craft a weather effect of... who knows how large? The man once devastated an entire armada with hurricane-force winds billowing strong and royal water. There is no reason he can't do the same against an army or even the whole region."

Kaede couldn't remember the chemistry terms, but strong and royal water -- 'Aqua Fortis' and 'Aqua Regis' -- were two of the most corrosive acids known to medieval alchemists. The latter was named after its ability to dissolve even noble metals like gold and platinum, which were highly resistant towards corrosion.

"The Eagles told us that the Northmen departed their home isles with about twenty-two thousand," Colonel von Bittenfeld impatiently declared. "The King has fifty thousand in Nordkreuz by now. Even with those numbers the spies estimated -- five thousand Housecarls and two thousands of those Västergötland adventurer scum, they could hardly expect to take a heavily fortified city when outnumbered that badly."

"Assuming he does not just burn Nordkreuz to the ground. After all, he hardly needs the city itself..."

Pascal clenched the projection table as his turquoise eyes darkened. He then turned to meet the General's stony gaze:

"We need to intercept him before then, Sir. Our three echelons in Skagen consists of nearly the entirety of Weichsel's cavalry, including all of our remaining air units now that the North Wind is essentially destroyed."

We've been caught overextended and out of position, Kaede thought as she surveyed the room. Many of the Captains were obviously worried. A few restless faces even revealed creeping traces of fear...

Yet the General himself was still as composed as any rock -- an unfeeling boulder that merely scoffed at the storm's attempt to dislodge him:

"This admiral has some guts, coming halfway across the world into our domain and trying to raze our city..."

It's similar, a sudden thought popped into Kaede's mind. But no... it lacks the strategic surprise Pearl had. It's actually closer to the other battle. There's even four carriers...

General von Manteuffel then looked towards his signal officers:

"Message the other echelons. Order both to head south and regroup with us west of the town of Suokamo," he pointed out on the projection map. "Make haste but avoid engagements until we meet up."

"Yes Sir!"

Without waiting for their acknowledgment, the General had already turned his gaze to sweep the rest of the room.

"All of you, assemble your men. Tonight we ride south, and we will not stop until we are ready to have whalemeat for dinner."

"Yes Sir!" returned an assembly of salutes and snapping boots.

Meanwhile, a puzzled Pascal queried Kaede over telepathy:

"What is so nostalgic about this?"

"Eh...? It just reminds me of something from my world," she replied. "The Northmen fit the attackers quite well, apart from those crazy flying whales. But the defenders won that fight, so the concepts might be useful..."

Just as the first captain reached the cabin door, it was pushed open to allow a striding princess through. Sylviane still wore burning steel plates over her cerulean battledress. Her long hair and cinder cape billowed white-blue embers with every step. Her cheeks were also bright red and pink, which alongside her slightly labored breathing revealed a rushed return from her last mission.

"Your Highness," the General turned about with a bare nod for courtesy. "The Skagen main force has landed. We are breaking camp and riding south. I'll explain along the way, but we must leave now."

The biggest advantage of shrinking cabins wasn't actually the better accommodations, but how little time it took set up and take down encampments.

"So are you going to tell me?" Pascal asked again, dragging Kaede's attention back to their conversation as they turned to head out.

"Right. Well, it happened near an island called Midway..."

----- * * * -----

"Major von Moltewitz: you've been oddly quiet this entire time."

Pascal's attention shifted back to the command telepathy channel. The staff officers had been repeating their prior analysis to Princess Sylviane. Pascal saw no purpose for yet another mime, so he had spent his time in discussion with Kaede over their private bond instead.

Progress was slow at start, since his familiar was distracted by the fear of being tossed off her horse amid the gallop. So Pascal had cast a sticking spell to glue her cute butt to the saddle again. A Night Sight spell -- offering monochrome sight at half range -- also helped offset the near-darkness they rode in, since lighting was minimized to reduce the chances of being detected from afar.

"I was drafting details for a tactical plan, Sir," Pascal replied.

"Let's hear what you have then," the General requested dispassionately, as though merely a formality.

"We know the enemy will try to hide their skywhales in the cloud cover. We know they cannot separate from their main force without being pinpointed by the 'Eye of the Dragon'. Unfortunately, we will not know when they launch their air groups, since a hundred some drakes plus their riders is below the detection threshold of the 'Eye'..." Pascal summed up the basics first before continuing on.

"--Nevertheless, that still gives us a crushing advantage on information. We know exactly where to find them and how to tail them, while they do not even know when we shall return to Weichsel. Furthermore, the main army at Nordkreuz can inform us of when their strikes hit -- during which time their skywhales will be lightly defended from air attacks."

Weichsel might not have any propeller-driven 'torpedo' or 'dive bombers' that Kaede spoke of, but the Knights Phantom were more adaptable and just as deadly.

"My plan is that we ride up behind the Northmen army and follow them. Once Nordkreuz confirms a full scale air attack, we send all of our Knights Phantom in and assault their skywhales. Our goal is to destroy those armored beasts protecting the drakes and hopefully kill their admiral alongside them. Without the skywhales to carry their supplies or shelter their drakes, we can easily cripple their remaining forces with further harassment from the air. Once we achieve air dominance, Skagen loses any chance of taking Nordkreuz and will have no choice but to retreat to their ships -- assuming they are still there..."

Pascal held no doubt about the operation's second stage. As soon as they cleared the threat to Nordkreuz, the objective would shift to destroying the moored Skagen fleet. Without their ships, that army of twenty-two thousand would be stranded on the mainland, cut off from supplies, and harried from all sides -- a textbook opportunity for complete destruction.

"Stop," the General interrupted. "Captain Baumann, reduce main channel down to staff officers and Phantom commanders. I want operational security on a strict need-to-know basis."

"Yes Sir."

As the General's Communication Officer, it was the Captain's job to assemble telepathic networks for conferences. She also directed the other HQ signal lieutenants and made sure all signal officers in the army knew whom to contact for what.

"Finished, Sir," the young Captain's voice resounded once more.

"Continue," von Manteuffel ordered.

But before Pascal could move on, it was Hans who interjected first:

"Major, even with their main air groups away, those skywhales will likely still retain a formidable combat air patrol."

"That is why we will launch two separate waves," Pascal clarified.

He thought back again to the surface strike and high-altitude attack combination used by the 'American' torpedo and dive bombers. Just like those aircraft that Kaede spoke of, it was important that he utilized each Phantoms unit in the correct role. With the North Wind destroyed, Weichsel had five companies of them remaining, although only two of them still held a full complement of one-sixty:

1st Knights Phantom -- the Black Lancers -- a company fully equipped with armored gryphons and excelled at frontal charges. They had the best chance of going toe to toe against the drakes.

3rd -- Phantom Gale -- an all-weather combat unit led by Colonel von Falkenrath. He was one of Weichsel's best stormcaller mages, albeit still nowhere as good as the Skagen admiral.

4th -- Falcon Force -- specialists of high speed attacks, using either explosive munitions or kinetic strikes. These men would be perfectly at ease diving down from a high attitude.

5th -- Dawn Sky -- unit with a fetish for fire and light magic, led by the near-sociopathic Colonel Rudel. His men had a reputation for methodical yet unparalleled destruction.

Lastly but not least, the new Ghost Riders company. They were led by the capable von Hammerstein, but still too inexperienced to have a specialist tradition.

"We send the first wave on a level attack against the skywhales. The Phantom Gale can form a wind tunnel and clear a path through any acidic rainclouds they throw at us. The goal is to draw in the enemy's combat air patrol, which the Black Lancers and Ghost Riders will engage."

Pascal wished they were still standing around a projection table. Tactical explanations were so much easily when they could configure three-dimensional diagrams to show and tell.

"Meanwhile, a second wave will move into position, hidden in the upper clouds. They will dive down and attack the skywhales from above once the enemy drakes are engaged. The Dawn Sky and Falcon Force will be charged to deliver precision strikes against those whales, or more specifically -- their blowholes."

The blowholes were a relic of the whales' non-magical ancestors. But since all biological creatures needed a vent for air intake, their evolution left this sole weakness on the skywhales' hardened heads.

Kaede had likened it to a 'thermal exhaust port', which in this context made absolutely no sense.

"Those skywhales will likely carry considerable numbers of anti-air troops on their backs," the Lieutenant-Colonel voiced again. "Especially towards the front to guard such a vulnerability."

"That is why the second wave features two companies when only one could manage the attack," Pascal highlighted. "Although it would be nice to increase those numbers, it is imperative that the first wave be sufficiently convincing as the 'main attack'."

"In that case it would be best if I lead the first wave," Sylviane's intent words joined in at last. "An Oriflamme's presence will no doubt draw their undivided attention. Those volcanic drakes might be tough against fire, but a phoenix's flames will scorch them just the same."

Again, sighed Pascal. Once again she is off to the front while... what am I even going to do this battle?

The thought of holding her back never even occurred to him. The mere idea of stopping an Oriflamme Paladin from committing to battle was utterly absurd. Pascal's only worry was that since he lacked a Knight Phantom's training, he wouldn't even have anything to do this battle other than twiddling his thumbs from a distance.

"The general plan is acceptable. I will ride alongside Her Highness in the first wave," the General replied in his usual voice after a moment's consideration. "But given the factors of uncertainty, we need to hold the Dawn Sky back as a reserve. The Ghost Riders will be assigned to the second wave instead. Colonel von Hammerstein will dive ahead of the Falcons and clear a path through hostile anti-air."

His own concerns tossed aside, Pascal's alertness piqued back up at once.

Despite their achievements in the past week, the Ghost Riders was still an inexperienced unit. To throw them at the skywhales' formidable air defenses alone...

He is using them as fodder!

Pascal almost retorted before holding back his thoughts. Apart from the stupidity of accusing one's superior, he couldn't really fault von Manteuffel for such thinking. Being the newest and least trained of the Phantoms naturally made the Ghost Riders the most expendable.

...Even if his own niece is among them.

Perhaps what alarmed Pascal the most was the possibility that von Manteuffel actually gambled on that. After all, units that undertook the most dangerous assignments also had the most valor to gain. Ariadne was to either return with honors... or not at all.

It was entirely callous. Yet for ambitious, competitive officers like Ariadne, or those yeomen desperately trying to prove that they were just as good as any noble, such excellent opportunities were also exactly what they sought.

"In that case, I recommend we augment the Ghost Riders with all the siphons and remaining rimefire we captured at Nordkapp," Pascal suggested. "It would give them an edge in penetrating any heavy warding on top of those whales."

"Agreed, the General consented.

"There is also another question to consider," von Falkenrath pointed out next. "What is our best means of maximizing damage through those blowholes for the Falcons to use?"

A quiet moment followed as everyone put their brains to work. Then...

"Well, since it's their nostrils, I suggest we pump it full of pheromones and make the whales go into a sexual frenzy," an enthusiastic voice erupted from one of the officers.

Pascal actually wasn't sure whom that was.

Moron...

Had there been any telepathic crickets, their chirping would have filled the channel's utter silence.

"This is... quite literally the most, uh, imaginative idea I've ever heard of," the intelligence chief commented at last. "I'm sorry but... I don't even know what to say about it."

"Try absurd," von Manteuffel said with total indifference. "Perhaps ridiculous, preposterous."

Pascal couldn't help but scoff as he passed the absurdity of the day to Kaede:

"Someone just proposed 'sex pheromones' as a medium of attack."

"Well, that United States I spoke of once tried to produce a 'gay bomb' that would supposedly turn soldiers sexually irresistible to each other..."

"Yet more evidence that your world is crazy."

Pascal rushed through his sardonic reply this time, but only because Colonel von Falkenrath began speaking again:

"Sir, as crazy as it sounds, that idea may be on the right track. We are attacking the air intake. It would make sense to utilize a hazardous or paralytic airborne compound, possibly a respiratory poison."

"Sensible, at least," stated the General. "Any ideas?"

Silence returned once more in the channel, then...

"Prussic acid," came a voice Pascal recognized as Lieutenant-Colonel von Fahrenheit, vice commander of the Black Lancers. "It's a toxic gas that inhibits respiration, is easy to create, and is also extremely flammable."

"Once we hit them, those whales won't just suffocate. They'll burn from the inside."

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 13 - Massive Strike

Torsten Asgeirsen closed his eyes as he immersed his thoughts in the icy winds.

He rode atop his drake at the head of the column, flying through clear morning skies above the thick clouds and the raging blizzard below. Without the enchanted shirt he wore under heavy drakeskin armor, the cold air buffeting his exposed face would have left ice crystals in his thin beard. Yet to an experienced Outrider, the feeling of cutting through wintry winds was the epitome of blissful serenity.

No man could become an Outrider without loving this paradise. To appreciate the flawless beauty of the open heavens, unveiled from bashful clouds and untouched by the desires of men -- such was the duty of every being who wished to master the skies.

The Wickers' air cavalry simply did not understand it. Despite all their three-dimensional combat training, they had no real feel for aerial maneuvers. To them, the skies were just multiple layers of flat plains at different altitudes.

Torsten almost felt sorry for those poor heathens... almost.

After all, those Wickers -- and the Imps who once backed them -- were the aggressors. They were the ones who settled upon the Hyperboreans' promised land and began over a thousand years of enmity. All the wars that resulted were entirely their fault.

They deserved to die.

...Or so he told himself.

Torsten did not like this mission, if he were to be honest. There was no glory in massacring a civilian populace through aerial bombardment. But the Weichsel army gathering there left him no choice.

As the firstborn son of Admiral Asgeirr Vintersvend and the commander of Polarlys' air group, it was his duty to lead the assault. Against this duty to his people, his nation, his family and his comrades and his friends, his personal feelings and sense of ethics weighed next to nothing.

He focused on his Pathfinder guidance spell once more and realized that the distance to Nordkreuz had fallen under a kilopace at last.

As soon as fresh intelligence revealed that the Wickers in the Skagen Peninsula were rushing back, Torsten's father -- Admiral Winter -- pushed his skywhales ahead of the main army. It was a gamble, but the only way to seize Nordkreuz with an inferior force was to destroy the city and its fortifications first. To deliver an overwhelming bombardment, the Admiral needed full air groups, undiminished by running air battles or interdictions.

Therefore the strike on Nordkreuz could not wait. Torsten and his men had sortied as soon as their payloads were attached.

Their mission: to lay waste to the city and return before the Weichsel Phantoms could arrive.

It's time.

Torsten pulled four pebbles from his pocket and threw them into the air. The runes on them triggered as they left his hand, bursting into flares of red, blue, yellow, and black. They formed an emergency call for aid in Hyperborean maritime communications. But on the precipice of battle, the combination carried yet another special meaning:

'The fate of our people lies in your hands.'

"Commence attack," Torsten sent to squadron leaders over the command telepathy channel as he pulled his drake into a leftward dive. "Group Polarlys with me to eastern gate and army camp; Group Lyngbakr to southwestern docks and camp; Group Hafgufa to southern gate and camp; and Group Livjatan the central city and main docks. Brothers! Let's send these Wickers to the freezing mists of Hel!"

He didn't really need to repeat their orders. His men were the best and already knew their jobs. But he felt the moment needed a touch more 'oomph' to precede his last line. Unfortunately, his father hadn't passed down much in the ways of oratory skills.

"Yes Sir!"

The strike groups began splitting up even before their commanders responded. Volcanic drakes in cloudy-gray illusory camouflage banked away from the aerial armada by the dozens. The separate units looked less like formations and more like tiny hordes as they plunged straight into the clouds without reforming.

Skagen Outriders didn't practice the neat arrays their Weichsel counterparts fought in. But then, they didn't need to. They much preferred scrambling the battle into one giant mess and letting individual superiority carry the day.

Torsten activated two more runestones just as he dived out of the freezing clouds. His eyes began to radiate an icy blue as their Snow Sight pierced the blizzard. His partner's retracted wings also shimmered faintly, embraced by a Stormblessed spell that always shifted the winds to its favor.

After verifying his target in the distance, Torsten tugged the reins and swerved right before urging his drake into a yet steeper plunge.

Thirty-one more volcanic drakes followed in his wake. Each of them dived towards the ground at a slightly different angle. Each rider aimed for a separate cluster of tents and buildings as gravity accelerated them through over a thousand paces of air, basking them in the thrill of free fall just before the kill.

Seven hundred... six hundred... five hundred!

"DROP! DROP! DROP!" Torsten shouted over both the howling winds and the telepathy channel.

Releasing his reins for a moment, Torsten first touched two runes in the front of his saddle. They disengaged the 'safety' sticking spells that kept the payload containers closed. He then reached behind and grabbed two small metal loops held up by the back of his saddle. Yanking both forward with all his strength, he pulled out the heavy duty cords attached to each loop. These cords fed through several pulleys, around the drake's sides, and connected to the lids of two long, metal boxes bound to the mount's underside.

Tugged back by the cords, the container lids slid open, revealing hundreds of fist-sized stones.

As Torsten took back his reins and urged his drake out of its dive, gravity and the velocity gap accelerated those rocks out of their compartment. They scattered into the air as they emerged, forming two rough 'blankets' of massed bomblets that fell toward the gatehouse below.

Every one of them had one or more runes inscribed.

They came in numerous varieties, from single-spell runestones that exploded in lightning or shrapnel, to multi-spell combinations that could penetrate structures and set interiors ablaze. There were even runes attached to shrunken down barrels of noxious alchemical liquids.

But the most dangerous kind came from the Admiral himself. Packed all the way in the back to avoid being struck by counterspells, these runestones surrounded themselves with a Dispel Barrier once they entered free fall to protect against Ether Seekers and other antimagic. After they landed, the Animated rocks would roll until they struck earth or stone ground. From there, high-powered Tectonic spells would reach deep underground and send violent tremors throughout the city.

With over a hundred runestones per container, two containers per drake, and four groups totaling one-hundred-twenty-eight drakes, Torsten's strike force would dump more than twenty-six thousand magical munitions over the city of Nordkreuz.

Amidst the blizzard brought forth by Admiral Winter, the skies literally rained death.

----- * * * -----

General Wiktor von Falkenhausen looked down as he examined his arcane pocketwatch. He could hear its faint ticking, managed by a combination of mechanical durability and magical precision. The device had a reputation for being faultlessly accurate, which meant that he had been standing outside, in the heavy snow, for thirty-eight minutes and thirteen seconds already.

He wasn't really bothered by it. Every mage had at least one set of enchanted clothing that kept him comfortable and dry regardless of weather. Such conveniences were just another part of the Holy Father's blessing for those who carried the burdens of leadership.

Prayers from the blessed to the Holy Father have ended with Noblesse Oblige for as long as Hyperion history remembered. Certainly, there were always some who forsook their duties and flouted their gifts; but Wiktor himself had always taken those two words seriously.

Although he was ashamed to admit: he had not prayed to the Holy Father for about three weeks now -- not since the Caliphate declared war on their ally; not even after his daughter Cecylia left home for her first war.

Of course he was worried. What father worthy of the role did not worry, even if it was his fourth child in the military? Well, third, since he had already lost one.

But what would prayers accomplish?

He had faith the Holy Father would look after her immortal soul. It was her worldly health that concerned him.

After all, Cecylia's toughness was entirely an act. Growing up, she had fallen ill more times than the rest of the family combined. Wiktor often wondered if she would have lived past childhood at all, if it wasn't for magical healing.

Had it been up to him, she would not have gone to the Academy at all.

The argument that resulted from that was not pretty. It was the only time Cecylia had ever accused him of anything, let alone of being a 'humongous hypocrite'. Wiktor had achieved his successful military career with the support of the family, yet he had attempted to confine her options while expecting other parents to give up their children for the interests of the state.

That episode with his 'baby girl' had left him sulking in a dark corner of his estate for hours...

In fact, it was still depressing to think about.

Wiktor had relented in the end. Then one thing had led to another and now, here he was, standing on the fortified walls of Nordkreuz while she risked life and limb behind enemy lines.

So much for parents protecting their child, he thought.

The only help he could offer her was to perform as his duty called: strive to bring this war to a swift and decisive end.

Therefore, instead of praying, Wiktor had busied himself managing more materialistic tasks -- like making sure every commoner who answered the call-to-arms had adequate winter coats, pants, and socks.

There were some who scoffed at such trivialities, mocking him as the 'Accountant General'. Wiktor replied by asking them how their men were supposed to win battles with their stomaches empty, their toes frostbitten, and their lips sealed by frozen snot.

Now, such logistical work paid its dividends. Tens of thousands of men have been standing outside in the blizzard, some exposed for over an hour already. They might be cold and miserable, but he could at least be confident that none were freezing to death.

The moment General Wiktor von Falkenhausen received news that a smaller Skagen force numbering over fifteen hundred pushed ahead of their main army, he had sent orders for every camp in Nordkreuz to rally. Tactically, he couldn't think of any reason to send a small, advanced ground force to a fortified city, which meant the detachment was most likely the skywhale battlegroup.

There was only a short window of opportunity to bombard Nordkreuz before the Knights Phantom could return.

Wiktor had sent the civilians to basement cellars and the most of the infantry out into the empty fields. From there over forty thousand soldiers would wait out the bombardment, their presence concealed by illusory snow-covered hills.

The city itself? Only a local garrison of three thousand manned its fortifications, plus another eight hundred magic-capable officers from the army units. King Leopold and his Black Eagles also remained inside the city as a symbol of faith; though the Garrison Headquarters building he stayed at was the most heavily-warded structure within the city.

The King was brave, not stupid.

Unlike less composed rulers, he also didn't demand a sortie to meet the enemy head on. Without aerial combat training and amidst a blizzard, sending infantry spellswords up into the air would merely be presenting the enemy with easy targets -- thousands of targets who could shoot back, but targets nonetheless.

Manpower had always been one of Weichsel's strategic weaknesses. There was no point to winning one battle, or even one war, only to leave themselves easy prey for another ambitious neighbor.

"DRAKES SIGHTED! INCOMING!"

The shout came from a spotter who also stood atop the East Gatehouse. Even with Snow Sight, it was hard to pinpoint drakes in the middle of a raging blizzard. His third word indicated that they were already unleashing their payloads.

"RAISE WARDS! LAUNCH SEEKERS! SIGNAL ALL UNITS TO FIRE AT WILL!" The General yelled over the howling winds.

"Solar Burst!"

Two of the signalers were the first to act as they fired rays high up into the air and straight towards the riders. Had it not been for the snowstorm, the glaring red-orange light that soon erupted would have blinded anyone who delayed covering their eyes.

...Or in the case of the gatehouse officers: if they hadn't put on their orange-tinged goggles in time.

Nevertheless, Wiktor could still feel his face tingle irritatingly as the light washed over him. Dhampirs were severely allergic to sunlight, or any magic that imitated it. Had it not been for the Sunward spells they used every day, his skin would have sizzled and cracked right there.

Even with it, his face still felt hot and raw, as though from a harsh sunburn.

But there was no time to heal such trivial wounds.

In the heavy snow, Wiktor soon noticed another hazy glare of light coming from the west -- in the direction of the Garrison Headquarters.

The King's position in center city was also under attack.

Meanwhile, his own mages had started adding layers of defensive screens and autonomous shields above them. The remaining spellcasters, himself included, reached out with their gloves and began firing off swarms of Ether Seekers around the rim of their protective wards.

Dozens of multicolored lights turned into hundreds as a nonstop torrent of spellfire shot up into the skies.

The gatehouse had been turned into a bastion of anti-air interdiction fire, and it wasn't the only one.

The General had stripped over eight hundred mages from the assembled army and reorganized them into units of twenty-five each. He had placed them atop the most sturdy buildings in Nordkreuz, with orders to pour counterspells into the skies en masse unless a drake actually moved in to engage them. At the same time, the assigned defensive casters of each group would dedicate themselves to protecting the rest from overhead bombardment.

If it wasn't for the vision-obscuring blizzard, dozens of rooftops spraying thousands upon thousands of glowing projectiles skyward would have made a stunning light show.

But today, the act was only beginning.

Ether Seeker was a simple, independent spell that relied on numbers over precision. As a 'cast and forget' type of spell, it was capable of autonomously hunting multiple incoming sources of ether -- so long as they weren't other Ether Seekers. They disrupted en-route spells by interdicting them with unstable, foreign ether. However, their ability to find targets was limited by proximity, which made it important for them to cross paths with hostile spells.

In this blizzard, merely spotting the fist-sized falling rocks those drakes dumped against ground targets was hard enough. Discerning their trajectory in the howling winds? Impossible.

Had anyone been keeping track, it was likely that the defenders of Nordkreuz would score a new record tonight -- the lowest accuracy ever in massed Ether Seeker use.

As the General and his men continued to launch one salvo after another, many of them firing half-blindly, the first batch of falling runestones finally struck ground.

The very first rock actually hit a tavern just inside the gate. It disintegrated a hole through the roof, fell through, and exploded into fiery pellets that set the entire second floor hallway ablaze.

Such munitions fell from the skies in scattered droves, blanketing entire building blocks at a time with explosions. Their detonations ensued in such rapid succession that it was impossible to tell them apart. The erupting thunder of dozens or even hundreds blended together, forming a cacophony of destruction that stifled even the howling winds.

The layered wards over the gatehouse had not been spared either. Hostile ether flashed and discharged against them. Dozens of spellshields and protective screens were torn asunder in the blink of an eye, tearing holes through the defenses that sheltered the gatehouse platoon.

Those standing near the northern battlements were the first to fall as runes blasted them with fire and thunder. The intense bombardment overpowered their personal wards by sheer brute force before reaping the lives of men.

Yet that was merely the beginning...

One of the un-shrunken barrels crashed into a battered spellshield overhead, spilling its contents into a volatile mixture of airborne liquids. Two individually-stable alchemical compounds soon mixed together and reacted with the air. Combustion was nearly instantaneous, transforming it into a falling carpet of rimefire that burned its way through remaining wards as though consuming oil-soaked sheets.

In one moment, an entire squad had stood near the gatehouse's volley-fire springal, lead by the leader of Wiktor's bodyguards. A second later, they were but shrieking humanoid shapes of burning flesh, collapsing amidst a pool of flames in the very vision of hell.

Not even a seasoned officer could witness such calamity and remain unshaken. The General almost fell into shock as his remaining bodyguards shielded him while pulling him away.

...And that was when the ground trembled.

It didn't just shake and rattle; it convulsed violently. Had it not been for the blizzard, Wiktor would have seen the very streets pitch and yaw as though paved stones now rode stormy seas.

Homes wobbled and collapsed in seconds.

Stones walls snapped like twigs into crumbling segments.

Yet even amidst the carnage as the quakes swept him off his feet, the General's mind snapped back to realize his one fatal mistake:

They had been too preoccupied by the fact that an 'air admiral' who achieved fame through nautical glory and weather dominance had led their enemies. With limited resources, Wiktor had focused the defensive preparations on reinforcing roofs, not beams and pillars.

But Admiral Winter was also an archmage geomancer, whose attack caught the fortifications with only basic seismic resistance. Now, the urban districts buckled under earthquake tremors that were magnitude eight at least, possibly even nine...

Wiktor's plans might have spared the army, but what of the City of Nordkreuz? The transit junction and trade center of Northern Hyperion?

The General feared if there would even be a city to look upon once the weather cleared.

Then, as though the situation wasn't bad enough, even the reinforced gatehouse collapsed under its accumulated damage.

----- * * * -----

Colonel Lindsay de Martel watched silently from her post as Geoffroi Jean de Gaetane, the Emperor of Rhin-Lotharingie, silently circled the massive map projection table.

The 'War Room' of the Rhin-Lotharingie Royal Palace had been cleared of everyone except a squad of Royal Armigers from the Highland Guard, who were all well-practiced in the art of being seen but not heard. Only the Emperor's heavy footsteps resounded across the marble hall, a chamber large enough to fit nearly a hundred and still serve a modest celebration.

But no celebratory news had passed through those mahogany doors in years.

Today, the Emperor was here in a pensive mood.

News from the southern front had been mixed at best. The sworn trio -- Gervais, Laurent, and Edgard -- had stopped the Cataliyan advance at the second line mountain passes after several bitter struggles that exhausted both sides. The elderly Cosette and Gaston also scored a pyrrhic victory on the Inner Sea coast, forcing the Caliphate back after destroying the anchored fleet supplying their advance.

But in the southwest, Edith was forced to retreat again and again as the Cataliyans pushed through one county after another.

It wasn't really her fault. The lady affectionately dubbed Estelle the Polar Cross by the army had done her best. But unlike Cosette, Edith was still young, relatively inexperienced, and responsible for defending a flat, coastal corridor over ninety-kilopaces wide. She had to fight an enemy nearly thrice her force in numbers, while having little naval support and few natural barriers to take advantage of.

Only a prodigy could win against such odds.

The reason Edith had been chosen for the western flank of the battlefront was because Rhin-Lotharingie could afford to lose more territory there. But after a string of failures, she was rapidly running out of room to give. Once the enemy circled around the South Lotharingie Mountains, they would be in position to outflank the entire second defense line.

Determined to prevent such a breakthrough, Emperor Geoffroi had sent every available force south. Even the Capital Garrison at Alis Avern had been stripped down to a measly two thousand.

Lindsay was one of the few commanders remaining behind, now responsible for palace security with less than three hundred troops. They were spread thin across the massive complex, laughably easy for assassins to sneak past.

...Especially Imperial Assassins: the renowned Mantis Blades, who recently added another Marshal to their long list of victims.

Hence why she was in this huge war room rather than inspecting the patrols. Lindsay had been following the Emperor every hour of every day since she had been left in charge, even sleeping against his bedroom door.

Actually, that only happened once.

Geoffroi had angrily told her that since she insisted upon being there, she could either sleep in one of the adjacent royal family bedrooms or he would drag her into his own.

His blue-violet eyes were completely serious too.

Lindsay certainly would not forfeit her duty just because of a threat from her sovereign. Royal Armigers were not selected for such low personal integrity. But even mere rumors of having an affair with the Emperor would surely destroy her reputation and career. Perhaps even worse, it would ruin her relationship with Crown Princess Sylviane -- her pupil in martial arts whom she had come to adore.

That left her with only one choice.

The nearest bedroom belonged to Geoffroi's deceased wife, who died ten years ago yet her personal effects were still exactly maintained. With no intention to intrude upon such a sanctuary, Lindsay borrowed the Princess' couch down the hall instead.

Sylviane would just have to forgive her rudeness in these unusual times.

I wonder how the Princess is doing in the frozen north...

Lindsay's attention soon snapped back to present as Joyeuse -- the cerulean phoenix perched on Geoffroi's shoulder -- stretched out her wings and squawked a sharp warning.

"Blaze Ignition."

Without hesitation, the Emperor called upon his phoenix before activating the arming pendant he wore over his heraldic surcoat. A cascade of bright blue poured out of the pendant's sapphire centerpiece and engulfed his body. Inside three seconds, the wraps of ether condensed into smooth, hardened surfaces, before evaporating into the air to reveal a perfectly-fitting suit of half-plate armor that covered his muscular bulk.

The phoenix Joyeuse was also no longer in sight. Instead, the white-blue embers that drifted off the Emperor gave clear evidence to their unison.

Meanwhile Lindsay, like every other armiger in the room, already wore her armor. She merely stretched out her right hand, activated her storing glove, and felt the sturdy chains of her heavy meteor hammer erupt into her fingers.

"Defensive spells!" she ordered as they weaved one ward after another upon themselves.

Her striding boots had yet to reach the entrance when the heavy mahogany doors crashed open. They revealed a frantic armiger in bloodstained plate mail clutching his wounded neck.

"We're under---"

That was as far as he croaked before another man in white half-plate rushed up from behind and rammed a bastard sword straight through his cuirass.

Silence field, Lindsay instantly recognized the signs. There was no other way a man could dash forth in heavy plate without making a single sound, even though she stood no more than five meters away.

"Negation Surge."

Before the assailant could even finish retrieving his sword, a studded sphere of metal smashed his white helmet into the door and pulverized it. With his skull crushed, the swordsman collapsed to the floor alongside the Lotharin armiger he had just killed.

Lindsay retrieved the mace-like head of her meteor hammer with a single yank. For a moment she continued to stare at the corpse, alarmed yet puzzled. The intruder wasn't dressed like a Mantis Blade by any means. In fact, he wore white plate armor with gold stripes.

...A Knight Templar.

Her eyes sprang wide with dismay as apprehension struck. Templars did not infiltrate castles to assassinate. They were a battlefield force who crushed their enemies wholesale.

They were also the paramilitary branch of the Papal Inquisition, whose greatest current foe just happened to be the excommunicated Emperor standing behind her.

How many of them are within the Palace already? And just how did they get inside?

Lindsay's first question was answered within the minute as a chorus of clanking steel emerged from just down the hall.

There was no longer any purpose for the enemy to hide their numbers.

Their surprise had been total and complete.

The next templar through those doors blocked her crushing attack with his tower shield. But instead of charging straight at her, he fanned off to one side, followed by seven other shielded knights to form a 'V' just inside the door.

With their beachhead established, dozens more poured through. They spread out towards both flanks, threatening to envelope the defenders in the center of the room. Yet despite their absolute advantage in numbers, despite losing another head to Lindsay's meteor hammer, not a single one charged forth to attack.

What are they waiting for?

Pressured by their numbers, Lindsay fell three steps back to the defensive chevron her Royal Armigers had formed.

It was a desperate gesture of resistance. They were twelve against dozens, with what sounded like hundreds more just waiting outside. These were no lowly soldiers either; every one of them wore plate mail of the highest quality, affordable to only a proper knight.

How did they...

Lindsay had yet to finish her thought before a familiar figure stepped through.

"Gabriel," Geoffroi's stiff voice rang out from behind her. "You traitorous bastard."

The lean and handsome Prince stopped between the two V-wings of templars. As a man who seemed just past his prime, his features looked every bit like the Emperor's younger brother. He had the same plum-black hair, the same blue-violet eyes, only thinner and modest in height compared to his imposing liege.

Except Gabriel was actually the older brother -- the royal firstborn who failed his test to summon a phoenix and thus forfeited the throne.

The traitorous Duke wore a sad yet beautiful smile, as though nostalgic over the sight of an old friend. His cuirass displayed the same Gaetane heraldry as Geoffroi's own. However his hands held not a mace or flail weapon appropriate to Lotharin noblemen, but a sleek arming sword of the Church. Countless tiny, floating crucifixes of glowing gold surrounded him in a sphere of brilliance, marking his new status as a champion of the faith.

So much for your 'reinforcements', Lindsay thought bitterly.

With most of Rhin-Lotharingie's intelligence efforts directed south, Gabriel must have easily hid the templars within his army as 'mercenaries'. They were originally marching south to join the front lines, taking the riverside road that passed Lake Alise. Lindsay wasn't exactly sure how Gabriel took hundreds of men across the lake unnoticed. But with the Capital Garrison so understaffed, even a single bribed sentry could open a doorway of opportunity.

Especially when the Pope had swayed countless devotees against His Majesty.

Once those templars were on the island, there was no stopping them. The royal prince who led them once accompanied the adventurous adolescent Geoffroi. Those two grew up within these palace grounds and knew every nook, cranny, and secret passageway.

"I know our mother always favored me, but please do not be so unkind towards her heavenly soul," replied Gabriel, his wistful smile never faltering.

"No, you were adopted," Geoffroi declared straight. "Our parents simply never had the heart to kick you back out."

Really?

Lindsay blinked in surprise before taking Geoffroi's words into consideration. For a moment she had believed his statement for real.

"Save your bad jokes, Geoffroi. I am here to request your surrender and abdication."

"Which Emperor has ever surrendered to a pretender and failure?" Geoffroi spoke back through scathing tones as he deployed his heavy weapon from extradimensional storage and slammed its butt into the ground.

The steel-shafted polearm was built like a halberd, except with a studded cylindrical mace beneath the long spike. Attached to the mace's side was a crescent blade, jutting out like a pair of bull's horns.

"Which Emperor has ever been excommunicated by his head of faith?" his brother retorted, all traces of his smile vanishing behind a stern and sorrowful gaze. "You have already broken the law of kings. Had you not turned your back on the Holy Father who entrusted you with this realm, I would have no need to demand your crown."

Yet despite facing such accusations, the Emperor began to chuckle. It soon grew to a deep, derisive laugh that revealed his incredulity and contempt for the irony of the situation:

"So that gold-draped puppet, His Holiness, decided that you were a better alternative? You, who failed the phoenix's test three times!? You, who fled from your duties as a prince of the realm!? Whose hermaphroditic character contained neither the steadfast decisiveness of men nor the sensible judgment of women? Ha!"

Emperor Geoffroi barked another laugh as he gently pushed Lindsay aside and stepped in front of his guards. White-blue flames radiated away from his beefy size and splashed against the glowing shields of the templars, forcing them to step back as he continued on:

"You were never fit to rule, Gabriel, and I can tell you why. Because the phoenixes knew, just as I did, that you are a cynical, faithless sinner. A homosexual, impregnated by the Devil's lust and devoid of the Father's grace. Yet the Church would pick you for a champion? Just whom is it that the den of corruption represent now!?"

A few of the Knights Templar turned their armet helmets, glancing towards their leader in question and doubt. But most of them never even hesitated.

Neither did Duke Gabriel.

"Has your conscience deserted you to madness, Geoffroi?" the pretender softly asked through a mask of pity. "Does my long and loving marriage not speak for itself? Or are you so corrupted that you hear naught but the Devil's slander? Arrogant enough to believe yourself superior in judgment to all the lords who stand with me, even the representative of the Holy Father himself?"

"What lords," Lindsay spat out in anger. "Those not hoodwinked by your lies are clearly all traitors like yourself!"

"A true patriot does not side blindly with tyrants, Colonel," Gabriel's eyes softened as they shifted onto her. "I have no wish to antagonize the Mackay-Martel family. I respect your devotion, but it is wasted on such an apostate. Please stand aside. I personally guarantee you and your men an honorable surrender and safe return to your lands."

"The Guard dies! It does not surrender! Certainly not to vermin like you!" she declared as her right hand continued to twirl the heavy meteor hammer.

"As you wish," Gabriel replied back with a slight bow before issuing his order:

"Send them all to Purgatory."

"To Hell with you first!" Geoffroi cried out as he raised his halberd-mace off the ground. "Flamebreak!"

A corona of white-blue fire burst forth from his armored body, expanding outwards to engulf row after row of knights. Within the nimbus of a maximum-power eruption from Joyeuse's cleansing flames, the ether powering the templars' wards combusted and fell aside. Although their pristine armor remained untarnished, the horrid screaming of dozens divulged the burning bodies underneath, overwhelmed by pain as they were roasted alive.

Meanwhile, not a single one of Geoffroi's own armigers showed any sign of injury.

Seizing the moment, the Emperor dashed forward and smashed his halberd-mace into the traitorous Duke. But instead of crushing him like tomatoes under a hammer, Geoffroi's weapon struck one of the floating crucifixes and was brought to a sudden halt.

The tiny little cross hardly budged by a finger's width, just as a sphere of them had easily repelled the phoenix flames.

How...?

Lindsay questioned with disbelieving eyes even as she sprang into action. Despite the destruction of the templar vanguard, an unending stream of armored knights now poured in through those doors. Two other wall sections also turned to dust under Disintegrate spells, further opening the room to assault.

It was now up to her and the other armigers to protect His Majesty's flanks, for as long as they could.

Oriflamme Paladins were unparalleled forces on the battlefield. But just as all other beings, they had a critical weakness: the flames of their bonded phoenix were not inexhaustible. Geoffroi couldn't keep burning everything and win.

Raised as a Prince of Rhin-Lotharingie, Gabriel was certainly aware of this. There was no doubt he came prepared, including the trump card he had just displayed.

"The Sword of Fortitude, quite worthy of its name," Gabriel announced as though bragging while he tossed the arming sword into his left hand. "So long as both me and my men are determined to achieve justice, neither steel nor spell may touch my hallowed being."

It was an artifact of Conceptual Magic -- a relic of the dragonlords.

"Then I just have to slaughter your men until they break!"

The Emperor shouted as he smashed two fully-armored knights into a nearby wall while parrying Gabriel's sloppy thrust with his polearm shaft, all done with a single swing of inhuman strength.

"Before the Defender of the Faith and the will of the Holy Father, these templars face no death, only salvation," the Duke stated as his right hand reached back to pull out a spiked flail from his belt.

"How many times can you keep swinging that thing, Geoffroi? Because it won't be enough."

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 14 - Burdens of Command

That is no flatdeck...

As Kaede examined the rearmost skywhale through her binoculars, she already began to doubt certain elements of the battle plan she helped Pascal create.

The skywhale was the smallest of the four, noticeably shorter than even the merchant whale she saw two weeks ago. But unlike the cargo carrier, this one appeared more like a flying fortress than a dirigible airship.

The massive steel 'gondola' it carried beneath the belly spanned over half the skywhale's total length. This vehicular compartment actually bulged outwards to each side, giving the impression of a lower hull widened by anti-torpedo blisters. The steel construction was longer than any basketball court and held three noticeable decks.

A row of metallic hatches reminiscent of an ironclad frigate's gundeck marked the top level, which was probably packed with ballistae firing runic ammunition. The bottom floor had many small glass windows and two massive cargo doors which could be lowered into ramps, indicating its use for either storage or crew quarters. Sandwiched between these two was the bulging middle layer, covered entirely by steel armor except for the massive, rectangular gap near the front -- an open-air entrance to the drakes' 'hangar deck'.

Three massive steel bands wrapped around the skywhale above, attaching the gondola tightly to the body of the colossal beast. These bands featured ladders and even a platform elevator rail, allowing personnel from the artillery deck to move up to the skywhale's backs. Crisscrossing rope nets filled the area between steel bands, offering both additional support for the gondola and better footing for those on top of the whale. A narrow but sturdy walkway framed each side with eighteen scorpio weapon mounts, manned by dozens of soldiers who kept vigilance over the skies.

"How does it carry that much?" Kaede sent over the private telepathy channel with a mild dose of bewilderment.

"I imagine they would be trained from youth for increased levitation capacity," Pascal replied. "See that metallic shine on their back? Armored skywhales have their upper hide reinforced by a constant 'steelskin' enhancement. Without that and a magically-reinforced bone structure, all that weight would probably break their backs."

"Can skywhales cast any spells?"

"No. They only have three magical traits: flight, steelskin, and flourish."

Flourish? Kaede thought of the spellword Captain von Lichnowsky had used on her hair. "Does it grow something?"

"Those mustache-like tentacles. It uses them to snatch game from the ground and deliver to its mouth."

Kaede shifted her binoculars over for another look at the jaws. The short tentacles that hung over them seemed more like giant facial hair than appendages for manipulating food.

Nevertheless, she was only too happy to stay her distance.

She then turned her eyes towards the northeast, surveying the cloud cover for any sign of the Weichsel attack force.

As soon as the battle plan had been decided upon, General von Manteuffel had detached the Knights Phantom plus some command personnel from the rest of the cavalry echelons. They had made haste back towards Nordkreuz; their pace had accelerated further after a message from the Capital informed them that the skywhale battlegroup was pulling ahead of the main Skagen army.

The remaining ground cavalry was left to General von Blumenthal of the 2nd Echelon. Their new objective was to destroy the moored Skagen fleet and cut off the Northerners' retreat.

But that required the Phantoms to win. Without sinking those skywhales, Skagen would only advance and advance again.

Battle of Nordkreuz

Battle of Nordkreuz

Then this morning, they received word that an intense air assault had struck the city of Nordkreuz. Kaede wasn't sure if Marina or the rest of Pascal's household was alright. All she did know was that they were now racing against time to sink the carriers before those air groups returned.

When the General slowed the Phantoms down to reorganize their formations, Pascal sent Kaede ahead to serve as a forward observer. She and the other scouts wore Camouflage spells that blended them into the low, dark clouds, making them nearly impossible to spot in the distance.

In fact, her biggest worry so far had been bird familiars that flew too close. She already had to shoot down two large condors who had tried to attack her -- probably due to her small size.

The same stealth could not be said for Weichsel's first wave, as she soon spotted the white-blue hue of an Oriflamme's glow among the distant clouds.

Let the battles begin...

Kaede turned to locate the Skagen combat air patrol again. For nearly half a minute, the two groups of sixteen volcanic drakes each continued to fly slow circles around the entire skywhale battlegroup. Then, with the sound of several distant yells, both flights banked and turned towards the incoming attack.

Thirty-two drakes, against nearly three hundred phantoms...

All military tactics could be simplified down to one concept: achieving local superiority of force at the decisive point of contact. Countless military treatises and doctrines have explored this in a myriad of ways, but Kaede always thought that a certain lamed conquerer had offered the most concise explanation:

'It is better to be on hand with ten men than absent with ten thousand.'

Yet just after she thought that, Kaede heard a distant roar from the southwest -- the other side of those skywhales.

Her binoculars couldn't pick out any hostile signs. But with her hearing boosted by both Mental Clarity and familiar enhancement, she could just barely pick out the sound of several hundred flapping wings.

"Pascal. Their strike force... it's back."

Kaede received no more than a mental nod in return.

Pascal was at the heart of the command and control network, placed there to facilitate communications and coordination between three different groups. A situational change as drastic as this easily swamped him with work.

We didn't make it in time after all, Kaede thought as she bit down on her lower lip.

The Knights Phantom had rode all night and all morning for that opportunity. They were now tired without sleep, held up only by adrenaline and recovery spells. The returning drakes weren't full on stamina either, but at least they had some overnight rest.

This is going to be one bloody fight.

Her one consolation came from the knowledge that the unfolding engagement was merely a feint, albeit an expensive one they couldn't afford to discard.

Kaede still held mixed feelings towards Sylviane. But she nevertheless prayed that the admirable Princess and Pascal's future wife would emerge safely and without harm.

----- * * * -----

At the same moment, Asgeirr Vintersvend was also observing his foes. Although he preferred the traditional telescopic spyglass over more modern binoculars.

The Admiral was not standing in the enclosed bridge, but looking out from the port-side entrance of Polarlys' hangar deck. As a fleet commander, the bridge might offer better communications. But as an archmage, he needed direct access to the open skies.

Putting down his spyglass, Asgeirr then turned to shout into a nearby communication tube installed into the bulkhead:

"Thirty degrees to starboard. Clear for broadside action."

"Aye aye Sir!" the echoing voice of his longtime friend and First Mate replied. "Thirty degrees to starboard! Staggered line formation!"

Hours ago, Asgeirr had taken a risk and sortied his air groups for an early strike on Nordkreuz. He had hoped to not merely destroy the city itself with a full aerial bombardment, but also to eliminate as many of the troops gathered there as possible. With any luck, there was even a chance the attack might kill King Leopold himself.

Weichsel's Crown Heir was currently little more than an infant. Competing against two royal uncles and a General whose ambition was renowned even in Skagen, the fearsome Black Dragon might just suddenly collapse into Civil War.

Which, of course, would be perfect for Skagen's interests.

Asgeirr had no way of knowing if he had struck gold. But the rest of the gamble seemed to have paid off. His son Thorsten was returning from a victorious assault that destroyed most of the city, just in time for a decisive air battle that would seal Weichsel's fate for this entire campaign.

Sure, Thorsten's drakes could use a rest from the morning attack. The hangar deck wasn't merely an extradimensionally-expanded chamber to land and park in. Magic also regulated the rear compartment to offer the sulfur-rich environment of the drakes' home habitat. The volcanic gases back there were terrible for unprotected humans; however the drakes not only preferred it but found it essential for refueling their breath weapons.

The Admiral was actually worried that events were progressing a bit too ideally. His rough estimate put the attacking force at around half of Weichsel's air cavalry. Did the other units fall behind during their retreat from the peninsula? Or were they still out there in the clouds?

It doesn't matter, he quickly decided.

Asgeirr had placed two hundred experienced Västergötland adventurers and his brother Eyvindur's best company of Runebolt Archers on top of the skywhales. Combined with hundreds of the new 'Living Runes' that fortified their backs, the anti-air defenses protecting his skywhales were more than sufficient to take on a few hundred more Phantoms.

To split his Drake Outriders for defense at this point would not be caution, but cowardice instead.

"Order the combat air patrol to merge into one and engage the enemy right," Asgeirr bellowed into the communication tube again. "Do not wait to regroup with returning drakes. In fact, tell Thorsten to stay hidden in the clouds for as long as he can. I want him to charge in after the Wickers' formations have already been disrupted. Until then, Master Gunners have discretion to fire broadsides at will against the enemy left wing!"

By attacking from the northwest first, the Admiral hoped to use the flow of battle to tilt Weichsel's formation towards their right flank. This would not only present the skywhales' ballistae a semi-enfilade angle of fire, but also expose the Wickers' rear to Thorsten's drakes coming from the southwest.

All they need is a nudge of chaos to buy time.

As an archmage worthy of the claim, Asgeirr not only had the expertise to craft the most complex spells, but also invented sorceries of the highest tier. Out of his four creations, two of them were made to support major battles and fleet action:

One was Storm of Deliverance, or simply 'that acid rain spell' to everyone else.

The other was a wide area effect he named Mantle of the Stormlord, because it literally smote their enemies with lightning from the skies.

"What's your opinion Fannar? Acid or thunder first?" Asgeirr asked his First Mate as he pulled several runestone tablets the size of outstretched hands from his belt pouch.

He always found it ironic that in their profession, having to kill an enemy barely warranted an afterthought. Meanwhile, it was the precise method of killing that required discussion and debate.

"Jarl Eyvindur did call you Admiral Vinegar," Fannar's echoing voice shrugged through the metal tube. "Besides, maybe these 'civilized' Southerners would appreciate their meat marinated before being crisp-fried in lightning."

"Vinaigrette then it is," the Admiral commented dryly as he activate the Levitation Flight rune on the tablet, causing it to zip into the skies.

----- * * * -----

"Send Dawn Sky toward the southwest. Locate and skirmish the returning drakes. Do not engage in close combat. We only need to buy time to finish off the patrol before hitting the main group in full force!"

Battle of Nordkreuz: both sides redeploying to interdict foes

Battle of Nordkreuz: both sides redeploying to interdict foes

Sylviane heard General von Manteuffel's stern voice about fifteen paces behind her, sending orders through his signal lieutenants. It was further reassurance of their presence, although the message itself was something else:

Not even engaged yet and already committing the reserves. This is sure off to a great start.

As an Oriflamme, it was her duty to lead the charge from the front. But to see only a mass of incoming foes without a single ally in sight was no simple affair.

Thirty-two of those massive drakes flew straight toward her, each with a wingspan longer than any farmhouse barn. Black-red scales covered their bodies like hardened magma, reinforced by steel helmets and banded breastplates that made them seem hopeless to stop. Their shrieking roars shook the air and sent chills down to the bone, not to mention razor-sharp claws as long as scythe blades, or the sight of jagged rows of teeth that could rip a man to shreds in record time.

To meet such predators in melee was suicidal -- that was her voice of reason, her instinct of self-preservation.

Sylviane could feel her arms shaking. Had she carried a sword instead of a chained hammer, the effect might have been obvious.

I have Hauteclaire with me. I can take these stupid beasts!

She began to twirl her meteor hammer around her right hand. It would not do to let her idle arms reveal her anxiety and fright.

Fear was not a weakness. It was a sign of intelligence; it kept humans alive.

But the same could not be said for cowardice.

For those born to royalty, leadership was an obligation rather than a choice. But to inspire others, one must be willing to set an example. Soldiers matched the bravery they saw with their own courage. Those who followed lions into battle inevitably became lions themselves.

But what stood true for followers worked the same way for leaders. Soaring ahead at the tip of the spear, Sylviane's own mettle was fortified by the reassurance that hundreds followed in her wake.

Courage was not only the strength of an individual.

It was a collective force, drawn together from the hearts of many.

Perhaps that explained the heavy drums and trumpets that accompanied the Weichsel cavalry into decisive battle. Without a single instrument, let alone an entire orchestra, the martial consonance that shook the air could only be the playback of magical recorders.

The music wasn't really her style. But even Sylviane had to admit that the hastening tempo of battle notes was nothing short of 'epic'.

Immersed in the atmosphere at the head of the army, Sylviane was not just a young lady on the fringe of maturity, not merely an inexperienced warrior facing her first true air battle.

She was a princess, who represented the honor and dignity of Rhin-Lotharingie.

She was an Oriflamme, who symbolized the strength of her people and their will to fight.

Before the eyes of her brave Weichsel allies, she could not falter in the slightest. She must be a leader they would be proud to follow, even to the depth of hell itself.

So while Sylviane the twenty-year-old girl continued to tremble and doubt, Sylviane Etiennette de Gaetane, the Cerulean Princess of Rhin-Lotharingie, found herself increasingly resolute and firm.

She could even feel the support of another from within. Her union with Hauteclaire made the phoenix's presence persistent, their selves intertwined so closely she was no longer certain where Sylviane ended and Hauteclaire began.

But she could feel his unequivocal approval and support: his soothing touch that calmed her mind, his blazing heat that warmed her soul.

"Storm clouds manifesting!" the voice of Sir Robert shouted back.

They multiplied from the existing cover, with some new clouds forming out of thin air. These dark, ominous masses grew rapidly in size, as though hours had passed right before their eyes.

"Legion Resistance!"

"All units tighten up! Falkenrath!"

"Cyclone Blast Field!"

Hyperion spells were universal. Any mage with sufficient spellcraft expertise could cast them. Specializations did not affect spell selection but rather its power and capability. Just as Wayfarers focused on boosting teleportation range and capacity, Stormcallers learned to control weather on a massive scale.

Instead of a small twister, Colonel von Falkenrath created a colossal vortex of hurricane winds that wrapped around the entire Weichsel column. They blew aside clouds, rain, and even the white phosphorous smoke barrage that Skagen Outriders preferred before a charge, sheltering the Knights Phantom in the eye of the storm.

It wasn't a perfect solution. It severely limited cavalry's greatest asset -- their mobility. Instead of spreading out around the melee-oriented drakes and destroying them with ranged spellfire, they now had no choice but to engage their foes in close combat.

Pascal, on the other hand, had called it 'hugging the enemy'. This way Skagen rainclouds and ballistae could not harm the Phantoms without risking friendly fire. Given the Northmen culture, there was no way their troopers would allow that.

From the pride of his voice, Sylviane had the distinct impression this was his familiar's idea rather than his own.

"Prepare for spell volley!" the General ordered.

"Firestorm!"

Sylviane stretched out her left hand as an orb of flames gathered before her palm.

Her eleven armigers did the same, each holding their spell charge, ready to fire at will.

"Purify Flames!"

Ether trailed out of Sylviane and Hauteclaire, down the channeled aura of their burning chevron to each individual armiger. Orbs of blazing orange turned white-blue as the phoenix's power cleansed them into sacred flames.

Different sources of ether normally repelled one another. But phoenixes were natural Metamages, capable of fundamentally altering the spells of others with their own power.

It also made them the only familiars capable of merging into their masters, resulting in the Oriflamme's famous 'Unison'.

"Volley! Chain Catalyst Dispel!"

"Release!"

The antimagic dispels from Weichsel's front ranks shot out first, heading out to hammer the layered personal wards that Northmen always applied. After them came twelve fist-sized orbs, soaring into the oncoming drakes before proximity detonations turned them into blasts of fiery pellets.

Volcanic drakes had tough fireproof hides that hardened in reaction to any damage. But the magical blue-white embers still managed to penetrate through to cook the flesh within.

Eight vanguard drakes' excruciating screeches turned into death cries as two hundred more ether rays arced in, bombarding them with what should have been an overkill of spells. Yet despite the devastating barrage, one of them managed to actually stay afloat.

These drakes weren't created by the dragonlords for nothing. Short of a penetrating hit to their vitals, each one could absorb tremendous punishment before succumbing to pain and death.

"Kill the riders first!"

Sylviane called out as she tore into the enemy before the smoke could clear. Given that many drakes were familiars to their more fragile human masters, it was an easy to way to kill two birds with one stone.

She first dodged a falling drake covered with bleeding wounds. Her eyes then sprang wide as a jet of liquid rimefire burst out from the smoke, coming straight at her like an infernal hand of death. The bladed tip of a charging lance emerged next, followed by the reptilian face of a hideously-scarred volcanic drake which let out a terrible, shrieking cone of flames.

Panic and terror seized her nerves for a precious moment as Sylviane froze in her flight. Her burning aura might repel the drake's breath, but nothing she had -- not wards, not armor, not even Hauteclaire's protection -- could stop the Northmen's weapon from hell.

Just a split second before the rimefire would have melted her flesh, Hauteclaire took control of her burning wings and spun them away from an agonizing death.

The flame jet traced her afterimage, intent on roasting the Princess who led the formation. However the phoenix maneuvered them beautifully through the air, transforming the sharp, spinning bank into a wide corkscrew that evaded not only rimefire but also the thrusting lance.

The standard armament of Skagen Drake Outriders included a rimefire siphon in the left hand and a long lance under the right arm. The combination was heavy and almost unwieldy. But in the trained hands of elites, it was both terrifying and effective.

Sylviane could hear Hauteclaire cooing in her mind, calming her back down with soothing sounds attuned to the ongoing symphony of war. Her resolve soon regained control, although she continued the corkscrew to duck beneath the drake.

Even coming into reach of those scythe-like claws was better than playing with rimefire.

Her body rotated to face upwards as she went below. She dodged one swipe of the drake's claws while deflecting another with her small shield. Meanwhile the drake screeched in pain as her mere proximity torched its underside with Hauteclaire's blazing aura. It provided just the right distraction for two of her armigers to smash their flails into the drake's biting head.

Coming out behind the drake, Sylviane soared back up and spun around to hurl out her meteor hammer. Instead of smashing the mace-like cylinder into the back of the rider's head, she wrapped its chains around his neck instead. Pulling with all her strength, she yanked his body off the blinded beast, snapping his spine in the process.

The Outrider was dead within the second. But his fingers kept a death grip on his siphon. It was still pumping fire when Sylviane's meteor hammer hurled his body toward another pair of drakes.

Burn in your own hellfire, her thought passed without an ounce of mercy.

----- * * * -----

"Dawn Sky engaging!" Kaede announced over telepathy.

She had been quick to avert her gaze from the blinding flares of Solar spells, but her eyes still blurred with tears.

True to their name, the Dawn Sky Phantoms enjoyed light spells too much. The entire volley had been a garish flamingo pink, bright enough to dye even the dark clouds.

What followed next was a cacophony of massed detonations.

Blinking away her tears, Kaede could just make out the sight of Phantoms caracoling away while showering the blinded drakes with explosive spells. Six drakes in the front fell as their wings shredded apart under fire.

But the colorful attack also gave away the Phantoms' position. Ominous clouds began forming in their path of retreat even as recovering drakes turned to chase. Both sides might number around one-thirty riders each, but the huge disparity in size left little doubt who was the mighty predator and whom the evasive prey.

Swinging her binoculars to another battle, Kaede caught the sight of an enlarged Manteuffel Sword in heavy lance form stab into the neck of a volcanic drake. The magical weapon pushed deep before shrinking to its 'normal' size in the wielder's hands, just in time to cleave the Northmen's helmet in an overhead fly-by.

Quite impressive for someone over a century old, Kaede thought.

After the past week, she could recognize the General's figure even three kilometers away; although the sword certainly helped.

The clouds were a bigger issue. She couldn't gauge the entire fight, only visualize a scene here and there. But from what she could hear and see, the Phantoms' weight of numbers had already shattered the Skagen patrol.

"Launch the strike!" she declared firmly.

Kaede might not be a commanding officer, but this was also a plan she helped to create. That made ensuring its success part of her responsibility.

"The main drake force has yet to commit," Pascal replied in an 'are you certain' tone.

She felt a lump catch in her throat. There was no such thing as an easy decision, not with hundreds of lives at stake.

But nevertheless, it was a necessary choice.

"They will be soon! Launch the strike!"

----- * * * -----

"We have signal!" Ariadne heard the signal officer announce as he looked up towards Colonel von Hammerstein.

The thuggish-looking Colonel swept his bulging eyes across, surveying the assembled Ghost Riders company from atop his armored gryphon.

"Well what are you all waiting for!? You wanna live forever!?"

His growl quickly rose into a yell as he pointed his swordstaff down towards the heavy clouds.

"Immortality! It's down there! Your courage, your passion, your pride, ignite them all in blazing glory and seize it! It is YOURS for the taking!"

Colonel von Hammerstein then spun his swordstaff back, pointing in challenge to each and every one of his cavaliers.

"Let no god nor king claim yer not good enough! To befoul that your blood, your brothers, your children aren't good enough! Today, you will show them honor! You will show them all the true meaning of nobility! NOW WITH ME! CHARGE!!!"

"CHARGE!" Ariadne joined in the echoing shouts as one-hundred-thirty riders all plunged their mounts into a steep dive towards the clouds below.

In just a few lines, von Hammerstein had managed to evoke everything those yeomen hated and wanted at the same time. It was a masterpiece performance that elicited even a smile of appreciation from her.

"First platoon! Armored wedge! With me!"

She heard Lieutenant Keller call out as he dove past her, followed by thirty-seven other gryphon riders of his Platoon.

The muscular gryphons could withstand a stronger headwind than even her agile pegasus. More importantly, they wore plated steel armor that covered their eagle heads and lion torsos. In accordance to both aeronautics and assault tactics, the rest of the company formed up behind the gryphons in a V formation to reduce air drag and protect more vulnerable steeds.

Company command rode behind the gryphons with Reynald's recon squad as a reserve. Gerd's 2nd Platoon formed the right wing while Kayeten's 3rd Platoon held the left.

Ariadne felt a bit left out that she didn't have her own command. That was always the biggest problem when appointed the 'vice leader' of anything.

But even if she had, von Hammerstein might still have swapped her out. Her role in the opening phase was simply too important to replace.

"Cyclone Blast Field!"

Ariadne channeled her ether and poured them out from her extended left palm.

She wasn't really a Stormcaller, not yet. She had the affinity and had been in basic training before they left the academy. But that didn't stop the old slave driver from using her to borrow as many tailwinds as possible during the campaign.

She did have to admit that it improved her skills much faster than expected.

But unlike Colonel von Falkenrath, Ariadne couldn't even surround one company with wind barriers. The best she could manage was roughly the size of a platoon. This she maintained as a 'whirlwind drill', plowing a road through the static-charged thunderclouds ahead of the 1st Platoon.

Their targets finally came into sight after the last cloud blew apart to reveal the ground far below. The armored bulks of four colossal skywhales lumbered through the skies, hurling sparse volleys of ballista bolts into the distant struggle for aerial superiority.

Ariadne could not discern much through the storm clouds, but the echoing explosions and cries told her all she needed to know. Weichsel's first wave had interpenetrated into the main force of Skagen drakes, entangling them in a chaotic aerial melee to buy time for the main strike.

Let's make their sacrifices count.

"FIRST PLATOON: MAXIMIZE FORWARD DEFENSE! SECOND THIRD: COVERING FIRE!" von Hammerstein cried out. "DRUMS!"

The prelude of orchestral battle songs soon began against the noise of howling winds. It was a Weichsel army tradition -- because the more decisive an attack, the more it needed musical accompaniment. Once a unit was committed in heavy assault, words beyond shouted orders grew meaningless. Far more important was the atmosphere that permeated their resolve.

Ariadne released her cyclone drill, hurling it towards the top of the closest skywhale. Dozens screamed as they were blown into the air. More joined as a barrage of multicolored rays hurled onto the defenders' wards.

But hundreds more archers atop the other skywhales notched arrows to release rune-infused volleys, greeting their foes with a curtain of missile fire.

Discharging spells soon met friendly wards in a cascade of thunder -- which was even more literal than Ariadne had expected. Every spark of electricity called down a thunderbolt from above, as though each lightning rune had been blessed by the weather itself.

It's that bastard admiral!

Her ears already rang from the deafening clash of magic. Her eyes blurred from the endless flash of voltage spikes.

But at least the distance was short.

"Second third! Switch targets!" von Hammerstein's yell came muffled by the ringing. "Suppress the flanking whales!"

The range soon closed to but a few hundred paces. 1st Platoon's layered wards had been thinned but not broken outright. Their casualties remained surprisingly light.

But even through her fuzzy sight, Ariadne soon spotted an anomaly forming on the nearest skywhale's back. Glowing dots connected themselves into a rectangular field of ether, ready to unleash a weapon of unknown power.

"Ether Seeker! Grenades!"

Wha-what are you doing?

Ariadne's thought came instantly to Lieutenant Keller's cry. It was doubtful if his forward unit -- which had bore the blunt of the thunder -- could hear at all. But many nevertheless followed his example, launching waves of disruptive seekers before drawing grenades.

Phantoms were not supposed to deploy grenades unless they had a crushing magical superiority against their foes. Did that idiot forget? Or had he simply grew accustomed to repeating the same tactic?

"STOP!" she screamed as her eyes glued themselves to the throbbing grid of power on the skywhale's back.

"Scatter!"

Reynald shouted her other thought, prompting Ariadne to press Edelweiss into an emergency dive.

She plunged not a second too soon as the 'anomaly' erupted in a blinding flare, just before the wavefront of Ether Seekers could reach them.

Some had followed the warning. Others obeyed evasive calls from their own leaders. But as the ether field on the skywhale's back burst into dozens, no, hundreds of lightning bolts, the entire 1st Platoon had been caught within its destructive path.

Crisscrossing beams of electricity hammered through the unit's remaining wards and tore through the formation. They were joined by a massive column of lightning from the overhead clouds, transforming the very airspace into a crackling voltage field.

Next came the blasts as every exposed gunpowder grenade detonated. Even a few extradimensional pouches tore apart as the titanic discharge of power overwhelmed their heavy wards.

Ariadne gazed back up to where the 1st Platoon had been. Her mouth fell agape as she saw nothing but a floating sea of sparks and flames. Gryphons and men plummeted from the gigantic fireball in the dozens, each a corpse burning in pitch and tar.

Within the span of seconds, the Ghost Riders had lost nearly a third of their strength. Those men were not just wounded or maimed, but annihilated wholesale.

The entire formation now lay shattered; their momentum paralyzed by shock and horror.

Yet amidst the burning rain of fallen comrades, a single rugged gryphon tore past Ariadne to continue the charge.

In one hand he carried the Black Dragon banner. With the other he readied his swordstaff blade.

Her ears heard nothing except a steady ringing, but her heart felt every echo of his rallying cry.

Sir Erwin von Hammerstein was ugly, boorish, crass, and despotic. His intolerable insolence had drawn Ariadne's unforgiving ire since the day they met. But nobody, nobody, could deny that he was a knight to be revered, a leader to be followed.

...Even to the depth of hell itself.

Spurring on her own mount, Ariadne raised her Manteuffel Blade high into the air. She enlarged it to maximum size -- a heavy lance thrice the size of men -- before swiveling it under her arm into a jousting stance.

"HOLY FATHER WITH US! CHARGE!"

There was no way she would let herself fall short next to him.

----- * * * -----

Battle of Nordkreuz: 2nd wave committed

Battle of Nordkreuz: 2nd wave committed

Kaede could hardly believe her eyes when she saw two massive lightning columns strike the Ghost Riders' center. She felt her hopes vanish and die as a humongous fireball tore through the Phantoms' wedge.

She had felt it -- the surging power from the ether buildup prior to the hammer's blow. It tingled her rising magic sensitivity even from two kilometers out.

But even as she had cried out to Pascal, she knew the message would never relay in time.

Now, her entire body was frozen in shock. Her mind too, if it wasn't grasping for straws to realize what had just occurred.

Her plans had called for a Midway, not to reenact Japan in the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. But if those skywhales harbored that kind of anti-air firepower, then...

I've sent them into a death trap.

In addition to over a hundred lives, the Ghost Riders included her friends in the new world.

Ariadne, Gerd, Reynald -- all officers who led from the front.

My stupid idea might have just killed them all.

"Break off... we need to pull back," Kaede spoke in a daze through her telepathy with Pascal.

"We are fully committed now. We cannot just back out!"

"The second wave can't take that kind of firepower! They'll be shredded!"

"They have to TRY!" Pascal insisted through a tone of steel. "We only have one chance at this! If we do not succeed, the entire campaign falls into jeopardy. Pulling out now not only risks the tens of thousands in Nordkreuz; even the first wave cannot disengage without crippling loss!"

"But, but we... my idea is just sending them to their death!"

"What do you think command does!? WE SEND PEOPLE OUT TO DIE!"

For the first time since they met, Pascal shouted back with such ferocity that it left Kaede trembling all over.

But after a brief pause, his voice returned to a steadier tone as though calmed by a deep breath:

"There is no such thing as perfect information. Right now, under these circumstances, we can only pray for their success and learn from our mistakes."

"But I can't just watch them die!" Kaede retorted as she pulled the reins of her Phantom Steed and spurred it on.

"Yes, you will. You do not turn your back on them!"

Pascal ordered with the grim determination of death himself as he completely misunderstood her tone.

"It is our solemn duty to watch their every struggle. Because only by carving their sacrifice into our souls can we understand the full weight of our responsibilities, the severity of our every choice!"

I know that! I--

"No, I'd rather join them," Kaede replied through quiet but resolute words.

This time, what slowly returned was a mental sigh.

"Not everyone can simply abandon their post of responsibility. But even you will not get there on time."

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 15 - To Save Is To Kill

For centuries, southern mages have mocked the Hyperborean's Runic Magic as obsolete compared to Aura Magic.

Runic Magic had its advantages, sure. It allowed for the storage of ether from pre-cast spells through the use of runestones. Many rock minerals' crystal lattices had a low ether diffusion rate, making it possible to maintain hoards of prepared spells. This allowed anyone who knew the trigger conditions to activate Runic Magic in bulk -- an absolute quantitative advantage which the Hyperboreans exploited at every opportunity.

However, Runic Magic's inability to spontaneously cast and its need for a physical carrier drastically limited its use. For example, there was simply no northern equivalent of the Ether Seeker multipurpose counterspell, nor could Hyperboreans weave layered defensive wards at different distances. Their inability to apply both defensive and antimagic spells at the same time without the opposing magical interference left them vulnerable to Weichsel's superbly coordinated volleys.

But the manipulation of ether was as much a science as alchemy or metallurgy. Runic Magic would evolve with time just like any other technology in demand.

Hyperborean mages on the Frontier had recently developed the newest form of Runic Magic: spell runes which were limited by neither their location nor contact activation. These new runes had rudimentary awareness of their surroundings. They could move freely across any two-dimensional surface. They could even work in groups and follow specific instructions, such as "band together and discharge in a coordinated volley against hostile attacks."

In essence, they were self-regulated, automated spells that no longer required a human operator.

The proud Hyperborean mages of the newest generation called them "Living Runes".

The deafening thunder from the Skywhale Polarlys' back left a buzz in Asgeirr Vintersvend's ears. But he paid the discomfort no mind as his cool Admiral Winter facade finally cracked open a broad, vengeful smirk:

"Where is your Holy Father now?"

 

----- * * * -----

 

"KAYETEN! I NEED A VOLLEY!"

Reynald accompanied his shout with a Telepathy burst. He doubted Kayeten could hear any better than his own ringing ears, and the recent magical discharge would surely distort his ungrounded telepathy. But even one syllable getting through might catch the Lieutenant's attention.

Sure enough, those faded-green eyes turned towards him with a confused look.

Reynald followed with set of hand signals in glowing red, fingers pointing at the skywhale von Hammerstein and Ariadne charged towards.

The plain-looking Lieutenant replied with a single nod, before raising his glove and chanting the opening to his spell.

Once more he began with Phalanx -- the key word of a spellstorm mage.

Dozens upon dozens of emerald lights sprang into existence, surrounding the Lieutenant like a glittering shroud. It was a humbling display of magic prowess that always left Reynald wondering how someone his own age could empower that many shots at once. But for now, he was just glad to have the charging spell barrage on his side.

Reynald then waved his light lance to gather the attention of his squad before pointing it at the Colonel's flag ahead.

The doomed charge of the 1st Platoon had left them no more than two hundred paces away from the skywhale. The fireball that consumed dozens wasn't just intimidating, but also provided 'cover' for the unit to move even closer. Furthermore, the defenders would take time to prepare another attack like that.

Most commanders -- Reynald himself included -- would have been too stunned by their own losses. But von Hammerstein? His courage not only rallied the wills of his men, but also exploited an opportunity brought in blood and lives.

One day, I'll be able to lead just like him, Reynald thought. But for now...

"FOLLOW ME! CHARGE!"

It didn't matter that his squadmates were probably all deaf at the moment.

Correct protocols were simply too important to forgo at times like these.

Reynald watched through admiring eyes as Colonel von Hammerstein rushed through three more lightning bolts and a volley of arrows, which brought a screeching death to his gryphon. The commander leaped off just before his mount crashed into the skywhale's back, then broke his own fall by driving his swordstaff blade into the chest of a Northmen officer.

At that same moment, over a hundred rays from Kayeten and his 3rd Platoon raced in from behind. They rained onto the area surrounding the Colonel's landing, leaving him the lone visible figure in a sea of explosive mayhem.

Damage from a scattered elemental barrage was minimal against warded troops. Its true purpose had been to suppress foes and buy time. Nevertheless Reynald knew that the inspiring image had just been engraved into his memory, especially when von Hammerstein somehow speared the flagpole of his Black Dragon banner into the skywhale's armored back.

It was an insult that the Northmen would not permit.

A sergeant thirty paces away gestured his men to attack through the lingering smoke. But before they could switch bows for swords and axes, Ariadne dove into their group, pierced through the leader's wards, and skewered his torso with the lance form of her Manteuffel Sword.

Shrinking her weapon to its 'normal' size, she pulled the twin-bladed sword out of the corpse and hacked towards a nearby archer. But with the penetration spell on her weapon gone, she barely even cracked his outermost spellshield.

Use the--

Reynald didn't even finish his thought before Ariadne drew a siphon with her other hand. Swinging it around from the left, she sent out a wave of liquid fire that instantly torched every surrounding foe.

Well... all except one. The last archer-turned-axeman was on the wrong side of her mount. So Ariadne urged Edelweiss to plow straight into him and trample him underfoot. His wards and armor ensured that his ribs stayed intact, but the hard impact still stunned him for a few precious seconds.

Her white pegasus then broke into a gallop across the skywhale's back. Its rider, dressed in black-on-burning-red and billowing long pink tresses behind her, immolated entire squads with bursts of hellish flames.

The secrecy surrounding the creation of rimefire meant that Weichsel had never been able to replicate it. Yet that never stopped them from using what they captured in battle to devastating effect... even if Ariadne's accuracy was terrible.

What is she even trying to hit...?

Reynald took a closer look before he realized that Ariadne worried over more than just the Northmen troops. There were glowing, palm-sized lights that collected into groups as they somehow moved across the skywhale's back. He wasn't sure what they were. But they looked far too similar to the magical anomalies that unleashed that devastating lightning barrage.

This time, Ariadne was taking no chances with them. Her flame jet reached out to torch anything that approached. Whenever it met one of those firefly-like swarms, the flames surged as though they met a patch of oil.

But regardless of how brave or skilled she was, Ariadne was still only one person. She had plowed deep into a defensive formation by herself, and there were simply far too many foes...

A dispelling arrow shattered the last of her spellshields before bouncing off her spaulders. But the bodkin head that followed buried into her breastplate near her thin shoulders. The force of the impact sent Ariadne reeling and almost off her mount, yet the willful girl not only held steady but even reached up for the lodged arrow.

Reynald then winced as he watched Ariadne break off the shaft without hesitation before tossing it aside.

For a brief moment, he had to remind himself this was his best friend's girl to not fall in love himself.

He traced the attack back to an officer who directed another squad of archers for coordinated volleys. With not a second to waste, the redhead shouted "Phantom Charge". The ether of his mount ripped away to form a blazing spectral charger, which rammed straight into those archers and exploded in scorching fury.

Losing his etheric steed left Reynald plummeting through the skies. But with less than fifty paces to go, he also didn't care.

"Aura Burst! Shift Impulse!" He tossed aside the cumbersome lance and drew his trusty dual kukris.

With another thought and a rush of ether, Reynald transmuted his entire body into an arcing bolt of lightning. He slammed straight into the archer group that had been trying to shoot his best friend's fiancée before re-materializing, imprinting one last chilling smirk into their startled eyes.

"Catalyst Dispel Burst!"

A wave of antimagic blasted away from Reynald in all directions, ripping away wards even as he leaped back into the air. The short redhead then spun his body like an axle shaft, slashing away at all sides with twin whirlwind blades.

His first rotation hardly cut through their chainmail. Most soldiers thought bigger weapons were better for a reason, after all.

But the second rotation rose higher to more vulnerable parts, and those viciously curved kukri blades easily tore out five throats.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Ariadne gritted her teeth as she continued her fiery assault.

Her head felt light due to her bleeding wounds. After the first arrow that left an entire arm numb, she took two more hits as she made her way through what must have been nearly a hundred defenders. Mental Clarity spells did wonders in reducing the pain that clouded her mind, but even magic had its limits.

It really was a bad week for her to take wounds. Her periods had always left her a bit anemic. Ariadne didn't like to admit it, but moments like these really left her envious of her male companions in the unit.

Price of the wiser sex I guess, she sneered as her siphon sprayed onto yet another squad of Västergötlanders.

One could always tell the adventurers apart since unlike the Skagen archers, they wore no uniforms. Even their arms and armor varied hugely. For the first time today, Ariadne had to dodge a throwing axe that swooshed by her head -- close enough that she undoubtedly lost a few hairs.

Even with her injuries, her horsemanship and reflexes were still better than most. Two of Reynald's men had managed to catch up with her earlier. Neither of them had lasted more than a minute in front.

Ariadne had grown accustomed to the still-fuzzy but terrible screams she heard from those burning alive. In fact, Parzifal would be horrified to know that in her current bloodstained mood, they were music to her ears.

They're all heathens, murderers, and if one lets them -- rapists too.

These were not her fellow countrymen. They were the enemy. They killed her friends and threatened her family, which made them no better than rabid beasts in need of putting down.

Urging her wounded pegasus forward, Ariadne drove towards what had been the priority goal of the 1st Platoon. There was only one squad left between her and the skywhale's blowhole.

She never hesitated to press the trigger as she closed into range, not even as ice crystals began layering over the armor protecting the defenders' expanding girth.

For the first time, Ariadne watched as several opponents took blasts of rimefire without even flinching. She had heard the story from Kaede about a similar encounter; but at the time, she was certain the familiar girl simply had an exaggerated experience from her first battle.

Barely slowed by the immolating flames, four huge Västergötlanders charged her with polearms and swords. One of them actually tossed his zweihander at her, and she ducked down in the nick of time to avoid being decapitated by the large, spinning blade.

Ariadne then leveled her siphon again and held the trigger down, spraying liquid fire straight into three faces that stopped them dead in their tracks. But the burning fluid never reached the fourth. The siphon had ran out of pressure -- or so she hoped, because the alternative was that it was out of fuel.

But even pressure took time for the animated pump to build back up -- seconds that she simply didn't have.

"Spellshield Fortress!"

Ariadne brought her main defensive ward back to full strength for the fifth time as she guided Edelweiss to leap away. But she had already moved too close to evade, and her opponent's massive glaive smashed into her pegasus head on.

Multiple runic spells discharged in quick succession as tiny pebbles popped off the polearm's shaft. Her fresh spellshields shattered under an antimagic burst right before a glowing, heated blade cut through Edelweiss' barding to discharge a surge of painful electric shocks.

The pegasus collapsed under her almost instantly, hurling her forward through the air.

Ariadne realized she had just lost her first familiar as their empathic link promptly cut off.

Still trembling from the aftershocks, she broke her tumbling fall by catching one of the ropes covering the skywhale's back. By the time she managed to redraw her sword and stand shakily back up, the burning figure was already looming before her once more.

There was just no time to bring her blade up, even assuming she still had the strength to parry an attack that nearly beheaded her mount in one swipe.

She would still try. But even as time slowed to a crawl before her impending death, Ariadne knew that this time, she had thrown her dice against fate and lost.

I'm sorry Parzifal...

 

----- * * * -----

 

"NO!"

Kaede impulsively screamed as she watched Edelweiss collapse and toss Ariadne into the air.

Her lip was already bleeding where she bit down in anxiety. For minutes Kaede felt helpless as she watched one Weichsel trooper after another go down, desperately trying to think of some way to alter the situation.

Tactically speaking, the Ghost Riders were making progress. Despite being terribly outnumbered, they drove the defenders back through momentum, firepower, and sheer determination.

All of it achieved by paying a bloody toll in lives.

But this life wasn't just anyone. Ariadne was special to Kaede. In the chaos of being tossed into this new world, the beautiful girl who exemplified nobility with her every step was the first to lend Kaede a helping hand. Kaede would never ever forget that awestruck moment when the angelic lady congratulated her for thrashing Pascal while offering her some much-needed food.

I am not letting her die!

Kaede drew an arrow and nocked it onto her bow.

The distance was around 800 meters (875yd).

The altitude was about a 50 meter (55yd) drop.

Even with one of the runic arrows Pascal finally made for her after the last battle, this would be an ambitious shot.

The arrowhead carried a Catalyst Dispel rune for ward penetration. The shaft's rear held a tiny quartz crystal with the Stormblessed spell to earn the wind's favor.

Her biggest opponents were the sheer range and the inevitable effects of gravity.

Kaede dislodged the arrow just enough to press its head into a rune on her left forearm. Perhaps too hard as it broke fabric and skin with a stinging pain, but she didn't care. The activated Air Glide spell could do more than just slow the descent of falling individuals; it would also drastically reduce the vertical drop of her arrow over long-distance flight.

Adjusting her aim once more, Kaede focused on the icy Northman through the bodkin tip.

She is not dying. YOU ARE!!

Unlike during the Battle of Nordkapp, this was no reactive self-defense. For the first time, her mind was filled with the firm determination to kill.

With her fingers' release, Kaede traced the arrow's flight through the air. The Hyperion rotary fletching sent it into a mild spin as it traversed the distance over what felt like minutes in agonizingly slow motion.

Her drop estimates hit the mark. Her aim was dead on. But...

Kaede felt her heart plummet as it struck the Northman's spaulder -- smooth, plated steel that deflected the shot with ease...

Right into the unprotected top of his neck.

Ariadne barely had the time to spin aside as the still burning corpse collapsed towards her before rolling down and off the skywhale's side.

"Oh thank you god," Kaede finally let out the breath she had been inadvertently holding.

Nothing short of a miracle could have explained that.

She was grateful. She was proud.

She was concerned but happy, joyous even, as Ariadne looked in her direction.

Their eyes never met, but even from afar Kaede could feel a sense of gratitude -- even if it was probably just a prayer to the Holy Father.

As Kaede watched Ariadne collect herself and press on despite a lamed leg, a quote she had once heard made its way through her thoughts.

'Fighting to protect another is an ideal. Killing to protect another is war.'

For the second time, Kaede's hands have been bloodied by reaping the lives of others.

This time, she didn't feel any remorse at all.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Pascal watched his familiar's view with near disbelief at what had just happened. It was hard to estimate since Kaede's sense of scale was so different, but he was fairly certain she had just scored a bullseye across over a kilopace of distance.

The arrows he made for her certainly deserved some credit. Furthermore, Kaede's own elation proved that this had been a lucky hit. Nevertheless, the feat went beyond impressive. Even targeting precision spells at a thousand paces was difficult, and those ether shots were self-guided.

I should check what the records are for long-distance shooting, Pascal made a note to himself.

Perhaps Sylviane knew. As unlike him, she was a noble from Rhin-Lotharingie, and therefore actually knew how to handle a bow. But these days, Pascal had to actually work to preserve his image of a know-it-all in front of her.

For the first time in hours, Pascal allowed his lips to break into a thin smile. It was a proud smile tinged with envy. Prideful because Kaede was his familiar; envious because she had managed something that he could not.

No commander worthy of the title could watch his battle plan unfold and simply stay at ease. Pascal had sat there, seeing one squad after another charge into the bloody meat grinder, desperately wishing that he could be there to help.

But every soldier had a duty, a station that must not be abandoned. Battles were not fought by mere courage but through coordination and control. Communications were the lifeblood of any military unit. Without it, even the best of effort would fall apart like sand. Charged with the command staff brought along for this engagement, it was Pascal's job to facilitate communications -- even if it left him feeling helpless as he watched his comrades meet disaster and death.

Refocusing on the task at hand, Pascal sent out another order by telepathy. He could feel Kaede's concern as she watched Ariadne's staggering image from afar. But as the person responsible for calling up the next attack, Pascal needed a view of the bigger picture:

"Kaede, status report on the other skywhales."

For a brief moment their empathic link soured into one of annoyance, but she nevertheless complied.

"Gerd is making a mess of things on the first whale," Kaede shifted her sight to give him a visual of the bodies being flung off that airborne leviathan. "Kayeten... uh, they're having more trouble with the third. Although that whale rolled partially onto its side -- probably because of the rimefire burns -- so the Northmen are having just as hard a time."

And of course, nobody was attacking the fourth skywhale. In fact, part of Kayeten's trouble came from archers aboard the last target. But the initial blow had left the Ghost Riders too depleted to tackle that goal. Under the circumstances, it was impressive they even achieved this much.

Less than a third of their combat strength left... Pascal estimated von Hammerstein's men through Kaede's visual sweeps. With their initial momentum depleted and the defenders in greater numbers, it would not be long before they started losing ground.

It is finally time then.

Pascal then turned to the signal officer who kept a link with the Falcon Force company:

"Launch the last wave! Inform Colonel von Mackensen that target four is not cleared. I repeat, target four is not cleared. Be careful of the enemy's new mass lightning weapon. Spread out and commit extra strength from multiple attack vectors to ensure that it is sunk!"

As one of the few Weichsel mages available skilled with runic magic, item enchantment, and had a sufficient understanding of advanced alchemy, Pascal had made nearly half of those special munitions they carried. After watching the countless sacrifices his countrymen took to clear the way, he was more anxious than anyone to see them work.

The Northmen had played their trump card. It was Weichsel's turn.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Focusing her eyes across the distance, Kaede nocked another arrow and drew her bow into firing stance. A rather dramatic officer on skywhale two was rallying the defenders for a coordinated counterattack -- one that would surely drive the five remaining Phantoms off their whale.

No. You're not.

The distance was closer this time. She had already made the shot once. She could surely do it again.

It took another handful of seconds before the officer collapsed with a mouthful of blood. The hit had been a body shot this time, right through the lung.

Kaede surveyed the battlefield again as she lowered her bow. Her shot had bought the assault troops some more time, but the simple fact was that they had utterly exhausted their strength. Skagen defense units had rallied on all three skywhales, and now they were pushing back Weichsel's Phantoms through weight of numbers.

The situation was especially bad on skywhale two where only a handful of attackers remained, each fighting desperately just to stay alive. Even as Kaede scanned for a target of opportunity, another volley of arrows fell and killed the last figure who fought by Reynald's side.

They can't hold on any longer!

Kaede pulled out another arrow and nocked it. It didn't matter any more if her target was just some grunt at the head of a charge. She no longer had the luxury to spot only 'critical' targets. Time was now of the essence, and any individual foe she fell might buy her friends another second to survive.

Her fingers reached for a fourth shot the instant the previous shaft took flight.

Faster...

Speed shooting wasn't something Japanese archery managed well, especially not when she originally practiced it as a meditative exercise.

Kaede felt her impatience simmering even as she took aim again. Her composure was working overtime to suppress the rising anxiety from penetrating her mind and degrading her focus.

But a single frontline experience did not make her a veteran of war. She simply wasn't trained as a soldier. The calm she required to make accurate shots was losing ground far too quickly.

"Crap," she muttered as the fourth arrow missed by a good two meters.

She had lost it -- her focus, her concentration, that feeling of oneness with her shots as they soared out to murder and kill.

"Where are those darn reinforcements!" Kaede lashed back at Pascal as she watched von Hammerstein take another spear to his shoulder before tumbling down the whales' side, his life or death now unknown.

A northern swordsman at last reached the tattered Black Dragon banner and hacked it down.

"They should be...!"

Pascal didn't even finish before the shining, armored gryphons rushed down from dark clouds as though a beam of divine light.

Kaede's joy soared as deliverance had finally, finally arrived.

Unlike the 'fateful five minutes of Midway', the decisive moment of Nordkreuz was not brought to reality by coincidence, but through the willful sacrifice of countless brave lives.

The last Phantom company that had been lurking above the cloud cover dove down at a steep angle. Their dispersal was perfect, with two squads each sent against the first three skywhales, with their four best -- Recon and 1st Platoon -- concentrated on the last.

A cascade of thunder reached out from the fourth, untouched whale. At least a third of the assault wave there went down in an instant. But with most defenders distracted and the Phantoms in scattered formations, enough of them nevertheless made it through.

The Falcon Force company came in behind massive dispel volleys, hammering any remaining wards near each skywhale's nose. Then, just before they sped past, every knight hurled in their modified javelin.

Accuracy was poor, but quantity held a quality of its own. Out of two dozen or so javelins sent against each blowhole, at least one always made it through.

The javelins Kaede had watched Pascal modify carried tiny compartments with reagent payloads on the shaft. Impact triggered two different runes inscribed into the weapon: an electric surge that blasted forward to paralyze the skywhale's nasal muscles, and a transmutation barrier that covered the air intake. The alchemy spell would combine the abundant airborne nitrogen with its payload to create hydrogen cyanide -- Prussic Acid.

Nothing visible seemed to happen at first, other than stronger wailing from the whales. Then, as the fifteen second mark finally passed, geysers of flame erupted from one skywhale after another as delayed action Fireball runes activated to ignite the poisonous gas that already spread into their lungs.

The result was almost painful to watch.

The gargantuan beasts buckled, tossed, rolled, and performed every physical motion imaginable in their agonizing death throes. Holding formation and altitude was impossible as they flailed through the air, shedding men and equipment as they went.

The battle raged on as falling northern mages activated levitation runes to stay airborne and retaliate. But these were mostly infantry or shipboard operators. With their organization shattered, they posed only a minor threat to the air combat specialized Knights Phantom.

Dozens of drakes in the distance abandoned their own battle and turned to their motherships' aid. Yet the Phantoms and Armigers they fought had no intention of letting them go. Their attempt to disengage costed them dearly, and what had been a contested battle in Skagen's favor soon turned Weichsel's way.

By the time the first skywhale began to plummet, the battle was already turning into a slaughter. The Northmen elite neither routed nor surrendered. Those that stayed airborne fought back in penny packets, and the organized Phantom squads that remained butchered them without mercy.

 

----- * * * -----

 

Admiral Vintersvend struggled to hang onto the bulwark as his skywhale fell through the skies. It would have been easier if he could use both hands, or if his dead familiar wasn't plunging towards the ground at a near fifty-degrees listing.

Physical prowess had always been his brother's domain, not his. Furthermore, he also wasn't as young as he used to be...

Finally!

His other hand extracted the Air Glide Boost tablet from a belt pouch, which he promptly activated by pressing it against the gondola deck. He had prepared the runestone as part of his contingencies for an emergency. But never had he expected to actually use it.

...Certainly not today.

They had been winning! They had forced the Wickers onto the defensive and drove their boarding troops back. They were on the verge of shattering Weichsel's phantom corps and securing air dominance for the remainder of the war.

Then, in the span of less than a minute, everything had been reversed.

The hammer blow had come too quick, too fast. By the time the Admiral realized what had happened, the damage had already been done:

Four heavily armed and armored skywhales -- the pride of the Skagen navy -- sunk in mere moments.

The mighty Drake Outriders had been thrown into disarray, then pressed into a desperate defense like predators pounced upon by packs of angry prey.

Over a thousand veteran marksmen, runescribes, engineers, and other experienced specialists all found themselves crashing toward their death. Those who managed to stay airborne found little mercy as roaming squads of phantoms hacked them apart.

It was a disaster. A calamity he had walked straight into.

A catastrophe that he had no possible way to overturn.

The battle is lost.

Faced with the grim reality, Vintersvend had no choice but to admit it. All that remained was to see how many survivors could still be saved from his fatal mistake.

"Milord, we have to leave!" shouted his Flag Lieutenant -- a young Wayfarer tasked to be his personal aide. "Once the Wickers see us glide, they'll hit us with concentrated force!"

To effectively place a spell, even a simple Air Glide, across a monster of such colossal size was no easy feat. Vintersvend doubted any of the other skywhale captains could manage the same. This meant he had just painted a bullseye on his own sinking ship. But at the same time, it offered the only real hope of survival that his men had.

"I am NOT leaving my men behind to die!" Vintersvend yelled back in fury.

He had known most of the Polarlys' crew for at least twenty years. The thought of abandoning them in this critical moment was unthinkable. It would be cowardice beneath the dignity of any man alive, an act of treachery for which he would never be able to forgive himself.

"But Milord...!" the aide cried again, his earnest blue eyes almost begging.

"Sir, Skagen cannot afford to lose you in this war," came the voice of his First Mate from the communication tube.

As the Air Glide took hold and returned the flight deck mostly upright, Admiral Winter released the bulwark handle and dug into his pouches for two more tablets. The Gustcloak spellword was another one of his personal creations, and he reached out with both hands to project wind barriers onto the hangar deck entrances on opposite sides.

His falling skywhale familiar became a bunker gliding through air. Its armored mass was now charged with delivering several hundred crew members safely to the ground.

"No! We're all going back!" the Admiral set down his proverbial foot. "Now both of you shut up and organize the men for defense!"

Vintersvend could already see a squad of phantoms riding towards them from beyond the wind wall. After tapping a rune behind each tablet to hold them in levitation, the Admiral reached into more pockets to pull out handfuls of lightning stones. He hurled these into the gust barrier that bulged outwards from each entrance, where cycling winds trapped them in the hurricane gales.

With one hand tilting the rune tablet toward the attackers, Vintersvend gave it a single tap on the back. The gale barrier then spat out a horde of runestones with ballistic accuracy, and the proximity-triggered electrical bursts called down a lightning volley to blast the squad apart.

But the thunderous barrage also caught people's attention. Spell rays began flying toward the entrance in the dozens. However the explosive volley never made it past the wind. The barrier detonated spells as though solid matter. Elemental and antimagic blasts rapidly weakened the hurricane gales, yet they were hastily replenished as the Admiral poured more ether into his specially crafted stones.

Vintersvend was soon breathing hard as he strained his magic reserves. No individual archmage could match ether endurance against dozens, hundreds of battlemages and win. He still carried plenty of runestones for combat use, but he had to hold those barriers firm with his own power -- at least long enough to persuade the Wickers to cease their 'worthless' bombardment.

It took half a minute before they stopped. Then, as the Admiral finally took a calming breath, he saw a single Knight Phantom charge in the wake of the barrage.

Another tap of the rune tablet hurled out a dozen more stones, but the phantom vanished in a bolt of his own lightning before the salvo struck. Yet just before striking the wind wall, the attacker rematerialized into physical form once more.

Vintersvend's eyes grew wide with astonishment as he watched the intruder fall into his hangar. The gale barrier had torn the Wicker's uniform into bloody shreds. Without the man's steel and arcane armor, the cutting winds would have ripped him apart.

The sheer audacity of this... this boy!

The Admiral stared in near disbelief as the Knight Phantom crashed hard onto the steel floor and gradually rolled to a stop merely five paces away. A dozen gashes had cut the attacker's face into a bloody mess beyond recognition. Nevertheless Vintersvend estimated that the short redhead who appeared to be a teen was in his early twenties at most.

Was it bravery? Overconfidence? Outright stupidity? Vintersvend didn't know what compelled the boy into such a foolhardy stunt. But it hardly mattered anymore.

A handful of his housecarl bodyguards were rushing over from the entrances. The heathen boy would never be allowed to stand up again.

Yet as hateful, blood-covered eyes turned to glare at the Admiral, Vintersvend realized that the kid wasn't finished. The redhead tossed one of the two kukris in his hands, hurling out the curved steel like a bladed boomerang.

However the kid was too badly hurt. His aim was terrible even at so close a range. The kukri merely tore the edge of the Admiral's billowing cloak.

No... it had also grazed his layered wards, and the weapon's discharged Catalyst Dispel overwhelmed them with cascading failure.

With a jerk of his hands, the Admiral summoned runic pebbles between his fingers to replenish the wards. But a sharp, slashing pain from his right forearm caused him to drop the stones.

"Armor Screen!" the bloodied boy spat out, curving the protective bubble around the Admiral and enclosing his space against the steel bulwark.

What-- Vintersvend puzzled in confusion before he saw the re-emerging threat.

The kukri had bounced off the wall and came back, somehow tripling itself in the process. Then, with another rebound off the translucent bubble, two more copies duplicated into existence.

They cut across his shin, slashed his bony shoulder, even sent a hacking stab deep into his back. The whirlwind of steel escalated in mere seconds, and agonizing pain drowned out all coherent thought -- let alone any deduction that could devise a suitable counterspell.

 

...

 

Reynald never found out if the Admiral lacked the right prepared spell to deal with the unusual threat or if he simply didn't react fast enough. But within seconds, the swarm of flying steel created by the Bladestorm Kukri -- a 'gift' from the Imperial Mantis Blades weeks ago -- had cut the old man apart.

Which left three armed and now outraged Northmen surrounding Reynald.

Too bad... I won't get to show Gerd my medal for this...

Lying face-up on the floor, Reynald cough up more blood as he glanced over. Not at the swords about to end his life, but the fading winds that once protected the entrance.

...At least I can tell the Holy Father... that I did my job.

Exhausted enough to sleep for an eternity, he finally allowed himself to close his eyes.

But there was no sharp escalation of pain. No ending of consciousness.

Instead he heard cries of agony above him, accompanied by an avian screech.

...The wail of a gryphon.

Reynald opened his eyes once more and there it was -- an armored gryphon of Weichsel standing next to him, with a middle-aged man bearing a Colonel's insignia riding on top.

As another spatter of blood flew across the air, the officer who wore a tall, bearskin hat with skulls and crossbones finally glanced down at him.

"Rest easy son. You did us proud."

Without even the energy to lift his hand, Reynald could only gurgle out the blood in his mouth as he stared blankly at Colonel von Mackensen, commander of the Falcon Force.

"I-I'm not dead yet."

 

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 16 - Hail the Black Dragon

Pascal sighed again as he put down the action report and leaned back in his cabin's workdesk chair.

It was his third time reading over the report in contemplation. In fact, he had already sent its contents to Weichsel's General Staff an hour ago.

The real problem was that he simply didn't know what else to do.

The Knights Phantom had set up camp after the battle to rest, recover, and reorganize. Most of the cavalrymen were celebrating with their own units, paying respects to the dead, or just plain sleeping.

Problem was: Pascal couldn't sleep. He was far past the 'drowsy' stage of fatigue.

He also didn't belong to a unit, or even a 'past unit'. He was one of the few command staff personnel who came along for the battle, and unlike the others he had come straight from the academy.

That shouldn't be a problem since there were plenty of cadets from the academy right? Well, of the people he actually talked to...

Parzifal was still working in the makeshift 'hospital'.

Reynald, Ariadne, and Gerd were all recovering from heavy injuries -- severe enough that the healers allowed no visitors so the wounded could receive undisturbed rest.

Kaede had gone there to help, at least until she herself passed out. A lack of rest plus being drained for blood really wasn't a good combination. Pascal might have been tempted to go yell at Parzifal for that, had he not seen firsthand the casualties they took.

Nearly forty percent of the Phantoms' order of battle had been killed or crippled. The Ghost Riders had been hit the hardest, down to less than a fifth of their effective combat force. Their only blessing was the survival of Colonel von Hammerstein. The grievously injured commander had stayed conscious long enough to drift down and cushion his landing, where he was later found by Weichsel's rescue teams.

It would take years for the elite Knights Phantom to recover back to full strength after this fight.

Combined with all the other battles and skirmishes fought during the Peninsular Campaign, Pascal wasn't surprised that the healers had run out of Samaran blood.

The victory was a costly one. But that didn't make it any less total. Both Skagen's skywhales and their drake force had been utterly destroyed, denying the Northmen of their mobile strike force. With Admiral Winter dead, Weichsel's stormcaller mages already detected a warm front moving in from the south. Soon, the snow-covered fields would turn to wintry slush, rendering the northern skis and sleds unusable. Once General von Blumenthal's land cavalry destroyed the beached Skagen North Sea Fleet tomorrow, the entire Skagen army would be trapped in Weichsel without supplies.

Sure, the border didn't seem far -- except Skagen's outer defenses had already been obliterated by the Peninsular Campaign. With superior Weichsel cavalry harrying them from all sides, their retreat back to friendly supply lines would be agonizingly slow.

Meanwhile, King Leopold was already leading the main Weichsel army out of Nordkreuz. They were marching east to finish the job: the annihilation of Skagen's Confederate Army of the Home Isles.

The Greater Jarldom of Skagen still had more forces in their overseas frontier realms. But those units would take months to return, assuming they could be spared from their duties on the frontier at all. If the King could destroy Skagen's home army, he would ruin their capacity to wage war on the Hyperion continent for decades to come. This would give Weichsel absolute and undisputed superiority in any peace negotiations which followed.

But would the King settle for merely a white peace -- a return to the status quo -- so Weichsel could free its hand to join Rhin-Lotharingie's war against the Caliphate?

Pascal rather doubted that.

A decisive victory would encourage Weichsel to press towards its ultimate goal in the north: the annexation of the Skagen Peninsula.

With two of the three peninsular Jarls already killed in battle, it was possible that Skagen's Assembly of Jarls might actually agree after a catastrophic loss.

But even in the best case scenario of a swift peace, the people in these newly conquered lands belonged to both a different culture and religion. Their integration would require pacification, which needed the presence of considerable military might -- forces that could no longer be sent to Rhin-Lotharingie's aid.

I had not thought this far when I initially proposed the Operation, Pascal reflected.

He had been too focused on achieving military objectives, without considering the broader political implications.

At times like these, Pascal had to admit that in spite of all his genius, he was still a long way off from becoming a true general.

...Let alone a renowned Marshal like his father.

Pascal wished he could talk to Sylviane right now. She had considerably more political experience than he did, thanks to years of working under Emperor Geoffroi in the Lotharin court. But her armigers had called her away on urgent business -- something about a message from home.

I might be the fiancé of their crown princess. But in the eyes of most Lotharins, I am still just a foreigner and outsider, Pascal sighed as he pondered over this sad and lonely truth.

Leaning his head back from the chair, Pascal brought his right hand up to rub his temple.

He couldn't wait for night to come and hopefully bring some rest for his fatigue-clouded mind.

That was before he heard two knocks on the door, followed by a familiar voice:

"Pascal? Are you in?" came the soft soprano of Cecylia von Falkenhausen.

"Yes! Be right there!" Pascal called back as he stood up and rushed for the door.

He really was thankful that Kaede had allowed him to semi-reconcile with Ariadne, which brought his childhood friend Cecylia back to everyday speaking terms again.

"You are back in Weichsel already?" Pascal cheerfully asked as he opened the thick wooden door... and promptly froze.

The dhampir girl with scarlet-crossed eyes was just the first of six people who stood outside, all of them wearing figure-concealing gray cloaks bearing the Black Dragon crest of Weichsel.

"Sorry, official business," Cecylia noted as she gave him an apologetic smile.

"Can we talk inside?" requested the middle-aged man standing right behind her.

Pascal's eyebrows shot up. This was certainly a very unusual encounter. Besides, he thought Cecylia was still supposed to be in Skagen, doing intelligence work.

Never breaking eye contact or changing his puzzled expression, Pascal slowly turned his hand to point his turquoise casting ring at Cecylia. Meanwhile his other hand summoned four defensive runes. But a subtle scan of her magic aura held a matching checksum with his memory. The unique ether signature was definitely Cecylia's, not some fake modified by polymorph or illusion magic.

He didn't detect any enchantment magic either. Sure, minor spell auras could be concealed. But any spell capable of overwhelming and dominating a dhampir's mind would be powerful indeed.

"Come on in," Pascal replied at last as he lead them into the cabin. "How is your father Cecylia?"

The elder Falkenhausen was a leading general of Weichsel, which made this more than just a personal question but also a matter of state.

"His legs were crushed when the air assault collapsed the eastern gatehouse," Cecylia kept her tone casual despite the topic. "But the healers reached him in time with Regeneration spells. He'll make a full recovery in a week or so."

"That is a relief to hear."

With seven people inside, the room was a little cramped. It only worsened when six of them reached out to take off their cloaks, revealing their uniforms underneath.

...The pitch-black uniform of the King's Black Eagles, all six of them.

Pascal had an uneasy feeling about this. It wasn't natural for the Black Eagles to operate openly in groups unless the King was nearby.

The lean, middle-aged man -- who wore a fierce scowl and blond hair tied back in a 'manly' ponytail -- then began without waiting for the resident's invitation:

"I am Major Kempinski, leader of field operations for the Black Eagles' State Security section," the man revealed his Black Eagle crest-badge, as though offering Pascal to examine its authenticity.

But Pascal simply nodded. Cecylia's presence was good enough for him. If he couldn't trust a Falkenhausen, who had been faultlessly loyal to the Crown of Weichsel for generations, then there would be no man in the world whom he could rely on.

Of course, his friendship and trust towards Cecylia was probably the reason why they recalled her for this task.

"Is this cabin warded from outside spying?"

"Of course," Pascal answered. What does he think I am, incompetent?

"Then-- I have been charged to bring you a personal note from His Majesty the King, along with conclusive findings of recent investigations into the death of Field Marshal Karl August von Moltewitz," the Major continued.

At the words 'His Majesty the King', Pascal immediately stood to full attention and gave a responsive salute.

"Hail the Black Dragon," he swore his allegiance before receiving the offered scroll-case.

What about father? Is there something else other than him being killed by Imperial Mantis Blades?

Questions rolled nonstop across Pascal's mind as he unfurled the two sheets of parchment and began reading.

It began with pleasantries, congratulations for the victory, all the warm words one could expect from an eloquent writer to a friend of the family.

...Right up to when the hammer struck:

...We have since discovered irrefutable evidence that the assassination of the Marshal had been supported by none other than General Neithard Mittemeyer von Manteuffel in a most blatant act of high treason...

Pascal felt his lungs halt mid-breathe. His eyes stared back as though threatening to pop out from their sockets.

von Manteuffel... treason...

At that moment, facing the black, ironclad words on cold parchment, he could have sworn his heart stopped.

It had been frozen in doubtful disbelief, then reignited as he read on, by icy flames of simmering fury.

...The Black Eagles have unraveled evidence of direct contact between the von Manteuffel household and Imperial intelligence agents, including the passing of detailed information on guard and patrol schedules...

Pascal's knuckles had turned white. His arms had began to quiver, though the grip on the parchment itself had grown as firm as steel.

This was General von Manteuffel, one of the most decorated officers in the Weichsel army. He and Pascal's father had served together for decades! They might not have been friends, but they were at least comrades! How could he...

...Although initially thought to be the work of a mere spy within the household staff, thorough divination testing has confirmed that these documents have been personally handled by the General...

Pascal could barely believe it. He just couldn't accept it. It was betrayal, a personal sense of betrayal from not just his commanding officer, but a general whom he had looked up to for the man's tactical brilliance.

"Is this... is this all certain?" Pascal heard his own trembling voice mutter.

"The King had assigned the best investigators in Weichsel on this task and gave it the highest priority," Cecylia's soft reply came with an apologetic look. "These results are as reliable as they get."

But... why?

It was a question of denial. Pascal knew exactly why: in the wake of his father's death, von Manteuffel had already pulled ahead as the main contender for the next Field Marshal of Weichsel.

...And it was questionable if his ambitions ended even there.

Hence why von Manteuffel seeded his own protégés in all the important command positions of the operation.

Perhaps it even explained the General's 'blunder' at the Battle of Nordkapp which almost had Pascal killed.

To pass such sensitive information on the Marshal's security to the Imperials... von Manteuffel could have done no worse if he had personally handed the Mantis Blades a sword to kill the elder von Moltewitz.

Pascal hadn't even noticed as his breathing grew into heaving pants, or his shoulders quaking under barely-contained explosive rage.

The dark clouds of vile hatred, the thirst for blood and vengeance -- he had suppressed them in the wake of the assassination for the interests of Weichsel. But now, they could no longer be contained.

Father knew you were too ambitious to be politically reliable. But he had always respected, RESPECTED you, because you were a brave and brilliant leader, one whom he had thought shared in the belief of a strong Weichsel independent from Imperial influences. But you...

"--You fucking traitorous PIECE OF SHIT!" he finally spat out.

"I take it... that you are here to arrest that traitorous bastard?" Pascal heard the murderous hatred exit his own mouth.

"...Pascal?" Kaede chimed in, but he ignored her worried voice completely.

"You have my deepest condolences for the Marshal," Major Kempinski's steady voice replied. "But please stay calm and continue reading, Major von Moltewitz."

With a deep breath to swallow any further words of impatience, Pascal begrudgingly returned his gaze to the parchment. The royal communique was more effluent than usual. He wished the King would get to whatever was the next point already so he could return to discussing how to strangle that man...

Then, there it was:

...It is my heartfelt desire that you be given an opportunity to personally avenge this betrayal by assisting in von Manteuffel's immediate arrest, before his own agents may hear of his unveiled treason and prompt him into launching a military coup d'etat. The Black Eagles charged with delivering this message are hereby assigned to your command. Please exercise initiative with caution, my young friend, as von Manteuffel's long career of service has earned him countless loyal supporters within every military camp. Should he resist arrest by any means, you have my permission for his immediate execution. The Weichsel army cannot risk a major disturbance in this crucial stage of the war.

Other than the words 'my young friend', Pascal found himself in complete agreement with the King's every sentiment. If von Manteuffel found out about his impending arrest, he could launch a military coup in desperation which would inflict immeasurable harm to Weichsel's war efforts.

All of this pointed towards one fact: the sooner that General was removed, the better.

"...Pascal what's going on?" Kaede spoke again over their telepathy.

...And once again Pascal ignored her. More precisely, his mind never even bothered to process her words.

With eyes intent on his mission, he stood straight to face Major Kempinski at last.

"I accept His Majesty's mission with obedience and gratitude," he voice resounded as hard as steel. "However, Neithard von Manteuffel is one of Weichsel's highest ranking commanders. Should his immediate death be necessary, may I ask if you bear His Majesty's sword to represent his royal authority?"

The Black Eagles officer then shook his head without any change in expression:

"His Majesty said that his sword cannot be spared on the eve of battle. We must make do with the orders of the King."

Pascal pursed his lips at that.

As one of the highest offices in Weichsel, a general can only be promoted or removed with the personal consent of the King. With His Majesty's orders in hand, Pascal could certainly arrest a general -- that was a temporary measure, after all. But to execute, to permanently remove a general, that required more substantial authority. It was an established tradition of Weichsel to ensure that no forged orders or subterfuge could do irreparable harm to the nation's interests.

But then, these were special circumstances. It certainly would be unreasonable to deny the King his personal sword while he was in command of an army.

"We will just have to make do then," Pascal admitted. "With the King's personal letter and his Black Eagles at hand, there should not be any problems. If anything, the best time to strike would be now and immediately. Most of the camp is either celebrating or resting, with only perimeter watch on battle alert. Last I heard, von Manteuffel himself was overseeing the celebrations. Our biggest danger is that a considerable number of knights from the Phantom Gale -- his old unit -- will be there."

"Then we have no time to lose," the Major replied. "There is always the possibility that one of his loyalists sighted our approach here and might raise suspicions."

"In that case, we will gather Colonel von Mackensen and whomever he has at hand. Not only is he a diehard Crown Royalist, but his forces suffered the least casualties in the last battle. We will head over to the dining halls after that," Pascal finalized, having already taken his first steps towards the door.

...And I hope that traitor does resist, because I will gladly send him to hell myself!

"Pascal please say something, you're scaring me now..."

Kaede's faint cry was almost begging him when he noticed it at last.

The emotions pouring over their empathic link were beyond mere worry and concern now. They had already entered the realm of becoming distraught.

When did she...?

Pascal knew it wasn't her first attempt, but he couldn't recall when her calls began, or how many times she had already been ignored.

"Stay put where you are," his reply rang terse and imperious as he strode through the cabin door.

"The hell I'm staying put when you're out looking for someone's blood! What is going on?"

Pascal didn't remember venting any of his stormy wrath across their telepathy. But clearly he must have, as it had been enough to wake Kaede and drive her own anxieties to the edge.

I do not have time for this right now!

"This is a political matter. You would just complicating things," he sent back.

"Fine, I won't ask any more questions until you're ready to tell me," Kaede relented in her desperation. "But at least let me be there! Can you use an extra hand? Or..."

Pascal didn't really need her help. He certainly didn't want her in this dangerous affair.

But Kaede was right in one regard -- at this moment, he needed all the trustworthy manpower he could seize.

Besides, if she was just going to keep pestering him, then it also doubled as a way of shutting her up.

"Meet me outside the dining halls in five minutes then. Remember: no questions!"

...And stay out of my way when I skin this bastard alive!

----- * * * -----

Although he sat amidst an atmosphere of celebration, General Neithard von Manteuffel was anything but jubilant.

The men from his old, personally-trained company -- the Phantom Gale -- drank and sang in good cheer all around. But the General had plastered a trace smile across his expression while nursing his stein in silent contemplation.

During the ride south from Skagen, he had received a Farspeak message from a close friend back in Königsfeld. He had ignored it at the time -- a looming decisive battle that could alter the fate of the nation held more importance than any news a retired officer might bring.

Unfortunately, that merely pushed back the ill tidings to cast a shadow upon the afterglow of victory.

Apparently, the General and his entire household was under investigation. His friend couldn't offer him any details, other than how the Black Eagles have been probing his activities and contacts... and very subtly at that.

Perhaps it couldn't be helped. No man could climb the ranks of power without making enemies, just as no man could maintain his presence everywhere at once. Neithard knew the moment he took command in the field, his political opponents in the Capital would begin plotting against him.

...Though if the Black Eagles were brought into the scheme, it meant they finally caught the ears of the King.

Cardinal Lanckoroński, you slimy old hag...

As the leader of the militant faction, Neithard had been bitterly opposed to the Cardinal's pro-Imperium commerce faction for as long as he remembered. It certainly didn't help that their personalities mixed like oil and water. Whereas Neithard von Manteuffel was stoic, stern, and frugal, Lisbeth von Lanckoroński was... well, a greedy hedonist who liked teenage boys.

Enjoying younger members of the other sex was hardly a rare trait among the powerful. But Neithard always wondered why the Holy Father ever allowed such a sinner to tend to his flock.

The late Marshal von Moltewitz had believed strongly in staying out of factional politics -- a trait Neithard once found exceedingly foolish. No army could live on honor and tradition alone. It need funding, gold, its slice of the national budget. Sure, Nordkreuz was a rich region thanks to its trade junction, but not every Duchy held such blessings!

So Neithard fought the Cardinal for every silver pfennig in the Marshal's stead. He used his military contacts to extend his influence into the civil bureaucracy. He clashed with the Cardinal over every digit of spending, every project of national infrastructure.

...And more often than not, he won.

But such victories came with a price.

Before Neithard knew it, Cardinal von Lanckoroński -- the snake that she was -- had begun spreading rumors of Neithard's ambition to seize government power for himself. By the time Neithard realized the danger he was in and began to tread carefully, it was already too late.

Only then did he finally understand why Marshal von Moltewitz had been so careful to stay out of factional politics. For any man other than the King to control that much power -- it was like wearing a bullseye behind his head.

Since then, Neithard did what he could in downplaying his hand. Though he couldn't stop expanding his influence in the army. The military depended on the quality of its officer corps, and he just happened to be excellent at filtering out the inferior from the exceptional.

But his clan, his extended families -- they had grown accustomed to wielding power and prestige.

The day Neithard heard about Duchess Karoline's death -- which conveniently passed the Duchy of Mitterfels into the hands of Ariadne von Zimmer-Manteuffel's new fiancé -- he suggested for her parents to reconsider the engagement.

But he had been a step too late. The King had already noticed, and sent him a warning to boot.

Had he been a betting man, he would confidently wager that the slimy Cardinal was actually behind the Duchess' death, just so she could pin the blame on him.

Neithard was still pondering when the dining hall's thick wooden door slammed open. The first one to step in was the young Major von Moltewitz, who soon found him with burning eyes ready to murder and kill.

The General hardly had time to consider before six Black Eagles and one familiar girl strode in behind Pascal. They fanned out to both sides even as Colonel von Mackensen rushed in, leading one battle-ready Knight Phantom inside after another.

All ruckus within the cabin died down in seconds. Even the drunk could sense the rapid shift in room temperature to below freezing.

"General Neithard Mittemeyer von Manteuffel!" the young Major snarled as his hands held out a scroll of parchment bearing the royal seal. "By order of His Majesty the King, you are under arrest on charges of high treason for willingly conspiring in the assassination of Marshal Karl August von Moltewitz!"

What!?

For a passing second, Neithard found himself utterly stunned.

Conspiring in the late Marshal's assassination? Neithard's opinions might often have clashed with von Moltewitz -- especially where Rhin-Lotharingie was concerned. But they were still allies in almost every regard! Why would he ever...

Then, his mind finally made the turn:

That snake has already spread her venom... and this is her killing blow.

Everything had been set against him. The trial's verdict was already clear. Cardinal von Lanckoroński would not have made so bold a move unless her 'evidence' against him was foolproof.

If he surrendered here, his head might adorn a pike before his words even reached the King's ears.

But what else... what else can I do?

Slowly, the cornered General stood up from the bench.

He never once broke eye contact from Pascal's malicious gaze.

"I have fought a hundred battles for Weichsel, and not once, not once! Have I fought against our fatherland!"

But those turquoise eyes filled with icy flames never even flickered at the General's declaration.

The young Major whom he had hoped to nurture was already beyond reason, beyond reach.

Neithard did not want to rebel. He did not want to betray the King's wishes, even for a second.

But, at this stage, do I have any other choice?

The General was not afraid of dying. He had braved death too many times to fear it.

But he feared for his enemy's victory. He feared for his family's honor.

Most of all, he stood afraid of just how much harm an unopposed Cardinal could inflict upon Weichsel's military pride.

His only chance was to stay alive -- long enough to score an audience with the King, to appeal to Leopold in person.

"What would your father think, to see his son as a lap dog of that Imp-loving Cardinal's," Neithard announced with bitter sorrow.

"SHUT YOUR MOUTH! You filthy traitor!" the son cried back. "You have no right to evoke my father's memory!"

But Neithard's words weren't directed towards Pascal. They were meant for his own men; several of whom were already beginning to stand up, their expressions an image of defiance.

Foremost among them was the protégé who sat right behind the General: Colonel Sir Dietrich Gottfried von Falkenrath, commander of the Phantom Gale and one of his brightest pupils.

At the same time, he heard a voice call "General!" from just outside the doors. It was Lieutenant-Colonel Ostergalen. Neithard didn't have a clue how the intelligence officer acquired information so quickly this time, but he was grateful as more Phantoms stepped in the door -- their swordstaves directed towards his enemies.

"I had held no intention of rebellion against His Majesty the King! But I will be damned if I let that backstabbing bitch destroy everything I have worked for our proud army! Now, who is with me!"

"I AM!"

Neithard wasn't surprised when the first shout of firm allegiance came from just behind him.

He hardly had time to be astonished when a swordstaff blade sliced through his neck.

----- * * * -----

Pascal's gaze was still frozen in shock as he stared at the fountain of blood spraying from von Manteuffel's severed neck.

His mind was still grappling with 'what the heck just happened' when Colonel von Falkenrath slammed his bloody swordstaff onto the ground and reached deep into an extra-dimensional belt pouch.

Time seemed to stand still as nobody else in the room dared to make a single move. All eyes were anxiously awaiting a statement from the dhampir commander that just plunged an already crazy situation into outright insanity.

Then, the Colonel pulled out his hand, carrying a crest-badge of the Black Eagles and an old, discolored scroll bearing the King's seal.

"By order of His Majesty the King, I have infiltrated von Manteuffel's circle for the past two decades to maintain watch on his activities. My orders are to eliminate von Manteuffel at the best opportunity should he ever attempt to betray the Crown! Now, in the name of His Majesty Leopold Karl-Wilhelm von Drachenlanzen, STAND DOWN!"

----- * * * -----

Colonel Hannes von Falkenberg, commander of the Black Eagles, smiled from behind his work desk as he read the report on the final moments of Neithard von Manteuffel.

This isn't Rhin-Lotharingie, he thought to himself. This is Weichsel, and the only man allowed enough power to seize the throne is the King himself.

At the price of one Duchess' head, he had destroyed the greatest threat to the Crown of Weichsel, while sending the only other menace -- the Chancellor-Cardinal -- into cowering submission.

The former General's power base wouldn't just disappear overnight either. But with blood already spilled, the hatred of von Manteuffel's loyalists will keep Cardinal von Lanckoroński's faction under control for years at least. After all, nobody held grudges like old veterans who forged battlefield bonds.

It was unfortunate that the army had to lose its foremost commander, again. But the war against Skagen was already effectively won. After the casualties taken during Operation White Typhoon, it would be best if Weichsel stayed out of any new wars for several years so the cavalry arm could recover. By then, some of the younger talents revealed by the recent campaign would be ready to step into the older generation's shoes.

Everything had been a necessary sacrifice to maintain Weichsel's continued stability -- the centralized power of its absolute monarchy.

There was no way Hannes would allow his fatherland to collapse into the unholy mess that Rhin-Lotharingie found itself in today.

Putting down the paper, the Colonel looked to the far side wall at the life-sized portrait of Weichsel's founder, King Ferdinand I von Drachenlanzen. Centuries ago, his ancestors swore an unbreakable blood oath to that very expression.

Today, he would uphold it once more.

"Hail the Black Dragon."

His sapphire-crossed eyes glanced down upon the report once again, reflecting upon the name of a young Major who helped bring this entire charade to its dramatic end.

"May you learn from this and grow be as wise as your father in the game of politics. Then perhaps, just perhaps, Rhin-Lotharingie might make it through to become a reliable ally after all."

[ Next Chapter ]

 

Chapter 17 - What A General Needs

"--Pascal also said that given Rhin-Lotharingie's political position, it would be best if we managed a peaceful coexistence with the Caliphate."

It was a proposition towards the foreign policy of an empire, which came from a young girl no more than nine years old.

After over a year of stay in Nordkreuz as effectively a prisoner of war and political hostage, Princess Sylviane had returned to her homeland at last. Her father Geoffroi had come to the border in person to pick her up, and now she snuggled into the side of his broad chest as they rode the royal carriage back.

But had the Emperor taken any offense from being told how to manage diplomacy by a mere child, he showed no signs of it. Instead, an amused smile stretched across his visage as his large hand brushed her dark-plum hair from her other side.

It was a comforting luxury that she had not experienced for too long.

"Pascal seems to think that everything is like numbers and tools, just freely manipulated at will," the Emperor laughed. "The Caliph has an ego too. There is no way he'll agree to be friendly when I'm the one who took lands from him during our last war."

"Not even when we're the enemy of their enemies?" the princess turned her curious gaze to ask. "I mean -- 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' right? Doesn't the Caliphate have to struggle against Skagen's naval projection and the Imperium's Inner Sea dominance?"

Power projection, maritime dominance -- they were concepts that Sylviane wouldn't have dreamed of using two years ago. But now, she spoke them with pride and confidence, hoping to impress her own father with her maturity and growth.

Though for a moment, Geoffroi's smile wavered a hint as he lightly shook his head:

"Sadly, politics isn't that simple. It's not just situational circumstances, but also a clash of personalities. Other than interests, there are also personal values, dignity, ego, trust, and so on..."

An all-embracing warmth soon returned to the father's doting eyes as he looked down to meet the daughter's light-violet orbs.

"I take it Pascal is an adherent of 'Realpolitik'? Well, he is Weichsen after all."

"Uh... maybe? Ummm, w-what is real-polity-k?" Sylviane carefully pronounced the unfamiliar term, abashed that she still fell short of her father's expectations.

However a return smile full of pride and fatherly love easily chased her concerns away.

"Looks like the know-it-all hadn't taught everything after all," Geoffroi chuckled again. "Don't worry. Father will gladly coach you once we get back. And the next time you meet Pascal you can make him envious at just how much you've outgrown him!"

"Oooh, that would be great!" the small princess beamed back. "He's always wearing this smug little grin around. It would be nice to see him falter and cringe just once or twice!"

Still smiling, still rhythmically stroking her hair, Geoffroi's blue-violet eyes grew pensive as he turned to look out of the carriage's window at the passing landscape. The entourage followed the riverside road as they made their way west, crossing the heartlands of Rhin-Lotharingie.

"Sylv, you know, you've been talking non-stop about Pascal ever since I picked you up."

There was a tinge of sadness in her father's voice, and Sylviane's guilt instantly spiked. She had been so engrossed in telling her father about everything she had experienced and learned that she had forgotten to ask about how he -- or the rest of the family -- was doing.

Her sun vanished in an instant. Within seconds, the gloomy clouds of dejection swept in as her gaze dropped to the floor.

"I'm sorry father. I was carried away--"

But she stopped as her father reached down to gently lift her chin back up.

"No, that's not what I meant," Geoffroi reassured with a wistful smile.

For several moments, neither the Emperor nor the Princess said a word. They simply stared into each others' eyes. The father's -- proud yet sentimental. The daughter's -- curious and uncertain.

Sylviane couldn't figure out what her father was thinking, not even when they grew glassy with moisture.

It was almost shocking. She had never, not even once, ever seen her father be overwhelmed by emotions.

He was Geoffroi the Great, the steadfast Emperor whose masculine strength was admired by every Lotharin throughout the realm.

...Or at least, that was what she believed. Even Pascal, or the elder von Moltewitz, or King Leopold of Weichsel, spoke of her father with great esteem.

"Sylv..." Geoffroi finally broke the silence. "What do you think about Pascal? Do you enjoy being with him?"

"He's fun, and interesting... but but, i-it's not like that I like him or anything!"

Sylviane almost shouted back in a delayed kneejerk reaction. Her wisteria gaze had locked stares with her father's. But before those earnest, penetrating eyes, the young girl soon wilted and glanced away.

Her cheeks were burning red and hot. She didn't even understand why, but it was just... so embarrassing to think about.

Besides, Pascal was from Weichsel -- a country they had been hostile against until just a few weeks ago. She could be friendly and courteous with him, but she couldn't actually be friends with him.

...Let alone anything more than that.

"Royalty should never be afraid of their own feelings," Geoffroi added sternly. "Now, tell father: did you enjoy your time with Pascal? And you swear to the Holy Father that it's the truth, because this is very important."

Sylviane wanted to shy away from her father's gaze, to hide her embarrassing moment from the world. But there wasn't any cover, not even a loose blanket.

Under her father's unrelenting scrutiny, she finally returned a meek nod.

Silence returned to the air once more, but Sylviane couldn't bring herself to look at her father. Was he dejected? Disconsolate? Disappointed?

But the words that spoke next were none of them.

"I am considering offering him your hand in marriage."

For a brief moment Sylviane completely froze. She couldn't have heard that properly, could she?

Her cheeks were beet-red under eyes as wide as saucers by the time she snapped back.

"W-w-what are you talking about father!? I'm still only nine!"

"Do you dislike him?"

"I-it's not that I hate him or anything, b-but isn't this against..."

"--What have I told you about double negatives Sylv?" Geoffroi cut in with another stern frown. "Clarity. Royalty must speak with clarity, confidence, determination. Even if you must express doubt, you should never allow your voice to fall into weakness."

Sylviane shut herself up at once as she cast her eyes down again, ashamed in the wake of her father's lecturing words.

"...Sorry."

"You never talked like that before," he pondered aloud. "Where did you pick this up?"

"P-Pascal said..."

Her meek voice trailed off again as Geoffroi gave a deep sigh.

"That brat."

For a half-minute, a discomforting silence settled over the two as Sylviane heard only the rhythmic creaking of the wagon's wheels. She could only hope that her honest reply didn't just ruin any chances of her meeting Pascal again.

"Sylv... do you remember what your mother once taught you about the 'Gaetane Legacy' -- about how we don't do political marriages?"

Sylviane rushed to nod back. It was precisely what she tried to bring up a moment ago:

"Yes father. Before my Great-Great-Grandfather Louis the Bold united the Oriflamme and founded the Rhin-Lotharingie Coalition during the Independence War, he had been forced to abandon the love of his life and settle for an arranged marriage by his parents. He blamed his wife for this and never forgave her -- not even after she helped him faithfully during the wars. It was not until his dying years when he finally recognized the damage done to his children due to his failed marriage."

A nostalgic grin broke across her father's expression as he gently stroked her hair once more.

"Trust your mother to always emphasize the romantic parts," he spoke with bittersweet nostalgia that left Sylviane briefly confused before his tone stiffened again. "Louis the Bold was also an avid student of history, and he believed strongly that the endurance of any royal dynasty lay in the number of consistently able monarchs it produced. Before he died, he stated that the Gaetane family should never marry for political purpose again, but for loving, supportive families that can raise healthy and strong heirs -- not only physically but also mentally, emotionally, spiritually."

Connecting doting blue-violet eyes to earnest wisteria gaze again, Geoffroi continued his fatherly teachings with a proud emphasis:

"--Sylv, I know you've been told many things about what a Princess should be, but always remember that as a Gaetane, duty to our family is the same as building the future of our realm. It doesn't matter if it's man or woman, conqueror or administrator -- those who abandon their role as a parent also fail as a hereditary lord."

Slowly but surely, Sylviane nodded back to her father's smile. She carved his words into memory, promising herself to remember them even years, even decades from now.

"I am certain that Pascal has many good qualities and will surely grow to be a capable man," Geoffroi acknowledged, much to the daughter's growing joy. "But... would he be a good husband? A good father? That I'm not certain about..."

"Father..." the Princess hesitantly murmured. "You really want to m-marry me off to him? I mean, I d-don't object if you really..."

"Marry you off?" the Emperor almost barked a laugh. "Oh never! I'm considering asking for his betrothal to you, not the other way around!"

Then, as his tone gradually settled back down:

"Sylv, I know this might seem a bit early, but a political marriage cannot be arranged late..."

With her cheeks still glowing like charcoal, Sylviane instinctively opened her mouth to object. But her father's gentle touch stopped her before she even finished a single word.

"Yes, I know. I'm going against our founder's decree. But Sylv, there is a problem with not forging alliances by marriage, and I have felt it keenly over the years. Ever since its founding, Rhin-Lotharingie has remained a collection of autonomous and semi-independent feudal states. Our markets cannot adhere to standardized regulations; our military lacks centralized control. Our efforts in economy and industry are always disorganized, and our frontiers vulnerable to neighboring aggression..."

Sylviane nodded back as she understood the pain in her father's voice. Even Pascal had recognized this problem, which he highlighted to her as Rhin-Lotharingie's principal weakness that Weichsel exploited during the war.

"--Your grandfather and I both tried to change this," Geoffroi continued on in begrudging words, "and we both gave up when faced with powerful resistance from the nobility. These centralization reforms are necessary for our nation's future, but they are also deeply unpopular. For any chance of their success, we would need powerful alliances, the most reliable of which can only be obtained through ties of marriage and bonds of blood."

"And... that's why you want me to marry a Weichsen," the Princess realized at last, her embarrassment finally fading in the face of royal duty.

"Not just any Weichsen, but the son of their greatest Duke and Marshal since that upstart commoner Hermann von Mittermeyer," the Emperor accentuated. "Even without his own considerable potential, Pascal will inherit the richest Duchy of Weichsel and retain the good graces of King Leopold through his father's legacy alone."

But as his declaration came to an end, the Emperor's gaze softened to that of a father's once more:

"Nevertheless Sylv -- I may be risking your marriage, but I'm not prepared to throw it away either. That is why I want your honest, truthful reply: what do you think of Pascal?"

Sylviane's cheeks flushed red once more. But this time, she neither stuttered nor faltered. With her will fortified by a personal sense of obligation, she answered her father in clear, unwavering terms:

"I do get along well with him, and I honestly believe that he will grow up to be a splendid man. It's just that... I'm not sure what to think of him for a marriage. For starters -- he's not exactly 'chivalrous'..."

The Princess then halted in bewilderment as her father gave off the weirdest noise. An oddly tilted grin stretched across his expression as his shoulders shook... with something between a suppressed chortle and a choking sigh.

Geoffroi had to clear his throat several times before he could speak again:

"I swear... your mother read way too many romance novels. What did chivalry have to do with ruling an Empire?"

Sylviane's brows furrowed once more. Becoming the Emperor was a job slated for one of her two older brothers. The eldest, Henri, had already secured his eligibility by summoning the phoenix Hauteclaire.

It was hardly a task for her, let alone her future husband.

"Sylv, a perfect knight might be able to protect you as an individual, to save you from disaster to live another day. But a perfect general... he would guarantee not only your safety from thousands, millions of foes, but also ensure the prosperity of your children, your descendants, your entire realm for generations to come."

"That is what I hope Pascal will be for you: a true general -- a marshal."

"You want me to secure an alliance and bring a military leader into the family to help my brother?"

It wasn't a flattering statement, but Sylviane knew she had little to offer her brothers in the family business. At least this way she could ensure her contributions to the Gaetane dynasty, to her royal duties as ordained by the Holy Father.

Besides, she did just admit that Pascal was hardly a 'terrible' choice.

At first, her father gave no response. Instead, his expression hardened into a frowning rock as a brief yet grave silence fell upon them both.

"Father?"

The young girl looked up, seeking the love of that paternal gaze once more. But this time, Geoffroi did not meet her eyes.

It was as though he couldn't face her, plagued by the guilt of forcing such burden upon his only daughter.

"Father don't worry," Sylviane stretched a reassuring smile across her lips. "I'm happy to do the right thing."

For a brief second, she swore that a faint smile returned to the corner of his mouth. Her father leaned in to press a kiss atop her head, following by the gentle, rhythmic stroking of her hair.

But he still would not meet her sight.

"It's... it's not just that," Geoffroi's unsteady voice muttered out.

As Sylviane scrutinized once more, she saw that beneath the stoic exterior, her father's eyes had grown glassy with moisture.

He might be a parent, but he was also an emperor.

Regardless of what happened, an emperor did not simply cry, not even in front of their own child.

But as a single tear trailed down the side of his cheek, Geoffroi broke the news at last:

"Sylv, it seems nobody was willing to tell you this. But last year, our family was twice struck by Imperial assassins..."

Her mind went blank within a split second, paralyzed by shock even before the horror seeped in.

"Your mother and brothers are all gone, and you, are now the only successor to the throne."

----- * * * -----

With her back against the room's corner, Sylviane opened her swollen eyes once more. Her reprieve in the past had come to its end: the final memory of her childhood years.

She couldn't even remember what happened afterwards. The remainder of that trip seemed to pass in a blur.

But nine years old or not, she could no longer be a child after that.

For more than a decade since, she had walked the path of a crown princess. Her father had become her foremost tutor, instructing her in every affair of state through his daily tasks. Privy council, military council, assembly of lords, diplomatic audiences, legal consultations, etc etc -- she had attended them all.

Her daily schedule ran from dawn until dusk. She initially had one day off a week plus four hours of free time per day, but even that her father halved over the years.

There were times when she absolutely hated, hated her father for forcing her through it all. Crown Princess? She never once cared for her exalted rank and title. All she wanted was to be able to leisurely study and play at her own pace alongside others of her own age.

But when she finally gathered enough resolve to lash out at Geoffroi, it was he who stole her thunder by crumbling first:

"I'm sorry Sylv," the Emperor whispered back, his pained eyes a visage of exhaustion. "I don't have anyone else left. I know you never wanted this, but... I have no other choice."

Sylviane had never felt as ashamed of herself as that day.

She had sworn to herself that she would never, ever try to abandon her father again.

But the Imperials weren't satisfied with only three-fourths of her family.

Yesterday, a trusted messenger had personally brought the worst news from Alis Avern:

Her uncle Gabriel, who had retired from his duties to the north, returned with the aid of the Knights Templar to usurp the crown.

He had butchered the Emperor during the coup, impaled the head on a pike, and burned the rest of the corpse.

Sylviane was no longer the Crown Princess. She had been denounced as an apostate's daughter, and everything she had toiled for the recent half of her life was gone.

Worst of all, she was now truly alone in the world. The last of her family had been snatched away, by what she held no doubt was an Imperial plot.

Sylviane couldn't take it any more after that. She had dismissed her armigers and secluded herself in a dark corner of her unlit cabin, where she silently wept the hours away.

The sun fell and rose again. The tears ran out and left her with swollen, itchy eyes. But the orphaned girl from royalty didn't give a single care.

All she did was seek comfort in the sanctuary of her own mind: to reminiscence through memories of the past, memories of happier times.

In the darkness of her depression, she had even pulled out her engraved dagger. It had been a present from her father as part of a long Gaetane family tradition -- to give every child, male or female, their first live weapon at the age of ten.

After carefully removing the sheath, Sylviane stared into the faint metallic reflection for what seemed like minutes. She could see the deadly glint of its razor-sharp edge, the vicious curvature of its blood groove.

She could end it all -- the pain of loss, the despair of defeat, the endless exhaustion of a now pointless life, resigned to nothing but helplessness and solitude.

Following her father's footsteps had been everything to her. She might not want to be the crown princess, but without it, she had nothing left.

Slowly but surely, her trembling hands turned the dagger towards her own chest, her very heart.

Sylviane squeezed her eyes shut as she felt the sharp tip press in between her breasts...

But that was as far as she went.

Try as she might, she couldn't bring herself to commit the ultimate sin.

It could be cowardice. It could be weakness. But it was also because her conscience had called out to her being, screaming with everything it had to make her stop.

Not only the Holy Father, but even her parents would never forgive her had she committed suicide. She would have gone straight to hell, never to see either of them again.

Suddenly gasping with breathless anxiety, Sylviane tossed the gleaming steel away as though it was a burning cross.

Soon, it too laid forgotten on the floor as the despondent princess returned to staring at the empty air through hollowed, bloodshot eyes.

She couldn't even die cleanly -- that was the true worthlessness of her life now. The love of the Holy Father had evaporated away, and without it only the weight of a dead spirit remained.

Sylviane never heard the repeated knocking, or the calls in her name. She never noticed at all until the door opened to the sharp sunlight outside, framing the silhouette of a man and her armored maid.

"Oh my lord," came a horrified but otherwise familiar voice. "Sir Robert, Kaede, wait outside; shut the door, Mari."

Sylviane's eyes never bothered to focus her blurry sight. It took all her willpower just to crack open her parched lips:

"Mari... I told you to leave me alone..."

"You also claimed that you were no longer the princess, and we no longer had to follow you," Mari replied with grim determination as she closed the door and leaned against it. "If you wish to rescind that order, I will gladly offer you my head as punishment."

"You should have fetched me earlier, Mari," the male voice reprimanded as his figure crouched down to pull the abandoned dagger off the floor before handing it to the Lady's Maid.

"My apologies, Milord, but I thought she would recover as usual after a day or two of rest. I didn't think it was this bad until morning when I peeked in and saw this on the floor," she emphasized the dagger before gently tucking it away.

Sylviane at last recognized the familiarity. The man was Pascal -- much older than in her memories -- who was also the last person she wanted to see right now.

...More precisely, he was the last person she wanted to see her like this.

"LEAVE!" her hoarse voice shouted out as she pulled her knees in and buried her face between them.

Even during her worst moments, Sylviane had refused, utterly refused to cry aloud. The dignity of a princess was all she had left. To see her in such a miserable state, they would lose what little respect they still held.

"Sure," Pascal sounded almost casual as he sat down on the bed right next to her. "After you kick me back out -- your skills at that have improved considerably over the years. I am sure you would have no problem if you meant it."

Sylviane could feel her eyes trying to conjure more tears. She had meant it. She seriously, truly wanted him to leave right now, before he could glimpse another look at her disheveled appearance and tear-stained face.

But it seemed even this, even her own personal space, had now slipped beyond her control.

"I don--I don't need your help!" her rising pitch managed to force out in a delayed yell.

"Of course, Your Highness," Pascal replied as a matter-of-fact.

There was no room for him to be here; no need for his self-righteous pity. Yet how could she force his departure without revealing her shameful state? Or perhaps, as a tiny voice rode against waves of staunch denial: was his absence what she truly desired at all?

The awkward silence hung over Sylviane's clouded thoughts for nearly a minute before Pascal broke it again:

"Where is Hauteclaire?"

The temperature seemed to plummet as silence returned. The last vestige of her control cracked as a tide of depression rolled in anew.

Of all things, he had picked the worst topic to remind her. Even the noble and saintly phoenix could no longer tolerate her cursed existence.

"Gone," Sylviane barely murmured at last.

"Empath," Mari clarified from the door.

"Riiight," Pascal drawled out with a full return of his most annoying habit. "Your depressive episode became too much for him..."

Sylviane felt it like a stab in the gut.

She didn't even deserve pity from her fiancé, only scorn upon her failures and sins before she departed from this unforgiving world.

"--Probably just out taking a stroll though," Pascal finished after a momentary pause, too little too late for the deep wound already dealt.

"Why don't you just leave -- you don't have to pretend to be my fiancé any longer," Sylviane muttered out with her last reserve.

It pained her to say it, but beneath all the casual intimacy, their betrothal was a political arrangement after all.

Now that she had lost all value, what possible purpose would their marriage still serve?

"Since when did I ever have to 'pretend' to be that?" Pascal almost snorted out.

But before she even had a chance to kindle hope, his truthful follow-up pierced straight into her heart:

"I admit, I hate the prospective 'Prince Consort' title. But even that fit me better than how you met your 'Crown Princess' role. Really, it did not suit you at all."

The words burned like searing acid, melting away the already-shattered armor of her dignity and pride.

Sylviane no longer even had the will to defend herself, nor the energy to retort. All she did was stay in her curled-up, protective embrace while pretending to ignore his incisive words.

"Do you remember when we first met?"

Pascal lifted himself off the bed and sat down on the floor, his voice leaning in from less than an arm's reach away.

"It was kind of like this. Except I had to stand still for ten whole unmoving minutes! Even my feet went numb that time. All because you insisted on pretending you were asleep. And now what? Ignoring me again?"

Sylviane wished she could tell him that nobody was forcing him to stay, that he was more than welcome to leave at any time. But her throat was no longer responding; her will couldn't even push those words out.

"Fine," Pascal sighed aloud as he leaned back against the bed. "I shall just sit here and keep talking to myself all day. On the hard floor, with my butt aching, next to this impertinent, unlovable princess who, after ten years of engagement, would not even give me a free hug."

A faint nostalgia brought awareness that those last two words formed one of Pascal's favorite jokes. But there was nothing funny in the context he expressed it through. Was it merely inappropriate or outright derisive? Her threads of judgment could no longer process its truth.

"Did you know that even Kaede gave me a free hug within a month? Of course, she also gave me three broken ribs, so I guess it rather balanced itself out. But the point is that she could at least express herself properly, even if it hurt to be on the receiving end..."

Long past the luxury of envy or jealousy, Sylviane simply fell to the conclusion of 'just marry her then'. She might have even whispered that out -- to offer her blessing for a union that would at least leave him in trustworthy hands.

But this time Pascal did not wait before pushing on:

"You, on the other hand... even a decade ago you were totally not cute. A princess should do this. A princess should be that. That was all you thought about, all you lived against...!"

The tone of his complaints rapidly escalated. Even his hands had joined in through dramatic gestures, as told by the faint swishing of air.

"I mean seriously! Which seven-year-old child who loves her parents does not cry when kidnapped to a foreign land by brutish troops? But no! Those rules did not apply to you! You could not let me see you crying. You would not admit that you were just scared, or that you simply missed home..."

It was unpleasant to hear such criticism -- the apparent disapproval that Pascal had held all along. None of it even mattered any more, not after Sylviane lost her princess role.

But her hearing would not let go. Her feelings could not let go. Even as her exhausted mind steadily zoned out, even as her logic stopped processing his words, her consciousness still held onto the trail of his voice, the drift of his sound.

Perhaps there was a comforting warmth in his speech after all. His emphasis neither bit nor condemned. Rather, it whined with disapproving familiarity, backed by a protective concern reminiscent of her father's love.

It both energized and aggravated her at the same time.

Pascal might be many things; but a father figure to her was something he would never be.

Then, as sudden as a jolt, her focus returned to a bitter silence. Pascal had stopped, though it had only been a respite before he mounted his philosophical 'peak':

"...Oh right, that was what Kaede called it -- you just had to be a special snowflake."

For a brief moment, even Sylviane's internal thoughts found themselves speechless at this conclusion.

But it wasn't entirely apathy. Not anymore.

Annoyance began to bubble faintly as her lips almost twitched at Pascal's complete and total hypocrisy, which only seemed to worsen as his tirade went on:

"Do you know how annoying that was? You would not throw a tantrum, or show your tears, or even do something childishly annoying. No, you had to pretend that everything was just fine, that they were doing a marvelous job keeping you locked up. Meanwhile I had to guess at what you wanted, to bribe the guards, to talk to the maids, to appeal to father on your behalf..."

She was a 'special snowflake'? Pascal had spent his entire life ignoring every law of man and concealing every weakness beneath his pride. The only difference between her 'princess' and his 'genius' was that he should have been wearing a frilly dress.

But then, that was also where they diverged.

'Childish' never quite described him, but Pascal wouldn't have stayed quiet either. Instead, he would have irritated his overseers in his own way.

With a deep, exasperated sigh that seemed to carry more years than his age, Pascal finally settled down from his lengthy rant and returned to soft-spoken words:

"Sylv... you know I was never good at guessing what other people wanted. We shared many similarities back in the day, so I often scored it right. But the more you matured into a lady, the less I could guess what you were thinking..."

It was true that his 'genius' and her 'princess' roles held common ground, but that was just superficial.

Pascal was a rare prodigy, an exceptional man wherever he went. As an impertinent boy, he chased away even his tutors and learned to accomplish everything in his own way. To him, life was an endless opportunity for a boundless mind. Being an officer might not be his first choice of profession, but it was nevertheless a career he would walk with joy and pride.

Meanwhile, Sylviane had been anything but 'special'. Raised in the palace as the least gifted child, she had grown accustomed to going with the flow. Traits that people wanted to see, qualities that brought others to approve -- she had crammed them all within her mind, plastering them over herself. For someone who struggled just to meet her responsibilities, being the heir was an unenviable duty to which she had little choice.

But what did that make her? Was she just a reflection of the 'princess' others wanted? Did she still have an identity of her own?

Her mood swings, her envy, her indulgence in cute girls that nearly tempted her to sin...

...Who would wish to claim such detriments as their own?

"...You have always kept weakness to yourself, Sylv, always kept others at arm's reach," Pascal heaved another sigh. "Sure, I am your fiancé. I just have to accept it 'as is'. But do you really expect your future subjects to appreciate that, to see not the real you, only that mask you claim as your own?"

His exasperated voice rose in pitch with every word, highlighting the annoyance backing them until it became an almost shout:

"Many of them are vultures, of course, but never forget that some are on your side! How long do you expect them to keep groping in the dark before they go 'screw it, I give up on trying to help'?"

As his frustration faded from the air, Sylviane heard Pascal shifting to stand back up.

...And her heart instantly lurched on the brink of eternal despair.

He had been her fiancé. He had been on her side. It was not her intention to keep him in the dark, but she had done it, not once but twice in just the recent months!

No, she didn't want him to leave after all. No, she wouldn't be able to stand his cold back. Just as she didn't want to die, she couldn't even fathom losing his support.

But was it too late? Had he had enough? Was 'screw it, I give up on trying to help' an expression of his own beliefs?

Of course...

Why would he tolerate her for a third time?

No. Please, her thoughts screamed out at last. I don't want that. Anything but that!

Then, just as her fingers struggled to reach out, just as her throat trembled to call out, Sylviane finally felt the presence of a sincere touch.

It began with just a palm on her shoulder, soon echoed by another warm presence on her other side.

For a brief moment the princess almost tried to shake him off. It was an instinctive reaction, fortified by years of prideful demeanor.

She did not need to be consoled. She did not want to be coddled. A true princess would not need any of that!

...Even if she did.

However, Pascal never gave her chance to decide.

Sylviane felt a crushing embrace wrap around her half-buried head and bent knees. His arms had slipped around her back, squeezing hard forcing her head into the protective warmth of his solid chest. Meanwhile his desperate whispers finally reached past her ears, past layers upon layers of broken emotional armor and devastated mental landscape, and appealed to the depth of her soul:

"I do not pretend to replace your father, Sylv. I do not want to either. But I do want you to know, to understand it in your heart, that the world is not over, and not all is lost! You still have those who love you, who care for you, who believe in you and will fight alongside you!"

Pascal's voice no longer held the firm control of his usual self. It no longer slowed with his aristocratic drawl or even carried his usual air of superiority.

With his knees undoubtedly on the floor, the man Sylviane once considered 'unchivalrous' pledged his solemn oath to his princess through begging pleas:

"So please... stop bottling everything in just this once! Let me share your grief and your pain. I am not some outsider. I am your fiancé, your family, your future husband!"

"Show me what you truly, honestly feel, and let me offer all I can to help!"

In that last moment before the dam cracked and broke, before her reservoir of suppressed emotions poured out in a flood, Sylviane finally came to realize the truth that she had denied herself for years:

Pascal didn't just like her just because he found her to be a 'beautiful', commendable princess.

He loved her because he had accepted her for whom she truly was.

----- * * * -----

With her back leaned against the cabin wall, Kaede held her anxieties at bay by playing with her long hair.

She understood that Sylviane was in a vulnerable state of emotional turmoil after losing her remaining parent. In such a case, the best help would be a select few of those closest to her. As Pascal was her fiancé in what was evidently more than just a political marriage, he seemed the clear and obvious choice.

But this only left Kaede more worried.

To put it simply: Pascal had no tact. Certainly not in sensitive situations like this.

Thinking back to her own emotional episodes with him, Kaede found it more likely for Pascal to make callous, foot-in-mouth statements that would only make the problem worse.

...Which was exactly what came to mind when she heard a muffled howl emerge through the door.

The cabin was warded against eavesdropping and supposedly soundproof. Pascal and Mari had vanished inside for what seemed like hours without the slightest noise passing through. To hear even a faint cry -- she wondered just how deafening the princess' wailing must be.

Kaede felt her sympathy reach out as she turned to her companion with growing concern.

But Sir Robert never lost his composure. The boyishly pretty if not stunningly handsome young man merely let go of a relaxing sigh before turning towards her with his sunlit smile.

...Perhaps not entirely sunny. There was a sense of wistful resignation emanating from his vivid green eyes as he shrugged back.

"About time," he stole another glance at the door where the grief-stricken bawl continued on without end.

Kaede stared back with confusion. His concern for the princess seemed real, but then... how could he look happy at this turn of events?

"Letting it all out is the first step towards recovery," the Oriflamme Armiger in cerulean and white replied with a sincere gaze. "Holding all those emotions back would only drive her to further despair."

Her only parent did just die a gruesome death, Kaede sympathized as she nodded back. I guess not grieving is even more worrisome than crying her heart out.

"Well, there you have it... our dear but troublesome princess," he half-chuckled before returning to the posture of a perfect guard.

The tone of his voice left Kaede with a considerable chunk of fresh anxiety. Part of that worry held out for Sylviane, but a growing share went to Pascal and herself.

Serving under a capricious ruler often met tragic results, after all.

"Does this happen often?"

"Once in a long while," Sir Robert calmly noted. "But never this bad... never even close to this bad..."

Well, she was a teen until just last year, Kaede settled in her thoughts. "Must be stressful, carrying so much responsibility at such a young age."

"Unfortunately, Her Highness was never meant to be the heir, and after her brothers' assassination the Emperor rushed her training."

It was a surprisingly candid piece of information from someone within the princess' inner circle. Kaede could only surmise that what Pascal just did solidified the armigers' trust in him, and by extension, her.

Whether Kaede liked it or not, most nobles of Hyperion would always see her as an extension of Pascal. It was a simple fact that she might as well accept, for all of its benefits and doubts.

"Given what happened in Rhin-Lotharingie, one could argue that the Emperor did the right thing," she answered back.

"For Rhin-Lotharingie, sure. But for her...?" Sir Robert sighed once more. "Well... the damage has already been done."

"What do you mean?"

Kaede turned towards the young knight in his 'twenties', with perplexed rose-quartz eyes meeting peridot-green gaze once more.

She certainly didn't miss the hint: Robert de Dunois was evidently someone who cared more about Sylviane as an individual than his loyalty to the crown -- or her tiara in this case. With his apparent youth in mind, it was very probable that the princess and her armiger also shared some sort of childhood bond.

But before he could answer, a familiar chirp from above distracted them both.

Kaede didn't even have to look up before she felt relief from the growing warmth, the comforting presence that enveloped her very being.

Hauteclaire circled around, flying low above them before descending to land. For a brief second, surprise and anxiety sparked within Kaede as the cerulean phoenix glided towards her.

But as Hauteclaire came to perch on her right shoulder, the aura of tranquility he emanated overcame her unrest. Even the sharp talons did not hurt; their soothing heat felt more like a shoulder massager than a bird's bony grasp.

"I think he likes you," Sir Robert grinned.

Kaede almost tried to shrug. She didn't have a clue what were the traits that a phoenix sought. But she was sure of one fact:

Even from here, Hauteclaire's presence should definitely help Sylviane calm down.

Her hand reached up on instinct to brush the phoenix's burning feathers, feeling their warmth in the cold wintry breeze.

As the seconds dragged on in peaceful silence, Kaede felt a measuring look from Sir Robert's friendly gaze.

"Milady, I have a request to ask of you."

"I'm not a lady," Kaede shrugged off the unusual politeness. "But go ahead."

"I know our princess hasn't been the most kind to you. I don't know all the details, but I know enough to guess that much," he offered an apologetic nod. "But her... hobbies, well, they're also some of the only habits she has left for herself, the only pastimes to counterbalance her depressive episodes and keep her going. I know this sounds..."

You have no idea, do you, Kaede thought as she released a deep sigh, which instantly stopped him short.

Toying with her like a doll was one thing. Kaede didn't like to admit it, but it wasn't entirely unpleasant of an experience. In fact, she rather enjoyed having her hair brushed and her head rubbed.

But Sylviane's fingertips also came within centimeters of molesting her. Given her problematic relationship with Pascal, she didn't really hold a grudge towards the otherwise admirable princess. But it was certainly a hard event to forget.

"You're asking a lot, Sir Robert," she tilted her head with a faint scowl.

"I know, and I'm sorry," the armiger apologized with a sympathetic nod. "But you're not the only one who cares about your lord and master."

"Besides," he offered a calming smile. "The princess may not express it or even realize it, but she does like you. Otherwise she wouldn't have taken an interest."

In me or in what I look like? Kaede had to wonder.

'Attraction' was always such a complicated topic.

"I won't ask you to do as she demands," Robert continued with a hint of amusement that he quickly suppressed. "But please, at least be her friend -- she doesn't have many of those to speak of."

Not trustworthy ones without any strings attached, at any case.

With another sigh leaving her lungs, Kaede could only offer a rather noncommittal reply:

"I'll do what I can."

----- * * * -----

Sylviane wasn't sure how long she had wailed on for. With her tears already emptied, her emotions had seized her voice as the only form of release.

Now, it was impossible not to feel embarrassed as she and Pascal continued to sit on the bedside floor, leaning against each other in a comforting silence.

Silent for her, at least.

She had enough experience to realize that Pascal could read the atmosphere; he just rarely knew how to act accordingly.

Not long after she had stopped crying, Pascal had gone back to talking by himself.

That might have been fine, except the contents were entirely inappropriate for the moment. He had began by filling her in on the events of last night -- a Weichsel political debacle that she, as an outsider, was only too happy to stay out of.

"Well, look on the bright side..."

Sylviane could feel the shoulder beneath her head shift as Pascal turned his expression towards her, prompting her to glance back.

"We are both orphans now," he announced through a somber smile.

"That is really not funny."

"I did not say it was," he added in his usual style, calm and slow.

A puzzled frown soon stretched across her expression. It wasn't like Pascal to make his point in a roundabout way -- which was often impossible to guess given how... different his thoughts were to everyone else.

Thankfully, he also didn't keep her waiting for long:

"You do not like to be pitied, and I do not enjoy it either. Well now, neither of us need to worry about that from the other. We are both alone, yet we both have each other."

"Together, alone?" she echoed back.

Pascal always had an odd way of trying to cheer people up.

"A most contradictory expression, is it not?" his words emerged with the hint of a chuckle.

"What about Kaede then?"

Sylviane had been hesitant to ask. But in the aftermath of the Marshal's death, it was Pascal who announced to her that he had received a new family member.

"She is the same as us -- no other family or close relations in this world."

"Isn't that your fault?"

"Yes, it is," Pascal admitted outright. There wasn't even a hint of begrudging denial.

It was yet another virtue where he bested her with ease.

"But that is also why I have a responsibility towards her," he asserted before turning to stare into her eyes: "so please, be nice."

For a brief moment, Sylviane worried if Pascal heard about what she did to Kaede the other day. It was a moment of poor judgment, a mistake that she had almost realized too late.

Except, if Pascal already knew, he wouldn't hesitate to accost the topic. Unlike most people who saw little benefit to antagonizing royalty, Pascal would only treat her as another individual, a close companion.

"We are all in the same family now. We have to support each other," he stated before adding in a nostalgic tone:

"After what happened to me the night I learned my father's death, I realized there was no way you meant it when you told me to leave. Even if my words or actions might prove no good, just my presence should be of help."

Sylviane might not have a direct bond with Kaede. But the familiar girl had been a pillar for Pascal on several occasions, and the princess was reaping the benefits of that now.

In hindsight that was what defined a family: not mere bonds of blood and matrimony, but a deep sense of trust and mutual, inter-support.

Just for that if nothing else, she owed the little girl some kindness and a favor or two.

"Don't worry," the princess murmured back. "I know."

In that moment Sylviane made a promise to herself. Regardless of how much she liked or disliked them, Pascal's friends and family also made them her own. She would treat them with the same respect Pascal always extended to her closest companions, like Mari and Robert.

The two of them relied upon one another far too much to do otherwise.

Well, I might still tease her a good amount, she left an honest opening to herself. It's just impossible not to...

"So what do you plan to do next?" Pascal asked after a long moment of silence.

"I... I honestly don't know," Sylviane admitted. "I haven't thought about doing anything except being the Crown Princess for ten years now."

"Do you still want to be?"

"It's not a matter of want or not," she turned to reply as wisteria gaze connected with turquoise once more.

"I am a Crown Princess. It might have begun as simply a mask, but it's also who I am now. Even if I'm told to stop..."

"Who told you that?" Pascal's eyebrows went up.

"Well... I don't think the Holy Father wants me to be..."

"I doubt this is the Holy Father's work," his interjection came stern and instantaneous.

"You think you can understand the Holy Father's will now?" she half-challenged, her frustration rising once more. "First my father gets excommunicated, and after just a few weeks he gets deposed and murdered, by someone entitled 'Defender of the Faith' no less! Even with insidious politics at work, is it really just a coincidence!?"

"It is not simply what I think..."

Pascal's words rang earnest as his hand stroked her hair in trying to calm her back down.

"Emperor Geoffroi devoted his life to making Rhin-Lotharingie a better country. As far as I know, he was a ruler loved by his people, and few monarchs could claim to uphold the crown as dutifully and faithfully as him."

"Besides," he stared at her with utmost seriousness. "Even if he dissatisfied the Holy Father in some way, do you honestly think our Lord's benevolent mercy would bestow such ruin upon Rhin-Lotharingie in the moment of its greatest crisis -- an invasion of heathen swords?"

No, Sylviane wanted to agree. That wouldn't make any sense.

But... if it was contrary to his will, why would the Holy Father simply stand by and watch it happen?

"Since when do you claim to be an expert on the Holy Scriptures?" she objected. "You're not a priest."

"Must I be a priest to have faith in our Lord and Savior?" Pascal countered with a gentle smile before he turned to the empty air:

"Faith is not just accepting what you are told. It is about believing that the Holy Father, in his omnipotent goodness, will always be right and virtuous -- Even if his mysterious ways are not immediately apparent to our limited view."

"That sounds like your pride is judging the Holy Father," Sylviane retorted.

"No, not judging. Expecting," he grinned back, completely unabashed.

"...It still doesn't sound like you at all."

Pascal might follow the Holy Scriptures, but she would never tag him as a spiritual man. He was simply too pragmatic, too much in love with understanding the mortal world.

"Probably because I acquired the saying from Parzifal," Pascal shrugged. "He is Ariadne's fiancé -- the better half, in fact."

And that doesn't sound pompous at all either.

Sylviane finally felt a smile return as she leaned back into him once more.

"Do you want to know what I think?"

Of course, Pascal never even waited for her reply:

"Let us go to Rhin-Lotharingie, to Alise Avern. Take back what is rightfully yours. Restore the country to order. Bring vengeance upon those traitors who betrayed the nation during its hour of peril and murdered their rightful liege in cold blood."

You make it sound so easy... Sylviane thought as she relaxed further into him.

But then, the right path was never easy.

Yet that's the most important question -- is it the right thing?

On moments like these, she wished the Lord could be a nudge more obvious with his signs.

"Wrath is a sin, you know," Sylviane raised her counter first.

"So it is," Pascal shrugged it off with ease. "I am human. Have to at least sin a little."

She almost scoffed at that. Almost...

The concept of 'transgress now, repent later' had taken deep roots within the Trinitian faith. It was a growing disease that sapped the morals of its followers, made only worse among the upper class by the abuse of indulgences.

"The Holy Father might dispense clemency to those who lament a moment's carelessness," Sylviane frowned back with a stern reply. "But that is not the same as purposeful wrongdoing."

"And war is murder, politics is deceit. Yet knowing that, do we not still perform them out of necessity?" Pascal stated as he straightened his posture.

"You know what is one of the things last night taught me? People say revenge leads nowhere. But it felt good, and it felt right to see justice dealt. To see one of my father's murderers receive what he deserved -- nothing could better restore my faith that no matter how pitch black the night may grow, the light of day will ultimately triumph."

His voice was neither hateful nor malicious, but a thorough sense of satisfaction backed by firm intent -- a strong will tempered by raging flames.

"We are not all saints, nor do we live in an utopia," he sat up to face her with a steely gaze. "We need that something to keep us going through difficult times, even if it is not entirely virtuous."

Sylviane knew, that in many ways, this was Pascal's ego speaking. Before the eyes of the Holy Father, it would serve as little more than an excuse.

But that same self-justified belief was also what made him a confident, decisive leader.

...The same qualities that she had always craved.

"Does it really feel that good?" she pondered aloud, her voice still shadowed by doubt.

Pascal grinned in response and leaned back against her.

"Better than sex, in fact," he announced in an oddly satisfied tone.

"Uhhh, well... I wouldn't know how to compare that now, would I?" the princess glanced back with narrowed eyes.

It wasn't that she held a grudge against his lack of celibacy. In fact, Sylviane overheard enough gossip from the maids to realize that this was probably a good thing. This way, at least one of them would enter their wedding night with some idea of what he was doing, rather than leaving her a scarring memory for life.

Nevertheless...

You could at least avoid saying that in front of a lady!

"Do not fret. We will get to it eventually," he announced with a casual smirk.

Sylviane felt the burn travel up the rest of her cheeks at once. As if on reflex, she leaned away to make room as her arm smacked him on the shoulder.

"Ow!" Pascal rushed to rub it at once. "Careful with that! You actually do swing a hammer around!"

"Hmph!"

The embarrassing sight her imagination conjured was fuzzy at best, but it still wouldn't leave her head.

"A-anyways, what if heading back doesn't work?" she hurried to bring the topic back on track.

"Weeell... as long as we stay alive, we can always return to Nordkreuz," Pascal noted as he turned towards her with a proud grin. "You can always be my wife..."

The urge to hit him again rose like a flash flood as her cheeks reignited at once.

"--But I am certain the Holy Father has more in mind for you than just that."

It was a simple line of words, yet the unwavering faith it carried pierced her armor of pride with ease.

The princess turned away as she tried to hide her embarrassment. But it didn't do her any good. Rather than just her face, Sylviane could feel her entire body heat up from deep within.

It felt as though her very heart was melting under his blissful gaze, transforming her into warm, mushy goo that enraptured every sense.

"Flatterer," she barely whispered out.

"Not flattery if it is honest," he declared without holding back.

...Which only made it worse.

For entire minutes, it felt as though she couldn't do anything. Sylviane merely laid there in his arms, with her will sapped by the warm glow, content to stay buoyant in the gentle atmosphere.

Yet there was just one nagging thought, intent to climb its way back up.

"Would you really follow me in an empress' path, wherever I go, whatever it takes?"

The princess hadn't spent years in self-doubt to recover under a single moment of kindness.

"Of course, I will accompany you anywhere," Pascal asserted, reminding her that 'Prince Consort' or not, he would not accept being a mere subordinate.

"After all, I am not just your fiancé."

Her puzzled frown returned as she wondered what he meant by that.

"Do you remember eleven years ago, when I asked you 'what is the most important trait for a general?'"

They had countless discussions back then, yet Sylviane still felt the nostalgia as Pascal resurrected one of his favorite topics.

"Courage and decisiveness," she offered the same answer as years past. "I am a Lotharin after all. Oriflammes first, always."

"And I debated 'cunning, guile, and strategy' -- It took far more than bravery to win wars, after all."

But Pascal no longer sounded sure of himself. It was as though his idea was yet another relic of the past.

"Have you changed your belief to something else?"

"After last night? Yes."

Pascal then proceeded to affirm his choice without any doubt:

"Loyalty -- because Manteuffel had none to the King and everyone knew it. After my father was murdered, every soldier of Weichsel mourned for the passing of a hero who would go down in legend. But the only legacy Manteuffel left behind was the cursed name of a traitor; all his brilliance brought him nothing more than a passage straight to hell."

Sylviane kept her silence for the moment. She wasn't sure the circumstances were as simple as Pascal claimed it to be. After all, politics rarely unfolded as it appeared on the surface. The death of her own father was evidence of how easily truth and 'justice' could be bent.

But now was not the time.

"Father had hoped for me to become the general of the Northern Alliance -- to bridge two nations that share cultural bonds and geopolitical interests."

A fire seemed to ignite in his eyes as he turned to Sylviane in a solemn oath:

"That is my only wish by your side, and I swear I will uphold it until my dying day."

It was as off-putting as it was reassuring. To swear an unwavering, personal loyalty to her would be the moment of romantic legends.

But that was not how events unfolded in real life.

Those who followed blindly only degraded themselves as fools. The truly dependable ones were those who upheld a righteous ideal of their own.

As a woman, Sylviane knew she had Pascal's affection. But as an Empress-to-be, she would have to work hard to stay worthy of his devotion.

It was on moments like these when Sylviane realized: Pascal really did bring out the best in her.

Nevertheless, the world did have a mind of its own.

"What if the alliance ever breaks?"

"If Weichsel breaks the alliance, then they are my foes," Pascal replied without a moment of hesitation.

It was a sign of just how prepared he was.

"And if I did?" Sylviane raised the possibility, however unlikely so long as she held Pascal's support.

The smile he replied through was a bittersweet challenge:

"You will have to kill me first."

 

[ Author's Notes | Next Volume ]

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