"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."
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."
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.
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 ]