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 tentacles under its fins. It uses them to snatch game from the ground and deliver to its mouth."
Kaede shifted her binoculars over for another look at the side-fins. The short tentacles that peeked out from underneath seemed more like giant armpit 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.
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 roughly 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!"
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.
"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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.
----- * * * -----
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 ]