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 complex 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: single raised finger, then extended palm, then two fingers pointing at the skywhale von Hammerstein and Ariadne charged towards.
It was a painstaking way of relaying a simple message, but it was also necessary. Communications were the lifeblood of any military unit. Without coordination, even the best of effort would fall apart like sand.
The extremely bland-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.
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.
It was a sight to behold... even if her 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.
----- * * * -----
For a moment, Gerd watched with uncertainty as Reynald's reconnaissance squad charged in after their commander. Against an airborne behemoth crawling with enemies, the courage of a mere dozen seemed an almost suicidal move.
But it wasn't that which raised his concern.
Reynald didn't carry a siphon because they had no idea how the rimefire alchemicals might react to his lightning leaps. But the same restriction didn't apply to the rest of his command.
Engaging hostiles without support in order to probe for weaknesses was one of the duties of scouts. Therefore recon units always drew the best and brightest troopers from any company. In fact, Reynald's men had more of those inferno siphons than Gerd's entire platoon.
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. The eleven other men and women who landed on the second skywhale were still horribly outnumbered. However, firepower was a real force balancer, and none of the siphoneers hesitated to turn the skywhale's back into a death pyre.
Gerd was still too deafened to hear any screaming from those burned alive. But the skywhale's painful thrashing was a clear indication of the damage they were inflicting.
Meanwhile, Kayeten and his dispersed 3rd Platoon charged the third skywhale from multiple angles, covered by several suppressive volleys coordinated by his Phalanx spells. Nevertheless, dozens of lightning bolts reached out from the leviathan as though it were a thunderous porcupine. Casualties mounted as a third of the platoon went down in quick succession. But their sacrifice allowed the rest to land and begin a bitter struggle for battlefield control.
They're all putting their lives on the line to do their best, yet I...
Gerd and his platoon had orders to clear the defenses of another skywhale: the first in that staggered row of four.
I can't be the only coward to fall behind!
It was tempting, so tempting to simply order another charge. But Gerd knew that his circumstances were different. Unlike Reynald, distance wasn't in his favor. Without Kayeten's ability, Gerd couldn't scatter his men -- it disrupted their coordinated warding and left them vulnerable to the runic arrow volleys. But if he kept the platoon together, he didn't see how they could charge across several hundred paces without being torn asunder by another lightning barrage.
To send his men into the jaws of meaningless death wouldn't be 'courageous'. It would be stupidity instead, born out of cowardice of a different sort.
What would he do?
Gerd eyed von Hammerstein's smoke obscured flag. The Black Dragon banner already flew in tatters from the arrows and spellfire that filled the air. But it still called out to the heart of any Weichsen -- signaling them to rally there, to fight on!
The answer should have been obvious from the start.
The Colonel, Ariadne, and Reynald had given him the perfect cover.
...Those Northmen won't be able to hit me without striking their own!
Gerd spurred his gryphon into action. He raised his swordstaff high above and waved it in a 'follow me' signal. His mount then galloped towards the same skywhale that Ariadne and Reynald fought on.
As he drew close to the beast, he banked sharply to ride across the leviathan's upper side as though it was a tilted road. Glancing back, he grinned as most of his men managed to follow suit. The caracole was a well-practiced maneuver, even if it wasn't normally used in this manner.
"Idio...--ont!" he heard a fuzzy telepathic burst from his second-in-command.
Gerd turned around just in time to see ten Västergötland adventurers charging down to meet them in close combat.
You sorry bastards...
Raising his swordstaff high with both hands, Gerd unleashed all of his pent up fury through a bellowing roar that popped whatever was blocking his ears. His foes seemed to hesitate even before his blade smashed into them, shattering a blocking polearm and sending five screaming into the open skies with a single bowling bash.
Searing pain erupted across his left thigh as a halberd cut deep into it. Gerd shifted his legs to make sure he could still feel them...
Just a flesh wound then.
Trusting his platoon to finish off those remaining, Gerd urged his mount to keep going. Being close to the edge left them within reach of the skywhales' tendrils, and Gerd spun his swordstaff to cleave a path through the mass of tentacles that attempted to grapple on. His men cut their way across in the least possible time. Soon their steeds left the skywhale behind, galloping across the air towards an even bigger leviathan -- the one assigned to his platoon.
Well Reynald, I'm certainly picking on someone my own size this time...
The faint, chuckling smile Gerd cracked at his own joke did wonders to boost confidence, especially as he waved his swordstaff once more before pointing it towards the looming armored beast.
With another skywhale behind them, there would be no arrow volleys, no thunderous barrage. The Northmen would just have to fight it out in an honorable close quarters melee.
Well, sort of...
As Gerd reached back to pull out the siphon attached to his backpack, he couldn't help appreciate the irony of the situation. The Northmen had always accused Weichsel of 'cheating'; surely, even they couldn't make such a claim now.
We found this in the fields of Nordkapp. Now we're returning it!
----- * * * -----
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 barely ducked down in 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.
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...
----- * * * -----
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 -- a figure of admiration, a gracious friend, perhaps even more had circumstances been different.
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. 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.
"Well 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. "Kay... 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.
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 when they arrived.
The shining armor of gryphons rushing down from dark clouds came as though a beam of divine light.
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, and 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...
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 runes. 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 that blasted 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 rapidly 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 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 ]