"Over the past week, we have intercepted six columns of Skagen forces above battalion size, thirty-three smaller detachments, and razed nineteen outposts and blockhouses. The 2nd Echelon also crossed into Skagen three days ago, adding one major interception to the count and mounting a successful night assault on their army encampment at Kajana. In total, we have inflicted between ten to thirteen thousand losses, including those who surrendered and were let go. This accounts for over half of the enemy's mobilized forces in the peninsula..."
The single-room 'mobile command center' had been expanded to full size from its shrunken, crate-sized form. Over thirty individuals stood packed within, ranging from twelve company commanders to a foreign princess. They all crowded around a three-dimensional topographic projection which highlighted the known movements of both friend and foe.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant-Colonel Hans Ostergalen continued his operational analysis:
"--Our own casualties in the 1st Echelon amount to twenty-five percent, albeit heavily skewed towards the regular cavalry. This includes 364 dead and 77 other irrecoverable injuries..."
Given the wonders of modern healing magic, irrecoverable injuries usually meant one thing: loss of extremities to mages. Despite the availability of Regeneration spells, their high complexity made it difficult if not impossible to overcome the ether resistance of other spellcasters. Any severed appendages that were not quickly recovered and reconnected by a healer risked permanent maiming.
"--This drops our frontline cavalry strength to sixty percent. In the meantime, we have received the cadet-boosted Black Lancers as reinforcements, bringing our Phantom complement of two companies to extra-full."
The Lieutenant-Colonel might be prematurely balding with entrenched brow wrinkles, but the blue gaze he swept across the room was still full of youthful energy. His lips then widened into a broad, congratulatory smile as he formally announced:
"As of today, the first phase of Operation White Typhoon has reached a successful conclusion."
But General von Manteuffel didn't even give the assembled officers an opportunity to cheer before following up:
"However, that doesn't imply we can afford complacency. By now, our advantages in surprise and momentum have completely expired. According to intelligence from our scouts and the Black Eagles, Skagen forces have consolidated to their nearest fortified towns, with likely orders to hold out until the arrival of main forces from Fimbulmark Isle. That means no more easy victories for us in the open field."
Some of the commanders began to talk quietly among themselves. The biggest weakness of an all-cavalry army was their inability to tackle strong fortifications. Sure, the Reiters and Phantoms could bombard town walls while the rest dismounted to assault. But they had neither the ammunition endurance of proper siege artillery, nor the massed numbers of infantry for a meat grinder battle.
"Which is precisely why we're going to force them out," the General said with a faint smirk. For a man whose expressions lay as unperturbed as stone for weeks on end, it made a truly nefarious smile worthy of the name 'Manteuffel' -- the man-devil.
"Captain, please explain the plan as we have detailed."
"Yes Sir," Captain Sir Pascal von Moltewitz, Tactical Officer of the 1st Echelon, confirmed as he expanded the rod in his hand into a retractable metal stick.
"As you all know, our current forces are poorly suited to launching an urban assault. Therefore, it is imperative that we provoke our enemies into offering us battle by threatening their most strategic position..."
With a swish of his pointer, Pascal directed everyone's attention to a port town in the northwestern tip of the peninsula:
"Nordkapp is the only target we deem worthy for this effort. It is not only the primary transit link between the the peninsula and Skagen's interests on Fimbulmark Isle, but also the only fortified port of sufficient size to anchor the full strength of Skagen's North Sea Fleet. In other words, Nordkapp is the only location where their main army can disembark and still keep their ships relatively protected -- or at least, as well as they can manage against our marauding Phantoms."
A few sinister chuckles followed that comment. The King had arrived in Nordkreuz two days ago under the escort of North Wind, a Knight Phantom company that specialized in coastal patrol and naval destruction. During the fall campaign, this very unit had sunk most of the anchored Västergötland fleet.
"Therefore, we will lay siege to Nordkapp with only a portion of our forces," Pascal continued on in his resolute tone. "We will neither fully invest the fortification nor assault its walls, but simply chip away at their numbers and the defenses. We will feed them the false assumption that they face but a few hundred troops -- perhaps the remnants of 1st Echelon after sustaining much heavier casualties. With 2nd Echelon advancing north towards us, it will be apparent that unless they boost the garrison, we will assault it once our reinforcements arrive. Given the importance of Nordkapp to the Jarls of the peninsula, we anticipate they will. They may even try to seize the opportunity to recover their honor by eliminating our weakened units with a converging attack."
"Colonel von Konopacki and I will break camp after nightfall and head towards Nordkapp with the Nordkreuz 1st and 3rd cavalry companies, plus the Nordkreuz and Kostradan Reiters. We will erect besieging fortifications under the cover of darkness. By tomorrow morning, we shall begin a shootout with the town's defenders. As our Phantoms and Princess Sylviane remain unaccounted for, the enemy will have to assume that they are still independently hunting smaller units -- compelling any aid they send to be dispatched in battalion-size or greater."
"And that is when the rest of us will ride out... and crush them," the General took his mantle back with a symbolic squeeze of his large fist, granite fingers every bit as hard as his stony face.
----- * * * -----
Kaede suppressed a yawn as she raised a pair of binoculars to her eyes. The magnification wasn't up to modern standards; but from her vantage point atop the battery-tower on the rightmost flank, it was more than enough to survey the town's defenders on their fieldstone walls.
More precisely, she was watching an artillery crew load their weapon -- a swivel-mounted scorpio-like ballista on wheels. They worked atop a bulwark three hundred paces away, barely visible due to the thin mist that covered the entire area.
"Volley!" yelled the Lieutenant on her tower.
A volley of multicolored ether bolts crashed into artillery bulwark. Most were stopped short by the battlements, where they dissipated harmlessly against the ley-line-powered Guard Screen ward that stretched across the walls' exterior.
But three shots found their mark.
One struck its target just under the helmet, killing him even before his body collapsed to the ground. Another loader fell back through the firing gap and plummeted down the walls, his spine broken by a double impact of telekinetic force.
Kaede swung her binoculars toward her left, its magnification automatically readjusting. The shout came from the Weichsel side this time. Two rune-inscribed catapult shots crashed hard into the second battery-tower to her left, just before the imbued sonic spells shattered them into jagged rock shrapnel.
Since alchemy was simple when transmuting similar materials, Weichsel casters built their towers overnight by altering packed snow into solid ice. The battery-tower stood tougher than any mortar-and-stone construction, but nevertheless tilted slowly as its compromised structural integrity worsened by the second. The squad of dismounted Reiters on top jumped off and glided through the air to safety, mere seconds before the cracking ice finally gave way.
The frozen tower toppled like a massive hammer, smashing a gap in the ice wall built to protect snow trenches from the defending fire. Yet along other lengths of the fieldworks, dismounted Reiters and cavalrymen continued firing spells and crossbows against the garrison.
This exchange of skirmishing fire had gone on all morning. With two full companies of Noble Reiters, Weichsel forces could overpower the spell-resistant Guard Screen ward protecting the walls and breach the fortifications. But such high powered spellcasting would also leave the mages drained. Since they lacked forces for a proper assault, Colonel von Konopacki gave strict orders to rely on sustainable magic -- low tiered spells with easily-replenished ether demands.
Protected by a misty breeze and icy walls, Weichsel's mages showed their strength again. Bolts of pure ether obeyed neither gravity nor wind, offering precision accuracy with lethal damage. Meanwhile, distance forced the defenders' artillery to make parabolic shots, which had trouble striking anything but a massed formation. Their runic fragmentation rocks could have reaped lives, had Weichsel officers not gifted their men with Legion Repulsion wards to deflected low-mass projectiles like arrows and shrapnel.
Even so... we can't win a battle of attrition, Kaede thought. If their reinforcements don't come out, then this is all for nothing.
She wished Pascal could keep her updated on news from the command network, but a second-in-command had better things to do than repeat messages. For her and other Captains who knew the battle plan but not the current situation, it was a nerve-grating experience.
All we can do is trust our comrades, both here and elsewhere...
The painful cry came from just behind her, and Kaede instantly spun around on her heels.
A javelin-sized ballista bolt had struck one of the mages on her tower. The rune-enchanted projectile punched through his wards before penetrating his chest. Its momentum then carried him off the tower's edge. Screaming and flailing, the corporal fell two stories before crashing into the snow below. The wintry ground softened the impact, but it still rocked the shaft that skewered his torso.
Everything happened so quickly that none of them even had a chance to cast an Air Cushion spell. Two nearby medics rushed to pull the corporal into a trench, but the body had already stilled into an unmoving corpse.
Kaede's mind completely froze. She slowly turned back to face the enemy, knowing that the very next bolt could rip her own life away. Her numb body continued to shake and tremble -- shocked by the sight of death right next to her.
Meanwhile, the defenders wheeled another scorpio ballista into sight; the third on the same bulwark, with a fourth following close behind...
"Kaede, order the lieutenant to take out that battery. Firemist combination spell."
Pascal's forceful voice rang through her mind, dragging her back into the present.
"L-l-lieutenant, command from HQ," she stammered out before taking another breath to steady herself. "Eliminate the ballista battery; firemist combo."
As a young nobleman who appeared to be in his late 'twenties', the lieutenant cocked a raised eyebrow before he nodded somewhat hesitantly: "understood."
He then turned towards his 'squad', an assembly of mages pulled from his platoon in the 3rd Nordkreuz cavalry company:
"Just gas them. I'll ignite."
The others nodded back before switching their aura magic stance to one more suitable for high-output, low-precision spellcasting.
Since Pascal's suggestion two weeks ago, Kaede had been practicing her magic sensitivity. But she didn't even have to focus to feel the gentle push of their aura expansion.
"Firemist Condense Field!" six of them called out, their extended gloves sending arcing rays of crafted ether towards their target.
"Ignition!" The Lieutenant then followed suite.
The first six rays reached over the walls and scattered into the upwind air like the veins of leaves. They left no visible effect, except for a faint clash of ether against some shield bubble spell from a defending mage. Through the distance, Kaede's keen senses then picked up words of complaint that she didn't understand. A pitched shout soon trailed behind them -- which apparently meant 'disperse' or 'run'.
They barely had enough time for more than a few steps...
The last spell shot in, and the very air over the bulwark exploded like a petroleum reservoir, pouring flames and burning atmosphere in every direction. The force of the blast pulverized the artillery engines like twig models, hurling out pieces of men and battlements as though toy blocks thrown by a tantrum-stricken child.
By transmuting impurities in the air into dense cloud of methane and other highly flammable gases, then followed with a simple fire spell, Weichsel mages had learned to imitate the nature of a coal dust explosion. Its power was equivalent to that of a modern tactical thermobaric weapon -- the fuel-air bomb.
Even from three hundred paces away, Kaede still felt herself pushed a step back by the heat wave of the powerful blast.
----- * * * -----
"By the lords!"
All three junior -- and very green -- signal officers in the room turned to gaze at the explosion in the south. They didn't gawk this time, but only because the Weichsel army outside had already used it earlier this morning to destroy Nordkapp's most powerful siege engines.
Lieutenant-Colonel Ericsson sent his subordinates a fierce stare as hot breathe rushed through his nose in suppressed anger. He harbored no doubts that dozens of his men just died.
But this was no time to lose focus.
Nordkapp's current garrison of eleven hundred were mostly melee troops. While they outnumbered the attackers, they hadn't noticed the southerners' presence until dawn. By then, the enemy had already erected their own fortifications, designed to channel any attack into kill zones where area spells would dominate with impunity.
No. Ericsson would not condemn his men to an ill-fated charge that was unlikely to succeed. Jarl Magnus Vagnsson had already sent message that relief battalions were on their way from three directions, including one lead by him in person. Furthermore, five smaller detachments were also taking the opportunity to converge north. Even with those accursed Phantoms out there, at least two main columns should make it through.
He eagerly awaited that moment, when his warriors could finally sally out and sandwich the battered army outside against the Jarls' elites. But in the meantime, he wasn't about to simply twiddle his thumbs...
Ericsson was a veteran of multiple conflicts. He knew perfectly that Weichsel's strength laid not only in its mages, but also the prowess of its officer corps. So instead of assigning his best spellcasters to the skirmish at the walls, he pulled them aside for a separate, far more decisive task:
Weichsel had a tradition of setting up headquarters near the front lines, which not only boosted the soldiers' morale but also improved battlefield comprehension and communications. Their deployable command centers were protected by both illusions and wards, but no defense was foolproof.
"I'm certain that's it, Sir," Sigvald spoke again as he reopened his eyes.
The elderly master craftsman -- one of several in this very room -- had been scrying the siege lines using Clairvoyance spell sensors.
"How can you be sure?" the commander asked, more to confirm than because he distrusted the man. Before retirement took him away, Sigvald was even more a veteran than Ericsson was.
"There are five communication trenches converging in that place. But unlike the other two junctions we've found, that one is oddly out of place," Sigvald explained as his fingers combed through white hair. "Why would their fieldworks be so efficient everywhere else except there? That has to be an illusion covering their HQ."
Ericsson nodded back. He had confirmed the sight with a spell of his own when Sigvald first spoke of the finding. But since a surprise attack had only one chance of succeeding, there was no such thing as being too sure.
He then turned towards his signal officers and runners:
"How far out are the reinforcements?"
"Jarl Vagnson's main force will be here in another thirty minutes."
"Major Sterki is two minutes overdue for his check-in. He should still be an hour away."
They didn't bother mentioning the third force, whom they had heard nothing from for the last two hours. Major Valteri and his six hundred men had clearly been intercepted and destroyed.
Lieutenant-Colonel Ericsson could only hope that the same fate did not befall Sterki. Surely no Phantom company -- even with a blasted Oriflamme to lead their charge -- could trump a column four times their size and still retain enough physical and magical stamina to fight another?
Not that it mattered to his current plans. His lord's relief force also numbered under a thousand, but they included one company of his personal housecarls plus a platoon of the devastating siphoneers. Between such quality and the quantity of his stout warriors, those heathens outside would soon depart on a one-way trip to hell.
"Send word to all artillery between the gatehouse and tower six: enemy HQ found at four-fifty paces beyond the central wall section between towers three and four. Relocate all mobile weapons to those walls. Load the best wardbustering ammo they have. I want that HQ hammered with everything we've got when the horn blows!"
"Yes Sir!" the signal personnel declared before rushing about to pass their commander's orders.
It was considered dishonorable to target the enemy commander through anything but personal combat. But honor had never been part of any conflict with Weichsel, who had already butchered valiant warriors in the thousands using their cheap tricks.
Striding to the windows, Ericsson gazed proudly upon row after row of ski infantry outside. Hundreds of them had formed up along the town's main street, prepared to sally forth at a moment's notice. They might not be the best soldiers on Hyperion, but they were good, honest people. Furthermore, they were his people. After a decade of personally drilling them each week, he had every confidence in their courage and resolve.
"Let's see how these so-called 'civilized' Wickers fight without their head."
Ericsson might be a northern nobleman of cultural appearance. But at this moment, the savage grin peeking out from beneath his long and well-trimmed red beard was more than sufficient to frighten away a starving polar bear.
----- * * * -----
"Column ahead! Around two-fifty!" Reynald shouted as he rode across the air in his Phantom Steed to report. "And look who I found!"
Hanging behind him on the same ghostly black horse was a petite girl who could easily be mistaken for a boy. She had short-trimmed dark-chestnut hair and a pale but cute face full of joyous energy.
"Cecylia! What are you doing here!?"
Ariadne asked from atop her pegasus as Reynald banked sharply, pulling up alongside the command staff that led the formation. She almost didn't recognize her best friend, given the subtle makeup and a lack of scarlet-crosses within those dark-ruby eyes. Cecylia also wasn't dressed in her black uniform, but wearing leather and furs like a Northman with two skis on her back.
"Trailing the column you're about to hit!" the smaller girl grinned back. "We're not exactly loaded with people who can speak perfect Northern. I've been keeping command posted about this group for days while they turtled in town. Not sure why they left this morning, but based on direction they're heading towards either Kistrand or Nordkapp!"
She then turned towards the burly commander who rode at the very front:
"I would ask what you're doing this far in the 1st Echelon's zone of operations, but your reputation does precede you, Colonel von Hammerstein!"
"Ye damn right it does," the Colonel growled -- rather happily at that -- from the saddle of his armored gryphon.
He then turned about to shout back, both to his signal officers and the 1st Platoon gryphon-riders who followed:
"Prep grenades! I want a quick fly-by and I want at least two chucks from every one of you! This measly gang up ahead ain't got enough meat to entertain the likes of us! There's a big battle brewing north boys! And we're going to sink our teeth into something fat and juicy!"
"Hu-rah!" they cheered back with enthusiastic anticipation, so much that Cecylia never even suspected that these men were still inexperienced. In her opinion, Erwin von Hammerstein must be taking the place of some Phantom commander who fell ill. But why Ariadne and Reynald were here, she didn't have a clue.
----- * * * -----
Jarl Magnus Vagnsson of Nordkapp twisted his skis a full ninety degrees, kicking up a tidal wave of flurry and ice as he braked hard in the snow.
He sought to stop at the tip of the hill crest, which didn't leave him with a whole lot of room. Furthermore, the top layer of snow had hardened under the bright sun yesterday and day before.
In the end he overshot it by a little. He simply wasn't as young as he used to be.
Not surprising really, seeing as the gods had blessed Magnus with his first great-grandson just three months ago. Two of his own sons, and even the oldest of his grandsons, stood in the mass of men who followed in his wake.
Meanwhile, the scouting squad glided up the hill before kicking up several waves of their own. They were, however, careful enough not to shower their lord with it.
A handful of his housecarl bodyguards received bit of a mouthful though.
"Milord!" the scout leader called over the noise of scraping ice, "The Wickers' lines lay just two hills over. They've erected strong fortifications against the town, but lightly guarded from our approach. Only two squads hold their far right."
Magnus had hoped to keep the enemy in the dark after his men eliminated two spies found observing his keep. His veteran scouts also made short work of several Weichsel reconnaissance teams along the way. Though he wasn't certain, it really seemed like his men arrived undetected. The scouting coverage of their foes had spread too thin after penetrating deep into Skagen lands.
"The Stormlord's will. Time for our enemies to taste humiliation and bitter defeat!" The Jarl snarled into the distant mist. He then twisted around to face his foremost signal officer: "tell Ericsson we're here! He'll know what to do."
"Already done, Milord."
Magnus grunted with approval. The two hundred warriors immediately behind him were his household troops. They were individuals that he all knew by name -- manly men that any true Hyperborean would be proud to fight and die alongside. Another six hundred behind them might be mere 'militiamen' by southern standards, but the warrior culture of the north made them far braver than any heathen equal.
"Well then, you know the drill. Quadbows front, siphons second. Rest of you follow me! We'll burn and tear these Wickers a new asshole! Draw swords!"
----- * * * -----
After a week of observing battles against Skagen ski infantry, Kaede had grown very familiar with the sound of massed skis scratching against icy snow.
...Which was exactly what her familiar-enhanced senses just picked up.
Still atop the rightmost battery-tower of Weichsel's siege line, Kaede swung her binoculars towards the wintry mist that blurred anything beyond two hundred paces. With nothing in sight, her focus went to a pair of ears that tried their best to stand up.
She poked a rune on her right arm for one of Pascal's eight standard buffs. Mental Clarity served best for clearing thoughts when muddled by fatigue, pain, and fear; but it also boosted her already capable senses just a stretch further...
Then, she heard it. The muffled voice of masculine authority, ending with a phrase of absolute command.
As though on cue, the rumble of a low-pitched horn resounded through the town, drawing check marks across all her suspicions. The Skagen relief force they had hoped for did indeed come. Except instead of being intercepted out in the open, they made it all the way to town.
What are Manteuffel's men doing!?
Exclamations shot through Kaede's mind as she rushed to send this information up immediately:
"Pascal hostile force approaching from the..."
She never finished. A fusillade of sonic blasts tore through the air behind her. Obscured by the weather, she couldn't see what had happened. But Pascal's sudden "AHHH!" confirmed what she thought had occurred.
The defenders had just struck their command center with a full artillery volley.
Kaede felt as though someone just stabbed a dagger into her chest. Her mind completely blanked out for a split second as she threw everything aside in a desperate bid to reach him.
But the line remained silent. Completely empty. Not even white noise could be heard from the other side.
Please-please-please be okay...
Kaede shut her eyes for a quick prayer to whatever gods in this world who would listen. Even as her chest continue to contract, even as the beating of her life accelerated...
It wasn't physical pain. No. She wasn't keeling over. And despite overflowing torrents of fear plus anxiety, her timely spell kept her thoughts clear and open.
She simply needed to use her head.
I'm still alive, aren't I? Then Pascal has to be as well.
She wasn't sure how alive though. Injured? Crippled? Unconscious? Bleeding to death this very second?
But one thing was apparent. If she didn't do something and fast, he really would end up dead before the hour was up.
Enemy reinforcements were coming from the far right. From such a perpendicular flanking angle, they could easily smash in and topple the entire siege line like a stack of dominoes. Combined with a sally from the city, it would rout the entire Weichsen detachment.
No time. Have to do this myself.
With a kick at the dirt-transmuted clay floor, Kaede jumped off the battery-tower and fell halfway down before pressing her Air Glide rune. All the while she shouted:
"Captain! Swivel all men to face the right! Hostile relief force incoming!"
Captain Karen von Lichnowsky of the Nordkreuz 3rd cavalry company was in her late 'twenties'. Moderate of build and on the plain side of cute, she was most noticeable from the back due to her long, wavy red hair. Standing adjacent to her signal officers with a swordstaff in hand, she turned towards Kaede almost immediately. But the dark-green eyes above her freckled, fair cheeks continued to gaze with uncertainty.
"Command from HQ!" Kaede affirmed with an utter lie, hoping her serious expression and battle anxiety might bury any obvious signs. "Swivel all men and face right to refuse the line! Their relief force will be upon us within the minute!"
"We just lost contact with..." a signal lieutenant began.
"I'm Captain von Moltewitz's familiar! Do I look dead to you!? We must refuse the line or they'll smash through us!"
She channeled some of her own uneasiness into impatience for good measure.
Captain von Lichnowsky held a look of clear disapproval at Kaede's tone, but she didn't waste another second before bellowing out orders:
"SWIVEL RIGHT! REFUSE THE LINE! REFORM RANKS CENTERED ON ME! MOVE!"
'Refusing the line' was a classical tactical maneuver where troops formed new ranks at a perpendicular angle to the main battle line in order to repel flanking attacks. Well-drilled in mobile formations, Weichsel soldiers in black partial-plate ran through the trenches before climbing up. Those near Kaede's old tower pulled back, while others on the company's left rushed up to fill the gaps.
Within half a minute, a new line anchored at the second-to-rightmost battery-tower began to take shape. They stood just behind a wide communication trench that stretched from the tower all the way to the rear, where the horses were still kept.
They didn't have a moment to spare...
The first skiers soon broke through the misty veil, gliding down the nearest hill with speed. They crouched down during the descent, lowering their center of mass as they leveled heavy quad-bolt crossbows to take aim.
"Legion Resistance!" the Captain shouted out her team-buff spell, doubled as an order for other mages to follow her lead.
Kaede took that as a cue to activate the rest of her defensive spell set.
The enemy's 'volley' came scattered. But each crossbowmen in the front unleashed four rune-inscribed stone bolts -- two rows of two in quick succession. Accuracy wasn't a concern for these weapons. Instead, the bolts buried deep into the snow before triggering their magic...
Fire and lightning thundered all around the Weichsel line. Explosions tore across the field as though a howitzer strike just hit the defensive front. The Legion Resistance spells offered decent protection against the elemental magic bombardment, but many troops were still left bleeding and dazed.
Rune magic's greatest weakness was also its greatest strength. Unlike 'Aura Magic', which could cast spontaneously and shoot across open airways, runic spells required both preparation and a medium of delivery. But once inscribed, magical stones could be activated in an instant and utilized by any commoner. The only limitation was that each stone required an upkeep in ether, which drained away if they left the caster's possession for too long.
"REFORM RANKS! AIM FOR THE SIPHONEERS!" Captain von Lichnowsky shouted to her troops.
Some of them did right away. Most of them took a moment or two. The defensive line now twisted and turned around mud-bottomed snow craters. But they still made two ranks -- one kneeling and one standing, with spells readied and arbalests raised.
Sure enough, in the wake of the quadbows came the 'Rimefire Siphoneers' Kaede heard so much about. Wearing crimson armor made from the thick hides of volcanic drakes, these elite troops carried a weapon that looked like two enclosed steel pipes glued together. At its back, the bottom pipe held a hand-pump while two tubes connected the top to the backpack.
With many gaps along the line, Kaede drew her bow and stepped up to fill one near the Captain. She then pressed a bodkin arrowhead into the rearmost rune on her left forearm, and the Smiting spell within transferred into her weapon for discharge upon contact.
As the ski-crossbowmen decelerated to stow away their shooters and draw blades, forty siphoneers rushed ahead to lead the attack. A horde of feudal housecarls followed some distance behind, clad in woolly, chainmail-reinforced hides and holding massive zweihander swords that seemed capable of cleaving a man in half.
Kaede forced her gaze away from their deadly steel before nailing her sight to a siphoneer. With the aid of Mental Clarity, she transfixed all focus onto her target to become one with the arrow.
She hardly even noticed as the Northmen began yelling their frenzied battle cries, which veterans had translated as: "Burn them down! Hack them ground!"
"Scorch-Ether Catalyst Dispel!" the Captain began, echoed by every spellcaster along the line.
In that same moment, Kaede's fingers loosened, releasing her arrow into flight...
The volley of ether blasts soared out to meet the siphoneers, making contact to shatter layered wards with cascading failures. Steam poured off several as their own volatile ether began to cook them alive...
Meanwhile, Kaede traced her glowing arrow through the air. The same spell imbued into her shot triggered as soon as her target's Repulsion Field ward attempted to deflect the attack. The Scorch-Ether Catalyst Dispel then ripped through multiple magical defenses with increasing strength, clearing a path for the razor-sharp bodkin arrowhead... which plunged straight into the victim's upper thigh.
She took a deep breath before imbuing another arrow with her second and last dispel rune. Fresh confidence also arrived as her target lost his balance and crashed violently. The siphoneer spun at least twice before landing headfirst into the snow; his right ski shattering to hurl back a jagged piece of ironwood.
"Volley!" Captain von Lichnowsky added, and dozens of crossbowmen emptied their steel into the oncoming foes. Many of those on their knees even held repeating arbalests with shoulder-braced stocks. They continued to pump bolt after bolt through their levers as others discarded their weapons for swordstaves and javelins.
Given the charge speed of ski infantry, there was simply no time to reload.
Eighteen more siphoneers went down, some taking half a dozen hits.
But it was nowhere near enough.
Among the problems was that Karen von Lichnowsky's company were dismounted cavalrymen. Their usual tactic involved either counter-charging or galloping away, and few of them knew any spells to break another charge. As verbal commands in mnemonic spellcasting were mere trigger words for practices instilled into muscle memory, the others could not simply imitate the three who transfigured snow into rows of icy stakes.
They did manage to impale two foes, before the rest banked to circle around.
The Captain then lead a second volley of Dispels, but many of the javelins didn't follow fast enough. Meanwhile siphoneers caracoled in a wide arc upon entering twenty-paces range, their steel pipes pumping deadly jets of liquid fire like strafing water guns...
Kaede released her second arrow at the same time.
The siphoneer targeting the Captain hardly squirted before the arrow nailed him in the chest -- just below the throat and near the center of the sniper's triangle. The crimson warrior then crashed into the snow, stumbling forward as he went before sliding to a stop just five paces in front of Kaede, lifeless.
But one score was nowhere sufficient to change the course of the battle...
Soldiers all around screeched with agony as viscous flames sprayed over them. The liquid fire stuck to armor and skin alike, melting flesh even as more flowed between gaps in steel plating to burn what lay beneath. Troopers dropped to ground and rolled through the snow to no avail, as melted water seemed to feed the very flames into ever greater strength.
Water-intensified napalm... Kaede thought as she watched a scene that could only come from hell itself. Who the devil gave Nordic Berserkers Greek Fire?
It was even worse than that, as rimefire apparently ate through ether like fuel. Wards such as Resistance which normally offered protection against fire did less than nothing, as they combusted like paper to feed the flames. Dying mages with the wailing of banshees ran through the snow like burning torches as fire seeped across their very body.
Then, when Kaede thought things could not grow any worse, hell's herald arrived in the form of a creaking groan. The noise came from far behind, in the direction of the town's gatehouse, followed immediately by the echoing roar of hundreds.
The town garrison was sallying out to attack.
At that moment, a voice Kaede had long awaited finally rang through her mind. Unfortunately, its tone was anything but pleasant reassurance:
"Order von Lichnowsky to hold at all costs! Do you hear me, Kaede? Fight to the last! If she crumbles this entire army will be annihilated!"
That's impossible, Kaede thought even as she heard Pascal's stern voice. Their line already lay tattered, no more than sixty at most. Their center had been destroyed by rimefire, with only her, the Captain, and six others left to plug a massive hole. Their morale was wavering at best, utterly shaken by the screams of burning, living corpses. Even with almost all siphoneers downed, they now looked upon a massed charge by hundreds of Skagen ski infantry -- a unstoppable avalanche of death rumbling across the snow, lead by bear-like men holding overgrown foe-chopping swords...
But what other choice do we have? Run? We'll be butchered... all of us.
In that instant, Kaede felt as though a cage slammed down over her emotions. She didn't even bother replying to Pascal -- he could hear her words anyway. She simply turned to the redhead Captain and voiced through hollowed tones completely devoid of humanity:
"Our orders are to fight to the last."
Captain von Lichnowsky blanched as she turned about. But she nevertheless nodded back, as though in grim acceptance that she... neither of them, would live to see past this day.
Recognition and respect passed between the two of them in an instant, before they turned away from each other.
The Captain readied her swordstaff with both hands as her steady voice shouted desperately to rally her men:
"WE ARE SOLDIERS OF WEICHSEL! WE WILL STAND AND FIGHT! HOLD FAST TO YOUR BROTHERS AND DO WHAT IS RIGHT!"
Meanwhile, the girl from another world puzzled over a steel 'water gun' just a few paces out. It laid on the other side of a trench where burning rimefire continued to float on pooled water; on the wrong side of her only protection against a wavefront of barbarian tide mere seconds away.
Kaede felt like an infantrymen eying an abandoned heavy machine gun. It was the only medium that offered her a fighting chance. Twenty paces of fire in both directions would form a sweeping curtain of flames, plugging the hole in their line as surely as any fresh platoon.
What's the worst that could happen? Die?
Her decision came within the blink of an eye as she leaped over to pry the weapon off its dead owner.
With all her focus on the siphon, Kaede never even noticed as the lead skier raised his zweihander sword like a looming executioner.[ Next Chapter ]