The frantic shout resounded within the confines of his empty mind. He didn't recognize it, but he felt the desperation -- an utmost need from someone he instinctively knew and held dear.
Pascal stirred with a splitting headache and a steady, continuous ringing in his ears. His eyes opened to the blurry sight of a mostly-collapsed room, and he tried to wipe away the tears still clouding his vision...
Hot pain shot up his shoulders when his right arm attempted to move. His breath quickened to a labored pant as his left hand reflexively reached up towards the injury. It came across a chilled iron shaft. A ballista bolt the size of a javelin had apparently pierced through his right shoulder and anchored him into the ground.
Perhaps even worse, Pascal couldn't hear his own painful cry. Outside the ringing in his ears, everything else in the world was a deathly silence.
Gritting his teeth against the pain, he reached his fingers around the pole before muttering "Disintegrate". The javelin handle instantly vanished into specks of dust, leaving only a bleeding hole the width of two fingers.
His arm moved this time, painfully. It jerked upwards briefly before flopping back down, neither of which were intended.
That was bad news, really bad. The hit must have shattered his right shoulder joint. He would need a real healer to fix that, which meant no curative spells until then.
Suspending the blood flow to his right arm wasn't much better, but it bought him at least some time. Healing magic could always restore dying cells deprived of oxygen, as long as he didn't bleed out first.
A quick check proved that his ears were indeed bleeding, probably ruptured from the sonic blast that came with the rune-inscribed boulders. Rummaging through an extra-dimensional belt pouch, Pascal soon pulled out a set of Metabolic Restoration runes and glued them to his ears with a sticking spell. These two spellwords formed one of the most powerful healing spells he knew, capable of automatically repairing any tissue or organ that hadn't been ripped asunder.
He then pushed himself back to sitting upright, finally clearing his eyes for a situational assessment of the disaster:
The former command center was a bunker of welded steel construction. But right now an entire facing of the ceiling and walls -- what remained of them anyway -- had buckled inwards. The first wave of runestone-tipped ballista bolts had destroyed wards and steel alike with a combination of Dispels and Disintegrates, leaving gaping holes and severed support beams. The catapult rocks that followed then turned the HQ into a death trap of flying shrapnel.
Three of the officers had been cut beyond recognition by jagged rock fragments. Two more died with chests nailed into the ground by bolts. Commanding officer Colonel von Konopacki lay among the dead, his eyes unmoving and hollow after a steel girder severed by Disintegration rammed through his torso.
The only reason Pascal survived was because most of his defensive wards were active. It hadn't been that long since his last trip to the frontline trenches to observe. Although the sheer amount of damage had eaten through several spells, leaving his clothes tattered and bloody from shallow cuts.
Nevertheless, he needed to get out of there. The defenders could be preparing another barrage this very second.
Pascal stood up to a half-crouch and began making his way through the rubble and wreckage. He soon found himself face-to-face with a medic -- a commoner girl who braved the danger to wrap blood-stopping bandages around the leg stump of a signal lieutenant.
Her lips parted to call out, but he heard only silence.
"We need to get him out of here!" Pascal spoke back, ears still unable to confirm his own words.
But it must have been right. The medic nodded, and each of them took an arm of the half-conscious, clearly-sedated officer. Pushing aside fallen beams, they made their way out and into the nearest communication trench.
Meanwhile, Pascal tapped the sensory link to Kaede for a front line update with his own eyes. He faintly remembered her reporting something just before he was knocked out. The connection then opened in the middle of a spell-bolt barrage, with blasted snow and expanding fireballs everywhere in sight. Beyond that were the quadbow skiers that initiated any housecarl attack, although a sparse line of siphoneers soon overtook them.
Oddly enough, while Pascal couldn't hear a thing himself, he registered every thunder and explosion that Kaede heard.
Situation critical. Right flank under massive assault, he concluded.
The presence of elite siphoneers always raised a warning flag. Packed with firepower, those flamethrower troops could afford to attack in a dispersed, agile formation, which made them far harder to hit. The defenders had no choice but to stop the deadly siphons. But in doing so, they lost their best chance to deliver volley fire against the massed charge that followed behind.
The only blessing was that the Northmen's coordination was off. In their feverish haste to engage, the siphoneers' charge had opened a gap between them and the main force. It would take no more than twenty, thirty seconds at most, for the housecarls behind them to catch up. But for the defenders, every extra second they had to repel the vanguard before the tidal wave struck was a godsend.
Pascal shrunk the vision overlay into the upper-right corner of his own sight. Another signal lieutenant sat further down the trench, miraculously uninjured except for a dozen bleeding scratches. Two medics soon rushed past that man, one carrying a small lemur on his shoulders.
"Where's your healer?" Pascal barked as he helped lay down the crippled officer. Then, raising his left hand to tap the glowing rock stuck to his ear: "Get me your healer now! I have a battle to coordinate!"
Due to their persistent shortage, most medical squads had only one healer, plus maybe a trainee or two. The rest were just medics -- commoners trained to treat injuries but couldn't actually cast spells.
To his momentary surprise, it was the lemur who responded. The furry little primate jumped onto Pascal's left shoulder and pulled the rocks off with magical ease. Then, after loosely wrapping its legs around his neck to leverage against his chest, it inserted one tiny finger into each ear canal.
A healer's familiar...
Wherever its master was, he or she was clearly using the familiar as a proxy to channel spells. The carefully-controlled, focused Restoration spell proved exponentially more effective than his own. Within moments, Pascal was beginning to hear for himself again. The voices were still muffled and fuzzy, but it was enough for him to communicate properly.
He grabbed one of the medics right away. They might have a life on their hands, but he had hundreds to worry about:
"Run over to the Kostradan Reiters and tell Captain von Gottschall that he is to personally pull two platoons plus recon to reinforce the far right! Colonel's orders!"
Pascal never even hesitated to lie about it. If news went out that Colonel von Konopacki had been killed, command of the detachment would pass to Major Bergfalk's seniority. The yeoman officer was competent enough, but he was also a traditional cavalry leader, and there was nothing conventional about the situation right now. Furthermore, Major Bergfalk was stationed on the far left of the siege line, with the least idea of what was happening on the far right.
"Sir I'm just a medic..."
"You see anyone better around!? Now off to it or we will all be a head shorter by sunset!"
The tall and lanky medic's eyes grew wide as saucers when he finally realized the severity of the situation. He then spun around and dashed off without another word.
"Lieutenant!" Pascal rushed over to the barely-injured one, although the young man's emerald eyes were still shaking -- a clear sign of lingering shock from the barrage that had nearly taken their lives.
"Lieutenant, do you hear me!? Is your Farspeak link with Major Bergfalk's 1st Nordkreuz cavalry still active!?"
The blond young man nodded back slowly, still half-dazed.
Pascal slapped the lieutenant without a moment's hesitance. He instinctively tried to move his right arm first, and bit down in pain as the injured limb jerked uselessly. His left palm went next, straight across the cheek. Even Kaede, a complete civilian by all measures, had joined the front lines to repel a siphoneer charge. There was no excuse for such disgrace as an officer of Weichsel.
"PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER, Lieutenant!" he shouted in the signal officer's face. "I need an order passed to Bergfalk and I needed it done two minutes ago!"
It took another moment before the blond lieutenant finally began to snap out of it.
"Order Major Bergfalk to get his entire company mounted!" Pascal demanded sternly, locking eyes while his left hand firmly grasped his junior's shoulder. "Enemy relief battalion is assaulting our right flank. I need him to ride around our rear and smash into those attackers!"
The signal officer concentrated to pass the message. Then:
"M-Major Bergfalk acknowledges. He requests the status of HQ command."
"Tell him those are the Colonel's orders! And do not bother trying to circle around the enemy for a full outflank. Our far right cannot hold for long -- he is to plow straight into the enemy's wing at first opportunity!"
The Lieutenant then glanced towards the destroyed command center, clearly doubting Pascal's words as orders from the Colonel.
"Listen. We cannot afford for the situation to devolve any further Lieutenant," Pascal declared with every ounce of severity he could muster. "I have the best grasp of the overall battle, so if you want to stay alive until tonight you will do as I say! I swear to the Holy Father that I will take full responsibility!"
Reply came back in the form of a slow, hesitant nod, but a nod nevertheless. The Lieutenant soon crossed his eyes again in concentration.
...Just as distant, groaning sounds could be heard coming from the Nordkapp gatehouse, followed immediately by the echoing roar of hundreds.
In the current situation, this could only mean one thing: the garrison was sallying out to attack. Given the timing of the headquarters strike and arrival of reinforcements, they must have assembled and prepared for it in advance.
Pascal quickly sorted that into a lower priority. Against the hostile force flanking their line, an attack from the city itself was minor by comparison. Their sally would be bottlenecked by both the gate and the fieldworks outside, plus they faced well-fortified positions held by Captain Horn's Nordkreuz Reiters and one platoon left behind by von Gottschall.
Perhaps he would even call this an opportunity... assuming he had the resources to deal with it.
A glance through Kaede's sight warned that the oncoming charge was rapidly approaching their right wing defense line.
Pascal shut his eyes, hating himself for what he was about to do. It was a dangerous gamble, but he couldn't see any other choice. This entire detachment numbered over five hundred soldiers. Since he was now in command, he had no right not to risk everything he had for the sake of their safety. Everything, including the life of his own familiar -- Kaede herself.
It was his obligation as a commander.
He gritted his teeth and sent what was akin to a death warrant:
"Order von Lichnowsky to hold at all costs! Do you hear me, Kaede? Fight to the last! If she crumbles this entire army will be annihilated!"
He could feel her rising despair -- even denial -- as he uttered those callous words.
"Mental Clarity Surge"
Ether coursed into his left palm before he shut it with a squeeze, sending the magic through the familiar link and to Kaede. As a Surge spell which maximized strength at the cost of duration, Mental Clarity effectively became an emotional whiteout. Pascal had faith in Kaede's resourcefulness and insight, but the girl was still too green. She worried too much, and he needed her in action now.
He could only hope that reinforcements would get there before her position was overrun.
"Captain von Moltewitz!"
Pascal hardly even noticed as the lemur leaped off his back. His ears weren't back to full capacity yet, but they would suffice for now. The healer -- still not here in person -- clearly decided the other Lieutenant's severed leg was more important.
He focused on Kaede's senses just long enough to verify that Captain von Lichnowsky accepted her duty, before turning to face his visitor:
"Captain Horn sent me to check on headquarters, Sir!"
"Command is intact, but we have lost too much communications," Pascal replied solemnly, not even considering it a lie anymore. "Tell your Captain to hold back the sallying force. Keep them bottled up, then launch a creeping barrage into their gate and down their main street with firemist combination spells. Those are not assault troops pouring through. Those are meat fodder assembled to offer us an opportunity to crush the garrison!"
"Yes Sir!" the junior officer saluted with an inspired, predatory grin before running off.
If that cocky bastard thinks destroying my HQ is going to ruin us for easy picking, then he is in for a painful lesson, Pascal thought.
The frontal clash would be his win, he was sure of it. But the battle itself would be decided where Kaede stood. This meant everything depended on whether Captain von Lichnowsky could hold long enough for von Gottschall's mages and Bergfalk's cavalry to arrive. Then after that -- whether their combined strength could fight off greater numbers until outside reinforcements came.
Leaning heavily against the packed-snow trench wall, Pascal switched his casting mode to that of the fastest spell acceleration. Perhaps the numbness of overwhelmed conduit nerves could actually lessen the pain that still plagued his disabled right shoulder.
"Farspeak, initiate... He muttered, beginning the minute-long process of opening a stable communication link. His masculine ego might not want to admit it, but he was in desperate need for his gallant princess to come save his first command.
"To: Sylviane Etiennette de Gaetane."
----- * * * -----
Sylviane was hovering in midair as she surveyed what had been a battlefield mere minutes ago.
The Knights Phantom were still disarming those who surrendered, with charred corpses littering the muddy slopes. After two volleys of expanding-barrel grenades and one scorching charge by Oriflamme and Phantoms alike, the entire hill lay drenched in melted snow... and now, blood.
The need to interdict and destroy two separate relief columns had made General von Manteuffel split his forces further. As the faster group, Sylviane led the two Knight Phantom companies --Black Lancers and Phantom Gale -- over to the farther intercept. The six-hundred-plus defenders outnumbered her two-to-one, but her forces' superior training and equipment easily tipped the scales.
Nevertheless, the Northmen had been prepared this time. Their warriors fought on like madmen, especially the housecarls who refused to break even after one hundred and seventy armored gryphons smashed into their battered line. Several dozen knights fell in the ensuing melee, and while their numbers seemed few against the Northmen losses, these were elites with years if not decades of training whom Weichsel would struggle to replace.
Sylviane sighed through a deep exhale, although her solemn expression never faltered.
I lead a charge in too early... didn't I?
She wasn't sure.
But the Colonel agreed with the timing... or was he just going along?
She was never sure.
Royalty must always be assured, confident -- not a week had gone by during childhood when she wasn't reminded of that. Her father Geoffroi and her fiancé Pascal were both such pillars of dignity and decisiveness, convinced of their divine destiny to rule and lead. They were true paragons of authority, born to their stations without a trace of falsehood.
...And she admired them every bit as much as she envied them.
Sylviane had acquired that royal authority for herself over the years. Her serene composure, her regal demeanor -- they imposed her will upon others with but a sweeping glance. What charisma she lacked in aura and presence, she would make up through incisive words and intrepid actions. She had learned to inspire and convince, just as her role demanded her to.
But it wasn't the same. It was just an act.
One stumble against a hurdle and everything would come crashing down. She would then second-guess herself at every opportunity: Did I make a wrong decision? Do others agree with my approach?
Yet even as she looked upon others for counsel and approval, only advisors with the truest integrity would voice their honest thoughts. After all, she was royalty -- someone far easier to flatter and praise than to correct.
Acclaims must be doubted, while criticisms embraced and examined. Such was the life of a wise ruler, or in her case -- crown heir.
It wasn't fair. She was supposed to be the third child. The Holy Father had given her two older brothers, both far more qualified than she could ever be. She would gladly be the charitable patron of music and education after two ideal princes, never forced to wear a mantle of such burden and responsibility.
But one fateful encounter with Imperial assassins had changed all that.
Deep in thought, Sylviane hadn't noticed the pinging sensation in the back of her head -- the incoming knock of a Farspeak spell.
No communication sorcery could breach a mage's mental sanctum deep enough to guarantee attention. Otherwise, they would be intrusive magic capable of offensive means, and thus repelled by domestic ether with ever greater force.
By the time she finally grew aware, a precious minute had passed.
Why is Pascal himself contacting me?
Armies had signal officers for a reason: so commanders could focus on tactics and leadership rather than spending their time relaying orders.
"What is it?" she asked after mentally accepting the link with a visualized handshake.
"We are under attack by Skagen reinforcements. Entire force on brink of annihilation. I need help immediately!"
Despite its content, there was no panic in Pascal's tone. But Sylviane didn't doubt it for a second -- she had never heard such urgency stressed in his usual steady if not drawling speech.
"Regroup!" She called to her armigers. Then: "I'm on my way. But how could this happen? We've intercepted both major relief columns, and the smaller ones are still farther out"
"Well three was clearly the magic number. Look to my right flank. Pascal out!"
Did our scout coverage fail? Or... Sylviane felt a shiver run down her spine. Did von Manteuffel intentionally ignore reports of a third force?
She could only suspect. Based on Pascal's knowledge, the General was certainly ambitious and ruthless enough to sacrifice a detachment of hundreds just to eliminate a future rival. But while von Manteuffel was no lover of Rhin-Lotharingie, he was a pragmatist who recognized the need to counterbalance the Imperium.
Would he really do it at such a critical time?
Like always, Sir Robert de Dunois was the first to arrive. Mari didn't count; she was the Lady's Maid to the Princess. But the handsome young man with boyishly cute face was definitely a model of eagerness and optimism. He was a tad short for a Lotharin male, but his figure was lean and athletic, his eyes a vivid green, and the chocolate-brown hair framing smooth cheeks was just elegant enough without being too feminine. In Sylviane's opinion, he was the epitome of a polite and caring knight, always ready to shine a sunlit smile on her day.
He also hovered in midair a good thirty paces off the ground. Levitation Flight spells were mediocre in complexity, but they were particularly hard to control and master. As the human mind was naturally wired for two-dimensional motion, few people ever picked up the affinity for aerial combat maneuvers. The Oriflamme Paladins might have their phoenix familiars to help coordinate, but their armigers had to learn it the hard way.
"I need rapid teleportation to outside the gates of Nordkapp, just beyond the wards and chained as quickly as you can manage!" Sylviane ordered, fully aware that Pascal's life was now at stake.
"Of course, Your Highness. Two jumps will suffice."
Robert's laid-back smile was as calming as ever. Contagious even, as Sylviane couldn't help but grin back a little as she nodded in response.
"Start casting. Activate on my mark. Rest of you -- prepare for battle!"
They would all need that optimism in another minute.
In the meantime, she needed to contact Colonel von Bittenfeld, commanding officer of the Black Lancers. He would take charge upon her departure, tasked to lead the Knights Phantom into battle at best speed.
Even then, it would take at least thirty minutes.
Time that a princess had to help buy...
----- * * * -----
"You stupid girl!"
Kaede was still trying to extract the siphon from its dead owner when she heard the Captain's voice. With a reflexive glance, she saw Karen von Lichnowsky use her swordstaff to pole-vault over trench and snow alike, rotating her body around the shaft as she went through the air.
"Flourish, Animated Assault!"
In the middle of her spin, the Captain's wavy red hair gained a life of its own as it shot forward with thousands of tendrils. Growing like wildfire even as they flew through the air, they wrapped themselves around the translucent arcane armor of the housecarl leader that was about to cleave Kaede in two.
The massive zweihander blade came within a finger's reach of its target...
The instant Karen landed, her carpet-length hair pulled its grapple foe aside like the bent arm of a giant. Braking skis made for poor footing as the large man was thrown to his side, hurling across the snow before slamming into another. A wardbreaker rune inscribed into his sword then discharged itself as its tip pierced into the face of the unfortunate comrade.
Two men rushing up from behind braked in parallel, kicking up a massive wave of flurry and ice to blind the red-haired Captain. But she used her momentum to swing the swordstaff around in a wide arc, over the kneeling Kaede before slicing deep into the oncoming wave.
Karen imbued her weapon with the ward-penetration aid, just before her sweeping blade met the ankles of a skier. The cut was blind and shallow, but nevertheless enough to send its victim into an uncontrolled crash that would break his leg.
"Cyclone Blast," yelled a sergeant of Weichsel as he stepped up beside Kaede. Aiming towards the ground at a low angle, he blew the wintry wave back towards the attackers while intensifying it with freshly loosened snow.
...Right before his stomach was sliced open when a housecarl erupted from the concealing vortex, banking hard while leveling an outstretched sword.
But the blinded killer didn't turn fast enough and fell into the trench, where lingering rimefire soon set him alight in screams.
Kaede raised her head as she finally yanked the siphon off a death grip. At least the effort had shown her exactly where the trigger was. Better yet, the rune-inscribed handle of the lower-barrel pump pushed in and out on automatic -- probably the remnants of an Animate spell.
It couldn't have been a moment too soon. Zweihander ski infantry now poured into their position, claiming the lives of two more soldiers who had followed their Captain across the trench. But they did not go alone. As Karen pulled her swordstaff blade out of yet another northerner, he fell to become the sixth enemy corpse that cluttered the nearby ground.
The Captain now stood alone between Kaede and the barbarian horde.
The housecarl leader -- a Skagen nobleman based on the polished shine of his chainmail-on-hide armor -- rushed back up to rejoin the fight. After crushing a runestone and tossing it aside, his figure began to expand mid-charge while a sheet of ice layered over skin and armor alike. His massive sword then pinned Karen's blocking shaft down into a contest of strength, one that she would quickly lose.
Yet even then, her prehensile hair continued to trip incoming foes and keep the smaller girl safe.
With limited precision involved in a flamethrower, Kaede simply aimed it towards the enemy and pressed the trigger against the lower barrel. Her first victims were two skiers charging in from the right; their faces melted away in grotesque sight as the jet of rimefire sprayed into them.
Keep shooting. Keep shooting! she repeated to herself, trying hard not to stare at the gruesome fate of those she just killed.
Strafing the siphon without releasing its trigger, Kaede swept the field with its curtain of flames. Over a dozen foes soon ignited into human torches under her fire, their piercing shrieks overwhelming even the sound of battle. A crashed but merely injured siphoneer knelt up in an attempt to return fire, but Kaede noticed his movement first and sent him to a fiery grave.
Pausing briefly to adjust her aim, she then tapped a burst at the giant overwhelming her guardian.
At just a few paces of range, Kaede nailed the shot on the nobleman's left shoulder. But some of the liquid fire splashed off, landing on the Captain's right forearm and wrist...
Karen von Lichnowsky immediately lost her right grip on the swordstaff. As though trying to escape the burning pain, she half-leaped, half-fell toward her left.
Even after receiving enough rimefire to engulfed his shoulder, the huge northerner continued to press in like it was just a flesh wound. His zweihander easily brushed aside the swordstaff before hacking into the Captain's upper arm. The massive sword cleaved its way through the lower edge of a steel-plated spaulder, then skin, muscle, and bone alike, before severing the entire right arm off in a geyser of blood.
Ohmygod what have I done...
Kaede stood frozen with horror as the Captain wailed with pain on the snowy ground. Her arms holding the siphon felt paralyzed by shock even as they trembled without end.
Meanwhile the Skagen nobleman, dripping flames with his entire torso ablaze, took a heavy step towards Kaede.
Taller than any bear and covered in frozen furs and chained steel, the enemy seemed an unstoppable ice devil wreathed in hellfire. His deep growling felt more like the haunted voice of an anguished soul than the pained weakness of a dying man.
But before he could finish taking another, the one-handed Captain stabbed her swordstaff -- its shaft supported by wraps of wavy red hair -- straight into his groin.
"KEEP... FIRING!" She cried out even as blood continued to flow from her arm stump.
Snapping out of it, Kaede adjusted the siphon with shaking fingers before sending a burst straight into the devil's smoke-concealed face.
Not even a giant could survive that.
Kaede swept leftward on reflex, incinerating a squad of spearmen who almost reached her from the side. The curtain of flames then swung back right in a wide arc, forcing the next wave to bank hard and steer away from her blazing arm of death.
Although it didn't stop them from hurling a volley of shortspears.
Most of them either missed or deflected off her wards. But one managed to penetrate and plunge straight into her upper thigh.
Crying out in pain, Kaede fell down onto one knee.
But she never released the trigger.
Within a massed charge of ski infantry, there wasn't much room to maneuver without intruding upon another's lane. Crashes already littered the area as evading skiers rammed into those less accomplished, which only increased the obstacle count for those behind them.
But despite her efforts, Kaede stood certain that the defense was broken. She couldn't afford the time to assess her surroundings, but her peripheral vision could already see Skagen troops crossing the trench en masse atop frozen ramps...
There was only so much a few people could do.
Just then, the biggest explosion she had ever heard rang out from the distant rear, accompanied by a mist-clearing fireball large enough to engulf a small village.
It was as though the mother of all bombs had just detonated at the town gates.
----- * * * -----
Captain von Gottschall couldn't believe his eyes.
Some of his men might be gawking at the colossal blast, or the cottage-sized chunk of the stone gatehouse that was thrown high into the air.
But he found the sight before him to be far more astounding.
The entire 'line' was reduced to three holdouts and just a dozen men, yet its center was still held by a lone girl small and injured.
She wasn't wearing any steel armor, or even a proper Weichsel uniform.
But with a fiery reach of twenty paces, her jet of flames continued to sweep back and forth without end, breaking the charge like a boulder in rapids.
Blazing corpses, burning pools, and the disentangling limbs of crashed ski infantry scattered across the ravaged fields around her.
It was a scene to inspire, a sight to behold.
"Company! Halt! Fire storm over the trench! Avoid friendlies!"
Under his orders, over two platoons of dismounted Reiters stopped to reach out with casting gloves. Nearly a hundred chromatic ether blasts soon lashed out, hurling into and beyond the trench line before detonating in a cacophony of thunderous fire.
Assuming the enemy had standard wards, such a basic elemental barrage of fireballs would kill and disable few. But battles were also a contest of morale. The chain of explosive shockwaves knocked countless foes off their feet, buying his forces valuable time.
Better yet: there were now plenty of foes prone in pools of icy slush.
The Northmen usually entered battle with frost runes on their skis to ensure clear lanes of advance, but that wouldn't help those knocked off their feet.
"Company! Razor Field!"
A second barrage of ether lashed out, arcing over the air before striking wet ground. The wintry mix froze solid in an instant as icy transmutation spread, pinning fallen men to frozen sheets. Spears of icy stalagmites then reached upward, piercing flesh and forming rows of teeth to slow those still advancing.
The charge was soon stopped by a field of frozen icicles.
Here and there a Skagen officer would halt the transmutation with bursts of heat or antimagic. But against cohesive spellcasting sent in successive volleys of nearly a hundred, simultaneously covering massive sections of the battlefield, the efforts of individuals simply weren't enough.
Time for the finisher, von Gottschall thought as he thanked the prior decision to conserve his mages' ether. Reiters lacked the endurance training of true battlemages. Many were already breathing hard, and this third volley would drain them low -- limiting them to only basic bolts afterwards.
But it was so worth it.
"Company! Firemist and Advance! Shoot at will!"
Captain von Lichnowsky had done her duty. It was now his turn.
The quake of the massive explosion that followed could be felt tens of kilopaces out.
----- * * * -----
Sylviane lost her footing the instant her squad emerged from teleportation.
The earthquake, the thunderclap, the heat wave...
Perhaps Weichsel should rename their beloved Firemist Ignition combo as the 'Hammer of God'.
Not that the Holy Father needed mundane articles like hammers to smite.
Sir de Dunois' second teleport had landed them just behind the original Weichsel siege line. They arrived safely beyond the reach of the town's Lockdown ward, merely several hundred paces away from the Northmen advance.
The Princess then brought herself back to standing upright... flying upright, anyhow.
"Should probably charge in before they recover... maybe," she muttered to nobody in particular.
"I believe Your Highness already knows the answer to that," Mari answered without ever turning her eyes.
When then, if not now?
Sylviane delayed not a second further before launching into a charge across the air, followed wordlessly by her twelve guardian aces.
"Blaze Ignition!" She called out. Not a spell, but the keywords to spread her aura expansion, and consequently that of her merged phoenix Hauteclaire.
Blue-white flames poured off her hair and wings as her armigers formed up into a chevron. Their enchanted capes were woven with embedded phoenix feathers, acting as focus and intensifier in unison.
The entire formation became a pair of scything inferno wings, soaring in as they lowered toward the ground.
Do not doubt. Hold nothing back!
"Break their middle! Charge through!" Sylviane yelled, pointing forth two spiked rods protruding from the lower end of her phoenix-crest shield. Meanwhile her right hand continued to spin her weapon of choice: a chain six paces long anchored to her left wrist, ending with the knobby cylinder of a single-headed meteor hammer.
Wreathed in a thick corona of flames, the chained fireball with a core of steel revolved around her hand like a meteor, tipping their chevron of blue-white fury.
"For the Oriflamme!" Her armigers roared with swinging flails they sliced into the enemy horde like a hot knife through butter.
----- * * * -----
With the sun at its peak, the morning mist finally cleared away into the afternoon air.
"There they are!" Reynald called out to Colonel von Hammerstein, except he wasn't all that far away.
Cecylia had deduced that the column they intercepted was heading for either Kistrand or Nordkapp. Given Skagen's recently established turtle strategy, von Hammerstein determined that of the two towns, Nordkapp was far more worthy of a decisive battle.
They had been proven right some minutes ago when one massive explosion resounded across the rolling hills. Then another followed less than a minute later.
Rings of low clouds could still be seen in the skies above, leaving no doubts about the blast waves that cleared the local weather.
The detonations had also signaled that the battle had reached its climax. Whoever was in command had already brought out the heavy artillery, and von Hammerstein couldn't wait to join in.
"Swerve right! We'll gut their belly and take the bacon! Three volleys fly-by! Then caracole and charge!"
"Grenades at the ready!" Ariadne's voice followed up.
They approached the Skagen army from behind, if it could still be called an army. With its center pierced by a blazing scalpel and its front devastated by spells, it had devolved into something closer to an oversized mob.
But a mob of Northmen warriors was still dangerous, as the Reiters on the far side evidently found out. Skagen's remaining vanguard had forced their way into melee, something the Reiters -- fancy name for conscripted nobles -- were poorly suited for.
Closer help for them would arrive from the northwest, where a hundred Weichsel horsemen galloped forth in a charge against the Skagen left wing. Waves of Ether Seeker missiles raced ahead, trying to interdict every rune or spell that attempted to break their advance. But reinforcements from the horde rushed in to harden the defensive line of spears faster than javelins and crossbows could batter them.
Those cavalry were in for a bloody fight...
Reynald and his reconnaissance squad then followed their orders to turn right. Rising up to an altitude of thirty paces, they would gallop over the rear end of the enemy's right wing.
They encountered only sparse resistance in the form of javelins. Shooting upwards at high speed mounts, these projectiles would claim very few hits.
The return fire, however, seemed an avalanche by comparison.
Knight Phantoms were dedicated noble cavalry with expensive equipment, and the Ghost Riders had matching gear which Nordkreuz spent a fortune to subsidize. Among each set was a heavily-warded extra-dimensional belt pouch dedicated to grenades -- shrunken barrels filled with either pitch and tar, or even black powder.
Reynald and hundred-thirty-plus combatants chucked them out as fast as they could. The grenades were followed by area Dispels, ripping away shrinking spells to reveal full-sized kegs.
Then came the Ignition rays.
Four hundred crashing barrels of flaming pitch, burning tar, and exploding powder turned the Skagen right wing into hell incarnate.
Organized by platoon, the Ghost Riders then banked away from the enemy. Those who breathed a sigh of relief soon realized their error as the phantoms caracoled around in wide loops before charging down from the skies.
"Holy Father with us! Phantom Charge!"
Be it entire steeds or shadowy barding covering beastly mounts, the final words of the battle cry tore away all lingering ether. They formed a stampede of spectral horses that caught ablaze as they charged ahead, ramming soldiers and trampling men before detonating deep within hostile formations.
A flank protected by housecarls might withstand such punishment, but these were merely average warriors of the north. Morale collapsed like a house of cards as they broke and routed even before the first swordstaff struck.
Reynald actually felt saddened by that. Flying down on an Air Glide spell, he belonged with two-thirds of the company who fought as dragoons. They rode steeds for mobility but dismounted into melee as infantry. Other than the Black Lancers, most phantom companies included only one platoon of armored gryphons for its best riders; and unlike Ariadne and Gerd, Reynald had no familiar mount of his own... not yet.
He began another Phantom Steed conjuration even before he landed. It took under fifteen seconds for a proper Knight Phantom to summon a steed -- less than a quarter of the time it took for most mages. But fifteen seconds still left him quite far behind his friends.
----- * * * -----
The battle was decided the instant Skagen forces found themselves under two pincer attacks. But while Bergfalk's 1st Nordkreuz cavalry suffered bloody casualties for only limited success in piercing the Northmen's line of spears, von Hammerstein's Ghost Riders managed to punch straight through the enemy's weak underbelly.
Combined with the loss of their leadership, the beating they already took, and the chaos in their center from Sylviane's strike, Jarl Vagnsson's forces soon collapsed into total rout.
The Princess left Weichsel's cavalrymen to mop up. With her eleven remaining armigers, she flew northward to meet up with Pascal.
She found him sitting in a ditch, exhausted, while an old healer tended to his right shoulder.
Unlike his fiancée who was stained by the lives of others, Pascal's uniform was soaked in his own blood.
Sylviane wanted to pat him on the other shoulder, to congratulate him for the successful command he always wanted, or even just to greet each other again.
But the moment she met his turquoise gaze, he stopped her with a raised hand before she could even utter a word.
"Take your armigers and assault the gates, Sylv," he voiced through the stern mask of leadership. "Captain Horn's bombardment had destroyed their attempt to sally, and their relief force had been annihilated in plain sight of the walls. If we strike now and seize the gateway, maybe the garrison will accept an offer for their surrender."
The air did reek of burnt human flesh. Sylviane wondered just how many hundreds had died at the narrow gates to spread the smell so far and wide.
"They'll capitulate to just twelve of us?" she asked with raised eyebrows. "Surely you aren't about to send Horn's Reiters into an urban melee."
Pascal replied by pointing his left hand at the southern skies.
The Phantom company had reformed and rode up towards them. Their commander officer was clearly not interested in riding down the fleeing remnants of an army.
"Smart man, whomever is in charge over there," Pascal declared firmly. "Battle is not concluded as long as opportunities remain. This is our best chance to take Nordkapp with minimum bloodshed, now go!"
The Princess nodded back with a somewhat dry smile before taking off into the air once more.
Always business first... would it hurt to say one nice word?
Although Sylviane never heard the brief exchange with Pascal after she left:
"First you send her off to fight other men, then you sulk about it?" the gray-haired healer in her 'fifties' asked.
"I feel almost like some peasant housewife who just sent the husband off to war," Pascal muttered in barely more than a whisper. "She is leaving to risk her life again, and I am just sitting here uselessly watching."
"Says someone who probably just earned a star for his Knight's Cross? Men..." she remarked with a tone to accompany rolling eyes. "Now quit-yer-belly-aching and heal faster."[ Next Chapter ]