It was just after dawn when the Tauheed army finished their morning prayers and began the advance. All along the lightly wooded slopes, Caraliyyah siege engineers and soldiers pushed forth onagers, trebuchets, and bombard mortars, wheels creaking as they rolled down tracks of transmuted clay.
Meanwhile on a nearby hilltop, General Salim gazed through his binoculars and scanned the opposing riverbank.
Roazhon was built near the confluence of two rivers. The River Hafren, which flowed south from the southwestern end of the North Lotharingie Mountains, and the River Gwilen, which flowed west from the northwestern end of the South Lotharingie Mountains. The Avorican Capital guarded the eighty kilopace gap between these two mountain ranges, making it one of the most strategic locations on the continent. As such, the city featured an extended array of fortifications, its outermost layer covering the river crossings twenty kilopaces out.
The River Gwilen served as southern flank of the city's 'defense zone'. Upriver, it featured a sharp drop from the southern mountains, with fast-flowing waters cutting a steep valley into the rocky hills. Downriver, after absorbing the River Hafren, the banks of the Gwilen turns into a swampy marsh all the way to the sea. With all the bridges destroyed, this left only a twelve kilopace length where a river crossing could be forced... where the Lotharins had entrenched themselves along a shallow-sloping ridge and waited.
Stone redoubts four-stories high stood every two-hundred-fifty paces; having quadrupled in numbers over the past weeks with the help of clay-to-stone transmutation spells. Between them stood wooden watchtowers, elevated earthen platforms lined with archers and dug-in siege engines, even networks of trenches where thousands of voulgiers and pikemen sat waiting. These were protected by a low stone wall, several spiked palisades, and no less than two rows of sharpened stakes at the riverbank.
"I fear I may have given them too much time to prepare, Hakim," General Salim voiced to his wazir.
"We'll manage," came the Marid's stoic reply. "We brought enough artillery to conquer hell."
The General smirked as he turned to his partner. Hakim always worried about details more than he does; yet the Marid never failed to calm Salim's nerves.
Although this time Hakim didn't meet his gaze; those clear blue eyes stayed fixated on the water.
"Something wrong with the river?"
"Perhaps," Hakim pondered. "The water is much lower than what intelligence claimed."
Spies reported before the invasion that the river crossings were at least two-hundred-fifty paces wide and up to twelve paces deep. But at the moment, even its widest segment wouldn't reach one-eighty.
"Isn't that a good thing?" General Salim replied. "It is wintertime; the snow will collect in the mountains until the spring thaw."
"But a warm front swept up from the Inner Sea just last week. Our spies reported rain in most of the lower passes. It should have melted at least some snow, to normalize the flow if not expand it."
Hakim examined the riverbanks once more. The muddy gravel at its edge showed signs of recent submergence; the waterline was much lower than even a week ago.
"Lieutenant," he gestured a signal officer forward. "Tell Brigadier Arslan to take his cavalry brigade upriver. Reconnaissance in force, sixty kilopaces out!"
He then stared at the battalions of Lotharin troops garrisoning the riverfront fortifications. His hand brushed and began to tug at his thick-beard again as his mind wandered into deep thought:
If the river really is blocked, then...'
The Lotharins attempted to play dirty, and God saw it fit to reveal their treachery. But now, it also presented him with a valuable opportunity.
"Send all heavy siege forward."
"Yes, all of them!," the General repeated. "Advance to firing positions. Order six battalions of skirmishers to screen the advance with smoke canisters. March all assault formations to maximum enemy range and hold. Tell Brigadier Tariq we'll be using his idea today!"
He never noticed the insidious smirk that spread across his partner's normally stoic countenance:
"Yes, Your Eminence."
----- * * * -----
In the Lotharin command cabin, Pascal leaned with both arms against the map table. It looked as though he was scrutinizing the countless unit markers lined across the three-dimensional illusory-projection. But in reality, his vision focused through his familiar's eyes, gazing across the river from the left-center redoubt on the line.
Not that there was much to see.
Half an hour ago, he could still see thousands, tens of thousands of infidel troops marching on the river. Their neat columns of armor had dyed the entire countryside in lanes of green and yellow. Then, thin screens of skirmishers broke off from the army and charged, their backpacks spraying thick white smoke into the air above.
Individual arrows soared out from the Lotharin lines as rangers and militia marksmen picked apart the enemies as they neared the water. Hundreds lay dead before the remaining skirmishers broke and ran. Nevertheless, those thick blankets of white smoke enshrouded the everything beyond the river like a deep fog.
Pascal had sent orders for Stormcaller mages to summon a wind to the battlefield. Yet the air remained still, without even a gentle breeze.
They must be countering us with Tranquility spells, he could only surmise.
None of the Sight spells would penetrate the white haze. Through this fog of war, he could only rely on ears -- the stomping of iron hooves, the creaking of wooden wheels, the clinking of armor scales.
"They should be nearing the river by now," his familiar noted through their private telepathy.
"Sir!" a signal lieutenant within the command cabin pulled Pascal's attention back to his own body. "Duchess Jeanette reports sighting of enemy bridging equipment."
Pascal checked the map. The Duchess' troops were near the extreme right flank. It was more likely that a thinner smokescreen had given her an early glimpse, and not that the Cataliyan main thrust would be there.
If I was in command of that army, he thought. I'd use my crushing numerical advantage and launch an attack across the entire front.
It would be foolish to assume that his opponent was stupid enough to use anything less than the clear, optimal strategy.
"Sir!" another officer cried out. "Count Albert reports that the dam garrison is under attack."
Pascal's eyes widened as he abandoned all previous thoughts, his gaze swiveling to an upriver marker. He had ordered the river dammed from twenty kilopaces upstream almost as soon as they retreated here. The reservoir had filled for days and was ringed by a wide area illusion spell. It was enough to fool a survey by cavalry scouts or airborne familiars; only a thorough reconnaissance of the area would be able to notice its presence.
"By what forces?" he demanded.
"No less than five battalions of mixed cavalry! They emerged in overwhelming numbers!"
In other words, Pascal's brows twitched. The incompetent fool didn't even maintain a perimeter watch and failed to spot several thousand horsemen until it was too late.
His fingers balled into fists. The battle had yet to begin proper, and he had already lost one of his trump cards.
No. I still have a chance.
Hidden within the sandbag and stone dam was one of his ether-storing gems, engraved with a specially prepared rune that he could remote detonate with a Farspeak communication spell. Even if the infidels captured the dam, he could still destroy it during the middle of an assault crossing to flood the river.
Pascal synchronized his senses back through Kaede's eyes and ears. He couldn't see anything through the smoky haze, not even the orchard trees they had painted yew-white as rangefinding markers.
He had to do something to impede the enemy, even though the Lotharin siege would be firing blind.
"How far would you guess they are?"
Kaede's keen hearing made it impossible to judge distances based on his own experience.
The inexperienced girl took a moment as she focused on the stomping boots and creaking wheels, even confirming with a nearby ranger.
"Less than a kilopace."
"Ready incendiary barrage for 800 paces."
"Load incendiaries! Eight hundred!" Pascal heard Kaede cry on the other end.
"LOAD OIL! EIGHT HUNDRED!" the shout rang down from the redoubt to the entrenched siege crews, echoing from lieutenant to sergeant to soldier.
He could hear the sound of barrels rolling through the trenches. The combustible ammunition was housed away from the siege engines, in bunkers dug at least five paces into the ground.
Meanwhile from behind the redoubt, the sound of a slow viol reverberated in the morning mist. Vivienne's fiddle began its prelude, a sweet and gentle adagio that conjured the nostalgia of home to the Lotharins. Other instruments soon joined her from nearby, a musical trope of mandolins, flutes, drums, and even a harpsichord. Their melodic timbre rose across several kilopaces of open field, amplified by the magical aura of her phoenix Olifant.
Kaede swiveled her binoculars back in curiosity, its lens refocused just as Vivienne raised her bow into the air. With her viol still pressed against the neck, the winterborn began an aria in beautifully pitched soprano.
"Her magic... it's laced into the very song," the familiar realized at last, before her eyes returned to the front lines.
Crashing cymbals resounded across the air as both instrument and song rose in tempo. The musical energy grew alongside trickling ether streams, slowly but gradually infusing into the minds of thousands.
Soon, Pascal began to hear the 'READY' calls as sergeants reported their siege weapons loaded. They returned uneven and sporadic, as different crews varied in the time they took.
"Volley!" his familiar passed the order.
Hundreds of onagers and trebuchets jerked as catapult arms threw out their payload. Buckets of shrunken barrels flung into the air, returning to normal size as they passed through raised Dispel Screens.
"Talk about a violation of every conservation law," Kaede stared as the sudden increase in mass made no difference to velocity.
Within the span of seconds, one-hundred-twenty-eight heavy Lotharin siege weapons launched over five hundred chest-high barrels. Oil and pitch filled each of them to the brim, capped by an 'ignition' lid that carried a simple burning flask. The massive volley scattered as it flew across the river, vanishing into the fog bank. Sounds of shattering wood signaled their crash, soon followed by roaring fires and the screams of burning men.
Even the thick white smoke could not entirely conceal the carpet of flames that began to consume the other bank.
Through their empathic link, Pascal felt Kaede's resolve clamper down against her dismay at the painful shrieks. Though to him, the audio feedback was troubling in the completely opposite way:
An army was supposed to be marching down those slopes. Where were the masses of dying men?
Even if the infidels had Legion Resistance wards raised, the intensity of the holocaust should still reap a heavy toll. Yet amidst layers of white smoke, he could hear the screaming of a hundred or two at most.
Something is wrong.
As Pascal paused to ponder, he noticed that Vivienne's gentle singing had faded. The beating of drums replaced it as the rhythm escalated in a span of seconds.
Returning from vocal to instrumental, the Oriflamme bard dashed straight into heated performance. An uplifting beat streamed over the air as Vivienne's viol strummed faster than anything he had ever heard. Her fiddle strings reverberated as though on fire, pitch rising steadily as the song burst into an extended crescendo.
...And with Vivienne, it never stopped at being mere music.
Through Kaede's sight, Pascal watched as the siege crew closest to his familiar loaded in perfect coordination. The soldiers seemed more energized than ever as they stashed one shrunken barrel after another onto the catapult bucket. Their every motion came efficient and harmonious; there was not a single wasted movement, not a second of delay.
"READY!" he soon heard the sergeants' call, over a hundred of them in near perfect cohesion, synchronized within a margin of seconds.
Even during the heat of battle, Pascal felt his jaw drop momentarily.
The loading of ammunition always varied between crews. The massed fire of missiles always grew more incongruent. Yet somehow, none of these laws of warfare applied to the Lotharins now.
It was as though Vivienne lead a concert of war -- a conductor of not instruments but massed artillery.
Again, he sent the order for the Lotharin catapults to launch. Again, over a thousand burning barrels hurled into the shrouded enemy front.
Again, the returning screams failed to meet expectations.
A breeze created by the roaring flames was beginning to disperse the smoke. But before Pascal could see anything other than the burning husks of scattered Cataliyan trebuchets, a massive explosion erupted to the east.
The earth trembled as dirt and rock debris flew high into the air, visible even from twenty kilopaces away.
Already, he could hear the distant roar of waters through Kaede's keen ears. It would take only minutes before they reached the battlefield. The small reservoir they managed wouldn't be enough to flood the banks, but the rushing water would make the river impassable for several hours at least.
Shit, he managed to suppress the swear.
Not only had he just lost his best trap, but the infidels had completely fooled him.
There was no general advance. There would be no assault crossing today. The sound of ten thousand boots and hoofs, the glimpses of bridging equipment -- they had to be all illusions, and nobody had noticed because the smoke had impeded all sight-based spell detection.
The enemy was rolling in for an artillery duel, pure and simple.
"Order all frontline infantry to pull back! NOW!" Pascal ordered, by both word of mouth to signal officers and by telepathy to Kaede.
But even as he said this, he already knew that they no longer had enough time.
Soon, the Cataliyan heavy weapons would be ready to return fire, and their numbers stood at more than four times as many. Such quantitative superiority would overwhelm even the magical defenses of professional Weichsel formations, let alone the Rhin-Lotharingie militia battalions who always ran a shortage of Magic-Capable Officers.
----- * * * -----
Kaede hardly registered Robert's cry before Elspeth, one of Sylviane's armigers, yanked her back from the redoubt's battlements. A cerulean disk eight-meters wide then projected from the Princess' shield, just in time to block and shatter the incoming barrel.
Two armigers renewed the spellshield wards that the previous Dispel arrow tore through. Although that didn't stop the flames from pouring onto Kaede's former spot. Had she stayed for two seconds longer, the liquid fire would have roasted her alive.
"Thank--" she swiveled to voice her appreciation, only to hear a derisive whisper from Elspeth:
The petite girl wasn't even looking at Kaede. Dashing to the left, she threw one of her hooked blades over the crenelations. It caught onto a fly-by barrel before she yanked hard on the rope, slicing apart the container and raining its oil on the empty ground below.
The same could not be said twenty paces away, where another oil drum fell straight into a trench intersection.
A rear squad of retreating infantrymen had been bottlenecked there; twelve men turned into human torches as bursting oil ignited their chests and faces.
More screams resounded from behind Kaede, as a thrown powder keg detonated against the base of a wooden watchtower, its four marksmen blown into the air in pieces.
Behind the smoking crater, a dug-in Lotharin onager replied with three barrels of its own. A Cataliyan trebuchet on the opposing bank turned to toothpicks as an explosive shot crashed next to it.
Thirty paces away, an enemy mortar was blown into the air, after Lotharin rangers from atop a watchtower punctured the defensive wards and struck the munitions case with a Smiting Fireball arrow.
Scenes like this were duplicated dozens, hundreds of times across the entire front line. Blazing volleys flew overhead like meteor swarms. Flames erupted from every corner, accompanied by deafening blasts and bloodcurdling screams. Entire battalions collapsed into chaos as bursting missiles reaped through ranks of retreating men.
Twelve kilopaces of river crossing had turned into hell incarnate.
Yet even in this slaughter, Vivienne's uplifting tune continued. Her fiddle strings reverberated through the air, urging those who remained to synchronize their fire and fight on.
'Shoot at will' was in effect; however the Lotharin siege continued to reply in cohesive volleys, trading blows with the massed infidel artillery. Friendly earthworks and wards offered them protection, but the occasional direct hit would still score a kill. With hundreds of heavy weapons continuously firing from the opposite bank, this 'occasion' because all too frequent.
"Shoot back you cowards! Shoot back!"
On a nearby earthen platform, Kaede spotted a familiar face. It was the man she saw enlisting for the Forlorn Hope; the man who had lost his entire family and sought only death. Ignoring orders for the infantry to retreat, he abandoned his voulge for a longbow pried off a corpse.
He hollered to a trio of bowmen cowering behind a fallen watchtower, just before a rock sank into the onager pit behind him, its sheer weight breaking the Repulsion Spellshield ward like paper.
Sonic magic imbued into the stone burst in a low bass. The shockwave shattered the boulder and the bones of nearby siege engineers, creating hail of granite splinters that shredded the remaining crew.
One moment, the man Kaede saw was drawing back his bowstring. A second later, blood pumped from his severed neck as a rocky disk sliced off his head.
He never had a chance to take revenge. He never even met the enemy face-to-face.
His faith, his resolve, his bravery -- all of it amounted to nothing. His death came completely in vain.
Kaede's breath halted as a blast of heat knocked her onto the redoubt's floor.
I was killed near Rhzev...
Her legs numbed as she remembered that old Russian poem. Her arms trembled nonstop. Her breathing returned, ragged, as rose-quartz eyes tilted blank into the air, gazing up to the blazing cyan Trinitian Cross that Lady Estelle had painted onto the skies.
What could possibly be holy in this vision of hell?
"Kaede!" the Princess' face emerged into view, her hair burning an electric blue. "Pull yourself together!"
With a hand grasping the smaller girl's palm, Sylviane pulled Kaede back up. Her phoenix's aura helping to sooth the familiar's thoughts.
"Can you hit that over there!?" the Princess demanded, fingers pointed at a distant barrel that peaked just over the hill crest.
No, it wasn't merely a barrel. It was the top of a stockpile just beyond the ridge, where hostile munition wagons unloaded before soldiers rolled them to front-line siege engines one by one.
A few lonely arrows soared toward it as nearby rangers took shots. But even with spell boosters, the Lotharins' recurve longbow simply didn't have enough power.
With deep, calming breaths, Kaede steadied herself and nodded back. Her fingers squeezed the spring-steel morphic bow as she pulled out one of Pascal's special arrows and pressed the quartz crystal nock, activating its Stormblessed Air Glide spell.
"Wait," Sylviane's glove reached over the fletching. "Delayed Firestorm."
The Princess then tapped the familiar girl's shoulders with a firm nod.
Stepping over the embers that still scorched the parapet, Kaede took aim against the distant horizon. Her eyes focused on the target and nothing else, her mind merging with the arrow once more.
Just like two weeks ago. Kaede's fingers released the bowstring, sending the charged arrow across nearly a kilopace.
Her eyes never left the target, even as a bubble of anti-spell wards flared against the arrowhead's dispel. The bodkin tip soon sunk into the barrel, its shaft sticking out like a bomb fuse.
Two seconds later, the entire hill crest vanished in an earth rending blast.
It was just one stockpile along the twelve kilopace front. But hopefully, it would buy the Lotharins a little time.
"Pascal," Kaede had an idea. "Air strike those stockpiles along the front?"
"Denied! If we fight over their anti-air, those drakes just over the hills will tear the Phantoms apart!"
With a chilling tone, Pascal gave his bitter order:
"I am sorry, but you are on your own! Assist the heavy artillery for as long as you can, then withdraw!"
He had already written off the fixed siege weapons as doomed. It was just a matter of how much damage they could inflict before their destruction now.
BOOM Kaede felt the heat wave singe her hair; the explosion mere paces away.
Sylviane's interdicting fireball blew apart a barrel aimed at the tower late. Its liquid fire splashed through a gap in the wards and onto a ranger's torso and face. He flailed in shrieking agony until Elspeth's roped blade-hook tore out his throat.
If we survive long enough...
Kaede sucked in a trembling breath as she watched a Cataliyan trebuchet hurl out its boulder. The rock smashed onto empty ground this time before it burst apart under another sonic spell.
Meanwhile, the crew was already loading their next stone. A spell-boosted Lotharin arrow flew in, but a bubble-shaped Repulsion ward batted it aside as its Dispel failed to penetrate.
Soon, the siege engine was ready to fire again.
Drawing another enchanted arrow, Kaede took aim across the river and envisioned the machine's previous throw. Guided by the inspiring beat of Vivienne's melody, she timed her arrow's release.
It flew straight into the trebuchet's sling during mid-throw, triggering the boulder's imbued spell -- an overhead sonic burst that overwhelmed the wards and shredded the rock, the weapon, and its entire crew.
In the end, it took six agonizing hours before the Caliphate silenced the Lotharin heavy siege weapons. The last few remaining crews had fought to their death, even as the surviving marksmen from the redoubts withdrew.
After six hours of being shelled by boulders, explosives, and spellfire, Kaede no longer had the will to stop her arms from quaking. Endless blasts echoed in her ears as unfeeling legs ran her back through burning communication trenches.
How did the men at the Marne or Somme stay sane through this?
----- * * * -----
That night proved a much-needed reprieve, though Kaede could hardly sleep. Pascal sent ranger squads back across the river to sabotage as many exposed artillery pieces and munition dumps as they could. Even within the encampment, Kaede's body shook with every muffled explosion or tremble of the ground, her mind conjuring visions of being shelled again.
Her eyes were bloodshot as dawn arrived the next day.
The riverfront fortifications lay in ruins. Blast craters, scattered earth, and the burnt husks of trees littered the once green river banks and its orchards. Only battered earthworks and the foundations of wrecked redoubts remained to provide cover. Lotharin infantrymen rushed into the trenches as the infidels chanted from across the river -- thousands of men facing south as they offered their morning prayers.
Then, as they stood back up and marched in formation, the battle resumed.
Over a hundred Cataliyan heavy siege weapons remained to open fire. Their barrage supported the battalions of compound bowmen that advanced on the muddy riverbank. Behind them came armored wagons that looked almost like battering rams, loaded with cylindrical floats and bisected timbers as engineers pushed them forward to erect pontoon bridges.
"RANGERS AND ARCHERS FORWARD! LOOSE FORMATION!" Sylviane shouted as she left Kaede's side to lead the advance.
Orders echoed along the twelve kilopace front as thousands of Lotharin longbowmen climbed out from their narrow trenches. Braving the hellfire that rained down upon them, they followed their Princess and Saint Estelle down the slopes, where arrows nocked to release volleys against hostile lines.
The Lotharins' recurve yew longbow was inferior to the compound bows used by the other armies. But what they lacked in equipment, they made up for through cultural traditions and numbers. Massed militia volleys soared out one after another in rapid succession, guided by the rangers' tracer arrows and imbued by their officers' spells. 'Shoot at will' was in effect once more, but the Lotharin line stayed in perfect synchronized cohesion as Vivienne's blazing fiddle strings resonated through thousands across the front.
Arrows poured from the skies and shredded company after company of Cataliyan missile troops. The enemy even began to commit their Asawira armored cavalry archers. They formed shooting circles as they kept the pressure on the Lotharin archery. However, their sacrifice allowed Cataliyan engineering teams to reach the river -- wagon ramps down, pavise shields erected, and smoke canisters dispersing thick white shrouds.
Floats and timbers rolled off these wagons as construction spells took hold and began the rapid assembly of pontoon bridges. Bisected timbers aligned in neat rows as transmutation magic fused attached iron girders into a plated surface. Silt from the riverbed rose and hardened into clay columns under terraforming alchemy. Wards sprang to shield these efforts as dozens of armored bridges began to form over the Gwilen River across the whole battlefront.
"Rangers: focus spell volleys on the nearest bridges! Artillery advance on sectors three, four and nine!" Pascal ordered.
The twelve kilopace river crossing had been divided into twelve sectors, numbered from east to west.
Wooden ramps bridged trenches as the Lotharins moved up their mobile light artillery: wheeled scorpions, wagon-mounted ballistae, even horse-drawn carts with Weichsel mortars. Around two hundred of them concentrated on the three flank sectors where the enemy gathered the most bridging equipment; their munitions soon began to pummel the engineering efforts...
----- * * * -----
"Their artillery is concentrating on the flanks," Hakim observed from the Cataliyan command post.
General Salim nodded. The time was now:
"Freeze the center. Signal Brigadier Arslan to charge."
----- * * * -----
Kaede watched as two long ranks of Cataliyan rear echelon mages raised their arms from the distant, hilly slopes. Surely the range was too far for their spells to reach the Lotharins?
But even if they could, it didn't explain why entire battalions of heavy cavalry peaked over hill crests and began to canter towards the river. The Gwilen was too deep to ford, and only three unfinished bridges lay before them at the central river crossing -- one of them already buckling under the rangers' focused fire.
She was still puzzled as dozens of chromatic ether trails arced into the air, before scattering and plunging into the stream.
Water froze solid as the icy alchemy spread. Within seconds, what had been an impassable barrier had transformed into an icy highway with sheets of snow.
It came just in time as the Ghulam heavy cavalry entered full gallop. Five echelons formed into broad armored wedges, several hundred men each and all aimed at the river segment frozen by thick ice.
But before Kaede even had time to report, Pascal's telepathy barked over their link:
"Kaede! Run closer to the ice! We need to plug that gap!"
"Are you trying to get me killed?" She lashed back.
"Trust me! And take out those three arrows I gave you this morning! We are going to need them!"
The Lotharins didn't have enough artillery, and General Clermont's infantry was still out of position as they rushed up through the trenches. If this charge crashed through the archers in the center, their losses would be disastrous.
Kaede closed her eyes and took a deep breath. His words 'trust me' echoed across her mind.
This is insane...
Darting around the elevated earthwork that she had been taking cover behind, Kaede dashed past scattered row after row of Lotharin archers as she sped west along the riverfront. She swiped her right forearm to activate her full set of defensive runes, then reached back and pulled out the three new arrows from Pascal -- each tipped by a sleek gemstone, instead of the usual bodkin penetrator.
"Hold the stones between your fingers, and raise them towards the frozen crossing!" His voice came as though he ran right besides her.
Her right hand balled into a fist; three gem arrows pointed forward from between her fingers. Ether poured over the familiar conduit as magical power amassed into her fist. Energy pulsed from the three gemstones as their magic linked to her hand, which radiated a turquoise shimmer across her pale skin.
"Rangers!" she called several nearby squads to attention as she ran, pointing at the massive wave of charging cavalry downriver. "Those with the courage to drive back hell! Follow me!"
Boosted by a Shift Impulse movement boost, her legs soon carried her to within three hundred paces of the frozen crossing. She felt the ground shake and water tremble as several thousand hooves thundered over earth and thick ice.
"Beam Field," Pascal's mnemonic spellwords began. The ether buildup in Kaede's arm flowed forth into a turquoise halo, spinning in place just in front of her fist.
"Sonic Penetrator Blast!"
A column of harmonic shockwaves poured out from the ether ring, streaming through the air before they crashed into the ice. Magic from both her body and the gemstones fed into the halo, guzzled up as fuel to feed the emitter's glow.
The Field spellword was typically reserved for duration spells. It created a continuous area effect for as long as ether demands met. Combined with Beam and the Penetrator spellword which enhanced its ability to pierce wards through brute force, Pascal had transformed her hand into a sonic disruptor cannon.
Kaede aimed her arm as she recognized her cue, moving the shockwave stream as she drew lines across the frozen water. Layered ice cracked and fissured under the sonic assault, their breaking hastened by crowded, stomping hooves. Some Cataliyan mages tried to refreeze the water or conjure ramps of force, but few would manage as more and more Lotharin spellfire joined in.
The cavalry charge had been stopped cold as Kaede cut multiple lines across both shores, trapping over a thousand assault troops on drifting plates of ice.
The frigid surface soon began to crumble. Frozen plates overturned and added to the chaos. Entire squads, platoons, even companies of horses and riders crashed and fell through the ice. Burdened by their heavy armor, men and beasts alike started to drown.
With arrows flying all around and Lotharin bowman falling left and right to incoming fire, Kaede hardly noticed as a platoon of cavalry archers began focusing their shots on her. Their first arrows bounced off her wards, but the infused Dispels that followed cut through her Repulsion Field and -- one by one -- shattered her rotating spellshields.
Kaede was still breaking the ice into smaller pieces when her body shook.
The taste of blood filled her mouth as she looked down, finding two arrows buried into her shoulder.
Pascal tried to rebuild her defenses, but a third impact that struck her waist dispelled the forming spell.
The sonic emitter vanished as Kaede dropped her arrows and knelt onto the ground.
"Kaede!" her numbing brain heard Pascal's seemingly-distant cry.
"Good luck, Pas--"
Neither had finished before the air burst, as a Cataliyan mortar round fell just twenty paces down.
The blast ended her consciousness in an instant. She never felt it as a shell fragment sliced right through her arm.
----- * * * -----
"KAEDE!" Sir Robert yelled, having just witnessed the Samaran girl turn into a pincushion before vanishing in smoke and flames.
"Your Highness!" he swiveled around to inform the Princess, who projected her shield into an overhead bulwark to block a falling mortar shell.
"Don't ask. Go!" Sylviane answered without pause. "Teleport her to the rear!"
"I'll be back!" the armiger who also served as her Wayfarer mage -- and therefore her emergency escape -- bolted off.
I just don't want to see Pascal in tears, that's all! she batted aside her other thoughts.
One of her armigers fired a ray at the nearest bridge section, turning its foremost floor plate into dust.
But even that only bought a minute as more wood and iron rolled into position to continue the assembly.
The nearest bridges were almost finished. The infidel infantry that pooled just across the river already began to cross.
Four kilopaces to the west, enemy troops streamed over bridges and terraformed shallows alike to engulf Edith-Estellise's position in a chaotic melee. One kilopace to the east, the heavy infidel artillery destroyed another Lotharin ballista battery as devastated engineering crews continued their work.
"ARMIGERS AND VOULGIERS! TO THE RIVER!" Sylviane yelled back to the trenches, calling her own massed infantry forward.
It was time for the true meat grinder to start.
----- * * * -----
Pascal did his best to concentrate as he stared at the battlemap, constantly updated by signal officers as messages streamed in from across the front.
He had lost Kaede's visual and audio when the familiar fell unconscious. The link between them continued to exist, therefore she was at least still alive.
But in what state? For how long? Even a Samaran had limits to their healing. Worse yet was that she had collapsed on the open slopes, with nothing to shelter her from the riverfront clash.
Pascal had sent a nearby officer to investigate. But as the battle entered its most critical phase, he could neither afford to dispatch more men, nor continue to distract himself.
Holy Father, he had prayed. I know we do not speak enough. But please... please protect Kaede for me.
Through a combination of bridges, ice lanes, and terraformed shallows, the Cataliyans had crossed the river in force. Six major beachheads had been established, each struggling to break through as both sides poured infantry into the bloodbath.
Entire brigades were fed into the slaughterhouse at a time. Wave after wave of men marched on the river with banners held high, thousands of feet in sync to the tempo of Vivienne's song. Steel clashed as masses of men piled into the frenzied melee. Unit cohesion disintegrated as casualties mounted and survivors fell back, only to be pressed into battle once more by rows of glistening polearms from reinforcing ranks.
This had continued for the past hour, two, four... until the sun was high into mid-afternoon.
The Cataliyans had launched one air assault: forty-eight autogyro gliders escorted by thirty-seven wasteland drakes. But von Mackensen's Knights Phantom intercepted them, and both sides fell back after moderate losses. Since then, neither commander was willing to order air-to-ground strikes, which left the air cavalry at an altitude disadvantage when the other side counterattacked.
The Caliphate had also declined to invest more heavy horse after that disastrous early charge. The battle had became a pure grind-fest for the infantry, archers, and artillery.
But even as logistic troops continuously rushed through trenches to resupply the front with fresh quivers and ballista bolts, even as one company after another, one battalion after another of Lotharin militia shattered under sustained bombardment, the raking curtains of missiles slowed to a trickle as ammunition depleted across the battle line.
...And with that, the Cataliyans finally achieved a breakthrough:
"Count Hubert's troops are routing! Sector three defenses have broken!"
Pascal stared at the map table. There were no longer any reserves left on the eastern flank. Even the logistic companies had been fed into the melee to repulse this latest attack, down to the last porter and cook.
The Cataliyan commander facing them had proven excellent thus far. Pascal had no doubt that fresh infidel troops would soon arrive to exploit the breach.
Sylviane held down the adjacent sector four. He would have to rely on her to anchor the Lotharin front line and keep it from being rolled up. That might buy him ten to twenty minutes, enough breathing room to deploy his final card: the strategic reserve.
"Tell the Princess to refuse the flank! And King Alistair to deploy his men behind sector three. Make haste!"
I am counting on you, you royal bastard, Pascal clenched his teeth. Please save Sylv for me.
----- * * * -----
King Alistair's shout resounded down the concave line, his words echoed by officers across the ranks. Formations shifted as veteran units filtered through one another to reposition themselves.
Those two words weren't just a rallying cry. Alistair had been given all the heavy infantry from Gleann Mòr that the army had. This included the nine hundred Galloglaichs he brought down on skywhales, plus another three hundred lowland armigers who preferred the use of polearms.
The northern clansmen fought in two basic formations. On the defensive, pikes and polearms would wall the forward edge. But before pressing the famous Highland Charge? All two-handed swords took their place of glory in the front.
It didn't matter how many foes they faced. It didn't matter that enemy reserves poured across those bridges, building a huge mass of green and yellow armor that numbered above four thousand.
They were still just bags of flesh, grass to be mowed under the cleaving edge of greatblades.
With an amplification spell bolstering his voice, the King of the Glens raised his zweihander into the air. Its massive blade burned a dark blue from his phoenix's flames, shining a beacon of the north across ranks of hardened men.
"Come on, you lads! Let's splat some shit-faced fucknuggets! Charge!"
"Charge!" yelled commanders along the front as they lead the wave of steel.
"For the Glens!"
Twelve hundred men accelerated into a jog, closing the distance before they began to run. Rows of infidel soldiers leveled their shields and spears, bracing themselves on trembling ground as the final gap shrank.
"Flamberge, Ignition!" Alistair screamed as his phoenix Almace poured the flames of purification into his raised sword. The steel extended into a burning edge, reaching a hundred paces skyward before the whole length slashed deep into crowded masses of Caliphate troops.
The searing edge then burst against both sides, scorching entire platoons as it carved a deep wedge into the infidel horde.
With his armigers in tow, the seasoned mercenary-turned-king plunged headlong into the breach.
Almace was renowned for being the largest phoenix with the most flame capacity. Even after that conflagrative assault, Alistair could still call a Flamebreak from his millennia-old companion.
...And where better to do that than from the center of this horde of demonspawn?
----- * * * -----
"Enemy right flank routing!"
Pascal pumped his fist before his chest.
"Redirect all volleys in sectors two through four on those bridges!" He yelled at the signal officer. "I want those bastards dead on this side!"
The Cataliyans had invested heavily into that push, so much that the other riverfront sectors even retook a sliver of ground. Now, with dusk fast approaching, Pascal could be certain that the day was won.
Today, at least, he thought.
Even without Kaede's eyes and ears, Pascal knew perfectly just how badly the army had been mauled. Out of twenty-seven thousand men, he doubted even half of them remained in any state to fight. Many of those remaining would also be support personnel, with the least combat training and little if any experience at all.
"Drive them back to the river, demolish all bridges that remain. Do not, I repeat, do not under any circumstance pursue the enemy across."
With his orders given, he began to cast Farspeak.
Part of him kept an eye on the battlemap. But it would seem that the Caliphate had enough for one day. No new attacks emerged after several minutes as his link came online.
"Pascal!" his fiancée was not pleased. "We're still in the middle of a battle!"
"Yes I know. But I have to pass this directly to you Sylv. I doubt the Lotharins would listen to me if I ordered it myself."
As Sylviane returned a mental nod, Pascal took a solemn breath:
"Once you clean up the enemies on this side, demolish the bridges and fall back. We should prepare to withdraw under cover of night."
"Withdraw!? Are you insane?"
"Sylv, listen to me. Every unit had been committed today. Half our formations lie in ruins, and the remainder are exhausted and bleeding. Meanwhile, our enemy might have utilized at most sixty percent of his combat troops!
"If we fight here again tomorrow," he stressed with utmost severity. "This army will rout by midday! We must retreat and reorganize if we wish for any chance of holding this front!"
"Then what about Edith? What about all the feudal lords? You think they're just going to accept that?"
Pascal could give no response. Some factors were simply out of his hands.
----- * * * -----
On the next morning, General Salim watched as his men crossed newly built bridges over the River Gwilen. They received only sporadic fire this time, mostly from skirmishers hidden in the eastern woods and western marshes.
He dispatched three battalions of light cavalry to screen the advance. Soon they would chase the last brigands from his hard-earned crossing.
Though 'hard-earned' was a gross understatement.
Sliding hands over his eyes, Salim slowly closed both palms in prayer before his nose.
"Verily we belong to God, and to Him truly we shall return..."
He struggled to maintain his stoic image as his eyes gazed upon the river crossing. Twelve kilopaces of ground and water ran a bloody red. The dead lay countless as they carpeted both banks. Bloated bodies formed a half-adrift dike on the water's edge. Scorched earth and blast craters scarred the slopes, and hundreds of burned out husks marked the tombs of tower garrisons and siege engine crews. Shattered wagons lay behind dozens of wrecked pontoon bridges, bloodied by mounds of corpses and bits of men.
It was a site of unimaginable slaughter, all to advance just a few hundred paces.
How many widows and orphans would soon curse the name 'Gwilen'.
"Our scouts confirm that the infidels have retreated," came Hakim's voice. His calmness was almost unnerving against such a backdrop of butchery and death. "Half their army fled behind Roazhon's walls; the other half withdrew west towards Ceredigion's forests."
"The field is ours," he declared, as though coolly announcing a victory.
"But at what cost?" General Salim's reply began with hardly a whisper. "To cross a single river, they bled us by over twenty-four thousand lives."
The General turned to his Wazir with a tormented gaze:
"Twelve thousand men a day -- just how long do you think this army will last?"