"Your Grace, please wake up."
Pascal's consciousness was still forming when a hand shook his shoulders.
"Kaede, stop..." Pascal mumbled as his arm reached up to his throbbing forehead. He had clearly fallen asleep on his desk again. "Just... give me a minute."
"I'm not your familiar," the voice spoke again before Pascal realized that it was masculine. "And we don't have a minute."
The fog in Pascal's head quickly began to disperse. His eyes snapped open as he stood up straight. His vision was still blurry as it locked onto the figure of a disheveled Oriflamme Armiger.
The handsome young man stood just beside Pascal's desk in his cabin. Judging by the darkness through the window, the sun had yet to peak over the horizon.
"Your Grace, we have a problem," Robert began. "Major Erwan..."
Pascal tensed the moment he heard the name. Erwan was the commander of the Royal Lotharin Rangers Battalion, and -- according to Sylviane -- one of the few whose loyalty to the crown was undoubted. Because of this, Sylviane had requested for him to keep an eye on Edith-Estellise's activities.
Has the God-damned 'Saint' mutinied? The Landgrave stared at Robert with alarm.
"Major Erwan reported that one of the screening platoons he left behind was attacked earlier this morning by Cataliyan light cavalry."
Pascal blinked twice as he readjusted his thought process. To protect the army's retreat, the rangers left several detachments between eight to twelve kilopaces behind to screen the main force. It wasn't unusual for them to skirmish with Cataliyan advanced scouts, but...
He stared out the dark window. Not at this hour.
"By how many?"
"At least two hundred, before the Farspeak link cut," the armiger answered as the cabin door opened, admitting Sylviane and her maid Mari.
"I've sent orders to wake the army up," the Princess added, her hands still fixing her tiara and smoothing out her hair. "They must be raiding us."
Pascal pulled out his arcane pocketwatch. It was almost daybreak.
The Cataliyans should know that he reached Glywysing. With a town at his back and an early warning to alert them, there was no way a raid could inflict any significant damage. The only value of such an attack would be to disturb the army's rest, but when the soldiers were about to wake up anyway...
It just didn't make sense.
But if it wasn't a skirmish between scouts, and it wasn't a raid, then that left only one option -- an aggressive, all-out morning assault after a concealed overnight march.
The Caliphate certainly had the motive: to seek vengeance and restore morale after yesterday's disaster at Lysardh Point, plus the opportunity to strike while the Lotharin force remained divided.
He really should have expected this. Had he been in their shoes, he might have opted for the same gamble.
"No," Pascal's voice was solemn. "They moved up under the cover of darkness. This is a full attack."
"How---?" Sylviane looked back in surprise.
"I will explain later, but we need to assemble the entire army into battle formation, immediately!" Pascal stood up and strode towards the door.
There was no time to retreat. The Cataliyan force's combat elements were mostly mounted. If they shed their logistical units and traveled light through the woods, then they were most likely just twenty to thirty minutes out.
"And Sylv," Pascal stopped the Princess before she could follow her two armigers out. His concerned eyes met with his fiancée's pretty wisteria gaze.
This time, they truly had their backs to the wall. There was no river to cover a retreat. The army would stand its ground or be destroyed.
His fiancée's countenance softened with sentiment. This really could be their last private moment together.
Though Pascal's final statement was anything but romantic:
"You should give one more order to the men," his expression hardened. "Any officer or noble who retreats without orders today should be treated as a traitor. They are to be killed on sight and their family's rank and privileges stripped."
...Or, as Kaede once recounted during one of their military history discussions, there was an (in)famous 'Stalinist' battlecry that resulted in weapons being pointed at their own troops:
Not a step back!
----- * * * -----
Edith emerged from her tent as she finished tightening the straps to her breastplate.
The sun's halo had just peaked over the horizon, its rays dyeing the skies a dawning red. A low morning mist still enshrouded the camp, and most of its soldiers either asleep or just waking up. But as the Saint marched between tents, she found the Knights Hospitaller of the Steel Lily battalion already assembled in neat rows and waiting.
Despite being a paramilitary religious order and therefore not officially part of the army, the Steel Lily was one of the most elite units in the Lotharin order of battle. In every engagement, Edith relied on them to hold the most critical junction in her front line. But after weeks of ferocious fighting, the battalion had been reduced from over two hundred sisters, to just twenty-nine.
King Alistair had left Edith several royal armigers to help replenish her numbers. Yet in this most critical moment, Edith decided that she couldn't trust them. No, only her sword-sisters would watch her back in the coup today.
Leading the unit was Mother Abbess Anne, who greeted her foster daughter and commander with a knightly salute.
Edith nodded as she took a deep breath. This was truly the point of no return.
The two women paused as they heard a strange, unintelligible cry in the distance. Its direction coming from the center of the overall encampment.
"Must be one of the nobles," Anne puzzled. Then, with her annoyance rising: "I told the six of them to marshal their troops within their own encampments to minimize attention...!"
The blast of a distant trumpet interrupted Anne, with one prolonged note following another which called for an emergency assembly.
"Assemble f...!" the yelling grew closer.
"Someone must have warned them!" Anne glared into the morning mist before swiveling back to the Saint and Oriflamme. "We must act, now! While we still retain an element of surprise!"
But Edith stopped her with a raised hand.
Something was wrong.
Something was terribly wrong.
Edith wasn't sure why yet. But her intuition was screaming at her to stop.
What is the Holy Father trying to tell me?
Her gaze met the eyes of her phoenix Durandal, its majestic blue form perched atop her spaulder.
The trumpet calls spread as more platoon signalers woke and joined in.
"ASSEMBLE FOR BATTLE!"
This time, the distant, magically-amplified words rang loud and clear.
A column of two dozen noble armigers in half-plate emerged from the mist. Lead by the Duchess Jeanette, they hustled into Edith's encampment.
"Just what is going on!? What are you waiting for?"
Yet before anyone could reply, a runner sprinted in from the direction of the central camp.
"We're... about to be attacked!" The young signal officer halted before Edith, breathless. "Princess... requests for you to raise the cross!"
"Attacked!?" Anne demanded. "By the Caliphate? How!?"
"I don't know!" the officer huffed. "Her Highness simply... say it's an emergency! And that... and that..."
"A-any commander who fails to answer the call to arms and deserts the field is to be summarily executed as a traitor!"
"PREPARE FOR BATTLE!" more yells began to resound across the camp.
"SENIOR COMMANDERS TO THE COMMAND CABIN! ALL FORMATIONS PREPARE FOR COMBAT!"
"I still need to inform Duke Roland. Excuse me, Milady," the officer added before running off.
He clearly wasn't concerned about Saint Estelle's willingness to fight.
"This is a trick," the Duchess seethed with balled fists. "She knows!"
The Mother Abbess stared back, doubt and turmoil written across her face. Was this alert real, or a pretense? Were they truly under attack by infidels? Or was this just a ruse to round up the traitors?
Everything was rapidly spinning out of control.
A breeze seemed to pick up in the sparsely wooded army encampment, and the morning mist began to thin. It was not enough to see into the distance, but it was sufficient to spot a hazy, cerulean halo in the air -- the burning-blue figure of an Oriflamme.
Apart from Edith, there was only one other paladin in camp right now -- Her Highness, Princess Sylviane.
...And she was headed straight this way.
"Edith!" the Princess' voice resounded over the air. "Raise the cross! The infidels are coming!"
"This is our chance!" Duchess Jeanette hissed at the Saint from just a few steps away. "Seize command before she takes our heads and finds another reason to withdraw!
The Duchess ordered her armigers to deploy into combat formation as the cerulean halo drew closer. Her orders were immediately echoed by Mother Abbess Anne.
"Stand down!" Edith yelled back at her own knights, causing them to look back at a loss.
Even Anne stared back in confusion, her widening gaze shouting 'what are you doing?'.
The timing weighed heavily on Edith's mind. The attack, the rally, the orders given that tolerated no retreat...
This cannot be a coincidence, her thoughts raced as she faced the incoming Princess. Nothing happened by mere coincidence!
She had asked for a sign last night -- a sign from the Holy Father which had clearly been given.
"Edith!" Her Highness soon landed with two armigers in tow, no more than twenty steps away with her hands still empty and unarmed.
Sylviane then paused as she looked upon the assembled knights and armigers. Her alerted gaze narrowed as her hand reached for her necklace.
"Take her!" The Duchess pointed a steely finger. "Or we will all hang by nightfall!"
Edith had no doubt that the second half of the order was directed at her. But as twenty noble armigers charged forward with their shield and flails, the saint closed her eyes and reached one conclusion.
Thank you, Holy Father.
She felt the heat as the empathetic Durandal merged into her body. She felt the coursing of righteous authority, an absolute conviction in where her duty laid.
"IN THE NAME OF THE HOLY FATHER, YOU WILL STAND DOWN!"
The leading armiger had already swung his flail. But in a moment of distraction, his attack was easily deflected by the royal maid's shield reflex. The rest of the men half-halted, their turning eyes bewildered by the clashing orders.
Her Highness, however, did not hesitate. With no doubt of the perpetrator, she materialized her shield and meteor hammer from a cloud of cerulean sparkles that burst from her necklace.
"Elspeth!" Sylviane called her bodyguard as she pinned Duchess Jeanette with a death glare.
The petite royal armiger didn't even voice a reply. In a surge of magic, Elspeth leaped over the heads of the armored troops. She spun once in mid air and flung out a hook-dagger, its rope trailing behind as the killing edge shot straight for the face.
The Duchess' own shield was caught out of position and she barely stepped aside in time. The dagger's bladed hook drew a line of blood as it flew across her cheek. But as Elspeth's gloved fingers caught the rope and gave it a hard yank to her other side, the retracting steel pierced into Jeanette's cheeks and sheared off half of her face.
Bloodcurdling screams emerged from the noblewoman as she reached up to her mutilated expression. Yet even that lasted only seconds as Elspeth landed in a forward dash, and plunged another dagger straight into the side of Jeanette's throat.
With their liege killed before their eyes, the armigers turned their attention back to the Princess, their glares a mixture of turmoil, uncertainty, and outrage.
Behind her shield and that of the royal maid, Sylviane seemed to relax as she loosened her grip on the chains of her meteor hammer. She stood back straight, regal and confident, assured of her divine protection as she offered those present a chance for mercy.
"Do not make me spill another drop of Lotharin blood," she warned in a deathly calm voice. "Fight, today, not for me or that traitorous bitch, but for Rhin-Lotharingie and the Holy Father, for your home and for your families! Fight with courage, and I swear before the Lord: I will not hold any of you at blame."
A tense silence passed as the armigers remained still with weapons ready, some stealing peeks at others in confusion at what should be done now.
"ALL UNITS, PREPARE FOR BATTLE!"
Another round of calls resounded through the camp's background, and it was that which seemed to finally break the stalemate.
"We will hold you to your word then," the leader of the noble armigers growled back. His tone was still furious, but he nevertheless backed away before ordering his men: "Withdraw! We must prepare Her Grace's troops for battle!"
They left without a second of delay, leaving only Princess Sylviane, Lady Edith-Estellise, and their respective entourage still in the compartmentalized camp.
The Princess closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as though the worst was over. Her facade of composure cracked and fell apart. By the time her eyes reopened to meet Edith's, they were seething with disappointment and betrayal.
But instead of showing anxiety, the saint smiled a little and breathed a sigh of relief. It was refreshing to know that the Princess still trusted her to refrain from further violence before meeting their common foe. After all, as good as Elspeth and Mari were as armigers, neither of them stood a chance of holding back the Crusader Saint.
"Now you know."
For the first time in days, Edith felt a burden lift from her soul. There was no longer any plots to hide, any backstabs to scheme. She would face judgment, but with a clear conscience that she had done as the Holy Father commanded in the end.
"I had known, since before Gwilen," the Princess scorned. "But I'd never thought that you would go through with it."
"Neither did I."
Edith closed her eyes and shook her head.
"But even those blessed by the Church cannot always understand the mysterious ways of our Lord. I have erred in my arrogance, and now... my due penance must be paid."
Releasing Durandal from their union, Edith stepped forward and knelt down on both knees. Reaching down, she carefully drew the pristine Sword of Charity and presented it to her liege with both hands.
"Do with it as you will."
For a brief moment, the Princess stayed motionless, stunned. To a knight of the holy orders, their weapon was the symbol of their monastic life. Whatever else Sylviane had expected, a display of total submission was clearly not one of them.
Edith even bowed her head towards the ground, which would have exposed the back of her thin neck had it not been for her flowing blond hair. Given the circumstances, it would be perfectly reasonable for Sylviane to grab the sword and shove it down her spine, bestowing upon her a clean death.
Her foster mother's pleading words came from behind, follow by the sound of armored knees hitting ground.
"The fault lays with me, not her. If--"
"Mother, please," Edith interrupted with her head still bowed. "The choice was mine to make, the sin is mine to bear. I must be allowed to take responsibility before the eyes of our Lord."
She heard the whimper of a mother in reply, but Anne said no more.
The Princess reached out with her hand, settling it on top of the holy blade. Edith felt it as the weight in her palms shifted. Any second now, her sword and life would be taken out of her hands.
Then, it stopped.
The weight of dragon-forged steel soon pressed harder into her fingers, before the Princess' armored boots stepped back.
"Keep it," Sylviane declared. "You'll need it today."
The Saint and Oriflamme looked up. Was she really being given another chance?
The Princess' phoenix-blue gaze remained a whirlpool of emotions. She sighed with exasperation as anger and betrayal mixed with mercy and kindness. But behind them all laid a firm wall of resolve, reflecting a gentle light from an unyielding wall of steel.
"Edith," she began. "I know you're not loyal to me. You certainly don't respect me like the way you did my father. But... I also know that you would gladly die for the people of Rhin-Lotharingie, that you would never betray their interests and cause."
Grasping Edith's hand beneath her sword, Sylviane pulled the Saint back up onto her feet and tapped her armored shoulder.
"Fight well today, and we will never speak of this again."
It was the ultimate gesture of forgiveness, to wipe the floor clean as though it had never happened.
Edith bit her lips and nodded. A joyful relief flooded her thoughts, leaking even a few tears into her eyes as she grasped the Princess' hand.
Why did I ever doubt?
"And Edith," Sylviane added, "next time you believe the Holy Father has a problem with my decisions, I expect you to challenge me face-to-face, preferably in private so we can talk without some opportunist cutting in. No more of this behind-my-back business. It's not you, and it plays straight into those worthless nobles' hands."
"Yes..." Edith bowed and kissed the back of the Princess' hand. "Your Highness."
With one last respectful nod, the Princess turned and took off into the air. But before she could rush off to the central camp, Sylviane swiveled to shout back a final order:
"Don't forget the Cross!"
She didn't wait for a reply. Time was of the essence, and she flew off without another word.
Sheathing the Holy Sword once more, Edith closed her eyes to clear the water from them.
Her reply came in a whispered breath, her voice barely audible:
"Yes, Your Majesty."
She would have to thank the Lord for his guidance later. But for now, she still had another test to face, a battle to win.
----- * * * -----
Meanwhile in the command cabin, winning wasn't even on Pascal's mind.
No. Realistically speaking, the best he could hope for today was to stave off defeat. That would be a victory in its own right.
Certainly, he had the all the advantages of terrain. He had positioned the army camp just west of Glywysing, down the road towards the Ceredigion capital. With the town at their back and forest on both sides, the Caliphate would never manage their massed lancer charge.
Furthermore, after a night of forced marching, the enemy would enter the battlefield tired and hungry. The Lotharins might not have the leisure of a real breakfast, but at least they were near their supply wagons and could therefore pass out bread as the troops assembled into battle order.
The problem, however, lay in the comparison of forces.
By the scouts' estimates over the previous days, the Caliphate force chasing after them numbered fifteen thousand men. Even if they cast aside all logistical attachments, it would still leave a fighting force of ten thousand professional soldiers. Assuming a standard Cataliyan cavalry brigade's distribution, they would compose of one-quarter light cavalry, two-quarters heavy Ghulam cavalry, and one-quarter Asawira armored cavalry archers.
The Cataliyan Ghulams that formed the core of this force were trained from slaves in the art of war since they were boys. Although they performed best mounted, they were more than capable of fighting as heavy foot in a shield wall.
Meanwhile, the Lotharin army -- having broken off eleven hundred men for the Ambush at Lysardh Point -- was left with just four thousand troops. Logistics personnel accounted for thirty percent of their numbers, leaving only twenty-seven hundred properly trained soldiers.
They included all six hundred of King Alistair's remaining Galloglaich shock troops, plus another four hundred noble armiger heavy infantry. Five hundred were professional Rangers who patrolled the Lotharin border realms during peacetime, and the remaining one-thousand-two-hundred were militia longbowmen drawn from the hardy mountain tribes.
Lastly, there were up to three hundred militiamen from the town that Sylviane could muster. But even if they assembled in time, the Lotharins would still be outmatched five-to-one in terms of actual combat effectiveness.
If only we had more time to prepare the battlefield!
The door to the cabin opened again and again, but Pascal only scratched his head as his gaze remained glued to the map on the main table.
There was no way he could hold a conventional battle line against such a superior and mobile force. The Cataliyans could easily envelop both flanks before crushing his center. Instead, he would have to bend both wings backwards like a half-circle, to make it as difficult as possible for the enemy to outflank him.
The downside to this was that it created a minor 'bulge' at every point along the defensive line, which the enemy could pressure from three sides. To counter this, Pascal would have to rely on a Weichsel concept he had been introducing to the Lotharin army -- the combined-arms battlegroup.
These independent, composite formations would hold the center and inner wings. Each of them comprised of a core of highly disciplined noble armiger heavy infantry, supported by several times as many longbowmen and logistical troops. Meanwhile, the Galloglaich shock infantry would hold the outer wings where they would have more mobility to countercharge, while the Rangers will be placed near the ends to pick off flanking attempts.
Even then, he gritted his teeth as he placed two Galloglaich markers at the rear. We will need to maintain a reserve in case anyone circles behind us.
Everything demanded more from his precious pool of units and men.
Reaching down into his pocket, Pascal retrieved a runic pebble with a reluctant sigh.
His spell wasn't ready yet. He had all the pieces to achieve the desired chain reaction. But the output wasn't stable, and he hadn't been able to assert full control of the tremendous energy burst even in small scale tests. If he deployed the runestones he had inscribed in combat, they could become a double-edged sword that destroyed everything without regard, both friend and foe alike.
But what else can I do?
Those cutting words from Lady Anne drifted across his mind once more:
"Tell me, You Grace, what kind of man knows only to push others into harm's way?"
Clenching his fist, Pascal placed the pebble at the extreme left flank and swiveled it towards the enemy.
Attacking armies traditionally placed their strongest units on their right flank, which in turn would seek to overwhelm the defender's left wing. If he formed the Lotharin left wing in a straight line that bent back like a 'V', then he could -- hopefully -- fire off a semi-enfilade shot that would devastate the Cataliyan forces while minimizing casualties to allied troops.
He turned to the Princess' voice as she entered the command cabin. Two dozen nobles and officers had already assembled around the map table.
"Is the battle plan ready?"
"Yes," the young Landgrave declared in an assured voice, forcing aside all of his own worries and doubts.
He took out his baton and extended it into a pointing-stick.
"We will deploy in this formation, with both wings folded back to minimize the threat of flanking maneuvers. The front center will anchor itself in Glywysing, taking advantage of the town's buildings as fortifications. The right wing will arc back gradually, using the outlying structures as well as the nearby creek. Meanwhile, the left wing will form a straight line that pivots back from the center."
"Your Highness," Pascal turned towards Sylviane. "I hope you will do the honors of commanding the center and holding the town. Your presence would offer the best chance of inspiring the townsfolk to fight alongside us."
"Of course," the Princess nodded.
Her fiancé never mentioned the other reason, which is that as strange as it sounds, the center was actually the safest position along the entire line. Glywysing had a population of five thousand, and although many of them lived in outlying houses scattered among the surrounding orchards, the town center did feature a stockade wall to keep animals away from its granaries and wealthy residents. Its streets could also be blocked off to restrict movement, while every building and window would turn into a guard tower with arrow slits.
'Urban' combat always favored the defender, and this would be no exception.
"Duke Lionel," the young Landgrave addressed the veteran commander next. "I would like you to hold the central right wing, stretching from the town to along the creek."
"Sounds good to me," the Duke casually spoke.
"Lady Edith-Estellise," Pascal added just as the saint rushed into the room. "You will hold the extreme right flank. From there you can retain the initiative to countercharge any attacks on our right wing, as well as engage any Caliphate flanking attempts."
The Polar Cross Oriflamme briskly made her way to the table and looked it over.
"Understood," she spun around with a salute -- an overt display that made it clear to other conspirators just where their leader's loyalties stood.
"But if you station all three of us senior leaders on the center and right, then who will lead the left wing?" Lionel puzzled.
Reaching out with his hand, Pascal released his weapon from the right glove's extradimensional storage. His swordstaff manifested into existence from thin air, just as his fingers grasped the shaft and slammed it into the cabin floor.
Even the Princess looked surprised, and the Duke's following smile was only a hint derisive:
"I didn't know you could fight."
"I am fairly mediocre with a weapon, it is true," Pascal admitted. "But that is not why they call me the Runelord."
Realistically speaking, only the cadets at the academy called him that. But if there was ever an appropriate moment to brag, now was that time.
----- * * * -----
"Sir, Brigadier Ardashir's light cavalry reports having engaged a screen of Lotharin rangers!"
General Salim nodded. Although it was winter, the barren orchard trees and buildings scattered outside the town still made it impossible for him to survey the Lotharin deployment from the ground. The light mist only made this problem worse, obscuring the ground even from Hakim's attempt to scry the battlefield from three-hundred paces above.
We'll just have to get used to the low visibility, Salim thought.
After the loss of Brigadier Arslan at the Battle of Gwilen River, Ardashir's cavalry brigade had become his best formation. As such, they occupied the honored position on the Cataliyan right flank, advancing forward behind a light cavalry skirmish screen that probed the Lotharin lines.
"Order Ardashir to dismount his heavy lancers while the rest of our forces move into position," the General barked to his signal officers from atop his steed. "Pass word for any troops who haven't finished their breakfast to do so now."
The cooks had distributed two pieces of khubz round-bread with dried beans and nuts wrapped inside to every soldier before departure. The overnight march no doubt left them cold and unappetizing, but it was still better than fighting on an empty stomach.
Dismounting from his horse, Salim strode into a newly erected tent that his staff officers just expanded. They were still laying down a fresh map drawn with cartography magic when he leaned over it.
Thus far, contact reports from frontline units left much to be desired in terms of position. It was hardly surprising, given the commanders' lack of local geographical knowledge. But as Salim surveyed the map, he knew exactly how he would act had he been the opposing commander -- which was a good place to start.
"They know they're outnumbered, and their camp is on the other side of town. My bet is on them deploying in a concave formation with the town protecting their center and the creek on their right."
"I agree, Your Eminence," Hakim took his position across the table. "The town will be a hard nut to crack. We should begin with an assault on one wing to draw in their reserves, while simultaneously deploying cavalry further down both flanks."
"Put pressure on them while taking advantage of the morning mist," Salim met his partner's gaze and nodded in approval. "Their left wing will be the most exposed," his pointing hand circled the anticipated area on the map. "They will expect us to strike there. Why not give them the obvious?"
Hakim simply smirked.
"Tell Ardashir he has ten minutes to form his lines," the General ordered. "After that, I want his lancers to press a full assault on the infidel left. Simultaneously, he is to detach his Asawira cavalry archers to ride west towards the enemy's rear!"
Salim still had no idea who exactly was in command of the Lotharin forces now. The Caliphate's intelligence network had yet to recover since the last battle on the Avorican plains, nor had he been able to take a high-ranking prisoner who knew the politics inside the chain of command. It was even possible, since the Phantoms had been left behind in Roazhon, that the opposing leader was no longer the same as during the battle at Gwilen.
But as his gaze narrowed around the town labeled 'Glywysing', his teeth clenched before expelling a hot breath.
Let battle commence, his thoughts declared. And don't think I'm as easy as that foolhardy Admiral Kilic.
----- * * * -----
Pascal clenched his jaw shut as he looked down the line.
The fine mist still enshrouded everything beyond three hundred paces, and once more, he missed the presence of Kaede who always gave him an alternative viewing angle of the front lines.
After several minutes of skirmishing between Cataliyan light cavalry and Lotharin archers, the Caliphate right wing began a general advance. Their infantry marched through the forest in long lines behind disciplined walls of round shields. The Rangers did their best to break up the formations with arrow-imbued blasting spells. But without artillery support, the enemy's numerical superiority was proving too much to overcome.
Shouts from senior ranger commanders continued to echo across the line. It was a Lotharin tactic which involved dividing every group of longbows into two, with half of them shooting upwards in a high arc while the other half unleashed direct volleys. In this manner, all but the famed Imperial Testudo formation would fail to deflect half the attacks, as soldiers could either raise their shields overhead or protect their front, but not both.
Nevertheless, even without the Caliphate's Sandstorm Ignition Screen thanks to the forest, the lines of dismounted cavalry clad in green and yellow mail continued their unrelenting advance. The first two ranks shattered under a nonstop deluge of arrows. The next two had been cut down to mere dashes. But the Cataliyan juggernaut pressed on... and now, they were almost upon the Lotharin lines.
Now or never, Pascal bit down. More than two-thirds of the Lotharins wore leather, fur, or even padded armor. In a prolonged, close-quarters melee, they wouldn't stand a chance against their heavily armored foes.
"Cover me," he ordered the squad of claymore-wielding Galloglaichs that the Princess had hand-picked as bodyguards for him.
Pascal advanced three steps forward, out from the Lothain flank as though a maniac with a death wish. Swiveling due east on his heels, he faced the advancing infidel tide at an angle, just as he had planned.
His swordstaff vanished back into his storage gloves. Instead, both hands reached deep into prepared pockets to pull out fistfuls of gems and runestones.
He threw both types of rocks into the air, where they hovered in a menacing cloud around him.
"Activate: Vector Shift Screen!"
The first dozen runestones spun into a circle and activated, forming five layers of small but powerful barriers that sought to redirect all physical forces in one direction. They showed up in midair as a hemisphere of pitch, utter darkness, as not even the flow of light could exit its confines.
Meanwhile, around it gathered a ring of glowing gems, their compressed ether fueling the tiny ward's astronomical demands.
There were reasons why this 'invulnerability' magic was never adapted as a personal defense spell.
During his time in Nordkreuz, Pascal had consulted Kaede on just what were the most powerful energies in the universe as understood by her 'modern' world. His familiar had replied with four categories: electromagnetic, gravity, strong force, and weak force.
Electromagnetic was easy to grasp. All trained battlemages learned the fundamental physics of lightning to better imitate its armor-piercing killing power on the battlefield.
Gravity had been understood since the age of the dragonlords. It was recognized as powerful in its widespread perpetuity, but never useful as battle magic due to the difficulty in concentrating it.
'Weak force' was something that Kaede did not understand herself, evidence that she was no scholar of the physical sciences.
That left only 'strong force', which Kaede explained as 'the power binding atoms together, released as the self-sustaining atomic reaction that powered the sun'... and her world's doomsday weapons.
Their discussion left much to be desired, but it at least gave Pascal a hint to begin his research. Recovering in Nordkreuz at the time was the infamous and somewhat sociopathic Colonel Ulrik Rudel of the Dawn Sky Knights Phantom, the only spellcaster Pascal knew on Hyperion who focused on light-based offensive magic.
"Activate: Transmutation Matrix!"
Pascal had spent an entire afternoon for the conversation that followed, during which Ulrik passed one of his personal inventions -- a catalyst spell that could mimic the sun's power. But there was a catch: the ether required to initiate the spell was tremendous, yet the overall output efficiency was far lower than that of traditional elemental spells. Ulrik had already given up on this path of research when Pascal called.
In other words, it was a spell catalyst that lacked a cascading chain reaction. But thanks to Kaede's "high school physics", Pascal knew roughly what that missing elements were:
Extreme pressure and hydrogen fuel.
Now, he watched as the overlapping turquoise Transmutation screens formed normal and heavy hydrogen from airborne molecules. The final product was held in a vacuum funnel, sealed between layers of alchemy spells. A tiny, hollow ball formed at the tip of this cone as it pressed into the black hemisphere, which grew more spherical as its sides expanded to bite into the funnel.
"Protect His Grace! CHARGE!" Pascal heard the voice of his leading bodyguard.
The Cataliyan advance was almost upon him, and thrown spears had began to shatter his outermost Spellshields. However, the Galloglaich lieutenant realized what Pascal was doing and led not only his squad, but also two nearby platoons in a countercharge against overwhelming odds to buy time.
"Activate: Condensation Field!"
Every remaining runestone hovering above Pascal triggered, rearranging themselves to form a ball around the black spheroid and turquoise funnel. There, each of them pressed in with its own beam of compressive force, crushing the isolated 'ball' at the tip of the conic funnel as though millions of hammers beating in at once.
...And now, the finale.
Pascal still couldn't manage the catalyst spell through mnemonic casting. It was too complicated, too new, too much chance of mishaps. But thankfully, after dozens of attempts to graft its magic into stone, at least a few came out perfect.
Now, he pulled a fist-sized tablet from his pocket and turned it to the magical contraption floating in midair.
He had predefined the spell to target the 'containment core'. As trigger, all he had to do was read the inscribed name:
"Catalyst Phalanx - Solar Initiation."
Pascal couldn't see the nucleus of the reaction, but he knew that fires hotter than anything on this world sparked within the tiny 'containment core' at the end of the fuel funnel. Both the black spheroid and translucent Condensation Field sphere trembled, a sign of the pulverizing forces that sought to rupture layers upon layers of magical containment. All that remained was for his Vector Shift barriers to widen the gap, and the chain 'strong force' reaction would spread like wildfire, detonating in a blast of raw energy several thousand times more potent than even the best Fireball.
He never even finished his word when the containment core blew. The single barrier facing east was shattered in an instant, and the quintupled-layered black spheroid immediately cracked under pressure.
The overwhelming brunt of the explosion was still channeled eastwards -- a conic blast that swept outwards in the blink of an eye. Every man and tree within two hundred paces east was instantly disintegrated by the sun unleashed. Neither friend nor foe was spared in its wake, including most of the Galloglaichs who had charged forth to protect him.
Accompanying the directional fireball was an intense burst of light, flaying skin and blinding eyes as far as two kilopaces wide. Those within a thousand paces never even felt pain as the thermal pulse destroyed nerves on contact, leaving survivors aghast at the sight of insensate, burning flesh.
Following that came the destructive wave, a tide of flames amidst rolling thunder that consumed everything it touched. In the east, this apocalyptic current of raw, cataclysmic power swept on for nearly a kilopace. It left a forty-ish degree cone of barren, blackened earth, filled with the charred remains of men, trees, and empty cottages where a brigade once marched.
The Cataliyan troops weren't the only victims either...
Bursts of light and heat had rushed out from cracks in the magical containment, unleashing focused beams of energy that either disintegrated or torched anything that they neared. Over a dozen of these plowed into the Lotharin lines, killing and igniting men where they stood.
Pascal had prepared the best he could for such an eventuality, but his troops near the epicenter had neither the time nor the ether to spare. Countless charred remains surrounded his former position, their bones shattered and flesh burned beyond recognition. Black, imprinted shadows also dotted the ground around them, where leaking rays of fusion energy simply vaporized the soldiers in formation. Even what remained of the ground and atmosphere had been set alight, with smoke and dust still burning over lanes of a blackened wasteland.
It was as if Death himself had been summoned onto the battlefield.
And the caster himself?
A triple layer of boosted personal wards could not protect him from the power unleashed. Pascal's barriers endured for as long as they could, before a rupture threw him back like a rag doll -- his charred body later found mangled in the ditch surrounding the Lotharin encampment.
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