Kaede stared in awe at the dense patch of fog that engulfed the center of the stone circle. Even among the mist that clouded their surroundings, the shimmering haze stood out with its fractured, otherworldly light. Within it, space bent to distort the very fabric of reality itself, and one wagon after another emerged through it as they rolled onto the grassy knoll.
Her own journey through had been surreal, to say the least. It was as though gravity had began to shift the moment she had stepped into the fog, accelerating her into a twilight forest at breakneck speeds. There she had flown, her twists and turns guided beyond her control as countless ethereal trees rushed pass in blurs.
Then, before her queasy stomach could expel its contents, she had soared into another fog and decelerated into reality. In the span of but a few dozen seconds, her physical existence had leaped across the country, emerging among the foothills of Avorica near Rhin-Lotharingie's southwestern coast.
Had it not been the steady shout of "keep moving", the dazed Samaran who had materialized from the haze would have stopped there, dumbfounded, until the next person collided with her. Thankfully, the spectral mounts pulling the wagons through were mindless evocations of magic; they would follow their drivers' last order to keep going no matter how unnatural the experience became.
In the meantime, Kaede could sense Pascal's helpless concern as Sylviane's labored breaths grew increasingly erratic.
The Princess stood at the edge of the mist, casting white-blue embers adrift from just inside the stone ring. Her entire body surged with ether as she struggled to hold the portal open. She had been aided by Elspeth earlier, until the petite girl had passed out from ether exhaustion on the other side of the fog patch and had to be carried off by medics. Now, the task of maintaining an arcane bridge that spanned thousands of miles fell squarely upon Sylviane's thin shoulders.
"Is there a reason why only she and Elspeth can carry this burden?" Kaede asked Pascal over their private telepathy, trying to at least keep his thoughts busy while they waited.
He had explained Sylviane's Autumnborn heritage earlier, much to Kaede's surprise; then again, the Faekissed were humans with just a hint of ancient blood within, so it wasn't unusual for them to effortlessly blend into society.
"Well... according to Lotharin legends, the Faerie Lords never had a cohesive system for spellcasting like the Dragonlords' internalized array," Pascal answered without any change in his worried countenance. "Of course, humanity never learned magic from them, and after many generations even the Faekissed lost much of their lore."
"Then what did she use to open the path? You said the stone rings formed a transit system. Doesn't that mean she had to select where to start and stop?"
All Kaede saw when Sylviance first opened the 'doorway' from the other end was the Princess holding onto her tome of spells and concentrating in silence.
"One of the founding Oriflammes of Rhin-Lotharingie -- I believe her name was Gwendolyn -- created a spell that allowed one's conscious to interface with the Faerie Lords' artifacts," Pascal continued as he watched another wagon come through. "In fact, her mastery of Sidhe Pathways was instrumental to the Rhin-Lotharingie Coalition's victory over the Holy Imperium during their Independence War. However, it also proved to be a spell that only the Faekissed could use, so there must be some sort of magical marker in them that we have yet to identify."
"Doesn't that support the theory that the Fae used a more 'innate' magic that couldn't simply be taught?"
"Except 'innate magic' does not explain the complexity of the Faerie Lords' many creations. You see that armor Sylv wears?" Pascal noted the breastplate, spaulders, and other piecemeal plates that the Princess wore over leather patches on her sky-blue to violet battledress -- armor which carried the luster of steel except for a faint, translucent purple sheen.
"That is Fae Dendrite Crysteel: does not rust, does not shatter, light yet tougher than even high-carbon-steel, and conducts neither lightning nor heat. Best of all, it can self-repair by consuming nothing more than water and ether; that purple hue is because Sylv's natural ether color has dyed it over time. The Faerie Lords were allergic to the touch of ferrous metal, so they created an armoring material superior to any other that we still cannot duplicate today. Nothing but the most advanced arcane metallurgy could explain that!"
Kaede stared back, astonished. She had known that the Princess' armor was enchanted and of the highest quality, but even she had never expected it to be a relic of ancient, otherworldly beings. It was certainly difficult to refute legends and myths when such proof of their existence could be found scattered across the world.
"You said that the Fae were allergic to ferrous metal, then is the Princess...?"
"Most Faekissed can touch metal just fine, considering their overwhelming human heritage. Though unlike the rest of us, their wounds have trouble closing, especially those torn by iron and steel," Pascal's reply revealed yet another reason for his discomfort every time his fiancée braved combat.
Iron hemophilia, Kaede thought. Not exactly a blessing on a steely battlefield.
Seeing as red blood cells -- the oxygen carriers of the bloodstream -- all contained iron, Kaede had to wonder if the Faekissed nobility really did have 'blue blood'.
She still blushes red though.
It was then that the final rider emerged from the haze. Captain Ostrowska of the logistics company had waited until the column's end, her hand holding a Black Dragon banner that instantly signaled the end of the task force's transit.
"She is out!" Pascal cried the instant Ostrowska stepped clear. "Let it go!"
Heeding his call, Sylviane took a step back from the mist and severed her link to the magical portal. Then, as though her strings had been cut, she collapsed onto the grassy soil.
"Everyone made it through safe. You did marvelously," Pascal smiled encouragingly as he strode over to lend a supporting hand for her shoulders.
Within seconds, the shimmering haze lost its otherworldly sparkle. Meanwhile the light mist that had engulfed the entire hill began to fade away.
"Thanks... to Elspeth," Sylviane huffed out in between gasps of air. "She poured... all her ether in first... so I could conserve mine."
"Parzifal said she will recover in a few days," he reassured. "She just needs rest, and so do you."
Sylviane gave a light chuckle, as though voicing 'like that's going to happen'. Leaning back against his support, she turned towards Colonel von Mackensen who stood but ten paces away:
"Any report from the scouts?"
"No sign of hostiles yet, or any friendly concentrations," the man stared back with an imperturbable expression under his black bearskin hat. "However, there is a long column of refugees moving down the road, escorted by scattered squads of Avorican light cavalry on both flanks. The scouts who made contact could not understand the language; they needed a minute to get their linguistic spells active and attuned."
"Remind them that half the people in Avorica speak only Brython, not even Lotharin," Sylviane added. "The nobles should speak enough Lotharin and Imperial to get by though."
"If there are any nobles left among them," the Colonel replied, his voice oddly tinged with solemn reverence. "Captain Müller had trouble just finding an officer."
It took a second before Kaede could realize what he meant: there weren't many officers left because they had mostly been killed.
For valuable cavalry units to be delegated to mere civilian escort duty, these formations must have been depleted to mere skeletons of their former strengths. As she considered how exhausted such troops must be after weeks of skirmishing, the mist surrounding their hill had lifted enough to reveal the local 'road'.
Barely a kilopace away, Kaede's magnified sight could see the disheveled figures shambling across. In stark contrast to the proud military men and women who arrived through the faerie paths, these civilian refugees' clothing had worn down to dirty, tattered rags. Their feet were caked with mud from the rain-soaked trail. Their hair lay matted to begrimed cheeks that hadn't been washed in days. Yet with gaunt faces thinned by malnutrition and dulled expressions laden with fatigue, they marched on. Some still lead children or carried what few belongings they could bring with them, others barely dragging along their own two feet as they clung onto hope that they might still escape the invasion with their lives.
As her vision broadened, Kaede began to make out the scattered carts and wagons abandoned on the road. Many of them had simply fallen into a puddle of mud, before being discarded by owners who must have been too exhausted to pull them out. Next to some of them lay the ghastly remains of dead horses, their carcasses barely dragged off the road before they had been carved open for meat by starving refugees. Even now, she could see a desperate mother draining horse blood using a small cup, while her other hand held onto a pallid baby who was likely already dead.
"Welcome to Avorica," Sylviane muttered grimly from behind her, undoubtedly seeing this same vision of filth, misery, and death, even if her sight held the blessing of less clarity.
The unsung battles of war, Kaede bit down on her lips to quell her uneasy stomach. The inglorious reality that every belligerent's propaganda seeks to erase.
"Colonel! Your Highness!" A signal officer called back after receiving a new Farspeak message. "A lieutenant of the 7th Avorican Light Cavalry Battalion reports that Saint de Lyonesse is currently leading the army, deployed just eight kilopaces to the south in rearguard action!"
"Rearguard?" Sylviane stared back, puzzled. Then, as she exerted herself to stand back up, aided by Pascal's arm in support: "Rearguard to what? She's the commander of this entire front! If she has the army with her..."
As her gaze fell upon the column of refugees that stretched as far as the eye could see, her pupils began to widen with anguished disbelief.
"Damn that Edith!" the Princess fell to uncouth blasphemy as she gritted her teeth. "This is what happens when you send a saint to fight a war!"
As if on cue, the rumbling of explosions and spellfire that suddenly erupted in the south began to reach their ears. The battle had begun, and there was no doubt of its location as a blazing Trinitian Cross in bright cyan lit up the distant, cloudy skies.
The Polar Cross Oriflamme was renowned across Hyperion as the modern hero of crusading action. Her moniker came from the personalized illumination spell that inspired all from across the Trinitian realm -- a horizontal cross in the sky that always pointed south toward the Holy Lands. Idolized by the army and canonized by the Pope, she was among the few figures entrusted with one of the most powerful relics of the faith: one of the seven holy swords of virtue.
But in the pragmatic arts of statecraft and war, a woman 'infamous' for her piety and virtue... wasn't necessarily a good thing.
"Armigers!" the Princess called out as avian wings of blue-white flames sprouted from her back, barely missing Pascal's cheeks as he dodged out of the way.
"Sylv, do not be ridiculous!" he almost shouted. "You can barely stand! Fighting a battle in your condition is impossible!"
"It's not impossible! It's essential!" she retorted as Hauteclaire's magic carried her aloft. "I need that army in one piece! Colonel von Mackensen!"
"Yes, Your Highness!?" The stern aristocrat snapped his boots together in salute as a ferocious grin of approval lit up his face.
"Mount up and stay hidden at least a kilopace behind me. I don't want the Cataliyans to find out that Weichsel has entered the war unless we have to. But if I give you the attack signal, then charge in and unleash hell with everything you have!"
----- * * * -----
"SHOOT AT WILL!"
Edith-Estellise Élisabeth de Lyonesse yelled as she flourished her holy sword, calling upon her archers to fire independently at their best speed.
Her ambush was a partial success at best. The Lotharin army had been hidden among sparse woods augmented by illusory camouflage. But the Tauheed light cavalry screening both flanks had tread too close to the wards that kept her forces from magical detection. Edith had been forced to call the first volley early, leading her archers to shoot high arcs at long range against the crowded heavy cavalry columns still riding up the road.
But those Ghulams were disciplined and well-trained professionals. Their alertness remained high as rapid reaction wards sprung up. Ether Seeker counter-fire rushed out to interdict the incoming arcane arrows, disrupting infused Dispel spells that would clear the way for the rest of the barrage.
Nevertheless, the volume of fire from thousands proved too much for the leading battalions. The deluge of arrows poured through gaps torn among hastily erected wards. Magic infused into wooden shafts detonated as lightning and thunder ripped through neat ranks of armored cavalrymen. The explosions chained quicker than any drumroll, battering the invasion force in an cacophony of destructive violence.
Hundreds of Ghulams had been killed or wounded by the initial bombardment. Survivors were stunned senseless as they stumbled amidst corpses, coughing inside the cloud of static-charged dust. But behind them, tens of thousands more -- wide columns of steel and flesh that stretched on as far as the eye could see -- began to fan out into battle formation.
Waves upon waves of arrows soared out like an unending hailstorm. Edith could hear the magic-capable officers struggling to keep up with Legion Smiting spells, to channel that extra offensive punch into as many projectiles as they could. Meanwhile the Rangers in front of them directed the volleys with tracer arrows, blessed with antimagic to crash hostile wards and clear the way.
But as the scattered light cavalry converged on the Lotharin battle lines with armor-piercing javelins, they forced more and more Rangers to redirect their fire. These marksmen switched to normal arrows to drop the charging riders with pin-point accuracy. But every shot they sent against those mounted skirmishers represented more firepower that failed to focus down the main threat.
And here they come...
Edith took a deep breath as the first ranks of heavy cavalry formed. These professional troops braved the rain of steel with sheer courage and discipline as their armored black chargers began to accelerate.
The initial wave consisted of no less than four battalions, over a thousand mounted combat troops, arranged in two rows that stretched across a three-and-half kilopace front. Thousands of hooves hammered the ground in sync, shaking the very earth in tremors and quakes. With armor marked by the Tauheed faith's green and yellow, they swept forward like a looming tide of death.
Meanwhile above them, a wall of searing winds had began to form. Trampled dirt pulled into the air dried within seconds, exposing sand that swirled about like a desert storm. The barrier of tornado-force gales rose as high as fifty paces before the air itself seemed to ignite, glowing with a fiery hue as it rolled across the lush Avorican plains.
The oncoming assault no longer looked like a wave of mortal men, but an elemental force of nature -- a raw, unstoppable storm that sought to trample all into a desert wasteland.
The Cataliyan Ghulams had mastered their Sandstorm Ignition Screen to perfection. Stretching from caster to caster along the surging wavefront, they formed a barricade that would blow aside any arrow and trigger any spell that sought to shoot through. With the wall continuously refreshed against dispelling bursts, it formed a nigh-impenetrable barrier that protected the advancing army behind them.
This forced the Lotharin archers to destroy the first wave -- a narrow target only two ranks deep -- before they could reach the rest. Yet the average bowmen, forced to shoot over the front ranks of friendly troops, could only shower a general area with arrows. Hundreds of projectiles overshot and were blown aside by the sandstorm, while countless others fell short and struck nothing more than grassy dirt.
"ARMIGERS TO THE FORE! VOULGIERS SECOND!" Edith shouted as she altered her glowing cross above them from bright-cyan to a brilliant gold, signalizing the change in formation to the entire army.
Her Lotharin archers were hardy militiamen drawn from the forest villages and mountain clans, but they were lightly armored in leather and carried only the longbow and felling axe. Meanwhile, it was the 'urban militia' from Rhin-Lotharingie's towns and cities who had the wealth to deck themselves in chainmail, pavise shields, and the voulge.
Yet the problem was: the comforts of life in the city had made these people soft. Too often, Edith had watched as an urban militia company broke and routed the moment Cataliyan lancers plowed into them.
Unfortunately, the reliable Highlander infantry of Gleann Mòr had mostly been blocked in the north by the onset of winter. This meant she had to hold the front rank using only her Noble Armigers, feudal troops who answered the call to arms alongside knights and lords. After all, it was the Holy Father's will for the nobility to set an example for the masses, and where better to start than in the defense of the Trinitian Realm?
But the aristocracy was not plentiful. After weeks of running battles, she was running out of armigers to form even a single file row.
As Edith lead this porous screen of plated men-at-arms forward, urban militiamen filtered through the ranks of archers and Rangers to fill the space left behind. They leveled rows of polearms forward, presenting a wall of blades against the coming foes while officers blessed them with energy-dampening Legion Resistance in preparation against attack spells.
"SEEKERS AND OBSTRUCTION SPELLS! ON MY MARK!" the Saint and Oriflamme cried next.
Arrow after arrow had pierced the Cataliyan chainmail between those horses' armor plates. Antimagic blasts burned through projectile-deflecting Repulsion wards before explosive bodkin penetrators tore the steeds asunder and threw their riders to the ground. The continuous rain of death had broken the first heavy cavalry wave into pieces. But with their lives, they had bought time for the troops behind them to advance unmolested across several hundred paces of open field.
In the center, a second wave had already formed their own Sandstorm Ignition Screen as they trampled over the bodies of fallen brethren. On both flanks, companies of Asawira armored cavalry archers had charged forth, forming shooting circles as they peppered the Lotharin battle line.
"UNLEASH! ETHER SEEKER!" Edith hurled out a volley with her holy sword before plunging it into the earth. "EARTH REAVER!"
Her spellcraft sent a ripple of magical energy through the ground and towards the infidel cavalry. Dozens followed her example as they unleashed a multicolored tide of autonomous hunter-seeker spell-disruptors before piling on with geomancy magic. Meanwhile others crafted spells ranging from fast-growing briars to fields of transmuted hard-clay spikes.
Behind them, columns of militia grabbed onto nearby ropes and unearthed rows of staked fences hidden beneath camouflage. The soldiers quickly tied them to wooden pegs set into the ground, holding these stakes slanted towards the enemy as they re-grasped their polearms.
However the charging Cataliyan cavalry soon countered with their own magic. Dispel Bursts hurled out to neutralize the Ether Seeker wave before they crafted more specific counterspells in response: Tranquil Earth halted many Earth Reavers before they could churn the fields with eruptions of earth and rock; Sonic Blades sheared through pillars and stakes alike before smashing the bones of even warded Lotharin troops; Levitation Fields created lanes of repulsion forces over brambles and pits, as though translucent bridges built upon thin air.
With the second wave shifting their focus to contest over field control, the sandstorm barrier rapidly dissipated above them. This exposed the third wave to the deluge of arrows, but their own wall of desiccating winds blocked the way further.
Edith's orders echoed along the line as rows upon rows of infantry braced their polearms. Even the Noble Armigers kept their trusty maces and flails hanging off belts as they raised sharpened pikes thrice the height of man. Yet leading them from the center of the front line, the Crusader Saint herself only flourished a sleek arming sword in her hands.
The Sword of Charity glowed with a brilliant silver as it unleashed three more strands of white light. Curving across the sanctified air like ribbons, they shot out to intercept the agents of death.
An arrow true to its mark, a Sonic Blade about to shatter ribs, an Incinerate ray bound for a depleted mage. It didn't matter what form they came in, all whom sought the doom of her cherished were dissolved amidst the wind.
It was the weapon of perfect defense. Its radiance reached out to cover all within forty paces, shielding the companions whom the saint cherished.
But there was always a price to pay, and Edith grimaced as she felt dull pains slash across her right shoulder and back.
Holy Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name, her prayers came in Arcadian, drawing upon the strength of her faith and the glowing warmth of her merged phoenix Durandal.
In this crucial moment, she had to stand straight and confident. With all eyes upon her, weakness could not be tolerated.
From beside Edith came the tap of a crouching armiger. Green eyes questioned for authority as her gauntlets tightly grasped a metal rod that jutted out from the ground.
The saint smiled and nodded back. The girl retrained her gaze to the battlefield, determination ablaze in her sight.
The nonstop exchange of arrows and spellfire continued all along the line, its pace accelerating as two opposing fronts converged. The charging second wave was almost upon them, shedding horses and men even as those who remained trampled fallen comrades underfoot while leveling long lances tipped with glistening blades.
Then, with a burst of magic from the crouching girl, the whole world seemed to come apart.
...Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, upon all worlds as it is in Heaven.
A massive, continuous explosion rippled across the entire front. Men and beasts were thrown into the air by the dozens as a curtain of earth and smoke erupted towards the heavens, obscuring the rest of the Cataliyan tide. Shock waves plowed across the land on both sides, felling countless in their wake while shattering the eardrums of those unprepared.
The culprit had been a tunnel of mining powder, buried hardly half a pace beneath the surface. With the flash of a lightning spell channeled down a long, iron spike, the entire shaft detonated in a chain faster than any human perception of time.
The explosive trap had been sprung just as the forward arc of the third wave galloped over.
It had taken all the powder Edith's army could gather, and the direct casualties inflicted could not have numbered more than a few hundred at most. But the shock waves had sent much of the second and third Caliphate assaults sprawling onto the ground. Only a meager few horsemen of the second attack held fast onto their mounts. Outnumbered dozens to one, they stood no chance against the ranks of awaiting pikemen.
Even more priceless was the demoralizing shock impact dealt to the enemy by such sheer carnage, or the invaluable boost to her own troops' confidence as they watched an endless Cataliyan tide vanish behind a curtain of destruction. Combined with the noxious smokescreen it left behind, the explosion of the powder tunnel provided exactly the cover that Edith required.
...Give us this day the blessing of mana, and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
"RANGERS AND ARCHERS! FALL BACK TO RENDEZVOUS!"
As the exasperated 'tactician' Vivienne had reminded Edith repeatedly before the battle, the goal of this fight was not to win. Against such quantitative and qualitative odds, a prolonged battle of attrition was simply unwinnable.
Edith had pressed for this engagement purely to slow down the Cataliyan advance and force them to regroup. It would buy the time required for those refugee columns to reach the relative safety of the Avorican capital.
Then, just as thousands of rural militiamen and mountain rangers had began to withdraw, a fourth wave of Cataliyan heavy cavalry emerged from the wall of smoke. Its strength had doubled to four ranks and eight battalions, and among them rode individuals bearing the red striped armor of the Mubarizun -- elite duelists and champions of the Caliphate. Unfazed by the earth-shattering blast, the superbly disciplined Ghulams funneled across hundreds of translucent Levitation Field ramps. They cantered over the wide trench left by the powder explosion before fanning back out into long, solid lines.
Over three kilopaces of bladed lances leveled forward in unison, their armored chargers accelerating to a gallop across the final stretch of open ground. The earth trembled anew under the thunder of several thousand hooves as a rumbling chorus in the foreign tongue chanted their sacred battle cry:
'There is no deity but God for God is greater!'
Edith could feel the doubt sweeping through Lotharin lines as aspects of the battle plan began to backfire. To watch the infidels emerge unscathed through titanic thunder and hellish flames, to see them ride undaunted across an apocalyptic wasteland of death and carnage.
Surely... these people weren't men.
Even the mighty chargers seemed to take on a demonic light as their bulk loomed with the closing of distance.
"FOR RHIN-LOTHARINGIE! FOR OUR BRETHREN! KIN! AND HOLY FATHER!" Edith cried again as she raised her blade once more, its radiance shining the light of hope across friendly lines.
"HOLD STEADY! PIKES READY!" officers yelled all across the front.
Standing at the forefront with her steel kite shield ready, the saint and paladin braced against the coming tide.
...Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Compelled by training and magic, the Cataliyan steeds plowed straight into the awaiting wall of steel. Rows upon rows of lances and pikes interpenetrated as thousands of sharpened blades met armor and flesh. Countless mounts were impaled by spears and voulges; their neighing turned to agony as the crushing weight of their armored bulk crashed upon lines of men. Their riders spilled forth onto yet more ranks of metal, dumped into the melee as they began to hack through the forest of shafts with scimitars, spells, and in some cases -- their own impaled selves.
Within seconds, the carefully coordinated battle had degenerated into a chaotic bloodbath.
Amidst the frenzy of killing, Edith weaved between the masses of men. Her sword blurred into afterimages as she stabbed left and slashed right, dyeing her battledress and armor in an endless crimson of spurting blood. Parrying thrusts with her shield and dodging corpses with phoenix wings, the saint idolized by the army leaped and flew across the center of the battlefront. Her lithe build skated above the ground in an elegant dance as the flourishing blade plucked throats and pierced hearts in precise motion, bringing swift death upon her enemies with a minimum of suffering.
Within ten seconds, her sacred sword had downed a dozen foes. Within twenty, it had saved scores more as shedding light arced away to nullify blow after fatal blow.
But while Edith remained untouched, while her Polar Cross continued to illuminate the sky, a trail of blood ran through her lips as she bit down to endure the unstopping pain.
Before her eyes, the right wing -- which had been hit hardest by cavalry archers even before receiving the charge -- had began to collapse. The urban militiamen were already falling back as they watched the great falchions of Cataliyan elites cleave through their ranks.
Yet as Edith headed that way with her Oriflamme Armigers in tow, she could sense the wavering morale of those behind her on the left flank.
What choice did she have? They had to buy at least ten minutes -- time for the army to fall back through the sparse woods; time for her light troops to make their way to the dense cover among those foothills. Only there could they lay covering fire for the remainder of her forces from a position of strength.
However, time was the one blessing that the Holy Father would not give.
The battlefield had stretched too wide. Before Edith could reach them, the Duke of Atrebates' banner fell as his final armiger died with the pole still grasped in severed hands. Alongside it, any lingering resolve on the right wing collapsed as thousands of men tossed aside their weapons and fled for their lives.
But behind them, the Cataliyan armored cavalry archers -- which had showered them with arrows from the extreme right this entire time -- surged forward to massacre those who exposed their backs.
At that same moment, a fifth wave of Ghulam heavy cavalry burst forth from the black curtain of smoke. Meanwhile to her right, Edith could hear the screams of combat emerge from a new front.
Hidden behind the trees, her retreating archers had ran into yet more hostiles. It was most likely a flanking maneuver by the light cavalry that had vanished halfway into the fight. After all, only their vanguard had charged the Lotharin lines; where had the remainder gone?
Whether that was the case of not, one truth did stand clear as day: even her army's path of retreat had been cut.
For over a decade running, Edith had remained the undefeated champion of Rhin-Lotharingie. Even the Sworn Trio -- the Oriflamme brothers who fought in perfect unison -- could only bring the duel to a standstill. Yet regardless of her swordsmanship, she was but one person. It was impossible for her to shoulder every burden, to be everywhere at once.
Boxed in by heavy cavalry to the front, mounted archers on both flanks, and even fresh foes to her rear, Edith's Lotharin army had truly been trapped like a caged animal, just waiting to be butchered.
The Crusader Saint halted as she felt the warmth of tears rolling down her cheeks. The numbing pain that stretched across her bruised body was nothing compared to the disappointment of her failure, the desolation of defeat, and the desperation of a hopeless struggle as the Lord seemed to turn his eyes away.
What possible hope could a mere daughter of the Holy Father have as the darkness closed in from all around?
Edith stared towards the heavens as Durandal's hallowed song immersed her soul. She eyed the golden cross that continued to shed light across the devastated battlefield.
It represented everything that was pure and holy, everything that she struggled and fought for.
...Everything that she would gladly give her life to serve and protect, if that was indeed the Holy Father's will.
...For thine is the kingdom, for eternity and glory. Noblesse Oblige.
The Lord must be testing me, Edith inhaled deeply. And if not, then I shall meet my end with dignity!
"Form up," she ordered her concerned Armigers as she grasped the Sword of Charity with her last reserve of energy.
"We'll burn our way through that wave using everything we've got!"
With ether pouring into her flame wings, she kicked off from the ground and soared straight towards the charging row of lances. Behind her followed seven armigers in chevron formation, channeling Durandal's flames through phoenix feathers woven into their enchanted capes.
"Flamebreak -- Aurora Blade!"
White-blue fury poured out from Edith's unison form and ignited the very atmosphere she flew through. Leaving a trail of blazing cyan in her wake, the Polar Cross Oriflamme dove headfirst into the galloping lancers and smashed her shield into the covered face and armored torso of a captain.
The head-on collision had killed him before screams of agony could emerge. However, his mount and neighboring men were not so lucky as the sacred nimbus roasted them alive.
Using the pushback from the impact, Edith changed her trajectory in a sharp left turn. She then charged down the line in an enfilading assault, fronting with her shield as the flames of purification torched four rows of cavalryman.
The 'Flamebreak' was a phoenix's trump card, an outpouring of their blazing reserve which devoured all nearby foes in an unblockable, unquenchable, and irresistible fury of white-blue flames. Over the years Edith had learned to temper this release into a scything blade. Now, that beautiful and deadly stroke would dye the battlefield, an aurora of cyan inspired by the Lord's own magnificence in the polar realms.
Yet even as saint and paladin slashed across the converging lines, felling hundreds in her wake, it was the cries of her armigers that truly rekindled her hopes:
"Milady! Look! To the east!"
The light in the distant sky was unmistakable. A burning blue chevron just shades darker than her own flew in from the northeast, before diving straight into the sparse woods where her light troops fought desperately to clear a road to safety.
It was a sign that felt nothing short of divine.
The Holy Father had not abandoned them after all.
----- * * * -----
From the air, Sylviane could see the disaster unfold among sparse trees. The entire right wing of the Lotharin battlefront had collapsed and broken away. Thousands of men fled in panic and terror, obeying only the primal instinct of fear as they cast aside tools of self-defense and ran for their lives. Behind them rode at least three battalions of Asawira heavy cavalry archers, their arrows soaring out to pluck lives as easily as hunters who pounced upon packs of helpless prey.
Meanwhile, the remaining, now-dismounted Ghulams on the Lotharin right regrouped. Burdened by their heavy armor, they did not even attempt to give chase. Instead, these cavalry-turned-heavy-infantrymen swiveled their attention towards the center, marching forward to crush them from the flank.
Sylviane was hardly a master tactician. But even her trained eye instantly drew the conclusion: the Lotharin battlefront was now indefensible; there was no choice but for them to mount a fighting retreat.
The only alternative was rout... and annihilation.
But beneath the foliage of denser woods closer to her, she could see the green and yellow padding of Cataliyan light cavalrymen. These skirmishers must have ridden around the front lines before throwing themselves into melee to entangle the Lotharin withdrawal.
"Ready for charge!" Sylviane ordered her armigers. "We'll tear through those cavalry in the woods and cut open a path of retreat for our troops!"
"Your Highness, Lady Estelle is..."
Looking up towards the black smoke that clouded the main battlefield, Sylviane could see a cyan aurora blitz through ranks of charging cavalrymen. An entire assault seemed to unravel and collapse onto the ground in the wake of Edith's blazing flight.
The exhausted Princess could feel blood rushing into her temple as she eyed the 'Saint's Lily' kite shield that tipped the aurora stream.
Prowess, beauty, virtue, and piety -- Edith-Estellise was the so-called 'perfect lady', the paladin who summoned the greatest of the twelve phoenixes, the venerated saint idolized by army, country, and church alike.
...Yet she dooms thousands of her countrymen to a stand they could not possibly hope to win just to satisfy her own conscience! Sylviane fumed before retorting in annoyance:
"She can handle herself!"
Though before the Princess could turn away, she heard the telltale sounds of rotor wings. The first Cataliyan Aerogyro soon pierced the thick wall of smoke, their Ifrit pilots gladly inhaling the choking fumes. With spinning blades slanted backwards in autorotation glide, the leading machine of war was followed by squads, groups, an entire flight.
Limited in maneuverability, the Cataliyan Aerogyros were mostly deployed as aerial weapon platforms to bombard ground troops. Since there were no Lotharin air cavalry in sight to challenge the open skies, the Caliphate had sent forth their bombers heavily loaded with racks of Bangalore torpedo javelins.
Their mission was obvious: to harry the retreating troops and pound them senseless.
"Sir Robert, inform Colonel von Mackensen of incoming Cataliyan Aerogyros! I leave the task of ambushing them in his capable hands!"
Sylviane would be kidding herself if she thought she could offer better tactical instructions than the veteran commander. In the meantime, she did not waste another second before leading her armigers into a sharp dive, straight into the chaotic melee between Cataliyan skirmishers and friendly archers.
Sir Robert's reply came just as Sylviane soared past the treetops. Timing the release at her fingertips, she hurled out her meteor hammer like a flying mace. It smashed straight into the back of a light cavalryman and shattered his spinal column. With a sharp pull she then spun the weighted end to crush another infidel's chest, its chains kept short for better control in the wooded land.
"For the Oriflamme!" her armigers roared in her wake, their flails swinging to break bones and smash skulls.
Cataliyan light cavalry were high-mobility troops who wore little more than a rounded helmet and padded leather, with maybe a few pieces of brigandine. Chosen for their horsemanship rather than their melee skills, they didn't stand a chance against the heavily-armed Oriflamme Armigers.
But there were battalions of them mingled amongst the withdrawing troops. It would take time for Sylviane to help her countrymen clear the path of retreat -- time that equated to the lives of hundreds on the battlefield.
And after this I still have to cover HER withdrawal, the exhausted Princess seethed as her adrenaline and anger pulverized another rib cage. Damn that Edith!
----- * * * -----
With his eyes closed, Parzifal concentrated on reconnecting the nerves in his patient's arm. He had been impressed; the Ranger from Garona had retained enough composure to bring her own severed arm back as she withdrew from the battlefield. There were even rumors that she clobbered her assailant to death with it before departing... which of course was ludicrous.
Her arm had remained in good shape. It was her shortsword that drew blood in repayment.
Focusing on the surgery spell, Parzifal did his best to ignore the noise of battle. The makeshift hospital had been established near the edge of the 'safety zone', on the backside of a forested hill which the Rangers held with their lives. The location had been chosen to render the fastest possible aid for wounded soldiers withdrawing from the battlefield. But he only had to look up through the trees to see action unfold, as Weichsel Knights Phantom plunged into a formation of Cataliyan Aerogyros and tore them apart with lightning spells.
It was only on moments like these when he disliked his profession. Here he was, providing aid to complete strangers while his own fiancée risked life and limb beyond his help.
He could only pray that the Holy Father kept her safe in his stead.
"It's Lady Estelle!" Parzifal's concentration almost broke as he heard his patient exclaim, a proud voice that began with reverence and ended in apprehension.
"Stay still!" he berated even as cries of "Milady!" began to echo all around.
But the awe in their voices soon passed away to anxiety and desperation. Even the worst of patients, as grievously injured as they were, paid heed to the Oriflamme and saint.
"Healer! HEALER! I NEED A HEALER!" Parzifal heard the tearful cry.
"No, don't mind me and go help her, please!" his patient plead.
"Five seconds!" he held fast onto her arm. "I'm almost... DONE!"
Without pause, Parzifal spun around and stood as he reopened his eyes.
At the center of this medical camp, surrounded by anxious Lotharin troops like a mother by her children, was an unconscious woman carried by two armigers. Their faces were barely recognizable beneath the grime and gore; their clothes and armor were drenched in blood. But there was no doubt whom the unconscious individual was, from the burning cyan long hair to the blue-white wings that continued to shed embers into the air.
Two Lotharin healers had already rushed over. With the help of everyone else, they lowered Estelle to the ground on top of a clean stretcher. Wasting no time, the medics and armigers began to pull off her armor plates and tear away the bloody clothing.
What amazed Parzifal as he knelt down to help was that her armor lay entirely undamaged. He couldn't even spot a scratch on it. But as the cover peeled away to reveal bare, naked skin, he could see a body marked black and blue. It was as if she had been thoroughly beaten by a gang bearing wooden clubs, leaving her with severe internal bleeding that easily threatened her life.
"Lord have mercy..." he couldn't help but breath out. "Just how many hits did she take?"
"None! Those were hits she took for everyone else!" an armiger cried back.
Parzifal had barely noticed when Pascal appeared to his left. The Runelord had been with the Rangers on the hill's western face, setting up wards and defenses. Perhaps he mistook the light of the Oriflamme for the Princess before rushing back.
Just as he thought that, Sylviane herself landed with her armigers in tow. Bloodied by combat with several gashes across her cheeks and shoulders, the Princess breathed hard as she collapsed onto the nearest rock.
"Edith... just, WHAT THE HELL were you thinking!?"
Even exhaustion couldn't stop the royal fury as Sylviane lashed out before her breath could catch up.
"You are the front commander, not the town fool who can only see the bread laid before her eyes! Your obligations are to the entire Empire of Rhin-Lotharingie, not just a few pitiful peasants who happened to stand before you!"
Parzifal could see the armigers and medics bite down in concentration, suppressing their urges to retort while the princess raved on. As he looked up to send back a warning stare, it became clear to him that Sylviane couldn't possibly see the unconscious Estelle through all the bodies gathered around her.
"Pascal," the healer turned to interrupt as he suddenly remembered. "Do you have a Sanctuary rune set?"
"Deploy them then!" He exclaimed before appending a quick Telepathy cast: "and do something about that fiancée of yours!"
Realizing a few seconds late, Pascal hurriedly opened a tiny belt pouch to release twelve rune-engraved stones that could only have fit by magic. They flew out to form a large circle on the ground before activating, creating a hemispherical barrier of translucent, crystal-blue ether that encapsulated the triage group.
Inside, the air soon took on a turquoise hue as the curative magic began its work.
Sanctuary was the perfect example of an ancient spell that did not modernize well. It offered powerful regenerative boosts and had limited Ether Resistance bypass thanks to its area saturation. However, it also required ritual casting with a long setup time, including the creation of a ring from which the containment field formed. Combined with the glowing barrier that exposed its position on a battlefield, Sanctuary had been deemed 'obsolete' by Aura Magic healers. Yet as ritual spells could be inscribed into rune sets, it was the Runic Magic users who retained this time-proven spell.
Nevertheless, even such an obvious sign of desperate emergency care did not stop the Princess as she berated on:
"...This is the only army stopping the Caliphate from breaching our defenses in the west. Just what do you think would happen if you lost it all! Yet like an idiot you insist on gambling before your reinforcements could arrive, reinforcements that my father paid his life to send you!"
"Boost power to Regeneration spells," the senior Lotharin healer spoke in a suppressed tone. "She's lost too much blood. Avril, help me close up the internal bleeding."
By now, it hardly mattered to Parzifal whether the Princess was right or wrong. He was rapidly approaching the limits of his endurance and the same could be said for everyone else. Such verbal abuse was no way to treat a patient whose life hung by a thread, even if she were too unconscious to hear it.
"Sylv! Stop it!" he heard Pascal's voice try to bring sense to the raving girl, but the Runelord might as well been pouring oil onto a wildfire.
"Are you taking her side now too!? Just because she's..."
Parzifal's eyes bulged as he couldn't believe his ears. Even the Runelord should know the limits of his transgressions. Surely, knocking out a Royal Highness with enchantment spells went beyond illegal to outright taboo.
Yet it did the trick as the Princess' indignation stopped at once. With her own ether reserves depleted and her willpower scraping rock bottom, Sylviane offered almost no resistance against his hostile ether injection.
For seconds, nobody in the makeshift hospital could speak. The only voices not stunned to silence were the moans of the injured and the echoing cries of battle outside.
Then, a quiet, astonished voice came from Sir Robert:
"You're going to pay hell for that later."
Pascal however, replied with only a resigned sigh:
"She can blame me for it then... In fact," he raised his volume, "you all can, if it helps. Surely those of you who lost loved ones can understand -- the past few days have not been kind to her."
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