A pot of water sat over a low fire, the pale blue smoke curling up through a thin shaft drilled into the ceiling before being released to the west. That was set up so that someone approaching from the east would be less likely to realize the island was inhabited, though that didn’t matter now. In fact, Guardcaptain Vere had ordered a fire kept burning at all times on the signal platform, explaining that he both wanted to ensure that a signal got through to Merolate on the off-chance that anyone was still watching for it, and that the Pifechan vessel still grounded on the reefs knew that the men and women inside Outpost East were still alive.
“Trust me,” Anil insisted. “I worked with the camp cooks before joining the guards. I knew a woman who knew a man in another unit who knew another woman who knew a man who survived in the wilderness in the dead of winter by boiling his boots and eating the softened leather. It’ll work.”
Twiol sighed. “We have a very limited supply of freshwater, and I really don’t think that we should be wasting it on a harebrained experiment involving boiled boots. I can’t imagine that such a stew would be very sustaining, and personally, I’d rather starve to death than die of dehydration.” The small pot of water sitting on the fire was the result of an apparatus he had managed to create to transform steam back into water, letting them create freshwater from seawater. In that place, it was better than alchemy, and it made him rather proprietary of what happened with the water.
Sighing, Anil tugged her boots back on. “I say we ask the Guardcaptain.”
As if the guardcaptain needed to be bothered by such inane questions. “Fine, if that’s what you think is best. I’m going to go check on the tree.”
The tree was what they called the water-creating device, and while Twiol wished it had a more exciting name, he admitted it was appropriate. Built from cables from the giant crossbows, long-since corroded beyond usefulness for their original purpose, it could be set above a pot of boiling seawater. If it was cold enough – and they mostly had the opposite problem – the steam condensed on the cables and dripped down into additional vessels placed around the boiling one. The water that collected was fresh, not salty, and it was probably why they survived as long as they had.
Twiol had barely checked on the angles of the tree’s cables when a bell began clanging, and a runner dashed into the room, almost spilling an urn full of precious freshwater. “Guardcaptain’s summoned a meeting! Everyone to the battlements!” the man yelled. Twiol wondered how he had enough energy for that kind of action; none of them had eaten more than a bite of hardtack in two days.
Hopefully, though, a meeting with Guardcaptain Vere meant something was going to change. Twiol knew that Vere and Captain Pulot had been deep in conference, almost uninterrupted since Twiol had gotten the tree to work. It gave even Twiol, who thought the situation close to doomed, a modicum of hope that they would find their way off the island.
When Twiol reached the battlements, most of the other survivors were already crowding around, and the attention was, as always, on the Pifechan ship. There was almost constant motion down there, even at night; the vessel had some kind of magic that allowed it to provide its own moonbeams wherever it wanted them. Despite its magic, it had not yet been able to free itself from the reefs, and the enormous wheels, which Twiol thought were involved in its propulsion, remained still.
Before, those wheels were visibly damaged, but as Twiol stood on tiptoes and squinted, he thought they appeared intact, some surfaces gleaming and new in the late afternoon sunlight. That seemed a poor omen, and Twiol wondered if it had something to do with the Guardcaptain’s meeting.
“Here’s the situation.” Guardcaptain Vere provided no preamble, but everyone immediately quieted to hear his announcements. Captain Pulot stood next to him, maintaining the neutral expression that all officers used. “We think that the Pifechan ship has finished its repairs and may soon be able to free itself from the reef.”
That produced a murmur of concern. No one knew what the ship’s intentions might be, if they would attack the outpost, or if they would leave to join in the attack on Merolate. Both options worried everyone. “Now, it seems to me that we have a simple problem of arithmetic here, and while I prefer poetry, I can do some basic addition. We have two crews, and only one ship. So we’re going to go take the Pifechan vessel for our own.”
If his previous comment had generated a murmur, this declaration inspired a hubbub. Everyone started talking at once, and there was at least as much enthusiasm for the proposed attack as there were notes of concern. One voice rose above the rest with a question Twiol had been wondering. “How can we use their ship? We don’t know how its magic works.”
“Yeah,” another voice affirmed. “How many of us are going to have to die to fuel its Blood Magic?”
Instead of waiting for the clamor to fade, Vere snapped out into the fray, his trained voice cutting through the noise and bringing quiet. “When the first Pifechan vessel came to Merolate, Advisor Doil expressed to us that he did not believe that these people use magic. He said it’s just technology – in other words, not much different from the tree that Guardsman Twiol invented for us. If that’s the case, we’ll be able to figure out how it works. If we can’t, we can at least destroy the ship.”
If there had been more food, perhaps the reception to this idea would have been more enthusiastic. As it was, most of the guards there seemed not to have the energy to respond to Guardcaptain Vere’s plan, much less to mount an attack. Twiol wondered what Vere really thought of their chances for success.
There was not long to wait. What remained of the afternoon and the evening were spent in preparations: weapons were honed, the last of the food was consumed to give everyone as much strength as possible, and the rowboat was stained black with soot to be less visible in the night, along with their weapons and skin. Some of it would wash off in the water, but it would help a little. Improvised rafts were lashed together from storage crate panels, so that no one would have to swim the whole way unaided. Having enough hardtack to fill his stomach made Twiol more nervous; Guardcaptain Vere was wagering everything on this plan to seize the Pifechan vessel. They either succeeded, or they died.
When it was fully dark, Outpost East emptied. Enough fuel was left on the fire to keep it burning through most of the night, and everyone piled into the rowboat and the makeshift floats, and with oars and awkward paddling, the desperate flotilla crept its way across the shallow sea surrounding the island. Maybe because their repairs were done, the huge moonbeams on the Pifechan ship were dark, and only a few, smaller lights were visible. It was a silent night, and the water was warm, though the air was cold.
Somehow, they made it to the ship without being spotted, though there were sentries visible upon the deck high above them. From a distance, the magnitude of the ship had been less recognizable; now right next to it, Twiol could hardly fathom its enormity. It was more like treading water beside a metal wall than beside a ship, and he found himself wondering what manner of people they would find themselves fighting when they boarded. Periodically, there were rungs bolted into the hull to form ladders, and some of the outpost survivors began climbing these, carrying rope ladders so that more could follow.
Twiol was not in the first wave to ascend, so he could not see what happened on the deck, but he heard no cries of pain or alarm. When he felt a tug on rope he was holding, indicating the top had been affixed, he placed a knife in his teeth and began to climb. Though he was as stealthy as he could manage, he winced every time the thick knots bumped against the metal hull.
It was almost a relief when claxons blared out, shredding the night and louder than any noise Twiol had imagined. Men in brightly colored uniforms pointed hollow-shafted spears just as Twiol scrambled onto the deck, and cracks of miniature thunder issued from them, accompanied by noxious smoke and flashes of fire. A man next to Twiol spasmed and fell backwards over the side, tearing another man free and sending both of them crashing into the water: neither surfaced. Drawing his sword, Twiol joined his yell to that of his companions and rushed the line of Pifechans with their magic spears.
More cracks and smoke and fire, and more men with Twiol collapsed, but four of them reached the line of Pifechan soldiers as they were lifting up their spears and tried to push slim poles down their hollow shafts. Though there were a dozen Pifechan soldiers, the four Merolate guardsmen slaughtered them while receiving only a handful of minor wounds. Then they were off and moving, prowling the deck for more targets like a pack of roving, wild dogs.
The apparent victory did not last; the Pifechans set up chokepoints at the vault-like doorways that led below decks, and constantly exchanged their magic spears so that smoke and noise seemed almost constant. Momentum lost, the Merolate guardsmen sought out whatever shelter they could find.
Then Vere was there, crouching behind a thundercaster with a few other guards, but where the guards looked frightened, he looked more like a predator preparing to pounce. “Six of you, rush that entrance. Two by two, as fast as you can, on my signal.” He pointed to the six men he wanted. “Go!”
All six of them took off at once, sprinting as fast as they could. They formed a cohesive block less than five paces from the doorway they were targeting. Two fell, then another two, and then the remaining two were through the entrance, swords stabbing, using their momentum to crash through the Pifechans on the other side. “Follow!” Vere ordered, and Twiol leapt to obey with the others, and they washed into the bowels of the Pifechan ship.
For what seemed half the night, the battle raged on in the maze of tunnel-like corridors within the ship. Many of them were so narrow that two people could not walk abreast, giving ample chokepoints, and each chokepoint inflicted heavy losses on the guardsmen. The guardsmen did not know the layout, but the Pifechan soldiers seemed oddly disconcerted, and their resistance collapsed whenever they engaged directly, without a span in which to use their magic weapons. It was like they didn’t know how to use their spears for anything but magic.
There was still fighting just after midnight, but it was only a few, isolated pockets of resistance, and most of the ship had fallen to Merolate’s forces. Twiol watched Guardcaptain Vere standing on what appeared to be the ship’s bridge, and he saluted Captain Pulot. “Captain, I believe I owe you a ship. I think this ought to settle the debt.”
“No debt.” Captain Pulot returned the salute, and grinned. “But I’ll take the ship, anyway. Let’s see if we can’t figure out how this thing works.”
It was dawn when Twiol joined a group of guards penetrating to the deepest reaches of the ship, below the waterline and near the stern, where the massive wheels attached to the hull. It was hot down there, and tubes and wires festooned the passageways. Following the increasing heat, the search party came to a large door. Glancing at his companions, Twiol approached the door, and to his surprise it opened without resistance, though it appeared immensely heavy. There was dim light inside, and a woman in dirty, greasy clothes sitting against an unfamiliar console.
Standing up to face the invaders, the woman spoke in a language Twiol did not recognize. Then she held up her hands, and, painstakingly, said in a more comprehensible tongue: “I surrender.”
Though there was a sword in Doil’s hand, he had little expectation of using it. If this skirmish got to the point of him having to defend himself with that sword, things would have gone very, very wrong. Not that there was no chance of things going wrong – plenty had, the past few weeks – but Doil was confident in the intelligence he had gathered, and in his assessment of how the Pifechans fought. This would be their first offensive action since being driven from Merolate City.
When Kiluron first reported that the Pifechans seemed ill-prepared for melee combat, Doil was skeptical, but two incidents since abandoning the city convinced Doil there was substance to the reports. Enough, in fact, for him to advise that Admiral Ferl incorporate that tendency into their strategies. It would be put to the test when the Pifechan supply caravan reached the section of forest in which Doil and his team were hiding.
If the Pifechans were attempting any amount of stealth, it was imperceptible to Doil; even with his inexperience they seemed a loud, ignorant bunch, moving in a long caravan of neat wagons and marching blocks of men. They even beat on drums and blew upon instruments as they came. No scouts were visible, not even outriders. The men marched with their hollow spears on their shoulders and their left arms swinging synchronously with each other. A few mounted men also carried sabers that gleamed and glittered in the afternoon sunlight.
Their cadence and posture did not change as they entered the dark part of the forest. It was hard to move silently in a forest in autumn, but Doil’s team had been in place since early that morning. The trees were thick, and though their leaves had begun to fall, there was still plenty of room to hide behind fallen logs and within piles of leaves, or behind the large boulders that were part of why they had chosen this little hollow for their ambush. Doil smiled as he sighted the first rank of Pifechans moving along the road into the perimeter he had defined; even he had not expected the trap to happen quite so easily.
A quizzical look from Guardlieutenant Opil, and Doil nodded. Though he had planned the mission, it was Opil’s to execute. He made a hand sign to the next pair in the perimeter, indicating that it was time to attack. Then he drew his bow, sighted, and loosed.
Goose feathers sprouted from the throat of one of the few men on horseback; he tottered and fell. More arrows began flying from all sides, chewing into the columns of marching men. The scent of blood, and pain from arrow wounds, drove the horses wild, rearing and bucking and trying to escape. The wagons lurched. One of them tilted, overbalanced, and fell on its side. Wood splintered, and then the world exploded.
It was even more spectacular than Doil expected, to the point that for a moment he feared he had miscalculated. His intelligence informed him that this caravan had at least one wagon full of whatever substance powered the thundercasters, which was why he chose it for his target. Some of the guardsmen in his team were getting fire arrows ready with the intention of inciting what just happened. As flaming shards of wood and leather drifted to the ground around Doil, he marveled at how volatile a substance must have been in that wagon to cause it to explode just from falling.
Nearer the explosion, the heat was so intense that it caused the two wagons nearest to combust, and flames were now licking up their sides. The horses and men in the vicinity, those that weren’t burnt beyond recognition, were bloody, their skins shredded in a thousand places. Everywhere, the Pifechans were panicking, running for the shelter of the forest, and their officers, if that’s who the men on horseback were, could do nothing to corral them.
“Shall we pursue, Sir?” Opil asked.
For only a moment, Doil hesitated, then he nodded. “Split the team up into units of three. Have them try to take prisoners, but don’t let any escape. You and another stay here with me; I want to see what happens and survey the damage.”
“Yes Sir,” Opil agreed. He moved off to give the appropriate orders while Doil continued to watch the carnage. The officers gave up, and were fleeing as desperately as their men, casting nervous glances at the two surviving wagons and the flames slowly eating through their wooden sides. Doil was increasingly curious to see what would happen.
The wagons were from Merolate, taken from the city by the Pifechans after the evacuation. As Doil watched, a second one exploded in a violent fireball, blossoming like a second sun before fading to nothing but a painful afterimage on Doil’s eyes whenever he blinked. The third wagon did not explode, but it burned hot and long, longer than there should have been wood to fuel the flames. It was getting towards dark before Doil decided it was safe to inspect the site, and the final wagon was still burning.
Bending down to check that a corpse was truly dead, Opil held up a shard of something clear and sharp. “What do you think?” he asked.
Doil took it and sliced his finger open. Wincing, he dropped it into his other palm and sucked on his finger before finding a pair of gloves and holding the fragment up to the fading light. “I’d say it’s glass, but I’ve never heard of glass so thin and pure,” he mused. “Collect as much as you can, but be careful; the edges are sharp. I’d also like a sample of whatever is burning in that third wagon, if we can obtain one, and collect all of the spears you can.”
There wasn’t long before dark, and they didn’t dare stay too long; in previous skirmishes, the few that were victories for Merolate, the Pifechans sent a follow-up force to recapture and secure any of their technology that might have fallen into enemy hands. Doil wasn’t sure how much that had to do with their concerns about contaminating a ‘primitive culture,’ or how much it was a matter of keeping their warfighting advantages, but he did not want his small team to be exposed when they came to investigate this ambush. Yet the opportunity to learn more about Pifechan technology was worth the risk. He waited until it was fully dark before reluctantly ordering his team to leave.
Two days later, Doil and his team walked into the stockade. It was a three-quarters circle of wooden walls composed of full logs, each as thick as a man’s waist and sharpened to a point at the top. The open quarter fronted to a cave entrance, which led down into the extensive cavern networks of central and northern Merolate. When the guard at the gate recognized Doil and his team, he let them in and raised a cheer that was taken up by the other guards walking about the defenses. That was an odd sensation; Doil never imagined he’d be cheered by military men after returning from a battle. Granted, he had not really taken part in the battle, but he had been there, and it had been his plan.
Aside from guards on sentry duty or going about other tasks, there were few people in the stockade itself. Those who had evacuated Merolate in the desperate time just before the Pifechans pushed them out had either dispersed to stay with farmers or other landowners in the area or were allotted space in the caverns. It was fortunate that only a few decided to stay, because even for the guard force food and clothing was rapidly becoming an issue. At least the Blood Priests seemed self-contained, although their presence made everyone uncomfortable. Though the apparent success of Doil’s mission – only two of his team bore wounds, none had been killed, and they came bearing overt spoils – had raised morale, Doil could see the weariness and fear in the faces of the guards even as they cheered.
“Take the spears and the glass shards to the third secure storage chamber,” Doil instructed Guardlieutenant Opil. “I’ll take the two packages with me.”
“Yes Sir.” Guardlieutenant Opil handed the two packages to Doil, handling both of them as if they might explode at any moment, which was a very reasonable precaution. “We did good work out there, Sir, if you don’t mind my saying so.” With that, he turned and began directing the team to the storage chamber.
Prouder at the offhand comment of a guardsman than he probably should have been, Doil walked to the war chamber as smoothly as he could contrive. Though he had wanted to call the place an audience chamber, Kiluron had, probably rightfully, pointed out that they were at war, and they were only using the damp, uneven, dimly lit cave because they were at war. More, it was a war they were losing. Doil hoped that what he retrieved from the Pifechan supply caravan would help change that.
Reaching the war chamber, Doil hesitated at the entrance, not wanting to interrupt the conversation already taking place. Kiluron, Admiral Ferl, and Borivat were all bent over a makeshift map which their scouts kept as updated with Pifechan movements as they could. He had not been standing there long before Kiluron noticed him, and rather than continuing his conversation, he straightened. “Doil! You made it back. What do you have for us?”
If their positions had been reversed, Kiluron would surely have strode in without a word, plopped the packages down upon the flattened boulder that served as a table, and declared victory, but Doil did not have the Prime’s flare for the dramatic. “I’m not quite certain, yet,” he replied instead, “but I think we managed to obtain a sample of what powers the Pifechan ships, as well as the source of the thunder from the thundercasters. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to study the samples and determine some way to neutralize them.”
“The mission was a success, then?” Admiral Ferl asked.
“Yes Sir,” Doil answered, setting his packages down with some relief on the boulder. “No one was killed. Two guardsmen received superficial wounds that have already been treated. We destroyed the caravan and brought back half a dozen Pifechan hollow spears.” He left out the leather pouch full of glass shards; those were more of interest to him on an academic level than they were of military relevance.
“You got some of those magic spears?” Kiluron asked. “Do they work?”
Doil shook his head. “We’ve not yet determined how they work, my Lord. But they are certainly not magic.”
“Whatever.” Kiluron waved that away. “I want to see what you brought us.” He started to unwrap one of them, but Doil forestalled him.
“Please, my Lord, allow me,” he said, his voice strained. “They’re…very volatile.”
With a bemused expression, Kiluron backed up two paces, and Doil took his place. Taking a deep breath, Doil unwrapped with tedious care the first of the two packages, to reveal a slim, glass cylinder containing a translucent liquid with a faint, yellowish tinge. In the dim torchlight, the glass was so clear as to be barely visible.
“What is it?” Admiral Ferl asked, his voice hushed.
“We’re not sure yet.” Doil also kept his voice low; he had seen how sensitive the contents of the cylinder could be. “Whatever it is, it’s highly explosive, and sensitive to both heat and vibration. It is my hypothesis that this is the substance that causes the explosions we see from the thundercasters, as well as the thunderspears.”
Borivat’s curiosity was evident, but Admiral Ferl spoke again before he could. “But how does it kill from a distance? Is this tube launched somehow, like from a crossbow?”
“We’re not sure about that yet, either, but I don’t think it’s this vial that is launched.” Doil grimaced. “We’ll need to conduct further research, using the thunderspears we obtained, to determine that mechanism.”
“And the other thing?” Kiluron asked, forestalling further questions and discussion on the cylinder of explosive liquid. “What’s that?”
With slightly less caution, Doil unwrapped the second package. Inside was a leather pouch, which he tugged open to reveal a sample of the contents from the third wagon that had seemed to never stop burning. It had taken several guardsmen rotating in and out to reduce exposure to the heat, working with daggers affixed to long branches, to dig an unburnt sample from the center of the wagon. Despite the heat of the burning substance, the sample proved quite cool, and it sat, completely inert, upon the boulder, looking lumpish and dull compared to the crystalline mystery of the liquid in its glass vial. “This, however, is less of a mystery. Veins of this have been exposed in mining expeditions, and we know it’s highly flammable. Most of it is considered an inconvenience, but it’s used by our smiths to reach higher, steadier temperatures in their forges. This is coal, although it’s in a more refined form than I’ve ever heard of.”
This time, Borivat got his question out first. “Coal? What do you think they use that for? Are they forging new weapons here? Trying to build more metal ships?”
“Maybe.” Doil felt his confidence in his own hypothesis waver; he should have thought of those possibilities. Still, he pressed ahead. “My own guess is that they burn this to move their ships. I don’t know how, but it would explain the dark clouds that they create.”
Borivat frowned. “It seems more likely that they have forges aboard their ships, to create replacement parts. Our own ships have carpentry tools, after all, and this would seem an equivalence.”
“Yes, that might make more sense,” Doil admitted.
“Well, regardless, this is great,” Kiluron interrupted. “Our own scholars aren’t here, but maybe you can work with the Blood Priests to figure out what this stuff does. For now, Doil, I’d like to get your thoughts on a plan we’ve been discussing.”
Glad for the excuse to change the topic, Doil nodded, so Kiluron continued. “Admiral Ferl suggested that we should consider moving our setup here, and the wartime capitol of the Union, to Corbulate City.”
“It’s by far the most defensible city in the Union, especially after the loss of Merolate,” Admiral Ferl explained. “Since we seem to have superiority over the Pifechan land forces, we should be able to travel overland there without too much difficulty. We would also be able to directly secure wartime authority over the Corbulate military, which will be a valuable asset. Our own force of guards is inadequate to fight this war alone.”
“I concur with this plan,” Borivat said. “It will also reassure the province governors that the Union still stands, despite the fall of Merolate. If we do not establish a prominent new capitol, I fear that the authority of the Prime, and the stability of the Union, will be in jeopardy. The province governors may decide that they would be better off facing this threat on their own.”
Doil hesitated; it seemed unlikely that his contribution would be useful, with Borivat and Admiral Ferl already confident of the need to move, and the Prime on board with the plan. “I – that makes sense.”
Kiluron frowned. “But?” he prompted.
“I’m not convinced that Corbulate will be any more defensible than Merolate was.” Doil sighed. “I tend to think that the ability of the Pifechan fleet to command the sea, and bombard the city with thundercasters from there, makes all of our traditional defenses almost useless. I think a more definite strategy for the overall war should be a prerequisite to any move from this isolated but defensible position.”
“We can’t fight a war from here,” Admiral Ferl argued. “This is a position of safety, yes, but it’s a survival posture. If we’re going to push the Pifechans out of the Union, we will need to take and hold ground, especially along the coasts. Corbulate is the best option, especially since, according to the most recent reports, it has not yet fallen. The Pifechans seem more interested in consolidating their position in Merolate before deploying their fleet to attack a new target.”
Kiluron intervened again. “Doil, you make good points. We need to take steps to ensure that Corbulate won’t fall the way Merolate did. But I have decided that we need to make this move. We must fight this war, not hide from it. Make preparations to leave in three days.”
“Yes, my Lord.” Doil bowed, took up the packages he had brought, and hurried to ensure that everything was prepared for the move to Corbulate.
Torture, Vere knew, was a terribly unreliable method of obtaining information. Tortured individuals would supply whatever information they thought their torturers wanted to know, regardless of the truth of that information. He was pleased, therefore, that the Pifechan woman they had captured with the Pifechan ship seemed cooperative without such crude prompting, for all that she had so far shared very little information.
“No, not like that! What are you, a trazidrin?” Whatever the last word the woman, who called herself Evry, had said, it was not in Merolate’s language, although her command of the tongue was improving. As Vere watched, she smacked a sailor’s hands away from the console, and began pointing aggressively. “That one, then that one. And make sure this one is open, or else the whole frishing boat will explode!”
The two sailors working with her grumbled, but they followed Evry’s instructions. Behind them, a third sailor wielding a thick shovel dumped another load of black, lumpy material into the glowing maw of the furnace. It looked like the largest forge Vere had ever seen, but it seemed to have nothing to do with crafting anything. According to Evry, it had something to do with making the ship move.
At least they were now clear of the reef. Rather than waiting until Pulot’s sailors knew how to operate the Pifechan vessel, Vere had ordered them to clear the reef the old-fashioned way, with long poles, oars, and manpower. Within a day, they were again in open water, where the anchors, though larger and heavier than anything on a Merolate ship, worked on the same principles. They hadn’t even needed Evry’s help to figure out how to use the huge pulleys and cranks to lower them into the water.
“Good!” Evry turned her gaze to the enormous shafts that could be seen on the ceiling of the cavernous engine room. Vere followed suit, and as he watched the shafts began to move, rotating ponderously as an overwhelming noise of clanking and roaring filled the engine room.
Pushing himself off the wall, which had begun vibrating, Vere tapped Evry on the shoulder. “Is it supposed to make so much noise?” he shouted.
He received a sour, impatient look in return. “Yes,” was the monosyllabic reply.
“Not exactly a stealth ship,” Vere muttered to himself, as he turned from the engine room and made his way through the maze of corridors towards the deck. Then again, with the armament the ship carried, and its armored plating, the vessel had little need for stealth.
Guardsmen and sailors were training on the deck, but not with their usual weapons. So far, Evry had refused to share the secret to how the thundercasters or the hollow spears worked, but that hadn’t stopped Vere from assigning anyone who wasn’t occupied learning how to work the ship itself to practicing with the hollow spears. He had split them into two teams, and each switched off mimicking the tactics they had observed the Pifechans using in their failed defense of the stranded vessel. His hope was that the training would lead to better tactics to combat the hollow spears and their invisible projectiles.
His current tactics were hopelessly inadequate. The casualties his small force of survivors from Outpost East had suffered were atrocious: fully a third of his men had received life-threatening wounds, and a further ten percent had been killed outright. From the look of the wounds, he doubted that more than half of those wounded would recover. That left him with barely enough men to man a traditional vessel, although this Pifechan machine seemed less labor intensive than a sailing ship. When he next faced Pifechans, he intended to have a plan to mitigate the hollow spears. Casualties so high were unacceptable.
Captain Pulot saw him on the deck and intercepted him. “When do you think we’ll be ready to get underway? I saw the paddlewheels starting to turn.” That was a term they had learned from Evry.
Vere shrugged. “Looked like they were making good progress. Whether or not Evry says we’re ready, I don’t want us to sit here for more than another day. For one thing, we don’t have enough food or water. For another, we have no idea what might be happening in the Union right now, and we’ve secured a huge windfall of intelligence and weaponry.”
“Good.” Pulot grimaced. “I hate just sitting here. And I hate not knowing what’s going on with my own ship. I don’t know how these Pifechan captains share so much power with their engineers.”
Vere shrugged again. “I don’t think they think the way we think.”
“I guess.” Turning to the rail, Pulot glanced up at the thundercasters. “I hope we get these things to work. Are you sure that we can trust Evry? She’s clearly keeping things from us.”
“I don’t trust her at all,” Vere replied. “For the moment, she wants the same thing we do; to get this ship moving again. But she won’t be anywhere near the engine room or the weapons when we take this monster into battle against her people.”
Only two other Pifechans had surrendered to them, the others preferring to die fighting. Vere could respect them for that, although he did not understand it. It was like they thought that Vere and his men would treat them badly if they were taken prisoner. Vere had tried to talk with the other two prisoners, using such of their own language as he had learned from Evry, but they acted like he was some Blood Priest, going to use their blood for magic. “Well, I guess that’s good enough for me,” Pulot was saying. “I’m going to go take another look at the bridge, try to puzzle out some more of how it works. How I wish it weren’t enclosed…”
Nodding acknowledgement, Vere turned his own steps to the map room. Though it was surely out of date by now, there had been positions for all twelve ships in the Pifechan fleet, and plans for their movements. Six appeared to be stationed in Merolate’s bay. The others were stationed at various islands leading into the Aprina Basin. The intelligence windfall from the capture of the Pifechan vessel was far more than just their technologies. The maps also revealed that they knew little, if anything, about the larger context of the hemisphere. Each map was marked up into a grid, and at the center was a square outlined in red, labeled as ‘double zero.’ What that meant, Vere had not yet ascertained, but it nagged at him like a half-healed scab.
Sitting in a padded chair that was affixed to a series of rails around the table on which the map was posted, Vere could slide around the whole map in the center of the room, or over to the other maps on the walls or on the side tables. He spent the rest of the day staring at the map, trying to determine where the Pifechan fleet would attack next.
The next morning, Vere sought out Captain Pulot. “Corbulate. Set course for Corbulate,” he directed.
“Now?” Pulot asked. “The ship’s ready?”
“My ship is not ready!” Evry stomped onto the bridge, her face contorted like curly parsley. When she continued, she was slightly less astringent. “But it will run, and I do not think that your frishing sailors will break it too badly.”
Pulot tried to exchange a look with Vere, but Vere kept his own face expressionless. “Alright, fine.” Grabbing the wheel, Pulot glanced up at the sun, except that there was a ceiling in the way. He sighed. “Unbalanced metal monstrosity,” he muttered, running outside. A moment later he was back inside, and he spun the tiller to the heading he had plotted. “Let’s see what this Bloody thing can do,” he said, grabbing the large lever that controlled the speed at which the paddlewheels rotated and levering it into the first position.
Through one of the glass panels in the side of the bridge, Vere saw the paddlewheel a few moments later begin to turn, churning the water. Going to the other side, he saw that the other paddlewheel was turning at a different rate. Just like rowers keeping different rhythms, the Pifechan warship began to turn. When it was at the heading Pulot wanted, he turned the wheel back to center, and the paddlewheels equalized, setting the ship onto a straight course.
Brushing her guard aside, Evry stomped up beside Pulot. “You never respect this ship if you don’t know what it do,” she snapped. Before anyone could stop her, she seized the lever, and threw it into the sixth position, two thirds of the way to full power. “Jurgin speed,” she explained, though no one could understand the first word. The vibrations rumbling through the ship changed tone, settling out into a low hum, and the paddlewheels picked up speed. Soon, spray was flying up on either side of the prow, and there was a vivid wake stretching far behind them. Outpost East was already fading away into the distance.
Later that day, Evry found Vere standing at the prow, contemplating the horizon. She leaned against the rail beside him, while her guard stood a pace back. After a moment, Vere signaled that the guard could go, but he allowed the silence to stretch on. Like a line break in the perfect place, sometimes the blank space on a page communicated more than the words with which it so perfectly contrasted. He waited until Evry broke the silence.
“How did you guess?” she asked.
“Logical inference and veteran’s intuition,” Vere replied, knowing that she would not understand most of the words. That he answered was more important than what the answer was. He did not add that her question confirmed for him what had really been only a little better than a wild shot in the dark.
“Then there will be fighting.” Her voice was full of emotion, but too many for Vere to identify. He let her continue at her own pace. “You’ll use this ship against my people.”
Again, Vere did not bother to answer. He could tell when someone was working through something, and he needed to let Evry come to her own conclusions. “It’s strange, you know,” she continued. “Half my people think you’re savages who practice human sacrifice and need to be tamed. The other half thing you’ve seen too much of our technology and will destroy yourselves if we don’t save you.”
Not all of what she said was words Vere could understand, but he gleaned most of it, between his knowledge of her language and his guesses about her real meaning. There was a long silence before Evry spoke again. “From what I’ve seen, I don’t think either is true.” She grimaced, but seemed to come to a decision. “There is no way for you to win this war.”
“No?” Vere asked softly.
“No.” There was no doubt in Evry’s voice. “The fleet we’ve brought…it’s a fraction of the force we could bring to bear. Even if I decided to tell you everything I know about engineering, you’d never be able to match our infrastructure in time to provide a serious opposition. Before the year is out, you will lose this war, and this hemisphere will be Pifechan.”
“We know that,” Vere replied. “We might hope otherwise, but we know that. But it doesn’t change our decision to fight.” He hesitated, then added the bait. “Though we have one or two surprises in store for your forces.”
“I – I hope so.” Despite her words, Evry did not sound very hopeful. “There…there is only one way I can think of that you could win. It would not be a tactical victory, but it would get us out of your hemisphere, maybe for long enough that our next encounter might be on more equal footing.”
Vere had a guess, so he twitched the line a little, encouraging Evry. “Sounds like it would take a miracle.”
She looked at him sharply, and Vere worried he had been too on point, but then she barked a short laugh. “You’re not far off. There are…stories. Myths, really, but myths strong enough that they kept my people from crossing the double zero square for a millennium. History old enough to be little more than guesswork says that we sent voyages long ago to this hemisphere, and that they encountered horrors. Horrors, and something more. Something that does not withstand rigorous explanation and is dismissed in academic circles as superstition and religious nonsense.”
“You’re talking about magic,” Vere supplied.
Evry winced, as if it hurt to even say the word. “Yes. Magic. I haven’t seen any evidence of it, but a display of…of magic, I think that would be enough to reawaken the fear about crossing the double zero square that captain Tarshion’s expedition helped dispel. Combined with a few tactical victories, and I doubt the Headmaster would authorize continued expenditures on this hemisphere.”
Some of the pieces he had been missing began falling into place, and Vere nodded slowly. “Why are you telling me this?” he asked. “What do you hope to gain?”
Looking down, Evry was quiet for a long time before she replied. “I can’t stay here, with you people. I’m too much a product of my own land, my own times. But my people won’t take me back, either. I want a ship.”
Thinking of Evry leading expeditions to Nycheril or plying trade goods in a steam powered ship across the Aprina Basis, Vere smiled. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Corbulate prepared for war was an odd experience, mostly because it seemed little changed. Everyone still walked about as if they were military details, everyone still bore weapons and ensured their homes were fortresses, miniature reflections of the blocky, Corbulate castle. Though Kiluron acknowledged Doil’s concerns about a naval assault, there was such a solid, defensible, indestructible presence in Corbulate’s weight that made it seem the perfect place to stage a war. If only its governor were more accommodating.
“It is the clear and legal prerogative of the rightful Prime of Merolate to call upon the military forces of the disparate provinces in time of war,” Doil insisted, repeating in different words the same message he had been attempting to convey to Governor Parl since the survivors from Merolate had arrived in Corbulate. “You have personally affirmed this, in responding to the Prime’s summons to boost defense at the border.”
It wasn’t working, and the more Doil presented his legal arguments, the more convinced Kiluron was that Governor Parl would never listen to them. Something else was needed, an argument that would appeal to a man like Parl, but Kiluron wasn’t sure what that would be. “Is he the rightful Prime of Merolate?” Parl argued. “Merolate has fallen. You have no city, no capitol, and therefore no legitimacy. My responsibility is to the people of Corbulate, and obeying the edicts of a defeated Prime does not serve their interests.”
That wasn’t good, not least because it seemed, to Kiluron’s concepts of legality, like a reasonable argument. He was defeated, he had let foreigners seize the capitol of the Union, abandoned his capitol city with streets bloodstained and his tail tucked between his legs. Maybe Parl was right, and the Union was finished. Maybe Corbulate would be better off following Parl, a military man, and not jumping at the whims of a juvenile, upstart Prime.
“Merolate City has fallen,” Doil was saying, “not the Merolate Union. The Union still stands, its leadership and its structures are intact. The Prime sits before you, and you deny that the Union still exists? That you have an obligation to fulfill the oaths you took? That you owe allegiance to the Prime?”
He should have stayed in those caverns, and let himself rot until some Pifechan strike team found him. Kiluron shook himself, dismayed. No, that was the old Kiluron talking. He was still that Kiluron sometimes, especially inside, but he could no longer afford to let that Kiluron control him. Right now, he needed to be Prime Kiluron. Before Parl could begin his next retort, Kiluron spoke. “You think you can defend this city against the Pifechans?” he asked.
Both Doil and Parl looked at him. He had spoken softly, because he still wasn’t exactly sure what he was going to say, but it had captured the attention he needed. “Do you?” He stood up, kicking his chair aside, and gestured around at the castle walls. “You think you can hide behind your stone walls while the thundercasters roar outside?”
“Our walls have withstood sieges before,” Parl observed, but there was a different tone to his voice. He seemed to be listening in a way he had not been listening to Doil. Kiluron pressed ahead.
“Let’s say that you’re right, and your walls do hold. That you can keep all of your people safe in the keep. For how long?” he demanded. “How long will your people be able to eat, when the countryside is patrolled by men with thunderspears? When Dervate, Merolate, and the other provinces have fallen and become hostile neighbors controlled by these invaders? You have reserves, I know, so maybe a season. What then? Will you stay holed up here, in your cave, waiting for the end, while the Pifechans cruise the Aprina Basin with impunity and lay waste to all that we have built?”
Parl started to say something, but Kiluron interrupted him, striding forward to stand directly over the older man. “And what happens if they bring more ships? There might be as many as a dozen metal ships within striking distance at this very moment. When all of them converge on your city, with thundercasters that can create craters in stone in turn men into…into mist, do you really think your walls will hold them back?”
“We’ll find a way. War is in our blood,” Parl asserted, but he lacked his earlier conviction.
“And will you be proud, then, General Parl?” Kiluron demanded. “Will you be proud that you insisted on standing alone against this storm, spurning your allies in their time of need? Say you win, and keep Corbulate free of the Pifechans. Will you look out on your weary and broken people, as they are starving, and tell them how you broke your oaths so that they might live a few more days in misery, rather than fighting and dying with honor in the cause of a free and sovereign Union?” He paused, trying to still the trembling in his voice. “I say that Merolate is stronger together. I say that only together can we defeat this enemy. I say that this, this moment, is the test, the test to prove that the Union King Weflering began almost a hundred years ago will endure, not because of the strengths of the provinces, but because this Union is something greater than a bunch of provinces together. I say that together, we can win.” Feeling as if letting all of those words out in such a torrent had deflated him, Kiluron sank back into his chair, and slumped down. “What do you say?”
There was something weary about the way Parl rose to his feet, and the way he moved to stand before Kiluron. His expression gave nothing away as he drew his sword, and held it for a moment, just out of Kiluron’s vision. For a moment, Kiluron wondered if Parl was going to kill him.
Then the older man was kneeling before Kiluron and pressing the hilt of the sword into his hands. “I’m not usually one to fall for fiery oratory, any more than I am liable to be taken in by clever legal knots.” Parl glanced at Doil, and then turned back to Kiluron. “But I heard something important in your speech just now. You may be a Prime in exile, you may have lost your city, but you are not defeated.” They locked gazes, and Parl concluded. “We will fight this war together.”
Not bothering to keep the relief from his voice or expression, Kiluron stood up, and raised Parl with him, so that they stood facing each other, each with a hand grasping the hilt of Parl’s sword. “Together,” he affirmed. Then he took a deep breath. “Now, let’s get started.”
There was no way to know when, or from where, the next strike would come, so Kiluron allowed no time to be wasted. For three days, he drove himself, Parl, Doil, and Ferl to and over the brink of exhaustion. More than once, Kiluron discovered that he had drifted off for a moment while still moving, but he did not allow himself to rest. There was too much to do. Doil was partially right; the docks were a major vulnerability, but the solution was not to eliminate every opportunity for the Pifechan ships to land troops.
“We should encourage them to land troops,” Parl argued. “These thunderspears might be dangerous, but from what you and Ferl have told me, we can fight their soldiers. The situation was different in Merolate, when you were trying to conduct an evacuation, but here in Corbulate, everyone is prepared to fight, every building is a fortress of its own. Let us fight their soldiers, not their thundercasters.”
With this plan in mind, they turned the docks into a death trap, a perfect invitation for the Pifechan ships to land instead of subjecting the city to a prolonged bombardment. Every street in the city was turned into a maze of chokepoints and dead ends. The castle itself was stocked with as much food and supplies as it could hold; Parl made it very clear that there would be no abandoning Corbulate, and Kiluron was inclined to agree. If they could not hold the Pifechans there…it was better not to think about that.
By the end of the third day, Parl and Ferl were ready to collapse, but Kiluron kept pushing, and Doil kept up with him. Together, they visited every ambush point and spoke with every unit of guards and soldiers. The Merolate guardsmen were absorbed into Corbulate units, and someone had started a rumor about Kiluron’s promise to return just outside of Merolate; many of the soldiers had wrapped clothes with the Prime’s sigil around their arms or tucked them under their armor like good-luck charms.
“I feel like I’m about to fall over,” Doil groaned, as they walked out into the street and began to make their way back to the castle.
“Me too,” Kiluron agreed. “But I keep wondering if we’re ready, if we’ve done enough. I feel like if I just push myself a little longer…”
Stumbling awake, Doil yawned. “We also need to have our strength and energy. We’ve done what we could.”
“Alright,” Kiluron admitted, once he had finished his own enormous yawn, which quickly became two more. “Tell me what you’ve learned about the Pifechan technology we captured while we walk back to the castle, and then we can go to sleep.”
Doil took a deep breath of night air, as if it were a stimulant that would help his brain organize information. “Not very much, unfortunately. The glass cylinder fits inside the tube of a thunderspear. Pulling a lever on the side of the tube drives a metal spike that breaks the cylinder from behind and agitates the liquid sufficiently to cause it to explode. We set a thunderspear up and pointed it at an archery target, and used the one vial of liquid we were able to retrieve in the experiment, but no impact was discernible on the target. We assume that a similar principle underpins the thundercasters, but have no way to test the assumption. As for the suspected fuel, we are no closer to discerning how it is capable of moving a ship than we were before.”
They were nearly to the castle gates, and Kiluron pulled Doil aside. “Are we going to lose this battle, Doil?”
It was a long moment before Doil answered. “I don’t know, my Lord,” he admitted. “But if we do, I know that it won’t be a result of something that we failed to do.”
The words might have just been meant for reassurance, but if so, they had the desired effect. Kiluron nodded and put his hand on Doil’s shoulder. “Thanks, Doil. Come on. Let’s get inside before we fall asleep on the steps.”
A discordant clamor of bells woke Kiluron from a deep sleep around midmorning the following day. In a haze of sleep, he briefly thought he was back in Merolate, and that the bells were proclaiming a holiday. Then his surroundings came into focus, and the patterns of the tolling bells resolved in his ears. They were tolling for battle.
Feeling groggy and only a little less exhausted than when he went to bed, Kiluron threw on his armor and jogged to the castle battlements, where Parl and Ferl were already conversing. A cool, moist breeze was blowing, and visible coming into Corbulate’s harbor were two Pifechan ships, belching their noxious clouds. They paused at the entrance and added two peals of thunder to the clanging bells, and then plowed their way into the harbor.
“Only two?” Kiluron asked. “General Parl, I think they’re insulting you.”
Parl’s face was grim. “Then let us make sure they pay dearly for the gesture. I’ve ordered our forces to stand by. We will give them no response, weather their bombardment, and force them to face us in honest combat.”
Half a dozen rolls of thunder echoed out from the harbor below at that moment. Around the docks, buildings crumbled and collapsed as craters burst into existence, blocks of stone flying like ungainly birds before crashing down and causing more damage. Another round followed, filling the air with so much dust from the impacts that the ships could barely be seen. Only repeated flashes from the thundercasters announced their continued presence.
“We hold,” Parl growled.
“Will there even be a city left to fight over?” Doil asked. The bombardment continued unabated.
It felt like the thundercasters were roaring constantly for half a day by the time they finally ceased. In the ensuing audio void, the world seemed frozen, the dust suspended in the air where it had not already settled on cloaks and surfaces. Plants and buildings and clothing alike appeared dismal and grey, and even the brilliant blue of the sky seemed faded, washed out like some ancient painting left for too long in the sunlight. In reality, the sun had barely moved.
“Now what?” Admiral Ferl mused aloud. Kiluron wished he knew the answer.
They waited until noon with bated breath and a sinking sense of dread, while the dust fell like fine snow and nothing happened. The seabirds even returned to their roosts along the shore, convinced that whatever unnatural cataclysm had just disturbed their routines was over. At noon, the thundercasters resumed their chorus with as much vehemence as before, as if they had never stopped. Now, the rounds began to make their way deeper and higher into the city, a few even exploding near the castle walls.
Admiral Ferl looked worried. “They should have landed troops by now. Taken the bait.”
Doil frowned. “What if they don’t? What if they can just level the city from the sea with their thundercasters? We have no firm idea of the limits of these weapons. But what I don’t understand is why…”
An explosion cratered the wall almost directly below them, but the wall held. “We need to strike back, force them to come off of their ships and get their hands dirty,” Kiluron insisted. “General Parl, any ideas?”
Parl grimaced. “We have no way to get to the ships. All of our watercraft were evacuated and are out of reach, or destroyed in the initial bombardment.”
Another explosion blew the top off of one of the castle’s hulking towers, the thundercaster weapon making the stubborn, brutish construction seem like a mere sandcastle, and everyone on the battlements ducked. “Then I guess we wait them out,” Kiluron said.
“And hope that we’re not destroyed in the interim,” Doil added.
A scout ran up when the bombardment paused again. She looked pale and shaken, and dust was a finger thick on her uniform. “There’s a third Pifechan ship coming into the harbor.”
“Were two not pulverizing us fast enough?” Admiral Ferl asked, as Parl dismissed the scout. No one answered him.
Squinting through the settling clouds of dust, Kiluron watched the third ship growing larger as it approached. Its thundercasters were trained on the city, and the huge wheel apparatuses on the sides appeared to have been recently repaired, but it was too far away to make out any further details. The new ship slid between the two extant vessels, and Kiluron waited for the boom of the thundercasters.
It came, but not at the city. As the new ship came to a halt, its thundercasters rotated to either side, and spat their fire at the other Pifechan ships.
“Balance!” Kiluron exclaimed. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”
There was a dark pleasure in Parl’s voice. “It seems that there is a traitor in their midst.”
For all the destruction the thundercasters had wrought on Corbulate’s squat, stone buildings, it paled before their effects on the Pifechan vessels. The metal tore like paper, and there was nowhere for the ships to escape the barrage. Their wheels began to churn, trying to pull them out of the harbor, but the third ship’s thundercasters targeted the wheels, shattering them, and choking off the clouds belching from the protruding cylinders. Nor did the two Pifechan vessels respond in kind, though Kiluron did not understand why.
Four more rolls of thunder cracked out from the traitorous vessel, while the other two ships were listing in the water. Fire could be seen flickering through thick, noxious black smoke, and then both ships exploded, almost synchronously. One moment there were two burning ships, and the next the ships were gone, replaced by ballooning fireballs. In another moment, those faded, and pieces of hull and equipment began raining down on the harbor and the city. Everything fell silent.
When the sea settled, the traitorous Pifechan vessel stalked forward towards the docks, and made preparations to lower its gangplank.
“Well,” Kiluron said, not sure what to say, “shall we go meet our rescuers?”
No one else seemed to know what to say, either. Too little was known. Perhaps a Pifechan captain decided to defect to Merolate, or Merolate just became a new front in a war between rival Pifechan factions. Together, the four made their way down to the docks, gathering forces as they went. At the docks, they formed a perimeter, a loose semicircle around the gangplank, down which no one had yet come, although there was a shadowy figure standing at the top. No soldiers were visible on the deck, which struck Kiluron as odd. Taking a deep breath and hoping that he wasn’t about to turn himself into a target, he stepped forward.
“I am Prime Kiluron of the Merolate Union,” he declared. “You have our gratitude for your timely arrival, but I must admit to some confusion as to your motives. Perhaps we can make your acquaintance and discuss this matter in more detail…” he trailed off as the figure strode down the gangplank and out of the shadows, resolving into a familiar form. “Vere?!”
Guardcaptain Vere, looking a little gaunter, a little unshaven, and a little more tanned, saluted. “Captain Guardcaptain Vere reporting as ordered, Sir.”
An air of unreality hung over Corbulate’s war room, where Vere was debriefing, or, as Doil thought of it, explaining how he came to be in possession of a Pifechan ship, in a position to strike the first decisive blow against the invaders. Parsing out the guardcaptain’s flare for the dramatic, Doil was more interested in learning about the Pifechan deserter than the gory details of scratching an existence for dozens of men at an outpost designed for three. Still, he could not argue with the man’s timing, which had been both impeccable and suitably dramatic.
When the tale was finally finished Kiluron turned, not to Vere or Ferl, but to Doil. “So, what do you think? Now that we have a ship, can you work with this Evry to figure out how to fight Pifechan technology?”
Surprised, Doil considered. “I…I don’t know, my lord. Eventually, I suppose, but it’s one thing to use a resource, and another to know how to recreate it.” He sighed and wished he could give a more optimistic answer. “It’s unlikely that I would be able to recreate their technologies in time to make a difference in the war effort.”
“Agreed.” Parl crossed his arms. “And one ship will not win us a war, however decisively it may have won us a battle. Our strategy should be based on our existing capabilities, tailored to the unique weapons of our enemies, not on replicating technologies we don’t even understand.”
Admiral Ferl leaned forward. “Guardcaptain, you mentioned that you were working on tactics to employ against the Pifechan thunderspears?”
Vere nodded. “Evry calls them ‘muskets,’ though to me it sounds like some kind of small, furry animal…”
“I’m going to keep saying ‘thunderspears,’” Kiluron inserted.
“…Anyway, yes, I had my men shipside drilling techniques to overcome the range advantage the Pifechans hold,” Vere continued. “In close quarters combat, our forces possess a decisive advantage. Getting to the point of closing, however, leads to massive Merolate casualties. I suggested shields and mobile barriers, which we have used to significant effect against barbarian archers in the Unclaimed Territories, but Evry informed me that except at extreme ranges, the thunderspear projectiles would be able to penetrate such implements.”
“Well, don’t keep us waiting,” Parl grumbled. “It’s obvious you found a solution.”
Vere was all mock-innocence. “It is? I must be losing my touch. Yes, I’ve concluded that in any direct conflict, we will eventually lose. However, if we can choose the battlefield and strike from a series of ambuscades, prepared ahead of time, we will be able to mitigate their advantages.”
After a moment of thought, General Parl nodded. “Yes, I think I see what you mean. That should be possible, especially since we know the terrain, and these Pifechans do not.”
“Then we should strike hard,” Kiluron asserted. “And fast. Go on the offensive, show that this battle wasn’t just a matter of luck, that we can defeat them.”
Admiral Ferl nodded. “I agree in principle, although there are practical matters of implementation that should be considered. And I worry about our ability to carry this war to a successful conclusion. What if the Pifechans send more ships, or have technology that we haven’t seen yet?”
For most of the conversation, Doil was only vaguely following; something Vere mentioned as an offhand comment in the course of his storytelling snagged in his mind. He kept turning it over and ruminating upon it, wondering what to make of it. Somehow, the whole Pifechan problem seemed to rest on the answer to the question of why it had taken them so long to come to Merolate in the first place. The double zero square this Evry referred to was significant. Miracles, horrors, things that rational inquiry could not explain…it all led up to, to…
“Balance!” Doil exclaimed, and everyone turned to look at him.
“Yes?” Kiluron prompted.
Doil flushed. “What? Oh. No, I wasn’t cursing. That’s the answer. Balance. It, it explains everything.”
Admiral Ferl and General Parl looked skeptical. Vere looked pleased, which made Doil wonder if he had been holding out on them about something he had already discussed or discerned with Evry’s information. Only Kiluron looked interested in listening. “You’re going to have to give me a little more than that. I’m not as smart as you are.”
Flushing more deeply, Doil bobbed his head. “I’m still working on parts of it, but the miniature epiphany I just had was this: the Pifechans don’t know Blood Magic.”
“Neither do we,” Admiral Ferl observed.
“Yes, but we know of it,” Doil explained. “I don’t think Blood Magic exists at all on their side of the world. Balance, everything to do with it…it’s just not a thing there.”
“And that’s significant?” Kiluron asked.
Doil nodded again. “Yes. Remember what we learned from their first visit here, that they were very uncomfortable crossing what they called the double zero square. Something to do with ancient myths and legends. But I think those legends might be true. I think they have something to do with Blood Magic. Maybe, a long time ago, ships from Pifecha did sail to our hemisphere, maybe even made landfall in Lufilna. They encountered Blood Magic, and it terrified them. Terrified them to such an extent that their culture was ingrained with a fear of our hemisphere for centuries.”
“So what you’re saying…” Kiluron began.
“…Is that a massive display of Blood Magic, accompanied by some tactical victories like the one that I just arranged for you here in Corbulate, would probably drive the Pifechans from this hemisphere for generations,” Vere finished. Doil gave him a sour look, to which Vere had the decency to appear abashed. “In my defense, you put together a lot more pieces of the puzzle than I did,” he said. “I just made an intuitive leap.”
General Parl grunted. “Well, thanks for the history lesson. But the Union does not accept the use of Blood Magic, so this really doesn’t help us.”
“I have to agree with General Parl,” Admiral Ferl said. “It was one thing when Blood Magic was used against the Guardian; that was Blood Magic solving a Blood Magic problem. It would be something different to explicitly endorse and arrange the use of obscene arts against a non-magic entity, even an enemy. We should focus on more practical solutions.”
Kiluron hesitated, and Doil wished he could help. There was no easy answer, especially since there was a good chance that Parl would take Corbulate out of the war if Kiluron endorsed the use of Blood Magic. “I – alright. We have a good base of operations here, and I doubt they’ll try to attack Corbulate again right away. Let’s find some good points to entrap their forces within striking distance of this city. With a few victories, we can turn our attention to retaking Merolate.”
There was little else for Doil to contribute; he was no tactician. The history kept rattling around in his head and distracting him from the discussion, and he was still cogitating as the meeting adjourned and everyone filed out of the war room. As Doil went to seek out Corbulate’s sparse library, he heard Kiluron call for him to wait.
“Mind if I walk with you?” he asked.
“No, my Lord…” Doil replied. “Though I somehow doubt you want to go to the library right now.”
Kiluron acquired an uncomfortable look, but he kept walking along beside Doil. When they were well away from the castle, he pulled Doil aside. “You’re right, I don’t really want to go to the library, but I have something important I need to talk to you about, and it’s important that nobody else know about it.”
Doil frowned; subterfuge was not his strength, as Kiluron well knew. “Whatever I can do to help, my Lord.”
“Good, good.” Kiluron glanced around, appearing distracted. “I have a mission for you. I’d rather have you here with me, but there’s no one else I can trust with this.”
Doil wished that he could tell the Prime to get to the point, but he just nodded encouragingly.
“High Priest Yorin and the other Blood Priests we rescued are still at the caves where we were hiding before we left for Corbulate, to the best of my knowledge. I need you to go and contact them, and convince them to fight a battle for Merolate City. But it has to seem like it was their own idea, that the Union government had nothing to do with it.”
“And you think that the Advisor to the Prime disappearing mysteriously is going to accomplish that without raising any suspicion?” Perhaps Kiluron was no better at subterfuge than Doil was.
Kiluron hesitated. “Uh…I hadn’t thought of that. Well, I’ll think of something. Maybe you got abducted on your way to the library or something. I mean, libraries are dangerous places and attract all kinds of strange folks.”
“I think you should work on that,” Doil said. He took a deep breath. “But if you think this is important, then I’ll go.”
With a relieved sigh, Kiluron nodded. “Thank you, Doil. I knew I could trust you.” He hesitated another moment, and then turned and hurried back up the street, somehow managing to appear furtive despite striding around with the Prime’s sigil on his cloak.
Turning away from the library and his ruminations on ancient history, Doil squared his shoulders, and headed for the city gates. He didn’t know how he was going to complete the Prime’s mission, and he didn’t know if asking the Blood Priests for help was the right thing to do, but he knew he was going to try.
His first problem was avoiding being recognized on his way out of the city. Though he was not well known, his own cloak also proclaimed him as an official of Merolate’s government. Furthermore, he would need to acquire supplies for the journey. A horse would be preferable, but he feared that would be too conspicuous. Ducking down an alley, he snatched a cloak from where it was hanging on a line, pinned a coin in its place, and kept moving.
The city gates nearest the water were mostly ruined from the earlier bombardment, so Doil headed there. Fires were burning still, so he changed into his stolen cloak, and tossed his official one into the fire behind a pile of rubble. On his way through the city streets, he had managed to pick up two loaves of bread and a handful of apples from shops that had been destroyed; they would have to be enough to get him to the next place where he could resupply. At least there were only a few guards at the ruined gate. They were staring out of the city, though, intent on keeping people out, and failed to notice a small, bundled figure slipping out into the gathering dusk.
He stopped in a town a two day walk from Corbulate, a small farming village with little more than a blacksmith, a carpenter, a cobbler, and a general store. They were eager for information, so Doil told them a little of what had occurred in Corbulate, careful to keep from sharing too much detail about Vere’s rescue. Instead, he told about how the Pifechans had bombarded the city, but had been defeated by new weapons out of Merolate. It wasn’t exactly true, but it was close enough to make a good rumor, and it would support Kiluron’s cause. A night’s rest, some fresh supplies, and it was time to move on with his journey.
On his fourth day from Corbulate, it started to rain. The wind whipped up, and cold, fat drops pelted him out of a grey sky. Doil shivered, wishing that his stolen cloak was less threadbare, and trudged through thickening mud. It rained for three days as he trudged north and west, and on the fourth day, he awoke covered in crackling frost almost as thick as his pinky finger. Sniffling, his nose raw, his ears red, his fingers numb, his lips chapped, and his throat soar, Doil stumbled up to the stockade, where a guardswoman stopped him with a spear.
“Who are you? How the Balance did you find this place?” the woman demanded. “Nobody was allowed out today, so I know you’re not with us.”
Doil thought that he had probably never been so tempted to assert his privileges as the Advisor to the Prime as he was in that moment. He could lower his hood, present his signet, and be sitting before a hot fire with a mug of steaming tea and thick blankets within a handful of breaths. Instead, he pulled his cloak a little tighter about himself, and hunched his shoulders. “Messenger,” he stammered, not having to fake the chattering of his teeth. “Sent from Corbulate with news.”
The guardswoman hesitated, fighting with the relief that was obvious on her face. “Corbulate? Finally, what news? We’ve been afraid something terrible might have happened.”
“There was a battle,” Doil replied. “Pifechans defeated. I can tell you everything, if you just let me inside.”
“I – I can’t do that, not without seeing your seal,” the guardswoman insisted.
Then there was no choice. If Kiluron hadn’t been so urgent, Doil could have come better prepared, but that hadn’t been the case. He fumbled with his thick, numb fingers in his pocket until he came out with his signet. He saw the guardswoman’s eyes widen, and her mouth start to open, so he held up his hand, covering her mouth. “Please, my being here is a profound secret. For the safety of Merolate, I must remain only a messenger.”
Snapping her mouth shut, the guardswoman nodded gravely. “I understand, Sir.” Doil doubted that. “Your secret is safe with me.” Finally, she led him back into the caves.
Relieved to be out of the elements, Doil allowed the guardswoman to ply him with weak tea and a dry change of clothes. Since she knew he was not merely a messenger, he was not obligated to provide a report, but he needed to come up with an excuse for his presence that would not betray the real purpose for which Kiluron dispatched him. The time provided for him to warm up was all he had to invent a likely cover story before he would be obliged to implement it.
Appreciating his need for secrecy, the guardswoman at least did not blab his true identity all over the caverns. To everyone else, he was just a messenger come from Corbulate. What was good for his anonymity was inefficient; it meant Doil spent the rest of the dismal afternoon debriefing what happened in Corbulate to all of the guards and refugees in the caverns. The whole time he had to be careful not to reveal too much knowledge, and he was constantly worried that he would forget some of the established messenger protocols and reveal that his role was only a ruse. It was an immense relief when he could go to bed that night.
After his long journey and stressful arrival, Doil wanted to sleep, but he could not delay Kiluron’s mission. With everyone else asleep, he snuck from his quarters and made his way to the section of the caverns that the Blood Priests adopted. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about being recognized; the others who fled Merolate avoided the Blood Priests unless there was no other choice and preferred to ignore their shared occupancy. Doil suspected that Kiluron’s decision to stage a rescue from the Isle of Blood might prove amongst his least popular calls as Prime.
Though if anyone discovered what he sent Doil to arrange, that might well supplant his previous record. There was a marked difference between the sections of the caverns that the Merolate evacuees and guards controlled, and those allocated to the Blood Priests. There were no sentries, no guards, no one watching the informal boundary, but nevertheless it was obvious. Just like they were on the Isle of Blood, the refugee Blood Priests were self-contained. Making sure that no one was around to observe him, Doil strode into their space.
He soon encountered Blood Priests. Though it was night, there were a handful of them still about, performing odd tasks or perhaps simply restless. One of them noticed Doil and approached him.
“Are you lost?” the man asked. “I can direct you back to the Merolate sections.”
Shaking his head, Doil was glad he already considered how best to gain an audience with High Priest Yorin, without making it obvious that Kiluron had sent him. “Ah, no. I’m a messenger sent from Corbulate, and I have an important message to convey to High Priest Yorin.”
The Blood Priest acknowledged this with only minimal surprise. “I will see that your message is delivered, of course.”
“It is for him alone,” Doil insisted, hoping that it wouldn’t be too suspicious. “My information potentially ties the Pifechans to Blood Magic.” That was true enough, but it was also very vague. No one would think from such a statement that he might be trying to form an undercover alliance with the Blood Priests on the Prime’s behalf.
After a moment’s thought, the Blood Priest nodded. “Very well. I will take you to him.”
Doil had expected further protests against disturbing the High Priest at such a time of night, but his concerns proved unfounded; when the Blood Priest led him to the High Priest’s makeshift quarters, Yorin was still awake, bent over a makeshift table and reading by torchlight. He looked up, and Doil, seeing recognition on his aged features, shook his head slightly, hoping to forestall an awkward revelation.
“Messenger from Merolate,” the Blood Priest explained. “He says he has an important message for you.”
Even amongst the Balancers, a High Priest needed more than mere spiritual insight. “Thank you, Ildrion.” Yorin gestured for the man to depart, which he did, leaving Doil alone with the High Priest. Thus isolated, the High Priest addressed Doil. “To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure? The Prime’s Advisor does not come all this way merely to deliver a message, I think.”
Keeping his nerves in check, Doil nodded. “That is true enough, High Priest. Prime Kiluron has sent me on a personal mission of great secrecy based on some information that we have recently pieced together.”
“I see.” High Priest Yorin gestured for Doil to sit. “What is so urgent in a time of war?”
Warming to his topic, Doil launched into his historical conjectures, and the information that Vere had gleaned from the captured Pifechan sailor. “Our hypothesis, therefore, is that a demonstration of Blood Magic, combined with a series of tactical victories on the part of Merolate’s forces, will drive the Pifechans from this hemisphere and ensure at least a generation’s reprieve.”
“But Prime Kiluron does not wish to be associated with such an alliance,” High Priest Yorin surmised. Not surprisingly: he had become High Priest before Prime Wezzix had been made Prime, and so had three Prime’s worth of experience in relations between Merolate and the Blood Priests. “A convenient plan for him, to be sure. He can maintain the loyalty of the provinces, particularly Governor Parl’s Corbulate, while making use of our knowledge and a power he professes to consider immoral. I fail to see why we should help in this scheme.”
“The Pifechans are your enemies, as well, surely,” Doil observed. “They attacked your Isle, and many Blood Priests died in the process.”
“True, but our ends are better served by aiding Merolate openly, not through this shadowy arrangement that could leave us undefended and without allies.” Yorin pressed his thin, dry fingers together like winter twigs, and squinted at Doil. “I notice that you do not invoke the debt that we owe your Prime. Why is that?”
In truth, that was Doil’s next argument, though he knew Kiluron would not approve. He wondered now if Kiluron had the right in this matter. “Unlike the Blood Priests, we do not consider there to be a debt for us doing what is right.” That sounded like something Prime Kiluron would have said, and though Doil thought it would have made more sense to invoke that very debt, to cater to the way the Blood Priests thought, he decided to trust Kiluron’s way of doing things this time.
Yorin sat back. “Interesting.” He said nothing further for long enough that even Doil’s patience began to wear thin, and the Advisor shifted despite himself. “Advisor Doil, you are an intelligent, well-educated individual, and I believe that your mentor Borivat ensured your education included many of the tenets of Balancing. What do you think would be required for a display of power such as you are suggesting?”
“I…” Doil swallowed, and wondered if Kiluron had even thought of this. Blood Magic was named so for a reason. “It would require human sacrifice.” Even the words were distasteful and uncomfortable in his mouth.
“Yes,” Yorin affirmed. He leaned forward. “You are asking me to perform human sacrifice on behalf of the Prime of Merolate, and to conceal his role in the matter. To conceal his approval, his direct request, for an action that is perhaps the primary reason behind the continued existence of the Blood Decrees and the refusal of Merolate to normalize relations with the Isle of Blood.”
There should have been a way to check with Kiluron. Presented in such an ugly, direct way, Doil could not imagine the Prime approving, but they needed the display of Blood Magic. There was no time to confer, no one with whom he even could confer. A decision had to be made, it had to be Doil’s decision, and he had to make it as close as possible to what the Prime would have decided. “You’re right.” He mostly said it to buy time in the conversation, and as High Priest Yorin nodded in agreement, an idea occurred to him. “Another way must be found. Thank you for your time,” Doil said. “I trust that this conversation will remain between us?”
High Priest Yorin inclined his head, and Doil left, wondering just how crazy his idea was, and if it had any chance of succeeding. He still hadn’t decided when he left the next morning and began to make his way deeper into the wilderness, but he also could think of no alternative. It was exactly the kind of reckless, impulsive, poorly informed decision that Kiluron made and succeeded with all the time; Doil hoped that the Prime would approve. He also hoped that he would survive long enough to know.
As the terrain grew rougher, Doil’s progress slowed, and his confidence ebbed, but he kept pushing on. Three more days of increasingly challenging travel put him on a flat plain leading to a jagged ridge of mountains that rose ahead of him like teeth rising up against the sky’s mouth. It took another two days to reach those mountains, and then another day to reach the top of the ridge. Standing there, he saw the whole mountain range spread out before him, and he wondered at how little he knew of how to accomplish his goal. He camped at the top of the ridge that night and pondered how to proceed.
His decision was taken from him with the coming of morning, when he awoke to find a dragon watching him. No, not a dragon – a Gruordvwrold. That was what they called themselves, and he needed to remember that. These were intelligent creatures that were far, far older than Doil could even imagine, with their own agendas and their own motivations, quite inscrutable to Doil, and perhaps incompatible with his own.
“Advisor Doil of Merolate, you may call me Quartz,” the Gruordvwrold rumbled, and Doil had the sense of an immensity of meaning behind the simple, human term. Indeed, the creature’s scales did have a certain milky, crystalline quality in the dawn’s colored sunlight. “Why have you come to this place? Why do you seek out the Gruordvwrold?”
From being aware of the Gruordvwrold’s conversations with Prime Kiluron, Doil thought he was prepared for the experience of telepathic communication with a Gruordvwrold. He could not have been more mistaken; the difference between communicating directly with one, and merely being tangential to the conversation, was like the difference between looking at a picture of the ocean and trying to swim through a hurricane. He had to martial his mental resources just to be able to reply. “When you came to Prime Kiluron for help, you offered to support him and Merolate, as our own citizens do. Is that still true?”
Quartz’s reply was affronted. “You doubt the honor of the Gruordvwrold? We, who have striven with the Ipemavs for all of these ages, who refused the native power offered by your kind?”
“That was not my implication!” Doil protested. He tried to calm his pounding heart and wished that he had been able to collect his thoughts after waking up, instead of launching directly into this negotiation. “I was merely confirming; it is a human custom, because we are more transient than you.”
This seemed to mollify Quartz. “Very well. With what proposition to you approach us?”
“Can you negotiate on behalf of all the Gruordvwrold? Or can you take me to one who can?” Doil asked.
A collection of concepts forced themselves into Doil’s mind, and he staggered, unable to comprehend them. “We are one. The same, and different.”
There was no time for Doil to ponder just what Quartz meant by those words, or if he even meant those words at all – they could have merely been his own brain trying to interpret a concept alien to mankind’s native constitution. For now, it was simply an affirmation. “We need your help, Quartz. Merolate is at war with an invader from the east, the Pifechans. We’re not asking you to risk your lives in combat. We’ve learned that these Pifechans fear Blood Magic, and you indicated before that you can wield such power in ways different from human Blood Priests. Is that true? Can you create a demonstration of Blood Magic that will help convince the Pifechans to flee?”
“Always in conflict are your people.” Quartz seemed confused, though it was not in the same sense as a human would be confused. “Once you warred with the Ipemavs, and now you war with yourselves. Why do you now fear those from whom you came?”
“From whom we came…” Doil shook his head, his own confusion very human in nature. Not for the first time, he wished he could sit down with one of the Gruordvwrold and plumb their knowledge of what was to him ancient history. Quartz seemed to be implying that the humans now in Lufilna were somehow descended from the Pifechans, but that was a digression. “Will you help us?” he asked again. “The Pifechans will fear you. They will not negotiate with you and respect you as Merolate has.”
Quartz growled, and Doil cowered in spite of himself, such was the primal terror that a Gruordvwrold could induce. “Do not forget yourself, human. We negotiated with you out of respect, not out of necessity. We are a part of this world in ways you cannot imagine, and our existence is scarcely brushing against the limits of your comprehension.”
In other words, Doil interpreted, the Gruordvwrold could have swept Merolate aside had it suited them. He wondered if they would so easily defeat the Pifechans and their thundercasters, but decided not to make that particular argument. “Yet you did choose to negotiate with us. Whatever your answer is, I ask only that you tell me what it is. Again, will you help us?”
It was probably folly to be so vehement towards a Gruordvwrold, but Quartz did not appear aggravated. Instead, his next words were curious. “If our answer is no, what then will you do?”
Doil hesitated. This had been his last idea, his desperate gamble. There was nothing else to do, if this failed; without the Gruordvwrold or the Blood Priests, he would have failed his mission for Prime Kiluron, and the outcome of the war would become all but inevitable. Merolate could fight, and with the knowledge they gleaned from the ship Vere had captured might begin to level the odds against them, but in the end, Doil did not see a path to victory. “I’d return to Prime Kiluron,” he answered, his voice quiet. “And I’d help him defend our homes.”
“And so you would cast away your life in a petty quest for dominance amongst equals.” Quartz did not so much sound accusatory as it did confused. “Such chaotic, discrete creatures you are. When once your kind fought for freedom from the Ipemavs, I understood your martial tendencies. Yet it seems now that they have outlived their usefulness. Surely conflict amongst yourselves is unproductive, reactionary. I cannot see but that you might benefit from the leadership of this older civilization, untainted by the touch of the Ipemavs.”
“I…” Doil had no answer prepared; there were too many allusions, and a weight of ancient history to this conversation that he could not follow. It was like reading a sequel without reading the original.
Quartz forestalled the need for him to answer, terminating its own musings. “These matters must be contemplated, but I forget your transient nature. You shall have your answer with the coming of the dawn tomorrow.”
Without awaiting any further word from Doil, or providing any other insight, Quartz curled about itself on the mountaintop, and launched itself into the air, rapidly diminishing into a form not unlike another, strangely shaped puff of cloud. There was nothing then for Doil to do but make himself as comfortable as he could manage, and await the Gruordvwrold’s return, and its answer.
Miserable sleet dribbled out of the oppressive sky onto a field of mud and blood. A knot of Merolate soldiers was steadily retreating before an advancing line of thunderspears, those on the fringes dropping to join their comrades on the ground. It had every appearance of a slaughter, and it was all Kiluron could do to resist ordering the counterattack now. It must have showed on his face, because Vere put a hand on his sword arm.
“Not yet,” the guardcaptain cautioned. Kiluron nodded his understanding, but the tension did not release from his frame. Sulfur wafted over the battlefield, mingling into a noxious concoction with the usual scents of battle: oil, leather, blood, sweat, and other, less pleasant byproducts of the darkest parts of humanity.
Another step, and another. For three paces, the Merolate soldiers gave all the appearance of teetering on the edge of a rout. When they finally broke, it was a masterful performance, aided by a healthy element of reality; those men really had been on the verge of breaking under the withering onslaught of the thunderspears. Guardsmen streamed in all directions, zigzagging erratically across the field, seeking the cover of the small copses of trees and low-lying streams that cut ravines half the height of a man through the plain’s face. With a cry, the Pifechan soldiers leapt to pursue, breaking neatly into smaller squads, like hunting parties set upon their prey.
“A little longer,” Vere urged, and Kiluron nodded to a signaler to be ready. The barrel-chested man put a huge blummox horn, tipped in metal, to his lips.
Pounding feet would have been more appropriate, but it was more of a squelching noise that announced the approach of two of the fleeing Merolate soldiers to Kiluron’s position concealed within one of the streamlet ravines. Only a single tree had kept the bank from eroding in that particular place, and Kiluron twisted one of the roots around his left forearm, preparing for the attack. The two fleeing soldiers vaulted over the streamlet.
“Now.” Vere nodded at Kiluron. Above them, one of the Pifechan squads was getting closer.
“Attack!” Kiluron ordered. The signaler blasted a note on his horn, and Kiluron surged up the steep ravine in two steps, his sword stabbing into a Pifechan’s stomach. He bore the man to the ground and was up in time to deflect a halfhearted stab from a thunderspear. Vere finished the job for him, and then spun to take out another Pifechan who had turned his thunderspear around to use it as a club.
All across the field, Merolate forces were rising from their ambuscades, encountering the aggressive Pifechans in the kind of close-quarters combat at which they flinched, and Merolate’s forces excelled. Nor were only Merolate guardsmen on the field; Corbulate soldiers fought alongside them, their discipline and training superior even to the Pifechans. What began as a false rout of Merolate’s decoy force became a devastating offensive against the Pifechan invaders.
“Press the attack!” Kiluron called. At the far end of the field, the small reserve force of Pifechans was preparing for a dismayed retreat, their drums and bugles rattling out the orders across the chaotic field. A final ambush of Merolate forces, hidden behind carefully crafted cloaks in tall grasses almost at the reserves’ feet, now threw off their camouflage and turned the attempt at an orderly retreat into chaos. Now it was the Pifechans fleeing in a rout, their officer on horseback pounding at their head.
Putting a scavenged thunderspear to his shoulder, Twiol sighted down the tube, squinted through one eye, and pulled the trigger. There was a bang, and a cloud of smoke. A few birds fluttered up from a tree just to the left of the fleeing Pifechan officer, and the man swerved erratically, almost falling from his horse.
A Corbulate woman rolled her eyes at Twiol, put an arrow to the string of her bow, drew it back, and released. The arrow sprouted after its flight directly between the officer’s shoulder blades, and the man rode two more paces before toppling from his horse. She winked at Twiol, who just rolled his eyes.
“They’ll be more cautious after today,” Vere remarked afterwards, when he, Kiluron, Ferl, and Parl were debriefing in their command tent. “Our previous skirmishes were small enough that they could be largely ignored. This was different. That was the better part of a ship’s complement of soldiers we killed out on that field.”
Parl grinned, the expression more of ferocity than of humor. “As well they should be. We should press the attack, use our advantage. There’s another place not far from here that would serve us well.”
“That still leaves as many as ten ships worth of Pifechans in the Union,” Admiral Ferl pointed out, “which is ten times as many men as we faced today. Nor were our own casualties insignificant; this victory cost us.”
“As I warned would be the case,” Vere grumbled. His plan had called for slowly whittling down the number of Pifechan troops by launching attacks only from ambush. The addition of a decoy force to engage the Pifechans in an initial battle was Parl’s addition. “I do not like using our own people as bait in a trap. We might get the bear, but the bear still gets the bait.”
Admiral Ferl mediated before Kiluron could. “The same trick won’t work twice, I think. These Pifechans have their blind spots, but they aren’t unintelligent. We will need to adapt our own stratagems if we are going to continue winning.”
Kiluron kept quiet. Ten times as many men as they had faced today was a finite number, something that was large, but something that they could directly comprehend and address. All of the plans that Parl and Ferl hatched were aimed at eradicating or driving away the remaining Pifechan forces already in Lufilna. Meanwhile, he worried about a more nebulous threat. Every night, he saw before he went to bed an infinite number of enemies, a whole continent full of Pifechan soldiers waiting to put to sea and come for Merolate. He wondered what had become of Doil.
At least Vere had some understanding of what it would take to really protect the Union from the Pifechans, but there was only so much that could be done. They had to fight the battles in front of them.
“I advise an attack from the sea,” Admiral Ferl continued. “We have one of their ships; I suggest we use it. The Aprina basin is large, and their fleet will doubtless be spread thin. We could begin picking off their ships one at a time.”
“Until you’re defeated by a crew that is better trained, more experienced, and knows their ship better than you do,” Parl grunted.
“Yes, but at least we’d be using the ship. It’s a resource that we should leverage,” Ferl argued.
“Not yet,” Kiluron interjected. He was determined to allow Doil’s scholars, now organized under Borivat, to have the time they needed to tear the Pifechan ship apart and understand everything they could about how it worked. Since Vere’s attack at Corbulate, Evry had become uncooperative, offering no new insights about the ship’s functions. “Eventually, I agree. But this war is bigger than we’re thinking right now, and we need to be ready for its next stage. That means we hold onto the ship, for now.”
Although Admiral Ferl looked displeased, the matter was dropped, and the conversation moved onto new ideas.
There should have been word from Doil by now. Whatever Yorin’s answer might have been, if Doil had gotten there to speak with the High Priest, the Advisor should have returned, or at least sent a messenger to Kiluron. That he hadn’t was a silence that sat like a brooding vulture on Kiluron’s shoulder, occasionally lunging in with a sharp nudge to see if the time had come, if Kiluron had given up hope. For now, the Prime could hold onto excuses: Doil had been delayed by weather, or gotten lost, or been distracted by some ancient ruins, or had needed to arrange something to gain the High Priest’s agreement…something. The excuses became more threadbare by the day.
Without Doil fulfilling Kiluron’s wild scheme, Kiluron had difficulty seeing what the point of continuing to fight was. The Pifechans could send more troops at any time, and one stolen ship would not be enough to return to Merolate control of the seas. It was well and good for Vere and Parl and Ferl to worry over strategies and tactics to defeat the Pifechans they currently faced; it was Kiluron’s role to look at the larger picture. He knew that somehow they had to convince the Pifechans that the costs of continuing to war with the Union were greater than was worth stomaching.
Blood Magic was the obvious answer, especially if Doil was correct and it was legends about Blood Magic that had deterred the Pifechans from crossing their double zero square for a millennium. With each day that Doil did not return, it became increasingly unlikely that Blood Magic would be a viable solution. If it was a miracle Kiluron needed, he was going to have to manufacture it himself.
“What would be needed to retake Merolate City?” Kiluron blurted.
The other three men all turned to look at him. “Forget Merolate.” Parl was the first to answer. “It’s just a symbol. Let the Pifechans rot there, while we bleed them dry out here.”
“I can start drafting strategies,” Admiral Ferl hedged, but he sounded appeasing. “But I suspect that it will be some time before we will be in a position to implement them.”
“It would take a miracle…” Vere knew where Kiluron was going. “Give us one more victory, an even larger one than today. Then, we can look at taking Merolate back.”
Kiluron nodded at that and allowed the discussion to resume. For all that Parl and Ferl had dismissed the need to retake Merolate as a priority, there was a different energy to the conversation; it was more focused, now that there was a more definable goal. A single battle, drawing as many Pifechans onto one field as possible, to prove that Merolate could prevail.
No answers were found that night, and eventually the meeting adjourned. Feeling sore and tired, Kiluron was relieved to return to his own tent. He nodded to the guard outside, changed into a fresh set of clothes, and settled as comfortably as he could onto the grassy ground, wrapped in a thick cloak. The weather was growing colder by the day, and it was all the cloak could manage to keep Kiluron away from the mud. Nonetheless, he was soon asleep. Few things cured insomnia better than a hard day of fighting, walking, and arguing.
His dreams that night were haunted by the faces of the dead from the day’s battle, of those who might be dead before the war with the Pifechans was over, and with his own doubts. Vultures circled it all, as Kiluron sat in a circle of the dead and looked up at their endless orbits through bleary eyes. Then a milky-white shape approached, and the vultures flapped away, squawking their protests ineffectually as the shape resolved into a dragon and settled down in front of Kiluron.
“Prime Kiluron of Merolate,” the dragon said, and its words echoed throughout the whole of the dream, filling Kiluron’s entire dream-world. It made the dream seem small. “The Gruordvwrold have received your message. Your city will fall, and the heliblode will be ours.”
“My message?” Kiluron felt like he was immersed in syrup, his thoughts moving slowly and his tongue heavy and clumsy in his mouth. “What message? What’s a heliblode?” Fear spiked in him. “What do you mean, my city will fall? Merolate? It’s already fallen. Corbulate? Is that what you’re talking about?”
The dragon disappeared, not even bothering to fly away, and Kiluron swore. “Arguing and demanding answers from my own dream,” he muttered. Soon the vultures returned, and it was a relief when morning came and he could go about the work of another day.
Throwing himself into the work of fighting a war for the survival of the Union had a proven track record of dispelling the lingering effects of his dreams, but the milky dragon kept returning to his mind’s eye throughout the day’s labor. There was something oddly specific about its words, words that barely even made sense to Kiluron. Wishing that Doil were around to ask about the dream, Kiluron tried to ignore it. When despite his exhaustion he still couldn’t sleep, he sought out Borivat.
“I just wish that I knew what it meant. It felt different from the rest of the dream,” Kiluron finished. Borivat was just listening, his expression giving Kiluron no insight. “Could it be a real message from the dragons? They can communicate telepathically, after all.”
“I suppose it’s possible,” Borivat mused. He sounded skeptical. “I fear that I do not know enough about the Gruordvwrold’s telepathic abilities to engage in speculation about their range and capacity. Yet if your dream did contain a genuine communique from a Gruordvwrold, then why did it not linger to answer your questions?”
“I don’t know,” Kiluron sighed. “That’s why I’m talking to someone who’s actually smart about this kind of thing.”
Borivat patted his knee. “I wish I had more insight to offer you, but I’m afraid my inclination is to dismiss this as nothing more than a particularly vivid dream, brought on by your worries and stresses. The only direct evidence I can see for it being something more is the reference to a ‘heliblode,’ but it is well documented that our minds are capable of profound invention in our dreams.”
“I guess.” Kiluron rubbed his face and rose. “Well, thanks anyway.”
He felt little better from consulting with Borivat and went to sleep still worrying. It seemed a strange thing that he should be so worried about the contents of a dream when there were so many more practical matters about which to concern himself, but he kept feeling like he was missing something. There was no surprise, therefore, when the dragon reappeared in his dreams that night, speaking about heliblodes and the fall of Merolate. This time, though, Kiluron saw something more, an image held in the dragon’s eyes of a black sphere streaked with red, apparently of marble, so perfect as to make his brain hurt. The red within it seemed to be straining against the confining black shell.
That image heavy in his mind, Kiluron went to Borivat as soon as he awoke. When he finished explaining what he had seen, Borivat was silent for a long time, so long that Kiluron began to worry. “What is it? Do you know what this heliblode is? I think that’s what I saw.”
Borivat bowed his head. “What you described is an artifact concealed deep in Merolate’s vault. It is an artifact of the Blood Priests, seized from them during wars at the demise of the Blood Empire. Do not ask me what it does, for I do not know. Perhaps the Blood Priests still remember, but they have never sought its return to our knowledge. There is an…evil sense to it, if ever you have the misfortune to look upon it.”
“But I never have,” Kiluron replied. “So why, and how, should I be seeing it now? And naming it a heliblode?”
“That I do not know,” Borivat admitted. He hesitated. “Perhaps we were too quick to trust the Gruordvwrold. They are practitioners of Blood Magic, after all, in their own fashion.”
“Someone,” Kiluron declared, “needs to find out what’s happening back in the city.”
Borivat hesitated. “My lord, there is a war to fight. I don’t think this is the time to be distracted by dreams, no matter their possible significance. Whatever is happening in Merolate City is beyond our reach, for the moment.”
Kiluron was already halfway out the tent. “Those are good points, thank you. I’ll definitely need to come up with some decent tactical excuse to lead a small team there…” Then he was gone.
It took some creative justifications on Kiluron’s part to convince Parl, Ferl, and Vere of the need for a small team to visit Merolate City, and especially that Kiluron should be the one to lead it. His arguments were made more difficult when General Parl’s observation that the men needed the morale offered by the presence of their Prime fighting beside them made Kiluron doubt his own conviction. Nonetheless, two mornings later he was riding for Merolate with half a dozen guards, their cloaks streaming behind them with the wind of their passage like private banners.
A day’s ride out from Merolate City, they began encountering more signs of the Pifechan occupation. Farms had been deserted, replaced by military encampments full of supplies in uniform crates. Wheeled thundercasters could be seen peeking out from beneath waxed tents stretched over metal frames, and wagons trundled along the roads, keeping the mud from freezing with the dropping temperatures. Kiluron and his team were forced to leave their horses behind and make their way on foot, moving slowly to dodge patrols and stay hidden. A guardswoman wrote down everything they saw, making her best estimates on numbers of soldiers, supplies, and weapons.
They slept beneath a hedge that afternoon and approached the walls of Merolate at night. It was a starry night with no moon, so they were reasonably well concealed. Only a few Pifechans stood guard near the main gates, and there appeared to be no one on sentry duty atop the walls; perhaps the Pifechans did not have the troops to spare. Kiluron and his team slipped into the city undetected, and found it almost completely deserted. There were no troops encamped there, and almost everyone had evacuated before Kiluron was forced to abandon the city.
It was strange to walk through his own city without anyone inside of it, and eerie. Kiluron found himself wanting to look down every empty street and vacant alley, but there were more pressing concerns, and they only had a limited amount of night. His team turned towards the docks, where there were lights and a Pifechan presence. He wondered how many ships they would still have docked in the harbor.
Two ships remained in the harbor, their artificial moons not shining, but they were twinkling with dozens of artificial stars, brighter and steadier than any lamp Kiluron had ever seen. There, men were on patrol, keeping watch, going about tasks despite the deepness of the night. With hand gestures, Kiluron ducked his team into an alley and behind some rubble, hoping that it would be enough to conceal them.
“I know we’re just here to scout things out,” Kiluron whispered, “but we have an opportunity to do some damage here. I think we should try…” he trailed off, listening. Then he made a sign to warn the others that they were being watched.
A few pebbles shifted against each other in the even deeper shadows of the rubble, and Kiluron whirled, his belt knife at the ready. His free hand caught a handful of cloth, the knife flashed down, and he barely stopped himself from stabbing the man he had caught.
“Doil?!” he asked in an incredulous hiss. “What are you doing here?”
Before Doil could answer, a cry went up from the docks; they’d been spotted. The artificial moonbeams flickered to life and began sweeping the area. “Run!” Kiluron called, and his team bolted, tracking generally away from the docks, but Doil tugged on his sleeve.
“We have to make for the castle,” he insisted.
“The castle?” Kiluron asked, dodging down another alley. His team was pulling ahead. “Doil, we have to get out of here.”
“It’s very important,” Doil hedged. “And before you ask, it’s a very long story.”
Kiluron yanked them down a different alley and cursed. This one was a dead end. He turned back the way he had come but pounding boots on cobblestones announced that the way was shut off. He drew his sword, but the idea of facing those thunderspears in such a confined space did not encourage him.
A troop of Pifechan soldiers rounded the corner, and stopped, leveling their thunderspears. Kiluron raised his sword, and the Pifechans discharged their weapons, filling the night with flashes of fire and smoke. Flinching, Kiluron wondered if he had been shot, but threw himself into a reckless charge. Maybe he could at least get Doil free of this mess.
He bowled through the three Pifechans without resistance; they were just standing and staring and did not even rouse when Kiluron attacked them. Pausing at the alley’s mouth, Kiluron turned to look at Doil, and felt like one of the Pifechans. A faint penumbra of light outlined Doil’s body, and his hand was outstretched. In it, a handful of pieces of metal were resting, which Kiluron recognized as the projectiles fired from a Pifechan thunderspear.
“Did – did you?” he couldn’t quite ask if Doil had just caught the projectiles, which moved so fast that they were invisible, from the air.
Shaking himself like a wet dog, Doil tossed the metal pieces aside, and the glow around him dispersed. “Sorry. I said it was a long story. The castle?”
Had there been more of Kiluron’s rational mind unoccupied by trying to understand what had just happened, he might have argued further or demanded more explanation, but instead he just nodded and changed their course, bending back towards the castle.
“I hope you have a plan,” Kiluron called as they ran.
“Sort of,” Doil replied, which was not very reassuring.
They encountered another group of Pifechan soldiers and charged right through them without slowing. A few cracks were heard behind them, but they kept running, and no one was shot. The castle was in sight. Taking the lead, Kiluron fumbled briefly with the small side door, got it open, and stumbled out into the courtyard, where he halted so abruptly that Doil, following behind him, knocking him to the ground.
A dragon crouched in the courtyard, the same dragon as Kiluron had seen in his dream. It fixed its eyes upon Kiluron and Doil, and rumbled a noise that seemed somehow pleased, for all its native danger. “Good. You have arrived.”
Dusting himself off, Doil locked eyes with the dragon. “Some of the Prime’s team was separated from us. I expect them to be safe,” he commanded.
Kiluron stared at his Advisor giving orders to a dragon. He was even more surprised when the dragon, with some reluctance, nodded its massive head. “It is done.”
“Thank you.” Doil took a deep breath and turned to Kiluron. “My Lord, this is Quartz. Quartz, Prime Kiluron of Merolate.”
“Honored,” Kiluron managed, as the dragon focused upon him.
Quartz snorted. “I know who you are.” Then the creature turned back to Doil. “The heliblode. Fetch it for us. No further delays. Else we shall not accommodate your demands.”
Doil bowed to the dragon. “Our agreement is good. My lord, we need to go to the vault.”
When they were inside the castle and away from the dragon, Kiluron grabbed Doil’s shoulder and pulled him aside. “What the Balance is going on?” he demanded.
The man who had just given orders to a dragon flinched. “Well, my Lord, it’s a long story. I spoke with High Priest Yorin, as you instructed, but…it didn’t exactly go well. He refused the terms you wanted and would only have agreed to help if Merolate openly endorsed the use of human sacrifice to power Blood Magic against the Pifechans. I didn’t think that would be acceptable to you.”
“True enough.” Kiluron hesitated. “But where do the dragons come in?”
“Well, it occurred to me that the Blood Priests are no longer the only beings we know near Merolate that practice Blood Magic,” Doil explained, “and they had indicated before that their magic was not fueled in the same way as the Blood Priests’. So, I decided to seek them out.”
“Clearly you found them,” Kiluron remarked.
Doil nodded. “Yes, my Lord. Or more accurately, Quartz found me. We were able to strike an accord. They would provide the demonstration of Blood Magic to frighten the Pifechans, and in return, we would provide them an artifact from the vault. A heliblode, they called it. I don’t know why they want it, exactly, but it seemed a fair deal. I…” Doil’s confidence faltered. “I agreed on your behalf.”
Borivat’s warning about the heliblode rose to mind, but Kiluron pushed that aside as a worry for another time. “You did the right thing,” he assured Doil, hoping that it was true. “Let’s finish this thing, then.”
Encased in a velvet bag within a wooden chest, the heliblode has a presence to it, and when Kiluron uncovered it, he could hardly wait to cover it again. As realistic as his dream had been, it had not prepared him for the impact of the physical presence of the heliblode, and he found himself wondering how badly Merolate would come to regret turning this particular artifact over to the dragons and their mysterious motivations. That, though, seemed like a thought for another time. Without the dragons’ help, it seemed unlikely that there would be a Merolate to worry about in the future.
Though the chest in which it was contained was light, the heliblode itself was deceptively heavy. It took both Kiluron and Doil to lug the orb up the many stairs from the vault to the courtyard, where they set the chest before Quartz. The dragon leaned in, eying the chest with what would have, in a human, been anticipation.
With one claw, Quartz pried the chest open, and using a surprising degree of dexterity exposed the heliblode. In the starlight, it glimmered, its own internal light appearing amplified. Quartz gripped the heliblode, and then turned to Kiluron and Doil. “You have done a greater service to the Gruordvwrold this day than you know, perhaps greater than any of your kind has ever done.” Without waiting for any further exchange, the dragon launched itself into the air, its milky-white body swirling like a snake towards the harbor.
Kiluron watched the creature go. “So should we be expecting a whole…flock, or whatever we decided to call them, of dragons to show up?”
Doil shook his head. “I don’t think they need more than one.”
Raising an eyebrow, Kiluron rushed to the top of the wall, and Doil joined him. Together, they watched as Quartz wheeled in the air, and began to dive for the Pifechan ships at anchor in the harbor. They saw the Pifechans notice the creature approaching them, and scramble. Thundercasters were aimed at the sky, booming their fire into the night, but if any managed to hit Quartz, they had no effect. Then the dragon landed on one of the ships, the metal crumpling like feathers beneath its claws. Twisting its neck around, it belched fire at the other ship, which weathered the blaze for perhaps a moment before it began to glow red, and then the whole ship exploded, presumably when the ammunition stocks overheated.
Raising its wings wide, Quartz surged into the air again, lifting the Pifechan ship with it. When the dragon was level with the top of Merolate’s walls, it dropped the ship back to the water, where it flattened as it exploded, kicking up a waterspout whose crest brushed the dragon’s scaled underside. Twisting about on itself, Quartz seemed to survey its efforts, and then winged out to sea.
“Where’s it going now?” Kiluron asked.
Doil had no answer for him, but hardly had Kiluron said the words than an image intruded upon his brain, and a voice rumbled in the background of his mind, like a narrator for a play. “You wish to see? I shall show you.” It still took Kiluron a moment to realize that he was seeing from Quartz’s perspective.
Seeing the sea skimming along below, with the stars above reflected in it like the largest mirror imaginable, was disorienting, and that was putting it mildly. Though Kiluron could feel the stone of the crenellation beneath his hand, and the battlements beneath his boots, and he knew that Doil was standing beside him, he also could feel the wind rushing between his – no, Quartz’s – scales, sculpted by his – Quartz’s – wings. Blinking didn’t help; if anything, it made the sensations even more disturbing, and Kiluron felt his stomach churn.
A ship appeared ahead, its moonbeams blotting out the stars on the ocean’s surface. Quartz swooped into a tight spiral; Kiluron vomited over the battlements as the world spun around him like he was an axle. Just before impact, the dragon snapped its wings out, and Kiluron could actually feel the muscles straining with the atmosphere as the creature brought itself to a hover just in front of the Pifechan flagship, its tail frothing the water below it.
“Be gone from this place, manlings,” the dragon boomed, its mental voice projecting and intruding on every man and woman aboard that vessel. Kiluron witnessed Pifechans falling to their knees, hands over their ears in a feeble attempt to block out a sound that was no sound at all. “Unbalanced ones, thou understands not this land. Flee, and do not return.”
In case its telepathic points were insufficiently convincing, Quartz tossed back its mighty head. Below it, the sea boiled and frothed, and, before Kiluron’s disbelieving eyes, a spike of onyx rose up from the waters to scrape against the Pifechan vessel’s prow. The dragon settled onto this neonatal island, and coiled itself around the conical form, its claws digging into the crystalline surface. It regarded the Pifechan vessel with an accusatory glare, as, ponderously, the flagship began to turn. When it had faced fully about, its paddlewheels engaged, and it began to belch smoke, churning away from the dragon and from Merolate.
When it faded from sight, the dragon turned back in the direction of Merolate. “Satisfied, Prime Kiluron of the Merolate Union?” the creature demanded. Then the vision faded, and Kiluron was again standing upon the battlements, Doil beside him, and looking over a deserted city as grey began to stain the eastern horizon.
Swallowing, Kiluron tried to pull his scattered thoughts into some semblance of order. “It’s over, then? Just like that?”
Doil’s expression was difficult to read in the darkness. “Not entirely, my Lord. Even the Pifechans do not have the ability to communicate amongst all of their scattered forces instantly. It will take time for word to spread, and for an official retreat order to be disseminated. I would anticipate at least one or two more skirmishes before they abandon Lufilna entirely.”
“But the war, it’s over. They’re not going to come back,” Kiluron averred.
“For a time, my Lord,” Doil agreed. “Last time, it took them a thousand years to make their way back across the ocean. I doubt that we’ll have as long, this time.”
Kiluron nodded. The sun was beginning to rise over Merolate City; the impact of the Pifechan occupation was evident, but much of the city was also still intact, waiting for its residents to return. “Then I guess we have work to do.” He glanced at Doil, and then started heading down the stairs. “Come on. We have a city to rebuild.”
The end of Blood Magic S2:E12: Pifecha, Part Two. Thank you for reading. If you are so inclined, please consider posting a review in the comments below. Your continued support of IGC Publishing is much appreciated. Don’t forget to set your calendar: the next episode, the start of the third and final season, goes live on January 31st, 2022.
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