I happened to lead the squad that found the first relic. I swung a little harder than I needed to. Like most good things, cracking it open stung: my quicksword bit back. Still getting used to my new Profusionist suit. My armor, when it showed, shone entirely white. My thanks to some departed Guardian.
Obligingly, the nightwind sifted down like ash. And indeed, by the time it got to the bottom it was turning white too.
I sent the men to sweep surrounding buildings. And went myself, leaving a trail of frantic messengers in my wake. Finally, reports were coming in. The scouts originally sent to open the gate had been detected and killed. It had taken Nogilian’s detachment to finally open it. But Ki had become entangled and could not reach the city anyway. The outlying valkyries had had enough sense to come together and stumbled on to them. Tamarand’s reserve column was en route, but had to avoid detection themselves until they arrived. The valkyrie riders could not see our men but made passing assaults on the areas of trampled grass. There were casualties each time.
Meanwhile, Nogilian had gotten the cache to open. One of the reasons for his rank had been his facility for all types of Profusionist machinery, a wonder on this world. Supposedly, it only happened once or twice a generation here. I had not told that similar proficiency was a basic requirement for every cadet going into every Academy on Earth. He did not seem the sort prone to overweening pride. He had already begun leading his thousand into the cache.
I proceeded. There was no reason to alter plans. We clanged and clamored around a lot of empty buildings. Huh? In Ariel, the Augers had scattered all throughout the city. There was no reason for them to live concentrated here. But they must have, because we had not yet encountered the one to five thousand men reported by the scouts. My column had not yet encountered anyone at all. Of course, that we were invisible surely did not hurt.
We were almost to the eastern gate when we finally met resistance. Several large buildings abutted the wall near its corners, as black as all the rest. Approaching, I assumed that they were warehouses, two or three stories high. As with all the nightwind’s buildings, these had no windows. I shivered and raised my eyes and saw, creeping up in the east, the first pale haze of dawn. Then came the clamor of men moving in Profusionist armor – it is not stiff or heavy, but makes a distinctive thud, like someone slamming down a sack of mud. At first, I could not see black armor moving against black edifice, but then the edges of their shields encountered the White Swarm just ahead of us. They whined and rolled over green, jade as the stones that line the fabled streets of Kasora.
The Augers outnumbered the men of my column. But they were disorganized and did not emerge in units of nine or any other kind. I wondered what they were after, then caught sight of the open gate. They meant to go outside to further mire Ki’s column. They were gathering in the main street. They believed they had an objective. If they all got together it would be trouble. My men were scattered by squads throughout half the city. I had an idea.
I asked the White Swarm a question. It returned the standard feeling of machine acquiescence, a numbness near the back of one’s own neck. I have never gotten used to it. But it was the first of what passed for communication between the Swarm and I.
I whispered a series of commands to my squad leaders. Then I shouted hello to the Augers. I had my men back away. The Augers followed in my general direction, but could not find the person. They did not come in formation. Excellent.
One of the squads tapped their very loose line from either side. They still were not seen. A brief flourish, and two Augers cradled their sides, never having seen what hit them. Now my squads who had done the cutting fell back, each making unnecessary noise. The Auger units followed them. They split up to do so. Better and better still.