On the sixtieth day,
the black walls of the port city Wesing reared up toward us through the fog. With them came the golden lines of lightspear fire, bolts darting faster than any eye could follow. The towers atop the walls were manned and very much alert. Captains shouted the alarm. My mastodon shied when two struck her. Pain bloomed in my own thigh and shoulder, but I willed her to calm as I shot back. I did not hope to hit anything but empty windows. The point was only as Julius had instructed, to keep the enemy down in their positions while our artillery came around to bear. Still more bolts shot out from the spearmen in the other towers and the mastodon beside mine reared back and then shook his head. His rider screamed and held a hand up to his own eye and I did not want to look at what had happened to the mastodon. The voices of the artillery captains grew more frantic.
We’d crossed a continent to get there. Part of me wishes I could tell you that in that time, over so long a march, I’d become a marksman, someone who the others relied upon to make the shots no one else can. The reality is quite different.
“It seems alright,” I’d said to Julius, holding up the three grouse I’d managed to wing my second day of shooting, “except, beyond fifty paces...”
The successes had been complete surprises to me, out there on the soggy, grassy tundra. I shot far wide of hummocks and pieces of driftwood and dwarf pines far more often. That I could hit moving targets at all beggared my belief.
Julius had nodded. “Hold your breath. If you have not already, take your form, take your aim, take a breath. Let half of it out, and hold the rest. You already know: leaning is better than standing? And sitting is better than leaning, and lying prone is better still?”
“You will find all of these more difficult to do atop a mastodon,” he said. “It is good that you found these,” he added, taking the birds. “Moving targets are more difficult. But men will be larger,” he said, “within a hundred paces. And they will get so close you will wish they were anything else.”
Now outside Wesing I aimed and shot and aimed and fired again as the artillery orbs surged across the sky and toward the towers of the port city that was the stronghold of the northwest. We could not have been more than a hundred paces out. I still thought it strange I could not feel the impact. The tower to my left did not crumble but sagged and the one to my right went mostly unscathed, it spearmen still firing. A mastodon behind me bellowed; I turned and in an instant saw her rider tumbling from her back. She panicked and it took all the will of all the rest of the riders to keep their beasts from doing the same. When the next barrage brought down that tower too I was so relieved I shouted – though I knew that the battle actually started when the walls came down. I sat back on my mount. Not all the towers had fallen and there was bellowing and crying out and terror threatening in other places all along the line while I was safe and ordered to hold formation. I brought my lightspear back to rest.
Julius had had a messenger take my grouse to the quartermasters. With the fall of the Profuse Hand, our army had grown so quickly and into such complexity that I could not believe it. One thousand had become ten thousand. Our three top commanders had become thirty, though of course Marcus and Julius and Jerem Cozak all maintained their highest rank. Jerem Cozak had split half the Never-born to captain new recruits into reliable units; half he gave to Marcus to retain as a vanguard force. Before, we had only trained twice a day and I suspect mostly for my benefit. Now, even on the march there was always someone practicing their arms. Whoever did had to run for an hour to rejoin the column. I realized that night, for perhaps the first time, that not all the Augers had necessarily fought in wars, and most had probably never had martial instruction. They had just been there, living in the frozen cities, fishing and scavenging from the stores until we came. And we did come, because fighting is what we do.
The first breach appeared in the western wall of Wesing an eternity after our siege began. A section fifty paces to my left buckled and fell. With a shout Julius led the infantry forward, my group of mastodons following and the nearest section of artillery advancing close behind us. We spearmen were supposed to cover both of them. The need for this became apparent as soon as the first of our infantry poured through the gap and more golden flashes meet them. “Lightspears!” Julius cried, sharp through the fog. “Second and third floors! Nearest row! Take them out!” The infantry ran forward to mob doors and stairwells while the mastodons stepped forward through the breach, giving us clear aim. And I cursed the visibility, worse here in the nightwind than in the fields with the fog. The distance from the tops of buildings to the ground was all the further anyone could see. But we pressed forward, firing through windows to keep the Augers down until the infantry got there. And when the mastodons came close enough to the buildings, I could smell the blood inside, through the open windows. “Clear! All clear!” came the cries. And we pressed on, anxious, filled with the beauty and the horror and the dread.
The first of the Free Cities of the Fackablest had not been like this. It lay at the very headwaters of the Dicean River on the edge of the tundra, amidst scattered pines only as high as one’s own waist. We would follow the river south and west along the foothills of the Gidwinn Mountains. And we would pass into the Fackablest, the vast coniferous forest that covered two thirds of the northern half of the continent in nearly unbroken wilderness. Our targets were the Free Cities, those experimental settlements of the reforming Faiths that had at first consisted solely of stone and timber and had only been sustained by river trade and lush, machine-laden soil brought up from Nogilia . There hadn’t even been any Temples in those places, only markets and shipping docks, places of exchange.
But the first of them we came to had been rebuilt by Augers. The black walls made by the nightwind around it stood ten paces high and thick, pricked by towers half as high again and concealing all but the roofs of the barracks and warehouses and the tops of the billowing clouds of dark machines roiling inside.
“Deploy!” Jerem Cozak had shouted, in that voice the warlord used only for command. I had been near enough to hear the gruff tones of it. And I always would be. He had taken personal command over the mastodons. He still rode the matriarch, and I still rode second-in-the-line. I was going to be near enough for everything.
Marcus had lead the infantry to the fore, in squares with great spaces between them. The aisles would allow our mastodons to pass. Directly behind us, Julius led the great golden disks of the artillery, shining in the sun. We all advanced together, and the world turned beautiful again.
Jerem Cozak had called the halt three hundred paces outside the city. We were just even with the front ranks of the infantry, the disks just behind us. You can’t imagine the space ten thousand soldiers must occupy. My mastodon stood with a group of only one hundred of its kind, and I felt we could not be stopped. All the universe stood still.
Then Julius has spoken, and three hundred artillery fired at once. Ten suns arched over my shoulders, and joined thirty times that many soaring toward the wall. There came a hiss louder than any roar I had ever head, and I understood that my lightspear must utilize the same energy. I blinked at the brilliance. I’ll never know how the first barrage went, because I did not see it. I was watching the Augers that poured out from some gate in the south wall, and ran in our direction.
But at Wesing, the Augers didn’t charge. They slipped away. After the snipers in first row of Wesing’s buildings, we did not encounter half the resistance Marcus and Jerem Cozak expected. My mastodon was not hit again. I heard the crush as other sections of the wall gave way and caught glimpses of the other columns taking the streets the same way we were. We crossed the square and the armories where so many of the battles for the Free Cities had been decided. It stood empty. The further west we went the more we saw the rest of our army and the less we saw resistance. “Units of Augers retreating,” came the reports from the scouts. “In the nightwind they move like ghosts.”
As the relics came down visibility got better again, maybe fifty paces in the fog where it sat heavily around the port. When we saw the west wall, commands went up and down the line to move the artillery into position because of course the retreating Augers had sealed the gates behind them. Jerem Cozak swore because always before the city had been taken by the time we reached the square. We had never had to fight our way out of one. Now we had to do so for a wall not half as high as all the rest of them. We started awkward shuffling in narrow urban confines. Then we did what soldiers do. We waited.
The Augers that had charged out from the first of the Free Cities were not many, perhaps a thousand. They were not well equipped. Not all of them carried quickswords. And they were not well organized, for they did not march or run together, but only came in a sort of uneven trot. Still they came regardless, and they made straight for the artillery. At three hundred paces, Julius had us hold our fire. At two hundred, he had every other squad shoot into the ranks. I was not among them. At one hundred, everybody shot. The barrage on the walls continued all the while.
We cut them down. They fell like grass. As targets they were larger and slower than anything I’d fired at before. They fell every third, and then every other. I could not tell whether I hit anyone or not. We did not call our marks. When they were fifty paces out and I was astounded that this could be so easy, another herd of mastodons charged from the side and swept them all away. Augers were thrown in the air. Men screamed. Some were gored all the way through. When the dust from that charge cleared, there were none of the enemy left standing.
After the walls had fallen we had marched into a city filled with those who did not even have shrouds to wake, who did not wear the armbands that protected them with shields of projected energy. Marcus took the infantry into the city and hunted the rest of them out. The White Swarm went with him. I remembered that reversion was not a gentle process. From my vantage I saw some sit. Some knelt, many were sick. Some lost consciousness.
We spearmen had sat mounted with the sun on our backs and could not believe there had been so little fighting. Our beasts trumpeted uneasily because they were not used to the smell or feel of the nightwind which was still all around us, though it steadily thinned as Marcus went into the streets with infantry and broke the relics apart. Julius dismounted and went to talk to Jerem Cozak. I followed suit, finally catching up to them as they began tending to the reverted.
“But I don’t understand,” I had said back then, basking in our easy victory. “There must have been five thousand people here. I thought the Augers sent everyone, either to take this world or others. And these aren’t even soldiers. But I thought the nightwind made fanatics out of everyone.”
Jerem Cozak grunted. “We are more than five years from Earth at the very swiftest speed. Other worlds may lie beyond it, and many have perished there. For Augers conquest is the victory of many generations. Many cities will have few who can fight at all, but who were only to have children.”
He shook his head. “This was a skeleton crew, to delay us only. The scouts report the tracks of thousands heading west. At the end of the Free Cities and the river lies the port city Wesing, a citadel of the Profusion, where the greatships of the world have always gone for maintenance and repair.”
He waited until I came to the conclusion for myself. “They’re gathering their strength,” I said.
He nodded. “In the war that took this world they sent great numbers against us. Wave after wave wore down Sepira and Nogilia and Redmarak. Now the tide goes out, their numbers decrease, and they must pull together, or lose all advantage. Wesing will not fall easily.”
My beast was turned broadside in the port city when it hit. The plaza lit up like someone dropped a sun. The world turned gold. Air hissed. Time stopped. Mastodons bellowed and men screamed. Jerem Cozak’s warning cry came late: “Artillery!” And the world resumed in time to rearing beasts and crumbling buildings and the stench of burning flesh. I could not see who had been hit. The herd next to mine panicked and burst back through the streets and alarm escalated to frenzy all the will in the world could barely contain. “Retreat!” Jerem Cozak’s voice cut clear through the morning fog, though I could not see him anywhere. “Behind the buildings! Artillery first! Move, move!” And the whole army turned, so that the entirety of it, fifty thousand men and five thousand artillery, stood between my position in what had been the front ranks of the mastodons and any cover whatsoever.
So I sat upon my mastodon and cringed and sweated and feared while the whole herd turned and filed back, utterly exposed. I could only hope to not be hit. So when the hiss came I flinched and when the blast fell I shuddered and could not understand where it was coming from. It must have been high overhead. That’s the only way the angles made sense. It hadn’t hit me. It hadn’t hit anyone in the herd or my part of the line but scorched the open plaza in front of the wall. By the time it was my mastodon’s turn to file back the street I still hadn’t figured it out. Barrage after barrage filled the emptying plaza behind us.
Jerem Cozak explained when he gathered the herd around him, tucked behind an enormous building that could only once have been a warehouse. As always, messengers came and went away among the buildings, up and down our haggard line.
“It’s the greatships,” he told us all. “The nightwind lowered the west wall so that artillery positioned atop the greatships’ decks could fire down into the city. It was a trap. The spearmen in the city were only a distraction. But they’re firing blind because of the nightwind and the fog.”
“Why not just leave?” someone asked behind me.
“Because the port authority may direct the navigation of any greatship in the world. Whoever controls that machine commands them, and it is housed upon the docks. They cannot leave while the city is contested. In fact they cannot even seal their ships.”
“I meant us,” came the rejoinder. Men laughed.
Jerem Cozak smiled, then sobered. “And while their ramps are lowered we have our opportunity. To disable their artillery we must claim the ships. We must gain their ramps and take their holds. Only ten ships can ever dock at once. We must be quick. We must overwhelm.
In a few minutes two of the Never-born will come to each of you. Carry them atop your beast. Charge the ramps. Press as far inward as you can. Do you understand? Not all will be armed, but all will try to stop you. When you can press no further, deliver the Never-born to the nearest hatch and ladder. Hold your position. When the artillery are disabled the infantry will come behind you.
Are we ready? Form up!”
I shouldered my lightspear, and turned.
After the first Free City, we had marched and fought for twenty days. We claimed thirty citadels in the time and fifty thousand additional souls. We did not stop for nightfall. We did not stop for anything but to fight and get more reverts. Jerem Cozak said it was the White Swarm that kept us on our feet. But I will always suspect the Never-born could have done it on their own. Marcus was relentless. The infantry marched in the vanguard and did the scouting and led the fighting hand-to-hand. They did not even have mastodons to ride. I had thought Julius exaggerating when he said that they had taken the cities of the Profuse Hand in three days and nights of fighting. Now I saw that it was true.
The trees grew larger and more numerous. The Fackablest swallowed all of us, thousands upon thousands of human beings insignificant in the vastness of such wilderness. We lost sight of the mountains. We lost sight of the stars. Between the cities we saw nothing but the carpet of needles and tangled roots beneath our feet and the river on our right and the boughs of pines sighing in winds we could not even feel, so dense was their domain. If there were strange creatures hidden in that forest, we never learned it. There were days it seemed we were the only living beings in the world. But the river grew. More streams rushed to join it. Day by day the ground grew softer and the air wetter in our lungs.
By the time we finally drew up around Wesing, we could not see it either. My fellow spearmen and I sat on our beasts and cursed the fog and the dampness and the chill. But Wesing was always thus, it was said, due to the position of the mountains and the delta of the Dicean River as it finally found the sea. The forest dripped. The rocks dripped. The mastodons shivered, and shook the water from their fur. It was breaking dawn. The forest smelled of rotting things, broken trees and hanging moss. We had marched through the night as we marched through all nights. The break was so that that captains and sergeants and lieutenants could position a force of fifty thousand souls in the fields around a city made invisible. The mastodons posted nearer than ever to the artillery, because one hundred paces would be the limit of our vision. Scouts hurried to and fro, back from skirmishes along the walls with reports of strongholds and fortifications. They could not see past the nightwind within the city.
Jerem Cozak ordered the slow advance. This time we mastodons intercalated in the artillery’s own arcing line, thirty beasts in our squares to ten artillery in theirs. Jerem Cozak captained this formation. The infantry bracketed us on either side, two long columns ready to surge for the streets, Julius on the right, Marcus on the left. I realized that for the first time we had no reserve. I swallowed and wondered what that meant. Every fifty paces we stopped for a blind bombardment, trying to gauge the city’s range before we drew up in sight of it ourselves. I did not know if the scouts reported success. We advanced again regardless. That’s when we came within range of the spearmen posted in the city’s towers.
We should have known it was a ruse. We should have known they were drawing back again. Because we could have gone around the city and attacked the docks first. Because the Free Cities of the Fackablest, so far as the scouts could tell, had held somewhere around one hundred thousand additional souls, and those hadn’t just gone anywhere. They’d gone to the greatships, the only thing anyone in the Fackablest would ever want to have. And now they stood between us and our victory, armed with all the artillery the citadel had ever held, and it was pointed exactly in our direction.
We formed up. Jerem Cozak ordered a column three mastodons wide, all the space the greatship’s entrance would afford. He took the lead and I was glad that he, at least, would know the layout of the docks. I did not even know what we would be charging over. But we stood ten mastodons deep, all tossed trunks and heightened senses. The Never-born named Laches and Gorgias had mounted up behind me, clinging to the ropes that held them. And waited again, because the artillery still needed to break the gates. It took longer, because our line had fallen back so far that the artillery captains could not see what they were shooting.
But the walls fell, in time. In the fog I guessed it was about noon. I followed Jerem Cozak as we charged around the warehouse and across the plaza at full speed. They knew we were coming because they could see the breaches in the walls. Artillery fire bloomed around as we neared the gaps. Then it fell among us, behind me as the Augers tried to break our formation. Hair singed, mastodons roared and reared and some riders were blinded because I was momentarily so. I glanced back to see three mastodons fallen, struggling to pull themselves along the ground, their legs and sides charred ruins of flesh. The herd flowed around them. Jerem Cozak pressed on and the last mastodons cleared the wall two and three abreast.
Then we were on the docks and too close for the artillery’s calibrated range. The Augers were slow to adjust and we were moving three times as fast as any man could run. The docks were all clanking Profusionist metal beneath us and slick with the fog and we did not even slow as the greatships reared up ahead of us like sheer blocks of mountains. Other herds sped north and south along the docks to head for the other ships. Jerem Cozak steered straight for the one ahead of us. The ramp sloped down from its gaping maw like a great tongue and it vomited Augers, their shrouds awake and glowing the color of jade in the day’s diffuse light.
They did not stop us. We were thirty charging mastodons. We impaled, we trampled, and we gored. We flung many over the side. We ignored severe cuts to legs and feet and tendons because in battle you learn to give the mastodon your sensorium to drown out the pain. And the mastodon heals, and the mastodon keeps going and you ride the beast clinging to its fur and screaming thoughtless because in turn you have taken its physical sensations so that you can navigate. You feel the blades. You feel the bleeding. You feel the bestial rage of the charging herd. And you wonder if you are still quite human.
When we gained the top of the ramp we charged into the midst of them, a packed mass of Augers shielded and unshielded. We charged through, ankles cut to the bone by those who had quickswords. The Augers did not turn. They did not run. They were not civilian anymore. They were fanatics, minds black with nightwind and obeying its commands to stop, stop this charge at any cost. We pressed on. We slowed, shoving and goring our way toward midships.
The trouble came when Jerem Cozak’s beast lost its foreleg below the knee. It reared and bellowed and he lost his hold upon the straps, tumbling into the crowd. The two Never-born jumped off with him and I swerved my beast over toward the wall so that the charge could press a little bit further and other mastodons could come round and protect Jerem Cozak. I stopped below a ladder and hatch and the Never-born jumped off and started climbing. All along the wall others were doing the same.
My beast closed the circle of the herd around the fallen matriarch. I fired into the crowd of Augers trapped around Jerem Cozak and the Never-born. They were trying to tear him limb from limb and he had been saved only by his armor. Some of the Augers were also armed and armored and now fought the Never-born sword to sword. Then I cried out and cradled my arm as pain cut my wrists open to the bone. My mastodon knelt, the tendons of its forelegs severed. Vision blurred, I barely saw the Auger climb up its trunk and atop its head. I brought my lightspear up as he came.
I should have fired from the hip. I was not fast enough. He knocked the shaft down with the flat of his blade and drew his quicksword back for a piercing thrust. I turned to jump toward Jerem Cozak and took it in the side. I gasped when it hit, an icy shaft of flame and pain that went clear through my chest. I kicked back at him, the full force of the Profusionist armor behind it. But he was ready for that and stepped aside. Then he shoved me off his blade. My feet slipped from the mastodon. And I was falling five, six paces to the deck below, thinking gods, not again. Then blackness came, and blackness took me whole.