On the seventy-third day,
I made the shot of my lifetime. And very soon I wished I could take it back. We hit Nesechia during a dawn engulfed in rain, so that if its peninsulas were as pleasant as the Temple taught, we truly did not know it. Nesechia in many ways mirrors the Profuse Hand. From the southern continent Ostara it reaches out toward the northeast like some lover’s touch into the ocean between the lands, its peninsulas a spur of the Spine of the World, the mountains that wind their way across the southern map. But in Nesechia those ridges are gentle, like the long, humped backs of serpents sliding into the sea, and the climate is much warmer, until one gets either very far up the mountains or very further south. Along its bays and low on its ridges grew trees of tropical fruit. The best wines of the world were once made in Nesechia, and vast orchards grew on the slopes, notable for being orange and red and yellow at every time of year, and even the highest hills were good for growing grasses transplanted from Nogilia.
But it also rained a lot, because winds from the ocean rose up the round ridges and cooled, dropping their moisture. And the rain is what concerned us as we landed, for everything we did was going to have to be uphill. It is a strange thing: in our Profusionist metal armor we could run as fast as deer or carry Profusionist artillery by hand if a few of us so chose. But we could do nothing at all if we could find no traction on muddy slopes. And we needed to take the sides. For like the Profuse Hand, the hundred ancient fortresses of Nesechia sat atop the ridges or where one or more ridges joined together. And unlike the Profuse Hand, some of them were built not much further than three hundred paces apart, the longest possible range for lightspears and artillery.
We found Marcus’s twelve greatships run aground in the northmost bay of the Nesechian peninsulas, a broad path worn by marching thousands of marching feet leading directly up the hill. It could not have been raining when he landed, or he would not have been able to do it, especially not under fire. But as our own ships beached and we poured out of the holds and decks and clambered our way ashore, and then slid and crawled our way up the miry slopes, no fire came upon us either. In fact nothing seemed to happen at all. The scouts who landed first returned to report seeing no nightwind over the walls of the city atop the nearest peninsula.
Please understand, none of this happened instantaneously. By the time we hit Nesechia, the forces of Jerem Cozak numbered some sixty thousand souls, with ten thousand mastodons and half that number of artillery. We did not unload in one location: Julius took half the infantry to the next bay. And unloading did not happen within a watch’s time. Disgorging from the decks and holds and tiers and ramps of the greatships took most of the morning.
So the first reports of the scouts came in the middle of the day. And by the time we in the front ranks of the column drew up in sight of the cities, dusk was falling. Someone must have lit a bonfire in the city then, because you could see white mist rising up from it, glowing in a way that smoke does not. Marcus had succeeded here. And the reports of the scouts confirmed: the city was the Swarm’s. Its walls were turning white. There were thousands of Augers dead, fallen in their black armor, but in the central square of the city hundreds were tending to each other through the illness of reversion. The path of Marcus’s forces, however, swung to the right, southeast, rising up toward a gap in the grassy rounded slopes.
I overheard all of this, of course. Marcus’s departure and the reorganization of the entire structure of the army had not severed Jerem Cozak from the matriarch, or me from riding second in the line beside him. The rain fell in sheets and the mastodons were eager to be off of the ships and as I listened there rose in me the ocean of the dread. We had known the landing would be safe or we would not have done it. And after the scouts came back we had known the city would be safe. But now we would be advancing through the night, and nothing would be safe at all. I saw in my mind, again and again, the Auger running up over the head of my mastodon, his quicksword raised and striking.
We went regardless, climbing to that elevation where only grasses grew. When we crested the ridge Jerem Cozak called a halt and raised his oculars. But even I could see that far ahead and down in the saddle between the ridges at the head of the valley where the peninsulas joined, there seemed to be the fire of artillery and lightspear. But the warlord spent a long time looking not only to the flares and the flashes of artillery, but also to the west and south and east. When he put the oculars down he leaned toward me atop his mastodon.
“It’s Marcus,” he said quietly. “He is caught across the valley. He was attacking the fortress there. But he would not have seen the citadel above him, where the ridges come together, until he was almost beneath it. He lacks artillery to counter both. And the route directly down the valley could not be managed in the rain. It is too steep. There are cliffs involved.
But the real problem is the massed disks and spearmen that lie between us and Marcus, a thousand paces out .They must have come from the fortress far out on this peninsula. They have cut off his retreat. It would only have been a matter of time.”
“They’ve never been that strategic before,” I said. “Never anything like it.”
His eyes found mine in the darkness. “They’ve never been this close before. They are coming. They reached you, and have contacted our opponents. The Augers were dreaming dreams last night.”
“But who?” I demanded. “Who did this? And how would they know what’s happening here?”
But Jerem Cozak had already turned to give his commands. His strong baritone cut through the night. “Thirty thousand spearmen and artillery wait between us and Marcus! That’s as many as us. And that’s as many as him. But it’s not as many as all of us together, and mastodons charging up some Auger rear! Double advance, swing formation! Artillery constant bearing until you reach the walls! Infantry, swift advance once you clear the field! Mastodons have the van! Move! Move! Move if you want to see your brothers in the Never-born again! Move out!”
Move we did. The infantry pulled away from the line and double-timed to spread out in a line of squares ahead of us, ready to charge. Meanwhile, the artillery themselves had to swing out into the spaces vacated by the infantry. And everyone, everyone left enough room for the central column of mastodons to themselves advance and spread out in successive wedges for a charge.
We stepped our mastodons to the front. Jerem Cozak turned back to me as all the squads maneuvered into place behind us. “By the Profusion,” he said. “If we had valkyries we could have wiped them off the face of the world already. Spearmen would never even have to shoot.”
“No reserve?” I asked him. “We’ll be leaving our rear defenseless.”
He shook his head. “The fortress they came from is empty or distant enough that nothing could reach us in time. But you will practice your art when we reach the walls.”
Then he turned, urging the matriarch to a trot. I followed. Behind us, the infantry marched in double-time, slowed by the mud and rain and darkness. Mastodons saw better. Mastodons moved better, with their broad feet. The wedges, each more than three hundred mastodons wide, spread out as we went, one behind the other, and all following Jerem Cozak.
The key to a mastodon charge, Julius once taught me, was to cover the entire field and shatter each enemy formation, because unlike valkyries, there simply would not be in many cases enough room to turn everyone around. So you charged once. And you spread out your wedges a bit so that the successive lines behind you could reach what you couldn’t. And you armored your flanks and mounted spearmen on top and hoped that thousands of mastodons bearing down upon them would frighten and decimate the enemy just as much as they would have terrified and broken you.
Something happened, then, because my vision wavered for a moment. When it returned I no longer saw the herd as we were. Instead we became a succession of apparitions forming up in the darkness, clouds of thickening whiteness, but in the shape of mastodons and men. I looked through my mastodon’s eyes and saw that she saw this as well. I remembered, then, the herds of mastodons flickering in and out of sight upon the beaches of Sepira, and laughed. The Swarm had just made us invisible to the enemy, but visible to each other. The Augers would never know what hit them.
So we charged, and the line of the wedge covered the entirety of the width of the saddle. It was wider than the enemy’s lines. It felt broader than the world. At three hundred paces, we started seeing the limbs and heads and armored forms of the Augers, the golden arcs of disks, three paces wide and high, all illuminated by their own fire. At two hundred paces, they heard or felt the ground shaking with our advance and turned and cried an alarm. Jerem Cozak brought the herd to a half-run, or canter.
“Artillery!” he warned. “Take out their disks!” At one hundred paces, the Auger spearmen raised their arms and started firing toward the sound and the golden crescents of the disks began to turn. Jerem Cozak shouted another command, the matriarch bellowed and trumpeted, and we ran. And I rode second in the line, and met the opposition with him.
I never understood that term before. But that is how we met: as primal forces of opposing intent and nature. We crashed. We knocked them down. They wanted to stand fast. The mastodons didn’t care. Lost arts had built the charge into their blood, into the very cells that made them who they were. We tossed their tusks side to side. We tore at formations with our trunks and stepped on the fallen and above all else kept going, kept moving because the mastodons behind us were all going to do the same.
Through the blind lightspear fire that came and pricked and stabbed ears and shoulders and knees. Through the rage and the long grass, toward those ranks that drew up in front of the artillery disks to save them. Because mastodons flip artillery. Almost nothing else in the world can do it quickly, but that is all that needs to happen, because it takes forever for anyone to set them upright again and they often do much damage to themselves.
So I followed at the matriarch’s side and in the very front of the first wedge and ducked, just ducked as we plowed through the ranks, clinging to the long fur and hide both in terror and because we were moving too fast to aim a lightspear anyway. So when the spearfire hit my beast I took its pain again. Piercing, stabbing shots of flame and ache in both shoulders and all the way through my left foot. I roared and cringed and grimaced, letting the mastodon take my eyes and unbroken skin and flesh as its own.
In exchange came the small but solid weight of Auger bodies as tusks swept them aside. The soft footing of the mud and flattened grass beneath us. The rain falling like cold bites of insects all across my back. The loamy smell of the Nogilian soil transported here, churned by so many other feet. The acrid, familiar scent of Profusionist armor, heavy in the air between us and the Augers. The blurred line of the horizon in the darkness, the swath of artillery turning determinedly in our direction. The powerful, wounded muscles in legs churning, churning, and lungs fully opened from the run.
We ran into the center of the center of the line of artillery, leaving shattered Auger ranks behind. When the matriarch flipped the nearest one, I saw that it had almost turned in our direction. I moved to overturn the one immediately ahead of me. Its weight pulled at the muscles of face and neck and shoulders. But I set the mastodon’s feet and very soon came the flip at the height of the turn when all the weight fell away. The artillery lay flat on the ground, an inert mound of golden metal in the pouring rain. Its operator would be beneath it, crushed dead or caught by twisted wreckage for the infantry to finish off. I stepped my mastodon around.
“Mastodons slow!” shouted Jerem Cozak. “Forward double march to three hundred paces! To Marcus! Rally round his ranks! Hold! Hold for the artillery!” Just as we reached Marcus’s lines, a swift glance behind told me that the infantry had just reached the shattered Auger ranks while a few of their squads were trying to rally back. The artillery was pulling up behind them, as swiftly as it could.
Other than the charge, the other instinct mastodons retain is to circle around whatever they wish to defend. All their riders have to do is to convince them of what needs protection. So we drew up around Marcus’s thousands, with Jerem Cozak and I leading those mastodons that would come nearest to the city that Marcus had originally attacked.
I heard Marcus as our great herd circled him in. “We could use some spearmen,” he said. “You are welcome, warlord.” He stood unmoving at the front of his ranks.
From atop the matriarch, Jerem Cozak turned glared at him for a moment, though I could not read his ghostly gaze. Was it anger? Disappointment? A promise of punishment or retribution later? I could not imagine any falling upon the leader of the Never-born.
Then Jerem Cozak turned and resumed his orders. “Spearmen suppressing fire! Intermittent targets! Keep them down! Down!”
I unlimbered my spear from its cradle in my arm. The other two sat crossed across my back, molded as always to my armor but ready to be released. I scanned the long line of the top of the wall for targets, three hundred paces out in darkness and lashing rain. The shooting would be miserable.
“Artillery refocus fire!” Marcus bellowed to his thousand disks. “Northeast wall, southern city!”
A line of figures running along the top of the wall, silhouettes brought out by a flash of lightning, the long rods of lightspears in their hands. I swung my lightspear up to rest against my shoulder.
The artillery whined behind me, as their motors turned their disks back toward the southern city.
The figures reached the corner of the wall and stopped, peering outward in the driving rain. They raised their own lightspears, facing in the wrong direction, down the valley toward the bay. I counted three of them. I sighted along the barrel.
The artillery hissed in the background, charging up for their bombardment.
This probably wasn’t going to matter, I thought. I’m going to miss. And the disks will blow them away before they figured out what happened. In the corner of my vision, below the city, I thought I saw the darkness move. Were there more dark forms, hunched against the incline along the ground?
The artillery spat out their suns.
Atop the wall, the three Augers did not all raise their lightspears at the same speed. The furthest out along the wall was fast and uncertain, his aim wavering even to my distant eye. The second was calmer and sure, moving as I moved. The one to the rear moved too slowly and could not seem to see what the others saw. I aimed for the second in the line.
The orbs of light arched over my head, illuminating the wall and the rain and the Augers in noontime glow. I picked my spot: his ear. My eyes traced the individual drops of rain as they fell. The black armor of the Augers glistened. I gently squeezed the barrel.
“Julius!” shouted Jerem Cozak. “From the west along the walls! Spearmen cover their assault!”
I held still through the release. The bolt from my lightspear took the second one through the head, precisely the point I had been aiming at. The lead one fired his shot into the darkness. The last one never did figure out what everyone else was aiming at, because that was when Marcus’s artillery hit.
The world vanished in a flash of gold.
When my sight returned, all three men had disappeared. The wall was singed but otherwise undamaged where they had stood. Just as I supposed, it hadn’t mattered. A stray artillery shot had wiped the three Augers out entirely. I looked along the length of the wall for targets.
Soon enough there were plenty of Augers rearing up along the ramparts that had been hiding them. For a moment I was ecstatic that they could not see us, then realized that their shots went over my shoulders into our own artillery. They were aiming at Marcus’s operators because they could not see us. I chose a human form blurred by distance and the rain and the spectral whiteness of the barrel. I held my breath, let half out, squeezed. The figure fell, but it could have been my shot or the stray of the spearmen next to me. As I said, we don’t call our marks.
Breathe, hold, exhale, release. Blurred target after blurred target atop the wall in the darkness. Where did they all come from? I wondered. I squeezed on an empty barrel. As I had done ten thousand times in practice, but never yet in battle, I swapped the lightspear to my left hand and slid its sister from my back, replaced it with the empty. That’s when their artillery finally got together another counter-assault, like we had seen from atop the ridge before we charged.
A line of suns arched toward us through the night, and I remembered Wesing. But this line couldn’t have been more than fifty orbs across, and it was aimed entirely at Marcus, who had spread his infantry out enough: their shells shed most of the energy into the air and earth. It was only when infantry packed together, Julius had taught me, that shells ended up dumping into each other. That was actually what caused the explosions, dismemberment and disintegration among soldiers of the line, he said, not the orbs themselves.
Breathe, hold, squeeze, release. Figure after figuring standing up atop the ramparts to fire their lightspears into darkness. That was when the first ranks of Julius’s infantry reached us, halfway through my second spear, clomping up through the mud the rain and Marcus’s withdrawal had made. We did not have to warn them about the mastodons, for they had become spectral forms themselves just then.
Breathe, hold, squeeze, release. I missed. Everyone missed that night. The rain blurred the outlines of the targets and the White Swarm blurred our sights, never mind that mastodons never stand entirely still, or that the counter-bombardments came occasionally blindingly close. The more I thought about it, the more remarkable my shot at the three standing on the corner had been, not only across the distance to the wall, but also the distance crossways along it, well over three hundred paces in extremely poor conditions.
More shouted commands came up from the captains of Marcus’s infantry behind. “Make way! Make way!”
I squeezed on an empty barrel. Swap, slide, replace: third spear. Very soon I might as well take out my pen and start writing, for all the good I would manage in combat. There was some confusion as Julius’s infantry coming from up front met our infantry coming from the rear, threatening Marcus’s carefully spread formation. Several captains grew cross, and started cursing.
That did not seem right. We were always having trouble with the converts, through the White Swarm helped more and more with integration. But the Neverborn did not make logistical mistakes.
Breathe, hold, squeeze, release. The figures atop the wall were visibly diminished. We were taking probably half the return fire we once had been. I was probably twenty shots in when everyone finally sorted themselves out and I heard the swoosh of our five thousand pieces of artillery slowing to a formation stop. The cavalry, so to speak, had finally arrived.
“What’s that?” I heard Jerem Cozak, asking one of the incoming captains over the whine of five thousand artillery swinging around to bear. “What did you say was wrong?”
“It’s Julius, warlord,” said a voice I recognized, but could not name. “Julius!”
The night was lit by five thousand orbs of blinding brilliance, arching overhead. I lowered my lightspear, feeling immediately outclassed. Not since the war of the first Faith would there have been a bombardment of the scale and ferocity of this one.
“What about him?” shouted the warlord over the fury as the barrage came down. This time, I thought the wall did shake. “Think! Think clearly!”
“We cannot,” said the voice in the quiet after the impact. “The Neverborn diminish. Julius fallen. Three snipers, the corner of the wall. Shot through his head. We reached the top of the bluffs. Julius died the true death. He won’t walk this world again.”