Sunday, March 30, 2014

Behold the Jade City: Chapter Eighteen

 Chapter Eighteen
On the eighty-third day,

            we besieged the jewel city Kasora. We began the investment with five thousand artillery, ten thousand mastodons, and one hundred twenty thousand men who followed Jerem Cozak because he was who he said he was. The artillery our warlord arrayed in the mist at staggered positions all along the sloping valley, the mastodons in broken lines to allow for charges through the gaps between the disks, and the armored infantry massed and encamped to guard the river’s sole crossing at the base of the ramp. All except the artillery remained a careful three hundred paces from the base of the cliff on the river’s other shore. Our disks, of course, had to stay in range.

            Where the greatships went I had no idea. After unloading, Jerem Cozak sent them away down the River Kasora through the very canyon we had entered, and out to sea for all I knew, out of sight of even the peaks of the Spine of the World. He would not even say whether or not they were manned. But another mystery he did solve.

            “Entrench!” he shouted, and nearly a thousand Neverborn took out the shovels they had carried since Ariel, and began digging defiles behind the artillery.

            He smiled again at my curious glance. “The towers of Kasora fire blindly always, and so do not need to see us. But their energies follow the level of the ground.”

            “But the disks will need to move, won’t they? Kasora will also have artillery to defend itself.”

            He nodded. “Just so. Hope, for our sake, that our operators move quickly.”

            “But what is this energy?” I asked. “Won’t it destroy our artillery, too?”

            “Watch and see. Witness the wonder and terror until your stomach turns.”

            He said no more to me. Instead he dismounted, and I did the same to follow him through the mist. He walked along the slope and oversaw the digging of the ditches behind the artillery, which became more and more extensive. There seemed to be three arching, concentric levels of them, each about thirty paces apart. Each trench was about ten paces long, only a little wider than one man’s shoulders, and as deep as the same man was tall. But soon some Neverborn were digging where there were no disks at all, but in the spaces between them. Jerem Cozak insisted to nearly everyone that the ditches needed to be deeper.    

            Next we visited the encampment. There were few tents, as we had marched too swiftly to gather those supplies. We would live as the Neverborn lived, inside our armor, which provided protection against the elements, but no comfort. Still the camp was dense, packed in between the western cliffs and the river along the narrowing valley as it turned north toward the cliffs of the canyon that marked the vale’s end. The encampment came down almost to the water’s edge, where men were erecting a wooden palisade.

            I laughed at that, thinking it would pose no barrier at all for quickswords, until I realized that it curved slightly, as though to follow a certain distance. Then I knew it a reminder: three hundred paces, and go no further. Jerem Cozak told them that the Neverborn would come and dig a ditch in front of it. I stopped and listened to the water trilling through the rocks of the ford, wondering how a river could be deep enough for greatships a few hundred paces downstream, but shallow enough here to permit a man to walk across. Whatever was on the other side, I could not see it for the mist.

            Most of the men were quiet, sitting or standing, but staring across the other side as I did, waiting. Sorties would come here, if anywhere. Artillery would target this place once they realized men were here. The cliffs would be at their backs and the river and canyon curving away into the north. The only retreat would be east onto the swale, unto  a field blasted by artillery and caught in its own exchange, crossed by trenches and cratered by energy impacts – which may not tear apart Profusionist walls, but do devastate ordinary earth and flesh. I did not envy the infantry their position.

            The safest place was where I would be, parked behind the artillery lines atop my mastodon for no strategic reason that I could see except that there was no other place to fit them. The artillery was defended by default by the encampment at the ford. Our purpose was for when the walls fell and the gate broke and it came time to rush the city. Nobody needed to tell me that mastodons would form the vanguard, and that all the remaining Auger strength would be waiting for us atop that ramp. 

            By the time the entrenchment finished, darkness fell. The mastodons lay down for the night, and I sat with my back against my own. Tomorrow it began, and would not stop until either we or the Augers all were dead. I remembered thinking exactly this outside the first fortress of the Profuse Hand, and laughed. Then, we had a whole world to conquer, and when we charged it in all our strength my dread fell away. Now I felt my journey ended at the top of that ramp, riding beside Jerem Cozak, and my dread only increased.

            I do not know when I fell asleep, but just as I did I felt a gentle breeze. The air turned very cold and I shivered, and I stood alone amongst the stars. Only this time the floor upon which I stood was not clear like water. No, the floor was fire itself, and I could feel it melting the Profusionist metal of my armor. I had only some few moments left to live. Then I looked up, and before me stood the demons of the void. There were five of them only, and I wondered where the others were. But these were larger, now, and wreathed in the same fire as the floor, though I knew it would not consume them.  

            As before, one stepped forward from among them to speak to me.

            “We have them,” it said, and I felt the truth of it shake the depths of my bones. “You will never reach the ships. You and your pretty cloud will be undone.”

            I thought of my beloved, golden and serene, and tasted ash in my mouth.

            “She is not here,” it said. “She cannot come. Their days are done. Time is ours. You will have accomplished nothing.”         

            It smelt of the stench of burning flesh. “We come to collect the lightships. You die before you step inside this city. The one you follow has already fallen. You are only the last to know it.”

            I said nothing, thinking only of the flames that were breaching my armor. I looked down, and screamed. My feet were already gone, consumed by the tongues of fire. In their place stood hooves. 

            “He can be wrong,” the demon hissed.

            I woke to the whine or artillery powering en masse. I started, and my mastodon stood and shook herself awake. The sky was still dark, though now clear. There was no hint of dawn, or of the mist. The only fog was low in the valley and away to the north, over where the encampment was.

            “Do not believe your dreams,” said a familiar voice, and I looked and saw Jerem Cozak silhouetted atop the matriarch, standing as always just to my left. “There is little truth in them.” There came the throb of our disks releasing their charges, and he pointed to indicate that I should witness the exchange. “Time burns. The wind could not be prevented. We would have been exposed regardless.”

            But not all the artillery had fired, only perhaps a third of them, targeting a tower. Their orbs sang through the air and struck around its base. A few missed and dissolved in the air above the city. Almost none struck the wall. When those had fallen silent came the second wave, and the third, all targeting the same tower, but none of them the wall.

            “But – ” I began to say, and Jerem Cozak motioned me to silence. There came from the city itself a high keening sound that hurt my ears and made me look down and away. It deepened quickly. The artillery officers abandoned their machines and dove into the ditches behind them.

            The whine became a thump, then a whooshing sound, and from the tops of the towers swept a swift line of golden energy, a yellow-white ring that surged down the sides of the towers and leapt out away from the wall and the cliffs and through the air across the creek, arcing down until it slammed into the shallows that lined the river and turned them to steam before sweeping up the slope to where a squad of artillery men had not yet abandoned their equipment.

            I do not know why they had not left. Either the operators had misunderstood or there was some fault with the disks, but in any case in one moment eight men were climbing out of their artillery or diving for the ditches. And in another moment they were gone. I thought I saw, for a moment, their outlines superimposed upon that ring of energy just as it struck them, but then it passed through them and they were only red droplets descending as a pale fine mist. What happened to their armor I do not know. Perhaps it was even more violently disintegrated.

            At the end of three hundred paces precisely, the band of gold energy silently dispersed.

            “Three million,” said Jerem Cozak. “Three million died this way before the high cities of Redmarak fell. I wonder that any fanaticism could have been enough.”

            I shook my head.

            “Now,” said Jerem Cozak, “comes the real retribution.”        

            I looked to the walls of Kasora again, and saw a line of hundreds of golden orbs arching up away from the city, falling with all the terrifying familiarity of stones hurled by children. But these were not mundane, and they fell near groups of artillery with uncanny accuracy. The orbs burst, earth exploded upward, and another disk and its operators died in front of me in the mundane way the war had more acquainted me with.

            “The siege of Kasora has been fought many times,” said Jerem Cozak, “and more often analyzed. Assailants disable the towers with artillery so that they can bring infantry to the gate when it falls. Defenders use the Towers of Light to pin artillery in place so their own artillery can counter it. If the assailing artillery fails to remove the towers, the city stands. If the assailant retains artillery after the last tower falls, the city may be taken, so long as the defense is significantly outnumbered.”

            I looked sideways at him as another barrage began, this one from operators who had not fired the first time. “In every other battle,” I said, “you have changed the field of combat. You have taken us by unexpected ways, or brought walls down by powers you did not explain. You taught the Swarm to heal wounds that would have killed us, and to make it so that we could not be seen. There is nothing like that here?”

            He smiled. “The game is set. All the pieces are in motion. I have told you what I will give, and we are locked inside this valley. What more is there to do?”

            Hearing that made me shiver. I watched another cycle of the exchange between Kasora and our artillery. This time, when the Towers shrieked their keening sound, all our operators took their cover. And there were no disks destroyed by the counter-bombardment, which went wide of its marks.

            “They think we have fewer artillery than we do,” I said. “That is why you use so few and move them so often, though they cannot be seen.”

            He nodded. “It will take them time to realize how we keep the bombardment so constant. Any sortie that crosses the river will have a similar experience.”

            “They’ll think they’re fighting ghosts, the Augers.”

            He nodded. “It is something of a plan.”

            I reflect on our conversation. “Marcus asked about them, the Arks of Kasora. When I told him what they were, he said he hoped they stayed sealed.”

            He raised an eyebrow. “Did he? Imagination has never been his merit.”

            But I knew he did not mean anything about the Arks, but another realignment of our army. After Neseschia, Marcus had pulled all the Neverborn from leading sections of the infantry and replaced them with now experienced captains. The death of Julius required this, I learned from a scout named Phaedrus. But it did not require that Marcus place himself and his Neverborn as Jerem Cozak’s personal bodyguard, which is how they came to be digging ditches and not leading the defense of the crossing. And which meant that they would make up the rest of the vanguard charging through the gate, instead of doing something more clever and effective.

            But Marcus did not relent, nor did Jerem Cozak, and I understood that Julius had been more important than I ever knew. I had only liked him because he was kind, and my friend. His power had not been obvious. But how many of the decisions we had made, I wondered, had actually been his?

            In all this time, the bombardment had not ceased. The first tower slumped, at last being visibly affected by the nearly constant impacts. There came again the high keening sound, and then the whoosh and ring of light passed over the slope and among the artillery and over the tops of the entrenchments everyone had dived into.  

            After, a squad of Neverborn rushed out to dig again a trench that had been filled in by the debris from a blown crater. Those would not suffice for cover. The Light had swept right through the ones in range.

            I counted the towers. There were fifty six of them along the span of Kasora’s long southern wall, sixty four in all. How long? I wondered. How long to take all of them? Would the Light weaken as they collapsed, or did it not work that way at all? Jerem Cozak had not spoken of them in that fashion. I turned to ask him.

            But he was already in conference with someone, a messenger who panted in the darkness, his form bending over at the waist. He looked to have run all the way from the encampment.

            “Valkyries?” the warlord asked. “What do you mean? Kasora has none.”

            “The entrenchment filled and they overrode. We couldn’t stop them.”

            Jerem Cozak frowned. “Couldn’t stop them? You were chameleoned. Where did they go?”

            The man only shook his head, and looked around in confusion. “Aren’t they? What happened?”

            Jerem Cozak spun, and called down the line. “Marcus, you have the field!” He turned and faced me for a moment. “Come,” he said. And then he turned, and we left the messenger standing alone amidst the lines of mastodons. Just as I turned, he sat down, legs stretched out in front of him as though he did not quite realize they were there. The bombardment of the city continued unabated.

            We rode down into the mist. And so we did not so much enter the encampment as have it spring up around us amidst the dampened quiet. As out of nowhere men clattered and trotted and repositioned themselves. All looked like ghosts through the eyes of the White Swarm, chameleon being in effect. Everywhere, captains shouted orders. Where before, everyone had seemed confined to waiting, now I saw men digging even with their helmets. Lines formed up and even marched in combat formation, shoulder to shoulder with their shields raised and swords extended. Jerem Cozak questioned a captain and turned and followed a line directly north, towards that corner of the encampment along its eastern edge.

            Here were fewer men, and I knew we had ridden ahead of the realignment. Soon we came to the first bodies lying on the torn earth. Most were torn in two as though by some great blade, innards strewn across the torn and loamy black ground. My warlord found a captain who was directing a squad carrying the injured up from the water’s edge.

            “Behind the fifth defile,” the man said. “Get them to stand if they can help it.” And then, when he saw who came, “Warlord!” and turned to face us fully.

            “Valkyries?” asked Jerem Cozak.

            The man, who I saw now had no hair atop his head, nodded. “Riding machines, like we saw at Sepira. They carried these things,” he said, and waved his arm to indicate. From behind us, there came the rattling advance of reinforcements.

            “Cassan Vala,” said Jerem Cozak, shaking his head. “Where are you? Why did you not come? What happened that you did you not hold them there?”

            “Warlord?” the captain asked.  The lines of soldiers in formation marched past us, breaking left or right, hurrying into position.

            “Heatwhips,” said Jerem Cozak. “From the Shuni Plateau. They are known to sever bodies so.” He nodded toward one of the bifurcated corpses on the ground.

             “The Swarm will not heal that,” the captain said. The ranks along the river’s edge now stood four or five deep, packed tightly together in that wall that stops a cavalry charge.

            Jerem Cozak spat. “No. For that, there is no healing. But remove the bodies, too. How many valkyries?”

            The captain shook his head. “Thousands, thousands and thousands. They came like a wall, right for us. Right for us. They saw us, they see everything – ”

            Then came a roar and golden flash that lit up the world. It bore into my eyes. The world disappeared and there was only darkness blurred. My mastodon reared, and I clung blindly to its fur. Swapping sensoriums only meant that I took its pain; the vision got no better. The matriarch bellowed in injury and I did not hear Jerem Cozak’s voice commanding it. Someone to my left shouted “Artillery! Entrench! Hold position!” and other things I could not distinguish as more explosions came. Everywhere, men screamed, senseless cries of terror and of agony. 

            My vision brightened before it cleared. Clinging to the damp coarse fur of my mastodon, I saw at first only dim shapes lying scattered across the ground. Swapping senses did not help, as the burst had blinded my beast, too. All our ears rang. The bombardment slackened and its roar faded away west down the river. There was the tang of burned metal and the sweet hot smell of torn earth and blood. When my vision finally cleared, the forms on the ground sharpened to the bodies of the men whose organs had been liquefied inside their armor and their corpses thrown by the explosion.

            One crater was immediately in front of me, not ten paces distant where the squad captain had stood. I did not see him at all Another crater was fifteen paces to my left, probably a pace deep at its center. The new lines of reinforcements had been torn apart. Some who were now rising had only been injured by the concussion and would be healed by the Swarm. The ones who did not move would not be healed, because they had lost the white and spectral nature imparted by chameleon. The White Swarm had departed them.

            I started when I saw that one of the moving was Jerem Cozak, thrown from his mastodon. I could not see the matriarch anywhere. The warlord pushed himself up to his knees.

            “Get Marcus,” he said. “Tell him one hundred pieces, corner of the citadel. He will understand.” There came the heavy, stomping sound of further reinforcements.

            “But I don’t –”

            “’Ware valkyries!” someone yelled downriver. “Here they come again!”

            His eyes widened. “Go, man! Or we lose this crossing now! You understand?”

            I nodded. As I turned I realized that the lines of reinforcements I could hear coming would have had to run toward the bombardment while it was still falling. I urged my mastodon to her full run. In a few moments I would reach Marcus. As I cleared the fog I saw that dawn paled the eastern sky. There came a long low crumbling from atop the wall to the north. I turned my head and saw: after two watches of continuous bombardment by the most powerful weapons in the world, the first tower of Kasora had finally fallen. Sixty three remained.

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