Your basic Shuni heatwhip is a thin and flexible cord, about four meters long. It’s made of Profusionist metal, quickened by the same energy that bursts forth from artillery, and set in a quicksword hilt. You can’t really block them, they’ll take your blade right out of your hand, and the first thing they do when they wrap around you is start sinking through your armor. Once the cord cuts in, its wielder gives a jerk and very abruptly slices you in two. From the moment it locks up your arms, and a good Shuni will do just that, you have the space of about three breaths to close and kill him before that cord bites flesh.
Historically, Thaeronian swordsmen had tried to outnumber the Shuni, spearmen frantically to keep their distance. Mastodons fared well on the initial charge or died legless very soon thereafter. The best hope against them has always been the valkyrie, because they present a supremely difficult target and close the vital distance quickly.
Valkyries just like the machines my five thousand rode, a kilometer out to sea from the base of a series of impassable cliffs.
Of course, one never has just one plan. The Augers had made a mistake leaving the ramp down the previous night. Oh, sure, they hadn’t known we had chameleonic capability, back then. But that open incline was a vulnerability nonetheless, utterly unnecessary, and gained them no advantage.
I’d taken advantage instead. Not all my scouts had returned from that initially ordered foray. Two dozen had spent the night crawling, as silently as possible, all the way up that open ramp. More would have guaranteed exposure, invisibility or not. Less would have mooted the point. I did not envy the ones that went their experience. Slow, nervous work on hands and knees, sliding on your belly, rolling out of the way if patrols or reinforcements walked by, knowing that, if discovered, you were dead. Trying not to breathe too loud.
And they were probably dead men anyway, at least if they executed orders. Which weren’t much, actually, just to reach the top, find a place they could see, and stay the hell down until opportunity presented itself. I hadn’t specified which opportunity. That was something of the point. You can’t really know these things ahead of time.
I sure as hell hoped they managed something now.
“Right, keep the disks hitched,” I told Ash. “Give us ten breaths. Follow my tail.” He nodded and got doing, barking orders down the line.
“Valkyries!” I turned on my machine. “To the Stair! Let’s see if we can’t climb faster than the infantry!”
I went, my eyes pinned on the center of the tiers. If ever there was a time, I thought.
And lo! As we neared, with a great grinding sound the ramp in the center of the Stair reared its blessed slope again, sliding up in segments. The earth shook. The water shivered. But it made sense. Taking the control would create a window of time, no more. For their stunt to mean anything, the stranded scouts up there would have had to have had friendly valkyries near the bottom of the stair.
They’d been waiting for me to show myself, after the fighting turned. Well, one can’t know.
And I was back now. “Valkyries! Full speed!”
We left the open ocean behind. The spray sang and salt air filled my lungs. One hundred twenty breaths it took the ramp to cycle. Assuming they had killed whatever bored squad had manned the switch to start with, add a few more for the Augers to get there and do exactly the same to them. I let the line of the docks around the wharf funnel us into the single column we’d need to take the ramp anyway, thirty valkyries wide.
One hundred fifty minus ten. We left the beach behind. The Stair surged up before us, daunting in its sheer artificiality and size. Down its center lolled the broad silver tongue of the ramp.
“Wedge formation!” We’d face resistance near the top. The ramp would make it easier for everyone to move. And it was all for naught if, in the end, we didn’t control that switch for good.
One hundred twenty breaths. The beach was a thin white fringe at the base of the stair, occupied by low gray stone buildings decimated by the war, burnt out or broken through. Around them waited the ranks of my dead who had not yet gotten the chance to climb. Fifty thousand men take up a lot of room. Thankfully, these had nothing to do but get out of my way, stepping clear as my valkyries rode through.
We hit the lip of the ramp going as fast as valkyries can move, three times the speed of any man running. I shouted and willed and sent orders through the Swarm for my army of the walking dead to stay off the damn incline. I would not necessarily have done so in their position. For all they knew this chance was supposed to be for them. I had to slow for fear of mauling my own men.
One hundred breaths. The first few tiers were filled by the soldiers who had taken them, exhausted by the climb and combat and waiting to get the orders to climb ahead again. Sitting slumped, out of lightspear range, vacantly watching more friendly ranks dribble up over the edge, fresh and eager men who had not yet engaged. Around all, the pale thin mist of the White Swarm. Dead Augers and too many of our own sprawled pell-mell across the open metal ground. Wounded being carried to safety. The ramp stayed clear.
Ninety breaths left. Came the slicing whisper of lightspear fire and the high whine of quickswords in action. The stench of burning metal from artillery strikes. The embattled tiers seven, eight, nine. Ki’s shattered squads, fighting man to man. Heatwhips flinging our men back down over the edges of the tiers. Nogilian’s lines holding, attempting a slow swing maneuver. A few of ours isolated, standing helpless and paralyzed in their silver armor as an Auger squad closed in. Screams, shouted orders to regroup. Flash of blinding gold as an artillery orb struck the tier, taking out Auger and mine alike. More of my dead climbing the wall of the tenth tier, armor pierced by lightspear bolts, quickswords digging in as they climbed. At the top, Nogilian in his white armor, charging a pair of Augers, a blade in each hand, their heathwhips sailing over his back as he ducked low.
Eighty breaths. We cleared the embattled tiers, slid into purely opposition territory. Eleven, twelve, thirteen. Fortunately, the ramp does not connect to any of the tiers except when lain flat, otherwise one must traverse the narrow lip at the edge. Redeployment is slow across that kind of terrain, though the Auger officers had had, now, the space of seventy breaths to put together some kind of action. You could see the thin lines of infantry forming up ahead, light shining between black forms blurred by distance. I accelerated. They weren’t the problem. They were the distraction.
Came the hiss and whine of artillery disks otherwise unoccupied. Seventy breaths is worlds enough for them, and time. Time to pivot toward the ramp suddenly ascended. Time to send out a few men to the open surface of the incline to try to slow us down. Time to power up and wait and coordinate your fire for that precise moment and angle when a formation of valkyries is quartering away and could not, would not, turn to charge you. The blurred figures of the Augers on the open ramp lurched closer, became real men.
My flying wedge met them just as all hell broke loose. I beheaded one, bellowed “Forward! Keep moving!” because there was nothing else to do. The world turned gold, and I was staring ahead. Came the stench of burned metal and the whine of swift emergency measures, all the energy shells of everyone hit dumping the overcharge into the ground, into each other. I held my breath. I’d spread everyone as wide as I could upon the narrow ramp.
Then it came, the sound every cavalry officer dreads. Boom, as someone’s shell collapsed under the energy from the artillery disk and its bearer’s bones and organs liquefied. And their valkyrie slammed into the hard metal of the ramp, expending all the furor of its drive. Boom, as the energy of that collision cascaded into others. Boom and crash and the shrieking of Profusionist metal destroying itself at high velocities. Boom and boom and boom. Each explosion a death, a real death, as sure as if I stood there driving my quicksword into each unguarded brain. Boom and boom and boom and boom and boom, the teeth-shaking furor coming faster and faster until it became a constant roar and the heat of the wall of the explosions pressed against my back, my own shell straining against the roiling inferno now devouring the very air behind me.
And I broke clear. Free and clear of the fire of the artillery and the dead I left behind. Free and clear of enemy occupation. Seventy breaths to go. Silence. Empty, still silence. Huh? Tiers twenty, twenty-one, and twenty-two were all unoccupied. I couldn’t believe it. There were supposed to have once been half a million men on this plateau. Had the Augers sent them all offworld? I shouted full speed to those cleared of the wreckage. I dare not look behind, not yet. I concentrated on the open ramp and the small switch house at the top, just a blip at this distance.
The empty tiers rolled by. Sixty breaths, then fifty. The control building grew larger. Forty, thirty. There were men milling around it, a couple squads. Twenty breaths, I pulled back my quicksword, prepared to strike. Ten. Pulled up just in time to see new sunlight glinting on silver armor. Not a suicide mission, then. Not for these men. That was for the ones behind me.
“Report,” I gasped, slewing sidewise, terrified of everyone who would not come up behind.
“They left a couple squads up here,” the captain said, indicating bodies around a nearby outcrop. “We were thinking about moving in when the chameleon broke and they charged us anyway. They were dumb about it, we were up on the rocks. That done, we knew what it meant, so we hit the switch and hoped. Glad you came. Got lonely.”
I dismounted, giving him the eye. Pure deadpan, that. I have never known the White Swarm to diminish someone’s personality. Though I have suspected enhancement on various occasions.
“Hit the switch,” I said. He looked at me. “Heatwhips don’t climb.”
I wanted them trapped down there. He turned and stepped inside the building. Through the open door, I watched the sequence until I lost it, then turned away. To face what I did not want to. This part of the plateau was filling up with valkyries. But not as much as should be.
They sorted themselves without my oversight, rally grouping inside a perimeter of watchers, with a few scouts setting out to patrol the plain. Windy up here, and cold. My boots crunched a skiff of snow. I reminded myself it was winter in this part of the world. To the south, between valkyries, I caught glimpses of a land of short grasses extending to infinity. Mountains climbing up forever on either side. Through the narrow gate, indeed.
But praise all the gods that be, Ash’s artillery pulling up over the edge of the ramp, towed by their valkyries. Five hundred golden beauties. The ten breaths I gave them had been vital. Even Auger artillery takes a very definite time to recharge. By the time Ash had reached my devastation, the other firm hadn’t had anything to do other than volley a few lightspears at them, the worst possible assault against artillery disks in rapid motion. You can’t even see the operators. Ash pulled up looking for more combat.
The same could not be said for the rest. Many of my squads looked half strength, some did not appear at all. Few were entirely unscathed. I had them sort out by thirds. Three columns, about a thousand each. Dammit, we’d started out with five. But even now more of our brethren were dying down there.
“Right,” I said to them all. “No time, they’re trapped. This column, follow Ash when he takes the artillery down around the thirtieth tier. Dismount, keep them from coming up on our disks. Ash, don’t overextend yourself, take one tier at a time, cycle disks in and out. Center column, follow them, stay behind, keep the ramp clear so Ash can drop down when the time comes. This column, stay with me, we hold this control, we do not get surprised, we swoop down if it gets too hot down there. Got it?”
Everybody went. I nodded to the scout captain to hit the switch again. I took the oculars back from Ash, remounted, prepared to sit on my damn ass again. Nogilian’s furor still ringing in my ears. I will not be risked except in need. Curiously, I’d gotten that upbraiding while camped out in Sepira, in the depths of blackbrain, no one doing any fighting except me against myself. Had he been trying to break through? I supposed I’d never know. But it had helped. And I understood, now, why my dead men held him so beloved.
Now I watched two thousand of them go down to join a fight already involving fifty thousand on each side. But their placement was important. One hundred artillery cannot be ignored. That was all Ash took down, in the end, with the leading ten pulling up on the twenty-eight tier. Between his disks and the men defending them, he occupied damn near every centimeter of that tier. Then began bombardment. He was methodical. He staggered the firing to maintain continuous pressure. The four Auger disks parked on that level turned to argue, but took too much time. By the time I ordered the ramp open again, the twentieth tier had been reduced to vacant territory. Nothing further moved.
Ash obeyed my orders. All advanced but the ten disks who had begun the fighting. Good. I dropped the ramp. Target the nineteenth tier. A similar exchange, and predictable result. The opposition did not realize their peril. The bulk of the Auger artillery kept turned north, to keep plastering Nogilian. A weakness I’d noted in the other firm, a delight in devastation and their own potency. It would get them killed here. We’d had ten times more artillery to start with. Jerem Cozak and I had scoured the world to have it, and I had lost two thousand men to get it in superior position.
I watched Ash scour the eighteenth tier. Then I handed the oculars to the next highest officer available. All over but the dying, now. I did not need to see it.
Came the buzz that presaged the cycling of the ramp again. This time I did not dismount. I turned away and rode a short ways out into the wind. The Shuni Plateau is one of those places where that never ceases. The eternal howling of the plain. I stopped my valkyrie and looked at nothing. It was impressive, a vacancy greater than that of Nogilia. These grasses were too short to wave in the breeze, stubble mostly ankle-high. Seeing no rolling valleys, I suspected sudden canyons and rivers that went nowhere. Desert, then. Around me, east and west on either side, the mountains curved away until their great heights became smudges on the horizon. To the south even that was flat, the meniscus of open spaces. Out there the snow would become deeper, drifting, settling into depths one could not perceive.
Snow, I knew from research, both does and does not support a valkyrie, depending on consistency. There were eight eights of fortresses scattered throughout this plateau, sixty-four cities in all. I wondered if we could rebuild our strength, if we had the time, if any of it mattered. I would tire again. Duties pressed. The blackbrain would return, in a land without a sea to watch. Nogilian had warned me that the Shuni were fanatics even before the nightwind came. Feeling the wind hammer at my armor, I thought I understood.
I was still there when a patrol of ten returned from the emptiness. They seemed puzzled to see me away from the Stair. I raised an eyebrow.
“No contact, our Guardian,” their captain reported. “The first city lies just over the horizon from here. No activity.”
Now it was my turn to be perplexed. We were knocking on their door. Weren’t they even interested? Surely we had not seen the full strength of the plateau.
“Right,” I said. “Maintain perimeter, keep your distance. Keep touch with the other patrols. Someone somewhere will care what we’re doing.”
He snorted, gave a wry smile, waved his men around. Left. This wasn’t right, any of it. The Augers should have responded better to my ploy. There should never have been so many tiers left vacant in the first place. We were missing something. I sped back to the Stair, looked down upon all the flashing. Ash’s disks were tiny coins in the distance. He had advanced. The ramp was cycled down. It would be a while, yet. I spun back to the switch house. This time I did dismount. I walked inside, to watch the keystrokes and be sure I had the sequence right. One never knows.
I nodded at the scout-captain, took in the rest of the room. Swore.
“You’ve got to be kidding me! Why the hell didn’t someone say–”
I cut myself off, staring at the black and swirling sphere, head-sized, sitting atop a pedestal against the back wall. The constraints of the culture of this world: unless yon scout-captain had been a clerk in the Temple, secretary to Jerem Cozak, or page to one of the eight Guardians of the world, he would have had no idea what was in the room with him. He could never have identified a linking sphere, that orb which once empowered a network of instantaneous communication between the stars. Now, of course, the Augers used them the same way I once had: to talk to high command.
They had a memory. I picked up the orb and replayed the last electronic conference. A three-way confab between officers on this very Stair and the commander of the incoming interstellar fleet. Did I harken? To the tips of my toes. And sat down, in the end, overwhelmed by the import. Cradling the orb, I replayed it again, and again. Behind me, the ramp cycled open and closed. I made sure of my translation. I left no doubt. It took a while. Not for nothing, then, my training in communications. I could not shut down my own elation. We had stepped in golden shit.
I walked out into the glories of a cloudless noon, azure sky abounding. The ramp had cycled open and stayed that way. The full complement of artillery arrayed itself against a far wall of rock. Nogilian came limping over the top covered in blood not his own, his armor burned and scourged in a dozen places. It would be a while healing.
“The Stair is yours, our Guardian,” he said, and thrust his quicksword into the ground, “and it cost a third of our strength. We rallied when you took the ramp.”
I closed my eyes. As I had thought, then. But the gain could not be denied. “We have the plateau as well. The Augers abandoned it. These were rearguard, to delay us and deal out damage only.”
He scowled. “Where did they go? When? How many?”
I shook my head. “A week ago. We hadn’t even left Sepira. Fifty thousand valkyries.”
His eyes went wide. “Kasora! We must warn them! Jerem Cozak will not expect – ” I waved him to silence.
“We can’t,” I said. “Even if we wanted to, we would be too late.”
“Ki will argue this,” he pointed toward the ramp. ‘She is being carried here.”
“I’ll win,” I said. “No matter what, I’ll win.” That captured his attention. He paused, regarded me silently.
“The Road to the Sun,” I asked, “do you know where it is? Is it open to valkyries?”
He nodded. “A Shuni pilgrim road, on which no snow lays. In the mountains far to the southwest. It supposedly climbs to the Cup of Gods, a holy site whose purpose even the Shuni could not remember. Now it is another frozen caldera in the rocks. But why? Why do you wish to know this place?”
I smiled. “Because we didn’t find them, Nogilian. The Augers did. Couple weeks ago some half-mad searcher descended from the heights. Big to-do about it when he finally got here. Everybody was already shipping out. But a legion got dispatched south, on foot. Because they found them. Lightships, those spacecraft that travel faster than light. They’re waiting for us, at the end of the Road to the Sun. All we have to do is get there first.”