On the eighty eighth day,
the first valkyries broke through the crossing. Or maybe Marcus let them through, I do not know. There were so many casualties down there that the Neverborn were holding the center of the lines against every charge, to keep the men from breaking. But the valkyries came darting like flies unto the plain in the warm still afternoon and we could not hit them even with massed spearfire. I aimed and released as swiftly as I could, again and again, until the whisk of the lightspear became a constant whisper in my ear. The valkyries were only a few hundred, but savaged the artillery, which could not turn fast enough to counter them. The smell of blood and death came up to us along with the cold mud stink of the river.
We lost a dozen disks before Jerem Cozak commanded that we do what I dreaded: charge them on our mastodons. He took the whole center of the front line with us, probably three thousand beasts and their riders. This was necessary because we could not match the valkyrie’s speed. We had to cut them off.
Naturally, the Augers broke formation and scattered by squads. We charged and they sped, darting left or right but always slipping further north. They drew us further and further from our lines and toward the river. The wind sang around my ears and the iron muscles of my mastodon corded and bunched beneath me and we finally caught a squad along the water’s edge. They were far lighter than artillery, and I downed two just by swiping my tusks in the right moment – but the stinging, scalding pain came after, when the valkyries crashed into the ground and exploded.
I fully swapped sensoriums even before the shock of fire hit. And the sharp sensations confirmed the reason for my dread: the high keening sound of the Towers of Light came from overhead. We’d gotten too far from the lines. We could not make it back in time. I’d been counting breaths.
“Light!” Jerem Cozak shouted. “The Towers! Into the river! Against the cliffs!”
One hundred and twenty, I thought. From the very first I had counted one hundred twenty breaths between the pulses of ancient energy. That was the number each artillery man lived by. And now, on the fifth day of the siege of Kasora, the Light of its towers would sweep across the slope for the four thousand and eightieth time. My stomach turned.
We charged the river. What happened to the valkyries I do not know. The world exploded in seas of icy spray as the feet and legs of the mastodons struck the water. Soon, we were swimming toward the cliff. The high keening sound became louder, overwhelming, then a thump as I looked up. I heard the smaller plashes of Jerem Cozak and other riders dismounting into the river.
There came a whooshing sound and the sky flashed with a film of gold for an instant, very near to my face it seemed. I tasted something sour. Then it was gone away and I knew it swept across the sloping field behind us. There were further shouts, then all fell silent. I turned, saw clouds of red mist to the left and right along the shore, and vomited into the river.
Jerem Cozak paddled up to the matriarch and remounted and we surged back toward the shore again. By the time we trotted unto solid ground, artillery orbs were bursting all around us.
“Back to the lines!” he roared over the din. “By squads! Evasive spread!”
Then the warlord surged ahead, and my mastodon and thirty others followed his winding course back toward the herd at three-quarters run. Artillery burst to our right and left, and I realized that he knew by the positions of the disks that had fired where the Augers would be aiming. And that the squad captains would know the same, because he had told them to note such positions before the battle even began.
We drew up behind the artillery lines just as the high keening sound began again. I dismounted and stood, dizzy and shaking as our mastodons resumed their places in the line of the herd. Jerem Cozak stayed mounted, watching toward the crossing with his oculars.
“You knew,” I said. “You knew we were going to have to do that.”
He scowled. “Again I tell you, this siege has been laid many times. Some of those involved valkyries. Some involved mastodons. All involved artillery. The most successful used mastodons or valkyries or to protect or assail the disks. We are certainly not the first to use the river.”
From the north came again the high keening sound. Our artillery bombarded what would be the forty-third tower to fall. Jerem Cozak gave that order which sent out onto the field to redig the trenches. He had given it many times. Some would not come back. That work goes slowly in nearly freezing mud. And the men who went had no mastodons to ride, for they would make too good a target for artillery. I abandoned my protest.
The bombardment from the city poured on. A watch later valkyries broke through the lines at the ford again. We caught them high on the slope away from the Light but two mastodons lost their forelegs at the knees to Auger whips. They had to be killed because the White Swarm could not heal them.
Jerem Cozak gave more orders. Artillery was striking the encampment again, and the warlord altered the sequence of our own disks to counter them. Anticipating the Auger’s next maneuver, he then sent a thousand mastodons to charge the crossing and turn the wave of valkyries that would come inevitably in the bombardment’s wake.
And so was born a new creation: the Void, that corner where the western edge of the artillery field, the encampment’s eastern flank, and the southern limit of Kasora’s towers and artillery all converged. It was the same bend of the river where Jerem Cozak had been thrown from the matriarch, but I soon saw that it had been transformed. When our turn came, we charged into an area such that no part of it was not crater, and half of those were filling with blood and muddy water.
The infantry whose turn it was to defend had surged out of their trenches, and stood on open ground. To allow their shields to shed the energy of artillery strikes, they also stood in loose formation. Valkyries would cut right through them – unless our infantry were reinforced, at every opportunity, by squads of mastodons. Which, because they had no shields and made such tempting targets for artillery, and because they had no trenches to save them from the Light, could not themselves remain in place, and would have to retreat across the artillery field every one hundred and twenty breaths.
Thus the Void swallowed men and beasts alike, spitting out the lucky ones.
“We’re trapped,” I told Jerem Cozak several watches later. “We’re besieging, but we’ve been trapped regardless. The crossing’s too valuable to sacrifice because it would be impossible to regain.”
I’d just come back from a charge and was glad to have my mastodon’s back at the valley wall. I was also cursing the fact that neither me nor my beast had been injured. If we had been, we would not have to take our next rotation, and I would not have to count my breaths before the Light came back again. Jerem Cozak did not reply.
The watches sped on into evening. The forty sixth and forty seventh towers toppled. My turn to charge came three separate times. After the last, I turned to see two mastodons cut in half by the Light, their hindquarters gone, bawling helpless in the mud until two spearmen dispatched them with shots through their skulls. Their riders sat beside their mounts on the earth, staring unfocused into the distance. Runners soon came to place shovels in their hands.
“I don’t understand this war,” I told Jerem Cozak at midnight. “If we take this city, we have overthrown the Augers but it has all been for nothing. We didn’t look for the lightships because we were fighting. We should have searched the wilderness, instead of all this bloodshed. And from what I’ve heard our ally has done what we have done, only less of it.”
He shook his head. “You sound like Julius, who often spoke thus. But what good would the lightships do if we had no people to find them for?”
There was a crumbling sound as the forty eighth tower fell. I did not answer him. Two watches passed. Our herd charged again.
Thus we fought toward morning. Auger valkyries ran the crossing. We sent men and beasts into the Void to keep from losing the crossing. At some point, I realized that the least dangerous part of the charge was crossing the open field, where only scattered artillery was falling. Compared to the terror of the Light and the frenzied contact at the crossing, the place where only a few men died per watch felt like safe and gentle harbor.
“But it was the first city the Augers took,” the warlord said at sunrise on the eighty ninth day. “The first, and then they conquered our world. Why then? Why did they come here and what did they find that made them think our world worth taking?’
I could not answer him, thinking only we had brought the chaos of the void to earth. To our right fell the great cascade, where mist hanging suspended in the air and shimmering in the light that fell also across the cutting peaks of the mountains overhead. But to our left lay the crossing, a zone where men lay bisected, and even here, at our feet, the entire slope was black mud, a land consisting almost entirely of wrecked artillery and craters and the trenches we used to shelter from the strikes that made them.
I don’t know how many Augers died there, in the Void. I don’t know how many of our own infantry we sacrificed, though the captains claimed it cost them more than a thousand men per watch. I don’t even know how many mastodons, for the simple reason that the repeated charging kept them keyed up and we had to pace them up and down the line so that they would not panic and circle up. But we lost several with each charge, and ours were the last remaining.
The artillery was faring little better, being now reduced to half its original strength. But they made progress. The fifty sixth, fifty seventh, and fifty eight towers all fell that afternoon. Never did the ferocity of the Light abate. Jerem Cozak confirmed that it did not work that way, that the only necessary number of towers was two, so that energy could build between them. He would not or could not explain the process. The Void consumed all of his attention. It consumed everything.
“How do they see us?” I asked at dusk, thinking of the valkyries in a rare respite. “I thought chameleon– .”
Jerem Cozak shook his head. “The nightwind mimics. Both we and Cassan Vala have had long contact with it. The White Swarm is vulnerable when its bearers die in combat. The nightwind has learned that trait by which the White Swarm allows us to see each other, and copied it.”
“So we appear to them as ghosts as well?”
He did not answer me. The evening turned to night. We met at the crossing the largest group of valkyries we ever had, three of four thousand strong. A hundred mastodons did not return. Another fifty were dispersed before my eyes on the one hundred and twenty first breath. They vanished in the Light.
The fifty-ninth tower fell. The charges of valkyries grew larger still, five or six thousand riders and their machines. These only harrowed the very front lines at the crossing, where the Swarm still sat heavily as mist. Then they turned away. But I thought I saw, on two successive charges, the same one-armed Auger in the lead, wielding his heatwhip with ferocity. Were these, at last, the final valkyries remaining?
At midnight, the sixty-first tower fell. There was silence across the valley for about half a watch. Jerem Cozak moved the last of the artillery into positions throughout the encampment, where they could take aim at the towers along the western wall. Not more than one hundred disks remained. At the same time, infantry darted back our way between pulses of Light, because room was needed at the crossing. They fell in line by thousands between our groups of mastodons. Jerem Cozak led our herd as far west as possible, to a place where I could see the artillery through the low-settling mist of the White Swarm. No more valkyries charged the crossing.
“Why the change?” I asked him. “It’s not our turn to go.”
“We’re the vanguard of the column,” he replied. In my mind the battlefield flipped, and I saw it. He was lining us up to take the city when the last towers fell.
“Why are you breaking up the herds?” I asked, feeling the slow cutting sting of anxiety through my beast. “Wouldn’t it be better to charge through as one?”
He turned to look at me. “Do you still not understand? The rest of the army must be able to march past us.”
“But why –”
The Auger artillery barrage, when it came, was fierce. They couldn’t have had more remaining disks than we did, but they could now concentrate all their fire upon the encampment. The first wave of strikes came so densely I could have mistaken it for a wave of Light. I willed my mastodon to close its eyes, though the bursts fell some ways away.
When it cleared I found myself looking into the eyes of Marcus, who had ridden a mastodon between the blasts and Jerem Cozak. The furor in them challenged anyone to deny him his position. I did not. The only way I had been able to get him to go defend the crossing had been to say that if he did not, Jerem Cozak would never leave, but would stand alone in the middle of everything because the White Swarm would not let him. How Marcus in turn had gotten Jerem Cozak to go back to commanding the artillery field I do not know. But I knew that he would not be parted from Jerem Cozak again.
I was glad of it. I was glad to have the Neverborn line up as the first infantry behind our squad. I was glad to have the other mastodons pressed up against me in a herd beyond the limits of the artillery. Because as the wave of flashes fell I saw through the flying mud and spray and shards of golden Profusionist the wreckage of the encampment. Piles of twisted machinery now littered the muddy craters and the abandoned trenches or squatted on the mud torn loose by the boots of tens of thousands of men. And our remaining disks held their position and prepared their counterstrike as they sighted back at the unseen Auger disks or at the towers through the now rapidly clearing mist. And there came the coppery stench of blood and the hot torn earth and the thick stench that comes when men void bowels and bladder in their fear. The bitter reek of the dread of the mastodons and the men and now of Marcus himself as he rode beside Jerem Cozak.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him, bracing as I heard the hiss of our own artillery powering. “You don’t like what’s happening. Why?”
He shook his head. “It is not right, this place. It is too easy.”
I felt my eyes widen. “Too easy! What – ”
He scowled as the orbs released. “No infantry,” he said. “We face no infantry or spearmen here.” I did not ask for more detail.
The sixty fourth tower of Kasora fell at dawn. Four watches later, and with twelve artillery disks remaining, we broke the main gate. Jerem Cozak completed the realignment of the infantry, interspersing it among the squads of mastodons bearing spearmen. We were to divide by company and section the city after charging through the breach, which we could not see beyond for the presence of the nightwind, though the day was bright and cold and clear. The sun shone golden in the cerulean sky above, and there hung, absurdly, a rainbow in Kasora’s overhead mist, streaming south in a strong north wind.
We formed the first few groups of mastodons into charging formation. We were pitifully few, our herd of thirty. As with the rest of the army. Our artillery had essentially been eliminated. Less than half our infantry remained, and I could count the five thousand mastodons that we were taking in. I pondered the silence of the Auger artillery since the last tower fell. Had it been defeat?
Jerem Cozak made no speech. In all our march together, not once had he inspired men in the traditional way, though I believe he had somehow spoken alone with nearly everyone.
“Today, all his fulfilled!” he shouted at noon, his sharp baritone ringing through the valley, magnified by the Swarm. And he gave the command to charge.
We went, a wedge fifteen mastodons across and two deep, the first thirty beasts we had taken, and five hundred Neverborn marching double speed behind us, another wedge of mastodons behind them. Still another thousand men followed these, and on and on and on, a long column of men and beasts meant to split inside the city and take buildings one by one amidst spearfire and whatever else awaited us. The river splashed and shone gold in the noonday light. It seemed impossible somehow that we could just walk across it now, though it only came to the waists of the Neverborn and did not even touch the knees of the mastodons.
Then my eyes were only for the long rising ramp and the crumbled jade metal of the breach and the blackness beyond it, nightwind swirling as it ever had. When we hit the lip of the ramp we picked up to double speed, and the Neverborn ran full out behind us. The gate drew near, and I thought I saw beyond it a long line of the shades of men, forms in rank and file amidst the darkness.
I had already taken my mastodon’s senses, so I heard the hiss and gave the cry just as we topped the ramp and cleared the breach: “Artillery!”
The mastodons broke and charged into the wall of the orbs of Profusionist energy that were blossoming before us. I closed my eyes so that my mastodon could see later. If any of the orbs missed I did not know it. One hit my mastodon squarely in the chest as she charged forward, fury and momentum carrying her through even as her organs failed. I felt their collapse, though my energy shell protected me as the world vanished in a flash of gold. But by her bellow the matriarch was also hit and also kept going and I opened my eyes to see Marcus’s beast outpacing us both on the left, her right side scorched bare to the muscle by the strike. Other mastodons reared, and the right flank of the line lagged behind.
We charged across the long broad courtyard that we had known awaited us inside the gate. There also waited the silhouettes of the artillery, the ten Auger disks remaining. And before them and around them and behind them stood ranks and ranks of infantry with long weapons like pikes that we had never seen. They were as long as our mastodons were tall, and I knew that they were Profusionist, and they had not come from this world. And from further behind them, still, came the first golden streaks of lightspear fire, from the buildings and the street.
I swiped tusks once, twice, cradling the crushing agony that was my chest. Spearfire hit my mastodon, hit me. My armor weakened. But Augers fell before the momentum of our charge and I felt her tusks hook just under the edge of a disk as the first pikes dug into her sides and neck and throat. I arched in agony and she flipped the artillery. As she did, I thought that these Augers had never actually fought mastodons before.
Then a pike found her jaw and my beast reared away and from that greater height and I saw through the grey of the nightwind the unending sea of pikes and men and spearmen that awaited us. We did not outnumber them at all. They lined the street to the limits of my vision and beyond, filling the alleys and the rooftops. And beside me the matriarch also reared, and Marcus’s beast also bellowed, as all along the line mastodons reached the artillery and flipped the other disks.
And there appeared among them, flickering here and there, the demons of my vision.
The alien horrors danced along the backs of the mastodons, weightless and lithe though their heads would have come up well on any mastodon’s shoulder. Their long scythe arms blurred with movement and then disappeared in strikes too fast to see, cutting riders apart. Then they themselves vanished, and reappeared in another place, driving blades down into the skulls of beasts or severing their spines at the neck.
Jerem Cozak turned to look at me, our beasts still standing side by side on hind legs, his eyes wide in astonishment.
“They were already here,” he said. “They lied to me.”
Then a flaming darkness loomed behind him and my blood chilled and a great scythe split Jerem Cozak from his shoulder to his waist. Another cut sideways across his stomach and tore him entirely in two, splitting Profusionist armor utterly and with ease. I cried out. The pieces that were Jerem Cozak fell away in ruin just as my mastodon leaned down unto the pike that drove into her brain. It tore on into my soul. Pain shattered the core of me. My back arched in spasm, my vision blackened, my hands released their grip. My mind flashed, seared blank, stopped.
As I tumbled I saw Marcus likewise unmounted, leaping backwards off his mastodon to avoid the strike of the demon that hounded him. And the creature flinched back, as from a wound. But when Marcus landed on his feet, the terror was somehow also there, twisting so that its blow fell vertically and cut down directly through Marcus’s skull, cleaving it in two. The next stroke came counter, and cut cleanly through his torso at the chest.
Finally, my fall completed. My head slammed against the Profusionist metal even before my back did. It knocked the wind from my lungs. My vision swam and darkened even more. I could not move and did not want to. Auger pikemen stood all around me. One put his foot across my chest, and I could feel the motion as he reversed his weapon. The last blow would fall. The Neverborn would never reach me. I blinked. In the distance, between the legs of men and the outlines of the wreckage of the artillery, orange fire bloomed in the streets of Kasora.
The nine khrall had come.