Ice blue eyes snapped to full alert.
“Good morning si–”
Not even waiting for the attending to finish the statement, Ironside tossed back the pills and washed them down with the glass of water. Nutrient supplements, various powdered gemstones to absorb residual magic, yadda yadda yadda. He’d been on enough campaigns to learn the drill and stop caring several times over.
Ironside strode forth from Celestia’s ward, the stern nods and salutes he gave to the tired soldiers in no way slowing his pace. As much as boosting morale would help, it was far more important that he return to central command. There was a whole war to conduct, and far too many soldiers to see to make a difference. With that in mind, the Equestrian general stepped onto the express platform and gave his head a rough shake as he sought to clear the final tendrils of sleep charms that remained. Right now, he had a war to fight.
“What’s the update, soldier?” Ironside called out as he strode into the allied headquarters, the rising sun seeming strangely bright amidst the chaos of battle that continued to rage below. “I want to know everything that happened since I was out.”
“The lines hold steady, sir,” communications Lieutenant Sonar replied. “Colonels Shadow Strike and Bastion remain with the East and West Wings. They’ve incorporated the Changelings into their ranks and are currently able to maintain Line Six.”
“Are the Changelings cooperating?”
“For the most part. There are occasionally some, ah… translation issues, but nothing a good old point and shout can’t fix. In any case, the Colonels report that they’re very effective shock troops and their offensive capabilities open up opportunities for an active defense.
“Hmm, not bad,” Ironside nodded. He’d been rather worried about how well Chrysalis would comply with the needs of others, but it seems that whatever Cadance had said had done the trick. That was one victory, at least. “And how are the soldiers doing?”
“Not bad, but not good,” Sonar frowned. “We can’t rotate everyone back to the medical wards in time, so General Lacero had a contingent of his fleets start airdropping supplies to our ground forces. They’re not quite as good, but it’s better than nothing.”
Ironside nodded once more, but this time, it came with grim acceptance. After three days of nonstop and relentless fighting, there was no way they could have continued without accessing their reserves. Flame cannons didn’t run on dreams and wishes, and a soldier needed a sight more than patriotism to keep up the fight. As such, the stores that they’d managed to gather – condensed rations, sleep spell tags, crystal-bound mana, and much more – had long since begun making their way to the front lines. There was plenty to go around, as allies from all over had donated to the war effort, but unlike Nul and his hordes, they were finite. At some point, they would run out and it was only a question of whether the time it took would be enough.
“What news of the outposts?”
“The marshals hold the mountains, sir,” Sonar affirmed as he checked a nearby report. “It seems that the enemy has been attempting to take our guns and airstrips since late yesterday, but none have managed to break through yet.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” Ironside grinned. “Now, what’re those devil bastards up to today?”
“Four major waves in the two hours you were gone. Not much out of the ordinary since.”
And here’s where the general really began to wonder.
Out of the ordinary? Nothing about war was ordinary, and a war with Nul made everything stranger still. Since when had there been anything ordinary to speak of?
“Bring me the consolidated reports for all major activities since the start of the conflict,” Ironside ordered. Jumping beneath those ice blue eyes, the communications officer quickly pulled the documents together and handed them to the grim-faced general who began to peruse them as if he expected an ambush to come from the pages.
Day One had triggered significant major offenses with multiple changes, first in tactics, then in unit composition, and finally in the evolution of armaments into their current ballistics incorporating arsenal. If the first day had been any sort of indication, then ordinary for Nul was constantly destroying old expecations and introducing new ones.
Day Two, however, had been just the opposite. The beasts still advanced and the beasts still died, but that had largely been it. In fact, from the numbers in the report, attacks and actually decreased over the subsequent period. There were still more than enough demons to drown out a country under a wave of black, but nothing new had appeared in over twenty four hours.
A small rush of frost ran down the general’s spine.
“Lieutenant, send word to all officers at once,” Ironside growled as the reports crumpled beneath his balled fist. “Tell them to mobilize and–”
Words cut off as icy eyes snapped to the horizon as central command shook.
Dull thuds, heavy rumblings, rocked through the valley time and time again at irregular yet regular intervals. Though most would never have been able to pick up the pattern, Ironside had had far too many encounters with just these sorts of sounds. The valley rocked from the sound of heavily treading feet and, unless he’d left all sense behind at his desk, several feet at that.
The first source crested into sight over the hills of the valley entrance. Or rather, its head did. Then its torso, then its waist, and finally it’s giant, lumbering feet.
“That’s… that’s impossible,” Sonar gulped as blood leeched out of his pale, sickly face. “That can’t actually be real.”
“Oh, but it is,” Ironside growled. “Seems like Nul just found him some giants.”
And giants they were. Following the first came a second, a third, a fourth, each one a full fifty paces high, if a foot, and clad in all the visceral horror of their tiny brethren. With bodies twisted and distorted by Nul’s corrosive touch, each giant was the same abomination of bloated limbs, blistering sores, and massive, bone-white teeth that sought to consume and crush all within their crasp. Each lumbering footstep brought the first behemoths as a seventh…
And more continued to lumber over the hills, now joined by a fresh, black tide.
Lieutenant Sonar was not a coward. Before earning his post as a command dispatch, he’d served on the front lines in multiple campaigns, running messages and passing on orders through heavy barrage and enemy fire. He’d seen his share of conflict, but nothing, not even the war-torn lines of Belfast has prepared him for this. Unconsciously, he took a step back as thick, primal fear began to bubble up and rot his reason.
And then he felt a hand.
“Back to your post, soldier,” Ironside called, his heavy calloused palm resting on Sonar’s shoulder as his voice came out in calm, even rumbles. “Others are counting on us, so we’re gonna do our part.”
It didn’t wash away the fear. Nothing could do that. But seeing the general standing there, quiet as a mountains that surrounded them and just as immovable, it gave Sonar’s resolve the boost it needed to outweigh the fear. With a shaky, but quick salute, the lieutenant joined the bank of operators under his orders and awaited further instructions.
Ironside didn’t speak. Not yet. Time was of the essence, of course, but a hasty call would be just as bad, if not worse as a delayed order. Instead, he cast those frosty blue eyes over the battlefield and gathered intel as best he could.
By now, there were at least ten giants he could spot and a renewed horde of lesser beasts as well. Pushed halfway into the valley as they were, there was probably a good mile of barren landscape between them and the ridge the darkness now crossed. Given their present speed and location, they had maybe five minutes before the giants reached them. As for the rapidly advancing horde… three? Maybe two? Yeah, probably only two.
And the general leaped into action.
“Contact Lacero and Chrysalis first,” Ironside barked, his words falling fast and precise as battle plans formed in his head. “Wheel the bombers and use them as platforms for the Changelings once they set up a blast field. Half the fighters will keep our heads clear while the others go to buy us as much time as they can.”
“Flame cannons are to hold their fire till Apocrypha gets the Triad ready, but on no account is any cannon to fire unless it can hit multiple targets. Once the big guns are spent, we bring in the flame cannons. Coordinate fire through Majors Howitzer, Barrage, and Metal Storm with priority on the closest targets first. Make every shot count.”
Sonar directed the orders and dispatches flew through the air to all parties in questions.
“Finally, contact Bastion and Shadow Strike. Heavy armors will take care of the charging hordes and Tower mages will maintain air cover. Everyone else is to focus on the giants.”
For a moment the lieutenant paused.
“Did I stutter?”
Though questioning a superior officer’s orders was always suspect, in this case, it could well be understood. Up till now, the forward line had only held on with the aid of the lancers and gunners in the back. To tell them to stand against this fresh wave on their own was tantamount to ordering a break through enemy lines armed with nothing but a butter knife and bravado.
And yet, what else could they do? If the hordes broke through, they could be cleaned up with some help from the cadets at reserve. If those giants made it through? The casualties they’d suffered till now would be bumps and bruises in comparison. The heavy armors would have to hold on their own. There just wasn’t any other choice.
To make up for lost time, Sonar personally dispatched the order to the front and Ironside watched as the armies shifted formation.
The skies grew darker as the massive armada pulled back over the front lines of the armies below. Though the aerial beasts attempted to give chase, Imperium fighters clashed in before and sent them flying apart in bursts of black mist and inky gore. Some stayed to continue the defense, but others flew down to strafe the oncoming giants with explosive rounds, dodging and weaving around incoming barrages of chitinous lances and black bile even as they fired.
The raking shots did not stop the advance or even slow it by much. But they did slow it some. Every moment the giants took to raise a hand and swat at the sleek, darting crafts was a moment they did not step forwards, and every occasional falter in their steps were dozens of monstrosities crushed underfoot. These were not opportunities that went unnoticed.
With the added chaos of the harried giants, the Changelings spread gossamer wings and leaped skyward with large packages in tow. Landing hard across the two hundred pace stretch of field before the front lines, flame clad warriors dropped their loads in the fresh craters, scooped over frosty earth with shovel-morphed hands, and took to the skies once more. The oncoming horde launched a black shower of lethal corrosion, but overlapping shields summoned forth by Tower mages protected the Changelings as they boarded Imperium crafts.
And last, but certainly not least, the heavy armors advanced. With kill zones standing useless without the guns and lances, the steel-clad burst mages had no choice but to reform the solid wall from the first day. But today, they no longer carried their heavy shields. In their place, smaller bucklers, rounded disks a foot across soon crackled to life with protective auras cast from their magecraft bodies. Opposite the shields, spell circles glowed as long blades of pure magic burst forth, beams of destruction that sat on the backs of hands well-versed in the art of combat. The armors stood ready, the vanguard against the oncoming armies of Nul. But with ranks only two deep as the line was stretched across the width of the entire valley, it seemed a spider’s silk thread that sought to stop a flood of black.
Onward, the demons came, scrambling and shambling, but in unified ranks and ordered masses. Further refined from the days of fighting, the oncoming beasts now stood just five hundred paces away. Four hundred. Three hundred. Two-
The earth exploded in great, raging geysers as the first ranks of Nul fell upon the Changeling-left surprise. Concentrated packages of exploding stones leaped from their shallow confines before bursting apart to shoot their lethal payloads out in fanning waves. Everywhere a stone struck with bone shattering velocity, it burst apart in showers of shrapnel and fire to shred whatever it was that had the misfortune of being close by.
Nul’s armies charged over the mine field, hundreds falling as the explosives cut bloody swaths through their ranks. But even as thousands fell, their brethren simply trampled over their mangled corpses as the sole desire to rend and consume filled their minds.
Braced with shields forward and spell blades raised, the mana-strengthened Equestrians met the charge like breakers shattering a wave. With brothers and sisters providing support from behind, the front ranks held their ground with shields crackling against slavering maws and slashing claws. Then, when they were sure that their footing was sound, blinding blades flashed and demons fell.
Amazingly, the line held. Softened as they were by the mine field and further slowed by the cratered landscape it left behind, the heavy armors managed to stay strong against the tides. Of course, this had no effect on the oncoming giants, but that was of no concern to the armors, because that duty lay to another.
Howling like a typhoon, the first of the Triad cannons unleashed its fury, a blast of pure, electric wrath that flew thin as a sheet and wider than a carrier’s hull. The blade of lighting flashed out over the ground forces and struck one of the giants clean at waist, slicing it in two before flashing forward to dismember a second and finally decapitate a third. The second and third Triad cannons fired as well and all together, eight of the giants fell in crumpled heaps and storms of black mist.
“Alright,” Ironside nodded. “Fire at will.”
Flame cannons roared as the first volley of liquid fire hurdled forth to strike still more oncoming giants. Exploding like packets of magma, two titans went down and further splashed the molten mass on monsters below. For the others that advanced despite being drenched in burning slag, Changeling fire and Equestrian blasts unleashed hell. Concentrated salvoes of emerald flame and piercing beams of light from silver lance tips lashed out at the oncoming giants from on high and below. Yet another giant went down and as the focused fire slowed the pace of the second, the flame cannons prepared to let loose yet another inferno salvo.
But the salvo never came.
“Sir! Emergency dispatch!” Lieutenant Sonar called. “Our guns are being attacked! All of them!”
Ironside knew the words he’d speak wouldn’t be true, but he couldn’t help but loose them anyway.
“That’s bloody bucking impossible!” he roared as ice blue eyes tore from the battlefield and rounded on the officer. “One or two, I can see, but how are they all under fire at one time?!”
“Dispatch is shaky,” Sonar called as he worked furious to put garbled messages together. “But… it sounds like they came… from… below?”
It was impossible. Never in all his years nor in all the years he’d studied had such a thing been possible. Breach a single point with a tunnel? Of course. Perhaps create a network? Certainly. But to launch simultaneous strikes at two dozen points scattered about miles of mountain range with only days of preparation at best?
This wasn’t just impossible. It was insanity.
“Another dispatch!” Sonar called. “The heavy armors are starting to buckle! They’re requesting immediate reinforcements!”
“Have ranks two through five support them,” Ironside snapped out, orders springing forth less from thought and more from instinct. “Others keep fire on the giants. Supplement with a third of the Tower mages with the rest shifting to pinpoint defense!”
The orders went out and the field shifted. Some of the lancing fire dropped from giant forms and leveled at the oncoming hordes while arcane blasts burst out from further in the backs. The sky bound shields which had covered the steady rain of black death held, but any eye that spared them a glance could see that they stood thinner and frailer than before. In some places, the shield cracked and let through a salvo before it was repaired. In some places, those salvoes found their targets.
Suddenly, a single ball of liquid flame burst from the mountains.
“New dispatch!” Sonar called. “It seems the marshals have stabilized one of the cannons! They’ll be making a sweep and getting the rest back online!”
“That’s what I like to hear!” Ironside fiercely grinned. “Now send word to the reserves and have them–”
Words died on his lips as ice blue eyes became disks of frost.
With the thick haze of smoke from charred husks and black mist from abominable forms, it seemed that the chaos of battle had hidden a very nasty surprise. Emerging forth from the dimness like demon gods of old, two lumbering titans grinned with mouths full of bone white teeth as they stood not one hundred paces from the front lines.
Instantly, the flame cannon fired again, joined by a single other this time as the allied forces concentrated fire. But even all of it together was only enough to slow one of the giants. The other was still free to move and now stood at eighty paces.
“Are the reserves in place yet?” Ironside called.
“Still out of range!”
“What about other cannons?”
“Facing heavy resistance!”
“Time on the Triad?”
And suddenly, a lot of things happened all at once.
Tearing through a flock of screeching, bloated beasts, two Imperium fighters, one with flames trailing from its twin aft engines, careened straight towards the open maw of the oncoming titan. An explosion of glass, a flash of grey and white whipping in the wind, and the pilot ejected from its seat for a neat, aerial pickup by its partner even as the first aircraft crashed home with bright, fiery blast just.
While the giant careened backwards from the several hundred pounds of steel and ammo that smashed into its head at Mach 2, a spell circle suddenly formed as thick, coiling tendrils of pale, translucent gold burst from the ground and lashed its feet. Off balance and tangled, the giant fell to the earth with a thundering crash as two lone figures broke the front lines.
Or one, really, From what Ironside could see with thunderstruck eyes, a suit of non-regulation armor that looked like it had been liberated from a museum was literally carrying another figure in its arms as it raced for the fallen giant. Several demonic beasts broke rank and charged for those figures, but bright streaks of orange flame blew apart the closest before they were close enough to smell. Darting and weaving between the black hordes with footwork that seemed to almost dance about, the armor reached an arm back, glowed bright as runes flared to life, and threw its companion skyward.
For a moment, it was a lone figure sailing through the air. Then suddenly, a brilliant, viridian light flared in hand, light that served as target from the spell circle below. As the airborne figure reached its apex, a pale, yellow beam shot forth to strike the green and suddenly, what was once a small speck magnified a hundredfold into a giant, emerald sword.
Falling from the sky, the lone figure brought the spell blade down and impaled the giant right where he lay. Thrashing and shrieking, the great beast attempted to seize the figure, but it was too late. Leaping from a spell circle summoned in midair, the figure alighted next to the armor and together, the two cut their way back to Equestrian line amidst streaks of orange flame, black mist, and roaring, screaming cheers.
“What the hell just happened?” he wondered aloud, next to stupefied by the impossibility he’d just witnessed. “What the bloody bucking hell just happened?!”
“Major Rampage of the West Two reporting,” Sonar called. “Gilda of House Lacero and Avis of House Aquilam were responsible for the initial crash. As for the follow up, it seems that a group of cadets broke rank from the reserves and… well… you know the rest.”
“Cadets?” Ironside sputtered as one shock woke him from the last. “What cadets were bloody fool enough to pull a stunt like that?”
“Not sure. They’re refusing to identify unless call sign Ghost Legacy is given permission to take the field.”
Refusing to identify? Ghost Legacy? Demanding to fight? It couldn’t be.
Then again, crazier things had happened. Hay, he’d just seen them, hadn’t he?
“Well, Lieutenant,” Ironside chuckled. “You tell those cadets to get ready for the court martial of a lifetime, then get them back out there and in the fight!”
“Sir, yes sir!”
"And then," Ironside growled as the smile faded to a steely grimace with eyes cast at the final lumbering titan, "and then there was-"
Ice blue eyes widened, not from surprise, though it was certainly present, but from horror. For you see, in all the commotion of the last several seconds, General Ironside had made one, crucial error. He'd taken his eyes off the field.
It was understandable. Really. After all, when miracles occur in the midst of battle, human nature itself compels the eyes to watch, because it was in those moments that hope is rekindled, the soul lit aflame, and will to fight begins to burn bright once more. But a general has to be more than a man. A general can't allow human emotions to dictate his actions because he must see the entire battle. Only by seeing everything could his judgment be sound, and it was only through sound judgment that the hope of victory could be more than an illusion.
Ironside had forgotten this, and because of that lapse, he hadn't noticed when fresh giants took the field.
"Sir? Sir?!" Sonar called as no less than fifteen juggernauts now lumbered through the valley along with still more masses of teeming demons below. "General! What are we supposed to do?"
"Tell them..." Ironside paused and swallowed. "Tell them..."
What? What exactly was he supposed to tell them?
The Triad was completely spent, and not even Apocrypha with all his wisdom and still could bring it back so soon. Flame cannons continued to fire, but with three at most online, they had only just now managed to bring down the other single figure that threatened their front lines. The air force was fully engaged with a swarm of fel beasts overhead. Changelings scrambled about without a moment's pause to keep the fragile line from breaking. Ground troops were firing with reckless abandon at anything and everything in range with still more targets than they could handle. And if any of the mages were taken away from their shielding, then the spell shields keeping their soldiers in the fight would crack like a egg. Their armies were stretched to their limit with nothing left to spare, and though they'd witnessed a miracle only moments before, it seems like even miracles could not save them this time.
The world would fall and darkness would consume them all.
And then there was fire.
Lots of fire.
"What the hay?!"
Out of the sky, great pillars of fire rained down, but not the clean, pristine flame of a clearly cast spell. No, this fire was raw and rough, the searing heat of magma laced with the dense smoke of burning trees. The flame was ancient, primal, and in quantities great enough to render the frozen valley floor to a carpet of hot slag, there could only be one source.
Piercing the frigid air with their roaring cries, the skies grew dim as no less than thirty kaiser dragons burst through the canopy of smoke and laid waste to Nul's armies. As some strafed the field with waves of searing heat that consumed the darkness in great swaths, others fell to the lumbering titans with slashing talons and snapping jaws. Great limbs of corrosive force struck dragon hide with enough force to dent mountains, but the dragons did not fall. Trusting in the stalwart magic of steely scales, the dragons roared with savage ferocity as each and every one of the dark titans was torn back to smoke and mist.
"S-s-s-s-sir, new dispatch!" Lieutenant Sonar called out. "We're getting reports that Salamanders are airdropping to the cannon sites! Estimates say that they'll be operational in-"
"Minutes. Our warriors shall rend those ffieiddra limb from limb."
Turning about in surprise, the whole command gaped in surprise as the dragonic morph of a Carregard Salamander landed,furled its charcoal wings, and bowed with upraised palm to General Ironside.
"Battle Leader. I bring word from the Firstborn."
"Well met, Son of the Honored Brood," Ironside replied, smooth in the sense that he bowed in turn without missing a beat, but rough as his mind still remained daze from whirlwind changes. "What word would the Elder speak?"
"Know this. Even now, the heart of Tiamat aches. The cherished brother was slain by one of yours, and there is nothing on this earth that would change this fact."
"I see," the general nodded. "And?" he podded as the unsettled tone of the Carregard indicated words left unsaid. To this, the Salamander paused as a look of wonder seemed to cross his scaly face.
"Nothing on earth could change this fact, but... perhaps something beyond this earth would change his mind."
And slowly, gears began to grind back into motion as a smile broke forth from the stony planes of Ironside's face.
"Well, it's good to have you all aboard," the general grinned as he took the Salamander's clawed hand in his for a firm shake. "With the Dragon Enclave on our side, we might actually have a chance of-"
"Your words honor us too greatly," the Carregard interrupted with a grim frown. "We bring our numbers, yes, but we also bring word of still darker tidings beyond the horizon."
"Darker?" Ironside gaped. "How on earth could things possibly get-"
Once more, the general was interrupted, but not by his guest. This time, a great roar, great enough to dwarf the din of battle had it sounded in their midst, rang out from beyond the veil of mountains. Then, almost as an echo, a cacophony of other cries sounded forth, similar to the first, but so twisted and marred by hunger and insanity that they were something else altogether.
"The darkness blasphemes our brood by taking our form," the Salamander spat with words of pure, undistilled hatred. "The Firstborn goes to face them himself, but even he cannot hold them all. They will come, and we will have to face them along with the untold swarms that continue to darken these grounds."
Slowly, Ironside nodded. It only made sense. Every time they'd managed to stop Nul, his form had merely changed again and come at them stronger than before. The might of the Dragons turned the tides of battle in their favor now, but in due time, that shift would sway once more and once it did, there would be no more miracles to save the day. The Dragons had not won the day. The Dragons had simply bought them a little more time as they clung on desperately for dear life.
"Well, at least we're still in this fight," the general sighed as a small, hard smile settled back onto his rough-hewn face. "Can I count on your lot to stick the course?"
Though he did not smile, the Carregard's grim-set resolution was every bit as strong as Ironside's.
"Our blood is your blood and our fate, your fate, till talon breaks and flames grow cold. We stand until Nul is slain, or till we can stand no more. Whichever comes first."
"Good enough for me," Ironside laughed. "In that case, let's get ready for the final round."