Daybreak:Volume 2 Chapter 13

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Chapter 13 - Massive Strike

Torsten Asgeirsen closed his eyes as he immersed his thoughts in the icy winds.

He rode atop his drake at the head of the column, flying through clear morning skies above the thick clouds and the raging blizzard below. Without the enchanted shirt he wore under heavy drakeskin armor, the cold air buffeting his exposed face would have left ice crystals in his thin beard. Yet to an experienced Outrider, the feeling of cutting through wintry winds was the epitome of blissful serenity.

No man could become an Outrider without loving this paradise. To appreciate the flawless beauty of the open heavens, unveiled from bashful clouds and untouched by the desires of men -- such was the duty of every being who wished to master the skies.

The Wickers' air cavalry simply did not understand it. Despite all their three-dimensional combat training, they had no real feel for aerial maneuvers. To them, the skies were just multiple layers of flat plains at different altitudes.

Torsten almost felt sorry for those poor heathens... almost.

After all, those Wickers -- and the Imps who once backed them -- were the aggressors. They were the ones who settled upon the Hyperboreans' promised land and began over a thousand years of enmity. All the wars that resulted were entirely their fault.

They deserved to die.

...Or so he told himself.

Torsten did not like this mission, if he were to be honest. There was no glory in massacring a civilian populace through aerial bombardment. But the Weichsel army gathering there left him no choice.

As the firstborn son of Admiral Asgeirr Vintersvend and the commander of Polarlys' air group, it was his duty to lead the assault. Against this duty to his people, his nation, his family and his comrades and his friends, his personal feelings and sense of ethics weighed next to nothing.

He focused on his Pathfinder guidance spell once more and realized that the distance to Nordkreuz had fallen under a kilopace at last.

As soon as fresh intelligence revealed that the Wickers in the Skagen Peninsula were rushing back, Torsten's father -- Admiral Winter -- pushed his skywhales ahead of the main army. It was a gamble, but the only way to seize Nordkreuz with an inferior force was to destroy the city and its fortifications first. To deliver an overwhelming bombardment, the Admiral needed full air groups, undiminished by running air battles or interdictions.

Therefore the strike on Nordkreuz could not wait. Torsten and his men had sortied as soon as their payloads were attached.

Their mission: to lay waste to the city and return before the Weichsel Phantoms could arrive.

It's time.

Torsten pulled four pebbles from his pocket and threw them into the air. The runes on them triggered as they left his hand, bursting into flares of red, blue, yellow, and black. They formed an emergency call for aid in Hyperborean maritime communications. But on the precipice of battle, the combination carried yet another special meaning:

'The fate of our people lies in your hands.'

"Commence attack," Torsten sent to squadron leaders over the command telepathy channel as he pulled his drake into a leftward dive. "Group Polarlys with me to eastern gate and army camp; Group Lyngbakr to southwestern docks and camp; Group Hafgufa to southern gate and camp; and Group Livjatan the central city and main docks. Brothers! Let's send these Wickers to the freezing mists of Hel!"

He didn't really need to repeat their orders. His men were the best and already knew their jobs. But he felt the moment needed a touch more 'oomph' to precede his last line. Unfortunately, his father hadn't passed down much in the ways of oratory skills.

"Yes Sir!"

The strike groups began splitting up even before their commanders responded. Volcanic drakes in cloudy-gray illusory camouflage banked away from the aerial armada by the dozens. The separate units looked less like formations and more like tiny hordes as they plunged straight into the clouds without reforming.

Skagen Outriders didn't practice the neat arrays their Weichsel counterparts fought in. But then, they didn't need to. They much preferred scrambling the battle into one giant mess and letting individual superiority carry the day.

Torsten activated two more runestones just as he dived out of the freezing clouds. His eyes began to radiate an icy blue as their Snow Sight pierced the blizzard. His partner's retracted wings also shimmered faintly, embraced by a Stormblessed spell that always shifted the winds to its favor.

After verifying his target in the distance, Torsten tugged the reins and swerved right before urging his drake into a yet steeper plunge.

Thirty-one more volcanic drakes followed in his wake. Each of them dived towards the ground at a slightly different angle. Each rider aimed for a separate cluster of tents and buildings as gravity accelerated them through over a thousand paces of air, basking them in the thrill of free fall just before the kill.

Seven hundred... six hundred... five hundred!

"DROP! DROP! DROP!" Torsten shouted over both the howling winds and the telepathy channel.

Releasing his reins for a moment, Torsten first touched two runes in the front of his saddle. They disengaged the 'safety' sticking spells that kept the payload containers closed. He then reached behind and grabbed two small metal loops held up by the back of his saddle. Yanking both forward with all his strength, he pulled out the heavy duty cords attached to each loop. These cords fed through several pulleys, around the drake's sides, and connected to the lids of two long, metal boxes bound to the mount's underside.

Tugged back by the cords, the container lids slid open, revealing hundreds of fist-sized stones.

As Torsten took back his reins and urged his drake out of its dive, gravity and the velocity gap accelerated those rocks out of their compartment. They scattered into the air as they emerged, forming two rough 'blankets' of massed bomblets that fell toward the gatehouse below.

Every one of them had one or more runes inscribed.

They came in numerous varieties, from single-spell runestones that exploded in lightning or shrapnel, to multi-spell combinations that could penetrate structures and set interiors ablaze. There were even runes attached to shrunken down barrels of noxious alchemical liquids.

But the most dangerous kind came from the Admiral himself. Packed all the way in the back to avoid being struck by counterspells, these runestones surrounded themselves with a Dispel Barrier once they entered free fall to protect against Ether Seekers and other antimagic. After they landed, the Animated rocks would roll until they struck earth or stone ground. From there, high-powered Tectonic spells would reach deep underground and send violent tremors throughout the city.

With over a hundred runestones per container, two containers per drake, and four groups totaling one-hundred-twenty-eight drakes, Torsten's strike force would dump more than twenty-six thousand magical munitions over the city of Nordkreuz.

Amidst the blizzard brought forth by Admiral Winter, the skies literally rained death.


----- * * * -----


General Wiktor von Falkenhausen looked down as he examined his arcane pocketwatch. He could hear its faint ticking, managed by a combination of mechanical durability and magical precision. The device had a reputation for being faultlessly accurate, which meant that he had been standing outside, in the heavy snow, for thirty-eight minutes and thirteen seconds already.

He wasn't really bothered by it. Every mage had at least one set of enchanted clothing that kept him comfortable and dry regardless of weather. Such conveniences were just another part of the Holy Father's blessing for those who carried the burdens of leadership.

Prayers from the blessed to the Holy Father have ended with Noblesse Oblige for as long as Hyperion history remembered. Certainly, there were always some who forsook their duties and flouted their gifts; but Wiktor himself had always taken those two words seriously.

Although he was ashamed to admit: he had not prayed to the Holy Father for about three weeks now -- not since the Caliphate declared war on their ally; not even after his daughter Cecylia left home for her first war.

Of course he was worried. What father worthy of the role did not worry, even if it was his fourth child in the military? Well, third, since he had already lost one.

But what would prayers accomplish?

He had faith the Holy Father would look after her immortal soul. It was her worldly health that concerned him.

After all, Cecylia's toughness was entirely an act. Growing up, she had fallen ill more times than the rest of the family combined. Wiktor often wondered if she would have lived past childhood at all, if it wasn't for magical healing.

Had it been up to him, she would not have gone to the Academy at all.

The argument that resulted from that was not pretty. It was the only time Cecylia had ever accused him of anything, let alone of being a 'humongous hypocrite'. Wiktor had achieved his successful military career with the support of the family, yet he had attempted to confine her options while expecting other parents to give up their children for the interests of the state.

That episode with his 'baby girl' had left him sulking in a dark corner of his estate for hours...

In fact, it was still depressing to think about.

Wiktor had relented in the end. Then one thing had led to another and now, here he was, standing on the fortified walls of Nordkreuz while she risked life and limb behind enemy lines.

So much for parents protecting their child, he thought.

The only help he could offer her was to perform as his duty called: strive to bring this war to a swift and decisive end.

Therefore, instead of praying, Wiktor had busied himself managing more materialistic tasks -- like making sure every commoner who answered the call-to-arms had adequate winter coats, pants, and socks.

There were some who scoffed at such trivialities, mocking him as the 'Accountant General'. Wiktor replied by asking them how their men were supposed to win battles with their stomaches empty, their toes frostbitten, and their lips sealed by frozen snot.

Now, such logistical work paid its dividends. Tens of thousands of men have been standing outside in the blizzard, some exposed for over an hour already. They might be cold and miserable, but he could at least be confident that none were freezing to death.

The moment General Wiktor von Falkenhausen received news that a smaller Skagen force numbering over fifteen hundred pushed ahead of their main army, he had sent orders for every camp in Nordkreuz to rally. Tactically, he couldn't think of any reason to send a small, advanced ground force to a fortified city, which meant the detachment was most likely the skywhale battlegroup.

There was only a short window of opportunity to bombard Nordkreuz before the Knights Phantom could return.

Wiktor had sent the civilians to basement cellars and the most of the infantry out into the empty fields. From there over forty thousand soldiers would wait out the bombardment, their presence concealed by illusory snow-covered hills.

The city itself? Only a local garrison of three thousand manned its fortifications, plus another eight hundred magic-capable officers from the army units. King Leopold and his Black Eagles also remained inside the city as a symbol of faith; though the Garrison Headquarters building he stayed at was the most heavily-warded structure within the city.

The King was brave, not stupid.

Unlike less composed rulers, he also didn't demand a sortie to meet the enemy head on. Without aerial combat training and amidst a blizzard, sending infantry spellswords up into the air would merely be presenting the enemy with easy targets -- thousands of targets who could shoot back, but targets nonetheless.

Manpower had always been one of Weichsel's strategic weaknesses. There was no point to winning one battle, or even one war, only to leave themselves easy prey for another ambitious neighbor.

"DRAKES SIGHTED! INCOMING!"

The shout came from a spotter who also stood atop the East Gatehouse. Even with Snow Sight, it was hard to pinpoint drakes in the middle of a raging blizzard. His third word indicated that they were already unleashing their payloads.

"RAISE WARDS! LAUNCH SEEKERS! SIGNAL ALL UNITS TO FIRE AT WILL!" The General yelled over the howling winds.

"Solar Burst!"

Two of the signalers were the first to act as they fired rays high up into the air and straight towards the riders. Had it not been for the snowstorm, the glaring red-orange light that soon erupted would have blinded anyone who delayed covering their eyes.

...Or in the case of the gatehouse officers: if they hadn't put on their orange-tinged goggles in time.

Nevertheless, Wiktor could still feel his face tingle irritatingly as the light washed over him. Dhampirs were severely allergic to sunlight, or any magic that imitated it. Had it not been for the Sunward spells they used every day, his skin would have sizzled and cracked right there.

Even with it, his face still felt hot and raw, as though from a harsh sunburn.

But there was no time to heal such trivial wounds.

In the heavy snow, Wiktor soon noticed another hazy glare of light coming from the west -- in the direction of the Garrison Headquarters.

The King's position in center city was also under attack.

Meanwhile, his own mages had started adding layers of defensive screens and autonomous shields above them. The remaining spellcasters, himself included, reached out with their gloves and began firing off swarms of Ether Seekers around the rim of their protective wards.

Dozens of multicolored lights turned into hundreds as a nonstop torrent of spellfire shot up into the skies.

The gatehouse had been turned into a bastion of anti-air interdiction fire, and it wasn't the only one.

The General had stripped over eight hundred mages from the assembled army and reorganized them into units of twenty-five each. He had placed them atop the most sturdy buildings in Nordkreuz, with orders to pour counterspells into the skies en masse unless a drake actually moved in to engage them. At the same time, the assigned defensive casters of each group would dedicate themselves to protecting the rest from overhead bombardment.

If it wasn't for the vision-obscuring blizzard, dozens of rooftops spraying thousands upon thousands of glowing projectiles skyward would have made a stunning light show.

But today, the act was only beginning.

Ether Seeker was a simple, independent spell that relied on numbers over precision. As a 'cast and forget' type of spell, it was capable of autonomously hunting multiple incoming sources of ether -- so long as they weren't other Ether Seekers. They disrupted en-route spells by interdicting them with unstable, foreign ether. However, their ability to find targets was limited by proximity, which made it important for them to cross paths with hostile spells.

In this blizzard, merely spotting the fist-sized falling rocks those drakes dumped against ground targets was hard enough. Discerning their trajectory in the howling winds? Impossible.

Had anyone been keeping track, it was likely that the defenders of Nordkreuz would score a new record tonight -- the lowest accuracy ever in massed Ether Seeker use.

As the General and his men continued to launch one salvo after another, many of them firing half-blindly, the first batch of falling runestones finally struck ground.

The very first rock actually hit a tavern just inside the gate. It disintegrated a hole through the roof, fell through, and exploded into fiery pellets that set the entire second floor hallway ablaze.

Such munitions fell from the skies in scattered droves, blanketing entire building blocks at a time with explosions. Their detonations ensued in such rapid succession that it was impossible to tell them apart. The erupting thunder of dozens or even hundreds blended together, forming a cacophony of destruction that stifled even the howling winds.

The layered wards over the gatehouse had not been spared either. Hostile ether flashed and discharged against them. Dozens of spellshields and protective screens were torn asunder in the blink of an eye, tearing holes through the defenses that sheltered the gatehouse platoon.

Those standing near the northern battlements were the first to fall as runes blasted them with fire and thunder. The intense bombardment overpowered their personal wards by sheer brute force before reaping the lives of men.

Yet that was merely the beginning...

One of the un-shrunken barrels crashed into a battered spellshield overhead, spilling its contents into a volatile mixture of airborne liquids. Two individually-stable alchemical compounds soon mixed together and reacted with the air. Combustion was nearly instantaneous, transforming it into a falling carpet of rimefire that burned its way through remaining wards as though consuming oil-soaked sheets.

In one moment, an entire squad had stood near the gatehouse's volley-fire springal, lead by the leader of Wiktor's bodyguards. A second later, they were but shrieking humanoid shapes of burning flesh, collapsing amidst a pool of flames in the very vision of hell.

Not even a seasoned officer could witness such calamity and remain unshaken. The General almost fell into shock as his remaining bodyguards shielded him while pulling him away.

...And that was when the ground trembled.

It didn't just shake and rattle; it convulsed violently. Had it not been for the blizzard, Wiktor would have seen the very streets pitch and yaw as though paved stones now rode stormy seas.

Homes wobbled and collapsed in seconds.

Stones walls snapped like twigs into crumbling segments.

Yet even amidst the carnage as the quakes swept him off his feet, the General's mind snapped back to realize his one fatal mistake:

They had been too preoccupied by the fact that an 'air admiral' who achieved fame through nautical glory and weather dominance had led their enemies. With limited resources, Wiktor had focused the defensive preparations on reinforcing roofs, not beams and pillars.

But Admiral Winter was also an archmage geomancer, whose attack caught the fortifications with only basic seismic resistance. Now, the urban districts buckled under earthquake tremors that were magnitude eight at least, possibly even nine...

Wiktor's plans might have spared the army, but what of the City of Nordkreuz? The transit junction and trade center of Northern Hyperion?

The General feared if there would even be a city to look upon once the weather cleared.

Then, as though the situation wasn't bad enough, even the reinforced gatehouse collapsed under its accumulated damage.


----- * * * -----


Colonel Lindsay de Martel watched silently from her post as Geoffroi Jean de Gaetane, the Emperor of Rhin-Lotharingie, silently circled the massive map projection table.

The 'War Room' of the Rhin-Lotharingie Royal Palace had been cleared of everyone except a squad of Royal Armigers from the Highland Guard, who were all well-practiced in the art of being seen but not heard. Only the Emperor's heavy footsteps resounded across the marble hall, a chamber large enough to fit nearly a hundred and still serve a modest celebration.

But no celebratory news had passed through those mahogany doors in years.

Today, the Emperor was here in a pensive mood.

News from the southern front had been mixed at best. The sworn trio -- Gervais, Laurent, and Edgard -- had stopped the Cataliyan advance at the second line mountain passes after several bitter struggles that exhausted both sides. The elderly Cosette and Gaston also scored a pyrrhic victory on the Inner Sea coast, forcing the Caliphate back after destroying the anchored fleet supplying their advance.

But in the southwest, Edith was forced to retreat again and again as the Cataliyans pushed through one county after another.

It wasn't really her fault. The lady affectionately dubbed Estelle the Polar Cross by the army had done her best. But unlike Cosette, Edith was still young, relatively inexperienced, and responsible for defending a flat, coastal corridor over ninety-kilopaces wide. She had to fight an enemy nearly thrice her force in numbers, while having little naval support and few natural barriers to take advantage of.

Only a prodigy could win against such odds.

The reason Edith had been chosen for the western flank of the battlefront was because Rhin-Lotharingie could afford to lose more territory there. But after a string of failures, she was rapidly running out of room to give. Once the enemy circled around the South Lotharingie Mountains, they would be in position to outflank the entire second defense line.

Determined to prevent such a breakthrough, Emperor Geoffroi had sent every available force south. Even the Capital Garrison at Alis Avern had been stripped down to a measly two thousand.

Lindsay was one of the few commanders remaining behind, now responsible for palace security with less than three hundred troops. They were spread thin across the massive complex, laughably easy for assassins to sneak past.

...Especially Imperial Assassins: the renowned Mantis Blades, who recently added another Marshal to their long list of victims.

Hence why she was in this huge war room rather than inspecting the patrols. Lindsay had been following the Emperor every hour of every day since she had been left in charge, even sleeping against his bedroom door.

Actually, that only happened once.

Geoffroi had angrily told her that since she insisted upon being there, she could either sleep in one of the adjacent royal family bedrooms or he would drag her into his own.

His blue-violet eyes were completely serious too.

Lindsay certainly would not forfeit her duty just because of a threat from her sovereign. Royal Armigers were not selected for such low personal integrity. But even mere rumors of having an affair with the Emperor would surely destroy her reputation and career. Perhaps even worse, it would ruin her relationship with Crown Princess Sylviane -- her pupil in martial arts whom she had come to adore.

That left her with only one choice.

The nearest bedroom belonged to Geoffroi's deceased wife, who died ten years ago yet her personal effects were still exactly maintained. With no intention to intrude upon such a sanctuary, Lindsay borrowed the Princess' couch down the hall instead.

Sylviane would just have to forgive her rudeness in these unusual times.

I wonder how the Princess is doing in the frozen north...

Lindsay's attention soon snapped back to present as Joyeuse -- the cerulean phoenix perched on Geoffroi's shoulder -- stretched out her wings and squawked a sharp warning.

"Blaze Ignition."

Without hesitation, the Emperor called upon his phoenix before activating the arming pendant he wore over his heraldic surcoat. A cascade of bright blue poured out of the pendant's sapphire centerpiece and engulfed his body. Inside three seconds, the wraps of ether condensed into smooth, hardened surfaces, before evaporating into the air to reveal a perfectly-fitting suit of half-plate armor that covered his muscular bulk.

The phoenix Joyeuse was also no longer in sight. Instead, the white-blue embers that drifted off the Emperor gave clear evidence to their unison.

Meanwhile Lindsay, like every other armiger in the room, already wore her armor. She merely stretched out her right hand, activated her storing glove, and felt the sturdy chains of her heavy meteor hammer erupt into her fingers.

"Defensive spells!" she ordered as they weaved one ward after another upon themselves.

Her striding boots had yet to reach the entrance when the heavy mahogany doors crashed open. They revealed a frantic armiger in bloodstained plate mail clutching his wounded neck.

"We're under---"

That was as far as he croaked before another man in white half-plate rushed up from behind and rammed a bastard sword straight through his cuirass.

Silence field, Lindsay instantly recognized the signs. There was no other way a man could dash forth in heavy plate without making a single sound, even though she stood no more than five meters away.

"Negation Surge."

Before the assailant could even finish retrieving his sword, a studded sphere of metal smashed his white helmet into the door and pulverized it. With his skull crushed, the swordsman collapsed to the floor alongside the Lotharin armiger he had just killed.

Lindsay retrieved the mace-like head of her meteor hammer with a single yank. For a moment she continued to stare at the corpse, alarmed yet puzzled. The intruder wasn't dressed like a Mantis Blade by any means. In fact, he wore white plate armor with gold stripes.

...A Knight Templar.

Her eyes sprang wide with dismay as apprehension struck. Templars did not infiltrate castles to assassinate. They were a battlefield force who crushed their enemies wholesale.

They were also the paramilitary branch of the Papal Inquisition, whose greatest current foe just happened to be the excommunicated Emperor standing behind her.

How many of them are within the Palace already? And just how did they get inside?

Lindsay's first question was answered within the minute as a chorus of clanking steel emerged from just down the hall.

There was no longer any purpose for the enemy to hide their numbers.

Their surprise had been total and complete.

The next templar through those doors blocked her crushing attack with his tower shield. But instead of charging straight at her, he fanned off to one side, followed by seven other shielded knights to form a 'V' just inside the door.

With their beachhead established, dozens more poured through. They spread out towards both flanks, threatening to envelope the defenders in the center of the room. Yet despite their absolute advantage in numbers, despite losing another head to Lindsay's meteor hammer, not a single one charged forth to attack.

What are they waiting for?

Pressured by their numbers, Lindsay fell three steps back to the defensive chevron her Royal Armigers had formed.

It was a desperate gesture of resistance. They were twelve against dozens, with what sounded like hundreds more just waiting outside. These were no lowly soldiers either; every one of them wore plate mail of the highest quality, affordable to only a proper knight.

How did they...

Lindsay had yet to finish her thought before a familiar figure stepped through.

"Gabriel," Geoffroi's stiff voice rang out from behind her. "You traitorous bastard."

The lean and handsome Prince stopped between the two V-wings of templars. As a man who seemed just past his prime, his features looked every bit like the Emperor's younger brother. He had the same plum-black hair, the same blue-violet eyes, only thinner and modest in height compared to his imposing liege.

Except Gabriel was actually the older brother -- the royal firstborn who failed his test to summon a phoenix and thus forfeited the throne.

The traitorous Duke wore a sad yet beautiful smile, as though nostalgic over the sight of an old friend. His cuirass displayed the same Gaetane heraldry as Geoffroi's own. However his hands held not a mace or flail weapon appropriate to Lotharin noblemen, but a sleek arming sword of the Church. Countless tiny, floating crucifixes of glowing gold surrounded him in a sphere of brilliance, marking his new status as a champion of the faith.

So much for your 'reinforcements', Lindsay thought bitterly.

With most of Rhin-Lotharingie's intelligence efforts directed south, Gabriel must have easily hid the templars within his army as 'mercenaries'. They were originally marching south to join the front lines, taking the riverside road that passed Lake Alise. Lindsay wasn't exactly sure how Gabriel took hundreds of men across the lake unnoticed. But with the Capital Garrison so understaffed, even a single bribed sentry could open a doorway of opportunity.

Especially when the Pope had swayed countless devotees against His Majesty.

Once those templars were on the island, there was no stopping them. The royal prince who led them once accompanied the adventurous adolescent Geoffroi. Those two grew up within these palace grounds and knew every nook, cranny, and secret passageway.

"I know our mother always favored me, but please do not be so unkind towards her heavenly soul," replied Gabriel, his wistful smile never faltering.

"No, you were adopted," Geoffroi declared straight. "Our parents simply never had the heart to kick you back out."

Really?

Lindsay blinked in surprise before taking Geoffroi's words into consideration. For a moment she had believed his statement for real.

"Save your bad jokes, Geoffroi. I am here to request your surrender and abdication."

"Which Emperor has ever surrendered to a pretender and failure?" Geoffroi spoke back through scathing tones as he deployed his heavy weapon from extradimensional storage and slammed its butt into the ground.

The steel-shafted polearm was built like a halberd, except with a studded cylindrical mace beneath the long spike. Attached to the mace's side was a crescent blade, jutting out like a pair of bull's horns.

"Which Emperor has ever been excommunicated by his head of faith?" his brother retorted, all traces of his smile vanishing behind a stern and sorrowful gaze. "You have already broken the law of kings. Had you not turned your back on the Holy Father who entrusted you with this realm, I would have no need to demand your crown."

Yet despite facing such accusations, the Emperor began to chuckle. It soon grew to a deep, derisive laugh that revealed his incredulity and contempt for the irony of the situation:

"So that gold-draped puppet, His Holiness, decided that you were a better alternative? You, who failed the phoenix's test three times!? You, who fled from your duties as a prince of the realm!? Whose hermaphroditic character contained neither the steadfast decisiveness of men nor the sensible judgment of women? Ha!"

Emperor Geoffroi barked another laugh as he gently pushed Lindsay aside and stepped in front of his guards. White-blue flames radiated away from his beefy size and splashed against the glowing shields of the templars, forcing them to step back as he continued on:

"You were never fit to rule, Gabriel, and I can tell you why. Because the phoenixes knew, just as I did, that you are a cynical, faithless sinner. A homosexual, impregnated by the Devil's lust and devoid of the Father's grace. Yet the Church would pick you for a champion? Just whom is it that the den of corruption represent now!?"

A few of the Knights Templar turned their armet helmets, glancing towards their leader in question and doubt. But most of them never even hesitated.

Neither did Duke Gabriel.

"Has your conscience deserted you to madness, Geoffroi?" the pretender softly asked through a mask of pity. "Does my long and loving marriage not speak for itself? Or are you so corrupted that you hear naught but the Devil's slander? Arrogant enough to believe yourself superior in judgment to all the lords who stand with me, even the representative of the Holy Father himself?"

"What lords," Lindsay spat out in anger. "Those not hoodwinked by your lies are clearly all traitors like yourself!"

"A true patriot does not side blindly with tyrants, Colonel," Gabriel's eyes softened as they shifted onto her. "I have no wish to antagonize the Mackay-Martel family. I respect your devotion, but it is wasted on such an apostate. Please stand aside. I personally guarantee you and your men an honorable surrender and safe return to your lands."

"The Guard dies! It does not surrender! Certainly not to vermin like you!" she declared as her right hand continued to twirl the heavy meteor hammer.

"As you wish," Gabriel replied back with a slight bow before issuing his order:

"Send them all to Purgatory."

"To Hell with you first!" Geoffroi cried out as he raised his halberd-mace off the ground. "Flamebreak!"

A corona of white-blue fire burst forth from his armored body, expanding outwards to engulf row after row of knights. Within the nimbus of a maximum-power eruption from Joyeuse's cleansing flames, the ether powering the templars' wards combusted and fell aside. Although their pristine armor remained untarnished, the horrid screaming of dozens divulged the burning bodies underneath, overwhelmed by pain as they were roasted alive.

Meanwhile, not a single one of Geoffroi's own armigers showed any sign of injury.

Seizing the moment, the Emperor dashed forward and smashed his halberd-mace into the traitorous Duke. But instead of crushing him like tomatoes under a hammer, Geoffroi's weapon struck one of the floating crucifixes and was brought to a sudden halt.

The tiny little cross hardly budged by a finger's width, just as a sphere of them had easily repelled the phoenix flames.

How...?

Lindsay questioned with disbelieving eyes even as she sprang into action. Despite the destruction of the templar vanguard, an unending stream of armored knights now poured in through those doors. Two other wall sections also turned to dust under Disintegrate spells, further opening the room to assault.

It was now up to her and the other armigers to protect His Majesty's flanks, for as long as they could.

Oriflamme Paladins were unparalleled forces on the battlefield. But just as all other beings, they had a critical weakness: the flames of their bonded phoenix were not inexhaustible. Geoffroi couldn't keep burning everything and win.

Raised as a Prince of Rhin-Lotharingie, Gabriel was certainly aware of this. There was no doubt he came prepared, including the trump card he had just displayed.

"The Sword of Fortitude, quite worthy of its name," Gabriel announced as though bragging while he tossed the arming sword into his left hand. "So long as both me and my men are determined to achieve justice, neither steel nor spell may touch my hallowed being."

It was an artifact of Conceptual Magic -- a relic of the dragonlords.

"Then I just have to slaughter your men until they break!"

The Emperor shouted as he smashed two fully-armored knights into a nearby wall while parrying Gabriel's sloppy thrust with his polearm shaft, all done with a single swing of inhuman strength.

"Before the Defender of the Faith and the will of the Holy Father, these templars face no death, only salvation," the Duke stated as his right hand reached back to pull out a spiked flail from his belt.

"How many times can you keep swinging that thing, Geoffroi? Because it won't be enough."



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