“What do you mean, you detected a ‘flux?’ ” Holly rumbled.
Estilian Bek’Thor, the newly appointed High Mage of the Indashi tribe, gulped nervously. “Unknown parties have attempted to breach the veil between realities.”
“They tried to invade Elithia?” Holly’s stolid, thick-browed face remained implacable.
Another gulp. “The opposite, actually. According to the rate of interplanar spin, it appears they attempted to polarize their world and turn it into a summoner’s locus.”
“Speak plainly, Estilian, or I’ll rip your balls off and feed ’em to Gucci.”
The High Mage began to sweat. “They were tyring to summon someone from within our encampment.” He tried to make an excuse. “Wodec could have explained it better; he completed the full course of Arcana Conveya, whereas I have only—”
“Mention Wodec again, and you’ll eat your own dickskin.”
Estilian fell silent. He tried not to wring his hands but he couldn’t help it; it was the only way he could still his trembling knees. Holly studied him, contemplating whether to make good on her barbaric threat, but decided against it. Estilian was annoying as fuck, but he was the best she had.
It had been close to a year since she’d first laid siege to Flaysac’s hideout. At first, it seemed as if she was destined for a quick victory. But as the months passed, her troops became drawn into a lethal quagmire. Holly’s assault had necessitated an unending stream of fresh troops to replace the fallen, and buttress the three pieces of high ground they’d managed to acquire. She was making progress, but it was almost negligible.
Her current strategy wasn’t sustainable. Before the assault, she’d commanded over two million souls, give or take. Now, she was down to one point six million. Subtract the four hundred thousand that were needed to maintain kingdom-wide stability, as well as the two hundred thousand that comprised the navy, and that left one million soldiers. One million sounded impressive, but she’d sacrificed four hundred thousand soldiers, and only managed to capture three of Flaysac’s embankments—two on the east-most ridge and one on the west-border draw. She had to start using her resources more efficiently, or she’d be worn down by the sheer cost of her bloody campaign.
She stared angrily at the sun-brightened peaks. The clear horizon felt like an insult; as if the heavens were giving her the finger.
“Yinhalka!” she roared, pulling back on her reigns and making her mount rear back. “Get your ass over here! Now!”
The Indashi general came riding over, her armor clanking in time with her raptor’s gait. She stopped before Holly and placed a fist over her heart. “Yes, Holly?”
“Time to shift strategy.”
“How would you like to proceed? We’ve been deploying raid-teams on a regular basis. If we got more aggressive, had them target logistics distribution, then—”
Holly waved a dismissive hand. “We both know that Flaysac’s supply networks are configured for redundancy. We have to really fucking hurt them, Yinhalka—build some momentum and gain some territory. This piecemeal bullshit isn’t gonna cut it.”
“What else would you have us—”
“Magic.” Holly’s eyes burned with a fierce, unsettling light. “This force-on-force dick measuring is too damn slow and it’s too damn costly. I know you see what’s happening out there. Sooner or later, we’re gonna run out of troops. Best case scenario, we’ll end up retreating. Worst case, Flaysac will issue a call to arms, and his fellow ass-gobblers will answer the call. What happens if we’re reduced to a bare-bones army, and it’s not just one bandit king we’re facing, but a dozen?”
Yinhalka was silent. A few seconds later, she said, “I know. I didn’t want to disrespect you by bringing any of this up in front of the others.”
Holly nodded. “That’s why I trust you—you’re smart enough to give me a good advice, loyal enough to curb your tongue. Anyways, there’s no other way to break Flaysac aside from magic.”
“Estilian is your most senior mage, but compared to his predecessor, he’s a bumbling idiot. Do you still want to—”
“There’s no other way,” Holly repeated. “Look at them.” Holly raised a gauntleted hand and gestured at the battlefront. “This is what—the hundredth salvo? Flaysac’s guys turtle up every time we launch artillery, then scramble into position and get back to work. I’ll bet we outnumber them five-to-one with the troops we have, never mind our entire army, but still—I’d also bet that they have what it takes to outlast our assault.”
“If they’ve struck an alliance with the other bandit-kings—”
“Then we are well and truly fucked,” Holly finished. “I know. Your scout reports are getting shittier and shittier. We used to kill a handful here or there, right? But now, we might injure one bandit with a lucky shot. Their defense has gotten better by leaps and bounds.”
“Only a matter of time before they launch a counterassault,” Yinhalka said.
“Exactly.” Holly nodded. “They’d be fools not to. It’s gonna happen soon.”
Yinhalka was silent. After a few seconds, she said, “Then there’s no other choice. We die a slow death, or we up the ante. Magic it is.”
Holly nodded again.
“Magic it is.”