“What do you mean, you detected a ‘flux?’ ” Holly rumbled.
Estilian Linnear, Holly’s newly appointed High Mage, gulped nervously.
“Someone attempted to breach the interplanar veil.”
“They tried to invade Elithia?” Holly’s thick-browed face remained implacable.
Another gulp. “The opposite, actually. They tried to polarize their world with an arcane vacuum and turn it into a summoner’s locus.”
“Speak plainly, or I’ll rip your balls off and feed ’em to Gucci.”
The High Mage began to sweat. “They were trying to abduct someone from our encampment. Wodec could have explained it better; he completed the full course of Arcana Conveya. I have only—”
“Mention him 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 keep his trembling knees from knocking together. 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. As the months passed, her army had been drawn into a lethal quagmire. Holly’s assault had necessitated an unending stream of fresh troops to replace the fallen. She was making progress (she’d acquired three pieces of high ground on the east-west flanks) but it was almost negligible.
Before the assault, she’d commanded over two million souls. Now, she was down to one point six. Subtract the four hundred thousand required 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 already sacrificed four hundred thousand, and gained almost nothing. Holly had to become more efficient, or be worn down by sheer attrition.
She stared angrily at the sun-brightened peaks. The clear horizon felt like an insult; as if the heavens had decided to give her the finger.
“Yinhalka!” she roared, pulling on her reigns and causing her mount to rear back. “Get your ass over here! Now!”
Yinhalka’s armor clanked in time with her raptor’s gait. She stopped before Holly and placed a fist over her heart.
“We need a new strategy.”
“We have raid-teams in each of our outposts. If we got more aggressive, had them target Flaysac’s logistics, then—”
Holly waved a dismissive hand. “We have to really fucking hurt them, Yinhalka—build some momentum and gain some territory. This piecemeal bullshit ain’tw 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 costly. 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?”
“I know. I didn’t want to disrespect you by bringing it up in front of the others.”
Holly nodded. “That’s why I trust you—you’re smart enough to give good advice, loyal enough to curb your tongue. Back to the point: we’ll need magic to break Flaysac.”
“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 gestured at the mountains with a gauntleted hand. “I’ll bet we outnumber them five-to-one, but I’d also bet they have what it takes to outlast our assault.”
“If they strike an alliance with the other bandit-kings—”
“Then we are well and truly fucked,” Holly finished. “I know. We used to kill a handful here and there, right? But now, we might injure one bandit with a lucky shot. Their defense has improved by leaps and bounds.”
“They’re going to counterassault,” Yinhalka said. “Only a matter of time.”
“Exactly.” Holly nodded. “They’d be fools not to.”
Yinhalka was silent. Then: “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.”