“What do you mean, you’ve detected a ‘flux?’ ” Holly rumbled.
Estilian Linnear, her newly appointed High Mage, gulped nervously. “Someone has breached the interplanar veil.”
“They tried to invade Elithia?” Holly’s thick-browed face remained implacable.
“The opposite, actually. They tried to polarize their world with a mystic vacuum. Ah…turn it into a summoner’s locus, so to speak.”
“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 a particular soul—someone from our encampment. Wodec could have explained it better; he completed his studies in Arcana Conveya, whereas I have only—”
“Say his name 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 knees from knocking together.
Holly studied him, contemplating whether or not to make good on her threat. She decided against it—the mage was annoying, but he was the best she had. She flapped a hand at him. “Fuck off.”
He promptly left her royal war-tent.
It had been close to a year since she’d first laid siege to Flaysac’s forces. The entire time, her army had been stuck in a lethal quagmire. 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 two million souls. Now, she was down to one point six. Subtract four hundred thousand for kingdom-wide stability (police forces), two hundred thousand to keep the navy up and running, and that left her with one million soldiers. Which was still a formidable sum, but she’d already sacrificed four hundred thousand and gained almost nothing.
She strode from her tent, glaring angrily at the sun-brightened peaks. The clear horizon felt like an insult, as if the sky had decided to give her the finger. “Yinhalka!” she roared. “Get over here! Now!”
Yinhalka’s armor clanked with her gait. She stopped before Holly and placed a fist on her heart. “Yes, Holly?”
“Time to shift strategy.”
“I have Kulthoom raiders at our forwardmost outposts. If they target logistics, we might be able to—”
Holly waved a dismissive hand. “We have to really fucking hurt him—build momentum and gain some territory. Piecemeal bullshit ain’t gonna cut it.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“Magic.” Her eyes burned with fierce, unsettling light. “This force-on-force dick measuring is too damn costly. Sooner or later, we’ll run out of troops.”
“I know. I didn’t want to bring it up in front of the others.”
Holly nodded. “That’s why I trust you—you’re smart enough to give advice, loyal enough to curb your tongue. Back to the point: we need magic to break Flaysac.”
“Estilian Linnear is our best mage. But compared to his predecessor, he’s a bumbling idiot.”
“There’s no alternative.” Holly gestured at the mountains with a gauntleted hand. “Flaysac…he’s got enough troops to wait us out.”
“If he strikes an alliance with the bandit-kings—”
“Then we are well and truly fucked,” Holly said. “I know. We used to whack a handful here and there, but now, we’re lucky if we kill a single bandit with a goddamn barrage. Their defenses have improved by leaps and bounds.”
“They’re planning a counterassault,” Yinhalka said. “Only a matter of time.”
“Exactly,” Holly affirmed. “They’d be fools not to.”
“We die slowly or we up the ante. Magic it is.”
Holly nodded again.
“Magic it is.”