“What do you mean, you detected a ‘flux?’ ” Holly rumbled.
Estilian Linnear, her 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. 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. I have only—”
“Say that 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. Estilian was annoying as fuck, but he was the best she had. She flapped a hand at him. “Fuck off.”
He left her tent.
It had been close to a year since she’d first laid siege to Flaysac’s forces. As the months passed, her army had been drawn into 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 over two million souls. Now, she was down to one point six. Subtract the four hundred thousand required for kingdom-wide stability, the two hundred thousand that comprised the navy, and that left her with one million soldiers. Which sounded like a lot, but she’d already sacrificed four hundred thousand and gained almost nothing.
She strode from her tent and glared 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. “Get over here! Now!”
Yinhalka’s armor clanked in time with her gait. She stopped before Holly and placed a fist on her heart. “Yes, Holly?”
“We need to shift strategy.”
“We have raiders at all three outposts. If they target Flaysac’s logistics, then—”
Holly waved a dismissive hand. “We really have to fucking hurt him—build some momentum and gain some territory. This piecemeal bullshit ain’t gonna cut it.”
“What do you suggest?”
“Magic.” Holly’s eyes burned with fierce, unsettling light. “This force-on-force dick measuring is too damn costly. Sooner or later, we’re gonna 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 your 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 finished. “I know. We used to kill handfuls here and there, but now, we might injure a single 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 affirmed. “They’d be fools not to.”
“We die slowly or we up the ante. Magic it is.”
Holly nodded again.
“Magic it is.”