When Digdoug looked and realized that no Delkey troops could even see him up here, his Stagemancy-fright vanished completely. He planted his feet on the tower and unleashed spell after spell, sending “wounded” Archons fleeing, and “croaked” ones tumbling down to the rooftops below. They did the hard part, the acting. From the walls of the palace, Prince Creen and his men would only see that spells were flying from the tower top.
Six Shockmancy spells had been bound to the tower when Digdoug arrived in the city, to which he‘d added another twenty-four. By his count, Homekey was facing a force of thirty-eight Archons (or more, if some were still veiled out there), but the plan called for Charlescomm to be routed within just a dozen or so shots.
A blast of dazzling light and a thunderclap almost knocked him over. The golem he was crouching behind had just taken another “hit.” It looked terribly damaged, with a gaping crack from shoulder to crotch. But when Digdoug looked at the stacked unit‘s points he could see it was still nearly whole. Amazing.
He ducked behind another one to unleash a spell to the southeast, vaguely becoming aware that King Posbrake had left the screen and was flashing his sword at the Archons from the edge of the tower.
“Sire!” shouted Peck in warning.
This three-dimensional battle, fake or not, was sheer chaos. From the tower top, Digdoug could see a bowl of sky, but the Archons were flying in a spherical space, often ducking below his view. They did a good job of “suggesting” targets to him with their maneuvers, and he was catching on to their cues. But still, he never knew where to look, and always felt exposed from one direction or another.
He unleashed a spell, clamped down to conserve its power, and knocked a nearby dark-haired unit out of the sky. Hadn‘t that been a dozen shots by now? He‘d lost count, but he thought it was more than a dozen.
He glanced over at Peck and His Majesty. For several seconds, Posbrake had stood there exposed to incoming fire, but the King had drawn no shots. Peck was now leading him back toward the center of the tower. Quickly, Digdoug unbound and fired off the next spell, without watching the resulting “show.” Then he reached into the tower and unbound still another.
“They did not try for me,” said Posbrake, once he was standing within the little circle of golems again.
“Don‘t do that again!” snapped Peck, and Digdoug realized with astonishment that Peck had just given the King an order, a Chief Warlord‘s rare prerogative when the side might be at stake.
The battle wore on. Some “wounded” Archons had left the airspace already, or were retreating, carrying away bodies of their supposed fallen. Many of those actually were wounded, struck by the arrows of Delkey‘s archers, whose volleys from the palace walls were mostly too low to spot from here. Digdoug hoped there wouldn‘t be any actual croaked among them, but there might well have been. The bodies being carried away to the horizon looked convincingly limp.
But at least twenty Archons still swarmed, still zoomed around the tower taking fake potshots. Digdoug stopped for a moment and counted the spells within the tower: eleven left.
“This is going on too long,” growled Peck, glancing skyward with a dark suspicion on his brow.
“I know,” agreed the Dirtamancer. “I‘m running out of spells.”
“Fire, Digdoug. Keep firing,” said Posbrake. “That‘s our part and we must play it.”
Another blast struck nearby, crippling a Homekey archer. When they struck for real, the Archons were still shooting to incapacitate. This was an agreed-upon part of the scene; a convincing battle had to have casualties.
“Yes, Majesty,” Digdoug said, and dutifully unbound a spell. Ten left. He aimed and released it.
“Try a barrage,” ordered Peck.
“How many spells?”
Peck stroked his beard. “Five at once?” offered the Chief.
Digdoug unraveled five of the sloppiest-looking spells one at a time, his head consumed with the effort of holding them all in check. He released them all at once, in more or less random directions.
His target selection was necessarily vague this way, and he wasn‘t able to keep as much control as before to damp down the power this way. But he almost didn‘t mind that. Maybe they should feel it a little, to let them know the show was over.
The flash of all that Shockmancy blinded him for a moment, so couldn‘t tell for certain. But he believed that all five of his shots had missed their targets completely. No Archons fell. That wasn‘t supposed to happen. But maybe they‘d been overwhelmed or something. Maybe his aim was that bad.
“Five spells left, Chief.”
“Are they turning against us?” wondered Peck aloud. He kept his voice low, so the Homekey troops nearby wouldn‘t overhear. They were not party to the plan, and had surely wounded some of the Archons themselves by now.
Sword in hand, Posbrake watched the skies. Bolts from Charlescomm‘s elite units kept arcing through the air. Up above, some of them were fighting hand-to-hand with the screening hippo-drones, but that was all staged. Almost certainly, that was staged. “Perhaps,” said the King, frowning with uncertainty. “But keep firing.”
“Still at minimum power, Sire?” asked Digdoug. With Peck and Posbrake both looking worried, his caster‘s instinct told him to throw whatever fury this tower could still inflict on the enemy attackers. There were so many of them still up there...
“What about the lightning trap?” offered Peck.
Posbrake shook his head once. “Minimum power. Don‘t activate the trap.”
“Aye,” said Digdoug. He found another spell and carefully unbound it. He would not miss with this one.
“They may be trying to wear us down,” said Peck, as Digdoug fired off the spell. “exhausting our air defenses before attacking in earnest.” This time, the spell appeared to hit. An Archon with a ghastly wound between her shoulder blades was flying away from the palace, trying to escape the airspace.
“How? Why would they attack? They wouldn‘t be able to take the city,” said King Posbrake.
Digdoug freed up another spell. Just three left, after this one.
“Not with this group,” said Peck, “but this might not be their only column. Perhaps they‘ve additional units under veil, or even a ground force?”
Whoosh-boom! Digdoug struck another Archon, who dramatically spun out of sight. He unbound the next spell.
“We‘ve been over that. We have excellent scouting and vantage, this close to home,” said Posbrake. “A ground force wouldn‘t be possible. Not one large enough to threaten the capital.”
Another Archon appeared to fall, but that left only two spells and about sixteen targets. Digdoug clenched his teeth. Why wouldn‘t they retreat? He unbound another spell and let it fly, swatting one more enemy flyer from the nearby sky.
“One spell left!” he reported.
“They could‘ve come through Delkey,” said Peck, pointing in the direction of the river. “They don‘t have as many infantry fielded as we do. They‘re much more porous.”
“Nobody‘s that porous!” said Posbrake sharply. “You‘re suggesting a whole army marched through Delkey undetected? No. Stop fighting phantoms and lead this battle, Chief Warlord.”
A blast impacted the tower‘s edge. Digdoug looked at Peck, trying to get his attention. “Chief, should I fire the last spell?”
Peck glanced at the sky, but nothing up there had changed. “Yes,” he said reluctantly, “but then we will withdraw from this exposed position. Of course I‘ll lead this battle, Sire. Of course. But on the ground. Are we in agreement on that?”
Posbrake gazed into the distance, his lips thin and grim. “Very well. Shoot the spell. If they don‘t withdraw, then we must do so ourselves.”
With magical senses, Digdoug reached in and found the tower‘s oldest spell, one that had been on it since the turn this city was built. He unbound it, and scanned for a target.
“Stay screened,” Peck ordered them both. “Prepare to dash inside the tow– Ho! What are you doing?”
Something happened nearby, but Digdoug was cradling the half-cast spell in his mind and he couldn‘t spare his attention for anything but finding a target. The spell burned to be released, and if he wasn‘t careful it could slip away and misfire.
Overhead, a group of three Archons tangling with one of the hippo-crates caught his eye. They were clustered and nearly stationary, and he was seriously tempted to put a full-power burst right in among them.
“Read-AY! Set!” came a voice from behind him. He couldn‘t turn to see what was going on, but he could at least hold his fire for one more moment.
“Hhrnn, serve!” came Prince Creen‘s shout.
A volley of tightly-synchronized arrows flew into the sky from just behind him, trained on the trio of Archons he‘d been targeting. All three were struck by at least one arrow, and one got hit pretty badly. The enemy flyers shouted and peeled away at once. The severely wounded one lost altitude quickly as she fled. Another pair flew in to assist her.
Digdoug shot the spell at one of those two (at minimal power again, reluctantly). There were no impressive fireworks this time, but the target did make a show of flailing and shrieking. And unless he was mistaken, she also threw him a look of profound annoyance.
His spell now released, Digdoug‘s mind refocused on his physical surroundings. He spun around and saw Creen standing–not floating–with his captains. Two full stacks of archers stood there in front of the blockhouse, assembled in perfect lines. The front stack was kneeling and nocking new arrows. The rear stack was raising their bows to the sky.
“Set!” shouted the Prince. The archers drew their bowstrings. Creen‘s white-wigged head turned, tracking another trio of Archons who were making a low pass at the tower. He pointed. “Serve!”
The Archons were so low that they dipped below Digdoug‘s view as the volley was loosed. He couldn‘t tell how badly they might have been hit, but all of the Shockmancy blasts suddenly ceased. The rest of the Charlescomm force disengaged all at once, snapping into a clear and sharp retreat.
Digdoug stood on his toes for a moment, to peer around the city. Three or four Archons were dipping to gather their fallen, and the others were massing on the northeast side of the city and heading out of the airspace. When Creen shouted “Read-AY!” a third time, there were no targets left in easy range.
“Hold!” commanded the Prince of Delkey.
A cool breeze blew across the tower top. All of the zooming and zorching and exploding was over, leaving quieter sounds in the air now: bootsteps, soft moaning, the agitated flapping of wings overhead.
Chief Peck observed the retreat with sword in hand for a moment, then pivoted and strode over to Creen, whose silver rapier had apparently never left its jeweled scabbard. The Prince was dabbing some perspiration from his temple with a monogrammed scarlet handkerchief.
“Prince Creen, you are here,” said Peck, loudly enough that everyone could hear, “in contravention of my order.”
Creen glanced down at the handkerchief with a vague look of distaste, then handed the damp cloth to one of his captains. “Hhrnn, yes,” he said. “So I am.” The Prince then reached inside his coat and produced a little silver tin of snuff and popped it open. He gathered a pinch between his thumb and forefinger.
Digdoug stood beside King Posbrake. They both remained walled by golems and stout men, as they‘d been ordered to. The King did not move, but he was watching this exchange carefully.
Digdoug couldn‘t quite see Peck‘s sword strike, but it must have been astonishingly deft, to knock the snuff box out of Creen‘s hands cleanly. The little tin clattered when it landed on the roof of the blockhouse behind the Delkey men. In its way, the sound was louder than the tumult of battle had been.
Before the tin landed, Creen‘s captains had closed in front of him, swords drawn.
“Explain yourself!” barked Peck.
The Prince put his flattened hand between his captains‘ shoulders and nudged them apart. They kept their swords raised, but allowed him just enough space to step between. He had an eyebrow arched, and his lips in a wry smirk.
“Which explanation would you prefer, Lord Peck?” he asked, “That I am not subject to patently stupid orders? Or that I am not subject to the orders of patently stupid men?”
Some of Delkey‘s archers sniggered.
Peck did not move. “You are in Homekey territory,” he said, speaking formally. “By treaty, and at the sole pleasure of His Majesty King Pos–”
Lights flashed overhead, followed by an immediate series of explosions and the screaming of beasts and men. Digdoug had to shield his eyes as he looked straight up, to see the two hippo-crates being torn apart by magical blasts. The damage they were taking was beyond any Foolamancy; the poor monsters were disintegrating in mid-air. Pieces of them began raining on and around the tower, as Peck ran back to the golem stack and scanned the skies again.
“Archers, read-AY!” shouted Prince Creen. The Delkey lines both raised their bows to the air, but there were no new targets in the airspace to shoot at. Quite the opposite, in fact. Horns sounded an all-clear signal, as the last visible Charlescomm units left the airspace to the northeast.
Peck motioned the golems to close tighter, and stooped to huddle with Posbrake and Digdoug. “What part of the plan was that?” he whispered to the King.
Posbrake shook his head with one twitch. “No part,” he said. “It cost them eight thousand to croak those ‘crates.”
“Then why did they...?”
“I don‘t know,” said Posbrake. “Much of the way they fought is a riddle, but the fight is over. They have fulfilled their obligations and retreated, and the contract has automagically been paid out from our treasury.”
“I don‘t like riddles, Sire. This smells of something,” whispered Peck, “a hidden motive. Something.”
“I‘m not disagreeing with you,” said the King. “But we‘ve a part to play yet, to convince Delkey. So we must apologize to Creen, and thank him for coming to our rescue. If he feels he‘s been a hero, then he‘ll be less inclined to question the particulars of the attack.”
Peck looked sour, but he knew an order when he heard one. The huddle broke. Peck stood and sheathed his sword.
“It seems we‘ve prevailed,” said King Posbrake jovially. “Although they, ah...took their last lumps. Case of sour grapes, I suppose.”
Prince Creen stood with his men and sniffed at his brother. “Quite.”
“I also suppose,” continued the King, “that we have you to thank, Prince Creen. You and your men, and your...quick tactical thinking.”
Creen tilted his head, and his eyes shone in the mid-morning light. He said nothing.
King Posbrake cleared his throat. “The important thing is, a robust attempt on the capital has been repelled. Numloch must be getting truly desperate, to attempt such a wild gambit, wouldn‘t you say?”
“I would say,” said Prince Creen airily, “that wild gambits have their place and time. It might surprise you to hear me say so, but in a well-rounded strategy, sometimes one needs to employ unorthodox means. It‘s just that a side shouldn‘t make a habit of apostasy.”
Digdoug was still standing right beside his King, watching closely and trying to decipher what the two brothers were really saying to one another, in their private way of speaking, their shared understanding. By the sudden, stricken look on Posbrake‘s face, he thought Prince Creen must have said something personally devastating. The King‘s face went ashen, his mouth slack.
“Brother,” said Posbrake, “why has our alliance acquired a third side?”
The Prince of Delkey smiled a genteel smile, then reached to his waist and drew out his rapier. The blade of the weapon was like nothing Digdoug had ever seen before. In place of hard steel there was something else, a beam of magical red light, like a powerball stretched thin. He held this masterpiece of Dollamancy in a casual en garde, the needle-thin point hanging in the air with perfect steadiness.
All of Creen‘s archers now drew back their arrows, and trained them on the King.
“So that Charlescomm‘s turn will be deferred, rather than ending with Numloch‘s,” said the Prince slowly, and with the tone of a patient tutor. “That way, they may join us on our turn, to help oversee an orderly and civilized transfer of power. You see, we have a contract...”