Month 3, Day 13, Saturday 1:30 a.m.
Oliver had been apprehensive about this final step of the Stags’ takeover for a while. He still hoped that the rumors of clandestine preparation for violence had nothing to do with him, or at least that it had nothing to do with the Architects of Khronos. It could be that some member or affiliate of the Morrows, one of the few they had failed to capture or kill in the beginning, had hired mercenaries. Or perhaps one of the other gangs from the more affluent parts of the city had some stake in keeping the Morrows out of jail. It was even hypothetically possible that one of the previously released Morrows had somehow broken or sidestepped the vow of nonaggression Oliver had required.
Riding his intelligent Erythrean horse Elmira, Oliver headed out with one of the convoys that contained a large percentage of the more important Morrows, just as Liza and Lord Lynwood had done before him. The most experienced and loyal enforcers from the Verdant Stag and Nightmare Pack accompanied them. Other than some useless struggling by some of the Morrows, his group had met no trouble so far, and Oliver knew that little could stand in the way of such a group, but he couldn’t help but look around for potential danger, tensing every time they passed anyone still awake and about so late in the night. The sky was moonless, and the only illumination came from the sporadic streetlamps or windows spilling dirty light out into the street, which made every shadow more sinister.
He was just beginning to relax, having made it several minutes out from Knave Knoll, when a runner sprinted up behind their small convoy waving a slip of paper frantically in the air.
Heart sinking, Oliver turned Elmira back to meet him.
The young man was too out of breath to talk after sprinting such a distance, but the slip of paper said all that was necessary. “Terrier heading directly to the egg. ETA 10mins.” It was printed on a familiar strip of paper, from the extra distagram he’d managed to buy for Knave Knoll’s administration office. Of course, the message was in code in case anyone was tuned into the same band, but the message was clear to Oliver. Tanya Canelo was heading right to Knave Knoll and moving quick.
“How long ago did you receive this?” Oliver asked.
“Three…minutes,” the young man gasped.
Oliver called for the convoy to halt, his thoughts racing as he considered the implications of this news. Canelo was not supposed to know anything about Knave Knoll, nor should she have any information about the night’s events or the path his convoy was taking. It was exceedingly unlikely her movement was a simple coincidence. It was also quite possible she was part of a larger group heading to intercept them.
If they pushed forward, they might be able to reach Harrow Hill before anyone could catch them, and he doubted even the Architects of Khronos would be willing to start a fight directly in front of the coppers. Alternatively, they could fall back to Knave Knoll, which was heavily fortified and could withstand anything their convoy’s guards couldn’t.
The preparations that Oliver and Siobhan had taken over the last few days decided the matter for him. He couldn’t imagine many scenarios that they were unprepared to handle, and so he ordered the convoy onward, urging them to increase the pace.
It took less than a minute for him to start doubting his decision.
The enforcers at the head of the convoy saw the enemy first, sounding the alarm.
“Ambush,” Enforcer Huntley murmured, even before the forms hidden in the alleys on either side made themselves known, shining lensed lanterns at the convoy like spotlights.
Their attackers were riding horses of their own, and though it was difficult to make them out with the bright lights shining their way, Oliver counted more than a dozen.
“Stop!” called one of the men in front of them, arm straight and pointing a battle wand their way.
Oliver slowly reached under his jacket and fiddled with the artifact there. “Reinforcements will be here as soon as possible,” he murmured, drawing his hand back out with a battle wand of his own clasped securely in his palm.
“Give up the prisoners, and you may leave unharmed,” the leader of their ambushers called. “If you resist, or attempt to attack, we will annihilate you all.” There were no obvious signs of who these people were, and many wore hoods or masks to cover their features. Oliver didn’t want to jump to conclusions. His enemy would remain unnamed until he was sure.
Huntley cursed, low and vicious, one arm tugging on the reins of his horse to move between Oliver and the enemy, the other already securely clutching his own battle wand.
“I must have been cursed to live a life of adventure,” Oliver said wryly. Either someone had betrayed his plans at the last minute, even after all the precautions he took not to be predicted…or whoever objected so strenuously to their transfer of the Morrows was powerful enough that they didn’t need to be tipped off. A last-minute divination, perhaps.
Eyeing their ambushers, the shadows behind the eye holes of his mask helping to dampen the harsh lights pointed at him, Oliver considered trying to just smash straight through. They would likely get into a running fight, but as long as they could make it to Harrow Hill, their opponents wouldn’t be able to stop the arrests.
But that was dangerous. Their attackers were on horses of their own, and his people wouldn’t be able to outrun them with the wagons. Getting the prisoners to Harrow Hill wasn’t so high priority as to be more important than the lives of his enforcers, or those of his allies.
“Circle up and retreat to the base!” he yelled. “Move left!” The streets were too narrow to allow for the wagons to turn around directly, so they would need to move sideways before turning once again to return the way they’d come.
In the wagon beside Oliver, one of the bound Morrows, head covered with a sack, let out a crowing laugh. “You upstart pillocks think we don’t have friends? When we’re all free, we’re gonna drag your men naked through the streets while those people you think love you throw stones.”
Elmira shifted sideways and gave a threatening snap of her teeth toward the speaker, who flinched at the unseen clacking sound so near his face and wisely decided to return to silence.
Their attackers hesitated no longer, raising hollow tubes Oliver recognized as military-issue grenade launchers to their shoulders.
“Fire!” the leader yelled, the domed fog of a concussive blast spell shooting for the head of their convoy from his own battle wand.
“Take cover!” Oliver screamed in response. There wasn’t much space to maneuver, nor cover to take, but his people scattered or ducked behind the wagons as best they could.
The grenade launchers released their payload with a sound that was half pop and half crack of thunder, shooting the clay spheres of true battle philtres in an arc toward Oliver’s convoy and startling some of the more skittish horses.
None of his people were hit directly, but the spheres broke on impact with the ground and the wagons, bursting with the sick yellow-green of philtres of stench and the brown-red heat shimmer of pepper bombs.
Both were meant to incapacitate, not kill. It could have been much worse. Their enemies were taking the safety of the Morrow prisoners seriously, which could work to Oliver’s advantage.
Oliver’s people moved with alacrity, trying to stay as far away from the smoke as possible while still guarding the wagons. The wind blew the smoke back toward their attackers, which gave his people time to put on the single-use, clear-faced masks that would filter the air to protect their eyes and respiratory system. “Advance to the left!” Oliver urged again, sending back a few battle spells of his own, as did many of his people. Most missed or were absorbed by magical shields.
Beside him, Huntley was less trigger-happy, but took an opportune shot, perfectly placed to take out one of their opponents. Unfortunately, a shimmering, four-cornered translucent shield suddenly expanded outward from a much smaller shield carried by one of their ambushers, protecting the wielder and the men several feet on either side of him from Huntley’s spell.
That their enemy had access to military equipment and powerful artifacts was worrisome, but Oliver’s side had the greater numbers, and didn’t need to worry about avoiding lethal shots to the Morrows.
The prisoners were beginning to cough and gag despite the protection of the sacks on their head, which was silencing some of their screams. Some of Oliver’s people hadn’t yet managed to get their masks on, too busy dodging or firing attacks from atop their panicking horses. Oliver was once again grateful for Elmira, because Erythreans weren’t nearly so skittish in the face of danger.
Thankfully, the man who had been outfitted for just such a situation remembered his orders and hurriedly pulled out an artifact from his saddle-bags. When activated, it sent out a pulse of power that muted the panic as well as the senses of the horses in a dozen-meter radius. The magic was light enough that it wouldn’t stop any particularly panicked horse from breaking free, and was tuned specifically to their species, but everyone within the area of effect felt some of the spillover.
The calm was useful. The dampened senses were not. But it was worth it to maintain their group’s mobility and control over the wagons.
An enemy man raised his hands, not in surrender, but in a motion of power and control.
As if they were all in the eye of a hurricane, the wind stilled. The air turned thick and soup-like for a moment, enough for Oliver to feel the press of its antithetical solidity against his skin. It was hard to breathe.
The smoke from the battle philtres hung in place, the spewing gasses building up into a thick roil. And then it swirled outward, moving toward Oliver’s people like a great python slithering toward prey, eager to encircle and constrict. It focused first on those who had not yet managed to put on their masks, but quickly attacked the rest. The protective masks could only handle so much. If they were rendered ineffective…
Shocked, Oliver looked back toward the man who had his hands raised. Either he was a free-caster, or a witch with a powerful—and invisible—familiar from the Plane of Air. One was, of course, worse than the other, but in both cases, his response was the same. Oliver’s estimation of the danger his people were in rose sharply, and he screamed, “Go, go, go! Break through!”
His words were muffled within the strangely static air, but they still traveled well enough for his people to hear and try to comply. Oliver deftly switched his wand’s output to a piercing spell, firing in rapid succession at the spellcaster.
Despite his people’s attempts to cover their faces or hold their breath, many had begun to cough and gag as the air of the philtres followed them unnaturally.
“Damp masks over your mouth and nose!” a Nightmare Pack woman barked to those closest to her, using a canteen to wet a bright yellow bandanna and tie it over her mask as a second line of defense, clumsily controlling her horse with her knees alone. She was almost hit by a concussive spell, but one of the other enforcers got between her and the enemy to throw up a personal shield spell with their battle wand.
The Nightmare Pack woman nudged her horse closer to Oliver’s. “I think I can give that air witch some trouble.”
“It’s definitely an air witch, not a free-caster?” Oliver called, directing Elmira to dodge a concussive blast with the barest twitch of the reins.
“No Conduit!” the woman replied distractedly to his question. “If he were a general free-caster, he would still be using a Conduit. That he’s not means he’s channeling through his familiar. We can hope air spells are the only thing he has this kind of control over. Besides,” she added with a predatory crinkle of the skin around her eyes, “I am an air witch, and my familiar can feel his.”
Currents of air gathered around and rushed out from her hand, which rippled under the effects of a mirage. She aimed the narrow gust of wind at the battle philtres in a sweeping motion, pushing their spewing fog away from their people and back toward the enemy, disrupting the snake-like currents that had been focused on the other enforcers.
The enemy witch responded immediately to this attempt at resistance, curling a larger portion of the smoke around to circle Oliver and the woman, trying to press in on them.
The expanding shield adjusted again as its wielder moved to stand slightly in front of and to the side of the spellcaster. Though Oliver experimented against its defenses, targeting different edges in the hope of overwhelming it, and even coordinated one overwhelming assault that had the man behind the shield grimacing with fear, in the end all attacks splashed harmlessly against the shimmering barrier.
But, despite the difficulty, they had managed to retreat into a cross-street, and then turn again to make their way back toward Knave Knoll, the enemy harrying them at every step. Another barrage of battle philtres landed in front of them, creating a yellow and red mix of clouds across the street, too thick to see through. Again, the cloud gathered itself up and moved to direct the effects toward the most vulnerable. At this point, his people were all wearing their masks, but they were down a couple of men.
“That shield spell is being actively-cast!” Huntley shouted loud enough to make Oliver flinch, despite the stillness of the air. “I can see his concentration straining. He must have a spell array embedded in the shield.”
Oliver quickly snapped orders for several of the men to peel off from the main group with the express mission of taking down that shield. He ducked to avoid a shimmering orange curse that almost clipped the top of his head, then sent back a piercing curse to one of the enemies not covered by the giant magical barrier.
The woman wasn’t quick enough to throw up a personal barrier or dodge, and took the spell to the side of her neck, ripping off a chunk of flesh half the size of Oliver’s fist and sending her reeling backward with a lethal spray of arterial blood.
Huntley and three others went after the shielder, fighting their way past the answering concentration of enemy fire. One man took a flying jump off his horse as the creature went down under a nasty rupturing spell, its innards spilling out in a steaming mess from the gaping wound in its belly.
Spell-fire concentrated on the Nightmare pack witch and Oliver, and he was hard-pressed to block it all. He was thankful for Elmira’s nimbleness, as the horse sidestepped several attacks that would have left them incapacitated or even dead. Soon, under the pressure of the more powerful enemy witch, there was no clean air to draw on.
The woman could have pulled her familiar back to protect herself, but stubbornly refused to do so. Even with all the protection against the battle philtres, her eyes began to swell and stream from irritation. She scowled stubbornly, her pressure on the magic unrelenting despite the distraction.
The attack team had managed to get a Verdant Stag enforcer into position. She had circled around from the rear, climbed a few meters up the wall of mismatched stone, and now took her shot. Her slicing spell cut through from the enemy’s flank, behind the line of the shield barrier, perfectly targeting the wielder’s back.
He was armored, but the spell was enough to break his concentration. His barrier spell broke like the bone of a Titan, sending an explosion of slicing force out in a vertical circle, cutting through the air and the ground but unfortunately not injuring any of their enemies.
But it was enough to distract the enemy witch, and the smoke of the philtres flushed out under the force of the Nightmare Pack woman’s spell. She sucked in a desperate breath, then started coughing raggedly, but wind continued to gush out from her hands.
Before any of the enemy’s number could respond to the fallen shield, the enforcer hanging from the wall followed her carefully aimed slicing spell with a concussive blast. It slammed the discombobulated shield wielder forward, sending him tumbling toward the convoy like a rag doll. The shield clattered into the street between their two groups.
A Nightmare Pack enforcer rushed forward into a struggle over control of the shield with an enemy man that had lunged to retrieve it.
Oliver’s people took out two more of the enemy, and suddenly the advantage shifted. Even against such powerful thaumaturges, they were winning.
The Verdant Stag sniper aimed next for the air witch, but it was too late.
A violent slashing motion of the witch’s arm across his chest—a single motion from right to left, filled with command—was followed a second later by a howl of wind. It knocked her off the side of the building, spinning her upside down and slamming her into the wall of the opposite building with so much force that she was pinned there for a moment. Finally, she slid to the ground head first, collapsing bonelessly into a heap at the edge of the street.
Oliver winced. The woman had been brave, and perhaps even turned the tide of battle for them, but she was unlikely to survive that. If she was still alive, they needed to retrieve her and get her to Healer Nidson as quickly as possible, which would be difficult considering the enemies between them.
She had also angered the witch, and after taking her out, the man turned toward the rest of them. Having given up total air control of the battlefield, he now resorted to individual attacks, waves of wind targeting those covering the rest of the convoy’s escape.
The guards had been doing well, taking down a couple more enemies positioned at the flanks. But a few blows from the enemy air witch sent people sprawling, not nearly as forcefully as the attack against the sniper, but more than enough to disrupt their formations and put them back on the defense, halting any progress and giving their enemies the upper hand once more.
Their own witch was much too weak to match him, and one particularly harsh blow sent her reeling off her horse. Huntley caught her, but her eyes had lost focus, and the shimmer of her familiar was missing.
But they had made progress, and the canal bridge just before Knave Knoll was in sight at the end of the street. If they could get past it, not only would the reinforced building be a fortified position, but they could block off the bridge itself with liquid stone or some of the wagons and temporarily slow the enemy’s advance.
As if sensing his intentions, the enemy leader, his own personal shield artifacts still fully active, called out instructions to his men. Within twenty seconds, several of the horses were dead, and at least two of the wagons were missing wheels.
Oliver gritted his teeth. He hated to compliment the enemy, but their leader was obviously insightful and decisive. Oliver could retreat, but not without a huge struggle to keep the prisoners.
Elmira whinnied in distress as he slipped down from her back, moving to put the single intact wagon between them and the enemy. Oliver patted her neck absently, his stomach hurting for the death of such innocent creatures.
A few guards rushed out from Knave Knoll to come to their aid, which was against protocol, but Oliver was grateful for it anyway. With them, the numbers would be even more in their favor, and perhaps it would give them the leeway to move some of their wounded back for treatment.
If they could just take down the air witch, the tide of the battle would turn completely in their favor.
He looked down to check his pocket watch, having lost track of the passage of time in the heat of battle. They needed the prepared reinforcements he had called for earlier to arrive soon.
A concussive blast spell ripped through the wagon right beside him, obliterating both wheels as it passed through the wood and continued on toward his legs. In a blur of confusion, Oliver belatedly attempted to leap up and over the foggy force and wave of wooden shrapnel. The blast clipped his shins painfully, sending him twisting through the air. As the world seemed to turn around him, the side of the wagon rushed up to meet his face, and Elmira screamed in pain.
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