I’d never been in a battle before. A lot of fights, but not a real, full-scale battle. The closest had been that mess with the necromancer in Russia, and that wasn’t the same thing at all. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect what to expect from this battle, what might happen. The fact that it was being fought by beings I didn’t really understand, divided into factions along lines that I couldn’t really comprehend, was just icing on the cake as far as that went.
It started out more…simply than I would have expected. After an hour or so, Aiko woke up and got out of the snow. It hadn’t melted appreciably; of the three of us, only Snowflake had any appreciable body heat anymore.
Aiko went to get ready while I woke Snowflake. I didn’t really need to do anything myself; the only piece of equipment I needed at this point was Tyrfing, and it was always with me. Given that I couldn’t bring physical items with me when I transitioned between bodies, anything else would be more trouble than it was worth.
That was surprisingly upsetting. My ritual before a big fight had always been to check and recheck all of my gear, the weapons and toys and surprises that I might need. I’d spent hours on it, sometimes, and it had become a calming, soothing ritual. Now that I didn’t have that, I felt lost.
Aiko still used gear, though. When she came back she was wearing armor, elaborate armor that looked almost exactly like the set Loki had arranged for her, but which didn’t have any iron in it. I wasn’t sure how I knew that it had no iron, but there was no doubt in my mind at all. I just…knew. The blades were similar duplicates, although she wasn’t carrying a gun. It probably wouldn’t have worked anyway; relying on chemical reactions and physical rules to work exactly the same on the Otherside as in the real world was a fool’s bet.
“You ready?” I asked, standing up. It was easier than it should have been, the snow providing resistance to push off of without me even having to think about it.
“Yep,” she said. “You?”
I shrugged. “As I’m likely to be,” I said. “Where to?”
“Just follow me,” Aiko said. “If anyone tries to make an issue out of it, bite them.”
I paused. “Are you talking about me or Snowflake here?”
She grinned and started walking to the door. “Both.”
It was still hard for me to grasp just how dramatically things had changed recently. I’d been expecting there to be more to it, some kind of hassle. I’d been expecting, at the very least, annoyance and bureaucracy.
Instead, that really was all there was to it. We walked out of the throne room’s dark and red confines, and directly into the courtyard. There were a few dozen things there waiting for us, clearly ready for war–Sidhe, trolls, a towering ogre, and stranger, nameless things. Not a one of them challenged us as we walked through the crowd. I thought a couple of them looked offended at the notion that they weren’t the ones standing next to Aiko, but if so it was quickly buried.
She opened a portal in the gate–the entire gate, an area far larger than I would even consider for a portal–with no evidence of any particular effort, and we marched on through.
The other side of the portal was…well, it was interesting. It was busy, even crowded, although there was a clear space where we came out. Beyond that, though, it was an active, busy camp, packed with every sort of fae creature I could name and a great many I couldn’t.
And it was enormous. I couldn’t really put a confident estimate on it, but I was guessing there were close to ten thousand of them there. Ten thousand things that were, individually, probably the match of five or six humans at least. Hell, there was a whole unit of ogres, easily a hundred of them, each a half-ton of muscle towering at least ten or fifteen feet tall.
And this was just one unit, one tiny part of the forces of one Queen of Faerie.
I suddenly felt very small, and like I’d fundamentally misunderstood my place in the universe.
Aiko didn’t even pause as we stepped out onto a hill overlooking the Midnight camp, and so neither did I. I absolutely did not at all want to be separated from her here and now. Oh, theoretically it should probably be fine–in principle, after all, I was at least equal in rank to every member of the Court short of the Queens themselves. In practice, though, I was somehow very confident that I would be better off not being on my own for my first encounter with the Court military.
The portal was very smooth, smooth enough that even Snowflake and the fae didn’t so much as miss a step during the transition. The lot of us walked forward, the bustle of the camp making sure not to do anything remotely resembling getting in the way, until I got my first look at the battlefield.
It was a broad, open plain, knee-high grasses waving in a gentle, inconsistent breeze. There was no sun, but the golden light had a strong quality of evening to it all the same, long shadows dancing across the plain. On the other side of the plain, maybe a mile and small change away, the ground rose into more hills.
In those hills, the Daylight regiment was waiting, their camp looking a very great deal like this one. The standards had brighter colors over there, as a rule, and the Daylight fae were somewhat different in appearance, but the size and layout of the two camps was almost identical.
There was no snow out there, I noted. No ice. There were shadows, at present, but they were limited, and around the Daylight Sidhe I was guessing they’d be effectively nonexistent. Even if the light and dark division was largely the produce of my mind, there was no denying that things tended to be bright around the Daylight fae.
I didn’t want to have to change bodies in this fight, then. Not unless I absolutely had to. And since I was guessing that light and fire would feature strongly in what the enemy was going to be throwing around, as far as magic went, that meant that I really didn’t want to take a hit. Dodging and hitting the enemy from odd angles was going to be the best option for me, I thought.
“Oh hey,” Aiko said. “We’re just in time.”
It took me a second to realize what she meant. Then I saw that, across the plain, the enemy troops were moving. It was hard to see at this distance, subtle, but they were getting into formation and starting out.
“Where do you want me?” I asked. It had to be obvious that I was obeying her, and not the other way around. This was, after all, primarily a political event, a way for Aiko to cement her position as an authority figure. For her to seem like she was taking instruction from her minion would be…counterproductive.
“You can hit them from the side after the fighting starts,” she said. “Wait for them to commit first, then hit them hard. Oh, and they’ll probably have some ridiculously powerful thing. After that shows up, you can deal with it.”
“Got it,” I said, as the Midnight troops around me started to form up and head down to the battlefield as well. They looked, generally speaking, to be impressively disciplined and coordinated. Then they started getting closer to the field, and I saw that that description didn’t apply to the front ranks. There, the discipline and coordination broke down into a jumbled, chaotic mass, less an army than a horde of armed lunatics who happened to be traveling in the same direction. Looking across the way, it seemed like the same pattern was true for the other side. The bulk of the force was tight, organized formations, but the front ranks were sloppy as hell.
They were cannon fodder, I realized. Inexperienced fighters, being marched out in front to absorb the shock of the impact when the two armies crashed together. They would get slaughtered, leaving the more experienced troops to actually fight.
I could understand it on a tactical level. Hell, on some level I’d made similar choices myself. When you were assigning people jobs, you had to base it on what they were capable of. There had been times when I sent people to a fight knowing that they might die as a result. That was the nature of violence.
But doing it so deliberately, on such a large scale, was something that I was…not entirely comfortable with. I’d faked it on occasion, but at heart, I really wasn’t a general. That kind of ruthless calculation wasn’t something that I was suited to.
But I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I should do about it. And before I could decide, it was too late. It only took a few moments for the cannon fodder to be cut down. I couldn’t have reached the front even if I’d wanted to.
Aiko and I just stood and stared as the two forces crashed together. It was loud, shockingly loud, with the clamor of metal hitting metal, metal hitting flesh, people and things that didn’t remotely resemble people screaming. It was like any other fight that way, but on a vastly increased scale.
I stared for a long moment, before Aiko glanced at me and reminded me that I had a job to do. I startled, then leapt into motion.
I couldn’t step through shadows here. It could be done–Carraig had pulled that trick in Faerie when I fought him, so I knew it could be done. But there wasn’t enough noticeable darkness to make it a viable tactic. I was better off just running, I thought.
I could run fast. Really, really fast. Even without magical shenanigans, I was faster than I had any right to be. I blew past the fae troops in a blur, sprinting past them in long, leaping bounds.
I didn’t go straight for the fighting, though. That would have been directly at odds with both my tactical awareness of the situation and my instructions from Aiko. Instead, I ran out in a wide arc, sweeping out to the side of the main engagement.
It was a larger fight than anything I was accustomed to. Huge, really. But in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that big. The battlefield was only around a mile across, I was guessing.
If you had to run it at a human pace, that was still a considerable distance. Several minutes’ travel, even if you were good at running.
For me it was a casual jaunt. Not even really something worth considering. It took maybe two minutes, or a little less. I wasn’t out of breath or tired afterward. It was just…a thing I did. Easy.
I stood there for a second, watching the battle. It showed no signs of slowing down, which wasn’t surprising. Two minutes was forever in a fight, but with so many participants fighting an old-school battle like this, the situation changed. There were people who were just now reaching the actual fighting, and plenty more behind them.
I watched for a second, then waded in.
There were fae beings that could put up a solid fight against me, still. There were some that could crush me like an empty can. I knew that; I’d met some of them.
These were not those beings.
Oddly, it didn’t feel much like a fight. Not really. There was no challenge to it, no element of uncertainty. It felt…well, more or less the same as running had. It was a mechanical exercise. The repetitive nature of what I was doing, combined with the lack of any meaningful risk or challenge, made it feel more like chopping wood than really fighting.
Some of them had magic, either classic fae-style trickery or more direct magic. Neither of them mattered, really. Trickery was only really useful when you were fighting someone who could be mislead or duped, and I was playing the role of the unstoppable force here. Clever tricks didn’t help much when the person attacking you was just cutting a broad swath into your ranks and ignoring everything else. Brute force defenses were useless for…well, pretty much the same reason. Nothing they could do could really stop me with Tyrfing.
Some of their attacks were closer to solving the problem. Fire and light were both as common as I’d expected, and either could plausibly have brought me down. Some of them had silver weapons, as well, which I found out the hard way. I wasn’t sure why, or even how, but apparently silver still really hurt.
Most of them I could dodge, though, and the rest weren’t enough. I was wrapped in enough darkness and cold to shrug off the magic, and when they did manage to get through with weapons they couldn’t do more than take chunks out of me. That didn’t really do much; it took massive trauma to stop me anymore, since anything short of cutting off a limb was just a mild annoyance.
I cut a broad path through their rear ranks, Aiko did…something, I was too busy to really pay attention to what…and on the whole the Daylight forces were definitely losing. We were progressing across the plain, and there were far more of their people on the ground than ours.
And then progress slowed, before grinding to a halt. The Daylight troops rallied and began to push back.
At first, I wasn’t sure why. It was hard to tell, in the thick of things, hard to get a broader perspective of what was happening. But I kept pushing, and they kept pushing, and eventually we met in the middle, as a pocket of space opened up to accommodate us. Nobody wanted to be near this, and I didn’t blame them in the least.
At first glance, he didn’t look like much. He was shorter than me, and plain at best, with ugly features and a scraggly beard. But he was wearing heavy mail, and carrying a heavy axe, and literally dripping blood.
And he was very obviously and very undeniably human.
Well, well. Seemed it was time for me to meet my opposite number.