Prince Wind Rider stood at the head of two companies of fey cavalry and looked down upon the rebellious human armies of Landara. Landara’s human leader, King Aolotillo, thought he could use the phoenix rose to win independence from the Moon Etherium. Prince Wind Rider and his sister, the Crown Princess Storm Driven, were here to prove them wrong.
They had an ally in this matter. The Sun Etherium had sent a company of fey cavalry of their own, led by General Qihitinene and including two of their princes, Loreveroro and Imilasisi. All three companies were under strict orders of aether conservation. Even here and now, four hundred miles from the Moon Etherium and over twelve hundred from Sun Etherium, the fey soldiers brimmed with aether. They were prepared for this conflict.
Wind Rider and Storm Driven had reined in at the top of a slope to look down at the Landaran forces for themselves: battalion after battalion of human men. The Landaran army had captured a group of fey researchers at Bacalat and taken the phoenix rose from them, and were on their way to their fortress at Timodalat. There were at least ten thousand human soldiers in the plains below.
The Moon Etherium’s two companies totaled a hundred and ninety riders. Sun Etherium brought another hundred and ten.
Three hundred fey against ten thousand soldiers. “How do you like our odds, sister?” Wind Rider asked.
“It hardly seems fair,” she answered, smiling. “Do you think we should wait for the infantry to catch up?” They had another four companies of unmounted men on the way from the Moon Etherium, but they were most likely seven days behind at unassisted speed.
“Only if we want them to burn aether to do so. Perhaps not even then. I don’t want the bother of digging these rats out of some rock-walled den. Let’s take them here, in the open,” Wind Rider replied. His fey warhorse, Lightning, whickered and pawed the ground to signal equal willingness. Both Lightning and his sister’s horse, Thunder, had been affiliated with the Moon Etherium by their father, giving the animals fey powers that made them harder to control but devastating in battle. The horses could not work true spells, but they’d burn aether instinctively to improve their natural abilities.
The princess turned at the sound of hoofbeats. The two sun princes and their general rode up to assess the situation with them. “General Qihitinene. My brother and I think it wise to strike now, before they make the fortress. What counsel you?”
The general studied the enemy battalions before them, and grunted. “Better now than when they’ve learned more of the phoenix rose. This will be no inconsequential battle against mere humans, your highnesses. Don’t underestimate what they can do with that artifact.”
The royals nodded. They’d all been briefed on the phoenix rose’s known capabilities. Wind Rider felt aether seethe under his skin and couldn’t restrain a smile. Yes, the humans had a potent artifact in their midst. But they were still humans. Giving a babe raw power would make the infant dangerous, sure, but hardly a match for a trained fey warrior. They’d grown up in the aether; using the arcane arts was as natural as breathing. The five discussed tactics, positioning, and where to employ their own enchantments to best effect. They opted to strike after nightfall; dark-sight consumed little aether, and the humans would be much worse impaired by the lack of light. Wind Rider shifted in the saddle of his horse, aether singing to him of battle and blood. He looked forward to the fight, to the chance to show these insolent, upstart humans the folly of resistance against fey might.
Prince Loreveroro kept directing odd glances his way. Perhaps he harbored some sympathy for the humanfolk; the fey of the Sun Etherium did not seem to embrace aether as the Moon did. Apart from the aether in their bodies and their long ears, they might have been human themselves. By contrast, Storm Driven had plated her face with scales against attackers and had retractable claws in her fingers. The trueshift that made Storm Driven’s scales possible without the continual use of aether was too extreme for Wind Rider’s tastes, but even so he had long curving horns and a prehensile tail to proclaim his fey nature.
“We won’t surprise them,” Loreveroro said. “We haven’t burned aether on concealment, and they’ve got scouts of their own. They’ll know we’re here.”
“They won’t know when we’ll strike. And they’re human. Their numbers will give them false confidence. They probably expect us to wait for reinforcements. Come, let us brief the companies on the plan.” Storm Driven wheeled her mount around and rode down to where they’d left the troops.
Loreveroro warned that the humans might choose to strike first. Wind Rider felt sure they wouldn’t; they’d hope to make their fortress before the fey were reinforced.
The rest of the afternoon passed in what felt like moments, as they shadowed the Landaran army. Soon, the sun closed on the horizon and the humans made camp. The Landarans knew where the fey companies were. They placed their camp over a mile from the ridgeline and prepared it to defend against a night attack. The fey waited for full dark, then sent a pair of fey in owl shapes to scout the enemy’s defenses, locate the phoenix rose, and find the Landaran’s fey prisoners. Once they had that information, they finalized their battle plans and attacked.
Glamour consumed very little aether, so they crafted illusions freely. The fey of the cavalry companies spread out and used illusory riders to triple their numbers. In the moonlit night, a host of swift-moving shadows to the rear of the cavalry, accompanied by the sound of twanging bowstrings and the hiss of arrows, made it seem that ranks of archers supported their assault. The scent of sweat and horses, previously muted by glamour for their own comfort, was now enhanced to add verisimilitude. Four fey scouts in avian shapes raised shadow armies on the horizons to the north and the east. Meanwhile the true force boiled down from the ridgeline to the southwest.
The Landaran commander was no fool; Wind Rider gave him that. He ordered his men to stand their ground, and sent only a few scouts to the north and east to verify the glamours there were indeed illusions. A shield wall of pike-wielding infantry waited behind a line of sharpened stakes set in the ground. The human cavalry ranged behind the infantry. As they approached, Storm Driven signaled a dozen fey to send aether-guided arrows into enemy soldiers to give credence to the lie of their ranged support. The arrows exploded in flame where they struck: before they’d reached the stake line, a score of Landarans had already fallen. Their commander barked an order, and the human cavalry moved out, five hundred horses racing to both left and right in an attempt to flank the fey host. They sought to get behind the fey and take out the nonexistent archers.
Storm Driven swept one arm before her, and a scythe of aether followed her gesture over the line of sharpened stakes. Hardwood wilted like blades of grass beneath her power. The fey cavalry lowered their lances and charged the shield wall. The human infantry braced for the impact.
Four yards from the shield wall, the fey folk rippled and shifted, from the silhouettes of men into monsters, no two alike. They grew scales and horns, extra arms, the tails of scorpions and striking serpents, elongated necks, dragon heads. To human eyes, their mounts changed with them, to half-dragon steeds, demon cats, griffons, nightmares. Human captains and lieutenants shouted encouragements to quailing soldiers. They’d known this would happen. But it is one thing to know you will fight monsters, and another thing entirely to fight them.
Aether-directed lance points pierced through shields and armor to bite into mortal flesh. Fey-trained warhorses leaped into the air and soared over the line, aether-borne. The lines beyond had their pikes raised and soldiers crouched under shields. Monstrous fey knights dropped their spent lances and drew swords as horse hooves plunged into the mass of their enemies. Wind Rider burned aether to push the points aside as his horse came down atop a roof of shields; Storm Driven’s trick with the line of stakes cost much more aether on metal-bound weapons in sapient hands. In battle, aether was life. His fey stallion used its own supply of aether to steady them. The animal did not stumble even as their weight bore down on shields and human flesh, as partly-crushed men struggled to get out from under them.
The battle lines of the human soldiers crumbled around them as fey swords and monstrous appendages plunged into their enemies. Aether turned aside the short swords and pike blades of their enemies, except for the blows that went into glamour-illusions and did the latter no harm. Lightning found ground to stand upon and reared to lash out with hooves at the humans. Wind Rider balanced in the saddle, turning the stallion in a tight circle and striking down any soldier close enough to hit. All was chaos around them. The Sun warriors conjured aether into lightning to blast at human lieutenants and standard-bearers. Some of the Moon fey sent more arrows that exploded in fire into the more distant ranks. Wind Rider was still conserving aether until they reached the phoenix rose. He hooked throwing stars from his steed’s harness and sent them with aether-precision into the eyes and throats of the enemy. Now that the battle line had broken and the mortals were in a disorderly retreat, he sought to clear a path to the phoenix rose. A beacon of glamour went up ahead and to the right; one of the fey had eyes on the phoenix rose and was highlighting it for the rest of the group.
A Sun warrior sent a fork of lightning towards it. Its wielder deflected the bolt towards a fey knight. Wind Rider was shocked to see the fey sent flying from his horse, body blackened and smoking. Why didn’t he evade? Fey evasion requires so little aether; surely he can’t have been so bereft? Is that the power of the phoenix rose?
Under Lightning’s hooves, the ground trembled and shook, then split. Wind Rider urged the fey stallion into an aether-assisted leap away from the fault lines. Lava rose through the cracks, a heat shimmer distorting the air. Wind Rider charged his mount for the knot of humans guarding their artifact. The wielder had conjured a protective ward over himself, the bird, and his defensive force. It was throwing back the fey charging it, in a kind of bubble that the humans could strike out from but that even aether-driven attacks did not pierce.
As Wind Rider neared the bubble, he spent aether recklessly. He wrapped himself in a ward of his own and cast an earthswim spell as he dove from his steed. The ground roiled around him as he entered it, and the lava-heat beat against his ward but did not penetrate it. He swam forward until he judged himself underneath the human’s ward, and then up. As he’d guessed, the bubble did not protect them from below. The human soldiers barely had time to be surprised as he jumped out of the ground and among them, a fey demon-warrior with naked steel in both hands. Wind Rider ripped through the guardians in an aether-fueled whirlwind of steel. They dealt Wind Rider a few cuts in return, as he was unwilling to give ground and evade completely. The phoenix-wielder cradled his caged bird to his chest, struggling to adjust his spell into a personal ward. He managed to do so just before Wind Rider would have disemboweled him.
But by that time, the rest of the fey forces had swarmed upon the human. Storm Driven pummeled at his ward with spell and steel from one side while the Sun general took the opposite. One of the Sun princes stabbed at him from behind; the last worked spells to peel apart the layers of his ward. More and more fey moved into position and fueled the efforts to undo the ward. Potent as the phoenix rose was, its inexperienced wielder could not withstand the combined assault. He fell to Storm Driven’s blade. Wind Rider dropped his sword to catch the phoenix rose’s cage, a moment before General Qihitinene did. They held the cage together for a moment, eyes locked. Inside the cage, the bird made a querulous coo. It was a pretty animal, the feathers of its folded wings and body reminiscent of the petals of a red rose, its head iridescent green like the stem of a bud. Prince Imilasisi made a slight gesture, and the general yielded it to Wind Rider. “Congratulations, your highnesses,” he said. “Our prize is won, for the twin Etheriums.”
“For the twin Etheriums!” Triumphant, Wind Rider lifted the cage over his head. A cheer went up from among the fey host, clashing steel against steel for applause.
“Don’t stop to celebrate yet.” Prince Loreveroro strode back to his horse and swung up. “We still need to free our captive people.”
Wind Rider grinned anyway. They’d won the phoenix rose. The rest of the army would be only clean-up.
Don't want to wait until the next post to read more? Buy The Moon Etherium now! Or check out the author's other books: A Rational Arrangement and Further Arrangements.