Season 3.0: City Living
Episode 53: Breach
The first thing that alerted the heroes to their danger was the blue glow of the opening rift in reality behind them. They were thirty feet past the drawbridge at that point, which put them a couple of hundred feet or so from the other end of the causeway. The second thing that alerted them was someone trying to put an arrow through the rearmost member of the party. This might have worked if the rearmost member of the party had not been Ardon.
Ardon turned and caught the arrow. "Hey! What did you do that for?" He assumed a fighting pose before realizing how many troops were pouring through the gateway. "Oh, crap." He turned back around and started running.
The troops on either side of the rising drawbridge began exchanging volleys with the invaders. This didn't make a significant dent in the enemy forces, but did slow them down. The heroes raced towards the other end of the causeway even as the royal troops behind them retreated to somewhere within their stone guardhouses. Arthur blew an alert on his horn.
Only seconds passed before a fire flared on the city wall. Then another. And another. Fires flared the city 'round. A horn returned Arthur's call.
Aurora dropped a few spells to slow down the pursuers, and Orlaith did the same with her arrows. They made it to the far gatehouse.
"Breach!" Arthur shouted. "Breach! Breach! Breach!"
The guard captain was shouting something to his men. The gates opened a little ways to let the party through as the drawbridge beyond slowly lowered. The gates began to close as soon as the fourteen were through, but then . . .
A ghostly green fist the size of a wagon reached out and ripped the gates from their hinges.
Episode 54: Beware of falling swords
The drawbridge was still lowering.
"Team two, form up! Assume a defensive line at the rear of the arch!" Arthur commanded. Max and his team complied.
The enemy arrived just after the drawbridge made it down.
"Team two, fighting withdrawal! Everyone else, across the drawbridge!" The men-at-arms began to slowly give ground; Max held out for several seconds before doing so as well. Everyone else ran.
A shout came from the battlements ahead and above of them as they ran. A blue streak seared itself into their vision, and a huge sword buried itself in the drawbridge. With a crash, an armored figure followed it. A curiously detached part of Isabelle's mind noticed that the newcomer's armor was a match for Max's. The stranger pulled the glowing sword out of the drawbridge and marched towards the line.
When the first group had finished crossing, they turned to look at team two. Max and the stranger had taken up a position halfway across the drawbridge and were brutally mauling all comers, knocking many of them into the river below. Above, the guards tried to raise the drawbridge, but something prevented them. Arthur turned away and began riding.
Isabelle stayed long enough to perform a quick head-count. Silent Thunder was missing, but this was hardly new. She rode after Arthur as several covered wagons bearing reinforcements arrived.
Episode 55: The Great Hall of the Imperial War Academy
Worried-looking watchmen quickly gathered at intersections before retreating to separate corners. Overhead, a glowing, robed figure floated in the direction of the gate. Bells began ringing out, sounding the alarm, and hastily-dressed men and women lined up to be admitted into the nearest watchhouse. All this Isabelle saw as she followed Arthur to his mysterious destination.
Their destination became clear a few minutes later. Cobblestones gave way to the neatly paved bricks of the Imperial War Academy, and Arthur finally reined in outside of its massive Great Hall. Isabelle and the others tied their horses up next to the several already there as Arthur spoke quietly to the guards. They were quickly ushered inside and the door secured behind them. After passing through the antechamber, the party emerged into the Great Hall proper.
There was a reason that they called the few such rooms in the empire "Great Halls." The entry's double doors opened onto a balcony running around three sides of a room that took up almost the entire length and width of the building. Only at the far end was there no balcony, for at that end there was a giant tapestry, two stories tall and equally wide, that rippled and shifted as if alive. On the floor a story below stretched maps and diagrams of the empire and the city with cast-metal figurines marking the locations of military forces. Tables and cabinets lined the walls underneath the balcony, and the balcony level had doors and even windows opening onto various offices. Sitting, standing, and pacing all over were Academy faculty, top students, and semi-retired military officers. They all looked up as Arthur entered the room.
An official-looking lady seated near the doors asked, "What's the situation?"
"Causeway two has been breached via magical transportation; the island gate is unable to close but hadn't been breached by the time that I left." He rattled off the military units and movements that he'd spotted.
"Damn it, you know we can't activate on our own unless there's a full breach."
Below, people scurried to update the city map. Isabelle and the others spread out to get a better look at what they were doing, but it turned out that the next excitement was back by the entrance.
The doors slammed open and two lightly-armored guards with no obvious identification strode in. They quickly surveyed the assembly and waved the people behind them forward. A moderately handsome, middle-aged man in a golden suit of plate stepped through. His shield was blue with thirteen golden crowns.
The entire assembly snapped to attention and saluted the Emperor.
Episode 56: The Emperor gives the Word
The Emperor strode forward and looked down at the city map. He glanced around the room, pausing when he spotted Arthur.
The Emperor turned to the official-looking lady who had asked Arthur about the situation: "You have the Word." He turned and left.
Facing the suddenly-moving crowd of figures, the lady snatched up a staff that had been leaning against the wall. It looked official. "I now declare the Great Hall active!" She pounded the staff. "This is to be recorded as Command Activation Twelve. Signals, assume command of all city defenses. Information, I want eyes on the bridge and gate, I want a full list of Imperium flows in the city sorted by location, I want the magical breach status of the city monitored closely, I want to know where our units are and who's supporting them, I want to know who and what we're facing, and I want it all FIFTEEN MINUITES AGO!" She paused to catch her breath. "And someone wake up the staff; it's going to be a long night."
Meanwhile, the initial scramble was quickly resolving itself into a smooth operation. At least two of the people on the floor sat with their eyes shut, dictating what they saw of the battle through their magic senses. Others updated the gigantic floor map of the city with the new information. Looking down at the map from the balcony was a troop of mostly older men who conferred among themselves and called out various requests for information. Most impressively, the tapestry at the far end of the hall constantly rewove itself, displaying information on the city's defenses.
The steward shouted out another order when the execution of the first set was underway: "Get me our breach status!"
One of the mages watching the battle obliged. "We're losing the bridge . . . fifteen feet . . . ten . . . five . . . holding at zero—two of the Blue Weapons are holding at zero . . . holding . . . holding . . . hold—" He winced. "Breach! Two lines have breached! Second line is guarding something . . . counterattack coming . . ."
The tapestry shifted to display a list of defensive lines, and the entry under "City Wall" rewrote itself to read "BREACH" in bright red thread.
"Deploy the Civilian Defense Force and signal the Order of White. Message to all government stations: Prepare for a potential occupation of the city."
Episode 57: A.A.O.: Acronyms Are Ordered
The chaos around Isabelle did the impossible and became even more chaotic. There were clearly underlying patterns and structures, but they were hard to determine just by watching. One of the few things that she could work out was that the people in charge were up on the observation level with her; they were the ones giving the orders.
"C.D.F. deploy by plan: Districts One through Seven, Nine, and Ten to Plan R, Eight to reinforce Island Gate One; Eleven and Thirteen to close their borders with Twelve, Twelve to close their inner border."
The Civilian Defense Force, or "C.D.F.," Isabelle understood because she was a former member. The members were ordinary citizens trained in the use of simple weapons by the Watch and dispatched in cases of extreme need. For security reasons, the volunteers had never been told where they might be deployed, so the orders referencing Plan R were beyond her; all she knew was that the Watch District containing the gate under assault was being cordoned off and the gate on the far side was being reinforced.
"Something's tunneling through our inner transport barrier; they must have gotten a device inside."
The tapestry rewove itself again and another "BREACH" warning appeared, this time under "Inner Barrier."
"CAPTRANS confirms and reports all friendly devices locked down."
"Authorize CAPTRANS to take extreme measures. Find out where the breach exited."
"Distress signal from T.O.C."
"Order T.O.C. to destroy all data and surrender."
"T.O.C.'s gone dark and is not acknowledging order."
"Assume they're captured or dead. Data may be compromised. Options?"
Several people responded to the loss of the Tactical Operations Center with comments and suggestions. After a few seconds, one of the older tacticians cleared his throat to quiet the others and said, "I move that we destroy Causeway Two."
Episode 58: Causeway Two is falling down
There was an immediate babble of discussion regarding the motion to destroy the causeway, but the matter quickly came to a vote.
The lady who seemed to be officially in command of the Great Hall nodded once. "Motion carries. Is the bridge clear of friendly forces?"
One of the mages watching the battle with his eyes closed responded, "I swear, there's something on the bridge, but I can't see it. There are some unnatural shadows out there, and every time I re-check the middle of the bridge, more of the enemy is dead or missing."
"We must commend its soul to Heaven, if it has one; there's no way that we can extract someone from all the way out there. Send the command."
"By your order," the other mage acknowledged. There was a pause of perhaps ten seconds before the mage reported, "Done."
Several more seconds passed before there was a dull rumble in the distance. As the rumble died down, the floor beneath Isabelle quivered for a moment.
"Causeway Two is down," the first mage reported. "Breach forces appear to be surrendering."
"Thank Heaven," someone muttered, and there was a scattered chorus of agreement.
Isabelle made her way over to Arthur. "What did they just do?"
"When we last rebuilt the causeways, a spell was carved into each of the support pillars. When activated, it liquefied their mortar. At any given time, only two mages in the military know how to trigger it, but there are always a few retired ones about." He gestured to the mage below as evidence. "C'mon; let's find out how Max and Team Two did."
Episode 59: Triage
Isabelle and the others made their way to the triage station at the gate. Max met them there and made his report quietly: "Three dead, two wounded, and one missing."
Arthur shook his head. "I'm sorry, Max. I checked the Imperium list; there's only you and two others listed."
Max nodded. "At least they only send me people without families."
"Without families except for us."
"'Except for us' indeed. I'll inform the local representatives of the nobles; a couple of their Lords might be in town."
"Let me know when the funerals are; I doubt that we're going anywhere."
"Yes, sir. What's the military situation?"
"The inner barrier was breached, but we don't know where. Capital Transportation is working on it. The city is surrounded on land, and their reinforcements are going to get here before most of ours can. By water we're pretty clear until they get siege engines in place; I don't think that they've brought any large-scale boats in. Let's—"
He broke off as a pair of rescue worker arrived at the station with a stretcher. On the stretcher was Silent Thunder, looking like a drowned cat. He was asleep.
"What happened to him?"
"We found him at the foot of the bluffs by the water. We tried asking him what happened, but all he said was 'They woke me up' and fell asleep. Do you know him?"
"Yeah; he's one of ours. Let him sleep."
"Yes, sir." They carried Thunder away.
Most of the fighters who had been paying attention at the Great Hall gave the retreating stretcher an odd look, but Arthur ignored it. "Right now we should—" he began again.
"Right now you're coming with me." One of the advance guards from the Emperor's retinue was standing behind Arthur. Isabelle had seen—and not seen—too much that day to wonder how he had gotten there without any of them apparently noticing.
Arthur turned around and glared at him. "Keep your attitude to yourself, civilian." Despite this, he gestured for the others to follow.
Episode 60: Orlaith gets a title and Percy gets a job
They wound their way to an open plaza on the upstream end of the city. There, the Emperor and two more of his guards waited. He pointed to Arthur and beckoned him.
After Arthur and the Emperor had spoken for a minute, Arthur pointed to Orlaith and waved her over to them. Orlaith joined them and quickly knelt. The Emperor laid his hands on her head, and a golden aura briefly surrounded her. She stood.
Arthur made his way back to the others, ignoring their questions. He placed his hand on Percy's shoulder. "C'mon, kid; we're getting you a job." They left the increasingly confused section of the squad not summoned to the Emperor's side and took their place in front of him. Arthur presented Percy to the Emperor. The Emperor spoke, and Percy stepped forward and took a knee. The Emperor drew his sword, said something, and dubbed Percy gently on each shoulder. Percy stood again and was formally presented to Orlaith, who nodded. Then the entire group, Emperor included, joined the remaining squad members.
Isabelle did not want to be rude in front of her Emperor, but some questions just needed to be asked. "Sorry to interrupt, but what just happened?" She looked at each of them in turn, unsure whom to ask or who would answer.
Arthur opened his mouth to say something, but the Emperor held up a hand to silence him. Then the Emperor smiled, seemed to relax, and explained, "Control of the Imperium is a key part of every Emperor's claim to Divine Right. Therefore, others directly manipulating the Imperium is a threat; it could even lead to problems of succession." He shrugged. "So we simply adopt them." He grinned at their shocked expressions. "Honorarily. Of course, even honorary stepchildren of the Emperor need protection and are entitled to every royal's right to a Knight Protector. Percy was well-trained and needed a job, so I appointed him. I owe him for his family's service and what happened to them, anyway. . . ." He paused and switched gears. "Now I want all of you to come meet the king of all crime in the Empire."
This time it was Arthur's turn to be surprised. "HIM? You dragged me out here to see someone I've said I'll kill if I ever get the opportunity?"
"No killing! This is a matter of Imperial security, and I expect you to respect that."
"I will, but I don't promise to like it."
"I want you there and not killing him in order to impress upon him the importance of working together on this. At the same time, if he decides to pull something at the meeting . . . like you said, you want to be the one to kill him."
Episode 61: The Meeting
They arrived at the meeting place, a small square surrounded by shops, and found the Emperor's advance guard chatting with the advance guard of the crime lord. The two guards eyed the newcomers, and each made a beckoning gesture to their side of the square. The Emperor's party approached, as did three figures who emerged from the alley on the far side of the square.
On the left of the approaching trio, at least as Isabelle viewed them, was a very tall, broad stony-faced woman dressed in the loose pants, jacket, and tied cloth belt of a practitioner of certain unarmed fighting styles. Having had more experience with such opponents than any of her fellows, Isabelle placed herself opposite the warrior. On the trio's right was a girl as small as the other was large, as bouncy as the other was subdued, and as cheerful as the other was solemn. This girl was asking the central figure why she couldn't kill anyone. Between the two ladies walked a man taller than the first and nearly as thin as the second. His hair was long and golden, much like the tall warrior's or Arthur's, his clothes were fine, though black, and he had a black walking stick that he did not seem to need so much as enjoy. The crime lord's group stopped five or six feet from the Emperor's group, and both the man in black and the Emperor took half a step forwards.
"You called?" drawled the man.
"I ordered." The Emperor's voice was deep and harsh again. "We are under siege and have no ready route for supplies or forays. The enemy can potentially access the portals, so CAPTRANS has shut them down. You will enact those protocols that I have required you to always hold in readiness."
"And in return?"
"I will continue to hold off crushing your organization."
"I suppose the potential theocracy imposed by Black Jong wouldn't be as kind. Consider it done."
"I will. You will receive instructions from me in the morning; until then, do what you will to aid us." The Emperor and his men withdrew from the square, leaving Arthur and company behind.
Episode 62: "Secundus"
Arthur continued watching the crime lord until the Emperor was out of earshot. "And what ladies have you corrupted now?" He glanced at the two bodyguards, who glared angrily back.
"So we're speaking to me now, are we? Believe it or not, I'm not as evil as you think."
"I don't want to argue about this."
"Then why did you bring it up? Introduce me." This time, it was the criminal who looked around at his opposite number's companions.
Arthur grimaced. "The man known as 'Secundus,' seducer, traitor, criminal, . . . and my former Lieutenant in the Silver Order."
It was Aurora who stepped forward. "I think I see where this is going." Flames flickered around her hands.
The larger bodyguard shifted into a grim-faced defensive stance, moving between Aurora and "Secundus"; the smaller pulled a knife and grinned.
"Aurora," said Arthur, disapprovingly, "we need him alive, for now."
Aurora hesitated before stepping back.
"Perhaps you should leave now," Arthur advised Secundus.
"Perhaps I should." Secundus waved his advance guard over to his side. "Plan Angel is now in effect. The surface-to-river routes must be clear of all evidence by dawn, magical transport is forbidden, guards are to stand by at surface posts and take immediate action against any enemy agents, and I will see the assassins and Intelligence in the address chamber in half an hour. Go!"
The man ran back into the shadows at the far side of the square, and the crime lord and his entourage followed behind at a brisk pace.
Arthur cursed under his breath and led his team in the opposite direction.