The Captain ran into Her Ladyship on the way to Haldran's war room. "My lady," he greeted her with a half a bow.
"Captain," she smiled in greeting. "I take it you've been summoned by Prince Haldran as well?"
"I was told he had something important to discuss," he told her, the corners of his mouth pulling into the barest smile. "Important enough that it couldn't wait for morning. And I think I know what."
"Oh? Well don't be coy, my dear Captain, tell!"
"Noman took the Headwind out this morning to scout Marsten. My men tell me it returned a short time ago with news. And without Noman."
"At least the airship came back," Her Ladyship told him with a disapproving look. "The Headwind represents years of hard work, not to mention the money Bee had to borrow to complete it."
"You can't tell me you didn't know," he gave her a look. "If you'd had any real objections I would have heard all about it, I'm sure."
"Of course I knew," she admitted. "And I wasn't happy about it. But I understood that this was a valuable opportunity to prove how useful such advanced technology can be."
The Captain's response to that was a thoughtful, "Hmm."
They arrived at the War Room to find Prince Haldran there with Bainbridge, Esme, and Volker. "Ah," Haldran looked up as they entered. "Lady Vanora, Captain. Settle in. The others will be here soon and then we'll begin."
The others turned out to be just the generals. When Her Ladyship asked why she was the only Prince there Haldran told her, "They'll be informed of tonight's events come morning. You're here because we need your direct participation. I'll let Noman explain."
"Noman?" The Captain asked. "I thought he didn't make it back?"
"No," Volker replied, "He didn't. Thankfully he still has his communication stone." The mage held the small oval stone up for all to see.
"The Headwind brings us dire news," Haldran said, nodding at the three guests.
"We did a flyover of Marsten," Bainbridge started. "The city is packed with demons. The damn things are everywhere. I'm no general but I'm pretty sure they've got us on numbers."
"And that's not the worst of it," Esme added. "We saw them trying to open another, bigger, portal."
"So the situation is this," Haldran told them. "With the number of demons in Marsten we don't have much hope of taking the city on our own. Unfortunately we don't have the luxury of simply sitting back and waiting for reinforcements. If they open that second portal the war is over."
"So what are we supposed to do?" Wellesley asked. "We can't attack, we can't wait and reinforce... what's left? Fortify and hope to prolong the inevitable?"
"If those are our only options I'll take my chances attacking Marsten," General Howe proclaimed. "Better to die trying to reclaim my city than cowering here. Nothing against Redhurst, you understand."
"I do," Haldran assured him. "I would feel the same way about Redhurst. And as it happens that's just what I had in mind."
"A suicide assault?" The Captain asked.
"Not exactly, no. I'll let Noman explain," he added, gesturing to Volker. The mage carefully placed the communication stone in the center of the table. He muttered some words with his open palm hovering above it. The internal glow of the stone brightened somewhat and he nodded to himself.
"Go ahead Noman," Volker said. "Everybody should be able to hear you."
"All right," Noman's voice carried easily across the room, "I don't need you to tell me this isn't a good idea. I know it's not. But it's all we've got, so here it is. We scrape together every fighter we've got and march on Marsten. It's not a fight we can win but it's not a fight we have to win. You just have to keep them busy long enough for the next part to work. While the attack is taking place the Headwind will take every exoskeleton we've got, plus a handpicked contingent of soldiers for support, in a sneak attack on the Ivory Tower. I'll work my way into the city and meet that force when they attack. The objective is to close the portal and destroy or reclaim a magical artifact capable of opening another one. If we can do that the army can retreat, fortify Redhurst against a counterattack, and wait for reinforcements to finish this fight on our own terms."
"How do you plan on closing the portal?" Volker asked. "We've never seen anything like this before... I have no idea how it works."
"That's the easy part. The portal is being held open by a series of runes. When we flew over the Ivory Tower I saw one on it's roof. That's the focus, without it the portal will become unstable and collapse. Destroy the rune, destroy the portal."
"Destroy the Ivory Tower, you mean," The Captain said. It was an idea that tugged at his heart... the home of The Watch reduced to ruin?
"If I have to, yes," Noman replied.
"And what if the sneak attack fails?" Wellesley asked.
"Then the army will have to do it's best. Fight through the demons, get to the Tower, and complete the objective. You'll lost a lot of men, maybe all of them, but it doesn't matter anyway," Noman admitted. "If we can't end it now there's no ending it at all."
"What about disengaging from the fight if you sneak attack is successful?" Drake wanted to know. "If the demons have the advantage of numbers they might flanks us and prevent a withdrawal."
"That is a danger," Noman admitted. "My hope is that any leadership or controlling force will be near the portal. If we can kill it, or them, the horde might lose focus. Provide you a chance to retreat."
"That's a lot of uncertainty," Drake said. "If there is a leader, if it's near the portal, if you can kill it... If not we may all die."
"That's a sacrifice I'm willing to make," Haldran said somberly. "This isn't just about us," he reminded them, "This is an Incursion, and if we don't stop it here then it's not going to stop. Playing it careful could lose the war for everyone, everywhere. If the last of us has to die to secure victory for the rest of the world then so be it. We'll have died doing something worthwhile and we'll be remembered for it." He turned his attention to Her Ladyship. "Prince Vanora, what's the latest number for operational exoskeletons?"
"Even with all of Redhurst's factories at our disposal things are going slowly," Her Ladyship said. "The level of complexity is far above what they're used to producing and we're still ironing out problems with the process. Last I knew there are only eight completed frames."
"A bigger problem will be people to operate them," The Captain added. "Two of my Watchmen have spent time getting familiar with these exoframes, but aside from them the only people who really understand these things are the inventors. From the sounds of it we won't have time to train anyone else."
"Then my people will have to suffice," Her Ladyship told him. "I know they're not soldiers," she headed off his objections, "But as you said, we don't have time to train anyone else."
"Will eight exoframes even be enough?" Howe asked.
"Eight will have to do," Noman's disembodied voice interjected. "It's not as many as I'd like, but what I'd like is a whole army of them. We'll have to make up the difference with some more men in the supporting group."
"The Watch will supply the men to go with the exoframes," The Captain volunteered. He looked at Howe to see if he had any objections, but Marsten's general simply nodded in agreement.
"Then it sounds like we have a plan," Haldran said. "Gentlemen," he looked to Wellesley and Drake, "Make the preparations. We'll march on Marsten as soon as we can martial the troops."