Olian's destination became clear quickly. He was headed for the Ivory Tower, probably to protect it from whatever attack the Headwind could still muster. Noman stopped within sight of the Tower's courtyard and cautiously searched the area for signs of demon activity. Though he thought for sure there would be one somewhere, guards like those around the market square at the very least, there was nothing. From the looks of things he could just walk right up to the Tower and through the front doors.
Rather than make him feel better it gave Noman a profound sense of ill ease. "Nothing's ever this easy," he reminded himself. While he thought about the situation he pulled the communication stone from his pocket. The stone flared to life as he muttered the incantation to activate it. "Volker," he asked calmly, "You still alive?"
As he waited for a response Noman dispatched two Shadows to scout the area. With any luck they would spot - or spring - any ambush that was waiting for him. At last a familiar voice floated from the stone.
"Still alive, but only just."
"I saw you go down. How bad is it?"
"Not as bad as it could be," Volker reported. "Hatchet and the rest were already in their exoframes when we hit, so they're all fine. Bainbridge did a damn good job considering; he brought us down as softly as he could manage. Nobody killed, but four of the men are in no shape to fight."
"Leave them and get moving," Noman ordered. "You have company headed your way, if it isn't there already."
The Captain watched from the back of his wagon as the army pushed into Marsten's outskirts. The report of numerous rifles reached his ears across the grassy plains that surrounded the city, though from his position he couldn't see the particulars of the fight. "Gods damnit," he grumbled, squinting off at the distant city walls. From where he sat he could see the teeming mass of demons that had begun to swarm over those walls. The fact that he could make them out so easily from such a distance did not bode well for the army, he thought.
"What's wrong?" Her Ladyship asked. Having dismounted her horse she stood beside his wagon, watching the fight with him. Her house guard surrounded them, having abstained from the fight. Part of it was to keep them safe, part of it was to hold the position for when the army began it's retreat. Here, just outside of the palisade that marked the inventor's camp, they would make their stand.
"I can't see the particulars of the battle," he told her. "Too much paperwork, I suppose."
"If everything goes according to plan you'll see the particulars up close in short order," she reminded him. "But my eyes seem better than yours. Let me tell you what I see..." she peered off at the city, squinting in the early morning light. "Your Watchmen have moved up the East Road rather quickly. They seem eager to reach the gates before retreat is called."
"Damn the fools," The Captain cursed, "They'll outpace the army and get themselves surrounded. They should know better."
"They're running into the first edges of the horde, firing volleys at range along the broad avenue. There are so many demons, I can't tell if their shots are doing any good. Howe's lead regiment seems stalled in the buildings North of the road... Ah, I can see demons among them. They're fighting hand to hand in the middle of the formation now, though the edges are still firing sporadically at the oncoming horde. South of the road Wellesley's vanguard are moving up through the side streets, slowed more by the narrow roads than by the horde. They don't have much room to maneuver, not enough open space to fire massed volleys like the Watch. Oh dear... the demons have run across the rooftops. They're leaping down on Wellesley's men, attacking from above. It's... turning into a real mess. The rest of the army is moving up from behind to support the front lines. It looks like all forward progress has stopped. The Watch is holding it's ground."
"How bad are the casualties? Can you tell?"
"They're dying fast." She looked to one side, where the signal corps was waiting for Wellesley's order to call retreat. "I think we've got their attention. No signal to retreat yet, though."
"It'll come," he said.
The inside of Hatchet's exoframe stunk. A large part of the odor was sweat - it wasdamn hot in a metal suit powered by steam. It wasn't even noon yet, and he dreaded to think what the midday sun would do. He hadn't ruled out part of the smell being urine, either, since he couldn't be sure if he'd pissed himself when the Headwind came crashing down. The sweat made everything damp, after all.
The final part of the stench was the viscous, black ichor demons seemed to use for blood. Exoframe armor had grid of metal bars set at roughly head height, allowing the suit's operator to see beyond the confines of his armored shell. The unfortunate drawback was that, while it kept demon claws more or less at bay, it tended to let other things into the suit. Things like demon ichor. Especially when you used the steam powered fist of an exoframe to splatter a demon against a wall. Or the ground. Or hit one at all, really.
"I think that's the last of them!" Anara called from her exoframe. Hatchet turned from the demon he'd just killed and surveyed the area. More of the unarmored Watchmen were dead, but it was only a handful, and only one exoframe was down. Not bad, considering the number of demon corpses that littered the street.
"This is taking too long," Volker complained, huffing up beside Hatchet's exoframe. He and Lucan looked tired, a side effect of all the magic they'd used just getting this far. Hatchet had ordered them to hold back unless absolutely necessary, to save their strength until they reached the tower, but there was always a demon just a little too close.
"I know," Hatchet responded to the mage's complaint. He turned to look at the Ivory Tower. It seemed so close, but their progress was agonizingly slow. It seemed every street they passed harbored small gangs of demons waiting to pounce in ambush. Without the exoframes he was certain they would never have made it past the first attack, but every new assault forced them to stand and fight. Time spent killing demons was time they could have spent moving to meet Noman.
"At this pace the army will be dead by the time we reach the Tower," Volker shook his head.
"Can't be helped," Hatchet told him.
"Can be helped," Asmova's admonished them in his unusual accent. "Exoframes move faster than this. Problem is them," he gestured with an armored hand at the regular Watchmen. "Too slow, and when we fight we spend time protecting them."
"Are you saying we should leave them behind?" Anara asked. "We can't do that, we need them to attack the Tower."
"If choices are get to tower too late with many men, or get to tower in time with just exoframes, I choose exoframes," he told her.
"We can't leave the mages," Hatchet decided.
"So carry them," Asmova sounded exasperated. "Frames were first made for heavy lifting. Can carry mages, troops too if you like. Can't take all of them, but can take some."
"Whatever we're doing, I suggest we do it fast." Volker pointed at the rift above the Ivory Tower. Black storm clouds were starting to form around it, green lightning sparking out to ground itself on the Tower.
"Oooh, that can't be good," Hatchet muttered. "Right then. Listen up! Every frame grab a Watchman , two if you can manage it. Anara and I will take the mages. We're going to charge straight on through the rest of the way until we get to the Ivory Tower."
"And the rest of us?" A Watchman named Conroy asked.
"Follow behind us," Hatchet told him. "But if things get too bad find a defensible position and fortify. If that looks untenable just get out of the city any way you can."
"You got it," Conroy agreed.
"All right everybody, it looks like things are getting interesting over at the Tower. Let's get going, quick as you can!"