The differences between Pantheon and Union forces, coincidentally enough, were echoed by their commanders.
Vampire was in command of the Great Host for one reason, and one reason alone. Her gift was the mightiest among their number. Yes, Zeus had placed her in command, and yes, she had a certain bestial cunning that a number of the child soldiers who made up the Brides lacked, but ultimately neither of those would have sufficed to keep her in power if she hadn’t been able to back them up.
Her life up to this point had been a wrenching one. She was born in Death’s camps, took the Process on schedule and been selected immediately as one bound for Olympus. She’d been warped to the capital and placed among the Brides, and distinguished herself even among this elite by utter savagery and immense power.
Her plans were basically informed by her past. The Host had moved steadily and without deviation for this point, and had met nothing but victory. It would have defied reason for her to balk now, and she had no intent to.
The information that she had at hand was minimal. Haunter had bent her ear, back when Fourth Fist had joined the Host, about the Union’s unlikeliness to defend the city. Preventer, just last night, had griped about more of the same, presenting her with an alternate remedy in the case of an opponent who didn’t show.
She’d listened to them, but hadn’t been convinced. Her life had been lived in preparation for this moment, for the conquest of the Union. She felt in her bones that they would fight for their city, and she looked forward to meeting their feeble efforts in battle and breaking them.
The Union’s force, by contrast, was led by Marshal Hen.
For the usual Obscurocracy reasons it was impossible to say with any certainty who the greatest military leader in the Union was. Such a person would have immediately become a target for their assassination happy enemies, and so the upper echelon of the Union’s leadership was a shifting fog of committees and sponsorships, with responsibilities overlapping and changing according to a bizarre and deliberately complicated schedule.
But this was a crisis, and the Union had built into its structure a simple way to respond to such things. All possible candidates, all the ones among whom responsibility might devolve, were polled, and their accumulated wisdom was used to select the one who should lead the nation’s military in its last extremity.
Hen hadn’t merely won the election, votes for him had exceeded those for every other candidate.
This had come as something of a surprise to him, because he regarded himself as very much “yesterday’s man”. He was the one who had issued the battle doctrine of the Intervention Groups, of the Union’s studious non-interference in the Pantheon’s political affairs. He’d been General Greggs’ sponsor, and was as closely affiliated as it was possible to imagine with the way that things in the Union had always been done.
He’d seen the appearance of the Brides as a stunning rebuke to his views, a fatal sign that his guidance had tipped the country he loved into the direst possible peril. In the immediate aftermath of the ruinous first battle against the Grand Host he’d sincerely considered suicide, abstaining only out of the possibility that his services might yet be required.
The officer corps had disagreed. They saw him not as the architect of their peril, but rather as someone who had delivered them two generations of life, despite the opposition of every other polity on the planet. His record, in their eyes, had only the one blemish, which was nothing like enough to offset the endless victories that the Intervention Groups had delivered. There was no other choice.
He had prepared feverishly for this day, taking utter control of the Union’s military and intelligence assets in the region, and striving feverishly in meetings and briefings around the clock to put together an operation unlike anything they’d ever done before. The close coordination that he achieved among the Union’s assets was a performance that few could properly appreciate, but if the Union was to endure it would have such efforts to credit as much as it did any battlefield heroism.
He had the satellite’s images, when they could be wrangled away from the assholes whose special ‘SOV War Project’ had stolen so much of SPARTACUS’ time. He had the spook’s reports, most intriguingly those purporting to emanate from a captured General Greggs, and finally he was perched atop the report and response nodes of what he believed to be the finest military that the world had ever seen.
He was an ordinary human, like his protégé, and he was hundreds of miles away from the battlefield.
The Pantheon’s forces for this battle were substantially the same as those they’d had in the last battle, minus any casualties between. They had the women of the Grand Host, the survivors of a hundred Pilgrimages, every one a bulletproof Ultra with at least some combat experience. There were still thousands of them left, and they made up the main body of the Pantheon’s Host.
But the elites of the invading army utterly eclipsed them. The Brides of Zeus were still here. They’d taken some losses in the previous battle, and a few more carefully targeted losses on the march, but dozens of the strongest Ultras in the world still formed the core of the army. They’d broken the Intervention Group’s Ultras, veterans with unbroken records of triumphs going back decades, in a single afternoon. The world had never seen their like.
Atop even these was Vampire, and her tame Fist. She was of the mightiest imaginable echelon of Ultras, another Prevailer or Zeus. She had yet to show her gift in battle, but dark muttering among the Union held that she was stronger than all of her escorts joined together. She had strength like that which had smashed the Defiances, and no Ultra of that caliber had ever been defeated.
The defenders of Istanbul, such as they were, had no such luminaries among them. They moved in brigades, in squads. Their edge came from their numbers.
Marshal Hen had, at his command, all of the strength of the world’s last civilized nation, and he could have had a hundred thousand soldiers for this battle. He could have probably called upon twice that.
He’d refrained. He believed that once you outnumbered your foe ten to one inflating the numbers beyond that served little purpose, other than to amplify the effects of a catastrophic defeat.
His troops numbered a little over forty thousand, a number that had staggered the Union’s deployment capabilities, but which, if lost in a sudden spasm of Ultra violence, wouldn’t automatically cause the nation’s collapse.
The hardest requisition that he’d filed had been to the nation’s Ultra Corps. He had gutted them, striving desperately to match or exceed the Grant Host’s numbers in Union Ultras.
With the nation’s peril as a wind at his back, he had succeeded. He outnumbered the enemy in Ultras, and had enough conventional troops, drones and specialized tech to pull off any exotic tactic that he might deem necessary.
From his point of view the problem was one of quality. The Union’s most combative and experienced Ultras had perished with the Intervention Group. The fighters he was fielding now had little experience, and many lacked the all important first degree of Ultra Toughness. They could never be pitted directly against the Grand Host.
For elites he had the Gauntlet, a few dozen mighty Ultras, the sort of person who on the other side might have risen as high as Overseer. They might defeat an even number of the enemies’ rank and file, or they might not.
Every imaginable onlooker would have agreed that the upcoming battle was a walkover, but there would have been a sharp disagreement over who would be doing the walking.
Istanbul itself bore little resemblance to the shattered ruins of the Regime, or the occasional town that the Grand Host had torn through on its way there. This was a thriving Union city, a great megaplex of steel and glass.
The Grand Host gaped, their minds reeling, as the city rose before them in all of its undamaged splendor. It seemed a vision, a mirage, that the dusty plains and monotonous farmland could give way to suddenly to this impossibility.
They marched into it in stubborn defiance, refusing to be daunted by these impossible edifices.
Olympus seemed a slum besides this, a broken down hovel. Its storied towers little more than service buildings when weighed against these impossible structures. The Union’s monstrous constructions made the invaders feel, as never before, the vast gulf between their two civilizations.
The Pantheon being what it was, it also made them want to see what it would look like when they fell down.
No order was given to Indulger or his followers. Once again, the armies were utter opposites. The decision to move the Host, at speed, directly among the great spires of the downtown wasn’t one that Vampire was even consulted upon. Dale simply acted as his instincts bid, secure in the knowledge that every one else would do likewise.
The Union had debated the next steps endlessly, weighing the impact on enemy morale of giving battle vs. falling back, of atomics and poisons. There had even been a faction arguing that the best thing to do was ‘cock block’ the enemy by levelling the city themselves, before they even caught sight of it.
Ultimately, however, they would defy Haunter’s expectations, convinced by the Marshal’s plan. The spires of Istanbul were not uninhabited, and as soon as the Grand Host moved among them they gave spirited evidence of it.
In the early days of the Pantheon’s march the enemy had lurked ahead of them, permitting their shield to be carried past them and then launching surprise attacks. Indulger’s appearance among their enemy had brought an end to that tactic, his ability to sense along the ground forcing them to switch things up. But now, by a trick of the terrain, it was revived.
The Union launched their attack from above.
Union operatives had hidden in tall buildings, and on cloaked skiffs, and as their battle harnesses gave the ‘go’ chime they leaned over the edge and let their enemies have it, a torrent of folded space and Ultra powers suddenly unleashed from directly above.
Nor was this all that they’d brought to the table. The Union had continued to declassify and deploy their tech after the last battle, and had convinced themselves that the dreaded nanoswarms, not seen since the Second Defiance, had been made safe for their use.
They boiled up out of empty basements and specially concealed cannisters at the same instant as the Union soldiers attacked from above, millions and millions of gnat shaped drones whisked through the air by cunning lithnetics and directed with pinpoint precision by lethal computer intelligences.
The Grand Host convulsed, Ultras desperately trying to keep their eyes and faces clear of the drones while also defending themselves against an attack from above. It was long seconds before the merest counterattack could be mustered, seconds in which their enemy picked their marks and shot unhindered.
The author of the Pantheon’s great shield fell during this time, her elimination a priority of the enemy and her silhouette marked in red on their goggles. Indulger toppled too, shot down the spine by a folded space weapon. Ouroboros was also killed, her foreknowledge insufficient to keep her alive when the earth and sky moved against her.
But this was no mere Host, no clutch of limpid pilgrims. Soon enough they began to rally, and then to strike back.
Some few had ranged gifts, and there was nothing to block their retaliation. Others were mobile beyond reason, and they swarmed up the buildings in a frenzy, desperate to close with their ambushing foe and take out some payback upon their flesh. But most did the obvious thing, and smashed the bases of the buildings, annihilating the supporting levels of a block or more of Union skyscrapers.
Not since the Toppling of the Old World had there been such a crash, as a half dozen corporate towers and living habs toppled artlessly across one another. Avalanches of building material spilled sideways across the streets, support beams toppled like battering rams from heaven, as the Pantheon pulled the world down on itself.
There were comparatively few casualties on either side from this, certainly nothing like one could expect from such an earth shattering calamity. On the Pantheon’s side this was due to simple Ultra durability. Anyone who could fall to mere tons of earth had long since vanished from their ranks, or at least had been disintegrated when the nanobots attacked. On the Union side the answer was mostly preparation.
The Marshal had considered mining the towers, setting off something like this. But the analysts had been united in their assertion that the enemy would, given any provocation at all, pull them down on their own heads. So it had been planned, and so it had proven.
Not that the Union didn’t lose people. The sheer force, the chaotic madness of a world where the sky fell from every direction, and the still deadly blasts that the enemy through their way all took their toll. Skiffs toppled from the sky, exploded or otherwise, and the survivors fled west towards the river.
It was long minutes before the Pantheon could pursue. They spent the time digging themselves out, smashing the nanoswarms and generally putting themselves back in something resembling order. Oaths were shouted, fists shaken, and a few impromptu shoving matches broke out, but ultimately Vampire’s will prevailed.
They tore after their enemy at a sprint, bashing blocks and rubble aside with brute Ultra power, and pressing heedlessly towards the river at the city’s heart without fear, despite the fact that their path took them beneath yet more of the Union’s enormous buildings.
Waiting for them at the river was the Union’s best chance to halt their invasion.
This was the coordination that was at the heart of Hen’s strategy, the ancient art of ‘let’s you and him fight’.
The Grand Host weren’t the only invaders in the country, nor were they necessarily the strongest. The Regime, utterly unwilling to sit out the battle that might define an age, had sent an almighty force of its own.
For the last week and a half, the Union had been tracking Third Fist as they tore their way through the countryside, and now, by dint of carefully ‘leaked’ intelligence, the heroic sacrifice of a few willing ‘captives’, and a lot more luck than they would ever like to admit, their enemies drew near to one another.
The Union forces which had fled the Grand Host had been given the option to flee in other directions, but they understood the stakes. They’d fled, one and all, directly into Third Fist, and been summarily slaughtered, their lives forfeit in order to make sure that the enemy units encountered one another.
The sacrifice was not in vain, as the Grand Host, eyes smarting from dust, blood hot from vengeance, made no distinction between its fleeing prey and an enemy that no sane person would have ever engaged. They charged without a second thought into Third Fist.