Shadows of the Evergreen - Part 6
Grey inhaled sharply as he rocketed out of his deep slumber at the sound of the jailbird's call. He could remember the fact that he'd dreamt, but the traces he'd retained of the dream itself had an unpleasant feeling. Something about being in Art's painting, a Titan crying at his shoulder, while being hung on the wall during a party thrown in Princess Sasha's honor...
Well, the dream didn't matter anyway.
Grey quickly changed his focus into taking stock of his surroundings.
Units naturally woke at dawn to be ready for the start of turn, no matter who's turn it was. But Farstriders were taught to wake before dawn, prepare, and be ready for whatever may happen while on dispatch. The jailbird was a favored wake up call just for that purpose.
With Grey finished listening to and eyeballing his surroundings he'd decided that he was either safe to move or completely outclassed in stealth, in which case he'd have to move anyway. Grey extricated himself from the hollow under the overhanging roots of a tree he'd chosen as his sleeping spot for the night. Grey had no bedding, no blankets, no campfire. Farstriders were trained to have no need for a camp site to decrease the chances of their being located during missions, and to leave no traces of themselves as they moved through contested territory. Camp sites were a luxury only allowed in completely safe hexes.
With a flourish of his cloak to knock the dust off, Grey was off to the hiding spot he'd chosen while scouting the hex the previous night. He had to wait until start of turn so he could start hunting an army.
* * * * *
One of the greatest enemies a scout faced, was boredom.
Grey had climbed a tree that twisted in strange directions instead of having grown straight up and nestled himself on a large bough before dawn, his cloak and hood covering his entire body. Slowly, the Farstrider cloak had taken on the color of the brown bark of the tree, it being a Signamancy Magic Item and one of the secrets to Farstrider success. It did not Veil a unit by any means. It did not hide a unit from prying eyes. Instead it muted one's Signamancy, made them blend into the background just a little easier, let the eye pass over them without catching sight. And no side aside from Everclear really knew about the special nature of the cloaks, as the enchantment on them was just fragile enough to not survive a unit's being croaked. To all outward appearances, Grey was just another misshapen part of the tree.
And he'd been that lump on the tree for the past several hours. Hence the boredom.
Something non-scouts didn't appreciate was just how hard it was to pass the time when you couldn't move a finger. But every good scout had a few ways to deal with it. One he knew dabbled in Rhymamancy, constructing limericks that he shared with the other Farstriders every time he returned from deployment. Grey though, liked to listen.
For the past few hours, Grey had had his eyes closed as he kept his ears and his mind focused on every sound in the hex around him. He'd listened to the tunes of some humalongbirds, the scampering of squirrels in the boughs around him, and now an ongoing dispute between some stacks of magpies and cherripies in the next tree over. The two stacks of birds had some rather advanced tactics going on, but lacked the focus to see any of their plans to the end, so neither side had the advantage even after squabbling for so long. They will probably just get tired of harassing one another and eat whatever bugs are in the tree side by side.
Then Grey heard the sharp crack of a twig being broken, and Grey found he was no longer fighting against boredom but against a surge of adrenaline.
Very slowly, Grey opened his eyes just a crack, just enough to see out of, and began to scan the surroundings without moving his head. He saw nothing out of the ordinary, but that was to be expected. Grey was certain he was dealing with a stealthy unit, feral or otherwise.
If it had just been any old feral creature, there would have been accompanying sounds of calling out to others of it's kind or of it moving around. The rustling of bushes, the sound of snacking on leaves, the heavy thump of a bound over an obstacle, the sound of carrying out it's normal routine. There was none of that. But the sound of that twig, it had to have caught on something passing by in a moment of carelessness while working hard to remain silent.
Minutes passed, and Grey worked hard to keep his heartbeat under control, quite the task without the luxury of taking deep breaths for fear of his breathing making too much noise. It's harder to hear properly over a heavily beating heart, after all.
More time passed. And finally Grey saw a flicker of movement. The coloration made it hard to be certain what it was, but it was movement. And the fact that it was too hard to be certain, left Grey with a single conviction. With a surge of aggression, Grey knew it was camouflage; it was an enemy.
Grey had not been expecting Guilter to go his direction. The straightest path to all the nearest cities did not run through that hex. Grey had just been paranoid about detection out of habit and pragmatism, never believing he'd run into any Guilter units during their turn. His plan had been to cut along the likely travel paths that had no trap hexes to search for traces of passage. He'd traveled his way pretty far southeast of Whatever and planned to head north into the travel lanes, then work west seeing if he ran into Guilter forces in order to rule out possible targets to give King Shindig more information for setting up his strategy sessions before the knighthood was dispatched. He was eliminating possibilities instead of blindly chasing down a potentially fatal goal.
A clearly distinguishable head poked out through some brush, the skin as brown as the tree trunks in the forest. It had no helmet, it was a scout unit, as Grey had thought. But what was he doing?
The Guilter scout slowly moved his head from left to right and back again, causing Grey to tut-tut silently. That kind of overt movement would not be tolerated in his Farstriders. But Grey kept his squinted eyes trained to those of the scout, trying to figure out what he was looking for. The scout's eyes seemed to have no target, they were looking at everything. The ground, the bushes, the tree trunks, where his next step would land, the spaces in between the trees, and so forth. The eyes even looked into the tree Grey was in, and Grey and the scout locked eyes.
And the eyes carried past without having noticed the leaf green pupils that were lightly staring at him. The scout moved forward after that, coming close to the base of the tree Grey was hiding in. Grey very slightly tilted his head to keep the scout in view, studying him. His uniform was recolored to blend with the forest with none of the red, white, and gold of the Guilter heraldry showing. The scout was geared for stealth, not for combat, and would be easy pickings should Grey choose to roll out of his perch to fall on him with sword and dagger drawn. But croaking or interrogating the scout would get him nothing, worst than nothing. Guilter losing a unit there would alert them to his presence, and he would be hunted down until he was croaked or captured. No, it's best to let the small fry go, and get his answers another way.
The scout was then studying the sides of the tree's trunk, for something. Seeming satisfied to have not found anything, the scout moved on, with his peculiar task of looking at everything. Everything that might be a trap, Grey realized in a rush. The scout was an advanced unit, looking for possible traps or troop deployments in the hex. Grey instantly lost interest in the lone scout and began scanning the rest of the forest around him with his eyeballing. After a few minutes, sure enough, he saw another scout, and then another. All of them working their way southeast.
Not to However in the southwest. Not to Neverland in the east northeast. But southeast. The closest city in that direction was Everquest, which was twice as far away from Whatever than even Neverland. They were obviously no simple razing party. What was their real goal?
And then Grey heard the loud crack of something shattering in the distance, followed by a loud thud. Grey heard the sound again, and again. It was getting closer with each repetition and Grey thought he could hear a grinding whirr preceding each one. The sound was muffled, quite muffled, but eventually Grey placed the sound. Falling trees.
The sounds suddenly became louder, probably part of crossing hex boundaries. Trees within his field of vision began to tip and fall. Tip and fall at an alarming rate. It was not unheard of to cut a path through rough terrain for larger units and constructs to traverse, but it was slow and impractical. It should have taken hours to cut down the number of trees that Grey had just seen felled in minutes. Did it have something to do with that strange sound, that grinding whirr?
Far, far sooner than it should ever have been possible, the source of the noise was close enough for Grey to make out through the trees. They were Craftsman units, Courtesan specialists wearing deep blue jackets and carrying strange devices consisting of a block with some handles on them, and a thin metal fin almost as long as a stabber is tall. These Craftsmen were pushing these whirring, buzzing objects against the trunks of the great trees of the heavy forest hex, and the objects started tearing into the wood like an enchanted sword through a straw dummy. The Craftmen were cutting wedges out of the trees, then cutting the other side to precisely angle the fall away from the center of the lane they were making in the trees. After cutting down a tree, those Craftsmen moved on to the next, and other Craftsmen descended on the fallen tree, cutting it into pieces and slicing off the stump closer to the ground. After the trunks and stumps had been cut into manageable pieces, common pikers and stabbers moved in to haul the wood away for the rest of their column to walk the new path without any difficulty. That invading column of units was able to use such a tactic to spend far less move per hex than they would otherwise.
An invading column of units wearing the deep blue and golden interlocked plank heraldry of Floorin'. And there, near the head of the column on horseback and surrounded by Knights and Warlords was Prince Humperdink, heir of the throne and the real power of Floorin'.
King Shrinkidink of Floorin' had declined so far into inability that he'd long ago taken the form of a white haired, stick figure of a man, with a mind to match. Normally a ruler in such a condition would be forcefully abdicated if required for the good of the side, but rumor had it the courtiers preferred to control the addle brained king to rule vicariously, and the realm's princes were not above such matters either as it allowed them to rule the side through their incapable father and fight at the front at the same time. The best of both realms, it was supposed. And this heartless form of rulership had lasted through five heir princes, Humperdink being the most recent in the line.
Grey could see him quite clearly now, there in the distance. Fine thick silks under masterfully made armor, for the Craftsmen of Floorin' were exceedingly skillful in all Fabrication, not just woodworking. Humperdink stood tall and straight backed in the saddle, a ruler's crown on his head of curled brown hair and a face as handsome as his body was sturdy. Just this far sight of him caused Grey to finally wholeheartedly believe the report he'd read saying the man had succeeded in croaking a feral Grape Ape barehanded using a bear hug. It was not just his figure that was impressive, for he was also an exceedingly sound strategist as well.
Prince Humperdink had inherited his position as Heir and Chief Warlord with a Floorin' in tatters. His predecessor, Rinkidink, had completely failed in both military and political matters. The realm had no allies, it's armies were ramshackle, and there was no consistency in policy because Rinkidink had allowed enough freedom that all the ranking courtiers were pulling the king's policymaking every which way, but the correct one. Humperdink had been able to reform that side into the military powerhouse it currently was, swelling it's territory and taking several sides as "allies" which were in truth no more than vassal states, paying tithes to Floorin's swelling treasury every turn.
If it were that man, then Grey could believe that he was able to conceive of such a plan to invade Everclear. For an invasion it was, Grey was certain of it. Even if he wasn't after the first part of the column passed through the hex, he soon saw siege towers, carts of supplies and stored foodstuffs. More carts filled with lumber and metal girders for siegeworks construction. And-
Oh, Titans. What were those things.
For all Grey's hundred turns of experience, his jaw dropped.
Right there floating, floating, above the enemy column were enormous bulbous constructed troop transports, heavy, flying, made of metal reinforced lumber and thick cloth. Each one had at least one stack of units in an undercarriage and a siege machine on top, a ballista or a catapult with extra ammunition collected nearby, and units to work them. Each of the bloated main bodies were painted a disgusting orange and had the troop undercarriages hanging beneath them with chains securing them, but for some reason there was a multitude of ropes hanging down, curling and wiggling about in the sparse winds that hit them, almost seeming alive. Such... things could not possibly exist. But there they were, and in such numbers that they could not possibly be an accidental perversion of all that was right on Erf. There were dozens of them.
Grey's horror only increased as a natural Mathamancy he'd acquired had dedicated a part of his mind to counting the troops passing by in the column. Heavies. Cavalry. Archery. Stabbers and Pikers. Diggers and Siege. Over five thousand in all. It was enough to cut the heart out of Everclear, the capital. He could see the siege of the city in his mind already. The Craftsmen building a new sturdy bridge as the original one was blasted to pieces. Siege towers and Battering rams targeting the main gate as those flying abominations assault from the sky, landing scores of units on the walls to reinforce the main assault and catch the wall defenders on two sides. And those strange transports would make it, too, reinforced fliers huddled together, at least half of them concentrated on a single point of assault would survive all the tower spells the city could bring to bear and more. After the gate fell, it would be a cavalry rush, followed by an infantry push up the tower to the final stand for his king at it's peak. Everclear would croak more invaders than they would incur losses, but with these numbers of attackers that meant little to nothing. Everclear's forces will have been pulled out of their regular formation because of the Guilter assault, the knighthood wouldn't be there to take air superiority, grant Leadership bonuses, or generally reinforce the whole of the capital's defenses.
The entire Guilter razing party was a decoy for this attack. Prince Humperdink must have made it a condition of the last peace settlement in order to get Guilter to go along with the plan. That's the only way the two sides would ever work together, that was how long and bitter their relations went. It may even have been the entire reason Floorin' had for fighting in the last war. Grey wouldn't put it past Humperdink. Truly, a royal's mind really was far more suited to tactical thinking than someone like Grey. But that was not what was important at that time.
It took hours for the column to pass. Hours of dread so deep that Grey could feel his hands shaking under the cloak as they gripped the pommel of his sword and dagger. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, the column passed completely through the hex. The enemy was on it's way to attack his home, but Grey was there, he knew what they were doing, and he had a magic hat to report his findings before it was too late.
Grey waited a good long time after the last units of the column passed through the hex before even thinking to climb down from his hiding location to write his report, and then waited even longer just to be certain the area was secure. The sight he'd seen had been just that Titans awful. After the sun had crossed it's zenith, and into early afternoon, Grey finally had pulled together the confidence to drop down from his perch in a controlled fall to land on his feet. He was high enough that a tumble from that limb could have Incapacitated him or worse, but a controlled jump or fall was an exemption of the rules up to a certain height, a rule he took advantage of in order to waste not a moment of time in writing the scouting report to his king.
Grey whipped a long vial out of his pack, pulled the cork on it's top with his teeth, and stuck it in his left bracer to hold it steady. With his right hand Grey pulled out a piece of parchment and a quill. Grey dipped the quill in the ink that filled the tube and hastily scrawled out the general plan of Floorin', the feint and invasion path, and a suggestion of producing more Natural Allies for the coming battle and hiring Shockamancers to reinforce the air defenses. Next, Grey related his description of those ghastly floating orange things. Last of all, Grey began to note down the near correct approximations of the enemy forces, their numbers, their disposition, and the composition of forces within the formation of the column. By this time, Grey was sweating profusely in the afternoon sun from heat and nerves. He felt grateful when a breeze of wind sprung up strong enough to set some of the branches of the trees swaying and took the edge off his heat. He was nearly done writing the report after all, and would rather not deface it with drops of sweat. It was going to go directly into a king's hat, after all.
Then Grey froze. He tilted his head and cocked his eyes. And reaffirmed what he'd noticed out of the corner of his sight.
The branches of one of the trees was swaying in the wrong direction.
Grey immediately turned and ran in the other direction. Right after, Grey heard a shout from some woman calling, high and startled, "Hurry, we've been discovered!"
"You mean you have," replied a second voice, gruff and petulant for a lady. "You only had the one job, how could you blow it?"
"The veil held! I swear! Something tipped him off!" The first voice answered, closer than it was before, obviously in pursuit.
"Knock it off, the both of you," said a third voice, obviously the one in command. "Our assignment is unchanged, we're just going to have to work a little harder is all. Decentralize!"
A team of three, noted Grey as he stopped just long enough behind a tree to re-cork the ink - he couldn't let the report be ruined, not then. Grey wouldn't have a chance to rewrite it if that happened. If it were two pursuers he might have had a chance, but not with three. He had to send the report to his king now, before he was done in. But he just had to make one last note on it, the most important note that would explain exactly how the Farstriders had been devastated. How Floorin' had managed to navigate the Trap Hexes without loss with such sloppy scouts in their lead.
"Paradigm!" called the second voice to Grey's left. Grey reacted by instantly diving forward, rolling behind a stone as a form of Shockamancy tore through the forest, cutting the tree he'd been behind to pieces and cutting deep scores into the stone he hid behind. As soon as the salvo was over, Grey dashed for more trees, making sure to put obstacles between him and his pursuer.
"Hold back some, Ann," called the third voice, "he's a Warlord!"
"That's why we can't afford to hold back" called back the second voice, seemingly called Ann.
"You know our orders," stated the third voice, emphatically, which seemed to settle Ann's hash, and caused her to reinitiate pursuit.
Ideas were flying through Grey's mind, and none of them seemed like they would pan out. He couldn't outrun his attackers, he'd get tired before them. He couldn't escape the hex, he was off turn. He couldn't hide from them now that they knew where he was. He couldn't ambush them for the same reason. Why did it have to be three!?
Grey had no choice, finishing the report was the only thing he could do. To do that, he needed a surface to write on. Sending the report wouldn't make a difference if the writing couldn't be read, but he probably only had enough time to write a single word. Slowing his stride, and purposely impacting his shoulder against a tree trunk, Grey spun around the tree and planted the parchment against the trunk. He was able to write Ch before he heard "There" from above.
Looking up, Grey saw the face to go with the voice of "Ann." The lips seemed huge with red make up, the long blond hair had curls, and her chest was large to the point of seeming to be bad Foolamancy. Grey didn't wait to see anything else, he immediately kicked the tree's trunk to launch himself backwards just as a bolt of something yellow and hot struck the ground where he had been standing from directly above, exploding the dirt into a flying cloud. Grey rolled on his back and over a shoulder to take off running from a crouch. Above him he heard Ann cry, "He went that way, Emm!"
The answer to the directions seemed to have come from the third voice. Emm was the group's leader it seemed, but that was not important. Grey just needed a few more seconds! And he had an idea on how to get them, and it wouldn't be pleasant, but it just might work.
Grey put on another burst of speed, dashing without regard to his stamina to where he needed to go to gain those few seconds. After the report was sent he wouldn't need to run anymore, his Duty would have been done. After running fast enough through the heavy growth to have gotten just barely ahead of his pursuers, Grey found the large stone where his memory of the previous night's terrain survey had said it would be, took the two long strides up it's slanted, oblong body, and leapt into the foliage of a tree with low hanging branches and no solid ground underneath to break any falls. Grey was just barely able to nail the landing, one hand grabbing another branch for stability for a brief moment before Grey took on a horribly unbalanced pose and wrote out ar.
The rustle of leaves and the color of light blue stopped Grey as Emm sharply descended through the foliage just far enough away to be out of reach of Grey's sword, and just close enough to be at point blank range for Shockamancy. Grey locked eyes with the slim and shoulder length red haired Emm for the brief moment it took for her to say the word "Acquire!"
But something in Grey's eyes caused Emm to feel something was off, and that was just enough for the highly agile Flight capable unit to barely dodge Grey's hastily thrown knife, the blade cutting deep into her cheek as Emm's Shockamancy went up and wide of the mark due to the twisting of her body. What came from her pointed finger was a blast of lightning that was so large and fierce that it would have caught Grey even after it went off target if he hadn't intentionally broke his delicate balance while throwing that knife to drop into a controlled fall from the branch. A controlled fall onto the sloping scree at the foot of that particular tree, starting at the oblong rock that overhung it.
As Grey's back hit the rocks, Grey felt the pound of a dozen large stones all at once through his armor, and then began sliding down the steep slope that was almost a cliff, gaining terrible speed over those sometimes jagged and always lumpy rocks. Grey could feel his Hits drop as he slid, holding the parchment tight in his arms to prevent it's being damaged, until he began to roll instead of slide. Finally, Grey hit the bottom of the slope and continued rolling. He was still master of his own body though and quickly slashed at the parchment with his nearly destroyed and tattered quill to form the li of the one word explanation, and the ugliest e in the history of Erf, but the report was done.
Grey dropped the quill, rolled back onto his feet, and saw that Emm and Ann were still in the process of diving down the length of the slope after him, now that they'd confirmed he was not incapacitated. Grey hobble ran as fast as he could into the trees nearby while digging violently into his pack, yanked out a formless knit cap that could fit over the whole head, shoved the report inside while grabbing the wand out in one motion, and said the magic word to send it to his king. Or rather, shouted.
The boom of a thunderclap slammed Grey's ears just as lightning tore into his body and sent him flying from the impact. The source had been, ridiculously enough, an ordinary tree in the forest that he was running past at that exact moment. Grey lost hold of the hat and the wand as he struck another tree, and slid down it's trunk. He had just enough of his consciousness left to see a shapely woman in a light blue jacket and skirt. Her blond hair with highlights was hanging past her shoulders, and she was posing like she was expecting her portrait to be painted at that moment while the veil of a tree faded into sparkling nothingness around her. With her one leg bent, her hip pushed forward, one eye closed as if winking, she blew on her index finger as if clearing away smoke, saying in a soft voice, "Acquired."
Grey was just able to hear the voice of Emm, the leader, as it called down from overhead, "Well done, Elle. To think, we'd been looking for him since dawn..."
As the world went black, Grey's last thought was; Why did it have to be three Archons.
Artwork by ElvenAvariel. Gallery and Shmuckers Jar located here.
I could not tell from the suspenseful ending, such were my nerves. Did Grey manage to send off the message? I can also surmise that the Archons are here at a steep discount because, as we all know, Charlie does not like consistent competition on any front. Farstriders would perhaps not be as über as Archons, but they are probably far cheaper.