New beginning: day 6
Prince Ray was awake before dawn. He ran over the numbers again and again, feeling a strange mixture of sickness and excitement. If he won here, he could save the side, maybe. If he lost, everyone here would croak and it would be his fault for not thinking of a solution.
He invited all his troops together for breakfast. Ordinarily, Warlords weren't really supposed to do that, they were supposed to keep distance and seniority over their low-level units, especially infantry, but there was a good chance most of them would croak before sunset. They ate their rations in a wide open plaza with the Shoujo's tamed ferals, listening to the buzz of crickets. Ray sat at a table with Haru and the top Shoujo on one side, and some of the older Redshirts on the other. As a Warlord, he instinctively liked infantry, knew how their minds worked and how to deal with them, but they honestly didn't have much personality.
"Um, Haru?" he said. "If we don't make it back today … thanks for everything. You're a great Caster."
She hmphed, pretending not to be pleased and not quite succeeding. "It's just my Duty. Anyone would do the same."
"Anyone who was a Weirdomancer," he said.
She hesitated. "You know how I said Weirdomancy didn't do direct combat?" she said. "Well … it doesn't, it's not Shockmancy, but there are certain specials that can give bonuses."
Ray blinked. Why couldn't she have told him that five turns ago? "Like what? The nearest enemy's in flat terrain right now, so capability specials won't help."
"Specials are always situational, right? If it isn't, that's called a stat increase. But there are specials for any situation, including attacking flats. For an infantry fight, my first choice would be Charge. It makes you much weaker on bad terrain and gives move penalties, but when attacking flat, it gives a big bonus to crits. It's about an even chance, depending on level."
Ray thought about this. His eyes slowly widened. That would amount to a multiplier of about one and a third, applied after leadership, stack, special, and any other bonuses.
"How many units could you give that to and still do Victory?"
"Everyone, if it's only a one-turn bonus." Ray stared. "What? You never asked how much Juice I had, and I am mid-level. My second choice," she continued, talking over him, "is Berserker. It means you can go down to negative two hits without croaking, although you will if you're at zero or below at turn's end. We have lots of Healomancy, so it works well for us. I can do that for everyone, too, although I'll be out of Juice if I also make Victory a mount again."
"Why ― why didn't you tell me this before?"
"I told you I could do any special except giving a unit magic. It's not my fault if you don't know what specials there are," she said primly, swiping a piece of his sushi and pulling her eyelid and scarfing it down when he tried to grab it back.
Ray ground his teeth. "When we get back, I want a full list of every special you can give," he said.
"I can tell you on the way."
He sighed. He should have known she'd demand to come along. This was the problem with a Chief Caster who outranked the Chief Warlord. "Of course you can."
He did headcounts as he, Haru, and six good Shoujo rode Victory among their army. One Royal Chief Warlord, one Chief Caster. Twenty-five Shoujo. Forty-three Redshirts. Victory and seven ferals, including a feral Eyegator and a hippogwiff. Each of them was heavily buffed.
They exchanged glares with the Groan leadership before passing to the next hex. Victory's riders dismounted.
"Hey, is this another XP delivery?" jeered one of the Groan Warlords.
"Mm … XP …" said another.
"Ignore it," a bushy-haired brunette Shoujo said in a dignified voice, holding her head in the air and stalking past the sniggering Groan as though she couldn't hear them. "Just ignore it, Ray."
He frowned. He couldn't ignore it. But he could get revenge. "Stack up, everyone. Keep tight together. We're doing the Luckamancy thing, so keep the perimeter as small as you can. All Shoujo, Change now. Let's show them what Anima's about!"
One of the main problems they'd had trouble working past was how to deal with the fact that they had only one Warlord. If he could only bring one eight-stack in, he'd be swarmed. He could bring in reinforcements as needed, but Groan would get free hits whenever he restacked. He could bring a single max stack in, but then no-one would get a stack bonus, which they needed. He could bring many eight-stacks in, but then only his would get his leadership bonus.
The solution was to use the Shoujo to prevent any hits either way for the other stacks. Luckamancy was apparently a very efficient use of Juice, because it was naturally balanced: one unit got better rolls, another got worse. Three stacks of Redshirts held his flanks, backed by Shoujo with Luckamancy. When the defending Stabbers and Pikers autoattacked them, every single one missed, and so did the Redshirts' responses. It was almost farcical.
What wasn't farcical was Ray's stack of two Shoujo and five Redshirts. They charged the enemy and tore into them, all eight attacks hitting, croaking five enemies in seconds. The enemy infantry poured in, giving them no respite, and landing hits purely by weight of numbers. The Shoujo's precious Juice was carefully rationed, leaving the Redshirts to croak one by one, only healing Ray or other Shoujo when they dropped to zero hits.
This wasn't like hunting some stray scouts. This was brutal, war at its lowest. Each wave of Groan infantry managed to croak one of Ray's units. Anima's bonuses gave them a huge advantage, but they were too badly outnumbered. The stack croaked almost fifty of the enemy, but they still took less than a minute to lose all five Redshirts and exhaust the Shoujo's Juice.
"Cover!" he shouted.
A Shoujo eight-stack charged forward, spraying Shockmancy. It was a terrible use of Juice, but he only needed a moment to restack with seven fresh units, taking two ferals this time. He had no idea of how to use a mascot or the Eyegator, but they fought by vicious instinct, attacking enemies without mercy or hesitation.
The fight felt like it lasted for hours. One by one, Ray's stack would fall to the huge enemy stack, until it was just him and one or two other top units, and the Shoujo would screen for him to cycle the wounded out and call in reinforcements. The Redshirts croaked, one after another, until his reserves ran out. He pulled one of the perimeter stacks off and used them instead. He didn't have time to think about the steadily shrinking bubble of the hex he held as the Groan pressed in.
They're almost finished. We can do this.
"Out of Juice," said one Shoujo after another. He grunted and waved them to the back of his little bubble.
"Take the left!" he ordered. Eight Shoujo waded forward, swinging their wands and other weapons, letting the Redshirts disengage without penalty. He stacked with the Redshirts and kept fighting for the centre. The Groan bodies piled up around them as the Redshirts fell, but they still didn't seem to be making headway.
Titans, this has to be more than three hundred. How many ARE there?
He swung, his arms aching, and cut down another Groan. He fell back and raised his sword for a parry, and no blow came. There were no more Groan pressing up behind their front line any more.
"Yes! Once more, for Anima!"
He restacked with the Changed Shoujo with no Juice left and charged. It was a rout. Between their bonuses, each could take out entire stacks of enemy single-handed; with a cheer, they trampled the last Groan into the mud.
He felt a sense of wonder as his Shoujo executed the incapacitated enemy infantry. He'd won his first battle, despite being outnumbered massively. Sure, they were unled, and his forces were largely casting Knight-class units buffed by a mid-level Caster, but they'd won. He hadn't even lost any of the precious Shoujo. He heard little chimes in his mind as every single one of them levelled, some of them more than once. He levelled too, twice even.
Haru walked up to him, smiling for once. "So," she said. "Good thing I was here, wasn't it?"
He laughed giddily.
"You were pretty good too. For a rookie."
"Yeah … Hey, Groan!" he shouted, at the leadership hex. If looks could croak, they'd've won the engagement ten times over. "Thanks for the XP!"
The day only got sweeter after they ended turn back in Ova, and Lily the Archon descended from the sky, carrying Sunset bridal-style in her arms. She landed with perfect grace and set the Shoujo down.
"Charlescomm would like to thank you for your assistance," Lily said professionally. "We hope to work together again in the future."
She bowed and lifted into the air, trailing blue sparkles.
The other Shoujo crowded around Sunset, hugging her and swapping stories of the past few turns. The talk quickly turned to the new Dollamancy items Charlescomm had given her for healing their Archon. As payment for saving the lives of several mid-level flying Knights, it probably wasn't that much, but the Dress To Croak especially would give them a big advantage when they sallied out again tomorrow. Even some of the surviving thirteen Redshirts were excitedly talking about taking on two or even three hexes of the column next turn. With all their extra levels, they felt like they had a real chance.
"This looks like a wash to me," Mattie undertoned, swinging her long legs through the air.
"Hey!" said Ariel. "Eyes on the prize, Associate!"
Less Lily, who was busy elsewhere, the Archons had joined Far Lane in harrying the Groan armada as it returned toward Toe Quay. There were two large ships and six smaller boats in this hex. Their cannon had a malus against flyers, but there were still far too many troops. Far Lane's two stacks could only manage one of those ships by themselves. The Archons could take out another, but their contract was to provide supporting fire only, and at long range that would burn through most of their Juice.
Mattie waited until Izzy's song finished its first chorus line ("Every Archon's capable of murder, if you hurt her") before joining a volley. Five beams of Shockmancy streaked out and into the ship's side, setting half of it on fire and knocking over two of its masts. A pathetic few arrows flew their way in return; the Archon in the black mantle point-blasted them out of the air, then fired precise shots in time to the music, picking individual Archers out and vaporising them without scratching the ship. She was showing off a bit, but then, once you reached level fourteen, you sort of had the right to show off all you liked. It wasn't as though anyone in the battlespace could stop her.
"Focus fire on the ship," Ariel ordered. "We get full XP if it sinks before we withdraw."
Far Lane did a pass, cutting down the seamen trying to put the deck out. Archons' ignition Shockmancy was devastating against ships, especially with the gwiffon riders screening and/or stealing the croaks. Mattie didn't really mind. She'd level sooner or later either way. Plenty of Archons made it to level ten or even higher; they had excellent firepower and survival skills, and most sensible enemies didn't even bother fighting them, instead focusing their attacks on Charlescomm's clients, because they knew most sides couldn't afford to hire Archons for more than a few turns at a stretch anyway.
"This little Archon's capable of murder, 'cause you hurt her!"
She poured all of her remaining Juice into a single blast. All five of their shots hit the ship near its centre, blasting the ship in half. The seamen and passengers dived into the ocean, hoping to swim to one of the smaller vessels. The Far Lane flyers were in the way, though. Even seafarers didn't count as having water-capable; they counted as incapacitated for combat purposes until they made it to a ship. None of them did. When the last one fell to a gwiffon peck, the engagement with that ship was over. Mattie smiled: she'd just levelled.
I think there is a web link problem. Day 6 isn't showing up on the list of chapters in the Fiction tab. I found it by noticing that the "Next" button was active when I finished re-reading Chapter 5. This concerns me because I check the list every day hoping to see Chapter 7.
Loving the story. Hoping to see more. It's a nice balance of an "unwinnable" strategic problem and personal interactions with the wild card of Charlescomm's involvement turning it into an anything-can-happen scenario. Your depiction of the archons' interactions are especially well done. You channel Charlescomm perfectly.
@Salvage: When I started, I didn't really get Erfworld as a story setting, I was thinking of it as a game setting. It takes a bit of thinking to realise the difference.
@Ken: I think that's supposed to be a feature, not a flaw. When you post a story, it takes a while to get posted to fiction/community; I assume the site mods read pieces first, to check them for quality, lack of profanity, etc. (Not sure how scalable that is, because if a million people all submit stories … then again, if they get a million readers, they can probably hire someone to go over the stories for them.) It'll appear there eventually.
Thanks for all the support, everyone. Heads up, though, it may be a while before I post another chapter. I'm also the author of Ethereum, and while those chapters are longer and therefore take more work, they've also had a more enthusiastic response, and I'm happier with them, they feel like better quality. I'd rather work on that, and it'll be a while before I get to the end of its current arc.
I am enjoying this story a lot too! I like the side and seeing the perspective of a newly popped ignorant warlord. Getting to see Weirdomancy in action is also a nice treat, what with it being mostly lacking Gobwin Knob's tales.
Kengineer mentioned this above already in their Jan 15th comment, but on the http://www.erfworld.com/fiction_stream/view page, there actually is no link to this chapter of the story. The links only have pages 1 through 5; in order to get to this page I had to click the Next button at the top of page 5. I feel the need to mention this because I almost didn't see it, and thought that the story was done or the writer had gone on hiatus. I don't expect to see a Next/Previous button on chapter pages, and only found the link to chapter 6 here after going back to reread a section in chapter 5.
I know you are more focused on Ethereum right now. Still enjoy this story. One thing though, was wondering if you were considering a retconjuration to the statement made "Plenty of Archons made it to level ten or even higher". As has been revealed in the main comic, Bonnie is level 9 and was a AAA archon for Charlie. Not sure how many surpass her. Also, as estimated in the wiki, only a few characters have reached level 10 or beyond (highest being Olive Branch at level 12), yet here there is a level 14 archon. Of course you can do what you want with your fiction, just seems like a bit of a stretch considering the main story. Would make sense though if these were FFF archons (since they are higher rank than Bonnie who is a level 9).
I thoroughly enjoyed this, and although I agree Ethereum is the better choice to focus on, I look forward to when you can resume this. Nothing but the story title gives it much hope of lasting long, but that does enough to make me wonder how it's going to work out. I agree with brichins that the mix of original characters is outstanding, and look forward to seeing how Ray's last name comes into play.
I keep trying to picture what "the Archon in the black mantle" looks like but can't quite get it, do you have an image link?
I'm really loving the dance battle songs the Archons use, I've know all three so far and each one of them was situationally appropriate. I've not seen the music boost used that often in fics so it's nice when it is used and even better when it's used as well as it has been here.
I'm going to go binge on Etherum now. I was checking your posts and saw this story and that it was shorter so I read it first. I had been reading Etherum when it was first posted but then I missed a few updates and decided to wait for it to be completed before I got back into it.
Hope to see more stuff from you. Your work is really good and really enjoyable to read.