Shadows of the Evergreen - Part 14
It was impossible. That was all that Emma could think in that moment as she looked up into the face of the Everclear warlord that held a smile she couldn’t describe. It held a cold cruelty that was devoid of any kind of malice or ill intent. It was detached from violence, but promised croaking. It was something that should not have been found on the face of a Man unit. But there it was, and it chilled her veins. If it wasn’t for Duty, Emma’s body would have frozen as well.
Emma mentally forced an order to Elle alone, since Anna’s eyes had exed over before she’d even struck the water’s surface. The order was, Croak him before he can throw any more daggers!
“Frozen Accounts,” cried Emma louder than she needed to, her magic forming a spike of ice that shot from her finger in a tight spiral to penetrate, perforate, and punch right through the body of the Man in front of her. Both Emma and Elle’s magics were aimed upward, with only the warlord’s chest and head visible for the lip of the plateau he stood upon, their magics converged there to cut the Warlord Shades apart before he could pull free any more of the daggers that decorated the belt at his waist. But since the warlord didn’t attempt a second attack, Emma’s ice and Elle’s lightning passed through empty space.
The warlord had chosen not to press his attack, and as such, he ducked under the cover of the terrain he stood upon. In response, Emma gave the mental command of UP. Emma and Elle each took a parabolic flight path in opposing directions in order to flank the warlord from two sides, making sure he could not attack the both of them at once since he seemed to have some kind of ambidexterity special. Lifting above the cover the cliff provided the warlord, Emma was prepared to fire another attack or cast a veil for defense. What she was not prepared for was to see the warlord in the middle of a running leap off the other side of the plateau.
Emma’s confusion halted her movement for a brief moment before her combat instincts kicked in. Fleeing enemy = pursue and rout. Emma and Elle kicked their heads forward and raised their speed, which was incredibly fortunate, since it seemed that the warlord had prepared another trick to aid him. A moment after the warlord leapt into trees and overgrown foliage, there was a sound like that of terrible friction, and movement along a straight path. Putting the focus of her attention into her Spot check, Emma was able to see the warlord’s figure sliding from some kind of grip wrapped around a rope that was as green as the leaves of the forest itself, which was why Emma had not been able to see it until the warlord’s weight and travel had set it twanging like a bowstring.
And the warlord was travelling fast. His blackened figure was moving downhill on this line at a speed that would have been unbelievable if Emma had not been seeing it herself. And Emma knew that if she lost sight of the warlord, she may never Spot him again. Even now, after having lost sight of him before for a split second, thus breaking Line Of Sight, the warlord’s presence wasn’t being felt by Emma’s combat instincts, just like with any other well hidden unit, archon or otherwise. And so, Emma could only focus on lining up a clear shot before the warlord reached the place he was fleeing towards, before Emma could lose sight of him or before he- slammed face first into a tree’s trunk?
Pulling up short of the warlord, hanging from the rope still even after coming to the end of its length and striking hard against the trunk of the tree the knot had been tied around, Emma set Elle to the duty of covering her and moved in to investigate. What she found was a burlap sack filled with rocks and moss, lashed to a set of inventory pouches, hung from a pulley, and all coated in whatever make up the warlord had used on himself, blackening them to the same shade. In the dimness of the forest and it’s speed of travel, the resulting figure was close enough to that of the warlord that Emma had completely mistaken it. So in that case… where was the warlord?
That was when Emma heard that sound. A whistling, musical set of notes that seemed to reverberate around her from all sides. Three notes. Then the same three notes a second time. And then a melody stemming from those notes which faded into a brief silence before the three notes began anew. Over and over the song played with minor variations, from a source that Emma could not place. Something about the context of the song made Emma shiver despite its upbeat nature. For the feeling the song produced in her made her feel like she was lost in these woods, which someone else called home.
To anyone who had not earned their trust, the Eager Elves were a very simplistic people. In reality, they were a Tribe that cared deeply for Rhyme-O-Mancy with many legends of great instruments, one being about a leadership baton gifted by the Titans that could command the winds themselves. Their people could not cast, but their crafted instruments had their own type of power. Not for battle, but for nearly any effect aside from it. The blue glazed ocarina that Grey played for instance was made so that it’s tone would reverberate like an ethereal echo.
The stealthiest Eager Elf Chief that Grey had ever known, Slink, had given it to him as a gift, never suspecting that it would redefine the communication methods of the Farstriders. The various melodies that Grey and other Farstriders had fashioned could exchange information faster and at a farther distance than voice alone could ever achieve. It was a key component in organizing units that were trained to be invisible even to each other. But right now, Grey was using the instrument for something far less strategic.
He was using it to put pressure on the archons.
The song just kept repeating, and repeating. Over and over. An infinite loop of that Charlie cursed song!
Emm, I’m using too much Juice to keep my veil up, sent Elle through natural Thinkamancy. We should totally withdraw, we’re at a real disadvantage here.
Disadvantage? Against a single unit?
Thinking rationally, it was true. Her Tri had lost all the advantages they’d had when they entered the hex, except for their numerical advantage, two against one. And that was a pretty slim margin to wager on. But leaving the hex, withdrawing from the fight… would be admitting Emma was afraid of that warlord with the feral eyes. She couldn’t do it, even as a chill ran through her spine that she shrugged off as cold from the drizzling rain.
Humperstink gave us an order to capture the warlord, Elle. We’re contracted to follow his orders. That means we’re not falling back, Elle. We’re changing the game plan, we’re gonna-
The music stopped. Emma’s mind came to a halt, her nerves flaring to their most paranoid limit. Her instincts screamed that the warlord was going to act. But how? Emma’s remaining Duo was still veiled for the moment. Had they been found? The same way the warlord had spotted them without a Spot check the turn before? Were they going to be attacked? From which direction?
Emma frantically tried to look every way at once, including above and below her. She drew close to Elle, who drew in as well, going back to back to cover more angles, their breathing jumping in speed and heft as battle readiness flooded their minds.
And a minute later, the music started up again. Over and over. As if it had never stopped. It was all Emma could do not to scream aloud in frustration.
Grey was patient. A good scout had to be patient, or he’d make a mistake, get seen, charge enemies he didn’t need to, and be destroyed by a counter attack on the enemy’s turn even if he won the engagement. So Grey spent a good half hour in his tree, never moving anything but his fingers and blowing out the tune. It was more entertaining than most of the turns he’d spent as a Farstrider. That was why it didn’t phase him. That repetition.
For units that were used to action. Negotiation, combat, trapping, casting, flying in and out of range of enemies with fancy juice powered veils and Thinkamancy communications… they had no idea what mental pressure truly was, when a single out of turn breath could spook a bird on a branch next to you, drawing the attention of an enemy stack, thus sealing your fate. When your entire life is out waiting your opponent, you learn how to be patient. And manipulative.
The archons had used enough juice that they couldn’t keep their veils up. In the cloud dimmed hex, Grey could see the exact location of the archons for the light they shed from their entire bodies. Grey didn’t trust it at first. It was too early to act, they could be Foolamancy lures. No, better to make sure. Let the archons burn their juice. Grey would be there, playing his ocarina. Waiting for the time to strike.
Hmm. About time for a break. It was the fifth pause in Grey’s playing. The pauses were his favorite part. As Grey began exhaling through his nose instead of his mouth which held the ocarina between his lips, he could hear the entire hex in perfect silent clarity. And somewhere out there, Grey could swear he heard a voice groaning in anguish.
It put a smile on Grey’s face.
Emm! We’re running out of Juice! The decoys aren’t working! We need to scrub the mission!
Not yet, sent Emma back, her thought a shout so full of agitation that Elle flinched away from her Leader. How are we supposed to explain that we ran away from an enemy we couldn’t even find?! We’re going to engage the warlord, no matter what, Elle! We’re following our orders!
But at this rate we’ll run out of Juice before we can engage him. We won’t be able to cast simple Shockamancy. How can we beat him if we can’t cast, Emm?
...Drop the Veils, and scrub the Dupes. Don’t use any juice until we engage. When the warlord shows himself, we’ll just blast him before he can attack us.
Emm, that’s suicidal!
That’s an order!
It was a dangerous gambit, but it was the only way remaining to lure out the warlord. Emma was not going to back down until she’d proven, to herself, that she was not intimidated. And so Emma and Elle floated around the hex once again, trying to look in every nook and cranny at the same time, feeling more exposed and vulnerable than ever before. Out of the corner of her eye, Emma thought she saw Elle’s lower lip trembling. But that didn’t matter.
Spread out a little more Elle, we don’t want both of us being targeted at the same time.
With that oppressive atmosphere, that feeling of exposure, of unrest, the remaining Duo floated around the hex. They dropped their veils around the seventh pause in the music. After that, every pause was met with an even more intense agitation than when they were still invisible. Their nerves had been pulled as taut as piano wire, and their breathing was constantly ragged. Cold sweat had intermingled with rain to soak their entire bodies.
After the ninth pause in the music, Elle suggested, Maybe he’s just waiting for us to give up and go home? We should leave. He’s letting us leave.
On the eleventh pause, the warlord made his move. The music stopped and the Duo froze, half certain it would just be another pause to annoy them. But this time, there was the ring of metal against metal just from the side of the two. Turning and firing as only twitch reflex could allow, the archons blasted into the tree where the noise came from before the warlord could initiate combat. Emma’s ice blasted through the foliage like buckshot, tearing through all greenery and embedding into everything solid. Twigs and branches were torn from the tree, scattering and falling like chaff. Elle’s lightning spread out in a cone, charring everything, setting the rain soaked wood hissing and vaporizing the droplets in the air. Elle’s lightning struck something, two somethings, sparks flickered and radiant electricity flashed between the two somethings. They were two daggers, one embedded in the tree, the other spinning weakly in the air.
Then Elle screamed.
A good ambush is as much of an art-form as a portrait. In the case of the garbage that Art had been working on for the King of Kitch, even more so. It’s all about preparation. Laying the grounds and using terrain to create a natural advantage over your enemy, then manipulating them into the right position for the attack.
It had taken a long time for the two archons to float between the tree Grey had been hiding in and one of the trees he’d planted a dagger in beforehand. Grey’s mouth had gone dry a number of times from his playing the ocarina, a reason for many of the pauses in his playing. This time though, Grey had carefully set the ocarina down on a fork in a tree branch and pulled free a dagger in its place.
Grey could very clearly see which archon was which through the foliage. Emma in the lead, nearly fuming in anger, with Elle following nervously behind. Elle was probably desperate to break off the combat and withdraw. That would not do. Grey didn’t want to go through the trouble of setting up another ambush, and he wasn’t about to allow any of the archons to escape him. Grey’s next target would be Elle.
The dagger whipped out of Grey’s hand, through a break in the leaves, and struck blade on blade with the dagger he’d planted hours before. The ring of metal, and the spark of friction was dwarfed by the instant reaction of the archons, expending their attacks for the round, and pointing their readied fingers in the completely wrong direction.
A good ambush required you to never strike where and when your prey thinks you will. You always aim for the moment of vulnerability, the instant of confusion, satisfaction, relief, or joy. And if those moments do not come naturally, then by creating them yourself, you control the entire engagement. Including grappling.
Grey’s feet left the surface of the tree with the momentum of a sprinter’s start, the void of open air flew below him as he grabbed hold of the collar and shoulder of Elle from behind. The combination of his weight, speed, and intention broke the archon’s Flight special under the rules of Gravity, Grappling, and Falling. Grey and Elle began a mortal plummet towards the ground as she began to scream. A natural reaction, as she was shooting face first towards the unyielding ground. Grey, however, was focused on maintaining trajectory.
The Falling rules had some blurry areas, ones that Grey had always enjoyed abusing. Which was why Grey was maintaining his Grapple on Elle even as they fell.
Elle belly flopped into the ground, with Grey’s full weight upon her. Her scream was instantly silenced by the accumulated Uncontrolled Fall dice, a good indication of critical incapacitation or croaking. Grey however, used Elle as a cushion, and his Grapple of her had allowed him to maintain a Controlled Fall. On impact, Grey rolled off Elle, through some brush, got his feet under him, and dashed to open distance between him and Emma as quickly as possible, because he only had seconds to get a lead.
Specifically, a second for Emma to be surprised. Then a few seconds to be shocked. A few seconds to be worried. A few second the get angry. And then half a second to fire her next Shockamancy with a scream of rage into the plants Grey had just barely leapt from to put a solid tree between him and Emma. Grey heard the snap of twigs and the lashing of pushed aside branches as Emma tore through the trees in pursuit of the bruised, battered, but not nearly croaked Farstrider that had purposely induced a maddening hatred in her. The smug thought went through Grey’s head that Emma was in a great position for him to finish her off. A sloppy, emotionally compromised archon was an easy target for a dagger. But Grey wanted at least one archon alive this turn. So he allowed the foot chase to continue as he pulled his next weapon free and at the ready in his right hand.
Something most people don’t know is that water does not follow the rules of hex boundaries. It’s the Titans that forged the world, including the rivers, oceans, and rain. The rain falls, and flows to the rivers, which flow into the oceans. Meaning that water is too important to be kept in one hex, so the Titans allowed water to be free of the hex passage rules. Everclear made use of that to construct this hex. It’s not a trap hex, it’s a water trap hex. A rain hex that had a huge portion of it hollowed out to create a reservoir that, when activated, blasted out a cave structure in the neighboring hex to flash flood a passage that an army could conceivably use as an invasion route. The structure of the trap was a testament to the understanding that Everclear’s Dirtamancer had of nature, but Grey was not concerned about such a thing when he chose this hex for his ambush.
He chose the hex because it was an unnatural pool of water, not a lake. And therefore, the pool of water was abnormally shaped. The edges were not perfectly curved, and water spilled over and pooled in places all through the hex.
As Grey approached one such pool that was large and long enough for a stack of werewoofs to splash around in, he leapt and trampled the stepping stones he’d prepared beforehand, not losing speed even as the trees around him cleared out. No trees grew in the water. No more camouflage, cover, or even obstructions to throw off the aim of a pursuing archon. But Grey didn’t need any of it anymore. What he needed was water, and his quarry.
As Emma tore through the trees, her uniform tattered and fresh red wounds all over her arms, legs, face and body, she screamed as if it were a curse, “Waaaaaaarlooooooooord!”
The moment Emma cleared the treeline, the moment she was over the freshwater pool, Grey stretched out his right hand to use his final trap.
The most difficult, but satisfying, art of the ambush is used should your enemy survive the initial attacks. If the fight is not decided by the overwhelming advantage you hold thanks to terrain, if the prey survives the initial onslaught in their moment of weakness, then this technique is used to finish them off. In that moment when the prey marshals their reserves and counterattacks, thinking they are meeting their attackers head on. When the prey thinks they have a chance at victory, with their full attention turned towards their ambushers. That is when the real trap activates, leaving the enemy no chance at victory, retreat, or survival.
With a dip of the magic wand in his right hand, Grey said the magic word, “Copperfield,” activating the Master Crafted hat created by a tri-mancer link, even from such a great distance. And all around the pursuing Emma, her finger outstretched and pointed, was water, thunder, and lightning.
Artwork by ElvenAvariel. Gallery and Shmuckers Jar located here. Seriously, go tip her for this epic work of art! And for those who were wondering, Charlie's outfit in the previous chapter it Theodore's suit from the Persona series.
Thanks guys, the feels are reals.
Something I wasn't able to add as a comment after finishing the composition of this post was that I've got a new fiction blog. If you want to read more of my writing, you'll find it there. Eventually all my myriad written works will be collected there, so check it out and subscribe if you wish.
The name is Baka Pubs.
And make sure you show some love to ElvenAvariel! This project would be lesser by half without her!