Unerfed I - Unusual

THIS PLACE POPS US WRONG

 

There was a statue before her, some sort of winged figure, hewn from stone and standing upon a carved plinth with words engraved into its surface. It was the first thing she had ever seen. She was... a warlord, with a bunch of stats which told her nothing and some specials she didn’t understand. Still... a warlord, so one of them was probably Leadership. And the next one… in her head, it somehow had a taut, arcing shape, much like the wooden, stringed item her hands were clutching onto - a bow! She was an archer! A… shortbow, even? The concept of a specialist had begun to form in her mind, at about the same time as the awareness of fabric over her mouth and in the corners of her vision. Not a helmet. Not even a cap. A hood, but… what sort of unit wore hoods? Come to think of it, who was she?

 

She had a name, she realized - and also that she didn’t like it. It was… the wrong shape, if such a concept even made sense. She couldn’t even figure out how to spell half of it, and the rest... Celeste. That part was all right. She was Celeste-- no! Captain Celeste, because a warlord of The Realm was entitled to that rank. Captain Celeste - that’s how she would give her name to whoever asked.

 

Nobody did.

 

Her popping went by unremarked upon. Unnoticed. Had she appeared in an empty city? Maybe  an unoccupied part of one? But... no. She stood (well, knelt) in a sizable, circular room, with arrow slits cut into its smooth stone walls. There were also stairs - narrow, worn steps spiralling downwards, past what she suddenly knew would be troop quarters and armories occupying the lower levels of the tower. All the way down to the garrison - to the friendly, level three city of Sunk. A city under siege, partially occupied by enemy forces. But where were the defenders?

As it turned out, they were in the room with her. They just hadn’t noticed her yet.

 

There was a scream. She wheeled around, trying to identify the threat - but there was no threat, only a level two archer, startled by her sudden presence and flat on his keister. His closest stackmate was quicker on the uptake and drew himself into a salute, the others soon following suit. She stared for a few long moments, realizations slowly dawning, new information popping in her head. Their faded green raiment and the three impaled snakes decorating their triangular livery identified them as soldiers of The Realm, one newfound sense told her. They were her side’s units, said another. And a third added, rather urgently: somebody was approaching, and fast.

 

With a thudding of boots on stone, a friendly unit ran up the stairs and rushed into the room, sword drawn. He was a weary-looking man, with a flat top of dark hair and an impressively thick mustache, wearing a steel breastplate over baggy raiment in similar shades of green and gray. He was a level four warlord, with Leadership to match and what felt like a respectable statline, but no other specials. And he was her Chief Warlord. She tried to salute, but succeeded only in shuffling awkwardly. Her second attempt, with only one hand holding onto her bow, was somewhat more successful.

 

Commander Vick Stoneface took one look at her, sheathed his sword, and scowled, the expression settling into his face like it belonged there. Then he asked: “That’s it?”

Turns and turns later, the memory still hurt a little. But with the benefit of hindsight, she would come to understand his disappointment. She had, for whatever reason, popped later than expected - four whole turns later - turns bought with the lives of The Realm’s units, at Overlord Hard’s insistence that the time already spent popping a new warlord did not go to waste. They expected... some dual-wielding berserker, preferably armored and boasting a breath weapon special, or mounted on something that was. Ideally, both. They would have happily settled for another Honor Doorfighter, whose mighty kicks would deal Siege damage and, it was said, even give his stack a free ambush round. And instead, they got… Well. Her, with her mostly unimpressive stats and her little shortbow.

 

She, of course, hadn’t know all that back then, didn’t have the necessary context. She knew only that her Chief Warlord was unsatisfied with her, and her Duty demanded she prove herself.

 

By turn’s end, Commander Stoneface had offered her his formal apology. In his four hundred turn life, he explained, he had seen, fought, or fought beside many different warlords - stabbers and archers, pikers and skirmishers. Even the more unusual unit types - The Realm’s armored Realmknights and Kakandu’s hooded beastmasters, Eastaeria’s winged Vici and the crazed Warpopped Ragers - all of these he’d seen leading stacks and battles. And still, he had never even seen a warlord-rank scout.

 

In the six hundred and forty-two turns that followed, she hadn’t so much as heard about another one, either.

 

- - - -

 

There was, she realized, some dark symmetry between her first turn and her latest. Both times, she ended them kneeling by the edge of a body of water, studying her reflection. Back then, she was seeing herself for the first time; now, she found herself wondering at how much and how little had changed. Her signamancy, for example - Sunk was a city standing on a lone wasteland hex, and she popped with the dark-skinned, dark-eyed signamancy common among wastelanders. The passage of turns had, if anything, made her lean build and wiry musculature even more prominent - but her face had barely changed, and her hair was as short and spiked up as the turn she popped. The rougher times of her life had somehow failed to leave a mark, as they’d done to so many other units. In fact, having somebody con her as lower level wasn’t uncommon - assuming they got to see her face in the first place.

 

After all, she still had the veiled hood she had popped with. The color wasn’t the same (it was still ‘The Realm Green’, but the meaning of that had since changed from desaturated green to something closer to tan or khaki), the veil had gained a black pattern, and the edge had become tattered, but it was the same item. That couldn’t be said about the rest of her gear - the green, cloaked raiment she popped in, the one that had some units jokingly wondering what kind of elf she was, she had traded to a wandering barbarian warlord she met one turn. It was not, perhaps, the most voluntary of trades, but her new raiment proved most satisfactory; the tall boots were a titansend on long marches, the breeches were so much more practical than the old tunic, and then there was the longcoat itself. The short sleeves did nothing to protect her arms and probably cost her a point of armor or two, but she came to appreciate the freedom of movement that offered. Besides, the real treat was the very respectable inventory space - even after necessities like gloves or archery-bonused bracers, and luxuries like a spare quiver, she found more than enough room to decorate it with small trophies like bones, feathers and scraps of fur, and still be able to stash her weapon if she wanted her hands free.

 

Her bow, too, had changed - the simple one she’d popped with had disappeared the first time she was taken prisoner. She didn't even remember who did it - one of those dozens of sides that appeared and fell within half a hundredturn, probably. Unfrogettable, maybe? It had been too long, and the threat of capture was hardly uncommon for a scout. She'd escaped soon enough and, ever since her repatriation, she'd been popping this curved, asymmetrical thing whose length stretched the definition of a shortbow but remained light and portable. It still kept the shortbow’s penalties to range and bonuses to mobility, but she had been critting more and harder ever since. She supposed she should be thankful for that.

 

Not that it'd help her this time. This wasn't a situation she could get out of by landing a lucky crit in somebody's eye. Not if she couldn't even form the thought of engaging in the first place. She wanted to run - to flee, to escape the hex, to pull away from danger as scouts do, but even that was denied to her. She could barely try to muster up the will, and to do so, she remembered herself.

 

- - - -

 

She thought of herself, all those hundredturns ago, watching her reflection in a still, murky pool of stagnant muck, one of a hundred dotting that swamp hex. She looked just the way she had imagined herself looking, and her stats were also familiar. There was a tear in her raiment and a red gash in her shoulder, matching her few missing hits, but it was her move that she paid the most attention to. It was depleted, a beautiful zero. She couldn't be more pleased.

 

They were seven hexes away from Sunk. Three of them were difficult terrain, with movement penalties that’d make it ten, maybe twelve move’s worth to follow them. Seeing as the enemy infantry was mostly a mixture of move seven and eights, even the ones positioned closer would have trouble reaching them, if they even knew where to look. Their cavalry could, of course, spare the sixteen or so move it’d take to detour around... but then, they had stopped in a swamp hex for a reason. Taking mounted, high-mobility heavies into one…

 

The way Vick described that scenario, the half that didn’t drown instantly would be so bogged down that a half-blind stabber could croak them all with one hand in their breeches. Celeste… hadn’t yet known why everybody found that so raucously amusing, but she had decided not to ask.

 

Vick… that is, Commander Stoneface was hesitant to order his units into a swamp, but in the end, he decided to trust her. This wasn’t part of the plans they discussed before abandoning Sunk, but he came to agree, it was the perfect choice. After all, those plans didn’t account for her, and what she could do.

 

The swamp was seven hexes away. Ten or more move’s worth, including entering it. Of The Realm’s forces, Commander Stoneface was the only unit with ten move. Captain Irrelevant and a few of the level three and four infantry had nine, most of the rest had eight, and the four surviving pikers had barely seven. Basic mathamancy said it was impossible. A level one warlord with the Scouting special and twelve move to spend guiding the others said “Try me”.

 

She wasn’t sure it’d work. She admitted as much to her Chief Warlord only after succeeding at it the first time. She didn‘t even know it was something she could even attempt until her Duty demanded she suggest it. And then she had her orders and spent the two move to enter the deep forest, and another two wandering around inside the hex without so much as an inkling of what she ought to be looking for. In the end, it proved to be something as natural as breathing or stacking up. Or foraging for provisions, she supposed - you had to put your mind to the action, commit to spending the move, and let the Titans and your feet guide you. Before she knew it, she’d found a path leading directly from one hex boundary to another, with barely any obstruction. She wasn’t sure if the path existed before she found it, and had a strange certainty that it wouldn’t last long after she left it - but for the moment, it was there, and she could direct her units to follow it, with no move penalty. Her next attempt went even better - she saved herself one move by only finding a short-lasting shortcut that collapsed just after the pikers crossed it, with the rest taking the long way around and meeting up on the far side with no problem. Charting a safe, easy route through a swamp hex may have been trickier, but after that, finding what may have been the one dry spot in the entire hex, with a clear run for the boundary for next turn? That was almost an afterthought.

 

She finished her first turn with no move left and a dull ache in her temples, but also a sense of deep satisfaction, and something else - a smoldering, growing need at the edges of her being, a Duty-driven desire to discover just what else she could do. With time and experience, she did just that. She found out that she could reliably spot enemy stacks in neighboring hexes, or ones hidden in ambush formations - soon enough to circumvent and ambush them instead. Even veiled enemies - her bonus would eventually make other warlords look like unled infantry in comparison. All that and more, and for a while it seemed it all came only at the cost of a suboptimal stat distribution...

 

If only any of it could help her now.

 

- - - -

 

Her reflection glared at her angrily. She could tell the exact number in the herd of feral hardheads two hexes south by southeast from an idle glance, almost as if she was there. The less obvious slots of her raiment hid almost a dozen different lock picks and tools, and a nasty piece of sharpened iron that was (she hoped) just barely not-a-shiv enough to avoid automagical disarmament. She'd escaped more dungeons than she'd care to admit. And still, she couldn't even move.

 

There was a river before her - not even that, a creek, the sort of natural feature that frequently appeared on the hex boundary between two land hexes which the Titans decided should be flanked by water ones. It looked clear and innocent, almost still. She knew better - her scout senses told her the lake hex to the north was rainy, and that little inviting creek had a rushing undertow with a flat thirty percent to instantly drown any unit trying to ford it unprepared. Twice that if armored or heavy, three times if both. Titans’ blue shoes, and she thought the moat surrounding Paper Trail’s angular walls was scary...

 

A unit could cross somewhat safely by spending an extra two or three points of move to find a calmer or narrower spot, if they knew of the danger. A led stack could save a few points between them by improvising a bridge, or just co-operating on the search. She could probably find a safe crossing for only two move. Three, maybe four would give her one that’d allow her stack through, as well… or, conversely, one that would very pointedly not. And, oh, it was a tempting thought, almost intoxicating. She really wanted to do it. Just… break stack, disobey her orders, jump that creek, and run, and run, and....

 

And she couldn’t even move. Her orders were stronger. Disobedience could harm her Side, and her Duty wouldn’t allow that. And if she couldn’t run…

 

- - - -

 

Commander Stoneface cut a fine figure, standing upon burnt debris, silhouetted against the smoke and the sunset. He kept one hand upon the pommel of his sword, holding the decorative commander’s baton in the other, using it for the rare gesture. He spoke much like he fought - slow, measured, precise and powerful. He never shouted, or even raised his voice; instead, there was a calm confidence to his tone. He made no promises and offered no false hopes - he only spoke with total certainty that, if the enemy wanted to make tomorrow's battle their last, they would make the gwiffon-crested rabble earn it. Among the sixty or so units arranged before him, not one spoke. There were no chants or shouts of enthusiasm; instead, there were convinced nods and looks of quiet determination.

 

And… Celeste found herself nodding along, walking to join her forces in the audience without being ordered to. This was what having a level five Chief Warlord in your hex was like. No matter how outnumbered or doomed, there was a sense of comfort, of purpose.

 

The Commander looked past his troops, directly at her, and gave a small nod of acknowledgment. He wrapped up his speech with a few more choice words and a final ‘for love of Realm and duty’, then ordered the troops to gather debris for fortifications and his captains for a debriefing. That meant her. Celeste slunk past allied infantry as they scattered into pairs and threes, heads held high, ready seemingly for anything. She joined the small stack of warlords gathered around and improvised map table, suppressing a small shudder at the wary glances she received.

 

She felt like the whole mess was her fault -- it wasn’t! She only spotted the enemy siege, perfectly positioned to lure the defenders into attacking over a certainly trapped bridge. They all agreed to take the detour to wipe it out on the way to reinforcing Hopeless. It was a brilliant plan, right up to the bit where their enemy managed to outright blow up the bridge, cutting them off from the relative safety of the city. It was a team screw-up, and nobody was blaming her for it, or anybody, really. The wariness was for a different reason entirely.

 

It was her thirteenth turn, and she had just leveled for the first time. During their surprise strike, she’d spotted her chance, stood her ground and landed a beautiful crit on an Eastaerian Spitfire strafing her stack with fire spit. Didn’t croak it, no, barely wounded it, really - but the arrow jammed one of the steering linkages. The rider didn’t notice, tried to pull up, and instead barreled straight into the ground. Falling damage did the rest. And if it didn’t, the ensuing explosion would.

 

Once her ears stopped ringing, and once she realized the weight on her was a quick-thinking stabber whose tackle probably saved her life, she noticed she was level two. She’d gained two hits, four whole move, and one defense. Her combat didn’t improve, and neither did her Leadership bonus. Perhaps she should have worried about that more than she did.

 

After the battle, congratulations quickly turned to confusion. A warlord who didn’t provide their level in bonuses? It was unheard of. Even during the debriefing, the other Captains seemed wary of her, somehow uneasy. It took Commander Stoneface clearing his throat and giving her a meaningful look for her to remember herself and give her report. By her own request, she’d spent the last of her move - including her new supply - scouting out the few nearby hexes. She could have had gotten to safety - the only unit to still have the option - but the thought hadn’t even crossed her mind. Once more, her Duty demanded she prove herself. To herself, to her Side, to her peers and her Chief…

 

- - - -

 

She chuckled humorlessly, again finding herself reminded of the old warhorse. Vick Stoneface… they weren’t lovers. Not then, never for long, but he’d always been her friend and greatest supporter. The first to defend her when her upkeep came into question, the one to best use her talents in the field. He... croaked, in time, as units do, going out the way any stabber can only hope to - their Duty done and surrounded by the corpses of their enemies. She missed him.

She survived him, on his orders. By… nearly four hundred turns, now. She was The Realm’s highest level (if not oldest) living warlord, though never even seriously considered for the role of Chief. Disappointing, but entirely understandable - she had stats that wouldn’t be impressive on a level three, let alone twice that. And her Leadership… no, she couldn’t be Chief Warlord. All she had to show for herself was her move and her specials and--

 

The sky turned from afternoon to evening. Her borrowed turn ended. Her remaining move fell to zero, and she had to suppress a pained whimper. She’d spent only six this turn. Letting all the rest go to waste... to a scout, it felt like failing one’s Duty. It felt like disbanding a little inside. Her head swam, and she clutched her stomach in some sympathetic, senseless reflex. This was her personal torture, and the worst was yet to come.

 

Pained, distracted, she didn’t even notice the footsteps. Not until a hand landed heavily on her shoulder.

(To be continued...)

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