Written for the 2017 Halloween fan-art competition.
Birds tweeted in branches above the shaded road. Below them marched a pair of laden sawhorses with steady footsteps, and every noise was a mere undercurrent to the hearty song of the sideburned rider in armor. Jacques, chief warlord of Lumberhill, concluded the last verse with a flourish while his suit-jacketed companion only sighed. The soldier chuckled at his audience member. “Don’t tell me you were too tired to join in!”
The other man shook his head but still smiled. “I can’t believe you. A full day’s ride, and you still feel okay enough to sing.”
“I’m always okay,” answered Jacques. “Besides, we both know there’s not an enemy within a turn of us. And you can hardly complain, not having cast a single spell today!”
Hat Magician Ted Geistel scoffed, “Just you wait. I have all night to finish my latest project.”
“So you’ve said... for the past five turns! Or was it ten?” He chuckled at his friend’s offense. “You really think it’ll help that much?”
“I meant what I said. A caster is helpful, one hundred percent.” They both fell silent as they entered the next hex, and Ted’s round face broke into a relieved smile.
The wooded hex was past. They’d arrived above the wide-stretching valley of a lively farm – tall corn plants swaying in the breeze, colorful squashes polka-dotting the rich soil, sweet-smelling apple trees heavy with fruit, and dense green soybean leaves carpeting the acreage. A white farmhouse and red barn stood in the hex’s center, and the riders could almost hear the distant clucks and grunts of the livestock.
Jacques kicked the flanks of his steed, Aggro. The sawhorse sprang into a gallop that set his rider bouncing easily. His cape and hood flew back, revealing twin axes at his hips and a wide smile on his face.
Ted clamped a hand onto his tall top hat and nudged his own mare, Leapona, who galloped just as eagerly.
Soon enough, they pulled into the front yard. A stocky bearded man clad in the red-and-black checker squares of Lumberhill looked up from scattering corn to the chickens. “Welcome, fellas! What brings you here?”
Jacques dismounted swiftly and shook the manager’s hand. “Just back from the usual delivery, Tim.”
Tim Burr grinned through his whiskers as he turned to the arriving saddle-sore caster. “Another warlord for us, then! All the better!” Lumberhill’s well-fortified border was busy fending off attacks from their worst foes, Marshypark. Warlords were needed in as many border cities as possible, and they could all benefit from magic items. Ted had argued with Overlady Ruth that the best results came from one-on-one custom work done in person. (“There’s nobody else who is themmer than them!”) The results had convinced her. Now, he met each newly-popped warlord at a halfway hex, created their hat, and returned to the capital extra quickly with the best escort that could reach.
He shrugged off Tim’s approval, still remembering his previous day’s work: a reliable combination of armor and weather resistance. It wasn’t every turn that he met someone who looked good with earlaps. Those would never have worked for Chief Jacques, who sported a speed-and-armor bowler hat that had helped him endure surprise strikes with hit points to spare.
Tim helped put up the horses, rubbing them down and feeding them well. Then, he led his human guests up the porch steps and indoors. “You’re just in time to share a jug of cider that’d knock five off your move – if you had any.”
Heading upstairs, Ted called, “I’ll just have some eggs and ham. Some of us have to work tonight.” Their chuckles faded as he made his way to a guest room. He tossed his knapsack of cloth scraps onto a chair, washed his face at a ceramic basin, and opened the rear window briefly to breathe in those rich smells. Everything from moist leaves to pungent manure smelled so refreshing compared to the capital’s stale castle.
Back downstairs, over a snack and a glass of water, he asked Tim, “Aren’t there feral trackoons here?”
“There sure are. I can’t get those rotten little things out of the orchards.”
“I’ve been learning about rope traps, and I believe I could capture one and use it for a fur hat. It could be useful for movement through deep forest.”
Jacques laughed, “You hunting beasts? Careful, caster – your suit might get muddy.”
Tim chuckled as well. “You’re more than welcome to try. Go to the south edge of the hex – they love those trees.” He and Jacques raised their ciders to toast his luck.
In the barn, Leapona snorted at the prospect of another ride, so Ted calmed her with an extra carrot from her saddlebags. Their trot down the south road took them along one edge of the orchards, through horizontal rays of red-orange sunlight. As they moved, the final beams shrank and vanished; night had fallen. It had been a secure day, as he’d known from his top hat’s messages, and Ted dreamed of his fur hat design and how much safer it could make his side.
But first, he’d need to conjure a few ropes. He had just taken off his hat when he spotted movement.
He turned in the saddle, squinting into the deepening shadows of the orchard rows. Something had shifted... something large. Leapona slowed to a stop, turning her head likewise.
Then, Ted glimpsed the faint glint of twilight on an arrowhead.
He dug his heels into her sides, and she shot down the path in rapid bounds. Even as he struggled to regain a one-handed grip on her neck, he heard someone shout behind him: “Engage! Fire!”
Boots were pounding the road, and multiple twanging strings heralded one, two, three arrows zipping past him.
He breathed hard, shuddering as he glanced down to rummage in his hat, then up looking for another road, a cross-road, any road. Down and up, down and up... The boots still thundered far too closely behind him, and he refused to imagine the creak of stretching bowstrings.
Seeing no other path in the half-light, he reached deep into hatterspace and pulled out his emergency scroll. He let it unfurl as his other hand shoved the hat back onto his head. Staring down, reading, and blinking rapidly, he chanted, “Cooldown... nograv... spawntime–”
Two arrows flew by. The third pierced Leapona’s flank, and she whinnied and jolted mid-stride.
The bounce lifted his rear end from the saddle, and he twisted futilely as he tumbled and crashed to the ground. Bruised and groaning, he managed to sit up with the scroll still stretched in his lap. Then, he looked up, and his voice disappeared.
Eight units of Marshypark ran up to him, stopping and panting almost within arm’s reach of him. The four scouts in front grinned as they each pointed a dagger towards his heart. The three archers in back each nocked and aimed a fresh arrow straight at his sweaty eyes.
Then a sour voice spat, “Put that away,” making the far-left scout cram the half-pulled net back into his pocket. The ranks parted to admit the stride of a lean warlady – a Level 3 ranger, with her usual brown-and-silver raiment covered by a dappled-green cloak. She wielded a machete even sharper than the grin that she aimed down at the top-hatted caster. “We are traveling light; we simply cannot take you along.”
How are you here? It’s impossible... His brain was still flickering, he couldn’t understand... and then he noticed two things.
First, all eight units had matching cloaks, barely visible against the trees. Eight stealth specialists? They must have been hiding for all of their turn and all of ours... no, for multiple turns just to get this far.
One of the scouts laughed. “Is that his hat shaking, or is he surprised to see us?”
And that was the other issue. Overlady Ruth must have sensed the engagement. More than anything, he wished that he could answer her demand for details.
“No matter,” scoffed the warlady, glancing back towards her troops – no, towards the barn. “Let us get on with this. I intend for our change in plans to reap even more benefits than this.” She reared back with her blade.
Ted couldn’t think of anything else to worry about, so he let the scroll’s trigger word explode: “Admin!”
Then the machete sliced through his neck and sent his head flying.
The dark farmyard had been quiet for a while. It looked the same as before; the lantern light couldn’t reach far enough down the south lane to reveal the two arrow-pierced corpses.
The house’s interior was dark as well, and its only noises were the occasional snore from its eight occupants. Most of the Marshypark troops slept in chairs around the kitchen and den, near tables littered with crumbs and half-empty mugs. The chair nearest the front door held Henry, who slept with his bow on his lap.
Suddenly, he awoke and jerked upright. Someone had put a hand on his shoulder–
He relaxed when he recognized Joy the scout standing in front of him, and he smiled a bit when she leaned in and kissed him. When they parted, he whispered, “I spy a target.”
She whispered back, “I spied you first.”
He put his bow aside and stood with her. Arm in arm, they snuck out the door as silently as only they could be. They’d felt a warm glow all evening; the mission had gone even better than they’d hoped. They’d grabbed all kinds of surprise bonuses, including this chance at privacy.
Leading him off the porch, she said, “I’ve already scouted a good spot.”
“Not your room?” Henry gave her a peck on the cheek. “Congratulations, again, by the way.” The three upstairs bedrooms had gone to Warlady Julie and the two newly-leveled troops: Joy, who’d delivered the finishing stab to the warlord, and Lorraine, who’d shot the dull-witted manager.
“Not my room,” she answered, tipping the bowler hat she’d taken from her enemy. “Lady Julie snores even worse than you do.”
“I don’t snore!”
She smirked, “Just try to keep from sleeping,” and squeezed his waist.
He looked where she was leading him. “The barn? How about somewhere...” He nuzzled her hair. “...that smells better?”
She jostled him away. “Fine, we’ll go behind the barn.”
In a few minutes, they were tucked away in shadow with only their cloaks and each other to stay warm. It was enough.
Silence stretched throughout the dark fields in every direction. Birds and rodents had fled the battle, leaving no sign of motion from the low acres, the orchard rows, or the far-stretching road with the crumpled shape on it.
Far away in the darkness, something heavy rustled.
Slowly and shakily, the partial body of Ted Geistel sat up.
Blindness made him tremble so hard that he almost collapsed again. He focused on the feel of dry grit and skinny grass under his fingers, the rustle of his clothes, the pressure of air in his lungs. (His neck had a wet chill that he didn’t want to think about.)
He felt dizzy, but he was blessedly alive, if only half-sensate. That’s what I get for using untested Carnymancy. His hands clenched as he thought of the furtive Carny, who had told him that the scroll would negate crits for one turn. Ted had assumed the scroll would negate the entire attack. He spoke with all speed, ‘twas a bargain indeed that everyone, everyone, everyone needs. Mentally, Ted sighed and pulled away from his nervous rhyming. But I suppose surviving one attack wouldn’t have saved me from–
Panic made him convulse again, and he clutched his knees against the shaking. Eight enemy units – archers and leadership – and he could feel a relative hollowness in his chest due to the lack of Jacques’ bonus. He’s gone... Probably Tim as well... His body shuddered with half-formed sobs. There was no one left...
Then, he felt a long, skinny snout press against his shoulder, and he heard the sputter of... Leapona? He reached up and felt that snout and face, touching the flicking ears and sinewed neck. Yes, this was his sawhorse! Still kneeling, he clutched her, hanging onto her neck and swaying, feeling the company of a warm body far more calm and steady than his own.
Eventually, his thoughts began to reform. She must have hid herself... but she was already trapped here, just as I am. Why did they leave her alive? His heart grew with hope that the enemy had forgotten her... and then, he deflated as he remembered that Marshypark would get their turn at dawn. Probably, they meant to hunt her down then. They might even torch the whole farm before Lumberhill could get a chance to close in on them.
His hands bunched up, gripping Leapona’s mane, then releasing when she winced. Perhaps... perhaps he could hide with her, or could help her hide. It sounded safer than playing croaked.
But first, he wanted his head back. Puzzled at the prospect of a blind search, he thought, ...Leapona? Can you hear me?
She’s a horse, of course, of course, he fumed. Jacques always made silent orders look so easy. He sat up straight and pretended to make eye contact with her. If you can understand me... er, stomp your hoof.
He breathed a little easier. Uh, if you see my head... (he tried to imagine it clearly) ...then lead me to it.
She turned and trudged away as he crawled after her.
He stumbled over the edge of the road and into looser soil, and his hands landed on a round object. His eager fingers were too shaky to grip or lift it, but he did realize that rolling it didn’t reveal any sight. I’m hurt worse than I thought. Blind and shivering, he pressed his fingers against it. The Fool-proof vision of a Thinking Cap would have been a premium spell. Hopefully, regular vision would cost less juice. He imagined he was making a hat for a navigator with sharp eyes...
His hand warmed up as he murmured, “Wayfaring.”
Starlight – lovely, blessed starlight – bloomed above his eyes, all awash in equally-soothing moonlight. He saw his own severed neck and was very glad he couldn’t vomit. He saw Leapona–
–except she flinched away from his gaze, whinnying briefly. What? Calm down, girl, he thought as he picked up his... He realized his head was tethered to the ground. Then, the tether broke as his spell concluded, and he got a better grip... on a pumpkin.
Pumpkin? I enchanted a Titans-disbanded PUMPKIN?!? He plunked it back onto the soil, sitting back on his heels, clutching his ribs in agony when he wanted to clutch his head. This is a disaster! If I can’t even tell how I’m casting, what chance do I have of hiding? He saw his misshapen body sag in resignation, looking more bizarre than ever.
Then, he saw Leapona tentatively walking back up to him and rubbing his shoulder with the flat of that long metal snout.
Her steadiness calmed him. Slowly, he realized, You came back. At first, you hid, and you could have kept hiding, but you came back. He patted her face again. Thank you.
Even as he patted her, a trembling line of thought began. The Marshypark stack had hidden as well, but they’d emerged because they’d seen a target worth getting. His fist clenched. They didn’t merely attack me. They croaked my friends. They took my top hat. They've even turned out my pockets and trodden on my jacket. All because they thought the fight would be worth it...
And now, I want to fight back.
His gut-twisting palm-sweating reflexes wailed that this was insane, but warmth bloomed in his chest, in his magical self. He raised the pumpkin and placed it carefully onto his neck. It clung there easily as he stood as tall as he could.
The warmth of his magic continued to spread. He wasn’t entirely surprised; Hat Magic often included an interest in defying expectations. It came from one of the class’ basic lessons, even more essential than the Stagemancy of knowing one’s audience.
Most units believed that they understood other units. A piker was a piker, a warlord was a warlord, and a mount was a mount. Usually, that belief was true.
But it didn’t have to be.
Hat Magicians understood that units were popped to this Erf to serve roles, and sometimes, those roles changed. Infantry could be promoted. Heirs could become Rulers. Even an animal could become rations (though that was a rather repulsive argument). But although everyone knew it could happen, precious few knew when it should. The people who shaped Erfworld were the ones who could recognize a new Duty and change themselves to fit that need.
Master-class Hat Magicians called such people the Wearers of Many Hats. The Stagemancy of Hat Magic was the power for units to act in new roles – in short, to Wear a new Hat. From Rulers to wabbits, Hat Magicians could help the ordinary do the extraordinary.
Right now, Ted had to help himself be a warrior.
But he still had no disbanded idea how. A hat is no good without any brains under it. Snarling, Ted spun to face his only stack-mate.
Leapona let out another whinny and jumped backwards again.
The sight of her reminded Ted of how she’d reacted to his spell. His own unit had flinched from him.
Even as he thought that, he realized, She’s a fighting unit, too. Certainly, she’s been in more battles than I have. He examined her with a critic’s eye – massive, yet built for speed, and a natural close-quarters fighter. Extra mobility could help her to work wonders.
He began to get an idea... a wonderful, awful idea.
Silently, he thanked the Dollamancer who’d made his suit, plus the Magician who’d introduced them. Then, he raised his hand with a grand flourish, waggling his fingers. With the faintest flick down to his wrist, he plucked a cotton cap from his sleeve. My last hat... I just wanted to see Jacques use it once–
He cut off that line of thought, went to Leapona, and set the cap over her ears. It resized itself to fit her snugly, and she snorted but didn’t flinch from the addition.
Then, he cleared his mind for a spell he’d never done before. No problem – it isn’t that hard to talk through one's hat. He put a fingertip to a spot below one eye, then traced an effortless zigzag across his face.
That tracing became a bright line, which opened into a fiery gash.
Joy and Henry lay happily, embracing one another beneath their cloaks, letting the chilly air play over their skin. After a few minutes, he turned and nuzzled her shoulder. “One more?”
“Yes,” she answered, smiling at him. “And I will put my hat back on.” She leaned up over him and slowly reached for it.
He smiled back up at her... and then his gaze drifted over her shoulder.
A cluster of stars had blurred. There was a shadow, which settled... and then swooped down, straight at him, down, down-down-down!
He glimpsed the fire and yelled just as the blade pierced Joy’s lungs.
Shouts filled the dark kitchen as four infantry woke up all at once. “Orders!” “What’s happening?” “Attack!” “Huh?” They jumped to their feet, knocking over chairs and mugs as they scrabbled, blindly retrieving weapons, cloaks, and boots. Rhys glanced toward the door and saw his fellow archer’s vacant chair. “Oh, you didn’t–”
The stairs thundered as Lady Julie and Lorraine dashed down and met the group. The commander was wearing her newly-seized top hat, and she boomed, “Someone’s croaked Joy and hurt Henry!” Protests of impossibility broke out in a babble, but she silenced them all. “Go! Move!” They rushed out the door. Rhys tried to blink the sleepiness out of his eyes. His only solid thought was, I wish my stack bonus was higher.
They ran across the yard towards the sounds of screams, pounding thumps, and wet metal squelches. They turned the barn’s corner... and all stopped at the sight of the attackers.
Over their allies’ fallen bodies (one gored and motionless, the other shredded and thrashing) crouched a man in a ragged black jacket. He was stacked with a sawhorse, who was using her hooves to stomp and her snout to slice at her target. But the man... His back was to the group, and he was swinging an axe over his head in wild arcs, chopping chunk after chunk after chunk from Henry’s mangled chest. He was breathing hard, grunting and snarling with every coarse swing, prolonging the screams beyond any attack Rhys had ever seen.
The man stopped mid-swing, then straightened up. “Guests?”
Rhys winced. That voice was a hiss, a keen wind slicing his ears. His hands shook, and his bow wavered and drooped.
Then, the man turned around, revealing not a head, but a pumpkin blazing with fire – two glaring eyes and a grinning fanged maw. “Ah, guests – perfect.” He spread his hands, one of which held the glinting axe. “Welcome to the farm.”
Julie swayed in place, and then she inhaled sharply as her eyes flickered over the axe, then the jacket. “The warlord’s weapon... You’re that Hat Magician!”
She pointed to her hat. “I’ve already croaked you!”
She squared her feet and steadied her weapon. “Finish him off!” Everyone yelled and charged, raising blades and nocking arrows.
In a blur, he sprang into the saddle and charged his steed at them.
Julie shouted wordlessly, and both her archers took aim at the galloping target. They tracked the rider’s steady rise-and-fall pace, then fired–
His red-hatted horse dipped at his silent command, springing into a leap far, far above both arrows. Horse and rider soared up above the screening blades, then swooped down just enough that her hooves clobbered the heads of the warlady and one archer.
Julie and Rhys yelled louder than anyone else, and the stack staggered to a halt as she cleared the stars from her vision. She forced herself to look upwards, wheeling around to see horse and rider flying, impossibly flying. She clenched her slack jaw, then ordered her stack back into formation (Rhys obeyed a bit dizzily), chasing the enemies back around the barn and all the way across the yard.
The horse swooped higher to clear the house, then banked around, letting the horseman’s burning eyes meet those of the glowering warlady. He smiled and laughed.
Julie pointed to her other archer. “Taste Lorraine’s bow!”
The rider’s hand darted to his pocket, then whipped out, flinging his bowler hat at the aiming archer.
The rapid-spinning hat smashed her bow and crashed into her throat, launching her backwards with the arrow tumbling away uselessly. Lorraine fell flat on her back, gasping with choking wet half-breaths as her limbs flopped and twitched. In seconds, she lay paralyzed, barely sputtering.
The bowler hat had rebounded into the air, spinning back to his fingers. He reared back with casual smoothness and flung it at the other archer.
Marty leapt to screen Rhys. The hat’s impact crushed the scout’s skull so deeply that he croaked before he hit the ground.
Rhys jumped and screamed, all the troops screamed, and the rider caught his hat and flung it again.
Julie’s eyes followed its entire flight towards her, even as she swung her machete up and down. The bowler hat’s halves tumbled across the ground to either side of her and stayed there.
The yells and frantic footsteps slowed and stopped as airborne rider and erfbound warlady met each other’s glares. Then, he laughed, swung his horse around, and flew over the farmhouse’s roof and out of sight.
Julie roared at her troops and led them charging into the house.
The upper rear window flew open at Ted’s touch, and he sprang off of Leapona and into his old bedroom. He didn’t bother listening to the shouts and the pounding feet as he snatched his knapsack and jumped back out the window. Even as he closed it behind him, he heard the footsteps echoing up the stairs.
Julie had needed to call her two (two?!) remaining scouts back into the stack – yes, they should reconnoiter out the windows, but not on the lower floor. She had Kathy open a window over the wraparound porch roof as the lonely Rhys and his bow swept the area. Only when he reported no target in sight did he, Kathy, and York precede her onto the roof.
Behind the barn, sawhorse and rider stood as still as statues, listening hard. Ted clung to her neck, fighting off the headache from Overlady Ruth’s direct orders to report his situation. If I could, I would give the score... I would, but I’m still at war. He shook all over, and he knew that Leapona had taken a slash in that leaping dash. Charging into melee range against a fully-stacked warlady–
Not full, he told himself. And the odds are better now... I think. But the red cap was depleted as well.
He would have to change that.
He swore to any nearby Titans that he’d answer his Overlady as soon as he could. Then, he opened his knapsack. The enemy had raided it, of course; the scraps were a mess. He picked out the two on the very bottom, then closed the bag and tossed it away. Finally, he draped the first piece across part of Leapona’s cap and began to whisper.
On the roof, York was beginning to fidget. His cloak didn’t camouflage with the moonlit house at all. He whispered to the warlady, “Maybe we should split up. Kathy and I–”
“Shut your mouth,” she spat, “and do not consider such a thought.” They all redoubled their vigilance.
Ted whispered and poured himself into the last patch. The warmth soaked in and faded, securing the fabric. So many earlier turns had gone into making those patches. Now, the hat was as done as it could be, leaving him with maybe enough juice for a hoboken.
Regardless, the fight would resume soon. When? Were the enemies still on the roof? He considered peeking around the barn, but both he and Leapona had quite prominent faces.
Instead, he opened her saddlebag and took out his original head. It actually hadn’t been far away from his pumpkin, but its eyes had been covered by a face-full of dirt. He could still see and hear through it just fine – if he focused. Right now, his pumpkin’s senses felt sharper, just as Jacques’ axe at his side didn’t feel so clumsy anymore.
Still, if he set his old head just past that corner, he should get a good view of the farmhouse. He dismounted and–
“Wha? ...He’s here! He’s here!”
Flip my lid – that first guy is still alive! Ted turned and ran, drawing his axe as he went. He rushed to the shouting, mangled figure, and he swung his weapon in a smooth arc. It split the target’s throat, snuffing that voice to a final, wet gurgle. Grunting, he stood up, catching his breath, but he could already hear his enemies shouting the location of combat. Intermission’s over – showtime again.
He hid his old head among the bodies just as Leapona ran up to him. He jumped up onto her back and reached with his free hand towards her cap. He murmured, “Here we go,” just as his fingers touched the blue patch.
The four-stack burst out of the farmhouse and sprinted across the yard. Julie growled, “No fear, no taunts. Shoot on sight, run him through.” They rounded the barn, and Julie urged her troops towards the next corner and the faint sound of hoofbeats.
York’s head ripped away from his neck, tumbling through the air even as his body collapsed and hit the ground.
They all cried out – Julie briefly, the others for longer. “Holy Titans!” “What happened!?” The warlady waved for them to shut up and close ranks. They stood back to back to back, facing out, peering into the darkness and trembling.
The hoofbeats intensified, and Julie yelled as her shoulder ripped open.
“Veil!” she shouted, whirling and swatting with her machete. It caught on something, and she heard a slight falter in the steps. “It’s a veil! Shoot! Now, now, now!” Rhys obeyed, and the arrow struck meat. He could barely glimpse it bobbing away from him before the shaft snapped and the remains vanished into the night. Lady Julie roared for him to reload, and he fumbled for another arrow.
The hoofbeats swung around and pounded back at them, herding the troops further into open ground. Within the veil, the rider gripped his axe and sized up another likely limb, but the bow swung up straight at Leapona, and her instinctive dodge forced them to swing wide of melee range.
Rider and horse circled the whirling troops, sometimes swerving closer, often dodging arrows or that long machete. Each injury inflicted led to injuries taken. One arrow glanced off her flank. The next one lodged in her body, even as her sawtooth snout slashed the warlady’s arm. His axe bit into the scout’s shoulder in exchange for a stab in his thigh.
He sensed every cut on Leapona’s legs and flanks. He imagined slicing identical ones into his foes, and he clung to his steady sawhorse’s neck as she swung out wide again. He whispered, “Just a little longer. You’ll rest later, but now, we finish them.” She huffed a deep breath and circled closer as he raised his axe.
The troops turned and turned to try and follow the spiraling, endless hoofbeats. Kathy trembled; Julie prepared a counterattack; Rhys fired an arrow that flew without a mark. And then, the hissing voice made them all flinch.
“Now, I’ll lay them down to sleep.” Kathy’s stab was repelled.
“By Titans’ will, this farm, I’ll keep.” Rhys yelled as his bow split apart.
“And as they croak before my turn...” Machete crashed into metal – and the demonic rider loomed over them all.
“Their broken forms will writhe and burn! Hollow-ken!”
Flames exploded toward them, and Julie jumped back as shrieks pierced the air. The demon’s hand was pouring a fiery torrent at Kathy, who screamed and flailed and staggered to her knees. Julie snarled and tried to overcome her flinch as Rhys cowered behind her.
The horse charged through the dispersing fire, trampling the charred scout and plowing into both of the upright enemies. The demon’s axe repelled the warlady’s counterattack, and the impact of horse and rider knocked her down and sent the machete flying away.
Leapona and her master cantered madly past their victims before he finally swung her around to aim again. He jeered at the sight of both foes shakily retreating around the barn at full speed. Implacably, he ordered his steed into pursuit.
But when he turned the corner, he saw only the skinny man disappearing into the house. The warlady had planted her feet near one of the yard’s casualties... the paralyzed female archer. She’s stacking again?
In the next instant, Rhys re-emerged and leapt down the porch, holding Henry’s abandoned, intact bow. With an arrow already in his other hand, he knelt in front of Julie.
Leapona’s pace wavered, as did one breath in her rider’s lungs. Then, he spurred her, and she shot forward in a full gallop.
Loaded, Rhys took a rock-solid aim. Julie spat, “Shoot that horse!”
The caster swung his free hand, grabbing the cap by its green patch. “Here we go!”
The arrow shot truly, striking the beast in the forehead... an instant after the horse’s flexing flesh turned to metal. The shaft smashed itself to splinters, doing nothing to stop her mighty hooves from thundering towards her targets.
Human eyes stared numbly at the fiery demon and equine juggernaut charging them.
The creature trampled the fallen archer, split the skull of the kneeling archer, and tackled the warlady through the air and into the porch. Wood exploded in a storm of fragments as everyone crashed further and further, splitting the porch all the way to the door.
Her hooves slowed gradually, letting her momentum disperse into the wreckage. She backed up a few feet, kicking the corpses aside. Then, her rider dismounted and strode towards his lone foe.
Julie struggled and grunted, but her body was pinned, clenched in the remaining planks. She looked up as the black figure arrived and grinned down at her. Her ragged lungs managed to gasp, “How?”
He waved a hand, indicating the corpse-littered yard. “Welcome to the farm... where lives are designed to end.” He swung his axe back. “Your turn.”
The warlady’s X-eyed head flew across the porch and rolled into the shadows.
Silence surrounded Ted as he stood in the debris, panting hard. All at once, his shoulders sagged, and the axe fell from his hand and thumped to the ground. He heard nothing but wind as he stared down at the half-body before him.
Then, he felt a warm nudge against his shoulder, and he turned to see Leapona – a normal sawhorse again. He hugged her sweaty neck, holding her and standing silently for a while.
Finally, he took a deep breath and let her go so he could search the dark porch. Yes, there near the final head was his top hat. Thoroughly drained, he had to search the partial body to find his old wand. With a calm hand, he waved wand over hat and chanted, “Lipwig.”
He flinched when at least a dozen messages shot out of the hat and scattered.
The sun was just barely peeking over the horizon when there came a distant neigh. He woke up – Ted in bed had his old head – and he sat up smiling.
Already, the battle seemed a distant memory – although the subsequent argument with Overlady Ruth felt rather sharper.
His top hat and wand had been very busy. When she’d heard of the ambush and his injury, her request for details had been marked with the spot from a teardrop. When she’d heard of his pumpkin and how he’d decided to fight, her pen had bitten deeply into a page stained by a toppled ink bottle.
He got dressed and went downstairs.
After she’d heard that he and the farm were entirely secure, she’d asked him multiple times to explain his exact condition. He hadn’t had nearly as many answers as she’d wanted (or as he’d wanted, truly), so he’d offered to consult the most cunning Hat Magician among his friends. She’d ordered him to do so and to not go to sleep until he’d gotten an answer.
He opened the larder and chose his breakfast.
After promising the necessary Rands to his friend, Dan Gierton, Ted had told him everything. Dan had even altered his own hat, allowing Ted to send his original head for examination. (The journey had turned out to be disappointingly dark and silent.)
He ate two buttered ears of corn, plus apples with honey – absolutely nothing with pumpkin.
The Stagemancy diagnosis had not helped the Overlady’s mood. Apparently, that scroll had indeed prevented a combat crit from hurting him at that time and in the future. But it had also added the side effect that he would take critical damage from... something.
He finished his meal and put on his jacket.
If he’d been a Carny, he might have been able to dictate the “something.” Instead, the scroll had defaulted to a “something” that its maker had undoubtedly regarded as funny.
Ted opened the door and strolled outside into the night – one of many nights that had passed since that battle. Dan’s warning had been clear: Daylight will destroy you. Ted still wondered if a Healomancer could fix him, or maybe a Weirdomancer. (His Ruler wouldn’t consider a Carny.) He had some Rands left; he could ask around.
But when he spent all his days in a shuttered house, he had no chance to reach the Lumberhill capital and its portal room. Nor could any hired caster come to him, not yet. Such a dangerous trip would cost a heap of Shmuckers, and Overlady Ruth had pre-emptively refused that. She’d said, since he wanted to make hats in the field so badly, then that’s what he’d be doing for a while. The new Chief Warlord didn’t sound likely to argue, either.
Ted had been afraid at first, but the hostility had cooled since then. And he had to admit, he hadn’t been in much danger. Marshypark hadn’t come anywhere remotely close to this farm since that night. His side was scouting their hexes extremely carefully now.
As he strolled across the yard, he smiled at the one upside to this. Out of boredom, he’d done a few farm-managing chores at night and had discovered improvements in production. So long as he did the chores once per turn, then he didn’t have to be on-turn to help. It was quite fun, even though it had required an adjustment or two – mainly his sleep schedule.
He entered the barn, and Leapona neighed to greet him, just as she always did to wake him up. He hugged her, brushed her, and checked that she’d eaten a good breakfast as well.
Then, he went and opened the crate with his other adjustment.
Stagemancer to the bone, Ted Geistel had learned that nocturnal roles are best played by nocturnal units. Plus, his job really required night vision.
He grasped the head cursed with the mark of a crit just waiting to end him, removed it from his neck, and stored it safely. (It would be a shame to lose it, no matter how rarely he wore it.) From the crate, he took out his new head, as fiery and sharp-mawed as ever, and secured it in place.
In less than a minute, the lively steed and rider trotted out for their nightly farm tour. The hoofbeats carried them into the shadows, ready to welcome tomorrow’s particularly good harvest.
(NOTE: User was awarded 25 shmuckers for this post.)