Grey couldn't process what King Shindig had said. It's impossible, after all. The Farstriders were the best scouts of any side within reachable distance. They were the Side's primary source of Shmuckers outside of city income. Sides would hire Farstriders to scout military distribution and city defenses, observe battles to report tactics and losses, and even, rarely, destroy resources or units. When other sides did not hire the Farstriders as scouts, they would investigate sides under their own judgement, and then blackmail sides into moderate Shmucker payments to not sell the reports to other sides. The Farstriders were Stealth honed to the point of weaponization. They existed to be invisible. They survived by being undetectable. Any failure meant being croaked in the field, and the Farstriders had not only survived but thrived as a resource for intelligence gathering. The excellence of the Farstriders was the sole purpose of Grey's existence, keeping other sides afraid of Everclear's information network. If anyone other than his king had told him that the Farstriders were being one-sidedly eliminated, he'd have called him a liar or worse. But the fact that his king had said it made Grey's stomach turn and his blood run cold.
"What... are our losses?" asked Grey, finally.
King Shindig breathed in, and then out through his nose before saying, "I had Dewey write up all the relevant details of the past few turns in the report that is sitting in front of you. Please take your time and read it."
Grey would normally feel a tinge of horror at having to do such a time consuming task in front of his betters, forcing them to wait on his action. But with slightly trembling hands, Grey could only concentrate on the words on the paper in front of him, a log of the happenings in chronological order, starting with croaked Farstriders.
They were reliable Farstriders, and had been watching the Guilter and Floorin' boarders because of their recent military build ups. They had a cease fire contract in place after their recent fighting, but with the two sides being adjacent to the Evergreen along the northwest borders it was still a situation that needed an eye kept upon it. But whatever had happened to those three had happened fast. Glenn and Hale were croaked the same turn, one turn after Oaks. The hex coordinates for the three losses were spread far apart, too. Whatever did it was well coordinated on top of having excellent spot checks. But most of all, whatever took out his Farstriders had to have had a system for finding them in the first place. Lightning only strikes the same place if there's a lightning rod.
The next entry was a copy of a message sent to a magic hat in the field that made up Everclear's Hat Network. Everclear had no Thinkamancer, and any properly reliable Thinkamancers were expensive and in demand, so the transit of reports and complicated orders in the field were handled with magic hats hidden in key locations in and near the borders of the Evergreen forest, and sometimes farther afield. It would be too expensive to give every Farstrider a hat, and any croaked Farstrider would not only be a large financial loss because of a lost hat, but a free hat to any potentially hostile side that croaked the Farstrider in the first place. The date on the message was two turns after Glenn and Hale were croaked, obviously delayed waiting for the Farstrider to receive it to reach the intended hat. No, two Farstriders. Their orders were to proceed as a team to the hexes where our previously lost Farstriders had been croaked in order to investigate. Their names were Kitty and Cord, seasoned Farstriders that could be trusted with just such an expedition.
They were croaked two turns later just inside the borders of the Evergreen, on Everclear's turn. The next morning, before Everclear's turn came around, a level 2 city was taken and razed, the city of Whatever. Meh, that in itself isn't really important. Whatever was a pretty soft target even with Dirtamancy defenses added, and close to the borders of the forest, so it was little more than a source of extra foodstuffs. This wasn't the first time the city was razed, and it won't be the last, which means it's destruction was not the interesting part of the report. It was Farstrider Brook's report of the aftermath that was.
Brook was near a hat when Shindig sent orders, and was able to get to the remains of Whatever on our turn that same day. She found a lot of bodies from the fight, very nearly even losses after taking the Dirtamancy traps into consideration. All Everclear forces were croaked and left behind, seeming to have croaked in combat and not through execution. A level 2 Warlord named Christoff was in charge, and the placement of bodies seemed to indicate a last stand in the garrison with most of the croaked arrayed there. Curious. That would mean the walls were compromised quickly. After the list of Everclear's croaked and their placement was a list of the attacker's croaked, units from Guilter.
"I thought you said we didn't know who had attacked us!" exclaimed Grey, forgetting that he was supposed to be on his best behavior just long enough to put his foot in his mouth. Grey then chided himself silently with the word "Manners" once again, as Dame Maple shot him a look with plus two piercing. "I-I'm sorry my Lord, I didn't mean-"
"Keep reading,"said Shindig with an outstretched palm, ignoring the apology and the offense alike.
Pausing for a moment to collect himself, Grey went back to reading the report. The list of Guilter's croaked. Archers almost solely around where Wherever's perimeter wall would have been, not the main gate. Stabbers at where the breech was suspected, with a concentration of Everclear croaked, but more along the length of where the walls had run. They'd gotten on top of the walls... siege machinery, then. Guilter diggers croaked at the breech location, and then a path of croaked of each side leading to the garrison, with a carpet of croaked where the final battle occurred. And that was all for that page.
Grey blinked. He checked the next page for more croaked and their arrangement. He saw none and turned the current page over, looking for a continuation on the back. There were none there as well.
"There were no Ramsteins?" asked Grey, confused.
"None," replied Shindig, his voice flat, factual, but still loaded with meaning.
That made no sense. The Ramstein was a Guilter mount that doubled as a siege unit. Something like a muscular goat who's porcelain colored horns connected together in a loop atop it's head to form a battering ram. But it's siege and mount capabilities were not why every army Guilter fielded contained a healty supply of them. Every Ramstein produced a hoppy alcoholic beverage when milked that the common units and the nobles alike enjoyed having out in the field. Guilter warlords fielded them as often as possible as an excuse to keep them a part of the established army. There is no way a siege attack like this would not have ended without at least a few croaked Ramsteins. And come to think of it... a Ramstein rush usually targeted gates, which were normally faster to break through.
"If this report is accurate," said Grey, not adding aloud the continuation that it is, of course, accurate, since it was written by one of his Farstriders, "then it would mean Guilter has made a massive shift in their military strategy, as well as finding a one hundred percent accurate means of finding our scouts."
"There's more," said Princess Sasha, taking the chance that she would be speaking out of turn to speed things along. "The final page is a report by the remaining Farstriders in the northwest. None of our trap hexes have been triggered."
Grey looked at the princess, his Chief Warlady, aghast. His mouth hung and his eyes stretched. After a few minutes, he read the final page of the report to verify what Sasha had said. She was right. Not a single trap had been sprung.
If a Farstrider could be considered the deadly shadows of the Evergreen, then the trap hexes were the monsters. The entire forest was filled, filled, with hexes that were overloaded with Dirtamancy traps. The side's Dirtamancer had spent the hundred turns building this network of croak traps, concentrating them along the boarders in a whimsical and unpredictable pattern, to make sure that any force that entered would experience heavy losses before ever seeing combat. It had been proven an effective deterrent even as far back as the Everlong War, as the Farstriders were originally established to map and counter the trap hexes the Hickson tribe had made. The concentration of trap hexes was so thick near the borders, and so erratically placed, that no one had been able to mount an invasion without going through at least a few of them before. The only records of their placing was here, in this room in the map tiled floor, so far away from any foe that even a Master Class Lookamancer would not be able to read them, and in the memories of the Farstriders tasked with checking up on the trap hexes every few turns during their patrols. And the traps themselves are so insidiously concealed that only a hand full of unit types would be able to sense them before it was too late, and none of the nearby sides had Dirtamancers or Lookamancers to risk on exploring the dangers of the Evergreen. Your typical scout wouldn't even notice them until one had sprung. The trap hexes were an enduring defense almost akin to an iron wall.
For it to have been bypassed as well...
"Then that would mean... Guilter has found a way to destroy, avoid, and overpower every single one of our side's defenses... and we have no idea how they're doing it..."
The pitiful words having come out of his mouth, Grey was left feeling shame and frustration. Never had Grey felt so utterly useless, so helpless. The defenses he'd spent his entire lifetime reinforcing were rendered ineffective all at once. Grey's body bowed with the weight of his failure, and in a momentary lifting of his vision he saw Art's ashamed face as well. The Farstriders were partially his child as well, his magic items having made them so effective and dangerous in the past. Grey's eyes passed over the others at the table as well. Dame Maple had her eyes closed, her facing showing a glower of annoyance. King Shindig had a look of pained resignation. And Princess Sasha's face showed undisguised pity, which only made Grey feel even worse. After what seemed like a full turn of torment, Dame Maple spoke, her words blunt, but her voice as characteristically sweet as always.
"None of this matters."
Dame Maple opened her eyes and looked at her king directly. "The invaders are of Guilter. Our records indicate they lost most of their higher level warlords in the last war with Floorin', along with their Chief Warlord. Any units they field will be lower leveled, and untested in battle. Their elites are a shadow of their former self, and their ranks will be swollen with mass produced infantry. Please allow me to take the Knighthood to However, my Lord. Using However as a base, the Knighthood will track down and destroy the dogs of Guilter for setting foot in our territory."
"Why However?" asked King Shindig, ignoring the rest of the table to engage with Dame Maple, as the table's rules of courtesy dictated.
Dame Maple lifted her chin a little, giving her words an even more dignified weight to them. "The fact that Whatever was razed and not occupied shows that this is obviously a razing party from Guilter, to recoup the lost treasury they spent in the last war with Floorin'. That means the razing party will be traveling to the next city closest to Whatever," Dame Maple paused momentarily as she pointed at the floor to indicate the named city's tile. "Which is However. I would like my Knights to be there to meet, and defeat, the enemy. Mine and the Chief Warlady's combat bonuses will most certainly be enough to destroy the Guilter party."
"Why only the Knighthood," asked Princess Sasha when she was certain she would not be interrupting Dame Maple. "However may be a level three city, but it is not a fortress. We may be over run with only the Knighthood and the garrison. Why don't we join with the standing army stationed at Eveready and then move with them to However. With the combination of the Knights, Eveready, and However, we would me far more certain of victory."
"I understand your view, Chief Warlady, but I'm afraid there is a fatal flaw in it," said Dame Maple, speaking as an instructor. It was not too far from the truth considering she had been alive and fighting for a long time even before the princess had been popped. "A razing party would have to be traveling light, and swift, especially in the heavy forest hexes that make up our territory to have a hope of escaping without losing their entire company to a counter attack. That means we will have to travel and act quickly if we are to catch them before they reach However, and then escape with their Shmuckers. The airborne Knights would be able to make it in time, but a column from Eveready would not arrive before However was a smoking crater. The situation requires the utmost dispatch, your highness."
"Speed means nothing if it just places us in the jaws of a beast," said Princes Sasha. her hazelnut brown eyes flashing with conviction. "We have nothing but a surmise on the strength of the invaders, or their destination. We have no information on their unit disposition or their method of gathering intelligence. For all we know, Guilter has a column ten times the size required to take However. Fighting them on such terms may only serve to annihilate our strongest units in a meaningless battle."
"You have read the same reports as I have, your highness, so you should know that Guilter doesn't have the extra forces required for such a massive attack. Their side has been all but crippled by their recent fighting, and their Leadership gutted. They simply cannot afford to do anything on the scale you are suggesting."
"How can we trust this information, Dame Montoya? How can we trust that a side that has devastated our Farstriders could not fool our scouting reports as well? We cannot attack something we can't find, understand, or predict the destination of. It would be a waste of our resources and units."
"Then you would suggest we do nothing, Chief Warlady? You would suggest we sit here, and wait for more scouts to croak and more cities to be razed before we make a decision? Make a strategy based on the elimination possibilities? Your highness, I know there are risks involved in fighting the Guilter invaders before we fully understand their new methods, but it is far riskier for us to do nothing."
Grey simply listened to the continued proceedings, as each of the high strategists to the king argued their cases back and forth. He had no part in it, it was not his area of responsibility. It would have been out of line for him to have said anything about the proposed plans. In all fairness, both Dame Maple and Princess Sasha were right. The side cannot afford to do nothing, but striking out now may be worse than doing nothing. Neither option was really any better than the other. Then there was a rap on the table as King Shindig struck it with his knuckle, calling the discussion to a halt and grabbing the table's attention.
"Both sides make compelling points. We cannot attack something we don't understand, but we are being attacked ourselves. We cannot do nothing, but we don't know how to react. Therefore, our first priority is to gather information. What, how, and where. Chief Signamancer, how long would it take for you to hire a skilled and reliable Lookamancer?"
Grey's stomach turned. Lookamancers were one of the more sought after casters from the Magic Kingdom during times of war, eliminating a need for scouting and giving a ruler the ability to command a war from the comfort of his own throne room. They were popular and expensive to the point where they could name their own prices and get away with it. Grey didn't know much about the magic Kingdom, but apparently Lookamancers were one of the caster classes that could afford to be picky about jobs and sides they hired themselves out to. Hiring one of them would be a complete preemption of the Farstriders role in the Kingdom.
"This very turn, your highness," said Art, a little startled, before adding sheepishly, "...if you don't mind paying a premium. Worst case, we'd have to pay the damages for breaking a Lookamancer's previous contract to get him here quickly."
"That won't be necessary, just look for one that would be willing to work with us in the near future. You will have time to negotiate." King Shindig then turned to Grey and said, "Warlord Shades, I will authorize one more Farstrider attempt to scout out the invading Guilter forces before hiring a Lookamancer. We need information on them. Who amongst your ranks would you suggest for this admittedly dangerous task."
"Myself," said Grey without hesitation.
King Shindig let the word hang in the air a moment before asking with the force of an order, an order demanding full explanation. "You are certain?"
Grey had, indeed, chosen himself hastily. The prospect of his Farstriders being replaced by some barbarian caster was wounding... perhaps intentionally so, and Grey was not a little upset about losing so many Farstriders so quickly. He had trained all of them, and granted them the Farstrider cloaks upon graduating the training courses. Even now he could remember their triumphant and proud faces, each one so different from each other. He can't let their losses be for nothing. But upon being forced to examine his selection, what he said was this. "If I can't accomplish this mission, no other Farstrider can. And should I croak, I have full confidence in Cam replacing me as Captain of the Farstriders, and in Seeke training new recruits. ...I am expendable."
Art sighed through his nose. Princess Sasha's jaw clenched. Dame Maple's eyes closed as she solemnly nodded her head. King Shindig held eye contact. Eventually he said, as an order, "How many turns will you need to search out the Guilter forces?"
Grey turned away from the table to almost collide with Jeans, who had returned seemingly soundlessly in the tense atmosphere. The Stuffed Shirt was in the process of pouring fresh light brown tea into one of several cups on a serving tray with his / it's oddly boneless arm, saying in it's flat voice, "Tea for you, sir." Grey accepted the teacup and saucer, but did not drink from it. He wasn't really sure how to in the first place, drink right that is, but more than that, Grey didn't think he would be able to swallow it right now. Instead, he just held it as the aroma of freshly boiled and fragrant leaves filled his nose while he studied the map on the floor tiles.
Grey spent a good few minutes studying the tiles, running through all the pathways the Guilter army could take. If they avoided all the trap hexes so far, that only left a few paths in the forest they could take, considering cities were most likely their goal. But which one was uncertain, and then there was the possibility of their retreating immediately, leaving the forest with minimal losses. All the paths had to be searched. A dance of natural Mathamancy swirled in Grey's mind as the tiles seemed to change color in his eyes to show all the possible paths Grey could take to cover the most ground in the least time to pick up a trail and then home in on his target. Heavy forest penalties for the invaders. His movement bonuses as a scout. Terrain obstacles and shortcuts. The mass of information seemed to swell and intermingle with his sense of smell, calming him into a focus that the tea on it's own could never have achieved, until he reached a certainty on how he should proceed. Grey then turned and said with a solidarity he never would have felt if he hadn't have dived so deep into his own specialty.
"Three more turns to find their trail, three turns after to catch up to them, at the most. Investigating the camp may take longer. But only if you can get me to this hex by end of turn." Grey pointed to a particular tile, and King Shindig approached while taking a sip of tea.
King Shindig squinted slightly, seeing the side as only the ruler could, and said a minute later, "Yes, I can, with a bluebird relay. But only just. Very well, Warlord Shades, you will have your six turns. In the mean time, the standing army from Everbilt will be moving to relieve the forces here at Everclear, and the standing forces here will move to Eveready to prepare for a confrontation, along with the Knighthood. In the mean time, Artakis will be in negotiations for a Lookamancer in the Magic Kingdom should you fail. I would prefer it if you do not fail, Warlord. This meeting is dismissed."
King Shindig reached out and deposited his cup on Jeans' tray in what should have been a blind spot, and walked out of the battle room. The tense atmosphere in the room survived the king's departure.
Hey, have you read Shadows of the Evergreen? It's my ErfFic. People say it's pretty good over here, and who am I to argue? Check it out, and then tell me what you think of my hack writing.
Last Updated: 6/16/14