Well before dawn, the sound of a jolly fist on an oaken door slammed Digdoug’s dreams out of his head and sent them flying across the room. He was standing bolt upright in his stockinged feet in the middle of his darkened quarters, the black rain sheeting on his windowpane, before he could be said to be actually awake.
“Dirtay!” the Lady Chains hollered from the hallway outside, pounding on the door twice more. “Get up! Let’s see the city!”
Digdoug followed the Warlady up the main street toward the front gate. The sound of the storm made her voice seem distant, even though she was just a few steps ahead. The wind was picking up. He held his rain hat to his close-shaven head and stepped over a puddle, trying to keep up with her. She strode up to a huge barn door, and turned the iron latch handle.
“You gotta keep in mind what we’re up against!” she shouted, yanking it open.
They ducked inside. A wave of manure odor hit him in the face, and he could see that the floor inside was of matted straw and dirt. They were taking a shortcut through the main stables. It occurred to him that it might be worth making a crap golem in here, but he didn’t care to think about how it would hold up in this weather.
He didn’t care to do it at all, to be honest. Golems (crap golems, mostly) were about all he’d done for his five hundredturns with Follywood, before King Posbrake had made a trade for him and set him to work on upgrading Homekey’s cities.
The stoic heads of pummelhorses watched them troop past. Digdoug could see small pyramids of feces in each of their stalls. Well...maybe if someone needed an expendable raiding unit, but he wasn’t about to volunteer. This whole building needed a good shoveling out and and washing down. At least if he made some golems it would be a start toward cleaning the place up.
“Numloch likes heavies. They’ll bring good siege when they come. Really good,” said Lady Chains. The comparative dryness and quiet inside here was a relief, but they’d be going outside again in a moment.
“Mm. Okay. Heavy flyers?”
“No, just heavy ground units. Felgercarbs and farathooms mostly. The occasional frell. Numloch’s not really an air power. Supposedly they have flying units, at least a few, but I’ve never seen one. And we’ve got a few of our own.”
“Well...” said Digdoug skeptically, thinking of the three measly hippo-drones the expeditionary force used for scouting. Homekey wasn’t really an air power, either. “Not enough to matter, right?”
“Yeah but the point is, don’t worry about air defense. They still have to land to fight us.” Lady Chains reached the opposite door and stopped without twisting the latch. In her dripping raincloak, she turned around and looked at the Dirtamancer. “Walls won’t stop them, but counter-striking will. Melee will. I want you to make it easier for us to fight them inside the city, once they breach the wall. After they’re inside, we’ll pave the streets with their bodies.”
A thunderbolt cracked overhead. Some of the horses whinnied in alarm, and one of them kicked at the slats of its stall.
Digdoug pointed up at the rafters, indicating the thunder with a grin. “That’s, um, actually close what I was thinking,” he said. “I can trap the tower to catch the lightning. Then, if there are non-allied units in the city—in the airspace or on the ground—it will throw lightning bolts at ‘em!”
“Whoa, seriously?” Her smallish eyes went wide in the dim lantern light. Rain blew against the other side of the stable door.
He nodded. “Yeah! I can’t wait to try it out. I’ve never done a trap like that.”
“What about when there aren’t enemies in the city? Won’t hit us, will it?”
“No, then the bolts get absorbed by the tower. It charges up the tower for the next attack.”
“Yeah, isn’t it?” He said, experiencing a sudden flush of pride in his craft. Most sides thought of Dirtamancers as custodians, mere fabricators or golem tinkers. Follywood had kept him out of view at court, as if they were ashamed he had even popped there. From Duke Eften’s remarks, it seemed Delkey didn’t think much of him, either.
But there was so much you could do with Dirtamancy, and King Posbrake and his warlords understood that. Digdoug counted himself lucky every day that he’d somehow found his way onto a side that appreciated what he could contribute. And Lady Chains could see it more than anyone he’d ever met. What he did could help her do what she did, and she knew it. “You can only do that in a city like this, though,” he added, pointing up again. “The storm.”
“Neat,” she repeated. “Magic is neat. You’re pretty neat.” She took one step closer to him and blurted, “You wanna screw?”
Digdoug knew very little about the other disciplines of magic, but he wondered if it was a kind of natural Turnamancy that made time seem to stand still in moment like this. There seemed to be plenty of time available to ponder that question—and any number of other random and disjointed thoughts that flew through his mind like a flock of startled orlies—in the dim stillness around the Lady’s expectant gaze.
What he actually said at the end of that long and timeless moment was, “What? In here?” He could hear an unintended note of horror in his own voice.
“Why not?” The Warlady’s brow wrinkled.
He swept his arm through the air. “It’s filthy!”
She gave him a blank look. “So? You’re a Dirtamancer.”
“Oh, thanks!” he said, and probably way too defensively. But was she really implying that he wouldn’t mind rolling around naked in the crap and the mud because of what kind of caster he was? That was just the kind of thing he had to—
The entire scope of her offer finally fit within the space of his brain. She wanted him? Like, to do that? With her? Did he even want her?
Did he...did he even know how? He hadn’t, actually, ever.
Apparently aware that she had offended him, she sort of squinted around and struggled for words. “I just mean...” her voice trailed off and she looked away with a pout. “I don’t know what I mean. Forget it.”
“Look, Lady Chains...”
“Allison,” she growled at him. “They made me a Lady, but I’m not.”
He could feel his anger deflating, collapsing down to a mere nervous pit in his chest. He had no idea what he wanted to say or what he was supposed to say to her right now. You wanna screw? Titans’ topsoil.
“Allison. Um, I think we should just...we have to do our Duty. We should just go walk around the city and decide what I’m going to do today. And, uhm...yeah. Maybe later?”
She kept looking right at him, but he had no Erfly idea what she might be thinking.
“Or if I say now—” He winced. “If I say ‘no’ now, does that mean ‘not ever?’ Is that how it works? I’m not...I’m not really sure.”
She let a long silence fall. A few hooves stamped and shuffled, and a low boom of thunder rumbled from the other side of town.
“It was a thought, Dirty,” she finally said, her voice low and even. “Just a dirty thought. S’all right. Let’s go.” The Warlady turned the iron handle, and the sopping wind blew in.
For the rest of the morning—other than the fact that he called her “Allison” now—it was as if their conversation in the stable never happened. The two of them did manage to tour the whole city, or at least all the parts of it that were defensively interesting.
Before she left him and went off to muster her scouting force, they’d hashed out a good working plan for his three casting days, plus one bonus day for extra weatherproofing. She really listened to his ideas, and even had some good ones of her own.
There would be a lot of traps when he was done here: pits, collapsable buildings, fortified archery emplacements, and some more creative stuff than that. For example, the drainage system he’d built could be used as a sluice, to catch the victims of a collapsable ditch. Enemies that fell into it would theoretically be shunted down to the south wall and slammed against the watergates to be picked off. The effectiveness of a trap like that was unknown, but it was worth a try.
Today, though, he would work on his storm tower trap. He climbed the tower, up to the very worst place in Homekey’s very worst city.
Weatherbug had an awful tower. The squat little thing was only a stone cylinder with a few slit holes and a conical, pavilion-style roof which left the lookout platform open to the elements. The metal spire on top of that roof got hit by lightning fifty times every turn, and at some point he would probably stop dropping to the floor on his stomach every time that happened. He hoped. But it was well built and well grounded. Whoever had constructed the spire knew what they were doing, or maybe they had learned by trial and error. Anyway, he wouldn’t need to do anything major to the basic engineering of the thing.
The midday light in the city was good enough to see Allison and Duke Eften standing down there by the city gate, at the lead of their respective patrol stacks. A mournful horn blew for start-of-turn, and the gates opened wide. The troops, as much eager for dryness and sunshine as for the chance to fight Numloch, streamed out of the city immediately.
“Good hunting,” Digdoug said aloud. Tonight when she returned, maybe they’d sort out the whole “screwing” thing. At least he had the rest of the afternoon to process it. It was a weird and strangely flattering offer. He didn’t get a lot of flattery. The Warlady was loud, and bold, and crude...but he realized that he really enjoyed the time they’d spent together.
Yes, tonight they’d talk about it. They’d find some privacy, someplace quiet...and clean. He wondered if he could find any wine here. He should see if there was a cellar. Maybe in the larder?
Gah. Okay, enough. Work time. He turned and looked at the structure of the tower, using his special Dirtamancy senses to feel out the metal shaft of the spire within the stonework and wood. Let’s see, he’d had a plan here...oh, right. He was going to start with spell storage...
But before he could raise a hand to cast, he realized that he had received new orders.
By direct command of the will of King Posbrake, he must return to the capital at once. Just like that. A hippo-crate was already on its way for him. The wind whipped a splash of rain through the crenel in front of him, right into his face. He barely blinked, but stared straight out into teeth of the storm.
Moments later, a stroke of lightning hit the tower, frying the very air apart just a few feet over his head. This time Digdoug did not drop to the floor.
He stood there and screamed.