IPTSF Text 6
The tent flap rustled, but did not open. “Wanda! Breakfast!”
Wanda stirred in the wagon. “Yes, Chief. I’m coming.”
She’d awakened when the bugle called start of day, but drifted back into a catnap. Nothing had changed; the turn had not started and she had no juice yet. Goodminton took its turn with its allies Quisling and Frenemy, as part of the second turn in the battlespace. Haffaton was unallied, and took its turn at dawn.
The body of the scout would have depopped at dawn, had they not moved it out of the hex where it was croaked. Claimed as a boon for Goodminton, it would only decay a bit when they started their turn later in the morning. Wanda wanted to be with the body when that happened, so that she could study the process. Her life was full of firsts, but the firsts within her discipline were the ones that most held her interest.
No provisions popped for her, since they had supplies and a chuck wagon. She planned to eat as quickly as possible, get her orders, and return to the tent. But when she emerged into the gray sunlight, the camp was in disarray. Tommy and the other three warlords had a captain of the guard surrounded, hearing his urgent report. Mounts were hurriedly being led forth, including her sawhorse.
“Wanda!” shouted Tommy to her. He whistled sharply and pointed to her mount, then turned back to the soldier with a question.
The leadership stack backtracked up the road to the trailing edge of the hex, meeting up with a stack of survivors on the other side of the barrier. Haffaton, the soldiers said, had attacked them from out of the hills. It was a force of about twenty mid-level firemen, and one level 4 warlord. They burned the four siege towers and one of the three battery chargers before the unled Goodminton units finally overwhelmed them.
“It’s my fault,” said Tommy bitterly. “I should have left leadership in the middle of the column.”
“But we scouted that hex they came from,” said Pom Fritz, a beefy man with a red beard and a single red eyebrow over his buggy green eyes. He was Goodminton’s highest-level warlord, and Tommy considered him a close friend and second in command. He jammed the handle of his great axe into the mud at his feet, placed both hands on the eye, and leaned on it in dismay. “We scouted this whole road three hexes deep. We were right to expect an attack from the fore.”
“Obviously not,” muttered Tommy. “They must have gone around. Or...come from farther afield than we scouted.”
“In this country?” said Fritz. “Hard to imagine either. Yon hexes cost six move apiece for infantry, where they ‘re passable at all.”
Although she understood the seriousness of the blow to the battle plan, Wanda kept looking back up the road. Her scout was about to decay, and it didn’t seem as if she could do very much here. Haffaton was still on its turn, and Tommy wasn’t letting her away from his protection. She knew better than to ask.
Within half an hour, Goodminton’s turn started without further incident. They entered the trailing hex, and very quickly had their answer. The Haffaton firemen had been armed with pickaxes and shovels. This was a mining squad. Scouts were dispatched, and they found a hidden tunnel in the mountain in the adjacent hex. The enemy must have been hiding underground for several turns, waiting to thwart their inevitable move on Goodfinger.
Wanda walked among the fallen, now unconcerned about the one body she’d held vigil over. This scene was a massacre: twenty-two enemy saps, an enemy warlord, and forty-three of their own infantry.
She could feel them each, sense the skulls and the hearts and the spines. Standing among so many bodies was like finding a purse of so many gems. It was a heady, greedy, giddy feel. Oh, she was a lucky woman.
“Wanda? What can you do with them?”
The last time she’d noticed her brother, he had been talking quietly with his warlords. But now he was suddenly standing at her shoulder, looking down with her at the enemy warlord. She smiled up at him, but her face fell, to see his. He looked devastated. Guilty. His warlords stood off at a respectful distance, pretending to care for weapons or groom their mounts.
“Well, I have a choice, big brother,” she said softly. “This is a warlord. If I uncroak him, he would benefit from all of my attention, and all of the juice I can spare. The more carefully I cast, the fewer mistakes I might make, and the more he will retain of the power he had in life. I believe I could make him last as long as ten or twelve turns, and retain about half his levels and leadership. But I still might make a mistake.”
Tommy nodded. “I’m familiar with those.”
She gave him the blush he had failed to elicit with his ballad yesterday. “I could do better, if I were not so inexperienced.”
Wanda truly was embarrassed for being so weak. She could sense how far short of Croakamancy’s potential she would come when she did cast this spell. She had so little juice, and terribly little confidence to use it well enough. She suddenly felt as if that powerful woman only existed there in her bedroom mirror, and that she had left her back in the city. She wanted to fly home to see her, but her boots stayed planted on the road.
“What are our other choices?” asked Tommy distantly.
“I could concentrate on uncroaking more than one unit,” said Wanda, “diluting the effects, but giving us more units. Or I could attempt to mass uncroak every unit in the hex.”
Tommy looked at her sharply. “You could do that?”
She shook her head at him, very slowly. “Tommy... I-I don’t know. I feel it might be too much for me. A disaster. I could become overwhelmed. Maybe we wouldn’t get any units at all out of it. But if I succeeded, then the uncroaked units I create probably would not last more than a turn. Even the warlord.”
Her brother nodded again. “Wanda, do you understand what they did to us? We can’t take that city with only two siege. We’ll have to turn around and march for home.”
“I can’t uncroak the siege towers,” she said, apologetically. “So...the warlord, then?”
Something like a very small smile played around Tommy’s lips. He turned and took a few steps over to a fallen enemy fireman, bent down, and picked up his pickaxe. He held it up to her. “Bit of ‘boring warlord stuff’ here, but perhaps you should get interested, if you want to be a field commander. Siege towers are items, not units. They pop as equipment like armor. Like this axe. When you pop a siege tower, you get 8 digger units and a rolling tower. They’re like portable shelters, see? You put your units with the digging special on them, and they dig into city walls.” He shook the pickaxe in the air. “Our croaked guys and their croaked guys here all have the digging special, right?”
“Well, then they can dig through walls,” he said, his smile getting a little less tentative. “I normally wouldn’t send valuable diggers into battle without a tower to shelter them from city defenses; they’d get wiped out fast. Losses are usually too unacceptable to do that. But if we’ve got a whole bunch of diggers and a warlord that’ll only last one turn anyway...”
Wanda’s scout was the only of her uncroaked units to survive the battle, and she spent another night with him. His only night. He stood sentry at the foot of her bed in her temporary quarters in Goodfinger’s garrison. He leaned and limped and shed pieces here and there. She laughed, and loved him for how crude he was.
For she was already level 2, and could do better.
This city was littered with enemy fallen. Tomorrow morning, she would have the chance to do much better than she had with this funny little bit of Matter.
“Dance,” she ordered the scout, sending it gyrating spastically into walls and furniture. She giggled helplessly into her pillow.