Inner Peace (Through Superior Firepower) - Episode 029
When Faq's turn came, Jillian called out a cursory farewell to Lord Sidehug and lifted her group to the skies. They left the hex on a misdirection heading. She took them as far out as they could spare the move for, then turned sharply and made for the first rendezvous point, keeping high above the treetops for most of the flight. All three warlords kept a constant vigil for Haffaton flyers and scouts.
By blind luck (or blindness), they made it all the way without seeing any enemy units. A little giddy with relief and exhaustion, the warlords sank their three stacks of gwiffons down through the fog bank that shrouded the peak of Mount Pilot. They landed and secured their mounts, making camp in a shallow depression that was not quite a cave, sheltered beneath a huge overhanging dagger of gray/pink marble.
The new Viscount of Kibo, Bart Lightrail, was waiting there as expected, along with five new gwiffons and four fresh archers. Jillian gave him her standard we-don't-stand-on-ceremony briefing speech, with the usual cheery ending.
"...So we're small, but that's okay. A small force applied at a distance can be powerful, like a lever," she said. Then she narrowed her eyes. "And listen, Warlord. I'm sure you appeared at Court. And I bet you were told about how fighting's a 'necessary evil' and that kind of crap. That's the way they see it."
The new warlord nodded solemnly, looking worried.
Jillian held up her index finger. "Well, don't forget we're providing them that luxury, to sit around in silk robes and tell each other stuff like that. Our work out here keeps the side alive. Whatever they think of us, we fight for our home–that's what the Titans popped us to do–but get used to the idea that we might not see home again. You may be standing in front of the Titans to explain yourself, before you're ever in front of your King again. Fight well, and you'll be able to tell them what they want to hear." She smirked. "And given that choice, I'd rather talk to the Titans, anyway."
Bart was quiet, but his eyes were attentive and quick and his build was promisingly powerful. He seemed as solid as any Level 1 with no specials. Handsome, too. She'd have to watch herself and not step in any trail drama.
Titans, would they ever pop another flying warlord, though? She needed an edge. Losing Marika Neagle over a hundred turns ago still hurt. You took your losses out in the field, but disband it, that was a painful day. In combat, Marika and Jillian had been a team like no other, and there was just no replacing her.
(Outside of combat, though...oof, talk about trail drama. Maybe they'd meet again in the City of Heroes and patch things up, someday. She was in no hurry.)
She looked up into the gray fog, now tinged with orange. "That's it," said Jillian. "Turn's over, let's eat."
Wood for the lone cooking fire was scarce, although water was plentiful; the rock shelter had a nice clear drinking pool. The infantry sat on their bedrolls against the mountainside, eating hardtack rations and trading the same threadbare jokes. Beside them, the gwiffons gummed up their bonemeal feed.
Faq's commanders huddled around the fire, sharing a pot of barley soup made with scraps of two-turn-old game meat and cave mushrooms. There was less joking here. Jillian would have been content to bed down early, or at most talk tactics. But there was a new warlord here. Hedda and Chip both pressed Bart for news of home.
"I'm not sure what to tell you," said the quiet new man. "I think the Court looked splendid. Regal and elegant. Very dignified. King Banhammer was kind to me. The Jack entertained us with his tricks. We meditated. Brother Orwell took me aside and explained my mission. He took me to the map room for my route. I met Sister Marie there as well."
Orwell was Faq's Chief Lookamancer, and Marie was the Predictamancer. To enter or leave the kingdom undetected, it took the two of them to plot a safe route. Mount Pilot and the other points of rendezvous marked the edge of Orwell's range. When new units popped at home, they were collected into a stack and sent out here, as far as was safe. Jillian would then go about the dangerous business of cutting through enemy territory to meet and collect them. She'd been lucky enough at that, until this morning.
"Did they say anything about Haffaton?" asked Chip. "Last we could tell, Faq's nearly surrounded."
Bart shrugged. "Not really."
"Well, what are they going to do about it?" Hedda frowned.
Jillian shifted her sore rear end on the cold and uncomfortable rock. "Meditate," she said in a softly sneering tone. "Meditate much harder." She looked up from the fire. "I guarantee you the Court will meditate so hard, Haffaton won't know what hit 'em."
The four of them sat in silence for a while. Chip munched some of the dried apples that Bart had brought from home. Hedda poked the fire with her sword. Bart watched Jillian quizzically.
"I mean literally," said Jillian. They won't know anything hit them."
"Yeah, I got it, Chief," said Hedda.
She made a wry face. "See, that's why I don't tell jokes." The Princess stood up, pushing hard on her knees. "Latrine, then sleep for me. You want to stay up all night to hear about how things back home are exactly the same as always, suit yourself. Just keep it low." She walked toward the cave mouth. "We're flying out at dawn, though. I gotta hunch about the east."
The turn came with the dawn, which was good.
But it also came with orders, from daddy. In the bottom of the conjuring hat there was a slip of parchment with two sets of routes plotted. They were being recalled to Court.
She expected to be furious. She wanted to be furious. Her legs tensed, ready to kick a rock over the cliff. But in truth, she was amazed that her father had let her stay out in the field this long. In truth, she was relieved. The encounter with Haffaton had scared her more than she wanted to admit. In her dreams last night, she'd been trapped in the branches of a tree while jolly musical elves were setting it on fire.
She tore the parchment in half, walked up to Hedda, and placed one piece in her clammy palm.
"We're going home," she said cheerlessly.
"What? We are? Is there trouble?" asked Hedda, with alarm.
"Yes," said Jillian gravely. "It's terrible. Someone dropped their serviette at the tea ceremony. Four warlords are urgently needed to pick it up, so that nobody important will lose face."
The capital sent the separate route orders for two groups of faster and slower mounts. Jillian and Chip took the ones that could make the trip in two turns, while Hedda and Bart led the rest. Chip was unforgivably cheery about it.
"Two days' guaranteed safe travel, without a fight waiting at the end of it?" he bubbled. "I believe I can handle that, Chief. Yes, indeed. I can't wait to see Faq again. Can't wait to raid the larder!"
Soon they were stacked and underway, with a cold, wet wind in their faces. Hills and jagged mountains poked out all around them, teeth and claws and daggers.
Somewhere in the fourth of the forty-odd hexes they would cross this trip, Jillian pulled her mount close to Chip's and stared at him gloomily.
"What exactly makes you think," she asked, "there isn't going to be a fight waiting there?"