Before dawn, Wanda assembled a light pack. She would return in three turns' time, with fresh troops and hopefully fresh ideas. Her pledge to Father would be carried out while he lived. She was taking to the road to hurt Haffaton for him, and for Tommy.
To hurt Olive, she reserved for herself.
She glanced at the mirror in passing, then stopped, curious. That duality she'd always felt was gone. Mirror Wanda no longer seemed like a separate person. The dangerous, powerful creature there was simply her reflection now. This was the face the enemy would see as her uncroaked reaped them in the road.
Also, she looked exceedingly cute. Let them fear that as well. Fire could be fought with fire, Florist.
She took up her knapsack and staff in one hand, opened the door, and found Clay standing in the hallway. His back was to the wall, his eyes to the floor.
"Luckamancer," she said, stepping out and pulling the door shut.
In truth, Wanda had been trying to think of something to say to him for days. That was one of the ideas she hoped to gain during this trip. But here he was right now.
His being "in love with" her raised any number of problems, yet made her curious as well. Love was a powerful force. Hard to study. Clay understood it; he was suffering from it. Maybe he could explain it to her, the way he had with the dice. Though...if she stayed in close contact with him, would she start to feel the same for him?
To look at him, it didn't seem a danger. "Was there...something you needed?"
"Yeah. Listen, Chief, I think Delphie's pretty sure you're not coming back. So, you shouldn't go. Please don't. Okay?" His voice went high with pleading, but he had trouble looking at her.
Wanda swallowed. Delphie was Predicting she wouldn't return home? "She thinks I should stay here?"
"I think you should stay," said Clay. "I don't think she even cares right now. I can't talk to her. Not that I really ever could."
Wanda turned her head aside in thought. Supposing that her Fate to serve under Olive was truly inevitable, then she still had a choice: ride out or stay. Go to Olive and be captured in the field, or stay here until they lost the fight for the side, and be captured when Goodminton fell.
If she rode out and came back, she would beat a Prediction, show that it was possible. But if she rode out and lost to Haffaton in the field, then Goodminton might not necessarily fall. Especially if...
"Clay, I want you to curse me."
He started to shake his head. "Yes," she insisted. "Wreck my luck badly. I order you to."
"Yes, do it!" she said, stepping close to him. "I want you to. Fate will protect me, or else there's no such thing. Just borrow all the good Numbers from me, and boost yourself. Boost Father, and everyone else here. Let me roll 1s. Let my outcomes be terrible."
He shook his head, looking at her mournfully for a moment, then glancing away in shame. "What about if...what if I came with you?"
"No," she said simply and definitively. "Curse me, and say goodbye. I will return if I can."
"Okay," he said. He put his hand lightly on her shoulder and whispered something she could not hear.
Since Haffaton was now allied with Frenemy and Quisling both, Goodminton's turn began at sunrise. Father stood on the tower parapet as Wanda led her uncroaked army through Goodminton's gates and off down the road. She saluted him from the saddle as they reached the first bend, but she did not know if he had seen.
She rode atop Funnyface, the only mount in the group. He was her favorite sawhorse, and also the only living unit in the column besides Wanda herself. His warmth and the steam of his breath were reassuring. She patted his neck often.
They walked at the fore of five-hundred-eleven uncroaked, stacked up with the best of the Fellows, including un-Tommy marching mindlessly beside her. One or two of these Knights had been there on her first foray out, as a Level 1. But the road journey to Coolminton was nothing like that turn. Her uncroaked could not sing bawdy songs. There was only the sound of cold wind, a few birds, and marching feet on snow and gravel.
This group had no scouts. As they marched on, she hoped for an ambush, or any enemy encounter, so that she might spend her juice this turn making fresh units instead of hopelessly re-patching these. It was better than wasting the juice entirely, but there was only so much she could do. These bodies were decaying inexorably to dust, and only the Titans could prevent that.
The landscape was as cheerless and bleak as ever. And now that she had noticed it, the silence of her companions was beginning to bother her. She did miss their songs.
From what she understood of her discipline, it ought to be possible to make them sing, if she were a master of Croakamancy. Singing was part of the Stagemancy involved in dance fighting. So how would that work, she wondered? The Thinkamancy inherent in giving them commands would have to be so specific to the throat and mouth muscles...maybe if she sang the order to them? Or thought of singing it? Hmm...
She halted the entire company with a thought. Without even their bootsteps, the quiet was still more unsettling.
"Tommy," she said aloud, more to hear her own voice than anything else. Un-Tommy turned his head toward her and gave what passed for his attention.
She frowned in thought for a moment, then took her little silk top hat from her head and gestured with it theatrically, singing to him. "If you're croaked, and that is no joke, you pass the yoke of Chief to a bloke named Fritz..."
Tommy could not dance, but in his best effort to do so, he stomped his boots on the ground. "Pooda onga riiish!" he shouted.
Funnyface snorted derisively.
She stared at un-Tommy for a long, cold minute before spurring her mount with a sigh. "March," she ordered. The entire company lurched forward its way down the road again.
Clearly she was not there yet.
The column ran out of move only two hexes short of Coolminton, having made no enemy contact. Haffaton would almost certainly be aware of them, and might well attack on their turn, so Wanda saved her juice. She kept the troops in battle stacks, and signalled Father by hat to end the turn.
The scene was stark and lifelessly beautiful. Snow dusted the barren foothills ahead. All around her, the armor-clad forms of former men stood in ranks in the snowy road, as indifferent to standing still as they'd been to marching. It was easy for Wanda to imagine that the world itself had been croaked, that she and Funnyface were alone in all creation. Some part of her found an odd kind of comfort in the thought.
But the enemy was out there, vast and unseen. She braced herself for a battle she knew she would lose. She and un-Tommy would hurt them, certainly. Each of the Fellows would go to dust, slashing and stabbing at the beast. Perhaps Olive herself would show. Or perhaps it wouldn't matter.
An hour passed just this way, like a painted tableau, and there was no sign of even a single scout or flyer. She began to make plans for striking camp, but she had a sudden bizarre feeling in her head, as if she were being lifted upwards.
She clutched the reins and looked around, trying to understand what had happened. She had not be struck by anything. Was there a lurking enemy caster, or--
Her hat rattled. She took it from her head and waved her hand over it. A little green gem appeared inside. With it was a scrap of a note, torn from Father's blotter. It read:
spent treas. to prom. you – live and avenge! love - F
All at once, completely new senses opened up in her head and she was flooded with information. She could see the distant lights of minds, know the numbers and locations and points of units.
She was Overlord of Goodminton! And...and there were almost no units to count. Fritz was gone. Clay was gone. Delphie was there in the tower, wounded.
In Wanda's head, Delphie's light went out as well. Gone.
Even as she struggled to comprehend, this brand new part of her mind calmly told her the score. The Garrison had seven Goodminton units left. Four.
"No," she said.
She looked up, and had only the barest moment to see it. Except for her stack, every one of her hundreds of troops vanished without so much as a sound. Her mount bucked, then looked frantically side to side at the empty road.
Those new senses she'd been given went dark just as suddenly as they'd come to her, although she could now sense the upkeep of the units she was stacked with. These units were hers alone, now. In a horror of isolation and silence, Lady Wanda Firebaugh understood that she was a barbarian.
The chill wind gave her only a moment longer to grieve. Then it carried the approaching thunder of hooves from the road up ahead.
--End of Part 1--