Fast, vicious and dirty, that‘s how the bear-thing fought. It dodged and spun, using the two-wheeled contraption to get behind the dwagon and stab it with the hat. It literally fought circles around her.
She decided to dismount and take it on separately, dodging the dwagon‘s feet and lashing tail. As it came around the frustrated mount‘s backside, she timed a huge wind-up of her sword, favoring her left arm for power.
The swing connected with a beautiful crit, knocking the nasty little creature right off its wheeled mount and halfway across the courtyard. It cracked its skull on the stone wall and landed on its rear end, already croaked before it hit the ground.
“That‘s right!” Jillian spat. “Why don‘t you have a seat over there?” She caught her breath, panting hard. Good fight. Wow. Whatever the thing was, she‘d have to be on guard against those in the future.
One jutting wheel of the bear‘s cart contraption wound squeakily down to silence. A chill wind blew through the courtyard. She looked around for more unfriendlies, then glanced up at the pennant atop the tower.
Her new city was a mess, she‘d seen that much from the air. But it was even worse from inside. Chief-again Jillian took a cursory tour of some of the frigid gray streets and buildings. Everything she poked her head into was completely ransacked and empty. There was nothing to scrounge from the armory or the larder. (Fortunately, Crapsack already decided he was happy enough to eat the bear.)
Jillian didn‘t much care what had happened in this miserable place, but one detail grabbed her attention: Goodminton had once been a capital. Her orders put her out here scouting for capital sites.
Of course, being right in the middle of Haffaton‘s vast empire, this one didn‘t meet the mission requirements. But it was worth considering for a moment. Was there any way they could evacuate Faq and bring everybody here? She didn‘t see how, even if there was a good enough reason to. Come to think of it, she didn‘t even know how her father planned to get everyone out of Faq, regardless of their intended destination. They didn‘t have anything like the flyers it would take to evacuate all units–
Oh, right. No, she did remember. The casters were going to travel into the Magic Kingdom and wait. Everyone else could be expended. Hooray for casters.
Funny how little she‘d thought about home. As a fugitive, getting home was the goal. But she‘d conquered homesickness a long time ago. The particulars of Faq and its precarious situation weren‘t much comfort out here, so she didn‘t dwell on it.
Coming up empty on supplies was a disappointment, but now that her upkeep was tied to Faq‘s treasury, it wasn‘t serious. Today was still a big, big win. There was one last thing she wanted to scrounge from this empty hole before she razed it, though: maps. Knowing what was up ahead from here could save her life.
She entered the tower through its splintered doors, seeing broken panes of glass and other signs of close combat. As she climbed, she thought about the last set of tower stairs she‘d taken, in a Haffaton city she had just conquered. The similarity was unsettling. Here again was that feeling, too, the one that said, “don‘t celebrate, there‘s a nasty surprise for you up ahead.”
So what could be waiting upstairs for her? Another of Lady Firebaugh‘s mannequins, maybe? She‘d punch it to dust. Or some other trick... Staying on her guard was all she could really do. Anyway, at least there were no...distractions this time.
The wind whistled and moaned through the empty stone tower. Feeling the chill through the tear in her leather jacket, her bad shoulder throbbed. She shifted Bart‘s sword to her off hand. Somewhere up ahead, a wooden shutter was banging at an empty windowsill.
The Chief didn‘t have far to climb before reaching what was clearly the command floor. The main situation room took up most of its space. There were maps all over the place, and cabinets full of books and papers. Sunshine poked in through a few high windows, and a small log burned in the hearth. Otherwise, the light in the room was magical.
The big map table was fully set up and undisturbed. For a few eager moments, she pored over it, ignoring the little figurines and markers of a conflict long ago won and lost. There were two really nice routes she could take from here. She decided to play it a little paranoid and take the slightly harder and less obvious way.
Jillian began to commit the route to memory by a rote recital method she‘d developed on the trail: forty repetitions out loud, then quiz yourself. Forty more if you fail the quiz, dummy.
“Southeast, southeast, south, southeast, south, southwest and hunt, southeast, southeast, southe–”
She stopped on repetition twelve. Her eyes had wandered off the map to a scribbled note, held to the table by a brass paperweight. It was the unit key to this map, a pretty standard list indicating which figurines represented which unit types and classes. Below it was a numbered list for the flagged commanders, starting with “CW P. Fritz.”
And the second name read: “CC W. Firebaugh.”
“No flippin‘ way...” whispered Jillian. Her eyes shot to the map, looking for the slate blue commander piece with the #2 flag. Ah, there it was. Out on the road, with the #3 flag (“W A. Firebaugh,” the key said), and a whole mess of uncroaked.
Now she absorbed what the pieces on the map were telling her. The situation was bad, of course, but the forces which tore this place apart weren‘t represented on the battlefield. Goodminton had felt bold enough to send Lady Firebaugh out to counterattack. But that was a sucker play; something they never knew about hit this city–the tannenbaums, and maybe some air forces, judging by how the tower spells had been spent.
Huh. That didn‘t click. Haffaton didn‘t really do flyers. And how would you sneak in tannenbaums that close without detection? Their move was crap. Minimal scouting would‘ve seen them coming turns away. She shook her head.
So this was Lady Firebaugh‘s original side, and she was out in the field when the city fell. They didn‘t capture her first, because her marker was still on this map. So she had to‘ve been heir to Goodminton.
Lady Firebaugh, with “A. Firebaugh.” She didn‘t know who that was, but there were a few very large stone monuments in the Croakamancer‘s park that she hadn‘t been allowed to visit.
“Yeah whaddya wanna bet? Oh, this is too good,” she said, shaking her head again. Now she cared. Now she had to know the whole story behind it all.
Figuring to start here and then explore the tower for more clues, she threw open the nearest cabinet.
A top hat tumbled to her feet.
“Oh. Oh, no way. This can‘t be one,” she said, stooping to pick it up.
It was. Abjure/conjure hat, armor 1. “No-ho way!” she laughed.
She could talk to home now, too. Unbelievable! “Okay, where‘s the wand?” she said, putting the hat in her weak hand and poking around in the cabinet with her other arm.
The wand was indeed inside, tightly wrapped up and tied within a parchment scroll. She had to unknot the blue ribbon to get it free. She pulled out her prize, laughing again at the sheer luck of this find. Quickly, she looked around for some way to write a message, and something to write on. She glanced down at the parchment in her hand.
Your name is Jillian, read the parchment, in huge bold script at the top.
Her stomach dropped. She froze for a second, then looked frantically around the room. What was this, a trap? Had they been tracking her all along? Just toying with her? What...!
The room remained completely unchanged. Nothing moved but a few papers rustling in the perpetual cold draft. After a moment, she looked back down at the note in her hand and read the smaller lines beneath:
possibly Gillian or Jill, and you have a role to play for Fate. At the time that you conquer this city, Lady Wanda Firebaugh is in need of help. She has paid her debt, and must now move to the next phase of her journey. Your role is to assist her in transition. It is why you exist at all.
I have placed this hat where I Predict you will find it. You must use it now to contact Lady Firebaugh, and join with her. All delays and detours will cause you and those around you to suffer and perish. I know this well, for I and those I love are doomed by the Lady Firebaugh‘s decisions to resist her Fate. Do not repeat her mistake.
Lady Delphie Temple, Predictamancer of Goodminton
The note that Jillian put into the hat and sent read:
To: King Banhammer and Court of Faq
From: Princess Jillian Zamussels, Chief Warlord
I have escaped from Haffaton and been repatriated. I have found a suitable capital site for resettlement. As Chief Warlord, I order the following:
1. Immediately hire a Turnamancer from the Magic Kingdom. Use them to accelerate production for six turns.
2. For those six turns, Otoh and Kibo will pop gwiffons. The City of Faq will pop megalogwiffs.
3. At the start of the sixth turn, all casters, the King, the remaining available warlords, and whatever other units can fit aboard the flyers will then evacuate to the northwest. We will rendezvous at coordinates I will specify later.
The city I am sacking now will provide the necessary funds. Use Lookamancy, Predictamancy, and Foolamancy to move the armada without detection. These orders are final.
She did not think it was strictly necessary to add that the capital site she‘d found was the city of Haffaton.
The note from the Predictamancer cheerily brightened the fireplace. Jillian warmed her hands before heading back down the tower.