“Here‘s the thing about Predictamancy,” said Jillian to Crapsack, as they sliced through the icy mountain air. “When I was a Level 1 or 2, I was really excited about it. You know what I mean? My first few missions in the field, I thought ‘Oh, this‘ll be great! I can ask Sister Marie what weapons we should use...what tactics will work...blah blah blah.‘”
The wounded yellow dwagon puffed and flapped, skimming over the tops of snow-dusted pines. This choice of low altitude came with the usual trade-off. Staying down helped her avoid being spotted, especially from adjacent hexes. But it limited Jillian‘s own view, and it put them in easy range of any ground units with archery or reach. With her recent position at Goodminton known to the enemy, she judged that stealth was the more important consideration right now.
“But she could never really tell me anything I needed to know. I mean, she‘d say something like, ‘you‘re going to be attacked this turn.‘ And I‘d message back and say, ‘Great, where‘s the ambush?‘ And then she‘d say she wasn‘t a Lookamancer and she didn‘t know. So I‘d veer off course from where I wanted to go, and then bam! Ambushed! And I was like, ‘Why did you even say anything! If I‘d stayed on course I wouldn‘t‘ve gotten attacked!‘ And she‘d say, ‘Yes, you would.‘ And sometimes I‘d even go back and look to see there was no ambush that way, and she‘d still say–Whoa!”
She kicked Crapsack into a climb and threw herself forward, planting her sternum on a neck scale and holding on for dear life.
A tannenbaum had grabbed them from below. For a moment they were stuck in its grasping branches, but with some furious flapping, the dwagon had pulled free. It cost him a new gash, and he grunted piteously as he flew. Jillian looked back as they gained altitude.
Yeah, it was a Haffaton unit all right. Led, too. She couldn‘t spot the warlord, though.
Great, one more pinpoint on the enemy‘s map. Draw a line between Goodminton and here, and it would point right to the hex where she was planning to hide out. Change of plans needed.
They rode out of the hex in silence, and she scanned the forest below with additional vigilance for any new threats. They stayed low, and passed through two more hexes without incident. She decided to change course to the northeast by one hex, and get to zero move in a slightly different part of this alpine forest.
“So, here‘s what I mean,” she continued at last to Crapsack, who had fallen into miserable silence. “If Lady Firebaugh‘s Predictamancer once Predicted that someone would appear in her life with my name...well, first off she‘s a little late. I‘ve been and gone. And yeah that‘s spooky, but it doesn‘t matter. Predictamancy seems pretty useless if it only Predicts stuff you can‘t do anything about. I dunno. I guess it keeps us safe at home. Maybe you've gotta be a caster to understand it. I'm not. So forget it!
"But I‘m not worried, either. If our paths cross again, they cross. Hopefully that'll be when we knock over Haffaton.”
Crapsack snorted and flew on doggedly, slightly favoring one wing.
They followed the new course without incident, and there were no surprises waiting in the final hex. It was all just pine trees whishing in the wind, snow spraying and sheeting over bare rocks. They circled the hex twice, studying every spot they could see for veiled scouts, or anything else suspicious. When Jillian was sure the hex was empty, they settled down on the leeward side of a little hill. No point in trying to hover; nestling in the pines was their only reasonable chance to avoid detection.
She picked an enormous fir that could support, shelter, and hide them both, and alighted in its boughs. Crapsack seemed relieved to rest, but his wounded legs kept him off balance. Jillian stayed mounted, and ended her fugitive turn. Haffaton units could now carry out their orders.
But here was the beautiful thing: she was with Faq now. When Haffaton‘s turn was over, her turn as a Faq unit would begin. She and Crapsack would heal, get new move, and be Long Gone Out Of Here. Maybe beyond Haffaton‘s reach. She only had to hide out this one last turn and she‘d be home free. She patted the dwagon‘s neck reassuringly.
“It‘ll be arright, you tiny little delicate flower, you. We‘ll make it.” The dwagon grunted, and seemed to take her reassurance as it was intended. Yeah. Maybe they would, at that.
But within minutes, the music started.
She was only a lone unit–a lovely blonde woman, all in white. She played a stringed instrument and sang.
Jillian held her sword at the ready, but somehow did not brandish it for combat. The woman smiled and sang, stepping lightly through the snow. A Haffaton caster, some business-oriented part of Jillian‘s brain noted. Level 12, which was astonishingly rare. Jillian had only ever seen one other. How could she be that high?
The woman‘s voice was clear from any distance, sweet and ringing. Her path wound through the trees, but was definitely taking her toward Jillian‘s perch.
As I walk along, I wonder
What is wrong with our love
The force that was so strong.
She runs from Haffaton, but I think of
The ones who come together
When a song is sung.
I'm a-walking in the snow
Only armed with the things I know.
She plans to butcher me
Sitting in an Olive tree,
and I wonder
I wah, wah, wah, wah wonder
Why, why, why, why, why she ran away
And I wonder when she will stay
Our little runaway
A-run, run, run, run, a-runaway
As the woman entered the clearing, she looked right up in the tree and made eye contact. She wore a garland of pink flowers in her hair. Jillian‘s heart pounded.
“Hello, Chief Jillian of Faq,” she said brightly. “I am Dame Olive Branch, Chief Florist of Haffaton,”
Jillian swallowed, and tensed her legs slightly. With no move to run, she had two options here: fight the caster on the ground, or take to the air and hover. Bombing from the air would be best, but the dwagon was spent.
She wasn‘t ready to attack, though, and wasn‘t sure what the air might gain her. Something was holding her back. Jillian, a Chief Warlord, knew she ought to be able to take out an unled, unarmed caster, even a level 12. But this caster looked as unconcerned as she was unprepared. That in itself was worth some concern.
With her body-spring coiled, her mind grabbed at whatever it could get, looking for some angle to play.
“You‘re ‘Dame Branch?‘ One of your warlords mentioned you. But he didn‘t say what you were. So, um...then Haffaton‘s Chief Caster is a Hippiemancer?” she said, a little skeptically. It seemed really weird–stupid, if they had Lady Firebaugh on their side–but details of what she knew about the side kept coming back. The garden...oh, and the poison apples, Titans...
“Mmhm,” nodded the caster. “I‘m here to retrieve you, Jillian. Been a merry chase, though, hasn‘t it?”
Jillian stared. “You came to recapture me. Alone,” she said, in a low and serious tone. What the caster was saying was both absurd and terrifying.
“Mmhm,” Dame Branch nodded again.
Now Jillian brandished her sword to a full fighting pose. “You‘re going to fight me by yourself? Or do you have reinforcements coming?”
The Florist laughed, her eyes twinkling with genuine amusement. “Noooo... No reinforcements needed. There won‘t be a fight, Jillian. The song I just played was a spell. Now, no fighting is possible in this hex until tomorrow.”
It took the Chief a moment to absorb the implications of that. First off, she had little doubt the Hippiemancer was telling the truth. It would explain her nonchalance, and that was exactly the kind of thing those casters did. Annoying. A high level one would have no trouble pulling it off.
So if that was the case, then...
Her face split into a broad grin. “Thanks! You just made sure I‘ll get out of here.”
Dame Branch raised an eyebrow, still smiling. “Oh? Did I?”
“Yeah. I‘ll start my turn as soon as you end yours,” she beamed. “You can‘t fight me here, and you can‘t keep me from leaving in a few hours, with full move and full hits. So, thanks!” To punctuate her tactical triumph, she sheathed her sword and crossed her arms. “All I have to do now is wait.”
The Florist tilted her head, still smiling. She looked around the forest clearing where she stood. “I haven‘t been this way in hundreds of turns. This place is cold, but it makes a lovely forest.”
Jillian watched her pad her way through the snow, wearing some kind of long white gown. It looked badly suited for this climate, but casters were weird. She watched Olive walk from tree to tree, touching the bark with a bare hand.
“Can you appreciate it, Jillian? Can you? The life here is pleasant, and more abundant than you might recognize.”
Chief Jillian said nothing, but watched and habitually studied her enemy as she moved, looking for hidden weapons and tricks. There was only the instrument, slung over the woman‘s back. She did the apples, though. Remember that.
But the woman only went from tree to tree, humming softly and caressing their bark and branches. Her gown trailed behind her, smoothing out the snow where she trod.
“I think you can appreciate it, whether you want to or not.”
“Think again,” said Jillian. “I‘d light this whole hex on fire if I had to.”
“Oh now,” pouted Dame Branch. “I know you don‘t mean that.” She stood in the clearing, looking up and walking toward the tree where Jillian perched on dwagonback. “Well, perhaps you do. But you picked a really beautiful tree as your temporary home today. I think you were attracted to it by its beauty.”
She walked closer, directly under Jillian, and wrapped her arms around the trunk of the huge tree.
“I picked it because it could hold our weight,” she objected.
“Oh, consciously, I suppose so!” said Dame Branch. She was still hugging the tree tightly, with both arms. “But in your heart, you must have come to this tree because it‘s just such an exquisite specimen.”
As if in response to all the love it was being shown, the tree creaked and groaned. It seemed to sway in the wind a bit more than before. Was it? Was it moving?
A moment passed when Jillian could have fled the trap, but she was distracted by the flash of ornaments that had suddenly appeared in the branches around her. Crapsack roared, as branches snapped upward all around them and formed a cage. Shining tinsel ropes whipped around in the air, not touching her, but weaving through the wooden branches and pulling them into a tight pod containing the two of them.
Jillian drew her sword and chopped, but she knew as a warlord that this cage thing was a trap, not an engagement. She couldn‘t hack into it without engaging the enormous tannenbaum she suddenly found herself caged in. Her sword refused to strike.
She kept trying anyway, long past the point of uselessness, and into embarrassment. Dame Branch said nothing.
Eventually, she sheathed her sword again. She sat thinking, in a cold and calm silence.
“I can still get out of this,” she said, after a minute or so.
“Oh?” said Dame Branch. She was no longer hugging the tannenbaum she had apparently created out of the tree. Her hands were folded in front of her, and she watched Jillian placidly.
“Yeah, the dwagon will be full again on my turn,” said Jillian, trying to muster the same kind of confidence she‘d had before the trap, and mostly failing. “I‘ll order it to bomb. We won‘t have to engage; it‘s not even archery. And we croaked one of these things before with battlecrap. So yeah. I‘ll just get out of this Hippiemancy trap by dropping acid.”
Dame Branch‘s mouth got small and tight. “Hm. I hadn‘t thought of that,” she said. “That would actually work.”
Jillian blinked. “Really?”
“Yes,” said the Florist, positively. “You could free yourself that way. You could croak the tannenbaum without engaging just by dropping something dangerous on it from above. Very clever. I like that a lot.”
“Um, thanks,” said Jillian, uneasily.
“Well, then. Well played, and good luck to you. But I have a gift for you, Jillian. Something you‘re going to like an awful lot.”
She plucked a flower from her hair and handed it to the tannenbaum, which took it in a twiglike branch and passed it upward, branch to branch, until it had passed above Jillian‘s head.
“Catch it!” called Dame Branch. The flower blossom suddenly dropped on her from above.
For some reason, Jillian did catch it. The flower touched the bare skin of her palm, and a warmth filled her arm. The sensation flowed into her chest, then her entire body. A sense of well being, something profound and universal, flooded her entire mind and body, and spilled over into things beyond mind and body. She didn‘t know what those things were–she lacked any meaningful words–but she sensed them now, and knew them to be real. She could feel them, and feel things through them.
“Put it in your hair, to get the full effect!” said a sweet voice which no longer sounded like that of an enemy. Had it ever seemed so?
She held the pink flower to her temple, just beneath the rim of her top hat. It adhered to her head.
"So...I‘d veer off course from where I wanted to go,” she muttered incoherently beneath her laden breath, “and then bam! Ambushed!”
She blissed out.